Archive for November 2014

Before Hope…

November 30, 2014

Isaiah 64:1-9

Mark 13:24-37

 

There’s this post circulating Facebook. The title is, “The Entire Bible Explained in One Facebook Post. This Guy Nails It.” The person who wrote this post starts off by saying, “Holy Bible: the TL;DR version (too long; didn’t read).” The TL;DR is a common phrase on the Internet. As that title hints, it means that something, whether a comment or story or other post, was too long and the reader, upon seeing how long the post is, didn’t read it.

(Here it is, in original form, but maybe not from the actual, original post)

The TL;DR version of the Bible goes like this:

GENESIS

God: All right, you two, don’t do the one thing. Other than that, have fun.

Adam & Eve: Okay.

Satan: You should do the thing.

Adam & Eve: Okay.

God: What happened?!

Adam & Eve: We did the thing.

God: Guys… (Whenever this is read, I imagine God is off to the side, facepalming. Facepalming, in case you didn’t know, is where you put your face into your palm in frustration, like so…)

THE REST OF THE OLD TESTAMENT

God: You are my people, and you should not do the things.

People: We won’t do the things.
God: Good.

People: We did the things.

God: Guys…

THE GOSPELS

Jesus: I am the Son of God, and even though you have done the things, the Father and I still love you and want you to live. Don’t do the things anymore.

Healed people: Okay! Thank you!

Other people: We’ve never seen him do the things, but he probably does the things when no one is looking.

Jesus: I have never done the things.

Other people: We are going to put you on trial for doing the things.

Pilate: Did you do the things?

Jesus: No.

Pilate: He didn’t do the things.

Other people: Kill him anyway.

Pilate: Okay.

Jesus: Guys…

PAUL’S LETTERS

People: We did the things.

Paul: Jesus still loves you, and because you love Him, you have to stop doing the things.

People: Okay.

PAUL’S LETTERS PART II

People: We did the things.

Paul: Guys…

REVELATION

John: When Jesus comes back, there will be no more people who do the things. In the meantime, stop doing the things.

THE END

In the comments section of this post, someone wrote, “That was still TL;DR, dude,” to which another person replies, “Guys…”

I think the only thing I’d change in that whole post is, “Guys…” I’d make it, “Y’all…” with the same tone and inclination. “Y’all” is just better. First, I’m from Arkansas, so it fits my Southern accent more appropriately. Second, I live in Texas now. “Y’all” is just as much Texas as it is Arkansas. Finally, it’s inclusive. “Y’all,” gives the opportunity to include everyone in the room. You’re not addressing just men, but women also. “Y’all” allows for that. It’s just “you all” shortened!

But that’s not the point of this post. I think a great point of this post is that we do the things. We do the things over and over and over. We do the things and all God can do is facepalm and say, “Y’all…”

 

When we look at this Isaiah text, we see the prophet pleading for God to come to earth. The people have lost their way, because God is not present to keep tabs on them. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence… You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember your ways. But you were angry and we sinned; because you hid yourself, we transgressed.” Without God, Isaiah says, we do the things.

We have a benefit, though. We know the whole story. We know that Isaiah is pleading with God to send the Messiah. And while Jesus probably wasn’t exactly the Messiah Isaiah was pleading for, Jesus came to Earth for us. We have an edge on the Old Testament despair we find in the prophets.

But even after Jesus the Messiah comes for us we hear words like those from this section of Mark. “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken… But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” Even after Jesus, the Son of Man, the greatest prophet ever, the Messiah of all humanity comes to Earth, we’re still warned that judgment will come; because we do all the things. I have a friend that has called the first Sunday of Advent, “Apocalypse Sunday.”

 

And now, when we look at the state of our world, I don’t think it is too hard for us to imagine ourselves in the world of Isaiah. In the time of prophets, Israel was burdened with injustice. The prophets lamented over inequalities with the classes. Immigrants were turned away from the temple. People were starving in the streets. The wealthy kept resources for themselves. If you were different from the people at the top of the food chain, you were an outcast.

Even in exile, the people at the top of the food chain in the Jewish community worked with their conquerors to ensure that a certain “pecking order” was sustained. There was no movement in society. Things were kept in place so that the people at the top could stay there. The ancient Israelite society was the opposite of what the prophets believed to be justice. Oppression was preferred over justice.

And here we are, in 2014, millennia after the prophets of Ancient Israel aired their grievances.

Here we are, after Jesus came to this Earth and showed us how to live.

Here we are, after we’ve been told not to do the things, doing the things.

Our society is rife with injustice. Everywhere we look, we see injustice.

