The Wonder of Wonder Woman

Warning: Some spoilers. Only scroll down if you’ve seen the new DC and Warner Brothers film Wonder Woman starring Gal Gadot

I didn’t realize how much I had missed the wonder of an action-adventure  film until I saw Wonder Woman last weekend.

I’ve seen so many from the genre that have been amazing visually and had a decent plot, but not a one left me in awe and yearning to immediately see again and again and again (with a few exceptions like the original Star Wars Trilogy, Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, Raiders of the Lost Ark;  Inception, The Dark Knight, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)

But after seeing Gal Gadot become the Amazon warrior princess for more than two hours, that deeply refreshing and magical sense of wonder returned after a long drought. I walked out of the theater wanting to be Wonder Woman or in the very least have the same moral fiber and abilities. My other beloved heroes like Han Solo, Aragorn, Batman and Captain Jack seem pale in comparison to Diana.

There is something about the character and Gal Gadot’s portrayal that seems more authentic than any other hero that has graced the screen. Wonder Woman is certainly larger than life and has the powers of a god/goddess. Yet she is also down to earth. She’s not bound by ego or seduced by power. Diana doesn’t use tricks or charm or beauty. Nor does she put on any pretenses. She just is who she is. And the attributes that make up Diana/Wonder Woman is the wonder we deserve…errr…need to continue to believe in everyday:

Diana has a dream and she is determined to attain it. As a girl, Diana desires nothing more than to become a great Amazon warrior and protector like her mother and aunt. She never shies away from the difficult training to become the best she can be. And she doesn’t let the doubts and worries of the other women on Themyscira distract her from achieving her dream. As an adult,   Diana also never doubts her own abilities or who she is called to be. She never has the “I can’t do this” moment and chucks her lasso and tiara like many male super heroes have thrown their costumes in the trash. Diana is also determined to get that sword and shield of hers through a revolving door.


Diana sticks to her convictions and stands up for what is right even if she is greatly opposed.

Diana challenges her mother Hippolyta often in the first half of the movie: she insists that Steve Trevor is a good man and that the women of Themyscira should help him and the Allies defeat the Germans in WWI; she further believes that the war-god Ares is the master behind “the war to end all wars,” and that it is their duty as Amazons to stop him. Later in the film Diana stands up to the Allied generals who refuse to stop Ludendorff’s plan to gas thousands of innocents. She also constantly pushes Steve and the mission team (Sameer, The Chief and Charlie) to make the time to help others and defend the defenseless. And there’s the iconic scene where Diana–tired of being told not to help the helpless on their arduous journey to Ludendorff’s base of operations–steps out of a trench and leads the charge (enduring a barrage of bullets and explosives) to overrun a hill and village occupied by German forces.

Diana is brave and courageous. 

The scene in the alleyway where Diana uses her bracelets to block the bullets meant for Steve Trevor. But more importantly…The Trench:

Steve Trevor: This is no man’s land, Diana! It means no man can cross it, alright? This battalion has been here for nearly a year and they’ve barely gained an inch. All right? Because on the other side there are a bunch of Germans pointing machine guns at every square inch of this place. This is not something you can cross. It’s not possible.

Diana Prince: So… what? So we do nothing?

Steve Trevor: No, we are doing something! We are! We just… we can’t save everyone in this war. This is not what we came here to do.

Diana Prince: No. But it is what I am going to do.

Nuff said.

Diana is confident and compassionate. 

Women often get mislabeled as being soft, particularly if they are showing compassion. Diana/Wonder Woman proves once again that women (like any human being regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation) can be both. Diana is not disarmed or rattled by the fears and worries of Sameer and Charlie and she doesn’t spiral into self-doubt about the challenges of their mission. She also never waivers once she is convinced that something must be done to help those who are in peril. And she doesn’t quit being Wonder Woman when tragedy strikes like the gassing of the village she had previously helped save. She becomes more resolute about ending the brutality of Ludendorff, Dr. Poison and Ares. For Diana, confidence and compassion go hand-in-hand.

Diana’s confidence and compassion makes her a loyal friend.

Diana shows sympathy to Charlie, who has experienced much brokenness and loss, and gives him encouragement. She reminds him of his value to their mission group. Diana also listens with an open mind and heart to the perspectives of Sameer and The Chief as they share their difficulties as men of color. Even though she is clearly the most powerful and the wisest, she doesn’t push Steve Trevor aside and take over. And at the same time, she also goes against his orders and follows her own heart, mind and convictions to do what is best for the group and the world.

Diana kicks ass… and it’s a work of art.

There’s just something breath-taking, elegant and even graceful about how Diana/Wonder Woman takes out her foes. It’s much like watching a beautiful dance instead of male heroes and villains trading punches and ramming their bodies through walls. No smack talk and bravado either. She just gets it done. Diana/Wonder Woman is #neverthelessshepersisted.

Diana shows mercy.

At a pivotal point near the film’s end, Diana has an opportunity to destroy Dr. Poison for the suffering and death she has inflicted on many lives, including those of children. Instead of seeing a monster, Diana realizes Dr. Maura is a victim of the cruel monster of war–personified by Ludendorff and Ares. Diana also decides that more destruction and death of human beings will not make a bit of difference and thus, she sets aside the giant tank aside she is about to drop on the doctor.

Diana believes in love.

It’s the moment all fans of the film have been talking about non-stop (aside from The Trench).  In response to Ares contempt for human kind and his question of Wonder Woman’s devotion to ordinary people, Diana says:

“You don’t get what you deserve. It’s about what you believe, and I believe in love.”

And then she promptly eradicates the darkness and evil of Ares with a ferocious and illuminating light.

Throughout the entire film, Diana/Wonder Woman has made a choice to believe in love and to shine light wherever she goes.

In the film’s final scene, Diana writes in an email to Bruce Wayne that she has learned the following about herself, humanity and her path ahead:

“I used to want to save the world, to end war and bring peace to mankind. But then I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. I learned that inside every one of them there will always be both. The choice each must make for themselves – something no hero will ever defeat. And now I know… that only love can truly save the world. So now I stay, I fight, and I give – for the world I know can be. This is my mission now, for ever.”

Gotta Keep Moving

A Sermon for Sunday, May 28, 2017. The Ascension of the Lord Sunday, Acts 1:6-12

The Ascension of the Lord—it’s a peculiar event, don’t you think?

Jesus, after being raised from the dead, spends 40 days hanging out with the disciples, teaching them about the kingdom of God. And then, whoosh! Up in the air he goes. Artists’ renderings of this scene are quite surreal and a bit ludicrous, as if aliens are beaming Jesus up. Whoowhoowhoop!

Jesus’ ascension is an episode that many preachers and churches avoid entirely during the church season because it is odd and difficult to grasp. It’s not grounded in the mud, spit and blood of life. It’s not as substantial as Jesus’ birth into poverty, his ministry among the sick and the poor and his brutal death. Even resurrection—the breath and heart beat returning to the body, the seemingly dead now come alive—is more palpable than ascension.

