What We Love

Here’s the audio: What We Love.

Hear what the Lord says:

Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of t he earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.

“O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!

For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

 “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of youbut to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

-Micah 6:1-8

 no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
 when
you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilet
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
mean something more than journey.

no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied
no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father

no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
beg, forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave, run away from me now
i don’t know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

-“Home,” Warsan Shire, Somali poet (b.1988)

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Listen, I’m usually not one to pick a fight but Friday the president signed an executive order banning refugees from entering this country for one hundred and twenty days, banning those coming from Syria – arguably the most dangerous place in the world right now – from seeking refuge here indefinitely – and people in those countries who had been trying for years to get here were blocked from boarding their planes. Or people who were in the air as the order was signed were detained at the airport. People coming here to study, to work, to reunite with family, people who have college dorms rooms and jobs and wives and children waiting here for them, suddenly were treated as criminal threats.

You’ve seen the news. You’ve read the stories. And, as I’m sure you know, there was an outcry. The ACLU mobilized. A judge in New York City issued a stay. Lawyers came and sat down on airport terminal floors and offered up their time and skills to work through habeus corpus petitions with people who’d recently landed in this country. Protestors flooded airports with handmade signs welcoming those Muslims and other refugees and one man in Chicago brought a trombone to play “This Land is Your Land” for those arriving.

And Franklin Graham, one of the most influential Christian leaders in the country, son of the admired Billy Graham, said to his huge following, “This is not a Bible issue.”

About immigrants he said that. About refugees he said that. About those who are hungry, and thirsty, and strangers, those who are naked, and sick, and imprisoned, he said, “This is not a Bible issue.”

Progressives sometimes are stereotyped as not knowing their Bibles, not caring much about scripture, but that’s just not true. Lots of us do. Lots of us come from more conservative backgrounds where we grew up memorizing verses. Lots of us are drawn to scripture precisely for the way that in it we hear prophets speak truth to power, the way that in it Jesus’ own life is told as story after story of revolutionary acts of love.

And if this wasn’t a Bible issue, ok. Then we could have a debate about how some things are important, even if they’re not explicitly addressed in scripture. It was written at a long-ago time and in a far-away place and while some of its truths are timeless, we have to consider who we are here and now and make some allowance for that. Our moral code changes with the context and each new era gives us new challenges to which we bring all our compassion to bear, and about which we draw conclusions based on the scriptural principles that endure across time and place.

But this, that we’re talking about right now? Immigrants, and refugees, and the most vulnerable among us? This is THE Bible issue.

Our text for today comes from a frustrated prophet. Micah is a contemporary of Isaiah, the prophet we were with for all of Advent and have been with some this Epiphany. He’s harsher than many of the others, and has strong words especially for the leaders he’s addressing. “Is it not for you to know justice?” he asks them. “You who hate the good and love the evil, who tear the skin off from my people, and eat their flesh from off their bones?” This is Micah, who tells his listeners over and over that God loves justice, and that God cannot abide their treatment of those in need.

He says to them, “God has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what’s required of you.” God has told you! It’s a tired statement. An exasperated one. “You know this!” he’s saying. “We’ve been over this before.”

And it’s true.

In Leviticus 19, the people are instructed, “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.”

And as it gets more specific, the people are told, “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner.”

And in Deuteronomy, we’re told that God “loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”

And to any who would say the story of the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah was about something else, scripture itself explains, in the book of Ezekiel, “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”

And by now it’s kind of a tired trope, but in Exodus, back where this story begins, when the people of Israel are first really becoming a people, they’re told, “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.”

When Job, whom God calls the most righteous man in the land, is explaining his devotion, he says, “No stranger had to spend the night in the street, for my door was always open to the traveler.”

So here in the book of Micah, when the prophet is saying, “God has told you,” he means that the whole history of this people is filled with teachings about how to treat the vulnerable ones among them, and over and over and over again the refrain is: Open your gates. Open your doors. You were on the other side once. You know that pain. There is no fundamental difference between you and the ones you would keep out. And God will not abide the manufacturing of fear to create conditions and justifications for exclusion. This is not who God’s people are.

The call could not be clearer. And some days, I think, it could not be harder.

Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly.

The doing justice part, I’m actually encouraged about. When I see the groundswell of energy; when presumably privileged people sit cross-legged on an airport floor to donate hours to ensure that basic human rights are preserved for the most vulnerable among us, I know that justice for people has a chance. When those entrusted with protecting our land for generations to come work to make sure we have access to the science that will help us preserve it, I know that justice for our environment will continue to press on. I know that I can find ways, we all can, in the work that we do every day, to orient ourselves toward justice.

And the walking humbly with God – what an invitation! I hear in this not a direction, not a “bow before this mighty one” but just a great reassurance, that God is here, that God lives and moves among us, maybe quietly sometimes, maybe needing to be sought out sometimes, but when we find God, when we find those people serving as God’s hands and feet here, the invitation is to slide in alongside them, and be a part of that good work. That is where we meet God, who is already and always here.

But the loving kindness. This is both what I want to do and what I think will be the most difficult.

James K. A. Smith suggests that the central question of Jesus is “what do you want?” Not so that, knowing the answer, he might give it to us but so that, knowing the answer, we might know ourselves. Jesus doesn’t ask, “what do you know?” or “what do you hope for?” or even “what do you believe?” but his interactions with people most often involve him asking them some form of “what do you want?” which is the same question, really, as “what do you love?”

Smith writes, “Our wants and longings and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flow. Our wants reverberate from our heart, and so Scripture counsels, ‘above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it’ (Prov. 4:23). Discipleship, we might say, is a way to curate your heart, to be attentive to and intentional about what you love.”

And what we love, he argues, becomes who we are. That’s the power our loves have. They shape us.

This is dangerous, at least for me, because when I think about where my energy goes, what I pay attention to, there’s probably a long list of things I love before kindness. Like, today, I love righteous indignation. I love cleverly-worded slogans and cutely-drawn signs. I love poetry and art and song and all sorts of things that do good in the world. Or I love my own anger. If I think about where a lot of my energy and attention goes, these days, it’s to anger and fear and disgust. But that is not what I want to love. That is not what I want to shape who I am.

So what does it mean to love kindness? To desire kindness, to long for kindness, pursue it? What would it look like to direct our energy toward kindness?

