There is Freedom: A Juneteenth Sermon

This is a lightly edited version of my sermon from the Sunday before Juneteenth.


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Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (2 Corinthians 3:17)

Imagine being an enslaved person in Texas at the beginning of another hot summer in 1865. Given the state’s relative distance from the rest of the divided nation and given that Texas itself saw little action during the Civil War, it had been relatively easy for plantation owners and enslavers to hide the news of the Emancipation Proclamation which had been signed by President Abraham Lincoln two and a half years earlier. And so, despite this federal proclamation of freedom, these enslaved women and men toiled under the old status quo of bondage and terror. Imagine being an enslaver and, having heard the proclamation of freedom, choosing to cover it up. Here were people who understood that liberation had come and yet who willfully, purposefully did all they could to obscure and withhold freedom from those who were dying for it.

The freedom about which the Apostle Paul wrote to the churches in Corinth was a freedom from bondage to the law. God had given his covenant law to his people as a template for flourishing. And yet, as we often do, the people had focused on the law not as a sign of God’s covenant love. Instead, they devoted themselves, in Paul’s words, to the letter of the law. They made keeping the law a sign of their righteousness and it quickly became a deadly burden, captivity even. The good news Paul taught in this passage was that the Holy Spirit brought freedom from the condemnation of the law. In Christ, we see through the condemning letter of the law and find instead the covenant of love and freedom that God always intended for us.

Now here’s the thing about God’s freedom: it is comprehensive. For example, in a passage that Jesus will one day borrow for his own mission, the prophet Isaiah’s vision of God’s freedom is good news for the poor, liberty for captives, release for the prisoners, comfort for the mourners; it includes rebuilt ruins and renewed cities; it involves inheritance, ancestral lands, and everlasting joy. Yes, we have the capacity to turn something like God’s covenant of love into a letter which condemns, but God’s desire for our good is so complete that nothing but our total freedom can quench it.

On this Sunday when we remember the news of freedom which finally reached those enslaved image bearers of God, news which had been delayed but which could not be denied, it’s worth spending a few minutes with God’s character of freedom. The enslaver could not hold back the freedom cry. The flesh traders, the kidnappers, the powerful men who had turned human plunder and exploitation into the nation’s most profitable sector, none of them could turn back the word of freedom. The most their pitiful power could do was to slow it down. History tells us that when that transformative word reached the now-freedmen and freedwomen, some simply walked away, never to return. Others negotiated for a wage. In one documented instance, a man named Jourdon Anderson wrote to the man who had enslaved him with a reparations bill: he’d added up the long hours he and his wife had worked, and he figured he was owed a cool $11,680, surely enough to bankrupt his former enslaver. Spouses and parents who’d been separated from each other, stolen from each other, began the search to be reunited. They built schools and churches and elected hundreds of Black representatives to every level of public office. Freedom changes everything. And the Apostle Paul reminds us this morning, that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

There are always those who would hinder the Spirit’s freedom. Sometimes the foe is visible and obvious: one who enslaves, exploits, plunders. Other times the foe is subtle: a heart which condemns, a memory which captures, deeply held assumptions which conceal the Spirit’s freedom fruit. Scripture tells us that we have a common enemy who despises our freedom, the evil one who desires our demise. But our Lord Jesus is near, even in those oppositional places, through the presence of his Holy Spirit. And so this morning, I’m asking us to remember that freedom prevails by the Spirit’s presence. In other words, despite the existence of sin and evil in this world and in our hearts, God’s loving freedom will prevail because the Holy Spirit is present. The incarnate Son of God who walked the Galilean hillsides hundreds of years ago is now manifest by his Spirit in and among his followers everywhere. Freedom prevails by the Spirit’s presence.

I use the word prevail intentionally: freedom overcomes, perseveres, outlasts. Prevailing assumes opposition and there is always opposition to freedom. The Corinthians felt condemned by the letter; Black Texans remained captive after emancipation, a result of opposition. But Paul is clear: Don’t be deceived. Freedom is here because Jesus is here. The condemning voice is loud, but Jesus triumphed over condemnations of every kind. The schemes of the enslavers were brutal, the plots of violent men were depraved, the complicity of a nation built on stolen land and plundered bodies was total… but Jesus raised in victory over enslavers and lynchers and the powerful who washed their hands in as a show of innocence all the while trafficking in subjugation and suffering. Jesus triumphed even over these oppositions.

When Jesus was hung from that crucifixion tree, the powers and principalities thought that they had prevailed. The spiritual forces of evil were under the delusional impression that the divine hand which had restrained their worst impulses had finally been removed. But what had Jesus said earlier? “Very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away?” (John 16:7) Why? Because having returned to his Father, Jesus would send his presence, the Holy Spirit. Rather than eliminating Jesus, the Spirit of Jesus has now been poured out on all who believe. There is exponentially more Jesus now and so there is also more freedom.

Now, the spiritual forces of evil have always worked to obscure God’s freedom. The freed Black women and men were faced with onc deception after another: enslavers tried to keep them captive; governments failed to compensate them with the land they had been promised; white mobs attacked Black citizens as they voted. The more of their freedom they claimed, the more violent and devious were the attacks to conceal and dismantle that freedom.

