Worship Sunday Nights at 6:00 p.m.
Message for Beloved Community 12th Anniversary
In the last year, we have been transformed by abrupt changes in the world around us. First, tornados blasted through our lives on April 27. Immediately we struck out to the homes of our members, and to the homes of strangers, helping to remove debris and to listen to the stories of loss and mystery. In the aftermath, we discovered that we were not alone in responding – sister UCC churches from around the country have come to live with us, a week at a time, to work in the driving Alabama sun, rebuilding homes for those who lost their homes. They, and we, and the lives of people whose homes are being rebuilt, are being transformed.
Many of us have been transformed by a different kind of disaster, Alabama’s immigration law, HB 56, which passed the Alabama legislature days after the April 27 tornadoes. We stepped out of our known world and entered into the lives of people affected the law, and we have been changed. We have had potluck suppers with young people and their parents who brought them here as infants. We have hosted many planning sessions for those opposing the laws. We have joined hands at vigils and rallies with other faith communities around the state standing against any law that dehumanizes our brothers and sisters. A number of us did different kinds of work, but I would say that it has been the relationships that were most transformative.
And now as we look around us, we see that our community is being transformed. When we held our first worship service in 2000, every building around us was in shambles. It looked like downtown Baghdad. We were warned that buying a building in Avondale was a bad investment; the value could only go down. Many people were afraid to come to Avondale for church, and to be honest, on a dark night it did seem quite scary. We renovated our dilapidated “little building” next door, now named the Brown Building after Beloved Marty Brown, which was one step in transformation of the neighborhood. Now there are new businesses popping up all around us! We took a chance on Avondale because there was a place for everybody here. Part of our work, as people of faith called to care for the least of these, is to help ensure that there will still be a place for everyone, as the process of transformation unfolds.
There were many other transformational moments in the last year, some I know about and many that I don’t. Our Spoken Word events are always the best thing happening in Birmingham (possibly short of worship on Sunday nights!) Watching our beautiful children grow. The way that you take care of one another. The joy you take in feeding the hungry and housing homeless families. The way we can feel our spirits rise when we sing with our Beloved Community Orchestra, or listen to LeNard and David sing ‘Guide My Steps.’
Transformation is what the Spirit of God does. We don’t get to decide when, or how, or what it will look like. We just open our minds. We open our hearts. We open our doors. And invite the Spirit to do with us as the Spirit will. That’s what we have done for 12 years. I know I have been transformed, and am ready for more. What about you?
The National Football League announced this week that it has levied severe penalties on the “bounty” system, a locker-room game where players got informal bonuses for vicious hits on the other team’s most valuable players. Injure a player, win $1,000; knock out a player, win $1,500; double or triple your money during the playoffs. A player who knocked out the quarterback of the 2010 NFC Championship game could have cashed in $10,000. The stakes were high; so were the penalties.
It’s all baffling to me. How do you decide when and how to punish violence in a game that rewards violence? I wonder the same thing when I see a young person sent off to war, trained to kill combatants and civilians, then prosecuted for exploding over the line. Doesn’t the violence beget violence? Who is responsible? Where do you draw the line?
Most of us don’t feel connected to such cycles of violence, but Jesus connects personal anger with social violence: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder’; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire (Matthew 5:21-22).
That seems extreme. Anger is a human emotion, a God-given one, right? Surely it’s not something that should damn us to hell, right?
Still, holding on to anger, I once heard and often repeat, is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die. You only poison yourself.
Maybe it’s worse than that. When we nurse our anger, our blood pressure rises. Resentment seeps through our pores. Steam rises. We can turn the anger in on ourselves when we disappoint ourselves; we can turn it on the people around us when they disappoint or betray us. Whether we choke it down or not, our anger affects the people around us. Anger begets anger, just like violence begets violence. It can create a climate, an atmosphere, that permits escalation to occur.
During Lent, many of us try to do better, to be better. To be more patient with our loved ones. Maybe even to be more patient with ourselves. Not to lose our temper. Not to hold onto anger or bitterness.
What I learn each year during Lent is that it isn’t really about us and what we do or fail to do. It’s about God, and how God responds when we do what we vow not to do, or fail to do what we vow to do. The truth is that we all fail to live fully up to our Lenten commitments, which gives us the chance to receive the immeasurable gift of God’s grace, all over again. Forgiveness is a powerful antidote to the poison of anger, and it may be the only thing that can set us free.
Eighty people stand in a circle outside a church in Northport. Arms crossed, hands clasped. Latino, black, white. Invited to share their vision for a beautiful Alabama, voices ring out. Dignity, dignidad. Life without fear, vivir sin miedo. Peace, faith, strength to stay in the struggle. Repeal of HB 56. No more tearing families apart. A multicultural, multilingual Alabama. The ability to lead our people. Courage, valor.
People who daily are labeled illegal are now labeled Leaders.
