Confession of Sin on 5/31/2020

Today we remember those who have died by racial violence, those who have survived racial violence, those who mourn deaths of family and friends by racial violence. 

The violence suffocates me.  I can’t breathe.

Today we remember those who live on property no one else wants.

The violence blinds me.  I can’t see.

Today we remember those who strike out in frustration and desperation.

The violence deafens me.  I can’t hear.

Today we remember those who are known to us only through television news.

The violence bores me.  I can’t feel.

Today we remember those who know the acrid taste of fear, who taste vengeance.

The violence is distasteful.  I spit it out.

Silence

Today we mourn laws that step on the necks of ambition and work ethic and good faith.  

Today we mourn the fear that haunts every step on the street, every step in a store, every step in a shop. 

Today we mourn our own complicity, even though we don’t understand it.

Silence

Today we repent of stereotyping, of judging, of ignoring every person whom we see only from a distance.

Today we repent of hiding from our fear.

Today we repent of hiding in our privilege.

Today we repent of letting you, dear Jesus, do all the loving. 

Today we repent of telling and laughing at jokes that demean a person.

Today we repent of putting down your children when you ask us to build the kingdom. 

Silence

Help us to sort out our own emotions, to separate disgust from grief, to separate fear from compassion, to separate bias from ignorance. 

Give us the patience and the courage to pull the logs out of our own eyes before we see the speck in another’s eyes. 

Teach us to use the gifts the Spirit has given us. 

Give us the gift of wisdom. 

If we don’t have the gift of wisdom, give us the gift of knowledge.  

If we don’t have knowledge, teach us to trust all your children,  our brothers and sisters in You.  

And if we don’t have trust, then give us the gift of healing, that our words may comfort and encourage rather than accuse or sting.

If we can’t heal, give us the gift of working miracles within our own hearts. 

If we can’t work miracles, help us to share your Way of living.  

If we can’t share, help us to appreciate the gifts of others. 

If we can’t see the gifts of others, teach us humility.

Holy one, you know we come to worship to forget the world around us.  

You know we come to worship to find peace. 

You know we come to worship to restore what we cherish. 

You know we come to worship to lay aside our daily cares. 

Silence

Today is different.

Today is the day you sent a rushing, breathing, challenging  Spirit into our lives, not to keep us safe inside the borders we have so carefully established, but to fortify us to go out into the world that can’t breathe.

Today we remember racial violence  in places of prayer, in churches, in schools, in neighborhoods— especially this week in Minneapolis.

Today we remember the fear of injustice rampant in schools, homes, and workplaces. 

Today we remember that we have been called.

Today give us the humility and the wisdom to confess that we ourselves are complicit.

Today let those who are protesting and looting awaken us to who we are and aren’t.

Today let those who resort to violence help us to see our own silence as violence. 

Silence

We thank you for those who have the courage to protest injustice. We pray for those who protest out of frustration, out of desperation. 

We are grateful that you are in the midst of violence, the companion of despair, the champion of justice.

Silence

Forgive, O God, our wrongful action and our inaction. Forgive our silence and indifference. Forgive us for distancing ourselves, for thinking this isn’t our rodeo. Lead us in love, for Jesus’ sake. Amen. 

Absolution

“I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”   Ezekiel 36:26:

Pentecost as Current Event: I Can’t Breathe

Acts 2:1-4 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Coming of the Holy Spirit

2 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

1 Corinthians 12:1-13 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Spiritual Gifts

12 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2 You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. 3 Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.

4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

One Body with Many Members

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

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We used to call it “Current Events.” We were supposed to bring a clipping from the newspaper (which presupposed that all of our parents subscribed to a newspaper) and share information from outside our local community.  Current Events was a good way to teach us that a different world existed beyond the borders of our county.  

Now we have our Current Events fed to us through our chosen media, be it newspaper, television, radio, Twitter or Facebook. We have to choose not WHAT to listen to, but what NOT to listen to.  We also have the luxury of choosing news that fits our particular bias, all the way from FOX to MSNBC, from the National Enquirer to The New York Times.  News is always more than news; it is also point of view, bias, selectivity.  The events that don’t make the cut to screen or paper are still news but not available to us.  What we see or read is never the whole story.  There is only so much space, so much time, so we are given a partial glimpse, and that partial glimpse is determined by the producer or the editor. 

What does this limited view do to our perception of the world? When you stay at a hotel and look out your one window, you have one view.  I used to chaperone cheerleaders at the state wrestling tournament, which included staying overnight in a hotel. Sometimes the view we had was of the entire downtown of Des Moines; sometimes it was the view of a brick wall and a fire escape. My view was limited by my window.  So it goes with our choice of media; our view is limited by the window through which we choose to look. 

