Why is there a Black Lives Matter banner in front of the church?

After our church put up a banner in front of our building with the words “black lives matter” on it, I received an email from someone whose identity remains a mystery to me. The message was short and to the point, “ALL lives matter. The truly Christian message is ALL.”

I appreciated the note. Though email is not my favorite way to communicate, in these times of social distancing, I am happy for human interaction in any form. Thinking that others might also be interested in understanding why our Missions & Outreach Committee decided the banner would be a good way to respond to current events in our country, I am sharing my response below.

Friend,
First, allow me to thank you for your note. Your point is well taken. All lives do matter. As you probably know, both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament make your point abundantly clear in many ways. One of those ways is that we are all created in the image of God. This reality is woven in and out of pages of scripture from Genesis to Revelation. It is exactly for this reason then we are compelled to say black lives matter. We say black lives matter because we believe all lives matter, black ones included.
The reason we feel the need to say expressly that black lives matter is because there is so much evidence that they do not matter in our current state of affairs. We know that black Americans are nearly three times more likely to be killed by police officers than white Americans and nearly one and half times more likely to be unarmed when they are killed by police. We know that in the sixteen states where the black resident’s share of the population exceeds the national percentage, the prevalence of death from COVID-19 exceeded their population share by as much as twenty-five percent in some states. No, I am not suggesting that COVID-19 targets black people. I am saying that the structural inequities in our current way of doing life make black communities particularly vulnerable to this or any pandemic.

Saying black lives matter is not saying that only black lives matter, but saying all lives matter while so many black lives vanish each day turns a deaf ear and a blind eye to the very real, every day experience on the part of our sisters and brothers created in the image of God with black and brown skin of black lives not mattering. In the church, we cannot do this any longer. If you know the history of the church in the United States, you know that too often the church has been silent in the face of injustice and discrimination against black lives. There have been many times when the church has aided in the perpetuation of that injustice and benefited from it. Therefore, we are especially concerned in these days to stand with and be a source of encouragement for those who are working for equity, fairness, and justice.

To your assertion that the truly Christian message is all, I would agree that it is a message for us all. Yes, God made us all. Yes, God loves us all. Yes, Christ died for us all. Yes, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us all. We all find our best selves when we come to see ourselves and each other as beloved children of God. There is much about the Christian message that includes us all.

At the same time, the Christian message is also specific. Jesus makes it plain, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” The Bible makes clear that God is especially concerned about us when we are in trouble. In fact, nothing seems to bother God so much as people who are cut off and denied the good and abundant life that God intends for all of God’s creation. This idea is made clear by three stories that Jesus tells in chapter fifteen of the Gospel of Luke. In these stories, one about a lost sheep, one about a lost coin and one about a lost son, we get a glimpse of just how focused God’s love can be when part of God’s creation is cut off from the goodness and mercy that God intended for us all. In telling the story about the lost sheep, Jesus does not say that the shepherd stops caring about the ninety-nine that are safe. But he does say that the shepherd leaves them to go and find the one who has the great need. In telling the story about the lost coin, Jesus does not say that the nine coins that are in the woman’s possession do not matter. He does say that she lights a lamp and searches carefully until she finds the coin that is lost. In telling the story of the lost son, Jesus never suggests that the son who remains at home does not matter. He does say that while the lost son was still far off, the waiting father ran to him, embraced him and kissed him.

Similarly, saying that black lives matter does not diminish the truth that all lives matter. It is because all lives matter that we must say black lives matter. It is necessary because from 1619 to 2020, from Jamestown to Minneapolis and all the days and places in between, from slavery to Jim Crow to standing in line this week to vote in the Georgia primary for four or more hours the message has been that black lives do not matter. When someone in our family is sick, we take care of them. That does not mean that we care less for the rest of our family. When a member of the church is going through a hard time, we do what we can to help them get through it. That does not mean that we care less for the other members of the church. Our black and brown brothers and sisters have been going through a rough time for the last 400 years. Saying black lives matter acknowledges that reality. It recognizes the pain and anguish of being black in America, pain and anguish that has too often been overlooked or ignored by those of us in the church.

