Category Archives: Priviledge

Re-mything America

Most societies are built on myths —  symbolic tales of the distant past  that concern cosmogony and cosmology (the origin and nature of the universe), may be connected to belief systems or rituals, and may serve to direct social action and values. Our myths help tell us who we are and how we relate to the world around us. And, as Joseph Campbell wrote, when our myths are taken from us, when they begin to break down, the society structured around it begins to break down as well.

America (white America, in particular) is built on a myth. This myth is that this country was founded for the ideals of liberty and justice for all. These words are, after all, written into our founding documents. We believe that success is determined by hard work. If you work hard enough, you can accomplish anything. Our courts are fair, people are presumed innocent until proven guilty and, while there may be a few errors here and there in our criminal justice system, generally the outcomes of court proceedings are good and right. After all, the rites and rituals of the criminal justice system are also some of the rites and rituals that help us act out our belief in our story, in the American myth. Our nation is fair, because it was created by brilliant human beings (who in some cases we revere in ways close to reverence religions have for gods). The protectors of our myths (our priests) the police and judges and the military, have gone through tests to prove their worthiness, they are willing to sacrifice themselves in the name of our myth, and they can do no wrong.

The symbol for our myth is our flag, and when it is raised we praise it with promises of commitment (the pledge) and praise music (the national anthem). These have become (albeit recently) the rites and rituals of our myth, and to disrupt these rites and rituals disrespects the myth, and the priests, and scribes who attend to it.

Like the faithful who have never really had a prayer answered, there are many who are faithful to the myth of America who have never seen the fruits of the faith. There are many who have worked their fingers to the bone and yet don’t seem to get ahead, those who dream big dreams only to die poor and anonymous. But it is faith in the myth that keeps them pushing ahead, faith in the possibility that makes the hard work worth it, even if it may take generations.

It seems that there is a rather large racial divide in those who believe in the myth and those who don’t. To be sure, there are white people for whom the myth has proven to be empty, and people of color for whom the myth holds promise. But all in all, I would imagine that being born into a country that once saw your people as less than human (3/5 of a person), where your ancestors worked until they bled, and were beaten into working more, yet never saw anything come of that work but more work, would lead you to see the myth for what it is long before others might.

What I believe we are seeing now is a vociferous objection to this myth by those for whom the myth has never been seen as true and for those who have been listening to and learning from those who have not experienced liberty and justice. White people are hearing our brothers and sisters cry out that they have been working, working, working for generations only to see that it would take generations more work to catch up to the same amount of material wealth that white people have. Video recordings of police killing unarmed black people, of dogs being set on native people trying to protect what is theirs, are showing those of us who are white and willing to listen what our brothers and sisters of color have known for so long — the American myth is just that: a myth. It is a story we have told ourselves for generations both so that we might keep working towards an imaginary goal and so that we can blame those who do not reach their goal for their own personal failings. Believing in the myth ensures that those of us with power and privilege are not responsible for those who do not succeed. We are not complicit in the breaking down of the dream for another; it is their fault.

Yet there are others for whom this myth is so integral to the fabric of their being that to question the reality of the myth is to question reality itself, to question the core of one’s own being. If your life is inextricably tied to belief in this myth and this myth is being shattered, you have two choices: allow the myth to collapse and figure out a new story around which to find meaning, or fight like hell to keep the myth in place, facts and figures be damned. Many, many Americans are choosing the latter.

Myths are based in the past, not the future. They are creation stories and hero stories around which we guide the structures of our lives. We use them to guide our decisions, but always as a touch point in the past, not as a moment in the future towards which we aim.

The American myth is not a bad idea. To strive to be a nation that believes in justice and equality, that actually allows for everyone who works hard to get ahead is a wonderful goal. But it is that, a goal. It is not a reality, and it has never been. There is not point in the past to which we can point and say, “There! There is a time when the American myth was actually American reality!” And yet we gather around it as though it was. We focus our political and religious yearnings towards a time that never was, towards a myth that is as real as the stories of the Greek and Roman Gods. However, unlike the stories of the ancient Gods, this myth has potential. It is something we can strive towards if we are willing to let go of the myth and work towards it as a goal. If instead of looking to this point in the past (that does not actually exist) in which our nation was truly free for all, we work together towards a point in the future when this actually could be.

In order to do this, however, we need to find a new myth around which we can gather ourselves. We need to provide those for whom this myth is a defining life belief (those who have faith in this myth) another story. As it is, half of our nation is fighting the loss of this myth, fighting it with all their might. We have people absolutely irate at the perceived disrespect shows to our rites and rituals, to our priests and scribes.

We need to re-myth America.

These are just some things I have been thinking for which I have no statistical evidence. I am not an anthropologist or sociologist, I am a person who thinks a lot about myth and ritual. I am working this out. Feel free to add your own thoughts, we can all work this out together.

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Defining Greatness

 

greatnessA sermon on Mark 10:32-45

When I was growing up, I went to church camp every year. As soon as I graduated High School (actually, a few weeks before I actually graduated), I headed off to camp to work for the summer. It was here that I not only learned the Christian Values I hold on to today, but I also had the opportunity to live them.

Carved in the stone by the waterfall was the phrase, “God is love.” The community I experienced there was the closest I have ever been to loving one another as yourself. It was the rare place where, as I grew up, I could be genuinely myself (even as I was still figuring out who I was).

It was also the place that thought me that I could question the church, that I could hate hymns (and that was okay), the place where I learned about the non-canonical gospels and the place where I heard my call to ministry and, try as I might, I could not unhear it.

