Getting ‘Woke’: Sermon for March 26, 2017

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Ephesians 5:8-14
5:8 For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light-

5:9 for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.

5:10 Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.

5:11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.

5:12 For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly;

5:13 but everything exposed by the light becomes visible,

5:14 for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

Last night I was sitting in the living room at 8:30, trying to read something, and suddenly Heidi proclaimed “it’s Earth hour!” And she then went around the house shutting off all of our lights.

Things like this happen sometimes, and I’ve learned to just roll with it, but I of course asked, “Honey, what’s Earth Hour?” The subtext of that was, “honey, when can I get back to reading my book?” And Heidi explained that Earth Hour was a designated time when those who care about the environment were being asked to turn off all their lights and electronics for one hour to conserve electricity.

Okay, fair. I could do it for one hour. (And, honestly, it provided me with a much-needed intro to this sermon.) It also reminded me that in the course of human existence, this whole luxury of having light all through the night, and at the flip of a switch, is really quite new. A lot of us have great-grandparents or even grandparents who were born into a world lit solely by candles and lanterns.

So, sitting there in the dark last night, and thinking of all those dark nights of centuries past, I started to think about the Ephesians, and about what this text that we just read might have meant for them.

Paul, or one of his surrogates, writes to the church in Ephesus and says to them “live as children of light”. He says, “once you were in darkness, but now you are light”. And he wasn’t talking about flipping a lights witch there, at least not literally. The letter was talking about what had happened spiritually within them.

We don’t live in the literal dark often, but the Ephesians did. The night was something that was often feared because you literally couldn’t know what was around you in the dark. And so when Paul was talking to them about darkness and light, they got it in a way that you and I might not understand quite so dramatically today. They had been living in a metaphorical darkness, and now the light of Christ was shining all around them.

When Paul had come to Ephesus, in what is modern-day Turkey, he started this new church, and then others took over and helped it to grow. And Paul had come back at one point and lived with the Ephesians for three years before going back out again. There’s some question, though, about whether Paul really did write this letter. It might have been Paul, but it may have been someone writing it for Paul.

At any rate, the letter is written by someone who knows that the Ephesians were once people who didn’t know God, but who now did. And these are instructions on faith to this church, and to other churches, telling them how to live with one another, and how to live in the world.

And the big message here, in today’s text, is that the Ephesians had been changed. They had moved from spiritual darkness to light, because they now knew the love and grace of Christ. And so now they are “children of light” whose job is to live in the light, and shine the light for others. And, like I said, that metaphor would have resonated with them, because light could be truly life-saving back then. They didn’t take it for granted.

Nearly two thousand years later, we do. Last night, when I wanted to keep reading my book but couldn’t, it made me appreciate light more than I normally do. But 99.9% of the time, I don’t have to worry that there will be light when I flip the switch in my house. So, this light and darkness stuff, it’s not earth-shattering to me. I don’t often live in darkness.

But here’s the catch: sometimes I do. Sometimes we all do.

I’m talking here about metaphorical darkness. I’m talking about the ways in which I don’t really understand what’s going around me, and I am complicit with systems of injustice or inequity. I’m talking about the ways in which I have grown too comfortable with what should not be.

The author of this letter writes, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible…”

SpotlightLast Sunday some of us gathered here in the sanctuary after worship and we watched the movie Spotlight. Many of us are aware of the sexual abuse of children that took place at the hands of clergy in the Boston Archdiocese. And it’s easy to blame the priests who committed these horrible acts and to stop there.

But Spotlight tells the story of the Boston Globe reporters who unveiled a deeper, and even more troubling, truth. As the reporters were investigating these priests they learned that their superiors had knowledge of what was going on. And they learned that instead of removing these men from the priesthood, they instead moved them from parish to parish, giving them access to new victims. And that betrayal of the people by those in power became the even bigger story.

It’s not lost on me that the name of the team of reporters who investigated these acts was “Spotlight”. They were shining a light on what was hidden, and bringing it out of the darkness, even though the pressure on them not to reveal this, from the church and others, and even from inside themselves, was sometimes crushing.

