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Sermon for February 5, 2012

Principles of Spiritual Activism: Speaking truth to Power

The apostles were performing many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers were meeting regularly at the Temple in the area known as Solomon’s Colonnade. But no one else dared to join them, even though all the people had high regard for them. Yet more and more people believed and were brought to the Lord—crowds of both men and women. As a result of the apostles’ work, sick people were brought out into the streets on beds and mats so that Peter’s shadow might fall across some of them as he went by. Crowds came from the villages around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those possessed by evil spirits, and they were all healed. The high priest and his officials, who were Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. But an angel of the Lord came at night, opened the gates of the jail, and brought them out. Then he told them, “Go to the Temple and give the people this message of life!” So at daybreak the apostles entered the Temple, as they were told, and immediately began teaching. When the high priest and his officials arrived, they convened the high council—the full assembly of the elders of Israel. Then they sent for the apostles to be brought from the jail for trial. But when the Temple guards went to the jail, the men were gone. So they returned to the council and reported, “The jail was securely locked, with the guards standing outside, but when we opened the gates, no one was there!” When the captain of the Temple guard and the leading priests heard this, they were perplexed, wondering where it would all end. Then someone arrived with startling news: “The men you put in jail are standing in the Temple, teaching the people!” The captain went with his Temple guards and arrested the apostles, but without violence, for they were afraid the people would stone them. Then they brought the apostles before the high council, where the high priest confronted them. “Didn’t we tell you never again to teach in this man’s name?” he demanded. “Instead, you have filled all Jerusalem with your teaching about him, and you want to make us responsible for his death!” But Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead after you killed him by hanging him on a cross. Then God put him in the place of honor at his right hand as Prince and Savior. He did this so the people of Israel would repent of their sins and be forgiven. We are witnesses of these things and so is the Holy Spirit, who is given by God to those who obey him” . . . [They had the apostles] flogged. Then they ordered them never again to speak in the name of Jesus, and they let them go. The apostles left the high council rejoicing that God had counted them worthy to suffer disgrace for the name of Jesus. And every day, in the Temple and from house to house, they continued to teach and preach this message: “Jesus is the Messiah.” Acts 5:12-42

For more than two hours, thousands stood in silence on the hill overlooking Prague to pay their last respects to a playwright who became a president. In life, Vaclav Havel was remembered as dissident artist. In death, he was remembered as a spiritual activist. Many of those who watched the funeral on a large outdoor TV screen were too young to remember the days when, in 1989, Vaclav Havel rose from political prisoner to leader of his country in a matter of months. But, as his coffin left the cathedral, the crowd broke into sustained, warm applause, sharing the sentiment voiced in Vaclav Havel's most well-known quote, that truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred. Former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who was herself born in Prague, spoke at the ceremony. She said Vaclav Havel "brought light to the places of deepest darkness.”

Listen to these words from the writings of Vaclav Havel: “I appreciate the fact that, although very often they have no hope, not even a glimpse of success on the horizon, [there are still leaders] ready to sacrifice their lives, to sacrifice their freedom. They are ready to assume responsibility for the world, or at least for the part of the world they live in. I have always respected these people and appreciated what they do. Courage in the public sphere means that one is to go against majority opinion (at the same time risking losing one’s position) in the name of the truth. And I have always strongly admired historic personalities who have been capable of doing exactly this . . . Becoming a dissident is not something that happens overnight. You do not simply decide to become one. It is a long chain of steps and acts. And very often during this process, you do not really reflect upon what is happening. You just know that you want to avoid any debt that would put a stain on your life. You don’t want to become involved with the dirt that is around you and one day, all of a sudden you wake up and realize that you are a dissident, that you are a human rights activist.”

Havel said courage in the public sphere means going against majority opinion in the name of the truth.

What do you think about this? It terrifies me. I know that spiritual activists speak truth to power. But I have three issues with the whole concept. They all have to do with my instinct towards self-preservation.

Self-Preservation Issue # One: I can be gullible. I often think too highly of people in power. I assume our leaders are working for a more just world that supports the common good. I want to believe elected officials represent their constituencies and not their own political ambitions. I realized my gullibility when we were at the clergy prayer breakfast and lobby day for Marriage Equality in Annapolis. Six of us from CCC joined dozens of clergy to let Maryland State Delegates know that we are faith leaders who whose religious ideals compel us to support equal marriage rights for all people. We took our message to three different Delegates who oppose the Civil Marriage Protection Act, including Sam Arora of District 19. Each one of them fed us a line. They listened respectfully, but when it came time to commit, they dismissed us by saying, “Thanks for your time. I need to look more closely at the bill before I decide.” At the time, I left Annapolis thinking they would truly consider what is best to support people’s rights in our State. I wanted to believe they were sincerely looking. It wasn’t until when I realized how much I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt to others. I forget that some in power, don’t always work for the common good.

