Greetings from your sisters and brothers of Iglesia Unida de Cristo
in Chapel Hill and from the students and faculty of David D. Jones
Elementary Spanish Immersion Magnet in Greensboro. You have made them
proud by inviting me here today to preach.
For those of you who hail from North Carolina, I hope that this service will make
you remember your state fondly. May you leave here with a renewed
commitment to North Carolina that makes you ask: How does what I do
today, bring my state closer to the kingdom of God? May you leave
determined to do everything in your power to help it be that little
peace of heaven that Tar Heel fans claim it already is.
For those of you who have never been to North Carolina, I have to ask: What are you
waiting for? An invitation? Well here it is: Y’all are all invited to
North Carolina. You want beaches? We have them. You want golf? You want mountains?
And no, the Department of Tourism didn’t pay me to sneak in a
commercial. But many of you are making decisions on a daily basis that
affect the people of North Carolina. We want you to come visit. Get to know us:
long-time residents and new, adopted citizens, including the half
million Hispanic/Latino residents who now call it home.
Ben Bradburn, my National Cathedral liaison, told me to “Just preach the
gospel.” This poses a very interesting challenge: to celebrate North
Carolina, while preaching the gospel.
Let’s look at our scriptures: Jeremiah, Luke, Colossians. Jeremiah was
not a prophet given to celebrating special days in the temple. His
message was an indictment of the religious and political leaders of his
day: “Woe unto you, shepherds of Israel,”and it landed him in a dried
well. No habeas corpus and no court-appointed defense council for him
But although the message was hard to stomach, the king would have been
better off listening to Jeremiah, and Jeremiah told him so (26:16–19).
He might have saved his kingdom if he had listened. If his people had
been without fear, unified and strengthened through righteous government
they might have averted the coming exile.
But the King and the ruling class were more interested in increasing
their power base, forming alliances, and gaining trading privileges,
than with achieving peace and prosperity for the working people–people
who lived in poverty and fear.
Jeremiah’s unwelcomed criticism of his society and its leaders was
nothing new. Over 100 years earlier, a foreigner had preached in Israel
saying that God was holding a plumb line to the wall and the edifice was
about to come down (Amos 7:7-15), and it did come down.
Amos, a native of Judah, had the courage to go north and call for
justice at a time when Israel was experiencing prosperity and its
leaders thought this was evidence of its “most favored
nation” status with God. Amos pointed out that increased trade had
brought wealth, but
not for everyone. That there was no social equilibrium: there was
incredible luxury for some (exotic vacations and impressive investment
portfolios) while more and more people lived in poverty. Corruption at
every level assured that “justice” was a function of how many friends
you had in the court.
Amos asks the leaders to hold up a plumb line to see what kind of house,
of society they are building. Amos tells the leaders of Israel: “I’ve
got a word for you from God: what you are building has to measure up.
It’s time for the test, and it’s really simple: is this a just society?
Is there peace and prosperity for everyone?”
What do you think Amos and Jeremiah would have to say about our nation?
What would they say…
- about families facing crises brought about by lack of insurance and
below-living wage jobs.
- of children in poor, low-performing schools who are bused away to
unwelcoming so-called “options,”while their schools loose
the scarce funding they needed to improve.
- about people working two jobs and still
finding themselves in the homeless shelter.
- about our immigration policies that leave bodies in the desert.
- about the hard working immigrants who are helping prop up our
economy but are exploited and live in fear, not of terrorists, but of
our own bureau of Citizenship and Immigration.
To bring about the kingdom of God that Jeremiah and Amos preached, we
would have to be measuring each decision, private and corporate, to see
if it is building a society that is fair and just and protects its most
Here’s the amazing thing: the prophets are holding a plumb line to us—as
individuals and as a community—for our own good. Because God loves us
and wants us to partake of his kingdom. Because by acknowledging where
the wall is not straight and fixing it, we will be building a life not
just pleasing to God, but full of God’s presence and God’s love.
Living by God’s standards sometimes feels extremely risky. Jeremiah’s
listeners understood: stop lining your pockets and accepting profitable
contracts where you get rich by exploiting your workers. Stop using
scare tactics to prop up your rule and exercise political control. Stop
making secret deals with corrupt rulers, and bring to the people you are
charged to care for prosperity and peace.
Jeremiah tells us the leadership had failed to serve God/ to lead the
people. The rulers used the power of the monarchy and the pomp and the
splendor of religious ritual to call their people to war. The temple had
become an icon marketed for tax and war purposes. The shepherds, or
leaders, have forgotten that their positions of power come with a great
responsibility to care for the people. They use the inevitable coming of
war with Babylon to divert the people’s attention from the more systemic
problem that injustice poses. The poor end up in military service while
the rich get richer from the profits of war.
