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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#BlackLivesMatter, Politics

walter benjamin, solidarity, and my peace delegation

I spent my last semester at Union Theological Seminary thinking about the past. Ever since I learned, two years ago, about Walter Benjamin’s concept of the weak messianic force, I knew I wanted to write my thesis on it. The idea is mainly found in On the Concept of History. It outlines how a historical materialist reads and writes history, among other things, ‘happiness’. I was struck by the weak messianic force for a few reasons. First, it gives present humanity a way to redeem the (forgotten and oppressed) past through collectively remembering those on the margins. It’s kind of like a pre-People’s History of the United States. Second, I have been obsessed with weak thought (Vattimo and Caputo) for quite some time and it gave me a chance to re-read some of my favorite texts. Thirdly, Benjamin wrote this text merely months before he committed suicide. Meaning up until his death, he was thinking politically and theologically about how the world could be more just. I too hope that I will work for justice until my death. It’s through Benjamin that I have been more keenly aware of oppressed and forgotten peoples in the US: from Indigenous peoples to #BlackLivesMatter to immigrants.

As well, Benjamin haunts the way I view time. I continually ask myself whether I want to act in empty time or messianic time? Do I need that extra time in the morning to sleep or attend a Fight for $15 protest? Am I hanging out with those who will challenge me or with those who will push me to become a better Timothy? Now these choices are not always black and white, and sometimes I choose self care, which is all good and fine. I just don’t want to do it all the time.

Although I haven’t read enough Benjamin to know whether he writes on solidarity, I believe his goal for us in the present is to act in solidarity with forgotten and oppressed people. One of my favorite scenes in The Motorcycle Diaries happens near the end of the journey while Che and Alberto are at the Peruvian leper colony. They danced on the north side where the doctors and nuns reside and celebrated Che’s birthday. Che though did not want to end his celebration there, but swam across the Amazon River to the south side to be with those with leprosy. This was truly an act of solidarity. To side with and be with those whom society has deemed worthless, forgettable.

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For me this trip to Iraqi Kurdistan in many ways is about solidarity. To not allow US media outlets dictate how I perceive the Middle East. To travel and listen to those who have been forgotten, who are refugees in their own country. To give the Kurds other US faces to see than those behind military uniforms. Benjamin wrote that it’s important to not try to look into the future because at any moment the Messiah or revolution might break in.

May it be so and may the peacemakers be on the front lines.

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Anarchism, Anti-Capitalism, Beliefs, Christainity, Liberation Theology, Philosophy

desert ascetics in the land of plenty

God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse released last year and was co-written by Slavoj Zizek and Boris Gunjevic. Re-reading it again for a third time, I am enjoying the chapters written by Gunjevic even more. Gunjevic uses St. Augustine’s City of God as an ethical playbook to destroy capitalism. In the quote below, Gunjevic writes that to subvert capitalism one must follow the way of an ascetic. Walter Benjamin points us that capitalism is a religion; Gunjevic believes that the way to dismantle this religious system is though religious asceticism.

“This is why a measured dose of voluntary, disciplined asceticism is necessary, from which rough fragments of efficacious truths may surface and heal our desire, as Augustine says, since we will guide our desire not to something beautiful, desirable, and transitory, but to Beauty itself, immutable Truth itself, and Bliss itself. This is why we need asceticism, as only asceticism can redirect desire towards eternal plenitude. For ascetic exercise is not the destruction of desire as is suggested by various forms of Buddhism. Augustine’s understanding of ascetic practice begins with a voluntary renunciation of submission to pleasure the renunciation of a weakening of the soul and body, and renunciation of the avaricious aspiration to greater wealth. The lust for glory is a nasty vice and an enemy of true devotion, says Augustine, calling on the words of the carpenter from Nazareth and the Apostles whose practice was to place the love of God above.” “Babylonian Virtues–Minority Report” (100-101)

God in Pain

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