Inspiration for Evil Times

(A sermon preached at Irvine UCC on August 27. The scripture readings were: Exodus 1:8-20 and Matthew 16:13-20.)

 Was it just me, or in witnessing political events over the last year did some of you also feel like you’d been kicked in the stomach, repeatedly?  It’s been quite the emotional roller coaster.  After the election, more than one friend who was black, or who had been active in human rights before the last election, said: “Welcome to my world.”

The Women’s March was cathartic, and hopeful.  Three million people around the globe marched.  My son’s friend Steven, in Lusaka, Zambia, marched with 200 other ex-pats.  Then roughly 2.5 million of those people went home, hung up their signs, and stopped taking action.  Were they despairing?  Overwhelmed?  Or just comfortable enough?  I don’t want to be any of those things.  I want to be inspired: so on fire with God’s Spirit that I am compelled to keep acting for love and justice, for the long haul.

So let us gather inspiration for action, starting with our scripture readings.  Shortly before Moses floated down the Nile in his baby basket, we find the first documented nonviolent resisters in history: Shiphrah and Puah, Hebrew midwives (Exodus 1:8-20). Shiphrah and Puah refused to kill the babies they helped birth, as Pharaoh had commanded them to do.  This does not seem a huge achievement, does it?  But maybe it was.  Imagine what our world would be like if every person throughout history had refused to follow immoral orders.

Shiphrah and Puah were called before Pharaoh to account for their failure to murder babies.  They stood before this all-powerful ruler and they said, “Oops!  I guess we got there too late,” giving Pharaoh a chance to save face and call the whole thing off.  Pharaoh did not call off the massacre, but now he was forced send his own men in to murder the babies.  Which I’m sure helped his popularity ratings.

Shiphrah and Puah inspire me to stand up for what’s right, and they remind me to do it respectfully, even gently. We can winsomely speak for the economic benefits of our cities adopting renewable energy.  We can have respectful conversations with our local police departments about policies for dealing with the mentally ill and immigrants, and about how not to pull a gun on a black teen for the crime of entering his own home when bigoted neighbors make unwarranted calls.  (Yes folks, this actually happened in UCI faculty housing.)  Making the Powers that Be the enemy is counterproductive.  Instead, we can appeal to their best nature, like Shiphrah and Puah did.  Our gentle courtesy makes it all the more starkly ugly when they choose cruelty.

My favorite contemporary inspirer is the Rev. Dr. William Barber.  How many of you know William Barber?  If you don’t, you’re missing out.  Barber is ordained in our sister denomination, the Disciples of Christ.  He has been crisscrossing North Carolina for years as the head of their NAACP.  He started a “fusion coalition” where a Planned Parenthood staffer would march and speak for racial justice and a Black Lives Matter organizer would do the same for reproductive rights.  Intersectionality is for wimps.  Real unity is what he’s building.  This human rights fusion coalition showed up at the Capital building in Raleigh and got arrested.  Every Monday.  For a year.  They registered voters.  And they won elections.  Rev. Barber organized all this despite a painful disability that barely allows him to walk.  “It’s not about left and right,” Barber likes to say.  “It’s about right and wrong.”  If you want to get inspired, just watch a little of Rev. Barber on YouTube.

Marianne Williamson was a surprising source of inspiration when I needed it most.  This past February on a lark, because it was five miles from my house, I attended a conference she put on, called “Sister Giant.” I thought it was going to be New Thought spirituality (her specialty) with a little politics thrown in.  It turned out to be Activism 101.  Two thousand women, and a few men, who might have shown up to learn how to be enlightened, you know: healthy and wealthy and happy, instead got cutting-edge speakers on voter suppression, immigrant rights, or lack thereof, mass incarceration and a host of other very challenging topics. 

Marianne’s favorite line was:  Slavery wasn’t abolished because of people who didn’t like it.  Slavery was abolished because of abolitionists, who did something about it.  Throughout the Who’s Who of activist speakers, Marianne repeatedly asked the people in the audience: “What are you going to do for justice?  Figure it out before you leave here.”  I already knew I was going to be praying at the White House as a public witness.  But I found my partner for that public witness because of Marianne Williamson. (If you want to hear that story, it’s in our Conference E-Zine:

My local inspirer in Northern Virginia has been Laura Martin, the Associate Pastor at Rock Spring Congregational UCC.  She spoke to my broken heart in worship, and she walks the talk. Laura was at Charlottesville holding hands with other clergy as they faced the mysterious militias.  Those thuggish looking militia men were apparently quite ethical, if terrifying.  They were seriously trying to keep the peace, and we need to befriend them.  Though I’m really grateful we don’t have open carry in California.  Laura went to the hospital in Charlottesville to accompany the people who had been beaten with pipes and required plastic surgery.  So she was there when the car terrorist’s victims arrived.  Nothing like a firsthand report.

Before Charleston, Laura wrote this poem, called “Wild Angels”:

Wild angels are my
Favorite kind.
They have no idea where
They left their haloes,
And they let their robes

Run through fresh mud.
They don’t stand in formation

And sing with a choir.
Instead they show up and

Change tires

On highways,

Sit down and have a beer

And listen,

Trespass in the park

To sit on the swings

Late at night.

They come to hospital rooms

To tell bad jokes,

To airports to carry

Heavy bags,

To food pantries

When it’s the end of the month

And the money has run out.

They believe in 

Revelation unfolding,

In the sacred scripture

We write between 

Each other.

Thank you, Laura.

Our times require much inspiration.  So… I gather inspiring quotes and stories for activists and publish them weekly on my blog.  It helps me stay inspired.
Jesus is the first source of my inspiration.  Through Jesus, we know the heart of God, and the call of God upon our hearts.  Calling us out of oppression, and out of complacency.  Calling us to live out his mercy and forgiveness and compassion and justice in loving community. 

Jesus’ call puts some limits on our political methods, doesn’t it?  That is actually an advantage, because creative nonviolence is the most effective kind of political action.  And it is the only kind of political action that leaves us inspired, instead of making us a little too much like our enemies.  So are we going to let intolerance co-opt Jesus’ name, or can we frame our action in moral terms, in biblical terms, in Christian terms?  William Barber is brilliant at this; I’m doing my best to learn from him.

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks us in Matthew 16.  Is he the one whose name got co-opted to bless cruelty and greed?  Well, yes, if we are silent. 

Or we can stand up in front of everybody, progressive nonreligious activists and conservative Christians and claim with quiet assurance:  I am committed to justice and human rights because I follow Jesus, and I rely on his Spirit and his Power to do this work.  Jesus is the first source of our inspiration.  Please, can we stop keeping it a secret? 

My purpose this morning is to inspire you into action in the face of great evil.  It’s bad, folks.  Much inspiration is required.  So… in addition to gathering inspirations for my blog, I participate in a weekly call for inspiration and accountability.  A small group of friends talk about what we’ve learned and done for justice in the past week and what we plan to do in the coming week, bookended by those inspirations.  My nonreligious friend was dubious about this format at first.  But now she says, “I’m counting on that inspiration, Terry!  Will you do your closing prayer?”  Care to join us?

Inspiration… is not comfortable.  God’s children who are on the receiving end of hatred and cruelty and injustice are not comfortable.  The Spirit of God brings us restlessness and creativity, challenge and disruption, tears and transformation.  I hope you don’t get too comfortable.  I hope you stay inspired to act for love and justice, in Jesus’ name.  Amen.