Sermon – November 13, 2016 – A Letter to My Sons

Grace and peace to you on this Lord’s day in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.

When our boys were teeny-tiny, back in Colorado, my sermon one Sunday took the form of a letter to our boys. It was mostly advice, inspired by the gospel that day, about things I hoped they would remember as they grew. I don’t know what I did with that letter but I am sure it is saved in a computer file somewhere. They will get the letter someday.

This week, I wrote another letter…because it has been the kind of week where people think a lot about the world in which they live, the world in which the children we love are growing up. For some it has been a great week, for others it has been a devastating week – but for all it has been hard because we’ve come to understand in a way we didn’t before there is a great divide within our country. People, good people, seeing things very differently, responding in fear, lashing out with anger – these are strange, hard times. So, today, I’m sharing this letter, I want to let you eavesdrop on my prayers for my children, because these are my prayers for all of us.

A letter to my sons – November 13, 2016

Dear Owen and Jesse,

Your mom is a pastor. You have known this your whole lives. From the time you were only days old you have come with me to visit and pray with people – in nursing homes, hospitals, houses, places of work – you have been there and you have bowed your little heads and prayed with us. It has been my greatest joy to share that with you. To see you come to know and love Jesus, my heart can’t get more full than when I think of that.

So, on a week like this, when there’s been elections and shock and hurt and protests and winners and losers and those who are excited and those just plain terrified, I want to point your eyes away from the media, away from the divisiveness and ask you to focus on as Saint Paul said, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, excellent or praiseworthy” to fix your eyes on those things. I need to remind you who you are as Jesus’ people, as children, not just of me and your dad, but of God.

First, there’s this: you remember a couple years ago, that lady at the nursing home in Texas who frightened you one night? We were there visiting our congregation member Estella in those hard weeks right before she died and you two decided to wait for me on the big, soft chairs in the lobby while I went down the hall and prayed with Estella? One of the residents wheeled up to you as you were sitting there and told you to leave. She was confused and convinced you didn’t belong there and she yelled at you. You cried and you didn’t understand why she was yelling at you – but you grabbed each other and came to find me in Estella’s room. I could see how sad you were – your whole lives you had only known older folks to be kind to you and suddenly this happened. We talked about how sometimes people who are in the nursing home get really confused, especially after dark. Or maybe she had just had a really bad day and was upset about something else but took it out on them. We talked about how it didn’t do any good to be angry about it, we just needed to respond with kindness and gentleness. 

My dear boys, kindness is key. It always is. We don’t know the battles others are fighting. We don’t know half the demons that follow others around or the sadnesses that have bitten at their hearts. Whenever possible, be kind and it is almost always possible. Our Christian faith instructs us in this as the Bible reads in Ephesians, “Be ye kind one unto another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.” And Jesus’ words in Luke, “If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also.” Kindness, mercy, grace, forgiveness, these are words that we hold close, cherish, center ourselves around as people who believe in Jesus.

But, my dear boys, hear this – being kind is different than being complacent, complicit, or a doormat, or even nice. Jesus himself, when he turned over the tables of the moneychangers in the temple, taught us to stand up for what is right. Jesus was always, always, always on the side of the oppressed. Jesus always, always, always spent time with those who lived on the margins – the poor, the outsiders, the refugees, those who had messed up big time, those with bad reputations, Jesus was all about finding ways to make room for everyone. He had no patience for leaving anyone behind or creating walls of division. Do you remember the Bible story where there was a group of people who were angry at a woman who had sinned, they were so angry with her they thought they should just kill her, but Jesus said, “Okay, then, whoever among you has never sinned, you get to be the first to start killing her.” And of course, no one could say they had never sinned. He pointed out all the time that we are all sinners, all of us need forgiveness, we can’t judge each other. 

My boys, I’m so in love with your loving hearts. When I see you do something kind, my own heart couldn’t be more full. But I’ll always pray, too, that when the time comes to call someone out who is being mean to or speaking badly about anyone because of their race or gender or political affiliation or sexual orientation, that you will have the strength to do that. Turn some tables over like Jesus did – it has to happen sometimes. Never be okay with injustice. Always, always, always speak up for those who are being bullied, no matter what age you are or they are, because this is the way of Jesus. And because if you don’t, your mama will kick your butt. And you know I will.

