Justice on Good Friday

Preached on Good Friday 4/3/15 at Community Presbyterian Church, as one of seven meditations on the themes of the cross, along with Fear, Violence, Anger, Silence, Hope, and Redemption.

Mark 14:60–65

We are faced with a deep and difficult paradox on this day. Even the name we use – Good Friday – is provocative and it is difficult and it is controversial.

How can we possibly face the enormity of the truth of this day, the torture and derision and execution, and yet we call it “good”?! How can it be that we see the deep injustice of this story – that Christ who was and is innocent and blameless should suffer for us, his beloved ones – and yet believe that God has allowed it (or even caused it!) for our salvation? How far have we drifted into the abusive and death-dealing mindset of our world when we can remember the humiliation and death of an an innocent man and somehow call it “good”?

People of God, our redeemer may have worked through this violence and injustice as God works through all things, but if we truly believe that our God is a God of justice, then we must see this day for what it is. It is a day on which we remember pain, abuse, and mourning, like too many other days then and now. And as we remember this injustice that was inflicted on the very body of our God, let us remember in equal measure that God healed his wounds, raised him from the tomb, and said, “No more!” This death ends here.

So we are consoled in the injustices we face today. We are assured that even in our darkest nights, our deepest pain, that God is there and God is working through us. And as we can gather our strength back, we look around and see who suffers with us and around us. Out of our own struggles we draw power, we draw conviction to stand up and name injustice for what it is.

And that paradox is complex because the forces that bind us are complex. We each one of us are hurt and are struggling in our own ways, and yet we also have power in our own ways, whether it is power the world gives us or power we have to build up for ourselves, or a little bit of both. And so the pursuit of justice to which we are called as followers of Christ, the unjustly condemned, must also recognize that complexity. Our life depends on it.

For me, as a queer woman, as someone who battles mental illness, I have known persecution, I have known physical abuse, I have known what it is to be an outsider. And as a white person, as a Christian, as an educated person I am also an insider, and I must also face the reality that I am complicit in the suffering of others.

When I read the story of Christ’s last days, sometimes I see myself on trial in front of the religious establishment, sometimes I am with the heartbroken women at the foot of the cross; and at the same time I am Peter, warming my hands by the fire while my friend needs me at his side; I am the centurion, a cog in the machine of empire, realizing too late that I have killed the son of God.

The paradox of this day demands a counter-cultural response from those of us who would witness to a God of justice who worked through the injustice of this public execution. As we put our bodies and voices on the line for victims of police violence in these days, let us ask ourselves if we are speaking just as loudly for female victims, for transgender victims – or if we have retreated into the safety of white churches who will pay us comfortably, as long as we don’t stir up too much trouble.

Jesus died today for us and because of us. As we enter the darkness of the tomb tonight, keeping our vigil until Easter morning, let that sink in. God used this deep injustice for good. How are we, people of God, finding strength in our own suffering, putting down the crosses we carry, and standing up with those who suffer around us just as we stand up for ourselves?

The justice of God, the promise of new life which is just around the corner, and the gospel we preach with our lives depend on it.

Pom-Pom Sunday

Preached at Head of Christiana PC, Palm Sunday, March 29, 2015

Mark 11:1-11

The other day a pastor friend of mine shared a story of a conversation with her four-year-old daughter:
She asked, “Mom, when is the next Sunday?”
In two days.
“That’s when we get to do the pom-poms?!?”
What?
“That’s when we get the pom-pom branches at church? My Bible school teacher said so!”
Oh, no, honey, you get palm branches. It’s Palm Sunday.
“Not Pom-Pom Sunday?”
No. But that sounds fun. Maybe we can have that a different week.

Most of us who’ve spent any time in church have gotten pretty familiar with the imagery of Palm Sunday – of Jesus riding in on a donkey, while we wave palm branches and shout “Hosanna!” And that’s how the story goes, of course, but for many of us it’s become so familiar that we’ve lost a sense of how strange it is.

Why are we waving palm branches?? Why not pom-poms? It might make just as much sense; or probably more sense in a world where cheerleaders are familiar – we know exactly what pom-poms mean! – but we have to order palm branches shipped in from Florida, making sure they get here on time but not so early that they’ll start to dry out before Palm Sunday.

