Sunday, October 18, 2015

"You. Can't. Stop. The Revolution." -- a sermon at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Richmond, VA

A sermon preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Richmond, VA. St. Mark's is using the occasion of its 150th anniversary to examine how they can be active in bringing racial reconciliation and healing in the capital of the Confederacy. 

Repeat after me.

You. Can’t. Stop. The Revolution.


You. Can’t. Stop. The Revolution.


You. Can’t. Stop. The Revolution.

You. Can’t. Stop. The Revolution.

You. Can’t. Stop. The Revolution.

You. Can’t. Stop. The Revolution.


Please be seated.

Good morning!

I bring you greetings in the name of Jesus Christ from Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis. I bring you greetings from our Bishop George Wayne Smith and from the Cathedral congregation, from the people of the Diocese of Missouri and from people from all over the St. Louis region, for we mean to be a Cathedral for them all.

It is an honor to be here. And I want to thank your rector, David Niemeyer and Malinda Collier for the invitation. I am grateful to be invited here to preach the Word and to spend the day talking about our original sin of racism. I am grateful because even now 436 days since Michael Brown, Jr. was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, the congregations that are willing to have this conversation are a distinct minority. So I thank you for your courage. Your willingness to take your 150th year and engage this conversation is how movements for Gospel change happen. Just being here and being willing to talk about this is a first step in how the revolution happens. Thank you.

One of the things that has happened to me over those past 436 days is I am beginning, just beginning, to see Jesus with new eyes. I’m beginning to hear Jesus with new ears. I’m beginning to meet a Jesus who is different than any Jesus I have ever met before. And I am meeting this Jesus in different places than I have ever met Jesus before.

I’m meeting this Jesus not in church buildings but out in the streets.

I’m meeting this Jesus not as he gently talks and holds my hand but as she cries out in pain and in rage.

I’m meeting this Jesus not as he sings flowery hymns and prays beautiful prayers but as she faces tear gas and police in riot gear and with the sure and certain hope of resurrection shouts You. Can’t. Stop. The Revolution. Because I am meeting a Jesus who is a revolutionary and who bids us to be revolutionaries too.

And as I am meeting this Jesus, and as I am falling in love with this Jesus, I am convicted that this Jesus has been right in front of me all along but I have chosen not to see. I am convicted that this Jesus has been right here in our scriptures all along and I have chosen not to hear. I am convicted that I have time and again read the Gospel and chosen a Jesus of comfort over a Jesus of challenge. Chosen a Jesus of accommodation over a Jesus of protest. A Jesus of empire over a Jesus of revolution.

I am convicted that time and again, I have chosen a Jesus who affirms my standard of living and ignores those on whose backs it is borne instead of a Jesus who bids me die so that I might live.

Now, this revolutionary Jesus really has been hiding in plain sight. Because we’ve been hearing from this Jesus for the past month or so of Sundays.

We’ve heard him say: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Then the next week we heard: "The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again." Then we heard: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off... and if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off… And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out.”

Finally, last week, Jesus moved from preaching to meddling because he started talking about money and said “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

This is not some depoliticized, domesticated Jesus. This is not Jesus meek and mild. This is a revolutionary Jesus.

Now if we haven’t gotten it. If we haven’t seen this revolutionary Jesus, we’re certainly not alone – because even after all this, the disciples didn’t get it either. And we know that because this morning, we hear James and John say to Jesus, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you."

After all this, the disciples still want to mold Jesus in their image. And Jesus plays along, "What is it you want me to do for you?" And they say to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory."

There it is. After all the times Jesus has told them it is about carrying the cross not sitting on the throne, James and John still think Jesus is about them gaining power and status and respectability.

As American Christians, we are the heirs of James and John. Our entire history is us trying to tell Jesus what to do – and we have used the Gospel to do our bidding not the Christ’s. To gild our own seats of power then photoshop Jesus in at our side.

For centuries, we have fashioned Jesus in our image, used his Gospel to justify the genocide of this land’s natives, the kidnapping and torture of black Africans and the building of our national economy on their labor. We have painted pictures of white Jesus to strengthen our own sense of white supremacy, and we have sold crosses as costume jewelry while embracing the same state-sponsored killing that killed him nearly 2,000 years ago.

We are the heirs of James and John because we have sought respectability more than integrity, supremacy more than sacrifice and power more than justice. And like James and John, we have convinced ourselves that it is all our entitled right from calling ourselves followers of Jesus.

And like James and John, if we have ears to hear, Jesus is telling us that we have to stop. That we have a choice. And that choice is not whether we will sit on his left or his right on thrones of glory but whether we will drink the cup that Jesus drinks, be baptized with the baptism with which Jesus is baptized and walk the way of the cross that is the way of life.

A year ago, when the uprising in Ferguson was playing out every night in the streets about 15 minutes from Christ Church Cathedral and on TV screens around the world, I found myself in lots of meetings with clergy across race and class lines trying to deal with this crisis. At that time, many of us were struggling to remember that “this crisis” was not primarily people in the streets and police with automatic weapons, riot gear and tear gas.->

No, the real crisis was decades upon decades, even centuries upon centuries of oppression of black lives in this nation. Of lives of inferior schools and low-wage jobs, of being targeted and profiled and even gunned down. Of being used as walking ATMs to support municipal governments that treated them as if their lives mattered not at all.

So, I was in a lot of meetings with clergy. And every one I went to, I heard the same thing over and over again.

“We need to get them to listen. If we could just get them to listen. We need to show them how this is done.”

The “them” was the young people in the streets. And we, the church, the respectable clergy, it was our job to tell them how to behave. It was our job to teach them about Jesus. And Jesus would be reasonable. Jesus would work the system and get things done. Jesus would keep the peace that kept us comfortable and in control.

