Racism

Do not be Conformed to this World

A sermon for the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 27, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

I like to describe the context of the readings that I am preaching on. With many of Paul’s letters, we can uncover elements of his relationship with the church that he is addressing, he knows the people there and the problems that have emerged. But in the case of his letter to the church of Rome, Paul had never been to Rome. He only had vague ideas of what was going on there, and a few acquaintances among people he had met in his travels. This letter is an introduction of himself and his teaching to a place where he hopes to travel. So he is addressing Christians who he has not yet met. In other words, he may as well be speaking directly to us: “I appeal to you brothers and sisters, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”

The appeal is to you, no less than to any other Christian who ever lived. Being a Christian is serious business, and it’s not just optional. Living a Christian life, means living in the service of the compassion of God, the source of all things, the source of all value. God is love, and to live as if love, compassion, and sacrifice for the good of others are not essential will destroy the fabric of society.

Paul continues: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed in your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” The world here is what’s a given. It is not in its essence evil, but if we look around, we find it is the context in which evil occurs. The glories of creation and of loving and noble people are indeed in the world, as well as lives of sharing and mutual support. But this world is also a place where fear and hatred exist and all the evils that we see. But let’s leave those things aside for a moment.  When Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world,” I believe he’s referring to things where people usually say, “that’s just the way the world is.” Things that we think of as facts or principles—and that some then assert are neutral and value-free.

Self-interest is a given among human beings. People look out for themselves and their own interests, or the interests of their families. Anyone who claims to not ever act out of self-interest is simply not telling the truth. One of the reasons that religious people fall into disrepute is that some make elaborate claims of being holy and righteous in their actions, while it is apparent to anyone observing them that those actions are entirely self-interested. “Just send a check for a hundred dollars to our ministry and put your hand on the radio, and you will be cured.”

Self-interest is the way of the world. And the way in which you approach it is not value free. When people form their life around self-interest and self-interested goals, they create an isolated society, and a society of exploitation. For instance, there is good evidence that the origins of our modern views of race emerge from the financial interests of those people who needed a reliable and cheap source of labor for the colonial plantations of the 1600s and 1700s. Permanently enslaving a group of people could only be justified by arguing that those persons were either essentially designed to be owned or that they were intrinsically inferior. Somehow those evaluations of people from Africa seemed particularly convenient to people who had an economic self-interest in owning slaves.   A compelling self-interest has resulted in demeaning the dignity of other human beings in a way that has produced a fissure and illness in our society.

If human beings are formed into the characteristics of this world, they will fall into traps like this, sometimes less dramatic, yet nonetheless pushed in whatever direction: to be pure consumers, of whatever consumer society has on offer; or to join whatever clique seems most popular, regardless of one’s personal interests; or even to become a nationalistic sycophant, seeking power for one’s own group regardless of the consequences.  It is not so much that the world is evil, per se, but it has no values—and if we are conformed to no values, we quickly find that we are of no value and there is no value.

Paul then says, rather than being CONformed to the world, “be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” The will of God is in the image of Christ.

Christ reaching out his hand, to pull Adam (and the rest of the human race) out of Hell. “He descended into hell and on the third day he rose again from the dead.”

Our minds are transformed by following Jesus, by seeking his way: the will of God as a life of compassion, of moral honesty, of courage. This is not to say that we should present ourselves as people who have achieved these things, or that we are above self-interest.  Quite the opposite. It’s essential that we acknowledge, at least to ourselves, who we are and where our self-interest lies, what directions the world is pushing us.  In knowing those things, we can continually present ourselves as a living sacrifice to God, to be transformed, every day into the love of Christ. Paul points out that we are all different, we have many functions, many talents and gifts that differ from one another. The way in which each of is called to present herself or himself is distinct, and in that is the beauty of God’s creation.

But we’re here to seek God’s will, not the choices that the success of the world presents, but the challenges of the compassion of God, the will of God. As Paul said, “I appeal to you sisters and brothers to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”

From our Psalm today:

Though the Lord be high, he cares for the lowly;

he perceives the haughty from afar.

Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you keep me safe;

You stretch for your hand against the fury of my enemies;

Your right hand shall save me.

