Crossing the Road from Safety: Sermon for July 10, 2016

This past year I’ve been reading a lot of books that I was supposed to read earlier in life. I was a big reader growing up, but of course you can’t read everything. And so, I went back and tried to fill in the gaps. I read Tom Sawyer last fall, and Huckleberry Finn this spring. And then, this week, I finally read a book that I probably should have read in elementary school: “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.”

CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are a series of children’s books that reflect his, at the time new-found, Christian faith. Reading this particular book as a Christian adult, it’s hard to miss that he’s retelling the Gospel story. And it’s not giving away too much of the book to tell you that the four children who are the book’s central characters go in search of a lion named Aslan, who acts a whole lot like Christ.

When they are told about Aslan for the first time, one of the children wonders about this lion asking, “but is he safe?” And the answer comes, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

So often we want life to be safe, and too often we equate safety with goodness. And, to be fair, safety is indeed easier. But that doesn’t mean it’s always good, and that doesn’t mean that maintaining our safety is the right choice.

Today’s story from the Gospels reminds us of that. The Pharisees, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, are asking him who their neighbors are. And Jesus tells a story, one that we have come to know as the parable of the Good Samaritan.

A man who is traveling is robbed and beaten and left for dead on the road. And as he is lying there dying, a priest comes along. He sees the man, but doesn’t stop. In fact he crosses the road to avoid him. And then a Levite, another religious leader, comes along, and he crosses the road too. And by this point two men who belonged to the same people as the beaten man, two of his religious leaders, had walked right by. Things looked grim.

But then a third man, a Samaritan walks by. Samaritans were considered so lowly that the beaten man normally would not even speak to them. But Scripture tells us that the Samaritan sees the beaten man and he is “moved with pity”. He bandages his wounds, and takes him to an inn, and pays for it with his own money. Then he tells the innkeeper to feed the man and take care of him, promising that he will return and pay for it all.

Jesus finishes the story and he asks, “So, who was this beaten man’s neighbor?” And the reply comes, “The one who showed him mercy. The Samaritan.” Jesus says, “Go and do likewise”.

Sometimes we ask the wrong question. We ask “who is my neighbor?” But the right answer for a Christian is simple. It’s “everyone”. But Jesus asked a different question here. He asked the religious leaders who was the neighbor of the man who had been beaten and left for dead. And in that instance, it wasn’t “everyone”. It wasn’t the two religious leaders who had left him crumpled on the side of the road. Instead, it was the man who had stopped, and given everything to save him.

Neighbors are as neighbors do. Loving our neighbors requires action, or else we aren’t really neighbors. And sometimes loving our neighbors means being willing to put our own safety and comfort at risk.

Jesus never promised us safety. It would be a mistake to think that. In fact, Jesus told us that we must be willing to risk everything to follow him. Or, to use the story from Narnia, of course Jesus isn’t safe. But he’s good.

I’ve wrestled with staying safe but wanting to do good. I’ve wrestled with saying I want to love my neighbors, and actually doing so. I think we all do sometimes.

And, I confess, that some Sundays I have wrestled between the safe option of preaching an easy and unchallenging word, and the good option of risking something in order to follow Jesus.

This was one of those Sundays.

This past week we kept waking up to bad news, in the midst of a summer of bad news. One morning we woke up and heard about Alton Sterling, a man in Baton Rouge, who was shot multiple times during an arrest. The next day, Philando Castile was shot five times while reaching in his back pocket for his wallet during a police stop.

I could get away with saying nothing about this today. We are hundreds of miles removed from the violence. We are not a congregation where most of us typically wrestle with what it means to be black in this country. And by bringing this up, I may be making some of you uncomfortable.

But the lectionary text today was the Good Samaritan. And the question Jesus poses about the man who is crumpled on the side of the road looking for help is “Which one of these was his neighbor?” And the safe answer is “we are all neighbors”. But the good and right answer is “the one who crossed the road to help him”.