People who’ve been told time and again it’s time to leave know now it’s time to lead.
People who’ve been told to move know now it’s time for a movement.
Men in work shirts, university professors, mothers and grandmothers, college students, civil rights icons, teenagers and children, all calling out their vision for a beautiful Alabama. In a moment of quiet, a latina child calls out, Roll Tide! Everyone laughs, but I think we all feel the painful irony. That’s just how deeply rooted in Alabama our immigrant neighbors are, and yet the intent of Alabama’s new immigration law is to force them to leave or to live here in fear.
Roll Tide? Oh yes, the tide is turning in Alabama, and it will not be turned back. We are One family, One Alabama. Brown, black and white, in Alabama, of all places. HB56 is bringing us together. It’s a miracle. The kingdom of God is at hand. God is doing a new thing, can you not behold it? Thanks be to God. Gracias a Dios.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah . . . I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 33:31-34)
God will not only forgive the sins of the people, and remember them no more.
Why would God choose not only to forgive, but also to forget? Not because the people of God had become a faithful people. Not because they had repented. Not even because they had sought forgiveness. In fact, the people of God continued to turn their backs on God, going about their stubborn and self-destruction ways without looking back.
So why would we be offered a clean slate? Why would God forgive, and forget? Because of God’s unshakeable desire to be reconciled, to be reunited, to remove anything that stands in the way of right relationship.
This sounds sweet and lovely, but it is not to be taken lightly. It is an Overwhelming, an Overtaking, an Overcoming. It is not our overcoming our own shortcomings or our own sins, try as we might. It is God overcoming us and laying claim to our very being. It is like God taking over our bodies and branding them with love. We will be like sailors far from home, love-lorn (and alcohol-inspired) who get a giant tattoo stamped on huge muscled arms, a big heart with a girl’s name laced through the heart with an arrow. We will be like schoolchildren on field trips, with our parents’ names on signs strung around our necks, or notes clipped to our shirts, so that when we wander too far off, someone see where we belong and know who to call before we get lost.
This is not a one-by-one kind-of-thing, not the kind of thing where you wait in a single-file. True, it is about the transformation of individual hearts, but it’s also about the transformation of the people, the nations. “I will be their God, & they will be my people.”
We need the heart of the nation changed, not just the hearts of individuals. We can change the hearts of the George Zimmermans all we want, but until we change the heart of the nation, there will still be more Trayvon Martins. “The days are coming,” says the Lord. Clearly they aren’t here yet, or else we wouldn’t be consumed by what happened when a young black man named Trayvon Martin crossed the path of a man like George Zimmerman.
The vision of Jeremiah is that God will break open the heart of God’s people, the entire people, the nations, and inscribe on their hearts a love for their neighbor, love for their enemy and love for their God so profound that we will all be able not only to forgive, but also to forget.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord. They are not here yet, but they are surely coming. That is a promise, it’s a promise that can be trusted. Amen.
Standing On Holy Ground
Walking from Selma to Montgomery, thousands of people from all over the country. Old folks on canes and in wheelchairs, children in strollers, college students with boundless energy. Whites, Blacks, Latinos. They crossed the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where once-peaceful marchers were beaten and clubbed by men whose duty was to enforce the law, where the same marchers came back singing, ‘ain’t nobody gonna turn us around’ and marched all the way to Montgomery. This year thousands came, crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and made that same five day pilgrimage to Montgomery.
They came because they had been there. They came because they wished they had been there. They came because they don’t want to go back there again. They came because of HB56.
They came because they felt called to do something about a mean spirit set loose in our country. A mean spirit that wants to turn back the times, to go back to “the good old days” that weren’t so good for people without privilege. A mean spirit that once denied access to voting booths and lunch counters and water fountains, that still denies full access to justice and dignity to people with certain pigment, and that now seeks to deny access to people without papers.
And so they marched. They whispered, “We are standing on holy ground, walking in holy footsteps.” Walking in the footsteps of people who 47 years ago marched this same road to overturn the tables of injustice, like Jesus did when he overturned the tables in the Temple.
Standing on holy ground: When Moses stood on holy ground, God told him to take off his shoes. As soon as he did, God gave him his marching orders: go to Egypt, and set my people free!
Walking in holy footsteps: as soon as the disciples dropped their nets to follow Jesus, he gave them their marching orders: If you want to be my disciple, pick up the cross and follow me.
Walking in holy footsteps, standing on holy ground. Marching orders seem to follow.
You are standing on holy ground, My Beloveds, not just when you enter the sanctuary of the church but every time your foot touches the earth, because every speck of dirt that God ever created is holy.
So what about walking in holy footsteps? Remember when you were a child at the beach, running behind someone much larger than you, trying to stay in their footsteps, leaping from footstep to footstep quickly before the next wave washed the footstep away, running without looking up because their legs were so much longer than yours? Trying not to make your own footprints, trying not to miss a step, not caring where they were going, just not wanting them to end?
