A Different Relationship with Time

A little over a decade ago the novelist Alan Lightman penned a national bestseller entitled: Einstein’s Dreams. The book plays with time. Lightman describes a series of imagined dreams. Einstein’s conscious is hard at work by day on the theory of relativity. But by night his subconscious produces a number of different worlds, imagining how time *could* function. In one scenario time moves more slowly the farther you get from the center of the earth, so the wealthy build palaces on top of the highest mountains and keep the poor in the valleys below. In another dream, there is a spot where time stands still. Lovers and parents clinging to their children make pilgrimage to the place, to hold one another through time. Lightman’s novel debuted at the beginning of our recent cultural obsession with Einstein. But I wonder is there something more to the relative appeal of these stories and of the scientist? Do we long for a different relationship with time?

“You know not the day or the hour.” Jesus tells a simple story about wise and foolish bridesmaids. Some come prepared for the wait, others are left out in the dark. Be like the wise bridesmaids, Jesus exhorts his disciples. Keep awake. Except the story Jesus told wasn’t literally about staying awake. All of the bridesmaids fall asleep in the parable. The bridesmaids who make it into the banquet also slept. Wisdom in not about sleeplessness.

We know about sleeplessness in this country. We know about worry. I worried this week how the news of last week’s shooting in a Texas Church would affect our attendance today. Of course we’ll pray for the victims. And I worry that we still won’t be able to address the problem with guns in this country. I worry a lot, but maybe not more than most these days. Left to my own devices, I can descend into worry.

I want to venture, following our readings, wisdom is about being awake, but not about anxiety. You can’t worry your way to wisdom. Wisdom is a different kind of awake-ness. And Wisdom has something to do with how we relate to time.

Jesus’ choice of descriptor for the bridesmaids: “wise” is an important one. Our reading from the book of Wisdom raises the stakes a bit. Wisdom is Sophia, lady Wisdom. Christians have often read this divine description as a way of speaking about the Holy Spirit, one of the reasons some Christians tend to gender the Spirit feminine. For Christians Wisdom “capital W” and the Spirit “capital S” are one. To be wise is to be awake, to be awake is to be Spiritual. These wise bridesmaids have their finger on something. The oil is parabolic. Oil is a metaphor. The distinction between wisdom and foolishness has something to do with spirituality, something to do with preparation, and something to do with time.

“One who rises early to find Wisdom will have no difficulty, for she will be found sitting at the gate.”

In so many ways, Spirituality is made out as a pursuit. We religious officials prescribe specific postures, practices, and prayers. So often people respond: “I don’t have the time.” But the writer of the Book of Wisdom answers. Wisdom, Spirituality, isn’t just for the professionals. Spirituality is for the busy. The Spirit will find you. She will meet you in your path.

Spirituality is not about accumulating hours of prayer for the sake of appearing holy. It isn’t about adding. Spirituality is about deepening. Often that deepening comes by subtracting. Spirituality is being awake to God’s presence in every moment. Wisdom is found when we are fully awake, fully present. We don’t find God in all those hours we don’t have in a day. God finds us in the moments we do have.

One of the great teachers of mysticism in the Anglican tradition was an English lay woman, Evelyn Underhill. Her books on Mysticism became best sellers in the years spanning the First and Second World Wars. Underhill was a pacifist, an active Anglican lay leader, and most importantly, a mystic. She argued that mysticism, contemplation, the life of prayer, isn’t just for monks and nuns. Spirituality is for practical people. Learning to be awake, learning to truly see, are the outcomes of the Spiritual life. Listen to Underhill describe the work of contemplative prayer as “looking with the eyes of love:”

To “look with the eyes of love” seems a vague and sentimental recommendation: yet the whole art of spiritual communion is summed in it, and exact and important results flow from this exercise…When you look thus, you surrender your I-hood; see things at last as the artist does, for their sake, not for your own…The doors of perception are cleansed, and everything appears as it is. The disfiguring results of hate, rivalry, prejudice, vanish away. Into that silent place to which recollection has brought you, new music, new colour, new light, are poured from the outward world.

