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Be the Church: Fight for the Powerless

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You would think that this would be easy. The topic is straight forward, Be the Church: Fight for the Powerless. Then we sit down with Mary and Martha… and Jesus… and things get a bit… well… complicated. Just what is Jesus saying? But we can’t stop there. Just how do we wrap our head around God’s comments to Amos when God says, “… I’m calling it quits with my people Israel. I’m no longer acting as if everything is just fine” (Amos 8:2b, The Message).

This is God. A God can no longer act as if everything is just fine.

Into this mix, as your pastor, I have a story that I need to share it with you. Actually, two stories. These stories, these narratives, have slowly unfolded in my life. My call to serve the Church. And now… today… I have come to realize that they are an integral part of who God has called me to be. And while yes, this is a personal story, it is also our story. These are tales of our times. These are stories that we need to tell. And so, I testify.

Wrapped up in the headlines and continuous “breaking news,” this is a narrative packed with tweets and the need for bold responses. This is a storyline that includes chants—racist, white nationalistic chants—and the urgent need to respond. This is a need for us… for me… to Be the Church and Fight for the Powerless.

This is the story of my “Mary” contrasted with my friend’s “Martha.” Walt has found that Martha resonates with him. The busy doer. The implementer. The person that shows up in the kitchen and “gets it done.”

I, in contrast, have been the wanderer, the contemplative. Listening. Witnessing. And yes, responding. Responding in prayer. Responding in service. Responding to injustices. Always on the move, following Jesus to unsettling edges.

Listening to the scripture readings, hearing from Amos, and Jesus, and God this week, I have been stirred to introduce to you two people instrumental to how I see myself as a faith leader: the Rev. Dr. Hendrikus Berkhof, and Rev. John Fife.

Thus, I introduce Hendrikus Berkhof to you. Woven into my DNA is a family story. Hendrik was, for me, one of those stories of family legend. In terms of family genealogy, he was my mother’s cousin’s father. He was a part of our family that was still in the Netherlands as I was growing up. I never personally met Hendrik, but 80 years later after this story I am unexpectedly finding connections between his life and mine.

You see, Hendrik Berkhof was a pastor in the Netherlands in 1940 when Hitler invaded. And it was in 1940 that Berkhof preached “that” sermon from the pulpit in his church, a sermon against the occupying forces. He was subsequently arrested by the security police and imprisoned. He survived the war (there is an amazingly wild story about his unlikely escape and then living underground for the remainder of the war), and went on to teach at a seminary. For those of you that know about the World Council of Churches, he served on their Central Committee for over 20 years.

I was aware of this family lore, but the full impact of Berkhof’s work in the wider church didn’t begin to catch my full attention until I myself was in seminary. There, the Rev. John Thomas, who had been the United Church of Christ’s General Minister and President, was my advisor. One day, during a conversation, I mentioned Berkhof to John. He turned around and pulled several of Berkhof’s books off of the shelf in his office.

Eighty years ago in 1940, Hendrik was not acting as if everything was just fine.

Books by Hendrikus Berkhof, and a hat from Humane Boards

I would now like to introduce you to the Rev. John Fife. Fife’s impact on my life was by chance… or… by God. Fifteen years ago, in 2004, I happened to open up a brochure for a retreat center, and became entranced by the opportunity to participate in a “spiritual quest.” It just so happens that the person that led this quest in the high desert of northern New Mexico was John Fife. It was during that week that I first learned about the work that Fife’s congregation, the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, had been doing for decades around issues of immigration, justice, and providing water to migrants in the desert in order to save lives.

I learned that in the 1980s, Fife had been a co-founder of the Sanctuary movement. Are any of you familiar with what is now the New Sanctuary movement, of which Dane Sanctuary Coalition[1] is a part? In our county, there are currently six congregations that are sanctuary churches, and another 13 congregations which are supporting and/or immigrant welcoming faith communities. Memorial UCC is not a part of the coalition, but as dialogue continues around issues of immigration following worship today, I invite you to prayerfully continue reflecting on where the Spirit is leading us as a faith community at this time. I will tell you why in just a moment…

Back in the 1980s, the initial Sanctuary movement provided support to people from El Salvador fleeing violence in their home country. Fife was one of a handful of faith and community leaders arrested by the United States federal government. In 2004, when I met John Fife, he was working with a coalition to launch No More Deaths, providing water reserves in the desert.

