Oh, no! Not again! Yes, again.

Here we are again having to make a statement regarding unarmed African American men being shot and killed by police.  Two more incidents have surfaced for the world to see our behavior.  Saturday August 22nd, Trayford Pellerin was shot eleven times and killed in Lafyette, LA.  Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back at point blank range Sunday, August 23rd, and is paralyzed in Kenosha, WI.  Peaceful protests took place, only to be interrupted by violence and fires, and a shooter leaving two protestors dead and another seriously wounded.

“How long, Lord, how long?”  Four hundred years is a long time.  African Americans, also known as Black People, have never really come up from slavery in these United States.  The lynching of Black people after emancipation provided frightening oppression for Black people and entertainment for White people.  It was also a stark reminder of the racist ideology of white supremacy.  This violent tactic was designed to keep freed African American men, women and children in their place.  This mindset and narrative have been the driving force behind the continuation or the perpetuation of systemic and institutional racism.  Law enforcement has served as the strong arm to enforce Jim Crow laws, and legislation that legalized segregation and discrimination ever since.  And it is still at work today, unfortunately on too many occasions brutal and aggressive.  There is no comfort in thinking that authorities may take your life, because it is open season on Black people.  BLACK LIVES MATTER!

When will it ever end?  Many thanks to the men and women of the NBA, WNBA (basketball), NFL (football), MLB (baseball), NLS (soccer), PGA, LPGA (golf) and the NHL (hockey); they all participated in a wildcat strike in their respective professional sport to say, “Enough is enough!”  We all need to pay attention to the issue that continues to surface when unarmed Black people are killed.  Racism needs to be dismantled, police reform and accountability is needed for better community relations.  Human rights for all people of color and the marginalized are threatened by the continuous social and political injustice against Black people. 

Personally, I respect the comments from Julia Jackson, mother of Jacob Blake.  She has been blessed with peace from God.  She has been able to make an appeal for peaceful protests.  She was able to pray with everyone in the hospital room, including the police, and express a sense of forgiveness for all she has endured.  God’s love is amazing, people are helped and aided through the trials and tribulations of life trusting and depending on the love of God.  This love helps us to love and forgive our enemies.  Prayers and forgiveness have not brought these murderous atrocities to an end.  So, I also want the love of God that burns within us like a holy fire against those things, like racism, that are not like God. 

Some of us may not have the courage to go out and face tear gas, rubber bullets and billy clubs.  But we can do something from where we are and help those who are on the front lines, for their protection and care.  Let us pray for tough love.  Love that asks for the strength to keep on toiling through exhaustion, tear drops and frustration.  Pray for the boldness to stand with righteous indignation.  I pray that the people of God will be awakened from our complacency and liberated from our timidity.  That we will be endued with power from on high by our deep spirituality and our passion for justice.  Let us pray for the love of God to be active in our lives.  “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4: 13)

- Rev. Dr. Timothy James, administrative secretary for the National Convocation

(posted 9/1/20)