The Lord will make good his purpose for me;

O Lord, your love endures for ever;

Do not abandon the works of your hands.

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If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul…

A sermon for the third Sunday after Pentecost, June 25, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher…

That’s a quiet enough phrase. Simple really. We have one teacher, Jesus. It is enough to be like him. I take him at his word, that’s all that’s required of us, nothing more.

Then you think about it—it is pretty scary. Jesus went about healing, but many took offense. Why? I don’t have a special conduit into the minds and motivations of people today, let alone 2,000 years ago. But in a world in which many are ill, and where illness permeates the society or the system, somebody benefits.  It may not always be one hundred percent clear, how, but for instance, beggars on the street are an easy source of virtue for those who give small alms and go on their way. You may remember in Lent, Jesus healed a blind beggar who then stood up for himself, challenging the condescension of the Pharisees—that was troublesome. Jesus cast out demons and changed the perspective of who was holy and what was holy and when they were holy. Real compassion brings about change and it will make people uncomfortable.

Projection is a wonderful thing. Someone is upset or offended by something someone says, or does, and the only way they can deal with it is by attributing their own motives, fears or evil intent to the person who is upsetting them. Jesus’ opponents had seen Jesus casting out demons and they said he must be in league with Beelzebul, the Prince of Demons. But what they were really doing was projecting their own fears, or their own malice.

Let me say something here about demons and the demonic.  Demons are in fact real. The demonic crops up in our lives far more than we recognize. I’m not talking about cartoon or movie versions of the demonic, I’m talking about the reality that our Baptismal service is addressing when we are baptized:

Do you renounce Satan and all the Spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?

 

Demons are human realities, human creations, not divine ones. They are realities in the same way an image or a brand or a belief are real.  For instance, the image of Marilyn Monroe has a power and a social significance separate and apart from the person who is associated with it.  In fact, it exists and exercises influence apart from anyone who might own or purport to control trademarks or property rights involved with it. Demonic realities are slipperier and have more power.  That is because they carry the power of evil which everyone avoids taking responsibility for.

The easiest demon to see in our country is racism. Some individuals might be said to be possessed or consumed with racism, but even if you eliminated those, racism would persist, even among those who can’t see it or deny it. The dignity, even the very visibility of African Americans and others is dismissed without thinking about it, suspicion and distrust based on no evidence except race crop up, and find expression in actions even when we don’t think about it, or approve of it, and particularly when we aren’t thinking. The thing is, no living person is responsible for the existence of racism and no action by any individual or group will make it disappear, though it may be cast out or its effects ameliorated at some times and some places.

But this isn’t a sermon about racism, it is about the demonic, the insidious evils that affect our lives—not things that we will, or things that we created, at least not as individuals. You can see the demonic in abusive families or addictions. You can see it in political discourse. Nowadays we can see that pretty close up. The demonic lives by fear, anger, hate and resentment—but not just any fear or anger. The demonic arises when people deny and cover up those things to the point that nobody really remembers where they came from—everybody, when confronted, can point to a prior instance of offense or terror, unkindness or disrespect that comes from somebody else.  Jesus, in his compassion began to cast out these demons, and triggered the vast resentment that got him crucified.

Jesus wasn’t naïve, he knew what was happening and what was going to happen. But the evil in this world, embodied in those demons was destroying human life, ripping apart society—and Jesus had come to bring life.

So Jesus turns to his disciples and says:

If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.

Jesus is talking to us. The only way to cast out or limit the demons of this world is through stopping the denial and holding them up to the light—in compassion, and not in self-serving fear or anger—but in the compassionate love of Jesus. “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.”

This is not without consequences, Jesus would not expect it of his followers if it were not important; if life itself did not depend upon it. Pain, conflict, ostracism, even death can result from not cooperating with the culture of denial, anger and fear in this demon filled world.  It’s serious business to be Jesus’ disciple, and not to be undertaken flippantly or with any self-regard or self-righteousness. Jesus says, “Do not fear them, Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” The much greater danger is the death of the spirit that comes from accepting the demonic as normative, denying that evil exists, and taking that fear and anger and despair into your soul.

