Sunday, July 10, 2016

How Long, O Lord?

I had the difficult task of preaching this morning after a week where every day brought more news of senseless violence and tragedy.

Those of you who were not able to be with us at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church this morning are welcome to watch the video of the service. The scripture reading and sermon start at 18:18 and end at 38:25, but I encourage you to participate in the entire service. The texts for the sermon came from Psalm 82 and Luke 10:25-37. I invite you to watch along as you read the manuscript posted below.

How Long, O Lord?

Each day this week has found my lungs heaving with sighs too deep for words. Each day this week has found my eyes welling up with tears over the tragedies of the world around us. I have a feeling I am not alone in that. Let us start by taking a time of silence to sit with the feelings this week has stirred up for a moment.


As I near the end of my second year as a Young Adult Volunteer, I have been reflecting on where I was when I started in August 2014. I was only beginning to open my eyes to the racism and white supremacy that pervade our society. It started with Michael Brown in Ferguson, and then Eric Garner in New York City, and Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and Paris, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, and Walter Scott in North Charleston, and McKinley, Texas, and Aiyana Jones, and Sandra Bland, and the Mother Emmanuel 9 in Charleston, and Jeremy Mardis in Louisiana, and San Bernadino, and Istanbul, and Brussels, and Syria, and Baghdad, and Israel, and Palestine, and then Orlando, and now Medina, and Bangladesh, and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, and the Dallas police shooting, and I am tired. I am weary. And I am not the weariest one sitting in church today. No, because of the color of my skin, the country of my origin, the level of my education, the language I speak fluently, and the social class I come from, because of all of the various privileges I carry, I am able to opt in and opt out of these tragedies. I do not always have to pay attention to the world’s events as some of you do. I do not have to recognize my place in society every day if I do not want to. I do not have to worry if a loved one is going to come home safe every night due to the color of their skin or their line of work. Some of you can relate to my perspective, but it is not true for every one of you worshiping with us today.

Today’s Psalm is a report of a prophetic vision in which God takes a seat on the divine council of gods, little g. The words in Hebrew tell us that God is there to rebuke them. The psalmist cries out for justice. “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?” In today’s world, who would make up the divine council of the gods? The US legal system? Congress? Multinational corporations? The NRA? Oil companies? World leaders? The system of white supremacy that paints white culture as the norm against which all else is to be measured?

The Psalmist continues, “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” Those are the same laments we are raising today. Give justice to the weak and the orphan, to the children who are without parents after the violence this week. Deliver them from the hand of the wicked, the systems that allow black men to be murdered simply for being black; the systems that enable people to have access to automatic weapons and large amounts of ammunition to murder many children of God in an instant. Like the Psalmist, I feel the foundations of our earth have been shaken this week. More victims of police brutality, both black and Latino. Another mass shooting. And more suicide attacks during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. How long, O Lord? When will you judge justly? O God, when will you rise up?

Perhaps we need our foundations to be shaken, need to be awakened from the slumber of oblivion that does not care about something if it does not affect our lives directly. Friends, this is a wake up call. This is a tragic, heartbreaking, grief-stricken wake up call. We may say How long, O Lord all we want, but nothing will change until those of us with our varying levels of power step out of the shadows into the light and use our voices to dismantle these systems of injustice. Until we acknowledge and own our complicity in these systems that allow violence to occur in our midst.

For me, that took joining the YAV Program. In the first month of orientation in the Philippines, I met with people who had lost family members due to extrajudicial killings by the military because they stood up for the poor, deprived, oppressed, marginalized, exploited, and suffering. If they were willing to put so much on the line in their context, why wasn’t I doing more to stand up against injustice in mine? In November 2014, I attended a memorial service remembering the 12,000 lives lost during Typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan) one year earlier. That service morphed into a march to protest the government’s misappropriation of relief funds. Despite receiving billions of dollars and pesos for rehabilitation purposes, less than one percent of the displaced population was permanently housed. In that moment, I felt the call to activism, community organizing, and advocacy in a place where my voice could impact more change. I felt called to Washington, DC, to act for justice for all of my neighbors.

But what does that mean? All of my neighbors? That’s exactly what the religious scholar asked Jesus in our Gospel lesson for today. He was trying to find a loophole on who exactly he needed to love to find eternal life. Jesus tells the story of a man who went from Jerusalem to Jericho, an 18 mile journey that was notoriously dangerous. Try to place yourself in this man’s shoes. Depending on your intersecting identities, you may feel more or less safe on this road. Are you a black man traveling on a road between rival gang territories? Are you a Latino gay man showing affection to your partner in a dance club? Are you a person of color afraid that you will get pulled over for a broken taillight? Are you a woman afraid of catcalling, sexual assault, or rape? Are you an immigrant fearing that immigration officials will find you and deport you? Are you a straight, white man nervous about the possibility of encountering “the other” on the journey through the wilderness? Are you a police officer confident in your ability to protect yourself and the community around you?

Who are the robbers? Are they the boys who had no social or economic support and turned to a gang for community? Is it a man with a machine gun who wants to terrorize the LGBTQ community? Are they law enforcement officials who shoot first and ask questions later even if you comply with their orders? Are they men who find power in dominating space and objectifying women? Are they immigration officers who will take you away from your children and family? Is it a straight, white man who lashes out in fear and has a license to carry? Is it a single man who, on his own, deliberately trained and planned an attack to target police officers serving and protecting a community demonstration?