 The big view this past week has been of riots in Minneapolis.  What do you think of when you think of Minneapolis?  Mall of America?  The Twins?  The Vikings? Imagine Vikings raiding Best Buy!  Oh.  That’s what the original Vikings were feared for: looting!  What goes around comes around.  

What makes looting different now? Is it because you, personally, would never break into a store and take what you wanted?  Is it because the law is broken? Or does our distaste for looting have deeper roots? 

And what does this have to do with Pentecost, for crying out loud?  

Maybe nothing. But what does Pentecost have to do with us?  Pentecost is one more fun, colorful Christian holiday.   We wear red clothing. We decorate the altar with red.  

Color is a powerful thing. We use it to proclaim our joy, our allegiance, our preferences. Red for Pentecost, Red, White and Blue for patriotism, a blue shirt to match our blue eyes. 

We use color to sort.  Red checkers on this side of the board, black checkers on the other side.  Hawkeye shirts on one side of the stadium, Gopher shirts on the other. Black socks together, white socks together.   

We use color because we can see color.  It is a gift of beauty and a useful tool. Like any gift, color can be abused.  

The first color I saw was the color of my mother’s skin.  Her skin is still about the same color, 70 years later. My skin is the same color as hers.  It hasn’t changed much, a little more speckled, a little  wrinkly, but pretty much the same as the day I was born.  

According to legal documents, I am by birth, white. But I am more than legally white. At my core, I am a white supremacist. Even as I point my righteous fingers at those who demean, humiliate and kill my black and brown brothers and sisters in Christ, I know that I am lucky to be white.  Even though I fight against it, I know that I cannot escape using the privilege of my white skin.  The simplest explanation I’ve seen of white privilege is a list some of my friends have shared. 

I have privilege as a white person because I can do all of these things without thinking twice:

I can go birding (#ChristianCooper)

I can go jogging (#AmaudArbery)

I can relax in the comfort of my own home (#BothemSean and #AtatianaJefferson)

I can ask for help after being in a car crash (#JonathanFerrell and #RenishaMcBride)

I can have a cellphone (#StephonClark)

I can leave a party to get to safety (#JordanEdwards)

I can play loud music (#JordanDavis)

I can sell CDs (#AltonSterling)

I can sleep (#AiyanaJones)

I can walk from the corner store (#MikeBrown)

I can play cops and robbers (#TamirRice)

I can go to church (#Charleston9)

I can walk home with Skittles (#TrayvonMartin)

I can hold a hair brush while leaving my own bachelor party (#SeanBell)

I can party on New Years (#OscarGrant)

I can get a normal traffic ticket (#SandraBland)

I can lawfully carry a weapon (#PhilandoCastile)

I can break down on a public road with car problems (#CoreyJones)

I can shop at Walmart (#JohnCrawford)

I can have a disabled vehicle (#TerrenceCrutcher)

I can read a book in my own car (#KeithScott)

I can be a 10yr old walking with our grandfather (#CliffordGlover)

I can decorate for a party (#ClaudeReese)

I can ask a cop a question (#RandyEvans)

I can cash a check in peace (#YvonneSmallwood)

I can take out my wallet (#AmadouDiallo)

I can run (#WalterScott)

I can breathe (#EricGarner)

I can live (#FreddyGray)

I CAN BE ARRESTED WITHOUT THE FEAR OF BEING MURDERED (#GeorgeFloyd)

What good does it do to review these facts? How can words on paper make a difference?

Every Sunday, one of the first things we do is confess our sins.  How can I confess a sin that I never heard of?  How can I know what is sin and what is not? How can I know my own guilt if I have no knowledge of my sin?  How can I realize that my protected life is still a part of all humanity? What can my disgust, my sorrow, my outrage, my sympathy do to heal the hurt? What am I supposed to do, when my sins are forgiven?  Nothing? 

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. 

Spouting my outrage is as long lasting as drops of the corona virus.  Everyday I wake up with a speck in my eye, the distortion that racism has nothing do with me. How many of us have said, “I’m not prejudiced, but…”  But what?  

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

If you stub your toe, if you break a rib, if you eat too much and your stomach hurts, your whole body suffers. You are not 100% in your work, in your play, in your sleep.  

Likewise when one member of the body of Christ hurts, we are not 100%. We are baptized not just with water and then put on the church membership list. Baptism connects us to the whole body of Christ. We are baptized with the Holy Spirit, which courses through the veins of humanity just as our own blood courses through us.  We, thanks to our baptism, are part of a larger body.  Just as we care for our own body, we care for the body of Christ.