Because they shined that light, though, literally thousands of survivors were finally heard. Old practices that allowed abusers to thrive were ended. And the whole institution was forced to face what had happened, and figure out how to never let it happen again.

Now it’s important for me to say here that this isn’t something that just happens in Catholic Churches. Protestant churches have had their fair share. So have schools. So have other institutions. And we are in a time of reckoning where we are shining the light and telling the truth about what happened, and in the end we will be better for it.

There’s an old adage: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant”. That’s true. And there’s another one I love as well: “We’re as sick as our secrets.”

Both remind us that sometimes truth is painful. Sometimes doing the work of shining a light in the dark places is deeply uncomfortable. But if we want to live as children of light, we cannot live in fear of what lurks in the darkness. We cannot be afraid of the truth.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. I’ve been thinking about it as we live in a world where “fake news” and “alt-truth” have somehow made it into the lexicon. We seem to have entered a period of darkness in so many ways. Truth and light are not en vogue.

And so, that’s why it matters more than ever that we are children of light. And it matters more than ever that we tell the truth. And the first truth, for those of us who would follow Christ, is this: this world belongs to God above all, and so do we. Christ alone is Lord, and Christ alone deserves our ultimate allegiance.

And if that’s true, Christ alone can show us how to live as children of light.

George Orwell, the author of 1984 and Animal Farm, once wrote that “in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

That’s an amazingly true statement in and of itself. But long before Orwell said it, Jesus said this, “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”

That is also true. But, as President James Garfield once observed, “The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.”

He was right. Because sometimes knowing the truth, and seeing things as they are, is a lot like waking up really early in the morning, and having to get to work, when you’d much rather still be sleeping in your comfortable bed. It is inconvenient, and it is uncomfortable. And yet, sometimes it is necessary.

The author of the letter writes, “Sleeper awake.” They write, “everything that becomes visible is light. Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

numbers-time-watch-whiteIn other words, “Wake up.” Or, to put it in 2017 terms, “get woke”. Be aware of what is happening around you and in the world. Be aware of the places where the darkness lies heavy. Do not shy away from learning about injustice. Don’t pretend that inequity doesn’t exist. Resist the urge to choose the easier path of ignorance.

Instead, refuse to hit the snooze button just one more time. Turn off the alarm, put your feet on the floor, and turn on the light. Because the world needs your light now more than ever.

And after we “get woke”, it’s our job to “stay woke”. It’s the work of our faith to not move through the world unaware. It’s our job to know what is going on around us, and to shine a light on that which is in darkness. It’s our job to stand up and tell the truth, even when it is frightening and no one else is ready to do it.

That’s what it means to follow Christ. That’s what it means when we read on Christmas that “the light shines in darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it”.

Last year a few of our middle schoolers taught me about a new concept. We were talking about bullying, and they were saying that at their school they are encouraged to not be “bystanders”, but to be “upstanders”. In other words, when they saw something wrong happening, it was there job to stand up and say something.

In this world, we are called to be children of light. And that means we are called to be upstanders. But the only way to remain on your feet, is to stay woke. That is our work together. And that is the work of faith.

And when you think about it, that’s not a bad job to have. Amen?

“Your Silence Will Not Protect You” – A Sermon on Esther for October 11, 2015

I’m often asked why there are so few women in the Bible. Sure, there are some. There’s Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene. There’s Eve, of Adam and Eve, and Martha who cleaned the kitchen while others surrounded Jesus. There’s Sarah and Abigail, Hannah and Elizabeth, and more.

There are actually a fair number of women mentioned in the Bible, but the tricky thing is they are usually not at the foreground, and sometimes they don’t even have names. They are mentioned in passing, or as someone’s spouse, but rarely in their own right. And so when I hear people, especially our younger girls, ask me where the women in the Bible are, it takes some explaining.

When the books of the Bible were written society was, of course, very different. Women were not their own people. They did not have the rights that women do today. And when they did act with agency our courage, it wasn’t always treated as a good thing. And even though it is very likely that Jesus’ disciples included more than just the 12 men he gathered around itself, the Bible doesn’t tell us much about them. It took something incredibly huge for a woman to get her due in the Bible.

