Semper Reformanda Too

(sermon 10/25/20)

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Matthew 22:34-40

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

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Can you think of a time in your life when you’d just had your fill of nonsense, when you were tired of playing the game, and you’ve just said “enough”? Maybe it was in some toxic workplace situation or a retail encounter gone south, or dealing with some bureaucrat; maybe it was in some dysfunctional relationship with a friend or even a family member. It’s usually a bad thing to speak in universals, but I think it’s safe here to say we’ve all been in that situation at least once in our lives, and probably a lot more than just once., where we’ve just had it, where we’ve cut to the chase and spoken our minds and let the chips fall where they may.

That universal human experience is actually at the core of the Reformation – that important process in the history of the church; the movement that’s come to have the historical motto, Ecclasia reformata; semprer reformanda secundum verbi Dei; “The Church reformed, and always being reformed according to the Word of God.” It was an era when people like Jan Hus, John Wycliff, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, and many others, simply couldn’t hold their thoughts and their tongues any more against what they saw, correctly, as the church’s errors, and they spoke out – often at great personal risk, and in some cases, costing their lives.

We’re stepping into the middle of a similar situation in today’s gospel text. This story is actually part of a larger section of Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus has already made his final entry into Jerusalem before his arrest and crucifixion. We can’t ever know exactly what Jesus must have been thinking during this time, knowing what was about to happen to him, but it’s probably pretty safe to say that he was filled with anxiety, upset, fed up with all the nonsense that he saw, and that was being thrown at and dumped onto him – all the pettiness, the hypocrisy, all the counterproductive hairsplitting arguments that had grown like barnacles on the hull of both religious and social life, and he’d probably just had enough of it. Jesus was never known pull his punches much in normal times, but in these last days, that seemed to be amplified. His actions and words during this time indicate that he just mentally and literally didn’t have time to waste by engaging that. It’s during this time that he shocks people by vandalizing the tables of the moneychangers, the businesspeople exploiting people in the Temple courtyard, and even going so far as engaging in violence against them, attacking them with a whip. In this same timeframe, he swats away repeated efforts by different groups of people to catch him in some kind or another of social or theological trap. In this section of Matthew’s gospel, we hear how they tried to trap Jesus with the question of whether it’s right to pay the Roman tax, which we just looked at last week. It also includes a story where Jesus is presented with a nonsensical hypothetical of a woman who had seven different husbands, and asking Jesus whose wife she would be after the resurrection, which, by their example, they were trying to show couldn’t exist. In each of these stories, we see Jesus’ refusal to play a game set up with rules he can’t win. Each time, he engages them by establishing his own rules for their game. Jesus’ opponents are trying to argue theological minutiae in order to use God and scripture as a weapon, but Jesus makes it clear that he’s focused on bigger, more important things, truer things. And keeping with his practice of changing the rules on his opponents, refusing to play a rigged game, Jesus’ answer to his opponents here refuses to accept their premise that you could ever possibly reduce God’s priorities to just one single commandment as being the most important. He answers their demand for one commandment with two – with a third one embedded within the second. He answers them that the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, mind, and strength; AND to love your neighbor as you love yourself. As he tells them this, he says that the second one is “like” the first – but the Greek word used here is homoia, which means that they aren’t just similar; they’re actually of equal importance – the second is so related to the first that they’re actually inseparable. That, in short, you can’t have the first without the second, and vice versa.

In these, his last days, Jesus focused time and time again on trying to impress on these people coming to him that it was wrong to use religion and interpretation of scripture in a way that it would become a theological trap. The Jesus stories in this section of Matthew add up to a condemnation of any attempt to use God or scripture as a weapon of oppression or hurt; to use them in a way to entrap people instead of liberating them. He was pointing out that everything – everything – hinges on love. That it’s the very meaning and purpose of life, and anything that obstructed that kind of love was wrong.