And yet those who witnessed Jesus enter Jerusalem on that day would have known exactly what it meant for them to gather along that street, around a peasant country boy riding absurdly on a young donkey, his feet maybe dragging along the ground as they spread their cloaks out in a royal welcome for someone who was almost a parody of a king. In this occupied city with potential messiahs on every street corner, the people knew their biblical symbols like the backs of their hands, watching out for those prophecies that would mark the one who came to overthrow the Roman empire and save them from their oppression.

Zechariah had prophesied that the final battle between Israel and their enemies would be kicked off by a march into the city from the Mount of Olives, and the palm branches were a common way to celebrate the pilgrims coming into the city for Passover. They knew festival processions, and even holy processions, like the celebration in Psalm 118, the ark of the covenant returning to the temple, the rulers of Israel riding back into their city.

They knew what a royal procession looked like, too. Some biblical scholars have suggested that there might have been two processions into the city on that Palm Sunday, as Passover approached and the people of Israel got ready to celebrate the release of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. Just as this revolutionary fervor was getting stirred up, it’s quite possible that Rome was sending in a parade of their own – a military cavalry, up on their horses, armed to the teeth, in their shiny matching armor, meant to intimidate the people and remind them exactly what they were up against. They were the ones who would have had cheerleaders, who could hire people to fake some enthusiasm.

And so, amidst all this symbolism and intimidation and carefully measured celebration, Jesus plans his own entry into the city. He chooses the colt deliberately – very deliberately, as Mark tells it, spending more time on the story of the disciples finding the never-before-ridden and therefore ritually pure donkey than on the parade itself – and the disciples spread their cloaks in a royal welcome for this unknown small-town preacher. While across the city, Rome flexes its muscles with trumpeters and intimidation, this upstart rabbi from the Galilee gets a royal welcome, lauded like their real king while his untrained donkey wanders in, shuffling where it wants; or not, like a cat on a leash.

It is absurd. A parody of kingship. Today it might be called a protest march, or street theater – the kind of demonstration that news outlets would cover with disdain, saying “they don’t appear to have any defined message,” and “wouldn’t identify any leaders of their movement,” and “the apparent instigator of this riot refused to comment.”

And what were they shouting? Hosanna? It comes from Aramaic and used to mean “save us please,” and yet they’re saying it like Alleluia, like it’s a word you use to welcome a king. But maybe that’s deliberate too, and maybe they’re saying more than we think. Maybe they do mean “save us,” and maybe they also mean “alleluia.” Maybe in their longing for something new, this is a word for someone who might save them – it’s not a plea, but more of a desperate, joyful hope.

Maybe you’re the one! Savior! Can you, this strange humble king, really be the one to change the world and save us from the all-consuming power of the ones who oppress us? Maybe you’re the one?

* * *

Friends, hold on tight. This week is going to be a tough one. We are called to follow Jesus on this walk into Jerusalem that is part parade, part demonstration, part funeral procession. As he does all he can, it seems, to anger and frustrate those in power, his closest friends will leave him, will betray him, until only two women and one man, under cover of darkness when no one will know him, finally take his broken body down from the cross to prepare it gently for the the tomb.

We call it Holy Week because it is that, but also because we can’t exactly call it “Jesus, what on earth are you doing?!” Week, “You’re going to get yourself killed” Week.

It is a week that ends at the cross, in the tomb. And that is a scandal for us who do all we can to avoid thinking about death, and torture, and suffering. Why would we follow Jesus there, of all places? Can’t we just go about our lives and come back next Sunday after all that messy business is done, and sing our Alleluias and not think too hard about what’s in between?

And yet Jesus’ path had to go through that tomb because for so many of God’s beloved children, that tomb is reality. That tomb and that suffering are part of what it means to be human.

For all of us who have suffered –
who have known the desperate sorrow of weeping for a beloved, lost too soon;
who have been abused and broken and longed for the safety of a nice quiet tomb to crawl into;
who have been betrayed by those we called our friends;
who have been beaten and tortured in the name of “keeping the peace”;
who have been swallowed up by the machine of power and forgotten their humanity;
for those dehumanized, again and again, by systems that have forgotten how to be human –
for all of these, all of us, Jesus says, I know. I’m sorry.

This is a week of complicated symbols and contradictory messages – death but life, betrayal and yet community – because we live in a complicated in-between time, when we, humanity, have known all the suffering and agony of the cross, in excruciating detail if we have ears to hear; and yet we still wait for a full Easter restoration. We catch glimpses of it, resurrection in flashes and bursts and quiet growing wholeness, but the true Easter redemption that we hope for is still, yet, another sunrise away.