It was no accident that at many early Juneteenth celebrations, the Statue of Liberty was featured prominently, a reminder to everyone of the liberation that was the freedperson’s birthright. Neither was it accidental that these celebrations often included a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation: ...all persons held as slaves … shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States… will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

In response to the deceptions of captors, oppressors, and enslavers, these citizens stood boldly in their freedom. No matter what the liars said, they were free, and they intended to live their freedom.

Do we see this kind of freedom today? We see people fleeing violence on the southern border, gun violence in our city, and violence toward Asian Americans. We could go on. Unquestionably, our situation is radically different from those Texans who had to wait over two years for the news of their liberation, but if we’re honest it can be hard to see freedom’s advance. It can seem as though the forces opposed to freedom are more powerful than God’s desires for the flourishing of his entire creation.

Do we see freedom? There are those who don’t want you to see freedom. Some believe that more freedom for you means less for them so they work actively against it. There are people in our city and suburbs who have secured enough success and stuff for themselves and have turned away from those who struggle and suffer. Others of us can’t seem to see freedom. There are, for example, young people in our neighborhoods who see no roadmap to a free and flourishing life; they’ve seen too much loss already.

If God’s freedom prevails, why don’t we see more of it? Listen to Paul’s claim again. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Is it possible that in our struggle to see freedom we have forgotten that the experience of freedom, like the rest of our discipleship to Jesus, is a matter of faith, not sight?

In John 3:8, Jesus said, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” You see, the joyful proclamation that the Spirit brings freedom is also a gentle invitation to see what Jesus sees.

Jesus was surrounded by powerful men who wanted his attention: religious leaders, soldiers, kings, and representatives of the empire. Yet most of his time was spent on the margins and among the marginalized. While others planned for freedom by way of a bloody revolt, Jesus was calling a kingdom of righteousness and peace into existence beyond the gaze of controlling power.

Jesus raised the little girl to life, and freedom took a step forward. He healed a blind man’s eyes and freedom took a step forward. He restored a woman to her community, silenced the religious leaders with their condemning letter of the law, washed his disciples’ feet and freedom stepped forward. Jesus gave himself over to bloodthirsty and violent men, men for whom freedom was a threat and not a promise, a curse and not a blessing. Jesus, the free-est person in the universe, became captive for us and our salvation, for us and our freedom. And freedom leapt forward.

Do we see freedom? Ask yourself, what does Jesus see right now? Do you see people getting free by giving themselves to Jesus? Do you see marriages getting restored? Do you see volunteers gathering each week to water and weed the Jackie Robinson Garden? Will you be among them in a few weeks when they begin sharing fresh veggies with our neighbors? Did you hear that our friends at Southside Blooms actually grew during the pandemic? They’re now growing more flowers on more abandoned lots, employing more young people, producing more local honey, and on July 1stthey’re opening their first storefront facility. Do you see the state of Illinois being the first in the country to ban cash bail?

Do you see freedom? What does Jesus see? May I suggest that Jesus sees young people being mentored, he sees overly incarcerated people walking out of prison, he sees brothers who have too much money giving it away to brothers who don’t have enough, sisters who have access to halls of power opening doors for the sisters who don’t. Jesus sees people getting free because where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

Perhaps you’re struggling still to see freedom. Ask yourself, Where is the Spirit of the Lord not? Show me the place in God’s creation where the Spirit of the Lord is not present. Show me the group of people among whom the Spirit of the Lord is not present. Show me the circumstance, the moment, the season that was too painful, too unjust, too wicked for the prevailing Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ. Was there ever a debt so debilitating, a grief so great, a lament so long as to overcome the Spirit of the Man of Sorrows, the God who is acquainted with grief, the Son of God who suffered? Was there ever a place or a people so forsaken that they overwhelmed the forsakenness of Calvary?

Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And let us shout this truth over our city this morning: There is not a single square inch of this creation where the Spirit of the Lord is not present! Open our eyes, Holy Spirit. Open our hearts. Help thou our unbelief. Let us see what you see. Show us your freedom.

Believing that the Holy Spirit brings freedom opens up new ways for us to live. Think again of the Black citizens after the Civil War. They were technically free, but white people regularly opposed them, sometimes violently. This is one of the things which makes Juneteenth so significant. Each June 19th, African Americans would gather publicly in their cities and towns. The day would often begin with a church service before migrating to a parade through the city’s major thoroughfares. Then, people would gather in a public park and the freedom celebration continued with food and festivities. And when white dominated town councils tried to stop these public celebrations, wealthier members of the Black community (like Robert Church in Memphis) purchased land so that no one could stop these visible demonstrations of freedom.

This, I believe, is an image of God’s freedom. We don’t simply believe that freedom prevails, we live and seek that freedom. The African American citizens who gathered in public spaces knowing that their presence agitated the racists, that the White Citizen’s Council and the Ku Klux Klan were looking on, were not content to think about their federally sanctioned freedom; they didn’t want to hold freedom in their hearts; freedom wasn’t an invisible ideal to hold onto when things got hard. No, those early June 19th worship services and parades and public celebrations were more than a commemoration of the past- they were a proclamation of freedom into the future. A testimony that freedom is always meant to be lived.

