Monday, June 29, 2015

Sermon for June 28, 2015

The Healing or the Cure?

Jesus got into the boat again and went back to the other side of the lake, where a large crowd gathered around him on the shore. Then a leader of the local synagogue, whose name was Jairus, arrived. When he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet, pleading fervently with him. “My little daughter is dying,” he said. “Please come and lay your hands on her; heal her so she can live.” Jesus went with him, and all the people followed, crowding around him. A woman in the crowd had suffered for twelve years with constant bleeding. She had suffered a great deal from many doctors, and over the years she had spent everything she had to pay them, but she had gotten no better. In fact, she had gotten worse. She had heard about Jesus, so she came up behind him through the crowd and touched his robe. For she thought to herself, “If I can just touch his robe, I will be healed.” Immediately the bleeding stopped, and she could feel in her body that she had been healed of her terrible condition.

Jesus realized at once that healing power had gone out from him, so he turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my robe?”

His disciples said to him, “Look at this crowd pressing around you. How can you ask, ‘Who touched me?’” But he kept on looking around to see who had done it. Then the frightened woman, trembling at the realization of what had happened to her, came and fell to her knees in front of him and told him what she had done. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace. Your suffering is over.” Mark 5:21 ff.
In a documentary about the death penalty, produced about 10 years ago now, a camera crew was present in the home of a woman whose son was to be executed that day. At the time the state carried out the death penalty, the mother burst out of her front door and fell to the ground screaming and crying. Friends and family followed her outside and tried to help her up, as if her being on the ground was the problem. However, whenever people would try to touch her, she would scream at them with fury to keep away. Her behavior was similar to that of a wounded animal, scaring others away because her pain was so great. There was no tangible threat to her personal health or safety. But there was no doubt, this woman was overwhelmed with agony.

Researchers watching this documentary realized that not only was this mother in the throes of grief, she had also been excluded from many of her social connections.  Knowing that she would be rejected, excluded, and ignored by her community, knowing that those around her were not likely to be safe or stable sources of support,  feeling like she might actually be in harm herself, this mother’s reaction demonstrated a way that people protect themselves when feeling threatened. It’s the old fight, flight, freeze reaction, right? Without meaningful social support, people react to protect themselves physical threat and emotional threats. In this case, the mother scared others away out of fear and pain. I wonder if her friends and family came back. I hope so. I hope they did not take her fury personally. We can easily imagine a scenario where someone says, “If she rejects my help, then I’ll just let her be alone until she asks for me. Anyway, she should have known he was no good.” Talk like this is a way of blaming and shaming others.

How often have we witnessed victims of abuse get blamed for their pain? Ever heard this: “She should not have been in that situation/known that person/lived in that neighborhood/walked down that street/gone to that bar or dressed in those clothes”? “People of certain races/ages/classes/backgrounds are just more prone to violent behavior”? “People of certain races/ages/classes/backgrounds just act ‘that way’”? The victim’s parents should have taught him the warning signs”? Why in the world must we blame victims to get distance from them?

Maybe it’s because human experience is defined not by empathy and outreach, but by fear and rivalry. At least that’s what a French literary critic and philosopher named RenĂ© Girard says. 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 unites around an individual or group it can blame for all its problems. Frightened people who want to protect their power over limited resources produce scapegoats. 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 unfitting religion; too smart, or too rich or too poor. It's difficult to be the one who stops the scapegoating because if you speak up, you can easily become the next victim in a cyclical human activity of destroying those who symbolize a challenge to the status quo.

I want to view today’ story from Mark through this lens. First, let’s look at this woman in the crowd who touches the hem of Jesus’ robe. She is the victim in this scenario. The translation is polite. We are told she has been bleeding for 12 years. Read between the lines, and realize that the woman is menstruating nonstop. According to Jewish purity maps at the time, she is unclean. Impure. No doubt, she’s been told that she’s sick for a reason. God is punishing her for some misdeed. It’s her fault. So, not only is she looked down upon as a woman, but she has been tossed aside as a sick sinner. Ignored. Disconnected. She has become unimportant to the covenant people, residing on the fringes of Jewish society. Anyone who comes into contact with her is also deemed as unclean.

I imagine this woman as a victim of trauma, living in survival mode. Oppression is a social trauma.  For targets of oppression (also known as underprivileged people), social trauma perpetuates itself through scapegoating -- through physical, emotional and spiritual violence, and through the withholding of basic resources necessary to survive and thrive. When people are targeted, discriminated against, or oppressed over a period of time, they may begin to internalize the biases that society communicates to them about their group. In other words, their self image may begin to conform to what the privileged group says about them. Internalized oppression affects many groups of people: women, people of color, poor and working class people, people with disabilities, young people, older adults, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, and many others.

