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.

Proclaiming Freedom

 8 The word came to Jeremiah from the Lord after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to proclaim freedom for the slaves. Everyone was to free their Hebrew slaves, both male and female; no one was to hold a fellow Hebrew in bondage. 10 So all the officials and people who entered into this covenant agreed that they would free their male and female slaves and no longer hold them in bondage. They agreed, and set them free. 11 But afterward they changed their minds and took back the slaves they had freed and enslaved them again. 12 Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: 13 “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I made a covenant with your ancestors when I brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I said, 14 ‘Every seventh year each of you must free any fellow Hebrews who have sold themselves to you. After they have served you six years, you must let them go free.’ Your ancestors, however, did not listen to me or pay attention to me. 15 Recently you repented and did what is right in my sight: Each of you proclaimed freedom to your own people. You even made a covenant before me in the house that bears my Name. 16 But now you have turned around and profaned my name; each of you has taken back the male and female slaves you had set free to go where they wished. You have forced them to become your slaves again. 17 “Therefore this is what the Lord says: You have not obeyed me; you have not proclaimed freedom to your own people. So I now proclaim ‘freedom’ for you, declares the Lord—‘freedom’ to fall by the sword, plague and famine. I will make you abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth. 18 Those who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces. 19 The leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the court officials, the priests and all the people of the land who walked between the pieces of the calf, 20 I will deliver into the hands of their enemies who want to kill them. Their dead bodies will become food for the birds and the wild animals. 21 “I will deliver Zedekiah king of Judah and his officials into the hands of their enemies who want to kill them, to the army of the king of Babylon, which has withdrawn from you. 22 I am going to give the order, declares the Lord, and I will bring them back to this city. They will fight against it, take it and burn it down. And I will lay waste the towns of Judah so no one can live there.” (Jeremiah 34:8-22)

Band at the 1900 Juneteenth celebration at Eastwoods Park

Introduction

One of the challenges of commemorating Juneteenth is the tendency to view it safely through the soft-filter of history. If we received the typical American miseducation than we’ve been left with a hazy recollection of those Civil War years and the decade following when formerly enslaved African Americans began building homes, families, schools, and business only to have, in the words of Carol Anderson, white rage respond in the form of Jim Crow laws, domestic terrorism, and mobocracy. Juneteenth, a day to remember the delayed proclamation of freedom, resonates with those former days, but does it resonate today?

According to the Center for Law and Justice, the USA imprisons more people than any other country: we have 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners; we incarcerate 2.4 million people and POC represent 60% of those imprisoned; 1 in 8 black men in their 20’s are imprisoned; 13% are disenfranchised because of a record of incarceration; between 1997-2007 the number of women in prison increased by 832%. We spend almost 70 billion annually on prison, probation, parole, & detention. In 2015 the largest private prison corporation made 3.5 billion dollars. In 2017 the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency reportedly locked up close to 40,000 people, including some children and youth who’ve been separated from their families for months at a time. Most immigrant detention centers are run by private corporations, some of the largest which have direct ties to the current presidential administration and have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to its campaign.[1]

Unjust, state-sanctioned captivity which enriches shareholders and the politically connected is not a relic of our past; it is a reality that continues today. It manifests in racially unjust sentencing, in dehumanized migrants, in financial exploitation of the poor, and – if we’re willing to be very honest – the comfortable middle-class lives that many of us take for granted.

This sinful instinct to plunder someone’s body for my benefit is an ancient one. We see it in this passage from the prophet Jeremiah. God’s people had broken their covenant with God by refusing to free those who had sold themselves into slavery. Instead of setting them free as God had commanded, they kept them in captivity for their personal gain. And the response could not have been more direct: God condemned Israel’s leaders for breaking the covenant by enslaving their fellow Hebrews.

As we open our eyes to this nation – as we open our eyes to the wealth, middle-class stability, and global security built directly upon genocide and enslavement – as we open our eyes it is essential that we hear the voice of God with extreme clarity. God judges those who enslave. God condemns those who passively benefit from systems of exploitation and plunder. Or to say the same thing positively: God is on the side of the oppressed, the enslaved, the exploited, and the captives. God is a God of freedom, liberation, and salvation. And so today, as we do our best to position ourselves among the lineage of Juneteenth saints who commemorated a freedom that might be delayed but could never be denied, today the message for us is this: The liberating God sends us to confront every earthly captivity with divine freedom.

We are surrounded by situations of captivity. There remain enslavers around us for whom our fellow-image-bearers of God are nothing more than resources to exploit. So let the Word of God speak boldly today: The liberating God sends us to confront every earthly captivity with divine freedom. We see this mandate in our passage first through God’s intention, then through Israel’s failure, and finally through God’s intervention.

