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Preaching Notes for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (March 6, 2016)

Dear Friends,

I am writing to offer a word of apology and explanation about an unfortunate choice of words that I have used in this space in my sermon notes over the past few weeks. During the month of February, in honor and recognition of Black History Month, the very talented Rev. Dr. Cedrick Bridgeforth wrote in this space. As I began the transition from Dr. Bridgeforth’s work to my own, in writing about the story of the Prodigal Son, I used the phrase “All Lives Matter” alongside “Black Lives Matter.” I intended this phrase as a way of pointing to the extravagance of God’s grace.

At the time I wrote those words I did not fully realize that the phrase I invoked was offensive and associated with a movement that has sprung up as a counterpoint to the critically important work of “Black Lives Matter.” I offer my deepest apologies to those who have found offense in my words. I hope my mistake can be an opportunity for educating not only myself, but others, not only about the importance of language, but also to draw more specific attention to some of the current public discourse about racism in America.

Dave Bry, writing in The Guardian a few months ago to explain the problem with the language of “All Lives Matter,” put it this way:

Language does not happen in a vacuum. Words and phrases bounce off of other words and phrases. Context gives them meaning. This is the only way verbal communication works.

The phrase “black lives matter” . . . entered the lexicon in 2013, after 28-year-old neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman was acquitted for the shooting death of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in a gated housing community in Florida. The choice of words was meant to address a horrible disparity in this country: black people in America are nearly eight times more likely to die of homicide than white people.

At its root, the phrase is a call for the US Justice Department to change this—with the implied suggestion that more effective prosecution of people who kill unarmed black teenagers would be a good place to start.

President Obama put it well during a panel discussion about the criminal justice system last month. “I think the reason that the organizers used the phrase ‘black lives matter’ was not because they were suggesting nobody else’s lives matter. What they were suggesting was, there is a specific problem that is happening in the African American community that’s not happening in other communities. And that it is a legitimate issue that we’ve got to address.” Since then, though, as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement, the words “all lives matter” has become a commonly heard refrain. And the tension between “black lives matter” and “all lives matter” has become an issue on both sides of the current presidential campaign, with various candidates stumbling over the subject at various times.

The problem with “All Lives Matter” is that these words are being cited, chanted, tweeted, and scrawled as a way of purposefully minimizing a movement that is about bringing attention to systemic racism against black people in America. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” is not about one group of people’s lives mattering more than other people’s lives. It is a call for recognition and corresponding treatment that clearly demonstrates that black lives to matter as much as white people’s lives. It is a movement about black people reclaiming their basic, God-given humanity and personhood in the midst of continuous attacks on their dignity throughout American history.

Bry goes on to conclude his article with these words of advice. “If you choose to say those words “all lives matter” in a conversation with your friends, or if you type the hashtag on Twitter or put it up on Facebook or something, you should know what you’re saying. You are not saying that all human life is equal. You are saying that there is no racial disparity in America. You are refuting rafts of statistics that prove there is racial disparity in America. You are saying, simply and straightforwardly, that black lives do not matter. At least not as much as white ones do. Is this what you want to be saying?”

This is not what I want to be saying. It is clear that there is a specific problem that is happening in African American communities that is not happening to persons from other racial groups. As such, I have changed my terminology in my previous posts and will be more attentive about this issue in the future. My mistake has been humbling, but hopefully also an opportunity for growth not only for me, but for others.

Recently I was perusing my local community Facebook page, and I came across a rather shocking comment about the upsurge in attempted break-ins in the neighborhoods surrounding where I live. Concerned to hear this news, I proceeded to read the lengthy conversation that had sprung up in the thread. What alarmed me about the initial comment and the conversation that followed was not that crime was on the rise, but the suggested responses of my neighbors. In words and sentences that were so poorly constructed that it made me concerned about the quality of education that is being offered in our schools, neighbor after neighbor wrote about how calling the police was a much less viable option than simply taking out a firearm and shooting the intruder. Shooting to kill. Citing “castle laws” as a defense, an astonishing number of my neighbors seemed to believe that taking a person’s life for simply approaching their home was a reasonable and justifiable response to a potential theft. If my neighbors not only feel this way but are willing to act on it, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Donald Trump can confidently claim, as he recently did, that he could shoot a person dead in the middle of Madison Avenue in New York City, and it would only cause the number of those who support him to go up.

