Holy Hashtags 1 | #TheWay - Discipleship As A Movement

Preached at the Presbyterian Student Center on Tuesday January 15, 2019
By Rev. Will Norman

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OT READING Amos 5:18-24

18 Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; 19 as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. 20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? 21 I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. 

This is the Word of the Lord

Thanks be to God

NT READING Mark 10:46-52

46 Jesus and his followers came into Jericho. As Jesus was leaving Jericho, together with his disciples and a sizable crowd, a blind beggar named Bartimaeus, Timaeus' son, was sitting beside the road. 47 When he heard that Jesus of Nazareth was there, he began to shout, "Jesus, Son of David, show me mercy!" 48 Many scolded him, telling him to be quiet, but he shouted even louder, "Son of David, show me mercy!" 49 Jesus stopped and said, "Call him forward." They called the blind man, "Be encouraged! Get up! He's calling you." 50 Throwing his coat to the side, he jumped up and came to Jesus. 51 Jesus asked him, "What do you want me to do for you?" The blind man said, "Teacher, I want to see." 52 Jesus said, "Go, your faith has healed you." At once he was able to see, and he began to follow Jesus on the way.

SERMON #TheWay - Discipleship as a Movement

There is a fascinating history to this building, which inspired this sermon series, but which may not have received much attention over the decades. I am indebted to Andy Cooke, my predecessor in ministry here, who spent his last few years compiling some of the PSC’s history as a center of advocacy for fair and equal human rights, and, in unknowing anticipation of the Sunday Night book study accompanying this series, of faithful resistance.

The year after this building was dedicated for Christian Ministry on the campus of UGA also happened to be the year the University reluctantly took the step to racially integrate its student body. For the first time in its nearly two century long history, UGA had black women and men enrolling as students, sitting in classrooms alongside white women and men. This might not seem noteworthy to us today, but in 1961, in the state of Georgia, it was.

To put it mildly, integration was not popular among the white students, and quickly became threatening, and even dangerous for the black students. Attempts by black students to register for classes were met by mobs of angry white folks formed into human barriers to prevent them from registering. In the dining halls, food was thrown at black students trying simply to have a meal. For most of these students their options were to avoid human contact altogether, or to submit themselves to severe harassment. Even if physical harm was not done (and in some instances, it was), the psychological effect of being systematically ostracized—of having no one to turn to for help—is utterly traumatizing. 

Which brings us back to that newly dedicated Presbyterian Student Center. PSC Students in 1961 took it upon themselves to organize with the impossibly outnumbered black students, accompanying them to registration, which again, in the 60’s required students to physically show up to a designated location. The harassment continued on through the semester, and so too, the accompaniment by PSC students, now to weekly classes. Word got out to black students that they were invited to eat Sunday dinner in this building, where not only would they be spared the throwing of food, but could sit at a table with other people and have a conversation as they ate. Mary Frances Early, who was the first black student to earn a degree from UGA, recalls getting an invitation to the PSC for dinner one Sunday night, only to show up and discover a surprise birthday party being thrown in her honor. Early says of that night, “that was the most special birthday I’ve ever had, because I felt, ‘these people don’t know me, and they’re being kind’.”

Sometimes the most Christian think we can do is to be kind when no one else will. 

Other times, though, it is to be stubborn.

Just a few years after the campus was integrated, PSC students, with the support of their campus ministers, got involved in protesting US involvement in the Viet Nam War.  This ministry was not alone, of course, in its protest, just as it had not been alone in its work for civil rights for black Americans. 

In both cases, the students were participating
in a larger cultural movement of folks
who saw a failure of moral leadership at the top of a system which they had at least some power to change,
and who made the conscious decision
to not turn the other way;
to not stay silent and avoid controversy;
to not throw up their hands and say that’s too big an issue—
it’s outside of my ability or responsibility to fix.
But uniquely—at least on this campus—the students of the PSC in the 1960s joined these movements as a conscious and intentional expression of their Christian faith. 

Forty years later, following 9/11, the PSC opened its building and worship up to Muslim students who were being threatened because they happened to belong to the same very large, very diverse religion as the terrorists had. This too was a conscious and intentional expression of their Christian faith. 

