Whose side is God on?

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?
Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 
(Matthew 10:29)

Last week, in my home town in Virginia, protestors pulled down the statues on a Confederate monument just a few blocks from my childhood home. Chris Green, a Black man, tried to keep others safe; he suffered a terrible head injury when a statue fell on him, and he is in a coma. In Philadelphia, in my new home state, Dominique Rem’mie Fells, a Black transgender woman, was horribly murdered. In Palmdale, California, a young Black man, Robert Fuller was found hanged in a public square, and I cannot believe it was anything but lynching. I’m sitting with these stories and more like them and asking myself one question as I hold them alongside the scripture texts for this week:

Whose side is God on?

On Twitter this week, my friend and co-author Rachel Hackenberg offered this.

That’s a very apt and uncomfortable take on the Genesis passage for this week. It’s too easy to say God had a plan for Hagar and dismiss the desires of Sarah and the complicity of Abraham as they cast out the mother of Abraham’s first-born son. We have probably heard many different ways to understand what happens to Hagar, but in this moment, we need to stretch ourselves not just to empathize with her position but to understand where we are in the narrative. 

Who do we align with when we read this story? 

I’m particularly taken this week with the psalm read alongside Hagar’s story and the words of Jesus.

Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me,
    for I am poor and needy.
Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you;
    save your servant who trusts in you.
You are my God; be gracious to me, O Lord,
    for to you do I cry all day long.
(Psalm 86:1-3)

We want the psalms to be about us. When we read the lament of a person who is oppressed, we look for the ways our stories connect, and we ask for God’s help in their words. If they are in danger, we must be, too. If they are needy, and God helps them, won’t God help us? 

We read Jesus’ words about the sparrows and take comfort because we deploy the gospel words in a manner that serves us. He is warning his followers of persecution to come and division from their friends and families because they believe in him. 

This is a crucial moment for the church. If your congregation is like the ones I’ve served, there is a high level of resistance to seeing ourselves as the persecutors, the powerful, or the privileged. We don’t want to think of ourselves as the ones who are causing harm and bringing sorrow. We don’t want to see ourselves as the ones who injure the helpless and do violence to the vulnerable. When those thoughts cross our minds, we react defensively and shut down, or we close them off and pack them away, or we wallow in them, paralyzed by the guilt we feel.

It’s time for us to repent of the compartmentalizing and the navel-gazing. It’s past time.

When we know whose side God is on, when we can admit it to ourselves, we will be changed.

We can’t honor God by telling the old stories the way we always knew them. Those interpretations are not just outdated but untrue. It’s time to write a new story with our lives. It’s past time to write a new story with actions that glorify God’s holy name.

If I Were Preaching, Reflectionary

The stories we tell ourselves

He looked up and saw three men standing near him.
When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them,
and bowed down to the ground.
(Genesis 18:2)

My oldest son has been staying with us since May 4th, although by staying with us I mean he is staying in the church’s Youth Center next door. The night he arrived after driving across country, he pulled up in front and got out of the car with his old man dog, Baxter, and I stood at a safe distance even though I wanted to run to meet him.  My impulses of love and hospitality felt garbled as we put safety above embracing. 

I expect it’s a story we will keep telling for the rest of our lives. 

We just ordered this book.

Since my son finished a two week quarantine, his comings and goings are part of our family routine, as if he were just going to the next room instead of next door. We haven’t spent more than a few days together at a time since he graduated from college in 2008, so it’s both a gift and an anomaly to have his voice, in person, as part of an ongoing conversation that ranges from whether to play Catan or Code Names, to presidential politics and the pandemic, to protests against the police and How to Be an Antiracist. I’m mindful that it’s easier to have these conversations among people whose beliefs are mostly in alignment. The stories we tell ourselves rise from the same foundation, allowing us to grapple with the hard parts (reform? defund? abolish?) in a space of mutual trust. 

Then we pick up our phones and see what the rest of the world is saying. A coworker of my daughter’s complains that masks will restrict her freedom. My Black friends and colleagues remind me rightly that my repentance and prayers are not the same thing as acts of reparation. And of course some news sources highlight looting while others focus their reporting on police brutality. We must choose which arguments to enter, which exhortations to embrace, and which version of truth to receive. 

In both Genesis and the longer selection from Matthew, this week’s lectionary texts point us to who and what we welcome. Abraham runs to greet the three strangers, but Sarah is dubious about the news they bring. Jesus warns his disciples that some people will reject the message they bring:

If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. (Matthew 10:13-14)

While most of the sermons I have preached on this gospel text have emphasized sending the listeners out to share the good news, it might be worth considering ourselves in the place of the ones receiving the word.  

  • What stories are we telling ourselves?
  • What are we afraid to hear?
  • What are the beliefs we hold so deeply that we don’t even notice we have them?
  • How are we closing the door on God’s messengers?
  • Do we really believe that things can change?

Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?

Keep listening, even when the messengers tell you something that is hard to hear. I promise that I will, too.

Ministry, The Inner Landscape

I bought this t-shirt

I bought this t-shirt at UCC General Synod in Baltimore and wore it home yesterday. I’ve admired it on friends’ social media and went to the Exhibit Hall looking for it on Monday. The back of the shirt lists all kinds of Black Lives that Matter, including women and trans* people. I especially feel convicted by the line on the front in smaller print, “White Silence is Violence.”
When I stopped in Shrewsbury, PA, to get an iced coffee, I got out of my car in the Starbucks parking lot and wondered if anyone would react. I don’t wear politics on my clothes much. In the town where I live, I’m running an action as an LGBTQ+ person every time I grocery shop, go to the doctor’s office, or attend a school or sports event with my wife. When I was in a pulpit, I preached Black Lives Matter, but I’m not in a pulpit now and don’t know how likely it is that I ever will be again, at least around here.
At Starbucks, the family parked next to me included a White dad, a Black mom, and their two teenaged daughters. I stood in line with the dad while the rest of the family used the restroom. I wondered what they thought of the shirt. I know in my town we’ve heard People of Color say they don’t want attention drawn for fear of getting racists more riled up than they already are. I don’t want to make things worse for any particular person in order to make a larger point, do I?
While I stood waiting for my drink, the mom passed me on her way to the door. As our eyes met, she said, “I like your shirt.” Then we both said, at the same time, “Thank you,” and she touched my arm, and we both had tears in our eyes.
I am not looking for cookies here. That moment in the Starbucks felt unearned, although I appreciated the moment of connection. I’m pondering the difference between sharing articles online, which is easy for me to do, not only because I do a lot of my work online, but because it feels safe, and actually showing up, which I don’t often do because … why? I have a list of reasons (a few) and excuses (quite a few).
Mostly, being transgressive feels scary, which I conclude is the point. We can’t make change by staying in our safe zones.

The back of the shirt. Buy it here.