It has been a night full of stories, stories of salvation, preparing us for the feast to come, making sense of the faith into which we are baptized, making sense of our lives.
I want to share just a few more stories now, in the same trajectory as the one’s we’ve heard, stories of God’s movement in history to bring about God’s shalom, God’s peace with justice.
This month’s issue of Sojourners magazine has a series of articles examining the surprising role that nonviolence played in the Egyptian uprising earlier this year. Sojourners is an ecumenical, progressive Christian publication with a particular focus on Christian efforts to eliminate hunger, alleviate poverty and end war. On the cover this month there is this stunning image – a woman kissing the face of an Egyptian soldier, presumably taken in Tahrir Square.
As I look at this picture – a woman kissing the face of a soldier – in the context of this Holy Week, I can’t help but remember the scene from last night’s reading of John’s passion. Jesus and Judas in the garden, Judas betraying his Lord with a kiss, and then Peter’s response – a drawn sword and another man’s disfigured head.
The story of these three days has been a love story filled with passion, betrayal and God’s surprising faithfulness. Judas betrays Jesus to the religious and civil authorities. Peter betrays Jesus first by taking up arms against his enemies, when Jesus had taught him the power of forgiveness and the necessity of turning the other cheek, then by denying he ever knew the Lord. At the end of his life, it must have been disappointing to see how hard his disciples still struggled to understand and internalize all that Jesus had been trying to communicate to them.
But then this beautiful picture of a woman kissing the face of a soldier. How are they connected?
Contrary to initial reports, the Egyptian uprising didn’t just happen as the result of a few facebook and twitter postings anymore than the Montgomery bus boycott just happened because Rosa Parks was too tired to get up and move to the back of the bus. Both movements were well organized, highly trained and incredibly disciplined. More than that, they were intimately connected to each other.
In 2008, a group of young Egyptians began using technology like facebook, twitter and text messages to begin organizing themselves in preparation for protests against the abuses of the thirty year regime of former President Hosni Mubarak. With very little lead time, they were able to get the word out to tens of thousands of people about a textile worker’s strike to take place about an hour north of Cairo. Unlike the uprisings earlier this year, this first attempt at direct action was a total failure. Police occupied the textile plant. Strikers lost their focus and set the building on fire. At least two people were killed. There had been no strategy, no training, and no ideological framework for what they were trying to accomplish – just angry people pointed at a nearby target, and then a burning mess.
But the organizers did not give up. Over the next two years they began communicating with other progressive youth movements, like the one in Tunisia, and they were assisted by an international community of activists who trained them in the tactics of nonviolence, such as were used here in the United States during the Civil Rights Era movements. One activist actually translated a comic book from 1958 about the Montgomery bus boycott into Arabic as a teaching aid for Egyptian protesters.
As exciting as it is to recognize that the movement for freedom in Egypt can be traced back to peace and justice movements in the United States, that’s only part of a much larger story. When Dr. King began his work in Montgomery, he was not yet committed to non-violence as a strategy. His friend and collaborator, Bayard Rustin, recalls that in the beginning Dr. King kept armed protection outside his home. It was Bayard Rustin and others, like Howard Thurman, who nurtured in Dr. King a commitment to non-violence as an essential component of Christian social activism. How did this happen?
Both Howard Thurman and Bayard Rustin had traveled in India and had connections to Mahatma Gandhi. Thurman had met with Gandhi, and asked him what message he would like taken back to the United States. Gandhi replied that he wished he’d been able to communicate the importance of nonviolence for social transformation to Americans – but that he had hope that where he had failed, Black people in America might succeed.
An uprising in Egypt traces its roots back to a Black Christian pastor in the United States who was surrounded by an educated community of principled and nonviolent discipline, whose roots were planted in the soil of Hindu nonviolence and a man, Gandhi, who is remembered as having said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ;” but who also, when asked if he was a Hindu, replied, “Yes, I am. I am also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew.”
Gandhi believed that the heartbeat of every religion was truth and love. We are reminded again of Jesus’ conversation with Pilate. “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth;” and of his final commandment to his friends, “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Yesterday, members of St. Luke’s completed and submitted a major grant proposal on behalf of our entire congregation. We asked our denomination, the ELCA, to give us $150,000 over the next three years to continue the redevelopment we began almost five years ago so that we can
reach financial sustainability and continue to expand our circle of welcome to include more and more of our neighbors in God’s healing and reconciling work here in Logan Square, across the city and throughout the world.
As they prepared their grant application, members of the working group reached out by phone and email and in one-on-one conversations to ask members of this congregation why they came to St. Luke’s and why they stay. What they got back were stories. Stories of old hurts and new hope. Stories of connection to the faith of our families and forbearers. Stories of meaning and community strong enough to push back against this world’s apathy and isolation.
Out of those stories – out of your stories – the working group began to sense a shared vision for what it means to be the church, not just here at St. Luke’s, but more universally.
There was a vision – that St. Luke’s exists to call people into and sustain a community of radical disciples of Jesus. That’s the language they picked, radical disciples. That sounds a little scary at first. I hear the word “radical” and my mind conjures up images like Peter drawing his sword and cutting off another person’s ear. But I think they mean radical like this picture, like this older woman kissing the face of this young soldier.
Along with this vision came three core values: Creating Community, Forming Faith, and Engaging People’s Talents – each one depending on the other. We are not just a community of people who care for and look after one another, we are a community of faith. But we are not just people who study our scriptures and learn the stories – we allow those stories to become our own as we offer up our time and our talents and our resources so that God can use them to bring new life to the left for dead places of this world. That’s what the working group heard when they listened to your stories.
And that’s what connects us to the uprising in Egypt, to the Civil Rights struggle in America, to the Indian independence movement, to the three young people in the fiery furnace (because it’s so often young people who lead the way, isn’t it?), to the prophet Isaiah who promised that God’s salvation is for all people (which is what Gandhi was trying to say, isn’t it?), to the parting of the Red Sea (because God is always bringing people out of slavery, isn’t that what King was teaching us?), to the very first story, the story of creation, when God made the whole world out of nothing, including us, and called it good (and isn’t that what Jesus was saying too, all along, as he touched and healed and saw and loved the people he encountered?).
These are our stories. All of them. We read them and sing them and pray them, we enact them and we live them. We are baptized into them and we feast on them at the table. These stories, they are imperishable. They cannot die. They can only rise, again and again.
Each time we bring another person to the font, as we will tonight, these stories come alive again and another radical disciple is born. Watch out world! Tonight we are baptizing Emily Marie Vignaroli. Who knows the feet she will wash, the crosses she will bear, the faces she will kiss. We only know that in her, once again, the story lives!
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
Christ is Risen Indeed. Alleluia!