Maybe it looks like the veteran of the Iraq war who drove two hours to an airport in Texas last night and gave his purple heart to a woman who finally made it through security after hours and hours of interrogation. He handed her the medal and told her, “This” – meaning what she had endured – “this is not what I fought for.”

Maybe loving kindness looks like his recognition of her struggle. Maybe it looks like his bringing a gift, a sacrifice, to offer her. Maybe it looks like her meeting his eye, unafraid; maybe it feels like their hands touching as he gave and she received; maybe it sounds like the thank you spoken between them. Maybe loving kindness just means recognizing these small moments where we might really recognize one another, and seizing them, to infuse them with all the love, all the humanity, that we can.

God help us. Amen.

The Work

“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

Luke 6:26-36

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I know probably every parent thinks this at some point or another, but really, sometimes, my kids are the wisest people I know. And Tuesday night, we were headed home after swimming lessons, and it’s only a five-minute-drive, but I couldn’t be obsessively checking my phone while I was behind the wheel so I insisted on listening to election updates on NPR.

My kids usually whine about talk radio, but they’ve been pretty tuned in this whole campaign season, so they kept quiet. And on that quick ride that night, they heard some uncertainty in the commentator’s voice. They heard some hint that Hillary wasn’t as far ahead as the experts had expected her to be at that point in the counting. And from the backseat my boys asked, “Is Trump winning?” And I said, “I don’t know… it sounds like he’s going to have a chance.” And they asked, “But why?”

And we talked again about different visions for the country, and how some people would choose his vision. And then I told them that some people, even if they didn’t share Trump’s vision or his values, they just had always been on the team that he was on, and so they’d vote for that team, whoever that team’s player was, and also, I told them this piece this piece that we hadn’t talked about before, this harder part – I told them that some people would vote for him just so they wouldn’t be voting for Hillary. And again they asked why, and I told them that some people don’t agree with her vision, and then, beyond that, there are people who just think that there are some jobs that a woman can’t do.

My boys were so confused by that.

And Oscar said, “Like what jobs?”

And instead of going through a whole long list, I just said, “Well, like president.”

And he said, “Don’t those people have women who are friends?”

And I said, “Well probably, I mean, sure, yes, I’m sure those people have women who are friends.” I said, “But that’s different.” He said, “How?” I said, “They might have women who are friends but they don’t think those women – or any women – should have jobs where they have power, or especially, where they have power over men.”

And Oscar didn’t miss a beat and he asked me, “Isn’t being a friend a kind of power?”

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That’s been helpful for me this past week.

It’s been helpful for me as I read about deepening divisions in our country. It’s been helpful for me as I consider how to move forward, and what sort of role I can play, what sort of role this church can play, in this community as it responds to this change. And it’s been helpful for me as I hear and read about what other kids are saying.

Other school-age children – white kids – are saying to kids of color, “pack your bags” or they’re saying “your time is up” or they’re saying “you’re gonna have to go home” and they don’t mean down the street to your house, or to the neighboring town where you were born; they mean to some-unidentified-foreign-place-where-I-assume-you’re-from-because-your-skin-isn’t-the-same-tone-as-mine. Other white kids are coming home and asking their parents, “The president can’t really send my friends away, can he?,” while parents of color are picking up their kids from school early, in droves, to get them out of places where they’re subjected to that kind of cruelty.

My own kids fell asleep before the results were certain, and when they woke up, still groggy, they said, “Who won?” and I said, “Trump won,” and Oscar rubbed his sleepy eyes and the first thing he asked was, “Is he going to build that wall?” That’s what kids know.

Confederate flags and Nazi flags are being flown on busy sidewalks, on paths kids take to get to school. Students on college campuses and women waiting at bus stops are reporting verbal abuse and physical abuse with language that seems tied to the election results and online abuse between strangers is ordinary and horrifying now. Portlanders have shut down interstates with their protests and those have turned violent, too. Our oldest elders, who remember camps in this country that denied first their American-ness and then their humanity, are fearful of a return to those days.

I do not mean to say that I think the president-elect elicits or condones all or any of this behavior. I don’t know what he thinks of it. I know his previous campaign rhetoric about minority populations and his recent courting of white supremacists makes me suspicious. But what seems clear is this current, that was maybe suppressed before, feels emboldened now. And that boldness makes many, many people feel unsafe.

Here is what I mean to say, church: there is work to do.

And the other strange, small comfort in this – besides knowing that there is power in friendship – is the truth that there has always been work to do. And you know, and I know, that if the election had gone the other way – if it had gone any other way – there would still have been work to do.

The work is always the same.

Whoever is in office or isn’t, whoever we elect, endorse, get behind, or don’t, the work is always the same: we call ourselves by the name of Christ, and so we are a people who know death, and who will find ourselves with need to mourn, and who give ourselves ultimately to the practice of resurrection. We are a people who believe that every life has worth, that every inch of this planet reflects the beauty and the glory of God, that every one of our neighbors can teach us something about the presence and power of God. We are a people who know that every encounter we have with another person is a chance to learn something new about the ways God is alive and a people who celebrate that the diversity that is so hard for us to fully embrace is really a expression of the fullness of God.

And so the work is always the same: to pay attention, and to listen closely, and to love fiercely. The work is always to protect one another and to comfort one another and to challenge one another, and to challenge any system that would say that “one another” does not include all of us.

And really, all of us. Our country split almost exactly in half Tuesday night. Yamhill County went for Trump. Whichever choice you made, there are people you work with and walk with and eat with and definitely worship with and maybe live with who made different choices than you did. That difference does not make us enemies. But it can feel like that.

And when it feels like that, maybe verses like today’s can be helpful. Commentator David Ewart notes that there are six words in the Bible that are translated in our one English word for love, and that the word used in our passage for today is the trickiest of them all – agape. It’s the one that doesn’t mean romantic love, or affection, or even any sort of closeness. What it does mean, he writes, is “whole-hearted, unreserved, unconditional desire for the well-being of the other. Nothing is held back. There is no hesitation. No calculation of costs and benefits. No expectation of receiving anything in return. No pay offs. There is only total desiring of the well-being of the other for their own good.”

He continues, “Oddly, this might also mean you might not like the other. Might oppose some of their behaviors. Might speak against some of what they stand for. But if you agape them, the ways you express your dislike and opposition will always also express your total desiring of their well-being.”

This love does not require a resignation to what must be or a relinquishing of once-held ideals. This love calls for resistance. That call for resistance moves this kind of love beyond reciprocity and invites us into the realm of redemption. Listen to how it happens:

If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.