I want to be a good neighbor. And this week I remembered what one of our literal neighbors said a little over a year ago when he stood in this sanctuary talking about race in this country. Rev. Bob Thompson stood here and told us that the only place he had ever been called the “n word” in his life was Exeter, New Hampshire.

And so, I can’t ignore my neighbor when he says that. I can’t pretend this is a sermon that should only be preached in Baton Rouge or Minneapolis this week. I can’t walk on by while someone waits for help.
There’s an old expression: “When your neighbor’s house is on fire, you don’t haggle over the cost of your garden hose.” You do what you have to do. You put out the fire.

Take that metaphor further, and there are some other things you don’t do either. First, you don’t deny that your neighbor’s house is burning. Your own house might be safe and comfortable, but if they are running out of theirs, you should believe them when they say they need help.

Second, as an illustration I saw this week showed, you don’t say “well, all houses matter” and then go around spreading water on every house in the neighborhood. True, no one’s house should burn, but if everyone else’s is doing pretty well, and your neighbor’s is on fire, you have to be able to say “this particular house matters” and turn on the hose.

QU7sepVDThat’s why I say “Black Lives Matter”. Not because they matter more or less than the lives of any others, but because right now too many of our African American neighbors are losing theirs. That was true last summer in Charleston. That was true this week in Atlanta where a black man was found hanging from a tree. People are dying. And if we want to be called neighbors, we have to be willing to cross the road and help those who do not have the option of safety.

I want to say this also. I don’t want anything I say this morning to be construed as anti-law enforcement. I have worked as a first responder myself, I have led trauma debriefings with law enforcement, and I have family members and friends who are police officers. I know that the vast majority of officers are good people, who put their lives on the line daily to save others.

And that’s why the shootings this week in Dallas broke my heart too. Five officers will never go home again. There is absolutely no justification for the slaughter of police officers, no matter how angry someone might be. And the man who did this, he was angry. He hated police officers, and he also hated the very same African American activists that were first blamed for this attack.

The reality was that the officers and the activists who led the march the officers were at had a longstanding, positive relationship. And when the shots were fired, they protected one another. While talking heads on television blamed one group, the reality is they were there on the ground, being neighbors to one another, even as they risked being shot.

And I am so tired of people being shot. I am so tired of people having to be afraid. I am so tired of looking at the Scripture for the week and thinking to myself, “And how do I preach about this text in the aftermath of another shooting? Of more hatred? Of injustice? Of xenophobic rhetoric from our so-called leaders?”

I think you might be too.

And if you are, I would say this: we are called to be good…not safe. Because we follow a Lord who, like Aslan, is good, but not safe. And the only hope I have now is that Jesus alone is Lord, and Jesus alone can guide us to a better way. 

We cannot allow our fears or the tools we use to calm them to be our lords anymore. We cannot offer excuses to not cross the road and tend to the broken. We cannot look away, and we cannot choose our own comfort.

I usually try to end my sermon with a comforting word. Something that will give you hope and make you feel good. But today, I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to tell you this: the time for being safe has ended. Now is the time to be good. We must each figure out what that means, and then we must each cross the street, and do what we must in order to earn the title of neighbors. Why? Because Jesus told us to.

Jesus. “‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” And in the end, maybe that’s the best sign of hope that we could hope to have. Amen?

For thoughts on putting faith into action in urgent times, check out Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity: https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0829820299?keywords=glorify%20emily%20heath&pc_redir=T1&qid=1453486699&s=books&sr=1-1

When It Feels Like Jesus is Asleep at the Wheel: A Sermon on Charleston for June 21, 2015

Like many of you, I’ve spent the past few days thinking about Charleston. Wednesday night people were gathered at a church. They were studying the Bible, and they were praying. And when a young man came in, they expanded their circle and let him in to their fellowship.

