Though the big event is still several months away, my hands know the softness, the feel of his healthy pudginess. My arms and back anticipate his weight. The soft, smooth feel of his hair long ago embedded themselves on my soul. Even the texture of the unpleasant, though common, are familiar. The feels of my unborn grandson are already writing themselves to my hard drive.
My nose tingles when I think of the smells. Both virulent and healing aromas weave themselves together in memory and hope. The smell of both rancid and aromatic are equally regarded when they tangle with my already boundless love for the boy to come. Hasn’t he always been? (Jeremiah 1:5)
Impulsive, divine tears and silly grins compete for top bill at the sounds of giggles and gurgles months before the first sound wave reaches my ear. Angst and worry have their moments as well when I well up at shrill sounds of illnesses that will have to be endured by the small one. He won’t understand and my heart will break. My limbs tense into rescue mode as I think about the communication sounds that will burst forth from one so new to earth.
The half-smiles, the pout I’ll love so much, that expression my son used to make that I’d forgotten, and even my grandfather’s nose have already inscribed themselves upon my heart. All of God’s hopes and dreams have conspired to create this winsome sight.
I can taste the boundless joy. My own, that of the remarkable woman who carries him in her womb, my very tall baby boy, and the confident and optimistic God who still believes in humanity.
I’ve seen images this week of my old teenage stomping grounds under siege. I’ve seen the area where I began raising my own children torn apart when a young manwas shot dead by a police officer.
I graduated from McCluer High School in the Ferguson-Florissant School District in Missouri. My best friend in high school, who was later the best man at my wedding, lived in Ferguson.
After college and a brief stint in another city, Maggie and I began to raise our family in St. Louis. We bought a house that is only 4-1/2 miles from the QuikTrip that was burned Sunday night.
My Dad passed that very convenience store twice last Sunday as he gave someone a ride to church and back home.
My dad lives 2-1/2 miles from where some of the looting took place. When our kids were small, my folks, my sister and brother and their families, and Maggie and I with our own kids would gather at a restaurant in that shopping plaza.
When I talked to my Dad on the phone this week, the man who is rarely rattled, seemed unnerved by the events in his own backyard. He told me stories of my nephew Jacob and his friends (all young men of color) being harassed by police.
And, so, this is personal.
My emotions are invested in this national story because people I love are a part of it.I have heard on-the-ground reports from my former church youth group leader, a former employee, and my other nephew Bryan.
But even if this weren’t personal, as a Christian I should be appalled: an unarmed 18-year-old boy was shot dead on the street.
Can you imagine? Can you imagine the grief of that mother and father? Can you? I’ve tried but somehow I can’t quite put myself in their place. Maybe that’s because I’m white. Maybe that’s because the mental picture is too horrifying and my psyche is protecting me.
When I was in my teen years, my friends and I did some stupid things in that area of St. Louis. Once, for example, I was stopped by the cops for a, um, questionable driving maneuver. My biggest fear was getting a ticket and having to tell my parents. I got off with a stern warning and I didn’t tell my parents.
It never even occurred to me that my life might be at risk. It never occurred to me that I should put my hands on the outside of the car door as actor Levar Burton does to assure he’s not shot by a nervous police officer because of the color of his skin.
It is within this context that Michael Brown was shot. I don’t know the circumstances of the shooting anymore than any one of you does. What I do know is that we have a race problem in this country and we refuse to talk about it in a productive way.
Those of us who have light skin, may not be actively racist but we all have racist imperfections having been raised within our culture. We may not be actively or verbally racist but we still benefit from the color of our skin because of systemic racism that views us as the norm. We benefit from things within our institutions and culture simply because of the color of our skin.
Talking about race is hard. It is messy. It is uncomfortable. It can be painful!
It’s also easy to ignore when you’re white.
But avoidance doesn’t work. When we fail to talk about racism the problems don’t go away. They just come out in unhealthy ways. We don’t grow as a human family…we just stagnate and learn to mistrust our sisters and brothers. When we don’t talk about race, when we ignore the problem we find ourselves drawing circles of insiders and outsiders.
