The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Seeing the humanity, despite the story


Pentecost 19, Proper 21C


Bless us, Merciful God, with eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to discern your presence among us.  Amen.

I’ve been deeply troubled this week.  I guess, in some ways, this week isn’t all that different from many other weeks, but this week, the events facing our world seem to be a little more impactful.  There have been so many troubling news stories to follow.  In addition to the bombs in New Jersey and New York City, we’ve been peppered with reports of an increasingly contentious and tense election season, and the ongoing reports of police shootings and violence and protests.

It all came to a head for me on Friday.  I had been to lunch with a friend and colleague, and I was on my way back home, listening to the radio in the car.  A new video had come out showing more of the details surrounding the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by police officers in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Since I was in my car, I could only hear the video and not see it.  I heard Mr. Scott’s wife pleading with the police, begging them not to shoot him.  I heard her try to tell the police that her husband had suffered a traumatic brain injury, and that whatever his troubling actions may have appeared to be, it was probably just a misunderstanding.

But what was most troubling to me was, that as I was listening to this report, and to Mrs. Scott’s pleading, the *pop pop pop* of the gunshots – my first honest thought was, “Now which shooting is this?”

As that internal question set in, it chilled me.  We’re living in a world where reports of police violence against the citizens they are sworn to protect has become so pervasive that it’s hard to even keep the various incidents together in our minds.  If we’re not careful, one can almost blend into the others.  If we’re not careful, we could allow ourselves to stop seeing the humanity involved, and to only see the “story” as it’s reported on the news.

And there’s a lot of humanity in each of these stories.  There’s certainly the ones who are shot, and the ones who care about them.  But we also should never forget the humanity of the police officers – the ones whose lives are forever changed for having taken another’s life.  The ones who could lose their careers if they’re found at fault, and who, even if they don’t get fired or prosecuted, will forever hold the stain of the traumatic event.  Not to mention all of those people who love the officers, and who have to support them through the media storm and the protests and the administrative leave and all that follows.  And the humanity that exists in our wider communities: there are the many who live in increased fear for their own safety, or that of their loved ones.

There’s plenty of humanity to go around.  And it’s too easy for us to miss it when we just see the story.

So, that’s where I found myself this week as I engaged once again with the parable of Lazarus and the rich man.  In this story, Jesus tell us about a poor man, named Lazarus, who spent his days at the gate of a rich man’s home, hoping to earn whatever scraps he could collect from the rich man’s excesses to sustain his pitiful existence.  In time, both of the men – Lazarus and the rich man – died.  Lazarus, in his death, went to sit beside Abraham, and to enjoy all his rewards.  The rich man, however, was sent to hell, to be tormented by flames and discomfort.  Perhaps the greatest hell he faced, however, was that he could see Lazarus, just out of reach, enjoying all the excesses that he, the rich man, had once taken for granted.  In his anguish, he called out to Abraham, begging that he send Lazarus to offer comfort.  When Abraham refused, the rich man then begged to have Lazarus sent to warn his family, but Abraham reminded the rich man that they had the wisdom of the law and the prophets to guide them, and if that weren’t enough to show them the path to righteousness, nothing would be.

The rich man, in his life, had seen Lazarus, but in him, he didn't see Lazarus - at least not all that there was to see.  He saw a person of no value.  He saw only what he expected, not what was really there.  He didn’t see the humanity of Lazarus, but only a beggar.

In the stories of police shootings against black men, the same is true.  Our social system sets up certain people as violent.  Dangerous.  People to be defended against.  It has trained us, and those public servants who have been entrusted with the task of defending and protecting us, to see certain ones of as the enemy.  The truth of our realities – whether we are enemies or not, whether we are dangerous or not – is of less importance.  What becomes important, in a system like that, is classifications, not humanity.  That's why it's easier for police to kill some people than others.  That's why it's harder for certain members of our society to have that presumption of innocence that we all should be able to take for granted. 

The question in the story of Keith Lamont Scott isn’t whether or not he had a gun.  The police said he did and his wife said he didn’t.  I don’t know the answer to that.  People closer to the situation and more informed will be making that determination.  I simply can’t.

But it shouldn’t matter if he did have a gun.  North Carolina is an “open carry” state.  It’s perfectly legal to carry a gun, even if you’re black.  North Carolina is one of those states where we see pictures of white men carrying guns in stores and fast food restaurants, and no one questions them.

