Sunday, September 16, 2018

Sermon, "Building Community: The Bold and the Faithful," Acts 4:23-31

Sermon 9/16/18
Acts 4:23-31


Building Community: The Bold and the Faithful


You might be surprised to know that years ago I used to be a regular watcher of daytime soap operas. It was something of a family tradition. My grandmother watched them, and my mother watched them, and I watched them - the same ones that they had watched. We were a CBS family, so that meant The Young and the Restless, As the World Turns, Guiding Light, and of course, The Bold and the Beautiful. The Bold and the Beautiful centered around some families who were part of the glamorous fashion industry, and the plotlines suggested the being bold generally meant making sure that you could get your way, what you wanted, no matter the cost. I can still hear the theme song in my mind.
I will admit I had that soap on my mind when I chose our sermon title for this week: The Bold and the Faithful. As we continue our sermon series on Building Community, we’re following the early church, the first followers of Jesus as they figure out how to continue to share his life and message and call after Jesus is no longer physically with them. One of the recurring themes in the Acts of the Apostles is the theme of boldness. You’ll notice on your bulletin worksheet this week one of the action items is checking out exactly how many times you can find the words bold or boldly or boldness in Acts. Hint: It occurs more times in Acts than in any other book of the Bible by more than double. So what exactly does it mean to be bold according to Acts? As you might guess, it doesn’t mean working to get your way, what you want, no matter the cost. The book of Acts talks about boldness as a quality of faithfulness. What does it mean to be bold in faith?
The dictionary defines boldness as “showing an ability to take risks; confident and courageous.” The word in the Bible certainly carries some of that meaning - risk-taking, courageousness. It also has the sense of freedom - a freedom of speech and action. Those who are bold speak and act with freedom and courage, despite possible risk or consequence.
Our scripture lesson from Acts today shows us the first chapter where the word bold appears. As chapter 4 begins, Peter and John had been preaching and healing in the temple. While they’re speaking, the priests, the captain of the temple, and some Sadducees come to argue with them. The Sadducees, a sect in Judaism that didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead, were annoyed particularly that Peter and John kept preaching about Jesus’s resurrection. So, they have Peter and John arrested, and call them forward to answer questions in front of the rulers, elders, scribes, and chief priests. These leaders ask Peter and John about the source of their power, and Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, speaks about Jesus to them. After Peter finishes talking, the narrator tell us that when the leaders “saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus.” They order Peter and John to stop speaking or teaching in the name of Jesus, but Peter and John refuse. The leaders are worried about punishing the disciples, because the crowd is pleased with the healing they’ve been doing. Stuck, they release them.
It’s then that we get to the beginning of our text for today. Peter and John report to the rest of the Jesus-followers. And in response, they all join together in prayer. We pray all kinds of prayers for all kinds of reasons, and that’s good. We’ve talked about before and I’ll say now again - we can and should pray to God about anything. Praying is conversation with God, and God wants us to share our whole hearts with God. But I’m particularly touched by the prayers of Peter and John and their friends. They pray first with knowledge about what has just happened to Jesus, just a couple of short months before this: When Jesus went up against the religious and political leaders Herod and Pilate, he was arrested and beaten and tried and executed. So Peter and John and the others know very clearly that the risks they are taking by engaging in the same kind of behavior are also high.
What they ask for from God in light of their situation is not safety though, not protection. No, they pray for boldness. They ask that they may speak and act with boldness, that they might share the good news of Jesus with boldness, so that people will experience God’s healing, signs and wonders, and come to know Jesus. Luke tells us that God answers their prayers. The last verse of our reading for today says, “When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and spoke the word of God with boldness.” That boldness carries them through all sorts of encounters that come their way as they do the work of sharing the message of Jesus.
I wonder - what is your prayer to God in light of how you want to share the good news of Jesus, the good news of God’s grace? What is your hope for this community of faith, and how have you been praying for God to equip you and prepare you in response? When you look at our congregation, when you look at Gouverneur, when you see the people around you and think about how you wish they experienced Jesus at work in their lives, what is your prayer to God, what hopes are you sharing with God on behalf of the hope you have? Are you praying - will you pray with me for God to give us the resources we need to share the message of Jesus that we treasure? Will we ask God to make us bold disciples, speaking and acting and loving and serving freely in the name of Jesus?