But even more than that, take it one more step. Don’t just react to injustice, but work first to promote peace. How does this look? Well, every day it looks different and for each person it looks different. Find ways to build community. Look for opportunities to build bridges. Your mom hasn’t always been so good at this – sure, within my own white, churchy, Lutheran, Christian, Scandinavian-American circles I can network and reach out like crazy, but what about beyond that? I need to keep looking for ways to be a safe person for those outside my own bubble of life and faith and experience. Pushing my introverted self to not only speak peace but live peace – look for ways to do that with all people. People of color, white, gay, straight, immigrant, native-born, Muslim, Catholic, able-bodied and disabled, men and women, the crabby and the sweet, the democrat and the republican, the gun-toters and the gun haters – everyone. Jesus crossed boundaries and social barriers to share a message of love and peace, radical inclusivity, grace for all – and so that is our goal, too. I promise, my dear boys, to keep looking for ways to do that, and you must, too. Because this is the way of Jesus.

Let’s see, what else? There’s so much. This task of living as Jesus’ people is expansive the most important thing you will do – but this is something that will help you: pray. Pray hard. Pray every day. Pray for those you like and especially for those you don’t like. Our Christian faith instructs in this also. Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook, he said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” And so we do. We pray for others, partly for them, but it helps us, too – it can soften our hearts and ease our bitterness. It makes us better. We pray for our leaders, for our president-elect, and work hard speak respectfully of them, whether they were the one who received our vote or not. This, too, is the way of Jesus. We can work for change and disagree without slipping into speech that is beneath us. Be clear, be smart, be faithful, live passionately, but also watch your words because they always say more about you than they say about anyone else.

I remember like yesterday those June days when you were born. I held you close, looked at your little faces, and then I looked out at the mountains in the distance and I wondered what life would hold for you. So much was unknown. I was scared of becoming a mom – worried I would mess it up big time, worried I wouldn’t have the kind of love and tenacity a parent needs. But then, we did what parents do, we gathered you up and took you home, trusting God would bring us through the journey of parenthood one day at a time. And God is faithful.

One day at a time, my dear boys. Trust God is with you. Be kind. Work for justice. Live peace. Pray. Follow Jesus. 

I love you to the moon,

Mom

 

Aylan (sermon from 9/6/15 at Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church)

Dear Aylan,

I saw the picture of you in the news this week. I, along with the rest of the world, saw you there – lying on the beach, your body lifeless. Your little red shirt and blue shorts, tiny tennis-shoes. At first my mind didn’t understand what I was seeing until my eyes scanned the caption under the picture which read,

The two small boys whose bodies washed up on a Turkish beach Wednesday were Kurdish refugees from Kobane, Syria, whose family had been desperately trying to emigrate to Canada.

Galib Kurdi, five, and his three-year-old brother Aylan died along with their mother Rehan and eight other refugees when their boat overturned in a desperate flight from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos.

The boys’ father, Abdullah, survived. His family says his only wish now is to return to Kobane with his dead wife and children, bury them, and be buried alongside them.”

I suppose I did what every parent did at the sight of that photo. I gasped. I thought of my own dear boys. I thought about how I would give anything and everything to keep them safe – and how I’m sure your parents felt the same.

And then I went on with my day, Aylan. I had stuff to do. I had to run some errands and go to a Bible study and visit some people. Later that day when I was scanning facebook I saw someone had posted your picture again. Again, I felt sad. I felt helpless. I felt thankful my own boys were safe and I prayed for your father.

I went to sleep that night and woke in the morning to see your picture again in the newspaper. Aylan, I confess that I didn’t want to see it again. I didn’t want to see it because I felt bad when I looked at it. Even though I had only just heard about you the day before, your little red shirt and blue shorts were old news now. How long was I expected to feel sad for you? How long should I feel bad about your whole situation I knew nothing about? I had plenty other things to think about and plenty other news to read.

