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.

Love and Peace or Else

A  Sermon for Sunday, May 1, 2016, The Sixth Sunday of Easter, John 13:34-35; 14:25-27; 16:33

       

Cerezo Barredo's Weekly Gospel Illustration, John: 25-27
Cerezo Barredo’s Weekly Gospel Illustration, John: 25-27

        The peace of Christ—it’s a familiar phrase that’s been heard and expressed by Christians throughout history.

             We know those four words well. We have said them frequently in the context of worship for many, many years:

                     “The peace of Christ be with you… and also with you.”

                      “Go in the peace of Christ.”

               But do we fully understand and appreciate the meaning of the peace of Christ?

              Do we know that it’s more than just a nice Hallmark card greeting that we say as an act of rote memorization every Sunday?

             Do we recognize the significance those four words have in our lives as people of faith

             Do we comprehend that the peace of Christ—which Jesus imparts to the disciples in the Gospel of John—is a holy, powerful, merciful and subversive gift from God for all humankind?

              In 2008, I asked several colleagues and friends to contribute essays on my Internet blog on what the peace of Christ meant in their life. My hope is that by revisiting their words and the wisdom of some notable heroes of the faith as well as the scripture, we all might gain deeper insight into the peace that God gives.

               In the first post on the blog series about the peace of Christ, David LaMotte, singer-songwriter and social justice activist, explains that God’s peace is routinely confused with placidity. It’s often misperceived as being chill and serene with no violence and conflict present—a state of numbing out where all you hear is the voice of Tommy Chung saying, “peace out man.” And thus many consider talk of God’s peace or the practice of peace as weak, lazy and apathetic—a leisure activity for hippies and stoners.

                David says that couldn’t be further from the truth about the function and role of peace. In his essay he wrote:

Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the product and process of doing conflict well. Conflict is not the enemy. In fact, it is a useful tool in the search for what is real and true. None of us has all of the answers, or at least all of the right answers, so our ideas necessarily conflict. That’s not a bad thing. The question is how we manage that conflict, how we listen and struggle together to seek better ways and ideas…[1]

            It’s no secret that we live in a world brimming with conflict due to angst, fear and hate:

            The economy is precarious and people lose jobs without any warning. Poverty and hunger exists in both urban and suburban settings. Bullying runs amok in schools. Terrorism consumes our thoughts. Presidential politics grows nastier and nastier by the minute. The abuse of children and youth by people in power continually make headlines. There is senseless gun violence on our streets and neighborhoods.

              Families grieve over the death of loved ones to cancer or numerous other illnesses. Other parts of the globe are plagued by war, disease, natural disasters and famine. Racism, sexism, gender discrimination, homophobia, xenophobia and Islamaphobia flourish mightily. Substance abuse, suicide and divorce rates are skyrocketing. And many people struggle daily with health challenges; insecurity about their bodies and self worth; broken-relationships; how to be a good parent, spouse and co-worker.

               With epic storms like these swirling around, it’s a wonder that any of us can get out of bed and get ready for the day; much less embody the love and peace of Christ in our encounters with other human beings. How can we possibly find the energy to daily receive and share God’s peace in the midst of the chaos?

                 The disciples, who lived amid the storm of an oppressive regime of the Roman Empire and who were labeled as insurrectionists for their association with Jesus, certainly had difficulty comprehending their rabbi’s command to love one another, to know God’s peace and to not let their hearts be troubled or afraid.

               As soon as the pandemonium of Jesus betrayal, arrest and death arrives, the disciples flee and lock themselves in a dark room—praying that the Empire won’t find them and give them the same fate.

         76b86e1a1aff99776d8ac69e120423e2     And Jesus, knowing the tempest is near, says calmly and confidently to his disciples, hours earlier:

               “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

               “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

               “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

                Of all people, Jesus should be freaking out. He should be packing a bag and saying, “See ya, I’m gone!” Instead Jesus, the eye of the storm coming toward him, holds his ground and expresses his love for his friends by giving them God’s peace—His peace. And Jesus does this again post-resurrection, appearing before the disciples in that locked room to say “Peace be with you!”[2]  In other words, Jesus is saying, “I am here among you. I am the Peace that is eternal and will not go away!”