So, I imagine the woman in Mark’s story as a target of systemic, multi-generational, pervasive social trauma. She does whatever it takes to protect herself, even if it means taking the perilous risk of showing up in public and letting go of the remains of her well-being for the hope of healing. She is not just looking for physical healing. She needs to be restored to her community. She needs to be re-connected in order to survive.

We’ve been thinking about the targets of oppression. Let’s change tracks for a minute, and think about the role of the oppressor – the perpetrators of social domination. Agents of oppression may also show certain trauma symptoms as symptoms of dealing with taking part in dehumanizing practices and beliefs:
•    Denial,
•    emotional numbness,
•    obliviousness to harassment of target group members,
•    defensiveness,
•    attacking and blaming target group members,
•    refusal to take responsibility for repression,
•    self-absorption,
•    avoidance of oppressed people,

In other words, because of severed social connections, sometimes the perpetrators will fight, flight, or freeze rather than inhabit the wounds they have they have created.

I’m hoping you can see the parallel to today’s issues. Can you see this going on with the open, bloody, perpetual wound of racism in the country? And while I am thrilled about the Supreme Court decision to allow safe-sex couples to be married in all 50 states, the fact that there was an ideologically divided court is emblematic of the rift in opinion in our country. In the midst of the celebration, members of the LGBTQ community in our country still have to decide where and when it is safe to be out and accepted. There are whole groups of people who have to listen to the biases and misinformation that society communicates to them about their group. People simply can't fight effectively for themselves when they are told that the problem is their own fault or that something is inherently wrong with them.

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 fear and violence. It’s the only way to heal our scapegoating and defy the will to power of the privileged.

My hope begins with listening for brokenness. Can we offer good news to those who are broken, those who ache and grieve deeply? I’m talking about both the targets and the agents of oppression. All are broken. All are wounded. Speaking very personally – speaking just for me – I cannot inhabit the wounds 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 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 projecting the problem onto a scapegoat.

If we want our communities to become more effective at securing better health care, good education, a safe environment, and adequate jobs, community members have to learn how to overcome the discouragement, confusion, and divisions that are a result of scapegoating and internalized oppression. I know many in this congregation, including me, want some concrete action items. So, here are some ideas – some broad brush strokes:

•    Become a close friend, ally, or mentor to individuals who are struggling with internalized oppression. Friendship and caring are more powerful than the message of oppression.

•    Take pride in and celebrate your culture. Our cultures often give us our values, our sense of ourselves in history, our humor, our identities, and our world views. We depend on our cultures to provide us with a reference point, a home, and a place to get our bearings and remember what is important to us. Our cultures help us to survive, to be resourceful, to have a sense of humor, and bounce back.

•    We can commit to learning about cultures that are different from ours. Reading and learning more about other cultures helps people gain perspective on how hard their ancestors fought for themselves, often in the face of great odds.  Attending cultural celebrations and rituals helps us understand how other people survive and show resilience.

•    I’ve noticed that in the wake of Charleston, some groups of white men are beginning to meet in order to get a handle on their abuse of privilege. They realize their part in the trauma of oppression. They take turns talking about how oppression has personally affected them while others listen. It can be helpful to meet in groups with people from similar backgrounds, to heal from the emotional hurts of internalized oppression.

•    Take action against injustice and oppression. The only way I know for victims to not be victimized or blamed is to claim their own agency. In the book The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It, the author talks about the sense of pride that she felt when determined and committed Blacks joined together for the bus boycott.
"There was open respect and admiration in the eyes of many whites who had looked on before, dubious and amused. Even clerks in dime stores, all white, were more cordial. They were heard to add, after a purchase by a black customer, ‘Y'all come back and see us,’ which was a very unusual occurrence. The black customers held their heads higher. They felt reborn, important for the first time. A greater degree of race pride was exhibited. Many were themselves surprised at the response of the masses, and could not explain, if they had wanted to, what had changed them overnight into fearless, courageous, proud people, standing together for human dignity, civil rights, and, yes, self-respect! There was a stick-togetherness that drew them like a magnet. They showed a genuine fondness for one another. They were really free--free inside! They felt it! Acted It! Manifested it in their entire beings! They took great pride in being black.
Let us continue to build communities where people can be proud of who they are – communities where our stories and languages and cultures are valued, where our wounds are healed by deliberate listening and non-violent action. We strive to know and respect our differences and make possible the highest expectations for humanity. We do the work of liberating ourselves from hatred, beginning in the modest places of our longing souls and always reaching out with our words, our actions, our prayers, our love and our hands to all souls – to all souls. This is how we can be made whole again. This is how the world can be made whole again and all her people one.


