Rev. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church, Middletown, NJ
June 21, 2020
Texts: Amos 1:1–15; Matthew 10:24–33
On the night of March 2, 2016, Berta Caceres heard a noise and shouted, “Who’s there?” As her co-worker Gustavo said, “I heard a loud bang and knew it was the end.” Covering his face, the hitmen only managed to wound him, but Berta lay dead on the floor.
The Honduran government claimed that it had provided so-called “precautionary measures” to protect her against threats but that night they had been lacking. Berta had paid for speaking boldly with her life.
Berta’s activism had begun in 1993 when she helped to form an organization supporting the rights of indigenous peoples in Honduras. In 2006 the Lenca, an indigenous people who lived along the Gualcarque River in western Honduras, came to her for her help against a proposed dam project that would destroy their way of life.
She worked with the Lenca, organizing them and found herself a target not just of the private Chinese company building the dam but of the Honduran government as well. Following the 2009 coup that overthrew Manuel Zelaya, she faced threats, intimidation, and legal action for her advocacy of indigenous rights. But she did not stop, so they killed her.
Usually speaking boldly in the United States does not get you killed. It may get you fired from a job, as was the case for Aimee Stephens, one of the three plaintiffs in this past week’s historic Supreme Court decision. She didn’t have to be a public speaker, an organizer, a troublemaker. She only had to write a letter to her employer stating that she had struggled with her gender identity all her life and planned sex reassignment surgery.
Donald Zarda and Gerald Bostock were fired from their jobs because of their sexual orientation. Zarda, a skydiving instructor, had only told a student to make her more comfortable by being strapped together in a lesson. Bostock had said nothing; he only joined a gay softball league in Atlanta.
What drives people to speak boldly? In some cases, it is anger at seeing injustice or others in pain. As David Doiron wrote in his book Anger and Personal Power, anger has a value because whenever someone feels anger, there is a potential for powerful dignity, a sense of responsibility, and the expression of some deep personal value that has a universal rightness.
In other cases, it is just the feeling that one must speak for the right or justice or peace or a belief. The disciples who spoke of their experience of the risen Christ got their courage from that experience. Others saw their passion and were persuaded by the way they recounted their experience following Jesus of Nazareth.
In the past, the members and leadership of Old First have spoken boldly on issues that affected the community whether it was Abel Morgan supporting the patriot cause or Mac McCullough advocating for persons with AIDS in the 1980s. John Howard Yoder, the Mennonite theologian, said the world often helps the church remember what it means to be church. That is certainly the case when it comes to the question of immigration. Scripture constantly reminds us that we were once aliens in the land of Egypt. But we’re not aliens, we say. They––the ubiquitous they––are the aliens.
Theologically, we are all aliens; we are also all part of the body of Christ. As Christians we cannot distinguish between any “us” and “them.” Ah, but you say, the political world is different. And we recite the litany that has become familiar to us all: secure borders; fear of terrorism; don’t let “them”––whoever the “them” is–– overrun us; and as the King of Siam said, et cetera, et cetera, and so forth.
Scripture is replete with admonitions against treating anyone as an “other.” Indeed, the very jointure of the widow, orphan, and the stranger––the alien, the three most powerless segments of ancient Hebrew society tells us that we are to care for these parts of society. Caring for the least of these, the powerless, those without legal status finds its foundation in Scripture through stories and parables and in the very admonitions of Jesus. As Peter is reported to have said when charged not to speak of Jesus, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you [that is, the temple leadership] rather than to God, you must judge for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”
Our faith calls us to speak of what we see and hear, to speak for the powerless and to work for justice. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness, and pride of power, and with its plea for the weak. The church is not just a place to have the warm fuzzies but a place to be recharged for living in the world and against the world’s reliance on power. The church should enable us as a community to counter the corporate strength that runs the world.
Speaking boldly, speaking prophetically, is not an easy task. The church has been castigated in the past for speaking on the moral issues of the day. Those who want us to retreat into some namby-pamby “Smile, God loves you” theology will try to categorize the church’s prophetic voice as “political.”
Make no mistake about it; they are correct. It is clearly political, but not in the narrow sense of the word. Amos called out the disparity of rich and poor. When Jeremiah railed against corruption and injustice, he was thrown in jail; Elisha was on the run from Ahab because he spoke out against corruption and injustice; and it was no different for the rest of the prophets. They all linked worship of the one true God with justice. They are inseparable.
Faithfulness to the Gospel requires us to be involved in the world and to take on the powers and principalities that control the use and abuse of power. Worshiping and living in community gives us the sustenance to do that. So as we continue our worship together, let us draw strength from each other and from God’s Holy Spirit that binds us together in community as we speak and act in the name of him who calls us his own.
Let us pray: Holy One who calls us to be in community with all your children, empower us and enable us to speak and act boldly for the building of your kingdom envisioned by the one who showed us how to truly live, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.