Subway Prophet

…and the words of the prophets were written on the subway walls…

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The Art of Faithful Lament

(This sermon was preached at Memorial United Methodist Church on July 10, 2016. The text was Psalm 130. Below is the preaching manuscript).

“I can’t believe the news today. Oh, I can’t close my eyes and make it go away…” These words have been going over and over in my head this past week. They are the opening lyrics to the U2 song, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. It is hard to comprehend the tremendous pain that has been reported over these past few weeks. Which is why I am so grateful that our psalm for this week is a psalm of lament.

When we think of psalms we often turn to the happy ones. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.” “Oh Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” “Shout for joy to the Rock of our Salvation!”

But where do we turn in weeks like these? What about when we cannot make a joyful noise? What psalm do we sing when two young black men die at the hands of the very people who are supposed to protect them? What psalm do we read when one man’s hate kills 5 police officers who are modeling what it means to serve and protect? Where is the psalm to sing when every day this month there is an act of terrorism somewhere around the world?

The deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile brought the wounds of racial injustice back into our national conversation. For those of us who have white skin, they served as yet another a reminder that still today the color of your skin changes the ways in which you are perceived and treated. The deaths of five police officers brought the tensions between police and their communities violently into focus.

Neither of these issues are new. But together this week they highlighted the continued brokenness of our society and our repeated failure as a nation to do anything to stop it. As my Facebook feed demonstrated this week, it is in times like these that we turn to the practice of lament. Out of the depths of our despair, of pain, and fear, we cry out to God.

The feeling of sadness and grief is not new to these times. The book of psalms contains more songs of lament than any other type. When our voices are weak from crying and we have no words to express our emotion, the psalms are God’s gift to us. They provide the words we need, and they show us a pathway through our grief reminding us that in the deepest pit and the darkest depths, we are not alone.

Psalm 130 is one of the best examples of this sort of psalm. The poet begins in the depths crying out to God. Begging for a listening ear. Something has happened. The psalm does not give us a description of the problem, but many people assume the problem has come the psalmist’s own sinfulness. As we all know, actions have consequences. Our sins and mistakes get us into trouble that is way out of our depth. However, there are also forces in our world, violence, fear, hatred, and evil which act beyond anyone’s ability to comprehend or control. No matter the cause, the helplessness which results gives rise to a similar plea to God.

Honesty is the key to lament. In verse 3, the psalmist reminds God that God’s very nature is to forgive the people’s iniquities. God has promised not to give up on us even though we turn away. Even when we find newer and worse ways to harm each other and turn away from God, God is faithful to us. When we look at our world and in our lives, God allows a tremendous amount of suffering to occur. We know that God has the ability to cure any sickness, to end any war. God can intervene in a dramatic fashion, come into our world and restore peace, end suffering, and make things the way they are supposed to be.

Scripture even tells us that this is what God will do at some point. We know that Christ will return and when He does, there will be no more crying and no more dying, but why not now? Why does God wait? What is the use in letting men and women, boys and girls die for no reason?. It doesn’t make any sense. I wish that I could give you a reason, but I can’t. Scripture doesn’t give us a reason for suffering. Scripture instead instructs us to wait, to hope, and to cry out to God.

An important part of lament is to cry out to God, to let God know that the things that are happening to us, to our world, are not right. The psalms and the prophets model for us the ways in which we are called to remind God that this is not all right. Our hearts are supposed to break for the pain of the world. Sadness and anger are appropriate responses to suffering. The important thing though is that we do not allow our emotions to turn us inward or to manifest themselves as hatred to others. Instead, we should direct our sadness and anger to God.

When we lament, we remind God that we expect better, that our world is supposed to be a better than it currently is. We also remind ourselves. We remind ourselves that the suffering we are experiencing is not what God intended. The racism, injustice, and brokenness of our world is not part of God’s plan. And we remind ourselves that God is present in our world, that God is working to make things right. That God is working to bring peace, justice, and wholeness to all of God’s creation. And as we live in the tension we are called to wait.

