Questions for America: Part One

This week and next, I am preaching a short sermon series. Returning from vacation this last week, coming home to America in time for the celebrations of July 4, I have had some mixed feelings. (Who doesn’t have mixed feelings coming back from vacation?) But these feelings are specific, and to me troubling. As a kid, I loved the fourth of July, the fireworks, the hotdogs, flying the flag. As an adult, especially this year, I feel the weight of responsibility that comes with citizenship in our republic. This year, more than most, I’ve marched. I’ve written letters. I’ve called my representatives and senators, and I don’t see many immediate results. Honestly, I’m a little frustrated with the state of our nation. So today and next week, the Sundays surrounding July 4, I have a series of questions for America.

Before we get to the questions, let’s take a look at the Bible. We have spent the last few weeks in church hearing stories of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, the matriarchs and patriarch of our faith traditions. We’ve been reading the “founding stories.” The beauty found in these stories is stunning. God takes Abraham out under a cloudless night and says to Abraham “look at the sky. Your descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the heavens.” Sarah laughs, when she hears God’s plan that she will conceive in her old age. She’s 90. Laughter is appropriate, holy. Sarah laughs, and at long last Abraham and Sarah have a son, and they name him Isaac, laughter. The stories are beautiful, and, if we’re honest, the stories are problematic.

Last week we heard the story of Hagar, Abraham’s mistress who bore his first son Ishmael. Sarah and Hagar are rivals, and their sons grow rivalrous as well. After seeing Ishmael taunt Isaac, Sarah wants “the other woman” and her child out. Hagar and Ishmael are left out in the desert to die.  The story is painful, ugly. How could we believe in a God who would allow such inhumane treatment? Well, these texts are problematic, and there’s a great deal going on behind the scenes. Still I am struck by these stories, because just when I think: “I can’t believe in a God who would bless such behavior,” the text turns. God shows up for the characters who were cast out.

All this backstory is recalled ever so briefly in in today’s lesson. Speaking to Abraham, God calls Isaac, “your only son.” Now God should know better. As we heard last week, God saved Ishmael in the end. Ishmael will also found a dynasty. Abraham will be the father of many nations. The founding story is beautiful and problematic. Today’s text is frightening, and a pattern for salvation. We’ll get deeper into the Bible in a bit.

As I thought about the beauty and the problems of these founding stories of our faith, I found myself also thinking about the beauty and difficulty built into our national stories. When I lived in Washington DC, I used to love to visit the monuments on the National Mall at night. If you’re traveling to Washington, I can’t recommend a nightime visit to Jefferson and Lincoln more highly. You’ll often have the whole place to yourself, and the way the park service lights the marble at night is magic. Standing in his psuedo-Greek Temples, looking out over the Tidal Basin, I loved re-reading Jefferson’s words, lit up against the dark sky. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” The monument does its job. You can’t help but contemplate beauty of our founding story.

The United States were built on the bedrock of equality. And yet, there in the text we can hear the problematic element of our founding story as well: “All men.” As Angelica Schuyler sings in the musical Hamilton: “When I meet Thomas Jefferson, Imma compel him to include women in the sequel.” Knowing what we do about Jefferson also begs the question, ”How could the architects of freedom also perpetuate the enslavement of Africans?” Our founding stories are both beautiful and problematic.

Like Isaac and Ishmael, like Sarah and Hagar, our founding stories set up rivalries. In America, often those rivalries are based in racial identity. Toni Morrision has said “Race” is the fundamental metaphor neccessary to understand the “construction of Americanness.” “American” has been defined as “white.” This was literally true at the time of our founding. Enslaved African Americans were only counted as 3/5 of a person by our constitution. And they only counted in order to give their owners more power and representation. Latinx, Asian, and Native American communities have also had their personhood legislated. We have set up racial rivalries across American History.

I entitled this sermon series: “Questions for America.” My first question is this:

“To whom does America belong?”