Prayer, Contemplation, Spirituality are practical. They are about being awake, truly awake, deeply awake. Wisdom comes in the moment we are consciously in time, when we are able to “look with the eyes of love.” Such gaze takes practice. But the practices of Spirituality are not “busy work.” We don’t pray just to pass the time. Prayerful practice is about cultivating the “loving gaze” to use Underhill’s word. Spirituality is about learning to be more and more deeply awake in the midst of time.

As Underhill hints awake-ness has another dimension, beyond the personal. I want to return to the Gospel and play for a moment with the wise bridesmaids. I want to ask, what is spiritual about their seemingly small decision to bring the extra oil? Why does this small act matter? To dig in, we have to talk for a moment about first century weddings.

The definition of marriage has shifted a great deal in the last two millennia, thank God. But in the time of Jesus, brides were usually purchased. Women were the property of men. Wedding parties were elaborate multi-day festivities, but they began with a negotiation. Before the feast, before the bridegroom processed to the banquet hall, there was bargaining to be done. The price for the bride needed to be set.

Scholars tell us that the parable’s “bridesmaids” were most likely members of the bridegroom’s family. They would have waited outside until the deal was settled to follow their relative into the banquet and greet his new wife. Knowing this background, the wise bridesmaid interaction gets a little deeper. These particular women know their kinsman. They know him well enough to think through the evening’s likely events: “With this guy we might want to have some extra midnight oil. He’s apt to offer too low a price and this negotiation might drag on. Better bring the backup.” (This reading might also explain why the jerk won’t let the other women into the banquet later.)

The wise bridesmaids have not simply prepared ahead, they’ve thought about their context. They’ve contemplated the likely scenario. These women are awake in a specific way to their time. They are conscious of the economic, gender, and power dynamics in their society, and in their own family.

As an aside, if all of this discussion about first century chattel marriage makes your skin crawl, if the idea that a young woman might be bought and purchased by an adult man makes you uncomfortable, you might not want to move to Alabama.

The Alabama State Auditor this week tried to defend Senate Candidate Roy Moore (noted for his zealous opposition to marriage equality for same sex couples). Moore has been accused of sexual assault on a minor. When the alleged events happened, the candidate was in his thirties and the girl was 14. The State Auditor, coming to Moore’s defense, tried to point to the Bible and say, “well Joseph was an adult and Mary, [the mother of Jesus] was a teen.” Speaking just for this church, let me say, “No.” You don’t get to use the Bible to justify abuse of a minor. Religion should never justify abuse. This seems pretty basic. His misuse of the Bible should be condemned from pulpits across Alabama today. It should be.

Our definition of marriage has shifted from the first century. As I said before, thank God. Yet in this parable, even in the midst of his particular time, Jesus seems to be advocating a specific kind of awareness. Jesus was woke. Jesus encouraged his followers to develop cultivated consciousness toward the dynamics of economics, gender, and power. Here in our day, in our city, we would add race, class, immigration status, ability sexual orientation…

Woke-ness is important for Spiritual folks who live in the bounds of time. The Islamic Scholar Omid Safi quoted Dr. Martin Luther King in an article published about this time last year. He reminded his readers that Dr. King once said “Time is morally neutral.” Safi then elaborated:

Time is morally neutral…Things do not get better by themselves. They also do not get worse by themselves. That’s true whether we are talking about a society bending the arc of the moral universe towards the good and the just, or sliding towards an abyss of authoritarianism.

Time marches on, says Safi, and we have to choose whether we are along for the ride or working to change direction. Time does not heal all wounds, not on its own. Time does not always mean progress, just as age does not always equal wisdom. Awake-ness matters if we seek to make change in our time. If we move from a place of ignorance, if we do not listen deeply to the voices of those who are marginalized, we risk bending the wrong way. We risk making life worse for those who suffer.