Scroll of the Book of Esther, Royal Ontario Museum

Scroll of the Book of Esther, Royal Ontario Museum

But there are two books in the 66 book Protestant canonical Bible where that pattern is reversed. Both are named after women. One is Ruth, a book about a woman who converts to the Jewish faith. Ruth later refuses to leave her new beliefs behind when her husband dies. She is an unlikely hero, a convert who upholds the law with a vigor most born into the faith do not.

But as much as I like the story of Ruth, it’s the other book named for a woman who never fails to capture my imagination and awe. And that’s the story of Esther.

Esther was an orphan, a Jewish girl growing up with her cousin Mordecai in exile in the Persian empire. And the king at the time gets frustrated with his queen, who won’t do what he says. So he gets rid of her and looks for a new queen. And Esther is just the woman to fill the role. But her cousin tells her, whatever you do, don’t tell him you are Jewish. That will put you in danger.

About that same time Mordecai uncovers a plot to kill the king, and foils it, and Mordecai is made an advisor to the king. But the king has another advisor too, a man named Haman. And Haman loves power. He expects everyone to bow down to him. But Mordecai, Esther’s cousin, refuses. And this enrages Haman so much that he decides to kill not just Mordecai, but every Jewish person.

When Mordecai discovers this he goes to his cousin and begs her to get the king to intercede. But the wife of the king can’t just go to her husband. She has to be summoned first. So she has Mordecai tell all of the Jewish people to fast and pray for her for three days. And on the third day, she takes a risk, and she goes to the king and invites him to a feast. And he accepts. And at that feast she invites him back again to a second one.

In the meantime, Haman is still angry. Mordecai still won’t bow down to him, and so he is so mad he starts to build the gallows on which to hang him. And that same night, the king can’t sleep. And he’s looking for anything to put him to sleep. And so he has the court records read back to him. Anything to sleep right? And he discovers that he had never rewarded Mordecai for helping him.

And so everyone ends up back at the second feast. Esther, the king, Haman, and Mordecai. And at that banquet, Esther tells the king the truth about who she is. She tells the king that Mordecai is her cousin, and like her he is Jewish. And she tells the king that Haman wants not just to kill Mordecai, the man who had saved him, but all of the Jewish people as well.

And the king, knowing now who is wife is, and knowing that he still owes Mordecai for saving his life, decrees that the Jewish people can now stand up for themselves against attacks. And Mordecai takes a prominent position in his court. And Haman, the man who would have killed an entire people, ends up suffering the same fate he wished for Mordecai.

That’s the story of the book of Esther. It’s one that every year our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate during the festival of Purim. Purim is a festive day. It’s when the faithful throw feasts, dress up in elaborate costumes, and drink. In some cases, a lot. A Jewish friend of mine in college told me once that Purim was the only day of the whole year when it was considered acceptable to get drunk.

We don’t have a holiday like that in the church, if you were wondering.

But, the fact the story of Esther is celebrated with such joy and celebration is something that should not be overlooked. Because Esther, is about as close to a female superhero as we get in the Bible. She not only saved herself, and her cousin. She saved her entire people.

And she did it in the most amazing way. She didn’t do it with fancy weapons. She didn’t do it with an army. She didn’t do it with a costume or a cape. She did it by doing this: standing up and telling the truth.

Esther told the truth to a king that she knew did not want to hear it. She told it knowing that it could have gotten her killed. She risked everything to tell it.

And the most amazing part is that she didn’t have to.

Esther had all that she needed. She was the queen. She had wealth. She had relative safety. She had the protection of the king. All she needed to do was keep her mouth shut, and she would have guaranteed that safety for herself.

But Esther couldn’t do that. She couldn’t see her cousin killed, and she couldn’t see her people exterminated. And so, even though it was a risk to even go into the king’s presence and invite him to that feast, she did. She took her own life into her hands and dared to stand up and in front of the powers that be in order to save others.

And then again at the feast, Esther stands up and tells the king, tells the world, her truth. And once again she is taking her life into her hands. But she manages to save her people. And all these centuries later, her people still celebrate her.