Maybe you know Walter Wink’s take on this text – that this is Jesus teaching Civil Disobedience, Nonviolent Resistance 101. That in a culture where a person’s left hand was used for bathroom functions, and so only the right hand could be used for other purposes – the like power play described here – to turn a cheek was to mess up the swing, and leave the person hitting confounded, unable to strike the way he’d wanted. It was to interrupt the violence.

And in a culture where debts between neighbors could be racked up so high that one man would literally take the coat of another’s back – for the poorer one to say “here, take my shirt also” and to stand naked in the street is to expose not only one’s self but the injustice of the whole system, to force the one collecting to face public scrutiny, maybe to shock him into seeing the inhumanity of his collection and to say, “here – here – keep your shirt on! Take your coat back, too; I don’t need it!”

Love of enemy does not ignore injustice. It exposes it. Love of enemy knows that violence harms everyone, that division hurts us all, that only revolutionary love of those we disagree passionately with and of those we’re told to fear can bring us to a place where there are no more enemies. Love of enemy is the only way to really discover the depth of the kind of power it is to be a friend.

Maybe some of us will be sad for a really long time. And maybe some of us will be celebrating for a really long time. And no doubt as the future unfolds we will be given ever-new reasons for our sadness or for our celebration, and for much more nuanced responses and emotions, too.

And in all of that, there will be work to do.

And the work will always be loving each other.

Friendship and First Things

(This post was published earlier this week on Practicing Families, a great site about doing faith with kids.)

An older man, let’s call him Abraham, has befriended my son, Oscar. Abraham attends the same church we do. I’m the pastor, so there’s always stuff to do afterwards, and my kids are left to fend for themselves, throwing paper airplanes off the balcony, seeing if they can scrounge up more cookies, while I finish conversations, turn off lights, lock doors. But Oscar has taken to reading lately, so he doesn’t mind staying late – he curls up in a big cushy chair with his book and doesn’t even notice the time passing.

Abraham also stays at church until it’s time to lock up for the day. He sits in the other big cushy chair. There are two together, and he’d claimed his first, when Oscar decided to occupy the other one. Abraham is kind, maybe a little gruff. He looked up when Oscar first came to sit by him, didn’t say much, just returned to his own book. After a few weeks of this – the older man and the young one, side by side, engrossed in their separate fictions, Abraham leaned over and told Oscar, “You know, reading will rot your brain.”

Oscar stared at him, confused, until Abraham couldn’t keep a straight face anymore. Now they’re the best of friends. Abraham tells a variation on that same joke every week: “Hey, brain-rot buddy.” “Be careful. Your brain is going to mush, all that reading.” “I’m going to get us hats made. We’ll be the ‘brain-rot club.’”

Photo on 8-10-16 at 8.58 AM

He’s also started bringing books for Oscar. Ones he’s picked up at a garage sale for a nickel, or found on a give-away shelf. Ones he thinks a boy about Oscar’s age should read. A few by Jack London. A science and history trivia book. A book of riddles. Oscar especially likes the book of riddles. They’re still mostly silent when they sit side-by-side, but every once in a while, reading that book, Oscar will laugh out loud, and Abraham will take a break from his own story, mark his page to listen to the riddle that’s delighted Oscar so.

A few months into this friendship, my boys and I attended a dinner and program at another local church. The evening was called “Piecing Community Together” and it brought together people experiencing homelessness with others who have homes, on an equal footing. Everyone shared the free meal. Everyone played games together around their tables. Everyone enjoyed the concert. We had a great time.

I told my husband about it later, praising that model. I said, “It was really nice not to be divided into those categories, you know, some people serving, other people being served. We were just all together and it felt like we made better connections that way.” My husband asked, “Who was there?” And I listed off the names of the people we knew from hosting the Community Winter Shelter, or other ways we’ve engaged with the homeless around town: Liza, Carl, Keith, Rita, Abraham… Oscar was listening.

“Abraham is homeless?” he interrupted.

I’d never realized, until that moment, that he wouldn’t have known. Abraham comes to church early and sits in the balcony, away from most of the congregation. He stays until we lock up, because it’s nice to be indoors for a while. He carries a big backpack to haul around most of his belongings. I first met him when he came in for the overnight shelter that the church opens up when the temperature drops dangerously low.

Oscar took a while to process this new information. He wants to know more of Abraham’s story. The older man shares pieces of it, once in a while, but not enough for us to know why he’s without shelter, or where he goes when he goes away. I think that’s ok. I think, actually, he’s offered us a great gift by opening up as much as he has.

And I’m really grateful for the order this all unfolded in – that Oscar knew Abraham first as a reading friend, then as a thoughtful gift-giver, then as someone to share a joke with, then as a man experiencing homelessness. If the order had been reversed, I don’t know that the same relationship would be developing between them. Something about status, about category or label, tends to stop us, to keep us apart, maybe even more insistently than how shared passions can bring us together.

I know it’s not cute, that my kid has a homeless friend. I know that Abraham’s situation is complex and that he has real, tangible and not-so-tangible needs. But I also know that one of those needs is community.

It’s all made me wonder: what comes first? What do we want to know about each other, really? How does our initial knowing of some information – the status, the category – close us off to learning something more, something other and deeper? What could develop between us if we started somewhere else?

I hope to learn some of the answers by hanging out with my kid and his generous, funny new friend.

On Production

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.                               

-James 1:19-27

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What does your anger produce?

I ask because, let me tell you, the Bible has some sad stories in it: stories of a paradise lost, of families torn apart, of tribes at war; stories of justice denied, of compassion refused, of people who walk by on the other side of the street rather than cross the path of a neighbor in need; the Bible has some really sad stories in it, but when I read the scripture for today, in light of the events of this week, it just sucked the life out of me.

Your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.

It can’t be true.

It seems clear, right? It seems simple. But I read it, and I thought, surely, there’s more. Surely, there’s some analysis – there’s some hermeneutical principle – surely there’s something in the original language that will turn this around. I was willing to dig for it, to spend my week poring through the research to find something to say, “oh, here’s a new reading! And it turns out this verse means just the opposite of what it says!”

But I couldn’t. Because of course it’s true. Your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. My anger does not produce God’s righteousness.

Even though I really, desperately want it to.

Because I am angry. Aren’t you?

I am angry that racism is such a stain on our country that two more black men were murdered this week, and there is discussion happening about whether they deserved to be or not.

I am angry that we are so unimaginative in our search for solutions that five more police offers were also murdered this week.

