The Problem Is Bigger Than A Name

The school board in Staunton, VA recently voted 4-2 in favor of changing the name of the high school (Robert E. Lee) after a long and very public community debate. Frustrations about the name were certainly present while I lived in the community and I once dared to address the controversy from the pulpit…

Luke 24.13-19

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?”

We only know what we know. Though, perhaps a better way to put it is this: we only know what we have been told.

On my first Sunday as the pastor here I stood up in the pulpit and I said that we are the stories we tell. The narratives we tell ourselves and our friends and our families reorient our lives in a way that we often can’t see unless in retrospect. This can be a good thing when our lives are determined by the great narrative of God with God’s people, but it can also become problematic when the only story we tell is our own.

As children we learn by stories. We teach our young about George Washington chopping down his cherry tree as a way to teach the virtue of telling the truth. We tell stories about Jesus teaching his disciples to treat one another the way they wish to be treated in order to instill a sense of the so-called “golden rule.” And perhaps the story we tell the most, the lesson we hope to share on a habitual basis, is this: don’t judge a book by it’s cover.

The “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” story is made manifest in a number of ways from literally not judging a written book by it’s cover page to not judging people because of their clothing. We tell that story over and over again to our children.

1377900993_SAgUiC58QC2wcN6KVafu_book_by_its_cover

And here’s the great irony: we judge books by their covers all the time.

We are told to love the street beggar, but we only see them for their shabby clothing, putrid smell, and most of the time we just walk straight past them.

We are told to love the wealthy, but we only see them for their perfectly pressed shirts, their obscene jewelry, and we assume they have no sense of how the world actually works.

We are told to love people from the South, but we limit our understanding of them to Confederate Flags, Country music, and repressed racism.

We are told to love people from the North, but we only see them for their entitlement, their inability to empathize, and we label them Yankees.

We are told to love the Democrat, but we only see them for their bleeding hearts, tax heavy foolishness, and their thirst for total power.

We are told to love the Republican, but we only see them for their love of guns, dismantling of Government programs, and white superiority.

We are told to love the Muslim, but we only see them for their headscarves, for their Sharia Law that the news channels are forever warning us about, and we blame them for all the problems in the Middle East.

We are told to love the Jew, but we see them as consumed by the pursuit of wealth, always digging up issues from the past, and we assume they are up to more than they let on.

We are told to love the Atheist, but we only see them for their over-reliance on science, their negative attitudes toward religion, and we assume they are going to hell.

We might not fall into all of those generalizations, but each and every one of us are sinners who are guilty of judging books based on their covers. Or, to put it another way, we only know the stories we are told.

            It’s like something keeps us from recognizing Jesus in one another.

the-road-to-emmaus-daniel-bonnell

We barely know anything about the disciples who made their way to Emmaus on the first Easter. One of them has a name, Cleopas, but other than that all we know is that they are walking and talking when Jesus shows up. Regardless of their past decisions, or even their faithfulness to the newly risen Christ, their proximity to the Lord on the road has cemented them in the identity and narrative of Christianity forever.

While they were walking and talking, Jesus came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you all talking about?” They stood still looking sad.

            What a telling sentence; from the mere question of a stranger they were stopped dead in their tracks as the reality of what had taken place set in all over again. And then Cleopas realized something strange: how could this man, so close to the city, not know what we have been talking about? Everyone’s been talking about it. And so he asks Jesus, “Are you the only person in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place in these days?” And Jesus replied, “What things?”

            What a remarkably important question. What had taken place in Jerusalem? What had they seen? What had they heard? What’s the story?

How would we answer the question? Imagine, if you can, walking downtown one afternoon, and a stranger walked up and asked us to tell them about Jesus. What would we say?

Would we tell the truth of Jesus’ horrific death on the cross? Would we add our own editorial reflections in order to cast doubt on what we really think? Do we so believe the story that we could tell it?

How we answer Jesus’ question constitutes the very fabric of our lives.

I announced last week that I’ll be leaving St. John’s at the end of June for a new appointment, and in the wake of that announcement I realized I could probably be a little more probing, and perhaps even controversial, from the pulpit since I’m on the way out. Rather than surface level faith stuff, we, and by we I mean me, we can talk about things we would otherwise ignore.

Since I arrived in Staunton four years ago there has been a debate about our local high school. It started long before I got here, and it will be here far after I leave. And it doesn’t have to do with student-teacher dynamics, or accreditation, or any number of other important educational precepts. The controversy is all about the name: Robert E. Lee High School.