Holy Spirit-empowered freedom is not an abstraction. This freedom works its way into us; it changes how we see the world around us, but this prevailing freedom also ensures that we will prevail. If God’s freedom prevails, then you’d better believe that God’s free people will also prevail. We can hear this conviction in Dr. King’s last words in his final speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis (1968): I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Think of Isaiah’s freedom proclamation again, the one Jesus would one day apply to his own life and ministry. The reason the promises rang so powerfully was not because they were a beautiful articulation of liberty from sin, sickness, and suffering. It’s because the people who first heard these words were desperately in need of an experience of God’s freedom. The poor were ready for the good news; the brokenhearted were ready to be put back together; the captives were ready for liberty; the mourners awaited their God’s comfort and those who grieved anticipated the day when mourning would be exchanged for joy, despair for praise.

Their cities had been laid waste; the walls which symbolized security and prosperity had been pulled down. They were a people who needed far more than a description of freedom, a theory of freedom, a sermon about freedom. They needed an experience of divine freedom which would enter their situation and allow them to endure. This is the word of God which Isaiah spoke to a besieged and beleaguered people. It was an active and accomplishing word, a word that would prevail.

How many know that this is the freedom word our world is desperate for today? We have been set free by Jesus. What is it that we are doing with our freedom? Jesus said in John 8:36, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” And what do people do who’ve been set free by Jesus? What do people do who understand that where the Spirit is there is freedom? What do people do who can stand amidst the rubble of captivity and condemnation with an unshakable conviction in the prevailing nature of God’s freedom? We seek that same freedom for everyone. Free people, free people.

I know this has been a hard season for many of us. Our losses have been great. The grief has been persistent. The opposition has been real. Do we actually have the ability to peer through all of this and find Holy Spirit freedom breaking in? Do we have the energy to be agents of freedom ourselves? To proclaim the saving and liberating gospel of Jesus to those bent down by the letter of the law? To those who’ve yet to hear the gospel of grace? Do we have the courage to stand in our freedom against the spiritual forces of evil whose lies have infected our systems and societies? To stand against the powerful interests bent on disenfranchisement and disinvestment?

The Holy Spirit of God who is himself freedom everywhere in creation is the same Spirit of freedom who is in you. The same Spirit of God who animated the saints before us, the women and men who had every reason to believe that their captivity would be permanent and who yet lived and breathed and agitated for freedom, that same freedom Spirit is alive in you.

Because the Spirit of the Lord is upon you, freedom is upon you. And so, through you, anointed child of God, filled with Spirit of freedom, good news will be proclaimed to the poor; the brokenhearted will be restored; captives willbe freed and prisoners released; the Lord’s jubilee will be announced; mourners will be comforted and those who grieve will be granted crowns of beauty; spirits of despair will be exchanged for garments of praise.

I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here. (Photo credit: Clement Eastwood.)

Singing in the Dark

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Johnny Dark

At some point each day, having listened to the same song most of the day, Johnny Dark takes out his phone, points it toward a mirror in his darkened home before hitting record, and begins to sing. When he’s finished he uploads the song to his YouTube channel where it joins a collection that has been building for years.

I learned about Johnny Dark from a recent episode of This American Life. It turns out that the man singing from the seclusion of his living room has been in show business most of his life, an old school entertainer turned stand-up comedian best known for appearing regularly with David Letterman on The Late Show.

Early during the show we learn that the videos Johnny Dark uploads to his channel don’t have that many views. As I write this, his most recent five videos have been watched 31, 60, 28, 20, and 18 times. Why would a man who has spent his life preforming for crowds dedicate time each day to learning, recording, and uploading a song that almost no one will ever watch?

When he is asked a similar question toward the end of the interview Johnny Dark’s answer comes quickly. “It was in my heart, just like my wife. When I met my wife I had no choice. I didn’t want to get married! But that’s what love is, love doesn’t give you a choice, I don’t think. And neither does show business.”

Resurrection and Return

A few years ago I stayed with a friend on the west coast. At the time, my friend and his family were hosting some of their long-time friends from Europe who had spent many years serving refugees and migrants. These were some of the kindest and more joyful people I’d ever met; their dedication to the people they served was inspiring. During my short visit we enjoyed good conversation and French wine that was far too complex (expensive) for my unrefined palate.

At some point during one of these conversations this couple asked about my own ministry and the characteristics of racial reconciliation and justice that shape it. After I’d candidly described how entrenched white supremacy is in the US American context, including in many of our churches, they asked me about hope. Given the long odds against seeing the diminishment much less the defeat of racism in our lifetimes, what sort of hope animates our commitments?

Why do we keep singing if no one is watching?

I answered honestly, that my Christian sense about any question of sustaining hope must be rooted in Christ’s resurrection and return. Hope is entirely a matter of faith- that the tomb is empty, a sign of what is to come when the will of God is known finally and completely on earth as it is in heaven.

But don’t you see evidence of change, of progress? my conversation partners wanted to know. Don’t these bring you hope? Of course there are always signs of life. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed,” Jesus said, “which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

But we don’t often interpret the signs of the times accurately, or we miss them entirely. If hope depends on our own experiences of any given day, or month, or… well, we can quickly imagine hope as an accessory worn by those privileged enough to have more good days than bad. Any hope that is more responsive to what I’m capable of experiencing than to the tether holding me between Christ’s resurrection and return is a hope too weak to sustain me in the face of this world’s cruelty.