Holy waiting is not the same thing as waiting in traffic, or waiting for football season to get here. The Hebrew word for waiting here is an active waiting. It is a waiting that involves loving your neighbors who look and act different than you. It is a waiting that involves helping the poor, visiting those in prison, speaking for those without a voice. Holy waiting involves refusing to follow leaders who seek to divide us with fear, who push us into violence, and ignore the needs of the poor and the marginalized. Holy waiting means that we resist the temptation to fall into despair and instead ask God to give us the grace to live into hope, because holy waiting involves living our lives in the darkness waiting for the dawn to come.

The darkness around us is real. The issues we face as a society and as a world are big and complex, but we are called to be a people of hope; to live as a people who shine light into the darkness. Just like we know that the sun comes up every morning, we can be confident that God’s light will come into every dark corner and that God will overcome all the evil powers in this world.

And while we are called to have this hope for ourselves, Psalm 130 does not let us stop there. Verse 7 turns the psalm of personal lament outward into the world. “Israel, hope in the Lord!” Our community is struggling, our nation is bitterly divided, and our world is deathly afraid. We the church, the people of God, are called to be a different kind of community. We are called to be a place where all people can experience God’s love and hospitality. We are called to be a prophetic voice that stands with all people who are oppressed, marginalized, and mistreated in our society. We are called to be a witness that love is greater than hate, and hope is more powerful than fear. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:
Almighty God, We know that to you all lives matter. You have created us and know us and love us all. However, we confess to you that so often all lives do not matter the same to us. We confess that we often care more about people who look like us, who act like us than those who are different. We confess that we contribute to the unjust systems around us both by what we do and by what we fail to do. We confess that when confronted with the violence in our world we choose to hide our faces and ignore the suffering because we can. Forgive us, we pray. Give us the grace we need to build bridges in our community. Give us the courage we need to enter into the suffering of those around us and listen to their story. And, give us the confidence to actively wait for your coming Kingdom. God of peace, be with the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille as well as those of Officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa, and Bret Thompson. Where there is conflict bring your peace, where there is fear, bring your comfort, and where there is hatred bring forth your love. Unite us together as a people saved by your grace and overflowing with your love. Amen.

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Seeing our Giants (1 Sam 17:32-49)

(Sermon preached at Memorial United Methodist Church, Fernandina Beach, FL on June 28, 2015)
1 Samuel 17:32-49

There are few stories as ingrained in our culture as that of David and Goliath. Anytime there is a major underdog or a surprising victory, this story’s images get pulled into the conversation. And for good reason. However, as the story gets told so many times that we begin to lose sight of some of the details. Because in this simple story there is far more than meets the eye.

Malcom Gladwell did a TED talk a few years back which brought this story into a whole new light for me. So often we picture Goliath as this huge and mighty warrior. Gladwell, however, says that Goliath may not be as strong as we have thought. He points out that Goliath’s height may have been the result of a disease known as acromegaly. It is a tumor on the pituitary gland that causes someone to be abnormally tall. It has some other side effects as well particularly giving people limited eyesight and double vision. Perhaps, Gladwell argues, this is why Goliath must be led onto the field by a shield bearer, why he sees multiple sticks in David’s hands, and why he never moves in the story. Each time he calls out to the Israelites and to David telling them to come to him.

If this was true, Gladwell’s interpretation is interesting to me because it brings a new dimension to the fear of the Israelites. How often do we too see a problem that is before us, one that seems insurmountable and impossible, and our fear makes it seem larger and more difficult than it is. Because of this, we make assumptions based on what we see before us and we never build up the courage to ask more questions and to delve a little bit deeper, or to even imagine that the problem can be solved.

As I look around our news reports today there seem to be many different Goliath sized issues that we as a church and a society feel are almost too big for us to comprehend. For example, the sentencing of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death, the botched executions of the past year, and the repeal of the death penalty in Nebraska have brought capital punishment back into the national spotlight.

The deaths of unarmed young black men and women at the hands of police officers and the murder of the nine victims in Charleston have been pushing us into a conversation about race in our society which is at least 150 years late.