So, here we sit in our safe, protected homes.  We are not People of Color. We can walk safely down the streets of Lost Nation or Dixon and not even be seen. Does that make us People of No Color? Are we colorless?  

What can  I do?

I can refrain from criticizing the actions of those whose color has made them desperate and frustrated.  I can refrain from judging those whose voices have been dismissed as wanting too much.  I can refrain from offering solutions to problems whose complexity I don’t understand. I can refrain from blaming people for their own problems.  None of that advances the Kingdom of God.

I can pray.  I can pray for my own healing, for my own humility, for my own wisdom, for my own knowledge.  I can pray for the gifts of the Spirit to grow in me, to give me the heart of my Savior to love everyone, even when it is from a distance, even when my view is colored by the bias of others. I can pray for the people who frighten me, who threaten me, whose choices are different from my choices. 

Martin Luther tells us that a good personal habit, when we wash our faces, is to use that occasion to remember our baptism, to remember that we are, every day, baptized by water and by the Holy Spirit.  The baptism was not just ritual. By baptism, you are committed to the whole body of Christ.  May the Spirit lead us to be part of the healing of the whole body of Christ. Amen.

Iowa View

I love Facebook.  My friends are available to me whenever I need them, whenever I miss them. When it’s inconvenient for them to answer the phone or when it’s inconvenient for me to fly a couple thousand miles to see them, they’re still there, in almost-real time.  

According to my Facebook page, I have 804 friends.  If you gave me an old-fashioned fifth-grade quiz, like list all the states and their capitols, I could not do it.  Idaho?  Boise?  Iowa? Des Moines!  Massachusetts? Plymouth Rock? Likewise, if you asked me, quiz-style, to list all of my 804 friends, I could not do it. In fact, some I have never met face-to-face, only Facebook-to-Facebook. They were introduced by mutual friends or we found out, via some post, that we had much in common, and took a chance on staying in touch.

I also like Facebook because  I am a political junkie; not an expert; just a junkie. Ergo, some of my posts are of a political nature, as in bipartisan, which is what most people assume the word “political” means.  It doesn’t.  

In its most basic meaning, politics is the way that people living in groups make decisions.  That’s all.  People living in groups deciding what to do next.  If you live by yourself with delivery service and in perfect health, you legitimately have no use for politics.  But if you live among people, your life is rich with or fraught with politics. Tatertot casserole or meatloaf tonight?   Turn the heat up or down? Whose turn to take the dog out?  If you share your space with someone, you share politics with them.  

My friends make political choices on Facebook, too. I’m a bit vain about the political diversity of my friends. I, like my friends, post items that reflect the choices I have made and still claim, regarding partisan politics.  In so doing, I’ve started a few arguments, most of the time, unintentionally. The participants in the arguments are not malicious and rarely resort to name-calling.  But they do express various degrees of discomfort when they disagree with a premise or opinion.  

One observation I’ve made is this: When an elected official is criticized, most of my 804 friends ignore the post. About ten or twelve comment in agreement. The commenters I admire most, though, are those who have enough conviction to disagree with my post. It takes a lot of courage to express a contrary view on  Facebook, the most public of forums.  At the holiday dining table, one can always leave to get seconds; on Facebook, one is not allowed such subtlety. 

Either tough it out or delete. 

However, I find it curious that when an elected official is criticized for actions that many of us find harmful to the well-being of the state or nation, those who support the official criticize the criticism with a basic Biblical argument.  “Let the one without sin throw the first stone.”  “No one is perfect.”  “Everyone sins.” “Everyone makes mistakes.” Nothing about the actual mistakes being criticized.  

If we all used that reasoning, none of us would have to take responsibility for any of our harmful or stupid actions.  “Oh. I just ran over your dog. Sorry. Nobody’s perfect.” “Oh.  I forgot to pay my bills. Everybody forgets once in a while.”  “Oh, I lost your child’s paper?  Well, it happens. I have a lot of papers to grade.”  

What does this mean?  What does it mean when we excuse leaders for any actions, no matter how harmful, no matter how self-serving? What does it mean when we, members of any political persuasion, are so loyal that we will passively accept that which, if committed by someone else, would have us asserting our alarm at the consequences? 

Common rebuttals include “Clean out the speck in your own eye first.” or “I’ve done some bad things in my life.” or  “We are all sinners.”

The one that worries me most is “I have no right to criticize.” That sounds like the belief of a citizen of China or North Korea, not an American citizen.  

Yes, I’m a bit vain about the political diversity of my friends. In these times, it’s challenging to stay friendly with people who blame my political party for all that is wrong in the nation. That being said, I’ll play my preacher card.  Love one another.  I’ll take out the speck in your eye while you take out the speck in mine.

Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?

1 Corinthians 15:1-26 New International Version (NIV)

The Resurrection of Christ

15 Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.

The Resurrection of the Dead

12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

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“He is risen!” “He is risen indeed!” If you’ve been a Christian for very long, you know these words are shared every spring, on Easter Sunday, specifically.  That is our claim to fame: our God defeated death.  

 We know HOW Jesus conquered death, but have you ever thought about  WHY Jesus conquering death is so unique?  We know it’s important.  We know that it guarantees that we will also conquer death.  But why did God have to become a human being to make this work?  

Vs. 21 explains it: 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 

God, by definition, can’t die. So God had to become exactly like a human being. Jesus is that human being. Human beings die.  Everyone of us will die.

That is a concern during these times of pandemic.  The media has us obsessed with dying from one specific disease, COVID-19.  However, even if we avoid contracting that horrible disease, we will eventually die.  We don’t know how or when. Some of us have come close and are thankful to still be waking up in the morning. All human beings are created in the union of a sperm and an egg and all human beings are born from the womb of a woman.  From there, we diversify, becoming distinct individuals. But eventually we once more share that basic commonality of dying. 

Humans have created traditions around dying.  In our community, we have wakes and visitations. In our local tradition, we send greeting cards expressing our sorrow to those who lived closest to the deceased. We send flowers to the grieving. We send money to the dead person’s favorite charity so that the good they did may continue a little longer. We share a meal together.  We commend the person to God.   We comfort each other.  We make promises about supporting each other in the future. We do what we can to prove that the dead person’s life had meaning and purpose. 

After the casserole dishes are returned and the flowers have wilted, after the cards have been read and reread, after the cash has been sent to the proper charity, what’s left? A cemetery plot to visit. Photographs.  Some financial and legal matters to settle.  

But God’s love doesn’t stop with the setting of the gravestone. God loved us before we were born and God loves us after we die.  We Christians know that this life is just one part of our existence. Even as our earthly bodies collapse, we are transformed into beings who will live in love with God forever.

I saw an interesting television show on the PBS channel the other night. The host interviewed a man who had died and returned to life. He was killed in a car accident, along with his wife and child. But his wife stayed by his side, all the way to the hospital, all during the attempts, which were successful, to revive him.  The interesting twist is that the attending doctor also saw the wife next to her injured husband.  The man’s main description of the experience was of the love that he felt, not just for his wife, but for all the people in the hospital. He raved about the love he felt for each person, no matter who they were.  

My cousin recently had a death experience. She died, but the nurses brought her back. I asked her if she had been greeted by anyone. She answered, “by all the saints.”  In our family, that is code for our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. 

I like stories like that because they give me the reassurance I need when my faith is too weak to believe that God will love me all the way to heaven.  

We cling to what we know, to what is common, even if, in our last days, we are in pain, even if we are surrounded by danger. This Memorial Day, we remember those who put themselves in danger for reasons they deemed to be the greater good. They clung to life even as they faced death. Glory be to God that they, through the grace of God, triumphed over death.  

Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? During the Easter season we sing many songs celebrating Jesus’ resurrection.  But Jesus is not the only one to rise from the grave.  Jesus is not the only one to defeat death. By God becoming Jesus the man, we have all defeated death. 

Because of God becoming one of us, not similar to us, not resembling us, but totally human like us, we all will find the the sting of death a temporary moment, even meaningless, as we celebrate the victory of God over death.

Glory be to God, who first loved us before anyone else loved us, and who loves us into eternity.  Amen.

Love and Racism

1 Corinthians 13 New International Version (NIV)

13 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

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I read an article the other day about how to end racism.  I didn’t expect much from the article because I don’t have much hope for ending racism. Racism is the greatest evil in the world and it would take an awfully big miracle to erase it from our hearts and minds.

That is where racism begins, reigns, and rules: in our hearts.  The evil seed is planted when we are very young, too young to be aware of it, and it grows deep tap roots and refuses to be pulled out. It is nourished by platitudes and naïveté, separation and ignorance.  Platitudes like “Jesus loves the little children, red and yellow, black and white.”  Naiveté: “I’m not prejudiced.” Separation.  “You live in your neighborhood and I’ll live in my neighborhood.”  Ignorance: “What do those people want anyway?”

I read the article, without expectation, but still with a little hope. 

