"Of Protests and Change" Sermon from Sunday, July 19
Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Message: "Of Protests and Change"
Movement for Black Lives Series
Scripture: Exodus 32:1-14
We continue our series today on the platform pieces of the movement for Black Lives. Today’s platform piece is Respect Protestors. And you know I remember, Just before the Occupy movement began in 2011, I was in a doctoral seminar at the UC Berkeley and our professor began class by asking, “Is the time of protest as a vehicle for social change over?” The question itself was a bold one, asked on the campus that is equated in the minds of many with the tumultuous protests of the sixties and the power of the people to unite for change. I know some of you watching were personally a part of those days. The responses, at that time in our class were mixed, some saying that protesters often make more enemies than allies because of the methods they choose, some saying that protest still had a role. But then, within the next few days, we began to hear news of the momentum of those occupying Wall Street, followed by the reports of spreading protests across the country: Occupy San Francisco, Occupy LA, Occupy Louisville. There was condemnation of the Wall Street bail out and capitalism that fails to deliver care and equality for all. There were calls for affordable health care, jobs that pay a living wage, and a charge that a society that allows persons to have extreme amounts of wealth while others suffer is an immoral society. These protests and the ones that followed were against the idolatry of money and wealth, against the idolatry of a status quo that values one race or way of being over another, and ultimately a message to those who use dominating power that this will no longer be tolerated.
It would be easy to draw a comparison between the Golden Calf in today’s scripture and the huge charging bull that sits in the middle of Wall Street. It would follow naturally to preach a sermon about the insidiousness of greed and covetousness and the importance of not putting possessions over people. But I think you’ve heard that message before, and based on the generosity I’ve witnessed from this congregation, the lessons from such a sermon are already well known.
The truth is we’ve quickly gone from a time when a Berkeley professor could wonder aloud if protest was dead to living through a significant resurgence in widespread acts of protest. In fact, the New York Times has called the current Black Lives Matter movement possibly the largest in history.
And so I’d like to focus more this morning on the act of protest itself, what it means and what it does and doesn’t do, and how it relates to a life of faithfulness for a Christian. What does protest mean for our relationships with God and with each other? The movement for Black lives has updated its 2016 platform with two rapid response planks for this moment. One of them is “Respect Protestors” stating “We demand that the rights of protestors be respected and protected and that there be no abuse of powers. Violations of property should never be equated with the violation of human life…[we demand] no use of lethal force.”
In our scripture for today from Exodus, when the Israelites created the golden calf, Moses had been gone 40 days and 40 nights, signifying, of course, not a literal count of 40, but utilizing the well known biblical metaphor for “a long time.” Their leader has left them without instruction or communication and the people are beginning to get anxious. God had done miraculous things for them as they fled Egypt and entered the wilderness. God parted the Red Sea, rained manna from heaven when they were hungry and brought forth water from the rock when they were thirsty--and Moses led them through all of that. But now in this long absence of Moses, the people wonder if God is absent from them too. They feel alone, abandoned, unprotected.
In a way, they have good reason to worry. As Moses leaves, God has descended on Mt. Sinai in the form of fire, lightning and thunder. God instructs Moses that the people must not try to come up onto the mountain and Moses tells them they must stay alone in the desert below while the mountain shakes and smokes. Then Moses ascends the holy mountain and God proceeds to transmit the primary laws of Judaism. This takes a long time.
Meanwhile, the only thing the people back in the desert see is a mountain that looks like its about to explode, and all they hear are constant loud crashes. The people’s response must be understood in the context of the feelings out of which it arose—feelings of disatisfaction with a relationship with a God who would keep them distant in a precarious place, and who would be present to them only in a way that felt unsettling at best and probably for some, including many of the children, it felt just plain scary. And so, the people’s response could be understood as a protest against their experience of an absent and insensitive God. In creating the golden calf, the people were demanding a God who was among them, present and known, caring about and responding to their needs. They are calling for a God who shows up in a way that is comprehensible to them. They are demanding a new kind of mutual and just relationship.
In its most basic sense, protest is communication. It is communication that something isn’t right, that something needs to change, and it always assumes a relationship. A dysfunctional broken one, perhaps, but if those who protest aren’t actually talking TO someone then protest is only noise and there will be no lasting impact. It arises out of pain but also out of hope. And so what we hear in the scripture from Exodus are the voices of people communicating with God, saying, “Are you with us or not?” “Can we count on you?” “Do you care that we may die here?”
And, in this communication, this shaking the foundations, the newly freed Israelites begin to engage with God in a new way. Now I do not in any way wish to equate the targets of the occupy Wall Street protests or the cry against racism rampant in policing in this country with God. The targets of the protests of this decade have hoarded and furthered inequality and suffering, perpetuated white supremacy and violence, and in multiple documented cases, have acted unjustly. I believe that God is just and merciful and loving. In liberating the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, God demonstrates not only that God desires liberation for God’s people but also that God desires relationship with us. “I am the Lord your God” God says over and over again. Protest is the act of a people who know that they are inherently free and deserve true freedom and justice. Even when the action of God feels incomprehensible to us or we feel God’s absence, what the scripture today is saying to us is that in these times we must turn toward God with our protest against a harmful status quo even if it is our impulse to turn away in our hurt and suffering.