There are others as well including Immigration, Same-sex marriage, and the widening gap between the poor and the rich. On their own, each of these issues is complex and complicated. They touch at the core values of our society, and affect the lives of millions of people. They ignite heated conversations and strain relationships between families and communities. Therefore, for so many years we have put them off and ignored these issues, cowering on the sidelines and waiting for someone who is courageous enough to go in our place and take them on.

Which brings us to the hero of our story, David. So often we picture him as a young boy, weak and powerless, but with a strong enough faith that God miraculously killed Goliath despite him. I am not sure that I agree with that interpretation. Yes, David is young. Yes, David lacks the experience of a trained soldier, but that in itself does not make him weak or inexperienced. Youth and experience are not opposites. In fact, it seems to be David’s lack of experience with traditional combat that helps him to see a different way to defeat Goliath. And it is David’s particular experience with a slingshot that gave him the strength and the skill needed to take down Israel’s enemy. If he had gone up against Goliath like a traditional soldier and tried to beat Goliath in a sword fight, things would have not ended well for David. However, by playing to his strengths and trusting his training, David was able to find a better solution.

If we are going to be able to take down the problems in our communities and in our society, we are going to need new ideas and fresh perspectives. Those of us who are used to being heard will need to listen to the voices of those who are marginalized in our communities. Those of us who are accustomed to being in control will need to be willing to follow the lead of those who are younger and those who have different experiences from our own.

In short, we, like Saul, need to come to the realization that our way of bringing about a just resolution may be to step aside and support someone else whom God is calling to lead.

With that being said, we as the people of God cannot just sit on the sidelines and wait for others to do the hard work of reconciliation and justice building in our community. As we follow God’s lead into the broken places of our culture we need to do so by taking David as our example. He was brave enough to engage with something that was big and intimidating. And he was victorious because he chose to be authentic to himself. Instead of being the warrior that Saul and the Israelites expected him to be, he fought against Goliath as the person who God had called and shaped him to be.

Once Saul agrees to let David fight, he offers his own armor to protect him. When David tries it on he can’t move because he is not used to wearing it. This could stand as a metaphor for how we as Christians, often try to engage the Goliaths of our culture. We try to put on the armor of a different group of people such as Republicans or Democrats, environmentalists, humanitarians, volunteers, good citizens, or just about anyone else instead of being Christians.

When we talk about the major issues of our day, do we use secular arguments and political reasoning instead of thinking out of our faith and the imagination that Scripture gives us? When we try to have the tough and complicated conversations, how often do we leave our faith at the door and rely instead on political talking points and economic arguments?

Let’s take the Death Penalty as an example. Time Magazine published a front page article a couple of weeks ago analyzing how the death penalty in the United States is beginning to come to an end. The reasons that Time Magazine gave for this shift in public opinion included the difficulty and expense of getting the necessary drugs and the constitutional problems in that it takes so long for executions to be carried out. As I read these arguments I thought about Jesus’ revisioning of the Old Testament law, “an eye for an eye,” I thought about Jesus’ staying the execution of the woman caught in adultery, and I thought about the major themes or forgiveness and redemption which are so central to who we are as Christians, but yet are often absent not only from secular discussions like the one in Time Magazine, but also from our discussions, as Christians, about criminal justice and capital punishment.

Now I am all about getting rid of the Death Penalty. It is one of the strongest positions in our United Methodist Social Principles. However, the conversations we have as a broader church do not always follow their example. Often they are not scriptural or theological and they focus more on how we do executions and less on the why. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional because African-Americans were disproportionally convicted and sentenced to death. The end of the death penalty came not because our society had decided that it was wrong, but because it was being done wrong. Therefore in order to bring back the death penalty, congress amended the legal system in an attempt to make it more fair. Despite the fact that people who are black or Hispanic are still more likely to be given the death penalty, The Supreme Court deemed their revisions sufficient at the time and brought the practice back four years after it had ruled against them.

