Monday, June 29, 2020

Whose Team Are You Playing For?

June 28, 2020 – The 4th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 8A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio for this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here. (The sermon begins around 21:15.)

The news that the baseball season is only a few weeks away is a reason for everyone to rejoice. Those of us who love baseball are relieved to know that there actually will be a season this year, and those of you who hate baseball can celebrate that the abbreviated season will be only a third as long as usual. I have not read all of the rule changes associated with the sixty-game season, but I suspect that there will be lots of nuanced differences that will make this season especially strange. Given the coronavirus, one of the bits that I am particularly curious about is the way that Major League Baseball will handle trades.

One of the great baseball traditions is assessing how serious your team is about winning as they approach the trade deadline. In late July, if your club thinks that it can make a run deep into the playoffs, it will often trade away several young, upcoming stars to secure one or two veteran players that can bolster the team’s chances this season. On the other hand, if your team is struggling to keep up and management thinks that there is no way they can win it all, they will often give up the big-name players that cost them a lot of money in exchange for several potential stars that still need a few more years to develop. I don’t know how that will work during a shortened season, but I hope that at least one trade will involve a player walking from one side of the stadium to the other, as he finds himself switching sides only an hour or two before the first pitch of a game.

I love it when that happens—when a player shows up to work in one clubhouse but discovers that he has been traded to the team that he thought he was going to be playing against that night. In those cases, instead of boarding an airplane to catch up with his new team, all the player has to do is walk down the concourse and check in with the new equipment manager, who probably already has a uniform waiting for him. When a player switches sides, the whole team has to make lots of little adjustments. They have to change up their signs and adjust the batting order and make space in the clubhouse for the new guy. But, in addition to all of that macro-level stuff, I wonder what it feels like to show up and find yourself playing against the guys that you’d been playing with only the day before. How do you change loyalties that fast? How long does it take before the new team feels like your team?

I don’t like to use sports images in sermons. As a life-long sports fan, they come pretty easy for me, but I recognize that not everyone—even in a college town—likes sports. Perhaps I can take comfort in knowing that Paul liked to use sports metaphors in his own writing—like the image of running a race and attaining the prize to describe the Christian life. But, in today’s reading from Romans, Paul used a different metaphor—that of slavery instead of athletics—to make his point. I don’t think that human bondage is a rhetorical device that preachers can use as if it does not also come with horrendous consequences, and, in this case, I think that the image of being drafted by or traded to a sports team is a fair way to understand what Paul meant.

In today’s reading, Paul asks us whose team we are really on and where our true allegiances lie. Are we going to play for the new team that has claimed us for its starting lineup—the team that has a jersey with our name on it hanging in its clubhouse—or are we going to drag our feet and mope about because we’d rather keep playing for the old team that we used to belong to—the one that we’re familiar with, on which we know the role that we are supposed to play?

For Paul and the Romans, becoming a Christian meant leaving behind their old identity and claiming something new. When this letter was written, Christianity had only been around for about twenty years. Everyone, whether Jew or Gentile, had their spiritual origins in another tradition, and being brought into the Christian faith was as dramatic a change as switching teams in the middle of a homestand. Most of us, on the other hand, not only grew up in the church but belong to families that have been Christians for centuries. Even if we spent most of our lives rejecting the faith of our parents and grandparents, whenever we came to the church, we did so not as if we were entering foreign territory but as if we were coming back to an ancestral home.

It is hard for us, therefore, to know how strange or difficult it must have been for the early Christians to have to put down their pagan practices and celebrations or their Jewish customs and rituals in order to embrace their new Christian identity. But we do know how strange and difficult it is to belong to one team while being surrounded by the fans of another. We might belong to God, and our eternal home may not be in doubt, but, for now, we live on this earth and in this life, where the fulfillment of God’s promises is not yet complete. A part of us already belongs with God in heaven, but the other part is stuck here in a world where sin and evil still reign. Much like the early Christians, the challenge for us is living as if we fully belong to God even though we live in a world that clearly doesn’t.

Paul knew how hard that was, and the church in Rome knew it, too, and I bet you experience that challenge on a daily basis. How do we embrace the way of humility, poverty, and meekness when power, wealth, and greed are what get things done? How do we stick up for the marginalized in our society when it requires us to turn our backs on those we love? How do we live into the fulfillment of God’s promises—how do we pray “thy kingdom come” and mean it—when that kingdom is so, so far away?