The Reformers understood that, at least in part, anyway. They recognized all the legalism, not to mention the greed and self-interest on the part of the institution of the church, that was sucking the lifeblood out of the good news of the gospel, of God’s liberating love for all people. They saw how religion was being used to entrap and exclude and condemn, rather than to liberate and include and to promote love. They were calling out the flaws in the institution and were calling for a systemic restructuring of it – not to eliminate it, but to make it more true to its proper purpose. In short, what they were doing was a theological version of the same kind of systemic change that many in our country today, including our own denomination, are calling for in our own civil and social structures.

The Reformation had noble goals, and it made many great strides toward those goals. But the historical Reformers were also the product of their own times and places. They could only see so much; their reforms could only go so far, and even as far as they went, they themselves quickly fell victim to much of the same legalism and self-interest, and the same kind of exclusionary use of God and the scriptures that they’d rebelled against.

And here’s where we come into the picture. The Reformation wasn’t a fixed point in history; it’s an ongoing process that’s never stopped; it keeps going on and on, like in Billy Joel’s song We Didn’t Start the Fire, and we’re every bit as much a part of the process as John Calvin or John Knox, and I’m really not exaggerating one bit. The Reformation is an idea – it’s the continual, slow-moving, historical bending of the arc of our human understanding of this central truth – that throughout all of human history, God has been calling us to continually move more and more toward love; this inseparable threefold love of God, neighbor, and self that Jesus identifies in today’s gospel text. The ongoing Reformation process is all about becoming increasingly aware that faith in Christ, and the gospel that Christ proclaimed, isn’t about us finding some perfect doctrine that will gain us a golden ticket into eternity. Rather, it’s about us coming to understand more and more that we’re “fearfully and wonderfully made,” as the Psalmist says, and precious in God’s sight, as Isaiah tells us, and that has to lead us to treating one another with more and more love, more and more justice, more and more equity, working toward more and more peace – and that if we focus on loving people in the present, we’ll gain eternity; while if we focus on eternity, we may well lose both. 

If continuing the Reformation process in our own time sounds like work, hard work; like adding even more to our already packed to-do list, like something we’ll never be able to do, that’s partially true – it can be hard work. But here’s the good news for all of us that’s embedded in all of this: God isn’t just calling us to move more and more toward love; God is also enabling and empowering us to do it. We aren’t doing it alone, any more than Luther or Calvin or Knox did. The Good News is that God is with us, and never leaves us. We are not alone; never alone, even in what might seem to be the darkest of times.

And hear this, too: in countless ways, God isn’t just calling us and enabling us to do things laid out in the dark past. God is still speaking to us, revealing to us more and more about this way of love that we were designed and created for. Ways that we would have never understood, never been willing to accept, two thousand years ago. Five hundred years ago. Fifty years ago. Ten years ago. Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus tells his disciples that he has so much more that he wants to teach them, but they aren’t ready for it yet. Since Jesus’ time, and since time of the Reformers, God has enabled us to have greater understanding that has led us to move more toward love in countless ways in both the church and in our society. And the process will continue long after we’re gone. God will reveal even more to our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and they’ll get more of God’s ongoing revelation, to the point that they’ll look back on us as if we were barbarians by comparison.  

So maybe the best way we can remember Reformation Day this year is to recognize that it’s still going on, and that we’re an active part in it, whether we want to be or not. And to recognize that the real spirit of the Reformation isn’t to create new and different ways to keep arguing about all the same kinds of counterproductive, exclusionary nonsense that none of us really has time for; but rather, it’s that love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self are so completely intertwined and interconnected as to be inseparable, all part of the same cloth. And to recognize that the entirety of the scriptures, the entirety of the gospel, the entirety of our faith, centers on the idea of extending and expanding that love more, and more, and more.

Thanks be to God.

Whose Image?