Today (at First UMC) we’re celebrating our RipIt Ministry. I still remember the first time I attended a RipIt class. It was hard, and the class ended with Amber (Ormasen) putting her feet on a chair and hands on the floor to do push-ups, which the thought of attempting made me literally laugh out loud, but I found that like those Planet Fitness commercials, it was a “judgment free zone” where people were more interested in building each other up and encouraging each other than in criticising or trying to one-up each other. RipIt started because of a vision Amber had for focusing on health and wellness, yes, but also a bold vision for sharing with the community how much we desired to have the church be a place they could call home, a place they could be welcome. I’m not sure how many people have come into this church building because of RipIt, but it is a lot. And I so appreciate the ways that RipIt folks continually step out boldly to meet challenges head on. Each month, RipIt folks donate their funds either to the church, or to someone or some project in the community that needs support. They host what has become the biggest fundraiser of the year to support the mission and ministries of our church. They’ve added components to connect with teens and with older RipIteers. Devotional pilates encourages people to connect health and faith in deeper ways. Folks in RipIt - long time attendees and newbies alike - are always inviting, inviting, and inviting people to be a part of the program, a part of events in the community, a part of things here at church, a part of each others’ lives.
I think about Judy (Bush) having a vision for a Blessing Box, a way for folks to get some immediate assistance if they find themselves hungry and with no place to turn. She shared her idea with folks here (at North Gouverneur) and Rick Tyler stepped right up to get the box built and installed and now it is already being put to use. I think about the Friday Lunch program, starting as a response to the ice storm. It’s been on my mind this week as I think about those impacted by natural disasters around our globe right now. Who could have envisioned where we’d be twenty years later, how the lunch program would impact our community in such positive ways? I think about the folks who are involved in the Kairos Prison ministry. For many people, the idea of going and visiting folks is a source of some anxiety or fear. But the scriptures call us to care with compassion for those who are in prison, and we can imagine how in need of a message of grace those who are in prison might be. It takes bold faithfulness to sign up, but I know the participants are ready to be bold because they so desire to share the love of Jesus with those they will meet in prison. What is your hope, your vision, your dream for sharing the message of Christ with our community?
Our bold acts of faith don’t all have to look the same. I don’t think of myself as much of a risk-taker. I’m not a thrill-seeker. There’s no way you could talk me into getting onto a roller coaster, for example. But I’ve been surprised sometimes to hear when others have interpreted some of my actions as risk-taking. I’ve driven cross-country a few times by myself, and loved my time traveling, and then been surprised to have people tell me that they thought it was risky, that they could never do that. Or I think about my mom. She probably doesn’t think of herself as particularly bold. And she’s definitely got a gentle, kind spirit. But if someone hurts someone my mom loves, or if my mom sees someone who is an underdog, who is getting mistreated - watch out. My mom will speak and act boldly on someone else’s behalf, no problem. Boldness, thankfully for us introverts, doesn’t have to mean extrovertedness. Being bold for God doesn’t mean you have to alter your personality in order to be faithful. If you’re shy or quiet and introspective, having a bold faith doesn’t mean you need to become the center of attention. And that’s because the source of our boldness isn’t us. Rather, bold faith comes when we open ourselves to God working through us. The source of boldness is the Holy Spirit. God’s breath filling us up. Knowing that God is with us always, that we have the very spirit of God dwelling within us, knowing that God will never leave us on our own - trusting in that frees us to be bold for God.
Peter and John and the others - they so wanted the world to know the Jesus they knew. They wanted so much for others’ to have their lives changed by knowing Jesus as they themselves had been changed. They would give anything for others to know Jesus like they did, to build a community of disciples of Jesus. What would you do? What will you pray? How much would it mean for you for the people in your life, the people in your home, the people in your community to experience the transforming, life-changing love of God we’ve experienced in Jesus?