Racism, on the surface, really doesn’t affect me too much.  I don’t have to be afraid to walk down the street with the hood up on my sweatshirt.  My friend Nathan does; he’s not as afraid as his mother, my friend, Libby is. She warns him to not wear a black quarantine mask when he goes running; she tells him to put on a more colorful one.  And he can’t run with his hood up on his sweatshirt.  Do my friends live in a bad neighborhood? Heck, no! They live in a very nice community, nice houses, nice neighbors, good schools, the American Dream.  But the worm of racism crawls through every neighborhood. You never know when you will be seen as something instead of someone.  

Racism, on the surface, really doesn’t affect me too much. I didn’t have to shop in a clothing store where I was constantly watched as I shopped because of the color of my skin. I didn’t have to teach my kids to be afraid of the police. I didn’t have to be shamed by grocery store cashiers who didn’t want to wait on me. My kids didn’t grow up knowing that all the choices they were given were bad choices.  My “grandson,” Larry, is always suspect when he walks into a store or restaurant because his skin is black.  He doesn’t know many neighbors who have well paying jobs.  He knows plenty of people who are in jail, in prison, including his own parents.  They made choices, and none of the choices given them offered much as far as always being safe. Jesus says, “You wouldn’t offer your neighbor a snake when he asks for a fish.” What if all your choices were snakes, most of them poisonous?

Racism, on the surface, really doesn’t affect me too much. I never had to look at my babies and wonder who would be the first to call them a name based only on their skin color. I never had to watch my kindergartner get on the bus and wonder if she would be treated as not quite as bright by her teachers. Now, I hold my kids’ foster child in my arms, a tiny, brand new baby, so innocent, so perfect, so lovely, so happy.  I hold him in my arms and study his face which is different from the face of his foster mother, my daughter. Yet it is not so different.  Bright little eyes, cute nose, a mouth that is learning to smile, a voice that is learning to laugh, a little chin, perfect little ears. And already, I worry, even though I know he won’t live with them forever, I worry about who will see a child of people who have worked the hardest jobs for the lowest wages and who will see the fun, loving person he truly is.

Today’s scripture might not seem to address racism. Let me tell you about the article I mentioned. It is written by a man who has experienced racism for one reason: the color of his skin.  Everything else he has experienced is subtly tied to his skin color.  That seems like too broad a statement, and I don’t even know this man. I’ve read only one article by him.  I know very little about him except that he is a pastor, a Christian. And I know that he has more hope than I do.  His name is Kyle Butler.  Not Kyle Butler, the Missouri synod preacher. Not Kyle Butler, the Jamaican soccer player.  Not Kyle Butler, the fictitious character in the television show, Dexter. Just Kyle Butler, who happens to be friends with other pastors and who serves God and who otherwise lives an ordinary life. 

I can say with some authority that most everything he has experienced has some subtle connection to racism, because that is the number one modus operandi in our country. Racism permeates every aspect of our lives, from where our great-great grandparents settled to where we went to school to where we shop to where we work. I’m going to stop there, because if you want to know more, I can recommend books that cover the topic in great detail. I can make that assumption about Kyle Butler, someone I will never meet, but someone who has a better attitude than I do about racism.  How ironic. 

Kyle Butler says that the one and only solution is love. That’s exactly what Paul was telling those Corinthian church members two thousand years ago. Love.  Those fighting, bitter, finger-pointing church members would never resolve their problems with meetings, by-laws, study groups or mediators. Forget that you hear this passage read at weddings all the time; it’s appropriate for husbands and wives, but its application is much broader. 

It’s not that our country, in some part, hasn’t tried to eliminate racism. And for awhile it seemed like we were making progress.  We passed all kinds of legislation, communities held forums, churches offered discussion groups, televisions showed more and more people who weren’t white and well off, we all told each other that we weren’t prejudiced; in other words, it wasn’t our fault.  But then this country elected the very symbol of racism to the highest office in the land: a black man.  That was too much. That tipped the kettle and the racism that we, as a country, had been hiding, even as we nurtured it, boiled over and within the span of a couple months, racism became trendy, became popular, was encouraged and flaunted from coast to coast, border to border, cave to skyscraper. The emperor’s clothes were pulled out of the closet and worn proudly by those whose worst fears had come to fruition.  

Of course, not me.  Not you.  None of us ride around with Confederate flags flying from our pickups. But, who of us has ever pulled down a Confederate flag?  What’s wrong with a Confederate flag?  What’ the difference between the Stars and Stripes?  It’s as simple as love and hate.  My greatest fear, as the gatekeeper of DeWitt’s Fourth of July parade, has been someone driving in with a vehicle festooned with Confederate flags.  My rule about parade entries is that they have to reflect the holiday.  Red, white and blue.  Lots of stars and lots of stripes.  But no stripes at odd angles. Parallel stripes. Stars grouped in a blue field, not spangled across bars. What would happen if I told someone to find another parade?