(sermon 10/18/20)

Matthew 22:15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose image is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

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This past week, Ed, an old friend from my Columbus days, made a post on Facebook where he pondered how we all have different parts to ourselves. I mean, we have different facets to our personalities – the side of ourselves that we show to family, the side we show to friends, the side we show at work, the side we show at church, and so on, and there are always differences in these, sometimes small and other times large – but unless we’re lying to people on psychopathic levels, they’re really all for the most part genuinely us. Then there are all our different likes and dislikes, our strengths and weaknesses, all the ways we’ll express our emotions, and the ambiguities and contradictions with those as they play out one way in one set of circumstances but very differently in another set, and still, they’re all legitimate parts of us, too. And sometimes, when we think about all those different images, those different faces of ourselves, they just don’t seem to belong together, or work together at all. Sometimes, when we think about them, it might seem, as Ed put it, that they all work together as cohesively as a necktie, a gold disco shirt, and a penguin hat.

Thanks for that picture, Ed, it’s going to take a while for me to get that image out of my head… 🙂

Today’s gospel text deals with the concept of images – of faces, likenesses, and their significance. This story is short, but powerful. Matthew places it at a time in Jesus’ life where his popularity with the people is at an all-time high, and the potential threat that he poses to the powers that be is also at its peak. They say that politics makes strange bedfellows, and this story is a case in point. The threat to the power structure that Jesus poses unites two very different and competing groups – the Herodians, whose power was derived from their support of the occupying Roman Empire and Caesar; and the Pharisees, whose power was derived from their support for the Jewish people, the Jewish religion and traditions, and more local rule and authority. The parallel isn’t perfect, but imagine a coalition formed between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats; advocates of a strong central government and strong advocates of states’ rights; the Family Research Council and the ACLU; something as odd and unlikely as that. In this story, the common cause that unites them is the preservation of their own power and privilege that they’d carved out in society, and they were trying to do that by discrediting Jesus in the eyes of the public. These two groups devised what seemed like a perfect trap for him. Was it proper, they asked, to pay the tax to Rome that was established to pay the costs of their occupation? Even before you get to any deeper, theological or philosophical issues with the tax, you can see how it would be irritating, adding insult to injury, to have to pay a tax to pay for the people occupying your land and oppressing you.

These two power groups knew that if Jesus said no, it wasn’t right to pay the tax, he could be arrested for sedition by the Roman authority. And if he said yes, it was proper to pay the tax, the people wouldn’t just stop following him, they’d actively oppose him. It was the perfect trap.

Well, almost perfect. Almost, because Jesus’ reply was even more masterful than their question. Any modern-day politician or political nominee trying to avoid giving a clear answer to a question could have learned from Jesus.

The tax in question could only be paid with a Roman denarius, a small silver coin that was worth about a day’s wages for an average laborer. And as you heard, Jesus asked his questioners to show him one. Now, at that time there were likely a few different versions of the coin in circulation, with different designs based on who the emperor was when the coin was minted, but the coin they most likely would have shown Jesus was this one:

This denarius depicts Tiberius, who was the emperor when this story would have taken place during Jesus’ adulthood. In addition to the emperor’s likeness, the coin includes an inscription identifying him as being the son of God, at least the son of a god, and the supreme ruler of all. No humble man, this Tiberius.

Of course, we’re all familiar with Jesus’ answer based on the coin’s design, give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s; and give to God that which is God’s. It’s a brilliant and profound answer that, at least that day, saved Jesus’ skin and offered a perfect clapback to the people who were trying to set a trap for him.

By referring to the physical coin itself, Jesus’ answer reminded them that at the root of the issue was Caesar’s claim of divinity and his demand for ultimate loyalty, something that should be unacceptable to any of God’s people. And without needing to use words to make the point, just holding up the coin would point out to his fellow Jews that the very coin itself violates the first two commandments – not having any god but God; and not making a graven image of God, even a merely alleged god. When Jesus held up the coin and asked “whose image do you see”, he used the Greek word, ikon – the very same word used in Greek versions of the Hebrew Bible in Exodus, when God commanded to not make an image – an ikon – of the divine. Jesus’ listeners would likely have immediately made the connection. In all likelihood, they’d also have made another, maybe even more important connection. This word, ikon, is also the same exact word used in Genesis, where the scriptures say that human beings were made in the image/ikon of God. This eternal truth that every single one of us has been created in the image of God. And just as Jesus held up this coin and asked “whose image do you see”, throughout his earthly ministry he continually held up people and asked “whose image do you see?”

