In Our Outrage is Our Hope: a Sermon after Eric Garner

In the desert today, we hear about John crying out in the wilderness. He’s angry; he’s outraged. He’s making demands on the people. He’s calling them to get their act together.

I can imagine him shouting to us. He’s yelling at us about our conspicuous consumption; about the Keystone Pipeline; about the Middle East and ISIS.

I can hear him saying, “black lives matter” across the generations.

As I see people raising their hands saying “hands up, don’t shoot,” I recollect Jesus on the cross, arms outstretched imploring that they don’t know what they are about to do.

When I hear the phrase, “I can’t breathe,” I remember when Jesus said, “I thirst.”

I can hear the outrage in the voice of John. It’s because I’m outraged also.

I sympathized with a pastor I heard recently: “Saddened, but not surprised.” Nobody who has been paying attention for the last 35 years can really say they’re surprised.

We’ve sent 4 million young men to prison in an expensive effort to avoid investing in black communities. After a while, it’s hard to be outraged because this sort of violence keeps happening all the time.

All. The. Time.

Perhaps our outrage is pointless. Despair is an alternative. Or even a kind of enlightened cynicism. I can afford it, however. Others can’t.

Let’s go back about fifty years. There was a time when any white person could do pretty much anything to a black person without any impunity. Any white person could withhold wages, sell at a higher price, or commit an act of aggression without any worry about the consequences. And if you were a white person who sought to befriend someone of a different color, you could also be subject to aggression.

Think about that. Not only did black people have to regularly negotiate a system where at any moment they could be fearful for their lives, anyone who wanted to be an ally was also at risk. Diversity was not considered a positive; multiculturalism was a problem to be solved while immigrants became Americanized. Blacks, an inconvenience.

That changed, somewhat. What happened? We outsourced the violence. Yes, our formal public spaces, our commercial context, is freer than it once was. And even though our society remains segregated, the everyday habits of violence have been relocated, although not eliminated, to an extent that the violence we do see is that much more outrageous.

But within the fountain of outrage itself, is the wellspring of hope.

Why hope? Just as John expressed his outrage, our tradition teaches that in the mess, in the conflict, is how the possibility for hope pours in. It becomes a part of the mess, working and responding within the outrage. I sense this because I see more people who have begun to understand the cruelty and the precarity within which many black people live.

And this awakening might be a clue for how we understand “repentance.” The changing of the mind, this turn, is revealed in the realization by many people what the cost of white privilege is, and why the constant barrage of black deaths have become, now, even more outrageous to the public mind.

Let me admit, I can’t stand the term “white privilege.” Yes, it’s real. I can’t stand the term mainly because it’s an emotion one can’t actually have. That’s the point. It’s a position. Having privilege is the ability NOT to feel something. So people who do have this privilege are usually completely unaware. And when it is referenced by people who have it, it’s confused with the mild inconveniences one has throughout the day, like traffic stops, a bad boss, or everyday disappointments, which makes it easy for us to plausibly deny the privilege we do have. It demonstrates the truth one philosopher noted: the slave must always think of what the master thinks, but the master need not ever think about the slave at all.

The video of Eric Garner changed, forced, and magnified the issue; what was known by black people suddenly became impossible to deny. Even people who instinctively side with police officers found themselves at a loss.

Certainly discussions about privilege are remarkably clumsy to make, because it’s trying to make someone feel in a fashion that’s really difficult to have. But I take hope that there are more people who realize that this non-feeling, this privilege of inattention, blinds us to making effective political and institutional changes that will make our republic a better place, and prevent the cost of innocents being discarded.

Let’s recollect: we have tools in our toolbox so that can deepen our understanding of these relationships.

Two related parts of the Benedictine tradition, prayer and listening, strengthen our sense of empathy with other human beings. A prayer life is, in part, about exploring the minds of others, as God does. We fit ourselves into the scriptural story; and we can do this as we hear the stories around us. What is it like to life as someone differently bodied? Are there openings where I can experience it?

We might develop a sense of humility, that underrated virtue, about the stories we hear and tell. It’s alright to enter into a conversation without a sense of what the answers are, to be a little uncomfortable. John’s making a lot of people uncomfortable. He’s also uncomfortable. He’s wearing camel hair and eating locusts.