And so for now, we wait. We work. And we follow Jesus through this week: this week of drama and pageantry, stillness and prayer, friendship and holy community, betrayal, pain, and loss. We walk his path because it is our path, and the path we so often force upon others.

Our savior is coming, both king and clown, regal and comical, humble and full of all divine power. And we follow him, not with pom-poms and simple cheerleading – yay, Jesus! – but with palm branches and all the complicated symbolism they bring. We walk with Jesus in his peace and in his suffering, and we are called to walk with one another, even when those paths lead to crosses and to violence.

Because, like it or not, that is the path that will lead to Easter. We can’t get to the empty tomb before we deal with the bloody and broken truth of the body in the tomb.

So let us join this odd procession, this motley crew of seekers and hopers, of broken ones and healing ones, shouting joyful, pleading Hosannas to the one in whom we place our trust. This way lies death. And only from there can we get to resurrection.

Snakes on a Plain

Preached at Head of Christiana Presbyterian Church, March 15, 2015

Numbers 21:4-9
Ephesians 2:1-10

There is not much that scares us more than snakes. On any list of “Top 10 Phobias,” there they are, right next to spiders and flying and the dark.

When Samuel L. Jackson signed on to make the movie Snakes on a Plane, his agents wouldn’t agree until they added a clause in his contract that the actor could not be within 25 feet of a live snake. It’s a specific fear – and sometimes it’s a fear that makes good sense! – and somehow we use the image of a snake to stand in for all of our worst fears. All the way back to Eve in the garden, the snake is a symbol of nothing less than all the sin of humanity.

That’s a lot of baggage to put on one reptile, especially since a lot of them are harmless!

And so that story from Numbers makes us really uncomfortable, to say the least. We’re used to stories that start out with the Israelites complaining in the wilderness (there are a lot of those), but then God reacts by sending poisonous serpents, “so that many of them died,” and what are we supposed to do with a God who would send something so deeply terrifying after us?! There are enough awful things in the wilderness already, and isn’t God supposed to be comforting?

* * *

Last weekend, a few of us attended the annual Presbytery Beach Retreat, this year hosted by the Speer Trust. There were three speakers, and more workshops, around themes from evangelism to one called “Healing Historic Harms.” One of the speakers, Bob Lupton, is the author of the book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, And How To Reverse It. We spent the weekend examining – or mostly resisting examining – the negative impacts of our words and actions, even (or especially) the well-intentioned ones.

It was a difficult weekend at some points, as we got close to some touchy subjects and started to ask one another to consider that some actions might not be as “good” as we thought they were. And it’s one thing when we’re talking about the actions of “the Church” as a whole, almost theoretically, but it’s a whole other thing to consider our individual work and the programs that are dearest to our hearts and identities as “good Christians” and the particular words that we ourselves have used. That hurts, because that feels personal.

“But I thought I was doing everything right!” “I didn’t mean to hurt you!” “Well if we’re not supposed to have a soup kitchen then what else is our church supposed to do?!”

These issues are many-layered and complex; too complex to be solved in one weekend or captured in one sermon. And they require some serious soul-searching for us – not just honesty but also the willingness to look critically at our actions and our priorities and to see the places that need to change.

And that’s kind of terrifying, if we’re doing it right. That means apologizing for things we didn’t even know were bad. That means recognizing that our whole worldview has gaps in it, and those gaps are not just neutral space, but those gaps in our understanding are often actively doing harm in ways we hadn’t even considered.

And even once we start to consider a new dimension beyond what we had seen before, suddenly there’s another dimension beyond that, and one connecting them slant-wise, and then layers of history going back beyond that, coloring present reality and circling back on itself in ways we never knew. It’s overwhelming, to say the least, and these conversations will push all our buttons sooner or later; because when it comes down to it we’re being asked to confess some very specific sins. We’re being asked to look straight at them, because as long as we continue to ignore them, we’ll continue hurting one another.

It is only by naming our sin, and the fear from which it comes, raising it up before our own eyes and to God, and looking straight at it, that we might be healed.

* * *

In this season in particular, we examine ourselves, we confess, we draw closer to God. And we do this not just because it’s a good thing to do – we journey through the wilderness of Lent because we know that this journey ends in Easter. That at the end of all this penitence is rejoicing; that this confession ends with forgiveness; that all this death ends in resurrection.