Jesus’ words are a good reminder for us, too. When we look into the face of others, whose image do we see? Do we see the very image, the goodness, the awesome wonder of the all-loving God of creation staring back at us through their eyes? Do we see the image of God in the people around us? Sure, we can easily do that if we’re talking about people we know and love, or even people we know and just like – but what about the others? The annoying ones. The petty ones. The arrogant, boastful ones. The corrupt ones. The hateful or harmful ones. Trump or Biden, or Trump voters or Biden voters, depending on your political affiliation? That person who takes too long int he checkout line, or who cuts you off in traffic?

I’m not playing holier-than-thou here; I have trouble seeing the image of God in some people, too. Being human means that even though we’ve been created in the image of God, we are not, in fact, God. It can be very difficult, sometimes impossible, for us to see the image of God in the face of some people, and we’ll never see it in them in the same way that God does. To be clear, being able to see the image of God in another person is not giving them a free pass to accept everything about them and not occasionally have a righteous anger at what they might say or do. Still, we’re called to see and acknowledge the divine imprint on their lives, and with God’s help, we could all probably succeed more often at that than we actually do.

Maybe the most important key to our ability to see the image of God in the face of others is to first be able to see it in our own. Sometimes that can be hard. We’re often our own worst critic. And we live in a consumer-based culture built on the premise that whoever you are, whatever you are, whatever you have, it just isn’t good enough. You need more, you need newer, you need better, and you need to spend more of your money to get it – in order to keep the economy grinding forward for someone’s benefit but at the cost of our own sense of self and self-worth. Our society is constantly telling us you that we aren’t good enough – that you aren’t enough, while God quietly tells you that you’re created in the very image of God; and you’re so much more than just enough. You are awesome, and wonderful, and beautiful, and loved; you are precious in the eyes of God. All of you; every corner of you. Just as you are, including every aspect, every facet of your creation. Your race, your ethnicity. Your gender, your gender identity, your sexual orientation. Your appearance, or height, or weight. The size of your paycheck or the size of your heart. Your birthplace and background, your politics, your religion, your quirky and irreverent sense of humor that people often think is a bit odd, and sometimes gets you in trouble. Your introverted or extroverted personality. Everything. And that even includes your real weirdness; the things you might be embarrassed about and try to hide from others. The complexities, the ambiguities, even the contradictions. Some might say that contradictions within us are imperfections, flaws that need to be eliminated or fixed. But I disagree; I think that many of the contradictions within us are actually part of God’s design for us; that it’s a part of our having been created in the divine image to have some contradictions, just as there are aspects of God that seem to be contradictory to us. All of those things that make up you, all of those things that seem to work together as well as that necktie, disco shirt, and penguin hat, that some days you just can’t understand how it all fits together from your vantage point. And on those days, maybe you feel like maybe the consumer culture is right, and the person we see in the mirror just isn’t enough, for others or even for ourselves.

But if that’s the way you feel about yourself, I promise you, you’re taking too narrow a focus. In order to see the image of God within you, in order for you to see the totality of yourself the way that God designed you, in order to love yourself in a way that will allow you to love others, maybe you need to step back a bit and get a wider, more accurate view of the totality of the picture…

Snow at Benten Shrine Entrance, Inokashira by Kawase Hasui

Today… this week… Allow yourself to see the complex, intricate beauty in you that God has had in mind for you all along. See all the beauty of how God has created you. Once you can see that in you, I’ll bet you’ll be able to see it in others, too.

Thanks be to God.