I am angry that these are only the most publicized killings this week – they are not the only ones.

I am angry that after Orlando, after the murder of 49 other people, when some lawmakers stood for longer than we would have thought humanly possible, and then when others sat, all in the name of interruption, of disruption, of drawing attention to an ongoing crisis of violence in our country, others lawmakers accused them of making a scene, and left the room, or left the state, so that no action could be taken.

I am angry that however much we continue to mourn for these deaths, we are long past being surprised by them, and we cannot seem to summon the will or the energy to do anything to change these patterns.

I am angry that last week, my friend’s seven-year-old ran upstairs to his room from his front yard where he’d been playing when a police car approached, and I am angry that she had to coax him back out, that she had to tell him that he was safe, that he would be ok, that no one would hurt him, and I am angry that she had to do that through gritted teeth, because the whole time she worried that she was lying, but then decided maybe that lie was better than raising her seven-year-old black boy to be afraid of the world.

I am angry at all of that, and I am angry at myself, for being angry, for getting tired, for hesitating before responding to racist posts on social media, for wondering whether it’s “worth it” to take up these kinds of conversations with people I know disagree. I am angry about the history we’ve all inherited and I am angry that it sure looks like my own kids, and probably theirs, are going to inherit the very same.

And I know that my anger is so minor, in the scope of all that is. I know that it is my privilege that allows anger to be my dominant response, and not fear, not horror, not paralyzing grief.

But I desperately want for all of this anger to produce God’s righteousness. If you, and I, and everyone else who is outraged, everyone else who is horrified at the violence that no longer shocks us, if we could pool all of our anger – shouldn’t that be enough to “produce God’s righteousness”? Shouldn’t it be enough to call out some decisive holy action, like one fell swoop of healing and justice?

I want this anger to become something positive. I want those pop-psychology articles – “5 reasons it’s good to be angry,” or whatever – I want them to manifest here and now, and turn this anger into momentum for change, into energy for revolution. It may be that my anger cannot produce God’s righteousness – that is beyond me, not connected to me or dependent on me – but couldn’t it at least muster a little of my own?
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I keep thinking so, but the more attention I pay to the verses around that one, the more I wonder. The more I sit with the text, the more I think it’s not telling us not to be angry, it’s cautioning us to know the limits of our anger. It can only go so far. It can not go as far as summoning our God to fly in and fix this bloody mess.

And that’s not the God we believe in anyway, right? A God who lets us loose to wreak havoc on one another and who then, when we cry out, comes in to clean it all up? That’s not the God our Scriptures witness to and it’s not the God our faith proclaims. God is the mystery in which we live and move and have our being. The grounding in love of all that is. Which means there is no pain of ours that God does not feel, no violence of ours that God is not wounded by. There is no evil of ours that does not cause God to recoil. Our anger does not produce God’s righteousness.

These verses were written millennia ago to a community in some kind of trouble, it’s unclear exactly what, but there are references to the fighting going on. They might as well have been written to us, today, especially to those of us who are white and know that the current state of things cannot stand, that it must not continue. What if we took these words from James as instruction for how to respond, for how to move in the world following weeks like this past one?

It would tell us, Step One: “Be quick to listen.” Not to defend. Not to explain. Not to shift blame. Be quick to listen. Rush to sit still. Hurry to shut up. In Psalm 40 the poet, addressing the Creator, says, “But you have carved out ears for me…” as if to say that in our becoming, special time, specific care was taken to make sure we could listen to one another. It’s what we were made for.

Step Two: “Welcome with meekness the word that has the power to save your souls.” James doesn’t specify what this word is, with its saving power. Maybe it’s scripture. Maybe it’s the teachings of Jesus. Maybe, also, it’s the stories we hear from one another. Anytime we sit down – any time we are quick to listen, and someone else is generous enough to share – the words of their experience can transform our hearts. Maybe listening to one another’s stories can save our souls. If a person in pain is willing to give words to that pain for another person, it is a great and difficult gift. Receive it. Hold it gently.

Step Three: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” Michelle Alexander, who wrote “The New Jim Crow,” called the events of this week a mirror. Just like the brutal day of the Civil Rights Movement in Selma in 1965 that e’ve coined “Bloody Sunday” was a mirror, she said, our violence showing back to us what we believe and who we are committed to being, the events of this week are a mirror. They reflect the discord that has been allowed to grow, the fear we feel of one another, the desperate need for change.

Like James, who wrote that if we hear and do not act, if we listen and do not commit, we are like those who look in a mirror and then walk away, forgetting what we look like – like James, Michelle Alexander wrote, “I think we all know, deep down, that something more is required of us now. This truth is difficult to face because it’s inconvenient and deeply unsettling. And yet silence isn’t an option. On any given day, there’s always something I’d rather be doing than facing the ugly, racist underbelly of America. I know that I am not alone. But I also know that the families of the slain officers, and the families of all those who have been killed by the police, would rather not be attending funerals. And I’m sure that many who refused to ride segregated buses in Montgomery after Rosa Parks stood her ground wished they could’ve taken the bus, rather than walk miles in protest, day after day, for a whole year. But they knew they had to walk. If change was ever going to come, they were going to have to walk. And so do we. What it means to walk today will be different for different people and different groups and in different places. I am asking myself tonight what I need to do in the months and years to come to walk my walk with greater courage. It’s a question that requires some time and reflection. I hope it’s a question we are all asking ourselves.”

Step Four: “Bridle your tongue,” and offer your care. Step four is step one all over again: Listen. James says if we think we are religious and we cannot keep our mouths shut, we deceive ourselves. If we say all the right things but leave those in need, those abused, to fend for themselves, our talk, and our religion, is worthless.
_

…And there is so much. There is so much going on in each of our individual lives that to add the disease of a nation can feel overwhelming. There is so much joy of our own we want to live fully in, and so much sorrow of our own to be present for, that our energy is some days nearly spent before we even see what’s happening in other places, with other people.

But in the Gospel, no place is an “other place,” no people are “other” people. This is not separate from any of us. It has been made heartbreakingly clear these past few weeks that this is the work of our time. The acknowledgment of the sins of our past and our present, the listening, the committing to seeing ourselves and our country in the mirror and remembering what we’ve seen, so that it can inform where we go and what we do from here – this is what we’re called to now.