8676573_G

Some, of course, want the name to change: They say it’s a relic of the past, it encourages prejudice among the student body, it’s offensive, it’s archaic, it’s racist, etc.

Some, of course, want the name to stay the same: They say it has a profound history with the community that can’t just be washed away, Lee represents a class of gentlemen almost forgotten to the sands of time, we should be proud of the name. It’s important, it’s patriotic, it’s powerful, etc.

And this fight goes on and on and on.

And here’s the thing: the name of the school is offensive and it does hurt people, just like the Confederate flag does. They see the name and it brings forth all sorts of animosity and resentment and fear and pain. Yet, at the very same time, the name is just a name and changing the name of the high school will change very little. It’s as if we believe that by removing the name we will remove ALL the prejudice and ALL the racism and ALL the judgment from an entire community.

It doesn’t work like that.

The name Robert E. Lee will forever evoke positive and negative responses from this community; some will support it and some will oppose it. But the problem is far bigger than a name.

And what do we even really know about Robert E. Lee other than the fact that he was a general for the confederacy during the Civil War? We go on and on about what he represents both positively and negatively, but do we really know who he was? Or are we prevented from seeing the Jesus in him too?

A long time ago, in fact, within a year of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox concluding the Civil War, there was a fashionable church in Richmond, VA filled with white folk on a Communion Sunday. Battered and worn, the South was in quite a state after the war, but these people knew well enough that they should be in church. And on that Sunday, an unwanted black man walked into the church right in the middle of the worship service and made his way down the center aisle with all eyes following him and the preacher stupefied in the pulpit. The black man walked down the aisle under the weight of the prejudice and judgment of the church and he knelt down at the Altar and opened up his hands.

Can you imagine the whispered comments between the pews? Can you hear the hushed hateful words in the house of the Lord?

The congregation sat there completely shocked by what they had witnessed and the buzz of anticipation began to ring.

Sensing the room’s pulse, a distinguished member of the church stood up and walked toward the altar. Some leaned toward friends and spouses with whispers of gratitude for the church member handling the situation, and others sighed with relief knowing that he would take care of the awful interruption. But, when the church member arrived at the Altar, he knelt down beside his black brother, wrapped his arms around him, and began to pray. Within second, the entire congregation stood up, as if transfixed by the Spirit, walked to the front and followed his example.

That church member was Robert E. Lee.

Is that story enough to justify keeping the name of our high school? Or does the history of the South, and the continued prejudice toward people of color necessitate a change of name regardless of what Lee did in that church building? I don’t know.

But what I do know is that unless we are willing to open our eyes to the Jesus in one another, unless we are willing to kneel at the Altar with people different from us, unless we are willing to answer Jesus’ question, nothing will ever change.

We make so many assumptions of people without ever doing the good and difficult work of learning who they really are. We see a bumper sticker, or we hear an accent, or we observe a skin tone, or we read a Facebook post, and we let that dictate who they are to us. When truthfully, what we make of those limited observations says far more about us, than about the ones we see.

“Are you the only one in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place these days?” “What things?”

They talked on the road on their way to Emmaus, they told the mysterious man what they had seen and what they had heard, and the more they walked the more Jesus interpreted for them the scriptures. And when night came, Jesus continued to walk but the two men invited him to stay in the city. So they gathered around a table and Jesus took a loaf of bread, broke it, offered it to his friends and their eyes were opened.

Jesus opened their eyes to the truth of the one they were with. Through the simple and ordinary event of breaking bread the profound and extraordinary reality of the resurrection was made manifest before them.

On the roads of life our eyes are often prevented from recognizing the Jesus within the other. Instead we make the continued assumptions and judgments and ignore them. But when we encounter the other, and take time to sit around a common table, when we let the story of Christ reshapes our lives, when we kneel at the altar beside those who are different from us, Jesus opens our eyes. Amen.

Advertisements

The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword

Crackers-Banner-1

A few weeks ago I loaded up my recording equipment with Teer Hardy and we drove down to the Virginia Conference office in Glen Allen to interview our Bishop, Sharma Lewis. 3/4 of the Crackers & Grape Juice team were able to interview her last year, and we wanted to find our how her time in the episcopacy has been, and where she’s sees us moving in the coming years. Our conversation covered a range of topics including the new vision for the Annual Conference, responses to racism in the church, and the Bishop even offered her thoughts on Jason Micheli‘s book Cancer Is FunnyIf you want to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword.

21994439_10209633845273924_3480350488891177629_o

Sinners In The Hands Of A Loving God

Isaiah 56.6-8

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant – these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.

 

“Jews will not replace us! Jews will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!”

