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.
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Ferocious Humility

I note that the Left is, as we have come to expect, engaged in self-destructive internal wrangling, complete with name-calling and finger-pointing. We are not “on message” because that is not part of our DNA. We disparage the people who offer support to each other on the Right; their lockstep smacks of collusion.

Some voices say that we cannot afford to be so hard on each other in a time when there are forces we must resist, but I would amend that.

We cannot afford to forget each other in a time when there are forces we must resist. We must remember that there are life experiences and points of view different from our own, open conversation instead of assuming it will arise, invite relationship instead of taking it for granted.

The responsibility to act – to remember, to open, to invite – always lies with those of us who benefit from privilege, whether it derives from our race, our level of education, our economic advantage, our orientation, our gender identity, our ability, or our religious identification.

ferocious-humilityWhere can you open a conversation? It’s harder when, admittedly, we’re not all the same. We need to take the time to listen more closely, to ask and answer questions that may seem obvious but (maybe) are not, to be humble rather than defensive when we get things wrong, to commit to inviting new relationships, to be ferocious in our commitment to the greater good.

We all need to cultivate ferocious humility. 

 

Falling Upward

I picture it as a beautiful day when the disciples, those small town guys, stood outside the Temple in Jerusalem and admired its workmanship.

It wasn’t Jesus’s first visit to the big city, according to Luke, who tells a story of 12-year-old Jesus going with his parents to Jerusalem for one of the high holidays. On the way home, his parents assumed he was hanging out with the other kids, somewhere in the throng of people on the dusty road. When they realize he was nowhere to be found, they went back to Jerusalem and searched for him for three days. Three days! Imagine how distressed they must have been. Finally they discovered he had been at the Temple all along, talking to the priests, discussing the Holy Book with brilliance well beyond his years.

This visit is different. This time the priests do not admire him. He’s turned over the tables in the Temple, one of the stories that finds its way into all the gospels. He arrives at the Temple and he absolutely goes off when he sees how his Father’s house is being used and misused.

This time they not only don’t like him. They decide he needs to die.

The Temple was in the process of being rebuilt, a huge public works project under Herod’s rule. You might remember that this second Temple, built after the exile, never felt quite like the original in spirit, and certainly was less elaborate. Herod set out to create a legacy for himself by making it more elaborate. So it’s fancy new construction that the disciples admire, only to have Jesus tell them that it won’t last. And it’s not a huge leap to take him literally, because it was only about forty years later that the Temple his companions admired would be laid waste, never to be rebuilt.

Everything’s going to fall down sometime.

Whether they want to hear it or not, Jesus is warning his friends of the troubles about to come. They will be challenged after his death and have to testify to their faith. Their families no doubt disassociated from them, perhaps because of genuine disagreement, but maybe also just to keep themselves safe from political danger. The only hope he offers is that if we endure, we will gain our souls.

It’s important to note that Jesus spoke to the very particular situations of the people around him that day, but that he also speaks to us, so many years later. It’s happened to me, and probably to you, too. Life is going along on the accustomed path, and then without much warning, or perhaps with hints you missed and can only see in hindsight, everything goes smash. It can happen at work, or school, or in our relationships.

We’re all going to fall sometime.

If our faith really matters to us, if we are truly committed to the values that go hand in hand with our beliefs, then we will almost certainly face times when we will be on the unpopular side of arguments, when we will have to speak up for what we believe and identify ourselves with Jesus at great cost.

The cost was certainly great for Jesus, in human terms.

Next week’s gospel reading will find him on the cross.

We all going to fall down sometime. Even Jesus.

It’s the human experience, one he shared with us.

In his book, “Falling Upward,” the Franciscan priest Father Richard Rohr writes,

“Failure and suffering are the great equalizers and levelers among humans. Success is just the opposite. Communities and commitment can form around suffering much more than around how wonderful or superior we are.” (Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Jossey-Bass, 2011, p. 158)

Out of what looked like failure to the world’s eyes would come a movement following Jesus, a movement passed down to us over millennia, continually formed and reformed in the face of loss and death and endings, continually born into new expressions of faithful testimony and action.

I’ll be honest. When I planned ahead for this sermon I expected a different outcome for this week’s election. I worried about the aftermath, but I worried about a different set of people being upset and disappointed. Maybe the signs were there, as they should have been for the disciples, but I didn’t see them, or I didn’t want to see them.

