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

 

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.