Chaos or Community?

In ancient times waters stood for chaos. In the first chapter of Genesis the Spirit of God hovers over the waters. God brings life out of darkness, out of the waters, out of chaos.

God parts waters. And God brings life and freedom out of human chaos as well. Scholars tell us Exodus is partly an “origin story” for God’s people. When that Red sea parted, when the people marched out of Egypt, escaped slavery, when God’s people walked through on dry ground, they wrote their origin story. Salvation was an act of creation. The people of the bible became the people saved by God.

That night, with the fiery cloud and Egyptian army at their back, and with the sea ahead of them, God’s people learned who God would be to them. God is a God who saves. Our God sees us through the chaos to freedom.

It’s been a long weekend.

Friday morning we learned that former police officer Jason Stockley was found not-guilty of the murder of Anthony Lamar Smith. Perhaps this verdict feels most painful because it feels like nothing has changed. Hundreds of protests happened after Ferguson. We marched. We met. We prayed. After countless dialogues, discussions, and trainings, it feels like nothing has changed.

Earlier this week I had coffee with a colleague, an attorney who spent most of her career working pro-bono or legal aid cases. She practiced what is sometimes called “poverty law.” This was several days before the verdict came out, and my friend was sure the officer would be found “not guilty.” Missouri law, in her experience, gives some of the broadest authorization to use force of any state law. She said it would be almost impossible to prove premeditated murder, even with the evidence so many of us have seen and heard. I told my colleague that I was still holding out hope there would be something other than a not-guilty verdict, some continuance or lesser charge. Sadly my colleague was right. She knew this history, knew the law, and knew the judge.

In the last few days we have seen pain and anger erupt again in St. Louis. We’ve seen some chaos this weekend: Streets and businesses shut down. Tear gas has been sprayed. Rubber bullets have been shot. Bricks have been thrown. Windows have broken. Protesters have been arrested. I know a number of us are feeling sad, angry, frustrated.

I know a number of you here had tickets for the U2 concert that was cancelled. I know that’s one of our demographics. I know some of you are upset Ed Sheeren’s show was cancelled, that’s one of our demographics too. I know some of you were upset you missed seeing Nick Cannon who was out protesting last night, that’s another demographic. And I know a number of you have no idea who any of those folks are. That’s another demographic here at Holy Communion as well.

I know that many of us wish this would all just go away, just calm down.

I want to invite you to pause.

Over and over again we’ve heard these protests are about the verdict that was released Friday. Newscasters and neighbors have debated evidence, talked about whether this man’s death serves as a worthy cause to protest.

I want to ask: is this verdict really the reason for the protest? Is the death of Anthony Lamar Smith really at the heart of what we’re seeing in St. Louis? I ask that question because so much of the debate seems centered on the evidence in this particular case. So much of the news coverage switches between talking about the latest action on the streets and debating the merits of the case.

Now, I have hangups about what the judge decided. I do not have a law degree, but I have a hard time when a judge introduces conjecture into an opinion, and particularly when a white official uses words like “urban” to describe his bias in the case. The verdict reads with such a double standard. The judge starts the opinion with pages about how he is bound to find the facts of the case, not to be swayed by public opinion. Then he tells us that in his opinion it would be an “anomaly” for an “urban heroin dealer” not to have a gun. Let’s talk about anomalies: it would be an anomaly for a white judge to convict a white police officer for killing a black person.

Beyond that I promise I’ll leave the questions of legality and judicial analysis to the attorneys.

This weekend I kept coming back to something I heard from our friend Noah Bullock, when we were down in El Salvador. Noah is the executive Director of Cristosal, an organization we partner with fighting for human rights in Central America. Noah talked about how often human rights abuses are committed against people who are labeled as “criminals.” Noah said, “even if someone has a criminal record, they have human rights.” That’s what we mean when we call rights “inalienable.” Christians only believe in one “blameless victim.” (That’s Jesus). Moses didn’t have clean record. He lead God’s people out of Egypt, but before that he had killed an Egyptian. Moses wasn’t clean.