So shouted the throngs of white people in Charlottesville last weekend. They carried tiki torches burning in the night, they marched in formation, and they shouted for all to hear what they really felt.

Their anti-Semitic slogan could have gone any number of ways. While carrying around Nazi flags and weapons of violence, while defending white superiority and aggression, they could’ve shouted “Blacks will not replace us!” or “Homosexuals will not replace us” or “The Handicapped will not replace us!”

All of those groups were targeted by the Nazi regime more than half-a-century ago for being “inferior” or a threat to their dominance. The angry and assailing white people in Charlottesville could have picked any number people to shout about, but they picked the Jews. They were there to protest the removal of a Confederate Civil War General’s statue, many of them claimed to be there to protect their white Christianity, and yet they announced for everyone to hear, “Jews will not replace us!”

White Supremacists March with Torches in Charlottesville

People reject other people for all sorts of reasons. White supremacists reject those who represent everything antithetical to their values. Hardline Democrats often reject neo-Conservative values (and vice-versa). Some even reject people for the sport team they root for.

But in the realm of the church, in Christianity, to reject Jews, or any other marginalized group, is simply unchristian. For in God’s vision of the holy mountain, Christians are the gentiles who are gathered to join the Jews. We are the outcasts, the foreigners, the outsiders grafted into God’s great communion. To reject the outcast is to reject ourselves.

There are a great number of Christian churches in the world today with a wide array of views and theologies. In the US, the number of Christian denominations increases every year while the number of actual Christians is falling. And though the church is so varied and different, there is one thing that might unite all churches: the desire to appear as welcoming and inclusive as possible.

All you need to do is check a church website or a bulletin and you can find descriptions of the church that all say something like: we are an open, friendly, inclusive, and welcoming congregation.

In our denomination, we say we have open hearts, open minds, open doors.

Inclusivity is quite the buzzword in the church these days. Rather than appearing at all judgmental, we want people to know that we accept all people. Rather than seeming prejudiced, we want everyone to know they are welcome. Rather than looking at people based on their outward appearance, we want the world to know that we care more about the content of one’s character.

But the truth is there are a great number of people who have been ignored, if not rejected, by congregations claiming to be inclusive. Including our own.

Much like the droves of people protesting in Charlottesville last weekend, we reject others for all sorts of reasons. Non-Christians often assume, thanks to the way the church is talked about in the greater world, that Christians are homophobic, or racist, or elitist, and now anti-Semitic. And you know what, some Christians are. And we should be ashamed for the horrible rhetoric of our past, we should repent for what we have done even if we weren’t there, because whenever the church has rejected “the other” we are forgetting the truth that we were once the rejected outsiders welcomed by God.

art-03

There’s an old story that preachers love to tell about being inclusive and it goes like this: A church was in the middle of a worship service one Sunday morning, the preacher was up in the pulpit, and from where he stood everyone in the pews looked perfect. They were all wearing their Sunday best, the children were all quiet and well-behaved, and no one had fallen asleep. But while the preacher was preaching, a young man entered the back of the church as if he had just come off the street. He smelled up to high heaven, and the congregation quickly moved from focusing on God’s Word to wondering if one of the ushers was going to usher him out.

But the young homeless man walked down the center aisle and took a seat on the floor right in front of the pulpit. The congregation sat stunned while the oldest usher made his way down to the front and instead of berating the young man, he slowly made his way to the floor and sat next to him.

The preacher, witnessing all of this, said to the church, “You all can forget everything I say today, but don’t ever forget what you just saw happen here at the front.”

It’s a nice story right? We can all imagine ourselves in a church setting like that. It even makes us all warm and fuzzy to think about witnessing a holy moment in front of a pulpit.

But the problem with a story like that one is the fact that it makes the church out to be the kind of people who do all the accepting, instead of giving thanks to God for being the One who accepts us in the first place.

It results in us worshipping ourselves instead of worshiping God.

The prophet Isaiah had a tall order. The Israelites were returning from captivity in Babylon to a confused place they’d never even seen. The Word from God came to those who were returning, to those who were too poor to have been exiled in the first place, and to the foreigners who found themselves in a politically unstable part of the world. All of them were unsure of their future when Isaiah offered them a vision of a place where all of them have a place.

It is radical and unnerving Word to those of us with modern sensibilities, whether we’d like to admit it or not, but in God’s kingdom… everyone has a place, including us.

Prior to the return from the exile, membership in God’s community was largely based on being born into the right family, but the vision of who God invites to the holy mountain has nothing to do with genetics, or cultural customs, or skin-pigmentation, or even sexual orientation, but rather on behavior – keep the Sabbath, obey the covenant.

