March 3, 2019
In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised up above the hills.
Peoples shall stream to it,
and many nations shall come and say:
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
For all the peoples walk,
each in the name of its god,
but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God
for ever and ever.
On that day, says the Lord,
I will assemble the lame
and gather those who have been driven away,
and those whom I have afflicted.
The lame I will make the remnant,
and those who were cast off, a strong nation;
and the Lord will reign over them in Mount Zion
now and for evermore.
And you, O tower of the flock,
hill of daughter Zion,
to you it shall come,
the former dominion shall come,
the sovereignty of daughter Jerusalem.
Now why do you cry aloud?
Is there no king in you?
Has your counselor perished,
that pangs have seized you like a woman in labour?
Writhe and groan, O daughter Zion,
like a woman in labour;
for now you shall go forth from the city
and camp in the open country;
you shall go to Babylon.
There you shall be rescued;
there the Lord will redeem you
from the hands of your enemies.
Now many nations
are assembled against you,
saying, ‘Let her be profaned,
and let our eyes gaze upon Zion.’
But they do not know
the thoughts of the Lord;
they do not understand his plan,
that he has gathered them as sheaves to the threshing-floor.
Arise and thresh,
O daughter Zion,
for I will make your horn iron
and your hoofs bronze;
you shall beat in pieces many peoples,
and shall devote their gain to the Lord,
their wealth to the Lord of the whole earth.
Now you are walled around with a wall;
siege is laid against us;
with a rod they strike the ruler of Israel
upon the cheek.
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labour has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace.
After our welcome signs were the target of a hate crime, motivated by anti-LGBTQ+, Anti-Muslim, and Anti-Immigrant bias, we, as a community, faced a choice; We could quietly take down our signs, maybe replace them, and keep our heads down, or we could engage with our wider community and push for us to be a better county, a better city. Our Elders, who make up our session, which, for you who are new to this whole Presbyterian experiment, serve as our churches governing board, quickly invited me to raise our voice and cause a public conversation to take place. This was our first Community Organizing Action, and it was a huge win. A few weeks ago nearly two-hundred people gathered before worship at our Rally to declare that hate has no home here. Towards the end of the event, I invited houses of worship of all faiths, LGBTQ+ Community organizations, elected officials and community members to join with us. I asked to have a meeting with our County Executive, Johnny O, to address bias and hate, and I was thrilled to hear his commitment to meet. There is a fierce urgency to this task; Baltimore County leads the state in reported hate crimes. In our area, white supremacist organizations, emboldened by the rise of Donald Trump, are proliferating and emboldened in our midst. Hatred is infecting our neighbors, and for many of us who have enjoyed the privilege of being part of this nation’s dominant faith are realizing that this little church in the woods is not the kind of Christians that are deemed acceptable by the forces of division and fear. We are discovering that we suddenly have something in common with our Black Siblings in the AME and Baptist churches in the county, something in common with the Shools and Synagogues, Temples and Mosjides; we are the target of hatred, living in the shadow of the threat of violence. As a man who identifies as queer and is married to a man of color, realizing that my family’s mere existence is deemed justification for violence by the forces of white supremacy and hatred has been a startling awakening. I know for many of us the past few weeks have brought up disturbing thoughts, kindled fears about attending a place that for so long has felt like a refuge from the chaos of our world.
This realization though, for some of us, is a daily experience. For those of us who are immigrants or have had to leave our homelands seeking asylum, for those of us who know all too well the threat of violence because of the color of your skin, for those of us who have experienced the sting of exclusion because of differing abilities, for those of us who know the threat of gay bashing for holding hands as we walk, this is not new.
And this kind of fear, it was an all too common experience for the People of God living in Jerusalem and the land of Judah before and during the Babylonian invasion and exile to captivity. The Prophet Micah saw what was coming. He sees the wolves circling. He watches and listens as the leaders of the people try to figure out how to placate the wolves. How can we convince them to leave us alone? Can we make them be nice to us? Isaiah and Micah, they know though that there isn’t any hope of changing the minds of empires whose very continued existence depends on conquering other lands, taking people into captivity to force the elites to teach them new technologies, share their cultural and religious traditions, all to enrich their conquerors. These empires, they try to put a good face on their cultural appropriation; we will let you continue to practice your religion, just give us what’s good from it so we can use it. Oh, and you’ll have to have your priests and leaders eat at the table of the emperor, with the leaders of other conquered people, so that you can be reminded that we own you. It’s humiliating. And yet, these captives, when the Emperor and his entourage are busy laughing to themselves at the expense of their dinner guests, there are moments when the oppressed of the table get to talk. A solidarity builds among them, because they are all in this together. The Empire wants the best of these conquered nations, but there are traditions, wisdom, ideas they hold back for themselves, and only share with other oppressed people, or speak in code so that Babylon can’t steal all of who they are. As Jesus said, don’t throw your pearls before swine. Because that’s an old tradition among the oppressed; helping one another out, building relationships, working together, for the liberation of all. There are certain values and ideas that only other people facing oppression can fully understand and embrace.
One of the ultimate purposes of the God of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures is to bring peace and liberation from all forms of oppression to all peoples of the world. It is a huge task. But what Micah and his people knew is that the reign of God, the in-breaking of the Living God’s Shalom, it’s not something that is negotiated between those in power, and those they oppress. It is something that involves conflict. There are values that are worth defending and protecting and in the process, new people and communities that will become aligned with God’s vision of wholeness. As for the Emperor and the powerful? That’s for God to sort out. The focus of Micah and the leaders of the Hebrews, it’s to be on the oppressed, the remnant, those who cling to a way of life that brings them into conflict with oppressors. They’re not called to argue; they are called to Act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.