So I want to ask, is the best use of our energy debating the facts of this specific case, or should we see what is happening in St. Louis as one facet of a larger question? Is all of this anger part of a larger story? Can we see the pain and anger as part of something bigger, something systemic? If we spend our energy defending the verdict, our we ignoring the system? The systemic racism so many encounter day in and day out? Is this all about one verdict? Really? Ask yourself. Question your newscaster, your co-worker, is one verdict all that’s at stake, or is the verdict a symptom?

A small group of us from Holy Communion tried to join in an action at Kiener plaza yesterday. I say we tried, because we found out once we made it to the plaza that we were in the wrong place. So we drove up to Delmar. After marching just a few blocks, I got a phone call from organizers asking if Holy Communion might serve as a sanctuary in case the action turned into a massive confrontation. I spent most of the evening standing at the door of University United Methodist Church, waiting to see which way the march would move. The stoop outside University United Methodist turned into an interfaith pastors meeting as Orthodox Jewish, Presbyterian, and UCC colleagues all showed up and talked as we waited to see if we were needed.

I know not everyone in this congregation feels comfortable joining in the protests. I personally have struggled with how to engage. I struggle with the protests. I really do. Seeing all of the broken glass in the loop this morning after I listened to the organizers pleading with folks to leave peacefully, it makes me angry.

I trained as a community organizer in my last parish, and I find the kind of protest we’ve seen in St. Louis frustrating. I want planned direct action to provoke some specific reactions. I want a list of demands. I worry that the statements we heard from the governor and the mayor about “protecting the right to protest” mean that many of our officials don’t plan on making any changes. They don’t see the organizers as a body that can make change, but rather as a problem to manage. The government is simply planning to wait out the activists. I feel frustrated, and and, as a white cis-gendered clergy person, I know that part of my job, especially on these issues, is to keep listening.

But even as I struggle with how to respond to the calls to clergy and people of faith to show up, I keep thinking about this story from Exodus. That next morning, after the walk through the sea: the Egyptian army is no more. Israel is no longer in Egypt’s land, but the work has just begun. God’s people don’t cross through the Red Sea and march straight into the promised land. It’s not that easy. They march into the desert, into the wilderness.

Back in February Dr. Howard-John Wesley, the pastor of Alfred Street Baptist Church in the Washington DC area preached about Dr. King’s time in Jamaica after the passing of the Civil Rights act in 1964 and the Voter’s Rights Act of 1965. Brother Martin took some time after these landmark wins to contemplate what came next, after these two landmark laws. After the laws were passed there were still riots in Watts, California and worker strikes up in Detroit, Michigan. So Dr King took some down time in Jamaica to think and to pray. And he wrote his fourth and final book: “Where do we go from here?: Chaos or Community.” Dr. Wesley argues that we are still asking that question in America. Where do we go from here?

That’s the question facing God’s people who have just crossed the sea, isn’t it? Where do we go from here? After this verdict, after this weekend, after these three long years in St. Louis Missouri, where do we go from here?

In Dr. King’s eyes there were two potential destinations: chaos or community. You can wander around the desert lost forever, or you can start making your way to Jerusalem.

Over the next days I will continue to turn up for actions, because I believe it is important to witness the pain and the anger in the black community, and I believe it is important to witness the moments like I did last night, hours before any property damage occurred, when the leaders told folks to go home. I believe I have listening to do. And I will be taking my own safety, and the safety of anyone who comes out from Holy Communion very seriously. I would rather err on the side of caution.

But I want to make another commitment with you today. That commitment is this: Our work won’t end when this season of protests quiets down.

A few weeks ago your senior warden Scott Ferguson and I hosted a small gathering of clergy and lay church leaders from around the St. Louis Metro area. We met with an organizer friend from Washington DC who talked about the work that has been done in Baltimore and Cleveland over the past three years. Cleveland and Baltimore saw similar protests following officer involved shootings in 2014, but there is an important difference between our city and those cities. Both Baltimore and Cleveland have elected new prosecutors in the last two years. and in of those other cities every candidate who ran for county prosecutor promised to engage a special prosecutor for every officer involved shooting. Both cities have a coalition, led by people of faith, that demanded action and sustained attention after the protests were through.

