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.

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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.

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.
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…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.

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?

 

Where You Go…

Or, if you’d rather, here’s the audio.

Ruth 1:1-19a

A long time ago, when judges still ruled over Israel and the land was dried up with famine, a man from Bethlehem, which ironically means “place of bread,” left his home to live as a foreigner in the land of Moab. He traveled with his wife and their two sons. His name was Elimelech, and his wife was Naomi; their two sons were called Mahlon and Chilion. They had settled and made lives for themselves in Moab, but soon after, Elimelech died leaving Naomi in the care of her sons. Each son married a woman from Moab—one was named Orpah, the other Ruth—and they lived together for 10 years before Mahlon and Chilion died also. Naomi was left alone, without her husband and two sons.

Word had reached Moab that the Eternal One had once again brought life back to the land of Israel and blessed people with food. Naomi prepared to return with her daughters-in-law. With Orpah and Ruth at her side, she began her journey back to Judah, leaving the place where she had lived.

Then she said, to her daughters-in-law: “You have accompanied me far enough; you must both return to Moab. Go home to your mothers’ care and your people. May the Eternal show loyal love to you just as you demonstrated it to my dead sons and me. I hope God will bring you new husbands and that you will find the rest you deserve in their homes.”

She drew close, kissed them, and turned to go on her way, alone. But Orpah and Ruth wailed and sobbed, crying out to her.

They said, “Do not leave us! We insist you take us with you to live with you and your people.”

But Naomi said, “Go back to your homes, my daughters. What possible reason would you have for returning with me? Do you think there are more sons inside of me? Will you marry these unborn sons? Listen to me, daughters, and go back. I am too old; I will not marry again because I cannot conceive. But even if I could—if I still believed there was hope for me, or if I had a husband and conceived sons tonight— would you waste a lifetime waiting for them to grow up? Would you let this hope for the future keep you from remarrying now? Of course not, my dear daughters. It is obvious that the Eternal has acted against me. My life is much too bitter for you to share with me.”

At this Orpah and Ruth wailed and wept again. Then Orpah kissed Naomi, said goodbye, and returned the way she had come. Yet Ruth refused to let go of Naomi.

And Naomi said to Ruth: “Look at your sister-in-law. She has returned to live with her people and to worship her gods; go and follow her.”

And Ruth said:

“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!

Where you go I will go –  Where you lodge I will lodge –

Your people will be my people, and your God my God.

Where you die I will die, there will I be buried.

May the Lord punish me, punish me and more as well, if even death parts me from you.”

When Naomi heard this and saw Ruth’s resolve, she stopped trying to talk her out of returning. The two women went on together to Bethlehem.

_

If we’re not careful, there’s a hint of unhealthy teenage melodrama in that declaration, right, that famous vow Ruth speaks? Think back to your first real crush. Wasn’t there some part of you that said some variation of those promises? “Where you go, I will go. Your friends will be my friends, and your music will be my music, and your favorite pizza topping, that’s…exactly what I was…going to order anyway sojustgoahead.”

These verses – Ruth’s intense speech here – they’re often read as the height of romantic confession. But that’s not what’s happening here at all. The story begins with romantic couplings – women are bound together by their connections to the same men – but in just a few short verses the romance is literally dead. This is a promise Ruth makes to her mother-in-law.

Where you go, I will go. Your people, my people. Your God, my God.

In the time and place of this scripture, there is no such thing as religious conversion. People did not study the sacred words of various traditions and choose one that resonated with their own personal philosophy; they did not grow disillusioned with the religion of their ancestors and set out on their own quest to find a doctrine or a practice that struck them as more inspired. Religion and ethnicity are so deeply tied together in Ruth and Naomi’s world that there is no separation of one from the other. Ruth’s identity as a Moabite also pegs her as a pagan; just like Naomi’s Jewish blood reveals who she will worship. So when Ruth promises to come alongside Naomi, the words she speaks mean even more than we might initially hear in them.

The midrash – that is, the stories the rabbis developed, over the centuries about the Biblical texts – the midrash suggests that Ruth’s famous speech here isn’t a monologue, but half of a conversation. They say as the women walked, Naomi told Ruth what would be expected of her.

The rabbis say, here’s what’s missing:

The mother-in-law said, “You understand, it is not the way of Israel to go to theaters or to spectacles, but only to synagogues and study halls. Nor is it our way to go a great distance on the Sabbath.”

