Considering scripture’s promises

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis —

We had a major collision on our streets yesterday, right here in our own Falcon Heights backyard. As hundreds of people marched toward the Minnesota State Fair Grounds under the banner of Black Lives Matter, no vehicles were reported damaged and no one was physically harmed. But it was a collision nevertheless: a collision of expectations about a Saturday at the State Fair. Was it to be a day for accessible and happy visits to the beloved State Fair? Or was it an opportunity to call attention to painful realities that plague black communities, to raise awareness of race issues ranging from policing to alleged disparity at the Fair regarding minority vendors or patrons? Could it be a day for both? I would suggest that it was also a clash of experiences and histories about race, and of perspectives and opinions on where we are as a community when it comes to racial justice. As I read the Facebook postings about this event, both Friday night and through the day on Saturday, I wondered: How might all these expectations coexist in some inconvenient and discomforting way that might develop greater empathy, deeper conviction about fighting racial injustice? The Bible tells us God’s priority is with the poor and the oppressed; God’s plan for humankind is justice and peace. Were these priorities at odds yesterday? Where was God in all this, I have found myself asking.

I have come to realize that, all too often, I just don’t want my personal peace disturbed. I find I don’t want someone else to inconvenience my day with the facts about the tough realities that are happening outside of my immediate perceptions. Please don’t inconvenience me with your request for spare change, or with one of those cardboard signs asking for help! And for goodness sake, don’t stop traffic with another one of those 4.5 minute die-ins where everyone lies in the road in memory of the 4.5 hours that Michael Brown lay dead on the street in Ferguson! A part of me is reluctant to face that there have been more deaths since then of people of color in police custody or that systemic racism just isn’t going away. It is difficult it is to hear about all kinds of things these days, isn’t it? My imagination gets overloaded, exhausted; I get compassion fatigue. It’s difficult to hear about yet another Syrian refugee being interviewed on Minnesota Public Radio. Because it hurts to listen, I’m not sure how to respond, and I feel powerless and frustrated. And sometimes I begin to feel hopeless that God’s promises of a whole new world of justice and peace might be even possible. Was yesterday’s march on the Fairgrounds disorienting and irritating for some of us because it was yet another reminder of promises broken among us? Promises of peace, justice, equality and freedom for all?

In so many ways, we Christians are people of the “not yet.” Over and over we are challenged to lift up dreams and visions of God’s promises being fulfilled, in a world where they are not…yet. This is not easy when there is such rancor and divisiveness over how to fix what is wrong and hurtful in our communities. The vitriol and the death threats sent to the Facebook page of Black Lives Matter Twin Cities these last few days has been chilling. We claim we are people of the promises of God. Are we naïve or prescient when we speak of God’s promised actions? Are we stuck in wishful thinking or prophetic about a possible new world order?

Through the Sundays of August, our congregation has been exploring and testifying to ways God has touched our lives. We have used the different parts of the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith, which is addressed to God and celebrates God’s deeds among us. It was written not as a creed to test faith, but as a testimony to our denomination’s founders’ experience of God. We have added these hangings each Sunday, lifting up the words in our midst. The Statement is included in the Falcon Heights Church Constitution as the basis of the “common purpose, faith and covenant” of this church. Today, we have reached the last portion, which is about the promises God has made to all who trust God. Promises described over and over in our holy scripture.

But who says these things are promised to us, we might ask. Written in the Bible? Well, excuse me….but so what? For many people the phrase “the Bible says so” just doesn’t carry the weight it once did. A passage like this one from the Book of Jeremiah, where the Hebrew prophet extols the wonder and beauty of God’s law, God’s holy word, sounds strange to us. The writer talks of finding God’s words and eating them! They become a joy to him and the delight of his heart. The Rev. Dr. Roger Shinn, who taught Christian social ethics at Union Theological Seminary, was part of the crafting of this Statement of Faith in the late 1950s. He wrote that it’s natural for us to “wonder how men and women of the Bible knew and verified God’s promises.” We want to be able to “trust but verify” a promise, as former President Reagan used to say to his negotiating partners in the Soviet Union. You and I have a post-Enlightenment, scientific perspective on things, and we want quantifiable, verifiable truth! But Roger Shinn challenges us: “Surely they (people in Biblical times) reflected upon their experience as intensely as we do on ours. But when they talked of God’s promises, they were less inhibited in their imagination than we….they took their visions and dreams more seriously than we.” (From the Rev. Michael W. Lowry,

Let’s read today’s portion of the Statement of Faith together, which is addressed to God, as printed on the front of our service bulletin. I invite you to try the words on as you read them, even if this isn’t your inclination or your faith tradition. See how they sound in your head as you speak the words; listen to the words flow around you as others speak. Let’s read together:

You promise to all who trust you
forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace,
courage in the struggle for justice and peace,
your presence in trial and rejoicing,
and eternal life in your realm which has no end.
Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto you. Amen.

As we consider this portion, what’s your own understanding about trusting God? Does it mean you have to try really hard to literally believe each and every Bible story and teaching? But in this portion, the words are not, “You promise to all who believe in you.” It says trust. I find this helpful. Some days I’m not quite sure what I actually believe about Jesus’ resurrection, what happened, how or if. But I can tell you, I have come to trust the reality of resurrection in my life, in the life of others, in communities. I’m learning to trust in this idea of new life coming out of death; I lean into it. For me, it’s an act of leaning into the possibility of resurrection, of transformation, and not thinking a thought or forcing a belief about something that defies modern-day physics.

What’s your dream about forgiveness? Can you trust it as a process? What’s your hope about being loved and accepted in spite of your mistakes and the ways you have hurt people or stepped away from responsibility?  What’s your vision of God’s fullness of grace being extended to you… openly, steadily, quietly, powerfully?

Do you imagine, do you dream, of having more courage? What would that look like in your life? Do you yearn to better understand black experience in this country but feel confused and hopeless about where to start? As a white person grappling with my part in the struggle for racial justice and peace, I have to be accountable for my part in systemic racism. Since I heard that she spoke at the Annual Meeting of our Minnesota Conference of the UCC in June, I have wanted to read Jennifer Harvey’s book Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation. She is a young white American Baptist minister and professor of religion at Drake University in Iowa. I have a vision of reading that book with some of you, to continue the conversation on race that some of you started with me last winter. Do you share this vision? Shall we explore her work together?

Sometimes I really have to stretch my imagination to sense this biblical promise of God’s presence in trial and rejoicing that the Statement claims. I literally have to picture it in my mind’s eye, sense it in my body, speak it in my head. Biblical people were way better at this than most of us. As I soak in scripture I learn how to sense God’s presence better. “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work,” we just read from the second letter to Timothy, 3:16. Myself, I long to be taught; I know I need some loving reproof. I hope to be more proficient and equipped to do good work on God’s behalf. I yearn to embrace eternal life in this moment, to live abundant life with each breath I take, and when breath leaves me in the mystery of death. I imagine you do, too.

I invite you to join me in stretching our imaginations this fall. Let’s dream some dreams and share our visions about the promises of God being fulfilled in our midst. Let’s read and talk together about our hopes for a more racially just society. Let’s imagine what our roles as followers of Jesus might be in making these promises come true.

Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto you, O God. Amen.