             What an amazing gift the peace of Christ is to the disciples and to us. It is a gift that keeps on giving and surprising, usually in the midst of turmoil and when we least expect.

            In another essay for the blog series on the peace of Christ, Jan Edmiston, a Presbyterian, shared a story about how the Session of the congregation she was serving had to fire the pre-school director. Although it was done for good reasons (which were confidential for the sake of the pre-school director and the church), the pre-school director vowed to ruin Jan’s reputation and began spreading ugly rumors among the pre-school staff and parents.

             Several pre-school staffers quit. Subs were called in who didn’t have lesson plans or know the kids names. Jan and the Session held a meeting for parents after their kids got dropped off at the pre-school and things were tense. She said:

Children were crying. Parents were yelling. One parent spit on me…. Needless to say, I had asked God for help. I stood in the parlor, ready to offer explanatory words, and once everyone quieted down, I opened my mouth and spoke. And the words that came out sounded…kind of amazing. (“That was pretty good,” I said to myself. “Where the heck did that come from?”) The words were calm and mature and strong and uplifting. One parent said, “I don’t know what’s going on, but it’s obvious that you did what you had to do. Thank you.” It was a God thing. Christ’s peace happens when there is no reason why a situation or a soul or a moment would be peaceful and yet it is. … It is a real peace, authentic serenity rooted in the total confidence that—in spite of all evidence that we should be freaking out—God is with us, and everyone is going to be alright.[3]

               Writing for the same blog series, a seminary classmate, Alan Bancroft opened up about a break-up with his girlfriend of a year while he was serving as an associate pastor in Franklin, TN. The woman he was dating was not sure she wanted to be a pastor’s wife and still figuring out her own life. So they talked and cried and decided to part ways. Alan was devastated and he wondered where God would be in his “cloud of sorrow.” The next day was cloudy and drizzly and after work, he decided to go on a 6-mile run. He said:

As I was coming up on the fourth mile, I began to recite the following mantra: Take it away, God. Give me peace. Take it away, God. Give me peace. Then I added another line: Take hers away, God. Give her peace. Take hers away, God. Give her peace. As I called out to God to take way the pain… the warm drizzly day slowly turned into a warm rainy day. As I continued to recite the mantra, the rain intensified and before long, I was completely soaked. At some point, the combination of reciting the mantra, the purifying, soaking rain and the rhythm of placing one foot in front of the other, brought me a feeling of peace that I truly believe was the work of God. For those two remaining miles, my heart felt peaceful and void of the turmoil that had resided there since the previous evening. …For me, in this time and place, the peace of Christ represents feeling briefly restored and sustained as I wander through a valley of hurt, confusion and frustration.[4]

               The peace that Christ gives is not the absence of pain, loss, conflict, storms or chaos. The peace of Christ is in the midst of the mess. The peace of Christ is in the midst to love us, comfort us, and heal us.  And sometimes we have to push the disorder aside to make more room for Christ’s peace to do what it does best.

             The retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who helped bring an end to the atrocities of apartheid in South Africa decades ago, says that if people take the time to be more loving and peaceful, amazing things can happen. In his book God Has A Dream, he writes:[5]

One way to begin cultivating this ability to love is to see yourself internally as a center of love, as an oases of peace, as a pool of serenity with ripples going out to all those around you. You can begin by biting off the sharp retort that was almost certainly going to hurt the other. … Rather than intensifying the anger or the hatred, you say in your heart, “God bless you.” …Let’s say you are caught in a traffic jam and instead of getting angry and saying, “What a bunch of morons,” you bless them. … If more of us could serve as centers of love and oases of peace, we might just be able to turn around a great deal of the conflict, the hatred, the jealousies and the violence.