This morning we heard Jesus’ words about Welcome. Welcome the little ones. Christians believe in fundamental welcome. We hear that this is a nation with Judeo Christian values, but how often do we welcome the way Jesus would have us? How often do we see Americans as Americans? How often are Asian Americans and Latin Americans asked, “Where are you from?” and then “no, really, where are your people from?” How often are black citizens denied basic protections for liberty and the pursuit of happiness, even life?

Did you hear the story of Aaron Bailey, another unarmed black man shot by police officers, this time in Indianapolis, last week? Yes, Aaron had a criminal record. But wasn’t he more than his record? Did you know that Aaron was a volunteer at Christ Church Cathedral in the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis? Did you know he was a regular guest at their Sunday breakfast? Who counts as American? Whose lives matter? To whom does America belong?

There is a fundamental problem in our national story. Racism has been called “America’s original sin.” I believe it is important to name it as such. But this story also has beauty, and the beauty has the capacity to overcome sin. Over our 241 years (I think I got that math right), over our 241 years of history, women and people of color have asserted their rights to citizenship.

Historically we have believed in equality, in freedom, and in their expansion. As a nation, we do not believe freedom is a finite resource. You don’t need walls to protect freedom. Walls fence us in. Freedom grows when more people are free. The more free our neighbors are, the more free we are. Freedom grows exponentially. But if we start policing hard lines of belonging. If we say: “you are American, and you are not,” it leads to some of the darkest moments in our history.

My question about who counts sends me back to our story this morning of the binding of Isaac. Historically the Jewish and Christian people have seen this scripture as a story of salvation. God spares Isaac. In the end God does not demand the sacrifice. (The irony for Christians is strong. In the end God does not require the sacrifice of an only child, and yet when God’s only Son came to us, we killed him. We demanded blood. But that’s another sermon). We’ve read this story as salvific historically, but for readers today it still seems barbaric.

I’ve never been able to fully embrace this story, and as I read it in preparation for today’s sermon it was the silence that stood out to me. Where is Abraham’s protest? Why does he just quietly prepare to heed God’s command to kill his son? For that matter, where is Sarah? She fiercely defended Isaac in last weeks story, where is she now? Where is her protest?

Traditionally, even in the New Testament, Abraham and Sarah’s silence is intepreted as a sign of their faith. “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac” the book of Hebrews tells us. I’m not sure I buy this story. I want to know where the missing verses are. Where is Abraham’s argument with God? Where is Sarah’s persistence?

This is my second question, it’s for our text today and for America:

“Can protest be prayer?”

For this question (as I’m sure you can tell for most of my questions in this series) I have a strong opinion. Yes, I believe, protest can be prayer. As the ACLU bumper stickers proclaim “Dissent is patriotic.” Full disclosure, I borrowed the phrasing of my question from another preacher.

Over our vacation these past two weeks, we had the opportunity to worship on a Sunday morning at the Riverside Church in New York City. Riverside is the tallest steeple in America, built to be “an interdenominational, interracial, international, open, welcoming, and affirming church and congregation.” It’s a huge cathedral of a place. We went for the architecture, and to see a big successful diverse church. But we went especially to hear one of my homiletical heroes, the Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, give a sermon. She’s an incredible preacher.

I borrowed my question: “Can protest be prayer?” from Dr. Butler. In a sermon she preached the day after the Women’s March (she marched in Washington DC), Dr. Butler talked about what she realized as she joined the gathered crowd of pink hats on that January day:

Almost immediately after I emerged from the Metro station onto the sidewalk in downtown D.C., in that mass of people stretching as far as I could see, I began to feel something I haven’t felt in some time: hope.

I didn’t feel so alone or despairing anymore.  I didn’t feel that our community was in the minority in our calls for the church to speak up.  And I started to believe again that change might actually be a possibility, and that pushing back the darkness becomes a reality when all of us hold up our lights and raise our voices.  Together.

Sometimes being nasty is the same as being holy, and protest can be prayer.

