Based on the Scripture readings:
2010 October 10
March for Life
I was walking down Blue Hill Avenue on Friday night in the dark with my colleague Tony Kill. Tony is the senior pastor at the Eliot UCC here in Newton and along with his wife, a pastor in Brighton, and two other suburban church folks, we were returning to our cars from the home of a family whose son was murdered in Mattapan three years ago.
Blue Hill Avenue runs from Southern Mattapan toward downtown Boston: from down in the area where John and Abigail Adams gave birth to democracy to up at the spot where two-year-old Amani Smith met his death to gunfire last week.
We were walking back to our car after a rally and a march; we'd been encouraged to take the bus, but it didn't seem right after we'd been organizing to make the streets safe to presume that they weren't. So we walked about a mile and a half through the neighborhoods just eight miles from here. The distance from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
We passed a lot of folks by shops and restaurants, and some folks having a drink out of doors, just like here in Newton on a Friday night. And we were both wearing clerical collars and suits and everyone knew about the march and I felt as safe as I do anywhere.
As Tony and I walked along about a dozen people called out to us and said, "I know the Lord," or "Hello Father," or "I've read the Book." At least half a dozen people wanted to shake my hand just walking by, many more said hello or waved, and one walked with us for a ways. Just because we were wearing clerical collars; just because of the march. That never happens to me in Newton.
This march was organized by Mothers for Peace and Justice. And the mothers there who spoke had all lost a child to gunfire. That was the price to be a speaker: the death of a child by gun. And there were half a dozen speakers. The price for our gathering together was that we all congregate in a back lot by a loading dock up against a fence beyond a CVS and a Stop and Shop, and when the first mother stood up to speak she said they were all going to go quite quickly because Stop and Shop had allowed us thirteen minutes -- she said thirteen minutes -- to use the loading dock to talk about the seven deaths on our minds.
I can have thirteen minutes or more for any of my sermons, and on an average week I don't convey anything as passionate as the loss of one of my own children. If ever I did and I was told that I could have so little time I would rage and wail and cry out. But we all pressed in there by the fence, with a cheap sound system and less than a quarter of an hour to listen and mourn and pray.
And that's what we did. We listened as mother after mother spoke about her loss, and about change, but not with anger. One of them told us she was going to use the "F" word, and then she launched into a call to forgiveness. Another said that when her son was shot she cried uncontrollably for three days and then she remembered the 46th Psalm, which she recited for us: God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam… The Lord of Hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge. She said.
And I had a tear in my eye.
One mother held up a sign, based on that letter bracelet from several years ago, WWJD. Her sign said "This is WJWD."
Then we went out on the street to march. And we were told to stay on the sidewalk, but by now there were too many of us. So we closed down Blue Hill Avenue for an hour and a half at rush hour and almost every car all around us honked and beeped, but not because they were impatient but because they were waving and flashing peace signs and stopping to look and listen and join at our chants and prayers. They were cheering a prayer vigil. That doesn't happen in Newton too much, either.
One minister marching with me said that she hears so often about people who've lost their faith because of a natural disaster somewhere far away, or a medical disaster in their own world. She hears people who say they will never come back to church because who could believe in a God who would allow earthquakes or typhoons, or who could believe in a God who would allow suffering from pancreatic cancer or anything else. Yet we marched amidst hundreds of people who knew loss crying aloud that God was all they could believe in. They could not believe in the city government or the penal system or the sweetness of nature. Not in the economic system that starves them or the global agreements that expect their unemployment. They couldn't believe in any of that, but they could believe in God, even those who had held their murdered child in their arms. God was what made sense of the tragedy, not what caused it. God was the source of comfort, not the object of blame. And this minister with me said that their faith put her faith to shame.
And mine, too.
We all ended up in the side yard of a private home, by the site of the loss of another child. And this boy Steven Odom's brother sang a song to us about reconciliation and forgiveness and hope. It was a long song, a capella, illuminated by the flashing blue lights of police cars parked by us, and the chemical orange of contemporary street lights just beyond.
After worship today I'm going to try something somewhat new. I'm inviting you during the day -- not at night -- to a four week study of the book of Acts in the New Testament. At its core the book of Acts is a narrative. It's just a story of things that happen over the course of thirty years after Jesus' death and resurrection. There are some arguments, some imprisonments, and several stonings, even unto death. There are theological disagreements and the interference and incompetence of the government is proclaimed. But at its heart Acts is also a story of amazing signs and wonders -- that's its very own phrase -- and of healings and people working for peace. It is a story of finding a way to direct our resources so that no one is in need (that is another of its phrases) and of displacing the idols that distract us with the God who loves us. It is a story of moving from alienation to embrace, by God. It has six transformational stories of radical inclusiveness, and it has named, powerful roles for women in an otherwise patriarchal world. It speaks of forgiveness and reconciliation and hope.
The reason that I come to church is to hear that story, the one from Acts, made real in my own world. To overcome my blindness and to perceive God at work in my own world. To follow God in my own world. And traveling on your behalf to Mattapan Friday night I encountered a story of life and death and need and illness met by an even stronger narrative of God's presence and God's vision brighter than any handgun or any condition could eclipse. I encountered people freed from prisons, steeped in prayer and relying upon promise. Which I learn about in church.
The reason that I give to church is so that as a community we can find ways to re-shape the world that we encounter -- the conditions and the challenges that God sets before us. The reason that I give is to offer my help to divine help. To keep the word and the will and the way that we learn here available beyond here.
At the climax of Acts is an extended story of a trial, with several appeals. It is one of the longer narratives in our scripture. And what is on trial, according to Paul, is resurrection. Do we believe in it, or not? Is it in keeping with God's ancient promises or not? Is it at hand for our modern faith, or not? Resurrection was on trial.
It took thirty years for Paul to share his call and his revelation from God with those around him. Three decades to modify, just a little bit, the communities growing in Jesus' name amidst the complexities of the world. But that's why I come to church and why I give to church. Because the promise of the people of faith in a complex world, of sharing resurrection even in the face of deaths that are unequivocally, unacceptably horrible -- like crucifixion -- the promise and the power of resurrection is the essential story of our faith and all that we might hang on to at times. And yet it is enough to change the world. Or shut down a street. Or bring a group together in song. Or inspire someone to preach forgiveness. Or offer us new life.
That is why I am here because that is what our God gives us; and it is enough. Amen.
Copyright © 2010 Kenneth F. Baily. Used by permission.