Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Bishop's Message

RSS By: Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo

The Rev. Dr. Robert Rimbo shares regular thoughts and reflections about our life together.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Jan 15, 2017

Bishop Rimbo preached this sermon at the ADLA Commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. at St. Paul's, Parkchester, Bronx on January 15. The theme was "Where Do We Go from Here? Chaos or Community?"

 

I am so grateful to the leaders of the African Descent Lutheran Association, Metropolitan New York Synod Chapter, for the invitation to preach today. For a number of years, I have not been able to be at this commemoration of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., because it always conflicted with a gathering of the Conference of Bishops. I am thankful that leaders of ADLA put this event on the Sunday of the national commemoration and that Lois and I can be with you. Thank you.

 

I greet all of you, sisters and brothers, in the Name of Jesus and in that Name I now preach.

 

Nine days ago, on January 6, 2017, Lois and I were privileged to stand with other bishops and various leaders of our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in the sanctuary of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. There were plenty of tears there. We were on holy ground. We were welcomed with gracious, godly hospitality. All of us in our delegation were silent with awe in the presence of God at the site where the Nine Martyrs of Mother Emanuel were killed.

 

I keep thinking of the people there. Especially today as I gather with you to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and to address the persistent systemic racism which continues to weigh us down and against which our Synod is committed to struggle.

 

The long list of racist horrors in the past few years is always present, on our streets, in our schools, at our jobs and in our churches, mosques and synagogues, I could speak of so many atrocities, but I am most moved by that experience I had at Mother Emanuel. Imagine nine of your fellow church members murdered by a stranger whom they welcomed in for Bible Study. What a wound. Those scars will mark us forever.

 

Over a hundred and fifty years have passed since this nation’s bloodiest war. Despite all the efforts and accomplishments of both black and white Americans, despite all of our worthy civil rights legislation, and despite the Church’s fierce stand against the sin of racism, it continues to raise its ugly head, it continues to have a stranglehold. The Ku Klux Klan still marches not only in white sheets, but in pin-striped suits and off-the-rack dresses and preachers’ robes. The Civil War may have ended at Appomattox, but remnants of its cause still linger.

 

Racism persists in the jokes we tell, In campaign speeches, in the choices we make, the friends we keep, the places where we live, the candidates we vote for or against, the reality of our lives. Many of you know that better than I. Many of us are outraged at the dismissive attitudes and downright lies we’ve heard or seen tweeted regard a hero, Congressman John Lewis. We’re outraged because it’s outrageous. Racism is like the common cold: It’s in the systems of our society. Everyone – those in the church and those out of the church, those who identify as red or blue or orange, those who are rich as well as those who are poor – everyone is susceptible to the virus.

 

We have just experienced the grace of eight years of the most even, balanced, wise, compassionate presidency – you choose the words as well as I do – now coming to an end, and, ask Lois, I have been weeping every day and every night, partly out of a great sense of loss, partly out of a great sense of fear.

 

Racism brings misery to all. And as shocking and embarrassing as it is, we must have the courage to look at racism in light of God’s truth, in light of God’s Word, and to ask "Where Do We Go From Here?"

 

"Where Do We Go from Here? Chaos or Community?" is the title of Dr. King’s last book. Those questions, and thousands of other questions, surround us today. Where do we go from here? Chaos or Community? What can we offer? The fact that this assassin, this young man, Dylan Roof, grew up Lutheran makes the grief more painful for me, not because I think Lutherans should be free from such evil, but because I keep asking, "Where did we go wrong with this young person?" Especially knowing that he declares that he has no remorse. And even though the trial has now moved to sentencing him to death, the fact is there is no bringing back these nine faithful people: Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Depayne Middleton Doctor, Pastor Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Pastor Daniel Simmons, Pastor Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson.

 

When we were in Charleston we heard the story of the impact as victims’ family members and friends shared their pain on the news.

 

We can certainly pray for all who mourn but we must also offer to transform this broken reality of our world.

 

We can offer our courageous challenges to prejudicial words and racist behavior.

 

We can offer our words, our actions, our willingness to suffer when our concerns are not welcome.

 

We can offer our honest love to people who need to know that, as with our Lord Jesus Christ, God can raise the dead and heal the broken.

 

We can continue to teach the ministry of reconciliation.

 

We can strive for the justice to which Dr. King committed his life, the justice which the Prophet Amos proclaimed.

 

You heard one verse from Amos moments ago. Did you notice it began with the rod "but"? That means something came before it, right? So let’s hear more:

I hate, I despise your festivals,

and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,

I will not accept them,

and the peace offerings of your fatted animals

I will not look upon.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;

I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

But let justice roll down like waters,

and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

(Amos 5:21-24)

 

We gather here this afternoon to worship, and Amos tells us graphically, pungently, how intimately worship and justice are conjoined in God’s covenant with God’s people.