Now I’m concerned about my family’s future, and for others who wonder if we will lose rights we gained so recently. At a medical appointment the other day I found myself stammering, hesitant to name my relationship to my wife. We’ve had to reassure our son that no change in a law can unmake our family. And maybe we’re catastrophizing; maybe there is nothing to worry about for us. But the same racism and misogyny I named in recent weeks has been on display for the past five days, making the world seem less safe for some of Will’s classmates. He’s worried about whether kids will bully his friend,

STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Rosario Jaime, a Penn graduate student from California, signs the "wall of solidarity" sponsored by the United Minority Council. (philly.com)
STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Rosario Jaime, a Penn graduate student from California, signs the “wall of solidarity” sponsored by the United Minority Council. (philly.com)

Meyhar, and we’ve talked with him about sticking up for the students who fall into the category of “other,” labeled for their race or religion or national origin. It breaks my heart for children, for anyone, to be at risk simply for being who they are. You may have read the story about the racist messages sent to all the black freshman at Penn this week, and that is just one instance. For me this feels like the Temple falling down, the structure I built around my beliefs that everyone could have a place in America.

 

Father Rohr says,

The genius of the gospel was that it included the problem inside the solution. The falling became the standing. The stumbling became the finding. The dying became the rising.  (Rohr, p. 159)

We all fall down sometime. Sometimes, even when we try not to, we mess it all up ourselves. It’s human to want some reassurance that everything will come out all right in the end, and this speech from Jesus that stirs up our anxieties gives us only an eternal hope. He doesn’t promise us our lives. He won’t get to keep his own.

Next week, you’re going to take a vote on the future of this church, and some of you already have ballots ready to return to be counted as absentee. One of the ideals of our congregational polity is the give and take that happens in the meeting itself, the noble principle that we give equal consideration to each speaker, letting each opinion be heard, and counting each vote equally. We reach our conclusions in our own ways. Maybe we’ve prayed long and hard about our decision – whether in church business or national politics – or maybe we go with our gut.

Up in Maine, the last community I served still has an annual Town Meeting where decisions are made. It can be scary to share our thoughts that way, right out in front of everybody, but in this case, it’s so important for discerning how you will vote in the end. That’s why there have been so many opportunities offered for conversation with the Consistory, in hopes that all voices will be heard, and there will be one more chance in the meeting itself. If you haven’t spoken, or feel worried about making your voice heard, remember that Jesus promised his disciples words and wisdom for the moment they would be most needed.

And if you get it wrong, well, we’re all going to fall sometime.

But don’t let people tell you falling down means everything comes to an end.

As Father Rohr puts it,

I fell many times relationally, professionally, emotionally, and physically in my life, but there was always a trampoline effect that allowed me to finally fall upward. No falling down was final, but actually contributed to the bounce! (Rohr, p. 158)

Believe me when I say this truth is hard-won for me right now. I haven’t come around to it through platitudes or sentiment. I’ve been down in the abyss having words with God this week, and I know it’s true God was right there with me because Christ has been in the abyss of hell himself.

I am disillusioned and disappointed and even distraught, yet I still believe this is the truth. We are people of the Good News. We are people of God’s Hope. We are people of Christ’s Resurrection.

So we do not despair.

We do the work of letting go, and the work of building up again, and the work of arguing with God, and the work of listening to God, which for most of us is a lot harder. We try, knowing another fall will come, another disappointment, another loss, but remembering that whatever happens, we are not alone. It’s the truth, even in the moments when we’ve fallen, and especially when we’re falling upward. In the name of the Creator and the Christ and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

From the edge of the flood (a prayer)

Princeton Junction train station, posted on Facebook by Shantanu Ballal
Princeton Junction train station, posted on Facebook by Shantanu Ballal

Holy One,

We complain about the heat,
but when the rain comes we
still kvetch about the weather —
until floods stop our words
and start our praying.

We see flooded cars, impassable walkways.
How will we get where we are going?
We are impatient for the waters to recede.
We want to get back to normal.

When things seem normal,
we can go along as if nothing
is wrong anywhere,
forgetting that everyday, everywhere,
people face the floods of life:
weeping that endures for more than a night,
grief carried over decades,
fear that health will not return,
violence that does not cease,
despair over our helplessness,
prejudice that fills every tunnel
so no one can get through safely.

From the edge of the flood we pray,
relying on your promise to Isaiah:

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.

From the edge of the flood, we pray.

Uncomfortable Conversations

Hi. I’m Martha. I share a name with one of the heroines of our gospel lesson (Luke 10:38-42), or perhaps I should say the anti-heroine. If you heard me preach on this passage last summer, you might remember that I called this one of my favorite Bible stories. You might also remember that I leaned on the idea that we can’t hear the tone Jesus uses when he calls Martha out for being so busy and distracted by things that are not all that important from his point of view. I suggested we might consider their friendship, which plays out at greater length and in more detail in John’s gospel, the intimacy Jesus had with Martha and her whole family, and hear his words as affectionately corrective rather than harsh.