We see it when people who strike for working wages are arrested. We see it when peaceful protests are met with tear gas and rubber bullets. We see it when prosecuting attorneys have closer relationships with those they should be prosecuting than the people who elected them. We see injustice when those that are sworn to protect and serve the public do not hold themselves to a standard higher than the common criminal. Injustice is everywhere. Our societal system is on the verge of a complete collapse.

 

We are at a moment when it could be easy to abandon all sense of hope. It would be easy to just give up. After all, the system of oppression is already in place. That system of oppression is already such a well-oiled machine that we could just let it continue to run. At least we’re used to that system. Plus, it would be a lot less effort. Let’s just sit on our couches and change the channels when things get uncomfortable. Let’s allow a police department to question a 12 year-old’s home life after a police officer shoots them. Let’s not question why stealing cigarillos is an offense punishable by death without judge and jury. Let’s not worry about police officers choking a man to death for selling loose cigarettes.

If we don’t question any of those things, then we take the easy way out. And it’s so easy not to question them, because we are again at a place where hope cannot be realized. We are at a time when hope is so absent, we don’t realize that hope could be born again. We are before hope.

Before hope, we have to face injustice.

Before hope, we have to deem that we are unworthy of anything hopeful.

Before hope, we have to know that our society is broken and irreparable.

Before hope, there is nothing that can be done.

Before hope, we have to know that we are done.

But out of those times before hope, hope is born. The Ancient Israelites constantly questioned whether a Messiah could come for them. The disciples had to watch Christ be tortured and sentenced to die. We have to watch the oppression succeed. And each time, something changes.

Jesus came for the world, out of the struggles of the Israelites.

The resurrection came for the disciples, who had their world shattered.

And now, movements come out of the unnecessary loss of black lives.

The change that is coming from the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, John Crawford, III, and countless others is where we look for our hope now. All across the nation this past week, we saw the movement spread. From “Die Ins” to peaceful marches, we saw persons of all colors unite to fight injustice. In Oakland, protestors shut down BART. In San Francisco, a march disrupted the downtown tree-lighting ceremony. In New York, people flooded Times Square. In Chicago, countless neighborhoods are organizing to stop violence in their communities. Here in Houston, people marched from MacGregor Park, with the statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. looking on, to the University of Houston to support those in Ferguson. We have not seen this kind of movement in our country in 50 years.

Just when things get the most bleak, light breaks through.

Just when things seem to be at their worst, something good awakens.

Just when the chains of the oppressor are at their tightest, something breaks free.

And these are the reasons that we light this candle. Because we have a hard time seeing the hope, we light the candle. Because we exist in a time before we can believe in anything resembling hope, we light the candle. Because we want the world to be different than it is, we light this candle.

By lighting the candle, we start this season of Advent. We start a change in the world. We ask for change in the world. We desire change in the world. Lighting the candle is asking ourselves to live into the change. Lighting the candle is demanding that we have hope. Lighting the candle requires that we start anew, again. If we don’t light that candle of Hope on this first Sunday of Advent, then we say that everything has been for nothing.

We light the candle for the protestors. We light the candle for lives lost. We light the candle that no more lives will be lost. We light the candle for full and equal humanity for all persons. We light the candle so that, in the end of it all, we stop doing the things.

 

PostScript

On the drive back from church, I talked over the reaction from this congregation with Heather. First, I provided pulpit supply at Oaks Presbyterian Church here in Houston. This is a much older congregation. We don’t think they got the Facebook post idea. Like, at all. Just fell flat. Secondly, I came in hard with this sermon. I had no idea what the congregation would be like. Yes, I could have guessed that it was an older, white congregation, but I went with it anyway. Lastly, we think it could be accepted in our more progressive and familiar circles. I will gauge that thought from your reactions.

And if you want to get more involved, at least via the Internet, in the #Ferguson protests, I highly suggest following these folks:

@brownblaze

@deray

@MusicOverPeople

@Nettaaaaaaaa

@AntonioFrench

@solomonmissouri

@FeministaJones

@GeekNStereo

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Turn Signals, Part II

November 18, 2014

John 4: 4-9; 16-24; 27

James 2: 1-13

Growing up, one of my favorite television shows was the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. This show was hilarious and hip. It introduced the mainstream, American audience to a young rapper/actor by the name of Will Smith. Incidentally, Will Smith went by the name Will Smith in the television show. The premise, in case you are unfamiliar with it, is that Will was a troublemaker when he was growing up in West Philadelphia. Or, according to his side of things, others were the troublemakers and he got blamed for it. Long story short, his mother sends him to live with his aunt, who is a professor, and uncle, who is a lawyer – both successful enough to have a mansion in Bel-Air.