My new European friends didn’t quite disagree with this, but it wasn’t what they were looking for either. I was tempted to say more, to share some of the ways I’d seen racial reconciliation take root in our church. But this wouldn’t have been true; every time I think I see a mustard seed take root another is snatched from the path. At some point I began to learn that the truly sustaining hope must remain beyond what my eyes could see and my senses interpret.

One Year Later

I’m thinking about the anchors the keep us true as more than a year has past since George Floyd was murdered. What is it about this instance of public brutality? I heard asked again and again over the past twelve months. What’s different this time? The questions were motivated by a visible phenomenon: white people speaking out and showing up for racial justice in numbers without precedent in this country. We’ve not seen this before, said friends who knew what they were talking about.

I wondered though, is it different? Today, white people’s support for Black Lives Matter has dropped across the board, efforts at police reform have largely stalled, and corporations continue to play both sides, sloganeering with justice language while hedging their bets with contributions to politicians who are bent on rolling back access to the ballot.

I’ve spent a lot of time this year talking with white pastors and ministry leaders who are trying to lead their people toward justice. In their congregations the action, if there is any, is generally limited to book discussions and the occasional sermon. And even these tiny steps, so small as to border on offensive given the fraught circumstances faced by those outside the privileged walls of whiteness, even these innocuous steps are often vociferously opposed. Pastors are slandered and maligned; some have been fired and others have resigned for the well-being of their families.

They want to lead their people through the narrow gate, but it can seem as though no one wants to follow.

Exile Songs

Psalm 137:4 asks, what is for me, one of the more haunting questions in Scripture. “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” It’s a question on the edge of despair. How can we sing – fight, work, organize, worship; how can we continue – when nothing around us awakens our song? When nothing around us has changed? When the exile appears complete?

I hope this is the question many of us are asking. Rather than sliding apathetically backward into the status quo, I hope we are at least asking whether it’s even possible to sing in this strange land. Because if we’re willing to ask, we might be shown an example, if not given an answer, by those who long ago found their voices in exile.

The question of hope, of anchors, of exilic songs has for generations been wrestled to the ground by faithful Christian people – Black and Brown and Indigenous women and men. It was these sisters and brothers who came to mind when I recently read Katherine Sonderegger’s description of the suffering saints.

This is why believers who suffer, sometimes brutally, sometimes through a long, harrowing life, can nevertheless lift up their voices to God not only in lament but also and more in praise. It is not that these faithful ones… blind themselves with cheap consolation, nor sigh with only protest allowed a suffering and desolate life. No! These lives of special sanctity have been made “more than conquerors” by their encounter with Reality itself, with the Divine Nature that just is Dynamic Life. The veil of this mortal life has been lifted, the door opened into the heavenly realm, and Life burst forth.

Johnny Dark’s solitary concert in the dark is impressive, not for its consistency but for where it comes from: an identity so rooted in song that he cannot help but sing, to hell with the view count. How much more astonishing is the legacy of the persevering saints, the ones who sing songs of righteousness and justice in exile and who’ve passed down the lyrics and the melodies from generation to generation. They sing – we sing – because we’ve encountered Reality itself. “This,” Sonderegger goes on to write, is not explained in Holy Scripture, and we are not given a theory of God’s indwelling His creation. Rather, we are shown it. And this is ‘wonder.’”

Mustard seeds. Yeast. Treasures hidden in a field. Signs and wonders, hints and glimpses of that thread which holds us fast, taught between the resurrection and the return. This is what will keep our faces set toward justice when eyes and ears fail us. This electric tension, running backward and forward, stretching through ancestors and descendants in the faith, is what inspires our songs at the edge of Babylon’s dark waters.

I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here. (Photo credit: Zain Ali.)

The God Who Sees

Here’s a lightly edited version of a recent sermon from Genesis 16.

There’s something powerful about being seen. This is especially true when you are used to not being seen; when you’ve been un-seen for so long that you are no longer surprised when people don’t see you. On Friday, our family joined some of you at the vigil for those murdered in Georgia last week. Because the event was led by Asian American women, each speaker intentionally spoke to the experiences shared by many, if not all, of these women. If was as if these leaders wanted to make it abundantly clear to their peers, you are seen. In all of the hidden and overlooked particularities of your specific lives, we see you. You are not invisible. There’s something powerful about being seen.

One of the many things I love about Jesus is the way he sees the women and men, girls and boys who others look past: the woman drawing water in the midday sun, the man suffering from leprosy, the woman anointing his feet, the children running to his side. Those who had been commodified, generalized, and invsibilized were, in the eyes of Jesus, rendered clearly in their full God-given humanity. Jesus sees and our Genesis passage reminds us that God has always seen. The enslaved Hagar escaped with her in-utero child into the desert. In Genesis 16, we find that her life changed when Hagar learned that God saw her.

It is a terrible thing to be systematically overlooked: to find your voice unrepresented, your body caricatured, your history erased, your agency stolen, your safety dispensed with. Every one of us has known at least occasional moments of invisibility. Others of you have lived lifetimes punching your way through the weighted veil held over your bodies by the hands of white supremacy and misogyny.