It’s a very short story, packed full of possible meaning. These five verses have been translated, studied, deconstructed and reimagined through lenses of literature, historical-critical analysis and a feminist hermeneutic – and given my interest in Martha, I have read a lot about her. The truth is that we can take almost any five verses from the Bible, and depending on our context and, frankly, the preacher’s bias, we can reach some different conclusion. And the additional truth is, I don’t like to do that with this story because, well, Martha.

“Martha, Martha…you are worried and distracted by many things.”

I’ve been like Martha, more times than I like to admit, and that has made me one of her passionate defenders. But for today, I hope you’ll make the leap with me to a different angle on the story. Just this once.

Picture a painful domestic scene, a competition set up between the two sisters. If you’ve ever lived through an awkward holiday meal, sharing space with someone who doesn’t help much, Mary-like, or someone who over-functions, Martha-like, you’ll know what I mean. It’s incredibly frustrating.

As a Martha myself, I feel tempted to say on her behalf, “Get thee behind me, Mary!”

But nothing in the text says Mary is smug, or trying to get the advantage with Jesus, or to tempt Martha to something she should not do. She is sitting quietly at our Lord’s feet, listening.

And if the scripture doesn’t say directly that Martha was brusque, well, the text certainly suggests it.

When I hear Jesus scold Martha, my heart breaks with hers. Because it must’ve felt like the end of the world. She’s living through a little apocalypse, right there in her living room, the same space she set up to make Jesus welcome. She didn’t know she was going to be a guest at one of the original “Come to Jesus” meetings.

Apocalyptic language isn’t just about the words you use. It’s about the feelings of the people hearing them. Jesus knew Martha meant well, with her will to serve, but he also wanted to get through to her. Sometimes we need to slow down and listen. If we don’t, we may miss the message.

I understand this because I am very worried and distracted, by many things, and I often need to figure out how to choose the better part.

Yesterday an alert flashed by on my iPhone, a headline from the Washington Post about a poll they did with ABC News. The story begins, “Pessimism about race relations in America is higher than it has been in nearly a generation.” 63 percent think things are bad, a jump from 48 percent this spring. Have things really gotten worse, or are we simply admitting how bad things are? The poll would seem to indicate the latter, that people who used to deny that racial discrimination played much of a part in our national life are now saying it does.

I wonder if we have reached a “come to Jesus” time?

Memorial to Michael Brown
Memorial to Michael Brown

This is the bleakest public opinion has looked, but the numbers have gone up and down in these polls over the past two years, the two years I have been here with you, ever since Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri. Since then, Black Lives Matter has become part of our national vocabulary, a movement meant not to devalue white people but to remind us of the ways Black lives have been counted as less valuable.

I’ll be honest with you, because why not be? Other than an occasional Martin Luther King Day sermon, I had never preached much about the sin of racism until Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman. I lived in the mostly white bubble of Maine, in a fantasy land where racism was concerned.

I believed things had gotten better since my childhood in the segregated South.

I really wanted to believe it.

Because acknowledging otherwise can be hard to do. I know that in the time between Travyon’s death and Michael Brown’s, I let concerns about race slip to the back of my mind. After all, I had a lot of other things to think about and tend to and manage.

It’s easy to focus on our own affairs and lose a sense of the big picture. After all, if we have a roof over our heads and food on the table, if we have a job to go to or families to love, we can be quite taken up with maintaining that status quo. The trouble is that keeping what we have can come at the expense of others, and that’s the situation the prophet Amos was talking about in the Old Testament lesson today (Amos 8:1-12).

Amos is the earliest book of prophecy in the Bible, and he tells the reader right up front that he is not a professional prophet of the kind found hanging around the king’s courts. He is a shepherd, a landowner of the lower classes, and it takes a lot to spur him to speak to the elites of his time. The kingdom of Israel was prosperous, but this time of plenty and success came at a cost to the poor and the needy.

The warning is directed at people who say,

When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.” (Amos 8:5-6)

In other words, when will we be allowed to get back to business? When can we cheat our business competitors? When can we buy the poor for cash money? When can we own the needy in exchange for a pair of sandals? When can we sell what’s left in the wheat fields, the chaff that cheats the buyer?

God’s people are messed up, and God sends Amos to give them fair warning. They have misused their prosperity, and that lovely Edible Fruit Arrangement on the sideboard? It’s the end of the line. There is going to be weeping and suffering. Y’all need to get it together, and get your priorities in order. The coming famine will be so terrible it will not just be a lack of food and water. God’s own self and God’s own words will be missing.

Look around at the world, at the news from Nice and Istanbul. Look at the grief and turmoil in our own nation. Listen for the prophets who are speaking to us now. Listen quick, before God’s words go missing again!