And in response, Ruth said, “Where you go, I will go.”

And as they walked on toward Bethlehem, Naomi told her, “We have rules, you know – a man cannot be alone with a woman, and especially with a married woman. That’s a really important one to my people.”

And Ruth promised, “Your people will be my people.”

And finally, Naomi told her the commandment — one she would have known, we would think, from being married for ten years to a Jewish man — but Naomi told her anyway, “Idolatry is forbidden to us.”

And Ruth said, “Your God will be my God.”

It really is an extraordinary declaration.

Phyllis Trible, a Hebrew Bible scholar, says this story is passed on to us because in it, “One woman has chosen another woman in a world whose life depends on men. There is no more radical decision in all the memories of Israel.”

It’s a decision to stay with loss. A decision to move forward into a future that seems only tied to the past. Naomi can’t understand why Ruth would go with her; it’s not even clear that she wants the company.

If we read the text together with the midrash, we see that Ruth has all the trappings of privilege. She’s young. There seems no doubt that she could marry again. She comes from a land of plenty; she may even come from its most powerful family – the midrash suggests that she’s the daughter of a king in Moab. To go with Naomi, Ruth must give up a future shaped by all of that good fortune. And she does.

Ruth chooses the uncertainty of entering a foreign land, over the security of going home. She chooses vulnerability over strength, because she chooses relationship. She chooses not to let go of Naomi, but to walk with her – and to do that, she has to say, “I will not be who I have been.”

All around her, people notice Ruth’s difference – the book of Ruth is only four chapters long and she’s called a Moabite eight times – which is to say, she does not totally shed her original identity. She can’t. She is recognizably not the same as the people in the context she’s chosen to enter. But she does – to the extent that she can – she does shed the privileges that accompany her identity. She chooses to let go of those so that she might really be on a journey with this woman whose life and struggle and sadness is bound up with her own. She could let it go – that’s what privilege is. That’s what it allows. But she chooses not to.

And now, in the wake of Ferguson – which is to say, in the wake of yet another loss that highlights how deep the legacy of racism runs in this country and how far we have to go to reach anything approximating a just society – in the aftermath of that reality, this might be just the choice we’re asked to make, too.

Not to shed our identities. We are who we are; we come from where we do. That’s not the same story for all of us, but many of us occupy places of privilege. The choice we’re being asked to make, now, is how far we will carry that. How tightly we’ll cling to it. Whether or not we can summon the courage of Ruth, to just walk alongside those who suffer. And not turn back. Naomi is not only mourning – she is bitter. She is angry. She believes that God has been unfair to her. She tells Ruth to go away. And Ruth does not argue and she does not give answers and she does not defend God. Ruth says, “Your world will be my world.”

What we have seen so much of these past few weeks is the reality that people can live in the same city and occupy different worlds. Different, and unequal. And we have for so long denied the difference, or we have ignored it, because to acknowledge it would mean to make ourselves vulnerable, and to give up privilege, and we are scared of what that might mean. At least, I am.

A man who did antiracist organizing for two decades describes stepping out onto his porch one morning, holding his small child in his arms, and seeing five young African-American men. He didn’t recognize them. And he was afraid. And as soon as he registered that feeling of fear, he was ashamed. He says, “It’s not something people committed to anti-racist work like to admit feeling.” 

It’s not something any one of us would want to say out loud. But he admits the fear, he goes on to say, “because this isn’t a time for false pretenses to protect our egos. This is a time for white people to recognize that our irrational fears of Blackness are the result of the logics of white supremacy… When I experience these irrational fears, I remind myself that this is the legacy of slavery, of Jim Crow apartheid, of anti-Black racism used to justify economic exploitation and social violence, that these fears are one of the ways that white supremacy lives in my body and subconsciously works to organize my life by dividing me from Black people, supporting their subjugation, actively or through indifference, and uniting me to ruling class agendas of concentrating wealth and power through structural violence and inequality.”

What would it even mean to step away from that? What privilege might we lose if we just acknowledged it, and we decided it’s not worth the cost it comes with: broken individual bodies, and a broken community, and a broken body of Christ?