The peace that Christ brings is not cheap. In a world where human beings hurt and demean one another daily, a life of respect and compassion is outside the norm, it requires attention and courage, else we slip into the morass of self-serving anger and cruel despising of others. Yet it is peace, and it is a joyful thing to live in Christ’s love—life is indeed possible, we are not dominated by the despair of this world.

As St. Paul said it today:

If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also much consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

 

Go and do likewise

A sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 10, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?

Two Sundays ago, our lectionary Gospel readings set out with Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem. Today’s lesson directly continues in the Gospel according to St. Luke. The journey started in Jesus’ home district of Galilee, in the far north of Palestine to Jerusalem, in the southern part of Palestine. A large part of the journey is through the district of Samaria. That roughly overlaps where the northern Kingdom of Israel was before the Assyrians overran it and then the Babylonians invaded and took many from the southern Kingdom of Judah into exile. In that district of Samaria was a large number of towns populated by Samaritans. The Samaritans regarded themselves as the true followers of Moses—they observed the laws of the Five Books of Moses and offered sacrifices on Mt. Gerizim, which they believed was the place that God had appointed, not Jerusalem. The Jews, including those who were the majority in Galilee as well as those from Judea, regarded the temple in Jerusalem as The Holy Place. The Jews believed that the Samaritans had intermarried with idolaters, that their worship was polluted, and that they were generally a people not to be trusted. These two groups did not have an amicable relationship. In fact, they got along better with the gentiles with whom they shared no common traditions, than they did with each other.

When Jesus began his journey to Jerusalem, he sent messengers out and a Samaritan town rejected them. Jesus’ disciples, the brothers James and John, whose nickname was the “Sons of Thunder” came to Jesus and suggested that they should call for God to rain down fire on that village. That epitomized the relationship of the Jews and the Samaritans.

In our reading today, a lawyer stands up, and in this case, he’s a man trained in the interpretation of Jewish law. It’s clear from the way the text is written that his questions are meant to test Jesus and put him in a difficult place, to make him say things that would not be popular with the crowds.  So when he asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he’s not looking for an answer, but a debate.   Jesus agrees with him, “Do this and you will live.” There is no difference in the essential core of the spiritual life and the Jewish law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

But now the lawyer wants to pin Jesus down, “And who is my neighbor?”

He was looking for Jesus to draw for him the boundaries of the righteous and the unrighteous.

When Jesus tells the story, he doesn’t give guidance on how to decide who your neighbor is.  Do you see that? He doesn’t give a narrow or a broad definition. He doesn’t say one group is neighbors and another is not. He doesn’t say that some might become neighbors in such and such a way.  He doesn’t say, you’ll know they are neighbors by their love of you. He does not even say that everyone is your neighbor.

Jesus tells a story about how to BE a neighbor. Not to figure out who to treat like a neighbor, just how to be one. And in this situation, at this time, Jesus chose to tell this Jewish lawyer about a Samaritan who behaved like a neighbor. The man who was beaten by robbers was clearly Jewish, like Jesus and the lawyer, and the two other characters in the story were clergy—a priest and a Levite. The religious people in this world may think that being religious makes them much more neighborly, but that isn’t the case. Not according to Jesus.

Jesus chose as his illustration of who could be a neighbor, a person that all of his hearers, not just this lawyer, but also his own disciples, especially James and John, regarded with disrespect and anger. When Jesus described the Samaritan, when he saw the man injured by the road, Jesus said that he was moved by compassion—the Greek root of the word implies that he felt the man’s pain and need from deep in his insides.

Jesus turns to his questioner and says, “Who acted like a neighbor?”

“The one who showed mercy.” There was no other possible answer to Jesus’ question.  Jesus refused to respond to the question of who your neighbor is. Instead he said, “Go and do likewise.” This was not necessarily good politics, but it was what Jesus meant.

This week—I’m not sure what to say.  The shooting of Alton Sterling and of Philando Castile by police officers. Shootings that would not have happened to white men. Then Thursday night, the massacre of police officers in Dallas, Texas Dallas Police Shootingwho were conscientiously doing their job of keeping a peaceful protest safe.  Anger and fear reacting in violence.  We are in a country where everybody seems to shout—“NOT MY NEIGHBOR!” And even those who are quiet, quietly see others as the transgressors, the untrustworthy, the scary— “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But it was one of those transgressors, one of those Samaritans, who was deeply moved by compassion. Who saw the humanity of the wounded man, who put himself on the line for the sake of his healing.

