A Sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
June 28, 2015
University Baptist Church
There’s an eagle’s nest not far from UBC. It’s on the banks of the Mighty Mississippi, just on the other side of 35W, along the bike trail between here and the Stone Arch Bridge. Laura and I were on our occasional walking meetings when we spotted it a few weeks ago. We watched as a white head shuffled around a smaller fuzzy head in the nest. Occasionally the white headed one stretched its arm to expose a three-foot wing. The kind of thing that makes them so majestically soar over rivers and lakes scouting for their next meal and to feed their young. Have you noticed when eagles soar, they get higher and higher with each rotation?
What an image for God’s viewpoint. I imagine the eagle looking with puzzlement at the rainbow lights on the 35W bridge. I wonder what the Momma Eagle thinks about our hollering and celebrating. I wonder what else the eagle sees that we don’t see.
The Psalmist tells us that when the going gets tough, God’s Amazing grace will lift us up and we will soar like the eagle. Can we be fit for those wings now, or do we have to wait until heaven?
When running the marathon last weekend, I thought of wings. They would have been helpful. I contemplated this as vultures disguised as seagulls circled overhead, trying to select their prey from 8,000 candidates. As I got slower and slower, I’m sure my odds went up.
There’s an aphorism that says that our role as parents is to give our children roots and wings. We have spent the year exploring the courageous and grace-filled roots of the ancestors of our faith. Are we now ready for the wings?
It occurs to me that we have a generation of people, at least at UBC, who have grown up not knowing other than inclusivity in churches. Imagine what the next generation will grow up learning. How the history books list June 26th as the day the law changed and we lived into the promise of the 14th amendment where each person is granted equal protection under the law. And that equal protection extends to the right to marry the person you love.
We are thrilled by the Supreme Court decision. It’s a step on the road to the beloved community. One of many steps, made possible by countless miles, blood sweat and tears of so many who have gone before. And there is more to do. It’s just a step. A huge step, a giant leap, for sure. And there are many more steps ahead. Let’s keep moving forward!
As I was at the Pride celebration yesterday, I noticed that there was not the overwhelming joy that I expected. Sure, it was a great day, but we celebrated our buns off in 2013 when Minnesota legislatively established marriage equality. That was so two years ago. Pride celebrations ought not to blind us to the continued struggle to live in the beloved community. We still have mountains to climb, rivers to cross. The road is rough ahead. We need the eagle’s perspective. What would the eagle see?
Psalm 91 is a favorite Psalm to read if you experience anxiety, fear, pain or some other specific challenge. It’s a psalm of comfort. It has been sung for years and the struggles it explains have seemed so close to our truth. Hear the poetically expressed challenges we face, according to the psalmist (vv3-6):
The snare of the fowler,
the deadly pestilence,
the terror of night,
the arrow that flies by day,
the pestilence that stalks the darkness,
the destruction that wastes at noonday.
We can add our own: political campaigns, incarceration, poverty, shooting people in a black church or a school full of children, broken relationships, sexual violence, homoprejudice, the list goes on.
God, says the psalmist, is present regardless of the circumstances.
We seek God not in spite of human suffering but in light of human suffering.
Six times, the psalmist says that God will deliver, using poetic forms:
The Most High will deliver (v3)
Overshadow us with wings, like a mother bird (v4)
shield us on the battlefield (v.7)
no epidemic shall come hear us (v.10)
angels will bear us up (v.12)
will travel untouched by animals and monsters (v.13)
These 6 deliverances are complemented by 3 descriptions of the righteous one’s faithfulness and three promises of Gods salvation:
The righteous one cleaves to God with passionate love (14a)
knows the meaning of God’s name (14b)
invokes God (15a).
From God’s side, God rescues him (15c)
honors him (15c)
and shows her the meaning of salvation (16b)
The Psalmist says that you will tread on the lion and the serpent (verse 13). The lion attacks with surprise and is ruthless. This is like gay-bashing or shooting up a prayer meeting. The serpent attacks by stealth and are more subtle. This is like white privilege, heterosexism, the 1000 benefits that married couples got that gay couples couldn’t get until Friday. Both attack from hidden places.