Last month, I went back for the camp’s 75th anniversary. We had a picnic and everybody lined up. As though we were kids again (or really because some things don’t change no matter who old you get), some people rushed for the front of the line. I opted for the middle. The middle, at camp, was the safest place to be. Because you never knew when the staff would decide it was a “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” meal. It was a total crapshoot as to whether rushing to the front would actually get you served first or quickly land you at the back of the line. While I am generally not one to play it safe, I like to eat, so the middle always made the most sense to me.

Now this verse from Matthew, and the corresponding idea that is evidenced in both Mark (which we have here) and Luke, are tattooed in my memory, and this scripture regularly competes with what I have been taught by the world.

It started when I was young – my grandfather always told me to look out for number one. My father was in a pretty consistent battle to keep up with the Jonses (which, oddly, was most obvious in his weird desire to have the best lawn, but I digress). Awards went to the people who finished first, the kids who were fastest always got picked first, the kids who cut and pushed their way to the front of the line usually got it (and unless we were at church camp, that was just how it was). And on and on it goes. We are often rewarded when we fight to be at the front of the line or the top of the heap, no matter who we push aside or who gets stepped on.

More often than not, those who are at the front of the line or the top of the pile lord it over the ones below, often totally unaware of the real struggles those not at the front of the line have.

This is one of the biggest problems with being at the front of the line – you lose your ability to see those behind you. Even if you do decide to turn around, you can only see those just a bit behind you. You can’t see the back of the line.

When one surrounds oneself with privilege, it is so easy to forget the have-not’s. I grew up fairly well off, but I thought I was middle class because, for a long time, most of what I experienced was people richer than me. People who had houses on the lake with elevators down tot heir private beach, kids whose parents had multiple luxury cars – these things made my large 3 bedroom house and my parent’s buicks look positively poor. To my parent’s credit, they tried to show me, they tried to tell me, but it wasn’t until I went off on my own and made friends in other places that I got to see how truly wealthy I was. I couldn’t see the rest of the line from where I was standing, in large part because I was so concerned with who was in front of me, I rarely thought to look back.

We hear a lot of talk today about greatness. But rarely do we hear about what that word means to those who recite it over and over again. I suspect, however, that greatness means power and authority. I suspect that, in that context, greatness is a power, privilege, and position that allows certain groups to lord such things over others.

To those of us who follow Christ, a lot of the world’s paradigms are inverted. The way the world sees greatness is diametrically opposed to the way Christ sees greatness. We are James and John, asking to have a position that we don’t understand.

I mean, how entitled and blind are James and John to even ask this question? Seriously, they are asking the Son of God if he will give them whatever they want. What?! Who does that?! This requests makes me think these two have rarely heard no in their lives. It makes me think that they have, generally speaking, been at the front of many lines. It also shows clearly that they still don’t understand what Jesus is talking about, what Jesus is going to do. They just saw the transfiguration, and were likely thinking that they want that. They want to be all glowy and heavenly with Jesus and Abraham and Elijah. They still don’t get that the path to that place involves deep sacrifice, involves pain, involves death.

They want to be great, but they are thinking in the world’s terms, not in Jesus’ terms.

In the world, greatness is having your name on the top of buildings, it is wealth, it is the ability to cut to the front of the line and climb to the top of the heap by any means necessary, no matter who you slander, insult, or otherwise hurt along the way. Greatness is the ability to say whatever you want and not face consequences. It is to have enough power, authority and influence that the masses will not question you; everything you say is truth, even when your words are lies that hurt people. Greatness, in our current discourse, is being able to do whatever you want and not only not paying the price, but leaving the vulnerable to pay the price for you. It is backing out of promises and leaving those depending on you high and dry.

Greatness, in our current national conversation, means keeping to ourselves, protecting those who look like us, those who are “deserving”

For those who follow Jesus, greatness is defined differently. Greatness is going to the back of the line, it is moving to the back of the bus and offering our place to someone who was forced to be in the back. It is handing the microphone to those who rarely get to speak. It is giving up what we have: our power, our privilege, our money, or our voice so that others might have a share in those things too. Greatness is serving. It is giving up our very lives so that we might serve those who have been pushed to the bottom of the heap. To be great, those of us who claim Christ and have power, privilege and/or wealth are called to give that up and serve those who have less.

Greatness gets mocked and spit on. Greatness gets crucified. Greatness dies discredited. Greatness does all of these things so that we might live. Greatness does this to show God’s beloved children that there is another way, that there is strength in weakness, there is winning in losing, there is salvation in death.

Those around this kind of greatness do not understand – they see power the way the world sees power. They focus on Christ as victor and king and deny his status as a crucified victim of an unjust system, as a man who got caught, as a brown skinned man from the middle east, as a loser. Strength shows no weakness, power no vulnerability. They cannot understand the necessity of the crucifixion, they move ahead to the resurrection to the ascension, to asking for a share in the power they do not even begin to understand.

But Christ shows us the power in weakness, the strength in vulnerability. Christ shows us that to move to the bottom of the power structure is to be at the top, that greatness isn’t about winning wars, dropping bombs, forcing others to bend to your will or making them do or be as you think they should. Greatness is not having your name at the top of a building; it is having your name atop a cross upon which you have been crucified.

Greatness is found in serving. Greatness is found in love. Greatness is found in giving up so that others might have. Greatness is found in the cross. Greatness is found in Christ.