May we who are gathered in this place pray for boldness in doing the work of God. May we feel this place shake with the power of the Holy Spirit! May our lives be transformed by the presence of God who helps us to speak, to act, to serve, and to love in bold ways that change lives, open hearts, and make disciples of Jesus. May we be the Bold and the Faithful. Amen.  

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Sermon, "Building Community: Things in Common," Acts 2:37-47

Sermon 9/9/18
Acts 2:37-47



Building Community: Things in Common

Today, we’re beginning  new sermon series called, “Building Community.” We’ll be focusing on some readings from the Book of Acts. The book is actually “the Acts of the Apostles,” and it is a collection of stories about how Jesus’ first disciples, his apostles - his sent-ones - began to build what eventually becomes the church. How do they go from a small group following Jesus around and listening to him teach to a group that has a vision of sharing his message with the whole world, and building communities of people who are committed to living and serving in the same way? The Book of Acts traces what is truly an incredible story, and each week this month, we’ll think about some aspect of the early church community, and how the church became the church.  
As we follow the birth of the church in Acts, we’ll be thinking about our own community of faith. What makes us who we are as a congregation? What are our strengths, and where are our growing edges of learning and change? How can we make sure we are building a grounded community that is ready to serve and love in the name of Jesus? Next month, we’ll be looking more in depth at some particular language we’ve been using that describes how we think we can be about the work of intentional discipleship here: meeting Jesus, following Jesus, serving Jesus. But before we get there, we’ll spend some time thinking about what kind of community we are, and what kind of community God calls us to be.
We get one model for building a community of faith right near the beginning of Acts. Our text today comes from Acts chapter 2. In fact, we are still on what we call the day of Pentecost when the passage begins. The disciples, who had been in a kind of waiting-mode after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, are suddenly filled with the promised Holy Spirit, which is giving them the boldness to speak up about Jesus, calling others to become his followers too. When the crowds, who are gathered in Jerusalem like the disciples for the harvest festival wonder at the strange behavior of these disciples, Peter speaks up and preaches about the work of Jesus in the world. We start at the conclusion of his sermon. He tells the crowds that the promises of God in Jesus Christ are for them, for their children, and for all people. And the people apparently like what they hear. Thousands, Luke - the author of Act - tells us, are baptized. And all these new Jesus followers devote themselves to the teachings of Jesus, and to building community with the other Jesus followers through praying together and sharing meals together.
Luke paints a beautiful picture. He writes, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
Wow! What a vision! Can you imagine being part of a community like this? I have to admit - I can hardly imagine it. And not only that, I find myself a bit skeptical. It seems impossible. All things in common? Selling our possessions and sharing the proceeds for the good of the group? And then just spending all our time praising God, sharing meals together, and looking out for the good of all people. Maybe when they were a brand new thing, a brand new church, full of such hope and idealism, something like this was possible, but not for us. And it’s not just me who’s skeptical. A lot of books and articles about healthy churches suggest it is easier to build the faith community you want if you start from scratch - if you start a new congregation altogether - than if you try to take your existing congregation and transform it into the community you’re feeling called to be. Well, we’ve been around since the 1800s. (N. Gouv?) So do we just throw in the towel? Is there hope for us in building a community of faith that, while perhaps not functioning exactly like this Acts 2 community, draws on the values that shaped the early church?
As I’ve studied this text, I’ve been drawn to the phrase “things in common.” Luke writes, “All who believed were together and had all things in common.” He’s speaking more literally about shared possessions and property, but I’ve been thinking - what is it that we have in common that makes us a community of faith? Common ground is an important part of building community, and we only have to look at the state of our nation to get a sense of how painful lack of common ground, or at least perceived lack of common ground with a each other can be for the whole. So, what is it that we have in common as a church? As this church? Or what things in common should we be cultivating?
Throughout the writings of Paul and demonstrated in Acts we see that community thrives with a common goal of building each other up. We’ve talked about this before - our call to build each other up. And we see here in Acts that the early church builds members up very tangibly - with the sharing of concrete resources. How do we build each other up? I think of the South African concept of Ubuntu, a word from the Zulu language. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ubuntu_philosophy) It means something like “I am because we are,” or “A person is a person through other persons.” We have in common first and foremost our basic human identity. We are children of God, part of the body of Christ. We exist not alone, but as a people. We don’t exist in a void. And even if we like alone time, we don’t exist well without others around us. Our nature is to be in relationship with God and others, and we draw meaning from our shared identity in God.