Now, if you had told me when I turned the TV on Wednesday night and caught a few minutes of the red carpet for ESPN’s ESPY sports awards that I would hear some prophecy, I would have been surprised by it. As the show began, instead of a joke-cracking host, four NBA players came onto the stage, looking dead serious. They were Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwayne Wade, and LeBron James. (I’ll confess I could only identify one of them on sight.) The story is they approached the producers of the show and asked for a few minutes to talk about the escalating violence in our country. They spoke eloquently and gravely.

Dwayne Wade said,

“The racial profiling has to stop. The shoot-to-kill mentality has to stop. Not seeing the value of black and brown bodies has to stop. But also, the retaliation has to stop. The endless gun violence in places like Chicago, Dallas, not to mention Orlando, it has to stop. Enough. Enough is enough.”

He went on,

“Now, as athletes, it’s on us to challenge each other to do even more than we already do in our own communities. And the conversation, it cannot stop as our schedules get busy again. It won’t always be convenient. It won’t. It won’t always be comfortable, but it is necessary.”

I’m sure there are people who watched, or heard about their statements later who thought they were too hard or easy on the police, or too hard or easy on Black people; maybe thought they were too careful, or maybe they took too big a risk. We may disagree among ourselves on that. But they talked. They called the community of athletes for a “come to Jesus.” I expect quite a few people in that well-dressed and well-off crowd felt the sting of that little apocalypse, a mark that the way the world is now needs to come to an end.

Wade’s words apply to us as well. The conversation about racism and gun violence “won’t always be convenient. It won’t.”

God knows, that’s the truth.

“It won’t always be comfortable, but it is necessary.”

St. Martha, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon
St. Martha, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon

Jesus had an uncomfortable, necessary conversation with Martha, who he loved. He told her the truth, even though it hurt to hear it. And although Luke doesn’t tell the rest of her story, scripture and tradition let us know that she was a treasured and influential person in the early church, pictured in artwork near the disciples in the garden, known in legend as a dragonslayer, and claimed as the patron saint of cooks.

Our sister, Martha, loved to serve. There are many kinds of service, many ways to help change the world, many ways to change the conversation. We just have to keep talking to each other. It may feel like the end of the world, but I trust in God’s new beginning. I trust there will be more baskets of summer fruit to come.

In the name of the One who sits down with us, and talks truth to us, and loves us into new life, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Periscope (a prayer for pastors)

I saw them on Periscope,
standing on a curb
in Baton Rouge.

I saw them on Twitter,
singing Purple Rain
on I-94.

I saw them on Instagram,
on Facebook,
in handcuffs.

I saw them protesting
because they believe
Black Lives Matter

How will the protestors
ever know
their lives matter

to white preachers
to white people
unless we say it?

What would they see
if preachers Periscoped
today?

*******
Yesterday was my first day on Periscope. I installed it on my phone to see Lin-Manuel Miranda on his last day in “Hamilton.” It’s connected to my Twitter account, which meant that in the evening, I got a notification from Brittany Packnett, on the ground at the protest in Baton Rouge, and began watching a live video that took me down the street with her while police moved protestors across a street, then began to arrest them for being *in* the street. I’ve said before, it’s long past time for things to change, but today I say, this is the time. This is the moment. It won’t happen unless we all talk and work together.
Activist Deray McKesson arrested in Baton Rouge last night. https://twitter.com/AprilDeming/status/752026636766179330
Activist DeRay McKesson arrested in Baton Rouge last night. https://twitter.com/AprilDeming/status/752026636766179330  Read more at the Washington Post

The Reset Button

Our youngest got a big surprise this Christmas, a new game system he didn’t even put on his wish list. It’s hooked up in the living room, and we’ve spent quite a bit of time this week watching him learn unknown terrain. When he gets into trouble, he simply returns to the beginning of the level. In essence, he presses the Reset button and gets a fresh start exploring now-familiar territory, restored in strength and power but aware of what he needs to do differently.

We could all use that reset, something that goes beyond our typical New Year’s resolutions related to diet and exercise. Maybe there’s never a year that the world doesn’t need it just as much as any individual. Maybe it’s my own eyes opened wider than before, watching our boy play, and pondering why he’s safe to go to the park after school when Tamir was not, why we do not worry when his older brothers do something as ordinary as walking to the store. 

We all know why. 

The Reset button holds one of the characteristics of grace; it allows a new beginning. God’s grace asks more from us: the new beginning does not erase the death and loss that came before. We receive forgiveness, mercy, yes; amnesia, no. It’s the only hope we have to stop repeating the past. 

Gracious God, with your help, may the next level we play be changed with us. Amen.

*****

This reflection originally appeared in the RevGalBlogPals Weekly e-Reader. Subscribe here to get a weekly reflection and links to great writing by clergywomen.