Charlottesville

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 10th Sunday after Pentecost + August 13, 2017

Reading: Matt. 14:22-33


I was not thinking about my sermon yesterday. It was already written, printed out and tucked safely inside my worship folder, ready to go for this morning. I was out on Center Hill lake, spending time with one of my best friends before she moves to Texas and enjoying the tranquility of being out on the water.

Then I got back to land. I checked my Facebook while I was waiting in line for food. The first thing I saw was a post by my friend Brandy, who has just started a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Virginia and recently moved to Charlottesville. Her post said: “Thanks for all the checking in y’all. I’m safe (phone had just died).” and she went on to describe first-hand the scene you’ve all probably heard of by now: the clash between supremacist protesters and counter-protesters at a park in Charlottesville, which eventually involved the national guard. How someone purposefully drove their car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring many more. (And by the way, this driving-into-a-crowd-of-protesters thing has been happening for a while; and it has personal impact for me: my friend Peter was hit by a car in Nashville in January while serving as a safety officer for a protest.)

Later I learned more about what’s been happening in Charlottesville: While the “Unite the Right” protest on Saturday had pre-approval from the city, another hate group action, on Friday night, did not.

“At that action, hundreds of White men and women carrying lit tiki-torches [and remember how fire has been used historically by groups such as the KKK)]marched on the campus of the University of Virginia, yelling ‘You will not replace us!’ ‘Jew will not replace us!’ and ‘Blood and Soil,’ a slogan of Nazi Germany. The White supremacists surrounded the campus’ St. Paul’s Memorial Church as an opposing multifaith, multiracial prayer service let out and then violently clashed with a small group of student counter-protesters at the university’s rotunda.” [from Colorlines]

So forgive me if this sermon comes out rather disorganized, but I figured that we need to talk about this.

And just to give this sermon some added context: I have been at St. Andrew for just shy of three years. This is the second time since I have been here that one of our pastors has felt the need to re-write a sermon at the last minute because of race-based violence. That’s in addition to all the Sundays we’ve had time to prepare thoughts beforehand on shootings or statements that have taken over the media. That’s too much for a nation that often thinks it’s beyond all this racism stuff.

Here’s a brief summary of what I was originally going to say about today’s gospel story of Peter and Jesus walking on the water. Peter slides over the edge of that boat and onto the surface of the water, boldly and faithfully walking towards Jesus. But then his fear lurches up inside of him, and his commitment wavers. He starts to back away — or in this case, down, into the waves.

Peter is always doing that — taking a bold stand and then backing away in fear. He boldly and faithfully tells Jesus he would rather die than abandon him (Matt. 26:33-35), and then later that very day he denies even knowing Jesus (Matt. 26:69-75). Boldly and faithfully, he is the first to baptize non-Jewish people and welcome them into the community of the church — he takes a lot of heat for this — but he stands firm (Acts 11). Then later, St. Paul publicly criticizes him for refusing to eat with non-Jewish people because some of the Christians who don’t like that kind of thing are in town (Gal. 2:11-12). Peter backs away a lot.

But what does Jesus do in the story of walking on water? He does the same thing he always does: he reaches out. He reaches out to pull Peter up out of the waves when his faith wavers. Just like Jesus spent his whole life reaching out to people, despite what the people around him think: he reaches out to Zaccheus, the rich tax collector, and the man’s heart is completely changed (Luke 19:1-10). He reaches out to sick people, to lepers whom no one else would touch (ex. Matt. 8:1-4). Even on the cross he reaches out to the criminals next to him and to the very people who are crucifying him (Luke 23:32-43).

Peter is so easy to relate to. We, too, often feel afraid and back down from our convictions. But as disciples we need to practice being more like our teacher: our teacher, who reaches out despite the risk, despite the fear of the doubt or the whatever going on inside of us. We need to reach out to other people, making God’s love and welcome our own, making ourselves living signs of the gospel.

At this time, in this political climate, reaching out is one of the most important things we can do: one of the best things we can do for ourselves, our neighbors, our community, and our country.

Dr. Wes Bellamy, the vice-mayor of Charlottesville, said this in an interview:

“And honestly speaking, if this doesn’t bring us together – people from different nationalities, people from different ethnicities, different races, different ages, different denominations in church and racial beliefs and socioeconomic status – if this doesn’t bring all of those groups together to stand up and stand united against hate, I honestly do not know what will. Someone has lost their life. Thirteen people were ran over and hit.