Once we allow Christ’s peace to dwell within us, we are then able to share the peace with others—inviting them to first look inside their own hearts before reaching out to more hearts.

          And it is God’s merciful heart that pours the peace of Christ upon us from the cross, and loosens the peace upon the world from the grave to restore human relationships and the Divine relationship.

         And it is that Divinely heart-felt gift of peace that spurs us to seek justice for the oppressed and to care for all of our neighbors.

          Embodying the peace of Christ in word and deed is literally an act of witnessing God’s love in the other whom we meet. Seeing the immigrant not as “illegal” or the Muslim as a “terrorist” or the black man as a “thug” or the poor person as a “lazy bum” or the woman as a “sex object” or LGBQT as “abominations” —but as beloved children of God.

            Whenever we say “the peace of Christ be with you” or embody the peace through our actions, we are a conveying a message to others that says:  “No matter who you are, I recognize that you are one of God’s creations who is loved to death and beyond.”   

             There was once a Presbyterian minister in Pittsburgh, PA who delivered that message every day to millions of people for more than 30 years. His name was Fred Rogers:[6]

 

             There are many ways to say “I love you” and to tell someone they make everyday special just by being themselves, the person God created them to be.

            And so I say to everyone here:

            “The peace of Christ be with you”

Amen.

(Special Thanks to Alan Bancroft, Adam Copeland, Jan Edmiston, Carol Howard Merritt, Emily Miller, David LaMotte, and Derrick Weston for their incredible insights about the “peace of Christ.” God’s work through them was the inspiration for this sermon, even if they are not all directly quoted.)

[1] https://georgiapreach.wordpress.com/2008/08/29/david-lamotte-on-the-peace-of-christ/

[2] John 20:19-21

[3] https://georgiapreach.wordpress.com/2008/08/30/jan-edmiston-on-the-peace-of-christ/

[4] https://georgiapreach.wordpress.com/2008/09/05/alan-bancroft-on-the-peace-of-christ/

[5] God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope For Our Time by Desmond Tutu, 2004. Doubleday Publishing.

[6] The Officer of Make Believe: Being Black in ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ by Great Big Story (2:32)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ObHNWh3F5fQ

Instagram Reflections on Easter and Resurrection by Rob Bell

On Easter 2010, pastor and author Rob Bell released the provocative video Resurrection. Five years later, he released more reflections on the powerful meaning of the Resurrection with six handwritten messages-posts on Instagram:

Resurrection 1

Resurrection 2

 

Resurrection 3

Resurrection 4

Resurreciton 5

Resurrection 6

 

Bell’s words are a beautiful affirmation of how God’s victory over death in Jesus (non-violent, unconditional Divine love)–Resurrection–connects each of us to one another and frees us to embody Christ’s love, God’s goodness and grace, in all that we say and do. The Body of Christ. Children of God. Easter people. Resurrection reminds us who we are, to whom we belong and how we must live.

A Song for Dead Saturday: Hurt by Johnny Cash

“Hurt”
(originally written and performed by Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails)

I hurt myself today 
To see if I still feel 
I focus on the pain 
The only thing that’s real 
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting 
Try to kill it all away 
But I remember everything 

[Chorus:]
What have I become 
My sweetest friend 
Everyone I know goes away 
In the end 
And you could have it all 
My empire of dirt 
I will let you down 
I will make you hurt 

I wear this crown of thorns 
Upon my liar’s chair 
Full of broken thoughts 
I cannot repair 
Beneath the stains of time 
The feelings disappear 
You are someone else 
I am still right here 

[Chorus:]
What have I become 
My sweetest friend 
Everyone I know goes away 
In the end 
And you could have it all 
My empire of dirt 
I will let you down 
I will make you hurt 

If I could start again 
A million miles away 
I would keep myself 
I would find a way

Maundy Thursday Reflection: Moving Toward The Cross

Toward the end of tonight’s Maundy Thursday Worship Service, following a hand-washing ritual where worshippers washed each others hands and then partook in communion, I offered the following reflection as we moved toward the Cross:

Holy_Week_Pics_2015-3Jesus goes from the water basin where he washed the disciples’ feet in love to the hands of Roman soldiers who will spit on his face, strip away his clothes and beat him unmercifully. 

