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"The Fire This Time" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - August 28, 2016

posted Oct 19, 2016, 8:20 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

Earlier this week, authorities in Oklahoma charged 61-year old Stanley Majors with a hate crime for his murder of his Arab-American neighbor, Kladid Jabara.  I read the news headline and filled in all the details: a southern racist, a Muslim American, I knew the story.

At first all my assumptions seemed right.  Majors had terrorized the Jabara family for years.  It started with taunts and name-calling directed at the Jabara’s, a family who moved from Lebanon to seek refuge in Oklahoma.  It escalated into violence when Majors ran his car into Jabara’s mother, nearly killing her.  Once out on bail, he grabbed his gun to kill Jabara.

But I realized this story didn’t fit my narrative of expectation when I read the Jabara family were not Muslim - as I had quickly assumed - but Christians.  They left Lebanon because of the sectarian violence.  I’m sure they must have thought, “Oklahoma’s a very Christian place; we’ll be safe there.”

Then came Majors’ motivation for running over Jabara’s mother.  He told police he hated the family because Lebanese “throw gay people off rooftops.”  He was apparently referencing a video of ISIS killing gay people this way in the mideast.  And I learned how Majors’ husband warned Jabara that Majors was armed and firing.  Wait: a gay guy committing hate crimes?  

So what I first thought of as a hate crime by a white, Christian racist against a Muslim family turned into something more complex: a gay man terrorizing and killing a Christian family from Lebanon.  A story like this underscores the importance of getting beyond the news headlines: context and depth matter to our understanding.

This tragedy in Oklahoma captured for me the brokenness of our society: of course, the awfulness of violence and bigotry; but also, the failure of imagination.  A gay man in Oklahoma, an Arab in Oklahoma: it seems to me they could have bonded over shared experiences of marginalization.  The intersectionality of their oppression seems so evident to me; and yet, instead of sympathy, one terrorized the other.  And thus, in this tragedy, came the failure to imagine: we’re in this together, you and I are alike in all our difference.

The Letter to the Hebrews, our first reading today, makes sympathy and solidarity central to the Christian imagination and does so in ways that I think deeply matter for us in Milwaukee, and in Oklahoma, and around the world.  Usually we only read from the Letter to the Hebrews on All Saints Day, when we hear, “For we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses so let us set aside every weight that clings to us and run with perseverance the race before us.”  Just as that verse calls us to a particular Christian vision - seeing the saints around us - so too the whole letter depends on vivid and creative imagination.  

Which we hear in our key verses today, “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”

It began with a simple affirmation - “Let mutual love continue” - and then explained what that means in a series of couplets, double statements, each reinforcing the other.  I long ago memorized the first couplet - show hospitality, for by doing so some have entertained angels.  It raises the bar on how we welcome people; any stranger could be an angel.  

The Russian artist Rublev once created a famous icon showing three angels sitting around a table; one side remains open for the viewer to pull up a stool.  A copy of it hangs outside the north entrance to the sanctuary.  Some think the icon represents the Trinity; it could, but it also represents this verse.  The viewer can join the table, can entertain the angels.  The open table, the call to entertain angels, reminds us that Christian love is never a closed circle.  Mutual love, faithful love, always remains open to the stranger, the outsider, the unmet friend, the angel in disguise.

And yet the more challenging, and often forgotten, verse comes after: remember those in prison, as if you were in prison; those tortured, as if you were being tortured.  

This scripture makes plain the true shape of Christian love.  It’s not just entertaining pleasant people we don’t know; it’s remembering people we too often forget.  So while love remains open to the stranger, it also refuses to distance itself from those suffering.  Holy love remembers.

Prisoners and torture were everywhere in the ancient world.  Few actual prisons existed as we might think of them; instead, people were enslaved.  The word we translate as “prisoners” literally means “the ones who are bound.”  Roman society sharply drew the contrast between citizen and slave; partly through the distinction of torture.  Citizens could not be tortured.  But anything could be done to slaves.  In fact, the testimony of slave would not be believed unless coerced through torture.

Against the deep divisions of Roman society, this letter challenges: remember; remember the prisoners as if you yourself were in prison.  Transcend the social barriers which define you.  Overcome the social lines that mark you out from each other.