For those of us who pray as Jesus taught, not that God’s will would be done in heaven as it is on earth, but that God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven, saying black lives matter can be both a prayer of confession and a commission to service. It allows us to acknowledge a history of wrongs and it challenges us to make our world a place where the life we share together is just for all.

A Creation Justice Covenant

This summer we read Jim Antal’s, Climate Church, Climate World: How People of Faith Must Work for Change, at Greensboro United Church of Christ. We gathered for five weeks to discuss our planet and our responsibility to care for it. The experience was rich and sobering. We took account of the ways we have already accepted the task identified by Thomas Berry “. . .to be a more benign presence” on our planet. We also concluded that there was more for us to do. The statement below is a work in progress. If you have feedback that would make it more useful, please share. We came out of our summer study with a deep sense of urgency. Yes, we could have and should have done more sooner. We have not done many of those things. Therefore, what we want for this document to help us do is, in the words of Wendall Berry, to “make the world a better piece of ground?”
We are calling it a creation justice covenant. Creation, because we believe that life is God’s gift to us all. Justice, because we know harm done to our planet impacts the most those least able to cope with such harm. Covenant, because this crisis is serious enough for us to solemnly and intentionally promise to do something about it.

A working document
Greensboro United Church of Christ
Creation Justice Covenant

Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?  Ezekiel 34:18-19

Because creation is a gift from God entrusted to our care and we want to safeguard that gift for future generations,

Because we have begun to see the value of living and acting in ways that improve the health of our planet and are ready to exercise vision instead of convenience,

Because we know that the burden of a degraded planet falls heaviest on those who are least able to respond to such changes,

Because we know that we only have one planet on which to live,

And Because the UCC General Synod, Vermont Conference, and other faith communities have acknowledged the crisis of climate change,

We, the Greensboro United Church of Christ, recognizing that the world is in a moral and environmental crisis, commit ourselves to learning and discovering new ways to improve the health of our planet, acting with hopeful perseverance in order to stop the destruction and foster rejuvenation in our hearts and in our world. Acting as disciples of social justice, we commit to applying what we learn in the life we share together as a congregation. This commitment is both a testimony to our trust in God and a witness to how we hear God calling us to be together as a community of faith.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. Revelation 21:3

God is Still Speaking

After a wonderful week of camp with some amazing middle schoolers and totally committed camp staffers. . .

After news of tragic violence in El Paso, Dayton and other places. . .

After sharing bread and cup with a faith family that seeks to love others as Christ has loved us. . .

After coming to the realization that while mass shootings still sadden me, they no longer shock or surprise me. . .

After waking up on another Monday wondering what in the world we have become. . .

I open my worship plan to see what biblical text I choose weeks ago to be the focus of our worship this coming Sunday —BAM! — there it is, God is still speaking!

For those who have ears to ear and eyes to see. . .

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

If you are in the neighborhood, join us Sunday as we listen for God.

 

Leaving and Following (Continued)

Yesterday I mentioned Grace Episcopal Church in Lexington, VA changing its name from R.E. Lee Memorial Church as an example of Leaving and Following. They are not alone. From the first capital of the Confederate States of America, comes the news that members of St. John’s Episcopal Church will no longer honor Jefferson Davis with a plaque and pew in the church’s sanctuary. God is still speaking to and through the hearts of faithful followers.

Leaving and following may take some time and may be difficult for a variety of reasons, but it is never too late to follow Jesus.

Keep Micah in Christmas

December is here. That means Christmas is here. Of course, between now and Christmas, there is Advent. Advent may, at times, feel like what we do while we wait for Christmas, a sort of spiritual twiddling of the thumbs or a kind of contemplative doodling.

We need more from Advent than merely filling space or marking time. Like each of our days and all of our seasons, it is an opportunity for us to deepen our connection with God and what God is doing in the world. In that regard, this time before Christmas may be more important than our celebration of the day itself.