And as the church we are called, fundamentally, to be a trust building organization. We do not demonize our police forces; we commend them when the need be commended. But holding them accountable is the best way to reestablish trust. I hope one day the police will see how the blind loyalty to each other undermines their work. While there is no single solution, if you carefully look throughout the country, there are valuable experiments, from LA to Utah that are worth testing elsewhere and replicating. Even now in NYC, there’s been a drop in arrests because the government has changed its priorities. There are ways God is working; but it will require our institutions to diminish their own fear of change within their ranks.

What’s happened is along a few other cultural shifts. The institutions that held authority have demonstrated their limits, how they easily succumb to human pride and fear. Who can trust the government since the Gulf of Tonkin led us into war and Watergate covered Nixon’s treason? Who trusts priests after the pedophilia scandals? Can you trust a corporation after Enron? But this is also a source of hope; for as this dissolution continues, we may find places for grace to enter. We must find new ways to organize ourselves when the older institutions fail us. This is, in part, our modern challenge.

But let us hold the outrage as a gift. For the outrage itself is evidence that there is a world worth hoping for.

John’s outrage was, a herald, a call, a warning, a proclamation – for once he had see the world for what it was, once he could see what had not been seen, once understood that a new world awaits, and the prince of peace would soon enter the world. Without that understanding, would he have even been in the desert, telling us of things to come?

On this side of Easter, we say that through our outrage we trust in the world to come; we say that we have not given up on the world, and anticipate God’s entrance. Let His work be unveiled. Come Emmanuel.

The Good Old Days (Proper 20, Year A)

The good old days.

When I was in high school I worked in a deli with an old school butcher. The sort that stored a couple huge carcasses in the freezer, where behind the counter the owner made his own sausages and ground his own beef. He cooked and spiced his own roast beef, which was always a perfectly cooked medium rare. The radio tuned to a golden oldie’s station that played a lot of Frank Sinatra.

“Those were the days,” he’d say. “When singers could sing and songwriters wrote.” Billy Strayhorn and Cole Porter, they wrote, and Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald sang. The Beatles? They lacked depth. Even Bob Dylan was a disaster.

“He can’t sing. What is this? Who wants to listen to that voice?” He’d say this in his thick German accent. The good old days, when songwriters wrote and singers could sing. Way before Autotune made Katy Perry a star.

There’s the story of Pete Seeger getting so upset at Bob Dylan’s use of the electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival that he just went up with an axe and cut through it. It actually never happened; and the reason was probably more because of poor sound overall than a hostility to the electric sound. But when people tell the story, it’s to reflect the feeling of some time being more pure and unadulterated. A previous time, and a fear about the future.

And so the Israelites are busy thinking about the good old days. Yes, they’d been enslaved; yes, they were busy nursing other people’s children; and perhaps life was hard and difficult, but they were fed. While they are now free, they are also starving, and deeply insecure because they’re entering foreign territory. Security usually trumps freedom when you don’t know where you’re next meal’s coming from.

Sometimes hope requires a full belly.

We construct narratives, stories of our past in part to survive. Who wants to remember the bad times, the times we were hurt and abused and bullied? And those who always remember, who wants to hang with those guys? Get some therapy, keep your chin up, and endure! Ideally we learn to talk ourselves out of the resentment, fear or the simple feeling that we’re damaged because of what we’ve inherited. But our faith says we cannot avoid the truth, no matter how hard it was, is and will be.

Those narratives can be misleading. Was life great in the 1950’s? Well, for some, yes; for some, no. It’s great that families may have eaten together; but then, who was doing all the cooking? Some people wish we could return to some of those glory days, but do you remember how high taxes were during Nixon? We trusted government, but then, what of the Gulf of Tonkin? Not a lot of African-Americans want to go back to the 1950’s, but on the other hand, some would argue there was a stronger black middle class. So let’s talk about the good old days without idealizing them. We can admit they made us who we are, but who we can and will be, that’s another story.

So the Israelites create this story – life was better in the old days. But they don’t see how, even in the wilderness, there are resources that God provides. One woman in recovery once said to me, when I gave up the drink, I then had to find an inner strength I didn’t know I had; but I also had to look around me and learn about what I really wanted in my life. I wanted good friendships, so I started calling people; I wanted to read more and I learned to value a cup of tea instead. They were all there beforehand, but I just overlooked them.

Around us we have what we need. We just don’t see it.

And so in our own wilderness, part of what we do is to find what has been placed there all around us that can feed us. If we seek transformation, the work will be difficult; because we are like novices, or children, at being free. Nobody just grows up learning to be free in any society; that’s work that requires formation, in an environment where it’s also alright to get things wrong and make mistakes. It’s easier to live a liberated life when you have some security around you.