And yet as lofty and bizarre as Jesus’ ascension seems, it is what people of faith have sought to comprehend for thousands of years. Jesus’ ascension, his grand departure from the earth and his friends, is reflected in many of the stories we tell—stories that try to make sense of this epic moment:

Like Superman the man of steel, who often leaves the city of Metropolis and rises above to keep a watchful eye over humanity.

Like E.T. the extra terrestrial who tells the boy Elliott that he loves him and then boards his family’s space ship to return home to his planet in the stars.

Like Maui the charming demigod who embraces the young chieftain Moana with a hug and then leaves by transforming into a great hawk that soars off into the sky.

Like the zany Genie who, upon being freed from the lamp by Aladdin, zooms into the air and packs a suitcase for an adventure of his own choosing.

Like Mary Poppins the magical nanny who concludes that she has successfully brought a family back together and then, with a wink and a smile, flies away clutching her umbrella.

Ascension in those stories is about goodbyes, endings and beginnings, transition and change. And Christ’s ascension is all of those things and more—the shaping of Jesus’ glory as the one who conquered death and fear; the establishing of Christ’s rein above all worldly powers; and the fulfilling of God’s promise that human beings are in possession of and destined for a future brimming with hope in Christ’s mercy and love.

Naturally, it’s a lot to take for the disciples to take in and, understandably, they have anxiety about what is occurring before their eyes. With nervous excitement, they ask Jesus: “Is this when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

The disciples know God is triumphant and yet Jesus, their friend, teacher and savior, is leaving them. They want to know what is going to happen and they can’t bare the thought of Jesus not being among them.

The disciples are likely wondering:

  Is Jesus going up for a few minutes to recruit an angelic construction crew before coming back to rebuild Israel?

    Is he going up in the clouds for a few hours for a period of prayer, rest and renewal before returning to end all of the world’s problems with a word or the touch of his hand?

When Jesus tells them they don’t need to worry about the time in which the kingdom of God will be formed, the disciples realize deep in their hearts that the Jesus they knew—the Jesus who preached and taught as they traveled dusty roads from one town to the next; who shared meals with them and healed and fed the despised and downtrodden—wasn’t coming back.

Their hearts ache with a truth they don’t want to accept. So they stare up in the sky, hoping the Jesus they knew will make a quick U-turn and re-enter their lives as before. They know time is marching forward but they’re not ready to do the same.

Sound familiar?

We don’t like to part with someone we deeply love and cherish (and move forward without them) anymore than the disciples, even when we know in our heart of hearts that it’s usually what is meant to be.

It’s why we get choked up or melancholy at the end of a movie or TV episode, when a main character we’ve grown to appreciate, bids adieu. Those stories remind us that nothing stays the same, that the people closest to us will one day leave and that change is inevitable, whether we enjoy it or not.

Of the multitude of viewing options available these days, no show embraces the concept of goodbyes and change better than the long-running international sci-fi hit Doctor Who.

 

For the non-Whovians out there, Doctor Who follows the adventures of a Time Lord, a humanoid alien known as The Doctor who explores the universe in his TARDIS—a sentient time-traveling space ship that appears as an ordinary blue British police box.

In 1966, after the show had been on air for three years, William Hartnell, the first actor to play Doctor Who, became very ill. So the show’s creators invented a plot device in which the character of The Doctor would regenerate or take on a new body and personality as a way of recovering from something that would kill an ordinary person. This allowed producers and writers to cast a new actor into the role without losing momentum in the breadth of the series.

Throughout the show’s run, 13 actors have played the role of the Doctor—all becoming beloved for the unique persona they brought to the character. But no matter how many times fans watch The Doctor regenerate and know that change is going to occur—that an actor you’ve come to enjoy will be replaced by one who is unfamilliar—they become a bit emotional.

That was certainly true for this fan and many others when Matt Smith exited the show as the 11th Doctor and Peter Capaldi took over as the 12th Doc in the final moments of the Dec 25, 2013 episode “The Time of the Doctor.” The 11th Doctor’s trusted companion Clara Oswald (played by Jenna Coleman) knows her friend and mentor is regenerating, but she can’t bear to see him go. And as he is transforming, The Doctor reminds Clara about the importance of change while also remembering his previous companion, the late Amy Pond:

            “We all change, when you think about. We are all different people, all through our lives. And that’s ok, that’s good, you gotta keep moving so long as you remember all the people that you used to be,” the Doctor reminds Clara and viewers. And Clara, speaking on the audience’s behalf, says, “Please, Don’t change.”

Don’t change. Don’t leave.

Those words are imprinted on the disciples’ faces as they look longingly into the sky as Jesus ascends into the heavens. And they’d probably remain stuck there, fixated on the clouds for hours and hours awaiting Jesus’ immediate return, if the two angels hadn’t appeared.

The angels tell the disciples they have work to do and they need to get busy. Christ has chosen them to be witnesses of love and grace to the ends of the earth. There’s no time to gaze at the sky. The disciples gotta keep moving to share and embody the story of God’s love in the entire world.

So often, I think, Christians get stuck when significant change is happening, especially in the life of the Church. Many congregations struggle with saying goodbye to their long-time beloved pastors who accept a new call or retire. They struggle with saying goodbye to programs that are no longer viable or sparking joy.

They grapple with welcoming new leaders and visions for ministry. They have difficulty letting go because, in the words of Marie Kondo (the author of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up) there is “an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.”

Most of you in this congregation know that we are in the midst of a process of letting go. As a way of honoring Dave Fry’s legacy as the founding pastor of 32 years and his retirement in November, we’ve embarked on a capital campaign–Gifted Past, Bold Future. The campaign’s purpose is to give gratitude for years of faith-shaping ministry as we strive to pay off the mortgage debt and make room for new ideas that will shape people’s lives.

And while Pleasant Hill is embracing the change, particularly Dave’s farewell, in a healthy way, I imagine there is still some anxiety among us. While we realize that Dave’s retirement is unavoidable, we don’t want him to go. We don’t want things to change.

A Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church without Dave Fry seems strange after decades of service. We know deep in our hearts that this church won’t quite have the same relationship with Dave as it does at this moment. Eventually, Dave will not be in his office every day or preaching from Sunday to Sunday or teaching classes or making pastoral visits or doing baptisms, weddings and funerals. Dave’s not ascending into the clouds, of course, but he will no longer be present among the congregation as he is now and has been for so long.

Like Clara Oswald, we might be in bit of a shock to see someone else in the head of staff role. And the new pastor, like the new (12th) Doctor, might be a little bewildered about how to “fly this thing” or operate Pleasant Hill.

But if we love God and treasure Dave’s ministry, we won’t be stuck in the past or resistant to change or looking off in the distance or leave the new pastor on their own to figure things out. Instead, we’ll answer Christ’s call to be the Church, to be his followers, to be his witnesses for love and grace for all people in every time and place.

And although Dave won’t be roaming these halls one day, and although Jesus is not physically present, we won’t truly be alone in our endeavors.