Amen

 

As a part of this sermon, I read the poem Let America Be America Again by Langston Hughes. Everyone should know it. Read it ASAP. 


Learning from my neighbors without homes

homelessA number of years ago, not long after I moved to Seattle, I was walking through the Capitol Hill neighborhood and a young woman with a sign asking for food caught my eye. I asked her if she would like to eat with me, and she said yes, so we went to Magic Dragon for some wonderfully gross pseudo-Chinese food. This woman’s story seemed to be homelessness’ greatest hits. Her mother was a heroin addict, she was gang raped by some of her mom’s friends at 15 and ran away not long after. She subsequently got addicted to heroin and had just recently gotten herself clean. She was working to get some of her friends clean and trying to get money to go to Hawaii, where she presumed it was a lot better to be homeless since the weather was so much better. Two things she said have stuck with me ever since.

  1. She told me that what really gets her is when people walk past her like they don’t see her, like she is invisible. Even eye contact reassured her of her humanity, kind words meant the world to her.

So often, we shuttle past the homeless because we don’t want to give to them or (and I think this is actually an and) because we can’t handle looking at them because they expose a lot about ourselves. The homeless people around us expose that we really do have a lot and we really aren’t willing to share. They expose our fears that we, too, aren’t too far from where they are. Were it not for a supportive family or a job or a variety of other things (things that amount to privilege), we, too could be on the street. Also, I think that we believe if we don’t look at the homeless, we won’t feel like a jerk for not giving to them. Or maybe that’s just me. I know that, for me, every time I walk past a homeless person, I hear Jesus in my head saying, “That which you did not do to the least of these, you did not do to me.” I deeply feel like I am ignoring Christ when I walk past a homeless person, like I have just denied giving food to a God who is often found in the weakness, the need, and the pain of others.

2. She told me that she gets why people don’t want to give homeless people money because they might spend it on alcohol or drugs. However, for her and some of her friends, drugs are how they get through the day. Without a strong support system, a safe place to stay, the option of psychological care and rehab, drugs numb the sting of life, the sting of homelessness, and fog the brain so that the trauma of your past impedes less on your present.

In the past few months, I have begun building relationships with the homeless people who sleep on my ministry property and my understanding of this have increased 10x. One day, a chronic alcoholic who sleeps out there came in really upset. Turns out the other guy out there with him had been doing heroin. I didn’t get why this pained him so much until he began to tell me his story. He was removed from his mother’s care as a baby because she was a heroin addict. He was in the foster system for the rest of his life, and experienced neglect and abuse in many of the homes that were supposed to care for him. He now fears living inside because of all of the bad things that happened to him in houses and drowns his pain with alcohol.

I ran into him today in front of the Safeway and he was shaking uncontrollably. I asked him if he had the shakes and he said, “Yeah. Withdrawal.” I went inside and bought him a beer. At that point, the beer was medicine for him. After you reach a certain point with alcohol, quitting cold turkey can kill a person. The figures are 2-5% of people going through alcohol withdrawal will die from it, but even without death, a person can have seizures, and delirium tremens — and the worse your drinking has been, the more likely bad things will happen (fun fact: this does not happen with Heroin withdrawal. It will suck, but it will not physically kill you). And experiencing  DT in the past makes it more likely you will die from it in the future.

Most of the guys around my building who are homeless have some kind of substance abuse problem. For the majority of them, its alcohol. For a few, its other drugs. For all of them, for better or worse, substance abuse is what makes life more bearable as they live out on the streets and try to forget their problems or use drugs/alcohol (which is a drug, but we make that distinction in our society for some reason) to deal with mental health conditions like PTSD, depression, or schizophrenia.

One of the guys who stays out front was making me really mad the other day. I needed him to leave and he just would not get up. I threatened to call the cops. Once he got up he came in and told me that he had been in a car wreck a few days ago and broke two ribs (he was clearly in pain) and had a heart problem from an infection he got while he was in the hospital for pneumonia. He was really sorry it took him so long to get up, but he was in a lot of pain and really just needed to lay down. The next day when I woke him up to move on he told me he just learned his father had died — he was trying to find a way to go north to help his family with the details and say goodbye. He found a way to leave today and gave me a huge hug.

The thing that kills me is how grateful they are because I simply treat them like fellow human beings. I’m not a saint. I’m not always nice. I kick them off the property regularly, I have words with them when they are drunk or on the odd occasion they are rude. But they always apologize and thank me — even as they walk off the porch into the rain. One day I almost lost it because I was kicking a guy out of the back (he had built a fort there, basically), and he kept thanking me. I was so confused as to why he would thank me and then it occurred to me that I was treating him like a human being, asking him to move his stuff, giving him a chance.

The guys who sleep on the front porch take great pride in the fact that they clean up after themselves. They found a broom somewhere and always sweep up after they leave in the morning. They bring in my sign when I forget. They protect me from other people who are being rude or belligerent, and they corral one another to clear out when the time comes. Every time they thank me, just because I am not being a dick.

There are groups that are trying to criminalize homelessness, towns that make things like being boisterous (Hi, Burien) illegal as a way to keep the homeless out of their area. This is insane. Making homelessness illegal will not stop homelessness. People don’t magically stop having mental health issues or addiction issues or get a job or a decent credit score or get an apartment because some city made a law that keeps people from being able to sit on the sidewalk.  Homelessness is solved through a complex web of education and access to resources, and much of what is needed doesn’t exist. There are 60 beds a night for people who  need to sleep it off, and a labyrinth to find your way through if you actually want to get treatment for addiction and can’t pay for it. Any given night in King County, there are around 4000 people sleeping on the street and 3000 shelter beds are full. Every year in King County 35,000 people lose the place they called home. This can’t be fought with laws that keep the homeless from sitting on the sidewalk or being boisterous.