There are no words that adequately describe the tragedy of what happened next. And it will be a long process of discernment as we as a society decide how we respond to the evil we saw in Charleston. And for those of us who are people of faith, there is another question that I’m hearing, too: Why did God let this happen?

It’s a fair question. The nine victims were in God’s house, studying God’s Word, and lifting prayers up to God. They were welcoming the stranger, the way that Jesus asked of us. And they were, by all accounts, good and kind people who lived out their faith. No one deserves what happened, but of all people, why them?

By chance, the lectionary this week brings us a story of another time when the people of God were in the midst of danger. The passage and sermon title had been chosen before Wednesday evening, and they, unfortunately, became more relevant this week.

The Gospel we read today tells the story of how the disciples are crossing the sea in a boat. And we are told that Jesus is with them, but that he is asleep. A storm rolls in and the rain and wind start to beat against the boat, until it starts to take in water. The disciples think the boat was about to sink, and they are about to die. And they start yelling at the sleeping Jesus, waking him up and shouting, “Don’t you care that we are dying!”

Copyright, NBC News

Copyright, NBC News

“Don’t you care that we are dying?” Wednesday night I thought about those words, not for myself but for those nine souls in Charleston. “Jesus, don’t you care that they are dying? Don’t you care about your own people, gathered there in your own church?”

I think through the centuries, in many more places than that boat on a Galilean sea and a church basement in Charleston, good people of faith have asked that question. “Jesus, don’t you care? Why do you let bad things happen to good people? Why aren’t you stopping it?”

Like I said it’s a fair question. And those disciples in the boat, they at least got a response. When they woke Jesus up and yelled their question to him, he took action. He spoke to the storm and the sea and said “peace, be still”. And when he did, the rain and the wind died, and they were safe.

The disciples, they got a happy ending. But today I don’t tell you this story to say “everything is going to be okay”. Because the end of the story has not yet been written for us.

But I do tell it, because I believe that it reminds us of something very important: Jesus does not will for God’s people to suffer. What happened on Wednesday night in Charleston was not God’s will. It’s not what was supposed to happen.

Instead, it was what one angry, racist, violent young man chose to do. It was the horrible way that he chose to exercise his free will. It was his turn away from the message that Jesus gave us all, one of peace and love for our neighbor. And it was choosing an act of evil, even after being shown the love of strangers.

And it is horrifying. But, it is not unprecedented.

When I went to college in Atlanta, I would drive by Dr. King’s old church in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood. And I’d drive by The Temple, a Jewish synagogue that had been bombed in the Civil Rights movement. And I’d drive by other houses of worship that had been targeted decades before and think about the kind of hatred that would drive someone to carry out an act of violence against a peaceful place of worship. I’d think about how strange it must have been to have lived in that era.

But, as we know now, that era isn’t over. And I should have known better, even at age 18. Because the truth is, I knew racism was alive and well. I grew up in the South and I remember my friends from well-educated “good families” repeating the racist epithets of their parents while we played outside. I remember classmates who shaved their heads and started to wear neo-Nazi insignia. And I remember Confederate flags on the front of cars, or in front of fraternity houses on my college campus, hung by people who called it “heritage”.

Much like the disciples sailed a sea that was sometimes violently restless, I grew up in the South sailing a sea that was far too often disturbed by the undercurrents of hate. But unlike the disciples, who sailed waters that were unsettled by the weather, when we encounter racism it does not come from a natural place. We are sailing on a human-made sea of hate. It does not have to be there.

And like the disciples, we can call out to Jesus to ask him to calm the storm. But unlike the disciples, this storm is one of human making. And it will not be calmed by our silence. That didn’t even happen for the disciples; why should it happen for us?

Instead, it is our job to not just call out to Jesus, but to live out the values he taught us. It is our job to calm the stormy sea by choosing to speak up against hatred and bigotry. It is our job to love our neighbors, no matter who or where they are. And it is our job to reject silence when words are needed. We need to name racism for what it is: not a breach of social etiquette. Not a political concern. Not a relic of a bygone era. But instead, something that we must resist. Something that is a sin.

