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The First Congregational Church, Columbus Ohio
Sunday, May 1, 2005
A sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy Ahrens

Dedicated to the the memory of Herbert S. Cook, to our six new members, to my wife, Susan E. Sitler, and always to the glory of God!
A Way Out of 'No Way'
Ezekiel 37:1-14, John 14:15-21

The prophets of the Old Testament were a different breed of preachers. They stood in the tradition of Moses and the Torah and often found themselves at odds with the majority of God's people. Sometimes regarded as mad men, sometimes as traitors, characteristically they were odd, inconvenient and unwelcome. They were not necessarily "social activists" as we tend to see the prophetic ministry, today. Rather, they were most often poets who arose from the midst of the people and identified with the marginal, the powerless and those who were excluded from society. They stood on the edge and honestly spoke of what they encountered there. The prophets reimagined, redescribed, and recharacterized social reality in ways that were sometimes offensive, sounded judgmental and regularly were delivered in the face of kings and powerful urban leaders who in their comfortable fantasy tended not to notice the existence or the extent of social injustice.

The prophets would often begin their sayings with words like, "WOE" which means, "Big Trouble Coming." The moral reality they presented penetrated the fantasy of kings and urban leaders. One of the great prophetic confrontations come between two prophets in Jeremiah 28: The prophets are Jeremiah and Hananiah (also a prophet of some reputation). Jeremiah tells Hananiah that the political structure of old Jerusalem has failed. It has failed because God has become exhausted by its disobedience and recalcitrance, its refusal to engage in Torah practices. The covenantal matrix which has held the power structure together is breaking down. The old way of doing business is over for the king and the temple community. All the grand, majestic claims will not hold up anymore.

Hananiah is says this is not true. He is wrong and in his wrongness, he becomes a metaphor for denial as he insists that nothing is or can go wrong in the city. All is well with the city. The problems will pass. They are short-term. No need to worry. And with his denial comes paralysis. With paralysis comes dysfunction. With dysfunction comes the end, (as Jeremiah said it would), in the name of the Lord. In deep sadness, grief, and indignation, the poet Jeremiah weeps over a Jerusalem . Throughout his book of Lamentations, anguish tears at every phrase. Only at the very end of the poem does the poetic prophet dare to hope:

"Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored. Re new our days, as of old . . . " (Lam 5:21 ). But in next and final verse stunningly closes the book with a double sad and somber question": Or have you utterly rejected us? Are you angry with us beyond measure?" (Lamentations 5:22). (From a speech by Walter Breuggemann, Charlotte, NC, Nov. 1, 1998, pp.5ff).

Along with his urban counterpart, Ezekiel apocalyptically imagines a valley of dry bones. Nothing but bones as far as the eye can see. God asks Ezekiel: "Son of Humankind, will these bones ever live?" Ezekiel replies, "You my Lord, who reveal Your loving kindness in justice, only You know it!" God tells Ezekiel to prophecy these words over the bones: "Dry Bones, hear the Word of God! Thus says the Lord, God, Who reveals His loving kindness in justice, spoken to these bones: Behold I will bring Spirit into you and you will live again!" With these words of "loving kindness in justice" the bones begin to take shape again. Bone to bone, sinew to sinew, skin on skin, and finally breath and spirit and they stand upon their feet as a very, very great host! A prophet of justice weeping over his city cast in denial. A prophet of justice calling forth the very breath of God in the Spirit of loving kindness in justice. Where have such voices and such poetic presences for God's loving kindness and justice gone in our times? How have we come so far as to spurn, scorn and discourage our own poetic prophets to speak truth with love to injustice? What has become of the church and the synagogue?

Have we lost sight of God's call to care for the poor, to identify with the marginalized, to welcome the powerless and support those who are excluded from society? Have we forgotten the tears of the prophets? Have we lost touch with "the Lord, God, Who reveals His loving kindness in justice?"

These questions take on even greater meaning, when we consider the alternative. Rising from the vacuum of prophetic witness, is the ultra-right wing politics of intimidation and hate. A movement calling itself "Patriot Pastors" is now mobilizing (mostly rural Christians) to gather thousands of " Ohio for Jesus" pastors and tens of thousands of lay people calling themselves "Christian Minutemen."

Called the Ohio Restoration Project, this group intends to take over the Republican Party in Ohio . Once they have done this through electoral primaries, they will also run all Democrats off the state map.

Their plan is to run good people out of office if they are pro-choice or supportive of equal rights for gays. In their website, these so-called Patriot Pastors will "shoot down" any politicians or candidates who they deem "vague or noncommittal on issues of abortion and gay rights."

They have transportation set up for the elderly and child care for the young to attend their "God Rallies." Rod Parsley of World Harvest Church in Canal Winchester is their leader. In his book Silent No More, Parsley outlines which issues will either drive people from office or put them in office. Republicans who were once considered right-wing radicals in Ohio , like Sen. Jim Jordan of Champaign County , are moving into key leadership positions in our statehouse five blocks west of First Church . These "Patriot Pastors" are a scary lot. Issue #1, which they say restored "Biblical marriage" to Ohio , was step one in their politics of fear and (so-called) "Family values." Issue #2 says Parsley is to take back the state.

With Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Jesus I know and love, I will take my stand with Jews, Muslims and Christians who focus on another kind of restoration project. I stand with those who believe in diversity, plurality and who seek justice for the poor. With the limited resources we have in city, county, and state budgets these days, I believe that we as citizens need deepen our care for the poor and the marginalized through just housing, equitable health care, adequately funded public education for all the children of Columbus and Ohio, transportation which gets people to jobs, and jobs which bring enough money into households so that mothers and fathers are not working two and three jobs to make ends meet. I want to see neighborhoods and schools where children and youth aren't shot to death and all people feel safe. I want to work with elected officials to guarantee our senior citizens have effective and well-funded services which bring them hope.

Working with BREAD is working for justice. I will never be a so-called "Patriot Pastor" in Rod Parsley's army. But, I hope and pray that I will always be a patriotic pastor. I hope and pray that I will never be vague and noncommittal when it comes to living out the Bible's call to justice for the poor, the marginalized, the orphan, the widow, the forgotten and forsaken.

For 20 years I have worked for justice in Cleveland and Columbus. For the last nine years I have worked primarily with BREAD on the issues I have mentioned. There have hard times and difficult meetings in these years. There have been meetings where people across the table have said, "NO WAY!"

Through it all, God is still speaking! God is always making a way where this no way. In the passage of years and the dissonance that has accompanied some negotiations, I have always felt that God would make a way when leaders have said, "No Way!"

In recent weeks and months, this has come to pass in so many ways. I have seen breakthrough moments in our work with health care, affordable low income housing, street crime, transportation, and now jobs and living wage. Even in the public education arena, miracles are beginning to break forth! Tomorrow night's meeting for the BREAD Assembly is very important in the ongoing work for justice.

I invite you to come tomorrow night to the BREAD Assembly at Christ the King Roman Catholic Church, 2777 East Livingston Ave. You will behold these breakthroughs first hand! We need to step forward as people of faith to respond to the negative drumbeat of hatred coming from certain sectors of the ultra-right wing Christian churches. We are people of faith in Jesus Christ who have a positive and non-partisan voice in this community. Now is the time to organize, to stand up and to speak out. Amen.

Copyright 2005, The First Congregational Church