Category Archives: Racism

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.


If churches want to be more diverse — maybe we should start with worship

I was just listening to a fascinating episode of Radiolab that took a look at race and racism in the world of debate. In short, they talked to black debaters about the ways the language and norms of the debate world excluded black people. The main subject of the show shared a story of walking into a national debate competition in high school and having everyone in a large cafeteria stop talking and stare at the black students who just walked into the room. Then he participated in a debate with a partner who instead of arguing the topic at hand, she argued that the debate itself did not allow for black voices, black culture, black ways of being and speaking. She argued that the basic setup of debate set up a ton of obstacles that kept black students from not only winning, but participating. It’s a fascinating episode and you should check it out.

This got me thinking about how we in the mainline protestant church, particularly in my home denomination, the ELCA, tells people of color, women, people with disabilities and the LGBT community (among others) that they do not belong in our pews through the norms of our worship. As we worry about how to become a more diverse denomination, we cling to what might be the main thing that keeps us inaccessible to people from so many other places on the margins. Our worship norms, our language, our music — our frozen chosen style — may create so many barriers to entry it is no wonder we are so damned white (96%, if you are wondering). The way we worship and the way we react to different styles of worship, music changes, etc (either protesting or tokenizing) reinforce white supremacy and keep people who are not a part of the dominant culture (or who don’t speak/have an affinity for the language of the dominant culture) away.

Nettie Jahns 003

Most of our ELCA churches still look like this, only the clothes are way less cool.  (1902 Confirmation photo, St. John’s Lutheran Church, Fremont, OH)

 

This is not new information to me. But I had mostly looked at it from the point of view of including other white people — white women, white people with disabilities, white members of the LGBT community. I hadn’t thought enough about how the very language we use may be a reason that people of color stay away.

For example: When I go to churches that have a ton of Father God talk, I get tense. I get annoyed. When I see a large amount of masculine language included in prayers, I get irritated. I want to see myself in worship; I want to hear that my LGBTQ community is included and that those who don’t identify with male or female gendered language have a space in worship. But I don’t consider how the worship might be exclusive to those for whom our the language of the dominant culture doesn’t make sense. I use music in worship that is accessible to people who like predominantly-white hipster music, but I don’t work to include much music that might be accessible to non-white people (which is some ways is because I don’t have those skills). I mean, I use some of the stuff from This Far by Faith, my denominations African-American liturgy, but that’s as far as it goes (also, I would highly doubt that anyone would have any idea that was what I was doing. In fact, I actually quit the gospel choir in my seminary because of the constant drone of masculine language in gospel hymns, preferring my comfort over the comfort of others who experience far more oppression than I do as a white woman.

The language, music and style of our worship services are, in general, that of the dominant culture. With the exception of the non-white Lutheran congregations out there, we all do the same thing in the same way (to one degree or another). Even when we are doing something “different” we are using the language of the dominant culture whether we know it (admit it) or not.  When we tell people of color that their songs aren’t Lutheran enough, when we exclude the possibility of including non-hymn music in worship, when we stick to the script, we reenforce whiteness on a grand scale. Some people in oppressed groups like our theology and our community enough to stick with it, but most will just walk away.

Last week, the ELCA clergy Facebook group did an experiment. All white clergy were asked to step back and listen to provide space for voices that are generally marginalized on the page. While there were many postings that caught my eye and tugged at my heart and my social justice bones, there was one I saw that pertained to this writing. One woman pastor of color posted a gospel hymn with the words, “It’s nice to post a non-Lutheran song here without worrying that it will be completely dissected for its non-Lutheran message. We can simply enjoy the song and singer. Also, realize that this is typical of the music that many of those not in church listen to and which inspires them.” This is what we white pastors have a horrible tendency to do: we explain away all of the reasons something doesn’t fit into our culture when it is incredibly meaningful for someone and make assumptions about whether the person who loves the songs understand the theology behind it. This is a shining example of how we, in the church, reinforce white supremacy and keep other cultures out of our pews and our lives, whether we mean to or not. We whites plain to others (or straightsplain or mansplain) why their language does not belong, and by doing so, we claim the space as “ours.” We tell other people that they do not belong, that they do not matter, and that our cultural preferences win. Every. Time.

