The God of Ungodly
Rev. Dr. Warner Bailey
Jan. 17, 2020
Looking at the assault on the Capitol on January 6, I was struck by just how colorful were the scenes. Lots of red hats. Flags, too. American flags. Texas flags. The battle flag of the Confederacy. Yellow flags and white flags bearing slogans of the Revolution. “Don’t tread on me.” “Live free or die.” There were also flags and banners which had names emblazoned on them. Flags with the name Trump. Banners with the name Jesus 2020. Signs proclaiming Jesus Saves. Those were the only names I saw flying in the wind. It made me remember that phrase in “Onward Christian Soldiers.” “Forward into battle, See his banners go.”
I don’t know about you, but I take it that these were the names in whose honor what was going on was done. These were the names the invaders invoked to encourage, to bless and guide something which had only been done once before in the War of 1812 by the British. For me, it brought on sadness and anger at how people who claim Jesus as savior would involve him in such horrifying acts.
If politics is only about power, then the Bible can serve up a certain kind of religion for power-hungry politicians. Literalistic, authoritarian, male dominated, white racist, homophobic, truth denying religion is just perfect for the power hungry. If that’s what you are looking for, it can be found in the Bible. No clearer instance do we have of this fact than President Trump’s photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church which stands in front of the White House. You remember, it happened on June 1 during a Black Lives Matter protest in front of the White House over the murder by a white policeman of a black man George Floyd. Protestors were forcibly pushed back so that the President and members of his staff, including his top general and Defense Secretary, could walk to the church. Standing in front of the church with the power of the state behind him, Mr. Trump held out a Bible in his right hand to hammer home his rule of law and order.
I don’t know about you, but all this has really made my job hard as a Christian. Last year I published a book entitled Aliens in Your Native Land. That’s about how I feel as a mainline Christian. White insurrectionists bearing the name Jesus get a free pass to storm the Capitol, trash it up, and threaten lawmakers in order to stop the heartbeat of American democracy. Black Lives Matter protestors get tear gassed and pushed back so the President can walk across the street with his top general and without asking for permission hold up a Bible in front of an historic church to hammer home his rule of law and order. And my non-Christian friends, the so-called “nones”, and the cynics say, “And that’s what your faith is all about?” “Is this how you use the Bible?” And our wonderful teenagers who are leading this worship service today say: “Is this what I signed up for when my parents had me baptized?” “And you think that this is what I need?” “Is this what ‘Jesus Saves’ is all about?”
Of course we do not think so. What happened on January 6 has thoroughly discredited the President and his followers. But just as tellingly, the religion of the banner wavers is shown up as trashing the name of the Jesus by making him the emblem of white supremacy, populism run amuck, rank individualism, male domination, and conspiracy ideology. We will have none of it!
If you open the Bible you will see that racism lives within its pages. In our Old Testament lesson, Aaron, one of Moses’ brothers, together with his sister, Miriam, tried to wrest the power of leadership from Moses. They said, “He has married a Cushite.” When you hear Cushite, think Ethiopian. In the legend of Noah and the ark, one of Noah’s sons, Ham, is the founder of the land of Cush which is in Africa. Noah curses Ham and his progeny to live in servitude. “She is a Cushite.” Slaves would come from Africa.
Miriam and Aaron played the race card in their bid to unseat Moses. Their power-play began by smearing him as having married a black woman, someone who is an “other”, someone who is outside the clan, someone whose race carries the taint of being of the servant-class.
Our story says that Moses was the most humble man on earth, but use your imaginations to conjure up the blow Moses suffered when his own flesh and blood, his own most trusted colleagues, dissed him, shamed him, slandered him through his wife’s race in a bid to unseat him as the leader of Israel.