Micah’s vision of the New Jerusalem, of the Word of the Lord gathering the least, the last, the lost, and the humbling of the powers of oppressors has been singing throughout my mind since our rally. Last week I received an email from one of our neighbors on Providence Road, who was angry about our rally. Among other complaints he had, he was upset why we invited our friends from the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He utilized the typical playbook of fear, weaponizing the term “terrorist” against a Muslim organization. How could we partner with “them”? He had horrible things to share about immigrants, and didn’t like that our welcome signs made him feel left out. He had lots of questions he wanted answers to, that weren’t really questions, but ideas about what he thinks we should believe if we want to be Christians in his understanding. My response was “I’ll be praying that you can experience relationships that allow you in your church to explore the legacies, histories, and context of the ideas you’ve shared, and see them in light of the Gospel.” His response was to scold me for passing up an opportunity to engage with his ideas. Wasn’t I a Pastor? Didn’t I owe him a response? Wasn’t it my job to argue with him?
If the e-mail had been from someone that I had a relationship with, a new visitor to MPC, or one of you, I would probably have recommended some books, and set up a time to chat over a long meal. There was a lot to unpack. I didn’t feel like the best use of my time was to engage with someone to justify my existence, and try to convince him of what God’s ultimate purposes are. One of the most striking forms of entitlement I encounter on a regular basis is the demand that, as a queer person, I engage in the emotional labor of justifying my existence and presence as a faith leader, while managing my feelings of anger, sadness, and marginalization. Emotional Labor is a term created by the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild to describe jobs where someone has to care for the emotions of someone else, while suppressing their own emotional responses, such as wait staff, flight attendants, and so many others. This week, I found myself realizing that the work our neighbor was asking me to do, of suppressing my own anger and disgust at his comments, and giving him the experience of engaging in an argument that he thought would change my mind, wasn’t something I was interested in doing. I know what our values are as a community. I know the incredible work that CAIR does, advocating for a just society where all can freely practice their religion as envisioned and protected by the first amendment of the US constitution, and empowering Islamic communities that are the target of hate crimes, and standing up to attempts to dehumanize our Muslim neighbors, be it at the local, state, or national level. I know the stories of many immigrants and asylum seekers; I am in relationship with folks of color whose day to day existence is full of micro aggressions and racist threats. I know personally the experience of being marginalized because of my sexual orientation, and the fear of homophobic attacks all too well. I had other work to do, folks to care for and a coalition to build. I realized this week that, while the Holy Spirit might have some work She can do in this man’s life, this wasn’t my job. Instead I needed to be building relationships with other folks experiencing oppression and fear, allies whose own growth and liberation are tied to ours. As the Aboriginal Activist Lilla Watson states, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
The Hebrew people, in their captivity in Babylon, discovered that their liberation was bound up with the liberation of so many others, and that they needed to protect parts of their tradition from the forces of empire. It was during this time in Babylon that the majority of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures were written down, along with the words of the prophets. In conversation with other religious traditions, the Hebrew people discovered what was unique and life giving in their stories, and saw God at work in a new way through their narrative. Over and over again, the writers remind the people that they were slaves and strangers and immigrants in Egypt, and that they must remember and welcome the stranger, care for the hungry and poor, and create a society based on hospitality and equality. They told stories of God overcoming human schemes and threats to the people. And while these texts were catalogued and studied by the Babylonians, there would have been themes and ideas that they just couldn’t grasp fully, without the experience of oppression that gives birth to the hope of the Living God’s liberation. There was a story within the stories that wasn’t for everyone.
Beloved, one of God’s ultimate purposes in the world is the liberation of the oppressed. And for many of us, we are invited to cross lines of privilege and power, race, class, and education, to be in Solidarity with those whom the Holy Spirit is already at work bringing about wholeness, and freeing from oppression. In that work, may we not ask the oppressed to do the emotional labor of keeping us comfortable and feeling good about ourselves, but instead be allies who do our own work to discover how our own liberation is bound up in theirs. My hope is that we can deepen relationships with others who know this struggle all too well, and build power through the sharing of our stories, the mutual bearing of our burdens, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit even as we organize to bring just a little bit more of heaven to earth. And when we encounter those who think we owe them engagements, who want to tell us how we’re doing it all wrong, may we remember that it’s not our job to change every heart and mind we encounter. Like Micah, let us have trust that God will work it out for them, without our emotional labor. Our work is plenty enough without engaging with those who do not approach us in good will and solidarity. Sometimes the wolf is ready to lie down with the lamb, and sometimes we have to cry out to the good shepherd to protect us, while we organize the sheep to show them we are not afraid.
I pray that our neighbor down the road is part of a church that will lead him into relationships across lines of difference that can lead to transformation, but that’s not our job. That’s up to God. Maybe you are called to that ministry, maybe that’s your work, and maybe you have the privilege necessary to be listened to. If so, God be with you. But be careful; because some folks just aren’t ready to give up hate. In community organizing, there is an important truism: Don’t do anything for others they wouldn’t do for themselves. Don’t do the work for someone else, but invite them into transformation, if their own liberation requires it, and they are ready.
May we focus on where God’s Ultimate Purposes align with who we have been uniquely and beautifully and fearfully made to be, and trust that there are other shepherds of other flocks.
In the Name of the One who Was, and Is, and Evermore Shall be, Amen.