Ready to Go

Scripture: Genesis 18:1-15

In the movie Just Mercy, based on the book of attorney Bryan Stevenson and his fight for justice for many wrongly imprisoned, there’s a scene that captures a little bit of the Southern hospitality that folks down in Georgia and Alabama pride themselves on. Bryan goes to the meet the family of one of his clients, Johnny D, who is sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. When he shows up to meet the family, it’s not just Johnny D’s wife and kids there - it’s neighbors and cousins and aunts and uncles who show up to find out if there can be justice for Johnny D. The wife of his client sees him for the first time and reaches out to hug him, and says, “Thanks for coming all this way - most lawyers don’t even have time to call.” Once they are gathered around the kitchen table, each time Bryan takes a drink from his iced tea sitting in front of him, one of the neighbors quickly refills his glass to the top.
And as the family and neighbors begin to talk, began to express their anger over what the justice system did to their family member, it’s clear that their hospitality is an invitation to Bryan - they are welcoming this stranger into their lives, some hopeful that justice can be done and others hopeless that anything can change. But it seems an act of faith in the first place to open up their home, roll out that famous sweet tea, and welcome this stranger even in the midst of their doubt.
Of course, if you watch the movie, you know that Bryan famously is able to win an appeal and free Johnny D from death row against a racist, corrupt system there in Alabama, and it all began with a little Southern hospitality.
In our scripture this morning, I want you to notice a similar pattern - how hospitality leads to God doing a new thing.
Abram, who is called the Father of Nations, had been called by God to get up and go to a new and distant land, a land that God was going to share with him. Abram and Sara embarked on what became a long and grueling journey. And as they traveled, it probably seemed like Abram was a little crazy - he and Sara, despite being promised by God to have numerous descendants, still had no children, and their hardships made it seem unlikely that they would ever settle down. They were at that stage in life where having children seemed biologically impossible. Whatever God had meant to Abram seemed a pipe dream.
Finally, on a hot day by the Oaks of Mamre, Abram is sitting on the front porch of his tent, trying to catch a meager breeze to cool off, when scripture says the presence of the Lord came by. While our translation identifies them as men, artists have reimagined this scene as the Visitation. A particularly famous icon has imagines the presence of the Lord as the Trinity - Creator, Son, and Spirit - strolling through the desert. Another creative icon imagines them as three black mothers, full of wisdom, creativity, and hope. Whatever Abram sees, he recognizes the very presence of God and rushes to make them welcome, bringing out cool water to wash themselves, pitchers of iced tea, freshly steamed crabs, and a great big bowl of Franklin’s onion rings.
This is an act of faith. Remember, the reason why we open our worship often with a Call to Worship, the reason why we confess our brokenness, the reason why we sing praise songs or quiet our hearts, is an act of faith to make the presence of God welcome in our midst.
Are we ready to get up and set the table for the presence of the Lord? Are we ready to lay out a feast of our lives and experiences for God to use? Are we willing to take a risk?
And so something remarkable happens - God responds to that sense of hospitality with remarkable, life-changing news.
These three divine messengers pronounce that Abram and Sarah will have a son in a year’s time.
Of course, Sarah, listening in nearby, laughs. She is not a villain in this story - in fact, she is the most level headed one. She’s realistic. This old couple had passed the age to have children. They are tired. They are worn out. It seems like their stories were coming to an end, not taking a surprise twist to a new chapter. So, she laughs. Are these strangers joking? Doesn’t God know how human bodies work?
Her laugh is tinged with the laugh of women throughout history who have experienced abuse, pain, separation, violence, and denigration and were told, it will never happen again - only to live in a world where it happens again and again.
Her laugh is tinged with black mothers who have lost their children to violence and were told by well meaning public officials, we are going to stop this from happening again. We are going to make reforms and changes. And then a week later, another life is snatched away.
Her laugh is tinged with the hopelessness of so many who longed for more in their lives from the people they expected to care and fight for them, including the church, but then experienced rejection or silence instead of healing and renewal. 
Sarah’s laugh is a laugh of incredulousness.
But God seems to laugh right back - “are you saying we can’t do this, Sarah?” Are you saying the Creator is unable to continue to create? Are you saying God can’t bring life out strange and unusual circumstances?
Because for once in the story of Sarah, God can deliver. In a year’s time, she will have a child. Her laughter challenges God to answer, to show and prove that another future is possible. For the Creator to show that even when it seems like hope has faded, there are new stories to be told and written. Even when injustice seems to have taken hold, something new might burst forth.
In the marches in our past few weeks, we have seen an example of the creative winds of the Holy Spirit as young people responded to a call to demand something new, to demand a change in this broken cycle of violence and racism in America. A couple of weeks ago, if you had told me that this would have been possible, I would have laughed at you. A couple of weeks ago, and even some moments today, I would tell how little hope I have that we will face crises of our time - crises that claim black lives, immigrant lives, trans lives, crises that are threatening our planet, crises that our threatening hundreds of thousands of people.
And in a blink of an eye, God laughs back. God says to us, “Are you saying this story is over, Nathan? University Christian Church, do you really believe that your mission as a faith community in this unusual time is over? Are you suggesting that God has retreated and given up on this planet? Are you giving up on the power of our God to heal us and transform us from diseases of body and soul, whether COVID-19 or white supremacy?”
God says, “Let me show you what is possible.”
Our invitation in these times is to meet God at the flaps of our tent, to roll out the iced tea and red carpet, and to look with a renewed hope of what is possible - not just for our world - not just for our lives - but even for our church. Will we have the courage to meet God in the eyes of a stranger, in the eyes of a young person marching for change, in the unexpected gift of hospitality that can come at any moments notice?
Are we ready to go where God is prepared to lead us?
May our response in this time be hospitality - to the power of the Spirit - to the unexpected stranger - to the work of justice that we once might have thought impossible. Praise be to God.

(posted 6/23/20)

Who Is This?

Scripture: Matthew 21:1-11

By Rev. Nathan Hill

I want to begin by repeating the question you just heard asked of the crowds:

“Who is this?”

“Who is this?”

This is the question asked by the crowds today as Jesus and his ragtag band of disciples made their grand entrance into Jerusalem.

As the city got overflowed visitors from all over with anticipation for the high holy celebration of Passover, the people had heard rumors and caught glimpses of what Jesus had done throughout his ministry. There was excitement building - excitement among some that Jesus was their long awaited Messiah, come to deliver them from oppression.

So, when Jesus began his little procession, they lined the streets, shouting these victory words from Psalm 118:

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the lord!

