SLIDE 3: DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF CHANGE
Paul reminds us that even when we disagree with our society’s leaders, and God knows Paul was in opposition to the Roman Empire and its culture of violence and death, we should still take time to pray for those who exercise power and authority in our nation. People in authority can change. They have important responsibilities, and who knows maybe prayer can help? The awesome responsibilities of high office have changed more than one American President, when they found themselves called upon to transcend their own narrow ideas and self-interest by the challenges of their Presidency – George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower. Huntsville is the result of an unusual Presidential vision that has changed the world far beyond what John Kennedy could possibly have imagined, when he promised to place a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Let us not under estimate the power of prayer or the Presidency.
SLIDE 4: OFFER PRAYERS FOR OUR NATION
Prayer can also change us, and maybe that is important in this election season. Our nation seems to be approaching a level of widening conflict, alienation and violent discord similar to the election of 1860 just before the civil war. The level of polarization and the lack of civility in our social discourse is frightening. This election season in particular has witnessed a dangerous coarsening in our electioneering. Susan Benesch, founder the Dangerous Speech Project at Harvard’s Internet Security, says, “When people think it’s increasingly O.K. to describe a group of people as subhuman or vermin, those same people are likely to think it is O.K. to hurt those people. I would join with Paul encouraging all people to “offer prayers, intercession and thanksgiving for all people— for the President, Senators, Governors, Congressmen and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”
SLIDE 5: PRAY 30 MINUTES A DAY
So how as a people of faith do we begin to lead our nation in prayerful living? First, we have to pray. Over and over I have suggested from this pulpit, “We need to spend at least thirty minutes a day in prayer.” Let me ask, “How many of us are spending at least thirty minutes a day in prayer?” I understand, some of us don’t know how to begin. Most of us were never taught how to pray other than listening to formal prayers in public worship. So I have included the Prayer Wheel in your bulletin. The Prayer Wheel is an interfaith spiritual tool developed by Dr. John Rossiter-Thornton, a Toronto psychiatrist , for his patients to help them in managing stress. He found that most of his patients who used the Prayer Wheel regularly got better. If you do not have a regular devotional routine allow me to suggest you try the prayer wheel as a beginning spiritual discipline in developing a prayer life. We can begin leading our nation into more prayerful living by praying regularly ourselves.
SLIDE 6: GRATITUDE
Let’s take a couple of minutes and review the eight steps of the Prayer Wheel. The Prayer Wheel begins with gratitude. Give thanks and praise to God for our lives, the wonder of creation, and the blessing of a new day. Gratitude changes us by triggering optimism and faith.
SLIDE 7: SING OF LOVE
The next step is to sing of love. Music is a powerful form of prayer, and activates the non-rational creative side of our brains. Songs are stored in a different part of our brains from ordinary speech. I have known stroke victims who could not speak, but they could sing. We are encouraged to pray with our whole brain. Sing of love and God can open our hearts.
SLIDE 8: PROTECTION & GUIDANCE
Ask for protection and guidance. There is danger and evil in the world and asking for protection is prudent. Sometimes we might even request protection from ourselves, when we are serving as our own worst enemy. If we can be humble enough to ask for guidance, perhaps we can we wise enough to follow God’s lead, rather than insisting upon our own head strong direction.
SLIDE 9: FORGIVE
Forgive yourself and others — guilts and grudges. Until we can let go we are prisoners of the past. Jesus came announcing God’s unconditional love so we might be set free and healed. All we have to do is open our hands to receive the gift of grace. But we cannot open our hands and still hold on to our anger and hate toward those who have hurt us. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Let go, and we can be free!
SLIDE 10: BEYOND FORGIVING TO BLESSING
Quinn Caldwell in a Still Speaking devotional on the famous passage do not repay evil for evil talks about moving beyond forgiveness to blessing: “What Peter says is that your inheritance isn’t something you wait around till somebody gives to you; it’s something you make yourself. We are to bless one another, bless and not curse, not because it’s the right thing to do—or at least not JUST because it’s the right thing to do. We’re to bless because we want a blessing ourselves. We’re to be kind because we want kindness from others. The heaven we long for is in some real sense the heaven we create for the people around us. Don’t believe me? Try it. Think about somebody who’s wronged you. Don’t start with a biggie; start with something small and annoying. Hold the person’s face in your mind. Consider what they did to you. And then bless them. Do it not because it’s the right thing to do (definitely true) or because they deserve it (probably true), but because you wish for blessing yourself. Just try it, and see how you feel afterwards. Try it and see if the thing you give doesn’t end up being the thing you get.”