Grounded in that shared identity, we’re called to build each other up. As I was writing my sermon this week, I happened on one of those facebook videos that shows animals doing something cute or unexpected. This video was from a man who kept honeybees, and apparently, one of the bees had fallen into a bucket of honey. The bee was completely covered in honey, and there wasn’t much the man could do himself. But he did pull the bee from the honey, and set the bee on on the entrance to the hive. And then he started filming on his smartphone, because what happened next was that several bees quickly came over to the one soaked, unable to fly or do anything because of all the honey, and they began to clean him off thoroughly. It took about 30 minutes of work. But at the end of it, that bee, who otherwise would have died, was able to fly away. Now, some folks commenting on the video suggested that perhaps the other bees just didn’t want any honey to go to waste. But in a bee colony, everybody has to work together. A single bee can’t do much by itself. But together - bees are incredible! So it doesn’t seem out of character, so to speak, for bees to work together too when it comes to taking care of one of their hive members.
Building community means we build each other up, because wow, do we need it! We need building up. Sometimes it feels like we have fallen into a vat of honey and we can’t move and can’t breathe and there is no hope. And sometimes we see that that has happened to someone in our community. And we can ignore them - or we can get to work, helping them heal, helping them return to wholeness, helping until that person is ready to fly again. I know what the first followers of Jesus would choose. Can we choose that too? Part of our common life as disciples must be in consistently and persistently building each other up. I noticed this week on facebook an image shared by our own Amber Ormasen - all these artistic blocks posted at the middle school with messages from teachers(?) about why they teach. The blocks say things like, “I do this because I believe in all of you,” and “I do this because I love the feeling I get when I help others learn and grow,” and “I do this because everybody needs somebody.” It is a tangible, visible reminder to students in the midst of middle school, which can be such a hard time of life to feel good about yourself, that they are loved and supported and have all these adults who want to see them become the best people they can be. That’s one thing our schools are doing to build up our students. What are we doing to build community in the body of Christ?
The early church not only kept their stuff in common, but they shared their lives with each other too. They spent a lot of time together. They worshiped together, they prayed together, they hung out together, they ate together. When I think about our church camps, and think about why they are consistently places in the life of our church where our children and youth find it easiest to feel close to God, I think it isn’t just about finding God in nature, in the beauty of the outdoors. It’s because campers are modeling the community of the early church in ways that we don’t often get to in the “real world.” They spend all day, every day with each other. They eat together, and bunk in the same cabins, and worship together and study the bible together and swim and boat together and do crafts together and eat together around the table. It’s no wonder campers can become fast friends, enduring friends after only a few days. They’re experiencing a life in common with each other like Jesus’ first followers did.
Most of us don’t get to live at summer camp year round. And most of us can’t live together and hang out together and eat together and work together all the time. But I think we can make a commitment to nurturing our common life together as much as we can. This time we spend worshiping together is so important - not just because we need to worship the God who created all we know - but also because we need to do that together. Praising God together in the congregation draws us close to God in ways that are unique from our private time with God. Sacraments - baptism and communion - are things that only happen in community. We can only fully experience these most precious gifts from God when we’re with each other. Our spirits thrive when we commit to our mutual worship life. But it’s more than that. We can and should study the scriptures on our own, but we learn in other ways when we come together and explore and question together. We have potlucks and coffee fellowship time when we can not just because Methodists are born knowing how to make a good casserole, but because sharing food together is sharing our lives with each other. We nurture our compassion, our ability to forgive and share God’s grace, our capability for love when we share our lives in common with each other.
In the coming weeks, we will explore the boldness of the early church, the struggles they faced, the work they did to remove barriers from their community, and their heart for service. But before we move on to all of those things, let us seek the common ground. Together, we are God’s children, members of the body of Christ. Together we worship. Together we learn. Together, as much as we can, we live. We build each other up. We make a community. We nurture the things in common that matter most. Amen.