Courage in the public sphere means going against majority opinion in the name of the truth.

Here is Self-Preservation Issue #2: I don’t like conflict and confrontation. The thought of being a public activist unhinges me. And I know I’m not alone. I like to think its genetic. Actually, scientist Michael McCullough explains that human beings have a hard-wired instinct, almost a craving, for revenge. As long as we experience fear of the unknown and some degree of insecurity and vulnerability in our souls, as long as we feel like we have to defend our honor, there is the likelihood of acting on our primal urge to hurt those who hurt us. But, as someone once said, “There is no revenge as complete as forgiveness.” McCullough thinks that forgiveness is also hard-wired in us. Humans tolerate deficits and excuse mistakes in others all the time -- not just with those we love but people we work with. We forgive people hundreds of times a day without thinking much about it. As a species, it’s in our best interest to forgive others. Our survival depends on being able to collaborate and work together. What happens when you can’t work together, though? What do we do when the rift is too great, when the world seems like it’s gone mad and you no longer want to be complicit in the harmful decisions of those in whom you’ve put your trust?

Courage in the public sphere means going against majority opinion in the name of the truth.

Here is Self-Preservation Issue #3: Speaking truth to power is dangerous business. Just ask the Apostles. We heard about them in today’s reading from the Book of Acts. It is the first account in the New Testament of civil disobedience. Members of the first century church lived under military occupation by the most powerful empire in the world. They faced serious consequences for speaking out against the status quo and violating rules that the authorities imposed on them. The Apostles take stand against an unjust gag order. Luke, the writer, wants us to know that God is on their side. God unlocks the their prison doors so they can go back to the public square and preach the message of the risen Christ. The Apostles engage in deliberate violation of an abusive policy in order to draw attention to the immoral actions of the establishment. The public officials have the Apostles flogged in order to enforce the gag order. You’d think onlookers would see their punishment and get turned off from Christianity. Instead, the decision to break the laws of the establishment attracted people to the cause of Christ. I’m stuck on the public flogging part. If you speak truth to power often enough, you can get hurt.

I can be gullible, cowardly, and non-confrontational. So why think about speaking truth to power? Because courage in the public sphere means going against majority opinion in the name of the truth. Why challenge ourselves to a spiritual activism that confronts others? Because I fear that political, corporate, and religious leaders are standing in servitude to the arrogance of power and its corrupting influences. Because we live in a time when some religious leaders people down twisted paths that exclude people from Christ’s church and its leadership. Because political leaders bring us down irresponsible paths that offer Americans no hope of ever providing for all of our citizens such basics as a sound education, adequate health care, equal opportunity, and meaningful employment. Because governments lead us down villainous paths that lead to war and destruction instead of peace. Because corporate interests lead us down miscreant paths that desecrate the beauty and integrity of God’s creation, and squander earth’s irreplaceable resources. Because we walk down down folly-filled paths that disregard such simple lessons learned by every kindergartner, such as: we should tell the truth and share what we have and do unto others as we want them to do unto us.

This morning, we begin to speak truth to power in the meal we are about to share.This meal offered to us by Christ is the end of false authority and the beginning of true authority. It is the vanquishment of death and the renewal of life. It is the conquest of temptation and the victory of grace. It is the annulment of human domination and the foretaste of God’s reign. Thanks be to God, that in the midst of all the travails and tempests in this world, we have a gift -- the gift of Christ’s gracious, transforming presence here at this Table. We come to a place where we are honest about our failures. It is a place where we are valued not by our paycheck or the color of our skin, our age or gender or sexuality. We are counted as people of God. Period. We gather around an open table, meaning that you don’t have to be a member of our church or the UCC. It is open for those who are in need of forgiveness and grace and the desire to grow in love with God. We gain strength to speak truth to power by partaking of a love that will transform your soul and the world itself.

This table brings us close to God, a God who walked around in our world to redeem the world we’re in. It’s a table which brings us close to Christ, whose body was broken and raised so that we, who are broken people, might be raised to a more compassionate, a more humane life. It’s a table at which the Spirit fills us with grace and leads us into the hurting places crying for justice and looking for advocates. Our communion table is a place where we, who are many, become one with all. On this day and the days to come, may we be filled with compassion which overcomes our differences. And may we find the boldness to take a stand against hatred and injustice, even if it means speaking truth to power.

Sources:
http://www.cpt.org/files/SS_Lesson_3.pdf
http://blogs.nysut.org/sttp/
http://www.rutgerschurch.org/Sermons/sermon071303.html
http://mskittyssaloonandroadshow.blogspot.com/2008/02/sermon-speaking-truth-to-power-with.html
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-16304858
http://blogs.nysut.org/sttp/defenders/vaclav-havel/
Krista Tipett, Einstein’s God (2010), pp. 171-195.

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