Sunday, July 12, 2015

It's only a closet

Psalm 85: 8-13 
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE 
July 12, 2015 
Build-a-Block, Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake

        It was 1988. I was in Baltimore, MD for my first mission trip. I was a seminarian at Hancock United Church of Christ in Lexington, MA. Each year the youth group traveled to a different destination and worked with a variety of mission partners during their April break. This year it was Habitat for Humanity, before they changed the age limits of volunteers. We were assigned to work on a row house in one of the poorest sections of Baltimore. Many of the row houses were empty and condemned. Habitat had purchased a number of them to gut and renovate. Our task? Sheetrock the interior of the house.

        Did we know what we were doing? Sort of. We had some direction and guidance but we were pretty much left to ourselves. The only power tools we had were electric drills to fasten the sheetrock to the wall studs. We cut the sheetrock with X-Acto knives. Let’s just say our technique was not always so precise.

        One group was given the job of putting sheetrock in a closet. The trouble was, the closet was on the second floor, over the stairs. The floor of the closet was sloped upward to the back wall. It made for some interesting angles to measure and cut, let alone then put into place. We also had a limited supply of sheetrock and had to make due, even with mistakes.

        The left back corner of this closet was cut just a bit too large for the space and shattered the bottom corner of the sheetrock when it was shoved into place. A finger-sized piece of sheet rock broke off and with it, dashed the morale of the group. Their hearts were in this full-weight. They knew this would be a warm, safe home for a family. They wanted to leave their mark on this house but not in this way.

        One of the group ventured, “You know, it’s only a closet. Once it gets painted and someone starts hanging stuff in here, no one will even notice it.” So the piece was put into place with a light layer of joint compound and that was that.

         But then other small mishaps would happen, none of which I can recall. But I do remember the same wisdom applied to the closet would be used on whatever inconvenience or frustration at the moment. Again and again the refrain was used, “It’s only a…”. It’s only a sandwich. It’s only a t-shirt. It’s only a dollar. It’s only a traffic jam.

         We realized that we could apply this wisdom to many disappointments and add some levity and detachment to just about any situation. And that it was our privilege that allowed us to do this. The only exception was God. We found we couldn’t say “It’s only God” or “It’s only the Holy Spirit” or “It’s only Jesus”. It would be like saying “It’s only love” or “It’s only justice” or grace or peace or righteousness or faithfulness. The word “only” can mean “merely” or “barely” or “no more than”. But God’s grace is extravagant, unconditional, infinite. God can’t be contained in box or a closet.

         What we don’t hear in the reading from Psalm 85 are the beginning verses, words of longing and despair over the plight of God’s people, interpreted as God’s anger. What we do hear is that, despite the despair and longing, God’s people still have hope that what was lost will be found: steadfast love and faithfulness will meet, righteousness and peace will kiss. They trust that God will make a way out of no way: God will give what is good. They know it to be true, that no matter what they have done that caused them to feel separate from God, God is not separate from them: righteousness goes before God and makes a path for God’s steps—God’s steps toward God’s people.

         God’s people were always and still are on a mission trip. God leads, we follow. Sometimes we get lost. It’s not always easy working together. Not everything goes the way we hope it will. But God’s hopes are full because we’re still together at the end of the day. For God will never say, “They’re only my people”. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

The Jesus we don't know

Mark 6: 1-13
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
July 5, 2015

(c) Mark Brunner/Getty Images, 1996

In 1996 the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan, hometown of Keshia Thomas.  She was 18 years old.  It was a strange place for the Klan to rally.  Ann Arbor has a reputation as a progressive, multicultural community.  Hundreds of protesters turned out to tell the white supremacist group that they were not welcome in this liberal college town.  A few protesters noticed a man with a SS tattoo and wearing a t-shirt decorated with a Confederate flag, standing on the protesters' side of the fence.  A small group began to chase him. He was quickly knocked to the ground and kicked and hit with placard sticks.

People began to shout, "Kill the Nazi!"  Keshia, a high school senior and an African-American, witnessing the mob mentality, decided to act.  She threw herself on top of the man, protecting him from the crowd.  When asked why she defended him, she said, "Someone had to step out of the pack and say, 'this isn't right'... I knew what it was like to be hurt.  The many times that that happened, I wish someone would have stood up for me... violence is violence - nobody deserves to be hurt, especially not for an idea."

