Monday, July 29, 2013

"For the Sake of Ten"

Sermon Text – Genesis 18: 20-32

Earlier this week, I got an email from Sojourners, just as I do every week. I have to admit, I don’t always read the e-mails I get from them. But the header on this one caught my eye “Silence is Golden: The White Church and Race in America.” The article challenges those of us in mostly-white churches to look around and notice that while large numbers of brown and black people in this country have been talking and talking and talking about Trayvon Martin, many of our white churches and historically white denominations have been oddly silent.

It made me pause. Has our mostly-white church been silent in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death? Those of you who were here two weeks ago, just after the verdict was released, may remember used our prayers of the people time that morning to reflect on his death. But that is surely not enough. Surely there is a longer and more difficult conversation to be had about racism in a congregation that so deeply values diversity and justice for all people.

If you are white, you may feel squirmy right now. “Is the preacher going to preach a whole sermon about race?” Spoiler alert: yes, I am.

It’s difficult to talk about racism when you are white, as most of us in the room today are.

Many of us find ourselves struggling to enter the conversation because we don’t experience ourselves or those who immediately surround us as overtly racist. If you don’t have many black or brown friends, it can be easy to talk yourself into thinking racism is a think of the past, or to simply forget about it on a day to day basis.

Many of us who are white struggle with feeling guilty about the centuries of oppression of people of color in our land. Or we feel guilty about the behavior of other white people. Last week, I had lunch with a couple of people from church so we could talk about race. Jamie Brazel said something that I thought was brilliant and clarifying. She admitted that in order to really start thinking and talking about race she had to deal with this issue of white guilt – and still does, sometimes. But when she was able to remember that previous racist actions by white people are not her fault, she could find a way to take responsibility for making change without feeling guilty. Racism is not our fault, but it is our responsibility.

Racism may not be my fault, but it is my responsibility as a human being to listen to other children of God when they tell me about their experiences. President Obama may have shocked a few people when he spoke up last week about being followed in stores, but anyone who has had candid conversations with people of color was surely not surprised to hear that President Obama, too, has been in situations like this.

Racism may not be my fault, but it is my responsibility to listen to people like Charles M. Blow, who wrote so powerfully about what it’s like to be a black father to black sons in his Op Ed piece in the New York Times:
We used to say not to run in public because that might be seen as suspicious, like they’d stolen something. But according to [George] Zimmerman, [Trayvon] Martin drew his suspicion at least in part because he was walking too slowly. 
So what do I tell my boys now? At what precise pace should a black man walk to avoid suspicion? 
And can they ever stop walking away, or running away, and simply stand their ground? Can they become righteously indignant without being fatally wounded? 
Is there anyplace safe enough, or any cargo innocent enough, for a black man in this country? Martin was where he was supposed to be — in a gated community — carrying candy and a canned drink. 
The whole system failed Martin. What prevents it from failing my children, or yours?[1]
I read that last question – “what prevents the system from failing my children, or yours?” and thought this: the thing that prevents the system from failing my children is that they are white.

We live in a world where my children are still given privileges because they are white and male and Christian and middle-class and if they discover one day that they are also straight, they’ll be privileged because of that, too. We still live in a nation where there is a great divide between the treatment of white teens and teens of color, male teens and female teens, gay teens and straight teens, and on and on.

Those of you who are people of color know, most likely from personal experience, that racism is alive and well. And those of us who are white should know the same. Sometimes, it is difficult to perceive the racism around us because of our white privilege. If you’ve never heard of white privilege, I encourage you to read the classic article on it by Peggy McIntosh.

I also read a great analogy earlier this week, written by Laurie Haag from the University of Iowa. Haag says, “Understanding privilege is a little like understanding the weather.  If you live in Southern California, the weather is a fabulous, consistent 72 degrees pretty much every day of the year.  You never have to think about whether to take a coat or gloves when you leave the house….Southern Californians don’t even realize that their weather is weather.  Midwesterners, however, we know about weather.”[2]

If you’re white, it’s like living in Southern California. We don’t notice the weather out there because it’s always pleasant for us. But if you are a person of color, it’s like living in the Midwest. You notice racism just like Midwesterners notice the weather. You prepare for it because your safety depends on it.

