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"Koinonia" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - June 3, 2018

posted Jun 4, 2018, 1:49 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

Earlier this week something in the news caught my attention; no, not Roseanne Barr. The National Spelling Bee took place in Maryland, with hundreds of youth competing for the trophy of top speller. 14-year old Karthik Nemmani of McKinney, Texas, won the honors; but all the youth amazed me. As much as I like to read, they spelled words I didn’t even know.


At the penultimate moment, a previous winner misspelled Bewusstseinslage. I had to look that one up; a loan word from German that means a state of consciousness lacking in sensory awareness. To use it in a sentence, “She claimed Ambien caused her Bewusstseinslage.”


But other words were as difficult, like glossodynia, a “burning sensation in mouth.” This word describes a medical condition. I found several related terms at the Mayo Clinic site: orodynia, oral dysaesthesia, and glossopyrosis. I get the drift of all these derived from Greek; perhaps we could coin a new one, “Her tweet seemed glossopyracist.”


Another new word I learned: triturate, as in to crush. And in a sentence, “The tweet triturated her eponymous show.”


And yet, despite all these new words, Karthik won on a word much more familiar to me: koinonia.  It means “spiritual community.” While the word comes to us from Greek, the word itself is not old.  Rather, people created this word in the mid-nineteenth century - in the midst of the Civil War and the industrial revolution - to describe both what they experienced in church and what they longed for: koinonia, community.


Could there be a better word for 2018? For in this age of tweets, this era of online trolls, what could be better than koinonia? To know that we are not alone? To feel, in the depths of our hearts, we belong?


Biblical scholars often attempt to reimagine the sitz im leben of a scriptural passage. (This is just a German way of saying the situation in life that caused a particular passage to be created.) And when they wonder about the personal experience behind a psalm, scholars zero in on those most disturbing verses, the one’s Katie read on our behalf. The vehemence of those passages leads scholars to wonder if the author experienced some unjust accusation; perhaps denounced for idolatry. Scholars hear that in the closing line, when the psalmist appeals to God, “See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” The accused person is throwing themselves on the mercy of God.


Faced with an accusation by the community, the person felt themselves excluded, cut off, set outside polite society. Scholars hear this in the strident lines of the majority of the psalm, which proclaim over and over, “No matter what, God is with me.” Scholars hear that and add the unspoken conclusion, “No matter what, God is with me (even when it feels like everyone else is against me).”


The person who wrote our psalm experienced an utter lack of koinonia. Or, we might say, anakoinonia (uncommunity). The psalmist wrote as one slandered and shunned, one made to feel other and outcast.


As I thought about this sitz im leben of the psalm, I found myself thinking of both Roseanne Barr and the person her tweet attacked, Valerie Jarrett. If Biblical scholars are right, then the situation of either woman could be similar to that of the author of the psalm.


It may be easier for us to see Valerie Jarrett’s situation as akin to the author of that psalm. The tweet slandered her, drawing on 500 years of white supremacy to pillory Jarrett. Anyone in such a situation would long for koinonia. And Jarrett herself said as much, “First of all, I think we have to turn it into a teaching moment,” she said. “I’m fine. I’m worried about all the people out there who don’t have a circle of friends and followers coming to their defense.” When someone tries to publicly shame us, as Roseanne tried to do with Jarrett, then we especially need the assurance of community. To see the psalmist as like Jarrett can make us sympathetic to the author; we understand and feel the injustice of the exclusion.


But we could also see Roseanne Barr as reflective of the situation behind this psalm. Roseanne said something disgustingly cruel for the way it echoed racist tropes. And then the swift reaction caught her off guard, leaving her cut off from community. One can imagine her surprise. After all, she sang the national anthem while grabbing her privates and no one protested (unlike Colin Kaepernick, who respectfully took a knee to honor victims of police shootings and touched off an ongoing controversy). And more recently, Roseanne Barr made a similar racist remark against Susan Rice and suffered no backlash. So apparently Barr thought she could make another comment comparing a prominent African-American leader to a beast. And now - behind all the apologies to try to regain her standing - one senses Roseanne feels persecuted herself. (Which may be why, when the Ambien excuse failed, Roseanne turned to other excuses, claiming she thought Jarrett was white, then Persian, then Jewish.) Seeing the author of the psalm as like Roseanne may make us far less sympathetic.


And yet, whether the psalmist was like Jarrett or like Barr, I think the psalm operates as an expression of transforming grace. Even those most troubling verses, those verses we so often skip, speak to how God’s grace can work in our lives to bring us back into koinonia (community). So think of Jarrett, or Barr, or someone else who feels judged and excluded from community as we delve a bit deeper into this psalm.


I treasure this psalm - one of my favorites - because of the first eighteen verses, the verses we normally read; and in fact, when I pray, I turn to these verses for my own language.  he power of these verses comes from the very personal way the author speaks of the relationship with God.


It begins with the opening verses: “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.” And some translators feel we could even intensify this very personal address to God, saying, “You, you know…”


And in this very personal address, the psalmist makes clear how well God knows us. “Even before a word is on my tongue, O God, you know it completely.” To be so fully known is both wonderful and, if we’re honest, awkward. It means something far more than that God understands how we feel; God knows before we even know. God knows the truth of who we are before we do. We remain in the dark about the patterns in our lives, but God sees them. How does it feel to have someone know the truth of our life before we do?


Many people who have come out as LGBT have had an experience where you share this deep discovery about who you are only to have someone say, “I knew already.” When it happens to me, I feel like, “wait a minute, this is my big moment.” And yet, the person knew. It happened to me years ago when I came out to my brother. There was a lot of family drama before I told him; but when I finally did, he’d already known. First, his wife always suspected; turns out being a teenage boy with a favorite china pattern was a wee bit of a giveaway. And then he’d seen a book at my parent’s house, “When your Son comes out.” It all stole my thunder.


And yet, to be known this way is also comforting. Because it’s the friend who can read a thousand words in just one of your looks; the one who knows your silences and each of your hundred smiles.  God knows us this completely.


The psalm then repeats this affirmation of God’s knowledge by speaking of the impossibility of fleeing God’s sight. “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” (That poetic verse imagines us rising with the Sun in the east - the wings of morning - and traversing the Earth ‘til we set in the west - settle at the farthest limits of the sea.) No matter where we go, God goes with us. And even more, God is with us in the places we never imagined we go.


This leads to a revelation: the God who knows us better than we know ourselves, the God who goes with us wherever we go, can see beyond all our pretentious: “My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.”


God’s amazing knowledge allows the psalmist to speak some of the most profound words: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Wonderfully, fearfully made. To speak this way is to name the full range of our possibilities, to accept both the grandeur and the grittiness of our humanity, to know our beauty and our shadows.


I think all of these beautiful verses act as a prelude to the awfully honest words we tend to avoid. But it is only after the psalmist says God knows us better than we know ourselves, only after the psalmist says God goes with us even to places we can’t imagine, only after the psalmist realizes our identity as wonderfully, fearfully made, that the awfully honest feeling can be faced. And to really hear those words, it helps to think of the psalmist as either Valerie Jarrett or Roseanne Barr.  What is the awful truth both have a hard time naming?


Jarrett spoke about this tweet with great dignity; as I quoted earlier, she said, “I’m fine.” Her words were calm, dispassionate, poised even. But I noticed more what went unsaid. Her hurt.  Her anger. Her grief. Many commentators suggested what Roseanne Barr said could be seen as a sign of the state of race relations in America; but I think more was disclosed by what could not be said. Jarrett had to follow the advice of countless parents as to what to do in the face of white supremacy: stay calm. And yet surely a part of her wanted to scream when Roseanne referred to her as a beast.


I know Jarrett can’t say publicly what she really thinks of Roseanne Barr; but surely God knows. And likewise, this psalm, this prayer, gave voice to the thoughts the author dares not speak; the thoughts only God could discern; the pain only God could see. Can we be so revealingly honest in our prayers, naming our rawest emotions before God? Can we name in prayer the pain and grief which keeps us from koinonia?


But these most troubling verses can also be heard as the words of Roseanne Barr. Because the psalm speaks to the truth we can’t face about ourselves. Roseanne - despite apologizing to try to save the tatters of her reputation - has kept retweeting conspiracy theories about this.


Perhaps the psalmist did much the same, adopting a tone of self-righteous indignation. “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?” But then comes the real question hidden in another self-righteous proclamation, “See if there is in me any wicked way.”


I read once of a reporter who went to witness a rally for a brand-new confederate monument in the South. She wrote, “Most of the attendees were so polite, and so eager to tell me that the Confederate legacy was divorced from slavery, that it reminded me of the peculiarity of racial relations in America, where a person who has racist beliefs believes himself to be absolved if he doesn’t consider himself racist.” Just as those raising the Confederate statues don’t see themselves as racist, Roseanne doesn’t seem to recognize the racism behind her comment. (And I suspect that is why Roseanne is now trying to say she thought Valerie Jarrett was white.)


But God - who knows our thoughts - can indeed see what we don’t want to see about ourselves. And so, when we pray to God - “Try me and know my thoughts.” - God must just be thinking, “I find you trying indeed.” Perhaps praying this psalm can move us to know those truths we don’t want to see about ourselves. To know the truth about what keeps us from living more fully into koinonia.


The psalms are sometimes called the “Prayer book of the Bible.” Not just because it contains 150 prayers, but because it teaches us how to pray. What if we learned to pray like Psalm 139 - affirming of course that we are not alone because we live in God’s world and then allow that promise of koinonia to move us to a deep honesty about the feelings we hide, sometimes even hide from ourselves? Alleluia and Amen.




Sources:

  • Feasting on the Word

  • Okeowo, Alexis, “Witnessing a Rally for a Brand New Confederate Monument,” The New Yorker, August 29, 2017.

  • Wang, Amy B., “Champion crowned at Scripps National Spelling Bee from record-breaking field,” Washington Post, June 1, 2018

"Joy and the Trinity" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - May 27, 2018

posted May 29, 2018, 11:15 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

A while ago, I was talking with a friend about the work of our congregation to address white privilege and to work for racial equity and immigration rights.  The friend I talked with is white; and as we talked, her face became clouded, until she said, “I just find it so depressing to talk about this.” It made her feel ashamed to talk about issues of oppression and discrimination.  She wanted to talk about happier topics. “Why can’t people just be happy?” she wanted to know.


The conversation stuck in my mind.  First, I know many people struggle with this sense that talking about white privilege is demoralizing.  But I also realize that these conversations and the work for racial justice brings me deep joy. And so, the difference between how my friend and I experience this work made me wonder: how can we find more joy in the work for racial equity?


In part, my friend made me realize that I don’t talk about joy enough.  And perhaps that’s a challenge for those of us committed to justice work: we talk more about justice than joy.  It’s not that I think we face a choice; as if we can either have a serious conversation about justice or have a happy conversation about joy.


No, what I mean is that those of us engaged in justice work need to talk more about how this work creates a deep sense of joy in us.  (And by joy I don’t mean giddiness but a deeply resonate sense of purposeful peace.)


I felt that joy recently when I went with about a dozen people in our community to the May 1st march in Waukesha.  (Banners from that march still decorate our sanctuary and the Commons.)  We were joined by thousands, more than I could count, walking through the streets of Waukesha to protest a policy which would turn Waukesha sheriff deputies into Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers; empowering them to stop and detain anyone who looked like they might not be citizens; which practically means more situations like the one that unfolded recently in Montana, where two US citizens were detained for speaking Spanish in a convenience store.  So, we were in Waukesha to advocate for immigration justice; but as I walked along, an abiding feeling of joy overcame me. Perhaps it was because of all the butterfly symbols we carried; perhaps because I walked with friends; perhaps because of the gorgeous day; perhaps because I saw old friends like an alum from college and a veteran of LGBT rights struggles.


All those reasons and more for joy.  But, as I think about that joy, I begin to wonder if it had less to do with who I was with and more to do with God.