Fortunately the levers of power are never solely in our hands. Those words are difficult for folks like us here at Holy Communion. I know that many of you, like me, like to be in charge, like to feel in control. In that sense, time is a great reckoner. We can’t manage the flow of time. Time marches on. We can really only control our own attitude and attention, and even in that realm, we’re working with subtle nuance. A spiritual director of mine once shared a parable he heard from a Navajo friend: “White people have all the watches, but Indians have all the time.”

Jesus’ followers encounter the conundrum of time in a particular way. His earliest followers were waiting for an imminent return. Jesus was coming back, soon. But as the days turned to years, the years to centuries, Jesus’ followers have had to ask: “What are we to do with all of this time?”

How can we use our time intentionally? How can we become more attuned to the Spirit as she is living and active? How can we, like Evelyn Underhill, cultivate an inner life that allows us to more fully see the outer world? How do we stay awake to the dynamics of power inviting us to act for justice?

If for you, time seems fleeting, if you find yourself rushed by errands, trying to find oil for your lamp, could Jesus today be inviting you to find a new relationship with time?

God’s Economy (part 1): Abundance and Equity

Our Biblical stories this morning, by accident or design, touch on a common theme: economics. The story of Moses and God’s manna from heaven may not deal directly with currency, but God’s provision is the clear message of the story. Jesus’ parable about the workers and the employer makes an economic connection pretty obviously. Jesus was pretty direct about economics. “Give us this day, our daily bread.” There’s an economics stake in this life of faith we practice. This morning, we’re beginning a sermon series on God’s economics. We’ll begin today, pause next week to bless some animals, and pick up where we left off on October 8. In this first sermon, I plan to present two perspectives that I believe at least partly characterize God’s economics: abundance, and equity.

Abundance

Walter Brueggemann is a deeply respected Biblical theologian with ties to St. Louis. He received his PhD from Saint Louis University and his Divinity Degree from Eden Seminary, where he later served as academic Dean. Some of Brueggeman’s most influential work is in the Biblical description of God’s abundance over and against human perceptions of scarcity.

Brueggeman argues that for the first 46 chapters of the Bible, we hear of God’s extravagant abundance. God is lavish in creation. God creates more than God’s creatures need to survive. “Be fruitful and multiply,” God says. There’s room, there’s plenty. This abundance continues through the sojourn of Abraham and Sarah, making them and their descendants a blessing to all the people.
This blessing, this abundance, takes a sharp left turn in the 47th chapter of Genesis. Listen to Brueggeman describe chapter 47:

Pharaoh dreams that there will be a famine in the land. So Pharaoh gets organized to administer, control and monopolize the food supply. Pharaoh introduces the principle of scarcity into the world economy. For the first time in the Bible, someone says, “There’s not enough. Let’s get everything.”

Because Pharaoh is afraid that there aren’t enough good things to go around, he must try to have them all. Because he is fearful, he is ruthless. Pharaoh hires Joseph to manage the monopoly. When the crops fail and the peasants run out of food, they come to Joseph.

And on behalf of Pharaoh, Joseph says, “What’s your collateral?” They give up their land for food, and then, the next year, they give up their cattle. By the third year of the famine they have no collateral but themselves. And that’s how the children of Israel become slaves — through an economic transaction. (Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope: Contested Truth in a Post-Christian World).

As we know, the people Israel eventually escape Pharaoh. Last week we followed them through the Sea and out into the wilderness. While they have left Egypt behind, that culture of scarcity is still hard to shake. Out there in the Wilderness, they grumble and complain. They miss the storehouses of food. Moses tells them that God will provide. God sends bread from heaven, Manna.

Manna: That Hebrew word translates “what is this?” What is this stuff? God’s people have been so shaped by Pharaoh’s scarcity that they don’t know what it is to receive bread they didn’t pay for, to receive a gift from God, to know God’s abundance. And they don’t know how to trust that God will provide. Despite Moses’ warning, they try and store the manna.