The solution that Paul proposed was to invite the Roman Christians to reexamine which team they were willing to play for: “No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but…present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.” The word that is translated for us as “present” is a word that also means “make yourself available to.” So, when Paul told the Romans to “present [themselves] to God as those who have been brought from death to life,” he was telling them to make themselves available to play on the team that had already claimed them—God’s team. Because of their faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection, they had already been brought over from their old allegiance to sin to a new allegiance to God and God’s ways. They had already been claimed by God’s team, but now it was time for them to suit up and get ready to go into the game, even if it meant going up against their former team. 

But one problem with belonging to Team Jesus is that very few of us wake up each day and put on a uniform that reminds us what team we belong to. Instead, we have to take our place and do our part in a world where the distinguishing and defining characteristics of our allegiance are more subtle and more significant than the cross around our necks or the window decal on our cars. Yes, we can say our prayers and read the Bible and go to church, but belonging to God is more than all of that. That’s like hitting, throwing, and catching—you can do those things no matter what team you belong to. Being a part of God’s work in the world means taking our place in opposition to the forces that work against righteousness. It means doing battle with evil. It means working to end oppression. It means giving up our wealth in order to end poverty. It means sacrificing our comfort for the sake of those who have no peace. It means making ourselves available for all of those uncomfortable things that Jesus told his followers to do because doing them is what it means to belong to Jesus. Living like that, even when we live in this world, is what it means to be on God’s team.

If you are a Christian, you already belong to Jesus. If you are a Christian, you already know what side you are on. You are on the same team as Jesus. You belong to the one who died for the poor, the weak, the vulnerable, and the oppressed. You belong to the one who was executed by the power and wealth and domination of this world and whose victory over death shattered their grip on reality. That’s where you belong. That’s your true identity. It’s time to stop hiding it. It’s time to stop ignoring it. It’s time to stop being silent. It’s time to stop living as if part of you still belong to the other team—the other side. You can’t be with Jesus if you’re still making yourself available to the work of the devil—the work of greed, of violence, of racism. You belong to Jesus. It’s time for you to show up. It’s time for you to take your place beside him. It’s time for you to play for the team that has chosen you—the team where you belong.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

How Do You Consider Yourself?

June 21, 2020 – The 3rd Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 7A
Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here. (Sermon starts around 22:40.)

How much golf must you play before you can think of yourself as a golfer? How many miles do you need to log each week before you can call yourself a runner? How many hours a week must you spend reading before you can call yourself a reader? Does it matter what your handicap is or how fast you are or what kind of books you read? Is it frequency that matters or the amount of time you spend or the pleasure you derive from an activity that counts? For example, If I only ski once every ten years but really love it when I do, can I call myself a skier? I suppose it probably depends on whom you’re asking.

How long do you need to live in Arkansas before you think of yourself as an Arkansan? Can you call yourself an American even if you are a citizen of another country? And can you think of yourself as belonging to another place even if your home is here?

As soon you have a child, do you think of yourself as a parent right away, or does it take time before that truth sets in? And, once you are a parent, is there anything that could ever take that identity away from you?

How often do you need to think about Jesus in order to call yourself a Christian? How much time do you need to spend sitting in church or saying your prayers or reading the Bible in order to think of yourself as a follower of Jesus? How good of a person do you need to be in order to call yourself a saint? Is there a spiritual ledger of sorts on which all of your good deeds and bad deeds are recorded, and, if the good ones outweigh the bad, do you get to call yourself a saint? And, if not, will you always think of yourself as a sinner?

Sometimes it feels like our identity is relative—that the labels we give ourselves depend on how we stack up against other people. But, when it comes to who we are in God’s eyes, there is no “sort of” or “halfway” or “in between.” When God looks at us, God sees beloved children who belong to God’s family. Whatever we see when we look in the mirror cannot change that, but seeing in ourselves what God sees can make a world of difference.

It has been a long time since we celebrated a baptism at St. Paul’s—since January 12. That’s 23 weeks, almost half of a year. Normally, we would have celebrated baptisms at the Easter Vigil and again when the bishop visited and again at Pentecost, but the pandemic has forced us to wait. When Baptism is a regular part of a congregation’s life, the words we say in the liturgy and the mysteries that they represent begin to work their way into our collective conscience. Without repeated exposure to them, however, the truth that we proclaim at the font begins to fade from our memories and lose its place in our daily lives. So, when we encounter the strange words about baptism that Paul wrote in Romans 6, we risk not knowing what to make of them.

“Do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Has it been so long since you took part in a baptism that you have forgotten about the death part of the liturgy? Actually, I’m not sure time has much to do with it. When we picture baptisms in our mind, we like to think of the pretty stuff—the little babies, the white gowns, the splash of water, the lit candles, and the celebration of new life. But that new life doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes when the baptismal candidate is united with Jesus Christ in his death in order that that candidate might be raised with him—might be reborn with him—into that new life. We don’t do much dunking here at St. Paul’s, but the water of Baptism is a symbol of our burial with Jesus. A part of us must die before we can live with Christ. And, once that part has been put to death, it has no claim on us any more.