I can’t believe God required Abraham and Sarah’s faithful silence. I think God answer’s the question “Can protest be prayer?” with a loud yes! God wants dialogue. God wants people to stand for justice. Faith isn’t always quiet and polite. Faith can be nasty. Protest can be prayer.

Tell Abraham and Sarah. Tell your neighbors. Tell your friends and cousins, and the people on social media. Are you feeling distressed? Stand up. Pray. Get out there on the streets. Ask yourself, am I praying for this country with my silence? Could I be praying with my feet?

On Tuesday I dare you, celebrate. Remember the beauty of our founding stories. Remember the promise. All people are created equal. Then ask yourself: “To whom does America belong?” Ask yourself: “Can protest be prayer?” Then, let’s ask those questions together of our country. This fourth of July, let’s ask some Questions of America.

Who is my neighbor?

 

“Who is my neighbor?” This lawyer’s question brings us a radical story from Jesus this morning. “Who is my neighbor”

Jesus’ answer is a story that has become one of his best known teachings. On the surface the message of the Good Samaritan seems simple: be kind. Show mercy. The very name “Samaritan” has even become shorthand for mercy ministries in the church. I’ve worked in churches on both coasts, and I’ve known “Samaritan ministries” that have done everything from taking care of the homeless to providing health insurance. “Good Samaritan,” the words go together in our minds today. But, as a Canadian minister once said, “A text without a context, can become a pretext.”

The words “Good Samaritan” together would have shocked Jesus’ lawyer. The man can’t even bring himself to say “The Samaritan was his neighbor” at the end of the story. He says, “the man who showed mercy.” “Samaritan” was a bad word in Jesus’ day. Samaritans were the “outsiders” the “other” to the Jewish people. We’re not entirely sure why, but Second Kings eludes to an idea that the Samaritans took advantage of the Jewish Exile and occupied the land.

It’s hard to come up with an equivalent label to “Samaritan” in our own context, partly because we’re so divided. But try this on for size. If Jesus was at the Democratic National Convention later this summer and a lawyer asked “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus might tell this story about the priest and the official passing a beaten man on the side of the road. Then Jesus would shock them and say “An NRA member and Fox News host walking home from a tent revival happened upon the man.” Or if Jesus was at the Republican Convention he might surprise them by saying, “a socialist Muslim migrant came by after a protest, and cared for the man.” This parable is radical because Samaritans weren’t the good guys. Yet somehow, Jesus causes this lawyer to question. Jesus invites him to expand his neighborhood to include the outsider, the enemy.

Who is my neighbor? This is a question we desperately need to ask in America today. We have survived a miserable week. Waiting to board a plane Thursday in London, coming back from three weeks abroad, I saw first the video of Alton Sterling and then the video of Philando Castile being killed by police officers. Friday morning, I awoke back home in America, to hear that five police officers had been killed in the line of duty at a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas.

This week I have seen expressions of worry from black friends. Hugs have been a little tighter sending a husband or a son out for the day. “Please come home again” has taken a prayerful tone in some families. It’s not just my African American friends who are terrified. Police families may know the fear well, but they’re feeling it especially after Dallas. This has been a miserable week.

There is a danger this week, that we will retreat to our little camps. When we are driven by fear we can tighten our wagons, and work to actively keep outsiders out of our figurative neighborhoods.
Who is my neighbor?
How often do we, like Jesus’ lawyer, think we know exactly who we count and discount as neighbors? How often are the “sides” clearly demarcated? How easily do we divide people into camps?
I can’t even talk to her, she’s a Trump supporter.
I had to unfriend him, everything he posted praised Obama.
She’s just an angry black woman, I can’t listen to her.
He’s a white straight man. He can’t even see his privilege.

We do violence to our community when we divide. When we see a label instead of a person, we refuse a basic truth. We are all, all of us, created in the image of God. All God’s people have equal value. We are all neighbors.