As Sirius Black tells young Harry Potter who laments never knowing his parents, murdered when he was a child: The ones who love us never really leave us, you can always find them in here.” (points to Harry’s heart)

Therefore, let your hearts not ache or be torn or anxious, for not too long at least. Dave will soon leave us with an amazing legacy to build on for many years to come. There is much to do and to experience as time goes onward. In the beautiful parting words of the hobbit Frodo to his best friend Sam in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King:

         “You have so much to enjoy and to be and to do. (Your) part in the story will go on.”

Jesus has gone ahead of us, preparing for a future full of hope. And he beckons us to follow and to continue the story that God began–a story with many twists and turns. And Christ assures us that something inspiring is coming—like a mighty rushing wind and tongues of flame—to guide us as Christians and the Church on the journey ahead.

Therefore, we gotta keep moving.

Amen.

Meeting Jesus in the Mud

A Sermon for Sunday March 26, 2017 (The Fourth Sunday of Lent) John 9:1-17 and 24-41

One of God’s greatest gifts is…mud. Glorious, messy mud.

For many children, playing in the mud provides endless enjoyment.

Mud pies to serve at a party with friends—each delicacy decorated with pebbles, twigs and flower petals.

Mud puddles to stomp and splash in after a good thunderstorm—brand new rain boots spattered with artful gray streaks.

Mud creeks to explore for signs of tadpoles, minnows and crawfish—squishy clumps wedged between the toes in that cool water.

Teens relish moments romping in the mud too.

I have a fond memory from seven years ago when the high school youth from this church did mission work in Houma, La in July. Nearly every day there was an afternoon downpour.

By the middle of the week, there had been so much rain that a pool of water, a couple of inches deep nearly 30 feet in length had formed on our lodging site—a muddy oasis that had to be experienced by a group of teens who had worked hard all day doing construction work. They spent more than an hour running and sliding through the giant puddle, giggling and shouting the entire time.

Did you ever have those exhilarating experiences growing up? Do you remember what it was like to play in the mud as a kid and the unbridled fun you had?

Of course, there are also plenty of adults who don’t mind playing and working in the mud. On mission trips to Honduras, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic or even a couple hours away in the Blue Ridge Mountains, it’s impossible to avoid getting filthy.

         After a long day of digging holes, carrying rocks, pouring concrete, laying bricks, building homes, adults—caked in a muddy mixture of dirt, cement and sweat—wear their grime as badges of honor.  I’ve seen many adults tease each other over who has worked the hardest by the amount of mud they have on their clothes.

There is something exhilarating and satisfying when we are covered in God’s earth, isn’t there?

In the book Dangerous Wonder, author Michael Yaconeli recounts how a friend did a one-man show on Jesus’ life in which he imagined Jesus and the disciples taking a break in the Jordan River after many days of travel and doing ministry. The scene plays out like this:

Jesus and the disciples were all in the river taking baths when the beloved   disciple,  John, reaches down to the floor of the river and brings up a huge mud pie. Preoccupied with their washing, none of the disciples notices. John takes careful aim at his favorite target, Peter. SPLAT! The mud pie strikes Peter in the face. John immediately ducks underwater as though he is scrubbing.

Peter reaches for his own mud pie, takes careful aim at Matthew and lets it fly. WHAM! James wastes no time responding with his own mud pie, and soon bedlam breaks out amongst the disciples. A full-fledged mud fight is under way.

 Philip and Bartholomew sneak up on Judas, whom they didn’t particularly like anyway, and nail him with two mud pies.

 Simon the Zealot…lets loose with a huge mud pie. John ducks and the mud missile hits Jesus right in the middle of his forehead. All the disciples freeze. After a long silence Thomas leans over to Simon and says, “You idiot! You just hit the Son of God with a mud pie…He’ll turn us into turtles!”

 Jesus gazes slowly at each of the disciples, each one fearing the worst.

With a knowing smile, Jesus stops when he sees Simon, who refuses to look Jesus in the eyes. Jesus reaches down into the mud and comes up with a very large mud pie and—BAM!—Simon is hit squarely on the top of his head, and as the mud slithers down his face, everyone, including Jesus, breaks into laughter.

During Jesus’ day, mud was a treasured substance that had many practical and enjoyable applications for daily living.

Mud was the prime building material people used to make things—jars, pots, plates, tools, ovens, art, tablets, roads, homes and other structures. Additionally, it was used to heal wounds on the skin or give relief to aching muscles, i.e. the mud facial and mud bath.

Now, as far as anyone knows, mud was not considered a cure for a more serious infliction like blindness.  But that doesn’t stop Jesus from mixing spit and dirt into mud and placing on the blind man’s eyes.

           Mud is an essential part of life and it is also sacred because it is of the earth that God created and formed out of darkness and brought into the light.  Thus, it’s no surprise that Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, uses mud to create something new, to give sight to a blind man who was born unseeing.

More alarming is the Pharisees’, the religious leaders’ judgment of the blind man and Jesus.  In spite of this extraordinary act of compassion, the Pharisees believe the blind man is a sinner from birth who is undeserving of healing and that Jesus is a heretic.

The Pharisees have become so self-righteous and full of absolutes and lofty ideals that they’re no longer grounded in God’s ways. They care more about their own status and prestige than getting their clothes dirty by helping their brothers and sisters in need.

The Pharisees have become completely detached from those they are called by God to serve.  They claim to be all knowing about God while ignoring the God who dwells with the poor, sick and oppressed, the Christ who is willing to get mud on his hands to show love to another human being. They’ve forgotten the beauty and joy of playing and working in the mud and being in relationship with others.

The Pharisees behave as no one else matters but them and their absolutes about how God works. And sadly our history shows there have been hard-nosed religious folks who’ve acted just as arrogantly and dogmatically ever since.

The late science historian and mathematician Jacob Bronowski commented on this egotistical behavior of some human beings in the 1973 BBC documentary Ascent of Man:

“It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken.”

I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died here, to stand here as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.”

Jesus, according to the Gospel of John, spits on the ground and makes mud with his own saliva and touches the blind man’s eyes. And minutes later, after washing his face in a nearby pool, the man is able to see for the first time in his life!

Christ’s actions are a reminder that we as his followers are supposed to touch people—to reach out and dirty our hands if necessary to bring love and life to someone else.  We as followers are called to meet Jesus in the mud.

And it will be clear and beautiful… if we have the eyes to see it

Amen.

The Messiness of Christmas

A Sermon for January 1, 2017. First Sunday After Christmas. Epiphany Sunday. Matthew 2:1-22

37036One of the Advent-Christmas traditions here at Pleasant Hill is to place this beautiful, porcelain made Nativity set on the communion table. These figures from Matthew and Luke’s gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth are familiar to worshippers: Mary and Joseph, the baby, a shepherd, an angel and the magi. All the major players are here…except for one.

There’s no figure of King Herod—King Herod the Great who was appointed by the Roman Empire to rule over Judea, the country in which Jesus was born.