But when her cousin had first come to her and asked her to do this thing, when she stood trembling in front of the king, when she opened her mouth to speak those words, she didn’t know how things would turn out. Not only did she stand to lose her life, but she held the lives of her people in her hands.

So why did she do it? Why not just be quiet, and let someone else be the hero?

Audre Lorde, the poet and civil rights activist, has an often quoted line: “Your silence will not protect you.” That has become a sort of rally cry for many different movements over the past few decades. Your silence will not protect you, so refuse to stand down, refuse to be quiet, and refuse to hide.

I think that her quote could use one qualifier. I think the truth is closer to this: your silence will not protect you…for long.

Because we have all been silent sometimes when we have wanted to call out our truths. We have all seen something unjust without speaking up. We have all, at times, waited for others to be the hero. And in those moments, we have been safe.

But if we are honest with ourselves, that safety does not last long. It lasts only as long as it takes for our conscience to catch up with us. And only as long as it takes to see the toll that our silence has taken on others. And then, we really understand, that our silence will not protect us, just as it will not protect others.

Pastor Martin Niemoller, who lived in Nazi Germany, once wrote a statement about his own silence in the face of the

Pastor Martin Niemoller

Pastor Martin Niemoller

atrocities he was seeing:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Niemoller ended up spending seven years in a concentration camp. In the end his silence did not protect him. But he survived the camps, and he became reflective about his silence. And part of his legacy became regretting that silence, and apologizing for it. In fact, after the war, he wrote that whenever he met a Jewish person, he said this: ‘Dear Friend, I stand in front of you, but we can not get together, for there is guilt between us. I have sinned and my people has sinned against thy people and against thyself.’

Downstairs this morning our elementary-aged children are learning the story of Esther. They’re learning it in a fun, age-appropriate way with crowns and costumes. But I hope that, at some level, they’re learning more than that. I hope they are learning that in the end, God made them for more than silence. God made them for courage.

I think our Jewish friends are right when they throw a party every year and retell this story. And I pray for our kids that if only they can learn what Esther learned. If they can learn to be people of courage and not people of silence, then I think that means today’s lesson will have been learned. that means we are raising children who will make this world a little better. If that happens, then surely that is worth a celebration. Amen?

In the Crowd: A Homily for Palm Sunday, 2015

Mark 11:1-11
11:1 When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples

11:2 and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it.

11:3 If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'”

11:4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it,

11:5 some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?”

11:6 They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it.

11:7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it.

11:8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.

11:9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

11:10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

11:11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

The first time I ever heard about Palm Sunday, I was confused. I’ve talked before about how I didn’t really grow up in the church, so I went to my first Palm Sunday service during my senior year of high school.

You might remember that I grew up mostly in Florida. And we had palm trees everywhere. We had a bunch all around our yard, and we would climb them the way kids in other places climbed oak trees. At Christmas some people even put their Christmas lights up on them. And when it was time to clean up the yard, we had to cut those branches down all the time. And I remember there being so many that we would fill up trash bag after trash bag and then haul them to the curb for the trash truck.

So, to be honest, growing up I thought Palm Sunday must be some sort of local Florida celebration like a Blueberry or Apple Festival, and I had no idea why we were celebrating it in church.

18124_920677677984831_3958351675566877247_nI understand what Palm Sunday is all about now. I know it’s the entry into Holy Week. And, because there are no palm trees here in southern New England, every Lent we pay a company to send us a box of palm fronds. The same kind we had way too many of in my neighborhood growing up. That irony is not lost on me.

But palm leaves, they’re an essential part of this story today. Scripture tells us the Palm Sunday story in two places, John and Mark, both of which we read this morning. And in them we hear about how Jesus, who had been preaching and teaching all over the surrounding towns for the past few years, gaining followers and generating excitement, was finally walking onto the biggest stage of all, the one where he was set to become a legend in his own time: Jerusalem.

