Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Lessons from 911

[Sermon Carl W. Kenney II preached on Sunday, September 15, 2019 at Liberation Station, home of Underground Church in Durham, North Carolina.]
Luke 19:37-44
3When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”[a] “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” 39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” 40 “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” 41 As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it 42 and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. 43 The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. 44 They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” 

I Don’t remember anything that preceded that moment. Not what I ate for breakfast. Not the color of my suit, shirt and tie or the music played before the interruption for an important announcement.

Everything seemed frozen in space after Tom Joyner announced a plane flew into the World Trade Center. I was waiting for the stop light to change from Red to green on the corner of Angier Avenue and Driver Street. The clock on my dashboard indicated it was 9:05 a.m. It was a Tuesday and the partly cloudy sky seemed to turn dark as soon as I heard the news.

I thought of the Gospels record of the moment Jesus took his last breath. Everything seemed to move in slow moment as I prayed it was a joke reminiscent of Arson Wells 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds.

2,977 people died. 6,000 people were injured. Ten Billion dollars in infrastructure and property damage. It didn’t end there. Others have died of 911 related cancer and respiratory diseases since the attack.

That day changed America. America overthrew Iraqi President Saddam Hussein accusing him of developing weapons of mass destruction and harboring U.S. designated terrorist organization.  Six trillion dollars was spent on a war. Around 500,000 people died.

What followed has been a series of cultural shifts that redefine what it means to be an American. Barack Obama was elected the first black President in the history of America inspired by the slogan YES, We CAN. His election was followed by the rise of the Tea Party an alt-right movement that covers what fells like white supremacist rhetoric.

The backlash from the Obama presidency cultivated the rise of Donald Trump and here we are. Understanding today from the context of our spirituality is helped by a critique of lessons learned from 911.

How does 911 help us in the development of work aimed at providing liberation?

I.             Confusing Government for God

This scripture and point are what Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. used in his now famous sermon where he used the catchphrase “God Damn America”. Many lost the point of Dr. Wright’s sermon due to a desire to use both the sermon and Dr. Wright’s theology to make a point that Obama is too radical for America

Dr. Wright’s points are critical in constructing lessons from 911. The prophet Jeremiah from Chicago helps us not to confuse government from God.

We’ve learned the military doesn’t make for peace. War does not lead to peace. Regime change does not lead to peace. Occupying another country does not lead to peace. Press conference declaring victory does not lead to peace.  Colonizing a country does not lead to peace. Building walls does not lead to peace.

The desire for a new king is not a solution leading to peace. In today’s scripture, they wanted to make Jesus a King. In verse 44, Jesus says you did not recognize the time of the visitation from God. He is saying you did not recognize my ministry. You did not recognize my work. You are missing the meaning of my work. You missed what it takes to have peace. You miss the point of eternal power. You are missing the source of peace. You are looking for a man and miss the one the man represents.

You are trapped in a fascination for miracles. You desire sight for the blind. You seek healing for the sick. You’re fascinated and overjoyed with being fed in the wilderness. You came looking for a miracle and lost the meaning of the miracle. The miracles point to God who is greater than the limitations you seek to overcome.

The things that make for peace, only God can fix. The government can’t fix it. This is the seduction of oppression. Looking for the government to fix what only God can fix.

This is the mistake of black leadership, looking for another Martin to fix it. Looking for another black Messiah to lead the way to the Promised Land. Obama helped, but he couldn’t fix it. Getting new leadership helps, but the government isn’t God.

This is the mistake we make when we say God condones the killing of innocent men, women and children. This is the mistake we make when we justify the death of civilians as collateral damage. This is the mistake of blessing pre-emptive strike in the name of Jesus. This is the mistake of blessing what we do in the name of Jesus while condoning Al-Qaida for doing the same thing. This is the mistake of celebrating the deaths of thousands of men, women and children by drones during the Obama Administration because they called on the name of a different God. This is the mistake of calling on God to bless America and kill everyone else. It’s what happens when you make them into an enemy while using God as an endorsement.