In the millions of interpretations of the Nativity in displays, greeting cards, paintings and children’s books that have been created over thousands of years, a depiction of Herod is not included. Cattle, sheep, camels, a donkey, a dog, a cat and even Santa Claus are added to the scene. But not Herod. The beloved hymns of the Advent-Christmas season don’t mention Herod either, except for two obscure carols, one written in the late 16th century and the other in 1911.

And yet he is an integral part of Jesus’ birth and early childhood.

The reason for Herod’s absence, of course, is obvious. He’s not a good guy and certainly no admirer of Jesus. Herod is, quite frankly, scared of the baby and the prospect that this child will one day overthrow his reign and become Israel’s ruler.

Herod is so terrified of losing his throne and power that he plots to murder the infant Jesus by sneakily asking the magi to let him know the baby’s exact location so he also may pay homage.

But his plan is thwarted when an angel of the Lord warns the magi to return home by another road and then tells Joseph to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt. This, however, is not the conclusion of the story, although historicaly our retellings often end here.

After realizing the magi have tricked him and the baby who threatens his kingdom is not within his reach, Herod becomes filled with rage. “If I can’t have the one baby who will become king, I will kill them all!” Herod probably thought as he ordered his soldiers to murder all boys in and around Bethlehem who were between the age of infancy and 2-years-old.

And that image of children being slaughtered by a ruthless king is too much to comprehend. Genocide doesn’t fit neatly with the angels’ pronouncement of joy, the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger, the star over Bethlehem, and strangers coming to worship the child.

Herod’s violence breaks our silent and holy night in which we celebrate the prince of peace on earth. Herod makes the celebration of Christmas messy and ruins one’s sentimental view of and desire for the holidays, which is not something many Christians like to consider. But we need Herod in the Christmas story in spite of his horrific actions or maybe because of them.

In her essay “Putting Herod Back in Christmas” Anglican priest and author Joy Carroll Wallis[1] puts it this way:

Herod recognizes something about Jesus that in our sentiment we fail to see: that the birth of this child is a threat to his kingdom, a threat to that kind of domination and rule. Jesus challenges the very power structures. Herod has all the male infants in Bethlehem murdered. Not so cozy. This is the Jesus who entered the bloody history of Israel, and the human race. …Herod represents the dark side of the gospel. He reminds us that Jesus didn’t enter a world of sparkly Christmas cards or a world of warm spiritual sentiment. Jesus enters a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression. Jesus was born an outcast, a homeless person, a refugee, and finally becomes a victim to the powers that be. Jesus is the perfect savior for outcasts, refugees and nobodies.”

Christmas, with its spirit of giving and message of incarnate love, peace and joy, certainly speaks deeply to our hearts and draws out our child-like sense of amazement. It sparks our imaginations and stirs our souls to do a lot of good in the world. But the events that occurred on that first Christmas reminds us that humans have the potential to cause a lot of mayhem.

Jesus is born into a broken and sinful world, in a time in which the Roman Empire controlled everything and Caesar proclaimed himself to be god-like. And from birth to death, Jesus encounters persecution by the Roman authorities and religious leaders who feel intimidated by his presence and the truth that he is the actual embodiment of God’s love among humanity.

Jesus shakes up the world and threatens the status quo. And that holy upheaval scares people who wish to cling to their own power, prestige and agendas. It scares them enough to lash out violently against “the other” whom God has created and to ultimately reject God’s love for human beings—especially the ones who are marginalized and viewed as unnatural and different.

Jesus not only rattles the people during biblical times, but his life, teachings and resurrection also frightens people today, including devoted, long-time believers. Can Christians then open their eyes to recognize and understand the messiness of Christmas and this birth in our lives and world?

Religious writer Matt Emerson[2] says it like this:

We are two thousand years from first-century Palestine, but the Incarnation is not like the Civil War. It is not simply an event from which we draw lessons. The challenge for moderns is to see the dynamics of Palestine within the human landscape of the human heart. Our inner life is one of clashing sects and regimes, of shaky alliances and diverse languages. A Herod hides in all of us. So does a Pontius Pilate. And a St. Peter. And a Mary. At one time we are the moralizing Pharisees; at another, the ruling Romans. Christ today must enter this territory. Will we prepare him room? It’s strange. And it’s difficult. Christ unsettles. Christ imperils…A mix of joy and confusion, happiness and worry. This is the first Christmas. Can we today recover some of its dramatic impact?”

Amid our joyful celebration of Christmas, can we connect with the upheaval that accompanies Christ’s birth? Can we admit that as much as we want Christmas time (and the days ahead) to be filled with peace and forever free of violence and heartache, the reality is that it’s not going to happen instantaneously?

Can we stop brushing aside the messy, hard-to-look at parts of Christmas and life so we can take a moment to see the pain of humanity instead of ignoring it and pretending that the atrocities around us bear no affect on our daily living and happiness?

Can we acknowledge the pain so that we might connect with the hurting, the oppressed, the outcasts and nobodies whom Jesus came to dwell among?

Can we see in the faces of babies, particularly those born in extreme poverty, the Christ child who was delivered in a musty stable to a poor peasant couple in the hub of Empire?

1st-slide-photo-2

1st-slide-photo-1

Can we see in the faces of immigrants and refugees the family of Mary, Joseph and Jesus running for their lives under the cover of night to a foreign land to escape a bloodthirsty king?

2nd-slide-photo-1

2nd-slide-photo-2

Can we see in the faces of innocent children and families of war-torn Aleppo, the fear and anguish of the children and families in Bethlehem who suffered genocide at the hands of Herod’s army?

3rd-slide-photo-2

3rd-slide-photo-1

Can we see in the faces of the poor, the working class, the discriminated, the abused, and the broken, the God who dwells among the suffering?

Homeless Man on the Street

Can we see in the face of Herod, our own capabilities for destruction and know that God desires for us to act in the restorative ways of love?

5th-slide-photo-1

Can we witness as the magi did, the epiphany of God’s love in the world’s most broken places? Can we truly see the power of our Sovereign Creator who comes to be with us in human flesh and divine glory as a vulnerable, defenseless child?

6th-slide-photo-2

6th-slide-photo-1

In a reflection on the scripture reading, Christian theologian David Lose[3] assures us that we can:

Sometimes life is beautiful and wonderful and filled with goodness and grace. And God is a part of that, giving blessing and celebrating with us and for us. And sometimes life is hard, gritty, disappointing and filled with heartache. And God is part of that as well, holding on to us, comforting us, blessing us with promise that God will stay with us through the good and the bad, drawing us ever more deeply into God’s loving embrace and promising that nothing—not even death—will separate us from God… God is working not only with the characters of this (Christmas) story, but also working through their triumphs and tragedies in order to work salvation in and for the world. God is likewise holding onto us through the joys and sorrows, working through the triumphs and tragedies that attend our lives—all to share the news of the salvation God has wrought in and through the life, death and resurrection of Christ.”

God is calling each of us to share the good news and help build God’s kingdom—a place where all are welcomed, redeemed and cared for in love.