It may be that our anger does not produce God’s righteousness. As sad as that makes me, all told, it’s probably a good thing. As for other production – as for what might come of our listening, our taking each other’s stories seriously and then living in response to them – I don’t know what might come of that. But I know two things: it will be among the hardest work we ever do. And we must do it.

The Seven Last Words of Jesus: The Seventh Word

And now the last of the last words. The seventh:
“Into your hands,” he said, “I commend my spirit.”

(Where does your spirit go? Who holds it?)

All this language is coded. It says what it says and it says so much more.

Into your hands I commend my spirit.

Jesus didn’t invent that, hanging there.
It is a prayer of his people.
It is a line from the thirty-first Psalm.

In You, O Lord, I seek refuge;
Do not let me ever be put to shame.
In your righteousness deliver me.

Incline your ear to me.
Rescue me quickly.
Be a rock of refuge for me,
A strong fortress to save me.

You are indeed my rock and my fortress.
Take me out of the net that is hidden for me,
For you are my refuge.
Into your hands, I commend my spirit;
You have redeemed me, Faithful God.

These words are not resignation. He does not speak them and hang his head. They are fighting words. He uses his very last breath to make sure they are heard.

And with them he says to the powers that surround him, “I do not belong to you.” I do not belong to your violence and I do not belong to your fear.

_

It’s what the artists said when they came together this week on the Ivory Coast, to film a music video in the place where a terrorist attack occurred two weeks ago. They wrote a new song, celebrating life and denouncing hatred. They danced and clapped and in a show of solidarity they held hands and sang together “you cannot make us hide.”

Like how Jesus speaks to God, but for us: says, Violence cannot claim our spirits and fear is no currency here.

It’s what the restaurant owner in New York City said when bombs had destroyed so much. He knew people would need to gather and he knew they would need to feel safe. When every other place had boarded up their doors, he threw his open, and made giant plates of pasta, and found a chair for anyone who could come, and played music that would be good for their souls. He hugged each person that arrived. When people called, because they heard the restaurant was open, they said, “Do we need a reservation?” and to everyone the owner said, “Just come.”

Like how Jesus speaks to God, but for us: says, Violence does not own us and fear will not hold us hostage.

_

The crucifixion is horrific like any murder is horrific.

And it is unjust like any execution is unjust.

And it is heart-breaking like every loss is heart-breaking.

And this horror, this injustice, this heartbreak – it is ancient. And we have not yet unlearned it. It is our story every day.

(So where does your spirit go? Who holds it?)

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The one we mourn tonight said to the one who was with him always: Into your hands, I commend my spirit.

The words are offering, and they are reunion.

But they are also remembrance – these are the words his people have spoken for generations.

And they are reverence – these are the words with which he acknowledges that he is not his own.

And they are resistance – these are the last words, and with them, from the cross, he says, “This is not the last word.”

Ashes, Dust, and All That Flies Away

Jesus said to his disciples, “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagoges and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

“When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”
– Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
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Do any of us really need a reminder of our mortality?

Aren’t our bodies, with their aches and pains, enough?

Aren’t our lives, marked by worry about the phone call from the doctor or marked by mourning for a friend’s struggle with addiction or marked by sadness that we cannot protect our children from all that we would wish to – isn’t all of that stark reminder that we are dust?

And reading or hearing the news, with the tears that punctuate the interview, or if we can stand to, watching it on tv, as people flee and cities explode – or our own, smaller crises, like the bill we won’t be able to pay this month, or the secret that threatens to crumble us, if it gets out – isn’t all of that enough to convince us that to dust we shall return?

Do any of us really need a reminder of our mortality?

We come to this day, and we read this scripture – but listen, do we need it, either? Do you stand on the street corner and shout out your prayers? I doubt it. And if someone asks, “Are you ok? You look tired…” do you respond with a humblebrag about the new spiritual discipline you’ve adopted? Probably not.

These verses don’t quite translate to our context. They don’t hold up over the centuries because these aren’t the ways we practice our false humility and our obnoxious religiosity. But this is the scripture our tradition has chosen for this day.

For Ash Wednesday, we hear verses about humility and secrecy. About wearing our faith underneath, and about prayer being a conversation between just ourselves and God that nobody else can hear, and about our giving being so not about ourselves that we don’t even fully let ourselves know that we’ve done it.

We hear these verses on the one day that we submit our foreheads to each other’s hands, to be marked by this bold, dark smudge. We hear these verses about secrecy, and then, this one day, we publicly wear the declaration that we claim this faith, that we walk this journey.

Which might seem a little ironic. Because the ash draws attention to us. It identifies us. It proclaims to anyone who sees us, “I went to church today, and it’s not even Sunday!”

But, really, the ashes are more unsettling than they are obnoxious. They’re a kind of announcement that we know we’re going to die. And we wear that knowledge on our foreheads. The ash says, “Once I was not here. And there will be a time again, when I am not here.” And however much we don’t need reminding of that, it is still difficult for us to say it to each other, and to know it about each other.

*

It’s been nearly two years now, but I remember like it was just the other day, when we lived in Kansas, and my boys opened the front door one evening and stepped out onto the driveway to find a pigeon waiting for them. It really did seem to be waiting. It didn’t fly away when they swung open the door, it just hung out. Came closer, even, when it saw them. My husband noticed it had a tag around its foot, so he called and reported the number, and the man at the Kansas City Pigeon Club said, “Yeah, that’s one of mine.” He explained that she was a homing pigeon – the kind that you can take with you when you travel, and release from wherever you are, and they’ll find their way back home.

This one, who had stopped in our driveway, was making the journey from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she’d been released, back to Stilwell, a small town about twenty miles from where we lived. She was so close to home, but she was tired. The man on the other end of the line explained that she wouldn’t fly at night, and he asked if we could keep her and release her in the morning. He told us she liked people, liked voices. So we brought her in; we gave her seeds and water and a blanket, tried to keep our cats far away. We read our kids their bedtime stories on the porch with her that night while they took turns holding her.

And in the morning, my older son – he was six then – was a mess. He had bonded intensely with this bird – or with the idea of this bird – in the less-than-24 hours we’d had her, and he did not want to let her go. He sobbed and begged and tried to make deals and did all kinds of planning a future with her in case she didn’t fly away. But she did. And he was crushed. And I tried to explain to him that she had a home, and she knew her way there, and she’d only stopped with us to get her strength back, and of all the homes between Tulsa and Stilwell we were so, so lucky that she chose ours to rest at for the night.

None of this comforted him.

*

Because it is so hard to know that we are dust. It is heartbreaking.