Who we are as Christians is not about what we look like or whom we spend our time with. It’s about loving God and loving our neighbors. God doesn’t even care what church we go to, though Cokesbury is the best one around, God simply hopes for us to live our lives in such a way that we honor and protect every person created by God.

This text, this proclamation from the prophet is good news to the outcasts – to those on the margins of life. It is good news to those who are belittled for their identity, for the people who are not welcomed in many churches on a Sunday morning, and for those who are shamed by the media.

But it is also good news for us, because we are outcasts as well. We are gentiles who have been graciously grafted into God’s vision of a mountain where all are invited to a house of prayer for all people. The good news of this text is that we, not just the people who aren’t here yet, but we are invited to this place even though we don’t deserve it.

And there’s the challenge with being an inclusive church; being inclusive puts all of the power in our hands. But God is the one who invites people to the mountain; God is the one gathering them, not us… because if it were left up to us, we would fail.

Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered. Being inclusive of all peoples means the people on the margins, the ones who suffer at the hands of those in power. But it also means the people in power, the people who thirst for power, the people who are violent for the sake of power.

What happened in Charlottesville last week was terrible, and what makes it even more terrible is the fact that what happened there also happens here in small ways every day.

The practice of racism and bigotry is incompatible with Christian teaching.

To gather together with torches and chants of “The Jews will not replace us!” is incompatible with Christian teaching.

Using tactics of violence and oppression to assert white superiority is incompatible with Christian teaching.

If you turned on the news at all this week and saw what happened in Charlottesville you caught a glimpse of evil. White men and women shooting pepper spray into the faces of black men and women is sinful and shameful. A white man driving a car into a crowd to indiscriminately hurt and main and kill is contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ. An armed militia marching to intimidate and threaten others does not make sense in the kingdom of God.

And it’s much more than what happened in that sleepy little down. The high rate of incarceration that is so heavily skewed toward black bodies is antithetical to the gospel. The muttering of racial slurs and religious discrimination that happens here in our community is offensive and wrong. The assumption that white is right and black is bad, in whatever way, shape, and form it manifests itself, is incompatible with Christian teaching.

From the riots in Charlottesville, to the backyard barbeque racism of Woodbridge, we are a fallen people in need of grace.

And this is why the vision of God’s holy mountain is so important today in particular. Because it is far too easy to talk about loving and including others, it is way too easy to condemn a group of people for the way they treat others, when the very people we are meant to love and include are not just the people on the margins, but also the people responsible for the riots and the racism.

If the vision of the holy mountain and the house of prayer were left to us to achieve, it would never happen. Our judgments and our fear of the other would prevent us from ever bringing that vision to fruition. We, like the Israelites coming home from captivity, or the ones who were left behind, or the foreigners witnessing it all from the outside, can scarcely imagine what it would look like to have everyone gathered together by God.

Only God could make that vision a reality. Only the Lord has the power and the freedom to gather all to the holy mountain. For our God is in the business of making the impossible possible. Our God makes a way where there is no way. Our God sees us not for the sins of our past but for the potential of our future. God sees the people responsible for the riots as sinners who are not outside the realm of mercy. God sees the racist tendencies of our culture and begins transforming perspectives through little seeds of faith that germinate in ways we can scarcely imagine. And God sees us as the sinners we are; God knows how judgmental we can be in our heart of hearts and beckons us to turn back.

God’s vision of the holy mountain, of the house of prayer, is for all: the oppressed and the oppressor, the powerful and the powerless, the rioters and the peacemakers. Only a God who would give his only Son to change the world could prepare a place where all are welcomed. Only a God of impossible possibility could invite people like us into the fold. Only a God of mercy could open the house of prayer for all people. Amen.

What Are You Doing Here?

1 Kings 19.9-18

At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.

I wrote a B- sermon this week on the palpable silence of 1 Kings 19. In praying over the text I felt God nudging me to write about the need for the absence of sound in our lives in order to really hear what God has to say. I had stories picked out about times in my life where I was particularly silent and how transformative they were for me.

The whole worship service, in fact, was planned around the topic of silence, about the need to listen more than speak. And last night, after returning home from the wonderful Ice Cream Social that we had, I turned on the news and realized that my sermon had to go; that I need to start over, because the Lord was speaking and it was time for me to listen.