Forty years ago, in the 1980s, Fife was not acting as if everything was just fine.

Nearly 80 years after Berghof’s detention, and 40 years after Fife’s arrest, Amos speaks again of the God who says, “… I’m calling it quits with my people… I’m no longer acting as if everything is just fine” (Amos 8:2b, The Message).

For our own “now”, I would like to leave you with two stories on which to prayerfully reflect. To talk about. Gather around. For we can no longer act as if everything is just fine. Beloved, in light of Jesus’ words, what he is saying to us?

The first is a response given by the Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis to Jesus’ words to Martha. Lewis says that she is:

“… not convinced that, “Martha, Martha” necessarily and without question intimates admonishment. Perhaps Jesus is simply trying to get Martha’s attention so that she can know the Kingdom of God is near — really near. Jesus needs Martha to hear this truth. Time is of the essence… There is an urgency… Now is the time to set aside duty and sit beside Jesus. Now is the time to postpone what you have to do and take time for what you want to do. Now is the time reschedule some items on your “to do” list and re-prioritize”[2] (emphasis added).

The second brings us back to the “why” to which I alluded earlier. For in our covenant with one another, I would like to encourage us as individuals and Church, to openly and compassionately explore the challenging topics around issues of immigration.

Ongoing conversations are necessary because the full set of topics and concerns is too large to delve into during a single worship service. But I do want to let you know that there are people, and families, and friends here… in this congregation… that are directly, personally, deeply impacted by the xenophobic, racist, divisive rhetoric that runs rampant in our country today. And—it directly touches who we are as Church.

For example, over the past 2 years, Memorial has rented this space to the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra’s Music Makers[3] program. Each Saturday from September through May, this building is full of music, from violins, violas and cellos, to guitars, pianos, and drums. Students who would not be able to afford lessons and/or instruments receive in one-on-one instruction, as well as group and performance opportunities. Last year, 85 students participated.

It is such a joy to be in the building on a Saturday! A couple of times each month I make time to be here, and spend time with Music Makers. Not only are the youth and teachers here, but so are their parents, and often siblings and friends. One of the things that I notice is the beautiful diversity of languages spoken—Languages from around the world can be heard within these walls. As the upcoming school year approaches, I invited you to consider volunteering with Music Makers as we continue to build our relationship with them.

You may also remember the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids that happened in Dane county a year ago last fall. One of the results of the local raid was that the families participating in Music Makers began to express concern for their safety. Here. In our building. They asked, what if the raids continued? Would they and their children be safe at Memorial UCC?

The directors of the program asked the Church Council and I, how would we, as a congregation, feel if ICE showed up? Would we be OK if Music Makers locked the doors? For some of the families there is an underlying sense of fear and anxiety that is constantly being stirred anytime they go out into the community.

Beloved, this is something that we need to talk about. We can no longer act as if everything is just fine. Time is of the essence. Perhaps… just maybe… Jesus is trying to get our attention.

Thus, in our Be the Church series this morning, we come to the United Church of Christ’s initiative to fight for the powerless. The need to listen. To pray. To ask questions. To support one another, and our neighbors. And to hear the ways in which Jesus is once again trying to get our attention.

And for us to know that the Kingdom of God is near—really near.

~Pastor Kris

Reflection on Amos 8:1-12 and Luke 10:38-42 offered on July 21, 2019

[1] “Dane Sanctuary Coalition.” WI Faith Voices for Justice. Accessed July 18, 2019. https://wisconsinfaithvoicesforjustice.weebly.com/dane-sanctuary-coalition.html.

[2] “Now Is the Time by Karoline Lewis – Craft of Preaching – Working Preacher.” Now Is the Time by Karoline Lewis – Craft of Preaching – Working Preacher. Accessed July 19, 2019. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5366.

[3] “About WYSO Music Makers.” WYSO. Accessed July 19, 2019. https://www.wysomusic.org/about-wyso-music-makers/.