But then you started staying near to me. In my thoughts, in my heart.

I’m ashamed to admit to you, Aylan, that I knew so very little before these last days about what is going on in your homeland. I get so busy with my own life and my own cares that too often the news I hear from around the world becomes just noise and I don’t stop to pay attention to what is happening. Of course I had heard things about Syria, about ISIS, and while things sounded bad, I knew there was so much to pray about things right here in my own country. And you and your family sounded so far away. Until I saw you there with your little red shirt and your little blue shorts, tiny tennis shoes. For me and for many, You weren’t just another headline. You were far from the first child to die because of the civil war in your homeland but when I saw you I finally realized –You could have been my boys. My boys could have been you. Except they were born here and you were born there.

So when you started to stay near in my thoughts this week, sweet Aylan, I finally opened my eyes and ears. It’s astonishing how much I can learn when I actually pay attention to things beyond myself and my own zip code. I learned that there are 5.6 million children like you who have lost homes and lives and any sense of safety because of the civil war that broke out in Syria in 2011. Many are now living in over-stretched refugee camps, makeshift shelters or villages. Many have fled Syria on foot, taking only what they could carry. Most fled under the cover of night to avoid sniper fire and shelling. There are Millions refugee children just like you who are exhausted, hungry and terrified.

Thousands of Syrians still flee their country every day. They often decide to finally escape after seeing their neighborhoods bombed or family members killed. The risks on the journey to the border can be as high as staying. Families walk for miles through the night to avoid being shot at by snipers or being caught by soldiers who will kidnap young men to fight for the regime.

Aylan, I read the story of a young mother, Hiba – she recently fled with her daughter and her severely disabled son, following the destruction of her home.

Hiba said, “Once the shells started and we ran…I couldn’t take my son’s wheelchair so I had to carry him, and run. We thought it was better for us to die in the street than under the rubble of our house. We ran at three in the morning and we didn’t know where to go. We were just running because we didn’t want to die under the rubble. I wasn’t thinking – I just wanted to protect my children.”

In the morning we came back to our home but it was ruined…I cried and I shouted but there was nothing else I could do. There is no human being alive that wouldn’t be sad – we worked all our life to building our home and suddenly we lose it all. “

There is no place for us to go, no safe space to go to at all.”


I read about how the majority of displaced Syrians are living in Jordan or Lebanon – countries that are stretched beyond their breaking point now and unable to take care of the people who are there. Others have taken to the sea to try to get to other countries where there might be a future. Aylan, I know your family did what you had to do. You had to leave.

And then, not long after your journey began, we saw your picture. Dear boy, I am so sorry. I’m so sad that you had to leave your home and face that terrifying journey over the water. I can’t begin to know the kind of horror that you experienced in your short life.

But I’m so thankful that whoever took those pictures let the world see them. Forgive me that for even a moment I wanted to turn away and not see the picture. We need to see it. We need to hate your death and the violence in this world that caused it.

You were just three years old – but your life mattered in countless ways – to your parents, to your whole family, to God – and though we did not meet, now you are so near to me each day.

Aylan, you were with me when I was studying the texts from the Bible for this week. When I read the prophet Isaiah speaking the word of hope to the exiles in Babylon and talking about the waters breaking forth in the wilderness and the streams in the desert, I wondered where the hope was for you when the waters enveloped your sweet little head.

And when the psalmist sang of giving justice to the oppressed, I hung my head and contemplated how your young life knew of no justice. While other children were busy sleeping in a few more times before school gets started again, while other children were busy riding their bikes around the block or staring at a video game, you were dreaming of a safe place to live for your family, of being done riding in that boat.

Even when I read the gospel for today and heard Jesus talking to the Syrophoenician woman who came to him begging for help for her child and at first he turns her away and only helps her after she holds on tight and keeps asking him, not letting him get away with turning her away – because a parent will do anything to help their child – maybe then I thought of you the most. Sweet boy, you deserved better than what happened to you. You deserved safe passage and a warm bed to sleep in. You deserved a full tummy and to be able to grow up along with your brother, sharing memories and life with your parents. You deserved laughter and education and hope and a future.