Squeezing Gospel out of a Difficult Parable

(sermon 10/11/20)

Matthew 22:1-14

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.

The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

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For several Sundays recently, the Adult learn & Serve group took a look at some of Jesus’ parables – especially recognizing that we’ve tended to domesticate them, to soften them up, to gloss over the actual discomforting nature that they have. The reality of the situation is that, as Dr. Amy-Jill Levine has written, if you read one of Jesus’ parables and you aren’t discomforted, you’re missing the point.

Today’s gospel text, the Parable of the Wedding Banquet, is a classic case in point, because no matter how much we might want to gloss over its actual details, there’s just no denying them – it’s a disturbing story about a horrible king who does brutal things. Considering this parable in particular, Dr. Levine writes that if we hear it and we aren’t disturbed, there’s something seriously wrong with our moral compass, and I think that’s true.

The parable is weird. And here’s where it gets even more weird, because we’ve all been taught that it’s a story meant to teach us what God’s final judgment, and the kingdom of heaven, is supposedly like. We’ve traditionally been taught, and Matthew would even agree, that the parable is an allegory where every character or situation symbolically represents something else. In this way of understanding, the wedding banquet represents the kingdom of heaven, the king represents God, the guests originally invited are supposedly the Jewish people, who refuse to respond to God’s invitation to the banquet, and the replacement guests are supposedly us Christians.

There are just so many things wrong here if the parable is that kind of an allegory. For starters, this is a story about a king who is so petty, vengeful, and irrational that he would destroy a city of his own kingdom, and would take actions that kill his own people – all because he felt some personal slight over a wedding RSVP. That made his own people unworthy of consideration, even unworthy of having their lives protected, in his eyes. Then, he’s so wrapped up in appearances and his own ego that he wants to have the largest wedding banquet ever, period. So he has his troops drag in total strangers, both good and bad, we’re told, just to make the party look well-attended and a big success. For what it’s worth, can you imagine any of those guests having anything remotely resembling a good time, as they sat there in the palace, knowing that outside the palace walls, their city, their homes, are all destroyed and their loved ones dead? Honestly, given the way the king behaves in the story it’s no wonder the original guests went to such lengths – even to violence and murder – to avoid being in his presence and the banquet.

What kind of king is this? And why would anyone ever think that this king represents God in any way? On this score, Dr. Levine says if the king in the parable represents God, then we should wonder if this is the type of God anyone would want to worship.

And then there’s the replacement guest who isn’t wearing a wedding garment – which isn’t surprising; he’d probably just left his house that day on his way to run a few errands; maybe he was in a T shirt and an old pair of jeans, and he was just on his way to the hardware store to pick up some lawn bags and a hose clamp, and all of a sudden he gets rounded up by the king’s security forces to go to the wedding. And then, when the king sees how he’s dressed, he says “Friend, why aren’t you wearing a wedding garment?” As a sidebar here, you can rest assured that any time someone is called “friend” in one of Matthew’s parables, it’s dripping with sarcasm; the person being addressed is anything but a friend of the person speaking. In this gospel, to call someone “friend” is Matthew’s equivalent of telling them “bless your heart.” This poor man ends up being punished by the king. He gets thrown out of the palace, out of the banquet, and out into the “outermost darkness,” out into all the chaos and destruction and human suffering that the king created by laying waste to the city beyond; what we’re taught supposedly represents hell and eternal condemnation. Allegorically, it’s been taught that this man supposedly represents either people who say they believe in Jesus but really don’t, or whose visible actions don’t reflect their professed beliefs; or they’re believers who have strayed into false doctrine or teaching and who God will supposedly cast out. Either way, the treatment this man gets in the parable is really unfair.