We are beset by vipers and snakes of all kinds, whether we are starving in the wilderness or lost in the middle of a crowd. Our deepest fears come after us, fears of not being enough and not doing enough, of not being able to provide for the ones we love and of not being good enough for the ones we love. And they come slithering after us with the faces of rattlesnakes and asps, and we are trapped like Indiana Jones dropped into the Well of Souls, face to face with a spitting cobra.

We can’t escape the snakes – not in this world, at least. But God, in whom we put our trust, brings us face to face with those fears and brings us safely through. God commanded Moses to make a bronze serpent and lift it up, and all who looked at it were healed. The very thing that was coming after the Israelites in the wilderness, that is the thing God uses to heal them, the people God had promised to protect.

It was their lack of trust in God, the story goes, that brought on the snakes to begin with. But it is their specific repentance, and the renewal of their trust that God will indeed provide, that ultimately saves them – not just from the snakes but all the way from Egypt out into the wilderness and all along their journey, even as they complain and whine and forget to trust that God really is with them.

We don’t like to think of a God who would send out venomous snakes to kill people who sin, and so we have difficulty with this story sometimes. We can tend to allegorize it as the gospel of John does, and claim that the snake on the pole prefigures Christ on the cross. Both are powerful images – shocking images – and we’re perhaps equally uncomfortable with both of them in the modern day.

And while I’m skeptical of readings that claim to find Jesus in texts written centuries or millennia before his birth, there is some resonance to be found in the image of a brutal fearsome death held up before the people which somehow – against all reason or logic – brings healing and wholeness.

Because the cross to which this season inexorably leads is just as scandalous, just as counterintuitive, as a God who would send venomous snakes after God’s own chosen people.

And yet we still, then as now, live in a world of crosses and snakebites. Many of those, in fact, have been brought about by our own sins, as much as we might not want to admit that. Our greed and our willful ignorance, our pride and our collusion with the powers of this world – these bring death as surely as any cross. Our actions and non-actions mean starvation, thirst, suffering, death for those in wilderness places.

Our repentance is needed, not just for us but for the good of all God’s people. Our heartfelt and specific repentance helps for the healing of our own wounds and of those wounds we inflicted, intentionally or not.

And we are invited into a new way of being. We are offered the gift of God’s grace, not just as some sort of Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card, not an excuse to just keep doing what we’re doing, good or bad. But God’s grace is offered to us so that we might be able to look with honesty at the things we’ve done wrong, hold them up to the light and then be healed. It is a fresh start; a chance to recognize where we’re on the wrong path, and set off down a better path.

As the writer of Ephesians puts it: you were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world. All of us once lived among them, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, has saved you by grace through faith, and this is not your own doing. It is the gift of God, and not the result of your works.

For we are what God has made us, he says. We are not saved by our work, good or bad or unintended. But by God’s grace, we are offered an alternative to the world of backstabbings and betrayals, of poisonous creatures and petty grudges, of fears and anxieties and insecurity that tramples others in our desperate attempts to escape. God’s pattern is love, and trust, and the security of knowing that we are children of God no matter what happens.

We are saved not by being taken out of the world – we will still face wilderness times and times of temptation and hurt, and snakes both literal and metaphorical – but we are saved by placing our trust in God, over and over again, in the astounding and irrational grace with which God loves us, somehow both forgiving us and challenging us to do better.

Because that grace is the invitation to a new path. We can leave our old patterns behind, because God has set out a new life for us: a life of healing, of trust, and of doing God’s good work not because we are looking to get anything out of it, but because of sheer joy in God’s ways.

Friends, we have nothing to be scared of. We are loved by God with an everlasting love, no matter what we do or don’t do; we are loved.

Thanks be to God.

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A Whole-Body Gospel

Preached at Head of Christiana Presbyterian Church, March 1, 2015. I’m speaking as a white pastor to a white congregation, and while it’s not explicit in the sermon text, I’m particularly talking about the ways we as white Christians are implicated and called out to action. 

Genesis 17:1-11, 15-16
Mark 8:31-38

I took a class in seminary about improvisation in worship – borrowing from improv theater to push our own thinking about what worship could look like. And one week, we took a theater game about high status and low status characters, and put it into a bible story. We had read a story from somewhere in the gospels – one of the stories about Jesus healing a leper and the way everyone else reacted – and each of us were secretly assigned a character in the story. We were supposed to interact with each other, in character, and then line ourselves up based on our social status: high status at one end down to lowest status at the other end.

I was assigned Jesus. Oh hey, that’s an easy one! Of course I’m the most important person in that story!