Interfaith coalitions with that kind of power take a long time to build. Faith organizations that can win protections for human rights, for human dignity, they take time and energy. My friend Martin Trimble, the organizer who was with us a couple of weeks ago described those years of building relationships, he called it “slow patient work.”

I keep coming back to that phrase. I have a feeling that what’s next involves a mix of listening, of witnessing, and if we want to see a change, it is going to take a great deal of slow patient work.

So today, I finish this sermon with an invitation to pray. Pray for the St. Louis region. Pray for the days and nights ahead. And, if you can, pray with your feet. But after these nights pass, keep praying. Build relationships. Question the narrative your receiving, and listen. The road to the promised land is long, and we will only get there together. We are seeing these days that it will take a great deal of slow patient work to follow God out of the chaos and into the beloved community. May God bless us on the journey.

 

 

 

 

True Religion

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever.  (BCP 233)

I just read for you again the prayer from the beginning of our service, the Collect. We pray one of this short prayers at each service on Sunday morning. The Collect helps us transition from getting here to being here, and introduces the Scriptures we are about to hear. Most of these short prayers are thousands of years old, like the one we heard today, and many of them bear the stamp of their first translator into English, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, like the one we heard today.

Cranmer was a poet, and a contemplative. He believed in the power of language to move the soul. For thousands of years, the priests had intoned the earlier version of this prayer in Latin. They asked God simply “to increase in us religion.” Cranmer added the word “true.” Thomas was Archbishop during the time of the Reformation, when there were several competing religions. He thought: “We might need to specify. Increase in us true religion.”

This prayer holds the genius of the poet. Because it makes us ask, what is TRUE religion? Cranmer wants you to wrestle, to pray for TRUE religion.

True religion doesn’t come easily. Take a look at Moses.

Now, you have to know where Moses finds himself for this story to make sense. Moses was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter last week, pulled out of the river in the basket. He grew up in the royal household. Moses knows privilege. Then something happened that changed Moses’ whole lot in life. But then he sees the way that the Egyptians are treating the Hebrews. He sees the injustice. Moses defends one of his kinsfolk when an Egyptian master is beating the Hebrew. Maybe Moses goes to far. Moses kills the Egyptian. He buries him in the sand. Then he runs. Moses gets out of Dodge.

Which is how he finds himself tending the flock of his Father-in-law Jethro. Now, this is not a comfortable place. Moses grew up in the palace.  He’s a bit of a city boy. Tending your father-in-law’s flock is not where you wanted to end up in the ancient world. (Working for your father-in-law is hardly ever where anyone wants to end up). Moses is on the lamb. He has no where to go, no prospects. He’s stuck.

Moses is out there, the Bible tells us, “beyond the wilderness,” and he hears a voice: “Moses, Moses.” Notice, God has to say his name twice to get his attention. God is persistent, even when humans are resistant. “Moses” God goes on: “I am the God of Abraham.” I am the God of Isaac and Jacob. God establishes continuity. Then God turns the page.

“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings”

This encounter with Moses shows us the something critical about our God. God is a God with a bias. God stands on the side of the oppressed. God works actively for the liberation of people from slavery, from bondage. God is a God who seeks out the least, the lost, the left out. The rest of the story of Exodus, in many ways the rest of the story of the Hebrew Bible, and the story of the followers of Jesus is a living out of this revelation of God to Moses: “I have heard their cry.” God is not a God who blesses the powerful and leaves the weak out in the cold. Quite the opposite. Here’s one of the tests of true religion: True religion responds to the cry of the suffering.

As the great theologian Howard Thurman once asked, What does your religion have to say to people with the “backs against a wall?”

“I have heard the cry of my people, and I have come down to deliver them.” This is where the passage gets really interesting. The story turns really fast. Did you catch it? God says, I have come down to deliver them. You could almost imagine Moses turning his head around looking for God. Where? Where are you? It will be a long time before Moses sees God. Instead God says, I have come to deliver them, so Moses, Moses I’m sending you. YOU go talk to Pharaoh. “Go Down Moses. Way down in Egypt Land. Tell Old Pharaoh, to let my people Go.”

You sort of feel for Moses in this moment. God has just said “I am coming down.” Moses probably got excited. He was nervous to see God’s face, but I’m sure he was eager to see God’s action. He was eager to see God right the wrongs, to turn back the tide of injustice. And then God says, “it’s on you Moses.”