A few months ago, the overwhelming majority of the City Council in Charlottesville, VA voted to remove a confederate statue of General Robert E. Lee. Lee is somewhat of a beloved figure here in the state of Virginia; people love him without really knowing much about him. And so when the city decided to remove a statue in his honor, people went ballistic. On one side there were people who were thrilled that the city was finally willing to be bold enough to take steps in a new direction, willing to ask themselves hard questions, and willing to publically declare where they were. And on the other side, there were people who were outraged that a man of great respect and honor in history was going to be torn down as if he never really mattered.

And then people stopped talking about it. Weeks and months passed until this weekend when the fever pitch of outrage began to resonate in new and frightening ways.

20727828_10154975586932428_1252324539265343927_n

Groups from all over the country met in Charlottesville this weekend to protest the removal of the statue, to stand in affirmation of the City Council’s decision, and some with hope to hold the peace.

When I turned the news on last night I saw what I thought was the National Guard entering Charlottesville to keep the peace, but in fact what I saw was armed militia’s from across the country, bearing arms and other weapons in order to name and claim there side.

I saw what I thought were clergy standing tall in protest but then I saw them pushed and spit on and berated by the throbbing crowds. I saw what I thought was a group of young people marching to protect the lives of the protestors, but in fact it was a group of neo-Nazis carrying torches and chanting anti-Semitic rhetoric.

The news then broke to a reporter meeting with different individuals, and she asked them all the same question: “What are you doing here?”

The first man was about my age wearing an army helmet with a rifle hung lazily over his shoulder. He was staring directly into the camera while the reporter asked her question and he responded without hesitation: “I am here to stand up for my freedom. People keep trying to destroy my white heritage and my white church. I am here to stand for free market economics. I am here to destroy the Jews.”

“What are you doing here?”

The next man was older with a long scraggly beard hanging below his neckline. Every thing he said came out as a shout and because it was on the radio they had to bleep out every time he shouted the N-word. He was clearly angry, but his anger was unintelligible.

“What are you doing here?”

The next man was young and was wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt, but before he was able to answer the reporter’s question, angry protestors were pushing forward to him in order to prevent him from speaking.

“What are you doing here?”

Yesterday afternoon a young white man got into his car and drove it into a car of protestors in favor of removing the statue; one of the bystanders was murdered and dozens were injured.

“What are you doing here?”

170515110556-charlottesville-lee-monument-spencer-protests-0513-exlarge-169

Before Elijah’s encounter with the Lord, Queen Jezebel sent a messenger to the prophet telling him that she intended to kill him that very day. Elijah ran for his life and he journeyed into the wilderness. Prior to the cave, Elijah collapsed under a shrub and prayed for God to take his life because he felt worthless, but God sent an angelic messenger who cared for him until sending him on his way. And that’s where our story begins.

Elijah came to a cave and spent the night. In the morning the voice of the Lord spoke to him and said, “What are you doing here Elijah?” The prophet responded with, “Lord, I’ve been a good prophet. I’ve told the people what they were supposed to do, I even struck down the false prophets, but now I’m all alone and people are trying to kill me.”

God, evidently disappointed with Elijah’s answer, commanded the prophet to stand on the mountain. First, there was a great wind, but the Lord was not in the wind. Next there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, there was the sound of sheer silence.

When Elijah heard the silence, he went to the mouth of the cave and the Lord asked him again, “What are you doing here Elijah?”

Elijah was a prophet, but he was also a revolutionary. Sometimes the two go hand in hand. He was a defender of the Lord and an enemy of corrupt leaders within his own community. He even killed false prophets. His revolutionary credentials are what make him so important in the New Testament where people were constantly wondering if Jesus was the new Elijah.

What made Elijah revolutionary was his commitment to a world where widows, orphans, and strangers were protected against terrible economic situations and a world out of control. Elijah was like the person more concerned with whether or not the people at Rising Hope have something to eat than what President Trump recently tweeted. Elijah was like the man at the hospital arguing with the intake nurse that someone had waited too long before being treated. Elijah was like couple that did not hesitate to become a foster family for those in need.

And yet Elijah fled. Most of us would’ve done the same. When we feel overwhelmed by the world, by the responsibilities, by the commitments, we run. We flee from helping those who cannot help themselves. We run from the hectic nature of this world to vacation destinations and terrible reality shows. We flee from breaking news reports about the possibility of nuclear geopolitical tensions in a stiff drink or the bottom of a bottle.

It is there, in the caves of our own making, we wait for a word from the Lord. Like Elijah, we wait for God to tell us exactly what to do, or we wait for God to fix all of those external problems, or we wait and hide because we’re not sure if God’s even out there any more.

