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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Peace, Politics

batman, kurdistan, and the red prison #PPFIK

Currently,  I’m with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and Christian Peacemaker Teams on a delegation in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Today, we visited the Red Prison in the morning. Below is the blogpost I wrote for the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. It didn’t hit me until later in the afternoon how drained I was from the experience.

Before coming on this delegation, we were not given a detailed schedule of our 13-day stay. Rather we were told to prepare emotionally. Our CPT delegation coordinator, Terra, explained that this trip will affect our whole being: emotionally, physically, and spiritually. I did my best to prepare for such things before leaving by spending time with friends and re-watching some of my favorite episodes of my beloved Frasier. Yet, today, on the second day of our delegation, I was so emotionally drained from going to and learning about the Red Prison that I had to take a two-hour nap

The Red Prison is just one of the locations Saddam’s regime set up to torture and execute Kurdish people. The facility was built in 1979 and was in full use from 1984-1991. On our tour, we saw where they imprisoned young Kurds. In their cell, there were several depictions of Batman on the wall. Possibly a sign of looking for a superhero to save them from this hellish experience. Notice how Batman’s arms are open wide and that he’s smiling.

We listened to how women and children were kept in the same space. That many of the women were raped and had to birth and raise their children in such wretched conditions.

We saw how each room had a bowl on the ground for the Kurds to eat like dogs and how they were forced to 10 second bathroom breaks.

It’s not that I didn’t know that Saddam Hussein was a horrible dictator who should’ve been captured. These impermissible acts of violence, abuse, and torture are evil. It’s that I wonder why the US did not speak out earlier against these crimes against the Kurds, but that we had to occupy Iraq two decades later (2003-2011(?)). The problem is that the US gave monetary resources and chemical weapons to Iraq during this time. This was during the same time of the Iraq-Iran War (1980-1988) and the Reagan administration wanted to be sure that Iraq would win. This led to the killing of thousands of Kurds using chemical weapons in Halabja and hundreds of Kurdish villages were bombed to non-existence. From 1984-1991, hundreds of thousands of Kurdish people were killed, hundreds of thousands more tortured, and millions displaced.

Kurdish blood stained the floors of the torture rooms. Kurdish blood has stained my heart and memory. May we as peacemakers put an end to torture and executions. May we continue to lift up and remember those who have been murdered with the help of our government. May we, with God’s help, create a world where people are treated with dignity and reparations abundant.


In the afternoon, we met with Mullah Nadar, who is an interfaith peacemaking Muslim leader of Iraqi Kurdistan. He was a joy to listen to. One of the reasons he became non-violent was that he saw his family killed by chemical weapons before his very eyes and understood that violence cannot disrupt violence, only peace can.


Over the next four days we’ll be in the Kurdish mountains with spotty internet access. Keep us on your mind and in your prayers.

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Beliefs, Christainity

overthinking my iraqi kurdistan delegation in hopes for transformation

Intrinsic to fundraising is how one sells it. This certainly was true when I told others about my upcoming delegation to Kurdistan with Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and Christian Peacemaker Teams. Either people have never heard of Kurdistan or understand it as being an ally for the US. I usually had to explain how Kurdistan is situated between Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. That many Kurds are non-violently resisting against several opposing forces: the Turkish and Iraqi military,  Daesh/ISIL, and the US forces on the ground. Then, I’m usually asked, “Why do you care?” With urgent fervor, I respond by saying, “I’m going as a global citizen. I’m going because the voices of the poor and those acting nonviolently around the world are forcibly silenced. I’m going to come back and testify at the Presbyterian General Assembly to what I saw. To witness to their struggle for peace.” Usually at this point, I get a smirk and nod which fades deadpan. The conversation moves on.

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Self-reflecting on the upcoming delegation, a question keeps creeping into my mind: what if I go and I’m not transformed? That I come back to the States and I continue to live as if I had never left. Maybe it’s just those blasted Derridan ethics that continually haunt me, that says over and over, if you think you’re acting responsible, you’re edging on carelessness; if you’re not anxious, then you’re comfortable being apathetic; IF YOU’RE NOT STRUGGLING FOR PEACE, THEN THE WORLD WILL PERPETUALLY BE IN WAR. Honestly, these ethics are impossible. And that’s the point. Until heaven meets Earth, global utopia is more than farfetched, but that doesn’t mean I do nothing. All this overthinking has made me cautious about what I will bring with me. I want to be in the moment and least distracted.

For this delegation, I’m praying and hoping to be hospitable in action and in listening. I am not fully sure of what to expect. I’ve never been across the Atlantic or have even thought about going to the regions near Iraq or Turkey. I covet your prayers for our delegation that we may be faithful peace witnesses, nonviolent in speech and heart. I hoping for a safe journey, but not a comfortable one.

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