  

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Sermon, "Racism and People of Faith: Log Removal," Matthew 7:1-5

Sermon 9/2/18
Matthew 7:1-5


Racism and People of Faith: Log Removal


Our scripture lesson today is a short but powerful excerpt from Jesus’ longest chunk of teaching. It comes from the gospel of Matthew in what we call the Sermon the Mount. For three chapters in Matthew, Jesus teaches the disciples and the crowds who have gathered to hear him, teaching from a spot on the side of a mountain. He covers a huge range of topics, starting with the Beatitudes, the Blessings, and covering prayer, money, worry, anger, adultery, relationships with our enemies, and more. In the midst of this teaching, we find our text for today. Jesus says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. The measure we use to judge others is the measure that is used to judge us. Why,” Jesus asks, “can you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but not the log in your own eye? Why do you tell them you’re going to help them fix themselves, when you yourself have a log in your own eye? You hypocrite!” he says. “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” The image is vivid and compelling. Does it persuade us?
In my experience, we - and I most certainly am including myself here - we have a remarkable knack for reading the scriptures and seeing so clearly exactly how they apply - to someone else’s life. We hear Jesus speaking and know exactly what our neighbor should do, what the person we’re fighting with should do, what our foes and enemies should do, if only they would listen to Jesus. And then I read this passage, I know Jesus is onto us. Perhaps, even now, we may be saying to ourselves that we know a lot of people who are trying to take a speck out of our eyes, all the while not seeing that they have a log in their own eye. But I want us to try to stop in our tracks right there. Jesus has invited us in this text to self-reflection, self-examination. He has invited us to see that we are not up to the task of judging others, that it is not our task to manage, and that rather if we think that we sincerely, lovingly want to help someone else see things more clearly, we have to first check our own vision, check our own behavior, check our own hearts. Jesus is telling us, telling me, telling the listener, telling the reader, that we may have some logs in our own eyes to remove. The work of honest self-examination is hard. It can be painful to search our spirits and see where we don’t measure up to what we believe is God’s hope and vision for our lives. It can feel overwhelming, like we will never be enough. Or like change it too hard. Or like we’re really more comfortable with our ways than God’s ways when it comes right down to it. And so sometimes, we don’t try very hard to look deeply at what’s in our own souls. We walk around with logs in our eyes.
Today we’re wrapping up our sermon series on Racism and People of Faith. I can tell you this has been a hard series to preach, and I know that it has been sometimes challenging to hear. Today is a little harder still! We know that racism is wrong, and most people rightly reject racist actions and attitudes. But sometimes, our knowledge that racism is wrong and unacceptable prevents us from examining our own attitudes about race. Sometimes, we don’t want to dig very deeply into our feelings related to prejudice or stereotypes. Deep self-examination is hard work, and it certainly isn’t something we can “fix” or “complete” over the course of one sermon or a three-week series. But I hope that today we can give ourselves some courage to look in the mirror and see if there are some logs that need removing.
When I was in college, I was blessed to be part of a small team of young women who got to plan a national gathering of college and university women who wanted to learn more about the United Methodist Women organization. Over the course of a couple of years, we met periodically to plan an event we called, “Young Woman, Rise Up.” Once, during a weekend of meetings, the adult leaders called us back together as a group - we had been meeting in some small teams - to talk to us about something they had observed. They’d observed that the young white women in the room were consistently interrupting the adult women of color in the room. They encouraged us to be more mindful of our interactions, of our ways of speaking, of our habit of speaking over people. They asked us to reflect on patterns, and to consider whether or not and why we were interrupting. And they shared with us that racism - overt or subtle - had no place in our gatherings.
I was so angry. Why? Because I was not a racist, and these people were telling me that I was a racist, and making something out of nothing. I was self-aware enough to be sure that’d I’d interrupted some of the adult leaders - I had lots of brilliant ideas to share, after all. And yes, some of those leaders were black women. But I wasn’t interrupting because they were black. It just happened that way. My intention wasn’t to imply that I didn’t care about what they were saying. I was just excited to share my ideas. I was not a racist. And I resented, strongly, being chastised like a child in this way. When we went back into our small groups, I looked with suspicion, I will admit, at the black woman who was the leader in our group. Was it her? Did she complain about being interrupted? Was she thinking of me when she raised the concern?
Somewhere, though, in the midst of my seething, I tried to pull myself together and listen to my own impulses. I found that I did often want to step in and talk over some of the adult leaders, and it seemed to be women of color more often than not when I felt compelled to interrupt. Why did I do this? What made me, despite my desire, of course, not to act in racist ways, be more likely interrupt a speaker who was black than a speaker who was white? I wasn’t able to answer my own question just then. But I think asking the question was the first time in my life I began to do some true self-reflection when it came to racism. It was the first time I had looked in the mirror to see if there were any logs present. One of the hardest things we will do if we are committed to the work of eliminating racism is self-examination. It is so hard not to be defensive. I believe our intentions our good - we don’t want to judge others based on the color of their skin. But sometimes our good intentions actually stop us from getting to the destination we seek.