It’s a bit like what Jesus says to his followers this morning: “Take up your cross.”

I feel for Moses this morning, surprised by an overwhelming task from God. I also feel for Peter. Today we read Jesus’ harshest rebuke . “Get behind me Satan.” I feel for Peter this morning. If I’d been there, honestly, I probably would’ve been standing near Peter, nodding, agreeing with him, saying “Yes, yes, exactly.”

We come to this rebuke of Peter while Jesus is on the run (notice a theme). They’re on the road, getting away from the crowds. Jesus has fed 4,000 on the sea of Galilee. The Pharisees come after him. He escapes. He performs a healing of a blind man in the chapter before this reading, and tells the man “don’t even go into the village” because he’s afraid of the news getting out. When Jesus asked last week, “who do people say I am?” there are nerves behind that question. Peter last week got the answer right, for once. “You’re the Messiah.” And Jesus orders him to be silent.

Jesus is nervous. Jesus explains to the disciples what is coming, and he paints a pretty ugly picture. Jesus explains that he expects to be hauled before the courts, to suffer, to die.

Peter doesn’t want that for Jesus. Can we blame him? He doesn’t want it for the movement he’s joined. Peter has just identified his leader as the savior, the messiah, the anointed one. Peter wants success. Peter wants it to look good. We don’t hear Peter’s words to Jesus, but I imagine they are something like: “Wait a minute Jesus, that suffering and dying stuff, I’m not sure I signed up for that. That’s not going to sell well.” True religion doesn’t sell well. If a faith doesn’t require some skin of your back, it isn’t Christianity.

These are heavy words, “take up your cross,” and I’m mindful that we’ve had an awful week. We still haven’t seen the full scale of the disaster in Houston. Even as the flood waters were rising, a group of Evangelical pastors were spitting homophobic and transphobic nonsense and saying they represented the one true faith. (All their sound and fury signifies nothing). Parishioners of mine in Washington DC got in touch this week. They’re nervous. These are folks who were able to secure good jobs, and come out of hiding because of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA, were terrified this week that they were going to lose their immigration status, be shortlisted for deportation to countries they haven’t seen since they were a few months old. We’re also still dealing with the trauma of the images that came out of Charlottesville, waking some of us up to the hatred that is alive and deep in this country. I know I’m not alone in thinking, “Oh God, what’s next?” How do you even respond when the new cycle just feels like body blow after body blow for people you love?

I’m going to ask you to read a book.

This Fall we’re going to try an experiment. We’re calling it “One Book, One Parish.” The assignment is The Rev. Dr. William Barber’s “The Third Reconstruction.” Barber is a black Baptist pastor, and the chair of the North Carolina NAACP. He was one of the architects of a movement called “Moral Mondays” challenging the North Carolina legislature. And he take the long view of history. He argues that we are at a turning point in this country. The First Reconstruction was after the Civil War. America was re-made when slavery was abolished. The Second Reconstruction was the Civil Rights era. Today America is trying to be remade again. We have reached the Third Reconstruction.

I want us to read this book together, because I think it can help break the paralysis and the fear. Lately it feels like our whole country is playing defense. We’re standing up for some vision of history. We’re standing up to defend our neighbors from bias. As long as we are playing defense, I think we’re all losing. Rage won’t win the day. Rage isn’t enough. We have to get out of defense mode. We have to start moving forward toward a vision.

What is the America we want to see reconstructed? What is the city, the country, the world we want to live in? What does that look like? How can we get in the business of hope?

In “The Third Reconstruction,” Barber tells a story about his grandmother. After cooking for her whole extended family on Sunday, but before the food was served, she and her nieces would take a little bit of food along with a little money and anointing oil. She’d say to young William in the kitchen “We’ll be back shortly. We’ve got to go and hope somebody.” Here, in Barber’s words, was his response to his grandmother:

As a young black boy learning proper English in school, I thought my uneducated grandmamma was misspeaking—that she mistook the word “hope” for “help.” I even may have tried to correct her error in word choice a time or two. But looking back, I see that Grandmamma articulated more theology in that single phrase than some preachers manage to get into an entire sermon.