When white folks take the time to step outside our sunny Southern California world and really notice the weather around us – when we notice our privilege out loud, when we make room for voices of color at the table and listen another’s experiences, we are taking a step towards a more just society. Talking about racism is not the only way to make it go away, but it sure is a step in the right direction.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been participating in and observing a lot of talk about racism in the past two weeks. Regardless of what we think about the George Zimmerman’s declared innocence, the case has certainly given us a reason to talk about race. As Charles M. Blow said in that same article in the New York Times, “Sometimes people just need a focal point. Sometimes that focal point becomes a breaking point.”

A breaking point. How do we make this a breaking point and not simply another blip in a never-ending news cycle?

Or to ask the question in a totally different way: how do we rewrite the story of Sodom and Gomorrah?

Our lectionary passage from Genesis this week is the prelude to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham is pleading on behalf of these two cities, asking God to spare them if he can find just ten righteous people. God agrees – for the sake of ten righteous folks the cities will be saved. But, of course, there are not ten righteous people in those cities, and they are destroyed.

I know, I know. You are wondering, “What on earth does this passage have to do with racism?”

The simple answer is that it doesn’t directly deal with racism, since such a concept did not exist when the story was written. Race didn’t yet exist, so racism didn’t exist, either. What did exist, of course, is what has existed since probably the beginning of time: in-groups and out-groups. Us and them. And that is what the story is about.

I have to pause and acknowledge that many of us were taught this story is an illustration of how homosexuality is a sin. I don’t believe that is the purpose of the story. No, this is a story about hospitality and power, not sex.

In a culture where folks literally depended on one another to care for their basic needs when traveling out and about in the world, hospitality was paramount and being inhospitable was a grave sin. Of course, now that I’m saying that aloud, I am realizing we still live in a world where we are at the mercy of others when we are out and about in the world.

Hospitality matters. Kindness matters. Respect for other humans’ God-given rights matter.

But the people of Sodom and Gomorrah seem to have forgotten this. They were an inhospitable people. When strangers arrived in their midst, they did not welcome them and try to get to know them. Instead, they were suspicious of them used their power over them to intimidate them. In a mob-scene, they threatened them with bodily harm.

We cannot know their motives, of course, but being inhospitable is almost always rooted in fear, indifference, or laziness. Since the mob was clearly not indifferent and since getting up the energy to create a mob seems to be the antithesis of laziness, I’m going to go with option A: they were probably afraid of the strangers for some reason.

Afraid of the stranger, they were inhospitable. They caused a scene and created a confrontation. If they had called a 911 dispatcher and reported that these strangers in their gated community were just walking around, looking like they were up to no good, the dispatcher might have told them to wait for the police to show up. The dispatcher might have told them that there was no need to follow the strangers. Instead, they followed them to Lot’s house and created an altercation.

Do you see where I’m going here? Racism, though not invented at the time this story was written, looks an awful lot like that great biblical sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. They are borne from the same place – a failure to see another human being as a child of God and a fear of the Other. And both of these sins – inhospitality and racism – can be individual or communal in nature. I can be an inhospitable person, but I could also simply be a kind and hospitable person living in an inhospitable culture.

What would it take to rewrite the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and save those cities from destruction? Well, it would take ten righteous people being present in those cities.

Ten people is such a small number. It makes me wonder – could ten people really have changed Sodom and Gomorrah? Could ten people have taught the others to look their communal sin in the face and stare it down, getting rid of it once and for all? I have to believe they could have because God seems to have believed they could have.

I have to believe that God was standing on the sidelines, watching for those ten people and hoping against hope they would show up. Because God knows that great things can happen when even a small number of people stand up against an injustice. God knows that even a mustard seed can grow into an enormous plant. God knows that even just one person going against the grain and seeking justice can move mountains. After all, this is the God of David, the God of Esther, the God of Jeremiah, the God of Ruth, the God of John the Baptist, the God of Paul.

