when words fail


Amos 7:7-17,  Luke 10:25-37

A recording is available here.
The service bulletin is available here.

(Thanks to RuachWords for the beautiful words.)

 On Thursday morning my daughter picked up my phone from the floor next to where I was stretching my legs. Her grabbing my phone is not an unusual occurrence, but her curiosity blindsided me in this particular instance. Lilly asked, “Who’s on your phone, Mommy?” I glanced down and noticed that she could see the face of a black woman on my screen, as I’d paused a video when she walked in for goodbye kisses.

Not knowing how to respond, I told her the truth. I explained to my three-year-old daughter that she was seeing the picture of a woman telling the story of her boyfriend dying.

“Who died, Mommy?” she asked.
“A man named Philando, baby. He was shot with a gun and died.”
“Philando died, Mommy?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am. He died. Mommy is watching the story on her phone.”

This is not the first time I’d told my child about people’s controversial deaths.
It’s only fair they know.

They are young and impressionable, and it’s my job to inform them of what’s happening in the world…until they can inform themselves.

It’s not the first time I’ve shared hard news, but it was the first time I didn’t offer the information carefully, calculatedly, and gently to my three or four-year-old.

Words failed me, so I told the truth.

When Words Fail,
we turn the the truth of scripture.

The prophet Amos was bold. Amos “forces his audience to decide how God’s grace meets stubborn injustice.” God told Amos to “Go prophesy to my people Israel,” meaning it was Amos’ job to remind God’s people what it meant to be God’s people.

Election as God’s people, y’all, entails a special moral responsibility. The plumb line showed Israel’s complacency, which stood in opposition to the responsibilities of God’s people. This vision represents the congruity between uprightness of God’s law and the harmony of just social relations. It also speaks the hard truth of Israel’s impending death – no contractor keeps faulty construction standing. Israel has come out of “true” with itself and with God.

Amos does the hard work for Israel that scripture does for us. Amos’ prophecy decries systemic exploitation of the powerless and common humiliation of the lowly. The prophet forces his audience to decide how God’s grace meets stubborn injustice. God’s grace and God’s love of justice are inseparable.

When Words Fail,
we must rely upon the words of those who have come before us; the saints that have informed our lives and the lives of those who shape us.

Today, the piece we will use for our Affirmation of Faith comes from the Confession of Belhar. Belhar is a confession of Christian faith that emerged in South Africa during the years of government-imposed segregation, Apartheid. Major themes in the confession include:

Unity is both a gift given by God and an obligation of the church of Jesus Christ,
Reconciliation and justice of God are central to the life of the church of Jesus Christ.

Belhar is a confession of courage that addresses the oppression of people for nearly two centuries, and it still speaks to our 21st century context as we struggle with ongoing wounds of segregation and racism. We have been using this confession in pieces as our affirmation of faith over the last several months, and we will continue to do so as our scripture readings inform our services, because “we believe that God has revealed Godself as the one who wishes to bring about wishes to bring about justice and true peace, among people; and that God calls the church to follow him in this.”[1]

When Words Fail,
we open our ears to hear truth spoken.

And then we speak that truth for those who can’t be heard.

My colleague is a survivor on many counts. She is a survivor of 9/11 by the very nature of God’s grace on that Tuesday morning. She’s a single mother. She’s black and raising a young black man. In the wake of all that’s going on, I reached out to A. and asked her to share her truth. I want to know, from her, what I need to know as a white woman living in America.

Her truth is heartbreaking.

A. has conversations with her son about “how to possibly survive a police encounter.” They talk about where he’s to put his wallet when he drives. She tells him she’d rather him come home alive and that they’ll fight whatever injustice or ticket later.

A. also shared this: “I don’t want him to be afraid of police because the majority of them are good, honest and hardworking, but to err on the side of caution. I spend more time in prayer and putting him in God’s hands because no matter how hard I try I can’t control the situation.”

My truth is this: I’m ignorant and I’m privileged. I want to not be, but I am. I’m a white woman, married with two children, and we own some nice cars. I’ve been pulled over recently, and I was given a verbal warning. Seeing that both of my children were in the car, the officer told me that their lives depended on my driving safely, so he was just going to warn me to drive more carefully. I agreed, thanked him profusely, and went on my way home, albeit more slowly.

Y’all, this week a man was shot while a child my son’s age was in the backseat. He bled to death while she was in the car.

And what is our response?
I’ve been speechless.

I’m heartbroken but also feel ignorant about all things social justices, so I’ve not felt I’ve had a voice. I’m learning that’s not the case. I’m learning that it’s others who don’t have the voice and it’s my job, as their neighbors, to love them enough to speak for them.

But I also need to educate myself.

When Words Fail,
it’s time for us to learn.

We return to Luke’s familiar parable about neighbors, and this time we don’t speed read through the story because we already know it. We approach it in light of our world today and ask the Spirit to inform our readings.