What’s the point of even talking about this? We could talk all day about evidence of racism in our community, in our hearts, in our nation. Our talk hardly matters.  But it does. Talk leads to thought, to action, to interaction. 

Kyle Butler, black man and pastor, says there is one solution.  Not legislation. Not law enforcement.  Not discussion groups. Not even education.

One solution: love. In Butler’s words: 

Love, the starting place.  Love, every single human being starting place.  Love at our core sees only me and it sees only you.  Not as a man, or a woman.  Not as a boy or a girl.  Not as a color.  Not as a lifestyle.  Not as a sexuality.  Not as a label of any kind.  Love is label-less.

When “love” is aggressively attached to labels, it can become very easy to dislike and even hate, the opposite of whatever the label is of that love. It is then no longer love.  It becomes wicked and twisted.  It believes through this distorted belief, that it must be favored or protected. It must be exulted above all others.  It believes it is superior and all others that don’t fit within the category of that label are inferior and are unworthy of decency. (https://www.patheos.com/blogs/keithgiles/2020/05/guest-post-kyle-butler-racism-my-answer-to-it/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Christians+For+a+Better+Christianity&utm_content=43)

Remember “Black lives matter” quickly inspired an anti-label: “Blue lives matter.”

How do we love without labels?  Jesus said, Love your neighbor, and when asked to define “neighbor,” he gave the hardest example he could think of: a Samaritan woman. What’s the hardest example you can think of?

Jesus gave us the answer to ending racism. Paul gave us the answer to ending racism. But that answer isn’t realistic, is it? How can I love people who frighten me?  How can I love people who threaten me?  How can I love people who don’t live their lives the right way? How can I love people who are just plain wrong?  How can I love people I don’t even know?

 Butler continues: 

We’ve played this game long enough.  No one has really won, and no one ever really will.  I know that seems inaccurate.  I know racism has benefited some and has done great harm to others.  That perception has created a mindset of winners and losers, victors and victims.  But in all actuality, it has torn down the very essence of the human spirit, therefore, in some ways, we are all at a loss.

Kyle Butler is not Martin Luther King, Jr.  Kyle Butler is not Franklin  Graham. Kyle Butler is not a celebrity. But his words are the words of someone we all admire: Jesus.  His words are the easy version of Corinthians 13.  Love.

Paul, as the traveling preacher, as the missionary, as the founder of multiple congregations, had to deal with personnel problems as often as he had to deal with convincing people that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, the Life. In our text today, he was trying to get Christians who were supposed to love each other to be nice to each other. 

Our English translation is the glossy magazine version.  The newspaper version, where the ink rubs off on your hands version, might go like this.

Love shows patience, that is, the lover, you, shows patience, acts with patience, makes decisions with patience, not only about your own family, but about the whole world.

Love shows kindness, not only to children and old people, but to people you don’t like, to people who are causing you trouble.

A loving person does not criticize those who get something for nothing or those who manipulate the system. (like my tax accountant)

A loving person does not bad-mouth anyone, any group, any person, any political party (that one is for me personally)

A loving person looks out for the happiness of others, even if they are strangers.

A loving person chooses anger toward injustice rather than anger toward inconvenience.

A loving person does not keep score of good deeds, nor of others’ mistakes.

 A loving person does not find satisfaction in someone else’s punishment  or bad luck. Remember Luther’s explanation of the 8th Commandment? “We should fear and love God, so that we do not deceitfully believe, betray, backbite, nor slander our neighbor, but apologize for him, speak well of him and put the most charitable construction on all that he does.”  Apologize for your neighbor’s idiot actions?  Yes. 

And by all means, when something good happens to your neighbor, who ALWAYS has good luck, celebrate.  

Love is more than a feeling. Love is more than a word. Love is more than a theory.  Love is a commandment.  Love has no gerrymanderedAnytime boundaries. Love has no physical limits. 

Racism is all about limits. Who can, who can’t, who is, who isn’t, who should, who shouldn’t.  Anytime you think “those people,” you are drawing a line between yourself and “those people.” Guess which on which side of the line Jesus is standing.  

Imagine a world without lines.  Imagine a world without fear.  “Fear not” appears in the Bible about a zillion times. That’s the world God created. That’s the Kingdom Jesus came to prepare, to establish, for all people.  

Don’t tell me you’re not prejudiced. Don’t tell me you’re not racist. Don’t tell me you don’t have anything against anybody.  I know you better than that.  I know very well how racist I am; I can list my stereotypes in a nice long list.  That’s why, when I hold Baby X in my arms, I stare and stare at his sweet little face.  My heart breaks for the trust that will some day be broken when he is chastised or denied because of the color of his skin, the shape of his eyes. My own biases, known and unknown, have already defined him in a way that is unfair and unnecessary.

