“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?
“I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.”
Like the partridge that gathers a brood that she did not hatch, so is he who gets riches but not by justice; in the midst of his days they will leave him, and at his end he will be a fool.” ( Jeremiah 17: 9-11 )
What does one say, in days such as these?
Earlier this week, the president of our denomination - The Evangelical Covenant Church - issued a public statement denouncing, in an official capacity, the myth of ‘white supremacy’ as a concept and ideological pursuit. It’s a fine statement. You should read it. ( HERE ) What cripples the mind to consider, at this point, is that it was and is a NECESSARY statement. That it should be necessary, to officially and publicly declare that which most(?) would have hoped to be an uncontested conviction in our day.
Two hundred and forty-one years ago, the framers of our nation declared it “self-evident” that “all men** are created equal”; centuries later, we continue to prove them overly optimistic regarding the nature of “self-evidence”. I am afraid that it could be said of them (and of us) that they simply regarded the insidious, systemic nature of human sin far too lightly. That sin, which blinds us to the good and evident. That sin, which imprisons us in self-referential hellishness, exclusion, violence and tribalism. In the end, it would seem the unvarnished truth is that, as a people, we are simply uglier and even LESS righteous than we may ever find the courage to admit, apart from a revealing work of the sanctifying, holy grace of God in our hearts and minds. Lord, have mercy.
It’s a truly difficult thing - perhaps the most difficult thing - to stand before a mirror and face oneself with genuine, ruthless honesty. The human heart is an enduringly deceitful, defensive, self-inclined thing, you see. But to look upon ourselves and risk such honesty is precisely what we as a nation - and even more painfully, as a Church - must do. We dare not abide the temptation to look away from that ugliness which we are seeing brought to light, day by day. We dare not continue to deceive ourselves. The cross of Christ declares that sin and evil and the deadly consequences thereof cannot simply be ignored, or wished away; they must be FACED, engaged with, and overcome by nothing short of the resurrection power of Jesus himself. If we are to truly be a Gospel people, there is no recourse but to submit ourselves to face our own ugliness and evil, even as we take the strength to do so from Jesus’ rescuing word of grace spoken over us. To repent, and believe the Good News; to find in the Gospel that hope for restoration which draws forth true repentance; the tears of repentance and the unspeakable joy of grace are inseparable in the life of the follower of Jesus. Yet too often, we aspire to lay hold of grace apart from - or as an escape from - the need to allow Jesus to strip us of our self-deception and reveal to us that which we truly are: sinners in need of saving, rebels in need of pardon, blind men in need of sight, dead men in need of life. It is an uncomfortable thing to find oneself so exposed, and given almost any choice at all we will avoid it.
In case it is unclear; as a nation, this has been a year (not to mention, a week) in which we have been together exposed anew in the light of our most enduring and fundamental corporate sins. We are in the midst of an acute crisis of leadership, to be sure, but the greater burden of shame lies in the fact that the discomforting, petulant ugliness of this leadership is so clearly a reflection of who we are, as a people. In the racism of our leadership, we are faced with our own racism. In their complicity, we face our own complicity. In their ambivalence toward evil, we hear the echoes of our own ambivalence. The trouble is not that the ugliness and evil that we find ourselves accosted by in the news cycle of late “Isn’t who we are”; but that it IS who we are! The mirror, as they say, doesn’t lie. But the heart will determine whether or not we will face and acknowledge that truth which the mirror reveals, or choose to deflect and explain it away. True grace is not that we need not face our own ugliness, but that in doing so we need not be overcome, or continue to be enslaved by it; it is as Christ himself sets us free that we will be free indeed! And it genuinely matters that we be set free. Not just for our own sake, but for that of our brothers and sisters as well.
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” This is the question Cain poses to God in Genesis chapter 4, in reference to the brother he had recently murdered and buried in a field. It’s not ACTUALLY a question, of course, but a deflection; God’s inquiring after Cain’s brother, Abel, implies that the Creator understands mutual care, belonging and responsibility to be embedded in the social contract of the human family, which Cain had dramatically violated in killing his brother in an act of jealous rage. Cain’s deflection betrays his guilt, which the Lord was of course already well aware of. And in doing so, the question answers itself; both for Cain, and for us. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer is, Yes, of course I am. Of course, we are. Yet the story of humankind is one in which the violence and deflection of Cain repeats itself, family by family, tribe by tribe, and generation by generation.
In our brokenness, self-interest and fear, we make enemies of and enact violence and oppression upon those who are, in truth, our brothers and sisters. We vilify and victimize, rather than keep and care. We build and defend oppressive power structures. We foster self-protective anger towards anyone we might perceive as “other”, rather than self-giving love for our neighbor. For those of us journeying in the Way of Christ, this must not be. As author Steve Wiens has put it, as followers of Jesus we declare that, "Something is wrong if (our) own flourishing is dependent on (our) brother not flourishing.” Rather, in the economy of the Kingdom, the love of Christ compels as to actively, sacrificially, seek the healing, wholeness and flourishing of our neighbors and our cities; it is in the pursuit of their Shalom that we experience our own. This is simply the eternal, inescapable nature of the God we encounter in Christ. As such, ANY time the name and cross of Jesus is invoked in a spirit - or in defense of - of hatred, violence, nationalism or self-protective fear, we may know with certainty that we have long departed from the way of truth.
Friends, in the name of what is true, what is good, and for the pursuit of Christ’s honor, we must stand before the mirror and face ourselves, as a nation and as a Church. This very week we have seen white supremacists, Nazi flags and torches marching in the streets of these United States, in defense of confederate ideology and legacy, while chanting anti-semitic slogans harkening back to Hitler's Germany. A related act of domestic terrorism has left one dead and many injured. The national leader elected in large part due to a groundswell of support among self-identifying Evangelical Christians has been dramatically exposed in his ongoing complicity and sickness of heart; unable to muster the moral fortitude and integrity to genuinely rebuke that which is clearly evil, opposed to both the character of God and the most fundamental aspirations of our nation.
We must summon strength enough to see. We must seek integrity enough to mourn. We cannot continue to abide in silence, deflection, and self-deception; this is the leadership we - as a people - have chosen. This vacillating, capricious, self-indulgent ugliness mirrors the condition of our own hearts; hearts which the Lord seeks and knows, hearts which are laid bare in the presence of Christ, hearts which in grace the Lord seeks to restore to righteousness should we submit ourselves to receive that restoration. But restoration flows forth from repentance, and repentance presumes our willingness to see; we are our brother’s keeper, but as a people, we have not kept our brother well; these brothers and sisters we have been given of EVERY tribe, nation, and family, made neighbor to us both by geography and grace. Where flesh and fear have sown the seeds of hatred, we have too often failed to bring Love. May the goodness and mercy of the Lord reveal to us the truth.
Here at The Commons, we count Isaiah 58 the “seed verse” for our family of faith, and it is appropriate to remember and speak these words to one another again, during these days:
“Is not THIS the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
THEN shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
THEN you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
And the LORD will guide you continually
and satisfy your desire in scorched places
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.
And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in.”
In these days, we pray: Lord, make it so. Make US so; a people of mercy, of restoration, of peace; in your name, by your power, and in our day.
With prayers, in Grace and Truth,
(** By which they meant "land-owning, white males."; a limited vision of human equality the legacy of which continues to bear fruit in the sins and struggles of our own day. )
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?