The violence of our divisions became visible and deadly this week. First to Baton Rouge and St. Paul. I believe most police officers truly want to protect and serve everyone. Undeniably, there are police officers out there who operate from a place of overt unchallenged racism. The text message chains exposed from officers in San Francisco last year, filled with racial epithets, were not an isolated phenomenon. We need to require anti-bias and anti-racist education for our police officers. Such training is required for ministers, for teachers, and for all sorts of other professionals. It makes sense to require our public safety personnel to learn about diversity and anti-racism. But while overt racism is a problem in the police force, I don’t think anti-racism work would have necessarily saved the lives of Alton Sterling or Philando Castile.

Overt racism isn’t the only race problem we have in policing. More subtle and in some ways more powerful forces are at work around race. Systemic racism plays a huge part in the interactions between police and the public. For years the policies and practices of our country have divided people based on skin color. For decades we kept people with white skin and people with dark skin from being neighbors. Today on the books it is illegal to deny someone housing based upon race, but in practice black citizens are still more likely to live in predominately black, predominately poor, violent, “inner city” neighborhoods with failing schools.

Even the best meaning police officers aren’t eager to be assigned patrols in black neighborhoods. Officers often describe feeling “on edge” in these areas, and that stress can lead to bad judgement, even by officers who don’t hold overtly racist opinions. Conscious or unconscious, overt or systemic, race plays a part in how people are policed, and how people perceive policing in our country. Our neighborhoods are not created equal, and they are policed unequally.

At the same time we cannot ignore the role that firearms played in this week’s deaths. At least purportedly, both officers fired because they believed the man they had stopped was reaching for a gun. As I said, I saw those videos in London. While we were there, I was reminded that the majority of police officers in the United Kingdom don’t carry guns. They don’t have to. The UK has some of the lowest gun ownership rates per capita in the world. Criminals are unlikely to have access to a firearm, so most police don’t need guns to do their job. In the United States many police organizations have endorsed gun control precisely because our police officers would be safer if there were fewer guns on the street.

Gun control could have made a big difference in Dallas. If you have been dishonorably discharged from the Armed Services, you should not be able to buy a gun. If you have had complaints of domestic violence, you should not be able to buy a gun. If you have a diagnosed mental illness, you should not be able to buy a gun. If you’ve been on a terrorism watch list, you should not be able to be a gun. Our streets would be safer. Our communities would be safer. Our police officers would be safer.

If we want to make meaningful progress around policing and race, I believe we must literally disarm the conversation. If black lives matter, if police lives matter, we have to stop the flow of guns onto our streets.

It is impossible to see someone as your neighbor when you’re worried about what they might do with their gun.

This disarmament, this conversation, will take time. We spent centuries exploiting the labor of black bodies in this country. As a country we spent decades keeping black bodies out of white neighborhoods. It will take a long time to unpick this knot. History will remember this week. Will we remember this week as a week when we realized we needed to reach out to our neighbors and worked to change the systems that divide and oppress? Will we remember this summer as the season we finally got serious about gun control?

As I thought this week about neighbors and policing, a funny realization came to me. I am one of those white kids that grew up in the suburbs. Part of that privilege means that I don’t remember police officers on the streets as a kid. But I do have a vivid childhood image of a police officer. He was on TV, specifically, he lived in Mr. Roger’s neighborhood.
Mr. Roger’s theme song may be a bit like the story of the “Good Samaritan.” We’ve heard “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor” so many times, the message may have worn a little thin. But Mr. Rogers, who was an ordained Presbyterian minister, found ways to teach Jesus’ radical lessons.

Officer Francois Clemmons was played by an actor who was also named Francois Clemmons. He was the first black character to have a recurring role on an American children’s television show. In an NPR interview this year Clemmons recalled Fred Rogers approaching him after hearing him sing in church to say, “I have this idea you could play a police officer.”

Clemmons wasn’t eager at first: “I grew up in the ghetto. I did not have a positive opinion of police officers. Policemen were siccing police dogs and water hoses on people,” he says. “And I really had a hard time putting myself in that role. So I was not excited about being Officer Clemmons at all.”