But a black man is seen as dangerous.  A black man, alone in his car, is seen as a threat.  Not as a person, but as no more than the sum of what is expected of him.

The purpose of all that I’ve said, however, is not to rail against police.  The story may prove to be more complicated, and we don’t know how it will end.  And, God knows, there are plenty of stories of police officers being shown to be heros.  I don’t want to fall into the same trap of seeing classifications instead of people.  Instead, what I want to rail against is that urge that exists within all of us to see what we expect of others before we see the others themselves.  What I want to protest is the blindnesses we have when it comes to people who we perceive as being different from us, or somehow unworthy of the excesses and benefits that we enjoy.

It’s true that our society has a system in place that denies the humanity of some of its members – particularly black men.  And we have an obligation as individuals to recognize our place in that system: the ways that we benefit from it, and the ways that we contribute to it, knowingly and unknowingly.  It’s also true that we can use this trying time in our collective experience as an opportunity to examine our own blindnesses more broadly – to seize this moment from being just one of anguish, to being one of growth.  How can we better recognize the humanity around us, both socially and individually?

The great sin of the rich man was not his wealth, but that he was blinded by self-absorption.  The only humanity he could see was his own – and that of those closest to him.  He missed the humanity – the value – of the people around him.

Lazarus' virtue was not that he was poor, but that he was aware.

We have Moses and the prophets.  We have the examples and the teachings of Jesus.  We have the parable of Lazarus and the rich man.  We have so much that points us toward seeing, embracing, and honoring the humanity of all of those others around us.  Don’t be like the rich man.  Don’t ignore all that we have and remain blinded to seeing only our own experiences.  Don’t be unwilling to see the wisdom and the gifts of the others.

We have to train ourselves to recognize, to accept, and to appreciate the humanity of those who blend into the backgrounds of our lives.  Only then will we see Christ.  Amen.

Seeing the humanity, despite the story


Pentecost 19, Proper 21C


Bless us, Merciful God, with eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to discern your presence among us.  Amen.

I’ve been deeply troubled this week.  I guess, in some ways, this week isn’t all that different from many other weeks, but this week, the events facing our world seem to be a little more impactful.  There have been so many troubling news stories to follow.  In addition to the bombs in New Jersey and New York City, we’ve been peppered with reports of an increasingly contentious and tense election season, and the ongoing reports of police shootings and violence and protests.

It all came to a head for me on Friday.  I had been to lunch with a friend and colleague, and I was on my way back home, listening to the radio in the car.  A new video had come out showing more of the details surrounding the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by police officers in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Since I was in my car, I could only hear the video and not see it.  I heard Mr. Scott’s wife pleading with the police, begging them not to shoot him.  I heard her try to tell the police that her husband had suffered a traumatic brain injury, and that whatever his troubling actions may have appeared to be, it was probably just a misunderstanding.

But what was most troubling to me was, that as I was listening to this report, and to Mrs. Scott’s pleading, the *pop pop pop* of the gunshots – my first honest thought was, “Now which shooting is this?”

As that internal question set in, it chilled me.  We’re living in a world where reports of police violence against the citizens they are sworn to protect has become so pervasive that it’s hard to even keep the various incidents together in our minds.  If we’re not careful, one can almost blend into the others.  If we’re not careful, we could allow ourselves to stop seeing the humanity involved, and to only see the “story” as it’s reported on the news.

And there’s a lot of humanity in each of these stories.  There’s certainly the ones who are shot, and the ones who care about them.  But we also should never forget the humanity of the police officers – the ones whose lives are forever changed for having taken another’s life.  The ones who could lose their careers if they’re found at fault, and who, even if they don’t get fired or prosecuted, will forever hold the stain of the traumatic event.  Not to mention all of those people who love the officers, and who have to support them through the media storm and the protests and the administrative leave and all that follows.  And the humanity that exists in our wider communities: there are the many who live in increased fear for their own safety, or that of their loved ones.

There’s plenty of humanity to go around.  And it’s too easy for us to miss it when we just see the story.