Our human inclination to define boundaries of worthiness between ourselves and others is not new to our age. Our desire toclaim God’s love for ourselves, and those like us, while excluding folks who are different has been going on for a very long time.
In our scripture lesson from the letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul addresses the drawing of circles that exclude others from God.
Early in the history of the church, the gentile Romans to whom he writes had already drawn a circle that excluded those Jews who did not view Jesus as the messiah. They thought that because some Jews did not accept Jesus as Christ that they were outside God’s love.
Paul reminds the Gentiles that he himself is a Jew when he writes,
I’m an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. Romans 11:1b CEB
He reminds them that God made a covenant with Abraham and God doesn’t break promises. Paul reminds them that,
God hasn’t rejected [God’s] people, whom he knew in advance…God’s gifts and calling can’t be taken back. Romans 11:2:a, 29 CEB
God’s love is not conditional. God created each human being in the divine image, God’s hopes and dreams for each of us is endless. As Paul wrote earlier in his letter to Rome, “nothing can separate us from God’s love” (Romans 8:38 CEB).
And, so, when we draw circles that exclude others from our love and from God’s love, we sin. When we participate in racism, a hateful and extreme form of exclusion, we participate in sinfulness.
When we fail to recognize that racism is real because, well, we’re white and we have that option…
When we fail to see racism because we have a black president and that means racism is over…
When we fail to speak out when a friend begins a sentence with, “those blacks”…
When four unarmed black men have been shot by police this month alone and we fail to ask why (1)…We sin.
When our inactions & indifference tell our sisters and brothers of color that their boys are outside of our circle of concern and God’s circle of love…
The Good News is that God’s plans for humanity are,
plans for peace, not disaster, to give [us] a future filled with hope. Jeremiah 29:11b CEB
It is time to take our heads out of the sand about racism and strive to be a part of God’s plan for love, for peace, and for hope for all peoples.
We can do that by opening our minds and our hearts. We can do that by listening to the mothers and fathers who fear for the lives of their boysand to those who have already lost their sons.
As followers of the One who endured ridicule, torture, and who overcame death we are each called to love. We’re called to love,
God with all [our] heart, with all [our] being, with all [our] mind, and with all [our] strength…[and] love [our] neighbor as ourselves. Mark 12:30-31
The Apostle Paul says God’s call is irrevocable. Open your hearts and minds to our neighbors who suffer under the scourge of racism. Face the challenges and messiness of racism and work for justice.
One way or another, God’s love will prevail. Choose to be a part of it. Live your calling so that one day humanity can say,
Look at how good and pleasing it is when families live together as one (Psalm 133:1 CEB)
This sermon was preached at Condon United Church of Christ on Sunday, August 17, 2014. Condon is a tiny town in rural, eastern Oregon. The church community, reflecting the larger community, is nearly all white.
I’ve stood behind folks arguing about twenty-one cents on their grocery order before. Adamant, they don’t back down while others wait behind them. Clerks are often not very helpful looking with disdain at the person who bickers over two dimes and a penny. I admit sometimes I have been impatient when standing behind this scene.
Today I empathize with the panic of those who argue over small change.
With three dollars and fifty-four cents left in my food budget for 2-1/2 days, I went to the market in my small town yesterday. I was thrilled to find that there was an abundance of bananas left and, since this was the end of the week, they were only thirty-three cents a pound. I would have fruit!
Then to my joy was a new rack of Braeburn apples sale priced at 79 cents a pound. I would have apples and bananas to supplement my beige noodles and rice at home. Yes, I would have fruit! I couldn’t afford any more vegetables and all I had left at home was a quarter of a zucchini but, by golly, I was going to have fruit.
My order totaled $2.50 but since I am new to this living so very close to the edge, I didn’t realize a mistake was made. I was charged for one Braeburn apple at the 79 cent a pound and one Fuji apple at $1.49 a pound. That thirty-seven cents overcharge matters to me this week. It will buy a baking potato if I can find a small one in the pile.
When you’re poor and living near the edge every penny counts. When you’re days away from pay day or a refill on your food stamp card, of course, you argue over two dimes and a penny.
