Love Everyone?

I had some fun with this sermon, and I’m really happy with how it turned out. I preached this on February 19th, at St. Luke’s Bethesda. The text is Matthew 5: 38-48, and the Alice Walker short story, the Welcome Table. I’m honest here about my struggles, and quite honestly my political persuasion. But I think it’s important to be honest, and to lead with our love and vulnerabilities in this time of upheaval and uncertainty.

 

They sat, and waited. A mother, and her 2-year old child. They sat, waiting. For a man who wouldn’t be coming home. This isn’t a story of a guy going out to get a pack of cigarettes and just not coming back. No, this is a story of an undocumented immigrant, who filled out his paperwork as he was supposed to, checked in as Immigration and Customs Enforcement told him to. And when he went for his biannual check in, he was deported. From Alexandria, VA.

People are here, not looking for a better life but for an opportunity at life. Some of whom had no choice in whether or not they came to America. With no other home than the apartments they live in. They’re being sent back to a country that isn’t theirs, which happily dismissed them decades ago.

Of course, there are details and specifics to these stories and the laws being used to deport them. But I can’t help but think, as I read these stories of abrupt deportation, about the way this country has historically treated race, a social category we as Christians helped invent, how we have treated people who don’t look or sound like us since the beginning.

The words of Alice Walker, in her short story, the Welcoming Table, ring in my ears:

In the Welcoming Table, and older African American woman, a woman who shows in her body that her life has been spent in hard labor. This woman walks into a church near her home, in the time shortly before desegregation laws were passed. On the steps of the church, she is stopped by the minister, who gently reminds her this isn’t her church. She pushes by him, and sits on the back pew.

She begins to pray, actually, to sing a spiritual in her head. So she doesn’t hear the whispers and murmurs about her presence. She ignores the young usher who tells her to leave. She doesn’t notice when the ladies of the church turn to their husbands to encourage them to do something.

She doesn’t notice until those husbands have placed their hard fists under her arms, and flexed their muscular shoulders, expelling her back into the cold morning.

****

This story, the words of Alice Walker, are being lived out right now, all over this region and nation. Men and women are waiting to see if men with well muscled shoulders are going to come and physically remove them from the only home they have.

History repeats itself. Yet, to be Christian is to be more than our history. It’s not just a lofty goal, it’s an imperative of Christ. These words, this command, to love people who don’t love you; to greet and acknowledge the humanity of people who aren’t just like you; to love, just as God loves us. These commands are hard.

And this means that we must love the stranger. But we know that.

This also means that we must love those who are unwelcoming. We must love those who don’t love the stranger, or who don’t love us.

It’s easy to agree or disagree about what’s happening in our country today. It’s much harder to act out of our love. We can argue about the targeted travel ban and the change in deportation enforcement. We must be kept safe from dangerous criminals. But dangerous criminals are not who is being “rounded up” and deported. Instead, it’s people who sought to work and paid taxes. It’s people who go out in the night to buy diapers for their infants & are deemed criminals because they are caught driving without a license.

In the midst of all this, we can and must remind one another that we’re a nation of immigrants. Those of us with white skin, chances are that you or someone in your family tree willingly immigrated here.

And yet, just as in Alice Walker’s story, instead of greeting one another out of our common humanity, some of us instead place our fists under the arms of others, and expel them from our nation.

We forget that in the words of the Sermon on the Mount, in what we read for the Gospel today, Jesus calls out to us to love. Those words: “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

We are called to be perfect. But that word, perfect, it isn’t exactly what we with modern ears understand it to mean. In Greek, the word used here means whole. We are called to be and to love wholly. With a W, modeled after God’s Holy love, with an H.

And we are called to love the stranger, the immigrant, the refugee. But we are also called to love those who don’t love us. I find myself wondering, often, how do I love and be welcoming to someone who is unwelcoming?

How do I love the person who sends truly horrible messages to my friend Esther, who happens to be an immigration reporter at ThinkProgress, and is one of the kindest people I know? Esther was brought here as a young child; She’s a dreamer.