We often talk about the Biblical reasons for our justice work; rooting our values in Jesus’ teachings.  But could our joy also be a spiritual experience, something rooted in the very nature of God?


And so, as I think about the joy I felt in Waukesha, I want to step back to think a bit about our Christian understanding of God.  This Sunday we honor the Christian idea that God is Triune: that God, the mother-and-father of us all, God known to us as Jesus Christ, and God present among us as the Holy Spirit is actually just one God.


If your mind glazed over at this point, you are not alone.  For this idea of God as Triune has long confounded Christians.  The math doesn’t make sense: 1 + 1 + 1 = 1. And we Christians have spent thousands of years arguing about what it means to believe in the Trinity.  And yet, for all the confusion of this theological idea, I treasure it.


And I treasure it because the idea of God as Triune inspires me with a vision of community: God as both distinct - three persons - and yet meaningfully together - unified.  Distinctly three. United as one. Divine equality. Eternal equity.


This vision of beloved community matters to me because of what it says about human possibilities.  Scripture speaks of humanity as bearing the image of God; humans as the likeness of the divine. Which left theologians wondering: how do we reflect God’s Triune image?


In Western Christianity, the kind of Christianity that shaped much of our Christian movement, theologians looked for the ways an individual embodied the Trinity.  St. Augustine saw the Trinity reflected in an individual’s memory, understanding, and will. (And of course, this just anticipated in some ways Jung’s later idea of the id, ego, and superego.)


While in the West we’ve looked for the Trinity in individuals, other Christians sought the Trinity reflected more communally.  Eastern theologians saw humanity reflecting the Triune nature of God collectively; all humans bearing the image of God. This can particularly matter now, when we live in such an individualistic society: we can move from thinking of our individual life embodying God to imagine our mutuality reflecting the divine.


Gregory of Nyssa was one of those theologians who saw the Trinity reflected in human community.  As he explained it: God, the mother-and-father of us all, God known to us as Jesus Christ, and God present among us as the Holy Spirit share the same substance.  And likewise, humans, for all our diversity, share the same substance. And so, Gregory didn’t find particular meaning in the “three-ness” of God, but in the equality and equity of God; not the number but the sharing of a life together.  And so, he then looked for the reflection of God in those experiences of human equality and equity, seeing in all our human diversity, a common humanity.


A similar insight comes to us in hymns, like the one we often sing after congregational meetings.  

Blest be the tie that binds

our hearts in Christian love;

the fellowship of kindred minds

is like to that above.


Finding God’s image reflected not in one person but in all humanity helps me understand why I experienced joy in Waukesha.  Moments of community, particularly moments of diversity in community, bring my heart closer to reflecting something of God’s own community.  My joy was like to that above.


This year, with Trinity Sunday falling on Memorial Day Weekend, I’m also struck by how this idea of embodying the Trinity speaks to our national questions of identity.  Do we find God best reflected in one body - one universal norm - or do we find God best reflected in our great diversity? And in a similar way, do we look to one norm of what it means to be an American?  Or do we find our American-ness in the breadth of our diversity?


Such a debate goes back a long way in our democracy.  This week I read an old speech by Carl Schurz, a German immigrant who settled in Wisconsin before becoming a Union General.  In the lead up to the Civil War, he traveled the country giving stump speeches for Abraham Lincoln. And in those speeches, he articulated what he called “True Americanism.”  And his concept still speaks to our debates now.


Speaking in Boston, to a crowd who he knew questioned some of his right to be in America, he addressed square on their questioning of his belonging. “I, born in a foreign land, pay my tribute to Americanism? Yes, for to me the word Americanism, true Americanism, comprehends the noblest ideas which ever swelled a human heart with noble pride.”  And as he went on, he said that while other nations claimed to be homeland for a particular people, America was different because it was a mother-country to all humanity.  He recalled all the immigrants who came to America, saying, “Thus was founded the great colony of free humanity, which has not old England alone, but the world, for its mother-country.”  Schurz spoke to American greatness as founded not in the purity of some European culture but in the striving of diverse peoples for their equality.


Schurz, in that same speech, anticipated the insight of Martin Luther King, who famously said, “I can never be who I ought to be until you are who you ought to be; and you can never be who you ought to be until I am how I ought to be.”  This idea of the interwoven nature of our dependency seemed evident to Schurz in the South: enslavers denied freedom to other humans but in the process shackled their own liberty, because in the slave states people didn’t have freedom of speech and assembly; enforcing slavery meant slave states set aside our Bill of Rights.  As Schurz explained:

The system of slavery has enslaved them all, master as well as slave. What is the cause of all this? It is that you cannot deny one class of society the full measure of their natural rights without imposing restraints upon your own liberty. If you want to be free, there is but one way: it is to guarantee an equally full measure of liberty to all your neighbors. There is no other.


Schurz knew he could not be truly free as long as other humans were enslaved.  This desire for freedom caused him and his fellow soldiers to risk their lives for the freedom of others.  And so, for Schurz, “True Americanism,” true patriotism, meant striving toward the realizing of equality and equity among humans; a striving for a society like to that above.


Our American experience speaks to me of why diverse community brings deep joy.  The more I am free, the more I am free to feel joy. My freedom depends on the freedom of others.  So, when I work for freedom, I free not only others but myself.


I knew that in Waukesha.  I marched so that undocumented immigrants would be free from the fear that a traffic stop could result in deportation.  But I also marched so that my children could drive through Waukesha without fear of how they would prove their citizenship to every sheriff they met.


More broadly, these last few years as we learned more about white privilege and organized for racial equity meant I learned and grew and discovered.  I formed new friendships; and saw other friendships become deeper. Just last month Pastor Joy Gallmon, pastor of St. Mark’s AME, the oldest African-American church in our city, invited me to her installation service.  But for the journey of our congregation, I would not have been there. And once there, I discovered joy in a new place, in a shared love of Jesus, and in a common mission to work together for equity.


On this Trinity Sunday - Memorial Day Sunday, I’m struck by the joy I find in our work for equity.  I find joy in this work, joy because I know God wants me to live in a beloved community that reflects the very diversity at the heart of God.  I know my freedom comes with the greater freedom for all my sisters and brothers. And as I stretch my heart and conscience and mind through sacred conversations, I find the deep, abiding joy of God in my soul.


Alleluia and Amen.


"Listening, the Spirit’s Gift" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - May 20, 2018

posted May 22, 2018, 7:48 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

I don’t do much on Twitter; but a few years ago I had set up an account.  And though I don’t follow many people and have even fewer followers, I did somehow end up getting notifications during the last presidential election from the Tennessee GOP.  @TenGop tweeted articles that pressed all my partisan buttons; aggravating tweets I completely disagreed with. And these tweets just hardened my heart against the GOP and made me feel like I had nothing in common with those across the aisle.


Eventually I figured out how to clear @TenGop from my twitter notifications.  And I didn’t think about it again, until this winter when the Mueller investigation revealed @TenGop to be one of many twitter handles used by the Russians to try to influence our elections and society.  Which made me wonder about the ways I had been influenced; not in my voting but in how I viewed my neighbors.


This question became even more real as I learned more about Russian meddling.  For instance, two years ago, in the led up to the election, Russia used social media to organize an “anti-Islam” protest in Texas.  It agitated and energized people with fears Muslims would impose Sharia law. The so-called “Heart of Texas” got people to show up outside a Houston Mosque; a crowd of people with Confederate flags and “God Save America” signs.


The same Russian trolls also created an account for “United Muslims of America,” which called for a counter-protest.  And counter-protesters did show up, carrying signs about loving their Muslim neighbors and “Hate is not a Family Value.”  


Passions rode high for both the protesters and the counter-protesters, egged on by Russian trolls who tried to gin up each side to “battle in the streets.”


In many ways, the Russian trolls acted out a negative version of the Pentecost story.  The early disciples awoke one morning and, moved to overcome their fears, left the safety of their upper room to share the story of Jesus.  Miraculously the crowd understood; despite the differences in their languages, the people on the street heard the message of the disciples; a gift of the Holy Spirit.


We’ve experienced a different kind of spirit active in the words of Russian trolls; a malevolent spirit, which united us not in understanding but in animosity; a dis-spiriting Pentecost that continues to inflame our hostility.  


The Russian trolls who spoke to every side and any side in our society spoke directly to our hearts, communicating not one message but evoking a common feeling: anger.  You see it in pictures of the protesters and counter-protesters outside the Texas mosque: people speaking different political languages but held together in their outrage.


Thinking about those Russian trolls this Spring led me to hear the Pentecost story in a new way.  In the past, I always thought of the miracle as tied to the act of speaking. Peter spoke. Everyone understood.  And indeed, the text suggests this way of understanding the miracle when the crowd said to one another:

“Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

      

And yet, I’ve come to see the miracle not as one of speech but as one of listening.  Peter spoke with his heavy, Galilean accent; the rustic timber of a hardworking fisherman; vowels rolling like the waves.  Yet in his voice the crowd heard, they listened, they knew something beyond the words he used.


Understanding Pentecost as a miracle of listening moves us back to ancient understandings of spirituality.  Jews - even to this day - regularly recite a prayer called the Shema. It comes from the Book of Deuteronomy, where God instructed them to recite twice a day, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one.”  Normally, we focus on the second part of that phrase, the affirmation of monotheism which so distinguished Jews from their neighbors. But, as I read through scripture, I’m struck by how often it reverberates with the command to hear.  Indeed, we might consider the posture of listening to be at the heart of Biblical spirituality, embodied in the advice to approach God, saying, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”


What would change in our lives if we focused less on what we wanted to say and instead gave more attention to just listening?  Saying in prayer: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” And in our most intimate relationships: “Speak, love, I am listening.”  And with our friends: “Speak, for I am listening.” I think it could be miraculous - spiritually and relationally - if we spent more time listening than speaking.


I love the vivid pictures of hell the poet Dante created centuries ago.  I love these poems not because I think he accurately imagined the afterlife, but because he so truly named the hell we can make of relationships and the hope for something better.  


As the poet Dante made his journey through the underworld, he came at one point to the place were heretics dwelled.  Dante didn’t develop a dogmatic notion of heresy; instead, the heretics he met reflected the root meaning of the word.  Heresy comes from the Greek word “to choose” or “to divide.” People in the time of Dante looked back to the story of the soldiers gambling for the clothing of Jesus; dividing his belonging and choosing by lot who would get his cloak.  And so, heresy spoke to the kind of choosing and divisions that break community.


In hell, Dante met two famous partisans of Florence; men whose acrimony divided the city.  One, Farinata Degli Uberti, led the party of the Ghibellines; and another, Cavalcante dei Cavalcanti, belonged to the rival Guelph faction.  These two groups constantly fought for control of Florence; when the Ghibellines were in power, they exiled the Guelph’s; then the Guelphs came back, they sent the Ghibellines away.  They divided the city; heretics who believed only they had the truth.


But in hell, Dante found both Farinata and Cavalcante sharing one tomb.  Except, these two souls couldn’t talk to Dante at the same time. Instead, one would pop up from the tomb to talk to Dante and then the other would rise, forcing the other back down.  They spent eternity enacting their dance of partisan power; never speaking to each other, always working to silence the other.


And there, in that image of two politicians bound in the same tomb but unable to be present at the same time, Dante gave us a powerful image of the hell that comes when we refuse to listen.


Dante paused on his journey long enough to engage both Farinata and Cavalcante in conversation.  With Farinata, who led the party Dante opposed, the poet now listened to him with respect, almost reverence.  One senses it in the description he provided of Farinata:

My eyes were fixed on him already.  Erect,

He rose above the flame, great chest, great brow;

He seemed to hold all Hell in disrespect.


And in case Dante wasn’t ready to honor Farinata, his guide underscored the need for respect by saying, “Mind how you speak to him.”  All of this emphasis on respect contrasted with how Florence treated Farinata: sent into exile by the Guelphs, he died; and later, to add insult to injury, the Guelph’s exhumed his body, burned it, and excommunicated him.  But now, Dante does what should have happened before: he listened respectfully to his political opposite.