The Lord proclaims: Do what is just and right; rescue the oppressed from the power of the oppressor. Don’t exploit or mistreat the refugee, the orphan, and the widow. Don’t spill the blood of the innocent in this place. Jeremiah 22:3 CEB
I am at the IDEC (the International Democratic Education Conference) in Boulder, Colorado. This is a uniquely structured, “unlike any other” conference of educators and students that is hosted each year in different locations around the globe. I am here seeking inspiration, to learn from my global kindred, and to be among people who envision a future in which every child and adult is affirmed as a beloved, respected individual.
One of the features of the conference this year are home-base groups. Each day, we meet with the same small group to reflect on our experiences of the day.
I was struck by the juxtaposition of two reflections shared by two women this afternoon: one from England and the other from Japan.
Having spent some time observing people on Boulder’s Pearl Street (a closed street area of shops and restaurants) a woman from England characterized Americans as a people of openness and generosity. Describing the interactions between people and a street performer she said, “What a wonderful culture!”
I confess I felt pride in my homeland as I listened to her. Yes, despite our problems, we are a good people. However, I was quickly reminded that we’re also a people who are capable of unleashing violence on others.
Today was the 68th Anniversary of the nuclear strike against Hiroshima, a fact which was not in my consciousness. It was, however, on the mind of a Japanese woman in my group. She lamented the destructiveness of nuclear weapons and the danger of nuclear power as evident in the Fukushima disaster. I detected no anger with Americans; she never mentioned us. However, our role in this human tragedy was not lost on me.
Her sadness with the evils humanity can wreak were superseded by her passion for changing the world. A young woman, I felt hopeful listening to her speak on this disgraceful anniversary in human (and American) history.
Human beings are messy. The same people — my people — who are open and generous are also capable of great evil. The truth is that humanity is imperfect and fragmented. Yet, at IDEC I feel hopeful; it doesn’t have to be this way.
And so this evening, I simply pray that we find the holy within each other that we might realize we are One. When we do, we will be reluctant to harm one another. When we do, I am convinced that God will dance a jig of joy!
I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope. Jeremiah 29:11 CEB
The phone rang at 2:00 a.m. Again. What was it this time? A false alarm? A drug deal on the parking lot? I threw on my jeans, bundled up in my warmest coat. I kissed Maggie on the forehead and said “I love you.” She mumbled, “I love you, too” and pulled up on the covers.
Passing their bedrooms, I paused to peak at my sleeping children all snug in their beds. I cranked the engine of my cold car. The seat beneath me felt so hard in the frigid weather.
When I got to the Children’s Center, the police were waiting for me. I opened the front door and let us in. I disarmed the alarm and flipped on the lights as the police began their walk through the classrooms: the toddler room with the tiny chairs, the baby room with the cribs filled with pastel bears and frilly blankets, the twos with the big climber and painting easel, and the fours & fives room with the huge book area and large wooden blocks.
They stopped in the three-year-old room — my own son’s classroom. That’s where I caught up with them. One of them was on his radio in the housekeeping corner among the dolls and dress-up clothes. The other two were next to the large picture glass window in this converted store front. The woman officer waved me over. She pointed out the three bullet holes. There’d been a shooting in the street in front of the center. Fortunately the glass was not completely shattered. The board up company could wait until morning.
I cried on my way home. I sobbed releasing the fears and horror at what my mind imagined if …
… if the children had been present.
If LaCinda or Isaac or Maria had been playing in the water table when the shooting took place…I shuddered.
A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more. Jeremiah 31:15 NRSV
I suspect a lot of those over-achiever preachers who had their sermons done on Wednesday, had to rewrite their
sermons given the tragic events of Friday. I suspect that some may even have completely thrown out the scripture the lectionary gave us for today. How does this passage from Luke, in which John the Baptizer calls people “broods of vipers” have any word for us today?
How does an angry John speak to us after twenty children and eight educators were gunned down in cold blood?
Well, consider. Imagine our passage from Luke a little differently. Imagine John speaking to you and to me. Today. Two days after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary and less than a week after the mall shooting in Portland.
You see, the Bible is a living document. God speaks a new word through it each time that we open it.