Now, what if we as a Church had risen up and said with one voice that it is not our place to kill another human being? What if we had lived out the reality that even in the most dramatic and horrific cases, God’s grace and mercy are still available, and that forgiveness not vengeance should be the preferred outcome? Perhaps things would have turned out differently. Perhaps instead of making 1,411 people wait in legal purgatory for their possible day of execution, we could have given them the rest of their lives to repent and make penance for their actions. Perhaps our legal system would be able to focus less on punishing offenders and more on forming them into people who can break the cycles of violence and crime. All it would have need is a bit less political maneuvering and a lot more calls living out Jesus’ commands in all aspects of our lives. With a bolder theological argument, I believe that we as the people of God we can bring a lasting end to capital punishment in our country not because it is inconvenient, expensive, or unconstitutional, but because it is wrong. Capital punishment can eventually become more convenient, is can become cheaper, and maybe even constitutional, however, it will never stop being wrong.

Over the next year as we enter an election season, discussions on the hot topics in our society will be had around dinner tables, living rooms, and I am sure quite a few pew benches. I want to encourage each one of us as people who have been formed and shaped by the love and the grace of God, to take off the bulky armor of modern politics, to set aside the economic arguments and focus instead on having the theological discussions. As this country continues its collective conversations about guns, violence, gender, sexuality, and race, let us participate explicitly as people of faith. Let us first ask ourselves: What would Jesus say about how we treat guns in this country? What do the Old and New Testaments have to contribute to our views on on violence and our society? How do we as children of God, brothers and sisters in Christ, view people of different races, cultures, sexualities, and nationalities?

As we ask these questions and talk with one another as a church, we need to remember to listen to the Davids among us. We need to be on the look out for the people God is raising up as overlooked leaders. We need hear their opinions, value their experiences, and be willing to recognize when God is calling us through them to a different way of thinking.

Like the Goliath of Scripture, the giants we are being called to fight against may be big, and they may be powerful, but they are not unbeatable. Like David, we are called to go into the battle confident that God is on our side. Even though we do not have all the answers, and even though we may disagree on how our faith relates with an issue, we are united in the knowledge that it is God who will bring about the final justice, it is God who will bring about true peace, it is God who will create a united community and it is God who will have the victory.

What we need to do as a people of God is take off our armor, pick up our stones and follow where God is leading. Goliath is waiting.


Thoughts on Tea: Part 1

I was never a big tea drinker. Even though I grew up in the South, where sweet tea is delivered in an IV drip, I never had a taste for it hot or cold. As I was getting ready to graduate from undergrad, a friend made it her mission to make me into a tea drinker. She took me to a tea shop in Lakeland and after searching almost their entire collection, I found my gateway teas which were herbal and fruity and tasted nothing like tea.

I went on with my fruity tea ways until I learned that I was going to be studying in England. If you know nothing else about England, you know that tea is a BIG deal. Therefore I knew that I needed to work on my taste for tea.

Enter the British exchange students. After sharing with them my hesitancy with tea, they made me a “proper British cuppa.” It was when they poured a splash of milk into the steamy tea that the tea-gates opened and my first step of inculturation was born. It was truly a revolution. The milk dulls the bitterness which I so disliked of tea (brewing it for the proper amount of time I have found also helps), and gives it a nice creamy flavor. I was a born again tea drinker. I was ready for England.

Towards the end of my time in England, people liked to ask me, “So what will you miss most about England?” The more  thought about it since then, I have realized that what I will miss most are the tea times. For the British, tea creates a space for hospitality, friendship, invitation, and consolation. When moving to a new house, your tea supplies are the first things you unpack and you “put the kettle on.” When someone comes over to your house-“put the kettle on.” Someone crying in the common room? “Put the kettle on.”

Whether significant or mundane, tea punctuates the moments of British life. It brings people together and warms their hands as well as their hearts. There is just no real equivalent in American life. How can we in the busyness of our American lives build those tea times into our routines? Make the time to stop and sit with each other, comfort one another, live with one another?

Because tea is so important, I thought that it deserved two different posts. Next week, I will not only describe how to make a “proper English cuppa” (Be prepared. The process is fraught with fascinating characters (see below) and controversy), but also explore some more of these issues.