We need more services. We need more services for people with mental health, substance abuse and general health issued. We need more transitional housing, more affordable housing, and more shelter beds (that aren’t bunk beds because while they make room for more beds, they also leave people open to attack and many won’t sleep in them). We need housing first policies that give a person shelter before asking they quit using, and a deeper understanding of the fact that within the larger homeless community there are lots of little communities and when people try to get shelter, that all too often means leaving the family they have acquired on the street.

In a nation, a county, a city as wealthy as Seattle, I shouldn’t have people seeking shelter under my eaves every night.

In a nation that has a tendency to claim Christianity as its faith, there shouldn’t be people hungry and on the streets, and I shouldn’t receive thanks from people just because I am not being awful.

Some of the people on the street are there because of bad choices — but most are not. And anyway, who among us hasn’t made bad choices? Who hasn’t taken a stupid risk? Just because some of us have the ability/support/resources to bounce back after a bad move doesn’t make others less than us. In fact, it should call us to remember that there but for the privileges I have go I.

TL;DR: sometime try talking to a homeless person, you may hear an amazing, heart wrenching story. Try to understand them; have compassion. If you’re a Christian, seriously think about that person being Jesus. Remember Matthew 25:31-46. And work like hell for public policy that provides services to ensure that, someday soon, this isn’t a problem at all.

 

Info on homelessness in King County: http://www.homelessinfo.org


A nation of Sodomites

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the book of Genesis is often cited as a story about how wrong homosexuality is, and God’s desired punishment for such “crimes.” The story has angels coming to Sodom, whom Lot welcomes into his home as honored guests. When the men in the village find out that Lot has visitors, they come to his house and demand that he send the visitors out so that the men of the village may “know” them (aka, have sex with or, in this case, rape). Lot refuses, the visitors pull him inside the house before Lot gets hurt and tell him to gather his family, for the Lord is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah “because the outcry against its people has become so great before the Lord, and the Lord has sent us to destroy it.” The common cultural understanding of this story is God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of gay sex. It is such a common understanding that laws outlawing sex between gay men (and sometimes just anal sex in general) are referred to as anti-Sodomy laws and one of the epithets hurled at gay men is “Sodomite.”

This understanding is wrong.

God did not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of gay sex. That’s not what this story is about.

Lot welcomed the visitors into his home — welcome being a high cultural value of the people of God, iterated again and again throughout the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. This is Lot’s saving grace, his display of welcome. The men of the village destroyed that welcome. They were going to violate these visitors, running counter to culture, custom and the word of God. They were going to commit violence against the stranger, being about as unwelcoming as one can be.

The book of Ezekiel (16:49) makes the sins of Sodom plain, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”

God did not destroy Sodom because of gay sex. God destroyed Sodom because they had everything they needed

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. I mean, cool, you want to criminalize not caring for the poor, be my guest!

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
I mean, cool, you want to criminalize not caring for the poor, be my guest!

and more and did not help those who were in need, because the people of Sodom did not welcome the stranger.

Sound familiar?

As I think of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, I think of the new law in Indiana that allows business to deny service to members of the LGBTQ community, I think we need to redefine the word Sodomite.

Those who would not show welcome to visitors, regardless of the differences they may have: those are the Sodomites.

As I read about continued efforts to kick people out of this country because they didn’t come here legally (even those who were brought here as children, those who did not have a choice), those who would not welcome the alien as the Bible commands (Ex 22:21, Deut 10:19, Lev 19:34, Rom 12:13, Matthew 25:40), those who exhibit the sin of the men of Sodom: those are the sodomites.

Those of us who would cut benefits to the poor provided by our government, who would tell those in need to fix themselves, who would deny help to those in need (particularly those of us who live in plenty): those are the Sodomites.

The God who revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ is a God of radical welcome. In the gospels, Jesus speaks of drawing all creation to him through his death on the cross. He tells his followers that that which you did to the least of your brothers and sisters, you did to me, to love your neighbor as yourself, to love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you. Our God is a God of radical welcome and inclusion, who will turn away no one who knocks on God’s door — and God asks us to do the same. Over and over again, throughout the laws, the prophets, the gospels, and the letters. Not showing this radical welcome and love was the crime of Sodom and Gomorrah, for which the punishment was death.

It’s not about gays. People who engage in sex with those of the same gender are not sodomites.

But far too many of us are. Far too many of us are willing to kick out those who think differently, and act differently, as well as people who we feel don’t “deserve” to be here. Far too many of us ignore the plight of the poor and the marginalized to aid our own gains. Every day many of us are indifferent or even hateful as we walk past others on the street who are in great need. We keep what is ours for ourselves. We prop up structures that benefit the privileged while we ignore, shun, demean and oppress those who have little. This is Sodomy.

We are a nation of Sodomites. Our public policy is Sodomy.

If I didn’t believe in the God who will bring all people to God’s loving grace, I might wonder: what will be our fate? Will the fate of a nation that consistently refuses to welcome the stranger and care for the poor end up like Sodom and Gomorrah? If angels were to come to take those who show radical love and hospitality to safety, how many of us would be invited to go with?

What would the God of the prophets have to say to us, as we continue the ways of Sodom and Gomorrah?