And that’s when God shows up not with an answer, not with a solution, but with a question, “What are you doing here?”

Being in the presence of God, whether mundane or majestic, is all about being inspired and transformed. Who we were fades into something new and wonderful because God is the one changing, morphing, and moving us.

But Elijah was the same after the experience of silence as he was in the cave; his response to the divine question was the same. He was not changed. The earthquake, wind, fire, all of them were distractions. God was not in any of them. They are a reminder that when we are desperate we are tempted to look for God in all the wrong places, when God is the one looking for us!

We look for God in the big bombastic language of a preacher promising prosperity, or in the raise at work that we think will finally make us financially comfortable, or we look for God in the broken relationships that will never be what they once were.

God’s question to the prophet is important because Elijah’s answer was wrong. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” “O God, I’ve done everything that I can and now I’m the only one left.” Elijah was not alone. There were still thousands of individuals who remained faithful to the covenant. And then God commanded Elijah to “go” because there was still work to do.

And this my friends is grace: Despite Elijah’s fears and failures, his inability to remember the God who called him to be a prophet in the first place, God did not give up on him. God still had work for him to do.

But Elijah could not hear the call to go, until he experienced the sheer silence. For it was in the sheer silence he remembered who he was, and whose he was.

I like to think that we live in a better world than the one we inherited. I like to look at the history books of the past to see how far we’ve come. I am grateful that our church has people in in who do not look like, I am grateful that there are no longer water fountains that say “Colored” and “White.” I am grateful that our children sit in classrooms full of people from all over the world with every shade of skin pigmentation.

But when I turned on the news last night, I realized that maybe we haven’t really come that far at all. Maybe we’ve congratulated ourselves too much for being progressive, because friends there is still work for us to do.

God in scripture is a God for the margins. God, again and again, stands with those who are persecuted and martyred and belittled. And throughout the bible, God implores all of the prophets to be mindful of those who are without, those who are suffering, and those who are forced to the margins of life.

We can distract ourselves from the suffering of the people around us, we can go to the right grocery store and the right shopping center in order to avoid the differences of our community, but we worship a God who was born into the suffering of the world, who was born to parents who do not look like anyone in this room.

There are and will be times in our lives that are so overwhelming that we can lose perspective. Like the powerful prophet, we can be pushed too far from our identity and we can retreat into caves of denial.

We can tell ourselves that what happened in Charlottesville will never happen here, but it does every day in some small way, shape, or form.

            We can tell ourselves that the angry white folk in Charlottesville are fringe racists, but they are here in this community too, they are our parents and brothers and sisters and neighbors. They are mumbling in their cars whenever they pass a black man on the street, and they spit words of hate at black women in parking lots.

            We can tell ourselves that we’re in a better world than the one we inherited, but Charlottesville is but one sign that we’ve still got work to do.

We’ve got work to do because our God is not done with us yet. God is working through people like you and me to make the Kingdom come on earth. God is interrupting our lives whenever we gather in this place for worship, with moments of silence to really confront who we are and whose we are.

God is asking us the same question that the reporter asked the protestors, the same question that Elijah heard in the cave, and how we answer the question defines who we are and whose we are.

“What are you doing here?” Amen.

What Things?

Luke 24.13-19

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?”

 

We only know what we know. Though, perhaps a better way to put it is this: we only know what we have been told.

On my first Sunday as the pastor here I stood up in the pulpit and I said that we are the stories we tell. The narratives we tell ourselves and our friends and our families reorient our lives in a way that we often can’t see unless in retrospect. This can be a good thing when our lives are determined by the great narrative of God with God’s people, but it can also become problematic when the only story we tell is our own.

As children we learn by stories. We teach our young about George Washington chopping down his cherry tree as a way to teach the virtue of telling the truth. We tell stories about Jesus teaching his disciples to treat one another the way they wish to be treated in order to instill a sense of the so-called “golden rule.” And perhaps the story we tell the most, the lesson we hope to share on a habitual basis, is this: don’t judge a book by it’s cover.

The “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” story is made manifest in a number of ways from literally not judging a written book by it’s cover page to not judging people because of their clothing. We tell that story over and over again to our children.

1377900993_SAgUiC58QC2wcN6KVafu_book_by_its_cover

And here’s the great irony: we judge books by their covers all the time.

We are told to love the street beggar, but we only see them for their shabby clothing, putrid smell, and most of the time we just walk straight past them.

We are told to love the wealthy, but we only see them for their perfectly pressed shirts, their obscene jewelry, and we assume they have no sense of how the world actually works.

