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What Does it Mean to be Christian Now?
Isaiah 65:17-25 & Luke 21:5-19
Nov. 13th, 2016
You’ll be hearing my third sermon today. My first one was numb and dark and brooding, not hopeful at all and pretty depressing. The second one was just anger – ticked off, belligerent rage. Not very helpful, but really, really satisfying. And now we are here…at whatever stage of grief this is…and I thought I’d just share with you some of my week.
It began, like all of you, with the election, a long night. Actually it began very early in the morning of election day as I arrived at a quarter to 6 to open the fellowship hall and set up some tables and take care of the incredible volunteers who work a super long day for little reward but the fulfillment of their patriotic duty. Then, like many of you I stayed up, though I swore I wouldn’t. I watched the plethora of election coverage, from ABC to PBS to Comedy Central, though I swore I wouldn’t do that, either. Then I slept fitfully, my brain working overtime. The next day I attended 5 funerals. They were actually just my regularly scheduled meetings, but each one felt like a mourning, each crowd gathered in disbelief, our agendas pushed aside so that we might lament together. I actually think the sun did come up – a pretty day, actually – but the fog was too thick in all our hearts to notice.
Over the next few days, I counseled many of you, via phone or text or in person as we encountered one another in the day. I spoke with people at the Equality Center who are frightened about their future and listened with tears in my eyes as colleagues reported angry, profanity-filled shouts of “go home” to parents trying to drop their children off at the Islamic Society school, or my friend the Episcopal priest’s heartbreaking report of sitting with 9 Hispanic fourth graders on the floor of their school as they asked him if they were going to have to move, or if they’d ever be able to see their grandmother again because she lives in Mexico and if they left, they’d never be able to come back.
I drove to Oklahoma City, visited my dad, (we didn’t discuss the election because…well, you know why…the same reason many of you have stopped talking politics with family altogether), visited my uncle in the hospital who is incoherently trying to decry the election from a morphine cloud. I topped the evening off with the annual dinner for the Oklahoma Conference of Churches, where one of my mentors, Robin Meyers, was given a ecumenism award and we gathered…Jews, Muslims and Christians of all stripes, to celebrate religious freedom and to remind ourselves that we need each other. It was a good drive home.
Jennie and Natali Wachowski-Estes called me on Wednesday to see what could be done about the CAIR banquet scheduled for Friday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations. They knew that Muslims from all over the state would be gathered here and that they would be concerned, maybe even scared. They knew that they needed to feel welcome and that people like us needed to welcome them. So the organized a huge group of people who lined the walls of the hall as people stepped off the escalator to head into the ballroom. These Muslims were greeted with signs that read things like, “You Make America Great Right Now” or “Not My Enemy” or “I Love my Muslim Neighbor”. It was a beautiful thing…as beautiful for the people holding the signs as for the people reading them.
For many of us, this is a time of mourning, mourning for an America that we thought was one way. An America where we all live. An America where we encounter people of all faiths, of all races and gender expressions and where our kids play together and we share lunch, sometimes baba ganoush, sometimes pad thai, sometimes a cheeseburger. An America where God’s great and beautiful diversity doesn’t engender fear but is celebrated, cherished and protected. Maybe that’s not real. Maybe it never was. Or maybe it is even more real today. Maybe when things are put to the test, when we face adversity and trial, the realness of things gets revealed, solidified, nourished.
We know what’s on the table now, and its a familiar contest. There is a section of the Church of Jesus Christ that is praising this moment of history, claiming that God’s hand is directing this candidate, so that “Christian values” might be upheld. And I have no doubt that their values are being upheld, I will just no longer call them Christian. They aren’t. Bigotry, racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, islamophobia, xenophobia, hostility towards immigrants, the praise of greed, the worship of celebrity and the destruction of the planet in the name of capitalism – these are all values. They are not Christian. Make no mistake, this is not about right or left…this is about right and wrong.
So what does it mean to be Christian now? Does it mean subscribing to a particular political ideology? Does it mean belonging to a certain political party? Does it mean now that we place our faith in an office or a person? Does it mean that hope is finite? That there is only so much and maybe it has been used up?