Because there are other legacies that run through us, as people of faith – other impulses in our bodies – that run counter to the fear we’ve been fed. Living in us also are the words of the prophets, ready to spill off our tongues, calling out injustice and reminding the world that it was created beautiful. And living in us also is the story of reconciliation – the central story of our tradition – that acknowledges deep division but says that just the act of being together can be redemptive. It’s true that dangerous ideologies can run deep in us, even ones we would deny, or spend our lives working against. But it is also true that we are made of more than that.

_

Imagine a mother, who has lost a son – to famine, or to fighting, or to God-knows-what – and she is walking back to her community. Or maybe to a vigil. Or a protest. And you try to accompany her. And she tells you to go home.

Maybe you say, “Where you go, I will go.”

And she says, “You understand, where I am going, a mother loses her black son to police or vigilante violence every 28 hours. Where I am going, I go to console other mothers, who worry every time our boys step outside the house.”

She says, “Because where I am going – anything – a wallet, a cell phone, even a colostomy bag – can be mistaken for a weapon, and get a man beaten or worse. Where I am going, an unarmed teenager can be shot and killed, and end up looking like the criminal instead of the victim.”

Maybe you can’t quite say back to that, “Your people will be my people.” Something about that sounds disingenuous. Maybe you can’t say anything at all.

And maybe that’s fine.

Because maybe this is where people of privilege listen, and learn, and lift up other voices. Maybe this is where we confess, and pray, and light candles; where we bring bread, and break it, and share it.

Then the privileges we’ve lost are those of ignorance and indifference. And, let’s be honest, those are necessary losses if we hope for a future.

Walking Together

Micah 4, selected verses

In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house
will be established as the highest of mountains,
And will be raised above the hills.
People will stream to it,
And many nations will come and say:
Come, let’s go up to the mountain of the Lord,
To the house of the God of Jacob, so that
God will teach us God’s ways,
And we will walk forever in God’s paths.

The Lord will judge between many people,
Will judge between strong nations far away.
They will beat their swords into plowshares,
And their spears into pruning-hooks.
Nation will not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war any more,
But they will sit under their own vines and their own fig trees,
And no one will make them afraid,
The mouth of God has spoken.

For all the people walk,
All in the name of their god,
But we will walk in the way of the Lord our God forever.

*

He was a young white kid, a country boy from central Missouri, and when he was growing up there was one person of color in his whole county. So Larry got more of an education than he’d expected when he enrolled at Lincoln University. Lincoln was only half an hour from home, and it was affordable – those were his reasons for choosing it. But Lincoln is also Missouri’s historically black college.

And Larry went in wanting to study social work, he says he wanted to save the world, but in that environment he realized how important it was to him to understand how the world came to be the way it is, to learn those stories, and to learn how to pass them on. So he took an African-American history class, from a professor born in 1899. The man had lived through so many sea changes of African-American life, he had endless stories to tell. He was famous for ignoring the clock and keeping his students late. And mostly, they didn’t complain about this.

But Larry’s was a night class, and one evening the professor went so long that Larry was left without a ride. His dad worked nights and had the family’s only car, so Larry knew it would be useless to call his parents. He plopped down on the curb and waited – for nothing, really – but he wasn’t ready yet to begin the 30-mile walk home.

And after a while, headlights landed on the road in front of him, and the car slowed to a stop where he sat. His professor leaned over and asked out the window, “What are you doing?” And Larry told him, “I missed my ride.”

His professor told him to hop in – and he knew how far it was, Larry said, he was the kind of professor who asked where you were from, and remembered things like that. But Larry stepped in to the old Buick, with the floorboards worn thin, and he held on as his professor sped away. When they arrived, and Larry had stepped out of the car, the old man called after him. He said, “You want to be a teacher, right?” And Larry said that he did. And his professor raised his finger in the air – and said, “Remember this one thing: You must always be friends with your students.” …

And years later, then a professor himself, Larry was part of a program from Lincoln University that introduced an associate’s degree in the humanities to the Missouri State Penitentiary. It was dangerous territory, in a dangerous time – lots of racial tension, piled on top of the tension created by the dynamic of these black men earning their college degrees in prison, all the while under the watch of the warden and the other guards, who were all white, who all had high school diplomas. So he came to teach, and he was young – in his 20s – and he wore jeans, and he rode a motorcycle – and the guards were wary of him. He didn’t fit their notion of what a professor should look like, and they weren’t thrilled that the professors were there in the first place. And the prisoners, his students, they were wary of him, too. They weren’t sure this young white guy had anything to teach them, especially about black history. Much of their education came in the form of the teachings of Elijah Muhammed and the Nation of Islam, which insisted that white men are enemies of black men. And all of those tensions together meant that the prison, especially the yard, could be a dangerous place. Because of its history, even before Larry came, it’d been called the “bloodiest 47 acres in America.”