Jesus goes from the table of communion where the bread was shared and wine was poured to his execution where his body will be broken and his blood spilled.

Jesus goes from having his followers faithfully by his side to his disciples abandoning him as he faces his earthly demise.

Jesus goes from being a breathing human being to the Cross  where he will cry out to God: “Why have you forsaken me?!?!” and breathe his last.

Jesus goes from the light of life into the darkness of death.

 And we go from following Jesus in joy and faithfulness to 

abandoning him in his final hour. 

staring teary eyed at an empty cross where the full embodiment of God was murdered.

locking our doors, turning off the lights and pulling down the shades to grieve his loss.

hiding and shaking under the covers as the world comes apart.

lamenting how we rejected the Divine Love that created each and every one of us.

wondering if this is the end of life as we know it.

The triune God of our beginnings and endings, goes with Jesus and all of us through the entire journey 

from nothing to something

from sorrow to happiness

from hardship to redemption

from judgment to forgiveness

christ-in-gethsemane-pAnd God declares that this is an end but not THE END,

as we go from sin to grace

as we go from darkness to light

as we go from the cross into the future of a new world–a place unknown

A reality and kingdom that lies beyond ourselves, our fears and our walls.

Sabbatical Reading Reflections: Small Victories by Anne Lamott

I don’t know of a single author who writes with such raw honesty and vulnerability than Anne Lamott. Her razor sharp wit, fantastic sense of humor, incredible humility and self awareness of her own short-comings and ability to find God’s presence in the midst of life’s worse messes is both convicting and inspiring.  Her latest collection Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace is Ann at her utmost best. Each essay shines with truth about humanity and God. And the truth is not a perfect fluffy sentiment wrapped up in a pretty bow, but instead something more real and tangible that readers can grasp and see in their own lives.  A truth about our own failures and struggles and God’s grace that rises out of the midst of the ugliness to move us toward hope, love and life–even if it’s one difficult, begrudging step at a time.

The passage in the book which grabbed me by shoulders and forced me to look in a mirror pertained to Lamott’s thoughts on forgiveness. Upon realizing that she needed to forgive her father for writing disparaging remarks about her in a journal she discovered years after his death, Lamott writes:

People like to say, ‘Forgiveness begins with forgiving yourself.’ Well, that’s nice. Thank you for sharing. It does and it doesn’t. To think you know is proof that you don’t. But forgiveness sure doesn’t begin with reason. The rational insists that it is right, that we are right. It is about attacking and defending, which means there can be no peace. It loves the bedtime story of how we’ve been injured. The rational is claustrophobic, too. The choice is whether you want to stay stuck in being right but being free or admit you’re pretty lost and possibly available for a long, deep breath, which is as big as the universe, stirs the air around, maybe opens a window. …

You can forgo the arithmetic of adding up the damage again, lay your Bartleby ledger in your lap, and look up. Looking up is the way out. …Rumi wrote, ‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and righting, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.’ In that field, you’re under a wide swath of sky, so the story becomes almost illimitable, instead of two small nutty people with grievances and popguns. You have to leave your crate, though; this will not happen inside your comfort zone. But if you can make a break for the field, you might forget all the whys, the nuance, details, and colors about the story that you’re sure you’ve gotten right, that doom you.

So you sacrifice the need to be right, because you have been wronged, and you put down the abacus that has always helped you keep track of things. This jiggles you free from clutch and quiver. You can unfurl your fingers, hold out your palm, openhanded…Forgiveness is release from me; somehow, finally, I am returned to my better, dopier self, so much lighter when I don’t have to drag the toxic chatter, wrangle and pinch around with me anymore.

For the last month, I’ve been dragging my toxic carcass of anger, sadness, irritability, self-righteousness and depression everywhere because I have felt wronged by a good friend. I’ve been quite a pitiful and sorry sight and not at all my more goofy, humorous, loving self.

