Monday, November 21, 2016

Sermon for November 13, 2016

Sometimes I wonder what God is up to.

Leading up to the general election on Nov. 8, I heard people calling it the “hate election” because so many voters claimed to hate both candidates. It turned out to be the hate election because of the hatefulness of the electorate. Now, in less than a week, many of us are bracing ourselves for violence and anger. We are already seeing public racism, sexism, suspicion of immigrants, and the targeting of Muslims. We are experiencing the As columnist Neal Gabler wrote, we are bracing ourselves for, “the white sense of grievance that will undoubtedly be unleashed now that we have destroyed the values that have bound us.”

Five and half years ago, when my family and I moved to Montgomery County, we were so impressed with the diversity and inclusion we saw. I remember when I was being interviewed to be your Sr, Minister. We were sitting by the fountain in downtown Silver Spring on a sunny October morning, watching diverse people of all ages, races, cultures, and physical abilities interacting with each other. Smiling. Playing. Helping each other out. It seemed so unreal to us, we jokingly accused the search committee of staging the whole event. Since then, we have seen it to be mostly true. Our strength as a community is in our diversity, and I am blessed to stand here each week to rehearse and remind us that we, as a faith community, welcome people of all races, cultures, ages, abilities, and sexual orientations.

This week I saw another side of our community, and in our country. It was there the whole time. Just under the surface. It took some scratching to find it. And it turns out, we did not have to scratch too deeply. In this past week, I heard about swastikas being drawn on the walls of a county Middle School. Right before the election, I heard another report that swastikas were burned into a football field in Potomac. In a third story, just before the election another Middle School had swastikas painted on a banner.

I’m told that the number of calls to suicide hot lines from gay and trans youth is up. By Thursday afternoon, one San Francisco hotline received 542 calls. Only 187 of those calls could be answered due to the volume and lack of staff. Trans people are worried about discrimination and violence, not being able to change identity documents to reflect their gender, and concerns about affordable health care under a new administration. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline saw two-and-a-half times as many calls from 1 a.m. to 2 a.m. Wednesday morning, when the outcome of the presidential election seemed clear.

I'm hearing reports such as: a Muslim woman on the street had her hijab ripped off, and was told to strangle herself with it; dozens of boys reportedly grabbed girls' between the legs at schools, saying, "If the President can do it, so can I;" students and adults, in many different parts of the country, yelled at Latinos to "go home to Mexico, we're getting that wall now."

I read a story from a network of adoptive parents, someone Chris Braddock is connected with. This comes from a mother, who is white, with a Black child. The mother wrote, “I picked [my child] up from school early her asthma was acting up. We were at a stop light when we saw many officers chasing a man with their guns/tasers drawn. It was surreal. Cars stopped everywhere. I pulled through a gas station to get around the stopped traffic. There was a man standing outside his car watching. About 70 maybe. Nice car, dressed well. I rolled down my window and said sir do you know what happened? He said, ‘Well the cops were chasing some N*****." I saw red. [My child] is in the back seat. I yelled, ‘Excuse me!!! My black child is sitting in the back and that is not ok. AT ALL.’ He said, ‘Well you asked what happened.’ I started to drive off as [my child] burst into tears in the back. I stopped, held her hand and circled around to his car. I rolled the window down and said, ‘You look at my baby right now and apologize. You should be ashamed of yourself.’  He looked at her sobbing and said, ‘I'm sorry. I am sorry.’”The mother then wrote, “How am I going to do this? How?”

If there is a single sentence that characterizes the election, it is this: “He says the things I’m thinking.” That may be what is so terrifying. Who knew that so many tens of millions of white Americans were thinking unconscionable things about their fellow Americans? Who knew that tens of millions of white men felt so emasculated by women and challenged by minorities? Who knew that after years of seeming progress on race and gender, tens of millions of white Americans lived in seething resentment, waiting for a demagogue to arrive who would legitimize their worst selves and channel them into political power?

The desecration of our Black Lives Banner is so emblematic of this behavior to me. When I was notified on Wednesday morning that the banner had been destroyed yet again, my heart sank. I hoped it was just the wind from the night before. It was definitely intentional. The word “Black” was cut out of the banner. Again. We expect the vandalism at this point. It’s not a question of whether the banner gets destroyed, but how long it stays up before someone destroys it. This time, the banner was up for about 5 or 6 weeks. For me, to see it destroyed on election night, though, was so emblematic of the lack of civility, the racism, and the anger simmering around us.

We should have known. We should have known these hatreds lurked under the thinnest veneer of civility. It’s too easy to fool ourselves that because we live in a place like Silver Spring, these things don’t happen. But scratch the surface, and hatred was there the whole time, just waiting for the opening to come out. The cavity and respect we thought we had is eroding. Perhaps we had been living in a fool’s paradise. Now we aren’t.
I wonder what God is up to. Are human flourishing and liberation all but impossible? Will the forces inertia and apathy prevail over our struggles for justice?

I wonder what God is up to. I don’t think God controls elections. I don’t think God ordained the current President-Elect for us.  I don’t think God validates violence. In fact, I think God is up to something else.