So these security measures were put in place for the teachers. When a group of them arrived, the warden provided them with an escort, to ensure their safe passage across the prison yard to the building where they’d hold classes. The warden harassed Larry some when he was on his own, but left him alone as long as he was with the other teachers.

And that first semester, Larry began to earn the trust of the students. He said it was kind of dicey for a while; he knew he was on trial. But he followed the advice of that professor who had first encouraged him to teach – he listened, more than he talked – and that mattered.

And then a new semester began, and Larry’s class was slotted for a different time – a schedule that meant he didn’t arrive at the prison with the other teachers. He says that’s when the warden really started to make him nervous. And as part of this intimidation, now that he arrived separately from the group, the warden refused to give Larry an escort across the yard. Larry was scared when he was alone – not of the imprisoned men, he said, but of the warden, of the guards – he knew they didn’t want him there, and he was always afraid they’d try to frame him – stick a joint in his pocket, or a letter in his briefcase – some contraband…

So on the day he was to make this journey across the yard alone, he stood behind the first gate, which was like a steel door, got the ok from the guard, and waited for it to open. And when it did, and he raised his eyes, expecting to look all the way across the yard, to scan it, to gain some sense of how he’d make his way alone, he couldn’t. His view was blocked by men standing right in front of him. Prisoners on the other side of the gate, so close he couldn’t take a first step. Students of his. Friends. They’d been expecting him; they’d come to walk with him. And when they got to the next gate – a place some of them couldn’t go beyond – when it opened up for Larry, there were others to accompany him. And they escorted him to the next gate, where a last group of students waited, to walk him to the final door. And he said, “we never talked about it. They just showed up that first day I didn’t have an escort, and they just kept showing up. I never asked them why they did it. And they never told me. All I know is it really was like an act of faith, like a walking in faith, on both of our parts.”

*

All the people walk, the prophet said. All in the name of their God.
We will walk in the way of the Lord our God forever.

Just taken at face value, that’s what we did last Sunday. A couple of parents and youth sponsors and a group of youth from Saint Andrew – we walked, because we are Christian, with other people, who walked because they are Muslim, or Jewish, or Baha’i, or Hindu. For the third year in a row now, we joined with the Kansas City Interfaith Youth Alliance, with their Peace Walk, and we walked the four miles from Church of the Resurrection to Congregation Beth Shalom to the Islamic Center of Johnson County. We heard prayers spoken and sung; we saw an art installation of Hebrew calligraphy at the synagogue; we sat outside a door marked “ladies entrance” at the Islamic Center and we knew, just from that, that we were in a place very different from our own.

The organizers of the walk always issue a challenge – that before it’s over, you meet new friends. That’s the point, they say, to come together and get to know each other. And they say it like it should be easy. And maybe it should be. I mean, every year we go, knowing that everyone there has come to walk, together, to literally move in a direction of greater understanding. And still, every year, it is really hard.

I think part of it is that we’ve been taught not to talk about things that matter – religion and politics, right, are not polite conversations. So all of these youth are gathered; they’ve all come because of their commitment to their faith; they’ve come because they want to understand and to be understood. But how do they begin? How do they offer up stories from the core of who they are? How do they share what matters most deeply to them – what, for many of them, explains their families, their sense of themselves, their hopes and dreams, their songs and prayers, even their food and clothing? What is it like to come together with people you know are fundamentally different from you, and to offer yourself up? Or to ask someone else to do that?

It doesn’t always happen, not in any meaningful ways. But even so we’re walking, all of us are walking, the same way. And that means we encounter the same scenes, and we hear the same traffic, and we dodge the same darting insects. We smile at each other as we wait to cross the street and we greet one another as we grab drinks of water from the volunteers along the route. We exchange these small kindnesses. And until we gain the courage to do more, I have to believe these steps matter. …

Two years ago the walk was on September 11. And it was the same route; it ended at the Islamic Center. And I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone was nervous about being there, on that day. I wondered if the organizers of the walk had talked about going a different route. I wondered if it was helpful, or harmful, to that community, for this crowd to be gathered in their parking lot on that anniversary. I suppose it could have been a show of solidarity, a way of making peace. We were not exactly beating weapons into farm tools – but that’s not the whole of the prophet’s vision. He also says there will come a day when we do not make each other afraid anymore. I know, naïve as it may sound, that one of the goals of this walking together is to make all of us, with each step, a little less afraid.