But then I started actually talking to my classmates, and trying to get into character, and I didn’t really know what to say to the important folks, the scribes and religious leaders and all, and so they sort of turned their backs and bumped me further down the line.

And then I started talking to the poor folks and the lepers, and that felt a little easier to figure out. I know how Jesus would talk to them. And I’m supposed to touch the lepers, I know that, but then my classmate acted out being healed! And suddenly the other lepers start to nudge me back up toward the higher-status end of the line, but that doesn’t feel right either!

So as the rest of the class lined themselves up neatly according to their characters’ social status, there I was at the end of the line with the three people playing lepers, jumbled up in an awkward clump as we played the game of “no, you go ahead!” “no, you first, I insist!”

Finally I gave in and took a spot ahead of them, not quite at the bottom of the line, while we all revealed our characters and started to debrief the exercise. And almost immediately I started kicking myself, because that spot didn’t feel right either, and maybe I should have insisted on putting myself further down and I was letting my ego get ahead of me.

Because Jesus certainly had some things to say about social status. The last shall be first and all that, right? But really, couldn’t I just be above the lepers at least? Do I really have to be all the way at the end?

* * *

Jesus was pretty good at saying things that make us uncomfortable, starting at the very beginning with Peter, and no less so today. This reading from Mark shifts the focus of the whole gospel – we had been just walking around witnessing some healings, learning some parables that were confusing at first but then sort of started to make sense, and then Peter finally says that he thinks Jesus is the messiah we’re waiting for, and BAM! Suddenly Jesus starts talking about having to suffer and die, and if that weren’t crazy enough, that we who want to follow are going to have to take up our own crosses and be prepared to suffer the same way.

It’s a game-changer, that cross is, and we still don’t quite know what to do with it today, whether Jesus’ or our own. On one hand we raise it up so high, put it on a magical spiritual pedestal, while we sing ecstatic songs about the flowing, saving blood, that it becomes totally divorced from the gory reality of one man’s public torture and execution.

Or on the other hand, we wipe all the blood and gore away, not dwelling on Jesus’ pain and death because really the resurrection is the only thing that matters now. An empty cross is all we need, because of course we’re not going to die or suffer or anything … so what does all that have to do with us?

And if we don’t really know what the cross meant for Jesus, then we certainly don’t know what it means for us when Jesus challenges us to take up our own crosses. We avoid looking directly at anything that might remind us of death at all, let alone our own. And so this image of bearing our own crosses turns into a glorification of self-denial and bloody sacrifice, if we let it, or else we turn it into a meaningless metaphor and let the weight of this challenge slide off into a platitude about just not being arrogant.

Jesus was someone who turned all social hierarchy on its head. As a rural Jewish peasant, he was already not at the top of the heap; but then as he left his home and began breaking social rules, he aligned himself with lepers, with women, with Samaritans, giving up what privileges he had in order to defend those more marginalized than he was. He put his own body on the line in order to stand between the woman caught in adultery and those who would stone her to death. He made his own body ritually unclean, risking disease and shame and social sanction in order to stand with people who needed healing and needed friendship.

While most of us spend our lives climbing up the social ladder, trying to be more important and more influential and more respected, Jesus fought his way down. Even his own disciples tried to stop him – reminding him what would happen if he ate with them or touched her – and especially they pushed back when Jesus said he’d have to die. It’s a scandal, because that’s not what messiahs did! It’s certainly not what they went looking for.

No wonder Peter rebukes him. Jesus, that’s just not what you do! That’s not how this game works. While everyone else is fighting their way to the top, Jesus pushes back and insists on living like some kind of crazy person who doesn’t even recognize that there are rules and he’s breaking them all. No wonder he winds up getting himself killed, and in the most shameful way of all.

Rome just continued the story that Jesus himself wrote with the way he lived. Okay, if you’re going to insist on giving up all your status in society by eating with those people and standing up for that woman, then we’ll finish the job with your public humiliation and torture, and disrespect your body once and for all by hanging it up to die by the roadside.

When Jesus challenges his followers to take up our crosses and follow, he is issuing an invitation to join him on this counter-cultural path; down the ladder of social status, away from the power and prestige that come from oppressing others, the privilege of ignoring the humanity of those at the bottom. It’s a path that takes commitment, and if we’re truly following Jesus’ example then we are putting our very bodies at risk: it’s not enough just to think about people in need or send money every now and then. We are challenged to lose our very lives for the sake of this gospel.

No wonder we skip over this part.