To describe that death that takes place within us, Paul used language that was shocking in the first century and that remains shocking today: “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin.” Paul wrote at a time when he and the early church were still trying to make sense of the Christian faith. Jesus’ death on the cross was a scandal of the highest order. If he really were God’s Son, the Christ, how was it possible that he was executed in such a shameful way? The answer Paul offered is that Jesus died on the cross so that, through Baptism, we might die, too. And the reason we have to die is so that we can be raised to a new life of belonging only to God.

For Paul, our death is our emancipation. We should not lose sight of the fact that the only chains Paul ever wore were the ones he earned through his own free choices, but the image Paul used to convey the radical change that happens within us when we die with Christ is that of a slave being set free. Before our baptism into Christ’s death, there are two forces that have a claim on our lives—the God who made us and the Sin that tries to pull us away from our Creator. Once we die with Christ, we are raised to a new life in which Sin has no more power over us. From that moment on, we have no master besides God.

But Paul knew that, even after we have been baptized into Christ’s death, we can have a hard time seeing that truth. We might belong wholly to God, but Sin remains all around us. Not only do we fail each day to live up to the identity that Christ has given us, but the consequences of Sin bear down on us in ways beyond our choosing—poverty, addiction, greed, racism. We may have been made whole, but the world is still broken. In the eternal sense, we may be immune to that brokenness, but, in this life, its sharp and jagged edges still cut us in real and painful ways.

The answer that Paul offers is as elusive as it is powerful. No matter what the world around us may want us to believe, Paul writes that we must consider ourselves dead to Sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. The word Paul uses—consider—is only the second imperative he has used in all of Romans. Everything else has been descriptive theology, but this piece is what Paul tells us to do about in response to what we believe. We must consider ourselves dead to Sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. In this context, the word “consider” means more than just “think.” It means “reckon” or “count.” It’s the same word Paul uses when he describes how Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. This time, though, the act of crediting must be ours. We must credit ourselves, identify ourselves, consider ourselves not through the eyes of a sinful world but through the eyes with which God sees us. Even and especially when Sin would have us believe that God’s reign will never be complete, we must recognize that we are already completely within it.

That kind of consideration takes practice. It requires a faith that is more than intellectual or emotional. We must take what became true for us in the past and what will be true for us in the future and live out that truth here and now. We must see within ourselves what God sees—that we are already God’s full children and that any part of us that would stand in the way of God’s claim has been put to death with Christ. When we know that about ourselves, that truth begins to work its way into our hearts and minds and lives. It shapes us into the image of Christ. It works on us until the life we live in this world reflects the life we have been given by God.

So consider—think, reckon, credit, identify—yourself as dead to Sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. In a world in which hatred, suffering, illness, and death are prevalent, it takes real strength of faith to see that truth. Normally, we have the Eucharist to help us. At the altar, we get a glimpse of the fulfillment of our baptismal identity—the body of Christ becoming the body of Christ. But, during this pandemic, we have to find other ways to remember the truth that God sees within us. Read the 23rd psalm or Luke 15. Sing “Jesus Loves Me” or hum “This Little Light of Mine.” Spend time each day in silent prayer or call an old friend just to say, “I love you.” Open your prayer book and read through the service of Holy Baptism or splash some water on your face and say a prayer of thanksgiving to God. Those little gestures don’t make God love us, but they help us remember that we are loved. When we remember that—when we consider ourselves as truly beloved—we can live the new life that God has given us in Jesus Christ.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

More Work To Do

This post originally appeared in the weekly newsletter of St. Paul's in Fayetteville. To read the rest of the newsletter, click here.

Last Wednesday, some members of our parish staff and I hung a Black Lives Matter banner on our church’s fence that faces East Street. On Monday morning, we discovered that someone had cut a hole in that banner, removing the word “Black” from its proclamation. That discovery has helped me understand a few things a little more clearly.

First, the damage to the banner reminds me that racism is an active force in our local community. I am not naïve enough to think that, as a university town with a penchant for the progressive, Fayetteville is immune to such expressions of hatred, but, as an affluent white male, I have the luxury and privilege of mostly being removed from their effects. That someone would attempt to destroy our banner shakes some of the comfort from that isolation and brings the reality of racism closer to us. Still, this was not an attack on me or on our church in the same way that people of color are the targets of hatred, but, if you thought that we were mostly past all of that, think again.