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Sermon for June 21, 2015

As evening came, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let’s cross to the other side of the lake.” So they took Jesus in the boat and started out, leaving the crowds behind (although other boats followed). But soon a fierce storm came up. High waves were breaking into the boat, and it began to fill with water. Jesus was sleeping at the back of the boat with his head on a cushion. The disciples woke him up, shouting, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re going to drown?”

When Jesus woke up, he rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Silence! Be still!” Suddenly the wind stopped, and there was a great calm. Then he asked them, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” The disciples were absolutely terrified. “Who is this man?” they asked each other. “Even the wind and waves obey him!” ~ Mark 4:35-42
It is not a proud moment for the disciples. Mediterranean males in Jesus’ day are not supposed to show such open fear. Their panic reveals a serious loss of honor. Yet here they are, trembling with terror. Some translations of this passage, like the NRSV, say that at the end of this event the disciples are filled with awe. But that’s not quite what’s happening. The disciples are not inspired. They are frightened. The Greek indicates something closer to the New Living Translation. The disciples are absolutely terrified -- scared out of their wits. It’s not the fierce storm that scares them. It’s not the high waves. It’s not that the boat is about to capsize. Jesus challenges their faith. He confronts them with their lack of trust. That’s what scares them.

Let’s try to imagine the first audience who read Mark’s story. The Roman Empire had just tamped down a Jewish revolt. Rebels fled to Jerusalem to gain support. Rome cut off all avenues of escape, and slow starvation beleaguered those who were trapped in the city. Eventually, no one could resist the military might of Rome. The Roman army seized Jerusalem, burned the Jewish Temple to the ground, and looted it – the Jewish Temple that was supposed to exist eternally, just like heaven and earth. Soldiers plundered the city, killed the rebels, and crushed the rebellion. All of Israel was impacted profoundly. Rome pursued a scorched earth policy in order to teach the Jewish rebels a lesson. They spared those who offered full collaboration – mostly the Jewish aristocracy. The poor, as usual, suffered greatly, left defenseless before the wrath of Roman counter-insurgency. Peasants who were unable to flee where slaughtered or enslaved. Mark writes from this perspective – from the vantage point of the poor people of Galilee. To those who are deprived and suffering, Mark tells about a man of God named Jesus who equally disdains the Jewish aristocracy and the Roman occupation. Jesus comes to sow the seeds of a radical new order, pressed into the weary soil of the world. And he calls it Good News.

Now back to the wind and waves. Back to the absolute terror of the disciples. In the stories and myths of the time, the seas were seen as obstacles. Bodies of water were ruled by chaotic demons and destructive cosmic forces. The wind and waves are symbolic of the opposition and violence that threatens to drown Mark’s peasant community. And, here is an important part of the story. Jesus and the disciples cross the lake into Gentile territory. Jews and Gentiles don’t mix. Most Jews thought that associating with Gentiles violated the law and made them unclean. So, that evening on the lake is meant to be a journey – a passage from segregation to integration. Any evil that wants to keep segregation in place, any chaotic tempest that interrupts the journey to equality, is silenced by Jesus, who says, “Silence! Be Still!” The winds of opposition are calmed. And the disciples are terrified.

You see where I’m going with this? Some hurricanes are howling around us. Yet again we are confronted with systems of injustice and oppression that protect the power and wealth of a select few by subjugating entire groups of people. We are caught, tossed about in our own waves, wondering what we are going to do. How long are we going to watch what’s going on around us, trembling in fear, before we understand that the One we claim to follow, Jesus the Christ, has come to lead us from fear and oppression to a new shore? When will we be part of his Good News?

Some people are calling the events in Charleston Couth Carolina a tragedy. In my mind, this was no tragedy. I have to agree with John Stewart who opened his Daily Show by saying, if you call what happened in Charleston a tragedy, you’ve completely missing the point. “Nine people were shot in a black church by a white guy who hated them, who wanted to start some kind of civil war. The Confederate flag flies over South Carolina and the roads are named for Confederate generals. And the white guy is the one who feels his country’s being taken away from him. We’re bringing it on ourselves.”

Did you see that the shooter’s racist manifesto was found online yesterday? The slaughter of nine African-American people in an historic African-American Church is not about gun ownership. And it’s not a war on Christians. Ascribing the shooting to mental illness is a smokescreen. This was a terrorist hate crime.