* * *

Last Sunday was the Academy Awards. I didn’t watch, and by all reports I didn’t miss much. But the one moment that seemed to really excite people, in the midst of all the canned jokes and identical speeches, was the performance by John Legend and Common. Their song “Glory” was written for the movie Selma, and it captured the spirit of the marches then and the marches today, the long fight against racial injustice.

And they staged it as a tribute to the march in Selma over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, fifty years ago next week; Common crossed the bridge rapping in a sharp black suit, followed by a chorus of marchers in slow step behind him.

Like the first marchers, the chorus was mostly African-American with a number of white folks mixed in. And as the Black marchers lifted their voices to sing of the challenges they had endured and the glory they longed for, the white marchers stayed silent.

As blogger Aliza Worthington put it, “They simply marched in step, and side by side with the Black people on the stage. The only voices we heard were the voices of people of color. White people showed UP. They walked. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder. They marched. And they let the people of color do the talking. They stood silently so Black voices could be heard.”

What a powerful image, and a powerful example for us of putting one’s own body on the line for someone else.

That brilliant bit of staging mostly went unnoticed, and maybe that’s the point too. When we reach out to support someone, we’re not doing a very good job if we spend the whole time trying to draw attention to ourselves, trying to get credit for what a generous and selfless thing we’re doing.

Giving up status and privilege like Jesus did and like he challenges us to do is a whole-life and whole-body endeavor. He wound up on a cross for it, and he invites us to do the same.

* * *

From the very beginning, God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah and the whole Hebrew people was not just a one-way covenant. God made a promise to be God to them, and in return God asked for a commitment to be God’s people, marked by the physical act of circumcision. It has never just been about a mental commitment, or a spiritual commitment – God asks us for our whole hearts and our whole lives.

And we fail to live up to our end of that promise, but God has made a covenant with us that will not be broken. God will love us and will be our God no matter what we do, and yet God is also asking us – challenging us – to do better.

We are loved with an unbreakable love. And we are called to love God not just with our minds and our souls, but also with our whole hearts and our whole lives.

Hear the good news; live the good news!

See also: Jesus the Privileged, by Christena Cleveland

Happy Ash Wednesday?

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

So, happy Ash Wednesday!

… It’s not quite the right thing to say, is it. But then it’s not much of a holiday, either; at least not in the way we’re used to holidays. We’re not celebrating anything, and we’re not observing the anniversary of anything, and there wasn’t a “first Ash Wednesday” back many years ago that we’re remembering, either.

Today is a marker of changing seasons; it’s a turning from one thing to another; and if it’s a holiday at all it’s sort of a dismal one. It’s a celebration of sin and death, as paradoxical as that feels and sounds.

Our mortality is usually a pretty touchy subject. We don’t like being reminded of the fact that we’re growing older or will eventually die – in fact we have build up entire industries around trying to pretend that we’re immortal, from the anti-aging skin creams to plastic surgeries that lift and tuck to funeral practices that inject bodies full of chemicals to avoid confronting us with actual dead flesh. We understand that someday we’ll have to die, but we’d really rather not dwell on what that means, thankyouverymuch.

And we treat our whole lives that way, sometimes: if something is good, it should go on forever! If a group or a project or a company is worthwhile, it should be growing! Always and forever, if something isn’t making more money or attracting more people or claiming an ever-larger market share, we’re doing something wrong.

That’s the story we tell ourselves, and so we stay up nights worrying, and stress ourselves out, and tighten our belts in fear because something bad is going to happen; and it smells of death but we can’t look straight at it because we can’t admit that death is real; and so it is a faceless, unnamed terror that keeps us up at night and haunts our waking lives in every decision we make out of fear for the future.

But today we look that monster in the face: yes, death, I see you. I know you’re there and I’m choosing today not to be scared of you.

We are made of dust, and that is nothing to be ashamed of. God our creator scooped up that very dust from the earth and formed us with love; knowing that we would be fragile creatures and someday (in the blink of God’s eye) we would crumble back into the dust from where we came, God created us anyway. Knowing that we would try and then fail, try again, fail again, and then die, God still thought we were worth creating.

We, dust-creatures, will find and do beautiful things and joyous things and awe-inspiring things along our way, and then those things will pass away just like we will pass away. And today is a day to remind ourselves that this is okay.

We can let go, today, of the gnawing fear of not being enough, not being perfect, not being immortal. Knowing that nothing we do will ever beat death, or suffering, or loss, we can be free to let go of our fears and grow closer to God in this season. Knowing that we will find brokenness and probably failure, we can take the time during Lent to look honestly at our lives, and make the choice, again and again, to throw out those things that distract us from God’s presence and keep us from being the people God calls us to be.