I think maybe that’s possible. And even if they’re all still working up the courage to share their souls with each other, I think there’s something profound that might happen even just in all these youth walking, even just in the movement together. The American Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, and the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, they’ve published their conversations and in one, Berrigan remembers this film, The Gospel of Saint Matthew – he says, in it, “Jesus is always moving.” He says, “Jesus teaches while he’s walking with his friends. And he’s always walking very quickly, never seated somewhere, he’s walking, and speaking over his shoulder while they’re trying to keep up with him.”

Berrigan says, “this walking, it’s not just a way of showing the urgency of the truth; it goes deeper than that. It’s as though life itself is a forward movement of awareness, of consciousness, of love, and Jesus is dramatizing this by moving. His life is a movement, and his students, his friends can’t remain static and hope to grasp what he’s about. They cannot remain in comfort; they cannot remain in the past. It’s as though Jesus – it’s as though he’s a kind of spool which is unwinding; they’re trying to grab it as it goes, but it’s always going.”

And Nhat Hanh says: “The teaching is not static because it is not mere words; it is the reality of life.”

The reality of our lives is not static. It is dynamic; it is movement. All the people walk.

I don’t know what it means, really, to walk in the way of God. But when I think about the prison yard, about the risk Larry took, showing up to walk it alone, and the risk each of his students, his friends, took, so that he wouldn’t have to, I think that boldness must be part of what the prophet envisioned.

And that’s a different risk than the one taken by the teenagers, who show up year after year to walk the same four miles through a strip-malled suburb. When I think about that route, about the energy and courage it takes to finally share a story, or ask a question, even just to keep taking steps in the same direction, I think that faithfulness must be part of what the prophet dreamed of.

And both of those risks are different than the ones we take when we try to chase this unwinding spool, this life of Jesus that is a movement, this Spirit that is always spinning just out of our reach.

But all of the risks also hold out promise – we know that as we reach, even if we’re struggling to keep up, this spool, this spirit that leads the way, it calls us from where we have been, more deeply into where we are, and toward what we might be. It does not wait for us. But it does beckon us. It does invite us to walk, unafraid. And it invites us into communion with all who walk – even, especially, this one who goes so quickly, ahead of us, calling out teachings and love over his shoulder.

The Second Question

An expert in the Law stood up to put Jesus to the test and said, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit everlasting life?”

Jesus answered, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”

The expert on the Law replied:
“You must love the Most High God
with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your strength
and with all your mind,
and your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus said, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you’ll live.”

But the expert on the Law, seeking self-justification, pressed Jesus further: “And just who is my neighbor?”

Jesus replied, “There was a traveler going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, who fell prey to robbers. The traveler was beaten, stripped naked, and left half-dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road; the priest saw the traveler lying beside the road, but passed by on the other side. Likewise there was a Levite who came the same way; this one, too, saw the afflicted traveler and passed by on the other side.

But a Samaritan, who was taking the same road, also came upon the traveler and, filled with compassion, approached the traveler and dressed the wounds, pouring oil and wine. Then the Samaritan put the wounded person on a donkey, went straight to an inn and there took care of the injured one. The next day the Samaritan took out two silver pieces and gave them to the innkeeper with the request, ‘Look after this person, and if there is any further expense, I’ll repay you on the way back.’

Which of these three, in your opinion, was the neighbor to the traveler who fell in with the robbers?”

The answer came, “The one who showed compassion.”

Jesus replied, “Then go and do the same.”

*

To start: in our story – and in our story-within-a-story – we have some titles – there’s a lawyer; he calls Jesus teacher; Jesus tells the story of a priest, Levite, Samaritan. And then we are noticeably lacking other titles – like, we don’t know anything about the man by the side of the road except that he’s beaten and bloodied, or anything about the nationalities or religious convictions or other aspirations of the robbers. But at the end of the story, we return to the word that sparked question – and the story – in the first place: neighbor. Who is my neighbor?