SLIDE 11: INTERCESSORY PRAYER
Ask for needs, ourselves and others, intercessory prayer. Our covenant to pray with and for each other. What we have discovered at the Sharing Table is that many people have difficulty claiming their own needs and asking others to pray for them. We are afraid of public admissions of weakness.
I saw a good story about prayer. A businessman needed a million dollars to close an important business transaction. He went to church to pray for the money. He knelt and started praying next to a man who was praying for a hundred dollars he needed to pay an urgent debt. The businessman took out his wallet and pressed the hundred dollars into the other man’s hand. Overjoyed, the man got up and left the church.
The businessman then closed his eyes and prayed, “And now, Lord, that I have your undivided attention….”
SLIDE 12: LOVE AND INSPIRATION
Step six, ask for love and inspiration. After presenting the laundry list of our needs and the needs of others, we do well to pause and simply ask for the one thing we truly need — God’s love. Not only to say thank you for the love God showers upon us, but also the inspiration to pass that love along to others. Like five small loaves and two fish there is never enough until we are inspired to give it away.
SLIDE 13: LISTEN
Step seven is perhaps most important — listen. People complain to me that God does not answer them, and then come to find out they never listen for more than a minute or two. Listening in prayer must be deep and concentrated. We have to clear our thoughts. If our minds are filled up with our own words and images, we will never discern what God has to say to us. The Prayer Wheel even suggests we take the act of listening so seriously we do so with pen and paper in our hands. We demonstrate our willingness to listen by being ready to right down or draw the images God inspires in us in prayer. Some of us may even want to listen with paint and brushes close at hand. Be ready to listen.
SLIDE 14: NOT MY WILL
The last step is to pray with Jesus nevertheless not my will but yours O God. Prayer is not for the purpose of trying to manipulate God into doing what we want. Our purpose in prayer ultimately is to conform our wills to God’s will — “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” And that is the Prayer Wheel thirty minutes a day, might take a little longer depending upon how long we listen. Thirty minutes a day to more prayerful living.
SLIDE 15: WITNESS INCLUSIVE COMMUNITY IS POSSIBLE
Another important step in cultivating more prayerful living for ourselves, as a faith community, and as a nation is establishing regular patterns of worship participation. Prayer changes us and worship changes the communities in which we gather for public prayer. When we pray with and for each other, we are living out a covenant that has the power to transform our corporate lives not only within in community of faith, but also in the wider community of the Tennessee Valley, the State of Alabama, and our nation. For when we meet to worship, we are a witness to the reality that a community of inclusion welcoming everyone is possible — sometimes difficult but possible.
SLIDE 16: MAKE A STATEMENT COME TO CHURCH
Simply showing up to pray with and for each other at United Church is a statement to the rest of the world that prayerful living in an inclusive welcoming community of people is possible. In an increasingly polarized society in an election cycle that has been highlighted by widening conflict, alienation and violent discord, make a statement, come to church.
Growing in God’s Love
SLIDE 3: PAUL PROBLEMATICAL PERSON
Like many of us, Paul was always a problematical person. He was a zealot. He always believed he was right and he was willing to confront others, get right in their face, when he thought they were wrong. Even though Paul continued to be a difficult person, under the influence of the love of Christ he did change for the better. Before his conversion, if he thought you were wrong, not only would he be obnoxious, he would arrest you, torture you, maybe even execute you. After all he was part of the group that stoned St. Stephen. As far as we know, after the death of Stephen he never participated in killing another human being. He might give you a hard time, but he wouldn’t kill you. And that was progress.
SLIDE 4: PAUL FIGHTS WITH PETER
Also, maybe you will recall earlier this year, I recounted the story of Paul and Peter fighting with one another over the Jewish dietary laws during a congregational meeting at the church in Antioch with Paul accusing Peter to his face of hypocrisy. “I spoke up to Peter in front of them all: ‘If you, a Jew, live like a non-Jew when you’re not being observed by the watchdogs from Jerusalem, what right do you have to require non-Jews to conform to Jewish customs just to make a favorable impression on your old Jerusalem cronies?’”
SLIDE 5: USE OUR ENERGY GETTING ALONG WITH EACH OTHER
As Paul grew older he apparently mellowed. Toward the end of his life we find Paul offering this advice to the Christians in Rome: “Forget about deciding what’s right for each other. Here’s what you need to be concerned about: that you don’t get in the way of someone else, making life more difficult than it already is. So let’s agree to use all our energy in getting along with each other. Help others with encouraging words; don’t drag them down by finding fault. You’re certainly not going to permit an argument over what is served or not served at supper to wreck God’s work among you.” The older Paul had learned about compromising in love.