The need to listen only got further emphasized when Cavalcante rose from the tomb.  While Farinata towered high, Cavalcante can only peer over the side. But he asked about his son, Dante’s best friend.  Back in Florence, after the Guelphs seized control from the Ghibellines, they split into two factions, the White and the Black.  People in Florence looked to Dante to help restore order after the White and Black Guelphs came to blows; and he decided to exile the leaders of each group, which meant exiling his best friend.  So, when Cavalcante asked about his son, Dante spoke of the son in the past tense and Cavalcante thought him dead. He disappeared back into the tomb, encased in grief.


Cavalcante’s sorrow came because he didn’t listen; he didn’t listen to Dante explain the exile.  Next Farinata rose again. Which gave Dante a chance to give him a message of hope; “Now, therefore, will you tell that fallen one who asked about his son, that he is not dead.”  


And so, this powerful image of partisan rancor ends with the possibility: Farinata will talk with Cavalcante, Guelph will listen to Ghibelline, the red and blue of Florence finding a peace.


But of course, we don’t need to look back to Dante and partisan strife in Florence to feel the danger of what happens when we don’t listen.  We know it all to familiarly in our own lives.


Which is why I’ve come to think of the gift of listening as the work of the Spirit.  I want you to think of a moment when someone truly, deeply listened to you. A time when you could share your thoughts or your silences and be heard.


As I think about those times in my life, a few common characteristics become clear.  The person who listened was curious instead of defensive. Curious about what I thought, curious about what I would say, curious about what I felt.  All of which is different from the quick to judge, defensiveness we can often get trapped in. And even when not overt, too often we think about what we will say next instead of hearing what was said.  But the curious listener, that’s a gift.


Even in an argument, curiosity turns the tone of the conversation.  Judgment proclaims, “How can you think that!”  But curiosity wants to know, “Why do you think that?”


Relatedly, the people who’ve most listened to me, listen because they don’t know the answer.  Do you know what I mean? Sometimes it seems like someone is listening, but then you find they’re just waiting to give you their answer: to tell you what to do, ready to fix a problem you haven’t begun to describe.  But true listeners listen because they don’t know the answer. Instead of waiting to answer, they wonder and wait. Which might be why good listeners are often so good with silences. Wonder emerges in silence like stars in the dark sky.  


These two qualities of listening can be found in the crowd on that first Pentecost: they were curious, they wondered.  And I think in their listening, curiosity, and wonderment we can see the movement of the Holy Spirit.


Our continuing testament reading from Langston Hughes points to this need to listen.  He wrote about the two most familiar American synonyms: freedom and liberty; which we can seem so close in our patriotic lexicon as to be interchangeable.  But he teases out a gulf: “There are words like Freedom, Sweet and wonderful to say” and “There are words like Liberty, That almost make me cry.”  Such emotion packed between two synonyms demands my curiosity and wonder, a listening.  Because, “If you had known what I knew, You would know why.”


The miracle of Pentecost comes in this: our listening to what each other has known.  The listening of an international crowd to Peter. The listening of one lover to another.  The listening of one friend to another.


This Pentecost may we experience this miracle in our own lives, the miracle of curiosity and wonder; may we be people who say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”  Alleluia and Amen.



Sources:


"Why I Support Immigrant Rights" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - May 6, 2018

posted May 7, 2018, 12:48 PM by Plymouth Church UCC   [ updated May 9, 2018, 1:44 PM ]

I’m wondering: has anyone here visited the house where Anne Frank tried to hide from the Nazis? And how many more have read her diary? Thanks; but even if we haven’t seen her house or read her journal, almost all of us know the basics of her story. Anne Frank’s family sought refuge from the rising violence in Germany. They fled to Holland and were safe for a while; but when the fascists invaded, they hid in the attic of a house, the secret annex. But after two years in secret, they were discovered and sent to concentration camps, where Anne Frank and most of her family died.


In recent years new information about Anne Frank’s family came to light. Anne Frank’s father had sought to leave Holland for America. He wrote a series of desperate letters to American friends in the government. In one he said, “It is for the sake of the children mainly that we have to care for. Our own fate is of less importance.”


But, American officials refused him entry. They claimed Europeans fleeing the Nazis could really be secret fascist spies, who would be “sleeper agents” of a hostile ideology. We could have made a difference in the life of Anne Frank, but we allowed fear to deafen our ears to the cries of her family.


As our country debates immigration, I can’t help but wonder: how many children we turn away are writing diaries our descendants will read? A boy in Aleppo? A girl separated from her mother by a government preparing to deport them both? A child on a caravan fleeing gang violence in their home country told they could not come here?


Over the last year, our congregation raised and reflected on issues of immigration during worship, adult education, and through advocacy events. In two weeks, following the lead of the Wisconsin Conference of our Christian movement, we’re going to consider a resolution to become an Immigrant Welcoming Congregation that works with Voces de la Frontera to support immigrants, documented and undocumented.


Questions about immigration touch on both politics and faith. Each of us needs to wrestle with this in our own hearts. Today, I want to share with you why I support our “Immigrant Welcoming” move; to share how I’ve come to think about these questions both as an American and as a Christian. You will need to discern these questions in your own heart.


First, I know a sermon ought not to be a patriotic speech, but I can’t figure out how to think about the question of immigration solely as a Christian. I am both an American and a Christian, identities that do not always go well together. And yet I need to think about this question both ways.


In speaking about immigration, some say that we can’t have a country without borders. But I think, we can’t have a country without a Dream. Our American Dream shapes our country far more than our borders do.


And so, I remember the founding of our country. The British Generals imagined the revolution as a battle for territory. They invaded Boston, controlled New York, and captured Philadelphia. They were winning the battle for borders. But Washington knew all he needed to win was the idea of America. Even at the lowest moments of the revolution, with only the Dream to keep him warm, Washington knew that the idea of America mattered more than control of territory. And ever since, our nation has depended not on tough borders but enduring Dreams.


President Ronald Reagan, nearly forty years ago, several years before he granted amnesty to undocumented immigrants, spoke to this when he said, “Our nation is a nation of immigrants. More than any other country, our strength comes from our own immigrant heritage and our capacity to welcome those from other lands.” And later in that same speech he said, “[Undocumented] immigrants in considerable numbers have become productive members of our society and are a basic part of our workforce. Those who have established equities in the United States should be recognized and accorded legal status.”


Reagan, for all I might disagree with him, reflected a long-standing insight into the nature of political society. A view long ago articulated by Augustine, who said, “a kingdom without justice is nothing more that a great robbery, a pompous gang of bandits.” Gangs and warlords can have territory; gangs and warlords can set up checkpoints and borders; but gangs and warlords do not nurture Dreams. Our American Dream defines our nation, not borders or language or skin color.

Second, as a Christian, I think about the content of our Dream.  James Cone, a leading African-American theologian who passed away last Saturday, shaped my Christian understanding of our American Dream. He once said, “I still regard Jesus Christ today as the chief focus of my perspective on God but not to the exclusion of other religious perspectives. God's reality is not bound by one manifestation of the divine in Jesus but can be found wherever people are being empowered to fight for freedom. Life-giving power for the poor and the oppressed is the primary criterion that we must use to judge the adequacy of our theology, not abstract concepts.”


Life-giving power for the poor and the oppressed; Cone’s criteria caused him to understand our Christian story within the experience of the poor and oppressed in our country. And so, he once wrote about the birth of Jesus, saying that if Jesus were born today in America it would then instead of a manger in a barn he’d be placed in “a beer case in a ghetto alley.” And when he wanted to understand the Cross of Jesus, he looked to the lynching of African-Americans. James Cone understood our faith as a promise to those who can’t sleep for trouble, those who can’t dream for want.


This focus by James Cone on looking at God’s word for the poor and oppressed caused me to hear in a new way the classic story of God speaking to Moses. Two things stand out to me: God heard the cries of the Israelites; and God remained elusively undocumented, “I am who I am.”


The Israelites had long lived in Egypt - four hundred years according to scripture. While once they were welcomed in, later Pharaohs turned against them, first enslaving them and then trying to persecute them to death. The Israelites groaned under the injustice they suffered.


So God told Moses, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”


God heard the cries of the Israelites. And just as surely, that same God hears the cries of people today. Those who wonder: where will my help come from? Those who feel stuck, “lost in [their] own world without a map or a guide.”


And knowing this about God haunts me. God hears these cries; but do we? We didn’t hear the cries of Anne Frank. Are we covering our ears even now to the very people God listens to?


But God heard the cries. And, as one scholar said, God invited Moses to join in a conspiracy of freedom. God wanted Moses to join in an unlikely plan to free the Israelites: return to Egypt, tell Pharaoh to let my people go, lead them through the desert, and make a new home in a land of milk and honey.


Moses had fled Egypt when he broke the law. Now God wanted him to return; and to break even more laws by helping people “steal themselves to freedom.” Pharaoh said, “there is no authorization for this migration” but God commissioned Moses to commit a crime of freedom.


God’s conspiracies for freedom make for America’s greatest moments too. I’m proudest of Americans who conspired for the freedom of those enslaved. Proudest of those who conspired for women’s equality. Those who conspired to recognize same-sex couples when the state called them undocumented marriages. And I can’t help but see that our church has joined all those earlier conspiracies for freedom; and we did so because we dream of freedom for those who cry in the night of oppression.


An elusively undocumented God commissioned Moses. We’ve heard it so often that we might miss the uniqueness of how God discloses an identity: “I am who I am.”


Moses on the mountain met a wilderness God, one who lived beyond the boundaries of countries and empires, a God without a name (or a God who refused to give a name). The ancient gods and goddess all lived in specific places; they had homes, temples. The Egyptian gods and goddess lived on the Nile. The Greek gods and goddess lived on Olympus. But Moses met a wilderness God, a God who wandered, without a known address, no documented home. I am who I am. I will be were I will be.


Even when the Israelites settled in Jerusalem, and built a Temple, they knew God didn’t really live there. They just saw it as the footstool for God, a place a wandering God might rest weary feet.


Jesus came as the embodiment of this elusively undocumented God. And so I’m not surprised to hear him say, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” And that same Jesus who didn’t have a home, sent his same disciples out abroad, “Go therefore and make disciples in all the nations, baptizing them into my conspiracy of freedom.”


Believing in an elusively undocumented God changes how I think about our current questions. God did not embody privilege but vulnerability. God did not have security but uncertainty. And so I think I will find God among the vulnerable and the uncertain. For God said as much, telling Moses, “I am the God of Abraham” - the man who left his home for the far country, “I am the God of Isaac” - the man who snuck into the land of King Abimelech because of a famine in his own land, “and the God of Jacob” - the man who ran from family conflict and moved from place to place. Our God is a God of the refugee, immigrant, and exhile. And so, I think God not only hears the cries of the vulnerable but can be found among them.


I hear such faith echoed in the famous words Emma Lazarus ascribed to the Mother of Exiles in the harbor of New York:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"


All of which is why, as an American and a Christian, I support immigrant rights. I believe in an elusively undocumented God who calls us to join in a conspiracy of freedom to help those who cry out help amid the suffering of poverty and oppression.


Alleluia and Amen.




Sources

  • Myer, Ched and Matthew Colwell, Our God is Undocumented: Biblical Faith and Immigrant Justice (p. 57 shaped my reading of Ex. 3).

  • Reagan, Ronald: "Statement on United States Immigration and Refugee Policy ," July 30, 1981. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=44128.

"Watching Your Language: On Love" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - April 29, 2018

posted May 2, 2018, 8:15 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

A writer I like once said, “theologians are people who watch their language in the presence of God.”  Normally people think of “watching their language” as avoiding swear words. And indeed, I regularly have people apologize for using an off-color expression.  People use a swear and then look at me, “Oh, sorry Pastor.” It happens so often that I’ve realized I never get called Pastor as much as when people swear.