That’s the word that hangs in the air. And the interesting thing about it, I think, is that it’s impossible to locate “neighbor” in the kind of hierarchical relationship that is so readily implied by all of the other titles – we start with a lawyer, so we can imagine a client. And a teacher, so we can imagine a student. We hear of a priest, so we know there are congregants somewhere, and a Levite, who would have maintained the temple, so we can think of the temple-goers on whose behalf he served. The Samaritan stands in opposition to the Jew, those communities were well-established enemies, that’s what makes him such a controversial choice for the hero in this story, and when we hear of robbers, we know their victims are not far away. But what’s the opposite of neighbor? – Neighbor? – All of the other titles are implicated in a power relationship, but neighbor – fails in that way, right? Where there is a neighbor, all that we know for sure is that there are … other neighbors.

And that’s the word Jesus would leave us with: neighbor. That’s the only title. When the story ends, it’s with a series of actions – what the neighbor does – and a command to act similarly. In this story, the neighbor comes upon, feels compassion, approaches, dresses wounds, carries, transports, checks in, takes care, pays, promises – in the words of the lawyer, he “shows mercy.” At the end of the story, the hierarchies have all dissolved, and we only have a neighbor, taking care of a neighbor.

But how do we get there? How do we come to be neighbors?

Because we read these ancient texts alongside the stories of right now. And the most recent story we’re being told about neighbors now – what we know to be true – is that sometimes they don’t know each other. And if neighbors don’t know each other, and one of them is afraid and armed, and cannot imagine the other as his neighbor… If one of them cannot imagine that the other might just be on his way home to watch the All-Star game with his dad, after buying a snack down the street…

When I taught at Ottawa University, the Black Student Union held an open meeting to which they invited the university’s highest-ranking administrators. And they told them there was a problem with the racial climate on campus. They described being condescended to, ridiculed, humiliated, mistreated, even threatened and attacked. And the university president sat and listened as students – in tears and rage – shared story after story of what they had endured as people of color on that campus. And when the last student had shared the last story, he said, “Hmmm. That hasn’t been my experience on this campus.”

And of course it hadn’t. He was the most powerful person around. And he was – is – a rich, straight, white man. The experiences of the Ottawa’s young students of color were not the same as his experiences. But they could have been part of his consciousness. Those stories could have become part of the knowledge he carried around about what constitutes the environment he shares with those students. Their experiences could have opened his eyes, his ears, his heart, so that he might learn to protect and advocate for Ottawa’s students of color; he might stand, to the extent he is able, in solidarity with them.

The president of Ottawa was lucky. He didn’t know it, but he was being offered a real gift. Neighbors do not always say, “Have a seat. Let me tell you about the injustices I suffer on a daily basis.” Partly because that’s exhausting. And partly because they’re not being asked.

But listen: In our story, Jesus asks two questions. I mean, I know you probably know this story – but did you know that Jesus asks two questions? And they’re not quite the same. The lawyer asks him: What must I do? And Jesus answers not with another question, but with two. He asks: What has been written? And then he asks: How do you read it?

What has been written? Right? The answer to the lawyer’s question has already been given. It’s been recorded in the very books the lawyer has spent his life studying. And the lawyer knows it. And Jesus knows the lawyer knows it. So Jesus makes the lawyer tell him: What has been written? And the lawyer does: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, all your strength and all your mind. And, you must love your neighbor as yourself.”

The lawyer answers the first question. And then he falls silent. Jesus also asked, “How do you read it?” He gives the lawyer the chance to explain why he has the question. What it is in him that is wondering…

Is it that he wants to test Jesus? That’s what some interpretations say: that he thinks this law will be a good foundation on which to challenge Jesus. Or does he really not understand what has been written? Does he think it can’t be that hard? Does he read skeptically? Does he read hesitantly, unsure of the parameters, needing the terms to be clarified? That’s what his next question would lead us to think. Does he read mournfully, knowing the impossibility of the call? How does he read it?

We don’t know – he doesn’t answer that question. But, even still, it might be really important that he’s asked it. It might be that even before Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, he’s giving his hearers an example of how to be a neighbor.

Think about it: Aren’t there some situations, where the second question makes all the difference? What if someone would have stopped the priest, or the Levite, and asked: What happened by the side of the road? How do you see it?

To the first question they could have said: There’s a man who’s been attacked. He’s struggling.