 

Don’t just take my word for it. Read the book of Amos and you will find that he is a pessimist, the least hopeful of the classical prophets. He lived in a pessimistic, paradoxical period: on the one hand, great material prosperity; on the other hand, social and religious corruption. (Sound familiar?) His is a raw message of judgment – God’s judgment on Israel. Particularly against its leaders – rulers, priests, upper classes; but a judgment that would affect all the people. Why? Because the nation was understood as a unity, with a common destiny. Israel, Amos storms, will be destroyed; destruction is certain, inescapable, total. Because they had disregarded their covenant with God. They went through the motions of worshiping; merchants were careful not to do business on forbidden days but when the prophets reproached them they turned a deaf ear. 

 

But the ultimate reason the Lord would execute judgment? Because so many of the people compartmentalized their lives, separated worship of God from concern for their neighbor, even though worship of God and justice to the neighbor were intimately connected. The merchants did no business on the proscribed days, but they were impatient for the holy days to pass so they could resume their fraudulent business. Wealthy landowners oppressed the less fortunate; they simply took over the landholdings of impoverished people. No wonder Amos, speaking the Word of the Lord, railed against them. But look out, watch it here: First, this justice is not Constitutional Law – there was no such thing at the time, of course. This justice is God’s own sense of righteousness, of mercy.

 

And, also, this was not an out-and-out rejection of Israelite worship or religion. It was a rhetorical device which you can add to your collection of unusable phrases: it’s called "dialectic negation." Like any good preacher, Amos strongly negates, denies, nullifies one facet of religion (worship) so as to emphasize another facet (justice). Read the writings of great preachers like Dr. King and you will see this device used masterfully. Hosea likewise proclaimed this word of the Lord: "I desire steadfast love, not sacrifice" but remember that, of course, the Lord wanted sacrifice, too – just not when it was offered as a substitute for the demands of the covenant, not when love of God was supposed to replace love of neighbor.

 

"Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community?" is an intriguing, amazing, challenging read. And I particularly appreciate the subtitle: "Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos Or Community?" Reading this book while visiting Charleston was deeply moving. Reading this book in preparing to preach for this commemoration with the words of Amos ringing in my ears is profoundly challenging.

 

Because – stay with me here – now we must move from Amos and Israel to you and me, now we must move from Chaos to Community, our community, the Beloved Community of which Dr. King spoke, that Community of which we are all part.

 

I am not as pessimistic as was Amos. For all our failings, I do not believe God has passed a definitive judgment

on the People of God known as the Church. I do not believe we are destined for destruction – certain, inescapable, total. Still, my experience and our work in our Synod on the immense and intense racism which we continue to face, says that we have strong parallels with that which caused Amos to predict disaster. There remains a great gulf between worship and justice, a gulf bridged in places like Mother Emanuel, in places like the churches and people of our synod working on addressing racism powerfully and prayerfully – trying to bridge the divides that separate us.

 

We, too, enjoy a covenant with God – a covenant that was sealed not with the blood of bulls, but with the blood of God’s Son. That covenant is shaped by faithfulness: God ceaselessly faithful to us despite our infidelities; We, bound by the two commandments that sum up the law and the prophets and express our faithfulness: "you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind" and "you shall love your neighbor at least as much as you love yourself."

 

One of the great heresies of the church today is believing that the only commandment that really matters for eternity, for eternal life, is the first: Love God but let humans fend for themselves. The First Letter of John summarizes this in a single uncompromising sentence: "If anyone has the world’s goods and sees their sister or brother in need yet closes their heart, how does God’s love abide in that person?" For a Christian, giving to those in need is not a secular handout, a simple act of constitutional justice, a lovely virtue, giving others what they can legitimately claim because it can be proven from philosophy or has been written into the Constitution of the United States. No. This is essential Christianity, my sisters and brothers. Without it I am not genuinely a Christian. Unless I love all of God’s images on earth at least as much as I love myself, I do not really love God.

 

The strong word of the Lord on Amos’s lips, "I will not accept your burnt offerings," did not fade away when Christ was born. Remember what he said to the Pharisees, "Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’" – good old dialectic negation. Of course, God desires sacrifice, but it’s the sacrifice of which St. Paul speaks: "I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters – to you, Christians, to you, followers of the Way – I appeal to you by the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship."

 

Where Do We Go From Here?

 

We go to action linked to mercy, to practical love, to compassion, to justice, from chaos to community.

 

This is action growing from the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Martyr, Renewer of Society, Renewer of the Church. This is action flowing from the holy ground of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Nine Holy Martyrs of Charleston. This is action seen as we link worship and justice, as we move from the church to the world, from the pulpit to the people, from the Christ we meet in the Holy Communion to the countless images of God who are crucified still today by poverty, classism, ageism, and racism. This is action with which we confront racism in our Church and in our world. "Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community?" Community, the Beloved Community, is Dr. King's answer. Let it be our answer as well. We go from chaos to community, a good direction, given our current state of affairs in the church and in our society. We go, together, into and as the Beloved Community of Christ Jesus our Savior and Lord. Amen.

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