But swear words don’t really offend me.  And, honestly, I know how to use them too.  Still, I like the reminder to watch our language in the presence of God.  Yet what language ought we watch? Swear words? No, the words we ought to be careful about are those that can become banalities and trivialities: words like love and friendship.  


Our Gospel lesson this morning uses these very words, words we ought to watch very carefully.  “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”  Jesus used the very words we need to be careful about: love and friendship.


The need to watch our language comes out in hymns.  Bryan Sirchio, a pastor and musician in our Christian movement, once wrote about the hymns which drive him crazy as a progressive Christian, those hymns that he can’t stand, the ones whose words seem as jarring as swearing in church.  And he decided he wouldn’t sing such hymns anymore. So, he adopted three rules:

  • No more bloody Jesus

  • No more Rambo Jesus

  • and No more boyfriend Jesus

(and of course no bloody Rambo boyfriend Jesus)


These rules addressed three concepts that Bryan Sirchio wanted to be careful about.  First, the glorification of violence, especially the violence done to Jesus on the cross.  Second, the celebration of Jesus as hero who kicks butt, the guy who triumphs over others. And finally, the romanticizing of Jesus, which turns his command of love into the sweet nothing whispers of beau.


Each of us might have favorite hymns that break Bryan Sirichio’s rules.  (I know I couldn’t imagine Good Friday without singing “Sacred Head Now Wounded”.)  Still, I get his point when I think of other hymns, ones that speak of Jesus in harlequin ways, hymns which could just as easily be about a human lover as they could be about Jesus.  We might call such songs theo-erotica.


Hymns like “He Walks with Me in the Garden.”  This is full on Boyfriend Jesus.

And he walks with me and he talks with me

And he tells me I am his own

(I think of it as the Tinder hymn, after the popular dating app.  Swipe right on Jesus).


And the joy we share as we tarry there

None other has ever known.

(I’ve known men arrested for that in the park).

The temptation to swoon for Jesus distracts us from the challenge of his words; romanticizing Jesus makes it harder to hear the ways he wants us to change our lives.  


How would we experience Jesus’ words about love and friendship if we didn’t filter them through the image of him as boyfriend, bloodied, or a Rambo?  This morning I want to think with you about love and friendship without getting caught up in romance, blood, or victory.


The Gospel of John centers around a long description of Jesus eating and drinking with his disciples on the night before he died.  Because we live so removed from this cultural moment, we could easily overlook the way this meal evoked the kinds of philosophical discussion over meals people often had in his day, a tradition most famously captured in Socrates’ Symposium.  In that story, Socrates gathered with his friends to drink and eat and discuss love, too.  And yet, the ways Socrates and Jesus talked about love differ greatly.


Over dinner, Socrates told his friends what he knew of love.  He described the way that we first love one person, a particular love, a particular beauty.  And then, as we mature emotionally, we go on to love people more generally: from loving one particular person to loving lots of people, from one beauty to lots of beauties.  (I’m not sure what his first lover thought about this.) Socrates said that we go from loving lots of people to a universal kind of love, a pervasive appreciation of beauty itself.  Socrates advocated a kind of romantic ladder: from one lover, to many lovers, to love itself.


Though more than two millennia separate us from Socrates, this kind of universalizing still shapes our ideas of love; we talk of love as a universal emotion, something one can feel abstractly, grandly; love for humanity.


But Jesus spoke in a different way about love.  His love kept bringing him back to the present, to the here, the now.  Love sent Jesus into particular relationships; “For God so loved the world, that he sent his only son…”  Jesus didn’t move from particular people to abstraction; love made him see particular people ever more clearly and deeply.  Jesus loved Lazarus; he didn’t move from Lazarus to love other people and then to just abstractly think about humanity. No, he loved; and when his friend died, he wept.  And so, when he sat at dinner and talked about love, Jesus didn’t look up to the heavens to speak abstractly of love, but he looked at these particular friends and said, “I have called YOU friends.”


But the thorniest issue concerns Jesus anticipation of his own death.  He named it in our lesson, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  The tradition of bloody Jesus hymns celebrates this story line.


Too often the bloody image of Jesus puts the emphasis on the fact of Jesus’ suffering and not the reason - on the gore of blood instead of his purpose - in ways that make it seem as if God wanted or even delighted in Jesus’ pain.  Biblical scholar Barbara Reid helped me think about the ways we can tell the story of Jesus’ violent death without perpetuating and even condoning violence.

First, I want to make clear: we misuse the story of Jesus’ death whenever we use it to keep someone locked into abusive situations; “Just bear your cross.”  It happens all the time. Just yesterday, I heard the story of immigrant Amanda Agana, a star of her college track program. Amanda started life in Ghana; but life got complicated when her mother became ill and died.  Amanda’s father felt overwhelmed caring for all his children, so he sent Amanda to live with a relative in the capital city. Amanda’s aunt treated her like a slave, even beating her; even now her legs bear the scars of all the whippings.  But the psychological abuse affected her even more. Amanda explained, “[My aunt] kept telling me that it’s what I deserved because I had killed my mom. She said this is how you repent in the eyes of God — by serving other people. So, I thought it was fair, like I deserved to suffer because I took that light away from people.”  Amanda’s exploitation only ended when her father rescued her and brought her to America.


Jesus didn’t simply suffer for the sake of suffering; a pointless endurance.  Instead, as scholar Barbara Reid interprets the cross, “Jesus is the friend who goes to calamity’s depths [to save] his friends.” And so, Jesus on the cross did not demonstrate endurance but fierceness, not suffering but service, not pointless but persistent.  The old Nicene Creed captures this when it explained that everything Jesus did was “for us and our salvation.” Not as satisfaction of the anger of God, a hunger only quenched with blood; but as an expression “of the length to which God would go to restore broken community.”   


And Jesus calls us to go to those lengths too; not to suffer for its own sake but because transformation requires a fierce commitment.  The kind of commitment a neighbor showed in rescuing a girl held in bondage in Texas. A young girl from Guinea came to America; she thought it was to live with relatives but instead it was to be a slave to the son of the first dictator of Guinea. One day she managed to flee to a neighbor’s house.  The neighbor became her support and advocate; helping her build the courage to confront her enslavers and walking with her through the justice system so that she could get asylum.


“I do not call you slaves,” Jesus said.  And he engaged in the fierce work to make sure we could become free and he sends us out to do the same work: “Just as the father sent me, so do I send you.”


Christianity often presents Jesus as the triumphant warrior, what Bryan Sirchio called Rambo Jesus.  But conceiving of Jesus as a warrior, as a Rambo, turns the world into an “us versus them” place.


It can be appealing to shape our lives by a like-minded clubbiness.  And, in fact, many scholars commenting on this passage look to Aristotle’s definition of friendship.  Aristotle thought good friends, real friends, could only arise when similar kinds of people shared similar kinds of goals; friendship depended on similarity for Aristotle.  


And yet, Jesus sought the opposite.  In the most famous moments of his life, Jesus went out of his way to form friendships with people utterly unlike him.  Born into poverty, he befriended wealthy Nicodemus. He gathered around himself common labors and the financial elite, sinners and soldiers, women of ill repute and men of no repute.  When traveling through hostile territory, his friendliness so shocked a Samaritan woman that she asked, “Why is it that you, a Jew, a man, speak to me, a Samaritan, a woman?” And yet, that is who Jesus was: a boundary crosser.


The French philosopher Jacque Derrida asked important questions about friendship that point to the difference between Aristotle and Jesus.  We most often base friendship on values like equality, mutuality, and reciprocity. These are all good in and of themselves; but as a basis for friendship these values push us towards sameness and conformity.  Instead, Derrida suggested, we could base friendship on inclusion, curiosity, and solidarity. Importantly, these values encourage us to seek out and befriend those who are different than us. Philosophers use a great word to speak of our openness to those who are different from us: alerity.  Do we form our friendships on the basis of similarity or alerity, those just like us or those with a heart open to difference?


Perhaps I’ve gone too deep into philosophy.  So, let me pull back to say how I hear Jesus teaching us to love and befriend.  Jesus teaches us to love actual, particular people; to love them fiercely; and to open our hearts in love to those who are different than us.


I think Jesus commanded us to love this way.  And we have an opportunity to live out this commandment on Tuesday by participating in a march with Voces de la Frontera.  Remember: love isn’t abstract; we’re meant to love in particular and concrete ways. Immigrants, especially Latino immigrants, need us to show our love because the Sheriff in Waukesha is planning to implement a policy which would turn his officers into ICE agents, empowering sheriff deputies in Waukesha to stop and demand papers of anyone they suspect of being here undocumented.  Voces needs fiercely courageous supporters. And they need us to be friends, not because we’re the same but because our hearts open to include others.


I want us to watch our words before God; and in fact, to learn to love like Jesus: loving particular people, with a fierce persistence, that makes room for difference.  Jesus called us to love like this so that Jesus’ joy may be in us, and that our joy may be complete. Alleluia and Amen.




Sources in addition to Feasting on the Word:

  • Flynn, Meagan, “Texas couple kept Guinean girl enslaved for 16 years until she escaped, feds say,” Washington Post, April 27, 2018.

  • Maese, Rick, “She ran from years of abuse in Ghana. Now she runs for the U.S. Naval Academy,” Washington Post, April 27, 2018.

  • Uriah Kim and Ahn, Ilsup, “The Post-National Responsibility Toward Undocumented Immigrants: The Practice of Hesed and a New Ethics of Friendship,”

  • Reid Barbara, “The cross and cycles of violence,” Interpretation [serial online]. October 2004;58(4):376-385. Available from: ATLASerials, Religion Collection, Ipswich, MA. Accessed April 28, 2018.


"Truly Seeing" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - April 22, 2018

posted Apr 23, 2018, 9:59 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

I’m going to tell you something that will make you wonder if I really am the gourmand I pretend to be.  Years ago, back in the nineties, when Jay and I first moved here to Milwaukee, we needed a gift to take to his brother and family out in Oregon.  We wanted something that captured “Wisconsin” but also fit their interests. They love wine. So, we thought, the perfect gift would be a bottle of Cedarburg Winery’s Cranberry Blush.


Jeff and Eddy were very polite when we gave them our Wisconsin vin de pays (or really, vin de bog).  The bottle went on a shelf by the stairs to the basement, ready to go down to their extensive cellar of Oregon and California reds.  I didn’t think about it until a few years later, when we were back to visit. Our cranberry wine had aged in place, a gift they couldn’t toss and yet one that didn’t belong in their cellar.


By then Jeff and Eddy had worked to raise our standards.  And so, to thank them for a case of wine they sent, we wanted to find another gift.  But this time Jay had thought to learn the name of their special wine glasses. So back in Milwaukee we headed out to George Watts, the fanciest china and crystal shop in town at that time.  We faced a wall of choices. But luckily Jay had surreptitiously measured his brother’s wine glass. He pulled out a special measuring device that only an engineer would own and started checking the openings - apertures, Jay called them - of the glasses, looking for a match.


A salesman rushed over; “Can I help you?”  Of course, he meant so much more: the arch of the eyebrows turning it into, “What in the world are you doing?” and the purse of the lips declaring, “You don’t belong here.”


Have you had moments like that, moments when you were made to feel you didn’t belong?  A moment when you were like our bottle of cranberry wine, left outside the cellar where the cool wine bottles gathered?  Or looked at like you didn’t belong in a store? A time when the friendly sounding question “May I help you?” made clear the ugly message that you were out of place?


I keep returning to questions of belonging, and especially the feeling of not-belonging, this Spring.  In part this is because our educational focus on immigration causes me to think more deeply about who we say belongs and who we say doesn’t.  But the news this week made these questions of belonging or not belonging impossible for me to ignore.


A week ago, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson walked into a Starbucks in Philadelphia to meet a business partner.  The two African-American men sat at a table as they waited; within two minutes the white manager called 911 to report them for trespassing.  Cops arrived and arrested the men. It made clear: you don’t belong here.


