March 13, 2016
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
But How Can We Sing the LORD’s Song Here?: Faith Locked Up
This year during Lent we’re asking the question: how does our Christian faith relate to the U.S. criminal justice system? In asking this, another question pops up, and this is the one that makes us who we are. It goes, “Now what can we do about it?” Clearly, things about the system are in need of reform, so who should we talk to? Where can we send a letter? Clearly, young people in the neighborhood need opportunities to get to know police officers as coaches and mentors. That’s great! Tell us how to help, and we’ll show up.
One of our partner organizations, Quad Cities Interfaith, does a marvelous job of harnessing this impulse for action. I recently attended their program calling for the establishment of a Mental Health Court in Davenport, which is an alternative court so people don’t wind up incarcerated simply because they have a mental illness.
The program was composed of three well-designed pieces. First, we watched a rather horrifying documentary showing how prisons are not well equipped to provide mental health services. Second, there were several panel discussions responding to questions from the crowd. Finally, we were invited to sign postcards to members of congress asking for their support for this initiative.
First: here’s the problem; next: let’s talk about it; finally: here’s an action we can take to help solve it. It is a satisfying course of events, and it’s an approach that can make a meaningful difference.
It is not enough to have injustice exposed. It’s not enough to become convinced there are problems we might have not noticed before. Now there is a holy impulse that kicks against the crusty residue of cynicism and clamors to our consciousness saying, “Come on! Let’s do something!” Brothers and sisters, this impulse gives glory to God.
If our Lenten series has provoked this response in you, you are not alone. As a church, we are gathered in the week before Holy Week, in the spiritual moment before the postcards get handed out. We’re seeing the problems with the system; we are talking about them critically and constructively, now this is the moment: what is God calling our church to do? This moment is pulsing with possibility; it’s time to pay attention to our attention.
It might even be the kind of moment that makes us get up, like Elijah, on that mountain in the wilderness, and go out, and stand on the ledge, and get ready, because the LORD is about to pass by. If not in the ferocious wind, well then in the fire. If not in the fire, God might speak in the earthquake. If not in the earthquake, please don’t go back inside just yet. It could be that God will speak to us in the sheer silence. LORD hear our prayer: what can we do?
As we gather in this moment of vivid discernment, I’m wondering whether this might be something we have in common with the early church at Philippi.
This church had been founded by Paul, then about ten years later, the church received word that Paul had been arrested. Again. So they made a care package of gifts and supplies and sent it to Paul with one of their members Epaphroditus. Now Epaphroditus got sick during his visit to Paul, so Paul sent him back to the Philippians with this letter, which is partly a thank you and partly a commissioning to the church.
I picture the Philippians greeting Epaphroditus upon his return then sitting down together in the same room, with one person reading Paul’s letter out loud to the church. As the letter is building toward the final instructions, I wonder if the people in the room lean forward, hungry for a call to action. Get ready, the LORD is about to pass by. Now what can we do?
Hear what Paul tells them: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I will say Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”
Umm… What was that now? Come on, Paul. Here we’ve been trying to persevere in the Christian faith amid arrests, and persecution, and false teaching. We have talked about this critically and constructively; now is the moment to take meaningful action. We are charged up, and ready to go, and happy to send somebody a postcard. So your direction to us is: Rejoice in the Lord. Again you say, Rejoice… Really.
If Paul were making this up, it would sound so cheesy and cheap. How can a person look at actual oppression then say, “Come, let’s rejoice in the Lord.” At best, it is embarrassingly off key. At worst, this could deny a person the truth of their pain. How can we praise God if our hearts have been broken? If our brother was killed in the street? How can we sing the LORD’s song here?
If Paul is making this up to sound inspirational, then this is a terrible lie.
Only thing is… What if Paul isn’t making this up? Listen to what he says in verse twelve: “I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry…” Paul reminds us that he is not naive. He’s not exactly known for being superfluously cheerful. So why does Paul choose this for his parting instructions? Why is Paul so intent on reminding the Philippians to see what is good and rejoice in the LORD?
I wonder if it’s because there’s a credible threat that the light of God’s love will go unseen. And if the light of God’s love is the truth, I wonder if there is a real possibility that the truth will go unspoken.
One of the myths about our criminal justice system is that it has become a machine, and regardless of our individual roles, all of us are at the mercy of the machine. So police officers are bound by pressure to make arrests, by the expectation to solve major social crises when they don’t have the training or the tools for this. Judges are bound by sentencing guidelines, like mandatory minimums, which take away their agency.
A person getting processed into prison is bound by a battery of rules: you can’t have a pillow until you can pay for one; you can’t pay for one until the money shows up in your account; you can’t receive money in your account until the next even-numbered Thursday. It’s no one person’s fault. Everybody is bound by the requirements of the system, we play our part in its machinery, and nobody can change the system, is the myth.
But something happens when a person decides to look for the light and then rejoice in the LORD. What happens is that person becomes able to see through the myth. That person begins to see that we can’t be at the mercy of the machine and at the mercy of the LORD. Who do we really belong to? Because I promise you, it is not the Bureau of Prisons. Now praising God isn’t just if you’re happy and you know it. Praising God is a subversive act of power saying I do not fix my eyes on the powers of this world; I fix my eyes on Jesus.
Even if it’s your heart that is broken. If it’s your brother who was killed in the street, if you echo the Psalm that goes, “But how can we sing the LORD’s song here?” Because even here, the light of God’s love is trying to break through, and somebody needs to see it, somebody needs to remember the song of praise. Our rejoicing is just the beginning. Now the world is about to turn.
On the last day of one of my seminary classes, we were going around the table responding to the question, “What is a transformative leader?” As I recall, we each shared our impressions and then it was our professor’s turn. There was the feeling in the room like: This is it! He’s going to tell us what it means to be a great leader for social justice. Get ready to write this down.
Then he said something like this: Being a transformative leader is like that man who led a group of people up to the top of the mountain. When he looked out at everything before them, he was the first to say, “My joy. My joy.”
Behold what is before us, then begin the chorus, “My joy” then see the world will not be the same.
Friends, when we feel the impulse that makes us ask “But what can we do about it?” This is a moment of vivid discernment pulsing with possibility. This is the moment we have made it to the summit of the mountain, and get ready the LORD is about to pass by. Two years ago, we were also in a moment such as this. Our church had begun a visioning process, and we used this verse from Paul as our touchstone, as our guide for seeing the light of God’s love break forth at Church of Peace. Now as we are discerning how God is calling us to respond to the criminal justice system, may this verse be our touchstone again. May it begin to answer the holy question, “But what can we do?!”
“Finally beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).
See the light of God’s love even here, and rejoice, then the world is about to turn. Amen.