God’s Intention

12 If any of your people—Hebrew men or women—sell themselves to you and serve you six years, in the seventh year you must let them go free. 13 And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. 14 Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you. 15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. – Deuteronomy 15:12-15

God’s covenant allowed for a kind of indentured servitude that benefited those who’d become indebted beyond relief. On the 7th year, the sabbatical year, the land was to rest and slaves went free. But not only did they go free, there were given material resources to decrease the likelihood that they’d return to slavery.

There were two important reminders within this covenant: God rescued you and God alone is sovereign. The people’s identities were no longer determined by someone who claimed ownership over their lives. They were children of God. And only God could claim power or authority over their lives.

In this country, slave owners generally tried to keep those they enslaved from learning to read. Practically this kept them from forging emancipation papers or following news of slave rebellions. But they also feared what would happen if these women and men began reading Scripture and encountered the God of freedom.

Denmark Vesey

They were right to be afraid. When enslaved people like Denmark Vesey learned to read, they began building coalitions to overthrow their enslavers. As Ibram X. Kendi writes in Staped from the Beginning, “Vesey likely spent time teaching, motivating, and encouraging fellow enslaved Blacks and challenging the racist ideas they had consumed, perhaps regularly reciting the biblical story of the Israelites’ deliverance from Egyptian bondage.”

Though his rebellion was betrayed, people like Vesey saw through the slave owners’ lies to the truth of God’s covenant. They were not slaves but image-bearers of God and those who claimed ownership over them were not their masters, but rebels defying the God of freedom.

Vesey and others knew God’s intention. If we are to be sent by the liberating God to confront captivity, we too must remember God’s intentions. The liberating God sends us to confront every earthly captivity with divine freedom.

Do you know God’s intentions for you? Who you really are? Who God is for you?

Both the marginalized and the privileged are confronted by this covenant. You are a child of God. No one but God is sovereign over your life.

Israel’s Failure (and ours)

Understanding God’s intention helps us to see the extent of Israel’s failure, and our own.

Jerusalem was besieged by Babylon. Soon the city would fall, it’s walls and temple razed and its people sent into exile.

But at this point there was a pause in the action. King Zedekiah had been desperate. He realized that his people had broken covenant by enslaving fellow Hebrew with no promise to release them. So he called the enslavers to temple for covenant and they agreed to set slaves free [34:10]. But then the siege stopped and the former slave owners, as though the ancient spirit of Pharaoh had possessed them, changed their minds [34:11]. They took their own people captive again.

To rightly understand the history of this country we must see the persistent theme of The one group of Christians enslaving another. Early one the debate was whether enslaved people could be baptized. The answer at first was obvious. No, for then they would have to be freed. But this was problematic since these were, after all, Christian slave owners. And so new possibilities were explored.

The Virginia House of Burgesses wrote in 1699 that, “The gross bestiality and rudeness of [Africans’] manners, the variety and strangeness of their languages, and weakness and shallowness of their minds, render it in a manner impossible to make any progress in their conversion.”

Cotton Mather

The well-known Cotton Mather, believing in rigid social hierarchy between slave and master, picked up a similar theme in his writings directed to enslaved Christians of African descent. “You are better fed and better clothed, and better managed by far, than you would be, if you were your own men.”

In order to justify enslaving fellow-Christians, white people developed a racial hierarchy based on an unchangeable racial construction. In so doing, white Christians gave more authority to the racial categories of their own making than the baptismal waters commanded by Christ.

And so the state of Virginia could legalize the racist and heretical claim that “the conferring of baptisme doth not ater the condition of the person as to his bondage.”

We’ve never repented of this history. Not really.

Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, writes,

[We] are very confused when we start talking about race in this country because we think that things are “of the past” because we don’t understand what these things really are, that narrative of racial difference that was created during slavery that resulted in terrorism and lynching, that humiliated, belittled and burdened African Americans throughout most of the 20th century. The same narrative of racial difference that got Michael Brown killed, got Eric Garner killed and got Tamir Rice killed. That got these thousands of others — of African Americans — wrongly accused, convicted and condemned. It is the same narrative that has denied opportunities and fair treatment to millions of people of color, and it is the same narrative that supported and led to the executions in Charleston.

Each of us would strongly agree about the wickedness of slavery, lynching, and mass incarceration. But consider again the statistics from the beginning of sermon. Do they not betray our ongoing belief in the narrative of racial difference?