Her personal safety is challenged every day. She could be deported at any moment. She receives death threats. Unknown and anonymous strangers tell her to “go back to her country.” People call ICE on her daily.

It’s easy for me to love Esther. It’s a lot harder for me to love those who are unwelcoming to her. But, God calls me to welcome the stranger & the unwelcoming person too.

In this time I must set aside my personal biases, my hurt, my prejudices, in order to know and love people that often, I’d rather not. And it is hard. But I have to do it anyway.

And so do all of us.

Remembering that love doesn’t mean agreeing. Love includes protest. Love includes standing up for what’s right. Love includes seeking to know, understand, & respect everyone, regardless of political affiliation.

It’s easy to sit back and condemn actions we disagree with. We can all rest in our righteous anger. We can, and should, call our representatives, let them know what we think. We absolutely must love our neighbors, regardless of their immigration status.

But loving our neighbors isn’t limited to those who don’t look like us. Our neighbors include those who look, but don’t think like us. There is a disconnect happening now in our country. It needs to be bridged. It needs to be bridged because God tells us to. On all sides of the belief spectrum, we are called to wholly love and respect one another.

We, all of us, must wonder and talk about what we want to do, what kind of Christians we want to be. This woman, in the Alice Walker story, she’s in our church, except our church is really our nation.

She is here. Do we greet her? Do we welcome her? Do we ask what brought her to us today? Or do we assume we know? Then place our fists under her arms and let her fend for herself? Are we kind to the person throwing her out? Do we respect their humanity? Do we treat them as we would want to be treated? Do we love them, as God loves us?

I will admit to you all that I’m still struggling with this. I find it a lot easier to surround a scared immigrant in love than the person calling for her deportation. But it’s not up to me to pick and choose who I love.

It would be a lot easier to just sit back, and not love those who disagree with me. But that is not what God is calling me, and us, to do. We must figure this out. We must figure out a way to love everyone, regardless of immigration status or views on immigration.

We must find a way to look beyond politics to see the humanity in everyone. Regardless of political persuasion. Christ is commanding us to do this.  So let’s do it! In conversation with one another.

I say we love.

Radically. Wholly with a W and Holy with an H.

Let us find a way to be perfect in how we love our neighbors, as God perfectly loves us.

Amen

Context Matters: In Poetry and Scripture

This is a sermon preached on February 12th, at St. Luke’s Bethesda. The text is Matthew 5: 21-37. If I were writing this today, I would add that this is the first time in recorded history that someone called for an end of victim blaming. But I hadn’t had adequate research time (and there’s a lot of recorded history) when I preached it. I’ve looked now, and truly believe this is the first time in recorded history someone spoke out against victim blaming. Even more reason that Jesus fellow was an okay guy!!!

 

Mary Oliver is an incredible American poet. One of my favorites. She has a very short poem that goes:

When we pray to love God perfectly,

Surely we do not mean only.

 

(Lord, see how well I have done.)

 

I love this poem. It’s beautiful. It’s short. Yet in conveys so much in those few lines. But it conveys so much more when we know that she wrote those words and read them at the memorial service for her partner of more than 30 years, Molly Malone Cook.

The context that words were written in matters. In poetry, the context of the author gives a richness, and adds layers that we cannot otherwise know or understand. And it’s crucially important in understanding what Jesus said. Even in something that seems as straightforward as the list of rules in the Sermon on the Mount.

Context is crucial to really understanding anything. The words of Scripture weren’t written in a vacuum. They were said (or written) to certain people, at a certain point in history, often in response to certain issues or questions. Knowing the surrounding circumstances, and understanding in modern terms the ancient meaning gives the same type of richness and depth of understanding that helps make Scripture come alive and be relevant in our lives today.

For example, the incredible resiliency, power, and intelligence of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson is absolutely lost if you are unfamiliar with the Civil Rights movement, and with the religious application of rules and status quo of NASA.