But we know more than that. We know not only that we are dust, but that we come from it, and we return to it. And we know that dust is the stuff of creation. We are ash and stardust. Science tells us now there are galaxies inside you, and me, and that pigeon – the artist Jan Richardson asks, “Don’t you know what the Holy One can do with dust?”

*

There will be time – I don’t know how long, and you don’t either – but there will be time between when you receive ashes and when you become them. Lent asks us, how will you spend that time? How will you spend your life?

 

Tamar: Wondering About Righteousness

Read this: Genesis 38:1-19. Also, if you prefer video, you can watch this.

There are some stories we don’t tell. We know that. Maybe we’ve just come this weekend from family gatherings where there are things that, by some unspoken agreement, everybody knows to keep quiet about. Whether that’s healthy or not is its own question – the reality is, there are some stories (some personal stories, some family stories) we just don’t tell.

That’s true of the stories in the book we call holy, too. The lectionary, that division of the Bible into assigned readings for worship that over three years takes us through psalms and prophets and books of wisdom and law, through gospels and epistles and books of visions, even the lectionary leaves out some stories. And this story for today is one of them. The story of Tamar takes up an entire chapter of Genesis, and we aren’t ever directed to read it. Except…from within scripture itself.

It doesn’t appear on any lectionary listing, but it does appear – a reference to it appears – in the words that open the Gospel of Matthew, the book that opens the New Testament. Jesus is introduced by way of a genealogy that traces him through King David, all the way back to Abraham. It’s significant because David’s royal line is how the people understood God to be making the divine will known; and it’s significant because Abraham is the beginning of the story of Judaism.

Like all the genealogies in the Hebrew Bible, this one is meant to tell us something about who the child is by situating him in a whole series of stories: these are the people he comes from – so this line of ancestors, this blood that runs through Jesus, speaks of origins and of authority.

But Abraham and David are only two of the names in this long list – we’ll read a bit more each week. The end of the genealogy recaps it for us: 14 generations from Abraham to David, another 14 from David to the exile to Babylon, and 14 more from the exile to the Messiah, to the birth of Jesus. Forty-two generations are listed, so forty-two fathers. … And five mothers.

Forty-two generations, and only five mothers. And this genealogy breaks with convention to list even those five. Usually these listings tell of a father, who had a son, who had his own son, who in turn had his son – and the women, the mothers, the sisters, are never mentioned.

This genealogy in Matthew, then, is telling us something new – and those are the stories we’re going to explore this Advent. This week we’re with Tamar. Next week Rahab, then Ruth, then Bathsheeba, and on Christmas Eve, we’ll look at Mary’s story. These aren’t the typical stories that lead up to the nativity, but they are integral to that story; they are woven into Matthew’s telling of it – they’re just, most of them, the kinds of stories we don’t tell in polite company.

So do this: When you hear the story of Tamar, think about the Black Lives Matter movement. Think about protestors who don’t let shoppers into stores on Black Friday because they want to disrupt the economic system. Think about people who have been criticized for their tactics and who say to that criticism, “You think it’s rude that we’re blocking doors to department stores in Chicago’s shopping district? Because we think it’s unconscionable that another black teenager would be shot with as many bullets as he is years old and no one would be held accountable for his murder.” Think about those protestors as you hear this story…

Or think about Talitha Kum, a network of nuns that operates in more than eighty countries, and takes its name from the story where a father comes to Jesus and says “please save my daughter” and by the time Jesus gets there, the guests are mourning already and they say the girl is dead. Jesus says to her “talitha cum” – Aramaic for “little girl, arise!” – and she does. So these women, who’ve adopted that name, dress as prostitutes to infiltrate brothels around the world. Once they’re in, they work to buy back children and adolescents who are being sold as victims of human trafficking. Think about those nuns and their work as you hear this story…

If we can hear those stories as analogous to Tamar’s, then maybe some of the scandal of her story will disappear, and other elements of it will emerge. Here goes:

You read that Tamar was married to a man, Er, who died, and they had had no children. An Israelite custom known as levirate marriage says her husband’s brother should marry her next, and any children that come from that union will be thought of as the previous man’s children. Er had a brother – he had two – and the older one, Onan, came forward, not to marry Tamar but to sleep with her. They also had no children – he made sure of that – so when he dies, she’s alone again, with no one to support her or ensure her well-being.

There’s a third brother that ought to step up next, but by this point, her father-in-law, Judah, has grown pretty reticent to giving his sons to this woman. He stalls. She knows it. She grows older, and her situation grows more precarious. There aren’t many ways for women in the ancient near east to be secure outside of traditional marriage and family structures.

So she puts on a costume. She’s waited years by this point, and it’s clear the family she married into is not going to provide for her. But she hears her father-in-law is coming to town, so she dresses up like a prostitute and sits by the side of the road, the place where one would hire a prostitute, if one was looking to do so. And her father-in-law is. He approaches her without hesitation – not knowing it’s her – and he hires her. Sleeps with her. Leaves, with promises that he’ll pay. She doesn’t trust him to send payment – why should she trust him? – so when he says, “I’ll send you a goat,” she says, “Give me something now – give me your cord, and your staff, and your signet – until the goat comes.” They have this conversation, and he still doesn’t know who she is.

And that – his not knowing, some commentators say, is a real indictment of him; if he can spend this time with her, talk with her, and still not have any idea of her identity, it’s an indication of how little he knew her to begin with, how totally disinterested he has always been in this member of his extended family. But he hands over what she asks for.

And this is smart on her part, because the stuff she asked for is totally identifying. Today, it’d be like if someone handed over their license plate and their credit card and their school photo I.D. He doesn’t think twice about it.

Later he tries to send the payment that he’s promised. He sends a messenger with a goat, and the messenger asks around town, “Where is the prostitute, who sits by the side of the road?” And without exception, everyone he asks tells him, “There has never been a prostitute here.”

And then a few months later, word makes its way to him that his daughter-in-law is pregnant. Someone says to him, “she’s played the whore,” and his response comes fast and harsh – he says, “Burn her.” He demands that she be brought to him for this punishment.

And when the men who do his bidding come for her, she hands over the things she’s kept. She sends them back to him, with this totally unnecessary message: “It is by the man who owns these things that I am pregnant.” She says, for added punch, “See if you recognize them.”

And now, for the first time in this story we can say “to his credit” – he is poised. He is caught, to be sure, but given that just minutes ago he was incensed enough to kill her, what happens next is remarkable.