Maybe something like this:

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day and oppress all your workers.

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.

Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble onself?

It is to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?

Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house, when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up quicklt; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”  ~ Isaiah 58


Confessing the racism in our hearts is the first step to recovery for ourselves and our nation

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun,
or fester like a sore, and then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat,
or crust and sugar over like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load…
or does it just explode?

-Dream Deferred, Langston Hughes

 

A sermon on Romans 12:1-8

Over the course of the past two weeks, we have once again seen the explosion that results from a dream deferred. The protests

A dream deferred

Another dream deferred

and riots in Ferguson started with the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer. There are many stories as to what happened, little is clear about what transpired. What is clear is that an unarmed black man was killed by a white police officer and then left there in the street, dead, for four hours, as though his life had no worth. His community walked past this body, left there to rot, to stink like rotten meat, a visual example of a dream deferred. The argument about what Michael Brown was doing or why he got shot are pointless to a community besieged by violence and poverty, a community that has seen jobs disappear, that was displaced to build an airport that never was, a community that knows it has little value to the police force or the others in the city. Michael Brown was a human being, a human being left to rot in the street for hours. His death and the actions following are a visceral example of how the black people of Ferguson, and the United States, are valued by the rest of society.

It is so easy to say that this is Missouri. But we know this is not true. We know that our police department has its own issues. We know that our neighborhoods have their own issues, that in spite of our thinking of Seattle as an egalitarian place, we are still pretty darn segregated. A friend of mine has had the n word shouted at him numerous times, not too long ago while walking on Queen Anne. We read in the news about a white man going ballistic and screaming racial epithets at protesters at Westlake center, spitting on a black man, the men trading insults and the black man getting pepper sprayed in the face. White guy going nuts, black man gets pepper sprayed.

Those of us who are active on social media and are paying attention to what is happening in Ferguson have seem the numbers, we have taken in so much news about racial disparities in this country, about the worth of life of black people in the United States.

We watched Melissa Harris Perry do a short piece on the fact that from 2006-2012 a black man has been killed by a white police officer on an average of twice a week. Twice. A. Week. All over the country.

We read about the incredible disparities in our judicial system, where people of color are appalling. 1 of every 15 black men and 1 of every 37 Hispanic men are in prison, compared to 1 in every 106 white men. There are those who would say that this is cultural, even genetic. That people of color are genetically disposed to crime, or that their socio economic background leads them to lives of crime. However, when we look at statistics, this does not bear out. In the war on drugs, blacks have been disproportionately jailed and punished. While African-Americans make up 14% of regular drug users, they make up 37% of those arrested for drugs. African-Americans receive sentences that are 10% longer than whites and are 21 percent more likely to receive mandatory-minimum sentences than white defendants and are 20 percent more like to be sentenced to prison. (source). There are the horrible polling numbers on how different races are viewing the events in Ferguson, the fact that people are more likely to vote for the death penalty if the person is black.

I could stand here all day and quote depressing statistics on the state of race in this country. You get the picture. Something is wrong. But what can we do? I’ll tell you what we can’t afford to do. We can’t get paralyzed. We can’t ignore this if we want any semblance of a just society. If we want this kind of violence and injustice to stop, if we want to put an end to explosions caused by dreams deferred, we must act. We must not conform to our society’s rhythm of spending a few weeks a year thinking about race and then ignoring it until another explosion. We are called not to conform, but to be transformed. Before transformation, though, there must be confession.

I have been active in one way or another in anti-racism work since the 8th grade. I have given speeches, written blog posts, given sermons, taught classes on privilege and race. I have had black friends. I have traveled. I have read. I have studied racism and prejudice.

And yet

I confess to you today that I am still racist.

I don’t want to be. Most people don’t want to be racist. That’s why we deny it so fervently. It is a horrible thing to judge someone by the color of his or her skin. It removes the humanity from a brother or sister in Christ and turns him or her into an object, a mass of skin, something not even worth an ambulance or 911 call. Something that can be left in the streets to decay and stink like rotten meat.

While I was studying the works of Dr. King and Malcolm X, while my parents were working hard to get me to events in Cleveland that would allow me to at least be around people of color, I was growing up in the 4th least diverse city in the nation. I was growing up in a town that had probably 10 people of color, 4 of whom where in my high school. I grew up around people who used the n word as an adverb – it would go before words like rig, knock and lip. People from my high school once joked about wearing white sheets to a basketball game to scare the referee. While I did react strongly to the white sheet “joke” there were so many things around me that were racist that I didn’t even notice. That’s the worst kind, the kind of racism that is so subtle you can’t call it out. That’s the stuff that gets into your bones.

It was not easy to see my own racism. After all, I am a good progressive, I do the work, I had a shirt in 8th grade that said Love See No Color. I had black friends! That’s always the thing, right? I’m not racist, I have black friends!! How could I be racist?

Then I moved to Chicago’s south side and I began to see… I began to realize that those phrases from my childhood were racial slurs – seriously, I head them so often I didn’t hear the n word attached to them – I came face to face with my assumptions about black people and the beliefs I had inherited from the place in which I grew up, the attitudes I had unconsciously absorbed from the media. Many of the things I have thought are far too embarrassing and stupid to share. They are things I confess to God. But I will say that I distinctly remember seeing a young black man running an my first thought was, “I wonder what he stole?”

Yup. I did that.

And, every now and again, I still do.

In spite of myself I have conformed to the world around me.

I am in need of transformation. Each and every day.

How about you?