Without any background on how the AME Church was founded, or the context of the struggles Richard Allen went through, the tradition and history of all that is encompassed in that church is lost.

Frederick Douglas is just a man who rose above his circumstances, until you understand that his circumstances made it impossible for people of color to rise above. And he did it anyway. And helped others rise as well.

Context matters. It matters in poetry, it matters in life, and it matters in understanding Scripture.

Understanding what the words meant to those in the original intended audience gives life to these words. In incredible ways. The words of the Sermon on the Mount, especially in the section we’re going to talk about today, were revolutionary.

What Jesus was saying 2,000 years ago was that faith is manifested in actions. And our actions show our attitudes and belief in ways that words never could.

Often Jesus spoke in parables to explain his teaching. In the Gospel today he used another rhetorical tool, rephrasing. “You have heard that it was said…” Jesus is building on what he said earlier, that he came “not to abolish but to fulfill.” And he is offering to those gathered an explanations of the deeper meaning and significance of traditional Jewish teachings.

Don’t murder. But also, what’s happening in your heart matters. How you treat people matters. Reconciliation matters, especially with those who are the closest to you.

What really stood out to me as I read and reread these texts is the word lust. And it is here that I think the teaching of Christ is most applicable to us today.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

What a line. What a complicated line in modern Western society.

Just the word lust is complicated, kind of hard to pin down, and often used to attempt to manipulate and control people, men and women.

In these two short verses Jesus is doing something that is utterly radical in modern western society, and would have been a call to drastic and sweeping change in Ancient Palestine.

Jesus is speaking out against victim blaming.

Let’s think about this for a moment. Women at the time were chattels. They were property. With no or incredibly few rights of their own; often talked about in the same sentences as land and cows. To sleep with another man’s wife was to commit a property crime against another man. The woman’s rights were not considered. If it was consensual was not important. Only that one man was violating another man’s property.

It would appear that what Jesus is saying is that to even look at another man’s wife is to violate his property. An argument could be made for that. But Jesus is taking a step beyond that in this prohibition.

Jesus is saying that no one, specifically no woman, is a object. AND, men, not women, are responsible for their own thoughts and actions. Think about all the times women are blamed for being raped because of how they dress, or how much they have to drink. Women blamed for not leaving an abusive relationship, because leaving is so easy. Eve, blamed for the downfall of humanity because she made Adam eat the fruit. Bathsheba, enticed and seduced David, when in fact he kidnapped and raped her.

What Jesus is telling us in this passage is that men, NOT women, are responsible for their thoughts and actions.

Women, the focus of those thoughts and actions. Women, the victims. They are not to blame. Women are more than objects for male desire. Jesus called for a seismic shift in our understanding of who we are as a people of God, when he commanded men to be responsible for their thoughts, and to treat everyone as a fellow human being, worthy of respect.

As we put this in modern times, it is easy to see that the prohibition against victim blaming, and against treating women as sex objects has utterly failed.

At it has failed for a long time. We’re just talking about it now.

This is an incredibly delicate topic. Instead of delving into it fully, I would like to invite you all into conversation with one another. This is very much still an issue today. It was a huge topic of conversation in the election. It still deserves conversation and attention.

But so does what Jesus commanded us to do in the Sermon on the Mount. We could have a long discourse on why women are still treated as objects. On why misogyny is still part of the social and political landscape.  Perhaps not everyone sees it that way; the disconnect between those who do and those who don’t needs to be bridged.  We need to talk.  Talk to each other.  Talk to the clergy.  Talk with a neighborhood or a friend you trust. Most especially talk with a woman you trust.  Hear her experience and the slights she’s endured along the way.

Ask questions. Understand the context of the life of your neighbor. It helps us to understand one another, and ourselves better.

And it helps us to more fully understand what comes next in Jesus’ sermon. He doesn’t actually want us to pluck out our eye or chop off a hand. At least, I don’t think he does. Jesus wants us to be responsible for ourselves and our actions. He wants us to remember and ingrain it into the fiber of our very being, that our faith is manifested in our actions.