I don’t know a better description of “true religion.” “We’ve got to go and hope somebody.” True religion is Houstonians volunteering boats and going to rescue one another. True religion is the Baptist and Muslim youth groups my friends in Texas saw working side by side yesterday to muck out houses as the waters receded. True religion can be radical. I heard some true religion from a Catholic priest on Friday, here in St. Louis at a rally to protect DACA, who spoke out and said our Christian vision of the world imagines a place for refugees and immigrants. We welcome the stranger in the Christian worldview. Where have you seen true religion lately?

Friends I have to brag a bit about this church. Amidst all the bad news we’re hearing, this church is on the front page of the paper. This church is proclaiming good news. There’s a story about our laundry love ministry. Every third Tuesday we’re getting to know our neighbors and spreading some Laundry Love. You’re invited. September 19. Come volunteer at 6pm. Go hope somebody.

I could go on and on about the work of hope I am seeing in this church. Reconstructing a house, meeting neighbors for a beer and discussion, doing the hard work of praying for one another. I am grateful, really grateful to be a member of this congregation. You help me see hope: Your hard work, your generosity, the love you show, it increases in me true religion every day.

God has heard the cry of the people. God is coming. Go hope somebody.

What to do with the mess.

What do you do when you find yourself in a mess?

What if the mess was partly your creation?

Today’s readings from the Gospel and the Hebrew Bible present us with a bit of a mess. Maybe you came to church today looking for words of comfort, of solace. This has been quite a week. After the events in Charlottesville, and the rantings of the president, I could have used a different scripture passage. But we already read “come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest” this summer. Frankly, as much as I wish for something a little lighter, I think these may be the stories we need.

Today we encounter two sets of characters that find themselves in a bit of a mess. Joseph and his brothers face a difficult reunion. Now, remember, Joseph’s brothers sold the young dreamer into slavery. They brought back the coat of many colors, stained with animal blood, to their father Jacob. Joseph’s father mourns. We fast forward. Joseph has made himself useful, indispensable. He is the Pharaoh’s right hand, and a famine falls across the known world. Joseph has served the Pharaoh well. They have stockpiles, enough not only for the Egyptians, but to sell to others. Joseph’s brothers come with their hands outstretched. Little do they know, they are dealing with the one they sent to slavery. After much back and forth, today Joseph can’t contain himself. He comes out to his brothers. He tells them who he is, and they are unable to speak.

The other set of characters are Jesus and his disciples. This is perhaps the messiest story we have of Jesus. It seems clear what Jesus, and followers of Jesus should do when a woman comes asking for healing for her daughter. “Have mercy on me,” Kyrie Eleison she shouts again and again. Jesus does not answer. His disciples try to shoo her away. When she finally does get his attention Jesus calls her a dog. We can try and rationalize and explain away Jesus words, but they are there, even in Scripture. Jesus uses a racial/ethnic epithet, common among his people, who viewed themselves superior to the Canaanites. Jesus demeans this woman.

Both of these situations are messy and uncomfortable. How do you confront a sibling you pretended to own, and sold away? How do you engage when you encounter racist language?

Sometimes it can seem like the Bible is an old dusty collection of documents that have little relevance for our own day. Then sometimes, you have a week like the one we’ve just had and you encounter scripture that asks: “How do you confront a sibling you pretended to own, and sold away? How do you engage when you encounter racist language?”

Make no mistake, both of these questions are our questions. The Episcopal Church was complicit in the institution of slavery. We had special baptismal rites for enslaved people. White adults who were baptized promised to follow Jesus as their lord. Enslaved Africans, in order to be baptized, had to promise to obey their masters. We have repented, officially, as a body. But the demon is still with us. We are one of the most segregated denominations, in that people who identify as white make up roughly 90% of our membership, across the church. (Holy Communion is helping those numbers, but it’s a big church).

I learned something new about The Episcopal Church this week. There is a parish in Virginia named “Robert E. Lee Memorial Church.” Lee was an Episcopalian. So were many other confederate generals and leaders. The church generally goes by “R.E. Lee Memorial” and the vestry voted to keep that name back in 2015. Our church has deep ties to this history. As messy as it is, we will continue to be confronted by this history.