This is confusing God with government. It’s what happens when you teach children America is the Promised Land given by God. It’s America’s manifest destiny. It’s God’s will to destroy all enemies. It’s what happens when we teach people God ordered the deaths of native Americans. Confusing God with government is teaching God ordered the enslavement of black people because white people are superior. It’s why the constitution fails to hold truths for black people and women. The founder fathers didn’t believe they are created equal.

Confusing government and God endorse segregation. It means God approves of less than 10 percent of people controlling 90 percent of the world’s resources. It approves tax breaks for the rich. Men denying women the right to choose what they do with their bodies. Confusing government for God justifies pulling out of the Geneva agreement. It believes there is no global warming. It endorses capital punishment in the face of evidence proving innocence. Confusing government and God protect oil companies. If gives a political party the power to gerrymander black people out of power. It makes government a replacement for God by giving power to a few and denying the Constitutional rights of others. It rejects freedom of speech. It denies freedom of the press. It gives power to kill with no justice.

God is about truth. God is about justice. Governments offer justice for the wealthy.  Governments deceive. Governments destroy lives. Governments steal power. Governments change. This is not the government of Barack Obama. This is a more dishonest government. This is a government managed by twitter. This is a government compromised by foreign intrusion. This is a different type of government. Thank God governments change.

State government will soon change.

Local government will soon change.

Public policies change.

The impact of oppression changes.

God told pharaoh, let my people go.

Oppression changes with changes in leadership

The Supreme Court changes.

Presidents change. Thank God for change

Jim and Jane Crow change.

Elections have been stolen, but change will come.

Governments change, but God doesn’t change.

God has always been against slavery. God is the same yesterday, today and forever. God has not changed. God has always been a God of justice. God has always been a God of peace.

911 has taught us a lesson involving the consequence of confusing government and God. It’s the danger of trusting the role of government more than the will of God.

II. Walls built to keep people out, keep us trapped within

43 The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. 44 They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” Luke 19:37-44

They will build walls and hem you on every side. They will force you on the ground. They will arrest you and place you and your children on the other side of the wall.

Walls are built to keep people out. The Great Wall of China was built to keep out the invading hordes of Genghis Khan. It stretches 6,700 kilometers over the Chinese frontier. It has stood for over 2000 years and is the symbol of a nations desire to be safe. It’s a symbol of strength. It’s a psychological barrier to repel outside influences.

            The Berlin Wall divided Berlin physically and ideologically from 1961 to 1989. Its separate West Berlin from East Germany. It included guard towers placed along large concrete walls with and area that contained anti-vehicle trenches. The Eastern bloc portrayed the wall as a protection for the people against fascist elements conspiring to prevent the will of the people in building a socialist state.

            The wall was built to keep people out. It was built to control people. The wall is like a prison. It kept people from getting in.

            Walls also keep people locked into believing they have all they need. Walls keep people from visiting family members. They restrict the natural activity of families and friends. They stir the type of nationalism that takes ownership of land and grants governments the right to control the flow of love between mothers, fathers and their children.

            Walls feed suspicion and distrust, hatred and hostility. At the Berlin Wall, East German guards would watch with keen eyes both sides of the wall making certain that no one came in or out. Many people were killed trying to escape East Germany. And where their bodies fell, West Germans would erect crosses as a reminder and open defiance of the East German guards.

            Walls are constructed to restrict the movement of love.

            People rejoiced when the Berlin Wall was dismantled in 1989.  West Germans were reunited with East Germans to become one Germany after 45 years of painful division. But when the wall came down, I believe the Germans discovered an invisible wall that was even more difficult to tear down.

There were two cultures at odds: one of an oppressed people, the other free-thinking and prosperous. East Germans may have felt like 2nd class citizens, charity cases for the West, while the West may have felt resentment at having to support their poor brothers. It was a new kind of hostility still experienced today.

Some walls are built with concrete. Others are built with indifference.  911 exposed the walls that divide America followed by the call to build a wall limiting movement at the border. 911 exposed a spiritual division based on ignorance.

Walls are being built to keep love out.

III. 911 taught us there is something deeper than our hate.

For some it was a patriotism that stirred a will to pull neighbors from the pile destruction. We witnessed first responders walk into the valley of death and fear no evil. Many died. Some survived with disabilities. It was a few days of unity.