How did they arrive at the decision to do this—at this understanding of faith, which aligned with particular political positions and activities. It was certainly not a matter of it being clear to all Christian people that ‘this was the right thing to do, and so we’re all going to do it.’ In fact, in the 1960s, the ministry was seen by many on campus as being deviant … at least one campus minister was targeted by efforts to force his resignation, not only by university folks who had an interest in keeping the peace, but by church folks too, who could not see any Christian faithfulness in his activist leadership.

It is often the case when looking back into history, that what we see clearly as the right, or faithful way, was not so clearly visible at the time. 

We think that ‘of course we would have sat-in at the lunch counters,’ of course we would have accompanied UGA’s first black students to registration and class. Knowing all that we now know about Viet Nam, we think “of course we would have joined those protests” … One of the most convicting statements I have ever heard is that what we are or are not doing for justice today is the best predictor of whether we would have stood on the right side of history then. There are plenty of people out in the streets crying out for justice … are we standing or walking or crying out with them? 

Is the Church? 

Why or why not?

This series is going to walk through a number of these contemporary justice movements asking whether and how Christians can be involved in them as an expression of their faith. So next week we’ll be addressed by Black Lives Matter
Then Climate Justice; then MeToo & the Women’s March.
Then that bumper sticker you see around that says Coexist.

Next is LGBTQ+ Rights, then an immigration campaign called Love Knows No Borders. We keep on going after spring break with March For Our Lives, the movement for gun control, and Nothing About Us Without Us, which is a movement for the inclusion of people with disabilities. We may even take it back a few years and Occupy Wall Street before it’s all said and done.

Every one of these movements has faith leaders involved—and a number of them are already attested in this ministry’s history—so we’re not breaking any new ground here, but we are ready to ask, what would it take, and what would it look like for us—for this room full of worshipers to become an active, faithful force for justice in our world, like the PSC has been in its history … and what are the stakes if we decide not to?

Our first scripture reading tonight was included simply to make the point that as far as the prophets of scripture are concerned, it is not only possible, but frequently observed that a community and its members can believe rightly, and worship enthusiastically, and observe all the right fasts and festivals, and maintain clean and beautiful sanctuary and still not be pleasing to the Lord. Amos relays the word of God to the people of God, saying, “You’re correct that God is coming to set history right, but y’all best not be so certain you’re livin’ on the right side of history. The day of the Lord is not light for you, but darkness. 

He continues: “God said, “I hate… utterly despise your festivals … I’m not pleased with your very serious gatherings. This is what would please me: Let justice roll down like waters; righteousness like a mighty and eternal spring.”

To be God’s people is to live God’s way. To refuse God’s way is to deny that we are God’s people.

Early Christians found this idea to be so prevalent in the teaching and ministry of Jesus that they would refer to themselves as followers of The Way. It is not a coincidence that after Baritmaeus is given sight by Jesus he leaves his previous way of life behind and follows Jesus ‘along the way.’ Bartimaeus is not one of the 12 disciples, but this does not preclude him from the life of discipleship. 

Disciples follow Jesus … they learn from what Jesus says and does, and over time become more and more like him, saying for themselves the things he said, going themselves to the types of places he went, and doing the types of things he did, with the types of people he gave his time to … and all of this comes from seeing the world and its inhabitants the way that Jesus sees them.

What color of skin does Jesus see as the most, or the least human? What parts of God’s creation would Jesus say are ok to destroy? Which sex or gender is worth the least in Jesus’ eyes? And what mutual expressions of faithful love would Jesus prohibit? Which religious groups does he say it’s ok to hate? And on which borders would he build the highest, most beautiful walls? What level of mental of physical ability does Jesus require of someone before they can follow him? In which schools or sanctuaries or neighborhoods would he want the most lethal weapons?

If all goes according to plan, the sermons in this series will help us like Bartimaeus, to receive our sight from Jesus. But we must not be content to stop there. For once we see creation’s want of justice, how can we not act in pursuit of it. And so we begin this very modern series, with a very ancient prayer …
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SONG -  Prayer of St. Augustine