Aylan, what can I do for you now? A 45 year-old white preacher in Minnesota. What can I do for you – for children like you? I feel so helpless sometimes. The gospel is so extremely clear about how Christians must care, not only care, but help those who lack anything. The gospel compels us to welcome you and all refugees – with no stipulation or hesitation. And yet, borders rise up everywhere – between lands, between hearts, between peoples – keeping us all in our place, until ultimately we feel threatened by anything or anyone different. I want to help, but I just don’t know how?

Of course, one thing I must do is never ever forget that my ancestors were refugees, too, in their own way. Aylan, it’s true. They left Norway because they were so poor and there was no land and no opportunity. They weren’t in the middle of civil war like your family was – but they did come with a hope for something better – just like your family did.

It was a different time, to be sure, but there’s nothing in the gospel of Jesus Christ that allows me to reserve compassion for when it is easy or when it makes sense or when it doesn’t put me out of my way too much. God doesn’t allow us to see your picture or hear the news about what is happening to you and your people without compelling us to take action. Wherever we are.

And Aylan, in addition to remembering that my own people were once people traveling on the sea looking for a new home, I’m going to do something else.

So, Aylan, I have been thinking about your picture and about how helpless I feel to really do anything for children like you. But then I realized how far from helpless I am. You actually were – you were a child fleeing a war-torn country. But I am not a victim here. I am not helpless. God help me if I act like I am. Because I can use my voice to talk about you. I can encourage others to do the same. I can use my money to help support organizations that can help other children like you. I can stop putting any energy at all into feeling so dang helpless and remember that I may not be able to do everything, but I can do something.

Aylan, when my boys were very little and they wanted me to hold them, they would stretch their arms up to me and say, “Hold you, hold you.” It was the dearest thing in the world to me. Those sweet, trusting faces and knowing they were looking to me for comfort and some sense of assurance in their world. I had the power to give that to them. And so I would reach down and pick them up and hold them close.

And when they are asleep, then and still now, I put my hand on their heads and I bless them and ask God to watch over them now and always. And I trust that no matter what, God will. It’s not trusting that they will always have good luck or that nothing bad will ever happen to them – it’s trusting that no matter what happens, God will be with them. That even on their worst days they will know they are loved – by God and by their family.

Aylan, you are loved, by God and by us. Your death showed me a glimpse of the worst of sin and evil in this world – and now I pray that as I remember you, I‘ll be moved to show a glimpse of something quite different. I will show love and mercy. Generosity and bravery. I’ll not just speak about how awful it is that you died, but I’ll do my best to help where I can because you lived.

I pray you rest in peace.

With love in Christ,

Ruth

p.s. I’ve encouraged our congregation to support the work of Lutheran World Relief among the Syrians – to learn more or to contribute check out http://www.lwr.org

Okay, God, What Next? (a sermon from June 28, 2015)

I was ordained almost sixteen years ago.  I had a shiny new call in hand from a little church in Western New York and planned the ordination service at my home church – Good Shepherd Lutheran in Henning, Minnesota.  My pastor from all my growing up years, Rev. Darrell Vetter, preached.  Bishop Arlen Hermodson of this synod did the ordination.  My internship supervisor, Rev. Allyne Holz, placed the stole on my shoulders.  Afterward, the wonderful ladies of the church provided a lunch – little sandwiches, cake, and coffee.  It was a gorgeous September day.

A few days later I was driving out to New York with everything I owned in my black 1984 GMC Jimmy.  My two faithful cats, George and Sam, meowing at me the whole way.

There were many unforgettable moments in that trip and those weeks but one that often comes to mind is my first morning in my office.  I arrived early – the sun was just coming up.  I stood looking out the window across the street at the cemetery and the church’s former building which now stood empty and peeling paint.  I stood there and thought, “okay, God, now what?” Here I am.  Now what.