But to the second question, what would they have said? How do I see him? I see through my fear, through my prejudice, through my regret, through my anger…

Maybe the priest would have said: I see through the lens of my occupation, which compels me to remain ritually pure, and so forbids me to have contact with this man, though he is obviously suffering. I see through my competing commitments to tend to an individual in need and to tend to a community in need. I see through a worldview that asks me to consider the consequences to my own good standing before I consider the well-being of a man who’s been knocked down.

Because it’s the honesty that makes all of those answers unbearable. It’s the speaking of the truth – the answer to the “how do you see it?” – that reveals the flaw in the response, and exposes it for the farce that it is, or exposes the injustice of the systems themselves, that keep the priest and Levite bound. But unless all that is spoken – unless someone dares to ask – this illusion that there’s a reasonable justification for passing by is maintained.

But the second question doesn’t only strip the priest and the Levite of their excuses. It also gives them the chance to speak their own pain. Right?

“How do I see? I see with empathy, because I know what it is to be left alone and in need.” Maybe the Levite would have said: “I see deeply, because I know that man’s story – I know more than you can know by looking, because he hangs out around the temple often – but I do not know how to help him.” Or the priest: “I see with the kind of fatigue that comes from answering other people’s needs all day long; I see in that man’s body what I feel in my own spirit.”

There are only so many ways you can answer the first questions. What is written in the law? What is happening by the side of the road?

But the second – how do you read it? How do you see it? – the possibilities for those answers are endless. The first questions, we can call out to one another as we run out to grab the newspaper from the driveway. The second questions, we have to invite people to sit on our porch for, and bring them lemonade. The second questions take time. They take energy. And because they do, they make neighbors. If we have the patience to listen. But our patience is misplaced. We have been too patient, for too long, with injustice – thinking in a generation or two, these ills that plague will have worked themselves out. Because we’re making this slow progress, right?

William Sloane Coffin pastored the Riverside Church in New York City during the 70s and 80s, left to devote his time fully to disarmament. He was living in Connecticut when that state first began its consideration of same-sex unions, and closed a Letter to the Editor about that consideration with this:
“As a male I consider myself at best a recovering chauvinist. As a white person I am a recovering racist, and as a straight person a recovering heterosexist. To women, African-Americans, gays, and lesbians, I am deeply grateful for stretching my mind, deepening my heart, and convincing me that no human being should ever be patient with prejudice at the expense of its victims.”

Perhaps what we need to make time for are the stories people tell in response to the second question, when we have the courage and heart to ask it. Because you know what we would hear, don’t you?

We could ask anyone on the street: What was the verdict last night? How did you hear it?

And each person’s answer to the first question is the same. Not guilty, second degree murder. Not guilty, manslaughter.

But to the second question? How did you hear it?

Some people will say that’s the only way it could have ended. Given the laws in Florida, the ways the case was brought and the way it proceeded, there wasn’t another possible ending.

And some people will say that this is proof – on top of proof on top of proof, as if we needed more – that as a society we believe some people’s lives as disposable. That some people’s fear is worth preserving and some people’s lives aren’t worth protecting. That just as it has so many times in the past, the system has failed those among us who are most vulnerable.

And some people – some fathers – will say that they hear it, pained, not only for themselves but because they do not know how to tell the story to their sons. They do not know what precautions to take. They do not ever want to let those young black boys leave their sides again.

And some people will tell you – some young black women will tell you, like young black women did in the 1920s, like they have at numerous times throughout American history – that the “how-do-I-talk-to-my-son” question is no longer relevant. Because they will not have babies. They will not bring children into a world where they cannot even reasonably assume they might be safe. This is the conversation my former students were having last night.

And maybe some people will not even talk about it. Because they are exhausted. Because, like the Psalmist said so long ago, their tears have been their pillow all night long.

And in and around and despite all of that, there come these two more questions, always present with us:

What is the Gospel? How do you hear it?

To the first, we can say: The Gospel is the good news that in Jesus, God came to be with us, to be neighbor to us and show us how to be, to teach us that the Kingdom of God is – somehow – already breaking through, is here among us now. That wherever we gather, and whenever we love, and we listen, and we repent, and we make peace, and we seek justice, and we call on God, God is there, loving us, making us and all things new. That’s the Gospel.

Now: how do you hear it?
How do you live it?