Recently Rashon and Donte spoke about their experience.  At first, they were surprised; it hadn’t occurred to them that the police were there for them.  But then shock gave way to the dispiriting reality, an all too familiar reality black people encounter in white spaces.


I heard their story while praying about our reading today from 1 John; their story particularly caught me as I thought about John’s point, “Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”


Sometimes people want to separate the spiritual from the political, the heavenly concerns from the earthly reality, but John makes clear that we can’t talk about loving God if we don’t see our sisters and brothers.


And so, this week Rashon and Donte made me “see” the experience of people made to feel they don’t belong.  Not just these two in Philadelphia, but also undocumented immigrants, and all our sisters and brothers who get told directly or implicitly, “You don’t belong.”


But a detail of Rashon’s and Donte’s story also made me hear God’s word in a new and deeper way.  John spoke of the importance of “seeing” our sisters and brothers. I’ve often taken that at face value.  But the story of Rashon and Donte made me think about the ways in which we see. Not just whom do you see, but how do you see?


In the case of Rashon and Donte: obviously the manager didn’t see them as customers but as threats; not as people in Starbuck’s vaunted third space, but as dangers.  And yet, Donte had been coming to that Starbucks since he was fifteen; eight years a customer and still treated an outsider. Which means that Donte went into that Starbucks for eight years and no one really saw him.


And this doesn’t just happen to young black men.  A few years ago, the distinguished Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested entering his own home.  No amount of talent stopped his white neighbor from calling police when he fumbled at the lock on his door; his white neighbor just saw a dangerous black man.


This amplifies John’s challenge in his letter.  How do we see our sisters and brothers?


Of course, sometimes we see the person right in front of us as a sister or brother but fail to see how systemic racism will affect them.  Which is what happened in a small rural community in Washington State. Police chief Flint Wright really liked the idea of cracking down on undocumented immigrants; he saw it as a chance to kick drug dealers out of the country.


But then ICE agents arrested his friend, Mario Rodriguez.  Mario came to the US on a visa, but it expired years ago. He lived and worked in the community for decades, undocumented but very much part of the fabric of the small town.  As Chief Wright said, “Anybody would like to have him as a neighbor.”


And then ICE came, arresting Mario and sending him off to a deportation center.  The arrest of Mario and others is disrupting the fragile economy of the town because the few industries open depend on immigrants, documented and undocumented.  Which is why Rev. Tracy Blackmon, one of the national leaders of our Christian movement, asks, “In what sense can people central to our economy not belong to our society?”

 

Now Chief Wright goes to church, and wonders if the Latino family he hasn’t seen for a few weeks is just busy or just deported.  He saw people in his life as sisters and brothers, but he couldn’t see the power of prejudice affecting people he cared about, until it was too late.


This happens not just in Washington, but throughout the country, even to people who defend our nation, people like Miguel Perez, who served two tours of duty in Iraq with the army.  But then, after a non-violent drug arrest, got deported. Seen as a fellow soldier by his brothers-in-arms, but now cast out.


What would it mean to truly see our sisters and brothers?  To see Mario as a good neighbor. And to see how crucial his work was to the industry of his town.  To see Miguel for his military service. And to see the PTSD that he ineffectively addressed with drugs and alcohol.  To see both Mario and Miguel and the systemic racism that affects their lives.


Returning to 1 John can help us imagine what it would be like to truly see our sisters and brothers.  The passage describes love as the central characteristic of God; God is love. This can easily be taken to saccharine heights.  But instead, John pointed to the cross in order for us to understand what the love of God means, a self-sacrificing love that put others before the self.  As it says elsewhere in scripture: “Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard belonging with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of an outsider, being born in human likeness.”  That same Jesus taught his disciples to live like him when he gave them the Greatest Commandment: love God and love neighbor. John echoed that commandment in our key verse: to love God whom we do not see, we have to love the neighbors we do see.


Throughout the passage, John presented God’s love as something that came before we deserved it.  God doesn’t set up a quid pro quo relationship: we do this, God does that. As Biblical scholar Clinton Black explained, “God has decided in our favor apart from our ability to reciprocate, gracing us with love prior to and independent of any response we might offer, for no reason other than that love is the very nature of God.”  God doesn’t love us because we desire it or earned it or were born into it or have the right passport. God loves us regardless, no matter what.


And just as God sees us, just as God sees us as lovable, no matter what, we’re called to see other people too, to see them as lovable, to see like God sees.  This means loving our sisters and brothers much like our hearts respond in love to Eleanor this morning, not because she has done something to deserve our love but because seeing her, we can’t help but feel love.

You see that look of love in me when I hold a baby I’m going to baptize.  And recently I began to think about that feeling - that holy seeing - while reading something of Hannah Arendt, the German Jewish philosopher.  Arendt, having lived through the genocidal prejudice of the fascists, thought deeply about the nature of freedom. For her, freedom fundamentally meant “the capacity to begin, to start something new, to do the unexpected.”  She looked back to the fact of our birth to understand this freedom, developing a notion of our natality.


Our natality - our birth - makes us miracle workers.  She wrote, “It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before.  This character of startling unexpectedness is inherent in all beginnings.” That’s certainly the miracle I see as a parent, the startling unexpectedness of my kids.  Even when it makes me nervous - like when my son David flies a plane and practices stalling the engine - the joy in parenting is that miracle of discovering who our children will be.


That’s the look God gives to us, that look of loving anticipation for the startlingly unexpectedness our lives will reveal.  That’s how we look at Eleanor this morning, as a miracle of revelation, whom we love and know will do the unexpected. And that’s how God calls us to love our sisters and brothers too.


Understanding how we can see our sisters and brothers makes it even more clear the narrow way some are viewed.  When Rashon and Donte entered Starbucks, the manager didn’t see them as miracles. No, instead the manager attributed to them all the racist expectations young black men face in our society.  Even though Donte had come there for eight years, the manager still only expected a threat and a danger.


And too often we don’t see the undocumented people in our lives.  We might, like Police Chief Wright, see Mario as the good neighbor.  But do we see all the ways our society confines Mario’s unexpected gifts?  Or do we fail to see the startling patriotism of a veteran of two tours in Iraq who now can’t live in the country he loves and would die for?


How would our discussions of race and immigration and everything be different if we looked at people as God does, expected them to be miracles, anticipating with loving eyes their startling unexpectedness?


Barbara Bush, who died this last week, wasn’t perfect but I really appreciated a story I read of how she tried to look at people this way.  Timothy Naftali, a writer, met with Bush a couple of years ago. As he petted one of her dogs, she warned him, “Careful of that one, he bites anyone who hugs me.”  The author said to Mrs. Bush, “But I haven’t asked your permission to hug you.”  And he thought to himself, “What stranger would try to hug a Secret Service protectee before asking?”  Quick witted Bush replied, “If I don’t like you, I will let you.”


But a conversation later in the day startled him even more.  Barbara Bush brought up an appointment by then President Obama of a transgender person to a high position in government.  Bush said she didn’t have a problem with the person being transgender but wondered why this status had to be announced. The author and the former First Lady talked about this for a while, with the author lifting up what a high-profile appointment meant for the Transgender community.  Bush wasn’t convinced.


Naftali worried he’d become too informal with Mrs. Bush.  A few day later, Bush wrote the friend who arranged Naftali’s visit; she said, “I so enjoyed the lunch and Tim won the argument or he changed my mind about so much.”  While he and Bush disagreed about many things, he appreciated her openness - even at ninety - to keep learning new things and in particular to learn how she might have been wrong before.


And so, what if we looked at people the way Bush did in that moment: open to learn what we don’t know, open to finding out how we’ve been wrong, open to changing our mind by how people startle us.


As we continue to work on issues of racial equity and immigrant justice, I pray that we can learn to look at our sisters and brothers the way God looks at us: with eyes open to each other’s startling unexpectedness.  May we see everyone we meet with the same loving eyes with which we see Eleanor this morning.


Alleluia and Amen.






Sources:

  • Anderson, Elijah, “The White Space,” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 2015.

  • d'Entreves, Maurizio Passerin, "Hannah Arendt", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL.

  • Naftali, Timothy, “Barbara Bush Changed with Her Country,” The Atlantic, April 18, 2018, URL.

  • Reno, R., “The Public Square,” First Things, 2017.

  • Shapiro, Nina, “A Washington county that went for Trump is shaken as immigrant neighbors start disappearing,” Seattle Times, Nov. 15, 2017, URL.

  • Siegel, Rachel, “‘They can’t be here for us’: Black men arrested at Starbucks tell their story for the first time,” Washington Post, April 19, 2018, URL.

"Belonging: Zombies, Vampires, and Werewolves vs. the Shepherd," Sermon by Andrew Warner, April 15, 2018

posted Apr 17, 2018, 2:35 PM by Andrew Warner



Last Friday, Friday the 13th, I found myself thinking of all the scary characters of our imagination: zombies, vampires, and werewolves.  These creatures, which populate our screens, disclose something of our fears. And yet zombies, vampires, and werewolves speak to different kinds of fears.


I first encountered zombies in high school.  We’d stay up late watching one or another of the Living Dead movies, in which the zombies come after the living, hungry for their brains, and the haplass humans retreat behind barricades, safe until they realize one among them got bitten and now transforms before their eyes into a living dead person.


Only much later did I start to wonder about the meaning of these movies and how the fright factor of the zombie spoke to real social anxieties.  While vampires and werewolves haunted us for centuries, zombies rose only very recently, in the 1960’s.


The 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead defined the genre.  In that film an unlikely assortment of people hide out in a farmhouse.  The people in the house hear that posses of night riding vigilantes have organized to kill the zombies but they face a more immediate danger: the zombies outside the house.  Throughout the night everyone succumbs except for Ben, an African-American. As dawn breaks, the posse of rural whites arrive. Ben steps out, saved. But the men see Ben, mistake him for a zombie, shoot and kill him.  “That’s another one for the fire,” a man in the posse says as the film ends. That scene echoes with the shootings of innocent African-Americans - most recently an African-American teenager shot at for asking directions outside of Detroit.


Beyond that intense scene comes a more general notion of the threat posed by “others.”  The horde of ravenous zombies most want to take our brains, the thing we can’t give without losing ourselves.  They threaten our very essence. Walls must be built to keep them out!


The zombie speaks to our fears of those who don’t belong: they ought not be here, they might take what’s mine, only a wall will protect me.  These fears can quickly become racialized; after all, the 1968 classic came as a sci-fi expression of white fears after the late 1960’s inner-city riots.  And it does not take much of a leap to see a connection between the fantasy of zombie hordes and the description some give of caravans of immigrants.

But zombies don’t just speak to racist fears.  Remember the news of Charlottesville; a horde stumbling through a city at night, men shouting “blood and soil,” seemed like a group of zombies, people who’d lost their souls and seemed mindless in their hatred, an alt-contagion that might infect us all; Night of the Living Fascists.


And it’s this ability of zombies to represent our fears of the “other” that makes them so compelling: zombies represent whatever we think doesn’t belong in our community, a horde threatening our identity.


Zombies might be the most popular monster on our screens, but I find I resonate more with the older fright creatures: vampires and werewolves.  Vampires, who first appeared in the sixteenth century, represented European fears about Jews. Why else would vampires fear the cross? Or, echoing some of the ugliest old stories, why else would they want to drink blood.  But more recently vampires took on our worries about sexuality, coming across as both dangerously and provocatively bisexual. After all, as Naomi Alderman said, “They’ll bite anyone.”


Contemporary lore pictures vampires and werewolves as enemies.  But I’m more struck by what these creatures share: both can pass.  Werewolves, at least in the recent tellings of their stories, particularly struggle with what it means to pass.  They seem so human, except on full moons, almost like us, but not. And so they suffer with what it means to pass: Will someone find out my secret?  Will some discover the beast hiding inside of me? Would they accept me if they knew?