It may be tempting, here in New England, to think this is not our work. On Thursday, as I rang our church bells in remembrance, I thought about how different our context is here in Exeter than it is in Charleston. I wondered really what we could do from so far away.

But as I was sitting there, I was convicted by a story that the Rev. Bob Thompson told this past year when he came to a We the People lecture to talk about racism. Despite growing up in West Virginia, Bob said, “Exeter, New Hampshire is the only place I’ve ever been called the “n-word”.” And it didn’t just happen once.

And so, we have work to do. We have work to do because we are human beings and concerned citizens, but we also have work to do because we are Christians. And because just like Jesus calmed the storms by saying “peace”, Jesus taught us what it means to be peacemakers. And he was always clear that the peacemakers are the ones who work for justice for all God’s people.

So how do we start? I think the story tells us a little about that. Because the thing that has always struck me about this passage is the fact that Jesus did not calm the storm from back on the dock. He was not waiting for them there on the opposite shore. Instead, in the wake of a horrible storm, Jesus was right there with them, in the same boat.

And so that’s the hope in this story. Jesus does not ask us to do this alone. But Jesus does ask us to get in the same boat, and go where he is going.

Scripture tells us that other boats were out there on the sea that day. The same is true for us. There are a lot of boats out there. There are boats of anger. Boats of fear. Boats of vengeance. Boats of denial. And I’ll admit that sometimes they look pretty attractive.

But when it comes down to it, this is the only boat I want to be in. Because this is where Jesus is at the helm.

That doesn’t always mean that it will be smooth sailing. Because, be warned, no one said that following Jesus would be easy. Sometimes it costs everything. But like Jesus himself said after he stilled the storm, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

I want to be in that boat. And I want to have faith. I want to have that faith because on Wednesday night, not even bullets could destroy the faith of Emanuel AME church. And not even bullets could stop their hope.

So much so that when the shooter was arraigned on Friday morning, when he was brought into the courtroom where the families of his victims sat, their faith and their hope lived. And even in the face of a man who had done such an evil thing, they were able to say something to him that no one expected: “I forgive you”. Again and again they said it. And they said “May God have mercy on you.” And “we will pray for you”.

If they can say that, if they can stay in the same boat as Jesus even when no one could blame them for jumping ship, I can say the things that I sometimes don’t. I can say “that’s not funny” when I hear a racist, xenophobic, or a bigoted joke. I can tell the truth when I hear someone spread misinformation. I can say speak up when it would be easier for me to say silent. And I can say the things that will help to cause change. Because we never know who is listening, and we never know how much power our words, or our silence, might have. And if the families of those lost can say the things they did to the man who killed their loved ones, this is the least I can say from my place of comfort.

That’s my pledge in the wake of Charleston. You can choose the same, but that is your choice. But if you do, let’s pray for one another. Let’s pray that we will be the peacemakers on a sea that sometimes seeks to destroy us all. Let’s pray that we can stay in the same boat as Jesus, even when the waves get rocky. And let’s pray that one day soon we will find the other shore.

But today, let’s first pray for the souls that were lost. The martyrs of the faith. The ones who gave their lives doing exactly what Christ asked of them: transforming their minds, lifting their voices in praise, and welcoming their neighbor with open hearts. And let us do so by speaking their names and keeping our silence for a moment:

Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
Cynthia Hurd
Ethel Lance
Susie Jackson
Depayne Middleton
Clementa Pinckney
Tywanza Sanders
Daniel Simmons
Myra Thompson

(Silence.)

Prayer: O God, whose son stilled stormy seas, we lift up these names and these lives to you. And we lift up our hearts to you as well. God, transform them, and give us the strength and the will to silence the storms of hatred, and to speak words of peace, justice, and reconciliation. Amen.