In an op-ed in last week’s LA Times Jonathan Katz wrote about our current immigration crisis [2]:

Photos from a Border Patrol processing center in El Paso showed people herded so tightly into cells that they had to stand on toilets to breathe. Memos surfaced by journalist Ken Klippenstein revealed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s failure to provide medical care was responsible for suicides and other deaths of detainees. These followed another report that showed that thousands of detainees are being brutally held in isolation cells just for being transgender or mentally ill.

Also last week, the Trump administration cut funding for classes, recreation and legal aid at detention centers holding minors — which were likened to “summer camps” by a senior ICE official last year. And there was the revelation that months after being torn from their parents’ arms, 37 children were locked in vans for up to 39 hours in the parking lot of a detention center outside Port Isabel, Texas. In the last year, at least seven migrant children have died in federal custody.

The narrative of racial difference that allowed white enslavers to baptize the women and men in their possession remains at work today. Perhaps not in our intentions, but certainly in the outcomes we’ve all agreed are the reasonable collateral damage of our empire.

If God is a God of freedom than we must ask, Are we on the side of freedom?           

Whose captivity are we benefiting from? Whose exploitation props up our privilege? Whose enslavement are we willing to tolerate for our comfort?

Whose bodies are we willing to sacrifice to the demon of incarceration? Whose families are suitable to be torn apart by border walls? Upon whose vulnerable ancestral lands will we condone drone warfare, debilitating sanctions, and the first devastating impacts of climate change?

If we are to be sent by the liberating God to confront captivity with freedom, we must confess our failure to reflect God’s intentions.

God’s Intervention

If the crucifixion of the son of God reveals anything it is that God intervenes in situations of captivity and enslavement.

God’s wrath was poured out on the people who claimed his name while re-enslaving their fellow-Hebrews. This intervention feels like condemnation to the oppressor and like liberation to the captives.

It is the oppressor’s instinct to separate spiritual salvation from physical freedom. But the God encountered by those women and men who celebrated the first Juneteenth pronouncement made no such false distinction. Spiritual freedom was physical salvation.

Jesus said of himself, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” [John 8:36] We have been conditioned to imagine a kind of spiritual freedom when we hear this promise. And that’s true, it’s just that spiritual includes everything. After all, when we see God’s passion for liberation in Jeremiah 34, we have to conclude that Jesus, the Son of God, carried that same passion.

He was born into captivity. His families knew generations of exile and occupation (. He grew up among the lynched bodies of his countrymen hung from crosses along highways. He watched generational land taxed into the hands of foreigners, religious leaders in the pocket of the Empire’s representatives, and political leaders beholden to those whose fortunes came from the plunder of war.

So what did the outcasts and the marginalized hear when Jesus pronounced freedom?

Did they satisfy themselves with heavenly promises of a one-day salvation? Did they imagine a God who cared nothing for their suffering as long as their souls had been saved? Were spiritual songs and well-delivered sermons an adequate response to state-sanctioned murder and theft? Within a situation of captivity in which they were made the laughing-stock of the empire, was it enough to know that God loved them… spiritually?

Or did they hear something else when Jesus spoke of freedom and salvation?

Could it be that when Jesus said, you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free, the Galilean peasants heard echoes of Jeremiah’s God? [John 8:32] The God who judged the enslaver; who refused to forget the Sabbath year of liberation and restoration, the God who pronounced Jubilee over captivity?

Might they have remembered their ancestors’ stories and songs of the God who spoke to Moses through a burning bush, who said to him: 7 “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey. [Exodus 3:7-8]

Is it possible that when Jesus stood in the synagogue and proclaimed,  The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, those in the crowd who’d been made poor thought he was talking to them? And when he went on to claim that God, has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, those who’d been bound and bruised by the empire understood that their liberation was at hand? And when he concluded that he had come, to set the oppressed free,to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, the entire crowd woke up to that ancient vision of Jubilee, when no one was without land, home, or dignified work; where no one oppressed or exploited their neighbor? [Luke 4:18-19]

History records that after the Juneteenth pronouncement on that summer day in Galveston, TX in 1865, some of the enslavers tried to talk the women and men they’d exploited and abused into staying.

But when a captive people who’ve encountered the liberating God hear freedom pronounced, there is no confusion about what to do next. When a people who’ve been made captive understand their true identity as the children of God, understand that God alone is sovereign and no so-called slave master can claim actual power over your life, there is no confusion about what to do next. You get free! You live free!

Because God intervenes in situations of enslavement, we can confront every earthly captivity with divine freedom.

