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Houston Mennonite Church in Houston, Texas.

1-24 Sermon Transcript: Welcome to the Underground

Jan 25, 2021

I am humbled and honored to have this privilege of using my voice today, of being heard today when so many other voices don’t get a platform like this, and I pray that I will represent well.

I think we can all agree that 2020 was a heck of year, and here we are, finally in 2021, where the year ahead dangles the temptation of hope before us. There is the sparkle of hope that a vaccine will soon bring an end to the lockdown that has kept us isolated from each other and decimated the economy. For many of us — though I acknowledge not all — there is hope in the transition of power that just occurred in our government. And for some of us — but again, not all — there is the hope that there might finally be movement toward healing our racial divide. At the same time many of us understand that before we can jump to healing, we need to participate in the deep labor of lament and reparation.

Hope is important. Hope can motivate us, spur us on to do the good work that is before us. Hope is the crux of Womanist theology — the theology of Black women that operates around the core ideas of embodiment and holistic justice for all people. But the liberation theology of the Latinx community also gives us a theology of hopelessness. And I think it’s important for us — especially those of us who are white, middle class, who are straight — to embrace the theology of hopelessness because the biggest danger of hope is complacency. Theologian and philosopher Miguel de la Torre says Hope is a middle class privilege. One of the things hope does to those of us who have no stake in the game, whose lives are not impacted by the reality of injustice — especially racial injustice or gendered injustice or injustices centered around sexuality — is that it allows us to say oh don’t worry. Things are getting better. Everything’s going to work out fine. Because we get to live into a hope while ignoring the horror of the present reality.

And we can believe the hope because we sit safely in our comfortable living rooms every night without the fear that ICE will break down our door any moment. We can go out for a jog and not worry that our neighbors will hunt us down with a shot gun. We can go to sleep in our beds and not fear that the police will blast through our doors, guns blazing. Our hope is a complacent hope. But today, Jesus offers us an invitation. Today, we’re invited to join the underground — a place where hope marries action and demands participation.
When we think about the work of justice and equality and racial equity I don’t stand before you claiming to have all the answers. Not at all. Actually I believe that the answers have to come from the collective — not just one identity but all of our identities need to speak into the story of justice we wish to write. But what we can do is ask the right questions. We can interrogate ourselves and the narratives we believe and ask ourselves if they are true, and if they are life giving.

I want us to think about 3 things together today, and ask some questions with you. Bear with me while we talk through this. I want us to think about invitation, I want us to think about language, and I want us to think about trees. I said bear with me.

We’re going to start with the trees.

I’ve been reading a few books lately but two have talked a lot about trees. The first one is called Of Water and the Spirit by Malidoma Patrice Some. It tells the story of how a young African boy was caught in the collision of Western Christian Colonialism and the shamanic faith story of his native land and people. It talks about the deep significance of trees in his faith journey as portals to the divine and as representatives of God’s presence but the lesson here was that the young boy who had been kidnapped from his own culture and society into the wilderness of dominant white Christian culture had lost his ability to see the presence of God.

This is my first question for us: how does our alliance with dominance — whether conscious or unconscious — keep us from experiencing the presence of God in ourselves and in others? Stay with me.

The second book, called emergent strategy by adrienne maree brown talks about how the sturdiest of tree have intertwined root systems. They don’t just dig their roots deep into the ground. Their roots reach out, they find each other, and together they build an underground network of collaboration.

My question here though is how do they know each other? How does the oak root recognize its kin?

Interestingly, though these root systems are good for the entire ecosystem, resisting soil erosion, hosting other plants and flora and fungi and animals to rest in their very beings. They all hold presence to each other. They keep each other alive.

Keep trees in your mind as we move on to talk about language.

I’m interested in the fact that the book of Mark was a book written in Greek but not classical Greek of the elite, but common Greek — the Greek of the people. And yet, not the people’s native tongue, not their Hebrew, or their Aramaic. They were speaking a language of the oppressor, of the colonizer, that they had made their own. I am fascinated by this dynamic because it shows me the paradox of how language can be the tool of both oppressor and the resistance. One of the first rules of the colonizer is to squash the local language, to force everyone to speak the language of the dominant society. But what’s so cool about the underground of resistance is that it can take that language, stir it into the soil of its culture, and use it as a way to recognize one another, to reach out in collaboration, wrap around each other, and hold on through the storm. The beautiful thing about language is that it adapts to the needs of the people, it is by its nature invitational. I love listening to scripture in other languages. I know that some in our country who have aligned themselves with dominance might insist English only! I know of course that you and I, we know that the Gospel is beautiful in any language. I sincerely apologize for what’s about to happen but here goes:
Después de que Juan fue encarcelado, Jesús fue a Galilea proclamando las buenas nuevas de Dios. “Ha llegado el momento”, dijo. “El reino de Dios se ha acercado. ¡Arrepiéntanse y crean las buenas nuevas!

That sounds beautiful despite my horrible spanish. The gospel is beautiful in any language.

Because Language is also the tool of invitation, which brings me to my third and ultimate point which is that this scripture is a scripture of invitation. This is a moment when Jesus is inviting us into the underground collaboration, to wrap ourselves around him, and around each other, and build a network of resistance against the erosion of all things good and holy and life giving and just.

In that first book about the little boy who was kidnapped from his family and forced to live in the white wilderness of dominance, when he finally returns to his mother as a young man, she wants to mother him, and he resists it. He is too old to be fed by his mother. But she insists and she says I am a mother. May I include you in who I am?

I was so struck by that invitation. And in our scripture today, spoken in the common language of a diverse people, I see Jesus asking us the same question. Jesus is asking us, May I include you in who I am? And in that invitation we are invited to include each other in who we are. That means I am invited into the discomfort of a different language rolling through my mouth and into my ears. I am invited into the beauty of radical difference. I am invited not to dig my roots deep in isolation, but to reach out to all of you, for collaboration, for justice, for peace, for presence.

We are invited to collaborate, to co-conspire with Jesus, to use the tool of our tongue to invite in, to call in, to speak out, to resist powerful wind gusts of supremacy culture, of dominance. When we are tired, when we are broken. When we are bereft. When we have made all the wrong choices. When we have trusted the wrong people. When we have loved poorly, been wronged, been victimized or when we have aligned ourselves with dominance and empire and so called authoritative religion, and supremacy, and bias, and suddenly we realize our complicity. Jesus is still there. He is still asking us if he may include us in who he is.

2000 years ago he issued an invitation into an underground collaboration. That collaboration has not been perfect over the years, and indeed it has grown up tall and too proud, and often invasive, often decimating its surroundings. But the taproot of Jesus’s original invitation has endured. It has resisted allegiances with nationalism and supremacy, because when you accept the invitation to be included in who Jesus is, if you allow yourself to truly get wrapped up in the roots of him, you are suddenly connected to a source so much larger than just yourself. A source of sustenance, of nourishment, and access to symbiotic systems of collaboration, so that even in midst of the most violent storms, those happening now, or the ones you fear are coming, you’ll know that you are wrapped up in the taproot of the collective resistance, where there is common language of peace and justice, the shalom of God and the wise Sofia of Spirit, and you will experience presence, and though you may have many questions, you will know that you are not alone.