In the past, I;ve told people that id you want to know what God is up to, look for the places God is at work, and go there. I have believed God is working among the poor, among those who are in pain, among people who feel lost and alone, among those who have lost their voice and their power. I have told people that if we want to know God, then we need to know those who are among the least. The assumption is that if you can see Christ in the very least of these, you can better experience God.

This week I’m beginning to realize that we need to do more than that. Just seeing Christ in others still keeps us at a safe distance. We feel sympathy for the experience of those who are on the margins, but we still don’t become aware that we may have some responsibility for their marginalization. If we want to heal the expressions of hatred around us, we need to begin by holding ourselves accountable. I think the most significant healing begins with white America’s benign neglect of racial problems. White America, what, in the name of God, have we done? We spend millions on anti-poverty programs and billions on prisons. In fact, we haven’t even apologized. It’s much easier for someone to forgive you when you’ve had the courtesy to apologize, and much easier for them to get over it if you’ve had the decency to fix the problem. It’s interesting that we even use the phrase “race relations.” The relationship between blacks and whites as groups in America is dysfunctional, to say the least.  Until this is dealt with on the level of the cause and not just effects, we will continue to play out over and over again the cycle of violence at its core.

This is all to say, I’m feeling a little less proud of getting to play the role of hero and savior, and I’m spending more time recognizing the times I have played persecutor.  

I wonder what God is up to, and I hear a question back, coming from the depths of my spirit. “Are you willing to risk opening yourself up to the possibility of receiving grace and love from the very people you have marginalized?”

Let’s talk about safety pins for a moment. By fastening a safety pin to their clothing, people are declaring themselves allies to groups who have been maligned by the President-elect, to show that they stand in solidarity with anyone who might be afraid. I like the idea. A lot. So do others. I read that on Saturday, local hardware stores and several craft stores across the country began selling out of safety pin packs. And we want to hand out safety pins today for those who would like to make a statement. But these safety pins come with some warnings.

Let’s not wear safety pins if it means we get to feel good about being allies in the struggle for justice, but do absolutely nothing to help. The first thing we have to do is make it clear that racism, discrimination, and intolerance will not be tolerated. That means confronting people for behaving in ways that do harm. Wearing that safety pin means you will be asked to stand up against friends, relatives, and even strangers when you hear them saying things that denigrate others.

If you wear that safety pin, you are going to encounter some opinions that will upset you. They will come from people who have been hurt by good intentions with no action. They will be suspicious of your willingness to put ourselves on the line. If we wear that pin, then we must lean into our discomfort and resist the urge to feel offended if someone questions our motives.  If we are going to be allies, we have to recognize we are all capable of actions that marginalize others.

If we wear this pin, we signal that we are safe people and a safe church. It is a visible, tangible announcement of your commitment to defend the rights and dignity of your fellow human. By wearing the safety pin, we make a public pledge to be a walking, talking safe space for the marginalized. All of the marginalized. We don’t get to pick and choose. We can’t protect Jewish people but ignore the Muslim woman who needs help. You can’t stand for Black people who are dealing with racial slurs but ignore the disabled person who is dealing with a physical attack. This is all or nothing. If we aren’t willing or able to stand up for everyone, then let’s not wear the pin. There is no shame in not taking a safety pin.

I want to be able say to those in our community that we at CCC wear that safety pin because we are a safe place. We’ve got your back.

To the African American community who feels attacked and upset when a Black Lives Matter banner is destroyed, we’ve got your back. We are going to confront racism when we see it. We are going to dismantle racist structures. We are going to keep exploring our own complicity in racism, and work to root it out.

To our Muslim neighbors, and other non-Christians who feel unsafe right now, we’ve got your back. We will work for religious freedom and tolerance, lending our voice and position to make sure you get to enjoy the religious freedom that we do.

To women who feel denigrated and objectified, we’ve got your back. We take a stand against misogyny and rape culture, and we will do the work to dismantle organizational sexism, starting with us. We will be involved in Women’s March on Washington in January to demand womens’ safety and health in a time when our country is making sexual assault an electable and forgiveable norm.

To immigrants and dreamers who don’t know what the future holds, we’ve got your back.
I am working with someone to have CCC host a panel of immigration lawyers who will give advice to immigrants who need to know their rights, and the legal resources available to them.

To the LBGBTQ? Community, we’ve got your back. Especially to students, and to those who were coming out of the closet and feel forced back in, there are some real challenges ahead. We are here to keep advocating. We will go to pride parades and trans celebrations. But more than that, we will keep providing space where you get to worship in full community and know experience the reality that God loves you and you are created in God’s image.

That’s what God is doing – reminding us to activate. I like how Annie Dillard puts it. “There is no one but us. There is no one to send, not a clean hand or a pure heart on the face of the earth or in the earth --- only us … unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and uninvolved. But there is no one but us. There has never been.” Many years from now, future generations will need to know what happened to us and how it happened. They will need to know how disgruntled white Americans, full of self-righteous indignation, found a way to take back a country they felt they were entitled to and which they believed had been lost. They will need to know about the ugliness that sought to destroy us. They will need to know there were people in our faith communities who kept our common values alive – values like respect, love, inclusion, dignity, diversity, and compassion. They will need to know that while there was not much to hope for, that hope did not die.

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