We show who and what we are by what we do. So we must be cognizant, always of what we do. This begins by being in control of our thoughts, since it is in our thoughts that our actions take shape. My favorite line from Harry Potter is applicable here, Dumbledore looks at Harry and says: “of course it’s happening in your head Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?”

The context of that quote is also quite important, but in case everyone hasn’t read the story, I won’t go into detail. But I think Jesus would agree with Dumbledore. What happens in our heads often becomes real. It is up to us to be mindful of what happens in our minds. It is up to us who are able to be in control of our actions.

When we look at anything, understanding where and what those words come from offers us a deeper and more rich understanding of those words. But it requires us to make effort. It takes effort to understand what Jesus was really getting at. But the fullness, richness, and applicability of words taught 2,000 years ago becomes so apparent when we do just that.

Scripture. Life. Relationship. Poetry. Understanding matters.

Take the effort. Understand. We will all be better, better humans, better partners, better friends, and better Christians if we do.

Amen

Do it anyway: Micah and the Beatitudes

This is a sermon I preached on January 29th, at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Bethesda, Maryland. The texts were Micah 6: 1-8 and Matthew 5: 1-12 (commonly known as the Beatitudes). It was my first sermon back, following a month of being back at St. John’s Georgetown (most of those sermons are posted below! Unfortunately, we were unable to record the Dr. Seuss or Harry Potter Sunday messages).

I have a confession for you all. I know, I’ve been away for a minute, and I’m going to reintroduce myself with a confession: I, Cara Rockhill, Transitional Deacon in the Episcopal Church, have a tattoo. Actually, I have a couple. But only one that’s important for today. A few years ago, when I was still a practicing lawyer and seminary wasn’t even a blip on my radar, I tattooed my favorite Bible verse on my wrist, in white. I did this because I knew I would need a reminder of what God wants from me.

My favorite verse, the one that reminds me of what God wants and expects from me, is Micah 6:8. God asks me to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.

Sounds easy, right?

It’s not.

Understanding these words, and implementing them into my life has been incredibly difficult. Today, I’d like to talk about Micah 6, and the Beatitudes, which is our Gospel reading today, and discuss how they can really offer us guidance in how to live our lives in times like these.

Before I start, another quick confession: for the longest time, I had no idea what Beatitude meant. So I looked it up, in English, because I took Hebrew instead of Latin or Greek. It means Blessed, or favored by God. I offer that in case anyone else is like me and curious, but also did not take Greek or Latin.

And so we begin.

Usually in sermons I like to offer my conclusion after a lot of dramatic build up, but today, I’d like to start at the beginning with my conclusion. I read the Beatitudes multiple times. I’ve spent more time studying Micah 6 than I can even begin to tell you. What I’ve come back to over, and over, and over, is that what God wants from us is a lot different than what the world tells us is good and important. What God offers us looks different than what society tells us is what we should aim for in life. The blessings of God, and the “blessings” of life can be very, very different.

To me, that is comforting, empowering, and utterly unsatisfying. It’s also why I don’t buy into the idea of the Prosperity Gospel, but that’s a topic for another sermon.

Let’s look at Micah 6 to begin. Micah 6 is the Holy Lawsuit. Even before I had spent a great deal of time with this text, I knew I liked it. It’s not often that Scripture gives you direct answers, and direct answers that convey over time. But this text does. “[A]nd what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” That’s fairly straightforward as far as Scripture goes. It takes a bit of unpacking to understand what justice, kindness, and humility mean. But for the most part, we can figure out that command. It’s a beautiful summary of thousands of years of prophetic teaching. It’s even a beautiful summary of what Jesus will preach once he arrives.

But it didn’t just appear out of the sky. Those words were spoken, through the Prophet Micah, because God was angry. God begins by demanding that humans, people who claim to follow God, defend themselves. They aren’t doing what God has told them to do, repeatedly, throughout time, through various Prophets.