We need to remember that Matthew’s gospel was written some fifty-odd years after Jesus’ crucifixion, and at a time when Christianity and Judaism had just recently split into two different religions, and there was a lot of hostility between the two. That anti-Jewish hostility shows up in Matthew’s gospel in numerous places, including here. That reality has caused terrible suffering for millions of Jews over the last two thousand years, and this text, with others, even gave cover for the Holocaust. We Christians have to acknowledge that and denounce that kind of an interpretation – it’s completely inconsistent with the radical grace, mercy, hospitality, and sacrificial love of God that Christ teaches and models for us.  

Martin Luther wrote that sometimes, we have to really squeeze a passage of scripture in order to find some gospel in it. Frankly, I think this passage requires some heavy-duty squeezing.

To that end, I’m going to suggest that in his original telling of this parable, Jesus wasn’t telling a story that was an allegory at all, at least not primarily so. I think that when Jesus told this story, the wedding banquet was just a wedding banquet; the king was just a king, and the guests were just guests, invited to a party by this horrible king – the kind of ruler no one should ever have to live under. As Dr. Levine writes, if we perhaps started by seeing this parable not as about heaven or hell or final judgment, but about kings, politics, violence, and the absence of justice, we might be getting closer to Jesus’ original point.  

Maybe when Jesus originally told this story, it was just a commentary on corruption and injustice and evil seen in power and authority structures in this world. We really don’t know. But Matthew says that Jesus told it as a way of teaching something about the kingdom of heaven, and so we have to look at the story from that standpoint. If that’s really true, what might Jesus have originally had in mind? What in this story is actually like the kingdom of heaven?

Here’s a possibility. I didn’t originate it; others came up with it before me but I think it’s a good one. What if, instead of the king representing God, he simply represents corrupt, evil, unjust earthly rulers and power? And what if the good news in the story, the gospel that we can squeeze out of it, is that the kingdom of heaven is the antidote to the kind of injustice seen in the king? What if the real gospel here is actually seen in the blameless, innocent guest who is unjustly punished and sent out to the outermost darkness, who suffers the same fate and who is sent out to be with all the others who were suffering at the hands of the king and the powers of the world? In other words, what if there is a bit of an allegory here, just not the one we’ve always been taught to see? What if the unjustly punished guest represents Christ himself, who was innocent but who showed solidarity with the suffering and who was ultimately executed by unjust earthly powers?

To be honest, that makes much more sense to me. It seems much more likely that Jesus’ actual, original point in this story is that the real, eternal banquet of the ages, the kingdom of heaven, takes place outside of palace walls, outside of corrupt, unjust earthly power structures – that it takes place among, and with, and for, the suffering. And that this picture of life under the thumb of a vindictive, all-powerful king doesn’t portray heaven,  but it’s actually a depiction of hell.

What if, outside the palace walls is where the real party is, and that’s the party that Christ, the unjustly punished guest in our world, has invited us and reserved a place for us, just as we were created, just as we are? What if it’s Christ’s solidarity with – God’s presence with – all those who were suffering outside the palace walls, outside the bounds of power and privilege in this world, that is the illustration that Jesus was trying to show in this story? If that’s the case, then I can read Jesus’ story, this difficult parable of his, and I can still say

Thanks be to God.

Thoughts from Inside a Siege

I am not a radical. At least, I don’t think I am. What I am is a very mainstream pastor of a very  mainstream Presbyterian congregation in Louisville, Kentucky. I know that there are many mainstream, non-radical people who are seeing news of the ongoing protests against racial injustice directed against Blacks and other people of color by police, here in Louisville and elsewhere, and who are sincerely wrestling with what to think about it all. It’s to you I’d like to offer my thoughts about some of the recent events in downtown Louisville, because I was there – I was one of a number of clergy who provided spiritual care to protestors who gathered at First Unitarian Church in downtown Louisville during a curfew imposed by Mayor Greg Fischer. 

The curfew was issued to limit people’s activities and movement citywide between the hours of 9:00pm and 6:30am, beginning on the night of Wednesday, September 23 and ending on the morning of Sunday, September 27. It was imposed in advance of the release of the grand jury’s decision regarding whether charges would be filed against police officers involved in the killing of Breonna Taylor, out of fear and in an attempt to curtail possible vandalism and violence if the grand jury did not file charges against the officers. 