There are exceptions to our (Lutheran) tendency to adhere to the cultural norms that are rooted in our European heritage, and I believe that whenever possible we (rostered and lay people) should get outside of our comfort zones and experience the worship of communities different from our own. When I was a student at LSTC, I attended a predominantly black church in Harvey, IL. What I experienced there blew my mind. I cannot express how uncomfortable I was at first. People would (gasp!) speak during worship, uttering “Amen” and “Praise the Lord!” during sermons, prayers, etc. Everyone would hug during the passing of the peace. There was a hip-hop liturgical dance troop, and the music was far more along the lines of Kirk Franklin than Martin Luther. But the members of that community went out of their way to make me feel at home. Every week I would try to escape before the passing of the peace, avoiding the barrage of hugs (I grew up in a shake hands with the people in front of and behind you church). One week, this little old woman stood in front of me as I moved to leave. I told her I had to go to the bathroom. She said to me, “No you don’t. I see you every week. you’re passing the peace today!” Then she hugged me. In that hug, she shattered 24 years of frozen chosen-ness inside of me. I began to enjoy that people were so into worship that they would vocally respond to things that resonated with them, to look forward to the gospel songs (I always liked the hip-hop liturgical dance troop and think that should happen everywhere). I had to make a cultural commute to be there, but the people helped me along. Making it easier was that the words for the liturgy were, by and large, the words I knew in my heart, so we were really meeting each other halfway. What can we do in our predominantly white spaces that meet people who aren’t of European descent halfway? How can we open up our spaces so that there is something for everyone?

Yes, we have an African-American liturgy and a Latino Liturgy, but for the most part they stand alone or are only included for theme times like Black History Month (and, honestly, I am probably just being hopeful here about what we do) or Pentecost. Pentecost — the one Sunday a year when we all welcome other languages to be spoken in our space. What would it look like if we used pieces of these liturgies every week? If we intentionally brought the languages (liturgical style, music, structure, tone, etc) communities that we don’t think of as “traditionally Lutheran” into our spaces. What if we examined our norms to think about the kinds of barriers they might put in the way of people seeking community in Christ? What if we occasionally used our bell choirs for a little hip-hop or meringue, or we got in the habit of using a more call and response style of liturgy? Or if we taught our congregations that it is okay to speak when the spirit moves you (there is no side eye like the side eye given to someone who Amen’s through a sermon at a predominantly white church). How can we remove barriers to not only white women and white queer folk, but to errybody? What would an intersectional* worship look like?

I don’t know if this would have a huge effect on our abysmal diversity statistics. But It seems like a really good place to focus some attention.

Friends who are not of the dominant culture: what do you think? How can we as a church become intersectional in worship? Would it matter?

 

BTW, I am not remotely saying that there aren’t people of all races who enjoy hymns or that classical music is a white thing. But I am saying that these are things that our white culture is most comfortable with and it might behoove us to look at the ways these things might be creating barriers for people who aren’t Scandinavian/German Lutherans.

 

*Intersectionality is a concept often used in critical theories to describe the ways in which oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another. So, by intersectional worship, I mean a worship that allows people to see their whole selves, all of their identities, reflected in the worship service. This definition is from Wikipedia 😉


Who are our heroes?

A few weeks ago, I went to see Selma with my students. It is an amazing movie. Beautifully shot, well acted, excellent writing… It’s the kind of movie that, when you walk out, you are just quiet for a while, letting it all sink in. It was, at times, very difficult to watch. Selma is a reminder of how far we have come and how far we have to go, and an examination of the power of love in the struggle for justice.  This powerful film could bring about a time of soul-searching for an American. We have an ugly history when it comes to race relations, and there is still much work to be done.

I wish all of America would see this movie and be stirred into contemplation about racism, activism, and the power of love in making change. To date, Selma has made $48 million , and is currently being shown in only 566 theaters, down from a little over 800. People are not watching it on a grand scale. I imagine it is hard to watch, but moreover I imagine that people do not want to be challenged to think about race in spite of it being so very necessary RIGHT NOW to think about and talk about. But I wish more people would take the risk to be disturbed and inspired by this film.