It’s easy enough to see how people habitually do not treat one another as neighbors. It’s easy enough to see the disastrous results of that.  What is not easy to see is how to unravel the violence, the hate, and the simple self-pity of those who allow violence to flourish. I don’t know what to say.

But it was obvious, even to his hostile questioner, when Jesus asked, “Which one of the three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who into the hands of the robbers?”  It was the one who showed him mercy. And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”

Let us pray our Psalm for today, once more. Psalm 25:1-9 in the insert.

To you, O Lord, I life up my soul, My God, I put my trust in you:

Let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me.

Let none who look to you be put to shame; let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes.

Show me your ways, O Lord.

and teach me your paths.

Lead me in your truth and teach me,

for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long.

Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love,

For they are from everlasting.

Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions;

Remember me according to your love and for the sake of your goodness, O Lord.

Gracious and upright is the Lord;

Therefore he teaches sinners in his way.

He guides the humble in doing right

And teaches his way to the lowly.

All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness

To those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.

Be strong, do not fear. Here is your God.

A sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 6, 2015

Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! Whose hope is in the Lord their God; who made heaven and earth, the seas; and all that is in them; who keeps his promises for ever; Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger.

On June 17, nine members of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina were shot and killed by an attacker expressing reasons for the murders connected with race. The African Methodist Episcopal denomination has asked all churches in this country to join in a “Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday.” The leadership of the national Episcopal Church and Bishop Dietsche have encouraged all parishes to participate, so I will focus on this issue in today’s sermon.

Most Episcopal churches have a predominantly white membership. I have spent most of my ministry in parishes, which, though they often sincerely expressed a desire to be more diverse and inclusive, were slightly more white in membership than the surrounding community. So being at this church has been a new experience for me and I hope I have learned something that may be relevant.

Racism … is actually difficult to recognize when you are its beneficiary. I’m serious, and I only really came to appreciate that fact as I experienced seeing the same human dynamic in other people in an entirely un-related area over the past year. As I grew up, everyone expected me to do well in school and to be successful in a career.  I learned that we all had rights and, that in a free country, we could exercise those rights without fear. I became used to being respected and trusted, given the opportunity to speak my mind and the benefit of the doubt if I didn’t get things quite right. I was aware that that was not the experience of everyone, in particular persons of color, but it was a little hard to grasp why or how this came to be. About a year ago, a group of us quietly spoke the truth about some serious concerns, fully expecting to be taken seriously and brought into a conversation to solve the problems. I won’t go into the specifics, but I suddenly experienced not being trusted, having my motives and interpretations of facts dismissed, and being cast out from all influence and receiving no respect. This was happening at the same time that our country’s attention was focused on the much more important, literally life-and-death events in Ferguson, Missouri. I realized that what I experienced in being not respected or trusted, in a really limited and temporary way, was analogous to the lifelong experience of millions in our country: chronically not trusted, nor given respect as a matter of course, experiencing one sort of demeaning treatment or other and having the benefit of the doubt given to those who demeaned them. The difference was that I was dealing with a contained set of people and interests, but for millions, indeed for our country as a whole, these problems are defined by race.

It is easy enough to see violence, and bad words, and over-the-top racist nastiness. For Episcopalians, that generally happens far away and outside of our social group.  We can safely be outraged, condemn bad language and bad actions, even pass resolutions or send money, then pat ourselves on the back, go back to business as usual, and everything stays the same. But what is difficult is to really see racism. One author helpfully labels it, PWS – Polite White Supremacy.  Episcopalians are far too polite for Crass White Supremacy, when you think of the Polite version…

Oh, no. We are far too good and Christian for that… It would be rude to imply that any of our brothers and sisters in Christ ever profited from slavery.  Oh, well maybe historically, but … still we need to be courteous and polite.

