Mark 1: 14-15
Good morning! It is good to be with all of you thanks to Zoom and all of the glories and agonies that come with it. On a different occasion, we might reflect ethically and theologically on this technology that has spawned a whole new vocabulary with zoombombing and zoom zombies. Yet, this morning I am extraordinarily grateful it has connected me with all of you. I never forget for one moment that it is churches such as yours that continually embody and lift up God’s love and justice, and it is churches such as yours that make possible my own work in pursuing justice on behalf of God’s creation. Thank you for inviting me!
I suspect that when Paul waxed poetic about the many members being one body he never envisioned that our survival as the body of Christ would depend upon our being physically separate and digitally wired. I would like to know who saw this moment coming. Other than the odd backwoods survivalist with a bunker full of N95 masks, gallons of hand sanitizer, and stockpiles of toilet paper, who was prepared for this moment? Putting aside the delicate matter of TP, who was prepared for this moment psychologically? And then what about theologically? It wasn’t until after we had been in pandemic mayhem mode for a few weeks that I realized that there are some ways in which our faith tradition did help us prepare for this unexpected situation that we are in.
Before the mayhem began, a Presbyterian magazine had asked me to write an Earth Day article for them, and when it came due last week and I could no longer procrastinate about what I could possibly say in a time like this, I began to reflect on some work I had done with 70 or so members of our denomination from across the country. It is a group called the Council for Climate Justice. In essence, we had developed and issued a call to action in January of this year that was rooted in what we might call crisis theology. As I thought about it last week, all of the sudden this work seemed incredibly relevant and timely.
The call to action urged churches to formulate all-out mobilization plans to address the twin, intertwined crises of climate and inequality. The theological underpinnings for this call built upon theological traditions with roots that extend back to the trenches of World War I as well as a low point in the anti-apartheid movement and the heat of the civil rights movement here in the United States.
At the heart of these theologies is a Greek word that at first blush seems obscure and odd as a touchstone for survival and resistance in the worst of times. The word is “kairos” which means time. It’s a word that became a point of theological fixation for a young chaplain in World War I named Paul Tillich. Unlike English, Greek has two words for “time.” One—chronos—connotes time that is quantitative and measurable like a ticking clock. The other—kairos—is more qualitative and signifies the right action being taken at just the right moment. For Tillich—who would ultimately become a world famous theologian—the biblical use of the word kairos pointed to a divine presence amid times of crisis.
During the anti-apartheid movement, kairos again became a point of theological focus. This time it was for a group of laity, clergy, and theologians who began meeting in Soweto during a peak period of government violence. President P.W. Botha had declared the First State of Emergency which unleashed a brutal and lethal wave of repression against the anti-apartheid movement. The theology produced in this moment was not the comfy armchair theology of ivory towers but rather the theology born of struggle in the pitch of battle. Ultimately, the group released what was called “The Kairos Document.” As the title suggests, the heart of this manifesto was an explication of what kairos meant in their particular time of crisis.
It is part of this document that seems especially fitting for the present moment. A key contribution of the document was its focus on kairos as a moment of truth. Cloaks and veils, disguises and obfuscations are pulled down to reveal a stark, exposed reality. For those gathered in Soweto, it was particularly a time of truth for the Church. No longer could the Church hide “what it really is.” It could no longer sit on the fence or stand on the sidelines. It had to take a side.
The United States as a whole is now experiencing a moment of truth as inequalities are laid bare. In New York, the subways have become symbolic of a kind of environmental classism brought on by the pandemic. On the subways one finds the workers upon whom the functioning of our society depends. One finds workers who have no other transportation option for getting to work. While others can stay safe and secluded at home, they must brave the viral minefields of the frontlines.
Another significant truth of this moment pertains to accumulated injustices. The stark racial disparities of Covid-19 deaths, evident in places like Detroit, Chicago, and parts of Louisiana, reflect a public health crisis that has been years in the making as one injustice after another was layered upon the next. Disparities of race and class have long been reflected in illness and disease. Covid-19 exacerbates and accelerates this pre-existing trend.
In the UCC’s recent work to address toxic air pollution, I have seen this truth come to the surface in the most heartbreaking of ways. On Ash Wednesday, we released a report entitled “Breath to the People: Sacred Air and Toxic Pollution.” It details 100 super polluters across the nation and the demographics of the surrounding communities that suffer from their toxic air emissions. Those communities were more likely to be comprised of people of color and low-income households. Moreover, the super polluters and the surrounding communities often tended to be located in specific geographic regions like cancer alley, an area that stretches along the Mississippi from Baton Rouge to New Orleans.
As our report noted, cancer alley has 142 facilities that reported toxic emissions to the EPA. Eleven are in our list of 100 super polluters, and four are in the top ten. Cancer alley has been a reoccurring presence in environmental news for decades because of its chronic, unchecked industrial pollution. It is now making the headlines again. One of the counties in cancer alley is St. John the Baptist Parish, and it now suffers the highest death rate for Covid-19 out of any county in the nation with a population of over 5,000.
The leading polluter in St. John the Baptist Parish—number 7 in the country—has been emitting toxic pollution into the air for 50 years. As a result, nearly everyone in the community has some type of respiratory problem. Due to the accumulation of environmental injustices, Covid-19—with its particularly devastating attack on the lungs—has arrived with a staggering force. Notably, the community surrounding the leading polluter in St. John the Baptist is comprised of 80% people of color and 45% people with low incomes.
The parish is ultimately a microcosm of inequality in the United States. Like a doctor gathering the medical history of a patient, inequality in our nation cannot be understood without understanding the widespread symptoms and chronic problems that preceded it.
The problem of accumulated injustices is as old as the Israelites in Egypt. Jesus too confronted the accumulated injustices of the Roman Empire. It was thus that our scripture for this morning—Jesus’s first words in the Gospel of Mark—are all the more powerful. Jesus declares, “The time (kairos) is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” Jesus was speaking in a moment of crisis following the arrest of John the Baptist, but he was also speaking in a moment in which the dreams of generation after generation were suddenly being fulfilled. A crisis can be unexpected, but so too can God’s grace come in unexpected ways.
Before the civil rights movement burst into existence, I doubt anyone saw it coming as it did in Montgomery, Alabama. At one point, however, in the midst of the struggle Martin Luther King did reflect theologically on what happened when the movement sprung forth. In reflecting, he used the word kairos. He defined it as a time in which “history is pregnant, ready to give birth to a great idea and a great movement.” Could it be that we are now living in such a time? Undoubtedly, this moment is for us as churches a moment of truth. As the readings you heard earlier from King and Thunberg suggested, the present moment is also one of fierce urgency. What we do or don’t do right now has enormous ramifications. Not only can we no longer sit on the fence, but we can no longer take our time in getting down and jumping into action.
A call to act and to act with speed is upon us. Churches, such as yours, churches with a forward-thinking, justice orientation are exactly what we need right now. We need your continued faithful and faith-filled action. We need congregations that lead with action in times of crisis. In such ways, you become vessels of God, vessels that console and challenge us even when we find ourselves in the most unexpected of situations. Amen.