Twenty-Eight Saints: February 15 and 16

February in the United States is Black History Month. In honor of that month, each day in February will feature an African-American saint from different periods of the Civil Rights Movements in America.

February 15
Harriet Tubman, c. 1822 – 1913

Tubman was born Araminta Ross and a slave sometime around 1822. Though illiterate, her mother Harriet told her Bible stories, and those stories instilled in Tubman a strong, unwavering faith. She experienced prophetic visions and dreams throughout her life, which she attributed to God. After marrying, she changed her name to Harriet. After an aborted escape attempt in 1849, Tubman finally escaped slavery and reached Pennsylvania. Becoming a conductor on the Underground Railroad, she risked her life many times to return and help other slaves escape to freedom, helping perhaps as many as 70. She worked with the Union army during the Civil War. Later in her life she fought for women’s suffrage and was active in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church. Until recently, there were plans to include her portrait on the $20 bill.

Liberating God, through your servant Harriet Tubman you brought freedom and safety to those escaping slavery. Give us the same courage to defy injustice and lead others to liberation. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.

 

February 16,
Ralph Abernathy, 1926 – 1990

Abernathy seemed to have been born to fight injustice. In school, he protested the inferior equipment in the science lab until better equipment was purchased. He served in the United States Army during World War II. In college,  he led a hunger strike to improve the quality of food in the cafeteria. He discerned a call to ministry and was ordained a Baptist minister in 1948. He met Martin Luther King, Jr. a few years later and mentored him. After Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat on a bus, he helped organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott. His home was bombed in retaliation, though his family was unharmed. Abernathy was in the hotel room when King was assassinated on the balcony. Afterward, Abernathy assumed leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and continued to lead protests and marches in support of civil rights.

God of cloud and fire, just as you led your people through the desert, you called your servant Ralph Abernathy to lead the way in the fight for civil rights. May we too be beacons of hope and leadership in the continued struggle against injustice. In the name of your Son, we pray. Amen.

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What We Have Left Undone

And this is not something we want to hear. It means that we, too, are responsible for our communal sins, even if we as individuals haven’t committed them.

Ash Wednesday
Joel 2:1-17
Psalm 51
2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10
Matthew 6:1-21

Growing up, there was one part of worship I really didn’t like or understand. No, not the sermon. That was my doodling time.

I’m talking about the Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness, page 56 and 77 in the Lutheran Book of Worship, the hymnal we used when I was a kid. I never liked that part of worship. I don’t know if it was because it was just a long block of words that were said, or because I didn’t necessarily understand it all, or because it delayed the first hymn and I loved to sing, or what. But wow, what a drag that was. Nothing like beginning your Sunday morning by talking about how bad you were. Woo-hoo, yay Jesus.

Now that I’m grown though, and now that I’ve been exposed to a very different world than I thought existed in my childhood—a world where sin seems to rule and injustice is not only present, but fostered in so many open, public spaces—I find my reaction to Confession and Forgiveness has changed. Now, I think it might be the second most important thing we do on Sunday morning (after Holy Communion). It’s one of the few times we directly confront sin in ourselves and in our midst, and it’s something we don’t do often enough.

But what is sin? You’d think that for something so important to our understanding of, well, everything to do with our faith, there’d be one easy, concise definition of sin. How foolish of me to think so.

It turns out sin is surprisingly hard to define. Everyone seems to define it differently. Probably the most basic definition I recall being taught was that sin was a small, fancy word that meant doing bad things. So of course, I did what I always do when I don’t know or don’t understand something: I looked it up.

The dictionary in the back of the Bibles my wife and I received at our Confirmations defines sin as “An offense or rebellion against God…; deliberate defiance, wickedness; iniquity; ungodliness.” The Master Builder Bibles for Men glossary defines sin as “to break the law of God; the act of not doing what God wants.” Hmmm.