When Foster Care parents are trained, they learn to watch kids closely at the dinner table. Many foster children, even in St. Louis, come from hungry homes. Often for weeks after they arrive, care providers have to very patiently clean out the kids’ pockets after meal times. These children have learned to hoard food. When there were calories available, when the cupboard is full, they know they should save some for later, when they would be hungry. It takes weeks, sometimes months, for kids to trust they will consistently be fed, no matter the time of the month.

When you have learned scarcity, it can be hard to unlearn.It takes practice to trust abundance. Again and again the Bible tells us, “there is enough, more than enough.” God has provided enough food, clean water, and other necessities for all of humanity. No one should go hungry. But people do go hungry every day. Those of us who live in the developed world, who might stand to loose a few pounds (let’s be real), have a hard time hearing these words. I am not here to scold you. I don’t want to be like that nagging mother who says, “eat your food, there are children starving in…” (you fill in the blank). It really isn’t that simple.

Because really, even when you have enough to eat, Pharoah’s scarcity mentality can have an effect. We receive marketing messages almost 24/7 telling us we don’t have enough, we are not enough, we can’t do enough, unless we purchase these new shoes, or that new computer, we won’t be enough.

How do we practice abundance? How do we move away from scarcity? The sociologist Brene Brown, an Episcopalian, does research on questions related to shame and anxiety. She specifically studied a group of folks who emerged in her research. This group could be categorized as folks who defy the norm. They are not anxious about money. They are not anxious about whether they have enough. These folks, according to Brown, came from every economic strata. What unified them was their lack of anxiety. The researcher calls this group: “whole-hearted.”

What made this group different, she found, the one thing they had in common was a practice of gratitude. Note, that’s not an attitude of gratitude, but a practice. When anxiety came knocking them, they had a practice that helped them to pause, to get perspective, and to give thanks. All of us, all of us, have so much for which to be thankful. When scarcity comes knocking, what is your practice? How do you pause and give thanks?
God says, “you are enough. You are more than enough. I created you as a blessing. Go and bless somebody.” If you are anxious about money, join the club. We live in a society that breeds that anxiety, even among the wealthy. But God created us for a different relationship with economics. God created us for abundance.

Equity:

The early laborers who grumble in today’s parable, they are not moving from a place of abundance. It’s easy to judge them. On the one hand, I feel for them. The pay seems unequal. Yet, I would argue, this story teaches us about equity. I have to confess, I have not always had the same reading of this parable. my reading of this parable has shifted a great deal over the last few years.
Growing up, hearing Jesus’ story about the latecomers who receive a full days wage, I always thought this story was about Jewish/Gentile relations. In the early church there was a debate about whether you had to be a practicing Jew in order to become a Christian. That’s why Paul’s letters make us cringe talking so much about circumcision. I always read this as a metaphor for Jewish/Gentile relations. But in my first year of ordained ministry, that reading had to take a back seat to the economics in this story.

In my first parish I served a Latino Congregation. I remember the September when this story came up well. Many of the members of my congregation were undocumented immigrants. For the sake of this specific story, I’m going to call one member Juan. Juan and I had spent quite a bit of time talking to a lawyer through that late summer and early fall. Juan had worked a construction job with a local contractor, but when payday came, the contractor told him to scram. When Juan said, “we agreed on a wage,” the contractor threatened to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Rent was due. Kids were hungry. Juan had worked, but this employer had exploited his labor. Juan was never paid, and he was having a hard time finding work again. Meeting with the attorney was a dead end as well. The brokenness of our immigration system means that millions of laborers have no protection from their employers.
Having spent time talking through Juan’s story with an attorney that month, when I sat down to write my sermon, this parable really presented itself differently. For the first time I saw the story as a teaching about God’s economy of equity. In God’s economy there is enough work for everyone. And in God’s economy everyone receives a wage that allows them to provide for their family. Our reaction to this vision of equity can be strong, and strongly negative. “Why are they getting more?”