Hagar’s wilderness experience speaks a word into this reality. Enslaved, assaulted, marginalized, exploited, and erased, she flees into the desert, unsure of where she will go. And in this place of extreme desperation, she encounters God. She is seen by God, and her life and the lives of her descendants are forever changed. It is from Hagar’s wilderness encounter that I draw today’s big idea: Those who have been made invisible are sustained by the God-who-sees. Those who have been made invisible are sustained by the God-who-sees. How? How does the simple fact of God seeing us, especially those who’ve not been truly seen, sustain us? We’ll find that, first, knowing that God sees us allows us to tell the truth God reveals. Second, it allows us to we see what God sees. Third, knowing that God sees us allows us to take up the space God gives us.

We are sustained by telling the truth God reveals.

Hagar had been liked to about her life. She had been told in so many ways that she was unimportant, that her value was tied to what she could produce. These lies existed within a larger deceptive ecosystem. Listen to how Sarai describes her reality. The Lord has kept me from having children. Go sleep w/ my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her. (16:2) Ignoring God’s promises about the family she would be blessed with, Sarai responds to her cultural expectations and mistreats Hagar. She responded to the lie that God was the source of her suffering. The fact that neither Sarai nor Abram even dignify Hagar with her name is yet another glimpse of the deceptive culture that Hagar had to navigate.

Cultures of deception and invisibility must rely on lies which are re-imagined as facts. Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, describes our own culture of deception and invisibility as the narrative of racial difference. Built on the lie of racial difference, this narrative places each of us in our arbitrary place on the racial hierarchy.

In 1875 the federal government passed the Page Act, the first restrictive immigration law. Dr. K. Ian Shin writes that it “was designed to prohibit immigrants deemed ‘undesirable’—defined as Chinese ‘coolie’ laborers and prostitutes—from entering the U.S.” About these immigrants from China, Dr. Melissa May Borja says, “They were seen as a racial threat to a pure white America. They were seen as an economic threat to free white labor. They were depicted as a disease threat—a lot of anti-Chinese rhetoric hinged on portraying Chinese people as filthy and disease-ridden. They were also seen as a religious and moral threat as heathens who threatened a Christian America… They were stereotyped as promiscuous, as prostitutes.”

The Page Act was the beginning of a long history in which Asian and Asian American women were overtly sexualized in this country. They became viewed alternatively as submissive objects on which warped desires were projected or as threats to the white American family. This deceiving narrative maps onto how Asian Americans have often been portrayed in this country, as either a model minority used to legitimize the racial status quo or as a “yellow peril” which is a threat to that same status quo. As with many other immigrants of color, the Asian American experience has been one in which people are used until they are no longer needed. It’s an experience with which Hagar was intimately acquainted.

Cultures of deception and invisibility are not logical, but they don’t require the truth to exact their exploitation. Seven years after the Page Act, the government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which banned all immigration from China. Consider, this was the same era as the Civil War during which the country went to war over whether people could be owned. It was during the same era when Jim Crow terror ran rampant through the nation. These racially discriminatory acts were approved by the same people who thought that African American people were biologically relegated to slavery, who imagined Black men as inherently violent, who subjected Black women to sexualized terror. Asian immigrants found out what Black people had long known, that a society built on white supremacy will lie about you, steal from you, and then eliminate you once you’re no longer deemed necessary.

This is the meaning of invisibility. It’s not just the state of being unseen. It’s that this status renders you profoundly vulnerable to the violent whims of white supremacy and misogyny.

Why did it take the massacre in Georgia to wake up so many non-Asian Americans to what Asian Americans have been saying for a long time? Too many of us had accepted the lies and in so doing had allowed people and their experiences to be rendered invisible.

But in the wilderness, Hagar learns to tell God’s truth. She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” (16:13) She encounters the truth. No longer is her reality defined by Sarai and Abram. Her future has been ordered by God. Even the son she carries bears witness to the truth; Ismael means the Lord has heard your misery. She is seen by God and she becomes to only person in the Old Testament to name God: You are the God who sees me. When she first encounters God in the wilderness, she narrates her experience through Sarai’s gaze. After, she views herself and her experience through the presence of God-who-sees-me.

When we understand that God sees us, the truth opens before us. The real truth, about God and about those who’ve been rendered invisible. Since the massacre, many Asian Americans have proclaimed, “We will not be silent.” This is an invitation to all of us. To tell all of God’s revealed truth. That God sees. That you are seen. That nothing can hide us from the loving and liberating gaze of our Creator.

Those who have been made invisible are sustained by the God-who-sees by telling the truth God reveals.

We are sustained by seeing what God sees.

“And he said, ‘Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?’ ‘I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,’ she answered.” (16:8) Hagar has run into the wilderness, away from the deception and invisibility, but what now? She does not know where she will God. She cannot see a way ahead.

What is it that you see right now? Do you see the pandemic, racial injustice, the endless cycle of gun violence? What do you see in your own life?

In the wilderness, Hagar comes to see what God sees. She can return to Sarai and Abram, temporarily, because she understands that the place of bondage has been transformed into a story of generational blessing. The wilderness, for Hagar, is not a place of further deception and invisibility; it becomes the place of God’s surprising provision for a good future.

Let’s admit that this is a hard truth about the wilderness. Our circumstances do not change in the manner and timeliness that we envision for ourselves. I once heard Author Ta-Nehisi Coates describe the reality for most enslaved Black people in this country. He said that they could survey their circumstances, those of their ancestors, and those of their children and see no reason to believe that freedom would ever come. But, he said, these circumstances were not enough to keep these women and men from actively pursuing their own liberation.