Keshia never knew what happened to the man after that day but months later, a young man came up to her to say thanks, telling her that the man she had protected was his father. For Keshia, learning that he had a son brought a deeper meaning to the risk she had taken.  She reflected, "For the most part, people who hurt... they come from hurt. It’s a cycle. Let's say they had killed him or hurt him really bad. How would his son feel?  Would he carry on the violence?"

      In response to those who argued that the man deserved a beating or more, Pulitzer Prize-winning commentator Leonard Pitts Jr. offered this brief reflection in The Miami Herald: "That some in Ann Arbor have been heard grumbling that she should have left the man to his fate, only speaks of how far they have drifted from their own humanity.  And of the crying need to get it back.  Keshia's choice was to affirm what they have lost. Keshia's choice was human. Keshia's choice was hope."[i]

           Jesus came to his hometown, met by a large gathering of family and extended family.  No doubt they had heard about his fame, the healings, and the mobs of people who followed him from place to place.  At first they were impressed by him, astonished at his ability—perhaps because they didn’t expect that much of him.  Nazareth was a peasant village, from which no one expected anything good to arise.  After all, Jesus was just a carpenter, a day laborer, his mother’s boy rather than his father’s son.  Didn’t they know him from when he was just a kid?  Just who does Jesus think he is?  “Jesus Christ Superstar/do you think you’re who they say you are?”

          Jesus calls himself a prophet, casting himself in a long line of God’s rejected truth tellers. It was a saying at the time, from the Greek philosopher Plutarch: “The most sensible and wisest people are little cared for in their own hometown.” Jesus couldn’t accomplish much, even among his own kin, because they had already summed him up and found him lacking. They thought they knew him, but as the gospel of John notes: He came to what was his own and his own people did not accept him.

          The only power that Jesus has to liberate us is for him to be not like us. The only Jesus that can liberate us is the Jesus we don’t know. He’s young and female and black and throws herself in the way of her hometown crowd, those who would do violence in the name of righteousness. Jesus doesn’t look like most of us, he doesn’t live like most of us. A white Jesus can lull us into thinking that he’s like us, we are like him, thus we have no need of liberation, deliverance, what we used to call salvation. A white Jesus can get us thinking we don’t need Jesus at all. He’s a good guy we can all agree with rather than our Lord and Savior.
Rejected Covers: Second Person Singular

           Mark Caddo, a writer and activist, said, “The problem with being privileged your whole life is that [after] you have had that privilege for so long, equality starts to look like oppression.” Perhaps we don’t experience equality as oppression, or we don’t think of ourselves as oppressors. But we who have lived with privilege our whole lives need to be liberated just as much as those who suffer from never having had privilege and the denial of rights that goes with it.

           We don’t know if Jesus was gay, but we need a gay Jesus. We don’t know if he was transgender, but we need a trans Jesus. He wasn’t an immigrant, but we need a foreign Jesus. He wasn’t sick or in prison or naked or hungry, but we need a sick, imprisoned, naked and hungry Jesus. He wasn’t a Christian; he was a devout Jew living in Roman-occupied Palestine. It’s not the historical Jesus or the mythical Jesus we need or the one we’ve fashioned in our own minds. We need the biblical Jesus, the one who preached about money and the power that goes with it more than he did anything else. We need the biblical Jesus who was called a drunkard and a glutton because he hung out with tax collectors and prostitutes, eating and drinking with them.

          We need the biblical Jesus who was and who is also Christ, the Messiah, both of which mean the Anointed One. What does it mean for Jesus to be anointed? In Luke’s version, when Jesus is rejected in his hometown, Jesus says that “[the] Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This is what is means to be a Christian—to follow and learn from the One whose work is justice for those who suffer and liberation for those who are not free.

           This isn’t just the Jesus we don’t know, but the Jesus we left behind, that we forgot about; the Jesus that was co-opted by the religious right and our silence; the one we thought we knew and yet truly we knew him not.

            It’s time to meet Jesus all over again, not as we think we know him but as a complete stranger. To offer him an extravagant welcome, to follow where he goes, to go where he sends us, to encounter him in scripture, in prayer, and on the street, to claim him as Lord and Savior, teacher and healer, as firstborn from the dead, as the One who can transform our lives and liberate us from ourselves.

            This Table is one place, one way that we can meet him again for the first time. To welcome him as both host and guest, to re-member him in the breaking of the bread and in sharing the cup, to honor these gifts in how we make the gospel visible with our lives.

            To the Jesus we don’t know: welcome. We need you.


[i] Adapted from A Mighty Girl