“Christ is born,” is the Christmas acclamation. What difference does it make in my life, that Christ has been born is an Advent question. What impact does the birth of Christ have on my life, my community, in my world? Does that birth move my thoughts, actions, hopes and dreams closer to God’s vision for God’s creation?

Arriving at Christmas without asking some questions and examining our motivation leaves us open to sentimentalizing or worse, belittling Christmas. If we make no attempt or see no need to reconnect our lives to God’s vision for them, it is easy for us to conclude that Christmas is just about God loving us.

On the 4th Sunday of Advent, worshipers in many churches may hear Micah 5:1-5. Christians have long read this passage in anticipation of Christmas because we hear in its mention of Bethlehem and a woman giving birth, a reference to the birth of Christ. To get at the heart of what God wants for and from Christmas, we need to start reading a chapter earlier.

Micah 4:34 speaks of God’s purpose for Christmas and vision for God’s creation as well as any two verses of scripture. It reads “… they shall bent their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; but they shall sit under their own vines and under their own Fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.’

Jesus echoes the heart of Micah’s words when he speaks about the Kingdom of God. He is thinking of that time and place when God gets what God wants. He teaches his disciples to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. With that prayer, he is teaching his disciples and us to live for, work for and pray for a life on earth where we all have a place to call home, enough to eat and no reason to be afraid

Through the centuries, many Christians have resigned such visions to the afterlife, thinking such a vision of life together impossible this side of heaven. Such a view leaves Christmas present sandwiched between a long ago birth and the future return of Christ. Understanding Christmas in this way allows us to celebrate a historical event and anticipate a future one without engaging the radical implications of Christ’s birth in our present day. It may leave us wondering if a child has been born at all.

Anyone who has children knows that the birth of a child changes everything. Nothing is ever the same after she is born. Yet, whether by our acquiescence, apathy or accommodation, we abide a system that allows a few to have more than they can use while too many do not have what they need, we are acting as if Christ has not been born. We surrender to a view of the world where there are too few fig trees and not enough vines for us all. That is neither the world God created nor the Christmas God wants for any of us.

Advent, at least in part, is a time to discover what it will look like for us to live together in a world where Christ has been born.

Good Morning, Vermont!

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The new pastor is here! Patti and I arrived in Greensboro full of excitement, anticipation and gratitude. Thanksgiving was a most appropriate season for us to move to Greensboro and to begin serving as pastor of Greensboro United Church of Christ. We are most grateful for those you of who worked so diligently to make the parsonage ready for our arrival. You did a wonderful job. For the many ways you have made us feel welcomed into this community and this church, we thank you.

As I listen to stories about the important work of reflection and self-examination that the congregation has done during the interim time, I am grateful for the ministry of Rev. Rona Kinsley.  Her time here in Greensboro will be a benefit to our congregation for many years to come.

We had our first small group meeting yesterday. We will have two more before this week is finished and there are more opportunities in the following week. The purpose of these meetings is to give me an opportunity to get to know you. If you have not signed up for one already, I hope you will do so in the fellowship hall this Sunday. I am grateful for your willingness to help me get to know you in these small group settings.

Already, we have celebrated the first Sunday of Advent. We are making our way to Bethlehem. In our lives, we are making room for the one for whom there was no room on that long-ago night. As the last few weeks have clearly demonstrated, we live busy and crowded lives. Making room is necessary work. We need to make room, space, time and silence.  There is a child on the way.  God is coming to us, Emmanuel.

Christmas will be here before you know it. While I don’t know all that you have to do to get ready for that day, I hope that you are getting ready to experience again the wonder of God’s presence with you and love for you.

Thank you for allowing me the opportunity experience that love and that presence with you.

Joy & peace,

Ed

 

Thank You, First Baptist Church of Jefferson City.

Today the messengers to the annual meeting of the Tennessee Baptist Convention voted to not seat the messengers sent to the meeting by the First Baptist Church of Jefferson City, Tennessee. The overwhelming majority of TBC messengers voted to not seat the messengers from Jefferson City because their church recently called a woman to serve as their pastor.  My personal interest is that I could very well still be opposed to the idea of women pastors if it had not been for the life and witness of a Tennessee Baptist Convention employee.