Now imagine all those hypothetical scenarios happened. You are left half-dead on the side of the road, stripped of your humanity, not fully alive but not dead yet. Two people who are a part of your community, who share a piece of your identity, who are your neighbors, your friends, your family, pass by leaving you to die alone. “How long, O Lord?” is your cry as you lay on the side of the road dying. Who is the good Samaritan in this case? Amy-Jill Levine says, “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?” That is the only way to modernize the shock and possibility of this parable. Depending on your identity, the Samaritan could be a harsh dictator, a trans woman of color, an NRA member, an Israeli, a Palestinian, a homophobic bigot, a Muslim, a black man, a person experiencing homelessness, a Latina woman, someone who flies a confederate flag, an undocumented immigrant, or a Donald Trump supporter. This parable has a scandalous edge, as it seeks to humanize and embrace the “other.” As James A. Wallace notes, “The power of God is at work in those who travel the dangerous roads, moving us into the fullness of life, eternal life, here and now.” The Samaritan, the proverbial other, helps the person in the ditch just as Christ is the life-giving Spirit who leads humanity through death to resurrection life.

Even though we read about these dangerous journeys on the news, there are plenty of roads from Jerusalem to Jericho in our own communities and neighborhoods. Every Sunday morning, I get to be in the Radcliffe Room with some of our neighbors experiencing homelessness. I have the privilege of hearing some stories of hope and sorrow, of joy and challenges. From these interactions with beloved children of God, I see how our society treats those returning from prison, searching for work in a new country, or living with mental illnesses.

During the week, my responsibilities have included administering our benevolence funds to individuals and families in need. I hear stories of grave injustices happening in our communities. A family speaks up when their apartment building does not have hot water during the winter and receives an eviction notice the next month, which renders them homeless. A woman escapes from an abusive marriage and falls into the hands of loan sharks while trying to put the pieces of her life back together. A family is evicted and faces homelessness for nine months because the father stopped paying rent. A single mother cannot afford to stay in her apartment because her temp job keeps cutting her hours. Another single mother caring for extended family members is unjustly terminated from a living wage job and falls behind on rent and utility bills while she takes her employer to court with her union. An elderly woman takes in family members when they have fallen on hard times but cannot afford to care for them and pay the power bill while they are in the house and faces a cut off notice.

These are the stories I hear week in and week out, stories of crisis and mere survival; stories from close to home. These stories show the continual trauma of living in poverty and on the margins of our society. When we speak on the phone, I hear the cries, “How long, O Lord?”

Where is God in these stories? Shelley Rambo’s theology of redemption from the middle says that God is right there, in the midst of the suffering. As Jesus died on the cross, the redemption was and is in the middle space, the descent into hell. It is there that we find redemption and healing. After a trauma occurs, the murder of a black man, the slaying of police officers, the death of Christ, we feel the haunted void. In that haunting is the transmission of the imperative to love, the call for something to be done. Rambo says, “The healing comes not from the death and violence narrative we hear and see on the news and on our social media outlets, but it comes in the brief and fleeting glimpses of the divine presence in the aftermath.” It is the persistence of love in the midst of the suffering. It is Diamond Reynolds praying “Please, Lord, you know our rights, Lord” after witnessing her boyfriend, Philando Castile’s, murder. It is in the words of Diamond’s four year old daughter, Dae’Anna, when she comforts her as her mother is handcuffed in the back of the police car, “It’s ok, mommy. It’s ok. I’m right here with you.” It is in the arms of men holding Cameron Sterling, as he languishes, “I want my daddy.” It is grieving by singing “We Shall Overcome” with thousands of people as two black men kneel in front of a police car mere feet away from the U.S. Capitol.

One of the most beautiful and heart-wrenching moments of the Black Lives Matter march from the White House to the U.S. Capitol on Thursday evening.
Even as we survive, grieving in the ways we need to, preparing to act for justice, but still asking “How long, O Lord,” we must cling together to be witnesses to the divine love that remains. Without each other, we may not make it out alive.

May we find words of comfort in the PC(USA)'s newly adopted Belhar Confession:
We believe that the unity of the church of Jesus Christ must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted; that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways: in that we love one another; that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another.



  1. Thank you for these words. I appreciate your description of humanizing our neighbors and the Amy-Jill Levine quote. As one who has been well-accustomed to seeing people of different race, sexual identity, gender, background etc as my neighbor. Its easy to overlook my neighbors who don't agree with me politically, economically or in world view. Adding Trump supporters for example to that list of people I need to love, and need to rely on is a recent challenge. But it is simple because it only further spreads the Love we already know This entire piece is very well-articulated and helps me to express some of my own feelings on the subject. Thanks for spreading this message.

    1. Thanks for your response, Alex! Yes, it's easy for us to choose to love some definitions of "other" over others. It's definitely something I'm still working on, too!

  2. Angela, your words give me hope for the generations to come. I know your dad from our days at Erskine and I know he is proud of you, too. Keep on keeping on!