Part of the reason that this show was so popular was that it brought issues facing African Americans into the middle-class American household. There was one episode that aired during season 1 titled, “Mistaken Identity.” In this episode, Will’s Uncle Phil and Aunt Vivian go to a party in Palm Springs and instruct Will and his cousin Carlton to drive to the party in Phil’s partner’s Mercedes Benz. On the way to Palm Springs, the boys get lost and are pulled over by the police for “going too slow.” Then, the police find out that the Mercedes is not theirs, so the boys are booked on car theft. They’re even told they “match the description” of car thieves in the area.

While in jail, Will and Carlton cannot get a hold of Vivian and Phil. So Will has an idea: he’ll confess to all the car thefts if a local news crew is present to record the confession as well as broadcast it live. A news crew shows up and Will gives his “confession,” with Carlton nervously standing beside him. Sure enough, at the party in Palm Springs, Vivian and Phil see the confession on TV. They rush over to the police station and demand that the sheriff release the two boys. The sheriff brushes them aside, but when Uncle Phil’s White partner comes in, the sheriff does nothing but cater to him. But once Phil’s partner points out who Phil is, and who the boys are, the sheriff knows he’s in trouble. Phil chews him up and spits him out in a tirade that ends with, “You get those boys out of that damn cell or I’m going to tie this place up in so much litigation your grandchildren are going to need lawyers!”

The crowd cheers and the boys are released. But what really makes this episode special is when the family arrives home. We see Carlton trying to explain away the police officers’ actions. He keeps on saying, “They were just doing their job.” This infuriates Will, because Will knows those cops were not doing their jobs. Even after Will gets onto Carlton about how they were pulled over because they were Black, Carlton still insists, “They were just doing their job!”

Once Will goes upstairs for the night, Phil comes in. Carlton says that he’ll have to write Phil’s partner a thank-you note for helping them out. Phil replies, “It shouldn’t have happened in the first place son.”

“Dad,” Carlton stops Phil, “If you were a policeman and you saw a car driving two miles an hour, wouldn’t you stop them?”

“I asked myself that question the first time I was stopped. Goodnight, son.”

Phil walks out of the room and the camera focuses on a confused Carlton, sitting on the couch. “I would stop them,” he says to himself. Then the camera fades out.

You can view that part of the episode I referred to here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQtDXxXyPYQ

Last week we talked about how bad it is not to use a turn signal. How, when you fail to use that turn signal, you’re not treating your fellow people as equals. But now, we have to look at what happens when we fall asleep behind the wheel.

That episode of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air aired on October 15, 1990. That’s 25 years after the Civil Rights Act was passed. 25 years after people marched from Selma to Montgomery. 33 years after the Little Rock Nine entered the halls of Central High School. Yet, the writers of the Fresh Prince felt compelled to bring up racial profiling in their situational comedy.

And, 24 years after that episode first aired, we have the same conversations about race in America today. This is where I have to insert my own qualifier. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m White. Not only am I White, but I’m also a man. Not only am I a White man, but I’m also a straight, White man. AND, I grew up in an upper-middle class household! That means I sit outside of the affected group in these conversations. I am in the most privileged group of people in the world today. People like me have defined history. My ancestors made things happen the way they wanted them to happen. People like me started the Atlantic Slave Trade. People like me instituted Jim Crow in the South. People like me arrest or kill innocent Black teenagers in the streets today.

But just because I’m like those people, doesn’t mean I am those people. But because I am like those people, I benefit from a system that has wreaked havoc on those that are not like me. If I had it my way, White people all throughout history would have acted differently. If I had it my way, Black parents would not have to tell their sons and daughters to be cautious of police. If I had it my way, there would be no White privilege.

And the church is filled with millions of White people who think exactly like me. Good Christians don’t want there to be an unbalanced system in which people are treated like second-class citizens based on the color of their skin. Good Christians don’t want police to react violently to people who are protesting for their basic human rights. Good Christians don’t want Amnesty International to monitor situations in their own country because of the brutality of the current system in place. Yet, in a country full of good Christians, this is the case, and has been the case, for the entire history of our country.

We, as Christians, particularly White Christians, have a troubled past. We have a past full of genocide, slavery, discrimination, and many, many uncomfortable things. We have a history of shying away from things we’re uncomfortable with. We have a history of, when faced with injustice, putting the car in cruise control and saying, “God will take care of it… eventually.” We just stay the course that society has lined up for us. People that enjoy the status quo set our GPS to the easiest route. We watch all of this happen, and we care not for the justice that God wants.

