Sermon, Spiritual

thirsting for dangerous memory: a good friday sermon

I was invited to be one of the preachers for the Last Seven Words Service at Church on the Hill AME Zion Church, NYC. I took the fifth phrase: “I am thirsty.” 

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Crucifixion by an unknown Ethiopian Artist

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. (John 19:28-29)

I can remember a time when it was popular for pastors to preach a sermon series on the “I am” statements found in John’s Gospel. To name a few of the “I am” statements in John:
I am the bread of life
I am the light of the world
I am the good shepherd
I am the resurrection and the life
I am the way, the truth, and the life

These statements point to the divinity to Christ, since in the book of Exodus when Moses asked for God’s name, the response from the burning bush was “I am that I am.” And so every time Jesus says. “I am,” we are to recall the God of Exodus. The God who liberated a people out of slavery. A God who guides through the wilderness.

And yet, the same one who said “I am the bread of life” also said “I am thirsty.” Though “I am thirsty” as an “I am” statement has been overlooked. Perhaps because of how concrete it is.

Jesus is dying, bleeding, gasping for breath, and has the most essential human need: thirst.

This is such a potent moment in John’s Gospel. This is the first-time Jesus eats or drinks anything in John. While in the other Gospels, Jesus eats and drinks with tax collectors, the unclean, and sex workers, John’s Gospel saves this moment while Christ is on the cross. In a way, John’s Gospel is making these words have so much more depth.

 

It takes nearly the entire book of John for Jesus to show his humanity. But better late than never.

And in this moment of suffering and thirst, I think it’s important to incorporate what is called Dangerous Memory.

This idea was created around the time of the Holocaust by Jewish cultural critic and theologian Walter Benjamin, who wrote “To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize “how it really was.” It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger.” In other words, history is the story we tell ourselves, but then we must be intentional to ask “Who’s story is being told?” Walter Benjamin focused on the underclasses of society and told it from their perspective.

On this Good Friday, how can we not, but stand back and ask who else in our world thirsts? And I do not mean this in an abstract way, but actually who is parched, looking for water.

It has been 1085 days since there’s been clean water in Flint, MI.
1085 days of children not being able to drink out of school water fountains.
1085 days of pregnant women using bottled water to clean themselves.
1085 days in a city of almost 100,000 people trying to survive.
And still. And still. And still. The people of Flint thirst just as Christ did on the cross.

Christ thirsts, Justice thirsts.

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Placards posted above water fountains warn against against drinking the water at Flint Northwestern High School in Flint, Michigan, in May, 2016. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Last year, I went on a peace delegation to Iraqi Kurdistan. We met with villages where oil companies had come in and started extracting oil. The extraction had destroyed their land and water source. At each of these villages, they showed us where they had wells and how they’re now full of extraction chemicals unworthy to consume the water. Some of these villages had kind neighbors let them use their water source, but many of them have to go into the cities and buy bottled water. My group visited a merely 3 villages out of 800 who are the affected. The villagers of Iraqi Kurdistan thirst just as Christ did on the cross.

Christ thirsts, Justice thirsts.

In the desert that connects Arizona and Mexico many migrants die in hopes of a better life. They die of starvation and thirst. In the 90’s, an organization was created called No More Deaths, which sets out gallons of water for these travelers. Yet, they cannot get to every desert hopeful. The migrants from Latin and South America thirst just as Christ did on the cross.

Christ thirsts, Justice thirsts.

After listening to moments of current thirsts, here’s what I propose: “I am thirsty” should be included in canon of “I am” statements. We must not disconnect Christ’s reality on the cross to those who thirst in our world. But this also means that we cannot sit idly by while others thirst.

I too find it peculiar that it in our reading it says “they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth..” It doesn’t say that it was the soldiers or the women who quenched Jesus’ thirst. Its ambiguity almost seems to say that it could be anyone close enough to Christ who could have aided Jesus in his despair. And maybe just maybe we are called to be the “they.” Was it not Jesus who said in Matthew’s Gospel:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled. (Matthew 5:6)

So let us continue to thirst after justice. For justice in all those places who have been forgotten and oppressed: Flint, Iraq, Mexico, and Arizona. Christ thirsts, Justice thirsts. Amen.

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Christainity, Liberation Theology, Spiritual

the compassion of the christ: taking christian theology seriously for the sake of society

In God of the Oppressed, Dr. James H. Cone shares a story about a white preacher in the South who encouraged his black congregants in his sermon to follow the new Jim Crow laws through an eschatological narrative. The white preacher declared that in the middle of Heaven there will be a partition separating blacks from whites, just like the water fountains, movie theaters, etc. The response from the congregants to the preacher came from the usher who prayed over the offering plate before the collection. This brave man prayed how thankful he is that his black sisters and brothers are a shoutin’ people and if there is a partition in Heaven that they will shout it down until it falls. And further he prayed if the white people in Heaven do not like it, they can go somewhere else (19,20).

