Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Living in-between

Exodus 32: 1-14
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
October 15, 2017





            These days it’s not so easy to “woke this morning with my mind stayed on Jesus”. People are getting tired, bone-tired and weary of the news and what’s in it. The Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, says that people are tired but “it’s a Fannie Lou Hamer kind of ‘sick and tired of being sick and tired’. …They are tired of the attacks on voting rights, tired of the attacks on healthcare and the poor and living wages; tired of the policies and practices of white supremacy and tired of the hypocrisy of politicians who claim they are offended by Trump’s style, but [when it comes to] substance and policy, [despite the] extremism and racism they vote with him and have the same agenda.”



            Like many before her and around her, Fannie Lou Hamer was a Moses of her time, trying to bring people to freedom. She was the 20th child born to sharecropper parents in the Mississippi delta. She started picking cotton at the age of six. In her 40’s she was sterilized without her knowledge or consent, given what was known then as the Mississippi appendectomy. Because she participated in an effort to register to vote and refused to withdraw her application, she was kicked off the plantation. Hamer told the landowner that she didn’t go down there to register for him but for herself, something she would repeat often in her speeches for civil rights. Through the watchful eye of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, she was tapped to be a community organizer, working for desegregation and voting rights.


         Knowing what it was like to grow up with almost nothing, she helped deliver food and clothing to the poorest residents in the delta. But she also knew that things would not change if those in power were not voted out, so sometimes she would withhold the food or clothing until the recipient agreed to register to vote.

           
         
         Hamer was beaten in jail after having been arrested for sitting at a whites-only lunch counter.  Her injuries were so severe they affected her for the rest of her life.  As one of the founding members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party she ran for Congress, challenging the Democratic incumbent.  The MFDP was part of the Freedom Summer in 1964 that brought hundreds of college students, most of them white, to work for civil rights.  When members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee objected, Hamer said, “If we’re trying to break down this barrier of segregation, we can’t segregate ourselves.” 

   

         Hamer testified before the credentials committee of the Democratic National Party to allow members of the MFDP to sit at the convention as Mississippi representatives. Pressured by Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, the credentials committee withdrew their support but offered two at-large seats. Humphrey made it clear that Hamer was not to take one of those seats. The offer was rejected with Hamer stating, “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats!” She spent the rest of her life organizing for voting rights and school desegregation, initiating Head Start programs and farming co-ops to improve the lives of Delta residents. In 1977 she died of cancer at the age of 60.



         Fannie Lou Hamer lived her whole life in-between: in-between slavery and civil rights, in between civil rights and the first black president, in between voting rights for blacks and for women and where we are now. Like Moses, she never got to see the Promised Land, only from afar. Though she could have, she never gave up. Though she was sick and tired of being sick and tired, it was that conviction that propelled her forward.

           
         In that desert, God’s people were sick and tired of being sick and tired. They were living in-between. They had been freed from captivity and slavery only to now be wandering out the desert: food insecure, no sign of water, with a God who terrified them, who they could not see. And they were dependent on this God, on Yahweh, for everything they needed but only one day at a time. More than once God’s people cried out, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt only to die in the wilderness?”



         Then Moses has to go and spend a little too much time with God on the mountain. The people get even more anxious without their leader who stands between them and God. They feel abandoned, exposed, and vulnerable. Aaron, Moses’ little brother, who’s been left in charge and working under great stress, gives in to the people’s demands and creates what is essentially a transitional object: a pacifier to soothe the soul of the people. Then they get up early for church, cut loose and have a worship party, because their anxiety has been relieved.



         Of course, God is having none of it. Knowing how human we are, God expected the people would break the covenant at some point, but the dust had barely settled on those stone tablets; the words of promise still hung in the air. Conveniently, God left a loophole in that promise never to destroy human flesh; saying never again would waters flood the earth. But hot wrath that consumes? Wide open.



            Enter Moses, the in-between man, the people’s chief negotiator. He talks God down from destructive anger and plays to the divine ego: “You don’t want your enemies to call you names and speak ill of you. Don’t you want to be remembered by your faithfulness to your promises, for your kindness and mercy?” And not for the first time, God’s mind changes.

           
         It’s where we all live, in-between. Between what was and what will be, between perfect health and illness, between chaos and peace; for some us it’s between jobs, between relationships, between hope and fear, between faithfulness and faithlessness. Between good and evil, life and death, between Good Friday and Easter morning: it’s where it all takes place. Our whole lives are one big transition, from birth to death, with a multitude of transitions in between. For some of us this latest transition we find ourselves in seems worse than any other before it. We are Fannie Lou Hamer tired. And so there are days and sometimes even longer nights we are caught between consuming anger that lashes out and gripping anxiety that grabs for the nearest thing that can soothe us.
           
         
Jesus In-Between by David Hayward
But it is in that in-between space where honest-to-goodness worship can happen, where compassion can speak words of wisdom and clarity. It is that space, that calm, that eye in the storm that the Church is called to be. We are standard bearers of justice and forgiveness, unconditional love and acceptance but we stand in that breach between the anger and the anxiety. We are worn from the storm but are we not also ready to invite those who will stand us into that breach, that in-between space where love prevails? Are we not also ready to create the Beloved Community in that space? To not just soothe our souls but to save the soul of our country? The question then becomes, what’s stopping us?


            Martin Luther wrote that “the best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn”. What if we laughed and sang our way through these days? Like Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah and John Oliver and Jimmy Kimmel and Samantha Bee and the folks at SNL who get us to laugh through our tears. Like the firefighters from American Samoa who sang “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” in their native language as they came down the mountain near Junction City, CA. Like Fannie Lou Hamer who was famous for her voice at rallies, known for singing “This Little Light of Mine” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain”. What if we got together once a week, right out in the parking lot, to tell jokes and sing freedom songs and invited others to join us? What if we became the non-anxious Moses we all need right now?




            We may get angry, and sometimes we need to get angry, but that’s a cover for our fear, and a fearful people can be controlled, manipulated, coerced. We may be anxious but whatever we reach for is just a temporary fix. We long to put our faith and trust in something greater than ourselves. What if we put our faith and trust in humanity, in the divine goodness within each of us? What if instead of giving over to despair we gave ourselves to laughter and to singing? What if this is the hard transition before the birth of new life? Our singing may not change the world, but it might change us.

            

         We may not get to see the Promised Land ourselves. The arc of history may bend toward justice but it’s a long arc. Nonetheless.

I will watch, fight, and pray
I will watch, fight, and pray
I will watch, fight, and pray
Till I die
I will watch, fight, and pray
I will watch, fight, and pray
I will watch, fight, and pray
Till I die




            Amen.


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