And it’s not that I don’t have a right to feel angry and sad or share those feelings honestly and calmly. Those emotions are certainly justifiable. However, as my wife pointed out this evening, I haven’t moved (or worked) through those feelings in four weeks. I’ve let them imprison me in a terrible funk of inner rage, resentment, and doubt–consuming every breathing moment and preventing me from enjoying life, particularly my family and friends.

My hope, especially when I have a conversation with that friend this month, is that I can make a faithful attempt to set aside rationality and an insistence on being right, put the ledger away, look up and hold out my palm open handed.

May the unfurling begin.

As God’s Chosen

A Sermon for Sunday January 18, Colossians 3:8-17, Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church (Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend)

Screen shot from the music video "Same As It Ever Was (Start Today) by Michael Franti, December 2014. From Google Images.
Screen shot from the music video “Same As It Ever Was (Start Today) by Michael Franti, December 2014. From Google Images.

Intro:  When news outlets reported in early December that a New York grand jury decided not to indict police in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, popular hip-hop-reggae artist Michael Franti immediately wrote the lyrics to Same As It Ever Was (Start Today). And in less than two weeks, he recorded the song and filmed a 4-minute music video. I would like to show you the video to open the sermon, but first I want to let you know that it contains some images of white police brutality toward blacks over the last five decades—including the death of Eric Garner—which may be difficult to watch.

Of course, the subject of race is never easy to talk about; it stirs up many emotions for people. People are at odds over the grand jury’s decision to not indict officers in both incidents. And not everyone agrees that Garner’s death or the incident between Officer Darren Wilson and Michael Brown in Ferguson was racially motivated. But matters of race can’t be ignored completely when it is clear that views regarding discrimination are almost evenly split between whites and blacks. In a predominantly white congregation such as ours, it’s important that we discern and pray about such issues of justice. Please know that neither the video nor the sermon is an attempt to disparage our brave men and women who have sworn to serve and protect our communities. It is merely an opportunity to “touch hearts, make people think and be moved to work for change” because we could all do better[1]:

Prayer:  Will you pray with me? ….May the words of my mouth and the meditation of each and every one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God the harbinger of justice, peace and love. Amen

……………………………….

Same as it ever was/There’s gotta be a better way/It’s the same as it ever was/But today is a different day/You and me could make that change/But it’s the same as it ever was/We better start today            

An activist for peace and social justice issues, Franti said in an interview[2]:

My intention for the song was to give voice to feelings that many of us are going through right now and to offer a starting place for friends, family, school classes, and workplaces to have dialog about the issues surrounding police killing of unarmed African American men, police/community relations, the justice system and where we all go in the future. The song is not an indictment against all police officers or departments. I have friends, fans and family members who are honest, fair, hardworking people who do a job everyday that’s much more difficult than mine, where quick decisions are made that affect people’s life, death and freedoms. But when police make mistakes, those individuals should be held accountable for their actions just like anyone else. This would be a first step in creating an opportunity for substantive change to occur.

Since the killing of Trayvon Martin in February 2012, there have been more than 25 incidents of unarmed black men and women (a few under the age of 18) being killed by whites—sometimes police and sometimes citizens. And there have been nearly 80 of these types of cases since the 1999 brutal New York police shooting of Amadou Diallo, a 23 year-old immigrant from Guinea. [3] Despite the humongous strides that have been made since the times of segregation in the first half of the 20th century, the tumultuous 1960s Civil Rights Movement, and the breaking of color barriers in all arenas of life (entertainment, sports, academia, business and politics) over the last five decades, black-and-white racial tensions and issues surrounding race are still a thing of the present. Not something in our past.

The notion that we are post-racial anytime we have the first African-American of something is a myth. We have never been post-racial. We are always presently immersed in matters of race. And as Christians, we are always answering God’s call to understand the values of another’s race because of the love that unites us as the body of Christ—the love that identifies God’s people as being chosen ones, holy and beloved by our Creator.