But I will love him as best as I can, thankful that the love he knows in these first weeks of his life will nurture him and help him to grow into the perfect image of  God, just as I have been nurtured in that image.  The human does not remain perfect, but it does remain a child of God, loved, forgiven, redeemed and restored. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

1 Thessalonians 1 The Message (MSG)

I, Paul, together here with Silas and Timothy, send greetings to the church at Thessalonica, Christians assembled by God the Father and by the Master, Jesus Christ. God’s amazing grace be with you! God’s robust peace!

2-5 Every time we think of you, we thank God for you. 

Day and night you’re in our prayers as we call to mind 

your work of faith, 

your labor of love, and 

your patience of hope in following our Master, Jesus Christ, before God our Father. 

It is clear to us, friends, that God not only loves you very much 

but also has put his hand on you for something special. 

When the Message we preached came to you, it wasn’t just words. 

Something happened in you. 

The Holy Spirit put steel in your convictions.

5-6 You paid careful attention to the way we lived among you, and determined to live that way yourselves. In imitating us, you imitated the Master. Although great trouble accompanied the Word, you were able to take great joy from the Holy Spirit!—taking the trouble with the joy, the joy with the trouble.

7-10 Do you know that all over the provinces of both Macedonia/Toronto and Achaia/Dixon believers look up to you? The word has gotten around. Your lives are echoing the Master’s Word, not only in the provinces but all over the place. The news of your faith in God is out. 

We don’t even have to say anything anymore—you’re the message! People come up and tell us how you received us with open arms, how you deserted the dead idols of your old life so you could embrace and serve God, the true God. They marvel at how expectantly you await the arrival of his Son, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescued us from certain doom.

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They marvel at how expectantly you await the arrival of his Son, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescued us from certain doom.

This sentence struck me hard—-because I don’t know that I really am expecting Jesus to arrive anytime soon.  Since I’ve been an adult, I’ve figured I’d be the one to make the first move to meet Jesus—by dying.  But the people to whom Paul wrote and preached truly believed that Jesus would initiate the get-together. If Jesus hasn’t returned by now, why should I get excited about his returning to earth?  

If I did actively anticipate Jesus’ arrival, would that change me?  

Paul is writing this letter to the new Christinas in Thessalonica. They are brand new not only to the teachings of Jesus, but to the teachings of Judaism, the foundation of Jesus’ teachings.  We call them Gentiles or pagans or heathens—words that often have a negative connotation, but that basically connote anyone who has never worshipped the one God worshipped by us from the time of Abraham to the present day. 

It is important to remember that religious practice was not taken lightly in the culture of the time. Most religions were polytheistic, that is, there were many gods to worship, so that all the baes were covered. One of Paul’s most clever sermons referred to an altar to an unknown God. Acts 17: 23—For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship–and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

Remember reading stories about Zeus and Poseidon in grade school? Those were likely two of the Gods these new Thessalonian Christians had worshipped. Our teachers didn’t call the worship of these multiple gods religion; we were told that it was mythology.     

Regardless, these new Christians had rejected the major worship practices of their community and were now worshipping a foreign concept—foreign to their friends, neighbors, employer and local law enforcement.  It takes guts to be different.

What was foreign to the Thessalonians is very familiar to us and to most of the people with whom we interact.  Not only were the Thessalonians countercultural: they had to learn a whole new way to think and act.  

Most of us, on the other hand, have been familiar with Christianity in some form since we left the womb. Even if your parents didn’t take you to church, you certainly were familiar with Christmas and Easter in some form by the time you were walking.  

In this passage written to these new Christians, Paul could not be more complimentary.  

Day and night you’re in our prayers as we call to mind 

your work of faith, 

your labor of love, and 

your patience of hope in following our Master, Jesus Christ, before God our Father.

Perfect Christins.  Now, let’s reread the sentence at the end of our text: They marvel at how expectantly you await the arrival of his Son, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescued us from certain doom.

If you thought Jesus would return any day now, would you be sitting on your front porch in your Sunday best or would you be working and laboring in expectation?  

It reminds me of getting ready for one of those big graduation parties that isn’t going to happen this year. 

I think I can safely assume that you’ve all attended high school graduation parties. Parties around here are gargantuan.  They have to be held in machine sheds or community centers to accommodate all the guests.  Tables and chairs are borrowed. Roasters full of meat and dozens of rolls are served with gallons of salads.  The entire life of the graduate is on display via about one thousand photographs.  In the case of musicians and athletes, there are baskets full of medals.  It is not unusual to find tanks full of ice cooled beverages. And the student rakes in cash from people s/he hardly knows. The family spends about a tenth of the yearly budget on this one event.  (I wish there were a rule that whatever you spend on a graduation party is equal to what you give to your church that month.)   