It’s time to look up, time to pay attention. Whose footsteps are you walking in? Consciously or not, we are all walking in someone’s. Are they the ones you really want to follow? And where are those footsteps taking you? Is it really where you want to go?
Standing on holy ground, check. Walking in holy footsteps, check. It must be time to take off your shoes, drop your nets, and get ready for your marching orders.
Holy One, to you I give my life.
You are loving presence, justice and mercy.
You hear our cries and you answer,
Here I am. You need not fear,
For I am the Lord your God,
I have called you by name, you are mine.
Friend who forgives seventy times seven,
Mother who cannot forget her nursing babe,
Shepherd who seeks the one lost sheep,
Father who runs to embrace the long lost son,
so it is with you, God.
You overwhelm guilt with forgiveness,
You redeem hate with love,
You teach us to love our enemies until they become friends.
You bind up the broken and give sight to the blind.
You shine with a light that no darkness can put out.
You bring comfort when we suffer,
wholeness when we are broken,
belonging when we are alone.
You overcome death with irresistible life.
Holy One, to you I give my life.
You choose to take on flesh and blood,
to know the fullness of being human,
so that we might know the depths of your love,
so that we might never be alone.
Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us,
you bring and proclaim the reign of God:
preaching good news to the poor,
giving release to the captives,
healing the sick,
giving comfort to the brokenhearted,
eating with outcasts, forgiving sinners,
giving your love to overcome hate,
giving your life to overcome death.
Jesus, you are the truth and the light,
You make our God known to us.
Holy One, to you I give my life.
You are here in the center and at the margins of our lives.
You are teacher, companion and guide. You show us the way.
You claim us and sustain us.
Whether we live under the boot of oppression or in the shade of privilege,
you need all of who we are and all of where we have been to bring about abundance of life.
In life and in death we belong to you.
I celebrate you, O God!
For at your table all people are fed and in your arms all people find rest.
Holy One, to you I give my life.
No Turning Back: Alabama Anti-Immigrant Laws Unite Opposition
by Rev. Angie Wright 07-25-2012 | 9:58am
We lost a bitter legislative battle this year, as Alabama Legislators voted to make the nation’s most toxic anti-immigrant law more poisonous than anyone imagined. Added to the notorious HB 56 is a requirement that the names and faces of undocumented persons be plastered on the web and in prominent public places — the new law stops just short of putting targets on their backs.
Teachers are still required to interrogate schoolchildren about their immigration status. People of faith, Good Samaritans, and family members are now felons if they knowingly drive five undocumented children to the store, the doctor, or Vacation Bible School. Racial profiling provisions make every trip to school, work, and church a nightmare.
The legislators — all Republicans — must have laughed all the way to golf games waiting for them back in their districts. They think they won.Just because they were sitting at the front of the bus, they think they were driving.
Little do they know that they have created their own worst nightmare. Their efforts to rid Alabama of ethnic diversity has backfired on them, bringing forth a multicultural, bilingual movement that would not have emerged in Alabama for another 50 years were it not for HB 56 and its evil twin, HB 658. Legislators’ wrongs have dared people to claim their rights as human beings. Republican efforts to divide have united a new people — brown, black, and white — who lock arms and sing, “We Are One Family, One Alabama.” Lawmakers’ fear of change is no match for this new people’s determination not to go back to Alabama’s old days of hatred and shame.
Alabama’s new hate laws were written expressly to terrorize people so irreversibly that they would flee the state. Some did. Others hid inside their homes like Jesus’ disciples locked inside the upper room, huddled in fear of what the authorities might do to them. But instead of being driven out by vicious legislation, Latino leaders have emerged in 22 communities across the state to stand up for the human and civil rights of their people.
How were they affected by a year of battling against hate? In their own words: They learned to overcome fear. What perfect poetic justice: lawmakers used fear as a weapon, but it backfired. They unwittingly taught their own victims to stand strong against fear and intimidation, how to work together, how to win allies, how to make change in a hostile world.
When the legislature opened in February, many Latinos, regardless of citizenship status, were barred from visiting Statehouse galleries and offices of their legislators. By the time it closed in May, a new reality existed. Crowds chanted, “The State House is Our House,” and in doing so, they took on the responsibilities of citizenship by standing against unjust, immoral laws at no small risk.
There are relics in the legislature who may choose to stand in the Statehouse door, staving off change as long as they can, and they’ll end up right where George Wallace did — with the door of history slammed in their faces.
While it may look like nothing in Alabama changed this year, everything did.
There is no turning back.
Rev. Angie Wright is Pastor of Beloved Community United Church of Christ and Faith in Community Coordinator for Greater Birmingham Ministries in Birmingham, Ala.
131 41st Street South, Birmingham, AL 35222 (in Avondale)
(205) 595.6080 * firstname.lastname@example.org