America’s a better place/than it was fifty years ago/There’s been a whole lotta change/But we gotta long way to go

selma_ver2 On Friday, Elizabeth and I saw the Oscar nominated Selma—an inspiring and powerful film about the summer of 1965 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a non-violent campaign in Selma, Alabama to secure equal voting rights for blacks in the face of cruel and violent opposition from authorities. King and the marchers sought to be recognized by whites as God saw them: chosen ones, holy and beloved.

It is one thing to read about the events from that time or listen to interviews, view old photographs or watch grainy documentaries. And it is quite another to see, on a large screen, the brutality that many citizens and civil rights activists faced before, during, and after the courageous movement in Selma. Our eyes were streaming throughout the movie. One of the most tear-jerking scenes is of the incident known as Bloody Sunday, in which state troopers attacked 600 unarmed blacks that were attempting to march to the Montgomery state capital to exercise their constitutional right to vote.

As I watched the troopers, armed with billy clubs and tear gas, chasing and beating the marchers unmercifully, I was reminded of the standoff in Ferguson between military-armed white police officers and mostly peaceful protestors, many of who were black.

While blood wasn’t shed in the wake of the grand jury’s decision in Ferguson, the conflict between the Ferguson police and the people of Ferguson was eerily similar to the tension in Selma. The “I Can’t Breathe” and “Black Lives Matter” protests held across the nation, including the campuses of Emory and Columbia Theological Seminary, in response to non-conviction in the Garner case also flashed in my head—affirming that we are not far removed from those 60s protests.

It’s true, as Franti sings, that America is a lot better than it was 50 years ago. The police brutality on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965 and the use of fire hoses and police dogs on black protestors by Birmingham Police in 1963 are non-existent. There are no more savage beatings, bombings or lynchings or burning crosses. Public places are no longer segregated with designated “white only” signs in restaurants, schools, parks, businesses and government buildings.

And blacks are no longer vehemently denied opportunities to make their lives and the world better; they have the right to vote and be elected to public office, to make a living and influence the progress of industry, technology, the arts, and athletics.

There’s been a lot of change, but there is certainly a long way to go:

*The 114th Congress, which began its work this month, is the most diverse in our country’s history and yet it is still more than 80 percent white.[4]

* The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households. And the black-and-white income gap is about 40 percent greater today than it was in 1967.[5]

* In 2004, professors at the University of Chicago and MIT, conducted an experiment in which they sent out 5,000 identical fictitious resumes in response to 1,300 help wanted ads. Some of the resumes had traditional white names like Brendan and others had traditional black names like Jamal.  Applications with white names were 50 percent more likely to get calls for interviews.[6]

I share these examples not to make whites feel guilty or insinuate that all whites are racists. I mention them simply to raise consciousness that we still live in a system where the color of one’s skin has a great (and often unjust) impact.

When we used to have a problem/we would call the police/But who we gonna call when the police make a problem/I’m not saying that they’re all bad/I’m not saying that I’m any better/All I’m just trying to say is that we could all do a lot better

When a recent CNN poll asked “How many police officers in the area where you live … are prejudiced against blacks?” 17% of whites said “most or some,” but more than twice as many non-whites — 42% — felt there is prejudice.

And when asked, “Does the U.S. criminal justice system treat whites and blacks equally?” 50% of whites said yes while nearly 80 percent of non-whites said no. [7] Other studies reveal that African-Americans are incarcerated more often than whites, even if both races commit the same crime.[8] It’s also been reported that while white Americans use more illegal drugs than black Americans, blacks are far more likely to go to prison for the drug offenses than whites who break the same laws.[9]

None of this is to say that most or even half of the authorities (police, lawyers, judges, politicians) in a white dominated society are prejudiced or bigots. There are many good people, white and black, serving on our streets and in our courtrooms, government buildings and jails. I met many upstanding police officers when I was a newspaper reporter in the late 90s in Birmingham, Alabama. I observed many white and black cops performing risky and courageous deeds to better the community. I met honorable lawyers and judges who strived to make fair and just decisions.