Most of us white folk will watch the news and read our Facebook feeds, weeping and wringing our hands, believing that there is nothing for us to do, nothing for us to say, nothing that can make a difference. We righteous progressives have all kinds of excuses for our silence: We don’t know what to say, we are afraid to say the wrong thing, we are overwhelmed by it or we just don’t understand. But truthfully, in a day or two, just as we did after Baltimore, and Ferguson, and Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown, and Travon Martin, most of us will move on to the next news cycle and the next drama in our lives and this will be just another one of those experiences that we file away as an annoyance. White folk can do that. We can move on to the next thing because this stuff does not happen to us as much. We do not face this kind of terror. We are not at risk for being assassinated because of our race. We can move on to the next news cycle while our brothers and sisters of color must sit back and watch us our denial and silence.

I think many white people choose not to face racism because we are afraid.  The great African-American preacher Otis Moss once preached a sermon called “Going from Grace to Dignity.” He said, “As long as we were struggling in the cotton fields of Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi with our cotton sacks across our shoulders and to our sides, picking cotton and having our fingers burning from stinging cotton worms that would hide under the cotton leaves; as long as we were barefoot, actually and symbolically, laughing when we were tickled … America was satisfied … But one day America saw us marching to the voting booth, sitting down at lunch counters, and all of America became afraid.”

Here’s what I want to know. Why is it that some people are trying so hard to make excuses for this Charleston killer? Was he just misguided and disturbed? Maybe. But what he did was an act of hatred. Hatred is a learned state of being. So is cowardice. So is ambivalence.

When white people say NOTHING about the abhorrent violence that occurs repeatedly in the Black community, when we don’t even acknowledge what happened, it leaves our African-American friends and family and co-workers in wonderment and sadness. No posts. No in-person conversation. No water cooler comments. That’s not okay. It’s okay to empathize. It’s okay to question. It’s okay to disagree. It’s NOT okay to act like nothing is happening.

I’m probably offending someone right now, so let me just direct this at myself for a moment. I’m really asking myself what I have done to change the culture that allows for events like Charleston to happen. What have I done to change an oppressive, scorched-earth status quo? What have I done to resist that self-centered, fear-motivated demand to protect my place in society by ignoring systemic conditions that privilege white over black, brown and a whole horde of other differences? What have I done to plant some of those seeds of justice and peace that Jesus came to press into the weary soil of the world? What am I doing to be part of his Good News?

I am going to do my part. I am going to take responsibility for getting white folk in our congregation and our community to have sacred conversations on race. I am going to create space in my ministry to keep talking about oppression, systemic racism, white privilege and white supremacy. I am going to demand of us white folk that we start taking responsibility for our own understanding of the history that brought us to this place. I’m going to stop asking my Black friends how we are going to fix this, and I’m going to start doing more reading and research and listening to those who are being the change we need to see. I am going to try to create a safe place for us to seek solutions to the oppressive systems and terrorizing conditions in which black and brown people live and are oppressed every day.

I ask you to join me. I ask you to be brave enough to not just move on when the news cycle shifts. I ask you to keep engaging when the conversation gets hard. I ask you not to change the subject when fear, denial and self-preservation try to scare us into inaction. 

Here is where I want to start. Wednesday night June 24, at 8 PM, I will be down by our Black Lives Matter Banner on Colesville Road. I’ll be there to talk, and sing, and pray outside, in public, in honor of those who were targeted and killed at their church Bible Study at mother Emmanuel: Cynthia Hurd, a 54-year-old branch manager for the Charleston County Library System; Susie Jackson, and 87-year-old longtime church member; Ethel Lance, a 70-year-old woman who worked at Emanuel AME Church for 30 years; Rev. DePayne Middleton, a 49-year-old doctor and admissions counselor of Southern Wesleyan University; 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders, who earned her business administration degree from Allen University; Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., a 74-year-old retired pastor; Rev. Sharonda Singleton, a 45-year-old track coach at Goose Creek High School; 59 year-old church member Myra Thompson; and The Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney, age 41, state senator and Senior Pastor of Emanuel AME Church.

I think we need to let the community know that we will not be afraid. I think we need to re-affirm that Black Lives Matter, and that we, at Christ Congregational Church, worship a God who stands on the side of those who are marginalized and oppressed. In the words of AME Minster Jennifer Bailey, our God is not docile. Our God is big enough to hold our anger, frustration and questions. Our God understands that narratives of reconciliation and peace are not what my community needs right now. What we need is truth-telling and accountability. We need those in positions of power to acknowledge that this was not simply a "single incident," but the latest in a 400-year history of violence against Black people in the United States. We need religious and community leaders to step up and speak out against acts of racial violence in their congregations. Please let me know if you can join me.

Binding the Strongman: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus.
Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels.
Rolling in Sackcloth and Ashes:
I’m Done Praying. I’m Just Done… White People.

Sermon for December 9, 2018 | Advet 2

The Journey: Preparing the Way In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and ...