And the God of you…and me.

We worship a God who is always seeking the ten. We worship a God who knows that even a small group of people – if they are willing to talk about things openly and work tirelessly – can change the world.

What if we could rewrite Sodom and Gomorrah and find those ten people that could have saved the cities from destruction?

I ask this, of course, because I believe we are those ten people. I believe this is what turns Trayvon Martin’s death from a focal point to a breaking point – a tipping point. When small groups of people lift their heads up, clear the sleep from their eyes, look around at the communal sin around them and say: enough.

When a small group of people says to the sin of racism, “You don’t get to own our city or our nation any more” that is what a breaking point looks like.  When a small group of people says, “No matter how many mobs of inhospitality form around us, we will continue to live in ways that are righteous” that is what re-writing Sodom and Gomorrah looks like.

For the sake of ten people, God is watching and waiting. Can we re-write the story together? Can we save our society from the natural consequences of our communal sin of racism? Because racism is not helping anybody. And if we don’t do something to combat it, it’s just going to keep going and growing.

Re-writing the story is not something that happens overnight. It is a marathon, not a sprint. The specter of racism is vast and nebulous and sneaky. If it could be attacked and dismantled overnight, that would have happened long ago, right? When I realize how vast and difficult this anti-racism work is, part of me wants to throw up my hands and say, “It’s too much.” But then I look at the flip-side and realize that the vastness of the problem means there are many, many ways to be a part of the solution.  

In your bulletin, you have a handout that says “Sacred Conversation on Race” at the top. This is a resource from the UCC that I find to be particularly helpful. On the back of it, there is also an excerpt from McIntosh’s article on white privilege that I mentioned earlier. Anyway, the UCC resource talks about the four realms of racism: personal, interpersonal, institutional, and cultural. Racism can only be dismantled when we address it in all four of these realms. No one person has to work on all four of them. We can each choose a place to be active in our own way. It is my hope that you would explore this handout on your own and find ways to recommit yourself to the daily work of saving us from our communal sin of racism.

Sodom and Gomorrah could have saved themselves with just ten righteous people. Just ten! Margaret Mead may have said it best,  “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Sunday, July 14, 2013

"Give and Take"

Sermon Text – Luke 10: 25-37

I have an internal conflict every Sunday when I sit up here during worship, looking out at all of you. My absolute favorite thing about worshiping with you here in this place is that I get to look out and see all of you. I watch you come and go. I see you share a hug or a smile. I see kids being snuggled. I see people gazing out the windows. I see God in your faces. It is an honor and privilege to encounter God in this way.

My conflict, of course, is that most of you don’t get the same view. You can’t really see each other very well from the rows of pews and I really do believe that our sanctuary would better open itself for an encounter with the Holy if we could find a way to arrange it so we could all see each other. It’s not fair that Jack and I get the best seats in the house.

Until we find a way to rearrange things, though, I guess the best I can do is offer for some of you to join us up here. If you sign up to read scripture, feel free to join us on the bench for the service. Or if reading scripture isn’t your gig, but you just want the view, that’s okay, too. Seriously, we would love to have company up here from time to time. I guess we can’t all fit at once because then there’d be nothing to look at, but maybe if we took turns one or two of us could enjoy this Holy view week by week.

As clergy, my vantage point is sometimes markedly different from others. When people find out I’m a minister, they often say, “Oh, so you have to do funerals and be with people when they die? I could never do that. That sounds awful.” I can see where they’re coming from. We preacher types hate to say goodbye to those we love just as much as the next person. But it’s also such a privilege and honor to be with people in those most intimate of moments. I’ll never forget the sheer weight of the mantle I felt when, as a hospital chaplain, I was allowed to comfort families during sickness and loss and be with people during their last moments on this earth…not because of anything I had done to earn such a gift, but simply because my nametag said “chaplain.”

We clergy folk have a different vantage point sometimes. It’s not for everyone, I suppose, but I certainly love it because I find God within it.