To be fair, most people’s lives are a struggle. Comparing miseries doesn’t help, most people experience their own difficulty and that is bad enough. They have a hard time imagining how they would get by and be able to properly take care of their children, or get to the point that they could have children, if anything of significance was taken away from them. And most people try to be good and try to find a way to see themselves and their families and friends as fundamentally good, that’s how people survive.

The problem, put simply, is that the legacy of chattel slavery is indigestible for white Americans. I’m convinced that the concept of race as we have inherited it really developed from the need to rationalize and make morally okay, the practice of keeping people of African ancestry in permanent bondage. That had evolved into a perception of economic necessity, so the rationale became that these people were enslaved because their race made it appropriate or even necessary for them to be slaves. Slavery itself was legally abolished more than 150 years ago, but its legacy in racism continues.

It is difficult to see how an ordinary guy whose family never owned a plantation or who doesn’t have a family fortune going back to the slave trade profits from racism. Believe me, it’s hard for that guy. But the benefit of unacknowledged privilege, of easier access to pathways to success, to safety and education that can be taken for granted—that is real. The problem is, that even with those benefits things are not always easy and when you think about change. … Change is good, change the bad things, but the problem is, well… change. Change knocks our security free from its anchor, it might endanger things that are important to us, we might lose what we don’t want to give up, and if you press this too far, the story of how we are good people might need to be changed.

So the problem with race and the Episcopal Church is that on the one hand we can’t afford to treat one category of people differently than another—as our lesson from James this morning says, “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord, Jesus Christ?” Yet it will require much change, not just in a few rules but in our relationships and expectations of one another, changes that have implications for the finances of the church and where the administrative energy of the church might go. And yet, I don’t know if you have been around to many of the churches in the Diocese of New York, but most of them are hurting financially, and even the wealthiest churches are not as well off as they once were, with fewer parishioners and smaller budgets. There is no, no-cost solution to racism, even the energy to pay attention to how we treat one another is hard to come by.

What I want is for is for those of us who are privileged to listen to what people who suffer from racism have to say. It will be only through careful listening and working hard to change our attitudes and our behavior that we ever have a hope of ending the evil that is racism. It’s a long process; perhaps our grandchildren will be able to explain to their grandchildren how hard the process was. And, let us pray that those babies will have a hard time understanding that.

Racism is a process of denial. Denial makes everything slippery, everything is hard to change—you just get yessed to death and nothing changes. The Episcopal Church extends denial beyond questions of race into most corners of its life. Perhaps if we can be forthright in speaking with one another on issues related to race, we can also be forthright about priorities about mission, about providing ministry for our churches, about the responsibility of laity and about how the ministry of all baptized people can be effective in this world. The Gospel challenges us all to change, to be more welcoming, to live in the overwhelming grace of God and to not keep it to ourselves. The Gospel challenges Trinity Church to change as much as any other, and that can be frightening—yet no more frightening than the alternative—to become rigid and blind, and cease to be.

We are called by God to be his people. Listen to these words from our lesson from Isaiah:

Succor Creek Canyon springSay to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert, the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.

 

Be strong, do not fear. Here is your God.

 

 

John, whom I beheaded, has been raised

A sermon at St. James the Fisherman, Wellfleet, Massachusetts

July 12, 2015, 7th Sunday after Pentecost

“John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

This is the Gospel of Mark’s preface before we hear the plot synopsis of the Richard Strauss opera Salome.

The Herod in the Gospel lesson is the son of Herod the Great, Herod Antipas.  Antipas wanted to be king of all Judea, like his father, but he had a brother who also wanted the same thing and another brother who also had a claim. When they gathered in Rome, the emperor didn’t think any of them was as talented or as trustworthy as their father, so he split up Herod’s kingdom and made none of them king. The oldest brother got Jerusalem, and Antipas got the consolation prize of being tetrarch of Galilee. What does tetrarch mean? Well, it is a Roman name for an officer in charge of an area. AND it definitely does not mean king.

herod and salomeSo we have the image of a man born to privilege and some power, who definitely wants more of both, but is afraid of losing them both. Sort of a run-of-the-mill kind of guy in our country nowadays, especially in New York City, where I lived until recently. You can see it in the kind of games he plays with his friends and his use of the young woman: a feeling of entitlement that is heightened by fear of losing his privilege.

