In honor and recognition of the tradition of “telling the stories” during Black History Month, we are please to share the work of Rev. Dr. Joy Moore. Serving as assistant professor of Preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA., and academic liaison to the William E. Pannell Center for African American Church Studies, Joy J. Moore, PhD (Brunel University/London School of Theology) teaches in the area of homiletics and the practice of ministry. An ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, Dr. Joy seeks to encourage theologically framed, biblically attentive, and socially compelling interpretations of familiar passages to help people understand the critical issues influencing community formation in contemporary culture. Read the full introduction to Dr. Moore's preaching notes for Black History Month »
Pro-Choice or Pro-Life
The people gathered at the outskirts of the land Promised to them. The existing governments had not extended the promise. Rather the possibility came as an undying hope born in the belief that the declarations of the founding fathers could be trusted. Joseph, son of Jacob, had been long forgotten by those who held the people in slavery. Now, the voice of one who once achieved a Nobel Peace Prize worthy negotiation with the most powerful men of the region was defining the laws of human civility as the mandate of the Creator of the Universe. Moses, like Martin Luther King Jr., reminded a wandering people that God ordered the inalienable rights of humanity. The book of Deuteronomy is a discourse reprising what the Lord God requires of the children of Israel when they cross into the land where they will exercise power with a newly gained privilege. In a vigorous verbal rehearsal, Moses rehashes over and over the directive that the Israelites must not worship any other gods. These six verses provide the CliffsNotes summary of thirty chapters of speech.
Lest we forget the meat of the message, preferring the #IHaveADream soundbite, Moses presents the unadorned opposing options: life and death, blessing and curse, good and evil, prosperity and adversity. Walking in a way that glorifies the God of Israel yields life. Obligations to other gods yields death. And like Joshua would remind the people soon after Moses’ death, each generation of the people of God must choose between the power, privilege, position, and prosperity of the land and the commands of God. Like Adam and Eve, we must choose between walking with the Creator or indulging in the dogmas of good and evil made available through human observation.
To “choose life” when one is at the edge of receiving promise is to begin again. After escaping slavery and still abandoning the ever present God in favor of what they can imagine and create as symbols for themselves, the children of Israel demonstrate for us how easily and how quickly we enlist politics of a supremacy saturated in limited capital that stokes our fears to affirm agendas of oppression, even as they compromise our assertions of godliness. Choosing life means a divergent, wilderness wandering, self-emptying, holy relationship with God. The story of the Israelites is one of repeated deviation from the covenant, only to find God continually willing to embrace the people again, though not without God’s judgment. Those who stand in the tradition of Moses, enable the people to see that the consequences of idolatry are always and only deadly. And yet their warnings also always repeat the hope that striving to live in relationship with God yields life. Covenant fidelity is an active effort rather than intellectual approval or verbal affirmation. Moses is not organizing the people to vote for godly values; Moses is requiring asking them to engage in a set of lived practices which demonstrate an ongoing orientation toward love of God and neighbor. (Deut 6:4): The land they will now inhabit is occupied by people who worship other gods. Before them is idolatry, captivating and seductive but dangerous. They, we, must choose life, which Jesus says is to know the only true God (John 17:3).
Walk This Way
The longest chapter in the longest book begins with beatitudes. As long as this chapter is, it resembles Jesus’ teachings on the mountain more than Moses’ laws. It is as if the psalmist is saying, “you have heard the law, so be their fulfilment.” Happiness is being blameless according to the law of God. Seek first then, not the good of the government that compromises the justice of God, but to walk steadfast in the commandments of God. The pursuit of happiness will never be achieved outside of the statues of God. These eight verses delight in the repetition that to keep the law is not a burden but a blessing. One of my students reminded us in a sermon that the Ten Commandments are like the too often unread Terms and Conditions we click agreement on just to be able to download the desired product. The African American experience provides exhibit A that affirmation of the statues of God is insufficient. So the psalmist clarifies with what is translated in the English as action words: walk, seek, observe. Such practices in life leave one above suspicion, unimpeachable, and virtuous. This is an utterly compelling guarantee of what Moses described as prosperity. Like the ancient Israelites who exited Egypt, wandered the wilderness, and entered the promise land by foot, the psalmist figuratively employs the metaphor of walking as an expression of the totality of one’s life as a journeyed path under the terms and conditions of God. In a similar way, those who affirmed the humanity of African Americans walked across America before her government recognized blacks as neighbors rather than servants. We miss the power of the marches if we see them only as efforts toward civil rights. Each non-violent participant demonstrated the magnanimous capacity of humanity in their exemplary response to the cruelty of police brutality, oppressive statues, and government sanctioned tyranny. Harriett Tubman gave her life in this walk. The threat of death is not a deterrent when one is keeping the requirement to practice justice, favor kindness, and walk in a way that glorifies God.