And the people went even further - they called him the Son of David, an heir to King David’s throne.

The people wanted a King. Desperately. They wanted relief from oppression - they wanted a restoration of the good old days - they wanted to be in charge. And a King could do that for them.

One of the themes that runs through the Gospel of Matthew makes clear that Jesus is King.

The gospel begins by telling us Jesus’ genealogy which is connected right back to King David himself. His birth stories are heralded by stars and celebrated by wise ones from the east. When the current King hears of his birth, he tries to snuff out baby Jesus before he could threaten his rule.

And then, as an adult, he begins saying strange things - that he is ushering in a new Kingdom, a Kingdom breaking in even now, a Kingdom already among us.

And so the people have gathered with their palm branches waving, symbols of victory that a people might wave to their conquering lord. They lay out the cloaks - the 1st century red carpet - in the gospel of John. They are excited and ready, ready for this King to march into the city, overthrow Pontius Pilate, kick the Romans out, and restore the Jewish government.

Of course, not everyone celebrated the arrival of this would-be King.

For the religious leaders, they saw Jesus as a threat to the fragile status quo that was in place. In fact, the first thing Jesus does after entering Jerusalem is to march into the temple and drive the moneylenders out, upsetting a steady flow of cash that filled the temple’s coffers. Uh oh. The Jewish stock market took a big hit that day.

For those in power - especially for Roman leaders, Jesus became another rebel that threatened the sovereignty and domination of the Empire. Another upstart who dared the threaten Ceasar who was the only one who could issue edicts of good news across the land.

And so by the end of the week - Jesus is as far from a throne as one could ever be - hanging, alone and abandoned, on a cross. Even the crowds that had once cheered him on now don’t claim to know anything about him.

And by the end of the week, Jesus’ words about ushering in a new kingdom seem to ring hollow.

By the end of the week, nothing has changed on the surface - Rome is still in power. The religious leaders have their status quo. And the movement Jesus was building has gone into hiding, and I am sure some of them wondered to themselves, “What happened? Was he really who he said he was? Who is this Jesus?”

In an article in the Christianity Today around Palm Sunday of last year, Jonathan Merritt reflected that the purpose of Jesus’ grand entrance into Jerusalem wasn’t to pump the people up - but to disillusion them. In Merritt’s perspective, a common thing that happens to Christians, especially in difficult times, that “we expect God to be something and then discover that God is not at all like that. Or we expect God to do something, only to realize that God seems to have [different] priorities.” When that happens - our faith is forced into a crisis. We have to search for God anew - we have to ask, “Who is this?”, again and again.

Merritt reminds us that to those cheering crowds, Jesus was not the King they expected.

“Jesus is a king, but not the kind they wanted. He will serve rather than be served. He will die and not be killed. He enters unarmed, waging peace. This makes a larger point that God does not intend to meet our expectations. Instead, [God] meets our needs.”

Right now, in this time of COVID-19, I admit to you as your pastor that even I am out of a lot of answers. My daughter complained to me last night that she has heard us adults talking about how unusual things are right now way too much. She is sick and tired of it - and I am sick and tired of it too. I am so ready for a return to normal.

Wouldn’t it be great for God to send us a new King, to march in right now, to make all of our problems go away and get things back to the way it used to be? I’d go outside right now and wave my palm branches and thrown down my winter coats on the street and shout at the top of my lungs if that could happen right now.

But maybe… maybe that’s not what we need.

Maybe Jesus is here among us - in ER units, in clinics, in hospital rooms, among grieving families, and leaders struggling to put aside their ego to lead. Jesus is a healer - so Jesus surely is among the healers right now, empowering and encouraging and weeping.

Maybe Jesus is in this discomfort and uncertainty around our economic reality, challenging us to figure out whether we love God or our economy more, suggesting to us that there is more to life than eight hour shifts everyday, trying to look busy and productive. Maybe the discomfort is learning that we are dependent on more than our paychecks to survive.

Maybe Jesus is even here at work in our churches, casting off our limited vision for ministry to help us realize that there is a vast world out there where the gospel needs to go. Jesus is saying - I’m not in your buildings. I’m out here among hurting, broken people who are struggling to breath. Get online. Get outside. Expand your vision to a new generation.

Maybe Jesus is where we need him - not where we necessarily want him.

Even a time such as this, we are invited to ask - “Who is this?”

Who is Jesus today?

And what kind of Jesus will we reflect as we live out our call as the Body of Christ this week?

Will our neighbors see in us a longing for a kind of Jesus who will solve all of our problems so we can go back to being comfortable?

Or will our neighbors discover a witness, a testimony, to a living, resurrect Messiah who is so compelling, they too will ask, “Who is this?”

(posted 4/6/20)

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