But he came around. In 1969 Officer Clemmons and Mr. Rogers recorded a scene that on the surface seems incredibly simple. As camera zooms in Mr. Rogers is sitting with his feet in a wading pool on a hot summer’s day. He invites Officer Clemmons to take a break from walking his beat to join him. Simple, until you
remember that this was 1969. In St. Louis black kids weren’t allowed in the white pool. They sing a song together and then Officer Clemmons has to get back to work, so Mr. Roger’s helps him dry his feet. Pastor Rogers found a way to sneak the washing of feet into his television show. Radical.

Officer Clemmons quietly challenged the children who watched the Mr. Rogers show. For the white kids in the suburbs, he challenged the idea that they shouldn’t be sharing a pool with a black people. For the black kids in the city, he presented them with a friendly singing police officer, someone you could trust to keep you safe and teach a valuable lesson. The friendship on screen told kids “This black man, this police officer, he is my neighbor. He can be your neighbor too.”

Who is my neighbor? This question is at the heart of this painful week. Who is my neighbor? This question is at the heart of our journey as followers of Jesus. Do we have the courage to see beyond our assumptions, our cliques, our prejudices? Do we have the courage to expand our vision? Please, won’t you be, my neighbor?

 

God of the Garden

I hesitate to begin this sermon because I want to talk about the parable and gardening. And, frankly, I’ve gotten to know some of the gardeners in this parish. You all have some prolific gardens. I’ve seen the handiwork of our former parish administrator all over U City, and I know a number of you are involved in making U City bloom. I see your work in the garden beds in this parish, and as a relative novice, I’m nervous to talk about gardening. But Jesus was a carpenter who hung out with fishermen. Arguably, he didn’t know much about how plants grew (as may be evident to some of you from our Gospel), yet Jesus talked about gardening. Maybe there is some hope for this pastor. Like Jesus, I want to talk about gardening as a metaphor.

“A man plants a seed into the ground. He goes to sleep, wakes up, and it has sprouted.” As a novice gardener I think, “I wish.” I remember being a little kid, planting seeds, watering them, and then running back out to the garden every 10 minutes or so hoping to see my plants grow. Even today the only thing that seems to sprout up when I sleep are the invasive violets I have to weed out of my garden beds every morning. But for Jesus, this discussion of seeds and earth is a way of talking about the mystery of becoming who we are, our identity.

When people come to me asking for a new spiritual discipline. When they are frustrated by something in their life and want a new way to pray, I often say, “Go plant a garden.” Often these people seeking advice look at me like I am very strange, which I am, but I think planting a garden is very spiritual.

Planting a garden teaches us that the work of God is often slow. It takes time for the roots to grow. God’s work often takes a lot of indirect labor. We have to tend the soil to grow healthy gardens. We have to compost and watch out for bugs, and do all sorts of things that are not directly related to the little plants growing up. We have to work to create a healthy atmosphere to allow growth. See how much spirituality you can learn in the slow work of gardening?

I’m convinced that a lot of the gardening work of “spirituality” is really also work about In my opinion, which may not surprise you, people ought to go to church (or to mosque, or temple). I’m really not that picky. Heck, I’m okay if some people choose to go to a Presbyterian church. But we choose to participate in a religious community because it shapes us as people, it shapes how we grow.

In some sense, joining a faith community is about choosing the soil in which you will be planted. How will you be nurtured, fed, and watered? You may be thinking to yourself, that’s well and good Mike, but many people seem to be growing up just fine these days without setting roots in a community of faith. Our country is growing steadily less Christian, I’ll grant you. But I want to talk about the why?

I want to let you in on a hunch I have about those church shrinking statistics we keep seeing from the Pew Forum and others. I think part of the problem is that the soil of a lot of our church communities got toxic. Those of you who have farmed know about the dangers of “mono-cropping.” Basically, if you plant one kind of plant over and over for years and years, it goes well for awhile. The same field can grow great crops of corn for a few years, no problem. But if all you do is grow corn, eventually that plant depletes the resources and biodiversity of the soil. You can supplement with chemical pesticides and fertilizers for awhile, but eventually you lose crop yield because the ground and thus the plants are more susceptible to disease and decay.