God is calling each of us to do the work of Christmas, long after the carols have been sung, the decorations have been removed and the season has officially ended. Or as the late civil rights activist Howard Thurman said so profoundly in his poem The Work of Christmas:

When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, to heal the broken,

To feed the hungry, to release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations, to bring peace among brothers,

To make music from the heart.

             The work of Christmas is not easy. It’s hard, challenging, frustrating and tiring at times. It’s plain ole messy. That’s just how it is.

We take the fear, scorn and despair with the joy, wonder and hope. We take the bad with the good. We take Herod with the magi.

But the anguish reminds us that Jesus enters into a mess and the mess doesn’t overcome God-with-us; and the gloom reassures us that we’ve been made to endure messes and to get busy living out God’s love.

This is the first day of a new year, a new beginning. There’s a lot of messiness in this world and there will be a lot more. None of it will get cleaned up by itself.

So let’s get up and get to work.

Amen.

…………………………………………………………………………………………….

 

 

[1] http://liturgy.co.nz/church-year/herod-christmas

[2] http://www.americamagazine.org/content/ignatian-educator/terrifying-first-christmas

[3] https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2973

Reflections on “Waking Up White”: Chapters Two and Three

1d5ef3ad5ebe5af59c70c4d5953df31f

Chapter 2: “Childhood In White”

In this chapter, Irving shares how her family valued the importance of being accomplished, staying busy, having a good attitude, being complaint free and restraining emotions (displays of anger, pride, sadness, anger, jealousy and fear) which conditioned her to become “deeply uncomfortable around people who exhibited any of the disapproved emotions, especially anger.” The emotional numbness, she writes, had “huge implications for racism” which she learned much later in life and will explore in an upcoming chapter.  She closes Chapter 2 with the question:

What values and admonitions did you learn in your family? Think about education, work, lifestyle, money, expression of emotions, and so forth. Try making a list of ten principles, values and unspoken beliefs. … Now consider what conclusions you drew about people who did not appear to follow your family’s belief system

  1. God is love and God wants us to love one another and be helpful, courteous, kind and merciful.
  2. Lying, cheating and stealing is wrong
  3. Save your money, don’t waste it like other people do
  4. It’s not like the good ole days where you can walk on downtown streets safely without getting robbed or shot
  5. Get a good education and job, follow the rules/behave and work hard to avoid laziness, poverty, digging ditches, drugs, crime, jail, being sent off to war
  6. Guns keep us safe and it’s our right to shoot someone in self defense if they break into our home or threatens us with violence
  7. The homeless aren’t interested in jobs because they refuse to do menial tasks like sweeping streets
  8. Democratic party and leaders on local, state and national level are crooked and not to be trusted
  9. There’s a difference between black people and the “n-word” (i.e. blacks who were poor and lazy, criminals, crooked politicians, political activists like the Black Panthers and foul-mouthed trouble makers like rappers and some comedians.)
  10. Gay is not normal and goes against God’s teachings in scripture

I didn’t draw any conclusions about people who didn’t appear to follow my family’s belief system because everyone around us held the same beliefs and values–relatives, neighbors, church members, and school teachers (all of whom were white). Spoken and unspoken.  I did, however, become quite paranoid and suspicious of anyone who was “other” unless they met the approval of the authority figures in my life. I also believed for a long while that certain places were more dangerous and violent because of the poor and people of color.

I never felt comfortable despising and hating people who were different than me and I always questioned the validity of several of the values and admonitions that were spoken, although I never dared to express them out loud.

Mostly, I was just scared and doubtful about the world and other people and surroundings that were foreign to me, and I sort of resigned to the notion that if I simply behaved and did what I was told, I would live a good and successful life and not have to experience any of the scary stuff of the world.

Chapter 3: “Race Versus Class”

Irving posits that both race and class are real issues that matter,and shouldn’t be pitted against another:

Trying to determine which one is the ‘real’ issue does a disservice to both. Concluding class is the real issue would give me permission to avoid thinking about race. Similarly, assuming race is the most significant issue overlooks the complications faced by white people caught in a vicious cycle of poverty. Both can trap people in a kind of second-class citizenship. If you can’t get the education you need to get a job to pay for healthy food, medical care, transportation, and a home in a neighborhood with good schools, then you can’t educate your children in a school that will prepare them for a job that will…and so on. Any cycle that traps someone in a state of perpetual disadvantage is the real issue for the people experiencing it. And yet race and class are inextricably linked….

Until I understood the impact skin color can have on one’s life, I wasn’t able to consider racism in combination with other factors that influence one’s culture. The culture that shapes people are breathtakingly complex when you consider all that goes into them. Era, geographical location, language, level of education, ethnic heritage, race, gender, sexual orientation, income, wealth, religion, health, family personalities and professions, birth order, hobbies and sports provide multiple variables that mix and match to create a unique culture in each and every family and each and every person. ..When it comes to culture, the only thing we all have in common is that we have one, and it shapes us….

Yet race stands apart from the variables listed above. Not only is race visible and permanent; it’s come to act as a social proxy for one’s value in American’ society. White has long stood for normal and better, while black and brown have been considered different and inferior. Social value isn’t just a matter of feeling as if one belongs or doesn’t; it affects one’s access to housing, education, and jobs, the building blocks necessary to access the great American promise–class mobility.

At the end of the chapter, Irving asks:

Class is determined by income, wealth (assets), education, and profession. Betsy Leondar-Wright, program director at Class Action, suggest these categories as a way of thinking about class: Poverty, Working Class, Lower-Middle Class, Professional Middle Class, Upper-Middle Class, Owning Class. How would you characterize your parents’ class? Your grandparents’ class? Your class as a child? Your class now? What messages did you get about race in each?

I would characterize my family as being Professional Middle Class–Like my parents, I grew up with a roof over my head in a suburban neighborhood (that was completely white), nice clothes, plenty of food, summer vacations to the beach, presents for birthdays, Christmas, Easter and even Valentine’s Day in addition to the occasional purchase of a toy or book during the year. We had access to public schools and could afford luxuries like dinner at a restaurant, a TV and cable (as well as the latest tech gadget), more than two cars, a swing set in our backyard, a yard and trees to play in, etc.

My paternal/maternal grandparents and maternal great-grandparents, having grown up during the Depression as Working Class, felt the desire to be more generous to their offspring as they moved into the Professional to Upper-Middle Class as adults. Both sets of grandparents regularly took us to the movies. Both grandfathers took us to UAB basketball games. My maternal grandparents took us to Atlanta Braves games and Six Flags less than a handful of times. They also owned a modest vacation house at The Still Waters Resort in Dadeville, Alabama where we would go for the weekend, usually for an Auburn Tigers football game 20 minutes away in Auburn. My paternal grandparents were in the Upper-Middle Class due to their business success in waste management services (and later other ventures) and thus were able to afford a condominium in Florida along with two charter fishing boats. We spent many summers on the beach and going deep sea fishing.