As one of your ministers, I also have the honor of being with you as you all cycle through the very human cycle of giving and taking.  My heart is warmed and my bond with God deepened when I see the things you do to care for each other and the world. Big things – like deciding, together, to give a giant chunk of money away. Small things – like warmly welcoming little children – noise and all! – into our community of faith. And I love watching you take care of each other’s needs: picking up someone who needs a ride from the airport, sending an email to say “I’m thinking of you on Mother’s Day” to a woman who recently lost her mother to cancer, coming by faithfully every single week to take the kitchen laundry away and wash it. I could go on and on. And I want to also say thank you for the ways you have cared for me, and for my family. Every single time one of my kids is sick – which is, of course, often these days – I can always count on at least two or three people to ask, “Now how is your son doing? Is he recovered from his ear infection?” That means a lot. It really does. This is an amazingly caring group of people.

Of course, giving is only half of the equation. Without needy folks among us, there would be no one to shower with our gifts – big and small. And I have had the privilege of seeing many of you in your “taking times,” too. Even though I’ve come to expect it, I always feel a little sad when a person having a difficult time apologizes for being “needy.” I mean, I do it too, don’t get me wrong. I think it’s just a natural part of living in this culture. We are taught to value independence and take care of ourselves. It is incredibly difficult to ask for help. Even more so to ask for help without apologizing for your need – am I right?

But the thing is: we really shouldn’t be apologizing. We are all a part of the human cycle of giving and taking. One cannot exist without the other. Some of us may cycle back and forth – giving to taking – several times over the course of a day or week. Others of us may find ourselves in a long rut – constantly taking and taking for a long period of weeks or months or years. Illness, depression, poverty, life-transitions, exhaustion – I know these are all things that have made me needy for long periods of time. And then we may cycle into a long period of relative prosperity and stability – a time where we can give and give of ourselves and never seem to tire. Neither one of these ways of living is good or bad. They just are what they are and each and every one of us is going to cycle through them again and again in the course of time.

Today’s passage from Luke is certainly one of the most well-known stories in all of scripture. So well known that we even have laws on the books that are named for this unnamed Good Samaritan. In fact, there are even parallel stories in other faith traditions. For example, there is an Islamic Hadith (or teaching) about a prostitute – a “child of Israel” no less – who had compassion on a thirsty dog by a well and drew water for the dog to drink.[1] Allah forgave her sins because she acted with compassion towards the dog. As in the story of the Good Samaritan we have a very unexpected hero, lifted up because of her ability to access her compassion and take care of a neighbor in need.

It’s easy to look at today’s passage and say, “Okay, the moral of the story is this: everyone is your neighbor and we should all take care of each other – even those yucky ‘other’ types that we don’t much want to be around.” It’s a short and sweet takeaway and a good one.

After all, the faithful academic who posed the question to Jesus in the beginning basically wanted to know the meaning of life. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” What must I do to find aionios zoe? Zoe is Greek for life. Aionios means without beginning or end. Beyond the alpha and omega. Beyond having a start or finish. Before creation and after the end of the world. Limitless.

It’s a big question, so we expect Jesus to come up with a big answer. Except, of course, he does what all great teachers do so well. He doesn’t answer the question – at least not initially. He throws it back to the academic. “Well, you’ve certainly studied the Torah. What does it say?” And this academic knows his stuff. He gives the right answer. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."

Jesus affirms his answer, but this man of letters presses on, “Ah, yes. But who exactly is my neighbor?” And our dear friend and teacher, Jesus, knowing that a good story is worth a thousand lectures, tells a whopper of a good story.

I think many of us naturally want to identify ourselves with the Samaritan. I mean, I know I do. He’s the hero, the good guy, the save-the-day type. I want to be that person. I want to be the person who drops everything, conquers my own fears, and helps a stranger (and an enemy stranger at that!). On my best days, I am able to get there. One my more average days, I fail. Regardless, it’s a great ideal to hold. To be the Samaritan. To be the ones who cross boundaries – living outside of who society says we can and can’t love; living outside of the constraints of the clock – the ones who cross boundaries and generously give ourselves away again and again. We could live our entire lives just trying to do this. Just trying to be neighborly in this way, and it would be enough. More than enough, probably.