Now, Jesus doesn’t warn against monocropping, because such a practice didn’t exist in his time. You grew plants together at Jesus’ time. Certain kinds of plants take certain nutrients out, and others replenish those nutrients. Diversity helps when you are gardening, it helps you build your soil.

I think part of our problem in the church is that our church has gotten far less diverse than our nation. Most of our churches are mono-cropping. That old saying that “the most segregated hour in America is Sunday morning remains true, in a lot of churches. Thank God here at Holy Communion, you all have been steadily desegregating this church since the 1960s.

I think part of our “irrelevance” is ethnic. There is one mainline denomination that hasn’t been shrinking. The American Baptists, the most progressive of the Baptist traditions has many similar social issue stands as The Episcopal Church, and they are growing. The difference: The American Baptists have been planting congregations for immigrant communities as fast as they have been closing Anglo congregations. The church grows when it embraces diversity. The church dies when it is segregated.

But it’s not just about the church. It’s bigger than that. We’ve seen, in recent months, the toxicity that grows when people have been segregated. Segregation may no longer be the law of the land, but in many communities we’re still pretty talented at segregating our society based on race. The images of that police officer violently breaking up a group of black teenagers gathered for a pool party last weekend continue to haunt me. I won’t try to name a reason for what happened, because the officer’s actions were entirely unreasonable. What I can say generally is this: when we structure our society to keep people apart based on race, we nurture some ugly behavior. I saw a similar ugliness in Ferguson last summer. As the clergy marched on the Monday after Michael Brown was killed, I watched a group of teenagers darting in and out of the marchers’ line as we walked down on Florissant. The teenagers were harassing an older woman. I thought, “if these kids had grown up in church, would they disrespect their elders that way?” When we do not grow up learning how much we need one another, the diseases of prejudice and disrespect can seep in more readily. We need diverse soil to grow strong.

As followers of Jesus, we need to choose our soil wisely. We need to look for healthy communities in which to take root. We need to find diverse ecosystems that can nurture us well. We need to decide what images and messages we choose to feed our souls. And as a church, we have to tend our soil. We need to pay attention to the environment we are creating, because we are forming souls.

Given this parable, I could also spend a great deal of time talking about the health of our planet. We’re tearing up not just the metaphorical soil of our society, but our actual soil as well. I am convinced that the two are linked. The New York Times this morning includes a preview of Pope Francis’ new encyclical linking poverty and environmental degradation.I believe the pope is right on this one. The poorest people tend to live in the most environmentally dangerous places in our cities. Asthma rates in East St. Louis are among the highest in the nation. I’m convinced that our God longs for us to work together to better take care of our communities, and to better take care of our planet.

We have some great gardeners in this parish. Just this week our first load of vegetable produce went down to our friends at the Trinity Food Pantry share with the hungry. I’ve overheard vestry members planning new plantings so that our flowerbeds can be a magnet for Monarch butterflies. We have some good gardeners, who definitely know more about soil ecology than I ever will. I think it is good to spend time in the garden, because it helps us know the mind of God.

I am convinced that our God delights in the biodiverse garden of our world. God is constantly working to cultivate us, to help us to grow. God longs for us to take better care of our soil, to take better care of one another, to take better care of our planet. I am convinced that God is actively working to cultivate us. God is here, amongst us. The work may seem slow, and dark, and mysterious, like whatever was happening in Jesus’ story as the man slept.

I am convinced that God’s kingdom is sprouting all over. I see it here in the rich community of Holy Communion. I see it in the steadily more blooming University City community. I see God’s kingdom shooting up here and there all over our world.

God invites us to join in, to plant ourselves in rich soil, and to help in the cultivation. Can we better open ourselves to learn from those our society calls “other?” Can we make decisions that will help build more biodiverse and biodynamic soil? Can we join in the repair of our societies and our ecosystems? I am convinced God longs for us to say yes, and to join God in the garden.