My mother had a turn of phrase that she picked up from my grandmother that has stuck with me. When I was little, I would sometimes say, “I didn’t mean to” after I did something wrong, or made a mistake, or did something that resulted in harm to someone or something. And Mom - or Grandma - would respond, “Well, mean not to.” When it comes to racism and prejudice and stereotypes, I think we “don’t mean to” engage in attitudes or actions that are hurtful. But I wonder if we can learn to “mean not to,” to actively check ourselves for logs that need removing.
As I told you during the first week of our sermon series, all the clergy and interested laity in our annual conference are currently attending small group meetings to address the themes of the Imagine No Racism initiative. At our most recent gathering, we watched a Ted-Talk video (http://jerrykang.net/2013/12/11/tedx-immaculate-perception/) about implicit bias. Implicit bias is the unconscious way our brains group things together in our heads, so that we can think and process and react quickly. Implicit bias is usually hidden to us - we’re not aware, moment to moment, of the associations our brains make. It is automatic. The speaker showed us implicit bias at work by doing a simple test of something called the Stroop Effect, which demonstrates how our reaction times can be slowed when our brains are confronted with information that doesn’t belong together in our minds. You see first a column of block letters of all different colors, spelling out different colors. So you see some red block letters that spell RED, or the word BLUE made up of blue letters. Our brains can process that very quickly. It makes sense to us. But it doesn’t take much to confuse our minds. The next column also shows colors spelled out, but now the word and color don’t match. So you might see the word RED but the letters are colored white. Or the word BLUE is spelled out, but filled in with green coloring. If you ask people to say aloud what color these words are, not what the word spells, most people hesitate. We can do it, we can see the letters that spell RED but are colored white and eventually say WHITE, but we can’t do it as quickly as we can when the colors and words match. Our brain has associated the color and the word and we just can’t undo that association as quickly as we can do it when they’re paired together. This is implicit bias at work. We need it for our brains to function as quickly as they do.
The trouble comes when our brains slap together value-laden messages for us without our conscious input. In Implicit Bias tests developed by social psychologists at Harvard, results of thousands of participants over time show that many people who have no explicit bias - that is, they express that they do not have feelings of racial bias - still have implicit bias. When shown images of black faces and white faces, for example, test participants more quickly and more consistently are able to match white faces and positive words like good and beautiful. Conversely, participants are speedier at matching black faces and negative words like bad, ugly, or weapon. These aren’t explicit feelings. They don’t represent what we think we believe. But they represent how our brain has learned to group things together. Our brain does that because of messages we receive from culture, from news, from experiences, from stereotypes - all of these things that gel together in our brains, but are hidden from our conscious thoughts. But, our hidden-even-to-ourselves biases can sometimes make a difference in how we behave, even when we don’t realize why we’re behaving that way. It can make us more likely to feel afraid when we meet someone on the street whose skin color is different than ours. It can make us more likely to give a second chance to someone whose skin color our mind has paired with the idea of “good.” It can make us more likely or less likely to see someone as professional and competent at our work, without even realizing why. It can make us more likely to interrupt people if our brain has sent us the message that their words are less important than our own.  
What can we do then? Can we have an impact on our implicit biases? The answer is good news: yes we can. It turns out that the more we come into contact with people that “don’t fit” the associations that our brains tell us go together, the less power those associations have for us over time. Our implicit biases change when we are exposed to stereotype-busting images and experiences. And we don’t have to be passive in hoping we encounter things that fly in the face of the subtle messages we get elsewhere. We can mean to expose ourselves to other perspectives. We can be intentional. We can pay attention and be purposeful about not discounting voices and experiences and lessons that will help us expand our way of thinking. We can be intentional about seeking out voices and perspectives that are different than our own, that go against what our brain is telling us to group together. Some simple things have a big impact: One of my niece’s favorite things is Doc McStuffins. Doc McStuffins is a Disney show about a young African-American girl who is the Doctor to all her toys and toy friends, just like her mom is a doctor. If Siggy could be Doc McStuffins, her life would be complete. She’s got a strong association in her 4-year old mind that young black girls are smart and competent and she wants to be just like them. My personal commitment this year has been related to the books I read. I try to read a certain number of books every year, and I’ve noticed that if I am not intentional, most of the books I was reading were by white male authors. White male authors aren’t bad! But there many other voices and perspectives that I’m hearing less frequently. I’m trying to correct that, intentionally looking to read more books authored by women and people of color. It’s not a solution, but it is a starting place, helping me to see others, and see myself more clearly.     
Jesus calls us to examine our own hearts. Let’s try to raise the veil on the hidden messages our brain receives all the time about race, and to acknowledge the explicit stereotypes and judgments we hold about people who are different from us, who are of a different race, or ethnicity, or nationality than we are. Jesus calls us, too, to be gentle with each other as we do this hard work. We’re learning. Transformation rarely comes from banging each other over the head in judgment.