This is important.

Admitting we have a problem is the first step to recovery. And we have a problem. We don’t like to look into it because we don’t like ugly truths about ourselves. We don’t want to admit that we judge others based on their appearance. It’s so… unprogressive. But the transformation process is never pretty and never comfortable. Transformation is painful. And before we can transform the way our nation behaves about race, before we can really change the inequality in our schools, in our judicial system and in our government, before we can fight the systemic racism that sends people of color to jail more often and longer than their white counterparts, before we can put an end to the school to prison pipeline, we have to look in our hearts and admit to ourselves that we have racism in our hearts. That every now and then we clutch our purse tighter or cross the street when people of color are around, that we occasionally think stupid stuff regarding a person based on their color. We have to admit it and then we have to try to change.

 

This is transformation. This is not conforming.

 

If we want to put an end to the violence, if we want to work to never see an unarmed black person die at the hands of a white person, if we want to put an end to these flare ups in racial tension like we have seen these past weeks in Ferguson, and before that in Florida, and before that in Oakland, Toledo, Cincinnati, St. Petersburg, Harlem, LA, Miami… (These are the moments of racial violence I found on Wikipedia since 1990)… if we want to put an end to the violence, we have got to look at how we contribute to and benefit from the problem. We have to dismantle the racism in our own hearts before we can dismantle the system.

I mean, we don’t have to. We can do what we have been doing. We can get really upset at these images we see on tv, we can protest and post about it on Facebook until we get bored with it or it gets too hard or we get tired of thinking about race all of the time and then forget that it is a problem until the next time it blows up somewhere in our nation. Maybe next time it won’t be in Ohio or Missouri. Maybe next time it will be at 23rd and Cherry.

But when we do this, when we go on pretending that we don’t have a problem we are injuring the body of Christ. The leg is being bludgeoned on a regular basis and we just keep limping along. Occasionally we bandage it or we put on some shin guards, but we do little else. It is too hard, to painful, too much. It is exhausting. Why do we have to talk about race all the time?

This is one example of our privilege. One of many. As a white person, I rarely have to think about my race. From what I hear and read from people of color, this is a luxury they do not have. This is a luxury we should give up, part of our being living sacrifices to the lord. Give up the comfort afforded by ignoring issues of race.

Transform through the renewing of our minds. Learn about racism. Learn about white privilege, break down barriers. There are organizations within the church and in Seattle that work to educate white people about race. Go. Learn. Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Don’t be afraid to call yourself out on racist thoughts. And don’t be afraid to call out people in your life who do it too. Silence is permission. As much as it is easier to not say anything, as it is easier to be comfortable and quiet, we are called to more. We are called to not conform.

I was taught in seminary to always end on a note of grace. You don’t want people leaving thinking everything is awful, I’m awful, this is awful.

And, well, the state of race relations in this country IS awful. But, there is good news.  The grace of God is with us. The grace of God is the power that allows us to look at the ugliness in ourselves and know we are loved beyond belief. The grace of God is what gives us the power to change, the love of God is what shines on the darkest places within us to rid us of our shadows, to clean out the darkness, the sludge, the dirt and to be transformed into people who love without ceasing, who know good from evil, and to transform the world. With God at our backs and in our hearts, we have the power to change ourselves, to be transformed. We have the strength to be living sacrifices, and the love to see each and every other person as a member of the body of Christ. This is the gift of God. Where God challenges, God gives strength. Where God calls, God will travel with us. God wants us to be transformed nonconformists, to follow God’s will against the world’s, and God will give us the strength to do so through prayer and through community. We don’t have to do this alone. We can confront our own racism with our family in Christ, with the people in this very room. We can support each other with the power of the holy spirit that moves through our lives and through our communities. God will not abandon us even as we admit our uglier selves. God calls us to do this. It is why we pray thy kingdom come, thy will be done…

God help us to be living sacrifices, help us to be transformed nonconformists.

Your will, not ours, be done.

Amen

 


These gifts are not for you alone

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This is a sermon from Sunday, January 20.

Isaiah 62:1-5
Corinthians 12: 1-11

John 2:1-11

The world in which we live is a messed up, violent, broken place. In 2012, 43 of the worlds nations were in some state of war or conflict – not including nations that may have been participating in covert operations. Daily violence threatens the livelihood of families and the future of generations who are being left uneducated, poor, jobless and angry. Around the world, women live under the threat of domestic violence and other forms of abuse – in some countries, women are actually losing rights they once had to go to school, to drive, to leave the house unaccompanied. 6.9 million under the age of 5 died in 2011, and half of those died due to malnutrition.

In our nation, the political divide seems to grow deeper every day. We appear to have largely lost the ability to engage in civil discourse over topics upon which we disagree. The divide between rich and poor is growing at an alarming rate – and it is getting harder for poor children to bridge that gap through obtaining a college education. There are shootings in schools, in workplaces, in malls and movie theatres. Almost 50 years after Martin Luther King, Jr. shared his dream with America, we may have a black president, but racism is still alive and well. Women have made great strides, but sexism is by no means dead.

The world we live in is a messed up, violent, broken place.

Gee, thanks Vicar Elizabeth! I feel great now!

I come to bring the cheer.

But, seriously, this is but a sampling what we see around us every day. And what are we to do? We have no prophets anymore. Who is leading the way? Anyone? Bueller? When we look back at history, we see all of these great people leading the people out of misery. In our tradition have the stories of Abraham and Moses, the great prophets of the Hebrew Bible. In today’s reading from Isaiah he is bold! He is standing up and shouting out – that’s his thing! We have Jesus throwing the money changers out of the temple, talking back to the established powers of the day. We have the disciples and Paul spreading the word of God.