These questions make vampires and werewolves much more complex characters than zombies.  Brad Pitt as Louis in Interview with a Vampire struggles with his identity and the burden of his desire, becoming a sort of self-hating vampire who kills other vampires and tries to live on animal blood, vampire chastity.  In a similar way, the series Teen Wolf explored the coming-of-age struggles of erstwhile werewolf Scott McCall in high school.


I know what it’s like to be in high school and feel terror: what happens if people find out?  And I know many people feel this way long after High School. Undocumented people. Those carrying trauma.  Anyone with a shame too heavy, a hurt too deep, or a hope too tender yet to share, who find themselves acting like a fraud because they worry, “If you knew, then I wouldn’t belong.”


While zombies speak to our fears of the dangerous other, vampires and werewolves speak to our fears about ourselves: our own secrets, our own fearful identities.  Zombies represent all those we don’t think belong; vampires and werewolves our fears that we don’t belong.


The popularity of zombies, vampires, and werewolves in our imagination speaks to our continual anxieties about belonging.  Do they belong? Do I belong?


These questions do more than keep us up at night.  Because these are fundamentally spiritual questions.  Many of us think of the differences among churches as differences on social questions: this church welcomes gays, that one doesn’t; this church believes in reproductive choice, that one doesn’t; this church advocates undocumented people, that one doesn’t.  But the real debate in Christianity concerns belonging: how we answer the question of who belongs and who doesn’t. The struggle to define who belongs runs through the history of the earliest church in Jerusalem and through every church today. Belonging is the theological question we continue to debate.  And that’s because, as the great preacher Howard Thurman said, “In the great huddle we are desolate, lonely, and afraid. Our shoulders touch but our hearts cry out.”


If zombies, vampires, and werewolves express our fears about belonging, then a hope comes to us in our morning Psalm, “the Lord is my shepherd.”  Because this psalm fundamentally speaks of belonging.


We so often read the Psalm in the midst of memorial services that we might forget that it speaks primarily of the living, constructing in everyday ways the care and protection of God, who feeds and shelters and leads us.  The very structure of the Psalm suggests the way God surrounds us. We translate the Hebrew word for Yahweh as God in our text, but this more personal name for the divine begins and ends the Psalm, so that even as we wonder if we belong, Yahweh enfolds us, behind and before.  And in-between, the Psalm turns to speak even more personally to God: you, you anoint my head.


But instead of speaking of this Psalm generally, I want to look in a very close way at one particular verse that speaks to me about belonging.  “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”


While I’ve often puzzled over this verse, my recitation of the Psalm often rushed from one familiar line - “the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want” - to familiar line - “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”  But, when I think of belonging, I can imagine this verse with all its visceral tension. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of all those who think I don’t belong.”


I can’t help but hear this as a gay man.  Everyone knows the phrase “to come out.” LGBT people have long used it to describe that moment of sharing your secret, revealing one’s identity. Many LGBT people can tell dramatic coming out stories.  But the real drama isn’t in coming out, it’s in the coming home. For often it’s easier to come out than to come home. My grandmother’s greatest fear when I came out is that I would be like her brother Greg: who came out in the 1960’s, moved to San Francisco, and never came back.  She worried I’d come out but not come home. And that fear of not belonging - that if we were really known we wouldn’t belong - is really the fear that if we came out we couldn’t come home.


Which makes this verse a healing balm: you prepare a table for me.  When we wonder if we belong, God prepares the table; God who knows who we are prepares for us to come home.


Recently I heard Brene Brown speak of the connection between belonging and being at home with ourselves.  Dr. Brown, a social scientist, pointed to the way in which our lack of authenticity drives our loneliness.  Brene Brown made her point as a series of questions, saying:

“What if loneliness is driven, often, by changing who we are, being “perfect,” saying what we’re supposed to say, doing what we’re supposed to do? What if loneliness is driven in part by our lack of authenticity — that I can go to a party, and I can be the belle of the ball and come home completely disconnected, lonely, anxious, because never once during that experience was I myself? I was who I thought they wanted me to be.”  

In asking these questions, Brene Brown came to the realization that “your level of true belonging can never be greater than your willingness to be brave and [authentic].”


God prepares a table; even if no one will sit with us, God prepares a table where our deepest self belongs.  God calls us to come out and come home; to be authentic and know that our true brave self is welcome at God’s table.


This invitation comes in the presence of enemies.  It certainly makes the act of showing up into an act of bravery.  But I think it also challenges our attempts to create barriers and walls, to divide the world of insider and outsider, friend and foe.  God prepares the table with the zombies in the room; and even greater horror, wants us to dine with zombies beside us.


In doing this, God challenges our standard attempt to deal with our need for belonging.  Because I think we try to create divisions of insider and outsider out of an attempt to create a sense of belonging, to define a community where we belong, to base our belonging on a communal act of exclusion.


Again, Brene Brown names this pattern, saying, “we’ve sorted ourselves into ideological bunkers. And what’s so crazy is how that social demographic changing — of sorting into those ideological bunkers — tracks exactly with increasing rates of loneliness. And so I would argue that nine times out of ten, the only thing I have in common with the people behind those bunkers is that we all hate the same people. I call it ‘common enemy intimacy.’”


And yet, like people hiding in a farmhouse from zombies, common enemy intimacy does not engender a real sense of belonging.  As scary as the zombies may be, hatred doesn’t make us feel like we belong. Fear may push our shoulders together but our hearts still cry out.


Which makes God’s action revolutionary, seating us in the presence of our enemies, pulling us out of our bunkers and beyond our walls.  God wants us to see our connection to all other humans, to know ourselves not just as God’s child but as part of a huge family of God’s children.  To realize this sense of belonging is to find that our cup overflows.


Horror movies and fright shows use zombies, vampires, and werewolves to name our existential fears: Do they belong?  Do I belong? But God, our good shepherd, moves through the story of our lives; or, as Martin Luther King, said, “The Holy Spirit is the continuing community creating reality that moves through history.”  He’s right; God our good shepherd makes clear, “No matter what, you belong.” And God challenges us, “No matter what, they belong too.”


For when we feel the fear of the zombies - they don’t belong - or feel the anxiety of the werewolf - do I belong - know this: God, our shepherd, prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies.  God says you belong. God says they belong. And for the promise and challenge of that invitation, I say, “alleluia and amen.”




Sources:

  • Alderman, Naomi, “The Meaning of Zombies,” Granta Magazine.

  • Clapp, Rodney, “Attack of the Zombies,” Christian Century, Feb. 8, 2012.

  • Denysenko, Nicholas, “Retrieving a Theology of Belonging,” (note, article comes in two parts), Worship, 2015.

  • Friend-Jones, Russell, “In the Presence of My Enemies: The Phenomenon of Prejudice,” The Journal of Religious Thought.

  • Graham, Renee, “What ‘Night of the Living Dead’ Taught me About Race,” Boston Globe, July 21, 2017.

  • Tippett, Krista, “Brene Brown Interview,” On Being, NPR: Feb. 2018.  Available Online.

  • Thurman, Howard, A Strange Freedom, p. 21-22.

"Undocumented Resurrection" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - April 1, 2018

posted Apr 4, 2018, 8:58 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

Do you ever find yourself well outside your comfort zone?  I did last Sunday, as I got ready to walk the runway at a fashion show.


My friend Dana - the same one who got me to try yoga (you’d think I’d learn) - organized a fashion show to raise money and awareness for the fight against human trafficking.  The show featured real couture. One designer created a dress that looked like something out of Star Wars. Two models wore versions of the dress, one in white and one in black; each dress had a large hoop raised up over their backs which they held with their arms.  Stunning and impractical; then, as they walked the runway, the women dropped their arms, transforming the outfit into a full-length ball gown; and then, once further down the runway, they pushed off the bottom skirt to reveal a cocktail dress. Amazing.


So why was I at a real fashion show?  Before the couture, Dana had three groups of people walk in the show - youth, community leaders, and a survivor of human trafficking to help raise awareness.  I was one of the community leaders. My job was to walk down the runway in a t-shirt for Dana’s organization, Foundations for Freedom. You would think that would be easy.


I arrived early so that I could practice with other community leaders.  That’s when I started to panic. Everyone else had some smooth moves for the runway.  My anxiety only grew as the room filled with hundreds of people. Standing behind the curtain, waiting for my turn, every introverted cell in my body tensed up.  I knew I didn’t belong. But then my turn came; I had to walk.


I already lack rhythm.  But add stress: not pretty.  Or, pretty awkward. On top of it, my face turned beet red.  I knew it was bad when I saw Tomas laughing - and filming. Great.  (If you see him in a new car, you’ll know how much that video cost.)


All I wanted to do was cross behind the curtain again.  But as I neared it, the MC stopped me. Denise had ahold of me.  No running. And she teased me, “Pastor, will you pray for me?” But I didn’t know what to say because I was too busy asking Jesus to save me.  (Jesus get me off this runway.)


In that moment, I felt mortified.  But when I finally got back behind the curtain, I realized: I survived.  And I came to see it as a moment of resurrection: despite the power of my anxiety, I lived; despite my fears, I came through; despite mortification, I survived.


Often in church we talk about the resurrection of Jesus as a grand version of what I experienced: Jesus moving from death to life again.  And we spiritualize it into a story of rebirth. We just sang “Now the Green Blade Rises,” an old hymn of our tradition, which puts this spirituality into verse: Love is come again like wheat that rises green.  The hymn speaks to one aspect of the resurrection of Jesus: renewal.  We rightly claim those moments when we overcome fear and death as resurrection moments.


And yet, there is more than just rebirth in this story.  In the Gospel, the resurrection of Jesus did not happen in a political vacuum.   The resurrection came as God’s witness against the dehumanizing forces of oppression and injustice.  Just think of the last days of his life: a mob seized him while he prayed, prepared to lynch him; false witnesses lied about him, creating a pretense of justice; soldiers mocked him, calling on him to prophesy; the state labeled him a criminal, an insurrectionist king; friends abandoned him, ashamed to be seen with him; and he died, nailed up as the Romans did to all other traitors.


The Romans used crucifixion to make a political point.  They didn’t crucify citizens; Paul, arrested decades later in Jerusalem, got spared torture and crucifixion because he had his citizenship papers.  But Jesus was undocumented. He didn’t have papers. He couldn’t prove he belonged. And so Governor Pilate turned Jesus into a public spectacle.


Governor Pilate’s capricious use of power became evident when he judged Jesus.  The Gospel portrayed Pilate offering the crowd a choice of Jesus or Barabbas; Pilate seemed baffled by the anger at Jesus.  As the crowd shouted - “crucify him” - Pilate asked, “why, what evil has he done?” And yet when the crowd still demanded Jesus’ blood, Pilate agreed without much thought, handing Jesus over to be whipped, beaten, and killed.  I want to underscore this: Pilate stood indifferent to justice, condemning a man whose innocence he believed to die ignominiously.


The whole story of Jesus’ death, from the abandonment of friends like Peter to Pilate condemning a man he knew to be innocence, speaks of the power of death.  Not just death as an end of life, but Death as a power, a force, an Empire that destroys relationships, corrupts character, and distorts reality. When the disciples looked on Jesus on the Cross, broken, it seemed like all the forces of Death had won.


And yet, even in the act of the women coming to the tomb, we know the Empire of Death couldn’t win.  Because the Empire didn’t just want to kill Jesus, but to destroy and to scatter. The women refused; Death had no force over their love.  And so they came and found Death couldn’t stop Jesus either. Staring into emptiness, they realized Death’s dehumanizing power had lost. O Death, where is your sting?  O Grave, your victory?


The Gospel of Mark originally ended with this story of the women visiting the tomb; they hear of Jesus’s resurrection but they don’t see him.  The resurrection remained undocumented. Instead, the Gospel ended with a cryptic line that invited a natural question. “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Go tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee.”  The resurrected Jesus must be found.