Granted, my younger brother and I never got everything we asked from our parents and grandparents. If we got a hole in our jeans, they got patched up. My brother got a lot of my clothes that I outgrew instead of new ones. We had to do chores and earn an allowance and save our money. Their was a strong belief in making purchases last until they went kaput, i.e. cars, appliances, furniture and so on.

Often we had to share our toys. Restaurant outings were special occasions, not a weekly or monthly splurge. (Although, we did have steak and potatoes almost every Saturday night growing up.) The only place we traveled to outside of Alabama was Florida with the exception of two trips my maternal grandparents planned:  A visit to Alberta, Canada for the Calgary Stampede and Wyoming for Yellowstone National Park when I was 11 and the California coast when I was 15 or 16.

We never lacked anything and we were taught to be appreciative of what we had and to not be greedy for more stuff. And yet, the message that members of my family relayed, directly and indirectly, was that people of color often couldn’t succeed because they weren’t willing to work hard, didn’t follow the rules, were greedy and unappreciative.  That notion always bugged me, even though I admit to believing it at times when I was a teen and young adult. I realized in college and beyond that this was a giant misconception.

Today, our family of me, my wife and our two children, 8-year-old daughter and nearly 3-year-old son, is Professional Middle Class. We have everything we need. We don’t have a second vacation home but we can afford to take trips every summer to the beach, go to the movies on occasion, have iPhones, iPads, laptop computers and maintain three cars. We’re privileged to have my mother-in-law live with us to help take care of our children, one of whom is on the autism spectrum and one who has some development delays. She helps cover costs for special needs therapy and provides for the family in other ways through retirement savings. Education and basic necessities are met every day and then some. We have a nice home in a suburban neighborhood that is tad more diverse than mine growing up.

I’ve realized from all of this that while a lot of hard work is responsible for our status and comfortable living, we have been privileged as whites to have the access to be in the Professional Middle Class. My family now and then has opportunities many people of color don’t have. I’m much more aware of that reality and that one’s lack of status or designation in a respectable class doesn’t mean people aren’t working hard or being good citizens or living good values.  And I don’t feel more deserving of what I have earned and been given than someone else who struggles to gain opportunities and needs they deserve and should be given.  

I hope I’m teaching my own children how to be aware of their privilege and also not judge others who are denied opportunities because of their race and class. And as they grow older, I also hope that I’m able to show them how to knock down racial and class barriers and work toward equity for the poor, the oppressed and cultures that have been denied many benefits from a majority white system.

 

Reflections on “Waking Up White”: Chapter One

wuwcoverfinal

In an attempt to be more aware of my privilege as a white male and discern the ways in which I can start dismantling racism in my life and relationships, I’ve decided to write reflections that answer the questions posed at the close of each chapter of the compelling book Waking Up White by Debbie Irving. The book was recommended to me (and a multitude of folks) by co-moderators of the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) of which I serve as an ordained minister of the word and sacrament:

 

 

Waking Up White is composed of 46 chapters divided into nine sections.The first section is Childhood In White and Chapter 1 is titled “What Wasn’t Said.”

Debby shares how her mother, school and the media of the time presented a single perspective about race that didn’t ever encourage her to dig deep enough in the history of other cultures, like Native Americans to understand them as something more than stereotypes.  Then she asks the reader:

What stereotypes about people of another race do you remember hearing and believing as a child? Were you ever encouraged to question stereotypes?

I grew up with a lot of stereotypes as a child and youth about African-Americans, Middle-Easterners, Asians, Hispanics and LGBTQ–from the time I was 7 years old in 1983 till I turned 18 in 1994. 

I shared some of those stereotypes about African-Americans in a sermon I preached on racism in early 2015: “As God’s Chosen.”  Additionally, I was taught that most African-Americans were lazy, crooked, foul mouthed, violent troublemakers who didn’t care about cleanliness or speaking proper English. Middle-Easterners, particularly the people living in Iran, Libya, etc. were called “dune coons” and considered to be evil, murderous terrorists. And gays and lesbians were viewed as perverts who lived unnatural lives of debauchery or were just plain weird.

Now, Asians and Hispanics were appreciated for their cuisine and some cultural contributions to society like math, science and art, but were often mocked for speaking a different language, not speaking English well and for their appearance (eyes, facial hair, clothes). But like African-Americans, they were also mis-characterized as lazy, violent, etc. Asians were also believed to be extremely uptight and strange for their beliefs in Buddha instead of the Judeo-Christian God.

The stereotypes I learned were reinforced by some TV shows and movies of the 80s and the educational system. Most African-American were viewed as incompetent and unimportant unless they were talented entertainers, did menial labor (cafeteria work, trash collecting, maid services, etc) or excelled at sports.

I began questioning and challenging stereotypes when Bonkey McCain and his family joined our Presbyterian church in suburban Birmingham-becoming the first African-American members. And I was fortunate during my older teen years to have some church members, friends, High School youth group advisers and teachers  regularly encourage me to challenge stereotypes about race, culture, gender and sexual orientation. This education of open-mindedness and questioning continued during my college years and beyond.  My early career as a newspaper reporter in Birmingham, Alabama from 1998-2001 and a seminary education at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta from 2002-2005 deepened my understanding of social justice and the history of oppression and unjust systems.

By no means am I free of stereotypes. I still have painstaking moments where I entertain a prejudiced thought or change my behavior because my mind latches onto one of those terrible labels I was taught as a kid. And I certainly benefit (directly and indirectly) from a system of white privilege, supremacy and normalcy that continues to pervade our world. As such, I’m guilty for doing very little to say it’s wrong or work toward changing it.

Yes, I’ve spoken out against racism. I’ve preached about racism, justice and unity, invoking the words and lessons of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Congressman John Lewis. I’ve posted articles on Facebook from Sojourners Magazine and other sources that talk about the injustice perpetuated toward African-Americans and how it is counter to the gospel and God’s vision of the beloved community.

However, I don’t do much more or champion against racism often enough. It’s mostly due to fear of what other whites will say or think if I start a conversation about race much less preach about it. I become uneasy thinking about how I might be accused of falsely judging another white person for being racist or having privilege. Of how I might be accused of being a trouble maker, a race baiter or having a biased, destructive liberal agenda.

To be honest, I have been accused of those things, even when I’ve spoken from the heart. And while others have affirmed and praised me for speaking out, I tend to focus on the ones who had a negative reaction and thus become paralyzed and afraid of saying more. (As a side note, my struggles with anxiety and depression, while not excuses, contribute to me withdrawing into my own corner and staying silent at times.)

On the other hand, maybe I’m being too hard on myself. A friend, a gifted writer and pastor,  wrote the following blog post in September entitled “The Five Things I Need From White People Right Now” The intriguing part, after reading the essay, is I’ve discovered that mostly all I’ve ever done in the past decade or so is No. 3–I’ve used my privilege for good; I’ve used my platform to speak out against racism. Not as frequently and often as other folks, but would be unfair to say I haven’t said anything.