As an aside, in my opinion there is one great memorial to Robert E. Lee, very close to our nation’s capitol. The memorial was begun by Abraham Lincoln. Lee’s wife inherited from her father Arlington House, on a beautiful bluff overlooking the Potomac River and Washington DC. Arlington was his home. During the Civil War, having taken Northern Virginia, the US Government seized the property, and the Lincoln Administration began burying Civil War dead on the grounds.

Today Memorial Bridge connects Arlington Cemetery directly to the Lincoln Monument. Standing on the steps, where Marian Anderson gave a concert the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow in their hall, on those steps where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech, on those steps where I once heard the first openly gay Episcopal Bishop, Gene Robinson pray before Beyonce performed for President Obama’s first inauguration, on those steps you can see Robert E Lee’s house in the background, surrounded by the graves of Union soldiers. That memorial reminds us from where we have come as a nation, and of the sacrifice and struggle that has brought us this far. I don’t think Lee needs any other memorials. That Virginia vestry should vote to change for a more saintly name.

So What do you do when you find yourself in a mess? What if the mess was partly your creation?

In both of today’s Biblical stories we learn one strategy that doesn’t work: silence. Joseph’s brothers are stunned. They want to slink away without words. Joseph won’t let them. Jesus’ silence is more problematic. You know that saying: “Silence is Violence.” It applies here. Why would Jesus ignore this woman’s pleas? Why won’t he heal her daughter, the way he’s been walking all over Palestine healing and casting out demons? This Gospel is a mess. Thankfully the Canaanite woman won’t put up with his silence. She persists. Jesus finally responds. “Great is your faith!” The woman’s daughter is healed. Silence wasn’t the answer.

This story from Jesus has been one of the most difficult for scholars. They have tried to explain away Jesus’ words, said that he was simply testing the woman and his disciples (though there’s no evidence of a test in the text). Black Womanist and Latin American Feminist Theologians have pointed to another potential reading, one that I think helps us to manage the mess. Liberation theologies famously point to the “option for the poor” the “option for the marginalized.” They say if you want to understand what is happening in Scripture, look to the poor. God seems to be working, across the length of the Bible, for the liberation of the least, the lost, and the left-out. Joseph is a prime example.

Womanist and Feminist scholars take the argument further. They say, if you can see this pattern is Scripture, apply it to the newspaper as well. If you want a Christian analysis of economics or of a violent situation, if you are a politician attempting to make a difficult decision, make the “option for the poor.” Look to how the decision or situation will affect the most vulnerable. God sees the world through the eyes of the marginalized. And feminists and womanist point out, the most vulnerable, the poorest of the poor, tend to be women.

This woman that Jesus encounters, could she be inviting him and his followers to re-consider? Question the stereotypes, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because her and her daughter’s life and livelihood are at stake? In this case an ethnic slur isn’t just impolite. If Jesus had walked away, silent, if he had denied the healing, the consequences would have been huge for this woman. And dare we ask: “would Jesus be Jesus if he had stayed silent?” If he hadn’t listened to this woman, this persistent woman, if Jesus had kept believing he was only sent to Israel, where would that leave this room full of Gentiles?

When you find yourself in a mess, a mess you and your kin have helped to create, what do you do? Today’s Scripture gives us a direction: look to the most vulnerable. Take heed of the weak. Ask how your decisions could harm folks who are struggling to make it day by day. Look at the world through the eyes of those who are suffering. If you don’t know what the world looks like through those eyes, you don’t know how God sees the world.

We are in a bit of a mess these days. I’m very aware that I’ve been feeling like if I could only say the right words, or re-post the right article about race, I could prove to myself and others that I am “woke.” The temptation to think we will solve this all with the right words is high. Still…

We saw this week the power of words, as our president stumbled and failed to use the words that were necessary, required. Words matter. And don’t know that I always have the best ones. But I hope to leave you with a little hope. I hope to listen more to the words of women and people of color. As much as I am able, I hope to magnify the words and perspectives we hear too little from these days. When we marginalize these perspectives, we remain stuck in the mess. We risk missing the ever persistent voice of God.