Second, the specific removal of the word “Black” from “Black Lives Matter” helps me understand the extent to which white individuals, including me, are threatened by the idea that black lives have been devalued through racist societal structures, which are the legacy of slavery and for which we are still responsible. Here is what I mean by that. A common, instinctive retort to those who proclaim, “Black Lives Matter,” is to say, “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter.” But those who support the Black Lives Matter movement do not think that the lives of white people or police officers are any less valuable than the lives of black people. Instead, they want to draw attention to the ways in which society continues to place less value on the lives of people of color, including, among other things, the disproportionate number of black victims of police violence.

Yes, police officers like our own Stephen Carr are tragically murdered by criminals and deserve to be honored for their sacrifice, but to take the word “Black” and replace it with something else obscures the reality of racism in our society. It makes members of the dominant, white culture feel better by allowing them to amalgamate the violence being perpetrated against people of color with other forms of tragic violence, further diffusing their discomfort. Here is an imperfect analogy that I have seen other people use. The “Save the Rainforest” campaign was not a slight against other forests around the world, but to say “Save All Forests” would undermine the critical need for directing our attention to a threatened ecosystem. In other words, we can find ways to address other societal needs without diminishing the reality that our society continues to place less value on black lives than white lives. To literally, physically cut “Black” out of the “Black Lives Matter” banner is to enact a symbolic violence upon those victims of real violence to which the banner is calling attention.

Third, the damage confirms that we cannot stop talking about racism. Other than the coronavirus, it feels like the only thing that we have heard about or read about for the last few weeks is police brutality, racism, protests, and rioting. I know that congregations like ours can only handle so much exposure to these societal pressures. I know that many of you would rather hear a sermon about love and forgiveness than sin and repentance. That is part of our privilege, and it hurts to let it go. This week, I would love to have written an article about our parish’s new virtual engagements with VBS and Children’s Chapel and youth formation, but I cannot do that. In light of what happened to our banner, I cannot put off writing about racism for even another week.

You may have seen the meme on social media that depicts Jesus proclaiming, “Blessed are the poor,” and one of his hearers responding, “No, all are blessed!” The work of combatting racism is not just about social justice. It is also the work of the gospel, and it is, in particular, the work of our parish. We believe that God created humankind in God’s image. We believe that God united Godself to humanity in the Incarnation. We believe that Jesus suffered and died and was raised from the dead so that all people might be reconciled to God and to one another. We believe that the power of sin and the forces of evil actively work against that reconciliation. And we believe that, as followers of Jesus who are empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called to promote the dignity of every human being. In short, racism is an affront to all that we believe. As a prominent, wealthy, historically white congregation, St. Paul’s is in a position to lend its voice, its efforts, and its resources to the work of combatting racism. The damage to our banner has proven that, if ever we needed to proclaim “Black Lives Matter,” the time for that is now.

The work of dismantling racism, however, is much harder than hanging a banner on a fence and repairing it when it is damaged. It requires honesty, which at times is painful. It demands sacrifice, which is always costly. This episode with the banner also reminds me how much I still have to learn. I need to ask myself why I am upset by it and whether my emotional response has more to do with what I perceive to be a personal loss than the ongoing epidemic of racism of which I am a part. I need to work on my own vulnerabilities until I am more upset about the incalculable cost of racism than the destruction of a $400 banner. What work do you need to do? I am grateful for all the expressions of support that have been made in response to the banner and the damage that was done to it, and I hope and pray that this incident will help us recommit to the faith-filled work of combatting racism for as long as it takes.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Faith Strong Enough To Suffer

June 14, 2020 – The 2nd Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 6A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the entire service can be seen here. (Sermon starts around 24:05.)

Today we must confront a division that has been centuries in the making. There may have been moments in the not-too-distant past when that division remained covered up, simmering below the surface, but now it has broken out, boiled over, and burst free from the enforced civility that had been imposed upon it. No matter whom you ask, you’ll likely hear that the world is divided into two groups and that it is hard to imagine anything that could ever bring those groups together. For longer than anyone can remember, those groups have been divided by a deep-seated prejudice, and, because the power to act has historically been concentrated in one side of that division, power plus prejudice produces racism. That racism means more than hateful ethnic slurs. It means legalized segregation and systematic economic disadvantage and deadly judicial discrimination.

Churches have not been immune to that division. In many cases, Christian leaders have weaponized their faith in thinly veiled attempts to justify discrimination. Some leaders in the Christian community have called for unity but without expressing a willingness to confront the sins of the past and the present. Bringing people together without acknowledging the legacy of prejudice and racism upon which the church is built is no better than pretending it never existed in the first place. Any attempt to build a community of faith upon such false pretenses undermines the gospel of Jesus Christ and is certain to collapse under its own unsupported weight. So what are we supposed to do?

