Breaking Rank: A woman wrestling with God

jesus-centurion

Matt 8:5-13

I am a flawed preacher.

I know when you read that you think I’m referring to me- my personhood- I am a preacher who has flaws. While this is absolutely true and we will discuss that but no, what I mean is

I am a flawed preacher

in that

my preaching is flawed.

I’m not the worst preacher in the world. I’m a good story teller which is a hallmark of good preaching. I can describe the Biblical stories in such detail that you can almost smell the three fish and five loaves of bread being passed around to the masses. And I can make your mouth water, I can make you hunger for the miracles that Jesus can perform.

Or I can capture for you the temptation of Christ- when Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness. I can make you see the red of the stone. When we think about a wilderness, we think of a forest but in the wilderness where Jesus was tempted there was red rock and nothing. No grass. No life. No trees. No place to hide. There was only red rock. And there was Satan. Standing there staring into his eyes. And I could describe for you the red of his eyes, red with the flames of hell’s fire that burned where his soul ought to be. I could describe the heat of his hatred toward Jesus as he attempted to compel Jesus to turn away from God. I could make you feel that heat on the back of your neck because he hates you too. The enemy hates everyone who is loved by God.

I’m a good storyteller but that isn’t what makes a great preacher.

And I am decent at discussing Biblical and cultural concepts, which is important for good preaching. I can contribute sociological, philosophical, and political polemics. If you listen to me Sunday after Sunday you can hear what I think. What I think about homosexuality, educational equity in public schools, the Justice system. If you listen to me Sunday after Sunday you can hear where I stand on the issues of this country, of this world. But that isn’t what makes a great preacher.

You see, what makes a great preacher – if you were to head over to my minister of music, Dr. Phillip’s church and listen to him preach or if you were to attend Myers Park and listen to Dr. Howell for several Sundays or if you were to listen to some of the historical greats

Gardner C. Taylor

Howard Thurman

Martin Luther King, Jr. – and I don’t mean his speeches, I mean his sermons. If you were to listen to him preach in that over heated and over crowded congregation at Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia- you would hear not a good but a great preacher. And what made him a great preacher was his ability to reveal himself. If you were to listen to him, Sunday after Sunday, you would hear about his family. You would hear about his children, how he got along with Coretta. You would see the man that smoked cigarettes way too much and loved women way too much.

You would see the man, the human, the fallible, the breakable man- you would get a glimpse of the man he was. The man that he was becoming. The man who was wrestling with God.

That is the mark of a great preacher.

I don’t do that.

I have a terrible habit of hiding behind the Biblical text. I can talk to you about the Bible all day. I can talk to you about Christian ethics all day but it is very difficult for me to talk about myself, to reveal myself. Of course, there is a reason for that. The first reason is that I began preaching when I was 15 years old. I didn’t have a great deal of life experiences to reflect on or reveal at that time. I wasn’t pulling from a deep well of wisdom and knowledge.

And The second reason is that I became a preacher when I was 15 years old. My first sermon was on obedience. Think about that for a moment. If you have a 15 year old in the household or if you can remember being 15, then you know that 15 years old is the height, the peak of teenage rebellion and here I was talking about obedience. Talking about the importance of submitting yourself to God, to your church, to your parents, to the authority of this world and when I punctuated my last period. And I closed my mouth. And I lowered the microphone. The congregation went crazy. And something happened. Something happened that changed the way that people perceived and interacted with me from that moment on- I became a preacher.

When you become a preacher, especially in the Black church, you become different. There is a great hope for your life fore all of the greatest black leaders were produced by the Black Church so you are held to a different standard. You are faced with higher expectations. You are put on a pedestal. You are important. When you become a preacher, especially in the Black church, you become an important person.

Importance and perfection go hand in hand. You are an important person, you are not allowed to make mistakes. There is no room for failure- which is why I had a 4.3 gpa in high school, a 4.0 gpa in college. Because you can’t fail. You can’t fall, dust yourself off and learn from your bad choices- to begin to add to a well of knowledge and wisdom. No. to be important is to be stuck in suspended animation and arrested development. To be important is to be incapable of revealing your bad choices. Your mistakes. Your failures. Your weaknesses. To be important is to be perceived as perfect.