The Jesus that was at the well would be extremely disappointed in us. This Jesus who was at the well engaged a woman. Men didn’t talk to women one-on-one in those days! The Jesus that was at the well engaged a Samarian woman! Jews hated Samarians! Jesus at the well engaged a Samarian woman that had been divorced multiple times! Divorced women, particularly women that had multiple husbands, were thought to be the worst kind of person! A woman who had been throw to the bottom of the societal pyramid directly received the message of Christ. The Jesus that approached the well threw away the shackles of societal expectations. Jesus at the well engaged that person on the bottom of the pyramid as a full and legitimate equal person. But that’s not what we do.

We put people in compartments. Rich are treated better than poor. White is treated better than Black. Men receive more advantages than women. We separate ourselves from each other. Our society is asleep at the wheel, but still has the cruise control set at 60 miles an hour. Our societal automobile has become a dangerous, dangerous weapon.

Be quick to note that the disciples thought it was strange that Jesus was talking to this woman. They questioned this interaction. “Why are you speaking with her?” They didn’t say anything, though. They just let Jesus be Jesus. But in that letter from James, we see that this action had a profound impact on the disciples.

James says every time we show favoritism for one person over another we fail. Every time we ignore that certain people receive preferential treatment over others, we fail. Every time we see that one group of persons in our society is treated worse than others, we reject the Jesus who openly talked to the woman at the well. We see what Jesus taught us, and we turn the other way. Even in this section of the letter, we hear James declare to us, “… ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”

There’s this web-comic that I absolutely love. It describes the process of God creating a new child. It starts off with God and the child on a cloud together and God leans over and says, “Looks like you’re about ready to start.” God picks up the child and asks, “What would you like to do?”

“What would you like me to do?” the child answers.

“That’s up to you,” God says as he’s carrying the child over to a smaller cloud, “Just be nice and try to have fun.”

The child is now floating down to Earth on the smaller cloud and says, “That’s easy!”

With the smaller cloud out of the picture, we see God walking away and shrugging, saying, “You’d think.”

It’s hard for us humans to just be nice and have fun. It sounds easy, but we’re so easily corruptible. We’re made good, in the image of God, but once we get going, we forget that image. We know we can love one another, but it’s just so hard to do so. We know wrong when we see it, but it’s easier to walk away than confront that wrong with love. We see our faults in the past, but we’d rather sweep them under the rug than face our own shortcomings.

Despite all this, we have hope. We have hope, because we were made to act in love. In the lectionary for today, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul tells us, “So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake… For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” Treat all people like Jesus treated the woman at the well. Love all people as you love yourself. Accept the challenge to love.

Acting in love is facing injustice head on.

Acting in love is facing our shortcomings.

Acting in love is admitting to the oppressed when we have been the oppressors.

Acting in love is walking in the light, towards equality for everyone.

Let’s wake up! Let’s take control of the wheel! Let’s use our turn signals! Let’s get off of the map that the oppressors want us on and find our own routes! Routes filled with love and justice and equality! Go forth from here and all spaces and use your turn signals with love and peace and grace!

Turn Signals, Part I

November 10, 2014

November 9, 2014

Leviticus 19:17-18

Mark 12:28-34

Turn signals are among the things that I rant about the most. Feel free to ask my wife about that. Feel free to ask anyone that’s ridden in the car with me about it. Heck, feel free to ask anyone with whom I’ve had more that one conversation about that. It is my humble opinion that turn signals are the most important part of any driver’s routine. But what’s important about the turn signal is not that it’s signaling where someone is about to go. Rather, it’s about the person behind that wheel telling the other person what they’re about to do.

Getting upset while you’re driving is so easy to do. It takes almost nothing to get red in the face, put a certain finger in the air, and yell words you would never even mutter at church towards that driver going down the interstate.

The comedian Louis C.K. breaks this scenario down perfectly in his stand-up routine. Now, if you don’t know who Louis C.K. is, there are a couple of important things to note. First, you should know that is television show, which comes on the FX Network is brilliant. He’s been nominated, and won, a few Emmys at this point. Second, he is considered a “comedian’s comedian.” That means he gets along with everyone in the business. He supports his peers and is well respected throughout the comedy genre. Lastly, if you’re a parent, or aunt, or uncle, or grandparent, you should definitely screen anything Louis C.K. does before you let any child watch it. His stuff is not kid friendly, although there are some episodes of his show where he interacts with his kids and those lessons are priceless. But definitely, definitely screen his stuff before you let any child at all watch material by Louis C.K.