But the gospel today does not say, “it’s tough to be free, so, if you make a mistake, then go back to Egypt.” It says, you can keep going. It doesn’t matter when you begin the journey. Some have been around a long time. They had their spiritual vision and insight when they were 20 and still organize their lives around it, and God Bless Them. Others won’t get there until they’re 85, when they suddenly realize, “wow, I’ve been an Episcopalian all my life, and I’m only now realizing how wonderful the daily office is!” When the landowner rewards the worker who came late, it may seem like the eldest child who suddenly finds the youngest getting more attention; or even like a newcomer who the rector spends most of their time cultivating. Te youngest will not know what the good old days were like, except through fantasy and legend; the newcomer only intuits what has gone before, and has no desire for the fleshpots of Egypt.

So some people have come late to the party. It may have been a tough road for them to get through the door. That just as some of us have been here a long time, in this church, on this planet, our work in the wilderness also requires the ones just arriving. Perhaps also, we’re the newcomer, we’re the ones who got to the vineyard at 5pm, and we’re benefitting from all that has been given to us from before.

Whoever has come late, the truth is that we need as many hands as possible, because there remains plenty of manna around, for us to discover, for us to gather and for us to eat.

Jesus, Superhero

The people of Israel forget and remember God.

They live when they remember.

The church has its bones.

But it didn’t believe what it said.

Instead, it made rules and pointed at the unclean people,

But it did not say,

God flows through you.

Though you have been spiritually dead,

Sleepwalking,

Like a zombie,

King Jesus has wakened you.

 

It said very little. It was consumed in its causes, rummage sales and dinners.

 

But this does not mean you,

If you are Lazarus,

become a Zombie,

or that Jesus is King Zombie.

Instead, Jesus is like the Hulk.

Or a Transformer.

 

Mary and Martha got mad at Jesus.

He could have saved his friend,

but he wanted to show people he was a superhero.

 

It was a little self indulgent, but the work was done,

and I’m sure Lazarus just needed a bath. Even though that part isn’t in the scriptures.

 

Perhaps Jesus modeled what life could be in church.

We bring our frustrations and anger, and just let them be.

We don’t hide them, but focus them.

We become a space

where others can simply be unburdened.

They don’t have to worry about being contained.

 

We don’t wag our fingers.

We don’t give them a list of rules.

We don’t ask them to be in the vestry or hand over their wallet.

 

Instead we let them be, offer a meal, and

trust that the rock will be moved,

And we’ll feel the living God flow through us again.

 

Perhaps He always is,

But we’re just sleepwalking through it.

 

 

Original Sin and the Apple

Sometimes I wonder if it’s human nature to feel like Eve.

If I’m told, “you really shouldn’t have another bite,” I want to eat it. It gets worse if it’s from a thin person, because I resent their slenderness. If it’s from a big person I ignore it because, what do they know?

Unsolicited advice?  Why not respond, “thank you, but I intend on doing the exact opposite.” It’s instinctive. Instead, the person who encourages us to rebel, to take matters into our own hands, that’s the person really on our side.

Admittedly, when I get the advice, the warning, the friendly feedback, I take a breath and remind myself the person has my best interests at heart. I consider if there is any truth in what they say. I play with the alternative – what if I took the advice? What if I ignore it? Continue reading

On Deescalating (A Sermon on Matthew 5: 21-37)

A few weeks ago I saw a photo of three Orthodox Monks standing in between protestors and the police in one of the central squares in Ukraine. They merely held a cross and prayed.

Although there are times when a priest must take a side, in that moment they illustrated Christ by being in the way, interrupting the escalating dynamic, offering space for each side to stop the violence. It may be that one side is more righteous than the other, but the solutions are available without further loss of life.

Last week we heard Jesus make some rigorous demands upon the faithful: don’t get angry; don’t be lustful; don’t divorce. Reconcile. It’s easy to get caught up in the prurience of the passage (Matthew 5:21-37) and lose sight of the fundamental challenge. Jesus is not becoming a puritan, suppressing our sexuality.

He’s saying: don’t escalate.

Deescalate. It’s easy to get wound up, to become overwhelmed, to create more problems, to enter into a frenzy. So if you are getting into one, stop. Do what you need to to get your mind back on track, centered, calm.  Don’t become your own obstacle.

The intuition: be careful – we don’t know who else we will harm.