It probably sounds like I’ve been speaking about the church of the twenty-first century, and I might as well have been, but actually I was speaking about the church of Rome back when Paul wrote his letter to them. The Christian community in Rome wasn’t founded by Paul, but he had heard a lot about it. Like all first-century churches, it was made up of a mix of Jewish and Gentile believers—in other words by the chosen and the not-chosen, or by the Greeks and the Barbarians, depending on whom you asked.

At first, those who followed the Way of Jesus mixed with the members of other observant Jewish sects, but that quickly led to conflict and in-fighting. Things got so bad that in 49AD Emperor Claudius expelled all of the Jews from Rome. Five years later, when he died, that edict expired, and thousands of Jews, including many Christians, came back into the city. When they returned to the house churches that had been operating under exclusively Gentile leadership in the interim, a lot had changed. Both groups had forgotten how to keep their prejudices in check, and the Greeks were unwilling to share authority with their Jewish counterparts. Tensions flared. Resentments blew up. And Paul knew that he needed to step in and use his authority to resolve their differences. [1]

But Paul couldn’t get to them in person. He hoped to make a visit someday soon, but, for the time being, he was cut off from them and had to send a letter instead. That letter is Paul’s preeminent defense of the gospel as “the power of God’s salvation to everyone who has faith,” both Jews and Greeks (Rom. 1:16).  Starting with Abraham, who by faith had become the father of many nations, Paul lays out his theology of righteousness, which, as he writes, God has revealed “through faith for faith” (Rom. 1:17). For Paul, faith is the key to obtaining a right relationship with God, and sharing a right relationship with God is the key to unity throughout the Christian community. Because of Jesus’ faithfulness even to death on the cross, Paul explains, God has reconciled to Godself those who put their faith in Christ. It does not matter whether they are Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, all who believe in the saving power of Jesus Christ and his resurrection from the dead are made right with God and filled with God’s Spirit.

That is the message we come upon in today’s reading from Romans. In it, we hear Paul telling a broken and conflicted church, “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The peace with God that he calls to mind must have been a painful reminder of the peace that was missing between them. That peace with God is not merely the absence of conflict but the deep shalom of bountiful blessing that God’s people had long understood as a characteristic of upright living. Paul was reminding them that, as followers of Jesus, they had been given that peace—they had been reconciled to God—not because of their ethnicity or their accomplishments but because of Jesus. His faithfulness had made it possible for them to know that peace with God, and their faith in him was the means by which every single one of them had attained it. And, still, they were divided.

How true that is for us as well! We, too, have peace with God because of the faithfulness of Jesus and because of our faith in him. We have the bountiful blessing of a whole and right relationship with God, and, because it has been given to us without regard for who we are or what we have done, we know that it cannot be taken away from us. As Paul writes, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” If Christ would die for us even before we were reconciled to God, what could possibly take that reconciled relationship away from us now? Through Christ, God has poured his love into our hearts until it overflows, yet we live as if God’s love were in limited supply—as if it were a bag of flour or a package of disinfectant wipes on the pandemic shelf—a commodity that, if we can keep it all to ourselves, will become for us a sign of our deservedness, a testament of God’s preference for us.

But that’s not faith; that’s fear. Faith gives us the freedom and power to take our place among the children of God without fear of losing our share. It gives us the courage to take risks without worrying that God’s love could ever be taken from us. As Paul writes, “We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” Paul writes of a faith that produces such a powerful peace in the hearts of believers that they are willing to suffer and die because they know that God’s love for them will triumph—because they know that nothing can take that peace away. That’s faith. But, just like those Romans, we wouldn’t know it because we are letting the fear of our own suffering tear us apart.

We are afraid of losing our place in society. We are afraid of losing the power that has kept us safe and secure. We are afraid of what happens when the police don’t look like us and when they stop keeping us safe from other people who don’t look like us. We are afraid of losing our jobs and our businesses and our homes and our neighborhoods. We are afraid of riots and looting. We are afraid of angry black women and men. We are afraid. We can hang up banners on the sides of our churches. We can show up at protests and make donations to various causes and share Facebook posts in solidarity with others. But, when the cost of unconditional love—the price of true equality—brings the reality of suffering to our own front door, will we have the faith we need to boast of it instead of running away?