When you see what God sees, how you engage with a society that lies about you changes. Having seen what God sees, Hagar can speak to those responsible for lying to her. You saw a slave, but God saw the mother of a nation. You saw a commodity, but God saw one who bears his image. You saw something to dispense with, but God saw someone to entrust his plan to. You saw someone without a name, but God saw someone worthy to name the Creator of all things.

Do you see what God sees? Can you testify to what your God-opening eyes have seen? *They saw a racialized stereotype, but God sees you in the hidden place and loved you to life. They saw a body on which to project their dehumanizing desires, but God sees the hopes, longings, and imagination that could only be carried within your particular heart. They saw you and labeled you with a continent – Asian, African, Latina, but God sees – even if you cannot remember them yourself – the beautiful and indescribably complex particularities of place and people which run through your veins. They saw you but only when they wanted to see you and only how they wanted to see you and given the violence with which they looked at you oftentimes invisibility has felt safer to you, but God sees you – all the time, everywhere, accurately, joyfully. *

The Psalmist’s confession is a testimony to the safety of being seen by the Creator: (139:11-12) If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.

Those who have been made invisible are sustained by the God-who-sees by seeing what God sees.

We are sustained by taking up the space God gives us.

When we know that God sees us, we can tell the truth and see what God sees. But what is the impact? Watch what happens with Hagar. She goes back and, for the rest of the chapter, Sarai is not named. She becomes the only woman in Genesis to whom God promises descendants. So, what is happening. Having been seen by God, Hagar lives into her image of God-bearing nature and takes up the space God has given her. The injustice and suffering which had forced her withdrawal into invisibility is pushed back by her God’s gaze.

How do we, in this particular moment, as a multiracial congregation, take up the space God has given us? To begin with, we bring our full selves to our community. There was an urgent question the early church faced. Did Gentiles have to become culturally Jewish before becoming Christian. The answer, offered clearly and repeatedly, was no! The expectation was that new disciples of Jesus would bring with them all the particularities of their culture. Unfortunately, in many multiracial congregations we have overlooked this mandate. Functionally, we ask people to assimilate to cultural whiteness in order to belong. But this will kill our reconciling community. We need to bring your full self. And every time you do, you make room for someone else’s full self to be welcomed and expressed for the glory of God.

We also bring our full selves when we commit to making racial justice central to our Christian identity. This is not something we opt into or out of; this is central to our identity as the reconciled people of God. There are good reasons that some of us struggle with. Some grew up in homes where the immigrant memory was recent, and the expectation was to keep quiet and focused in order to attain the American Dream. Others of you are exhausted from the fight for racial justice, having placed your bodies on the line time and time again. You’ve shared your stories of trauma one too many times.

Yet the call to live as God’s beloved and reconciled people remains. For some of us, this means committing to speaking out and showing up in ways that tear through the deception and invisibility. For others, especially for some of the Black members of the community, this will mean trusting that others of us will show up and speak out so that you can prioritize rest and healing from the trauma this deceptive and plundering country has inflicted on you.

Finally, we take up the space God gives us by rooting ourselves in the awesome presence of the God-who-sees. I’m struck by the fact that, having met God in the wilderness, Hagar glories more in her encounter with God than in the promises God makes to her. I think this is because it is in worship that we learn to tell the truth and that we come to see what God sees. So, it is also in worship when we discover the space God has given us. A reconciling people who have been called into existence by the God-who-sees will always prioritize our regular, worshipful encounters with God. We know that there is no other way to be sustained in this lying and invisibilizing world.

Those who have been made invisible are sustained by the God-who-sees by taking up the space God gives us.

Conclusion

Today is Palm Sunday. We remember Jesus’ surprising entry into Jerusalem, crowds lining the streets singing his praises, welcoming their Messiah. Here was the one who had seen the children, women, and men who had been overlooked. He heard their voices and their longings. With a look and a word, Jesus tore away the invisibility and the lies. In his sight, these precious image-bearers learned to tell God’s truth, to see what their God saw, and to inhabit the space God called them to.

And now, the One who had made his home among the marginal and overlooked people, was the center of attention. But do not be confused. When Jesus proved a disappointment and a threat, he too was rendered dispensable. He would be misrepresented and mocked, his name would be slandered, and his body slammed to the ground. Already he’d been written off for where he’d come from and criminalized for who he spent his time with. As we make our way through Holy Week, we remember that our Savior was eliminated like so many other unseen and vulnerable people before and after.

And so, we remember too that our hope in this life never comes from what this lying world says about us. Our hope comes from the simple fact that, in our wilderness moments of desperation, God saw us. They tried to lie on you, but God saw you. They tried to diminish you, but God saw you. They tried to extinguish you, but God saw you. They tried to contain and commodify you, but God saw you. They tried to refuse and reject you, but God saw you. From a lonely and forsaken cross, lifted high, the crucified God saw you. The God-who-sees you would not look away from you. Would not overlook you. Would not allow your one precious life to be rendered invisible in his sight.

We join our petition and our praise with the psalmist, “Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God. Do not forget the helpless. Why does the wicked man revile God? Why does he say to himself, ‘He won’t call me to account’? But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted; you consider their grief and take it in hand. The victims commit themselves to you; you are the helper of the fatherless… You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, so that mere earthly mortals will never again strike terror.” (Psalm 10:12-14, 17-18)

Thanks be to God.

