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When I first began seminary, I didn’t really go with the intention of becoming a pastor. I was on the MDiv track (which is what you do if you want to be a pastor), but mostly I was trying to figure out why life falls apart and whether there was a way to make sense of pain. In some ways I was putting my years of armchair Christian beliefs to a test: Were the claims made about God credible? Were the promises of God believable?
As someone who likes to intellectualize and ponder things, seminary was a good fit for me to work out my life. In retrospect, it was a bit selfish of me. I wasn’t necessarily there to become a better or more proficient witness for God, but rather I wanted God to fix me. Or, at least know if God could fix me.
Anyway, part way through my first year I had the opportunity to travel to Nicaragua and Costa Rica for a few weeks. The details of the trip don’t matter that much beyond these few things:
1. I saw what it means to truly accompany another person on a journey – to sit with another person and hear their perspective, to feel their stories deeply, and to have another’s life influence your own so much that it changes you.
2. I saw the power that a small, broken, resilient, determined church can wield when the Holy Spirit descends upon them. If I wanted to see the credibility or believability of God in the flesh – this was it.
3. I felt more at home in that foreign land than I could’ve dreamed possible. I always thought I would move to Nicaragua when my kids grew up. Life happens and that is likely not what I’ll ever do, but… what I experienced there made me want to be a pastor. I wanted to recreate that sense of community, belonging, and acceptance in my own hometown. I wanted to extend the thread of tangibility of hope that I had witnessed.
I believed I could. I thought that if I took responsibility for making God credible to the world, took responsibility for God’s believability, then maybe others could somehow connect to God through me. Honestly, I know how starry-eyed this all sounds. And how vain it sounds. But, I was young and in love with God.
I’m not as young anymore, and I’m less starry-eyed, probably still as vain… but mostly I still love God. I mean, we have our issues, but at the close of the day, I am deeply aware of God’s hand on my life.
If you’re like me, you’re reeling from the horrors that have rocked our nation over these past weeks. I lack the words to express the frustration, sorrow, and incompetence I feel. I’m also keenly aware that the ugliness of racism is not new. That it has been breathing, festering, and growing in the very places we live.
And, I am reminded again that the only reason I became a pastor was because of what I witnessed in Nicaragua. They ministered to me, taught me what it looked like to be God’s hope, and showed me that faith sweats blood for the sake of Jesus.
As the world seemingly dissolves into some dystopian science fiction novel, I am also reminded that someone must live through it all, and render God’s good news credible in a dark hour, and bear witness to the fact that God still lives and breathes.
And there is no reason that you and I should not be those witnesses in the face of evil.
Jesus commissions the twelves disciples to liberate the “harassed and helpless.” He says, “Go and cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons.”
Go and touch. Go and heal. Go and resurrect. Go and make peace. Go and march. Go and tell your truth. Go and stand against evil.
Today’s Gospel reading is hard. It is demanding. It is offensive, when you get down to it. Because sometimes the sickness we suffer from is racism, sometimes the legion is a blight on our own souls, sometimes the dead are those we’ve had a hand in murdering, sometimes the demon has rooted itself into our communities.
The audacity of these evils is it thinks it has a chance. And, evil thinks it has a chance because God has put their faith in humanity, which seems like a ludicrous notion to evil. Jesus commissions us to stand in the hot white center of the world’s pain. Not just to glance in the general direction of suffering and injustice, and then sidle away, but to dwell there. And work there. And love there. Evil is bold and confident in its assumed ‘win,’ because evil doesn’t believe we can stand the heat.
The audacity of evil is it thinks Jesus has misplaced his faith.
Misplaced his trust in humanity.
Evil assumes we can’t do the work; evil thinks we can’t surrender everything that keeps us safe for the sake of others; evil thinks we can lured by cheap promises and half-truths.
But Jesus knows that evil has sorely misjudged and miscalculated him… and us. Evil has assumption on its side, but we have hope on ours.
Sometimes I get up here and preach and I feel like a cheerleader – reminding my own self and you that we can do it.
*Cue the foot stomp and syncopated clap.*
But, maybe in some ways it is what I’m doing. I guess I feel this way because I know the work of hope is hard. Because as Romans so eloquently puts it, “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.”
But notice the trajectory: suffering, endurance, character, and THEN hope. The fact that our salvation is free does not mean it comes cheap. So often we try to skip straight to hope and hunker down in its promise. Yes, the Church is called to profess hope. But hope is not the same thing as clueless optimism or premature consolation. Hope has no meaning if it’s not undergirded by justice.
The cries we hear today are not only of brown and black people, and even white people, but it is wailing of the Holy Spirit calling to all of us to make hope known, to uphold God’s credibility, to make the promises of Jesus believable.
I know that it may sound as if I’m trying to prove God’s existence by harping on the links between hope, credibility, and believability…. I’m not so much trying to prove God’s existence, because God exists whether I believe it or not. But, rather that God still lives.
I guess, maybe that’s the thing you and I both need to believe to do the hard work before us.
God. Still. Lives.
If someone has to bear witness to the fact that God still lives and moves and breathes for anything in the world to change, why shouldn’t it be you? Why shouldn’t the burden of God’s credibility fall to you?
Because, God needs you.
And, “in the case of America’s longstanding racial crisis, making Jesus believable means moving beyond denial, beyond willful ignorance, and beyond the Band-aid approach of ‘thoughts and prayers.’”
It means deciding, as grateful followers of a brown man named Jesus, who died in a brutal, unjust manner two thousand years ago, that we will not tolerate the demon of racism in our midst for one more generation.
It means deciding it ends with us and working to make it so.
It means enacting hope, not just hoping for hope.
It means that God still lives.