When we do that, we see that this story is so much more than a story about caring for strangers. This story isn’t a morality play.

No, Christ offers the parable to reorient us – for shock and awe. Christ reorients the lawyer’s question in order to expand our understanding of what it means to be a neighbor and to love a neighbor.

We learn that Samaritans aren’t too far removed from Jews – they are actually religiously very close – but they are hated for their ethnic differences. The Lawyer, “seeking to justify himself,” attempts to limit who rightly qualifies as his neighbor, to confine the collection of people he must love. A re-read reveals that Christ’s goal in this parable is to “identify, humanize, and embrace the most unlikely candidates” of caregiver.

Biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine insists:
“We should think of ourselves as the person in the ditch and then ask, “Is there anyone, from any group, about whom we’d rather die than acknowledge, “She offered help” or “He showed compassion?” More, is there any group whose members might rather die than help us? If so, then we know how to find the modern equivalent for the Samaritan. To recognize the shock and possibility of the parable in practical, political and pastoral terms, we might translate it to first century geographical and religious concerns to our modern idiom.”[2]

Thus, we are not the Samaritans.
And we, Church, cannot be the Samaritans because of our place of privilege.

The Samaritan was hated, demeaned, looked down upon and yet, did something extraordinary for the privileged one. As persons of privilege we cannot be seen as the the Samaritan until our privilege is erased and we become the “less-than.”

But we live in a world, a nation, a state and a city with “less-thans.”
This recognition is where our learning begins.

As A. said to me, “the first step is in realizing that there is a difference in how we are viewed and treated by not only the police, but the justice system, and the media. A white person commits a crime and we don’t show mug shots, we show baby pictures and prom pictures and tell the story of a sweet kid who made a terrible mistake, a black person commits a crime and we scour the internet for the most menacing pictures we can find and run down everything they did wrong since grade school… What I want more than anything is to be seen as human, to not be judge by the color of my skin.”

When Words Fail,
we seek God’s guidance.

James Wallace shared this:
“To love God is to love neighbor is to love God.”

We cannot reach God fully until we love those whom God has created – every. single. one. And we have to love our neighbors in ways that is going to make us uncomfortable, because our God is a “do-er” and demands we be the same.

When we really seek God’s guidance, we had better get out of the way, because when the Holy Spirit gets to work, she’s gonna make some changes.

She’s gonna say to Amos, “Go!” and he’s gonna become a prophet speaking words of judgment, not out of personal conviction, but out of an external, divine summons.

She’s gonna help us realize the Samaritan – that enemy – is a benefactor who can offer instruction and compassion and righteousness.

She’s gonna demand that we speak words that may make us uncomfortable, not out of personal conviction, but because our neighbors and our God say it’s necessary to speak them.

Lilly came home from school on Thursday and inquired about Philando Castile. I didn’t have the heart to explain that I didn’t actually know him when she questioned, “Your friend Philando, Mommy, he died. Is he okay?”

I didn’t know how to explain that he’s not a friend, per se, but that he is a neighbor, so in a way he could be a friend.

You see, Philando’s life matters.
So does Alton’s.
And the officers in Dallas.
But until we start seeing the Philandos and Altons as neighbors, as “us” and not “them”, then we can’t be okay.

I’m grateful to my colleague Mihee Kim-Kort for her words this week:
“It is a glimpse of the kingdom in that when we pursue mercy to its end it will always result in the full restoration of every single human being to the wider human community… [the movement] Black Lives Matter is about the liberation and restoration of black lives in this world, yes. It doesn’t stop there though because what it means is that when black lives are free, we will all be free, and when black lives thrive and flourish, we will all thrive and flourish.”[3]

She reminds me that real freedom requires us to live so that all may be free. Christ’s freedom is not for one person, but for every person. We need God’s guidance to restore us back to the perfection intended in creation. We are called to live free, and labor for the freedom of others.

When Words Fail,
we proclaim the Gospel:

Author Matt Chandler says that Gospel proclamation is both doing and saying. It is both building and proclaiming.

It’s fine if you can’t find the right words. I know I can’t.
But it’s not fine if we don’t do something. We can’t stay comfortable.
Church, we must do something.

Today’s offering song lyrics include this charge:

We pray but never move
We say but never do
It’s time to get our hands dirty
Be love there’s a whole lot of hurting
Calling all hearts
Calling all hands
Calling all feet to take a stand

Church, it’s time to proclaim the Gospel. Christ has shown the way. We’ve also heard from the ancient prophet Amos what will happen to us if we remain complacent.

There’s no time for complacency.

Proclaim the Gospel.
Go. Do. Something.

In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

[1] https://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/theologyandworship/pdfs/belhar.pdf
[2] Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2006), 148-49.[3] http://miheekimkort.com/2016/07/09/what-i-would-preach-on-sunday/

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