Turning to our liturgy, I took the following from our Confession and Forgiveness out of Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Sin is described as something that comes out in what we think, what we say, and what we do. It’s something we actively choose to do, but it’s also something that happens when we actively choose not to do something. It’s described as not loving God fully, and not loving the people around us fully. It’s a turning away from God and focusing only on ourselves. It’s something we do intentionally and something we do without even knowing it (which is scary, when you think about it).

All of which is, again, kinda unhelpful and confusing. That describes sin, but doesn’t clearly define it. Sin appears to be one of those words we use all the time and just assume everybody knows, but as it turns out, nobody really knows.

So let’s do a little definition work. Given all of the definitions and descriptions above, let’s work with this summary of sin: sin is a word we use to describe the wounding of a relationship. That relationship can be between us and God, or it can be between us and each other. Sin does not exist in a vacuum—it always involves more than one person. So sin is anything we think, say, or do—and even things we choose not to do—that harms our relationship with someone else.

This changes the dimension of sin, doesn’t it? Sin is no longer just something I do that’s bad. It’s something I do that’s bad to or for someone else. It gives a relational dimension to sin that is often missing in our discussions around sin, especially as it regards how our actions or inactions hurt others.

For example. We all know it’s wrong to take money from someone. That’s stealing. That’s sinning. But if we look at sin as something that breaks our relationship with others, then this is also sin: withholding our money from others when we have too much and they have none. Because it causes them harm. Ouch. We haven’t -done- anything to someone else. But by not doing something that would help our neighbor, we are just as guilty.

Martin Luther understood this dual nature of sin when he wrote his explanations of the Ten Commandments for his Small Catechism. For the Seventh Commandment—”You shall not steal”—he writes this:

“What does this mean? We are to fear and love God, so that we neither take our neighbors’ money or property nor acquire them by using shoddy merchandise or crooked deals, but instead help them to improve and protect their property and income.”

So you see, there are two sides to breaking that commandment: taking our neighbors’ money, and failing to help them protect it from others trying to take it. Both hurt our neighbor.

Do you see what I mean when I say that sin is a wounding of our relationship with others?

And it gets even more complicated than that. The contributors to the Disrupt Worship Project, whose work we will be using through the Lenten season, point out that we are very good about pointing out individual sins: -I- did this, or -I- did that. It fits well into our cultural narrative that each person is responsible only for themselves. Sin is something personal, individual, and each person will be judged individually.

But remember, sin is never something that is done or that happens in a vacuum. Sin is a breaking of relationships. And just as sin itself separates us from each other, it also binds us together in its deadly grip. Sin is not just individual sin. It is communal sin.

This is the kind of sin that the prophets of the Old Testament rail against. This is the sin that Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, Micah all preach about. In their view, the whole community, the whole nation of Israel and Judah, was guilty of sin as a group. Because even though each person may not have cheated the poor, their society cheated the poor. Even though each person may not have turned away from God’s promises, their community did. Because of this, the whole community suffered the consequences of that sin. The whole community was responsible.

And this is not something we want to hear. It means that we, too, are responsible for our communal sins, even if we as individuals haven’t committed them.

Our society, our church is racist. And even if we don’t individually contribute to that racism, we are responsible for owning that sin. We have let it continue through our inaction. We have left the work of healing undone.

Our society, our church, is sexist. And even if we don’t individually contribute to that sexism, we are responsible for owning that sin. We have let it continue through our inaction. We have left the work of healing undone.

Our society, our church, is homophobic and transphobic. And even if we don’t individually contribute to that homophobia and transphobia, we are responsible for owning that sin. We have let it continue through our inaction. We have left the work of healing undone.

Our society, our church, favors the rich and looks down on the poor. And even if we don’t individually contribute to that classism, we are responsible for owning that sin.

Our society, and even our church, favors the right to shoot and kill 17 adults and children in a school in Parkland, Florida over protecting them. And even if we don’t individually contribute to the gun fetish of our culture that allows mass shooting after mass shooting to happen, we are responsible for owning that sin. We have let it continue through our inaction—we refuse to take any action to stop it, choosing instead to offer quaint and useless “thoughts and prayers”. We have left the work of healing undone, and because of our inaction, more people have died. That mass shooting just happened a few hours ago, by the way; this afternoon.