Back to our text. That is the kind of excitement Paul observes in these novice Christians as they wait for Jesus to rescue them from the reality of living among nonbelievers.

In so many of Paul’s letters, he is scolding the congregations for slacking off, for being greedy or unfair, for making up their own versions of following Jesus.  This letter to the Thessalonians is so happy, so refreshing, so inspiring.

It is important to note in these pre-Pentecost weeks that Paul makes it clear that these followers are motivated not by their own great integrity or ability or innate goodness: they are motivated by the Holy Spirit.

When the Message we preached came to you, it wasn’t just words. 

Something happened in you. 

The Holy Spirit put steel in your convictions.

Think about that.  

Something happened in you. 

The Holy Spirit put steel in your convictions.

You call yourself a Christian. You wouldn’t be on the receiving end of this sermon if you didn’t claim that descriptor.  You are a Cristian because God sought you out, because God loved you, because Jesus died for you, because the Holy Spirit keeps you in line and on task.  

Something happened in you. You are different.  You are strange.  You are special.

It is clear to us, friends, that God not only loves you very much  but also has put his hand on you for something special.

In these confusing, frustrating times, I pray that you use your specialness, that you open yourself to the Holy Spirit.  I pray that you are able to take great joy from the Holy Spirit. I pray that your work of faith, your labor of love, and your patience of hope in following our Master, Jesus Christ, before God our Father continue, one day at a time, as we face what we don’t know.

What do we know? We know that we are Easter people, taking the trouble with the joy, the joy with the trouble.

 We know that we are Easter people, that we can anticipate, even in these trying times, the assurance of that final Easter to sustain us.  God is with us.  Amen. 

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We are Easter People

I am writing my sermon, as I always do, early Sunday morning.  I read and stew all week, get a good start on Saturday night after supper and stop at just the right point to make it blossom at 5:00 a.m.  Today I am writing as my dear mother faces her final Easter day—not with an earthly date of month, day, year, but her real, realized eternal Easter.  She is having difficulty making the transition.  Her body is more than wiling and is forcefully dragging her down the path, but her Spirit is clinging to what she knows and loves.For 73 of her 95 years, she has lived in this castle, this fortress. She has made this old brick house a home for her husband and her children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, for friends and neighbors and associates. She has charmed them with her hospitality, impressed them with her wisdom, and sustained them with her natural intelligence and ability. Now she looks out the window at the barn that always came first, representing the lifestyle she married, a lifestyle that required diligence and patience and demanded faith and hope.The corn is being planted once more, as it has been for all these years.  The wildflowers are blooming, as they always have for all these years. That is hope: knowing that something is coming.  She knows, in this final spring in this fortress, that her “hope is built on nothing less” than Jesus Christ.  Anticipation is a sly companion, especially when its revelations are unknown.  All our years, we anticipate this final Easter day, yet we are not in any way eager for it.  It is in our nature to be afraid of what we don’t know.  We can never know, until we finally experience it, what is behind that thin place that separates us from the living presence of God.  We say we know God, we say that we feel God’s presence, but we can’t fool ourselves.  We know this is but a “foretaste of the feast to come.” And so, as she waits, always the true self we have always loved, she savors each moment, even if it is boring or painful or frustrating or frightening.  She savors each word spoken, each petal of each flower in the vase by her table, each cool sip, each gesture of love. How privileged we are to have been a part of her journey.  How privileged we are to be able to accompany her, even as we fight the same reluctance she feels…the letting go..even when we confess that we believe in life everlasting. When we says we believe in life everlasting, it is tempting to think of this life we know as everlasting.  But in truth, we won’t know what everlasting life is like until we leave this life that is designed to be impermanent, finite. We are Easter people. We say that because it gives us hope. We are Easter people. We say that because it alleviates the fear of facing what we don’t truly know.  Faith and hope and love, the gifts the Sprit gives to Christians, is finally what helps us move from this dear, sweet life; the gifts of the Spirit help us forget the pain of the past and buoys us forward to what we keep telling ourselves, not out of desperation, but out of hope, out of belief: God has prepared a home for us.  Living in a big, old brick house for 73 years, making it a home, is as close as we can get to paradise on this earth. It is hard to leave something so beautiful. It is beautiful not because of the bricks or the classy furnishings or even the solid memories formed there.  It is beautiful because of the soul that created it. May that beautiful soul find peace and more beauty than she has ever imagined.  Amen.