I shared with you the first week that Bishop Webb asked those of us participating in Imagine No Racism to consider signing a covenant. Today, you have a copy in your bulletin. It reads, “Before God and with my family in Christ, I vow, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to oppose and work to eliminate the influence of racism from systems, institutions, relationships, and my own life.” If you are ready, I ask you to consider signing this covenant too. I’m not going to ask you to turn them in, or to raise your hands if you plan on signing. It’s a covenant to encourage your own self-reflection today. But I hope you will seriously consider signing the covenant, or figuring out what might be holding you back. I hope you will read it more than just today. And I hope that together, we will do just as we vow: Work to eliminate the influence of racism from systems, institutions, relationships, and our own lives. With the help of God, may it be so. Amen.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Sermon, "Racism and People of Faith: Crumbs," Matthew 15:21-28

Sermon 8/26/18
Matthew 15:21-28

Racism and People of Faith: Crumbs


Today we’re continuing the hard work of thinking and talking about racism and our life of faith. It isn’t easy, but you’re already doing something meaningful to address racism: you’re here today. I’m not kidding - unless you weren’t here last week, and didn’t know what we’d be talking about today, you’ve already made a choice that’s important: you’re here again, while we engage in this conversation about racism. Last week was hard! Talking about racism can be hard. But you came back! That has meaning, and I’m thankful that however you’re feeling, you were willing to come and be here again.
I had a clear sense of where I wanted to start last week. And I have some clear ideas about what I want to say next Sunday. But for this Sunday, I’ve been struggling. I imagined that I might share with you some statistics or comments about racism today. I was looking up facts to share with you - like how people of color are more likely to receive longer jail sentences than white people for the same crimes, or how people who have “black-sounding” names are less likely to get called for a job interview than applicants with “white-sounding” names, or how people of color regularly get charged higher interest rates on loans than white people of similar financial means. (See, I snuck some things in there anyway.) But, facts, as clear cut as they sometimes might seem, do not usually change hearts. Our experiences change hearts. Stories draw us in and change our hearts. And encounters with Jesus change hearts. As usual, if we stay with the scripture, we’ll find our place and our call to action and transformation.  
Our gospel lesson for today is a challenging one. We read that Jesus is traveling to Tyre and Sidon. We’re not given any reason for his journey, and it is out of the way from where he was - Gennesaret - and where he goes - back to the border of the Sea of Galilee. Tyre and Sidon were mostly populated by Gentiles - that is non-Jewish folks - and more specifically it was a region populated by people the Bible refers to as Canaanites. Back in Genesis, when God first tells Abraham that he will be a great nation, and that God has a new home for what will become the Israelite people, the land God is talking about is already full of people: people called the Canaanites. The meaning of the name Canaan is a little unclear, but some suggest “to be low, humble, or subjugated” as a possible meaning. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canaan) When the Israelites eventually occupy the Promised Land, the Canaanites, who had already been living there, are defeated by Joshua and his army, and pushed out. They are never wiped out entirely though, and by Jesus’ time, Canaanites are a large and diverse religious ethnic group that live in close proximity to the Jewish people. Today, descendants of the Canaanites make up a large part of the population of Lebanon, neighbor of Israel.  Race isn’t present in the Bible in the same way we would speak about it today. The categories of race that are common to us today are fairly recent ways of thinking about populations of people. But ethnic division was certainly present in the scriptures, along with hatred and animosity based on ethnic differences. Canaanites and Jews had different religions, different practices, different traditions.
So, Jesus travels to a predominantly Canaanite region, far outside of his usual path of travel, for some unknown reason. A Canaanite woman immediately approaches him, saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” We don’t know how she knew to seek healing through Jesus - she must have heard something about him, his reputation. Jesus ignores her. Ouch. The text says, “He did not answer her at all.” But the disciples aren’t satisfied with that - they want Jesus to actively discourage her, sending her away, to stop her shouting. Now, at least, Jesus responds to her. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Has Jesus ever before turned anyone down for healing? Still, the woman persists. She kneels before Jesus and pleads, “Lord, help me.” Jesus answers her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Some biblical scholars try to soften the blow, pointing out that the word here for “dogs” is diminutive: “little dogs.” But insinuating that someone is a dog was as insulting then as it is now. Jesus says his work, his mission is for Israelites. And still, still, this Canaanite woman who needs healing for her daughter is not deterred. She doesn’t disagree with Jesus. She just stretches what he’s said, turning his words back. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” “Woman, great is your faith!” Jesus responds. And her daughter is healed immediately, and Jesus, apparently accomplishing what he intended in the region, heads back to the Sea of Galilee.