When I was walking out of Selma, deep in thought about Dr. King’s calling out of white church leaders for their silence while black folk were being killed just for being black, I noticed another movie on multiple screens at the theater: American Sniper. American Sniper is the story of a sniper, American soldier Chris Kyle, in war and his struggles to readjust to life at home. By all accounts, it is also an excellent movie. Good acting, writing, directing. I haven’t seen it. I can’t stomach war movies. I cry and cry about man’s inhumanity to man, how we end up in war, our inability to see the other as a human being (which is necessary in war, I get it, but I don’t have to like it). I thought about going to see it so I could write this post, as I know it is dodgy to write about something I haven’t seen, but I am pretty sure I would be curled up in a ball for days on end if I did. But this isn’t about the movie, so much, as the idea of the movies, and what we value as a people.

american-sniper_612x380_1American Sniper, a movie about war, warriors, and facing violence with violence, a movie that from what I read in comments and chat rooms, leaves one with quite the strong Go America! spirit, has made over $300 million at the box office. It is still being shown in over 3,000 theaters.

And I am disturbed. Not that people want to go see what is, by all accounts, a good action flick/drama, but that so many more people would rather watch a movie about continuing war than working for peace. I am disturbed that Chris Kyle, a war sniper, can be so much bigger a hero than Dr. Martin Luther King, a man who shrewdly led a peaceful movement to grant freedom and equality to black Americans. I am disturbed that we would rather watch something that makes us tread deeper into blind and unbridled nationalism than something that leads us to examine the darker parts of American history so that we might work for a brighter future.

Who are our heroes? What is important to us as a nation? War or peace? Loving action or violent action? What kind of Christianity do we claim?

Chris Kyle was a Christian. He embraced the kind of black and white good vs. bad Christianity that seems to be everywhere today. He believed that the people he killed were evil, that Jesus would be okay with his kills. He, himself, felt like killing was no big deal. It didn’t trouble him to take a life. He believed that he was fighting evil individuals.

selmaDr. King and those who worked with him were (largely) Christian. Dr. King believed in using love to fight hate, he believed that inside every one of those racists who hurled epithets at his brothers and sisters, there was a shred of humanity, a little bit of God. He tried to appeal to a person’s better nature, to call that little bit of God out so it could take over a person and banish hate. He believed in evil, for sure, but not without a spark of hope.

We, it appears, would rather buy into the American Sniper view of the world. Everyone else is the enemy, violence wins, God would be cool with us killing. We prefer a world in which there are three kinds of people, “wolves, sheep and sheepdogs,” instead of the complex reality that there is a little of each in everyone, that we are all simultaneously sinner and saint. We would rather our heroes be strong warriors who go to battle with guns, kick ass and take names, shoot first, ask questions later, etc. than men and women who fight hate with love and patiently endure beatings without fighting back so they can reach an ultimate goal. We would rather soak in nationalistic fervor than take time to reflect on the darker parts of our history and ask question about who we are and how we can change. We would rather have black and white than gray (and we would rather a terrible movie about an abusive relationship than Selma as well, but don’t get me started on that one).

Is this who we want to be?

Moreover, for those of us who are Christians, is this who we are called to be? Those of us who follow a man who said to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, is this who we were created to be? Our Savior and our scripture again and again command us to love above all else. Not to love until we feel threatened, then to shoot. Not to kill the evil (because God takes care of that).

I know this isn’t good foreign policy. I know war leaves little room for gray. But I also know that the revolutions that have lasted the longest and led to the most change, have been peaceful revolutions. I know that killing upon killing leads to more killing. And I know that God in Christ asks us to go against the grain and to love unto death.

And, ultimately, it’s he who is my hero and it is he who I will follow to my grave.


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

 


Jesus is the stranger

And we walk together on the road to Emmaus. Waiting to see Christ in our lives, waiting for the death and resurrection of Christ to turn our worlds upside down, to change us for the better, to change our world for the better, we walk. As we walk, we talk of the impact Jesus has had on our lives, and we wonder where is he now? What happened? Why can’t we see Jesus in our lives today – all the while, looking down at our feet, focused inward on our troubles and our confusion.  A stranger comes us to us, asks us for spare change, asks us for a blessing, asks us if we need anything and we , so caught up in our conversation, so stuck in our own heads, mumble a few words and keep walking. Jesus was there, and we missed it.

Despite our desire for an encounter with Jesus, our longing for him in our lives, we miss out on him a lot. We look for him, sure, but we look for him in the expected places. We look for Jesus in prayer, we (sometimes) look for him in church or in the faces of those we love. Rarely do we look for him as we walk down the street, our heads stuck in the future or in the past, in our troubles or in our phones. Most of us pass through our days unaware that we have encountered Jesus, even though we have a deep longing for him. We are just so trained to look in certain places but not others and have such difficulty being here in this place in this moment that Jesus comes by and we don’t see him, don’t notice him, he is just another stranger on the road to work, to play, on the road home.