But I don’t desire to be important. I desire to be a great preacher. And so I desire for you to get a glimpse of the woman- the fallible, the breakable woman- the woman that I am. The woman that I am becoming. The woman who is wrestling with God.

So allow me to reveal my first bucket of wisdom from my well of knowledge: attempting to be perfect does not in fact make you perfect. You can attempt to do everything right and still get it all wrong. There are moments in life when what is right is clashing up against what is right. Even and especially with Christianity your ethics will begin to collide with one another.

Your Christian ethics call for you to be a good Christian leader. You can go to church, Sunday school, Bible study, prison ministry, soup kitchens, read your bible, witness to your friends and your coworkers.

Then your Christian ethics call for you to be a good wife and mother or to work your hardest to realize those roles in your life. Because no matter how important you are, no matter how many feminist classes you took,  our Christian ethics still suggest that a woman’s value is placed squarely in her relation to a man and her relation to a child.

Then your Christian ethics call for you to get into the habit of submitting and being obedient to the man who is to be your husband, the head of your household, the father of your children. When your opinions clash

and you say “we are Christians. We have to wait.”

and he says “No. We. Don’t.”

your Christian ethics say defer, submit. obey. OBEY.  Your Christian ethics tell you to stop being the controlling black shrew, the overbearing black woman who attempts to call all of the shots in everything, to stop being the reason why black women can’t keep black men around, to stop being the reason that black women can’t keep black men from leaving.

Isn’t that what they teach you?

Isn’t it true

that no matter how important you are, you are only the stereotypes that are wrapped around you?

And your kind?

Think about it, President Obama is the Leader of the free world, he is in fact, the most important man in the world but to so many he is simply just another nigger.

No matter how hard he attempts to get it right, he will still get it wrong.

So what do you do?

What do you do when no matter how hard you try to get it right, you get it all wrong? What do you do when despite your best efforts everything still goes to hell?

Take a glimpse at the woman that I am, the woman that I am becoming. The woman who is wrestling with God.

What do you do? I think about Job. I think about the text that describes the moment in his life when everything is taken from him. When he lost his children. His health. His wife. His everything. And I always wondered why the next verse wasn’t “so he went to the liquor store and bought a bottle of whiskey and drank until he couldn’t remember what it felt like to hold his children in his arms when they were born.

and drank until he couldn’t remember how it felt when he was informed that they had died.

and drank until he couldn’t remember the look in his wife’s face when she said to curse God and die. That would have made it more realistic. Because that’s what people do.

What do you do? I think about Joseph. I think about how he was betrayed by his brothers, sold into slavery, lied on a by a girl he wasn’t even checkin’ for, and thrown into prison unduly. I wonder why the next verse isn’t that he went to the drug dealer and got high. Got high until he couldn’t remember what it felt like to be thrown into a pit and watch his brothers, his own flesh and blood, walk away. Why the next verse isn’t that he watched porn until he couldn’t remember his dreams or the promises of God. That would have been so much more realistic. Because that’s what people do. what do you do?

That’s the paradox of the human condition. We respond to the pain and destructiveness of this world by doing painful and destructive things to ourselves. We respond to the brokenness of the world by breaking ourselves. And It gets to the point that we cannot identify the brokenness on the outside from the brokenness on the inside. It gets to the point that we cannot separate brokenness from brokenness. It’s the compulsion to hurt ourselves when we are hurting that we need healing from. It’s the reason that we need Jesus.

We need his power.

We need his healing.

We need his deliverance.

So that’s what we do at Church. We continuously get down on our knees to beg Jesus for his power, his healing, his deliverance.

But when you are an important person, trapped in a facade of perfection, it becomes difficult to get on your knees.

In our text today we find an important person, a centurion, who had the audacity to get on his knees.

He was a roman soldier seeking help for his servant. He was not just a regular foot soldier but someone important. He had soldiers under his authority. He had servants. He was a soldier of value. He was a man who had a future. He probably had a career path to rank up even higher than he was. If you have ever seen the movie Gladiator you know that a good soldier could even be recommended to become Caesar one day. He must have had a large  sword and a large shield (the bigger they are, the more important the soldier). Imagine, then, the spectacle when this man of high honor, of high value, of high importance breaking rank- throwing down his sword and shield- to bow down to an Israelite, to a nobody, to Jesus. Imagine for a moment how the masses of people would turn and look. And whisper. And speculate, pointing and staring and saying

“Look at that important person bowing down before Jesus.”