So what is this text all about? It’s hard to read about Jesus in this exchange. It doesn’t mesh well with our picture of his kindness and compassion, his love, his constant work to draw marginalized people to the center. There are two primary schools of thought about this passage. Some scholars think that we get to witness Jesus learning. We get to see his idea of his mission expanding. The Canaanite woman teaches Jesus about the broadness of God’s mission. I’ve sometimes been drawn to this interpretation, even though it is uncomfortable, because I’m hesitant when we try to explain away uncomfortable parts of the scripture, and I think that we have to be careful not to let our interpretation of the text be motivated by our desire to find a way to get Jesus off the hook for the way he interacts with this woman.  
But there’s too much “set up” for me to rest with that interpretation either. This passage takes place in Matthew’s gospel right after Jesus spends time talking about how it is what comes from inside of us that makes us clean or unclean, what comes from our hearts that defiles, and not what comes from the outside in, external things. It seems strange, then, that he immediately goes from that conversation to a Canaanite region to insist that the woman’s exterior wrappings make her ineligible for God’s healing. Also, in both Matthew and Mark, the other gospel where this story appears, Jesus has already healed people who are not Jewish by the time we get to this story. He doesn’t hesitate in those other accounts or talk about “the lost sheep of Israel.” And again, he goes way out of his way to get to Tyre and Sidon for no reason that we know of other than this very interaction. The whole thing reads like a lesson, a demonstration that is set up for our benefit. Jesus is letting us see the breadth of God’s mission in action. The text may never settle smoothly for me or for you, but hopefully, we can focus on what it is Jesus might want us to learn.
Here’s what I come away with: First, Jesus is intentional about crossing some boundaries, going out of his way to put himself in a place where he can build a connection with someone from a different culture than his own. He doesn’t say that he wants to be in relationship with all kinds of people, and then sit and wait for these relationships to fall into his lap. He is intentional, and enters into spaces and places where he will be the one who is the stranger, where he will be the one who doesn’t fit in, where he will have made the effort to break down barriers. Second, Jesus is open to what he hears from this woman, and changes his actions based on what she says. Jesus, or at least Matthew, apparently wants us to see this demonstration of Jesus having a change of heart, and being impacted by the witness of this Canaanite woman. And third, this brave, bold woman refuses to let go of her place at the table, even if there are only crumbs left to be offered to her. She insists there is room for her in God’s plan, and she’s right. I love the way that she advocates so fiercely on behalf of her family.
I think that we can take these lessons from this across-ethnic-lines conversation and draw on them in our ongoing quest to confront racism. If there was one “learning” action I could get you to take away from this sermon series, it would be to convincing you to read Anxious to Talk about It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully about Racism by Carolyn B. Helsel. I found this short book to be extremely helpful, and a great starting place particularly if you’ve found thinking about and talking about racism to be challenging. In her book, Helsel talks about being responsible vs. response-able for racism. She says, “Often, persons sharing their frustrations about racism need you to simply hear them, not to take personal responsibility. You can be response-able, having the ability to respond with compassion and care … Alternatively, responding by trying to explain, rationalize, defend, or otherwise dismiss their experience limits your response-ability, and you are less likely to build a meaningful relationship with them.” (25) She continues, “Building relationships with people of color involves being able to respond to anger without becoming overwhelmed or afraid or defensive … Building relationships with people who have been discriminated against means believing that their experiences of discrimination are real, and that their feelings are what we would feel if we were in the same situation on a daily basis. … We are called to respond by being witnesses, accompanying our brothers and sisters, [our siblings] and supporting them in whatever ways we can.” (28, emphasis mine.)
What do we do to bear witness to racism in the world? I think Helsel’s suggestions sound remarkably like what Jesus does in our gospel text. She says that the spiritual practice of bearing witness involves two key components. First, she says, to bear witness, you have to be aware of the experiences of others, and to be aware of the experience of others, you have to have close enough relationships to witness the things others experience. If you are white, you cannot bear witness to racism unless you have real relationships with people of color. We have to intentionally cultivate relationships with people who have different experiences than we do, something we see Jesus do in the gospels all the time, including today’s text. Second, she says, to bear witness, you have to “bear” something. You have to bear someone’s experiences alongside them. That doesn’t mean, she writes, that “you know exactly what they felt like when things happen, but it means in that moment you are recognizing the pain these experiences caused them, and you are not dismissing their experiences. To bear witness means to sincerely bear what they are telling you, not to suggest how their experiences could be reinterpreted … You are honoring their sharing of these experiences with you.” (114)
We must cross boundaries on purpose, with intention. We are called to listen to and believe the experiences of racism that people are vulnerable enough to share with us. And we must be willing to learn and change based on what we hear, bearing witness. I am thankful for the witness of people who, experiencing the harmful pain of racism, boldly speak up to claim a place at the table, when we’re tempted to insist there is no room. In response, I hope those of us who are white listen, connect, open our hearts to transformation, and get ready to offer more than crumbs. Our God of abundance always has more than crumbs for us. May we offer a feast of love to others in God’s name. Amen.