It’s possible that our world is currently a more precarious, more dangerous, more cruel world than we were born into. It’s possible that a certain amount of comfort and security that some of us have been accustomed to is eroding. It’s possible that the future will get steadily worse instead of better, and that if you could measure the overall suffering of the world that it is dramatically on the increase.
It’s also possible, as Dale talked about in a Revelation study we did a few years ago, that the hard times, the dangerous and chaotic times, are already here and have been here all along.
- If you asked one of the subjects of Emperor Nero, who was the emperor who presided over the execution of Peter and Paul—he had his own mother assassinated, married his stepsister and then had her assassinated so he could marry someone else. When that wife died, he forced a man who had been freed from slavery, who looked very much like his dead wife, to be castrated, and then he married him and made him go by his dead wife’s name. I’m guessing his subjects felt a little worried about the state of the world.
- If you asked one of the 15 million Africans who were chained in the belly of slave ships crossing the Atlantic what kind of shape the world seemed to be in…
- or if you asked some of the Salvadoran farmers who were systematically targeted and massacred by their own government as they simply tried to sustain their families how they felt about the direction the world was headed…
- or if you asked some of the tens of thousands of Lost Boys of Sudan as their villages were burned and families torn apart, trekking hundreds of miles without food or water or shoes or parents or international aid, whether it seemed like the world was doing OK overall…
- or if you asked some of the marchers who walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with MLK and were beaten with batons and thrown into jail for walking and singing hymns, if they thought things were basically fine, just needed a little tweaking to make it more comfortable.
The world has no doubt felt unbearably desperate and unsustainably tragic for a long time for many, many people. The fact that millions of privileged Americans are also currently feeling a sense of desperation and urgency may just mean that the chaos has shifted.
But regardless of which kind of urgent situation it is, there IS an urgency around us right now. There is fear, there is threat, and there is great need, and I think all of us in this room have felt the tug of some version of the question, “How should we respond? What are we called to? How can we be salt and light in this moment in history? What is a particularly Jesus-centered response to the situation of the world right now?” Some Sojourners went today to a training to be looking at very practical answers to some of those very questions.
As we look back in time we can see the ways that small numbers of faithful people played pivotal parts in history that we now can see clearly, probably much more clearly than they could see in the midst of what was happening.
- There were those who stood against the corruption and decay of the Roman empire and created oases of faithful living that still exist and nourish souls today.
- There was Harriet Tubman, nicknamed Moses, who freed 300 slaves and said, I always told God, ‘I’m going to hold steady on you, and you’ve got to see me through, and the Quakers’ commitment to nonviolence and the abolition of slavery.
- There was Archbishop Romero and the Salvadoran priests who stood with the poor at the cost of their lives, and their witness gave strength to a movement that is still carrying people through.
- The Lost Boys who grew up with barely enough to eat in refugee camps, without their families, and in powerful movements of the Spirit learned to call God their father, and sustained their difficult lives by writing hundreds of songs about their faith in Jesus which they sang while they danced and praised God.
- The deeply Christian witness of the Civil Rights movement which continues to this day to be evidence of what Martin Luther King called “soul force,” that power that is beyond our own strength, the power of the transformative love of enemies which he found in Jesus.
I know that everyone in this room wants to be part of what God is REALLY doing in this time, wants to be on the right side of history and to give our energy and our love and our time where it really matters.
But where exactly is that? Isn’t it strange how it’s not always easy to know? It’s not as simple as having a big pile of dirty dishes and just having to sigh and say, That’s a lot of work, but I know what to do. I actually find it hard to know exactly what to do in the big picture of the work of the kingdom in this pivotal moment in history. And I know that we, as a church, don’t always have clarity about what we are being called to, even when we are eagerly seeking and ready to act. Of course, sometimes the challenge is rousing ourselves from the hypnosis of our own distractions or lethargy, or pursuing of other things–that’s another obstacle. But even when we bring ourselves right to the feet of Jesus, ready and willing, it’s not always easy to know what it is we are called to do.
I feel like I’m about to preach the most basic sermon there is. I kept flailing around while I was writing this, thinking, there must be another layer, another dimension to this that I’m missing, something more profound, more poetic. And I’m sure there is. But also, I know for me, sometimes I need to hear or re-hear the most basic things. I always think it’s funny that our big huge life revelations are often the most incredibly simple things. Like, “And then I stopped crying, and I had this overwhelming sense that GOD LOVES ME!” or “And then I realized I had been holding onto bitterness for all those years, and then suddenly I knew, I NEED TO FORGIVE HER!!!” It’s like the most basic elements of the faith can come alive in brilliant, gorgeous, simple ways that you really can’t describe because when you say them, they sound like nothing.
So I want to spend time with one of the most basic, gorgeous, foundational truths. Something kindergarten-simple. And that is that in order for our actions and our love to be transformative, they need to be rooted in Jesus. If God is love, then the work of love we want to do is sourced in God.
Let me read the passage from Jeremiah 17 again to put it into an image that we can hold onto, so I’m not just talking and talking.
Listen to this amazing image. I think this is an image that could sustain a lifelong effort to be rooted in God:
“Cursed is the strong one
who depends on mere humans,
Who thinks he can make it on muscle alone
and sets God aside as dead weight.