The stakes in this struggle were so great that God had to intervene, and in a stunning act of judgment God cursed Miriam’s skin by making it turn snow white. She had used blackness to bring down her brother. God used whiteness to make her into an object of horror and repulsion. It was only after repeated pleadings from Aaron and Moses that God lifted the curse of the snow-white skin. But God’s curse was not lifted before God made Miriam an “outsider” just like she had made the Cushite wife. Miriam had to serve a seven-day sentence of solitary confinement outside the camp before she was able to rejoin the community. She had to get over being white. While Miriam may have been healed of her physical disfigurement, she will always carry the scar of the judgment and grace of God toward how she had used race to get control. Now hold this story in your mind.
Another story to think about. We all love the story of the Good Samaritan. I want to shift the focus of the story away from the invidious contrast between the proper Jewish clergy and the Samaritan. I want you to imagine that you are the half-dead Jew by the roadside, lying in the hot sun unconscious, in shock, your life-blood oozing out of your deep cuts. Suddenly, the sting of the alcohol in the wine being poured on your wounds shocks you back into consciousness, and it gradually comes upon you that you are being helped by a Samaritan!
Samaritans, you have been carefully taught, are ungodly, and if they touch you, you become ungodly. The thing you have been taught to do is to get away from this guy, but you are helpless to do so. More to the point, the very one you have been taught to hate, to dominate, to despise is the one who holds your life in his hands, the one who will determine whether you will ever see your wife and kids again. Jesus asked, “Who was the neighbor”? The answer is obvious. But the other unspoken question is: What was the Jew thinking about as he recovered in a bed paid for by the Samaritan?
So now I have you thinking about two stories that leave people scarred for life, Miriam and the half-dead Jew. They have been wounded in that part of their soul that harbors attitudes of being superior to someone outside their tribe. Scarred for life by grace. What shall we do with these stories today?
The title of my sermon today is “The God of the Ungodly.” It is taken from our epistle lesson, Romans 5:6: “For while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.” I have you thinking about two stories where God stood up for someone whom the dominant culture said was ungodly, beneath human dignity, the “other”, the sinister, the deadly. God stood up for Moses’ black wife when her race was used to try to bring him down, and Jesus made a hero out of the hated Samaritan. God is the God of those whom racism says are ungodly. Christ died for those people on the outside. God is their champion against Jesus 2020.
But we also saw in those stories a different kind of ungodliness. This is the ungodliness of sin. The smear tactics of Miriam and Aaron and their racist attitudes. That’s ungodly. The callous disregard of the priest and Levite. That’s ungodly, too. The inbred racism in which the Jewish victim of roadside robbery was trapped. That’s ungodly. There is an ugliness to ungodliness. Christ died for the people who held the Jesus 2020 banner.
Miriam was put in isolation for seven days to get over being white. What did she think about during that time? A Jew stayed in a hospital at the Samaritan’s expense to get over being anti-Semitic. What did he think about as he was recovering? The spirit of America is in intensive care. We are in the ICU because of the ungodly, ugly things we do motivated by our fear of losing our dwindling dominance and privilege juiced up by a religion of self-pity. In these days before the inauguration, what should we be thinking about?
Think about this. The one thing you and I and everybody else walked away with on January 6 was having suffered. If we are to start again, we have to begin in something we hold in common—in suffering. Think about this: Jesus was made to suffer and die like you would punish a slave. He suffered as one of the despised. Look at Jesus on the Cross! Look at the suffering human sin causes!
I’m going to tell you something that only Christianity will tell you about suffering: God raised the suffering Jesus from the dead, and he bears in his resurrected body the marks of his wounds. Your suffering sticks to the wounds of the resurrected-crucified Jesus. And his resurrection makes something wonderful happen. God pours into our wounds the grace and love of our Lord Jesus Christ. That love will keep us afloat as together we walk the healing path from suffering to endurance to character to hope.
God holds the hope for the suffering. God holds the hope for America to be “out of many, one nation.” God’s love makes this hope a sure foundation on which to build back better again. No one can come and take that hope from us. Notice that the chain of healing goes from suffering to hope, not from suffering to cure. That’s important. Because hope stands at the end of the chain of healing that means that all along the way “better is better.”
Let us strive for and celebrate the “better” until that day when our striving shall cease, and God will bring in a “more perfect union.”