Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sermon for July 21, 2013

Good News That Connects: Including
Peter and John went to the Temple one afternoon to take part in the three o’clock prayer service. As they approached the Temple, a man lame from birth was being carried in. Each day he was put beside the Temple gate, the one called the Beautiful Gate, so he could beg from the people going into the Temple. When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for some money. Peter and John looked at him intently, and Peter said, “Look at us!” The lame man looked at them eagerly, expecting some money. But Peter said, “I don’t have any silver or gold for you. But I’ll give you what I have. In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, get up and walk!” Then Peter took the lame man by the right hand and helped him up. And as he did, the man’s feet and ankles were instantly healed and strengthened. He jumped up, stood on his feet, and began to walk! Then, walking, leaping, and praising God, he went into the Temple with them. Acts 3:1-8   
An impaired beggar sits outside the Temple courts in Jerusalem. He’s a regular feature at the Temple Gate called “Beautiful.” Don’t miss the irony. The beggar does not live a beautiful life. Because of his disability, he is forbidden to enter the Temple. His stark condition contrasts with the opulent setting where he is left to do the only thing he can: beg for money. I bet the worshippers going to the 3:00 prayer service view him as an eyesore to the site’s magnificence; a beautiful gate offset by an ugly beggar. Worshippers with their offerings for the Temple treasury hurry past him, or look the other way when he asks for handouts. The Apostle Peter may have been among those who turned away from the beggar. Peter had been in the Temple many times. Just a few months earlier he was at the Temple with Jesus. We have no record that Peter or Jesus did anything to help this man before. Peter arrives at the Temple and he’s about to pass by the beggar again. The panhandler asks for money. Any small amount will help buy food, or pay for shelter, or help him get from here to tomorrow. 

I’ve walked by the beggar a thousand times. He is with us today. He stands at the intersections in Silver Spring with a scrawled piece of cardboard that says homeless, please help.  He makes a bed on a bench on Pennsylvania Avenue in D.C. -- it’s one of the safer places to sleep because of all the security cameras, at least until 5 AM when the police rouse him to move on. Yes, I’ve seen this beggar. She looks me in the eyes and says, “Please help me feed my children” as she collects change in a used coffee cup on MLK drive in Baltimore. What do I do? Look away – don’t make eye contact? Lock my car door? Suddenly have the urge to check my Facebook newsfeed again? Give a buck? Give a sandwich? Start a conversation? There are a lot of possibilities. Each choice either humanizes or dehumanizes the other. And each decision either humanizes or dehumanizes me.

For whatever reason, Peter responds to this man who sits outside the religious and political system that is unwilling help him. Peter takes this beggar by the hand and makes him part of God’s good news story. Notice what Peter does not do. He does not give the man what he asks for. Peter does not give money. All Peter has to offer is Jesus. He says, “Stand up and walk.” The lame man gets up and moves around. He leaps and twirls his way right into the very Temple courts from which he was previously excluded.

The crowd is amazed. Some call it a miracle; a lame man hears the good news and gets healed. I think part of the miracle happens in Peter. Instead of turning away and yet again ignoring the pain around him, Peter stops to listen. He can finally hear the need beyond the words. Peter resonates with the need of this man and the wind of the Divine Spirit who seeks to breathe wholeness into creation. The miracle is a change in perspective – the ability to find out what God is doing in the lives of others. It’s about paying attention and making room for the ways God’s story plays out in the lives of others. Finally, the victim gets heard. Finally, the invisible drifter on the fringe of society is humanized because Peter listens and reaches out.

We know this doesn’t happen often. More often than not, our experience is defined not by empathy and outreach, but by rivalry and desire. At least that’s what a French literary critic and philosopher named René Girard says. Imagine three toddlers who play quietly. A grown-up introduces a new toy into the play room.  As one of the toddlers approaches the toy, suddenly all three toddlers want it.  Seeing the toy’s attraction and its uniqueness, each toddler becomes an instant rival for its possession. According to René Gerard, when the supply of desirable objects is limited, we get conflict. Rivalry and violence are visible at the beginning of all human culture. 