This is a problem. You see, when we don’t look for Jesus everywhere, when we aren’t expecting to be surprised by Jesus in strange and unusual places, we see Jesus less and less. Because Jesus is rarely found where Jesus is supposed to be. While he can be found in the synagogue, he can also be found talking to women shunned by society, by a well at the hottest time of the day. He can be found having dinner with people no one likes, the sinners, the prostitutes, murderers and the tax collectors – not the pastor and the church council. Jesus appears, again and again, with and within the stranger. We are called to look for him there. When we don’t – when we forget that this is where Jesus lives, we forget about the importance of the stranger, the necessity of loving the stranger, the foreigner, the sinner, and those on the margins. When we forget to look for Jesus in the face of the stranger, we miss Jesus, and we forget about the value of each and every single human life.

bring-back-our-girls

What happens when we forget to look for Jesus everywhere? Some news clippings about Jesus from the last week. Where has he been?

Jesus lost his ride to work last week. He is trying to piece together some way to get to his job, trying to figure out how he can keep supporting his family without a car.  Jesus might lose his job because he can’t get to work anymore. That or he will spend 2 hours bussing each way, losing valuable time with his family, easing the stress on his partner and helping his kids with their homework. We were so busy making sure we didn’t have to spend an extra $60 on our car tabs, we missed seeing Jesus in all of those people who rely on public transportation to get to work, to get to the doctor, to get groceries – to get anywhere.

Jesus was kidnapped last week. Kidnapped and sold as a child bride in Nigeria. Jesus is gone, we don’t know where. No one is looking for him because no one expects Jesus to be found in a group of Nigerian schoolgirls. Nigerian schoolgirls, apparently, are not terrible important in our world.  They are black, they are female, they are poor. A trifecta of things that make someone unimportant. These girls are important to their parents, to the handful of activists working to get this story out, to people in their villages and girls afraid of facing the same fate, but not to many other people, as is evidenced by the amount of time it took for Western news outlets to start picking up this story and the lack of offers of international assistance. These girls were missing for almost two weeks before most of us started hearing about it. Now they are gone. Jesus has been kidnapped, and we missed it.

Jesus was tortured last week. He sat in an execution chair, chemicals pumped into his veins (or his skin, rather, as the drugs didn’t make it into his veins). He writhed and tried to speak, seized and foamed at the mouth. Jesus was there, but no one saw him. Because no one would think to look for Jesus alive in the heart of a murderer. Jesus was tortured and, collectively, we just look away.

When we forget to see Jesus in the stranger, we allow people to die of hunger, of starvation, of neglect. We allow our brothers and sisters, our fellow travelers on this road, to fall to the wayside and die. What is it that Jesus said? When you do this to the least of these, you do this to me.

Our faith, at its heart, is a story of love. God created us, very good. God made covenants with us our of God’s infinite love for us. God came to earth to show us how to love one another and how to be in relationship with God. God died a painful death so that we might have life.

Again and again, God extols us to love one another.

In our reading from Peter today, we are told that the fruit of our faith, the result of obeying the truth, is love. If we are obedient to God, it will show because we will love one another fervently. Love is the fruit of faith.

And we want to be obedient, we really do! But there is just so much out there that is so shiny and distracting. Our phones. Our relationships, so fraught with drama that we often cause, our work, our desire for money, for things, for power and success. We are even distracted by replaying our pasts over and over again in our heads or by living in the future, never the present. Plus, love takes energy, and, more than that, it takes vulnerability. Who wants that? When we are vulnerable, when we invite others into our hearts and our lives we put ourselves in the position of possibly getting hurt. So we distract ourselves with things that we somehow believe will never let us down. Cause I have certainly never been let down by any of my stuff. Wait… that’s so not true.

For God so loved the world… our faith is a story of love.

To love and to be loved, you have to show up. You have to pay attention. You have to allow yourself to be loved and allow space for love to happen, to create space for interaction, to expect the unexpected, to expect love.

The two men walking along the road did not expect love. They were not looking for Jesus; they were too caught up in their lives to see love standing there in front of them. They were too busy with their own thoughts of who they thought Jesus should be and where they would find him to see him standing right in front of them.