John, who we know as John the Baptist, spent his life reminding people of the truth: the God of love is the center of all, not anyone else, not any person, no matter how powerful. John called people to repentance, and he pointed out things; things that were uncomfortable, because they were true.

The Herods were all Roman clients and it was to the Roman Empire that they owed their loyalty. Herod Antipas was challenged by John to attend to the God of Israel, the God who heard the poor and brought them out of Egypt, the God who led them beyond the fear of any human being. Herod was challenged by that truth—then he listened to his fear. His fear of the Romans, his fear of losing privilege.  He has the power, he has the soldiers, and he has to silence John, the reminder of the truth, so he had him taken into custody.

He goes home, he has some friends, and cronies and affiliates over, and we have the Strauss opera. It’s a tragedy, and often the tragedy is understood as the dilemma of Herod’s choice as to whether to behead John the Baptist. But the real tragedy is his running from the truth to protect his privilege.

The lesson starts, “King Herod heard of it.”  Heard of what? The only thing this can be referring to is what we heard in the previous passage last week. In that passage, after Jesus sent out his disciples in pairs, we have these two verses: “So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”

That’s what Herod Antipas’ heard—and that was his worst nightmare. In the message and life of Jesus, was the same truth preached by John: “Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand!” The demons of society are cast out and the poor and the sick are healed. Fear is cast out, and truth comes in. And where does that leave Antipas and his privilege? He’s left with his fear and need to run away from truth. Good news for the poor made no sense to Antipas.

From a point of view of being privileged—and I include myself in this—it is very difficult to even see the privilege, let alone to acknowledge that any change is possible.  How can there be a change, for instance, in racism and its effects in this country, that won’t have an impact on the comfort and prosperity of those of us who don’t suffer from racism? When you think about it, that’s an odd question, yet people have been saying that for years—sometimes, they express it as not wanting to disrupt society. And change in a society effects everyone, and it changes things for those who have power and privilege.  People are afraid of changes, because they fear a loss of comfort and security. Like Herod Antipas, who ran from his fear by indulging in strange parties and taking his brother’s wife—he sort of covered it up, but his fear was greater, not less. And he could never face up to the Romans.

Make no mistake, Jesus brought good news to the poor, and it is good news for all of us. The freedom that comes from the casting out of demons and the healing of the sick is precious, the most precious thing of all, but it comes at high cost. Sometimes when we face our fears, what happens is indeed what we had feared.  This is the hallowed Christian tradition of the witnesses, the confessors, the martyrs. Yet it is the only way for change to come into the world.  Last week, Jesus was rejected in his hometown, so he went out and he sent out his disciples to heal and to cast out the demons of this world. And Herod Antipas was afraid.

Hear how our Old Testament lesson ends:

“When King David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts, and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. Then all the people went back to their homes.”

Unlike Herod Antipas, here King David, the archetypal king of Israel, was all about the people, the whole people—to each, both men and women a full portion all good things. Just so, Christ feeds us, as we partake of his death and resurrection in the Eucharist.

 

Then he put them all outside … and went in where the child was

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, June 28, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“Then he put them all outside … and went in where the child was.”

After the storm that was in last week’s lesson, Jesus and the disciples got back in the boat and crossed back to where they were before. Immediately, Jesus is back among the chaos of the crowds, and we have a story of two healings. Often these two are pulled apart and discussed individually, even by biblical scholars, but I think it’s important to look at them together.

One of the leaders of the church comes to Jesus and begs him to come heal his daughter. Jesus has compassion and goes along with this community leader—just as he is doing this, the other story interrupts. A woman, a part of this crowd—a woman who has suffered with a condition for a dozen years, which has ruined her life—she pushes through the crowd to get close to Jesus, the healer. The blood, the force of life, which has been flowing out of her, has made it so that she cannot be touched by a man. She pushes close to reach out to touch this man, the healer. He felt the force leave him and he turned to see her. “Daughter your faith has made you well. Go in peace and be healed of your disease.” Jesus had compassion on this woman, who had been an outsider, who transgressed by touching him. He healed her, and commended her trust in God.