And, you know, we’ll fail at that too – we’ll forget to do our devotions one day, or sneak some chocolate, or get distracted and pray half-heartedly some days – and that’s okay. This season is not about being perfect, or even about being better. It’s about trying to do better. And trying means it’s okay if we fail sometimes, but the key is trying again.

This Lenten season, if we let it, can be a time of honesty with ourselves and with God. It can be a time to let ourselves truly see the broken places in our lives, and then prune those dead branches back so something new can grow. It is hard to take the first step – to really look at that ignored, messy corner where all the junk piles up – but once we look, we can throw the broken things away to make room for something better.

Friends, happy Ash Wednesday. We’re all going to die.

And in that truth, we are made free to let go of our fears and love one another and love God as the broken creatures that we are.

Being a Better White Person

Dear fellow white folks,

So you’ve figured out that you have some privilege based on your skin color, and not everyone experiences the world the same way you do.  Congratulations!  Now what?

It’s really easy at this point to get caught up in guilt, and not do anything for fear of offending somebody. But guilt doesn’t accomplish anything. Recognizing white privilege is really important, but it’s not enough.  Sometimes, the way we talk about privilege even lets people off the hook, because systemic issues aren’t any one person’s “fault.” So we think, what can any one person do against this faceless, monolithic system?

Well, dear white person, that’s where you come in. It’s time to start looking around and connecting to others who are already doing this work, as well as finding ways to use your privilege productively.

Listen. One of the ways privilege operates is by allowing white folks to ignore the voices and experiences of people of color. A recent survey showed that the social networks of white people are on average 91% white! Recognize whose voices are present in your life, and start really listening to the voices of your friends and acquaintances of color.

Part of listening means taking what you hear seriously. You’ll hear about experiences that are different from what you’re used to hearing, and that’s a good thing!  Resist the urge to argue, interrupt, or assume you know what someone’s going to say.  Trust what they’re saying to you.

A good way to start listening is to empathize. Recognize where your experiences are different, but also notice that the feelings attached to those experiences are deeply human.  The impulse behind the slogan Black Lives Matter is the systemic denial of the basic humanity of Black folks in particular, and you can start by recognizing the shared joys and sorrows and fears of the people of color in your life.

Be aware of intersectionality; that is, things are more complicated than just black and white. None of us are 100% privileged or 100% oppressed, and those gray areas are places where we can start to understand other people’s feelings of exclusion. As a queer white person with a complicated gender identity, I have some experiences of what it feels like to be marginalized and systemically discriminated against, which I think helps me to notice and trust those feelings when others mention them.

That does not mean I know what it feels like to be Black, but it does help me empathize and recognize situations that might be upsetting or problematic for a person of color. Nor does it mean I know what it feels like to be a queer person of color!  But it does mean we have some common ground to start from.

And finally, to white men in particular: recognize that this might be new territory for you. Dig deep and think of a time when you felt like things were unfair or not right (like many people started to recognize during Occupy Wall Street), and know that other people have been having these experiences for years. Then, enter these conversations with humility – it’s like you just woke up outside the Matrix for the first time, and this is a whole new world for you, so it’s time to be quiet and let other people show you what’s going on.

So, welcome to the real world. Let’s try and make it better, okay?


* My title is borrowed from Chris Rock’s spot-on statement about racial progress: “The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.”

Discomfort and Joy

Isaiah 40:1-11
Mark 1:1-8

So, there’s a photo that’s been going around the internet:

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And somehow, it’s a perfect description of the odd place we find ourselves during this Advent season: we wait breathlessly, expectantly for a baby – a savior who has already come – while we look around us and see a world crying out in pain because the reality of the cross is still all too true today. Spoiler alert: we are still waiting these two thousand years later in a world of violence and war for a savior who has not – quite – come.

As New York and Philadelphia and other cities across the country prepared this week for the festivities of their annual tree lighting ceremonies, another grand jury declined to indict another police officer for killing another unarmed Black man. This time was in Staten Island, and his name was Eric Garner, choked to death while pinned to the sidewalk, repeating over and over, “I can’t breathe.” And for people who know in their bones the fear and constant danger of being Black in public, this is one in a long line of state-sanctioned deaths that stretches back centuries and which already has not been the last.