What the people are doing is what society and their religious leaders have told them is what they need to do. They make sacrificial offerings, they tithe. Those are actions based on social responsibility. It’s what society says is enough to show you worship God. And you know what, maybe it was enough, maybe it is enough, to show society that you worship God.

But it’s not enough for God.

God wants us. All of us. Every part of all of us. To be just, kind, and humble takes all that you have.

I will admit to all of you right now that I am angry about what is happening in this country and our world. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get political, I just want you to have an example of what it takes to be just, kind, and humble.

I am angry. I want to resist. I want to fight. For my own rights, for those of my friends, and for the rights of people I’ve never met to live full and complete lives, for my friends and their families, some of whom are now trapped in foreign lands and unable to renter the US. But I have to remember that my calling by God is to be just, kind, and humble. My calling is both to resistance and reconciliation. Actually, I think my calling is to resistance through reconciliation. That requires me to do and be more than what society, and my friends, think I should do, and be different from what many of them are doing.

Never before had the words of the Beatitudes jumped off the page at me. I’m a white, American, woman. By American standards, I’m not overly privileged, but by world standards, I really, really am. I know this about myself. It’s why until recently I’ve struggled to see myself within the words of the Beatitudes. I’ve been physically and emotionally broken and weak in spirit. I know what it means to mourn. I was bullied, so I know what it means to feel meek. I understand what so many of these words mean in my own life and in the lives of my friends and family. But I still struggled to see myself within the words.

But now, I feel powerless by societal norms. Society tells me right now I’m fighting a losing battle. And that the only option I have is to fight.

And then I read the Beatitudes. With fresh eyes to see and opened eyes to hear.

What I see and hear is that God’s blessings, and the world’s blessings, just don’t always match up. And right now, they are not matching up.

Paul addresses this too in his letter to the Corinthians: “consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”

God chooses that which the world does not.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Blessed are those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you, and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely” on account of your faith in God.

This, God says, is something to rejoice in, for you are blessed and will receive your reward in heaven.

Society does not agree. At least not in this country and city right now. Right now, society tells us to be rich and powerful. To make sure everybody likes you. Use that for power. Use that power to gain more power. Once you have power, and money, and cars, and big houses, then, and only then, are you blessed.

You can have cars, money, houses, power. That’s fine. But what God is really interested is what you do with those things.

You have a car: do you use it to volunteer or take supplies to a worthy cause in need?

You have money: what do you do with your money? Where does it go?

You have a big house: is it filled with friends and family? What do you do with extra space? Have you thought about what you could do with that space?

You have power. What do you do with it? Society might say you don’t have power. But you do.

What God calls us to consider is how do we balance the calling of God, with the blessings of modern life. Really, right now, I think we need to consider what God is calling each of us to do. Each of us have a different reaction to what is happening in this city, nation, and world. What is that reaction, where does it come from, what lies beneath it?

I’m angry. But underneath my anger, is fear. I’m afraid. I’m afraid for my rights, even my life. And for those I care about. And for people I’ve never met, and I don’t know what’s going to happen to them.

I could take an easy way out. I could bury my head in the sand. Preach sermons on Sundays about God’s love and how everything that happens is part of God’s plan. But I flat out, do not believe that.

God didn’t make society, we did. God didn’t cause this mess, we did.

Yet, God calls to us from this mess. Calling out to us to search for God, and to be God’s hands and feet in this world.

Societies change. What society considers to be a sign of God’s blessing changes. What God asks of us has not changed. That’s why I tattooed Micah 6:8 on my wrist, to carry the reminder that no matter what, at all times and in all things, to follow God’s path, I must do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

What that looks like changes everyday. What that looks like right now for me, and for most of you, looks an awful lot like what Jesus is discussing in the Beatitudes. We’re called to do it anyway.

Be just, kind, and humble. Everyday. And do so while walking with God. You’ll get a lot further that way.

Amen