When he is confronted with his own part in this story, his complicity, he drops the demand on her life. He admits, “I wouldn’t give my son to her” and then he says, out loud, “She is more righteous than I am.”

Is that the word you would have used to describe her? Righteous? What…else… comes to mind?

When Judah calls Tamar righteous, it’s because of what she did – not in spite of it. And when he condemns himself, it’s because of what he didn’t do. His fault – the one we should really be concerned about here – is not in sleeping with her, even though that’s where our attention probably goes. His fault is in denying her justice. He had a responsibility to her – to give his third son, or otherwise provide for her – but he feared the consequences of making good on that, and so he withheld.

Judah’s story teaches us that when we withhold ourselves from each other – when we make moves to protect ourselves instead of to provide for one another – we deny each other justice. Those who initially condemn Tamar in this story, her father-in-law included, at the end have to say, “What else could she have done? This was the system we created for her. This was her last option. We’ve denied her justice at every other turn.”

And I wonder, who else could that be said about? …

This story ends well. Tamar gives birth to twins, and they’re both listed in the genealogy of Jesus: his line is traced through the firstborn, the one they called Perez. And that’s the story that the writer of Matthew’s gospel references by including Tamar’s name in his long list of ancestors that introduces Jesus to the world.

This is the Sunday of Hope. And hope is woven all throughout this story.

-Tamar is an outsider, a woman denied justice at so many turns, and she makes a way. And she does it – technically – by being faithful to her tradition. It’s an unconventional way of being faithful, but this woman was determined to survive, and she figured out, after years of being denied justice, she figured out how to get an heir from the family she married into.

Tamar is hope embodied – she is patience and persistence and creativity – she is cleverness and commitment and boldness – and Jesus comes from her.

-And there’s some hope in Judah’s character, too. He is no good – we have no reason at all to like him, except maybe we pity his care for his sons – but he changes. When he’s confronted with the evidence of who he has been, and how he has wronged Tamar, he doesn’t get defensive. He doesn’t lie and he doesn’t shame her. He doesn’t use his power to make her claims go away. He just says, “She’s right.” And then he says, “This is where I was wrong. This is how I wronged her.”

So Judah, too, is an embodiment of hope – he is humility and repentance – he is bravery and maybe the beginning of revolution – and Jesus comes from him, too.

The way the Gospel of Matthew tells the story of Jesus, people are always on him – accusing him of undermining the tradition, of not being faithful to the teachings, of disregarding the law. And commentators say Jesus counters those accusations by demonstrating a “higher righteousness” – in essence, by proving what really matters, by sticking to the spirit of the law, if not the letter; he upsets their easy judgments by suggesting that they can’t always condemn as quickly as they might want to.

Which leaves me wondering about what else out there might be called righteousness that we don’t, at first blush, label that way. It leaves me wondering what story of scandal, or impropriety, might actually be a story of hope. It leaves me wondering about our own family trees, our own ancestral stories that include those tales we don’t tell, and what sort of redemption those stories actually point toward.

And Judah’s confession makes me wonder, too, about my own life: what sort of evidence would I need to be presented with to convince me that I needed to make a change? How can I offer myself more fully – how can we offer ourselves more fully – to make room for this hope that’s about to be born among us?

 

The Dead and Dreaming

This one’s also over at Practicing Families today, but I thought I’d repost it here. I’m not a mystic or a visionary. I don’t hear voices or see apparitions. But this one time…
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Most of my dreams aren’t worth remembering. I sometimes dream about ex-boyfriends or falling from high places. I often dream about being late, or unprepared.

When my friend asked me to preach at her ordination service, I dreamed I stood in front of a sanctuary full of people and had no words (even in my dream, I knew this was not about her but about me). Then the fire alarm sounded, sprinklers let loose on everyone, and they all ran out of the sanctuary. It was only then, standing soaking wet in that empty, sacred space, that I realized I had something to say. But by that point everyone else had seen the reception tables all set up and they wanted to stay outside and snack, so I never got to say it.

And as a child, I had this recurring dream featuring a giant Chinese dragon dancing merrily through the aisles of the corner convenient store, as my friends and I tossed a beach ball over the candy and chip displays.

Stairs-4dd12275b047cAnd though those are all obviously deeply meaningful, in ways I, uh, can’t even begin to explain… there’s really only one dream that I think was a message, a gift, sent not to chastise or confuse me but as comfort and blessing.

It was a dream I had within the first week after my second son’s birth. In my dream, he was just as he was in waking life: tiny, and unaware, and brand-new. I was walking with him, cradling him, and he was wrapped in soft blankets. I walked down a series of stairs. The whole landscape was white rooftops and stairs against a deep blue, sea and sky, a Mediterranean-style scene. The path of my descent took what seemed like ages. When I reached the bottom, my mother’s mother – the woman who, growing up, I’d always referred to as “my grandma with the red hair” – was waiting. She took my newborn son from my arms and held him in her own. She spoke softly to him but I couldn’t make out her words. She rocked him back and forth. Then she handed him back to me, and I ascended the stairs.

My grandma with the red hair died almost two years before my second son’s birth. I’d been sad, after he was born, thinking he’d never get to meet her, thinking how strange it is that my family and his family are somehow the same and yet made up of different people. But that night, almost as if my sadness had been an invitation, my grandmother visited my dream to meet my son.

That moment came back to me the other day, the way that dreams sometimes catch you by surprise in your waking hours. I told my son, now five years old, about it.

He said, “Was I there?”

I said, honestly, “I don’t know.” I asked him, “Do you remember it?”

He said, “I don’t know.”

But he’s feisty, like she was. Loves candy, and hides it, like she did. Speaks his mind. Relishes a good joke. Gets mad for no good reason. All her traits. How much of that could she have taught him in those brief whispers at the bottom of that long staircase?

I don’t know. I don’t know if the dead hang around, waiting for moments to reappear among the living, to pop into our days or our dreams. I know it doesn’t happen always, or even often.

But I also know that we are part of one another. We live in and through each other. And maybe thin boundaries like the one between life and death don’t get to determine exactly how that happens.

Make Sanctuary

(Here’s the audio – it includes some silence at the beginning for lectio divina practice – a meditative way of reading Scripture.)

2 Corinthians 6:1-13

As we work together, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For God says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections. In return—I speak to you as to children—open wide your hearts also.
_

So, you decided to come to church this morning. We came to church this morning. We sang, and prayed, and have just heard scripture together.