SLIDE 6: HOPE FOR YOU AND ME
We can see this more mellow and loving Paul in his letter to Philemon last week. Rather than taking a heavy handed approach and commanding Philemon that he must set free his slave Onesimus, Paul tried to appeal to the slave holder’s better nature: “Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner for Christ Jesus. 10I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose spiritual father I have become during my imprisonment. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me during my imprisonment for the gospel; 14but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.” Again this is an older, more mature Paul. And I recount this mellowing of a crusty old saint because I believe this ripening and sweetening of Paul’s personality holds out some hope for you and me.
SLIDE 7: GOD IS NOT DONE WITH US YET
For you see, when Paul was converted on the Road to Damascus, in many ways he remained the same old Paul. Before his conversion he was a zealot for the Law of Moses, after his conversion he became a zealot for Jesus Christ — but he was still a zealot, uncompromisingly convinced that Paul’s way was the right way — the only way. Over time living his way into his faith in the way of Jesus, the love of Jesus began to change his life and his personality. Even after his initial conversion on the Road to Damascus Paul matured and grew in his faith and became more loving. And that is good news for us. Even after we make the decision to follow the way of Jesus God is not done with us.
SLIDE 8: GOD TEACHING ME NEW WISDOM ABOUT COURAGE & PAIN
All my life I have struggled with an obsessive need for approval, and my lack of courage. My need for approval has a lot to do with my family of origin, where pleasing my parents was important. You have often heard me preach about my own lack of courage, when I ask the question, what would we do. if we weren’t afraid? As I have grown older living into following the way of Jesus, I have become less focused upon pleasing other people and more attuned to the still small voice that represents divine guidance in my life. I guess I am getting too old to worry about what other people think of me. From time to time I still hear God prodding me, “What would you do, if you weren’t afraid?” Courage is still a challenge. But God isn’t done with me yet, and perhaps with all these surgeries, and physical therapy God is teaching me new wisdom about courage and pain.
SLIDE 9: STRUGGLE WITH FOOD
God isn’t done with me. So now let me ask you, how is God still working in you as you follow the way of Jesus? Perhaps like me you struggle with food both the kinds of nutrition and the amounts. Managing our food intake can be difficult, because we do have to eat to live, and our eating habits are so deeply programmed into our bodies. Unlike other addictions we can’t go cold turkey. Although for some of us giving up sweets, chips, dips, ice cream, chocolate may seem like cold turkey. Maybe you are facing blood sugar problems I know, I am with you. We have to get our food under control to preserve our health. I may not be quite there yet, but let me assure you, if we are faithful in prayer, God will help.
SLIDE 10: MONEY MANGEMENT
What other challenges are we asking God’s help in addressing in our lives? Maybe money management? Does our spending ever get away from us? Does affluenza drive us to purchase stuff we don’t need? Maybe we are setting ourselves up to work until we die. Like food spending is a discipline. Jesus reminds us: Matthew 6:19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. As we grow into God’s love things become less important, relationships and sharing with others can become the focus of our lives.
SLIDE 11: LETTING OUR TONGUES GET AWAY FROM US
Another challenge some of us face, like Paul, is letting our tongues get away from us. Maybe we are so convinced of our own wisdom, or our own righteousness that the rest of the world needs to know what we think. Or maybe when our anger gets hooked we just can’t control our tongues. You know how that works. Our self-righteous anger takes over and all the vitriol comes out without thinking. And then we struggle with gossip. We want the attention that comes from passing on an important piece of “news,” showing that we are in the know. And when we can pass along someone else’s failure, we can feel better about ourselves. Of course we mess up, but did you hear what my best enemy did?
SLIDE 12: GOSSIP
I am reminded of the story about Mildred, the church gossip and self-appointed arbiter of the church’s morals, kept sticking her nose in the other members’ private lives. Church members were unappreciative of her activities, but feared her enough to maintain their silence. She made a mistake, however, when she accused George, a new member, of being an alcoholic after she saw his pickup truck parked in front of the town’s only bar one afternoon. She commented to George and others that everyone seeing his truck parked there would know what he was doing. George, a man of few words, stared at her for a moment and just walked away. He didn’t explain, defend, or deny; he said nothing. Later that evening, George quietly parked his pickup in front of Mildred’s house… and left it there all night!