And the people there had heard that he was coming. They wanted to be a part of it and they went out to meet him. And they greeted him like this: they threw their cloaks in front of the colt he rode in on, and they took palms from the nearby trees. And as he rode in they waived them and they shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Now, it may not sound like much to us today, those palms and those shouted “hosannas”, but back then they were greeting Jesus like he was a rock star. He was unlike anything they had ever seen before. Because the palm fronds they were waiving were more than just green leaves. At that time you waived palms as a symbol of victory or triumph. They were literally signs of hope, being held high for Jesus and all to see.

And those shouts of Hosanna literally meant “save us!” Because the people who were gathered by that road, they needed saving. They were being brutally oppressed by the Roman Empire on one hand, and held down by religious leaders who didn’t always want what was best for the people on the other. And the people who were there believed that Jesus had come to change all of that, maybe even by force. They didn’t know what was coming, but they knew it had to be better than what they had always known.

I talked about the crowd greeting Jesus like a modern-day rock star, and that has some resonance for me. About six months after my first Palm Sunday service I went to see a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, the rock opera about the final week of Jesus’ life. And I was struck by something in particular. The performers who play “The Crowd” serve as a sort of chorus for the play. They are the ones who shout “Hosanna” during one of the first songs, yelling “Hey JC, JC, won’t you fight for me? Sanna hosanna hey superstar.”

But by the end of the play those same actors, that same crowd, is shouting something different. When Pilate tries to release Jesus instead of killing him, the same crowd that shouted “save us” on Sunday is shouting back “crucify him…crucify him” on Friday.

I don’t think that Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote the scenes that way because he didn’t have enough actors to play two different crowds. I think he wrote them that way because he knew that sometimes, even with the best of intentions, our fears get the better of us, our hopes seem misplaced, and our loyalties fail us.

It was about the time that I saw that concert that I realized that it wasn’t enough just to refrain from actively participating in injustice. I realized that in order to be truly faithful, we have to make a decision to not just stand by and watch it happen. Because when we are a part of a crowd, and we do not speak up, in so many ways we may as well be yelling “crucify him” with the people around us.

When we see a bully terrorize someone, and we do nothing, we are not siding with kindness. When we watch someone being harassed, and we don’t dare to speak up, we are not being allies to them. When we see injustice happening around us, but we think we have no power to change it, we are a part of the reason that injustice can thrive.

I don’t know exactly why the crowd turned against him that week, but I wonder if it isn’t because of the same reason all of us fail to speak out when we know we should: they got scared. The one they thought was there to save them, the one they greeted with palm leaves and scattered coats, seemed to be just another disappointment. He didn’t overthrow the Romans. He didn’t fight back. He didn’t even say much. He just went to the cross without much to show for it. He didn’t save them

At least, that’s what they thought. But that’s a story for next Sunday. For now, though, I’ll just say this. He did not save them in a way that anyone expected. There were no weapons and no wars. But a victory was coming. One that deserved all the palm leaves in the world. But one that no one in the crowd that day could ever imagine.

So, for those of us 2,000 year later, in a place where our only palms are shipped in from another country, and in a time where with 20/20 hindsight we know how this story ends, how do we shout “hosanna”? And how do we welcome Jesus into our midst today?

Between you and me, while the palm leaves are nice to have, I don’t think Jesus much cares what we are waiving when we decide to welcome him. Here in New England we could do the same thing the people of Jerusalem did all that time back and just use what is handy. So we could use maple branches, or pine boughs. Or snow shovels, if you prefer. We could throw confetti or shoot off fireworks.

Or, we could do one better, and just open our hearts, and on this Palm Sunday, invite Jesus in. And we could say “hosanna”. “Save us”. From whatever it is we need to claim victory over in our lives, from whatever struggles we are facing. From whatever is keeping us as just one of the crowd, and from being a disciple. Hosanna, Lord. Save us.

Let’s start the welcome today. But let’s not end here. This week we will be journeying with Jesus through Holy Week, from today to Maundy Thursday, and from Good Friday until Easter Sunday. Step out of the crowd. Step into the hope of a victory that no one would ever believe. Join us. And together let us shout out a hope that will turn into a promise: Hosanna, Lord. Save us. Hosanna. Amen.