If you are wondering where I am going with this, I promise I am not about to make an argument for gun control. What concerns me is not whether my neighbors have a right to bear arms, but their willingness to use them combined with what seems to me a rather callous attitude about the value of human life. Maybe this is what it has come to in this nation. Maybe the balance has tipped to the point that the majority of people think a person deserves to be shot dead for even approaching someone else’s door. Maybe the majority think that a person deserves to be shot dead for a petty theft, or cutting someone off in traffic, or having an affair with someone’s spouse. Maybe we are moving away from “innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.”

My cynical side leads me to wonder whether an armed individual’s decision to shoot an intruder might have as much to do with the intruder’s appearance as anything else. Would my neighbors shoot me, a middle-aged, middle-class white woman, if I approached their front door? Would they shoot my husband, who is white, bald, disabled, and small in stature? Should I have shot the older lady who came to my front door when her car got stuck in the snow in front of my house last week? Should I have shot the black man who used a shovel that I brought to help dig her out if he had come to my door? Would my neighbors more likely shoot first and ask questions later if the individual approaching were male or a person with brown or black skin than if I had approached them? I don’t know.

What I do know is that reading that Facebook thread has made me feel suspicious not only about my neighbors, but about people who come to my door. I feel a little less safe, a little less trusting. I feel like my faith in humanity is slowly being eroded by the constant rhetoric about violence and the need to protect ourselves, the justifications for being fearful of the “other,” and the categorizing of people as “us” or “them.” These things add up over time to create an environment of greater and greater mistrust and hostility.

This week, I return to the work of writing in this space inspired by the wonderful work of Rev. Cedrick Bridgeforth over the last few weeks. His thoughts have shaped my approach to the remainder of the texts for this holy season of Lent. I am reminded that in Jesus' vision of God's kingdom, every life is equally valued and that, unfortunately, this is not the reality of the world in which we live. All of us need to pay attention to the destructive power of systemic racism at work in our congregations and communities not just during the month of February, but year-round.

But it strikes me as I read the story of the prodigal son this year, especially in light of Rev. Bridgeforth’s work over the past few weeks, I realize this is a story about how much every person matters to God. It doesn’t matter the color of a person’s skin, or the gender, or the size or age or ability. It doesn’t matter if the person has made terrible mistakes. It doesn’t matter if the person has squandered his fortune or “sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” in some other way. What this story teaches us is that no matter what we do, our lives matter to God our Creator.

The extravagance of God’s grace is difficult for many of us to grasp, much less accept. We humans are simply not like God in our ability to be merciful. We are the opposite. We nurse our hurt feelings and hold on to our grudges and defend our anger righteously. We feel that if we have been wronged, we deserve to seek vengeance. We believe that those who have made mistakes have brought punishment to bear upon themselves. We engage in self-talk and seek confirmation from others to justify our feelings of judgment and righteous indignation. We think it is not just our right, but also our obligation to withhold forgiveness. It makes us feel powerful. It makes us feel justified in our unforgiving behavior. It makes us feel better about ourselves to think that a person who has made a mistake deserves his or her punishment.

But that is not the way God thinks, nor is it the way God in Christ acts.

Our God is a God of extravagant mercy, unearned grace, undeserved forgiveness.

The most unfortunate thing about our failure to offer grace is that we fail to understand that grace is the most powerful tool we as human beings can acquire. It is the best weapon we can carry. It is what should inform everything we are and everything we do as humans.

Perhaps if we carried grace as our primary weapon, we would be less inclined to be suspicious of our neighbors. Maybe if we put down our guns and our guards, we could break down the barriers that create a world of “us” and “them.”

The prodigal son is a long story with a simple message:

  • Forgive those who trespass against you as God has forgiven you for your trespasses against God.
  • Clinging to anger and jealousy impedes healing.
  • Only perfect love casts out all fear (1 John 4:18).

As we move ever closer toward the cross with our Lord, may we walk beside him without being consumed by our fear of those who might do us harm. May we walk with courage and conviction, with strength drawn not from our presumed power over others, but with the greater strength of mercy and love. May we pour out grace even upon our enemies.