In more modern history we have Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. It was only 50 years ago that Dr. King and his colleagues inspired – and demanded – change from the world. And they got a lot of it. But who do we have now? We can’t find that person, that leader. Everything is awful and no one is helping us get out of it! Like musician John Mayer says, “We’re just waiting on the world to change.”

Waiting, waiting on the world to change. Because we can’t possibly do it ourselves, can we. I mean, none of us is Dr. King, Susan B. Anthony, or Gandhi. None of us is gifted enough to change the world, right?

Wrong.

I hate that John Mayer song. What happened to “A change is gonna come” or “we shall over come?” We can’t wait for the world to change, because then it never will. Change doesn’t come in a world of passive observers.

There is a theory that we have no great leaders of change these days because no one can envision themselves there. That when we try to stand next towering figured like Dr. King, we see ourselves as small in comparison, figure that we can’t do anything, and we just give up.

But we can do so much. We can make concrete changes in the lives of those around us and in the lives of our brothers and sisters around the world. We have been given the gifts, we just have to use them.

In this reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he spells it out for us. Each of us has a gift and, not just any gift, a gift bestowed upon us by the Holy Spirit herself. Some of us have the gift of knowledge, some the gift of wisdom, some the gift of teaching, some gifts of healing, the ability to prophecy, the ability to interpret tongues. Each of us has a gift. And we were given that gift not for ourselves but, as Paul writes “for the common good.” They weren’t given to us so that we could be awesome on our own, or so that we could use our gifts to receive praise, status, money and power for ourselves. Our gifts were given to us so that we might use them for the common good.

What are your gifts? How are you using them?

Are you using your gifts to glorify God or are you using them to glorify yourself. Because one of those stances concerns the common good, and one cares not a whit for common good. One of those stances is the path to peace, and the other is the path to war. One seeks to erase the divisions in our society based on class, ethnicity, color, sexual orientation, gender identity and more.

For as long as we are continually looking out for ourselves, as long as considerations about the common good fall behind concerns for self-preservation, our divisions will stand. The gulf between rich and poor will continue to grow. Violence will be the rule of the day.

We are called to use our gifts for the common good, to boost up all humankind. To do otherwise is an affront to the gifts we were given and, most of all, the one who gave those gifts, the root of all that is. God.

Now, this is sticky. Because I don’t want to come off like I’m saying you have to do these things to get God’s love or to get into heaven or like God will curse you because you don’t listen. God’s people have been ignoring God and putting themselves first for the better part of human history. God’s love endures. God keeps redeeming us. That’s God’s thing.

But to respond to the gifts God has given us by using them for the common good is to make faith more than words and to make the phrase “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” more than a passive platitude. It makes it real. God gave us our gifts out of God’s unending, abiding love and calls us to use those gifts for the good of all of God’s children – an extension of God’s love

There is a school of thought that we should not try to fix anything because our world is broken and we are to wait until the second coming of Jesus and everything will be fixed or God will fix the things God wants fixed. The God of the Bible is not a God who asks people to be passive. Jesus repeatedly instructs people on kingdom living and asks them to implement it in their lives this very day. God doesn’t ever tell us, “Hold up, do nothing, I’ll be by in a while and I’ll fix it.” Through Moses, Abraham, the Prophets, and the life and death of Jesus Christ, God repeatedly instructs us to not just change our ways to save ourselves, but to change the direction of the world. Or, as Dr. King wrote, “…we must never feel that God will, through some breathtaking miracle or a wave of the hand, cast evil out of the world. As long as we believe this we will pray unanswerable prayers and ask God to do things that he will never do. The belief that God will do everything for man is as untenable as the belief that man can do everything for himself. It, too, is based on a lack of faith. We must learn that to expect God to do everything while we do nothing is not faith, but superstition.”

We have been given these gifts by God to be participants with God in preparation for the coming of the kingdom. We have the gifts.

In reading the story of the wedding at Cana, we read of the first time Jesus was asked to demonstrate his particularly unique gifts in front of what we can assume is people he knew. He was, after all, at a wedding with his mother. There is so much I find fascinating about this story. First, I love the way his mother asks him for things without asking. She simply makes statements. But he knows what she is up to.
Second, I want some backstory. I want to know how Mary knows that this is something Jesus can fix. Has he been practicing changing liquid from one thing into another for a long time? Was this old hat to him by now, or was he new to this particular facet of his Godliness? Finally, why does he say that it is not yet his time? Is it because God has revealed to him that his time will come later, or does he just not feel as though he is ready? I don’t have much for the backstory but what my own imagination will provide. But I do have thoughts on Jesus’ response to Mary’s observation. I think this was a deeply human moment for Jesus. I think that he just didn’t feel ready. He had been teaching for a little while now, he was getting used to having a following and being listened to for his wisdom. There had always been whispers that there was something special about him, but this, he knew, would change everything. Even if no one knew what he did, this would be the first moment he does something big and God-like outside of his house. And that was a lot for him to handle. Besides, he was just at the wedding for fun.

He did the math in his head and decided that it was not the time for him to do it. But Mary knew something different. She knew that her boy was ready. And all she had to do was nudge. In the way that only a parent or spouse can. So she nudged. Someone had to get this thing started, after all.