However, despite the good of the U.S. criminal justice system, there is much that is corrupt about it. There are many who have not ridden themselves, as the apostle Paul writes, of “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language” from their mouths. And that holds true for everyday citizens like you and me.

We lie to one another. Deceive one another. Judge one another. Despise one another. Resent one another. Fear one another. Hate one another. We cling so tightly to those old clothes of deceit, trickery, judgment and harm instead of clothing ourselves with the new self that Paul describes— A new self, “which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its Creator.” A fresh identity, which is being bound in the unconditional and redemptive love of Christ Jesus.

I say it in my own house/and I say it on the street/I say it on a record and I say it on the beat/I paint it on the wall so everybody sees/when we all see justice/then we’ll all see peace.

In my house growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, several family members uttered the n-word quite often. Distinctions were made between black people who were the n-word and those who weren’t. The distinction was based on a person’s criminal activity, education, or economic status: “He’s not like other blacks.” “She speaks very well for a black person.” “That’s interesting, his voice sounded white on the phone.” “Another (n-word) shot somebody.”

1973 James Bond in "Live and Let Die" with Roger Moore and Gloria Hendry. From Google Images
1973 James Bond in “Live and Let Die” with Roger Moore and Gloria Hendry. From Google Images

I remember in 1986, when I was 10 years old and visiting my grandparents in Florida, the 70s blockbuster movie Live and Let Die was airing on syndicated TV. Starring Roger Moore as British spy James Bond and Gloria Hendry as double agent Rosie Carver, the film marked the first time a black woman was ever sexually involved with the white 007. When the romantic scenes appeared, my grandfather and grandmother openly expressed their disgust over James Bond kissing that “n-word” woman.

Flash forward more than 20 years to 2008, a time in which I naively believed I had escaped the prejudices of my upbringing and entering the post-racial society of the 21st century. We had just come to the Duluth area, and our white real estate agent was driving us around various neighborhoods in Gwinnett County to look for a home. As we were coming out of a house that we sorta liked, we noticed a black family living next door. The real estate agent looked at us and said, “Well, you don’t want to live here anyway.”

About a year later at our current home in Lilburn, Elizabeth was outside chatting with a couple of neighbors, both white, when an African-American woman drove by in a fancy sports car. She was in the neighborhood to see a million-dollar home that was for sale—a house and piece of property much swankier than the rest of the neighborhood. One neighbor scoffed and said to the other: “Don’t worry. They can’t afford a house like that.”

Racism these days is subtle, institutionalized, and implicit. It is often disguised as white concerns about crime, property values, and schools. In public—at schools, restaurants, shopping malls and football stadiums—black and whites co-exist without any trouble. Things are much different than they were 50 years ago. But sometimes in private, whether in our individual thoughts and attitudes or in one-on-one chats with other whites, subtle and implicit (and sometimes explicit) prejudice survives. I confess that for all the preaching I’ve done on race relations and issues of justice.

For all the admiration I’ve expressed in regards to the achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King, and other civil rights activists, I too have held (and still grip) many subtle prejudices toward blacks.

I’ve anxiously clicked the lock button on my car when I’ve seen a black man in casual clothes walking down the street, something I’ve never done when a white person has walked by my car. I’ve assumed that all black people in the projects are drug dealers, thieves and gang members, forgetting those decades of intense segregation, racism and white-flight to the suburbs that helped create slums and projects where its residents hardly have the means to escape. I’ve thought of a black person who acts like a jerk on TV as an n-word, but consider the white person demonstrating the same behavior to just be a jerk.

I’ve seen black people unknown to me sitting in the church’s coffee area and assumed they were poor and in need of financial assistance when actually they were professionals waiting for a meeting. Essentially, I’ve forgotten at times that I am one of many members of the Body of Christ who has the privilege of being part of the white majority. And for all of the talking that a lot of us do about equality and God’s love for all, it’s time to admit that many of us here and many in our society still have some prejudices towards blacks.