911 taught us what we can be. We saw it again with Katrina. In the muck of national hypocrisy, we saw people come together. Tragedy can do that. The best of the human spirit often comes in seasons of death. Tragedy can do that. Tragedy removes the lens that sees race as a barrier. Tragedy does that.

It softens the heart. It stirs the will to love. It activates the desire for change.

The death of more than 200,00 people in 2010 Earthquake in Haiti did that.

The Tsunami in Thailand did that.

Tragedies moves us closer to the heart of God by revealing what we couldn’t see.

911 is an example of what we can be.

The lesson is about what we can be when governments don’t get in the way. Governments enact policies. Governments begin wars. Governments alter the truth. Governments still elections.

911 teaches us another lesson. People are created with goodness. Tragedy brings it out. 911 helps us see the goodness. It’s there. It’s deep in our spirits. It desires to come out. It seeks places to make a difference.

911 teaches us a lesson about what the government can take away. Its what power does. It fights to maintain control. It places people on the other side of the wall. It locks up children. It denies justice.

911 teaches us about the evil of politics. They nominate sexual abusive men for powerful positions. They steal elections. They establish double standards. They use trickery to maintain power. 911 is a lesson about deception.

But give people a chance to love. This is the work of the church

We are better than this. We don’t have to bow to these golden images. 
911 Teaches us about the role of the Church as a counter voice attacking forces of institutionalized evil. The Church is the prophetic voice disputing massive waves of indifference. The Church says no to policies aimed at demonizing people while justifying the right to kill. The Church is the spiritual heartbeat of the world. We stand, as faith communities in opposition to efforts designed to separate we from them with the Bible as our witness.
911 helps us look back. Look at what we have become. The aftermath of 911 is what happens when spirit is removed from the work of faith. This is what happens when we worship our national sentiments more than our common bonds. This is what happens when we make God an American citizen and those on the other side of the border demons. This is what happens when race is used to deny support.
This is the evil of relegating the humanity of those people. Those dark skinned people. those people from S-hole countries who seek to enter America. This is the lesson of 911. Build walls. Make the Republican Party a new type of religion. Make America white again by denying justice to all of those other people.
But, there is good news. The Good News is we're still here. A remnant. A people called by God to disrupt their plan. Called to dispute the plan toreplace God with a remade version of the way things were back in days when being a white man was the best of days.
We, the Church, are God's plan of inclusion.
We, the Church, are God's plan of equity and justice
We, the Church, are God's plan to elevate lessons from our mistakes
We, people of all types of faith, are called to teach a different lesson.
It's a lesson about peace, real peace. Justice, real justice, hope, real hope.
We, the people, teach lessons about why we vote. Why we march. Why we fight for justice. Why it matters. Why we can't give up. Never. No way. We shall not be moved. My feet may be weary. My spirit has been damaged by the ongoing confrontation with the evil assuming a place of power.
But, I hear the voice of God
Keep hope alive.
Yes, we can.
Trouble in my way, I got to cry sometime.
Weeping may endure for the night. 911 was a dark night.
But, joy, God's joy. Comes in the morning.

Monday, September 2, 2019

How to get your joy back

Carl W. Kenney II preached this sermon on Sunday, September 1, 2019 at Liberation Station, home of Underground Church. 

I Kings 19:3-7
3 Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there,
4 while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”
5 Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.”
6 He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.
7 The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.