And people are angry. People are mourning. People who had already begun to organize around the verdict in Mike Brown’s case in Ferguson, MO, were ready to spring into action, and have continued marching, in almost entirely peaceful protests disrupting traffic, college classes and administrative work, and city events; staging “die-ins” in public places, raising up the memories of those left to die in the streets.

And yet, while many of us are crying out in pain, many others of us have moved on with our lives, because there are trees to decorate and presents to buy, and quite frankly perhaps we are tired of all this death. What a luxury it is to be tired of hearing about other people dying, and to simply be able to move on. But for those whose loved ones are dying, for those whose bodies are themselves at risk, for all who believe that Black lives do matter; we are in crisis, and we are at war.

A pastor friend of mine said yesterday, “Any gathering for worship tomorrow that does not address the unjust and unprosecuted killing of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Akai Gurley and the countless other unarmed black people slain in the streets is not a church following Jesus Christ,” adding the pointed hashtag #silencekills.

The planned Christmas tree lightings have gone on, in Rockefeller Center, in Rittenhouse Square, on Boston Common, along the main walk of Columbia University; festive as usual but this year with the jarring addition of protesters by the thousands, lying down in the sidewalks and the streets with signs saying “Black Lives Matter,” “We Can’t Breathe,” “No Justice, No Peace,” and “I Could Be Next.”

Columbia made one other last-minute addition to their tree-lighting ceremony: the Black Students’ Organization was invited to perform the song “Strange Fruit,” an anti-lynching protest song that includes the words, “Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

Not surprisingly, it was a controversial decision for some people, who felt that the somber tone was inappropriate for a celebratory event. But of course, protesters focused on tree-lighting events across the country for just that reason – saying in effect, how can you celebrate while people are dying in your midst?

* * *

And there is the paradox of Advent. How can we celebrate while people are dying? It’s true this year just as it has been true since the first Advent and true ever since the people of Judea began crying out for a messiah to save them from never-ending war.

We hear the words of Isaiah today as we hear them in so many Christmas seasons, and we hear them sung in Handel’s Messiah, and so they’ve become for us Christmas words, happy words! Easy words. And yet, we forget that these were first spoken to people in great pain. To people who had lost their homes and their temple and their land – and who maybe felt like they had lost their God as well. Surely God was angry with them if they were suffering like that.

But Isaiah comes with a new hope, a joyful hope for a people in pain. God is coming! God is coming! Even the earth itself will change; the mountains will bow and the valleys raise up, and even the roughest patches will be smooth. Take comfort! The Lord is coming, and God will cradle you like lambs, while God’s mighty arm drives away the conquering armies.

This is not a soft or easy hope – this comfort will turn the unjust and violent world on its head, while the earth itself shakes and rumbles to make itself smooth in expectation. It is a hope for people in desperate need of hope; comfort for those who have no comfort.

And then, as Mark begins writing his gospel, centuries later around the time of the Roman-Jewish war, he puts these words in the mouth of John the Baptist, again proclaiming hope in the face of despair. The Lord is coming, he says! You may have seen your temple destroyed again and lost everything you had and watched your family and friends die around you, but I tell you there is something better on the way! Our God is coming! One like we have never known before, one who gives us hope when there is no hope!

And get ready, he says! Prepare the way! We are not just waiting, we are charged with getting ready ourselves, and making our world ready. Isaiah’s words are not just comfort for us, although surely we are all in need of God’s comfort in one way or another. Isaiah’s words are instructions, and Isaiah’s words are a challenge: “You, comfort my people!” You, speak peace to a world at war! You, lift up your voice with strength, and tell the people that God is coming!

It is an awesome task, and sometimes feels like an impossible one. How can it be that we can look at the cross, the lynching tree, the sidewalks where our people are dying, and yet wrap them in sparkly lights to proclaim the coming of a new world? How can we, who are mostly comfortable already, speak comfort to our cities at war? How can we truly see the pain and agony of our friends and neighbors, cry out in despair with them, and yet witness to our savior coming into this world?

It is an impossible paradox, and it is our world, beloved yet broken. Let us take up the challenge, my friends.

* * *

With the Franciscans, let us cry out:

May God bless us with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships
So that we may live from deep within our hearts.

May God bless us with anger
At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of God’s creations
So that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace.

May God bless us with tears
To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger, and war,
So that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and
To turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless us with just enough foolishness
To believe that we can make a difference in the world,
So that we can do what others claim cannot be done:
To bring justice and kindness to all our children and all our neighbors.
Amen