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from Google Images

It’s time to start confessing our prejudice, and it’s time to start talking about prejudice and racism with other whites, and most certainly people of color. It’s time to do so because, as Dr. King reminds us, we “can’t be silent about things that matter.” It’s time we start praying to God to forgive us our sins and show us a new way. It’s time today to shed those old clothes of sin and wear new clothes given to us by Christ.

They can try to divide us/They can try to increase/all the pain and suffering/But this is everybody’s street/There is just one love y’all/and there is just one beat/And when we all see justice/then we’ll all see peace.

The powers and principalities of this world can try to distract us from adhering to God’s call of us. Those loud and extreme voices in the media, the ones that come at us from the Left and the Right, can try to divide us. Try to tell us we are foolish for showing God’s love and working for God’s peace and justice. But we mustn’t let them. None of us must let them.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,” says the apostle Paul, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.”

I don’t have a 7-step plan for what white folks can do to be more loving and just toward people of color in our society. There’s no magic formula or ideal blue print.  As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, all that any of us in this world have is our hearts, enveloped by the clothes of Christ’s love. We must simply follow the beat of our hearts, practicing what Paul teaches and trying to change the world for the better.

For me, the best example of what it means to abide in love and peace might be the story of 12-year-old Devonte Hart and police Sgt. Bret Barnum of Portland, Oregon.[10] A few days after Thanksgiving, Devonte and his mother went to a Ferguson rally in their hometown of Portland, Oregon “with the intentionality of spreading love and kindness, and to remind (ALL) people that they matter in this world.” Standing alone in front of a police barricade, Hart held up a “Free Hugs” sign. As the rally proceeded, the young boy began to cry and that’s when Sgt. Barnum noticed him. The interaction was awkward at first, with the officer trying to make general chitchat with a distraught kid.

Photograph by John Nguyen, November 25, 2014
Photograph by John Nguyen, November 25, 2014

But then Sgt. Barnum asked Devonte why he was crying and the boy told him his concerns about the level of police brutality towards young black kids. The officer replied, “Yes. I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry…can I have one of those free hugs?”

Barnum and Devonte’s example doesn’t solve all of our racial problems instantly.   But it’s a good start if we are to clothe ourselves in love and let peace dwell within us.     It’s the beginning of a new life for all people whom God has made, all whom are chosen, holy and beloved. Amen.

Hymn #543  “God Be The Love to Search and Keep Me” (Glory to God Hymnal)

A child in the congregation handed our head of staff this message after the worship service to give to me.
A child in the congregation handed our head of staff this message after the worship service to give to me.

Benediction (Benedictine Prayer, 1986):

May God bless you with discomfort At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger At injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, starvation and war so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them, and to turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in the world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

Amen.

…………………………………….

[1] http://www.rollingstone.com/music/premieres/hear-michael-frantis-powerful-song-for-peace-between-police-and-communities-20141217 [2] http://www.relix.com/news/detail/same_as_it_ever_was_start_today_michael_franti_on_grief_anger_and_utter_bewilderment_following_eric_garner_chokehold_case [3] http://gawker.com/unarmed-people-of-color-killed-by-police-1999-2014-1666672349 [4] http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/new-congress-mostly-male-white [5] But I Don’t See You As Asian: Curating Conversations About Race by Bruce Reyes-Chow, 2013 [6] http://www.cnn.com/2014/11/26/us/ferguson-racism-or-racial-bias/index.html [7] http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/02/us/foreman-police-race/index.html [8] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/09/06/incarceration-gap-between-whites-and-blacks-widens/ and http://www.naacp.org/pages/criminal-justice-fact-sheet [9] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/17/racial-disparity-drug-use_n_3941346.html [10] http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/ferguson-hug-between-protester-and-police-office-goes-viral and http://www.cbsnews.com/news/devonte-hart-hug-at-ferguson-rally-goes-viral/ and http://papertrail.co.nz/meet-devonte-little-boy-big-heart/