In one of his stand up routines, Louis starts talking about what he’s like behind the wheel of a car. He’s quick to note that when we are driving is when we should be our most compassionate, nice, and caring; because we are, in fact, driving a weapon. Think about that for a moment, that’s really true. However many pounds of steel, full of flammable chemicals, hurtling down the freeway at 60 + miles per hour? That’s a dangerous scenario. In this routine, Louis says, “One time, I was driving, and there was a guy ahead of me, he kind of – I don’t know – sort of drifted into my lane for a second? And this came out of my mouth, I said, ‘Worthless piece of … [expletive].’” Then he pauses for the crowd to laugh, because it is funny.

Then, he goes on to say, “What an indictment. What kind of way is that to feel about another human being? … That’s somebody’s son! And things I’ve said to other people!” And then he lists some other things he’s said about people. Then, he, seemingly thinking out loud, says, “Where outside of a car is that nearly OK?” He goes on and says those pieces of glass and metal that separate us change everything. We yell at each other. We curse at each other. We completely separate ourselves from each other. But… where outside of a car is that OK?

 

Jesus tells us that out of all the commandments, there are two that are the most important. Out of the entire Torah, the books of Law for the Jewish religion, there are two that stand out above all. First, “… love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” That one makes sense. Love our God with our complete being. Every part of your essence, from physical to mental to spiritual should love God. That makes sense to us. “No problem there,” we think. “I can love God with my entire being.”

The second commandment seems simple enough to us as well. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But then we start talking about politics and things change. We start cheering for a sports team and things change. We get behind the wheel of a car and things change.

The problem with loving our neighbors as ourselves in today’s day and age is basic in premise. We have a hard time seeing others as neighbors. Because what Jesus meant when he was talking about a “neighbor,” was not just the person next door or across the street or at the end of the cul de sac. A neighbor is any other human being you come in contact with. Any other human being that you experience in any way. That human being is your neighbor.

Ok, yes, we still get that. That part is still easy to understand. Identifying a neighbor, a human being, is not challenging. But what is challenging is loving that neighbor as you love yourself. The thing about loving someone like yourself is that you have to elevate that person to a level on which you hold your own being. In other words, we are to treat each other in a way that we ideally want to be treated. When we run into someone on the street, what we should be thinking is, “If that person were me, how would I want to be treated?”

This is where it turns for us. Because so often, we find ourselves treating other people how we expect to be treated. Our society already has a system set up to how we should expect to be treated. In our day-to-day interactions, we can guess what will happen to us if we act in a certain way. And we act accordingly. This is how we interpret that second commandment now: We should treat our neighbors how we expect to be treated. But what Jesus was imploring us to do was treat our neighbors, as we want to be treated.

We are supposed to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. That means, no matter what the situation, no matter the consequence, that we are to treat each other how we want to be treated. When I have an interaction with another person, I think to myself, “If this were me, how could I be treated best right here, right now?” What is the ideal for how we would want to be treated? This makes that commandment more challenging.

The simple fact of the matter is that when we stop and think about this commandment, we know we fail. It is possibly the most challenging instruction Jesus gave to us. Putting a fellow person on the same level that we hold ourselves is incredibly difficult. It’s difficult because we know they’re a different person, and not us. I can’t think of someone behind the wheel of a different car as the same as me. I can’t think of someone that cheers for a different team than I do the same as myself. I can’t think that someone who sits across party lines during an election could be the same as me.

But Jesus wants us to love our neighbors as ourselves. And there’s something special about Jesus wanting us to do something. That special thing is that Jesus knows we can do it. Jesus was fully divine but also fully human. Jesus had the same temptations as us. Jesus lived the same mortal life as us. And Jesus showed us how to live that life. Every commandment Jesus gave was intentionally given to point us in the right direction. What’s more important than that, Jesus knew that we could do it. If we look through the commandments of Christ, we’ll find they’re all attainable. Whether directed to a crowd, a Pharisee, or the disciples, these commandments were given with the knowledge that the humans hearing them could rise to the challenge.

That’s the good news of this message! We can do it!

We can treat others as we would treat ourselves!

We can love someone just as much as we love our self!

We can fulfill this commandment!

Jesus showed us how to do it, so let’s do it! It’s hard. It’s challenging. It’s not fun. But it is the second most important commandment. Go forth and use your turn signals. Use your turn signals because you know the other person in the car is just as much of a person as you. Use those turn signals, because in an ideal world, with ideal interactions, we would all use turn signals all the time.