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Luke 3:7 NRSV
This is a little confusing. Why would John the Baptizer be angry at people who came to him to be baptized? Isn’t that the point? But we get a clue in the next verse,
Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; …..for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Luke 3:8 NRSV
“Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” … Ah, so John is upset because these folks who’ve come to be baptized, to commit themselves to living as God would have them live — in short to be good Jews — aren’t acting like very good Jews.
And John is a little more than miffed. He tells them God can make children of Abraham out of stones if God has to. Then he tells them the axe is already to chop them down — as if they were trees — and throw them in the fire if they don’t bear good fruit.
Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ Luke 3: 9 NRSV
So, what does this mean to us? What does this have to do with us viewed through the lens of Friday’s tragedy? Hear these three verses again. This time from the NRTIV, the New Revised Tim’s Imagination Version.
John said to the crowds that came out to be comforted by him after another shooting, this one in a school. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come? Who told you to run here to me for comfort? Don’t even start with that, “but I’m a good Christian stuff. God promised me salvation if I just say I believe in Him.” God can make Christians in name only out of rocks. Act like you believe in God before it’s too late!
While there might have been someone there who said to John after his rant, “Chill dude! I just came here to be baptized! Take a pill!”, the Bible — the real one not my imaginary version — tells us that the people who came to be baptized heard his frustration.
And they responded calmly and rationally, asking, “What then should we do?”
Instead of shouting about gun rights or gun control…
Instead of shouting about prayer in schools…
Instead of posturing to have a fight with John or with each other about what good people they are…
Instead of all that, they paused to listen to the man who points to the messiah. They paused to consider what God might desire from them. What God willed for them at this point.
Not being shy, he told them. He told them to share their coats — their possessions with others. He told them to feed the hungry.
The tax collectors who — routinely and openly — collected money over and above what Rome prescribed, asked John what they should do. And instead of arguing economics, John said … to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Luke 3: 13 NRSV
Even the soldiers, those who were part of an occupying enemy, asked what they should do? And John told them, too. ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’ Luke 3: 14b NRSV
These were ordinary people. The soldiers, the tax collectors, and the others. They were everyday normal people like you and like me who have little control over political events and wonder what it all means. They were people who yearned for a better way to live. They loved their families, and were trying to be faithful to God, though too often failing.
And what did John tell them? He told them to be kind. To be honest and to create a culture — in their personal interactions and habits — that was loving and reflective of God.
So wondering what John told us in my version of the Bible? Are you wondering what the NRTIV, has to say to us two days after twenty children and eight adults were gunned down in cold blood?
And the people in Connecticut, and the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and Columbine, and Clackamas, and even in Ione asked him, ‘What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, whoever has health insurance and a good income, share with anyone who has none. Whoever has food, prepare and send backpacks to the school and bring cans of food to Christmas caroling. Give generously at every opportunity. And, by the way, don’t cheat in your business dealings.
Listen to one another and find the truth in what the gun control proponent and the gun owner says. Find the truth in what those who disagree with you are saying. Be Christ’s own in a world that chooses otherwise. And always — always — speak out of love.
In both the NRSV and in my interpretation, John told them — he tells us — to be kind. He tells them to be honest and to create a culture — in their personal lives — that is loving and reflective of God. The alternative, John implies is, to be the children of snakes — a brood of vipers.
We have the same choice today. We can be a brood of vipers or the children of God. And though as children of God we will sometimes fail and rattle our tails, we can’t be both.
We can fill Facebook with words and photos that support our opinions and dismiss those who disagree with us as completely and totally wrong. We can be a brood of vipers.
We can let our need for guns or our distaste of guns become so strong that we don’t listen to one another. We can get so angry with one another that nothing changes. We can let people with agendas control us. When we do that we are a brood of vipers.
We can argue about prayer in the schools versus religious freedom and miss the point that our fellow child of God is trying to make. When we do that we are a brood of vipers.
But. But when we love our families, hug our babies, when we show up for concerts and games and preschool dinners. When we teach our children that each and every human being has value, then … then we are acting like children of God.
When we listen to those who are hard for us to listen to… When we listen to those whose worldview seems completely crazy to us, and when we try to understand before we start spouting our own views…
…then we are acting like the children of God.