And that really was the core issue for us – not issues of justice but our comfort and control. How can we control the narrative? How can we preserve our own power and authority? We were seeking a peace that was not about justice but about preserving the status quo – not looking for Jesus to lead us but telling Jesus what we wanted him to do.

I was at one of these meetings that first week when a new face appeared. His name was Derrick Robinson, and he was an evangelical bishop. And he marched into the church where we were having our meeting and walked right up to us sitting in our chairs and here’s what he said:

“What are you all doing here? You need to get out in the streets with the young people. And don’t be telling them to get into your churches, because they haven’t been there and they’re not going. And don’t be going there in your suits and your collars and preaching to them, because they don’t care and they shouldn’t care because we haven’t been out there with them. You need to go out there and let them lead, and you need to listen.”

“You don’t need to wear your suits. You need to wear your blue jeans.”

When Derrick spoke, it was like the sky broke open and his words pointed me a Jesus who would change me forever. Instead of trying to preserve a peace that was about my own comfort, this Jesus was showing me that the kingdom of God was breaking in all around us and it was intensely uncomfortable. It had to be uncomfortable because the comfort I had been enjoying was on the backs of my sisters and brothers, and my job was not to preserve my comfort but to get out in the middle of everything that was making me most uncomfortable and not tell Jesus what to do for me but to ask Jesus “how can I serve?”

Our job – and in fact not just our job but our greatest joy -- was to seek out those whose lives didn’t matter to the powers of the world and to serve them, to let them lead, to stand in solidarity with them, because that’s where Jesus was.

Our job and our joy is to recognize that the young black women and men who are crying out in the street are the voice crying in the wilderness – pointing the way to the living Christ breaking through into the world in new ways. To recognize that the real Jesus never is a shill for the status quo, the real Jesus never breaks into the world in ways that keep the powerful on the throne and the powerless underfoot. That the real Jesus takes the systems of the world where some are oppressors and some are oppressed and turns them inside out and upside down. Asking those who would be great to be servants, those who would be first to be last.

Our job and our joy is not to keep a false sense of peace of oppression.

Our job and our joy is to join the revolution.

Because just as we had been saying “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." The real Jesus was out there saying, “Drink the cup that I drink. Be baptized with the baptism I have been baptized with. Stand in my shoes and fear for your children the way I fear for mine. See your child’s face on Michael Brown’s body. Feel the rage and the pain and don’t turn away and don’t intellectualize and don’t just dip your toe in and then pat yourself on the back for being so progressive."

The real Jesus was saying, “Don’t go out there and preach to them but go out there and let them preach to you, because that is where I have always been. That is where I will always be. And you need to listen to me.”

And so as this new civil rights movement that began in the road in front of the Canfield Green Apartments in Ferguson, Missouri where Darren Wilson gunned down Michael Brown, Jr. and continued with Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland and the seemingly endless litany of those whose lives have been taken by state violence sweeps across our land and a nation of young, black women and men find their voices of power, what we really have in front of us is a gift. We have the gift of an uprising. The gift of a nascent movement – a clear, clarion call from the margins for us to get off our thrones of glory and to come meet Jesus on the streets. To care more about integrity than respectability. To care more about sacrifice than supremacy. To care more about justice than power.

It is the gift of a choice. And the choice is which Jesus will we follow.

Will we follow the Jesus we have constructed who sits upon a throne, the Jesus that James and John bid clothe them in glory. Or will we follow Jesus of Nazareth who hangs on the cross and bids us join him in his glory, the glory of giving ourselves for the life of the world. The glory of meeting him in extraordinary images of God that live on society’s margins. The glory of joining him in the revolution that despite our best efforts has not, cannot and will never be stopped.

The choice is right here in front of us. Will we be concerned with power, status, privilege and respectability, or will we be concerned with standing with the oppressed and the marginalized. Will we be concerned with preserving the systems that keep the powerful in power and the powerless in chains or will we dedicate our lives as Christ gave his to tearing down those systems and standing for nothing less than a society that truly has liberty and justice for all.

A few minutes ago, we chanted a chant that I learned from the voices crying in the wilderness in front of the Ferguson Police Department. We chanted “You. Can’t. Stop. The Revolution.”

The Revolution is the gospel of Jesus Christ the revolutionary. The Revolution is not about being polite and nibbling around the edges and it is certainly not about securing our own places of power and privilege.

The Revolution is the last being first and the first being last. The revolution is putting our bodies in the dirt between the crowd holding rocks and the women caught in adultery. The revolution is bringing Bartimaeus, scorned and rejected and told his life doesn’t matter, into the center of the community and letting him set the agenda and guide our steps.

The revolution is seeing our children’s faces on the bodies of Mike Brown and Sandra Bland. The revolution is dismantling the school to prison pipeline. The revolution is giving up our belief in a white Jesus preaching white supremacy and embracing a black Jesus who isn’t afraid to turn over a few tables when he sees justice being denied and God’s children being profaned.

The revolution will not be stopped. The only question is will we get on board. Will we follow Jesus the revolutionary and be part of the repair of this world for which he died or will we be heirs of James and John and continue to preserve our place and our power while millions cry out in chains.

This is the conversation you have chosen for your 150th year. This is the choice that is before you. At stake is not so much the past that you celebrate but the future you will embrace. At stake is whether you will be truly a great church for the 150 years to come.

The kingdom of God is at hand. The revolution is all around us. It cannot be stopped. Will we gild your throne or pick up our cross. Will we build up treasures on earth or die so that we might live.

Will we cozy up to the first or will we stand with the last?

The choice is up to us.

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