SLIDE 13: BE POSITIVE, BE FAITHFUL, SUPPORT ONE ANOTHER, GROW IN GOD’S LOVE
And now that we have the internet our ability to get into trouble with our words has been multiplied. Email can be deadly And now we have social media, Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, Pintrist, Linkedin. Just imagine how much damage we can wreck upon the community of faith especially as we move into an interim time. We need to stop and think before we press post, or send. Is this a communication better made in person? How are our words open to misinterpretation? Will our words be magnified and distorted by social media? My prayer is that as a congregation as we have grown in following the way of Jesus we will manage our tongues, our use of email and social media to responsibly shepherd our community of faith through this time of temporary leadership and uncertainty. We want to be positive, faithful, support one another, and grow in God’s love.
SLIDE 14: USE OUR ENERGY GETTING ALONG WITH ONE ANOTHER
God is not done with us yet. Each one of us can still grow in faith. We can grow in our love, and United Church can still grow as a community of faith through the grace and love Jesus. Remember Paul’s advice: “Help others with encouraging words; don’t drag them down by finding fault. So let’s agree to use all our energy in getting along with each other. “
A New Identity
SLIDE 3: SLAVERY IN THE ROMAN WORLD
As far as we know, Jesus did not mention slavery during his ministry. Of course unlike the Roman world, where as much as one third of the population were slaves, the closest Jewish Law came to countenancing involuntary labor was a kind of indentured servitude, where the servant was free after seven years. Jews did not practice perpetual slavery. So, Jesus was never confronted with the question, “What about slavery?”
SLIDE 4: SLAVERY IS BAD
I would like to think, that if Jesus could have foreseen the long march of the history of his followers, he would have said, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you — slavery is bad!” The followers of Jesus, however, did not come face to face with Roman style slavery until, they tried to take the faith into the gentile world. And then Paul and the early missionaries were so intent on spreading the faith, they made critical compromises with Roman culture: women should remain silent in church and must be submissive, women obey your husbands as if they were the Lord, slaves obey your earthly masters.
Jesus didn’t teach any of this stuff. He encouraged women to take their places along side of men in freedom and equality. And I think had he been confronted with slavery, he would have said, “Among you in the Commonwealth of God we do not own one another.” But since Jesus did not have an opportunity to confront slavery, for much of its history, to its shame, the church tolerated slavery.
SLIDE 5: SLAVERY COMES TO AMERICA
In the history of America the practice of slavery arrived early. Twenty African Americans arrived in Virginia in 1619 aboard a Dutch ship, but they were traded as indentured servants, free after seven years of servitude. By 1650, however, the Virginia court was declaring some African Americans to be slaves for life, and by 1700 the colonies had worked out a system of African American chattel slavery, where not only were people slaves for life, but their descendants as well. So African Americans became property to be bought, sold traded along with their off-spring with no legal rights.
SLIDE 6: WHITE SUPREMACY JUSTIFIES SLAVERY
To justify this practice slave holders began developing an elaborate doctrine of white supremacy justifying the subjugation of all colored races. At one time or another in America there has been not only black slavery, but also enslavement of Native Americans and Chinese. The evil of white supremacy has been the collective sin that has haunted our national consciousness. And even when we struggle to overcome racism personally, we are still plagued as a nation by institutional racism — that is simply part of the fabric of our culture.
SLIDE 7: ALL PEOPLE CREATED EQUAL
There was a brief moment in 1776 we almost cast off the sin of white supremacy peacefully. In our Declaration of Independence we proclaimed, “All men are created equal,” and we even included a paragraph in the original draft that would have led to the end of slavery in the new United States of America. The Southern Colonies, however, refused to vote for Independence if the slavery paragraph remained in the Declaration, and so almost a century later we fought a bloody and devastating Civil War to end slavery.
SLIDE 8: END OF SLAVERY WAS NOT END OF WHTE SUPREMACY
The end of formal legal slavery, however, was not the end of the sin of white supremacy. And allow me just a moment to note that racism is not for white people only. Around the world different racial and ethnic groups are prejudiced toward one another. African Americans resent Hispanics. Chinese, Koreans and Japanese all dislike one another. Burmese look down on Thais and in India the caste system is based on race. Persians hate to be called Arabs, who in turn hate the Israelis, and there is a tremendous divide between Northern and Southern Europeans. The Brexit vote demonstrates that Brits can be every bit as prejudiced as Americans. So I am not denying that racism is a universal problem, but I want to focus, on white supremacy in America, because that is our national sin to deal with.