We did this despite what happened on Wednesday, in a church, to people who sang, and prayed, and heard scripture together.

Maybe you thought it would be ok because here is not there. Because Kansas is not South Carolina. Because a twenty-four-year-old suburban church is not a hundred-and-ninety-nine-year-old southern church. Because most of these people are white, and all of those people were black. And so we are not like them.

Except that doesn’t hold up. Especially here. Because the story we tell every Sunday at church is our intentional effort to break down those boundaries. The story we tell says that in this place or in that place, new or old, white or black, all who gather around the story of Jesus are one. When we sing, our folk songs blend with their gospel choruses. And when we pray, our celebrations and our sadnesses mingle with theirs, because our hearts carry all the same stuff.

And when we break bread and drink from the cup, we remember brokenness and love, bodies and blood. Some of the earliest church fathers used to say that the bread we share is the body of Jesus and it is our own. This morning it is that of Jesus, and it is ours, and it is Clementa’s, and Cynthia’s, and Sharonda’s, and Tywanza’s, and Ethel’s, and Susie’s, and Depayne’s, and Daniel’s, and Myra’s. We are none of us, really, separate from each other.

candles on stand pic

We do not come to church to be reassured that we are unaffected. We come to church to be reminded that we are bound. We come to church because the songs remind us that we belong to God and to each other and the prayers acknowledge that there are some things we cannot do alone and the scriptures make clear that justice is hard and it has always been the call of God and the work of people of faith.

We come to worship because the sanctuary has historically been a safe space. People who were persecuted could come seeking refuge. They would run into the building and collapse on the floor beneath the cross and know that inside those walls they would find amnesty. That’s the definition of the term. Even though much of that old meaning has slipped away, still, when people find themselves afraid or unsure, they often find their way to a sanctuary. And when that very principle is violated, when people are not safe in their holy places, it is up to other people to create sanctuary outside of those walls once thought to contain it.
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Two Thursdays ago the high schoolers and I served dinner in a church basement to about a hundred and twenty neighbors. I grabbed a used tray from a man who was trying to balance too much and was on my way to dump the scraps in the trash can when another man, maybe just twenty years old, fell in step beside me. As soon as I met his eyes he told me, “My dream is to go to England.”

I said, “Oh?” and he told me about a friend of his who had gone and come back with some great stories, and about an athlete he follows who was born in England. And I was so struck by that – not that his dream was so striking, just that he offered it so quickly – before any “hellos” or “how are yous” – almost as if he was saying, “Listen, our time here might be short, so I just want to tell you: my dream is to go to England.”

Almost as if he was saying, “Listen, before you notice my empty glass and offer me a refill, or take in my ragged pants and point me towards the donated piles of clothing near the entryway, let me say this: my dream is to go to England.”

Almost as if he was saying, “Listen, I know you’re already telling yourself a story about me – about my hard life, my bad choices, my unfortunate circumstances, about how I ended up needing to come to a church basement for a free dinner tonight. But what I want you to know is: this is how human I am. I have a dream.”

And here’s my confession – if he hadn’t opened his heart like that, if he hadn’t offered up his dream… I wouldn’t have thought to ask. I might have asked how he was feeling, or if he’d grabbed an apple to take with him, or if he’d grown up nearby. But not if he had a dream. And I sure wouldn’t have thought to tell him mine, or to start a conversation that way.

But he did. He was vulnerable, and he was brave. He began to build a sanctuary, right there in line for the trash can. For no reason at all, he welcomed me into his world, and trusted me with his dream.

And now I think maybe he had to. Because if he was going to convince me that his story was more than a sad one, that he was more than someone to be pitied, he didn’t really have the luxury of time to work through all the proper introductions. I was about to dump that tray and turn away to my next task.

This convincing each other that we are human is urgent business. And it has consequences.
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The people of Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church opened their hearts. They did not withhold their affections or their faith. They prayed and sang and studied scripture with a stranger, and they acknowledged him as fully human. They made themselves vulnerable.

But what else could they have done? Deny him? Allow within their walls only people that they already knew and trusted? They are a congregation named Emmanuel – a people named God-with-us – so that really wasn’t ever an option. Maybe they knew that invulnerability was impossible. They surely knew it was anti-gospel.

What Paul is asking in these scriptures – open your hearts – takes on a strange and sad and scary new resonance today. What does it mean to open our hearts in a world where welcoming strangers means risking our lives?

But that’s not really a question for our context, is it? Or it’s only one of them. Our questions are: how brave, and how vulnerable, will we be? How many difficult conversations will we have with our friends and relatives? How hard will we work so that Grandmothers Against Gun Violence will have a voice that can be heard over the NRA’s? How will we tell our kids the hard and horrifying stories of our racist past, a history that stretches from centuries ago to just last week? How much rearranging of our lives will we do to make sure we have chances to learn more, to stand with, to speak up, to reach out? And how will we treat all our neighbors as fully human, not just as people with sad stories but also as people with dreams? How will we learn to trust and celebrate one another?

How will we open our hearts?

We were never those people that believed racism was over with the Civil Rights Act or the election of Barack Obama. We have always been those people who have believed that white privilege is real and that most of us benefit from it and that something is fundamentally unjust about that. And believing those truths is the tiniest beginning. Knowing the truth does not change it. Sitting down with it – confessing our gain from it – sharing our fears connected to it – speaking our dreams to strangers, and hearing theirs – that’s movement towards real change.

…I mean, I hope it is.

I hope we’ll at least try. And when we fail, I hope we will try again, and not be afraid to fail again, and then try again, and fail some more, and keep trying. I hope we won’t get tired. I hope we won’t get lazy. I know that’s easy to do, and it’s easy for white people, for privileged people, to turn away. I do it all the time. I like to think of myself as an ally but that can be exhausting and some days I’m unwilling to be exhausted by anything other than my own children. But we turn away at the risk of coming right back around to here, to this place of mourning and horror, and despite all the ways I will mess up I want to commit to doing what I can to create sanctuary outside of these walls. If you want to also, here’s a small way we can start:

Write this address down: Emmanuel AME Church, 110 Calhoun Street, Charleston, South Carolina, 29401. And sometime this week, send a card. Write a note of sympathy and solidarity, and drop it in the mail.

Paper may be flimsy. But even walls are no protection to people committed to welcoming neighbors, strangers. And if these cards carry our love, maybe they can help to create a sanctuary, and a space for dreams to be shared again, for those who are mourning now.