That is the kind of faith that we must seek. We must pursue it at all costs. We must believe that God loves us with an unbreakable love. We must believe that God loves us not because of who we are or what we have done but because it is God’s nature to love—because God is love. We must believe that God loves not only us but all people with that same universal, unconditional, unbreakable love. When we believe that—when we really know that we and the whole world are loved like that—then we will know peace with God. Then we will have the courage we need to risk our own suffering for the sake of others whom God loves just as much as us. Then the peace we have with God will become a peace we share with one another. Then we will have peace.

[1] A. Katherine Grieb, The Story of Romans: A Narrative Defense of God’s Righteousness (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 7.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Wrong Voice, Wrong Solution

Today, in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Tom Cotton, the junior senator from Arkansas, called for the U. S. military to be deployed into American cities where American citizens and residents are protesting the police brutality that led to the death of George Floyd and countless other African-Americans. Despite being an elected leader, Senator Cotton has neither the moral standing necessary to make such a suggestion nor, apparently, the wisdom or experience to offer a constructive solution.

Last night, I joined a multitude of protesters in downtown Fayetteville, Arkansas, as we gathered to express our anger and our resolve. We chanted, "Black Lives Matter!" We proclaimed George Floyd's name, and we repeated his final words, "I can't breathe." People raised their fists. People yelled out criticisms of the President. Some of the homemade signs used profanities and demeaning caricatures  to describe the police. Emotions were high. People were unhappy. We were all on edge. But no one threw rocks or bricks or water bottles, and I am convinced that the good decisions made by our city's leaders and police department that were designed to deescalate the situation from the beginning is why.

Early in the day yesterday, I began receiving warnings that the rally might become violent. Friends and colleagues sent me screen shots of supposed posts that called for violence and looting. We knew that a similar protest in nearby Bentonville had become violent the previous night. I heard that there was news footage being shown in another state of random piles of bricks being dropped off throughout our downtown--presumably so that protesters could pick them up and throw them. Our church provided water for the medical tent, and we decided to use five-gallon jugs instead of bottles because we were advised that bottles could be thrown. Several members of our church decided ahead of time to leave before dark just in case things became violent. It turns out that all the predictions of looting and violence were unfounded. Nothing bad happened.

Our police showed up in soft clothes instead of riot gear. They walked around the town square more than an hour before the protest started, greeting protesters kindly as they arrived. When the crowd was asked to kneel for eight minutes in memory of the knee-hold that killed George Floyd, all of the police officers knelt, too. The Chief of Police was one of the speakers at the rally. He condemned police brutality, naming specifically the murder of George Floyd. He acknowledged that neither he nor his department were perfect and that they needed to learn from the criticisms of the public. He announced that he and his officers would stay all night with the protesters in order to hear how they could do their job better. More than anything, he let us know that the officers were there not to deter the protest but to make sure we were able to protest safely.

In other words, despite being yelled at, cursed at, denigrated, criticized, and likened to pigs, our police department showed up to do their job and keep us safe. They enabled our protest rather than hindered it. And it's really hard to be mad at someone who kneels down on the concrete next to you for eight minutes. If things had gotten ugly or violent, they would have done their job and stepped in with whatever level of force was necessary. But things didn't get ugly or violent because our local police showed up and showed us that they weren't there to stop us but to help us.

When police or, even worse, soldiers show up in riot gear, they represent opposition to the protesters. By putting on tactical gear, they harden themselves and the division between the police and the community. It's a lot easier for a protester to throw a water bottle or brick at a police officer when that officer is wearing a helmet and face shield and holding a long baton and a metal shield. It's a lot easier to start a riot when the line of police officers standing in front of you are prepared for one. Instead, when you can see the face of the police officer across from you, you can begin to recognize that officer's humanity and distinguish between the idea of cops who murder innocent people and the actual officer standing in front of you.

After Michael Brown was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, people came out to protest, and the police showed up in riot gear. Accordingly, riots broke out. Afterwards, the conversation about policing began to change. The need for community policing by officers who reflect the identity of the community they police was emphasized. Tom Cotton's suggestion that the military enter our cities and towns to restore order contradicts the wisdom of experienced police officers and community leaders. Military personnel are trained to defeat the enemy with lethal force. Community police are trained to support the residents of their hometowns. Both are capable of using force when necessary, but calling upon soldiers to enforce order begs for a stronger, more violent response from the protesters. As such, it is the wrong approach.

Instead of listening to Tom Cotton or Donald Trump or me, for that matter, we should be listening to the people of color whose lives are threatened by police brutality. At the protest last night, every single speaker--white and black and brown--made it clear that violence had no place in our protest. Repeatedly, from the outset, anyone who wanted to cause trouble was told to leave. If the police chief, who is white, was the only person calling for peace, that call might go unheeded, but he echoed the voices of people of color who called for the same. Despite what Senator Cotton would have us believe, the truth is that organizers of rallies and protests are calling for peace, and they are the ones who are best able to condemn looting and rioting. Their voices must be heard, not the senator's.