“These individuals have literally come here and said that they wanted to invoke terror over all of us. And while, again, I’m disappointed and heartbroken that someone has lost their life, I firmly do believe that this will be the opportunity that we need for us to stand up and stand together. […] So if you want to help us, if you want to help us, pray for us or send positive energy, or make a difference and decide to stand up with us and stand together.”

We’re not in Charlottesville, but how can we stand with them — and with all the others facing hate and discrimination — right where we are? In what ways can you reach out — boldly and faithfully?

Maybe you already have relationships that allow you to reach out: to ask a person of color about their experiences, to try and understand another’s point of view. Or to show kindness and understanding to someone with an opposite political view. Or maybe you know who someone who needs help out their fear or their hate, someone with whom you can share the gospel message of love and welcome. Maybe you can try to form those relationships — to put yourselves in groups, activities, situations where you will have opportunity to meet different people, to stand together with others.

And if that’s not possible, maybe you can do your own research, maybe you can reach outside of your own culture and experiences by what you watch or read or listen to: Watch a documentary on black history or the black experience; we watched a great one called White Like Me at last year’s Southeastern Synod Leadership Convocation, and PBS and Netflix have put out some good ones recently. Read books by people of color. Listen to an informative podcast; I’ve been listening to the “On Being White” series from Scene on Radio. Read news articles from across the political spectrum, or from sources run by people of other cultures; the ELCA’s director for racial justice ministries often recommends an online newsource called Colorlines.

Do what you can to understand people who are different from you. You don’t have to agree with everything– but it’ll help you reach out in person when the opportunity arises.

Reach out by speaking out against fear, hatred, racism, violence, and the tolerance of violence — even when it appears in smaller, quieter, calmer forms than it did in Charlottesville this weekend. Take that bold risk, even when it’s scary.

We are the body of Christ; we need try our best to do what Jesus would do in every situation: to speak out and to reach out.

Let us pray.

Just and merciful God, we lift before you the city of Charlottesville, especially victims of violence and those gathered in support of peace and equality. By your might, break the bondage that bigotry, hatred and violence impose on their victims and their perpetrators. Help us to always reach out with your fierce love and welcome. May your kingdom come on earth as in heaven; through Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for the life of the world. Amen.

[Prayer adapted from the Virginia Synod ELCA’s statement on the Aug. 12 rally in Charlottesville]

fight-nyc-street-medium

“Fight the Good Fight,” New York City street art photo by Redhope. Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition.

Who is on the Side of the Road?

Written for Saint Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 8th Sunday after Pentecost + July 10, 2016

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37 (Focus: Luke 10:25-37)


This week the parable of the Good Samaritan is too real. This week there are too many people bleeding on the side of the road, and there are too many people passing by.

“Here we are. Again.” That’s how Bishop Elizabeth Eaton began a video she released this week.“Here we are. Again. Just days apart, two African-American men were shot by police.”

Just hours after the ELCA released that video on Thursday night, news of even more violence flooded our phones, TVs, and radios: in Dallas five police officers were killed and seven wounded, two civilians were injured, and their attacker is dead.

My Facebook newsfeed has been full of reactions. Reactions of friends who are black and tired of feeling hopeless and unsafe and unheard. Reactions of friends who are white and wondering what they can do. Reactions of friends who know and love police officers and are worried for their safety.

Worst of all: these words are too familiar. They echo words from reactions to the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014 and the violent aftermath. They echo reactions from the killing of Emmett Till in 1955. They echo reactions to lynchings throughout our nation’s history.

Bishop Eaton’s message continued: “This is an all-too-frequent occurrence in our country, and I think it’s because we can’t see. We can’t see each other as fully children of God, and we tend to look at each other through the lens of suspicion and fear: communities of color wondering what an encounter with the police will bring; police and others in law enforcement automatically suspicious, it seems, of communities of color. We can’t see. And we need — we need to open our eyes.”

So maybe it’s a God-wink (as Pastor Metee would say) or a God-smack (as Marge Fottrell would say) that today’s gospel reading is the parable of the Good Samaritan. Most of the time when we hear this parable, we immediately think of acts of charity: bringing cans of soup and jars of peanut butter to a food pantry or stopping to help a stranger in need; we might think of organizations that have been named for this parable, like Samaritan’s Purse or the Good Samaritan Orphanage. And, yes, this parable does encourage us to charity and mercy. But I think its main point is to make us open our eyes and see each other differently. To see the people on the side of the road differently, for sure, but also to see ourselves differently.

Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan in response to a particular question. A lawyer had approached him and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” — but that’s not the question that prompted the story. At that point Jesus basically responded: “You’re an educated man. What’s written in the Bible about this?” Sure enough, the man quotes Deuteronomy 6.5: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength,” and then Leviticus 19.18: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus said, “Right answer! Good job.”

But the lawyer wasn’t satisfied yet. The Gospel says that, “wanting to justify himself,” he asked Jesus a follow-up question: “And who is my neighbor?” Who exactly am I obligated by God to love as myself?

Loving someone as we love ourselves is hard. It’s hard even with the people we really do love of our own accord, like our spouse or our children. And it can be even harder to love someone as we love ourselves when we have no love-feelings or family duty to them: strangers at the grocery store, or somebody who works in the same building but never really interacts with us. And then there’s the question of people we really actively dislike: people who mess up our plans, or who oppose us in debate…or war. There are people from other cultures and religions, people who are so different from us that we can hardly think of them as “us.” Surely the word “neighbor” implies more of a connection than all that. Surely there is a smaller circle of people God asks us to love as we love ourselves.

So the lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” — “a polite way of asking ‘Who’s not my neighbor?'”[1]— and Jesus responded with the story of the Good Samaritan.

But notice that at the end of the story Jesus didn’t ask, “Now do you see just who is your neighbor?” Even though that was the question the lawyer had asked, Jesus asked a different question to get to the moral of his story: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”

It almost reads like Jesus ignored the man’s question. Couldn’t he have said something clear, like, “Everyone is your neighbor, you schmuck,” instead of telling this story and asking a backwards question?

But if Jesus had done that, the lawyer may have walked away unchanged. The lawyer asked his question from one perspective, but Jesus didn’t answer from that perspective. Jesus’s question made the lawyer see himself and the world differently.

The lawyer asked a question that sounded like he was trying to better understand God’s commands, but he was still just thinking of himself and what was good for him. He was still seeing the people around him as an extension of himself. Who is my neighbor? Who am I required to love? Who can I get away with not caring about? Who’s in my circle, and who is out? That’s not love. That’s still just self-preservation.

Jesus’s story and question made this man see things differently. The obligation was not other people’s to fall into the circle of “neighbor” or to be lovable. The obligation was the lawyer’s: you be the neighbor. You go into the world and show mercy. This is not about defining them; it’s about defining you. If you are walking in God’s way, you will be the neighbor, you will be merciful. You will see all people through eyes of mercy.

In the aftermath of politically divisive tragedies like this week’s — the murder of African-American men, the murder of police officers, violence done to innocent bystanders — we too often fall back into the lawyer’s original way of seeing the world: self-preservation mode. We hole up. We refuse to consider different opinions or to give credibility to experiences different than our own. We want to keep the pain and the danger as far away from ourselves as possible, and so we ask, “But who is my neighbor?” and try to delineate who it is, exactly, that we are obligated to love as we love ourselves: whose point of view we are obligated to understand, whom we are obligated to show mercy. Surely not everyone.

And then we deny our own fundamental belief that all lives matter when we refuse to try and understand the cry “black lives matter,” to understand that that cry comes from the side of the road and out of the experience of watching so many people pass by while suffering goes on and on and on. If the phrase “Black lives matter” bothers you, try hearing it as a question, a plea from the side of the road: don’t black lives matter, too?

Maybe all that rhetoric makes better sense on a local, personal level. The Franklin homepage published a story this week about a local African-American attorney. After this week’s tragedies, he posted on his Facebook page: “We can figure out how to act later, but I just wanted to know – do y’all care? Do you know that I identify with these men, and do you see that?”

As Christians, we are called to see. To hear the cries from the side of the road. To be the neighbor, to show mercy — generously. Abundantly. We are called to change perspectives: to leave behind the perspective of the Levite and the priest who pass by — their perspective of self-preservation that asks, “If I stop to help, what will happen to me?” and to take on the perspective of the Good Samaritan — the perspective of mercy that asks, “If I don’t stop to help, what will happen to him?” [2]

In the political sphere and in the media, people may argue: Who is right? Who is wrong? Who deserved what? Who is justified?

But for Christians, the question ought to be much simpler than that: Who is on the side of the road? How can we help? How can we show mercy?


Notes:

[1]  Amy-Jill Levine, “Go and Do Likewise,” America, September 29, 2014. Online: http://americamagazine.org/issue/go-and-do-likewise

[2] The questions of the Levite/Priest and the Samaritan are taken from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” delivered April 3, 1968, Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), Memphis, TN. Full text of speech available at http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm [Quoted in Levine, “Go and Do Likewise.”]