What Kind of Christian are You?
Have you noticed how the modifiers before Christian have become our most important markers of identity? Black Christian. Evangelical Christian. Progressive Christian. Wesleyan Christian. Red-Letter Christian. (That is, if you are still using the nomenclature at all.) This goes all the way back before the divided tribes of ancient Israel were caught between the arguments of the Kings, priests, and prophets. Caught in shame, Adam and Eve separated to plead their case before God. The Corinthians seem to be caught in the same identity politics. Of all the things that Paul could have addressed with this community of faith, he addresses their rivalries. Partisan preoccupation with the former ways of doing things, long standing fault lines, and allegiances to previous ministries, set groups, communities, and ministries against one another. Congregations today similarly limit outreach as we navel-gaze on success programs resultant in our own conversions, as if one-size fits all, and that is only my size. The church too often describes her identity by the values deemed important by culture: nationalism, prosperity, and separation from those who might challenge that prosperity. Paul’s response to these divisions was to acknowledge that God has been at work in this the journey of salvation. Using the metaphor of gardening, Paul hints at the various gifts distributed among the people of God – one plants, another waters…but growth is always by the hand of God.
In our efforts to make a name for ourselves, are we forming a network or establishing adversaries? Paul’s approach to unity is more than a value, it is a strategy. Our unity in Christ is the way we address all the other problems in the church. Only when our efforts to correct or connect are seen as an authentic expression of our love and commitment to one another and to Christ will it be fruitful. Echoes of this unity reverberate from the Day of Pentecost to the Azusa Street Revival to the 1963 March on Washington. No human could have imagined these original victories. Such unity is God’s doing. What kind of witness would it bring in the world of religious radicals, partisan politics, and family feuds, for the church to gather together in the name of Jesus across identities of race, denomination, citizenship, and economic class to demonstrate that our calling is to be the seeds of God’s justice and mercy? Some are called to plant, others are called to water, but all are called to nurture that justice with compassion and love and patience, and leave whatever growth, in whatever form, to God.
You’ve Heard This
In the cadence of a call and response sermon, the sermon Matthew records of Jesus mirrors the repetition of Moses Thou shalt not. But Jesus is giving voice to the subtleties that mark the difference between affirming good and living justly. One can almost read this as a prescription for how to love one’s neighbor as oneself. If is not enough to only use your gun for sport, animosity, antagonism and resentment makes one chargeable in the statues of God. Regular worship attendance or charitable giving does not absolve us from passions that extinguishes the life-giving dreams of our neighbor. As if aware of contemporary escapades of minimal sentencing, appellate court, and senate hearings, Jesus advocates an alternative procedure. We cannot claim innocence because all we did was fantasize. A pointed tweet or alternative fact-based status update might fall under the metaphorical cutting off of one’s own right hand to prevent culpability.
Jesus included remarriage in the list, which has cause consternation for generations. Yet, our permissive disregard for this principle of behavior parallels our accommodation of all the others. Surreptitiously, quietly, we make allowances for exaggerated accusations, enhanced profiling, and embellished descriptions as if the “humor’ we post, the rants we “like”, and the fake-news we forward does not qualify as our word.
During this month of Black History, we view the hypocrisy of our government to make claims of liberty and justice for all while designating various people groups as less than human, unable to be full citizens, and incapable of virtue. The church has been complicit in this false witness. Jesus seems to be seeking for a people of integrity. It is not enough to be a follower of Jesus like we follow someone’s twitter posts. Jesus calls for his disciples to honor their commitments, first at home as a practice for living lives of integrity in public. The Sermon on the Mount requires more than individual intent; it requires communal interdependence. Beginning in your marriage, practice fidelity, trustworthiness, and commitment. Then treat all those around you with the same honesty, respect, and authenticity. If you have forgotten where you heard it first, reread Matthew’s gospel.