When white people like him and me criticize those whose actions lead to the destruction of private and public property, our criticism cannot be distinguished from criticism of those who are peacefully protesting police brutality. As a result, any white voice that calls for an end to rioting instead of echoing the voices of black leaders who are calling for the same is a voice against the protest, and a voice against the protest is a voice for the murder of innocent people. Instead, those of us with power and privilege must do what we can to support those people of color who are in a position to call for an end to violence while also supporting the protest. We must be silent so that people of color can speak.

Instead of promoting the peace he claims to pursue, the language Mr. Cotton uses in his op-ed piece fans the flames of racial division. He describes participants as "criminal elements" and "nihilist criminals" and "left-wing radicals." He describes what has taken place as "an orgy of violence." He claims that those who would defend the rights of protesters are making a "revolting moral equivalence of rioters and looters to peaceful, law-abiding protesters" without ever addressing the source of the rioters' anger or acknowledging the escalating role of repeated acts of unprovoked police violence at the protests where looting has broken out. He's right that rioting and looting and violence are wrong, but his words show that he is more interested in appealing to white voters than protecting the lives of the minorities in his state.

He concludes his piece with words that condemn the premise of his argument: "The American people aren’t blind to injustices in our society, but they know that the most basic responsibility of government is to maintain public order and safety." The death of George Floyd is evidence that the government itself has failed to maintain public order and safety. The solution needs to come from those who are being killed, not from the government that has failed to stop the killings. He's right that the American people aren't blind to injustice, but he fails to grasp that he and his words represent the very thing that most threatens the justice he claims to value--the preservation of power and wealth among white America at the cost of countless black lives.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Put Things In Order

Reading the last six sentences of a long letter and drawing any conclusions from it is at best incomplete and more likely dangerous. In 2 Corinthians, Paul pours out his heart to the church in Corinth. Galatians may rival 2 Corinthians for ardor, but I think this letter excels in emotion. Paul is hurt. He and his ministry have been wounded. He writes in faith to the flock in Corinth, but, in some parts of the letter, he also writes with uncharacteristic timidity. This is Paul at his most vulnerable, most fragile, most human. And all we get are four verses. Why? Because it's Trinity Sunday.

Trinity Sunday is important. It's a principal celebration of the church. It's the core of who we are. Unfortunately, there aren't many passages of scripture that talk about the Trinity because, when the biblical texts were written, the church's understanding of Trinity was nascent. All we have are baptismal formulae and tripartite allusions in the creation story and Paul's important conclusion to his letters: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you." That's not nothing. A benediction like that, likely written in the 60s, says a lot about how the Christian community understood the work of Jesus as cooperative with the Father and the Holy Spirit. They may not quite be ready to say that God is one in three persons and that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God, the second person of the eternal Trinity, but there's an important foundation there.

Still, I want to know more--not only about trinitarian theology but also about 2 Corinthians. I haven't gone back and read the whole thing this morning--not a bad idea--but I have read the rest of chapter 13, and it's worth it. Read what Paul writes before he gets to this conclusion. Read what he has to say about truth and self-examination and the power of Christ living within us. Read that and tell me it doesn't have clear bearing on this moment in our lives.

In Sunday's reading, we will hear Paul tell the Corinthians to "put things in order." We love order. On yet another morning when the fires in the streets remain smoldering and the fires in our hearts still burn unquenched, many of us yearn for order. We'd rather have our protests in neat and orderly fashion, thank you very much. So many of us white folks think that protesting the murder of a helpless black man is fine but throwing rocks at police, setting buildings on fire, and upending the economic integrity of a local community is wrong. Is it? I'm not advocating for violence, but I think our tendency to appeal to order is a thinly veiled attempt to quash the societal transfer of power and wealth that make representatives of the establishment uncomfortable.

Today, as I try to navigate the precarious path between reasonable demonstration and condemnable violence, I want to know what Paul had in mind about order. When he told the Corinthians to put things in order, what did he mean? When we hear those words on Sunday (some of us, at least), what will they mean to us?

Earlier in 2 Corinthians 13, Paul writes, "Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless, indeed, you fail to meet the test!" He also writes, "For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth." And, finally, right before he tells them to put things in order, Paul writes, "So I write these things while I am away from you, so that when I come, I may not have to be severe in using the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down."