Protest defines what it means to be an American. Since the beginning of the incorporation of America’s Constitution, and even before that, participating in this experiment we call freedom has been measured by efforts to redefine what that means. Freedom is marked by the people holding pride in the claims of our creeds.
God bless America is the song of white supremacy and male domination. The reality of what it means to be an American is not what we read in history books, it’s the determination of the people screaming from the underbelly of America’s nightmarish truth.
It’s black people still seeking equity. Its women yelling Me TOO. It’s native Americans still crying a trail of tears. Its poor people robbed by corporate corruption. It’s the post traumatic stress of the men and women who fought for a version of democracy in wars exposing America’s greed.
America’s history is about the battles to stop the insane ways of people determined to maintain status quos. Almost everyone has a battle. Our battles expose the absence of a clear national identity outside of a desire to be free.
Be it Black Lives Matter, Me Too, Workers Rights, Safe the Earth or another agenda – fighting is America’s DNA.
It comes with a price. It takes a toil on our emotions. It brews in our belly like lava preparing to erupt. It robs us of the will to rest. It keeps us trapped in a cycle of proving points, overcoming assumptions, slaying intolerant opinions, feuding to offset complicit agendas, avoiding attacks of misinformed people, challenging policies attacking the dignity of some people, attacking interpretations of scripture.
We keep fighting. On social media, we fight
On the job, we fight
We fight in our sleep.
Fighting is the nightmare that supplants the American dream.
The American way is conversations about systems and policies, strategies for winning sustainable change. The work is about taking it to the streets and plans to unseat politicians.
This work robs us of joy. It keeps us stuck in mental and emotional hardship of the work. It intensifies stress and leads to depression. It makes it hard to get out of bed to face what’s waiting in these streets.
It’s hard to keep moving when the work never seems to be enough. One victory is followed by a reminder of more to be done. There’s no time to celebrate. The enemies of peace keep coming.
This is the lesson of the Prophet Elijah. After the victory of Mt. Carmel, he’s forced to come down. He faced a massive confrontation with the prophets of Baal. After a pivotal moment in which the faith of his tradition was pitted against the faith of fertility worship. He comes down from the mountain.
He had the people place a bull on wood to be sacrificed. The prophets of Baal did the same. He called on his God. They called on their God. It was a show of power. Who has the power? The priest of Baal called on their God. Elijah called on his God.
We know this challenge. My god is bigger than your God. My candidate is better than yours. My way is better. Let’s fight.
Elijah won the battle, but the fight continues.
Black people won the right for public accommodation, but the fight for voting protection continues. Women won the right to vote, but the right for equal pay continues. Each win is followed by an enduring reality. Each victory is followed by new truths.
The enemies of peace don’t give up. The death of Michael Brown was followed by others. It felt like it was happening every day. The story of a sexually assaulted woman was followed by others. It felt like every woman has a me-too story.
It’s too much to take. It eats our joy like a parasite inhabiting our intestine. Little by little, day by day – our will to fight fades.
After King Ahad tells his wife Jezebel Elijah killed her prophets, she sends Elijah a message. She plans to kill him. He runs. He ran for a day. He left his friend Elisha in Beersheda. He left his support system. He left his prayer partner and ran some more. He ran into the wilderness to hide. He ran until he found a broom bush.
Then he prayed. He didn’t pray for strength. He didn’t pray for support. He didn’t pray for courage. He prayed to die.
His joy is gone. His hope is lost. His faith has vanished. His will to live has evaporated.
This reads like depression. This reads like a man in need of therapy, but where can he get help. You can’t get help while running away. You can’t get help while avoiding the situation. You can’t find a solution when fear has you running away from the support you need.
Let’s not judge Elijah. Most of us have been there. Most of us have felt like ending life because of the fear chasing us. Anyone who has worked hard to make a difference knows the pain stirred by the consequences of activism. Most of you know how much it hurts when someone wants payback after you do the right thing.
This is what depression feels like. Sometimes praying isn’t enough. Sometimes our faith isn’t enough. Sometimes our reliance on scriptures to help isn’t enough.
Sometimes you need therapy.
Sometimes you need medication.
In some cases, it may be related to mental illness.
This is not an indication of weakness. This is a lesson involving the limits of human strength. This is what happens among people fighting for justice. It’s a lesson about self-care. It’s a lesson about the danger of embracing a superhuman persona. We have limits. We have fears. Sometimes we run alone. Sometimes we run to places no one else can go. Sometimes we cry for God to end it all because there seems to be no escape.