He’s like a tumbleweed on the prairie,
out of touch with the good earth.
He lives rootless and aimless in the parched places of wilderness
in an uninhabited salt land.
But blessed is the man who puts his trust in God,
the woman who has confidence in God.
They are like a tree planted by the water,
Sending out its roots by the stream—
It does not fear when the scorching heat comes
And its leaves stay green and supple.
It is not anxious when the drought comes,
Its branches heavy with fruit in its season.
This tree is my sermon today. This tree with its roots in the hidden earth, in the dark ground, tapping into the living water in an invisible place, with the strength of the creator of the universe flowing up through its trunk and branches and out into its supple green leaves, with such health and abundance that it feels like a mighty fruit is coming on… This tree is what I want my sermon to be. Can I just take this tree and its calm freedom from anxiety, its strength in drought and storm, its fruitfulness, can I just pluck it out of the pages of scripture and give it to us? That is what I want to do. That tree is what I want to be, what I want us to be as a church, what I want the Christian witness to be in America, in the world.
So there it is, my childish truth which I call out to myself and to us: “Just have confidence in God! Just trust God! Just do it! Be rooted in Jesus. Let your love spring from his source so you don’t get tired. Just have faith!” It’s like me scrawling a big apple tree with my fat crayons, coloring in those big red apples, the swirly green poof of leaves against the blue sky. But as we all know, just because something is simple doesn’t mean it’s easy.
The passage that I started with for this sermon is the 2 Corinthians passage we heard earlier, and though I haven’t explicitly referred to it yet, it is that passage that is beneath and woven through everything I’m trying to say. We have been reconciled to God, and we still need to be reconciled. The world has been reconciled to God through Jesus, and yet it still needs reconciling. God is doing the reconciling, and asks us to be reconcilers, to be ambassadors of reconciliation to the world. There are so many ways you could approach this, but for today I am substituting the word “rooted” for reconciled, so that we can jump into being trees. We have been rooted in God, and we need our roots to be in God. The world’s roots have found the living water of Jesus, yet it still finds itself parched and dry. God is the planter, yet he asks us to tend to the orchard, and to plant other trees. It is all of these things at once.
A couple of weeks ago was Martin Luther King’s birthday and as I often do, I read some of his sermons. To try and move towards that rooted place, I’m going to share some of his words, as there are few people I know of who have embodied and preached the tree planted by the water with more passion and wisdom and eloquence than he has. Here is an excerpt of what he said the night before he was murdered, in the very last speech he gave on this earth:
The world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around… But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working… Now we’re going to march again, and we’ve got to march again… We aren’t going to let any mace stop us. We are masters in our nonviolent movement in disarming police forces; they don’t know what to do… I remember in Birmingham, Alabama, when we were in that majestic struggle there, we would move out of the 16th Street Baptist Church day after day; by the hundreds we would move out. And Bull Connor would tell them to send the dogs forth, and they did come; but we just went before the dogs singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.”
Bull Connor next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the transphysics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denominations, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water. That couldn’t stop us.
And we just went on before the dogs and we would look at them; and we’d go on before the water hoses and we would look at it, and we’d just go on singing “Over my head I see freedom in the air.” And then we would be thrown in the paddy wagons, and sometimes we were stacked in there like sardines in a can. And they would throw us in, and old Bull would say, “Take ’em off,” and they did; and we would just go in the paddy wagon singing, “We Shall Overcome.” And every now and then we’d get in jail, and we’d see the jailers looking through the windows being moved by our prayers, and being moved by our words and our songs. And there was a power there which Bull Connor couldn’t adjust to; and so we ended up transforming Bull into a steer, and we won our struggle in Birmingham . . .
Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness . . .
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I’m happy, tonight.
I’m not worried about anything.
I’m not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!
Now that is a person whose roots are drawing in that water from underground. That is a solid tree person! How does he get so energized, so willing to be in danger and to get hurt, so fearless about his own death? Look how he called the protests in Birmingham a “majestic struggle”! Really? People being beaten and thrown in paddy wagons like sardines is majestic? What an interesting word to choose–as “majesty” is connected to royalty. What kingdom is he referring to?
He made up this word “transphysics.” He says their persecutor, Bull Connor, knew a kind of physics that didn’t relate to the “transphysics” that they knew about. So Bull Connor is operating in a 3-dimensional, physical, factual world, and MLK and his people are using transphysics–they are rooted in Jesus, loving enemies, unafraid even of death–they are actually redefining reality! It’s like an overlapping reality, this Kingdom of God place where even when you are being thrown into a paddywagon you are a strong, rooted tree, bearing fruit–you together are an orchard, an abundant vineyard. …To the world, it may have looked like weakness, like foolishness, like defeat. It may have seemed as ridiculous as the Son of God getting the death penalty and being executed by the state. But to those who have eyes to see, there is something else going on, something majestic, even something exciting.
I think we can also learn from this passage the power of song. This was true for the Lost Boys too. This was true for Paul when he was in prison. Lifting voices together in singing to God–how powerful that can be. What are the songs we sing together that deeply remind us that we belong to God? Do we need new songs for this new time?
But I think my favorite part of this speech is right after that when he says, “Bull Connor knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the transphysics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denominations, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water. That couldn’t stop us.” I love that part: “We had known water. We knew water.”