Just like most of us.

But then something changed. They may not have recognized Jesus, but they remembered their faith. They remembered the importance of love and of showing love through hospitality. They invited the stranger inside, into their homes and their lives. They offered him a meal. It was in that act, the breaking of bread together, the act of allowing him to bless them (an act of vulnerability and love) that their eyes were opened and they saw Jesus, right there in front of them. He had been there the whole time.

Let him in. He is walking along side of us on the road of life in the face of so many strangers. Pick up your head, pull your mind out of your phone, out of your worries, out of your present and your past and look for Jesus everywhere you go. Open your heart to the possibility that he might be in the homeless person on the corner you pass every day, yet don’t know his name. To the possibility that he might be the undocumented immigrant living down the street or the young child bride taken from her family half a world away or an inmate on death row. What you find might surprise you. What you find might just be love – the fruit of our faith and our salvation.

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.


A good person does nothing

Over the weekend I accompanied a friend to purchase something off of Craigslist. My friend had been looking for this item in this price range for a few years and had finally found it. I was warned that the seller might say some things I would find offensive — during the conversation about the purchase, the seller had made comments about oil prices and turbans wrapped too tightly. My friend begged me to not make any comments in the case the seller did say something awful for the success of the sale and, more importantly, my/our safety. I said I would try not to, but there are some things that I can’t let slide. My friend implored me to keep my cool (and my thoughts to myself).*

We get to the house in rural USA and there’s Christian music coming out of the intercom system. My friend and I exchange glances. The guy meets us around back and seems nice enough. The item is exactly what my friend wants. We check it out, go in to do some paperwork, and then it happens. We’re having a conversation about accidentally running people over (you know, like you do), and the seller starts talking about how you shouldn’t run anyone over unless they’ve got their turban on (there are hand signals for this), then starts talking about how that’s what we’ve got to do to them because that’s what they want to do to us and something about Allah being Satan, and they’re all Satan worshippers.

Apparently, there are some things I can let slide.

I just stood there. I didn’t know what to do. I’d never actually heard anyone say something like that before. I had seen it on these here interwebs, but I had never been face to face with an ostensibly nice person who verbalized thoughts that Muslims should be killed and they worship Satan. I stood there, shocked, dismayed and angry. And then said I had to go outside and walk my dog, who was stuck in the car.

While walking, I came up with a million things I could have said. Matthew 5:44 kept coming to me as a good response, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” What if I had just reminded the seller, the man with Christian music flowing through his home, that is what Christ asks us to do? I could have disagreed with him with my outer voice. I could have pointed out his bigotry, I could have shown my disgust. Instead, I just stood there.

Silence like this is what allows towns to keep Muslims from worshiping. It is what creates space for the harassment, abuse and killing of Muslims across the country. It is what allows this guy to think he’s speaking for God.

I was disgusted with myself. I am disgusted with myself. That night, when doing my evening prayers, I just started to cry. How could I stare bigotry, hate, ignorance — evil, really — in the face and just walk away?

Because it was the easiest, safest thing to do.

I am reminded of all of the quotes on this topic. Evil succeeds when the good do nothing. When they came for me, there was no one left to speak up. So many people have warned us of the dangers of silence in the face of injustice. Yet here I am: I write about racism, I’m conscious of what I buy, and I’m silent in the face of blatant hate speech.

In conversations since I have been reminded that I had no idea who this person was, we were in his house, and anything could have happened to us. I was not in a safe position to speak out.

But when is speaking out against injustice ever safe?

What happens if we all wait until we are safe before we take a stand, before we tell someone they are wrong?

What if we pour our words and passion for justice onto our blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, but not into the rest of the world?

Would anything I could have said made a difference? Would it have been possibel to light a spark in the man’s mind that would bring about change? Or would I truely have just been endangering myself and my friend? I’ll never know.

I will tell you one thing; I am formulating responses for future encounters. I am thinking of how I can talk about these things in a way the other person might hear me. I’d be glad to hear your ideas.

*I have been asked by my friend to clarify that we we were in a completely different state and that, while knowing I could be put in a position where I would feel the need to speak up, there were few provisions we could have made for the outcomes that could have occurred as a result of speaking up. And/or if there were provision that could have been made to ensure the safety/security of myself and those around me, that those provisions were not made. For this friend, security is possibly the largest section of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.