Traci Blackmon, one of the leaders of our Christian movement, recently spoke of where we can find him.  She began by asking, “How as resurrection people do we minister to those who have been relegated to Golgotha?”  And then she went on to say, “Yes, Jesus is off the cross. But Golgotha was a burial ground of skulls and bones and people who had been discarded, people who couldn’t even get a borrowed tomb.  What do we do as people to minister to those who have been relegated not always physically but spiritually to Golgotha?”


Rev. Blackmon’s question focuses us back on the people affected by the Empire, people dehumanized and demeaned, those who feel the sting of Death.  Where do we see people treated with indifference? Suffering false accusations? Treated unjustly? I see it in the treatment of undocumented people, people like a Congolese woman and her daughter.


The mother and her seven-year-old daughter fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Before she fled, the mother had taken refuge in a Catholic Church in her home country, fearing for her life and that of her daughter.  Then she found a way to get from the Congo to Mexico. From there the mother and daughter walked into the United States. They surrendered themselves at the border, claiming asylum.


ICE agents at the border reviewed the claims of the mother.  They deemed her story credible and agreed she had a legitimate fear of harm if she returned to the Congo.  But, while they further reviewed this case, they decided to separate the mother and the child, keeping the mother in a detention center in San Diego and sending her seven-year-old daughter to detention in Chicago.


Now, remember, ICE agents have concluded that the mother and the child will likely receive asylum.  But ICE decided to make an example of this mother and child; separating them to opposite ends of the country in order to discourage other people from seeking asylum.  And ICE has kept them apart for months; a seven-year-old child alone in a strange place, a continent away from her mother, for months. What would crucify a parent more than hearing the cries of your child?  This family is experiencing the dehumanizing power of Empire; the forces which once made a public example of Jesus now make one of a mother and her child.


When the Empire tried to crush Jesus, even on the cross he signified his power to overcome.  The Empire wanted to make a spectacle of him, to break him down, to isolate him. But on the cross, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus looked at his mother and best friend, saying to them, “Mother, behold your son; and son, behold your mother.”  He created family ties in the midst of an Empire trying to destroy all his bonds.


Jesus’ victory over the powers of Death compelled his disciples to seek out and build family bonds, to see as sister and brother those they had formerly seen as alien and threat.  And so we find Peter visiting the home of the centurion Cornelius - the man who commanded the troops who killed Jesus - and there in the house of his one time enemy, Peter realized, “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”  Where Death sought to isolate and demean, the grace of Resurrection created new bonds.


This is happening for undocumented people in our country.  Just last weekend, a congregation in New York City went public with its commitment to shelter Aura Hernandez from deportation.  She grew up in Guatemala but came to the United States after several family members were murdered. Now, fourteen years later, Hernandez faced deportation, which would separate her from her US born children.  A congregation became her shelter, the stone walls physically manifesting the commitment of women and men in the church to be her family, tía y tío a su hija.


The Gospel story doesn’t document where the resurrected Jesus can be found, but I know where to look: in those places were strangers call each other sister and brother.  For resurrection comes as God’s answer against the force of dehumanization.


God’s resurrection answer can’t be separated from the law.  The religious and political authorities brought Jesus to trial for all the illegal things he did.  They had much to chose from. Jesus touched lepers. He talked to women as his equal. He ate with tax-collectors.  He sheltered the accused. And he worked on the day of rest. So the authorities labeled him a criminal, an illegal.  And he was: Jesus lived as one outside the law, in the shadows of Empire.


But God resurrected Jesus.  One detained as illegal, redeemed.  One crucified as a non-citizen, raised to glory.  One buried outside the city, brought into the Kingdom of God.


The same resurrection grace moves through people today.  People like Moises Escalante, whose name means Moses the Climber.  Born in El Salvador, Moises’ father abandoned the family and then his mother left for work in the United States, leaving Moises to care for his younger siblings.  Eventually the family scraped together enough money to make the journey to America, crossing illegally.


He found work and then married, gaining his papers after a long period in the shadows.  Moises used his new status to help other undocumented people, supporting organizations in America and going on peace missions to war-torn areas of El Salvador.  This work led Moises Escalante to help start the New Sanctuary Movement, the same movement advocating for people detained like the Congolese mother and providing shelter for people like Aura Hernandez.


We are called to follow Moises; to follow the resurrected Jesus; to join the movement of resurrection: not just the saving of one person, but joining into community as one people who save together.


And really that’s the resurrection grace I experienced on the runway.   I was there because I understood my life as connected to people being trafficked.  And I was there because God connected me to sisters and brothers, who could laugh with me at my awkwardness and love me even as I failed and let me know I really did belong.


Go from this place to look for the resurrected Jesus.  Discover Jesus, the undocumented one of God, transformed into glory.  And find Jesus wherever people live as sisters and brothers to each other.


Alleluia and Amen.

 




Sources:

"Cosplaying Messiah" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - March 25, 2018

posted Mar 26, 2018, 11:33 AM by Plymouth Church UCC


Cosplay (v) - dressing up as a character from a movie, book, or video game, especially one from the Japanese genres of manga and anime.


A few weeks ago the results of my ancestry.com DNA test arrived.  To be honest, I took the test hoping for something interesting or unusual to show up on the family tree.  My sister-in-law had recently unraveled a family secret. Her grandmother left Germany in the 1930’s to pursue a career on the stage in London and then America.  But in the attic was a trunk the grandmother kept anyone from looking in and commanded be burned on her death. For years, my sister-in-law carted around the trunk: too curious to burn it and too committed to her Grandmother to open it.  But, eventually, curiosity won. Inside were the mementos of a hidden life - a German Jew who reinvented herself, first in Britain and then America.


I wondered if I’d find something similar in my DNA, a hidden history.  So I waited for my results with anticipation. And when they came, I learned I’m really white, WASPy white.  90% of my ancestors come from Great Britain, immigrated to America 300 years ago, and apparently only married other old Brits.  Basically, I’m more English than the Queen; after all, her people came from Hanover. Germans.


My family suggested I look to see if I could get a British passport, or even become a “peer of the realm.”  Sadly, I only qualified as a “queer of the realm.”


The longer I sat with my DNA results, I kept coming back to the story of my sister-in-law’s grandmother.  Are we only who our DNA says we are? Or are we who we reinvent ourselves to be?


This question reminded me of an insight Ta-Nehisi Coates makes in his book Between the World and Me.  In the book he never speaks of “white people” but only “people who understand themselves to be white.”  By this phrase he called attention to being white as a socially created identity, not rooted in DNA but an invention, an on-going reinvention actually, given that who counts as white changes from generation to generation in America.


As I continued to mull this over, I realized the spiritual stakes of this question.  To imagine my identity coming from ancestral DNA makes me passive; I have no control over what chromosomes I inherited.  But to see identity as a question of invention, to know that who I am comes from who I understand myself to be, makes me active.  And so while getting my DNA results was fun, I’ve come to see there is a more important question than “Where do I come from?” And that more important question is, “Who am I going to become?”


The Gospel of Mark imagines Jesus living with this question: who am I going to become?  Unlike the other Gospels, Mark’s Jesus appears out of nowhere. His ancestry, his history didn’t matter to Mark.  It’s all about how Jesus will reinvent himself.


And in our story today, Jesus so clearly picks up the role of Messiah, reinventing the poor kid from Nazareth as God’s chosen one, costuming himself with thick layers of tradition. Jesus’ performative actions come to the fore in entrance to Jerusalem.  He played the role: dressed like a king; making sure to have the right prop, a colt; and even having his disciples act like the retinue of royalty. Jesus mimicked all the projections of power used by conquering heroes. And yet, even as he cosplays his way into Jerusalem, Jesus points to a different way of being heroic.  He not only reinvents himself as Savior but also reinvents the meaning of salvation.


I’ll turn to that reinvention soon, but first I want to sharpen the opening question, “who am I becoming?”  Seeing Jesus play a role, seeing Jesus as performing, invites us to look at the roles and performances in our lives.  What roles do we play in our families? What role do we take amongst our friends? Do we conform to the expectations put on us because of our sex or race or orientation?  When do you find yourself stuck in a role you don’t want?


I can certainly think of times I feel constrained by a role I play.  And this can be true from the roles we play in our families to the parts we play in society.  For what is racism, but typecasting people for a performance they don’t want to enact.


Jesus showed how to reinvent ourselves and to reinvent our roles in society in our story.  (And I want to acknowledge that my reading of Jesus’ role was shaped by reflections shared in our “Building Resilience for Racial Justice” program this Lent.)


We almost always jump into this story of Jesus entering Jerusalem at the point when the crowd proclaimed him king.  “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” We even enacted this part of the story at the beginning of worship.  But, when Mark told the story of this day, he focused a third of the story on all of the things Jesus did to prepare for entering Jerusalem.  When we want to change our roles, we need to prepare.


Jesus gave detailed directions to the disciples on how to requisition a colt; to look like a king, he needed the right animal.  Focusing on the animal, we might miss the question of power and domination that hangs over this part of the story. Romans, soldiers, and imperial powers regularly took what didn’t belong to them; requisitioned, appropriated, stole.  But Jesus makes clear from the outset the plan to return the animal. “If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” While Jesus acts like a king, he does so without replicating the dynamics of power (taking).  And in case we miss the fact that he returned the colt, the story doesn’t end until he returned to Bethany, bringing back the burrow he borrowed.


In saying this, I want to underscore the particular way that Jesus prepared.  He paid attention to power dynamics. Kelly Germaine recently wrote about how hard that can be in a reflection on what she calls the “White Spiritual Bypass.”  Speaking as a white person, she described the way she found herself and other white people trying to bypass the pain and experiences of other people. As she said, “I struggle to trust myself, because of how frequently I see us as white people prioritizing our desire to avoid anxiety over the literal lives of people of color.”  Just as a highway whisks us by a poor neighborhood, we bypass the reality of oppression in order to reach our destination of hope and joy.


Jesus didn’t look away; he knew any performance of kingship had to address the threat of exploitation.  So from the beginning, he looked out for the danger areas of pain, how what he did could affect someone else.  In the roles we play in our family, in our work, in our society, do we attend to the pain we may cause? Sometimes in a family, there’s one person always out of step; do we see how our role as “golden child” affects the other?  Or do we see how our performance of masculinity affects another? Or the script of race? The play of wealth?


Jesus rode into Jerusalem with people shouting praise.  Mark described the crowd throwing down their cloaks to create a red carpet for Jesus.  They treated him like a celebrity. But we know what comes next, the same people will denounce him less than a week later.  Sometimes scholars want to suggest two crowds existed in Jerusalem, one that praised Jesus and one that denounced him. But from what I know of human nature, I think not; after all, even his disciples abandoned him.  No, in this performance we see the fickleness of acclaim.


To sustain himself with the boom and bust of approval, Jesus needed to discover the inner core of himself.  Valarie Kaur, a Sikh civil rights activist, discovered her core through her work after 9/11. A white man angry at Muslims killed her uncle.  She began to travel the country to help organize people of color and religious minorities to combat hatred and extremism. Eventually her journey confronting extremism led her to call the man who killed her uncle.  He said, “I'm sorry for what happened, but I'm also sorry for all the people killed on 9/11.” Valarie wanted to hang up on this man who would not take responsibility for his actions; but her aunt kept her on the phone.  Her aunt said, “This is the first time I'm hearing you say that you feel sorry.”  As she reflected on her aunt’s ability to speak to her brother’s murderer, Valarie saw how her aunt’s faith in the dignity of every human allowed her to see how a man full of hate was himself wounded and trapped.  Sikh values at the core of her aunt’s heart gave her the strength to see this. Whenever we want to reinvent ourselves, we need to strengthen our core, so that we don’t depend on the approval of the crowd but on our own inner convictions.


Once in Jerusalem, Jesus did something that confused the disciples and might well confuse us to this day.  While it was not the season for ripe figs, Jesus decided to curse a fig tree that had no figs.