I enrolled at Roane State Community College for my sophomore year of College. My dad had passed away that summer and staying close to home seemed like a good idea. Before classes started, I had already been introduced to Windie Wilson. She was the BSU Director at the Baptist Student Union at Roane State, a ministry of the Tennessee Baptist Convention. My home church, First Baptist Church of Rockwood, was without a pastor during this time. Somewhere between December and May of that academic year, I realized that the way I thought and felt about women being ministers had changed. I never had any sense that changing my views on women in ministry was Windie’s intention. She was just doing what God had given her to do in that season of her life. She was leading the BSU, doing Bible studies, organizing events, planning mission trips, listening to and loving students. By the time we were packing our bags to head out to our various summer mission assignments, I realized that what Windie had been doing was being my pastor.  Looking back, I am really glad my mind was changed. If it had not been, I might never have married Reverend Patti Sunday-Winters.

Today, I give thanks for all the Tennessee Baptists who had a hand shaping and enriching my journey. At the same time, I pray for the day when all Tennessee Baptists come to understand that God really does mean for our “. . .sons and daughters to prophesy,” and that there really is “. . .no longer male or female: for all of (us) are one in Christ Jesus.” In the meantime, I celebrate the life and witness of First Baptist Church of Jefferson City. The Kingdom of God and all of God’s creation will be better when more of us know what you know. Yes, God does call women to preach and lead churches. Yes, women can tell the story of Jesus in a way that is edifying and formative for those seeking to follow Christ. Yes, women have a voice that ought to be heard, believed and followed. First Baptist Church of Jefferson City, for having the courage and the wisdom to demonstrate the depth, the height and breadth of God’s love, thank you.

A Prayer of Thanksgiving: First Baptist Church of Phenix City

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Last Sunday, I preached for the final time as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Phenix City.  This week, as we transition to a new place of service, I have had time to reflect and to recall the many reasons for which I am thankful to have shared life and ministry with the people of First Baptist.

For an Alabama church willing to call a Tennessean to serve as pastor and decorate the tables at the welcome reception with orange and white,

For a church willing to welcome everyone,

For Country’s, Minnie’s, Chef Lee’s, Ed’s and El Vaquero,

For Bobby, Barbara, Julia, Daniel W, Ben and singers who always sing with heart, soul and voice.

For all the work that so many did to make the parsonage a wonderful place for Patti, Huck, Chloe and I to call home,

For faithful people who always seemed to be there when church was happening,

For merciful folks with loyalties to and love for Alabama, Auburn and Georgia who shared the pain of Tennessee football losses with me.

For the backpacks of food that are packed and delivered each week to help 35 students at Phenix City Elementary have a little extra,

For all the hours of effort and being together to make “The Holy Smoke Barbeque” happen,

For kids, chaperones and weeks spent at PassportKids,

For the sounds and sights that Bryan, Daniel B., Chris and Jeremy brought to us,

For Advent, Christmas Eve, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and other special times of worship,

For gifts of food, plants and Diet Coke,

For the times of sharing communion around the Lord’s table and all the other times that the table spoke to us through creative and thoughtful displays,

For baby dedications and baptisms,

For time with Bubba and the youth from Panama City to the Smoky Mountains and lots of cool places in between,

For those who prepared and those who shared breakfast before Sunday School,

For Wednesday mornings at Jack Hughston,

For ministry to families experiencing a housing crisis through partnership with Valley Interfaith Promise,

For special occasions that caused people to mysteriously start singing “Rocky Top.”

For all the times of being witness to amazing outcomes when individuals who were willing to offer what they were able to do in service to God and others,

For being included in family birthday and holiday celebrations,

For church members who became friends,

For every time we gathered in worship to profess our faith in a God who loves us dearly and who always will,

For the future of First Baptist and the promise that it holds,

For these and many other reasons, I am grateful to have served alongside the people of First Baptist to tell the story of a God who loves us all. Amen.