Years and years and years of preparation had led to that moment – and I didn’t have the foggiest clue what to do.  But then the phone began to ring and people began to stop by and hour by hour, day by day, prayer by prayer, joy by joy, and frustration by frustration, suddenly sixteen years have gone by.

But most days I still look out my window and my silent or whispered prayer is, “okay, God, now what?”

It’s my ineloquent way of saying, “God, please lead me and guide me.”  Partly because God must, and partly because I am clueless on my own.  I always have been – I have no qualms about saying that.  I need God’s guidance in all things.  I listen like a hawk for the still, small voice of God’s direction because without it I am just floating about on the wind.  Without God’s guidance I would be easily deceived, I have no doubt about it.  So I cling to God’s promises and I cling to the assurance that I belong to Him.

What am I going on about here?  I don’t know.  It’s just been another one of those weeks where as a preacher, I’m a little bit terrified to preach. The Bishop of the ELCA recommends that we keep talking about Charleston and I agree this is important.  Did you see President Obama’s beautiful eulogy at Reverend Pinkney’s funeral – it was gorgeous as he talked about God’s amazing grace and even sang. 

But also in the news this week we have huge news about the Supreme Court of the United States saying all gay and lesbian marriages are legal.  This is huge. And this is news that I know everyone here has an opinion about and I don’t think it does us a lot of good to not talk about it.  In fact, I don’t think it is faithful for us to not talk about it.

So let me start – I grew up as the daughter of a preacher – but my father was a very different sort of preacher than me.  He loved the fire and brimstone.  He preached law with a small sliver of grace on the side.  And don’t get him talking about “the gays” because for some reason, in his view, homosexual people were excluded entirely from God’s grace. 

I didn’t understand this.  To me, it seemed so contrary to everything else I had been taught about God.  Then I went to college where I knew a lot of nice conservative Christian people who were super kind people – when talk about homosexuality would come up there were a lot of phrases like, “hate the sin but love the sinner.”    I remember I had to do a little speech in a class after reading a required book called, “Is the Homosexual My Neighbor” and I spent hours and hours studying and preparing my opinion piece – which basically came down to the simplistic, yet I felt faithful, conclusion that God made us all and loves us all just as we are.  Period.  From that point on there was a small group of particularly ardent conservative Christians on campus who were gently trying to confront me lovingly and steer me back in the right direction. 

It wasn’t until seminary that I actually had a close friend come out and tell me he was gay.  He was so scared to tell me.  I hated that he was so scared to tell me.  But growing up in the Christian church, he knew that admitting this about himself was a big thing.  He knew there were good people for whom this would be no big deal but he also knew that for other good people, this would be a deal breaker.  They wouldn’t want to be his friend anymore.  They would distance themselves from him.  And many did. 

Over the next years there was this huge wave of honesty as friend after friend of mine came out.  All of them Lutheran Christians who had grown up in surroundings so much like mine. Some told me through conversations, quite a few through letters they constructed to tell me this news about themselves.  I was always surprised – I have no gay-dar whatsoever.  But one by one they entrusted me with this news that they had wrestled with and struggled with and had come to love and accept about themselves.  And they became even more dear to me because I knew that this process of unfolding and becoming their real selves was painful for them – but ultimately it was part of their becoming even more of the precious people God had made them to be.

I knew it.  I knew it like you know a good melon.  I knew it like you know that rain is in the air or that you are pregnant.  I just knew. 

But the hard thing is that there are just as many people, good people, faithful people, people I love, maybe even some of you, who just know that homosexuality is wrong and are certain that what is happening in our country is a slippery slope to Armageddon.  You know it like you know a good melon, or that rain is in the air, or that you are pregnant.  You just know. 

In 2009 our ELCA churches had a lot of heartfelt conversations around this topic.  Good, faithful people of all opinions came together to pray and think and listen for God’s voice.  I went through this with my church in Colorado and also in Texas in 2010.  In Texas it was harder because there was a small group of people, lifelong members of this little historic church, who just saw the issue of homosexuality as the deal breaker for them.  They wanted our church to be the church in our area to leave the ELCA.  They pushed hard and rallied members but they couldn’t get much traction.  About ten ended up leaving our church and started their own non ELCA church downtown. 