This was in the middle of crowds pressing around, all sorts of pressure and confusion. And the other story comes back. Jesus is standing there and people come from the house of the religious leader and say, “She’s dead. Let the teacher go away.” Practical, realistic, discouraged people, just giving up. Jesus looked at these fearful and discouraged people and said, “Do not fear, only believe.” They had seen a healer and now they believed that the chance for healing was lost. So they dismissed the healer. But Jesus would not accept their resignation and dismissal, “Do not fear, only believe.” Jesus knew far more about life than they knew about death. He got to the house, and they laughed at him. He said she was asleep, and they laughed at him, and Jesus said to them, “Please, just go outside for now.” He took the parents into the room and took the girl by the hand and said, “little girl, get up!” And she did. Jesus had compassion on the child, and on those parents of hers, those respectable leaders of the community, and he had compassion on that woman, the ruined outcast. All at the same time. He did not listen to those who were telling him “don’t bother, go away.” Jesus won’t listen to hopelessness, rather he has compassion for those who hurt, who are confused, who are fearful.

There were two healings on that day. Most people would have advised Jesus to pay attention to just one or the other, to choose, to choose the more worthy or the one with the greatest need or the one that agreed with them. Jesus would not do that, and as everybody started to advise him more, “he put them all outside.” We think we know about compassion and healing, but we don’t, not really—Jesus just tended to healing and being compassionate. Jesus just shakes his head and sends them outside—there are no limits on God’s love, in particular, not limits that we contrive.

People are often most hurt by the limits that others put on God’s love—usually, trying to defend their own claims on God or their own privilege they conclude that others should get out of the way—like that woman with the hemorrhage, she shouldn’t interrupt Jesus getting to the house to heal the important man’s little girl.

On Friday, two important things happened. In the morning, the Supreme Court of the United States announced its decision affirming marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples. Not too long after that, the President of the United States preached about grace at the funeral of the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was killed during a bible study in his church by a racist attacker. Is one more important than the other? Can God have compassion on only one group? In both cases, people have suffered long, with disapproval and dismissal by the dominant groups in our culture. It is common for people to lack understanding of the sincerity and humanity of groups that they are not part of. Marriage equality will not change attitudes or relationships over night. And President Obama said this about race:

obama“We don’t earn grace. We are all sinners. We don’t deserve it. But God gives it to us anyway and we choose how to receive it. It is our decision how to honor it. None of us can or should expect a transformation in race relations overnight. Every time something like this happens, someone says we have to have a conversation about race. We talk a lot about race. There is no shortcut. We don’t need more talk. None of us should believe that a handful of gun safety measures will prevent every tragedy. It will not. People of goodwill will continue to debate the merits of various policies as our democracy requires. There are good people on both sides of these debates. Whatever solutions we find will necessarily be incomplete. But it would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allow ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again.”

 

The violence of racism is not simply in shootings or lynchings, it is also in the constant denial of ordinary human respect, that goes unnoticed day by day among those in the dominant culture. Likewise, our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers suffer similar indignity—it caused many to hide, but not change, who they were. We are often tempted to seek comfort by denying Jesus’ compassion, but he won’t let us get away with it.

 

Is life possible when all we see is death? They laughed at Jesus. But he went upstairs, and took her hand and said, “Talitha cum” –“Little girl, get up!”

Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?

A Sermon for Father’s Day, June 24, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?

When I was little, I went out for a fishing trip with my father, my uncle and three cousins, in my Dad’s small boat. The lake we were on is a large, local reservoir, probably about one quarter the size of the Sea of Galilee. The sky was perfectly clear blue that afternoon, but while we were out on the lake, way over to the southwest a little tiny dark gray spot appeared.  Out there in the desert, you don’t get long lasting, heavy rainstorms, but when a thunderstorm hits, it is violent. So, while we were paying attention to our fishing, and with the adults trying to keep us kids from falling out of the boat, we were surprised by a sudden, dark sky and the crack of thunder. As the wind rose and the waves got big, my father was just barely able to get the boat’s motor started. He pointed the boat straight at the closest point of land, just about the furthest point on the shore from where we had put the boat in.  The boat hit the shore still going its maximum speed and immediately filled with water.