To overcome these twin problems, early societies turned to sacrificial violence.  An individual or group was deemed guilty of starting the rivalry. The larger group, the majority, united to sacrifice the ones supposedly guilty of stirring up the original conflict.  After the sacrifice, anxiety decreased for a while. Eventually, though, conflict arose again and the sacrifice needed to be repeated. Someone must be blamed. Atonement must be made. Society coheres around an individual or group it can despise and blame for all its problems. Girard called this figure “the scapegoat.”  Frightened people produce scapegoats -- people who fear rivals for limited resources; people who want things to stay as they are; people who want to hang onto their power.  An effective scapegoat has to be someone weaker, someone more vulnerable.

Here’s the important catch: The scapegoat is an outsider, but still lives inside the border of society. The victim belongs to the community but has traits that send her or him to the edges of the community. Those in the majority are brilliant at creating outsiders: the difficult person; the odd-one out; the member with the "wrong" skin color or sexual orientation; the incorrect gender or religion; too smart, or too rich or too poor. It's difficult to be the one who stops the scapegoating because through this courageous action he or she immediately becomes the next victim in a circular human activity of destroying those who symbolize challenge to the status quo.

It’s difficult to stop scapegoating, but not impossible. Peter does it. He listens to a beggar, an outsider, a victim. Peter offers the outcast what he really needs. And then, like a good apostle, Peter preaches a sermon.  We did not read his sermon in today’s scripture lesson, so here’s my paraphrase of what Peter preaches to the crowd: “Hey onlookers, why are you amazed? You are the ones who create victims and watch innocent people die. You did it to Jesus, and God raised him from the dead. So the healing of a lame beggar should be no surprise! Turn away from your wicked ways.”

So, here is where we are at. Evangelizing, sharing our good news, has to do with including everyone in God’s story. Inclusiveness begins with awareness and deep listening. And listening means not giving answers until we ask lots of questions. If I want to know someone, I need to tune in to the story he or she is living. And i I want to break the cycle of invisible victimhood, I need to recognize the divine in the scapegoats whom society puts on the periphery.

This past week has given us an opportunity to put this into practice. I’ve been trying to listen and listen hard to the voices around the Zimmerman verdict in the shooting of Trayvon Martin.  There is more to this story than any one of us can know. We need others to join in the conversation and show us what we are missing. One set of the voices I think we need to listen to attentively are those in the African American community.

I do not want to get into the legality of the verdict today. I don’t know whether the jury’s decision was racially biased or not. I don’t know Florida jurisprudence any more than the average media consumer has found out this past week. I never heard about Stand-Your-Ground Laws until this trial. Here’s what I do know: The African American community, by and large, hurts. And grieves. I’ve heard stories of African American children weeping themselves to sleep when the jury announced its verdict. Black parents are pulling their teenagers aside and having The Talk yet again. The Talk is the conversation that African-American parents have with their children—mainly their sons—about what to do when approached by an armed police officer or public official.  As a friend and colleague of mine writes, The Talk goes something like this:
Son, I’m about to tell you something that might keep you out of trouble and that might save your life.  It’s something that our sons have been told for generations.  If you are ever stopped by the police or a public official, make yourself as small and as non-threatening as possible.  Make sure they can see your hands, speak very clearly, and respond to them with yes sir or no sir.  Don’t make any sudden moves, speak with a cheerful voice and most of all smile if you can.
Black parents give The Talk because they know that African-Americans have been among the most convenient, the most hated, and most ill-treated of our scapegoats. Enslaved and abused for centuries, Black people who bear the image of the Divine were kept uneducated, powerless, and impoverished. And yet they were feared. They still are. Young African-American males have been among the most feared and despised. This is not political correctness talking. This is not race-baiting. This is not false victimhood. This is the daily reality with which African Americans live in our country, even in the most progressive of places.