This story draws near to my heart nowadays. Not much has changed since this story took place during the 18th century. Instead of having overtly institutionalised racism with slavery and Jim Crow laws; we have a tolerant racism that gives way for the prison industrial complex and allows for people to murder young people of color out of fear and without any immediate repercussions.* Currently, Neo-Nazis are preparing for a race riot in Florida, so that the whites are protected.

Who says we live in a post-racial society? Not I.

The way we practice theology reflects our lives. For example, Flannery O’Connor was known for her Catholic faith, short stories, and grotesque characters. She spent her life in the South and considered herself a Thomist. Her short stories were infused with messages of faith and forgiveness. At the end of her famous short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the protagonist grandmother tells the antagonist, Misfit, that Jesus forgives:

“If you would pray,” the old lady said, “Jesus would help you.”

“That’s right,” The Misfit said.

“Well then, why don’t you pray?” she asked trembling with delight suddenly.

“I don’t want no help,” he said. “I’m doing all right by myself.”

The Misfit doesn’t and the story ends on a sour note. My point here is that O’Connor’s story portrays the Catholic life. Yet, her faith has little to do with her inherent racism. Sure, she had stories about people of color in the South, but they were not always cast in the best light i.e. “The Artificial N*****”.

The other week, I read many of O’Connor’s letters compiled in a book titled “The Habit of Being.” Flannery wrote a letter on April 14th to Richard Stern, a few months before her death. It reads, “It ain’t much, but I am able to take nourishment and participate in a few Klan rallies” (573). What?!? Flannery O’Connor was associated with the KKK, one of the most racist groups in the U.S. Yes, she was. How did this happen? How can a Christian dedicated to following Jesus fall into the trap of hating Black people who have been oppressed in our society since white people stole them from Africa? Thus, my point is: I believe theology, whether it is Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, etc. affects the way we “live and move and have our being.”

Dr. Cone makes the distinction in how christology is taught and preached in the Black church compared to the white church. Once again in God of the Oppressed, Dr. Cone writes

“White preachers and theologians often defined Jesus Christ as a spiritual Savior, the deliver of people from sin and guilt, black preachers were unquestionably historical. They viewed God as the Liberator in history. That was why the black Church was involved in the abolitionist movement in the nineteenth century and the civil rights movement in the twentieth” (51).

O’Connor did not have a theology “from below,” but “from above.” God has eternal Ideals and abides in an ahistorical place. Thus, one can conclude that God is not so much concerned with our contextual existence, but that we must live up to God’s expectations. It was easy for O’Connor to do, since she was born in a well-to-do white family in the South and was able to practice Catholicism to almost its full extent, according to bourgeois religion.

I reject “from above” theology, situated in a privileged position. Instead, I try to form a “from below” theology, that many oppressed groups from the centuries have developed. This could be defined that God is here with and for us. God is involved in history and seeks to redeem all of history.

In the Christian tradition, God sent Christ to teach, have compassion (to suffer with), die on a cross, and resurrect, thus beginning the redemption of the world. God still suffers with us as God’s Spirit who shows “mercy, justice, and the knowledge of God” (God the Spirit**). If God is with us declaring justice, then to actively participate and ignore systematic racism is contradictory. And until we recognise that our liberation is latticed with the liberation of others, we can not have a better theology nor a better society.

If Jesus’ death and resurrection represent anything, it is that God is on the side of the oppressed. Yet God desires to redeem both, oppressor and oppressed. If we could help this process along, it would to be intentional in how we live with others. The famous Peruvian liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez wrote, “Neighbor is not one whom I find in my path, but rather one in whose path I place myself, one whom I approach and actively seek.” May we be a people who with God’s Spirit actively seek to be neighborly to all.

*Here I am expressing that justice does not equate to law and vice versa. We have a corrupt system that at times all can see, in the case of Trayvon Martin, it is apparent. Yet the contradiction immerses with Malcolm X, and without his time in jail to reflect and accept the belief system of the Nation of Islam, he would not have made a radical stand against the racial injustices that permeate in our society.

**I just finished this text for a class and found it to be the best systematic theology for God’s Spirit. Michael Welker, the writer, uses a framework of liberation theology and shows how God’s Spirit is a “force field of change and hope.”

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