When I visited the wailing wall in Jerusalem, that last surviving wall at the base of the Temple Mount, twenty-something years ago, I selected Psalm 91 to read with my hands touching that ancient wall. I thought of the generations who have fought over that holy place and the pain of the people in my Hartford, CT congregation. I noticed that the cracks in the wall were filled with cryptic pieces of paper—the prayers of thousands over the years. I wonder what happens to the old prayers.
Google tells me that twice a year, the prayer slips are removed from the cracks between the old stones. Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch said no one reads the papers because they're notes between people and their Creator. Workers collect the notes, bundle them in bags and later bury them in the cemetery on the Mount of Olives. According to Jewish religious practice, it's forbidden to destroy anything on which the name of God is written. That means these little prayer slips are treated with the same respect as worn or damaged Torah scrolls and prayer books.
Thank God that God doesn’t get tired of our prayers. At least the ones that are done with sincerity. I think about Amos railing against those empty prayers that don’t accompany justice and mercy. “Take away from me the sounds of your instruments and prayers I won’t listen to them. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like and everflowing stream.”
In the psalm, God uses defensive weaponry to protect the believer—not offensive. It doesn’t say my spear or my catapult will protect me. It speaks of shields, of wings.
From the wings of an eagle, we are raised up looking for a moment at the world from Gods perspective. All the beauty. All the opportunity. All of the rainbow of colors made. And off in the distance we see the growing edge. The bodies of nine faithful people in Charleston, SC, joining four little girls from Birmingham 52 years ago. God may have put the divine bow in the sky, but others have taken that warrior’s bow as their own, smiting in their own twisted interpretation of Christianity.
We soar like an eagle, and we see the mountaintops,. We see the canopies. We remember that God delivers. But God does not deliver by magic. God employs people to intervene and make it happen. Those who have gone before. Those who have done the work of racial reconciliation and fought for LGBT rights. They are the ones who are counting on us to take up the mantle.
Hear what Baptist Theologian Howard Thurman had to say a generation or two ago:
"Look well to the growing edge! All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born; all around us life is dying and life is being born. The fruit ripens on the tree, the roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth against a time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit. Such is the growing edge! It is the extra breath from the exhausted lung, the one more thing to try when all else has failed, the upward reach of life when weariness closes in upon all endeavor. This is the basis of hope in moments of despair, the incentive to carry on when times are out of joint and men have lost their reason, the source of confidence when worlds crash and dreams whiten into ash. The birth of the child — life’s most dramatic answer to death — this is the growing edge incarnate. Look well to the growing edge! "
At the ABC Biennial, Karen Swenson and Kathleen Tice are joining others in speaking with one voice about issues of race. Here is a statement that they are collecting signatures for:
An Epistle of Metanoia
from the 2015 Mission Summit to the ABC-USA family
In light of the sin of racism that has infected each and every part of our nation we, the gathered delegates and participants of the 2015 Mission Summit of the American Baptist Churches, USA, the most diverse Protestant body in our nation, grieve racism’ effects on our people. Therefore, we collectively speak against and repent of our participation in the sin of racism wherever it is found. The presence of white supremacy for too long has gone unacknowledged and prevented us from living as the body of Christ.
Between now and the 2017 Mission Summit we urge each ABC, USA congregation to covenant in order to seek justice & reconciliation, hold one another accountable in this endeavor, and pursue local incarnated manifestations of the Beloved Community.
My friends we have rooted our lives in courage. We have been inspired by grace. We have soared like eagles and have witnessed the rainbow of rights and dignity for all people. And yet we still have a long way to go. For from that winged perspective, we see a world that needs us. The world needs you.
So does God. For we are the ones who take on the wings.
For even in despair, even when pestilence and drought and short-sightedness and bigotry and violence seem to be the be all and end all of our world, God has promised to lift us up. Take us up like on the wings of an eagle. Rise above the narrow confines of judgmentalism. Rise above the consuming doubt that says “it’s no use.” The eagle at the core of our national symbol has arrows and palm branches in its talons—replacing one for the other.
Rise up, my friends. Take wing and see the world from God’s perspective. God can use five Supreme Court justices. God can use a nation united against racism. God can use you, too.
See the world from God’s perspective.
And then come down to your nest. Take that wing and comfort and protect your young. That’s what wings are for: Both the big picture and the kind act.
Rise up, church. Soar. Comfort. And be lifted by the winds of hope, faith, love, courage and grace. It’s all for you. God’s gift for the world.