For the prophet Isaiah, the time had come to evoke some hope. Scholars believe this passage was written during the exile to Babylon, where the people of Israel had lost much of their joy. Pregnancy no longer brought hope, but fear. Springtime simply signaled another year to imagine everything they once knew as they lived in separation from the promised land. Jerusalem had become a distant memory which was fading with every passing season, with every generation born into this strange place with different values. The need for hope had never been greater.
Isaiah’s vision was one of a new world – a vision in which God creates a new world, where there is only joy, no weeping, where babies are born safely and live long lives. It really is a modest dream, one of good harvests and warm houses, and an end to violence. It really is the dream of all people even today. That is the only thing that buoys me right now, is the belief I have that all people really do want this rather simple dream – safety and warmth, the right to live freely and to enjoy the fruits of their labor. And at least a portion of people felt like they could get these things by voting how they did. I understand that.
What I cannot understand is how anyone can think that we can achieve that simple dream only for us, whoever “us” is, or that we can achieve it by taking that dream away from others as if it were a finite resource that we have to wrestle control of from some other group. No, this dream only comes if it comes for everyone. It only comes if the wolf lies down with the lamb, there can be no predatory hope.
The thing that I think breaks my heart the most this week is the slap-in-the-face awareness that we are much further apart than I imagined. Maybe it is just because I run with crowds that largely think like me, or because my life is pretty much a bubble, echoing my own assertions back at me. It is clear to me that I sure don’t know some people’s stories, or how they make moral decisions, or how they prioritize their own values. We have a long way to go.
It’s not going to be easy. That is the call of apocalyptic literature like this passage from Luke. Sure, it’s been warped by “Left Behind” theology, as interested in good sales as in good news, but this isn’t a tale about the destruction of the world – all the “good” people whisked away. No, this is about our values, and how living them will tear down those monuments to our faith. Jesus tells us to beware that we are not led astray, by people claiming that this is the dream, or that is the dream, or by people who say this is the way to the dream – do not go after them. But be prepared for some turmoil and strife. Be prepared for nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom (maybe he means the kingdom of the world versus the kin-dom of God here, hmmmm?) and even family against family.
We will have serious breaks in relationships, he warns. There will be metaphorical earthquakes and wars, though we know what the real ones feel like. We will unfriend a lot of people on Facebook and stop talking at the water cooler. We will try very hard to keep discussions to the game or the weather this Thanksgiving, and we will struggle. But I’m here to tell you something this morning. As much existential angst as we I might feel, the struggle is much more real for the people among us who have been the specific targets of the lie that we can achieve the dream for only some of us. Muslims in this city yelled and spit at. The familiar slurs being brought back again – from the “n” word to slurs against gay people to the groping of women, all unleashed by tacit approval from a campaign that wielded fear like a weapon…and aimed it carefully.
The church must be the church again. We must be the place, here and now, where we set those boundaries once again, where we say “No” to the politics of fear and raise the flag of hope for people on the margins. We must be prepared to testify on this before the powers that be, to be “brought before kings and governors” because of our faith, because we trust that love is greater than fear, even the politics of fear…even when it seems the politics of fear are pretty strong.
Time again to re-dedicate ourselves to the work of building and maintaining safe space for the people who are specifically under attack. Time to re-dedicate ourselves to the institutions that help defend and deflect attacks against the now even more marginalized people among us. It is time for us to do our own work, spiritually and otherwise to make sure that we are allies to one another, to make plans and get instruction on how to listen, how to de-escalate, how to know what you bring to the table so that your story can be a help, not a hinderance. Because the dream, the simple dream that Isaiah evoked, it doesn’t come about without us working for it, sacrificing for it, for all people.
Perhaps you’ve seen these safety pins on someone’s pocket or shirt or jacket. The idea is that this pin identifies you as a safe space, a person who is friendly to women, Muslims, LGBTQ persons, people of color, immigrants, disabled, etc. It claims that you will be there for them, to listen and to love, to stand up for them, sit down with them, shut up for them. But, my friends, this pin, like the gospel, comes with some strings attached. We have to be willing, if we’re going to be truly safe, to educate ourselves…to not assume that our goodwill is enough, but to understand when people from these marginalized groups don’t trust us. We have to add tools to our toolbox, to make us more effective allies. We must be willing to endure, to be patient, to hope with fierceness for all of God’s people. This is what it means to be Christian now. So endure, and by our endurance we will gain our souls.
May God be with us.