Ten Characteristics of Biblical Justice

I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

This week I spoke (online) at a church in California. They had assigned me the topic of biblical justice which ended up being a good excuse to think about what we might actually mean by that phrase.

Often, in my observation, there’s a certain kind of Christian who talks about biblical justice so as to assure other (nervous) Christians that they’re not dabbling in social justice. (Why that certain kind of Christian is nervous about social justice is a newsletter for another day.)

But despite this strange use of the word “biblical” to limit what is meant by justice, I am a Christian and one those for-real-for-real Bible-believing ones at that, so it seems reasonable that there could be some constructive ways of thinking about how the Bible helps us imagine justice. I ended up sharing ten characteristics of biblical justice with the California church, and I’m going to share them again here in a condensed form. Mostly I’m interested in what you think I missed. What’s another characteristic that should be on the list?

OK, without further ado, here’s my list along with a scripture or two for each.

1. Justice is God’s idea. (Deuteronomy 16:20) Justice might be new for some, but it’s been God’s idea since the beginning.

2. Justice is affirmed by Jesus. (Luke 4:18-19) For lot’s of good reasons, most of the Bible’s direct language about justice is found in the Old Testament. It doesn’t take long, though, to see how Jesus affirms his Father’s expectations that his people will seek justice.

3. Justice begins in worship. (Isaiah 5:16) Christians who’ve only recently woken up to the biblical concern for justice can easily miss the connection with worship. Don’t be that person.

4. Justice demonstrates God’s sovereignty. (Deuteronomy 4:40) God desires that all of the creation would flourish under a people living justly. When we live that way, we are demonstrating God’s caring sovereignty over the world.

5. Justice is social. (Exodus 23:6; Leviticus 25:1-5) That Leviticus passage is one of my favorites in the Bible. No, really! Here we see that God’s understanding of justice is one that includes all of the social fabric of the creation. Individuals matter but, biblically speaking, you can’t engage the individual outside of their social situation.

6. Justice prioritizes the truth. (Exodus 23:1-3; John 14:6) Christians will refuse to prioritize the comfort over the truth. (Which ends up being a lot harder than it sounds.)

7. Justice prioritizes the oppressed. (Exodus 20:9-10) I’m always amazed that the sabbath commandment includes “your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.” Those who were most vulnerable to exploitation were given the same weekly gift of non-productive rest. Could our own society be any more different?

8. Justice humbles the powerful. (Matthew 23:23-24) This privileged white man has way too many stories to illustrate this one.

9. Justice is a normal part of the gospel-anchored life. (Matthew 19:8-10) Zacchaeus is so instructive: confession and repentance lead him to do justice. Justice is not occasional for the Christian, but wrapped up in the normal stuff of the gospel on which we depend daily.

10. Justice leads to reconciliation. (Romans 3:25-26; 2 Corinthians 5:18-19) What does justice have to do with reconciliation/forgiveness? is a question I’ve been asked way too many times. Those of us who are rooted in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus understand the importance of justice being satisfied for genuine reconciliation to be accomplished.

All right, that’s my very incomplete list. I’m curious to know what you’d add.

Seeing Through Cruelty

When I arrive at Jackson Park, having walked briskly the fifteen minutes from our apartment and crossed the footbridge which, for me, marks the edge of the neighborhood and the beginning of the park, I instinctively slow down. In warmer months the swallows swoop from under the bridge, chasing the insects which skim across the surface of the lagoon before returning to their nests hidden somewhere beneath my feet. I often have the paths and trees to myself so, aside from the distant traffic on Lake Shore Drive to the east and Stony Island off to my right, there aren’t many noises to compete for what I’ve come listening for: the birds. Not that I actually know what I’m listening for; I don’t. Anything that sounds like it might be a bird gets my attention. And so I walk slowly, one of my ears cocked slightly toward the canopy, trying not just to hear but to listen.

Listening like this is new for me. This winter is only the second that I’ve made this walk my weekly habit and the difference between the two is that I’m just slightly more aware of how poorly I’ve noticed the birds that populate the alleys, shores, and parks around our neighborhood. I’m learning to listen, and to see.

This spring I stood still for a long time near a willow that leans over the lagoon. Small flashes of yellow caught my eye. The warbler was dancing from branch to branch, disappearing and then, suddenly, perched again within my view.

Yellow Warbler

The little bird kept circling where I’d stopped along the mulch-covered path. Why hadn’t she moved on? I wondered. Then she dropped into the branches of a very small tree, about the level of my chest, and I knew. I’d stumbled into her front yard, or maybe it was her back porch. Either way, for the rest of the summer I’d stop and look. Soon there were two small eggs, the size and shape of one of those foil-wrapped chocolates my boys might eat at Easter, a dull white and covered in brown speckles. She’d flit around my head during most of my visits, finally resigning herself to my intrusive presence and perching herself proudly on her delicately built nest.

I pointed my boys toward her nest during one of our walks and they strained to see. Eventually the eggs hatched and the mother and her young vacated their little home. They’re somewhere in Central America now- Guatemala, or maybe Panama. At least I hope they are.