We are told to love people from the South, but we limit our understanding of them to Confederate Flags, Country music, and repressed racism.

We are told to love people from the North, but we only see them for their entitlement, their inability to empathize, and we label them Yankees.

We are told to love the Democrat, but we only see them for their bleeding hearts, tax heavy foolishness, and their thirst for total power.

We are told to love the Republican, but we only see them for their love of guns, dismantling of Government programs, and white superiority.

We are told to love the Muslim, but we only see them for their headscarves, for their Sharia Law that the news channels are forever warning us about, and we blame them for all the problems in the Middle East.

We are told to love the Jew, but we see them as consumed by the pursuit of wealth, always digging up issues from the past, and we assume they are up to more than they let on.

We are told to love the Atheist, but we only see them for their over-reliance on science, their negative attitudes toward religion, and we assume they are going to hell.

We might not fall into all of those generalizations, but each and every one of us are sinners who are guilty of judging books based on their covers. Or, to put it another way, we only know the stories we are told.

            It’s like something keeps us from recognizing Jesus in one another.

the-road-to-emmaus-daniel-bonnell

We barely know anything about the disciples who made their way to Emmaus on the first Easter. One of them has a name, Cleopas, but other than that all we know is that they are walking and talking when Jesus shows up. Regardless of their past decisions, or even their faithfulness to the newly risen Christ, their proximity to the Lord on the road has cemented them in the identity and narrative of Christianity forever.

While they were walking and talking, Jesus came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you all talking about?” They stood still looking sad.

            What a telling sentence; from the mere question of a stranger they were stopped dead in their tracks as the reality of what had taken place set in all over again. And then Cleopas realized something strange: how could this man, so close to the city, not know what we have been talking about? Everyone’s been talking about it. And so he asks Jesus, “Are you the only person in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place in these days?” And Jesus replied, “What things?”

            What a remarkably important question. What had taken place in Jerusalem? What had they seen? What had they heard? What’s the story?

How would we answer the question? Imagine, if you can, walking downtown one afternoon, and a stranger walked up and asked us to tell them about Jesus. What would we say?

Would we tell the truth of Jesus’ horrific death on the cross? Would we add our own editorial reflections in order to cast doubt on what we really think? Do we so believe the story that we could tell it?

How we answer Jesus’ question constitutes the very fabric of our lives.

I announced last week that I’ll be leaving St. John’s at the end of June for a new appointment, and in the wake of that announcement I realized I could probably be a little more probing, and perhaps even controversial, from the pulpit since I’m on the way out. Rather than surface level faith stuff, we, and by we I mean me, we can talk about things we would otherwise ignore.

Since I arrived in Staunton four years ago there has been a debate about our local high school. It started long before I got here, and it will be here far after I leave. And it doesn’t have to do with student-teacher dynamics, or accreditation, or any number of other important educational precepts. The controversy is all about the name: Robert E. Lee High School.

8676573_G

Some, of course, want the name to change: They say it’s a relic of the past, it encourages prejudice among the student body, it’s offensive, it’s archaic, it’s racist, etc.

Some, of course, want the name to stay the same: They say it has a profound history with the community that can’t just be washed away, Lee represents a class of gentlemen almost forgotten to the sands of time, we should be proud of the name. It’s important, it’s patriotic, it’s powerful, etc.

And this fight goes on and on and on.

And here’s the thing: the name of the school is offensive and it does hurt people, just like the Confederate flag does. They see the name and it brings forth all sorts of animosity and resentment and fear and pain. Yet, at the very same time, the name is just a name and changing the name of the high school will change very little. It’s as if we believe that by removing the name we will remove all the prejudice and racism and judgment from an entire community.

It doesn’t work like that.

The name Robert E. Lee will forever evoke positive and negative responses from this community; some will support it and some will oppose it. But the problem is far bigger than a name.

And what do we even really know about Robert E. Lee other than the fact that he was a general for the confederacy during the Civil War? We go on and on about what he represents both positively and negatively, but do we really know who he was? Or are we prevented from seeing the Jesus in him too?

A long time ago, in fact, within a year of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox concluding the Civil War, there was a fashionable church in Richmond, VA filled with white folk on a Communion Sunday. Battered and worn, the South was in quite a state after the war, but these people knew well enough that they should be in church. And on that Sunday, an unwanted black man walked into the church right in the middle of the worship service and made his way down the center aisle with all eyes following him and the preacher stupefied in the pulpit. The black man walked down the aisle under the weight of the prejudice and judgment of the church and he knelt down at the Altar and opened up his hands.