Yes, sometimes in our current context it chafes to be told to rein in one’s emotions. And perhaps there are times when that control is avoidance, merely delaying the inevitable emotional outburst. Instead, Jesus pulls us out of the frenzy. It’s a mistake to hear this only as Jesus wagging his finger. He is equally encouraging us to let ourselves be soothed.

Last week, a man named Michael Dunn was on trial for shooting Jordan Davis, a black teenager, at a convenience store for listening to hip-hop music loudly. It may be another example of racism; or why Stand Your Ground (or “Shoot First”) Laws are immoral; or why we need further gun control. At the very least, however, we had one man who could not negotiate with his own anger, and his racism and weapons exacerbated the event, the murder of a young man.

When Jesus says, even anger leads to judgement, it is precisely this sort of case he illuminates. The man could have responded with humor or simply left the scene quickly. Instead, he chose to escalate.

Deescalating is a mechanism of reconciliation; it is a crucial precursor to the challenge of forgiveness. Deescalation changes the dynamic between individuals and groups, allowing for the possibility that our responsibility, our impact upon each other, for each other, is shared. We all go to heaven, or send each other to hell.

Deescalating may be difficult. Yet discerning and identifying the complexity of our shared life is one of the purposes of prayer and faithful action, and we affirm that the benefits of stepping back, from letting honor be God’s and not our own, we diminish the possibility of creating hells for ourselves, or for others.  All over, from cyberspace, to Stand Your Ground, to political protests evince the dangers of rapid escalation, and how it creates an obstacle for healthy relationships.

When we are in the midst of conflict, when we must negotiate the valleys of community life, let our words be simple and plain. May we work first to support one another, perpetually offering space for reconciliation.

Jesus, Survivor

From a Sermon, Christmas II, Matthew 2:12-19

Jesus was a survivor.

The wise men had reached Herod.   They are about to tell him that Jesus has been born, the Messiah, and this makes Herod, and all Jerusalem – hipster central, where all the good restaurants and cool kids reside – nervous.  For Jesus is a country kid who might challenge the king.    Herod asks the magi to find the child and tell him.

But after the magi visit, Joseph and Mary are warned.   And when the magi skip town, he is enraged.  And in the verses the lectionary skips over, Herod, infuriated, slaughters the children in and around Bethlehem.

It evokes another story: the child Moses escaping the law of the Pharaohs.    But also the other stories of destruction and survival.  Jesus would have remembered that story of survival.  He would have remembered the prophet Jeremiah.  And he would have remembered the scattering of the people of Israel after the Babylonian captivity.  Continue reading

Happy New Year!

Yesterday was the celebration of the Feast of the Holy Name.  The church says Jesus was circumcized on this date, affirming that Christianity is linked to Judaism, and that Christ had a history, a location, a culture.

For some this signifies the incredible.  Some would prefer God, or Jesus, to be a lot like a superhero.  In that case the story seems more like a comic book, a fantasy of the origins like the Green Lantern or The Hulk.  But the merit of the story is that we can’t get out of our historical context and cultural location.  Although we may feel righteous about who we are in our current context, we are always embedded and bounded.  For some this is a trap, a prison; but in another way it is a lot like gravity – without it, what kind of collisions would ensue?  Could we behave comprehensibly without the cultural knowledge we do have?

I often find that people are likely to judge the people of the past based on our contemporary morality.   But when we enter their judgement, we remain unaware of what they believed was truly at stake.  The cosmology of the ancients, their everyday experience of the world remains foreign.  I doubt that most of us would survive well even in 19th century America, not to mention 15th century England, 13th century Mongolia, 8th century France or 1st century Palestine.  We are learning much more than they did; and certainly we are not completely different emotionally, but those worlds are foreign places.  Our world has become both large and small – we intuit the cosmos, and yet it seems that the world as at our footsteps.

Holy Name reminds us that our God, by being embodied, works within our own materiality.  We may not necessarily name accurately who God is like.   Although it seems, however, as if we have implicitly limited God, we do not say that God cannot be placed in other cultures.  We still say we see God engaging any place where love is the primary form of grace. 

The good news is that the sources of liberation and hope we need are already here.  Discovering the sacred heart of God is not done just through becoming an expert; it is not done through becoming perfect; it cannot be except through the lens of our cultural context, the traditions and signs that are available.  For this reason, a theologian must identify the present symbols and signs  – the objects that convey meaning – and question them here.  People only experience the divine through the words and culture they inherit; the cross and the empty tomb reveals their worthy, if ephemeral, nature.