I’ve also abided by No. 1 and 2. I don’t silence or dismiss the voices of blacks like Colin Kaepernik. I try more than I ever have before to listen to the thoughts and views of African-Americans.

But again, that’s not enough because I also have to be committed to No. 4 and No. 5 and continue to strive to do all 5 better and more consistently–engrain them in my life. 

And practicing No. 4 and No. 5 (loosely) is what I’m in the midst of figuring out now. Over the last year, I’ve immersed myself in black culture, not as a source of mere entertainment, but to really destroy the stereotypes and understand (up to a point) what African-Americans go through on a daily basis in a country and world that continues to mistreat them because they have brown and black skin. I’ve also done so to gain a deeper appreciation for the incredible contributions that African-Americans have made and to whom we all should be indebted for having such a rich world and life–endeavors in medicine, science, sports, architecture, music, art, literature, pop culture. 

My life is being shaped by The Steve Harvey Morning Show and Ed Gordon; Ta-nehesi Coates Between the World and Me and Marvel’s The Black Panther series; Drew G. Hart’s Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing The Way The Church Views Racism; the work of James Baldwin; Beyone’s Lemonade, the TV shows Black-ish, Luke Cage, Atlanta and Speechless, the movies Dope, Dear White People and Selma and the (social media) voices of…

Rev. Denise Anderson, Rev. Margaret Aymer Oget, Charles Blow, Austin Channing, Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, Laura M. Cheitetz,  Carl Dukes, Ava DuVernay, Tre Easton, Omayra Gonzalez-Mendez, The Rev. Broderick Greer, Melissa Harris-Perry, Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, Rev. Mihee Kim-Kort, Rep. John Lewis, Rev. Jerrod Lowry, Deray McKesson, Rev. Otis Moss III, Brittany Packett, Hiram Perez-Cordero, Rev. Paul Roberts, Efram Smith, Jessica Vazquez Torres, Rev. Derrick Weston (and many, many more)

These incredible, creative people of God are encouraging me to question and smash the stereotypes.

My hope and prayer is that I can continue to be shaped by their voices; amplify their voices through the platforms that I have; and join mine with theirs to proclaim that their lives (and the lives of all people of color) matter too. 

Without their lives, without their fight for the freedom and right to live without fear of racism and intolerance, the rest of us are never truly free. We’re just bound up in the stereotypes and privilege that we as whites have created and pushed for centuries.

And so my journey of “waking up white” and continuing to find myself in the story of race moves onward…

Each Other’s Angels

A Sermon for Sunday August 28, 2016, Luke 14:1, 7-14 and Hebrews 13:1-2, 16

             Le Chambon 2About 5 months ago the middle and high school youth, along with Rev. Jennie, the youth advisers, and myself, visited the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in downtown Atlanta to hear the story of a Holocaust survivor and visit the facility’s permanent exhibit, “Absence of Humanity: The Holocaust Years, 1933-1945.” Toward the end of our hour-long tour—in which we viewed detailed accounts of the Holocaust and the horrors committed by the Nazis during World War II—our guide directed our attention to a grainy black and white photo of a Protestant village in France called Le Chambon, population 5,000.

Le Chambon

           Between 1941-1944, the residents of Le Chambon and nearby villages provided refuge for 5,000 Jews, more than 3,000 of which were actively fleeing from the Nazis and the collaborating French authorities that sought to put them to death in concentration camps. Led by Pastor André Trocmé of the Reformed Church of France, the villagers offered shelter in private homes, in hotels, on farms, and in schools. They forged identification and ration cards for the refugees, and sometimes guided them across the border to neutral Switzerland. Despite some visits to the area and a raid on the town, the Nazis never discovered the hidden Jews in Le Chambon and the surrounding area. The town never divulged its secret or considered giving up any of the refugees they had welcomed.

As one former child refugee recalled many years later:

Nobody asked who was Jewish and who was not. Nobody asked where you were from. Nobody asked who your father was or if you could pay. They just accepted each of us, taking us in with warmth, sheltering children, often without their parents—children who cried in the night from nightmares.

            The residents of Le Chambon never spoke of their deeds until decades later in the mid 1980s when filmmaker Pierre Sauvage returned to the town that had sheltered him as a newborn in 1944. But even then, the villagers, whose story is breathtakingly captured in the documentary Weapons of the Spirit, were reluctant to say much about their role in history:  “How could you call us good? We were doing what had to be done…It happened so naturally, we can’t understand the fuss…We never analyzed what we were doing, it happened all by itself.” [1]

For these incredibly humble Christians, the words from Hebrews 13:1-2 and v.16 were ingrained on their hearts:

Let mutual love continue.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it….Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

             If the Nazis had discovered their plans, the villagers would’ve been executed and the town would’ve been burnt to the ground. And yet the town of Le Chambon never thought twice about their decision to show mutual love to Jewish refugees nor did they question the danger of taking in strangers. They simply did what they intuitively felt in their hearts was the right thing to do.

And thus, Le Chambon’s humble actions continue to be seen 75 years later as one of the most inspirational examples of the radical hospitality that is encouraged in the scriptures and which God calls humankind to live out each day.

          Unquestionably, not every practice of hospitality has to be that grand or require such enormous risk. But all practices of hospitality can be bold, creative moments where we leave our comfort zones and reveal our vulnerability to welcome the stranger into our hearts and lives. As author Lonni Collins Pratt explains in her book Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love: [2]

Hospitality requires not grand gestures, but open hearts. When I let a stranger into my heart, I let a new possibility approach me. When I reach past my own ideas, I begin to stretch myself open to the world, and this opening of my heart could change everything.

          The opportunity to open our hearts can come when we least expect and change our life instantly. This was certainly true at the recent Olympic Games in Rio during when the qualifying heat of the women’s 5,000 meters when American runner Abbey D’Agostino accidentally clipped New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin from behind, causing both runners to fall down with about 2,000 meters remaining.

          Nikki landed heavily on her shoulder. She was in a daze as she laid on the track, her hopes of a medal dashed.  Suddenly she felt a hand on her shoulder and a voice speak into her ear: “Get up. We have to finish this.”  It was Abbey.

Instead of running to catch up with the other runners, Abbey was crouched down next to Nikki and encouraging her not to quit. Abbey put her hand on Nikki’s shoulder and then under her arms to help her up.  “That girl is the Olympic spirit right there,” Nikki said of Abbey D’Agostino later. “I’ve never met her before. Like I never met this girl before. And isn’t that so amazing. Such an amazing woman.”

Olympic Race 1But Nikki Hamblin turned out to be just as amazing. As both women began running again, Abbey realized that she had severely hurt her ankle in the fall and soon crumbled to the ground. Nikki then stopped and helped Abbey to her feet and offered her encouragement before running ahead. Nikki then waited for her new friend, grimacing with every stride, come across the finishing line. The two women hugged and then gripped each other’s right arms as Abbey was seated in a wheelchair.