The curfew was ill-conceived and counterproductive. It only further angered people already rightly angry about injustices they’d suffered, by even having restrictions placed on how and when they might protest those injustices. To be blunt, imposing the curfew only increased the potential for vandalism and violence instead of decreasing it.

It did include several exemptions, allowing people to be out and freely travel in order to get to work, seek medical attention, or to get to and from houses of worship for services. In fact, while announcing the curfew, Mayor Fischer encouraged houses of worship to open for prayer during this time. First Unitarian, a church near the downtown square that has become the focal point of the ongoing protests, did just that. 

I helped to provide clergy support at the church on Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday nights during that time, as we provided worship and other services to the 200+ protestors who gathered there each night. Together, we read scripture and proclaimed the gospel. We lifted up Individual and corporate prayers of lament, supplication, intercession, thanks, and hope. Some played music, and offered personal witness and testimony. We provided personal spiritual care, shared sacred food, and enjoyed fellowship. I was blessed to have been a part of it, and as I served them, I saw the face of God shining in the faces of so many people. Through it all, I saw remarkable beauty.

I also saw great ugliness. On multiple nights, police surrounded and prevented access to and from the church. They arrested numerous people, even including State Representative Attica Scott as she tried to enter the church grounds. This was contrary to our Constitutional rights, the stipulations of the Mayor’s own curfew order, and his encouragement for churches to open.

That Saturday night, a group of outside troublemakers entered the church grounds. They were promptly removed from the property, and although I’m told they re-entered several times, each time they were removed. Apparently, those troublemakers later broke a number of windows at nearby Spalding University and set a car on fire.

In response, LMPD officers surrounded the church once again, detaining everyone there and threatening us with arrest if we left. In negotiations with the police around midnight, we requested safe passage for the people gathered at the church to get home. That request was ultimately denied. Police claimed that the vandals were inside the church, and they continued to tighten their perimeter around the church property.


Photos from livestream by Jason Downey 9/27/20 – used with permission

For several hours, as Interim Chief Rob Schroeder admitted in subsequent testimony to the Louisville Metro Council, LMPD tried to obtain a search warrant to enter the church. They were unsuccessful – apparently, they couldn’t find a judge willing to sign a warrant to storm a church in the midst of worship.

At about 3:30 that Sunday morning, the police suspicions that the vandals were in the church seem to have vanished. They finally agreed to exactly what we’d asked several hours before – to allow those present safe passage to get home, consistent with the provisions of the curfew, without threat of being detained or arrested. Even after this, I’m told that several people were still detained and arrested despite those assurances. I managed to get home and into bed at 4:00am – allowing just a bit of time for a nap before getting back up and leading our own congregation’s live stream worship that morning. 

The city’s treatment of the church and the people gathered there throughout those days of curfew is inexcusable. The ability to freely worship and peaceably assemble are foundational civil rights.

As a minister, I understand that true faith is seen in what we do rather than what we say – that, as we read in the Book of James in the New Testament, faith without works is dead. This past week, what happened at First Unitarian Church was truly a model of putting faith into action.

Once again, I’ll be blunt: the people gathered at the church downtown were primarily Black. In contrast, I don’t know of a single instance of police similarly encircling and locking down a primarily White, suburban church that had gathered during the curfew in accordance with the Mayor’s suggestion. The police actions at First Unitarian were just further evidence supporting the protestors’ claims of racial targeting. 

I said earlier that I don’t consider myself a radical. But if offering love and support to people being treated unjustly makes a person a radical; if upholding our Constitutional rights makes them a radical; if expecting the city to abide by its own curfew exemptions makes them a radical, then please, by all means call me a radical. I do know this: Whatever I am, I know as an eyewitness to these events, the way that the city on multiple nights abused and laid siege to a church and the people gathered there was shameful, and just plain wrong.