The goal of protest is of course, change, but the protest is really just the first step in what is usually a very long process. If you’ve ever been in a protest or a demonstration, you know that standing with hundreds or thousands of other passionate people calling for justice, though sometimes frightening like when police are in full riot gear, is also empowering as we take responsibility for our part in the relationship. And then, hopefully, those at whom the protest is directed hear the call for a new kind of relationship and recognize change is needed. And so begins the often tedious work of negotiation, of planning, of a step forward and sometimes a step back. Change can begin with protest, and sometimes it is the critical move that opens the process, but change isn’t ever fully accomplished by protest either.
To me, the truly problematic part of our text for this morning isn’t that the people built the Golden Calf, it’s that reportedly God was so angry about their action that God wanted to kill all the Israelites except Moses. God says to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you [Moses] I will make a great nation.”
But Moses also engages in protest here saying, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, it was with evil intent that he brought them out… Turn from your fierce mind and do not bring disaster on your people.” And the scripture tells us that “God changed God’s mind about the disaster that God had planned to bring upon God’s people.” Some translations have it in even starker terms, “God repented of the evil God had planned for God’s people.” What we are faced with here is even God who needed the voice of protest to see and understand what mutual and just relationship meant. Perhaps this was a time that the seeds of the coming incarnation were planted—though Jesus was with God and was God from the beginning as the first verse of the gospel of John tells us, there was a layer of understanding and redemption necessary but not possible until God became one of us.
And so in this case, the people protested God’s perceived insensitivity, God responded insensitively, Moses intervened and communicated a new vision of relationship between God and God’s people, God responded, and the relationship changed.
Now I fully recognize that some of us here find it hard to believe that God changes, after all we sing, “Immortal invisible God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes…we blossom and flourish like leaves on a tree, we wither and perish but naught changeth thee.” But I believe that God does change, and there is support throughout scripture for this belief, or maybe it isn’t so much that God changes but rather that our relationship with God changes, and in that, WE are certainly changed. What we see throughout the sweep of Biblical history is an ongoing pattern of God being willing to engage with us, to hear us and in that interaction, our relationship changes. Remember Abraham’s negotiation with God to reconsider the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, first asking God to spare the city for 50 righteous men, then negotiating down to 10? And who can forget the story of the Syrophoenician woman who asked Jesus to help her daughter and was at first told that it is not right to take food from the chosen ones and give it to those outside the circle. But in her persistence, the woman opened Jesus’ eyes and received healing for her daughter? The pattern in scripture is of God’s drawing nearer and nearer to us. Demonstrating more and more clearly God’s desire for relationship with us, culminating in the incarnation of God as one of us. And in that incarnation we see God’s willingness to endure whatever we endure, suffer whatever we suffer. Finally, we see God’s desire to struggle in community with us for a redeemed reality, as the resurrected body of Christ. What an amazing witness of God’s desire for relationship with us! Throughout all of history, as we yearn in our insecurity and inadequacy more and more for a closer relationship with God, and as we keep calling out, God keeps responding, and the relationship keeps changing.
So our relationship with each other and our relationship with God can move towards more wholeness. BUT, without one person, or many, changing the way we act by standing up and demanding a new reality, there is no change. Protest can be the first step in that process of change, because whether or not you can accept that God changes, there is no question that in our own call for justice, and in our own acting in community, WE are changed. As we issue that call for mutual and just relationship we ourselves become more able to be fully human in that most sacred of all relationships.
The racism and white supremacy that has dominated life in this country since its inception must change. The movement for Black Lives has become the largest protest movement in history because the pain and urgency of this reality can no longer be ignored. The Good News in today’s scripture is that God is in that change with us, pulling us always toward wholeness. Sometimes God is manifest as thunder and lightning, like on Mt. Sinai, and sometimes God is manifest through a voice in the community calling for change in the streets or in community meetings. The road to change is long and the energizing times of protest soon give way to the more daily work of dismantling structures that diminish and oppress. The Good News for us this morning is that we are part of a community that surrounds us in our endeavors and sustains us in times of discouragement and disillusionment as we live into the freedom that God wills for us. The justice, liberation and wholeness we desire and deserve will come when we raise our voices to call for the protection of protestors, and when we ourselves exercise our sacred duty to protest, until heaven on earth is realized. Amen.
Special thanks to... Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stonkeing
Contributors: Rev. Jerry Asheim, Anjuli & Michele Arreola-Burl, Sophia & Gabby Downs, Chelsea Eckenrode, Susan Jardin, Orion Lacey, Chris Poston, Willa Seldon, Meheret Vasquez-Suomala
Front porch ensemble (We Resist, Siyahamba): Rev. Jerry Asheim, Michele Arreola-Burl, Annette Cayot, Judy Kriege, Charles Lynch, Paul & Sally Nasman
Opening and closing words use adaptations from prayers written by enfleshed, adapted by Rev. Kristin Stoneking
With special music from Rev. Sekou & The Holy Ghost
Video producer: Tai Jokela
Podcast producer: Ethan Lindsey
Livestream producer: Merrie Bunt
All those who participated by watching from home!