Can you imagine the whispered comments between the pews? Can you hear the hushed hateful words in the house of the Lord?

The congregation sat there completely shocked by what they had witnessed and the buzz of anticipation began to ring.

Sensing the room’s pulse, a distinguished member of the church stood up and walked toward the altar. Some leaned toward friends and spouses with whispers of gratitude for the church member handling the situation, and others sighed with relief knowing that he would take care of the awful interruption. But, when the church member arrived at the Altar, he knelt down beside his black brother, wrapped his arms around him, and began to pray. Within second, the entire congregation stood up, as if transfixed by the Spirit, walked to the front and followed his example.

That church member was Robert E. Lee.

Is that story enough to justify keeping the name of our high school? Or does the history of the South, and the continued prejudice toward people of color necessitate a change of name regardless of what Lee did in that church building? I don’t know.

But what I do know is that unless we are willing to open our eyes to the Jesus in one another, unless we are willing to kneel at the Altar with people different from us, unless we are willing to answer Jesus’ question, nothing will ever change.

We make so many assumptions of people without ever doing the good and difficult work of learning who they really are. We see a bumper sticker, or we hear an accent, or we observe a skin tone, or we read a Facebook post, and we let that dictate who they are to us. When truthfully, what we make of those limited observations says far more about us, than about the ones we see.

“Are you the only one in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place these days?” “What things?”

They talked on the road on their way to Emmaus, they told the mysterious man what they had seen and what they had heard, and the more they walked the more Jesus interpreted for them the scriptures. And when night came, Jesus continued to walk but the two men invited him to stay in the city. So they gathered around a table and Jesus took a loaf of bread, broke it, offered it to his friends and their eyes were opened.

Jesus opened their eyes to the truth of the one they were with. Through the simple and ordinary event of breaking bread the profound and extraordinary reality of the resurrection was made manifest before them.

On the roads of life our eyes are often prevented from recognizing the Jesus within the other. Instead we make the continued assumptions and judgments and ignore them. But when we encounter the other, and take time to sit around a common table, when we let the story of Christ reshapes our lives, when we kneel at the altar beside those who are different from us, Jesus opens our eyes. Amen.

Racism is America’s Original Sin

A few days ago Teer Hardy and I spoke with Bishop Will Willimon about his new book Who Lynched Wille Earle? The conversation also covered a number of other topics including the inauguration of Donald Trump, the black church, and prophetic preaching. Check it out here: The Idolatry of Race and subscribe to Crackers & Grape Juice.

 

4371604984_6212ed3d58_z

 

Devotional – Luke 10.39

Devotional:

Luke 10.39

She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.

Weekly Devotional Image

The last week has been filled with tragedy and senseless violence. A black man was shot and killed by a police officer after selling CDs in front of a convenience store and a black man was shot and killed after a routine traffic stop for a broken taillight. In response to their deaths, 5 law enforcement officers were murdered in Dallas during a peaceful protest and another 7 more were injured. As we talked about all that had taken place over the last week during church yesterday, all anyone could talk about was their inability to get away from the suffering; every time they got online, or turned on their television, they were bombarded with the images of terror and destruction that had taken place across the American landscape.

And honestly, right now, we need to open our eyes to these tragedies. For too long those of us who are too comfortable with our white privilege have neglected to do the Christ-like work of becoming uncomfortable and standing with our black brothers and sisters. For too long those of us who are too comfortable with our white privilege have made the false assumption that this is not our problem. It is.

But to step into this situation, as a Christian, without first sitting and listening at the feet of Jesus will only further the kinds of vitriolic violence that we’ve seen this last week.

As the events transpired in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas countless people jumped to social media to vent their frustrations and quickly condemn those who they believed were responsible. Without taking the time to listen and be still, many of us put up our walls to the people and opinions around us and did everything we could to make sure our voice and our opinion was heard (or read). From the comfort and safety of our computers and cell phones we engaged in social media warfare.

_90345723_mediaitem90345722

To sit and listen to Jesus is a bold and daring thing to do. It requires us to wrestle with differing opinions and perspectives. It challenges us to seek out those who we often miss and stand with them shoulder to shoulder. It implores us to seek unity in the midst of chaos, hope in the midst of terror, and resurrection in the midst of crucifixion.

So today, we pray for the Lord to crucify our prejudices that we might be resurrected into new life in Christ. That instead of rushing to make our opinion heard we might listen, learn, and love. That instead of furthering the fear and hatred, we might respond with grace. That instead of remaining comfortable with our Christianity, we might take uncomfortable steps toward making the kingdom of God manifest here on earth.