It was so hard for all of us.  I prayed so hard all the time – especially then – that if I was wrong, that God would help me see it.  I wanted to do what was right, not be blinded by my own emotions, my sentimentality for the friends I love who are gay. 

But the more I prayed, the more I was just convinced that there was no part of the God I had been raised to know and love or even the scriptures I had studied my whole life that informed me that the thing to do would be to tell all gay people that the love they have for one another was lesser than the love given to heterosexual people. 

Yes, there are parts of scripture that are complex – there certain texts that some want to hold up as a beacon that homosexuality is wrong – these scriptures reside with many others that seem to reflect the culture and times the biblical authors lived in more than the timeless will of God:

Concubines and polygamy and the use of slave girls as surrogates in childbirth were all acceptable family values in the Old Testament.  Slavery was found to be morally acceptable in the Old Testament and slave-owning Christians in the early church were not asked by the apostles to set their slaves free.   Priests were commanded to burn their daughters alive if they became prostitutes, and rebellious children were to be stoned to death. Women who were raped were required to marry their rapist.  And when Israel went off to war she believed God called her to destroy every man, woman, and child among the nations she conquered—what today we call genocide.  The Apostle Paul teaches that women are to pray with their heads covered and to not wear their hair in braids.  They are not permitted to teach a man, and Paul notes that it was “shameful” for a woman to even speak in church.

But if I’m not willing to embrace slavery or polygamy or to tell a rape victim they have to marry their rapist, and if I, as a woman can feel the call to ministry and the calling to speak in church – and all these things go against certain cultural laws in the Bible – how can I tell a gay couple their love is wrong – especially when the overarching message of Jesus Christ is that love is the greatest of all things? 

How can I feel anything but glad for the healing that so many gay and lesbian families are feeling now – because of all the big and small rights they now have that they never had before.  And does that healing mean any less to them than the kinds of healing we read in our scriptures for today?  A woman suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years is healed.  A young girl who is thought to be dead hears a word from Jesus and walks.  A group of people feel marginalized and unaccepted their whole lives, undeserving of love, unable to participate in the gift that is family – but then allowed in, over time welcomed, over time given justice and rights.  All these things seem like healing to me.  All these things seem holy to me.

People of God, please don’t think I stand up here thinking I have everything figured out or that it is my job to convince or sway opinion.  I only share all this with you because I want you to know how much I wrestle with all these matters of faith, too.  I share my own journey with you so that maybe you will share yours with me, too, and with each other.  As we seek to listen to each other and understand each other – I think there is more room for the Holy Spirit to really move.  As we let love and grace guide us, rather than fear or judgement, we become more nimble vessels for sharing all that is beautiful and helpful and life-giving about the church.  If we can talk openly and lovingly about things that matter, if we can disagree with each other and still live and worship together in respect and work together to serve God – then our children will grow up knowing that they can do this, too.  That they will know, with no shade of doubt, that no matter who they are or who they love, they are welcome here and beloved to us and to God.

This is what we need.  We need to be able to stand together in our questions and our certainties, all our stumblings and steps of faith and trust that in the end, it’s God who catches us.  Whether we end up wrong or right, it’s Jesus who saves us and loves us to the end.  That we are wrapped, cloaked, enveloped in this Amazing Grace that is big enough to cradle us all.  That when we say, “Okay, God, what next?”  The answer is always going to be grace.  Treat yourself, treat one another with grace – because this is what God pours out to us and wants us to be about as God’s church on earth.  Amazing Grace.

Those Kids Are Our Kids (Sermon from 5/3/15)

When I was in my early twenties I traveled for a couple years with Youth Encounter – an organization that sends out teams of 5-7 people to churches throughout the United States and other countries and the teams put on programs to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ through music and story and puppet shows.  The first year I traveled in the northern U.S. and in my second year I was assigned to an international team that traveled the eastern half of the U.S. and two countries in West Africa.