We confess that the things we have done and the things we have left undone, the communal sins we have allowed to flourish because we won’t address them, are just as deadly as, if not deadlier than, the sins we commit as individuals.

Lent has traditionally been a time of preparation for those seeking to be baptized. It has also been a time to really focus on sin—not to cower in fear before it, but to confront it, name it, challenge it, change it and ourselves, and refocus on the God who forgives.

Because sin can be fought. It already has been. I said that sin not only separates us but ties us together into one big ugly mess. During Lent we look forward to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which broke the ties of sin and death, freeing us from the tyranny of sin. When Jesus told the woman about to stoned to go and sin no more, he didn’t mean that she could be perfect and would never sin. But he gave her freedom from sin that no longer had to be obeyed, sin that no longer held her in its prison without escape. Without Jesus Christ, she wouldn’t be free.

Without Jesus Christ, we wouldn’t be able to name our sins, both the individual ones and the collective ones.
Without Jesus Christ, we would be stuck in an endless cycle of things we have done and things we have left undone, slaves to the constant voice that says, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Without Jesus Christ, sin would still have total mastery and control over us, over our society.
Without Jesus Christ, we wouldn’t be able to challenge our communal sins, repent of our actions and inactions, and change the society around us.

Thanks be to God that Christ broke the power of sin and death, bringing liberation and freedom to those imprisoned by it, and in doing so gave us the strength and power to break sin’s power over our communities. For just as sin wielded power over all in an abusive relationship, the liberation through Jesus Christ brings freedom over all to unite them in a new relationship.

Today, you will receive the sign of the cross,the sign of Christ, on your foreheads. You will bear public witness to your faith. You will show others the liberation you have in Jesus Christ. And through you, as we name aloud tonight our sins and confront them, casting them off, you will bring that freedom and liberation to others.

Featured Image: “Repent Forgive Rebuke” by Jon Worth is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Twenty-Eight Saints: February 13 and 14

February in the United States is Black History Month. In honor of that month, each day in February will feature an African-American saint from different periods of the Civil Rights Movements in America.

February 13
Richard Allen, 1760 – 1831

Allen was born a slave in Virginia. After attending Methodist society meetings (free black and slaves were welcome), he joined the Methodists at the age of 17. When a minister came to his owner’s plantation and preached against the evil’s of slavery, Allen’s owner was moved and gave his slaves the opportunity to buy their freedom, which Allen did. After becoming a preacher, he found himself only allowed to participate and lead in certain situations because of his race. He and Absalom Jones led their black congregants out of their congregations, and Allen formed the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first truly independent black denomination in the United States. He also ran a station on the Underground Railroad, helping slaves escape to safety in the northern states.

Creating God, out of the sea of discrimination you called your servant Richard Allen to preach and lead your people, slaves and free, to safety. Guide us to provide safe havens for the oppressed in our midst. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.

 

February 14,
Elizabeth Evelyn Wright, 1872 – 1906

Wright dedicated her life to education, even in the face of deadly resistance. She attended the Tuskegee Institute and left to help with a rural school for black children in South Carolina. When the school burned down, she returned to the Tuskegee Institute to graduate. She started many other schools in Denmark, South Carolina, but each was either burned down, blocked, or closed for other reasons. With donations from the Vorhees family, she opened the Vorhees Industrial School for high school age boys and girls, the only school in the area where black children could attend, where she served as principal. The school later affiliated with the Episcopal Church, became an accredited school, and is now one of the historically black colleges in the United States.

Revealing God,  your servant Elizabeth Evelyn Wright brought education to the oppressed even in the face of fierce opposition. Give us the strength to face those who oppose justice and use education to challenge injustice. In the name of your Son, we pray. Amen.