When we have never met another human being who we could not — given time and sometimes a lot of effort — see within them the Image of God, the spark of the Divine, then we are acting like the children of God.
When we choose to act out of love rather than out of fear. When we choose to trust one another — despite what some politicians and some interest groups encourage — then we are acting like the children of God.
When we pause. Take a deep breath in…and out. When we read our Bibles. When we pray. And when we choose to act out of love we are living in the unfolding realm of God. It’s like walking around in a bubble of the Kingdom of God.
John the Baptizer points the way to the messiah. He points the way to the baby whose life, death, and resurrection changes the world. He reminds us that our God is a dependable God. Our God is a God of resurrections and extravagant love.
Our God is a God who continually lures each of us and encourages each of us to act out of love. And, when we — like the shooter at Clackamas or Newtown — ignore God’s desire, God is disappointed. In the case of Sandy Hook elementary, I’m convinced that God sobs just like many of us have sobbed this week.
But the God of resurrections never gives up on us. Whether we are shooters or innocent children. Through the generations, God has kept working on us. God’s promises, God’s covenant with us is real and palpable. You can taste it!
Just as God responded to Rachel’s bitter tears for her children, God responds to ours.
Thus says the Lord: Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the Lord: they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country. Jeremiah 31:16-17 NRSV
So, though we are shocked. Though we lack words to describe our horror at the shooting of elementary school children, John points the way for us.
When we are looking in the direction in which he points. We are looking toward, and being a part of, the unfolding realm of God on earth.
The next morning, a little draggy from my late night excursion, I found lots of reasons to avoid my desk. The budget would wait. The United Way report wasn’t even due until Friday. Even the phone calls could be returned tomorrow. And so I did what I always did when I had nothing left to give to paperwork and administration. I hung out with the children.
I changed a baby or two — the teachers were always happy to have a little extra help. I painted with the twos and danced with the toddlers. With the threes — my own son’s classroom — I always seemed to end up on the floor with a big pillow propped behind me and little bodies all around me as I read picture books.
From where I sat, I could see the boarded up window that represented all my fears of what could have happened if…if the children had been present.
And, so, I read with great vigor. I gave hugs generously. I channeled my passionate fears and sadness into passionate love.
Pause. Take a deep breath in…and out. Read your Bible. Pray. Look to the one who follows John. Look to the baby under the star and respond in love.
This is the sermon I preached at Ione Community Church in Ione, Oregon two days after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
We were sitting in a rocky, high-meadow in the midst of the dry, parched grasses characteristic of the eastern Columbia River Gorge in late summer. It was a place of natural beauty but it was wilderness. Have no doubt about that, it was a place with few obvious signposts.
As we talked, the middle-aged, African American woman saw me. That is, she “got me.” I was an open book to her, yet she listened intently. Her expressions were earnest and encouraging as she nodded her head when I spoke. Her questions clarified. They were non-threatening and helped me to think and consider my future. I knew she was on my side. I knew that she desired for my welfare and not for my harm, to give me a future with hope (Jeremiah 29:11).
She touched my arm and patted my shoulders as I sputtered out tentative responses. She wiped my tears looking at me as if I was the most important person in her life. Her love poured over me like baptismal waters cleansing me of pain and hurt. I never wanted to leave her presence.
Don Draper, in his crisp white shirt, tie, dress shoes, and dark suit walked through the meadow. She didn’t look away from me. I looked away from her. The propaganda-creating Mad Men character distracted me from love that cleanses my wounds, washes the dirt from my hands, and removes the crusty conjunctivitis from my eyes. His church of self destructive desires, his sacraments that poison cultures of respect and caring distracted me from the One. The creeds of false needs and empty doctrines distracted me from the love for which humanity desperately yearns.
The Divine One of many ways never gives up on us. The healing waters that encourage us to love ourselves and others never stop flowing, but the mad men of religious and secular institutions seek to build dams to divert and distract. They push and shove us to fight over a few drops of moisture in a dirty glass while the voice of the divine woman in the dry meadow whispers in the breeze. She calls to us and waits for us to choose to live in her inclusive, expanding love.