I was overjoyed to be a part of this – and especially the opportunity to go to Africa.  I just couldn’t believe my good fortune.  I was so excited to experience a place so far away and so different from where I had grown up.  And I can’t say enough good about the months I was there and how that time affected my life and my outlook.  It turned out to be so good for many reasons but particularly because of the things that were difficult.  And what was most difficult?

Well, I’ve always been the kind of person that enjoys time alone – love going for walks by myself, exploring things on my own.  I love people, too, but as a die-hard introvert, I just get energy back by time spent in quiet and alone.  Because I was traveling with this group of five people all the time, my alone time was to escape whenever I could and go for a long walk by myself.

But I found as soon as we got to Ghana that I no longer blended in anymore when I was out on my walks alone.  Men would call out to me “obruni, obruni” – the word for white person.   Children would come up and touch my skin or my hair and then run away giggling.  Often people would just start walking with me because as I came to find out, there it was seen as simply brazen or an invitation for trouble for a woman to go out walking alone.  I could no longer enjoy my walks because I was suddenly a spectacle with my white skin and being a woman in that culture.  I slipped into a good amount of culture shock in the first few weeks there and I was upset that I couldn’t just enjoy my time there without feeling so noticed and judged because of the color of my skin and my gender. 

Now contrast my story of having my world upset for an exceedingly short period of time because of being a white girl traveling in Ghana with this story:  

Chris Lollie, a black father, gets off work at Cosettas, an upscale Italian restaurant in St. Paul and goes to pick up his kids from school.  He gets there a little early and so he sits down on a bench in the skyway nearby.  After a few minutes, he gets up to walk toward the school to get his kids and he is stopped by an officer who asks for his identification.  He objects because he has done absolutely nothing. His interaction with the officers is recorded in a cell phone video and we hear him respectfully objecting to being asked for his identification when he hadn’t done anything wrong – he had only been sitting in a public area, alone, waiting for his kids.  Because he refuses to show his identification, within just a few minutes, this man is tased, handcuffed, and arrested.  We hear him being led away from the scene, frustrated and angry because now there was no one to pick up his kids, he would likely miss work, and all of this happened because he sat down in a public area and someone reported a black man loitering.

Stories like this cause all sorts of reactions.  My first reaction is to think about how I am certain I could go sit in a public area in a skyway in St. Paul all day long and not have anyone ask me for my identification.  There are those whose first reaction is to quickly jump to the defense of the police – and why shouldn’t we?  They are here to defend and help and I’ve only known truly great and honorable officers of the law.  But there are those who hear this story and nod their heads in recognition because they live it all the time.  They often experience being treated differently, more noticed, and oftentimes treated with general suspicion or judged more harshly, because of the color of their skin.

I always like to keep my letter of call hanging in my office so I am reminded daily why I am here.  The letter summarizes the foundation of everything I am to do in your midst – and it boils down to these key things:

  1. Preach and teach the Word of God
  2. Administer the Sacraments
  3. Lead Worship
  4. Provide Pastoral Care
  5. To impart knowledge of the ELCA and its’ wider ministry
  6. To encourage people to prepare for ministry of the gospel
  7. To guide the congregation in proclaiming God’s love through word and deed
  8. To speak for justice in behalf of the poor and oppressed

None of these are likely surprising to any of you – they seem like right and good things for a pastor to be doing with her time.  However, over the course of my 16 years as a pastor I have been surprised to realize how complicated the last one, the speaking in behalf of the poor and oppressed, becomes at times.

Mostly because being a white, middle-class, educated, mainline Protestant who has served only congregations made up of predominantly white, middle-class, educated, mainline Protestants, it’s really easy to put the blinders on to what is going on in the rest of the world.  And we get so busy with our own stuff – we have all our own obligations and worries and victories and defeats to be concerned about right here – and all those things matter, too, right?  Let Ferguson worry about Ferguson and let Baltimore worry about Baltimore and we’ll worry about our own thing right here. 

