Sunday, July 10, 2016

Why Does It Matter That We're Christians?

My sermon for Proper 10 (July 10, 2016) at All Saints Indianapolis was significantly influenced by the Rev. Marcus Halley's post "What white churches can do about racism, aside from just praying". You should read it.

It has been just three weeks since the topic of a sermon in this church was mass murder. In the intervening time we’ve continued to hear reports of the deadly drumbeat of global terror: Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad and Medina.

And then this awful week: Alton Sterling, Philando Castile: black men killed at the hands of police for no comprehensible reason.

Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarippa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Lorne Ahrens: Five police officers, white and Latino shot dead by a lone black gunman, again for no comprehensible reason, as a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest ended with police and protesters taking pictures together.

And then the usual: The presidential statement, the usual suspects writing boneheaded tweets, then deleting them, families whose grief can only be made worse by having their loved ones’ terrible final moments streaming in an endless loop on the Facebook newsfeed.

And then the piles of
Thoughts and prayers
Thoughts and prayers
Thoughts and prayers

Given the recent track record of thoughts and prayers in preventing such disasters, I think it’s fair to ask, "Why does it matter that we’re Christians?

A moment ago we heard one of the most famous stories in the Gospels or anywhere else, for that matter.

Jesus is talking with his disciples when a lawyer stands up and asks Jesus what he must do to obtain eternal life. Jesus tells the lawyer that he already knows the answer, and the lawyer recites the Summary of the Law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus confirms he has responded correctly: “Do this, and you will live.”

But then the lawyer goes on to ask:“Who is my neighbor?” Now this is not a genuine question. The lawyer wants to “justify himself.” He’s seeking the loophole that narrows down that list of neighbors to a manageable, finite, group of people, preferably a lot like himself.

So Jesus tells this story: robbers attack a man and leave him half dead on the side of the road. A priest comes along, sees the man, and crosses to the other side of the road, so he can pretend that he doesn’t. The same with a second passerby.

Then the third man, a Samaritan, finds the man, binds his wounds, puts him on the back of his animal, and pays for him to be cared for in an inn.

“Which one was this man’s neighbor?” Jesus asks.

The lawyer can’t even choke out the word “Samaritan.” Saying the name of a longstanding enemy of the Jews is too much for him. “The one who showed him mercy,” he says instead.

Which is good enough for Jesus: “Go and do likewise,” he instructs the lawyer.

Jesus is telling this story to the lawyer, but he is also telling it to the disciples. A few weeks prior to this encounter, Jesus and the disciples entered a Samaritan village, looking for a place to stay. They refused to receive him because he was heading for Jerusalem. The disciples were so offended that they asked Jesus if they could respond by raining down fire from heaven on them.

Jesus rebuked them and here he shows them why. It’s not just that Jesus is merciful (though he is); it’s that Jesus knows that enmity need not and should not be a permanent state. There is no heart that cannot be moved to compassion. And the ones who rescue us from dying in a ditch may be the ones we neither expect nor even want.

It feels like we live in tenuous times. There are prominent voices that want us to think that we have to make a choice between believing that racism is real, and deadly, and must be stopped; and that the police who put themselves at risk deserve our respect and support.

We’re in a "Civil War" blares the headlines of one newspaper. “Watch out Black Lives Matter; Real America is coming for you” tweeted one former congressman.

This idea that we have to choose whose life we’re going to value more: make no mistake - it is a lie straight from the pit of Hell. Pitting one against the other is the work of the evil one and we are not going to do the devil’s work.

Now we will choose a side:
We will choose the side of Jesus.
We will choose the side of the cross.

And I’m going to suggest four ways to make that choice.

First, pray. Now, when you pray, Do not be like the hypocrites who like to offer “thoughts and prayers” in official statements so they can be seen in public. They have received their reward.

Instead, pray as Jesus taught, in private and keeping it simple. Pray for God’s will to be done. Pray for bread. Pray for forgiveness. Pray to forgive. Pray that your heart may not be infected by evil.

Second, we should not be in the business, as the lawyer was, of justifying ourselves. When you do an internet search for Alton Sterling - you know how Google suggests things as you type? - the third result that comes up is “Alton Sterling Record.” That’s live evidence, in ones and zeroes, of people trying to justify themselves, willfully blinding themselves to what is happening by convincing themselves that somehow a previous arrest or conviction is a reason for instant execution, with neither judge nor jury. Don’t let that be us.

Third, let’s not be too quick to cast ourselves in the role of the Samaritan. Let’s take a look at the parts of ourselves that are lying wounded on the side of the road. What kind of sickness is it that alienates us from others in suspicion and fear? What kind of blindness is it that can only see the evil of racism when it is presented to us in the form of snuff films automatically streaming on our Facebook feeds? Can we see that those crying out for justice for oppressed black communities, for police trying to keep order in a country awash with guns, are also offering us healing for our illness?

And then look at the Samaritan. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “The Good News to the hungry is bread.” The priest may well have been muttering thoughts and prayers as he passed by, but the Good News to an injured man is healing. It was the Samaritan who saw him and cleaned and bandaged the wounds and provided for him to be cared for in the inn.The Samaritan brought the kingdom of God near the man in the ditch.

What we speak and pray here is important, because by the grace of God our hearts are transformed. But just as we believe that Jesus Christ is truly here through the sacrament we will soon celebrate, so we are called to be truly there: out, seeing the suffering, not moving to the other side of the road, and not just identifying, but doing the practical things we can do to be the hands and feet of Christ bringing about the kingdom of God.

After the horrific killings in Dallas on Thursday night, there were a flood of images from Dallas - and elsewhere - of people coming out to embrace police officers and give them flowers in their apprehension and grief. Black and white, clergy and lay. Natasha Howell, a young black woman, recounted an encounter with a white police officer in a convenience store.

She writes:
"He asked me, 'How I was doing?' I replied, 'Okay, and you?' He looked at me with a strange look and asked me, 'How are you really doing?' I looked at him and said 'I’m tired!' His reply was, 'Me too.' Then he said, 'I guess it’s not easy being either of us right now is it.' I said, 'No, it’s not.' Then he hugged me and I cried."

In that moment:
Who was the Samaritan here?
Who was lying on the side of the road?

Who knows? But that’s a vision of the Kingdom of God, friends, And we have a part to play in bringing it near.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.