Trayvon Martin has become the face of all these feared and often-nameless young men. Whatever the circumstances of his death, I think Trayvon became a victim of fear, paranoia and the will to power. He became a casualty of our death-dealing love of guns and our inability to think of a different way to confront our differences. I think Trayvon became the latest in a long line of young African Americans to die as a scapegoat. 

Before we proclaim good news to anyone, we need to start paying attention to what kind of good news they need. I think our African American sisters and brothers need to hear some good news from Whites. As a faith community, we can start some difficult conversations about race in order to uncover truths that can lead to powerful change. I know we want to think racism is behind us. My listening over the past week indicates to me that it isn’t. So it’s time for us to listen deeply. To reach out sincerely. To think of creative, non-violent strategies for reconciliation. My favorite non-violent response to the death of Trayvon Martin comes from Tom Crabtree, a football player for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He tweeted, “How cool would it be to live in a world where George Zimmerman offered Trayvon Martin a ride home to get him out of the rain that night.”

René Girard worried that without the scapegoat mechanism, our culture would fall once again into rivalry and violence. Vicious political rifts and intractable racial divisions seem to support his fear. There is only one hope of change and that’s the power of non-violent love. It’s the only way to confront our fears and end our dependence on blood and violence. It’s the only way to heal our scapegoating and defy our will to power. I don’t want to be naïve about this. I know humanity’s adolescent love of violence. I know our juvenile addiction to power, especially the power of the gun. But I also know the redeeming power of God. I know the possibility of repentance and reconciliation. I am not optimistic. But I have hope.

My hope begins with listening for brokenness. Can we offer good news to those who are broken, those who ache and grieve deeply? Speaking very personally – speaking just for me – I cannot until I do the difficult work of listening to my own brokenness in the events I wish to condemn. You see, I know something about myself. I know that when I see somebody else do something wrong, I self-righteously call on God for justice. But when I do something wrong, I self-righteously call on God for grace. How can I ask for justice and also be a grace-filled person? When it comes to awareness of discrimination, as a White person of privilege, the problem is not whether I love people who are different than me. The problem is whether I unknowingly participate in and benefit from systems of racism. I need to admit that I have an inner, self-righteous George Zimmerman who has inherited a whole bunch of stereotypes and fears. When I allow myself to take part in an “us versus them” system, if I insist on justice for wrongdoers and forgiveness for myself, then I run the risk of denying my participation in brokenness. There can be no reconciliation within myself, forget about with other people. If I simply denounce violence instead of using it as a mirror to see inside of myself, I’m just externalizing the problem onto a societal scapegoat.

Christ Congregational Church covenants to be an anti-racist congregation. But here’s the thing: Can I promise that our anti-racism covenant and a willingness to explore touchy conversations about race will solve anything? Not with confidence. But, I can pray for it, work for it, encourage it, and when opportunities come I can be part of a miracle. No matter what, I can at least listen to the grief and pain of our sisters and brothers in our family of faith and respond with humility and repentance.

I’m not just talking about dismantling racism. I’m talking about sharing the kind of good news that includes everyone – EVERYONE – in God’s story. Can I promise a physical cure to all who are ill?  Not with integrity.  But I can pray for it, work for it, encourage it, and when God sees fit to bestow it, I might be part of a miracle. No matter what, I can at least offer the hand of healing, the presence of the Spirit, and the kind of personal care that is only possible to those who see the image of God in the face of the other.

Can I offer good news to those who are spiritually impoverished – to those who want fulfillment without transformation? Not with any honesty.  But I can speak about Christ, and rebirth, forgiveness and radical welcome and the rich life of service to others. I might be surprised when God opens my own ears to hear. And, like the Apostle Peter in the book of Acts, I might be astonished at how the Divine Spirit chooses to transform us when I listen for the presence of God in the margins of life, not just the center.

Evangelism in the Inventive Age by Doug Pagitt.

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