But he didn’t care what people said about him because he knew that only Jesus could help him. He was audacious and unapologetic.

He wasn’t afraid of speculation.

He wasn’t afraid of judgement.

He wasn’t afraid to break rank.

Because he needed help. He needed Jesus.

I can identify with this soldier. I feel like this soldier. So many have said to me that you cannot submit yourself  in this way. You have too many speaking engagements, you have too great of a career ahead of you, you who can one day be Bishop, don’t do this. You are too important.

But I can identify with this soldier, audacious and unapologetic. Unafraid of speculation or judgement, unafraid to drop my sword and shield and break rank.

Because I need Jesus. Because he is the only one who can help me.

My second bucket of wisdom from my well of knowledge is this (I only have two buckets by the way. The well is still not very deep):

It doesn’t  matter how big your title is, being a Bishop can’t save you.

It doesn’t matter how big your church is, being a mega-pastor can’t save you.

It doesn’t matter if you have a book that is on the New York Time’s Best seller’s list. Being a prolific writer can’t save you.

It doesn’t matter where you get your doctoral degree, your degrees can’t save you.

The only one who can save you is Jesus.

Take a glimpse at the woman that I am. The woman that I am becoming. The woman who is wrestling with God.

And so I will always break rank. And get on my knees publicly, before anyone and everyone. I am not too important to beg for his power, for his deliverance, for his healing.

And I could really get excited about the power of Jesus. His healing power. I could put him on the cross and whoop and holler until I punctuate my last period. But I am not ready for the conclusion yet.

Because I have neglected to mention the last component that makes for a good preacher. And that is prophetic witness. And I have prophetic power in spades.

I can speak up when something is awry.

The Church, the institution, is awry.

The Church is supposed to be the place where people should be able to come to throw down their sword and their shields and receive Jesus’ healing. The Church should be the soldier running to Jesus crying out “my servant is sick, please help!” Instead, too often, the servants are yelled at and ridiculed

“How dare you be sick! Don’t you know that you are my servant! You are the servant of importance, indeed, the servant of the Roman empire?!”

And the servants of the church, the leaders of the church, the members of the church, so often are not prayed for, lifted up, advocated for, but are instead broken even more.

I was raised by the church. I was produced for the church. I work for the church. I am the church. And I have been deeply wounded and harmed by the church. And so I stand in prophetic witness. I stand by, I stand with, I stand for anyone who has ever been hurt by the church. who has ever been burned by the sacred spaces where they should have found healing but only found more brokenness.

Take a glimpse of the woman who I am. The woman who I am becoming. The woman wrestling with God.

That’s why my peers do not come to church. That is why churches are closing down by the thousands. It’s not because of the music (believe it or not we like the songs our grandmothers sang to us). It is not because of the lack of technology (we have enough technology in our phones to satisfy us for a lifetime). It’s because the church is not a safe space to be broken.

That’s why Alcoholics Anonymous is a Christian organization that operates outside of the church. What do people do there? All they do is get healing. They get deliverance. Why is it that it is separate from the work of the church? Why is it that it is anonymous? Because The church doesn’t allow you to ache. to hurt. To be broken. Because if you can’t fake perfection here, you are not welcome here.

The simple answer is, like so many other disillusioned Christians, to just leave. That’s what millennials do, after all. When something is hard, or painful, or difficult, we quit. We press delete. That’s our modus operandi. To leave the Church and never look back. 

But me…

I want you to see me. I am a woman who, like Jacob, is wrestling with God. And I won’t let go.

I won’t let go until you protect my family.

I won’t let go until you touch my congregation.

I won’t let go until you restore the Church universal.

I won’t let go until you bless me.

Me. I won’t let go until you bless me.

It is me. It is me. It is me

it is me, oh Lord, standing in the need of prayer.

In the need of power.

In the need of deliverance.

In the need of healing.

Take a glimpse of me.

Of the Woman that I am. The woman that I am becoming.

The woman who is wrestling with God.