Paul recognizes that if the structures of the Corinthian church are not true--true in the Christ-lives-within-us sense--then Paul is going to have to tear them down. Instead, he hopes that the Corinthians will themselves put things in proper order. They must examine themselves. They must recognize that the standard by which they must judge themselves is the standard by which they will be judged: Christ's presence in them. If their church isn't build accordingly, it must be torn down.

Paul wasn't writing to the Corinthians about systemic racism, but the Corinthians' failure to build their community upon the principles of the gospel might as well be ours. We must examine ourselves. We must recognize Christ within us. We must acknowledge when we have "fail[ed] to meet the test." Then, we must put things in order. Sometimes putting things in order requires tearing old structures down. For a long time, people in positions of power and privilege have pretended that such a tearing down would be metaphorical and theoretical. Much of it may still be, but it seems the time has come for some of that tearing down to be as real as what we see on the news every night.

We Are Tired

This originally appeared on 5/28/20 in the parish newsletter of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, AR. To read the rest of the newsletter, click here. To subscribe to the weekly newsletter, click here.

Last night, a friend of mine posted on Facebook that she is “too tired to make another statement.” The Rt. Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows is the Bishop of Indianapolis, but she is also an African-American woman, a runner, and the mother of a school-age son. Instead of responding to the murder of George Floyd with yet another post about the death of an unarmed black man, she acknowledged her need to look for comfort in some homemade pasta eaten outdoors with her family. I have not spoken with her about the effects that the repeated violence perpetrated against people of color is having on her or those she loves, but the fatigue conveyed in her post makes me wonder what kind of “tired” that must be.

I, too, am tired—tired of having to add another victim’s name to the Prayers of the People, tired of reading the gruesome details associated with another killing, and tired of explaining to my children that systemic racism means that some people are more likely to die simply because of the color of their skin. But I don’t have to tell my children not to wear a hoodie when they are walking through town. And I don’t have to tell them that going out for a run could become deadly. And I don’t have to tell them to film every encounter they have with the police just in case.

I might be tired, but my experience of fatigue is sheltered and privileged. As such, the kind of tired I feel risks becoming numbness or apathy. I have the luxury of getting angry and then going about the rest of my day without needing to change anything. I can manufacture a healthy dose of self-righteous indignation when I like a post or use a hashtag or write an article for our parish’s weekly newsletter, but then I get to move on to writing a pastorally minded and only slightly provocative sermon about the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. As a Christian, however, I cannot be faithful to God or to the death of Jesus Christ or to the animating power of the Holy Spirit if I allow my fatigue or my discomfort or my privilege to distract me from the urgency of this moment.

We do not need to agree on the politics behind the violence or on the political responses to it in order to agree that the death of unarmed, non-violent human beings at the hands of people in positions of power is antithetical to the way of God and to the teachings of Jesus. We can value the contributions that women and men in the police force make and respect the risks that they take to keep others safe yet also identify the sinful stain of systemic racism as the cause of unjustified police violence against people of color. We are allowed to feel exhaustion and powerlessness in the face of an evil that we alone are unable to defeat, but we cannot be committed to God’s unconditional and universal love for all of humanity and act as if one life—or one death—is less valuable or meaningful than others.

When you hear the names of the dead—George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner—or are asked to remember those whose names are not well-known because there was no video recording of their death, what sort of tired do you feel? What does that particular kind of fatigue say to you? Where do you allow it to lead your mind and heart? What are we going to do about it?

We will pray, of course, and prayer is an appropriate response to the extent that it draws us into the communal heartbreak and presents us before God as vehicles through which the Holy Spirit can act. Some of us will demonstrate or advocate or donate to organizations that work to end racism and injustice. Plenty of us will share posts that condemn violence and that call for societal change. Lots of us will be tired and will tell others that we are tired of this, but, as I am sure my friend in Indianapolis will do, when the initial moment of exhaustion passes, we must channel our fatigue into energy for change. We must seek God’s help in order that we might make every community, every neighborhood, every street corner, and every sidewalk, a place where God’s reign is fully established.

Other than pray and post, what can you do? Read a book like White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo or The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone. Become a member of the local chapter of the NAACP or an active participant in the Poor People’s Campaign. Fast for thirty days as an act of personal commitment and sacrifice for those who are the victims of violence. Make a virtual pilgrimage to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and, when the pandemic is over, make the trip in person. Join our parish’s Becoming Beloved Community and commit to the work of justice as a daily pursuit.

Whatever you do, do something. Ask God to give you strength that overcomes your fatigue. Ask God to give you urgency that overcomes your apathy. Ask God to give you humility that overcomes your privilege. Ask God to give you faith that overcomes your doubt that the world could ever change. With God’s help, it is changing because, with God’s help, each of us can change.