We may never say something like that out loud but sometimes that seems to become the unspoken sentiment in too many communities.  Not meaning any harm, of course, yet also not going out of our way to care too much, or offering our opinion on a matter without ever really listening to the voice of the oppressed. 

But I was convicted by what Julia Blount wrote about on her blog this week, she said, “If you (as a white person) are not listening, not exposing yourself to unfamiliar perspectives, not watching videos, not engaging in conversation, then you are perpetuating white privilege and white supremacy. It is exactly your ability to not hear, to ignore the situation, that is a mark of your privilege. People of color cannot turn away. Race affects our lives every day. We must consider it all the time, not just when it is convenient.”

If you have been watching the news lately you know that rioting broke out in Baltimore following the funeral of Freddie Gray who died on April 12th shortly after being arrested. The facts about what happened that day are still being revealed but what we know is that he was alive when he entered into a police transport vehicle handcuffed and  when he came out he was comatose and his spinal cord was nearly severed.  His death fanned the recurring flames of unrest in our country regarding issues of race.  Over the last nine months we’ve listened to the reports from Ferguson to North Charleston to Baltimore and the people who live in these cities and others like them cry out that for every occasion we hear about on the news there are hundreds of other stories that aren’t reported. 

So what can we do as followers of Jesus Christ who reject oppression and long for justice for all people – yet we do not live in places like Baltimore or Ferguson?

The first very important thing we must do is listen.  Listen to the stories of people of color.  Those of us who have grown up white in our culture have no idea what it is like to live as a person of color.  We talk too much and listen too little.  We offer our opinions too often on things we know too little about.

Our scripture reading from Acts this morning is an interesting text but there was one part of it that jumped out at me this week as I read it over and over.  Imagine that you are this wealthy, educated Ethiopian official. You are riding in a chariot and reading Isaiah off a delicately copied manuscript. You are pondering the mysteries of God when some stranger appears next to you. This stranger is running along next to the chariot, struggling to keep up, panting as he says the words, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

What kind of question is that?  You would think the Ethiopian should ask his driver to speed up and leave this stranger in the wilderness. Instead, this powerful, wealthy, official asks an important question of faith: “How can I unless someone guides me?”

Indeed, how can I understand the situation of my neighbor unless I hear their pain? How can I unless someone guides me? How can I unless God gives me the grace and patience and humility to hear the witness of those the world tramples?

We must pay attention.  Pay attention to the news.  Pay attention to the stories being written.  Pay attention to what’s happening not just in our own context but in the context of our whole country and world.

I went much of my early life truly believing that racism wasn’t an issue in our country anymore.  I knew everyone was supposed to have equal rights and I knew that I had friends of other races so as far as I was concerned it was all good. I don’t know if I was particularly ignorant or if I was a typical, self-absorbed young, white, educated, mainline protestant who went to a nice Lutheran college – but in these times of social media and 24-hour news coverage and increasingly blended societies we have absolutely no reason to stay uninformed.    What happens in Ferguson, what happens in Baltimore, it affects us. 

It does.  And It must. As President Obama said this week, “[what if] we don’t just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns, and we don’t just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped, but we’re paying attention all the time because we consider those kids our kids.”

That is the heart of how our Christian faith compels us to think meditate on matters such as this.  We can’t read scriptures such as our second reading from I John that is absolutely peppered with words about love and how we show our love for God by how we love one another and then ignore the suffering and hurt of others.

We can’t listen to Jesus in the Gospel for today talking about how God is glorified by the fruit we bear and how we follow Jesus with our lives and then pretend that everything is well because at least our own city isn’t burning – it is some city far away.  At least it isn’t my children in harm’s way – it’s some other mother’s children in harm’s way.

Sisters and brothers, this gospel of Jesus Christ compels our hearts to break for what breaks God’s heart.  And we have to be brave to let that happen, to let ourselves be wounded by the stories of suffering and injustice and at the same time trust that by hearing them we will gain new understandings and lift up to God our sighs and prayers – the kind that can help us begin to build bridges instead of walls wherever we are.