Conclusion

The liberating God sends us to confront every earthly captivity with divine freedom. We live between Christ’s resurrection and his return. We live between the Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth Celebration. Victory has been won. Slavery and captivity have been abolished. And yet the spiritual forces of enslavement and captivity still plot their insurgencies, still coerce sinful exploitation and plunder.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. [Galatians 5:1] And yes Christ has set our souls free from the spiritual captivity to sin, but let us never reduce the liberating work of our Savior to the interior status of our souls. After all, he is the one who touched the lepers’ wounds, and rubbed healing mud on a blind man’s eyes, and offered fish and loaves to feed multitudes of hungry people. He’s the Savior who drew near to the outcasts, spoke words of life to the peasants who’d been driven from their land, and allowed his body to be rolled over by the bloody wheels of the empire… for us and our salvation.

It is for freedom that we have been set free. In a world that hasn’t heard of its emancipation, we are called to be a Juneteenth people. Among a people who assume their captivity to be final, we have been sent to proclaim freedom. To the enslavers, exploiters, kidnappers, and thieves, we are sent to brazenly and bravely announce the judgment of the God who sides with refugees and migrants, children who’ve been separated from their parents, and parents whose children have been snatched by state-sanctioned and politically-orchestrated violence.

The liberating God is looking for a generation of free people to proclaim freedom over every place of captivity. Will you go? Will you resist the tendency to so spiritualize your freedom that you pose no threat to enslavers and captains of empire? Will you proclaim the singular Lordship of Jesus Christ in response to every idol and ideology? Will you remember the chains that held you back- back from the God who created you, back from the flourishing future for which you were created? Will you remember, as the Scripture says, that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm?

The liberating God is proclaiming freedom over the desperate migrant and the landless refugee. Will we join him? The liberating God is proclaiming freedom over every child whose future is assumed to be written by underfunded schools and intentionally segregated neighborhoods. Will we join him? The liberating God is proclaiming freedom over the sisters and brothers whose ancestors built this nation’s wealth with their blood and bodies. We will join him? The liberating God is proclaiming freedom over every single place of captivity, over every single dehumanized image-bearer of the holy God. Today this God sings songs of salvation, freedom, and deliverance over this captive world. Will you join him?


[1] https://eji.org/news/private-prison-population-skyrockets; https://immigrantjustice.org/staff/blog/ice-released-its-most-comprehensive-immigration-detention-data-yet; http://www.cflj.org/programs/new-jim-crow/new-jim-crow-fact-sheet/; https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/04/us/migrant-families-contractors-campaign-contributions.html

[2] https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-katz-immigrant-concentration-camps-20190609-story.html?fbclid=IwAR2NlZtTN1IVophhiTjel9N0cHJWrOU-Fi0ybS3wpg2EhFMueM207On0tkg

“There is no good news in religion for those who have not turned or cannot turn. “

The first element of this [Christian] uniqueness is that the Christian faith glorifies as Son of God a man who was degraded and dehumanized by his fellow human beings as much as it is possible to be, by decree of both church and state, and that he died in a way designed to subject him to utmost contempt and finally to erase him from human memory.

The second unique feature of the Christian gospel… is its central message of the justification of the ungodly (Rom. 4:5; 5:6). In this, the biblical story differs radically from any other religious, philosophical, or ethical system ever known. Every other system, including rabbinic Judaism and some varieties of gnostic teaching from within Christianity itself, assumes some sort of distinction between godly and ungodly, righteous and unrighteous, spiritual and unspiritual. In its radical form, the Christian gospel declares, “It is written, ‘None is righteous, no, not one; / no one understands, no one seeks for God”… and “there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:10-11, 22-23)…

The only provision in religion for the ungodly is to turn to religion. There is no good news in religion for those who have not turned or cannot turn. A crucial aspect of the radical newness of the Christian gospel is the word it speaks precisely to those “without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).

Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.
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This comes from the first couple of paragraphs of the last chapter in Rutledge’s exquisite book about the crucifixion and the many atonement motifs the church has imagined in order to attempt to understand the scope of what God accomplished on that cross. These two paragraphs are representative of something the former pastor does so well: while diving deep into the theology she never loses the plot; the particular distinctiveness of the Christian story runs from beginning to end of her study.

There were countless moments of new or fresh insight in the months I spent with this book but there were at least as many times when I thought, “Yes! Exactly. This is why I’m a Christian.” Time and again Rutledge turns her attention to the worst of our sinful human instincts and shows how the crucifixion is more than enough to withstand them. Situated within an apocalyptic war between God and the forces of evil, Jesus’ faithfulness unto death is the decisive word that God’s cosmic salvation has won the ages.