SLIDE 9: WE HAVE TAKEN A CITY
I have asked the Monday Bible Study and the Thursday Sharing Table to read, We Have Taken a City by H Leon Prather, because it helps to document the roots of post-civil war racial violence in America. And since we have been experiencing renewed episodes of racial violence at the same time there is a resurgence in the Ku Klux Klan in our nation I think we would do well as a faith community to re-examine the phenomenon of white supremacy and racial violence in America.
SLIDE 10: TERRORIST TACTICS SUPPRESS BLACK VOTING
As I started to say before, the end of formal legal slavery was not the end of the oppression of African Americans in the United States. Post Civil War Reconstruction was designed to protect the voting and citizenship rights of African Americans. The presence of Federal troops in the South helped to keep the power of the Klan in check. But in 1877 only 12 years after the end of the Civil War troops were with-drawn, and white para-military groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the red shirts and the white league used terrorist tactics to suppress black voting across the South.
The book We Have Taken the City, recounts the violent coup fomented by white supremacists to overthrow the duly elected bi-racial government of Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898. Dozens of law abiding African Americans were killed and hundreds driven from their jobs and the City. The white mobs were organized and armed by a small group of white politicians who succeeded in disenfranchising the African American population and expropriating the jobs and property of Blacks. While the Wilmington Coup was perhaps the most egregious example of white violence used to oppress an African American population, the author documents a pattern of racial violence in the North as well as the South intended to disenfranchise African Americans and relegate them to the lowest paying jobs.
SLIDE 11: UNDERSTANDING HISTORICAL CONTEXT FOR CURRENT VIOLENCE
If we want to understand and respond to the current wave of racial violence in our country, we do well to seek to understand the larger historical context of white supremacy and racial violence in America. Consider, for instance, that Ferguson, Missouri is a poor black majority community run by a predominantly white minority City government and police force. When African Americans see white people show up to political rallies during this election cycle wearing “T” shirts that read, “Make America White Again,” they see that political activity in the context of a long history of white supremacy.
SLIDE 12: FAITH COMMUNITY CAN HELP CHANGE CULTURAL IDENTITY
So is there anything our faith communities can do to help address the current wave of violence and bridge the racial divide in our nation? United Church along with other progressive churches have a unique opportunity to lead our nation into a new cultural identity. First, we can confess that when the church accommodated with the twin sins of slavery and white supremacy, we were betraying the way of Jesus. Jesus calls us to welcome everyone to the Sharing Table as equal partners in Christ. Rather than “women obey your husbands and remain silent and submissive in church, and slaves obey your earthly masters,” we can aspire to the ideals of Galatians 3:” 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, Black or White, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
SLIDE 13: RACISM THAT SURROUNDS US
We can acknowledge the racism that surround us and seeks to influence us. A classic case of institutional racism occurred right here in Madison County this past year. An older gentleman from India came to visit his family in rural Madison and was going for a walk in the neighborhood. A white resident unaccustomed to seeing a person of color in his neighborhood, called in a complaint to the Madison Police Department. He complained that a suspicious black man was stalking his neighborhood, and he was afraid to leave his wife and child at home to go to work. The police department dispatched an officer. When the policeman arrived rather than seeing an aged Indian man whose English was limited, he saw a dangerous black man, who he threw to the ground breaking several of the man’s vertebrae. Making matters worse, when the policeman was prosecuted for use of excessive force, the Police Chief tampered with witnesses to win an acquittal for his officer. That is institutional racism.
SLIDE 14: RESPECT POLICE AND HOLD THEM ACCOUNTBLE
We must encourage people to respect the difficult job and sacrifices made by police officers. Responsible policing helps make life in community possible. And police officers must be held accountable when their power is abused. Abuse of power undermines community support for all police. The new identity we must seek should be a multi-racial consciousness.
SLIDE 15: SIGN OF HOPE RACIAL BARRIER FALLS
As we come to a close allow me to lift up a sign of hope I saw during the Olympic games. When I was a kid growing up in age group swimming in Omaha, swimming was a white sport. White men can’t jump and black people don’t do competitive swimming. In Rio Simone Manuel changed that, when she became the first African American woman to win a gold medal in the100 meter freestyle. Our world is changing slowly. I believe someday we will expunge the sins of slavery and racism, and in that day we will join together in the words of the old spiritual, “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty we are free at last.”