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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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.

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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.

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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.

at the table after tragedy

There is language we use in worship not because it is true yet but because it is all that we yearn for. When what is is enough to shake us to the core, we call on what we hope against hope might be. And it can seem jarring to talk about sanctuary, or to sing about none being afraid, when the reality we share is one where the even the safest spaces are violated, where atrocity and sensation and horror vie for our attention and our energy.

But it is in response to this that we sing, and pray, and gather at this table. We do it as an act of solidarity and as an act of resistance. We do it to say back to the violence that it will not have the last word. We do it not because we imagine how the world might be “when God is a child” but because we know that God is a child. Two thousand and some years ago and Friday and today and years from now, God is a child. God is every child. And so we worship and that means we love children. And so we pray and that means we listen to the most vulnerable among us. And so we gather at this table and that means we share in the promise and the pain of the world, believing that God shares it, too, and holds us as we hold our confusion and our sorrow and our hope.