One of the things that I have been turning over and over in my mind is this question: “how long O Lord.” At first, it was a question to God about how long we would be away from one another in our worship and fellowship. How long would these restrictions go on, where social distancing is often being experienced by people as social isolation and fear. If I’m honest, I’ll admit that much as I thought I was coping with it, what I was really experiencing was the rebound effect of a global trauma. I felt dead inside.
That changed as I heard about and then saw a string of events – black people killed at the hands of police officers – occur. I have spent the last two weeks or so dealing, not with a slowly unfolding shutdown, but with shock at what appears to me to be a bleak world and a bleak future. I know many of you don’t like to read and hear negative things. But my friends, to ignore what is going on in the world, to stick our heads in the sand and only speak about those things that make us feel good at a time when everything has been thrown up into the air - to not speak about it, to not question, challenge, listen, and be open to change – is to fail to take hold the gift of the Spirit we have received in God. To ignore what is going on in the concrete in the United States and Canada is to persist in the sin of systemic racism.
“How long O Lord,” these words of lament were not about racism per se. They were a cry to God from his people – individuals and the whole gathered body of Israel – to deliver them from enemies, from persecutors who physically (so likely mentally and emotionally probably sexually as well), harmed them simply for being Israelites. When will you deliver us from the hands of our enemies? When will you stop our suffering? When will we see the hope you say you have in store for us, O Lord.
Our first story from Genesis tells of the barren marriage of Abraham and Sarah. Life was understood in different terms for the Israelites than it is today (for the most part). To have life wasn’t simply about the individual, but rather about the children two individuals could bear and raise together. To not be able to have children, for Sarah, would have been experienced as an existence empty of life: the persistence of one’s family through children. Whatever we might think of that now, for the Israelites of the day, the ability to have children would have been understood in the same way we might today understand life as necessitating autonomy (rather than coercion) to serve one’s family and community, competency (education) to serve one’s community, and safe space to engage in relationships, work, and play. In other words, children provided the equivalent of those things we value today as constituting a true life. We hear that due to advanced age, Abraham and Sarah believe they shall not be able to have children. Their visitors tell them God has heard their anger, their fear, their pain and Sarah’s deep lament for her life. He hears, and, they promise, God will deliver a child to her. And so, as we know, Isaac will be born to the aged pair. A supernatural miracle of life, surpassing the finite limits of natural life. God hears. God answers.
I can hear those of you who demand a better answer than this though: really? Where was God to hear and to heal my lament about my cancer, my husband’s Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, the lament of my family or my people who lived in slavery for hundreds of years. These miracles sound lovely. So why has God not delivered me? Why has God not delivered my people? Why has God allowed racism and evil tyranny to run rampant over the globe now, or frankly, for the whole of history? How long, O Lord, will you let evil triumph. This isn’t an abstract question. George Floyd was suffocated for 9 minutes with no answer to his begging for mercy. How long, O Lord, will you let gun violence kill child after child after child in American schools? Recall the words of one parent who responded to Christians saying, ‘you’re in our prayers.’ We don’t need your prayers. We need you to act NOW.
You see there’s this thing that people do when we’re faced with a hard, brutal, stunning, shocking truth: we suddenly turn to God. Most of us spend a lot of time ignoring God in our day to day lives. Or we say we’re seeking or relying on God when in fact we’re turning to our own inclinations, our own biases, our own prejudices, in order to mitigate our fear and justify acting out of it.
I would suggest the cost of our individual and social ignorance of God in Canada and the United States – most particularly of those who call themselves Christians – is the very seat of our undoing. You see, a person whose character, whose very core self, is formed by deep immersion in God’s Word, is able to let go of their fears and their presumptions to have certainty about everything. A person who seeks God with hunger and depth, might not always agree with someone; but that disagreement will not be harsh, fear driven, so angry dismissal, harassment, violence, or social and institutional blackballing; and it won’t be antagonistic political, social, educational, job related, or medically related denial of service, or denial of disparities in access, or disparities in treatment.
A person who seeks God, that is, all of us gentiles who have merely been grafted into the root who is Jesus Christ, will have as their focus not exclusion, but the fullness of inclusion God promised first to his people, the Jews, and then second, to ALL gentiles. The disciples were all Jews. They were sent first to the Jews to fulfill God’s plan to deliver his people. They were told to force no one, nor even to try to invoke civil laws, nor divine judgment (Jesus healed the soldier’s ear and would not let the disciples ask for harm to come to people for their lack of adherence). Being grafted in to this body and its head, Jesus Christ, this WAY OF LIFE applies to us now. To follow that way is to “read, mark, learn;” to draw on those people we find in Scripture to learn from how God responds to all of them, what not to do, to be sure; but importantly, how to build, as Paul says in our letter from Romans, chapter 5, “character, and so endurance and perseverance.” Why? So that we can do the exceptionally hard work of being in relationships that often involve sacrifice and some degree of suffering, of holding back, of not lashing out in anger and fear, of not forcing or hurting others, of checking the known and unknown privileges we have so that we aren’t undermining other’s ability to see God in our words and actions.
How can we do this? The ways will of course vary in their particulars. But I think they begin right here with what Paul says to us in his letter to the Roman Church. Remember this, he says: “… since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” If we can remember that we are loved by God, desired by God, commissioned by God (given jobs or vocations to share his life with others through what we do and say), then this love that isn’t contingent on our actions, sets us free to really open up so we can figure out what it means to concretely love others in this time of tumult, anxiety, worry, stress, and recognition that we are a very broken society in so many ways.
Why doesn’t God perform miracles in the ways we expect, with regularity and equality as we’d expect? Getting rid of the evil and uplifting the good? Why doesn’t he just heal? Why doesn’t he just end the life of the tyrant? I don’t know for sure but knowing Scripture, I can begin with this: “no one is good, no not one.” Many secular people have said that we are all capable of evil. I would go further and say that I don’t know a person that hasn’t done evil. To wipe out the ‘tyrant’ would be to flood the earth once again, to destroy all people, who, as we know, are all sinners through the ‘one man’s sin.’ Why doesn’t God heal the social fractures that have resulted from racism and slavery? Once again, in the scales of divine justice, would anyone survive such judgment? Where then are we left? We are not left to our own devices.
We are not left in the clutches of the Deist’s ‘clockmaker God’ who sets the world in motion at its beginning and then stands far off watching us rail at one another. No. He completed his greatest miracle in sending his Son into the world to take on our nature, to become us, to suffer the consequences of death every one of us has inside us that explodes out far too often in our actions, and to eradicate the proper end of those words and actions: DEATH. He rose so that we could enter him, to give up our distorted inclinations that lead us toward death and to follow our natural end of life in God. He enabled us to live this reality in the here and now with one another.
I don’t know what the reality of God’s love for you looks like. You need to dig into Scripture to figure out how that unfolds in how you engage with others, in what organizations your support, in how you live, where you give your money, how you treat people, in how aware you are willing to make yourself, of other’s struggles and how you might support them. That’s for you to determine; I cannot say, nor can I force, for that is not the work of a disciple. I can only remind you of God’s truth: the one who endures in love, to the end of his or her life, this is the one who will see God. AMEN.