What do you do when the misery fuels the blues?
How do you keep moving when your feet are glued to disappointment?
What does it take to get your joy back?
I.             Remember why you do it.
This is a point that separates the people who do it for attention from the people who act of a sense of calling. A call is a continuing response to a transformative moment. Something happens to change perspective. Something happens to make it difficult to go back to that former place. A call is a response to the urge to participate in the making of a solution. It’s a place of vulnerability. It exposes a variety of weaknesses. A call is about the unknown within the context of brutal opposition.
A call knows what should be. A call accepts the possibility of unfulfilled dreams
It may never get better, but you have to try
They may never listen, but you have to speak
They may never see you, but you have to keep marching
A call forces continued movement. You can’t stop because something happened.
Each of us enter from different places. What you’ve seen may be different from what I’ve seen.
I’ve seen extreme poverty. I’ve seen women beaten by lovers. I’ve seen the impact of addiction. I’ve identified bodies of murder victims. I’ve seen children cry because of the death of a parent. I’ve seen the torment caused by cancer and other diseases. I’ve heard the moans of people suffering from mental illness.
More than that, there’s what I’ve experienced.
I’ve experienced relationships tarnished because I’m a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I’ve experienced the challenges of overcoming substance abuse. I’ve reaped the rage of church folk who use scriptures to discount the integrity of my witness. I’ve cried through numerous nights because of a woman’s decision to love someone more than my love to defeat.
I know the life of frustration. I know the pain of being misunderstood. I know what it feels like to ask God to stop it. Make it go away. I know midnights agony in the face deep loneliness.
It’s the mark of a calling. It’s way those called keep coming back after the attention fades. It’s why you keep doing it when there isn’t enough money to pay your bills. It’s why you keep showing up after a devil wins an election. You can’t give up. No matter what happens. Another sexist Supreme Court Justice.  Another public policy aimed at keeping women barefoot and pregnant. Another homophobic policy. More racist rhetoric.
We know the moan of disappointment, but we are called to do this. Cry. Get it out, but evil can’t win.
II.            Keep moving.
I recommend time for self-care. When joy is lost, find a place recover. Give yourself permission to run to the hills, your help is up there. Go to a beach and wade in the water. Find a book club. Get a massage. Make love. Cry in the arms of a person you trust. Share your story. Rest. Rest.
Resting is not a lack of movement. It’s a different type of progress. Rest is a form of sabbath. Sabbath involves trust beyond the known.
Sabbath is trust in provision beyond what we control. It’s faith in a power beyond what we know. Rest is movement. It’s inward movement. It’s healing movement. It’s giving the burden to a God beyond our understanding. It acknowledges what we don’t know. What we can’t fix. It embraces the grace of limits.
Not my will, your will. Not my way, your way. Not my strength, your strength. Not my influence, your influence.
Rest is the movement of God’s activity when we lack the will to move. This is what Elijah does. Preachers have used this scripture as a model of weakness. It’s used as an example of what not to do. It used as an example of depression rooted in emotional weakness. It makes depression something we pray through. Depression is viewed as the counter to spiritual strength.
God is in this moment. Elijah’s depression doesn’t isolate him from God. God is there. God is patient. God speaks to the prophet. God eases him through a process of healing. He gets there slowly. By moving, from one place to another, until he hears God speak within his depression.
Not in the mighty wind. Not in the earthquake. Not in the fire. God speaks in a still small voice.
He challenges Elijah to keep moving. Eat. Live. Move. Trust. Listen. Patiently, God supports the prophet and speaks.
God speaks to you.
Maybe not through a powerful sermon. Maybe not through the opening of the heavens and a declaration through the witness of a thunderous voice. God speaks, softly. God speaks, throughout the journey.
III.          You are not alone
Loneliness is what this work creates. Loneliness is what fear creates. It’s what happens when you feel chased. It’s comes with disappointment. It’s what isolation brews.
Elijah leaves Elisha behind to go deeper into self-pity. It’s only me. No one else understands. I must suffer the consequences alone.
Depression traps us in an analysis of self-reflection. Thoughts of others happens within the context of how our mess impacts them. I have to protect my children. I have to consider how my actions impacts the work. My shortcomings destroy the credibility of the work.
Not true. False assumption. It’s not just you.
Go back. There are others waiting who feel the same way. Go back to your support group. Others are depressed. You need each other.