Every day we are presented with opportunities to use our gifts for the greater good and, once in a while those opportunities are obviously intimidating or life-changing. All too often, we look at the opportunity and decide that we aren’t ready yet. We aren’t ready to help anyone but ourselves. We don’t have enough savings. We haven’t built our portfolio. We aren’t ready to teach, we aren’t ready to share our wisdom or knowledge, we aren’t ready to lead, to heal, to make a difference in anybody’s life, not even our own. We want to stick to status quo.

But we are ready. God gave us these gifts for the express purpose of contributing to the greater good and there is no better time than right now to use them.

Our world may be messed up, violent, broken place, but we are its stewards. God has given us gifts to use for the common good. We are ready. We have to be.

Somewhere in Jesus’ heart, he knew it actually was his time. He knew he was ready. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have this story. We might not have many of his stories. But he just needed a little nudge from his mom to perform the first of his signs and begin his path towards Calvary.

God has given us gifts. We are ready. God has given you gifts. You are ready.

But God is like Mary – the parent who will nudge us to do what we know must be done. God will present us with opportunities to use our gifts for the greater good. Sometimes these opportunities won’t even be that obvious – like a statement rather than a question. We may have the opportunity to tell someone that that joke was racist, to confront our own racism, or to reach out from a position of power and privilege to pull someone up. We might be faced with a dilemma at our work that forces us to re-evaulate whose glory we are really working towards. We might have a nagging in our heart to mentor a kid, to serve at a shelter, or to offer our gifts to an organization that needs our help. We may be able to use our minds to cure disease or to bring an end to war – or we may be asked to care for someone who is sick or stop a fight. Each of these is ways to use our gifts for the common good.

But we must not let ourselves be stopped by fears that we aren’t ready, that we aren’t good enough, that we aren’t really called to do that. We must also not let ourselves give in to society’s theme that we look out for ourselves first or fall victim to the lie that we are each independent people totally reliant on ourselves for our successes. God has given us amazing gifts and the opportunity to use them for the common good, to heal the worlds brokenness and work towards becoming one people, under God. We are called to use them. We are ready to use them. Let us join together in song, prayer and sacrament. Then let us go out into the world as a people equipped by God for the journey ahead, equipped by God to counter the cultural narrative that it is all about the individual, equipped to make a change.


This is why it is called Good Friday

This cross is in the office of Father Stan Rother who was murdered by a death squad in Santiago De Atitlan, Guatemala in 1981.

For most of my life, I didn’t understand the importance of the crucified Christ. I mean, I got the salvation piece of it, the fact that the crucifixion of Jesus was a sacrifice for our sins and through that act, all people were forgiven (as much as anyone can understand that). What I didn’t understand was why anyone would want to dwell on the crucifixion, why the crucified Christ is what hangs in Catholic churches and is depicted in so much artwork. It was, as the Bishop George Carlin says in Dogma, “so depressing.” What is so good about Good Friday? I would wonder. It is about death and suffering. Jesus died. That’s awful. I wanted to skip ahead to Sunday — I wanted to get to the happy part without the rest of the stuff in between.

Then I had the privilege of traveling to Guatemala. I spent two weeks travelling with Witness for Peace, bearing witness to the tragedy, violence and pain of the 36 year war there. Our group met with people from a village called Rio Negro. The World Bank wanted to dam the river they lived on. The people refused to move. Over the course of a few weeks, 440 people were slaughtered. Men were massacred in the church. Women and children were marched up a hill and killed in unspeakable ways. The members of the village that survived were relocated to a plot of land right across the street from the very military officers who ruthlessly killed their family members. The farmland the government “gave” them was hours away by bus, leading to a lifetime of poverty for a people already starving.

We met a man who was going to testify against the military officers who he watched kill his family. He had to travel with an accompanier because of the threats on his life.

We visited the Guatemala City graveyard, where those who are poor rent graves until they can no longer afford them — then the bodies are thrown out. The rich have tombs that have electricity and running water. Immediately behind these tombs lies the Guatemala City dump where people live and die with less material wealth than those buried in the grand tombs.

We went to the reclamation project — a group of people dedicated to unearthing and identifying the victims of the massacres and disappearances in Guatemala. They did their work in a house that was wall to wall boxes of bones. Out by the pool lay shoes, hats and clothing of massacre victims. Many of these people will never be named, their families never totally sure what happened to them after the policia or the military came to take them away.

It was there, among the people of Guatemala, that I understood the importance of the crucified Christ. I sat down on the steps of a chapel and it all became crystal clear. People must know that Christ suffered. That is what we share with God. God shared in our pain. God knows what it is like to hunger for both food and justice. God knows what it is like to be persecuted for speaking out, what it is like to be tortured, what it is like to suffer and what it is like to die. God knows. God understands. God takes it on himself.

Christ was crucified with the people of Rio Negro 34 year ago. Christ is crucified with the people in Syria, the Congo, Afghanistan and anywhere and every else there is war and famine. Christ is crucified every day, with us, with our pain and our suffering. God is with us every day as we weep and gnash our teeth.

But this is not the end of the story. The story doesn’t end with pain and misery. It doesn’t end with anger and exile. The story continues. But that is on Sunday. Today, Friday, we sit in the suffering. We remember the suffering of Christ and of all of the people who have suffered and are suffering. We remember. We pray. We love. We hurt. And then we wait. Because Sunday is coming.

The Lords Prayer from Guatemala by Julia Esquivel — Read this. Fair warning, it will probably make you cry. In fact, I hope it does. Because it is still Friday.