In North Carolina, we know something about failed leadership. In the last year we’ve
watched an elected official go to prison for using state contracts to
win an election. We’ve watched the trial of Lynndie England and heard
the testimony of a medic who was called to the Abu Ghraib prison to
treat abused prisoners. We’ve seen the District Attorney in Alamance
county use voter registration lists and his newly acquired powers under
the Patriot Act to intimidate Hispanic voters. We have watched millions
cut from our education budget, and we’re watching the re-segregation of
our schools. We’re watching the furniture industry and the textile
industry leave our state and the unemployed workers struggle to buy the
cheap WalMart version of the products they once manufactured. And in the
face of desperate need for education and retraining in our state, we’ve
held our breath while the senate debated the Perkins Vocational and
Technical Education Act.
Jeremiah claims there is hope: a new branch from the house of David–as
Christians we read this as Jesus. All our texts today speak of fear, yet
the new ruler will bring peace and will rule with justice.
Now, there are many ways of being a servant-leader. My friend and
colleague, Rev. Alma Purvis, who toils every day in my school as
curriculum facilitator, and leaves tired to the bone, but goes on to the
Beloved Community Center to help organize the truth-and-reconciliation
march and to organize parents in the housing projects.
Doña Elena, widowed mother of 12 and refugee from Colombia, who is a
housekeeper 50 hours per week—no holidays, no overtime, no health
care—is also a deacon at Iglesia Unida and a health promoter in our
community, organizing children’s programs and teaching young immigrants
how to care for their babies and insure their children’s health.
Jesus says that even if we give a glass of water to the thirsty, we’ve
rendered service unto him. And I’m sure you are each performing many
good works. I read about a group of representatives, senators and
staffers building together a “Habitat for Humanity” home. That’s a good
thing. When important, busy people find time to mentor students, or
volunteer at a soup kitchen, that’s a good thing.
But that’s not leadership that will bring about the kingdom of God.
Those are acts of mercy and kindness. Jeremiah’s talking here about a
whole nation, not the deserving poor we choose to favor. We’re talking
about EVERYONE deserving to live without fear. Whether they live in
blue villages or red villages. Whether they have well-connected Rabbis
or are still waiting for the temple to issue them green cards.
Today we celebrate across denominations Christ the King day. That church
Peter was given charge of recognizes only one head: Christ. We should
lead like he led, serving the people he came to serve: those on the
margins and those condemned by society like the thief on the cross, for
whom Jesus still found grace and forgiveness in our gospel passage.
Colossians reminds us that Christ was that perfect shepherd. A servant
leader who valued justice and mercy above his own life.
In the context of a global economy, where corporations have more power
than many national governments; where there are still 20 million human
beings living in slavery; in a world where there are some who are
working to destroy us, some have questioned the relevance of the gospel.
Can we really listen to scripture and build the kingdom of God? Can we
afford to follow a servant leader who seeks reconciliation and peace?
The scriptures answer emphatically: (Colossians 1) May you be made
strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may
you be prepared to endure everything… He has rescued us from the power
of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in
whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
When Benji was about 3 years old, we took him to see a concert at the
college where my husband Mike taught. Mike, a former percussionist, had
been recruited by the music faculty to help with a piece by playing the
cymbals at a couple of critical points. Not long after that, somebody
asked Benji what his dad did at the college. He said. He stands up in
front of the people and does “chass.”
While it is a tremendous honor to be here, it would be a poor legacy
indeed if my children could only say about me, “she preached at the
National Cathedral.”Or about you, “He was interviewed on Meet the
Press.” “He stood up in the senate and… [chass]” The words “a clanging
cymbal”come to mind (1 Cor. 13).
What will we have accomplished to build a kingdom that honors our Lord?
What did we do to bring peace and prosperity to the poor? To bring
peace? Christ commanded us to be like him. Could you extend the grace
and love he did? Probably not? But we could do a whole lot better than
we are doing. It’s time to move beyond band-aid solutions that rescue
the cute, lovable individuals and look at the health of the whole flock.
It’s time to do some sheep-tending that truly honors God in Christ.
North Carolina is called the land of the Long Leaf Pine. And there is
here is to the land of the Long Leaf Pine,
the summer land where the sun doth shine,
where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great,
here is to down home, to the old North state.
Maybe that is how we can celebrate North Carolina and be what the
Kingdom of God asks us to be: leaders who make sure that the weak grow
strong and that all have the opportunity to grow great.
From North Carolina we will continue to pray that God will give
you–our shepherds and leaders–courage and strength. Amen.