Because of their extraordinary act of sportsmanship, Nikki and Abbey were both awarded the International Fair Play Committee Award and allowed to enter the final of the women’s 5,000 meters days later.  And while Abbey dropped out due to her injury and Nikki finished last in the final as a result of her fall, both women achieved something great—they showed hospitality to a complete stranger.

Olympic Race 2They opened their hearts, expanded their worlds and changed each other’s lives forever. As Nikki so eloquently put it, mere moments after finishing in 17th place, “You can make friends in the moments that really should break your heart.”[3]

When we open our hearts to practice hospitality, we create space for something new to happen. The late author and theologian on spirituality, Henri Nouwen, says it this way:

Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.

When we reach out to love the stranger, the person who is different from us;

When we do good for others and share what we have from our hearts;

When we create free spaces where a stranger can enter and become a friend;

When we offer another the freedom to be who God has made them to be, instead of the divisive, judgmental label that society has placed upon them;

We are showing hospitality.

We are entertaining God’s angels.

We are helping to establish God’s kingdom on earth.

            It’s quite revolutionary and counter-cultural to demonstrate hospitality to strangers and accommodate angels. It’s not always acceptable behavior.

Politeness and manners, yes. But a hospitality that offers love, respect, honor and dignity to the other—not so much.  The radical hospitality that God calls us to practice is often frowned upon in our society much like it was in Jesus’ day.

There has and always will be banquets that place the most honorable, the most successful, the most rewarded, the most privileged and well-to-do in the best seats in the most splendid room in the most luxurious of places.  And upsetting that system will not win a person much influence of wealth and power.

Jesus, of course, doesn’t care about such things. He’s not much for keeping the status quo and maintaining rituals that exclude others. Jesus eye is set on God’s kingdom table where all are welcome, including the poor and the oppressed. So he insists that traditional seating at a banquet or any meal where the “insiders” are given room over the “outsiders” should be tossed aside. Speaking to his host in Luke 14:12-14, Jesus says:

When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

Or as Kayla McClurg, the creator of the daily devotional site inwardoutward.org puts it:

Turn the tables on your usual patterns. Get out of your cozy rut. Hang out sometimes with the wrong kind of people, notice who is missing from the circles you participate in, get to know and care about some strangers. Rearrange the familiar. Urge the humiliated components of your life to move on up, and the proud and aloof parts to come on down. Practice getting your life into balance—you’re rehearsing for a resurrection feast!

            If that seems impossible, consider another story from the Rio Olympics.  Knowing that the country of Brazil is amid a deep recession and that Rio’s government had to close or cutback service at 16 meal centers, world renown Italian master chef Massimo Bottura decided to create an upscale restaurant to exclusively serve the poor during the Olympics.

Rio restaurant 1From August 9 to August 21, Refettorio Gastromotiva served 100 meals per day—breakfast, lunch and dinner—to the city’s homeless—using tons of leftover ingredients Olympic caterers and other local partners. Food that normally doesn’t sell at stores and goes to waste because it’s ugly looking or not ripe enough.

One evening, more than 70 homeless men, feasted on a three-course meal of ossobuco (cross-cut veal shanks braised with vegetables, white wine and broth), along with buttery barao potatoes and a gelato dessert.

Bottura said that on the second night of the restaurant’s opening, two homeless men left the building saying it was the first time they were treated like human beings—like princes and princesses.  “It’s breathtaking,” Bottura told reporters. “Because it is exactly what we want to do here. We want to build the dignity of the people.”

        Rio Restaurant 2   And Bottura and his restaurant are continuing to build the dignity of the people and practice hospitality and entertain angels even now that the Olympic festivities have faded away. As originally intended, the exquisite dinners for the homeless will be offered every evening, with funding for the project coming from lunch paying customers eating at an affordable price.

We want the whole community to come here to sustain this project because it is a social project and we need to add as many people as we can,” Bottura said. “I’ve just been rated best restaurant in the world…what more do I want from life? I have to give back to people.”[4]

Rio Restaurant 3Bottura’s example is precisely what Jesus meant by turning the tables, rearranging the familiar and practicing a resurrection feast.

We also can do what Bottura and many others have done to practice radical hospitality and to make the resurrection feast or God’s kingdom more and more of a reality in this world.

Practicing radical hospitality, according to a TED Talk speaker I heard last week, means: “seeing every person as an individual who is worthy of respect and honoring them as an equal.”[5]

It can often be inconvenient in a world where the slightest hiccup in our daily routine can annoy and frustrate us. As a friend and colleague wrote recently:

It’s easy to offer genuine hospitality when everybody’s saying please and thank you. It’s not so easy when people don’t wait their turn or they smell bad or they take more than their share…Imagine a church that offers hospitality even to the children of God who make everybody uncomfortable.”[6]

Radical hospitality requires risk, creativity, boldness, an open heart and a willingness to sacrifice our egos, agendas and uncomfortability to do what pleases God.

And to be perfectly honest, this church is already doing as such…

Delivering communion to the home-bound,

Hosting fellowship meals after church,

Serving as a Blood Drive center for The Red Cross,

Yard-work project on MLK Day,

Mission trips to the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Asheville and Blue Ridge,

Women’s retreat,

Vacation Bible School,

Summer Worship and Church School,

Caring for Burmese refugee families,

Sponsoring a low-income family at Rainbow Village,

Feeding the homeless men at Clifton,

Collecting toiletries and clothes for the homeless women and children at The Salt Light Center,

Donating and sorting canned goods at The Duluth Co-Op,

Laundry Love, and so much more.

You are practicing radical hospitality all the time. You are entertaining angels without knowing it.

           But friends, let us not ever be completely satisfied with how we do good for strangers and share what we have with them. Let us be humble enough to know that the work is never complete, can never be achieved on our own and that there is always more work to be done.

Let us constantly look for ways to open our hearts and create spaces where strangers and “enemies” can become friends. Let us continue to seek it in this church and beyond these walls to our homes, our schools, our workplaces, our neighborhoods, our cities, our state, our country and our world.

Let us be each other’s angels to all we encounter–angels who keep each other going and show each other signs of the kingdom of God that is here and is still to come.

Amen.

[1] Weapons of the Spirit by Pierre Sauvage, 1989. http://www.chambon.org/weapons_en.htm

[2] Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love by Lonni Collins Pratt and Father Daniel Homan, 2001 and 2011, Paraclete Press.

[3] http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/2016-rio-summer-olympics/rio-2016-runners-abbey-d-agostino-nikki-hamblin-show-true-n632476

http://sports.yahoo.com/news/nikki-hamblins-5-000-meter-000000095.html

[4] http://www.refettoriogastromotiva.org/english/

http://edition.cnn.com/2016/08/19/sport/feeding-the-poor-rio/

http://bigstory.ap.org/article/6a8e702c40224f6a8345d9f6fe4def54/renowned-chef-feeds-rios-homeless-excess-olympic-food

[5] TEDTalk San Diego, Grace Rodriguez, “Embrace Radical Hospitality,” Feb. 16, 2016

[6] https://achurchforstarvingartists.wordpress.com/2016/08/09/hospitality-is-inconvenient/