There’s a difference between equity and equality. Equality means treating everyone the same. We need more equality in this country, but we also need equity. Equity is economically important. Equity means making sure everyone has the same chances. This parable makes us question the wisdom that everyone is able to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. There is a certain danger when those of us with wealth begin thinking, “I worked hard for what I have” or “I got mine.” We may be adopting blinders to an inequitable system of advantages.

We are seeing in our city a struggle over the meaning of equity.  Do children of different races, different classes, grow up with equitable opportunities? Do we all get the same chances when we encounter law enforcement? Study after study show: Black men are more likely to be found guilty of a crime, more likely to serve jail time, more likely to be denied parole. Black children are more likely to attend an underperforming school, to know domestic violence in their family, to know hunger. Systems like these self-perpetuate. They have inertia. Unless an intervention is made, the ground will remain uneven.
This week we have seen a series of economic protests. Activists have shouted: “If we don’t get it, shut it down” and “you kill our kids, we kill your economy.” Yes, the Stockley verdict was the precipitating factor that led to the anger in the streets, but the anger is deeper. The anger is about a lack of equity. We may have laws that protect equal opportunity, but we are not all standing on the same structures that help us to clear the bars on the way to success.

This week Marc and I ended up the poster children for the protest somewhat inadvertently. On Tuesday afternoon we, along with some lay leaders and other Episcopalian colleagues, attended an Interfaith Prayer vigil for Justice and Peace, organized by the office of the Roman Catholic Archbishop. Like good Episcopalians, we were standing at the back of the crowd. I’m looking at you back pew. Then some of the black clergy decided we needed to pray with more than our words, we needed to pray with our feet. At the end of the service they pushed through the crowd, grabbed the clergy at the back, and marched us to City Hall. The last shall be first got a new meaning.
I wasn’t comfortable with all of the protests I attended this week. The news keeps talking about “protest organizers.” I think organizer is a bit of a strong word for many of these actions. They’re not very organized. There is a difference between a crowd and a movement: a movement is going somewhere. A movement means that you have concrete proposals, and you are acting to bring them about.

If the protests lack of organization made me a little uncomfortable, the police response scared me. Last weekend and this weekend we have seen officers injure and abuse those who are being taken into custody. Including clergy, including an air force officer, including journalists. Do not hear me say that I am anti-police. I have several friends who are officers. I respect many of the policewomen and men I know. I pray for them often. We live in a society where gun violence is out of control, and officers put their lives on the line every day. If we want to change police behavior, we could start by changing our relationship with guns. Still the documented behavior in this city of officers of the law toward peaceful protestors has been atrocious and illegal in many instances. As citizens of St. Louis City and County, we deserve better.

The action that made Marc and me accidentally famous on Tuesday afternoon was the most organized I’ve seen, and the police presence was calm. The officers protected our right to assemble and to free speech. They did their job. As I shared in our weekly email, I was particularly moved by the words of my colleagues: The Rev. Dr. Cassandra Gould. She spoke about the peace that we seek, the shalom of God, that Hebrew word means both peace and wholeness. She spoke about wholeness, and it brought tears to my eyes. She said, Missouri as a state came into being by compromising. Missouri became a state by compromising the identity of black people, by holding them as slaves. We don’t have streets named after the enslaved Africans that LaClede and Chouteau brought with them as they founded St. Louis. We began with inequity, and, if you look at the statistics, the inequity persists.

God’s economy is one of equity. God provides enough, more than enough, for us all. In God’s economy there are plenty of jobs, there is plenty of wealth, so even those who don’t find a full days work can be paid enough to bring home the daily bread. This parable continues to challenge us today. How do we really provide equitable opportunity? How do we make our economy and our education system work so that all St. Louisans have access to the abundant life?
When we speak about economics, there is a great deal at stake. Life and livelihood. God’s economy does not look like our economy. Where we struggle with scarcity, with anxiety that there will never be enough, God provides abundantly. And God invites us to work for more equity, so that regardless of the color of your skin, or the profession of your parents, all might know God’s abundant blessings in this life. Amen

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.