It’s fundamentally the work of Jesus.  One of the oldest Christian writings is the hymn found in the letter of Paul to the Philippians:

Jesus, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

Jesus remembered; and so took on human life.  His love followed a consistent trajectory.  He transcended the divisions of his day - between Jew and Greek, free and slave, women and men, insiders and outsiders.  

To love like Jesus requires more of us than nice hospitality.  It involves seeing ourselves in the prisoner and the one tortured, to see ourselves in those who are marginalized and forgotten in our society.

Martin Luther King best articulated the spiritual commitment to mutual love.  He said in many ways, “All life is interrelated. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality; tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” And in a similar vein, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”

The Letter to the Hebrews challenges us to embrace, to lean into, the inter-relatedness of life: to see the stranger as our angel, to see the prisoner as ourselves, to know, in the depth of our being, that we can only succeed together.

The big news story in Milwaukee wasn’t Stanley Majors but rather the police shooting of Sylville Smith and the riot that followed.  And yet like Majors, this news speaks to the need for solidarity.

Much of the coverage focuses on the immediate interaction between Smith and the cop who killed him: Did he brandish his gun?  Was he a bad guy?  Or just an unlucky guy?

But as I’ve caught up on this coverage, I’m reminded of an old quote by G.K. Chesterton, who said, “Newspapers not only deal with news but they deal with everything as if it were entirely new.”  The story that ended with a gas station burned on Sherman Boulevard didn’t start just that afternoon with a cop chasing a man.  

Many have tried to explain the roots of what happened, finding cause in joblessness, the rate of incarcerations and evictions, and pernicious racism.  

I think these are probably all true.  By my heart turns to a question: what would have to happen in my life to make me burn down the gas station in Whitefish Bay?  What amount of hopelessness and rage would I need to feel?

James Baldwin, writing fifty years ago, called on whites and blacks to work together “to end the racial nightmare… If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water, the fire next time!”  

The events in Sherman Park came as just one more reminder of how much work remains despite all that changed since Baldwin’s time.  And watching the news, I wondered if he would have described it as “the fire this time.”

The Letter to the Hebrews challenges us to love beyond the lines which separate us.  In our Milwaukee context, surely that means facing racism and the way too many of us live divided off from one another. To remember the jobless as if we were jobless; the evicted as if we were evicted; those without hope because of racism as if we were without hope.

A few months ago I asked people in our congregation to wear “Black Lives Matter” buttons and to be attuned to the reactions you got.  If you’ve put away the button, I hope you will bring it back out again.  And I hope you will do more than wear a button: cultivate a friendship with someone whose life experience is far different than yours, go to an anti-racism workshop, show up for a MICAH event.

But do it all as an act of mutual love.  Earlier this summer I heard Cory Booker, a senator from New Jersey, describe a key moment in his maturing understanding of solidarity.  After Yale Law School, he decided to move to one of the worst neighborhoods of Newark, N.J.  Time to give back to the community.

Booker learned not much happened in the neighborhood without the support of Virginia Jones, the tenant leader in the projects.  So he made his way up to her apartment, announcing, “I'm here to help you."

Jones said she had no use for him.  When she left her apartment, Booker followed her back down the stairs and into the street.  “I just want to help,” he was saying to her back.  

As he described it, “She wheeled around and said, 'You want to help me? Tell me what you see around you.’”  Booker took a quick inventory of the drug dealers, ruined buildings, and blight.  

“You can’t help me,” Jones said when he was finished.  “You only see what’s wrong.”  

Jones couldn’t shake Booker off; he stayed until he could see the neighborhood how she saw it.  Despite becoming mayor and then senator, he stayed in the neighborhood because he saw more than what was broken.  That’s real love.

We can begin and end the story of what happened in Sherman Park with a shooting and a gas station.  But to do so misses why people were so deeply alienated that rage seemed the only answer; and it misses the hundreds more who came out the next day to clean up the mess.

We need what the Letter of Hebrews imagined: a commitment to mutual love that transcends our divisions, a love which sees more than wrong, a love which finds hope.  Alleluia and Amen.