Puzzling over this bit of Jesus’ performance reminded me of something Margaret Wheatley once wrote regarding the willingness to be disturbed.  She spoke of the importance of being curious about what other people say and in particular to pay attention to what we don’t understand. As she explained, “Noticing what surprises and disturbs me has been a very useful way to see invisible beliefs.  If what you say surprises me, I must have been assuming something else was true. If what you say disturbs me, I must believe something contrary to you. My shock at your position exposes my own position.” How does Jesus’ shocking performance make us aware of all the invisible expectations in our own roles?  And how do the roles we play in our families and society surprise other people? Or do we just play out the script society gave us?


Mimicking a conquering king, Jesus went to the Temple, where he famously overturned the tables of the money changers.  He acted like a king: issuing orders, enforcing his rule. We often pretend that the issue was the mixing of money and faith; as if the Temple just needed to be spiritual.  But like the White Spiritual Bypass I mentioned earlier, this misses the problem of what was happening in the Temple. The money changers exploited the poor, charging unfair exchange rates.  The Temple also maintained all the records of debts. We wouldn’t be far off the mark to imagine these moneychangers in the Temple as subprime financiers - rapaciously lending - or check cashing stores - providing a service at an exorbitantly profitable rate.


Jesus responded with anger.  “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’ but you have made it a den of robbers.”  Jesus didn’t get angry about the presence of money, but in the abuse of power to cheat and exploit the poor.  His anger reminds me of the anger Audre Lorde once described; “anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification.”  She also explained, “It is not anger… that will destroy us, but our refusals to stand still, to listen to its rhythms, to learn within it, to move beyond the manner of presentation to the substance, to tap that anger as an important source of empowerment.”


Jesus’ anger might be even harder for us to hear than his curse of the fig tree.  And yet it invites us to listen in a new way to anger, to listen to it as an expression of frustration at injustice, to find in it the witness of pain.  And it might make us wonder: what happens to our own anger? If we’re not angry, where did our emotion go? And when will it erupt?


Yesterday I ran into many Plymouth people at the March for our Lives, which began at the Courthouse and ended at City Hall.  I couldn’t take part in that march for gun violence prevention without thinking of Jesus’ Palm Sunday march. During the rally at the beginning of the march, I saw a woman dressed up as a Statue of Liberty and another person as Superman.  They reminded me we are all called to cosplay too; to be like Jesus, to cosplay messiah.


I saw Jesus in the young adults who spent weeks preparing for this march, cognizant of the shock of a school shooting but also aware of the all-to-often threat of violence many young people face on their streets and in their homes.  I heard Jesus in youth like Amaya Chheda as they spoke with strength from their core. And in the nation’s capital where another eleven year old named Naomi Wadler showed deep strength in core while naming all the unheralded African-American youth who have been killed by gun violence.  I marveled at crowds calling for disrupting our politics of the possible. And felt the disturbing silence that brooded over Washington DC after Emma Gonzalez invoked the names of her classmates. I witnessed Jesus in the anger of youth at growing up with “red drills” and the inaction of our society after seventeen deaths at Parkland and seventeen deaths already this year in the City of Milwaukee.  To me, they were cosplaying Jesus.


DNA may give an answer to “where do I come from.”  But the more interesting answers come from the question “who am I going to become?”  This Palm Sunday, remembering Jesus’ performance long ago and the youth who cosplayed him yesterday, I want to find my answer in acting and living like Jesus.


Amen.




Sources:

I consulted the New Interpreter’s Bible, Feasting on the Word, and:

"Work of Art" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - March 11, 2018

posted Mar 12, 2018, 2:29 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

Our reading this morning contains one of the first scripture passages I memorized by heart, “You are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus, for good works prepared beforehand.”  


I came across the verse while reading a Lenten devotion decades ago during a time when I struggled deeply with what it meant to be gay and Christian.  At a time when I was drowning in homophobia, this verse came like a life preserver thrown just to me. “You are God’s work of art.”


The verse, which I repeated even when I didn’t believe it, came as an assurance of love and grace.  No matter what people said, I was God’s work of art. No matter how I felt, I was God’s work of art.  And even if everything felt as surreal as a Salvador Dali painting, I was God’s work of art. And so I held onto that life preserver, reciting it until I memorized its truth.


Now, all these years later, it comes quickly to my mind, still etched on my heart, but I realize all the different messages I hear in this verse.  


At first I focused on the electric words, “You are God’s work of art.”  I think these words electrified the first readers of the letter too, because the letter came in the midst of a large, contentious, and divisive fight in the early church.  Some followers of Jesus thought his message only belonged to Jews; converts would have to become Jewish first before becoming followers of Jesus. Others welcomed Gentiles into the movement of Jesus.  


We largely ignore this conflict when we read the New Testament today; often we only have the voice of those who advocated for the inclusion of Gentiles.  But nonetheless this tension divided friends and families. The Apostle Paul’s greatest friend was Barnabas; they went everywhere together, until Paul started welcoming in the Gentiles.  At that moment, they went their separate ways: Barnabas to remain in Judea and Paul to travel on to Gentile cities like Ephesus and ultimately Rome itself.


Our letter - either written by Paul or one of his followers - addresses Gentile Christians.  The “you” in this letter is not simply people in Ephesus; but the Gentiles who wondered if they really belonged.  The “you” in this letter is all of us who’ve felt excluded and judged, shamed and outcast, on the wrong side of the line or the wall.  “You are God’s work of art.”


One of the challenges of reconciling being gay and Christian centered on the issue of pride.  In the LGBT community, coming out meant proclaiming gay pride. But in the church, pride got cast as sin, a deadly sin in the Catholic faith of my childhood, and the oft-named root of all sin.

But, “You are God’s work of art.”  How can we not take pride in ourselves when God so clearly delights in us?


Christian tradition often lifted up humility as the “correct” virtue.  But I realized the limitations of humility early on. Humility leaves us unable to question tradition; because it whispers in the heart, “Who are you?”  Humility leaves us unable to stand up to bullies; because it whispers, “Who do you think you are?” Humility traps us in destructive relationships; because, “Why would you deserve better?”


Certainly pride can be sinful, but the lack of pride can also be sinful.  I thought of this recently when a female pastor I know said, at the beginning of March, women’s history month, “I’m done apologizing.”  She didn’t mean that she’d never do anything wrong; but too often she found herself rushing to apologize for things she never did, taking responsibility that wasn’t hers, saying “I’m sorry” just to smooth over a rough relationship.  And so instead of apologizing further, she came to claim the pride, “I’m God’s work of art.”


This is the kind of meaning I long found in this verse; a call to be proud of who we are, to know ourselves as God’s treasure.  Each of us - in our beauty and our imperfections - art. Each of us - in our rich diversity, with toned muscles or wrinkles, good hair and no hair, whatever the shape and size, every orientation from sensual to asexual, all of us, all that makes up our personhood, all of it - God’s treasured work of art.


But, as I lived with this verse, I found my heart moving from the opening phrase to the closing one, from “You are God’s work of art” to “created in Christ Jesus for good works prepared beforehand.”


The message “You are God’s work of art” can come as a healing, restorative word.  But, as one Biblical scholar said, this doesn’t mean we stop doing anything, as if “the Christian life simply means relaxing by the swimming pool, sipping drinks with little umbrellas jutting out the top.”  


By no means.  Instead, Paul moves from assurance to action, from promise to purpose, from works of art to work to do.  


As the scholar says: we can think of that work as the “opportunity for us to live out lives we were destined to live.”  And that’s long left me with a question: what’s my purpose? What am I meant to do? Am I living the life God calls me to?  


An old essay by Frederick Buechner shaped my thinking on these questions.  He wrote about the “Journey to Wholeness.”


Buechner observed all the ways the world can wear us down:


The world floods in on all of us. The world can be kind, and it can be cruel. It can be beautiful, and it can be appalling. It can give us good reason to hope and good reason to give up all hope. It can strengthen our faith in a loving God, and it can decimate our faith. In our lives in the world, the temptation is always to go where the world takes us, to drift with whatever current happens to be running strongest. When good things happen, we are in heaven; when bad things happen, we are in hell. When the world strikes out at us, we strike back, and when one way or another the world blesses us, our spirits soar...In other words, we are in constant danger of being, not actors in the drama of our own lives, but reactors. The fragmentary nature of our experience shatters us into fragments.


Many of those experiences are the very ones which make us crave the blessing, “You are God’s work of art.”


And there are people who responded to the brokeness and fragmenting pressure of the world with a sense of dignity; certainly Jesus did.  As Buechner explained, “All his life long, wherever Jesus looked he saw the world not in terms simply of its brokenness - a patchwork of light and dark calling forth in us now our light, now our dark - but in terms of the ultimate mystery of God’s presence buried in it like a treasure buried in a field.”  And elsewhere he explained further, “To be whole, I think, means, among other things, that you see the world whole.” I think he means that you don’t see brokenness; it’s there, undeniably; but that you see beyond brokenness, beneath brokenness, into brokenness; finding that hidden mystery, whole and holy.


Buechner didn’t claim that he had perfected wholeness.  Rather, wholeness was something he sought, not something he had, something he glimpsed in others, not something he grasped fully himself.  But he did see it in some other people; a kind of compelling spirit that set them apart, which even with their human imperfections, felt like wholeness.


I first glimpsed wholeness in my grandfather.  As a child, I listened to him tell lots of stories; he had one for every occasion.  But now, as I look back, I realize that I remember those stories because my grandfather spent so much time talking with me.  He was the one who would get down on the beach to build sandcastles, the one to let me play in his electrical shop, to teach me how to crack walnuts open while telling stories of picking nuts in Texas.


But I also remember how my grandfather responded to me when I came out.  My family and I went through some rough years before things started evening out.  As we got back to normal, I would test the limits. And one of those times was when I showed my parents and grandparents pictures of me in drag.  I left it to them to wonder if this was a one-time thing or a new passion; as I said, I was testing some limits.


My grandfather looked at the pictures of me decked out - my outfit include a faux pearl necklace - and said matter-of-factly, “Nice pearls.”  (This was a much nicer comment then one of my friends, who said, “Well don’t you Barbara Bush.”). It felt to me that my grandfather had said, “I see you, all of you, and however you try to be you, I love you.”  


I think our great work might well be a journey toward wholeness.  To learn to see the world, other people, and ourselves beyond all the brokenness that presses in on us, to see underneath all the fragmentary moments, to find a hidden wholeness.  


And for me this means that I not only need to hear “You are God’s work of art” but I feel called to say to others, “You are God’s work of art.”


Recently, because I continue to sit with this verse, I heard a third meaning in it.  For a long time I thought the author of Ephesians wrote of “God’s work of art” as a reference back to the first creation story, that moment when God the creator decided to make humankind in the divine image.


Many theologians have written about all the implications for humans as the “image of God;” this concept roots ideas of the inherent worth of people, of human dignity.  


Then I started puzzling over the middle of this sentence, “created in Christ Jesus.”  Now of course the author could have meant that Jesus was mystically present at the moment of creation.  But I wonder: perhaps the author meant we were created in the saving work of Jesus. So that this verse looks back to creation and forward to redemption: we were and we shall be God’s work of art.


I like this way of understanding the verse because it changes this life into an experience of God’s creative work in me.  Too often Christianity gets mired into a narrative of purity and purity lost; but what if we experienced it as God’s continual shaping of us, the artist layering depth in the paint, the sculptor chiseling away.  What would it mean to see those hardships we all face, the challenges that rock us to our core, as part of the process of becoming God’s amazing works of art? Was this why Paul said, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God”?


I know this: I’m going to keep holding close in my heart this word of God, “You are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus, for good works prepared beforehand.”  May you keep that word in your hearts and share it with all you meet. Amen.






Sources

In addition to Feasting on the Word and The New Interpreter's Bible, I consulted:

  • Buechner, Frederick, “Journey toward Wholeness,” Journal of Theology, 1993.

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