Except, not. There is more to life than trying to be the Good Samaritan. Because the way Jesus tells it, there are two neighbors in this story. You can’t be a neighbor without having one. It’s a two-way street. And the other neighbor in this story is lying in a ditch, left for dead. He has been attacked, beaten, stripped, and left half-dead. If there were ever a person in need, it is this person. And we are called to be this person in the ditch, too. We are called to be the neighbor in need. We are called to recognize the needs within ourselves, welcome them as a natural part of the life cycle of give and take, and call out for help. Because when we call out for help, we allow another person to enter into relationship with us and provide for our needs. When we call out for help, we cease being alone in that ditch, and pull ourselves back out to re-enter the world of neighborliness around us.

There are two neighbors in this story. One with so very much to give and one who has so very much need. The path to eternal life lies in recognizing that we are all going to be one of those neighbors at some point or another. And that is okay.

God lies within the connections. God beckons to us from this story, inviting us into the cycle of give and take. God knows that it is through our relationships with the other that God is most clearly seen and experienced. When we take the time to notice those around us who are in need – and then take the additional, difficult step of giving a part of ourselves away to meet that need – we enter into eternal life. A life without limits.

And when we find ourselves in a ditch and call out for help – we invite someone else into holy communion with us as our neighbor – and we likewise enter into eternal life. A life without limits.

I have to admit, I often find this story overwhelming in its demands. I wish Jesus would tone it down, dial it back just a bit. It’s too much for me, this demand to love my neighbor as myself. I mean, if we’re going to define neighbor as essentially everyone in the world who has a need or has something to offer, then that is a whole lot of people I’m supposed to be loving, you know?

But then I remember, there are two neighbors in this story. And all I am being asked to do is love both of them on any given day. Love the ones who have needs. Love the ones who are giving themselves away. Remembering, always, that on any given day, I could be either or both of those people. And I am to love myself – whether I am needy or giving – knowing that God loves me both ways and God is sending people to be in communion with me both ways. God invites us into the cycle of giving and taking. I don’t think God demands it. I think God offers it to us as a gift. The gift of realizing we already have eternal life right here with us – a life without limits. 

Prayer Response to the Trayvon Martin Verdict

One:    How long, O Lord? How long?

One:     How long until we can send our sons and daughters into the world without fearing they will be gunned down?

One:     How long until we can rest easy, knowing that our criminal justice system lives up to its name and calling?

One:    How long until we stop waiting for a savior, celebrating the lives and legacy of those who have gone before while shaking our heads that there is no one here, in our day, to lead us through this valley of the shadow of death?

One:    How long until we live in a world where we can stop talking about race and racism – not because we mistakenly believe “it’s in the past” – but because it is really, truly, finally, in the past?

Many:   Oh, God, how long?

One:     We want to believe, like Dr. King, that it’s “not long,” for we know that hope is our only life preserver in this deep sea of despair.

One:    But some of us have been waiting an awfully long time already, God. Some of us watched the work of Dr. King from TVs in our living rooms – as children, as adults. We have been waiting and watching for an eternity already.

One:    And some of us, O God, were not yet born when Dr. King spoke his words of hope. His life is ancient history to us. And we writhe in discomfort and anger when we realize that his dream – this simple dream that a boy could walk to the store to buy some Skittles and return home unharmed – has been a long time coming.

Many: How can we continue to say “not long” when the wait has already been so very long?

Oh, God, let this be a moment in history where we commit ourselves to working for justice, no matter how long it takes. Let us stand, here and now, in memory of one of your beloved children – Trayvon Martin. Let us promise, here and now, that we will no longer sit idly by, waiting for a new savior. We are the ones, O God. We are the ones to make the changes, large and small, which will bring about the day when justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.

One:    We are the ones.

Many:  And so, with you by our side – above us, below us, behind us, in front of us, within us, beyond us – we pick up the mantle. We are the ones. Let it be so. Amen.