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Notes for Joshua 5:9-12

In my doctoral program in liturgical studies, I took a class on ritual. In that class, I learned about what is known as “liminal space.” Liminal space is a term used by anthropologists to describe times of transition in human life. The word comes from the Latin term limen, which means “a threshold.” Arnold van Gennep spoke of these times as “rites of passage,” while Victor Turner called it the space “betwixt and between.” So liminality is about both space and time. It is the spaces and times in life when we are between two life stages. Most cultures have developed rituals to mark the transitions from one stage to another.

For example, a bar or bat mitzvah marks the transition point from childhood to adulthood (in which one must observe the commandments) for young Jewish people. Graduation ceremonies mark the transition from dependence to independence. Marriage ceremonies mark the transition from singleness to couplehood. Funerals mark the transition from life to death. Throughout human history, cultures have created rituals to mark major points of transition in life.

In today’s lesson from Joshua, the Jewish people were at a point of major transition as a people. After leaving Egypt and wandering in the desert for forty years, they had finally crossed over the Jordan River and into the Promised Land. So what did they do? They marked the moment with a ritual, one that would continue to develop and evolve and one that is still celebrated annually. The ritual is known as Passover, and this moment was the first Passover to be celebrated in the Promised Land. It looked back to a critical moment in Egypt and forward to what lay ahead for God’s chosen people. The Passover Feast they celebrated that day provided a ritual passage not just to a new land, but also to a new way of life. It moved them from wandering to a time of being settled.

Rituals are holy and sacred things, and they are necessary things. I remember when my younger brother William was getting married, and I was talking to him about what kind of ceremony he wanted. Being an anthropologist, William said, “I want to use the ritual straight out of the Book of Worship. This is not the time to be creative or do something original. I don’t want to think about it. I am going to be very nervous, and I need to let the ritual carry me through.” I thought those were pretty wise words coming from this 30-year-old man.

Sometimes when I hear pastors and worship leaders talking about the need to constantly be creative and reinvent the way we do things to keep worship fresh and new and exciting and unexpected, I wish they knew what my brother knew. Sometimes it is the rituals that get us through. But for rituals to carry us through our transitions, they must be stable and familiar. I know we don’t want people to be bored or our worship to be rote. But not everything has to be reworked. Some things are better left alone, and practiced over and over again until they are known by heart. When the times come when we need them to carry us across, we don’t have to think about it, because the words are written on our hearts.

In only a few short weeks we will embark upon the most important annual ritual we observe as Christians: Holy Week and Easter. Make no mistake about it: this is a ritual. It is a ritual that reminds us of who we are. It is ritual that prepares us for the transition we will all one day make, from life to death and to the promise of a whole new life waiting for us on the other side of the Jordan.

As you make final preparations for the ritual of Holy Week and Easter Day, remember this story and let it guide you to make wise choices for your congregation and the wider community you serve.

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Coming upon this Scripture every three years is always difficult for me. It serves as a reminder that there continues to be a place of brokenness in my life, a person with whom reconciliation has not been possible, a wound that goes unhealed year after year after year, that only temporarily scabs over and then gets get picked off, and the tender flesh beneath opened back up by this powerful call not to simply do something, but to be a certain way in this life. Being reconcilers is not something we chose or choose not to do. It is something we either are or are not.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to live as part of a ministry of reconciliation. We are all called to live this way. There is no exception. There are no excuses. There is no back way out. There is no escape clause. It isn’t something we can just choose to ignore. We all live under this requirement. It is part of the job, and if we don’t find a way to forgive and reconcile not just with the people we love, but more importantly with those whom we have difficulty loving, then we are not living as Christians. It is as simple as that.

Especially those of us who preside at or participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion are called to be reconcilers. Our invitation to the Table is specific about this:

Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him,
Who earnestly repent of their sin
And seek to live in peace with one another.
(The United Methodist Book of Worship, “A Service of Word and Table I. Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 1992. 35. Emphasis mine.)

What does it mean to “seek to live in peace with one another?” Is this not plainly a call to live as reconcilers issued with different words? And what does it mean not just for our souls, but also for our witness to the world, if we refuse to live this way? Does it mean we should excuse ourselves from the Table until such time as we are at least working on reconciliation? Does it mean we should not come to the Table if there are those with whom we are not reconciled? What does it mean to be living “in peace with one another?”

These are critical questions to ask as we move into these later weeks of Lent. How have our Lenten disciplines helped us to engage the places in our lives where we are yet working on “going on to perfection,” as John Wesley would say? What issues of sin do we still need to address before we are ready to go to the cross with Jesus during Holy Week?

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