On April 30 the world lost a brilliant and courageous Christian who walked in the footsteps of Jesus and Paul in the struggle for justice on earth. Daniel Berrigan probably had more enemies than friends, both inside and outside the church, though you wouldn’t have known that at his standing-room-only funeral last Friday. Daniel was a Jesuit priest who was arrested for civil disobedience more times than one can count. He was a prolific author and profound scholar. But it was in the streets that he made his lasting impact. His opposition to war, nuclear arms, capital punishment, abortion, bigotry and indifference to the poor led first to arrest, and later to lasting change in the church and the world. What an important model for Christians during this strange election year.
Last Friday there was an op-ed piece in the New York Times entitled, “A White Church no More”. It documented how the silence of the white church about the racial violence of the Jim Crow years made it impossible for their black neighbors to see them as a force for good, despite their alleged belief in the Gospel. The article went on to challenge the church in America today to not be silent in the face of some of the messages of Presidential candidates. When a candidate tells us that we must fear and hate our enemies, we must proclaim that Jesus tells us not only to love and forgive them, but to radically resist oppression through turning the other cheek. When a candidate tells us to ostracize or exile those who look different, to barricade them behind a wall, we must proclaim that Jesus tells us that all people are our neighbors, and that our example is the Good Samaritan who sacrificially brought aid to a stranger. When a candidate calls on us to enact abominations against women and children, we must proclaim that Jesus says that anyone who hurts a child deserves to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck.
The popularity of that message unmasks the increased racial tension in the country. We see it in the increased strain between the police and the community. Maybe it’s just that everyone knows about it now. Blacks have lived with it for a long time. With a growing Black Lives Matter movement and phrases like, “I can’t breathe” circulating around the country, and a presumptive presidential nominee who fans the flames of racial hatred, people of faith and conscience need to pay attention and speak up.
This morning’s reading from Acts points the way to do this. Paul got in trouble in Philippi for refusing to limit the relevance of the Gospel to issues that pertained to the church. Paul and Silas were going to the place of prayer, not to escape the challenge of applying faith in the real world, but because it was the only way to keep courage and maintain clarity to live out his faith.
When Paul’s annoyance led him to cast out a spirit of divination from a slave girl whose talents as a fortune-teller were being used to profit her owners, he stirred up anger when their income-stream dried up. They dragged Paul and Silas before the local authorities and charged them with "advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe"
What unlawful customs? It was no less than the Jewish law of Jubilee, which Jesus made the heart of the good news in his first sermon in Nazareth. Jubilee struck at the heart of a system of indebtedness by creating a system of regular forgiveness of debts, freedom from slavery and liberation of the oppressed. In the Roman Empire, the system of patronage was at the heart of the economic system. Emperors created ties of patronage by rewarding those who were loyal with offices and gifts. It worked its way to the lower classes, including slaves like the girl in Philippi. Jubilee rejected empire economics that used people for profit.
Our lives are meant to bear witness to that liberating truth of God in the world. We need to ask ourselves, if it were a crime to be Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? What that evidence looks like might surprise a lot of Christians. Many people who call themselves Christians criticize political correctness. Susan Russell’s response is: “Political Correctness is what people with power call it when people without power challenge them for abusing their power.” I think that’s true.
James Michener, of whose novels I have read too many, was often called a “knee-jerk liberal.” One time he responded to that charge: I confess to that sin. When I find that a widow has been left penniless and alone with three children, my knee jerks. When I learn that funds for a library have been diminished almost to the vanishing point, my knee jerks. When men of ill intent cut back on teachers’ salaries and lunches for children, my knee jerks… I hope never to grow so old or indifferent that I can listen to wrong and immoral choices being made without my knee flashing a warning.
When we decide to live for God we’re responding to God’s initiative. God stamped the divine image on us at the beginning of creation. And that image gets expressed by loving God and loving others, which are the tasks of faith and stewardship. The task of faith is to respond to God’s gift by showing God what the divine image looks like in human flesh. The task of stewardship is to weave the parts together so that our lives reveal the image of God to the world.
In Philippi, Paul wasn’t on a campaign to institute the Jubilee in every city of the Empire. He was annoyed by this slave girl following him around, and by her making her patrons rich: this girl’s situation clashed with his core values.
What annoys you? What makes you angry? What clashes with your core values? It annoys me when people who came here to provide a living for their family are threatened with deportation for breaking the law. It annoys me that a city as wealthy as Los Angeles is home to nearly 50,000 residents without shelter. It annoys me that a country with the highest level of gun related deaths in the developed world can’t find a way to control weapons. It annoys me when Christians keep silent in the face of oppression, and keep those who most need the Gospel at arms length.
When we find that our anger and annoyance arise from conflicts with our core values, we have to act, or they will start to eat us up inside. One of Paul’s core values was that people belong to God, not to other people. That is both liberating and disruptive to the status quo. Paul confronted people with the promise and threat of a Gospel that had to do with the way they lived.
Today we celebrate Mother’s Day. It is good to be reminded of the original call to celebrate Mother’s Day. Julia Ward Howe was annoyed when she wrote it in 1870, after the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian war:
Again, in the sight of the Christian world, have the skill and power of two great nations exhausted themselves in mutual murder. In this day of progress, in this century of light, the ambition of rulers has been allowed to barter the dear interests of domestic life for the bloody exchanges of the battle field. Thus men have done. Thus men will do. But women need no longer be made a party to proceedings which fill the globe with grief and horror. Despite the assumptions of physical force the mother has a sacred and commanding word to say to the sons who owe their life to her suffering. That word should now be heard, and answered to as never before. Arise, then, Christian women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether your baptism be that of water or of tears ! Say firmly: Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country, to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: Disarm, disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence vindicate possession.
Daniel Berrigan, James Michener, Julia Ward Howe, and Paul and Silas acted upon their holy annoyance by working for justice. In this morning’s Scripture, Paul and Silas started out going to a prayer meeting and ended up praying and singing hymns in prison. Courageous people of faith don’t just act on beliefs. They act out of powerful experiences of corporate worship. The prayers we pray and the hymns we sing in this place undergird the actions we take in the world. Today’s Gospel hymn was written by a Methodist Bishop from Bolivia who, like Paul and Silas, knows what it’s like to sing hymns in prison. Mortimer Arias had been a theological professor in Bolivia where prophetic witness and solidarity with the poor caused him to be arrested & held incommunicado by the military regime there. While in prison he said, "My faith was stripped down to my search for what is authentic." The magnetism of his faith, along with his daily Bible study and prayer, attracted fellow prisoners. Can we walk with courageous Christians, and strengthen our witness by encouraging each other in worship?