Dad and some other stranded boaters built a big fire and we got dried out and eventually got back home safely.  Though I really wasn’t old enough to appreciate the situation fully, it’s very scary to be out there on the water in a storm.  Not to mention dangerous.  The disciples out on the Sea of Galilee didn’t even have a 35 horsepower Evinrude motor to push them toward shore in that storm. They were experienced enough to appreciate the seriousness of the situation.  And there was Jesus, asleep in the bow of the boat.

When I first started thinking about this sermon, I thought I would have some fun talking about sleepy Jesus and Father’s Day. Then I woke up on Thursday morning and looked at the news. Nine people in Charleston, South Carolina—murdered. Why? Well, they were studying the Bible and praying.  And they were members of an African Methodist Episcopal congregation that has stood up, and spoken up, for the dignity and rights of African Americans for over two hundred years.

I would like to say that that is unthinkable. I would like to say that it is not possible. I would like to say that I know why Jesus was asleep in the front of that boat. But I can’t.  Yes, maybe the kid is crazy. So his father gave him the money for a .45 automatic for his birthday.  I would like to say that racism is a thing of the past, but all the evidence is to the contrary. About seven years ago, this country elected a black president.  Many of us saw it as a sign of hope and change in this country. Yet since then, the voices and actions of racial hatred have become increasingly overt. Responding to the possibility of the loss of white racial dominance, hatred has come to the fore. I wish I didn’t see it. I wish it was so distant that I could say that it was only a few out on the edges, who none of us really ever run into. But that would mean that I would have to say that I don’t know the people I grew up with. People who believe that they have to preserve a “way of life,” and that way of life includes lots of guns and mostly people who look the same as they did when I grew up out there in Idaho.

“Jesus, why are you asleep? Don’t you care that we are perishing?”

We are afraid, much as the disciples were. And we grieve. And we fear for the future, for our children and grandchildren.  This is a country where civil discourse has broken down. People respond to concerns about insecurity with selfishness, and to worries about violence with terrorism. This must stop. This country must change.

On this Father’s Day, I remember my own father, who died 10 years ago this month. For him, being a father was about loving and enjoying children and giving them a model of dignity and respect. When there was any sort of emergency or crisis, his first response was to protect the children—even though some people might not recognize that was what he was doing when he was focusing on getting that cranky outboard motor to start in that thunderstorm.

The Rev. Clementa Pinckney (1973-2015) Senior Pastor, Mother Emanuel AME Church,  Charleston, SC State Senator, South Carolina 45th District

The Rev. Clementa Pinckney (1973-2015)
Senior Pastor, Mother Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC
State Senator, South Carolina 45th District

Likewise, the witness of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina has always been to foster the dignity, respect and well being of the African-American community in South Carolina.  The Reverend Clementa Pinckney and his companions were not the first members of that congregation who suffered and died, witnessing for the Gospel and the dignity of every human being. He was a father to two daughters, as well as serving and caring for Mother Emanuel AME Church. His ministry included being a state senator, because there is much work to be done in that state for legislation to protect the dignity and safety of all people. On this Father’s Day, let us remember that it is the vocation of fathers, as well as all of the rest of us, to have the courage to do the right thing, to stand up to protect those who are vulnerable, particularly when we have reason to be afraid ourselves.

The way of Jesus is always the way of the cross, even when it doesn’t fit with our liturgical calendar. Sometimes it looks like he is asleep in the bow of the boat when we want him, need him, to be awake. In the turmoil and storm of our emotions, he says, “Peace! Be still.” There is much left to do, and it requires faith, calm, and resolve.

From today’s psalm:

They beheld the works of the Lord and his wonders in the deep.

Then he spoke, and a stormy wind arose which tossed high the waves of the sea.

They mounted up to the heavens and fell back to the depths; their hearts melted   because of their peril.

They reeled and staged like drunkards and were at their wits end.

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble and he delivered them from their distress.

He stilled the storm to a whisper and quieted the waves of the sea.

Then were they glad because of the calm, and he brought them to the harbor they were bound for.

Let them give thanks to the Lord for his mercy and the wonders he does for his children.