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.

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?