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Earlier this year it was reported that, since 1970, the number of birds in Canada and the United States has dropped by almost 30%. There are something like 3 billion fewer birds today than there were then. Habitat loss from industrial scale agriculture and development along with pesticides which impact a bird’s ability to gain enough weight for migration seem to be the culprits. Warblers, like the responsible mother in Jackson Park, have been especially hard hit: their numbers have dropped by 617 million. It staggers the imagination.

When my boys walk through the park with me, looking and listening for birds, I think about these small deaths, staggering in scope. There is a meadow we walk through on our walks, the height of the grasses marking the time of year. A sign along the path informs the walker that this is the Bobolink Meadow, named after a species that used to frequent the area. Which other birds used to make the trees and fields along this lagoon their habitat? Which of the birds we are used to seeing are slowly, imperceptibly to my novice eyes, disappearing?

Black-Capped Chickadee

Reading about these massive population losses raises in me a sense of helplessness. How do we even begin thinking about reversing such a dramatic decline? There is an awful feeling of inevitability about these incomprehensible statistics. But of course, it isn’t inevitable. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) dates to 1918 and was meant to protect vulnerable populations of birds from their human neighbors, including “any part, nest, or egg of any such bird.” The MBTA is an explicit acknowledgement of our collective responsibility for the vulnerable birds with whom we share space and fate. It requires companies to take reasonable measures to protect birds and their habitats. But then, in 2017, the current presidential administration reinterpreted the MBTA so as to benefit industry and commerce. It’s the birds who’ve suffered.

In nearly two dozen incidents across 15 states, internal conversations among Fish and Wildlife Service officers indicate that, short of going out to shoot birds, activities in which birds die no longer merit action. In some cases the Trump administration has even discouraged local governments and businesses from taking relatively simple steps to protect birds, like reporting fatalities when they are found.

“You get the sense this policy is not only bad for birds, it’s also cruel,” Mr. Greenwald said.

Cruel. That’s the word I’ve returned to during this year of learning to listen and see. Columnist Elizabeth Bruenig wrote about this inhumane tendency last year, when word of the policy change was first announced.

They’re so easy to kill, birds; or rather, the power of human industry is so profound that only a little carelessness — the slightest abdication of that deeply human impulse to know and understand — is tremendously destructive for them. Perhaps this is why dead birds so often stand in literarily for human cruelty and corruption: Coleridge’s senselessly killed albatross in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” for example, or the titular species of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

But maybe that’s the heart of it, and maybe that’s the heart of the Trump era: permitting cruelty without consequence for the powerful. It’s harmful to the weak — birds, in this case, whose beauty needs no argument — but also to the strong who, in the exercise of cruelty, become less humane, less human.

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In her essay, Bruenig notes that in “the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus Christ tells His followers that not a single sparrow falls from the sky without God’s knowledge.” This is part of what makes the deaths of so many birds cruel, but I think there’s more to it. In the Bible, and especially in the Old Testament, birds and other animals are often portrayed with great tenderness; the worthiness of our concern seemingly self-evident. So the psalmist writes, in God’s voice, “I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine.” (Psalm 50:11)

This divine care for creatures is presumed upon God’s people as one of our responsibilities. In Deuteronomy, in a section of practical instructions about how to live well in their new land, the Hebrew people are told what not to do when happening upon a bird’s nest. If you come across a bird’s nest beside the road, either in a tree or on the ground, and the mother is sitting on the young or on the eggs, do not take the mother with the young. You may take the young, but be sure to let the mother go, so that it may go well with you and you may have a long life.” (22:6-7) Every time I stumble onto these verses I’m happily stunned by God’s concern for his people and for the animals within their care. And also by the explicit connection between the well-being of the birds and our own.

“His eye is on the sparrow,” sang Mahalia Jackson, “and I know He watches me.” But according to Scripture, my own eyes are also meant to be on the sparrows, finches, thrushes, sandpipers, and, one day maybe, the Bobolink.

Hermit Thrush

And this is where I’m caught short. The cruelty inflicted on the birds with whom I share a neighborhood is not some shapeless, inevitable thing. It is my own. The decimation of their habitats and their young is possible, in part, because of my own dumb and distracted plodding over land that isn’t mine, that I mistreat simply by not listening or seeing.

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A few days ago, during our Christmas visit to see family in Washington, we took the 90 minute ferry ride through the Puget Sound to Friday Harbor. There’s a used bookstore there, a few blocks up the hill from the harbor, and after lunch we spent some time browsing its overflowing shelves. Typically, when visiting a used bookstore, I make stops in theology, essays, and biography. But this year I’ve added to these what is alternatively called “nature,” “nature writing,” “the natural world,” and the like. In the Friday Harbor shop I found a gently worn hardcover copy of the Peterson Field Guide for eastern birds, perfect for Chicago and other Midwestern places I’m likely to find myself looking for birds.

This beautifully illustrated book was written in 1980 and as I thumbed through its pages I couldn’t help wondering about how many of the species could no longer be found in the places they used to frequent. It’s a terrible thing for a book to be out of date because millions and millions of its subjects have perished.

Walking to the counter and paying $10.00 for that book felt, even in the moment, something like delusion. But it also may have been a very small act of hope. That, by choosing to listen and see, there still might be a world of birds and people worth saving on the other side of our cruelty.