So, that’s where I found myself this week as I engaged once again with the parable of Lazarus and the rich man.  In this story, Jesus tell us about a poor man, named Lazarus, who spent his days at the gate of a rich man’s home, hoping to earn whatever scraps he could collect from the rich man’s excesses to sustain his pitiful existence.  In time, both of the men – Lazarus and the rich man – died.  Lazarus, in his death, went to sit beside Abraham, and to enjoy all his rewards.  The rich man, however, was sent to hell, to be tormented by flames and discomfort.  Perhaps the greatest hell he faced, however, was that he could see Lazarus, just out of reach, enjoying all the excesses that he, the rich man, had once taken for granted.  In his anguish, he called out to Abraham, begging that he send Lazarus to offer comfort.  When Abraham refused, the rich man then begged to have Lazarus sent to warn his family, but Abraham reminded the rich man that they had the wisdom of the law and the prophets to guide them, and if that weren’t enough to show them the path to righteousness, nothing would be.

The rich man, in his life, had seen Lazarus, but in him, he didn't see Lazarus - at least not all that there was to see.  He saw a person of no value.  He saw only what he expected, not what was really there.  He didn’t see the humanity of Lazarus, but only a beggar.

In the stories of police shootings against black men, the same is true.  Our social system sets up certain people as violent.  Dangerous.  People to be defended against.  It has trained us, and those public servants who have been entrusted with the task of defending and protecting us, to see certain ones of as the enemy.  The truth of our realities – whether we are enemies or not, whether we are dangerous or not – is of less importance.  What becomes important, in a system like that, is classifications, not humanity.  That's why it's easier for police to kill some people than others.  That's why it's harder for certain members of our society to have that presumption of innocence that we all should be able to take for granted. 

The question in the story of Keith Lamont Scott isn’t whether or not he had a gun.  The police said he did and his wife said he didn’t.  I don’t know the answer to that.  People closer to the situation and more informed will be making that determination.  I simply can’t.

But it shouldn’t matter if he did have a gun.  North Carolina is an “open carry” state.  It’s perfectly legal to carry a gun, even if you’re black.  North Carolina is one of those states where we see pictures of white men carrying guns in stores and fast food restaurants, and no one questions them.

But a black man is seen as dangerous.  A black man, alone in his car, is seen as a threat.  Not as a person, but as no more than the sum of what is expected of him.

The purpose of all that I’ve said, however, is not to rail against police.  The story may prove to be more complicated, and we don’t know how it will end.  And, God knows, there are plenty of stories of police officers being shown to be heros.  I don’t want to fall into the same trap of seeing classifications instead of people.  Instead, what I want to rail against is that urge that exists within all of us to see what we expect of others before we see the others themselves.  What I want to protest is the blindnesses we have when it comes to people who we perceive as being different from us, or somehow unworthy of the excesses and benefits that we enjoy.

It’s true that our society has a system in place that denies the humanity of some of its members – particularly black men.  And we have an obligation as individuals to recognize our place in that system: the ways that we benefit from it, and the ways that we contribute to it, knowingly and unknowingly.  It’s also true that we can use this trying time in our collective experience as an opportunity to examine our own blindnesses more broadly – to seize this moment from being just one of anguish, to being one of growth.  How can we better recognize the humanity around us, both socially and individually?

The great sin of the rich man was not his wealth, but that he was blinded by self-absorption.  The only humanity he could see was his own – and that of those closest to him.  He missed the humanity – the value – of the people around him.

Lazarus' virtue was not that he was poor, but that he was aware.

We have Moses and the prophets.  We have the examples and the teachings of Jesus.  We have the parable of Lazarus and the rich man.  We have so much that points us toward seeing, embracing, and honoring the humanity of all of those others around us.  Don’t be like the rich man.  Don’t ignore all that we have and remain blinded to seeing only our own experiences.  Don’t be unwilling to see the wisdom and the gifts of the others.

We have to train ourselves to recognize, to accept, and to appreciate the humanity of those who blend into the backgrounds of our lives.  Only then will we see Christ.  Amen.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Come home.


Pentecost 17, Proper 19C


In God, we, who were lost, have been found.  In Christ, we, whose lives were failing, live more fully.  In the Spirit, we, who were alone, have been shown the way.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Today’s Gospel lesson is the first in a series of parables and teachings of Jesus that continue throughout the fifteenth chapter of Luke, that all deal with loss.  Today we heard a couple of the more familiar ones: the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin.

In both of these stories of loss, we hear about the one which had gone astray: a coin that had fallen away from the others, and a sheep that had wandered away from the others.  We hear about their caretakers, a shepherd and a woman, who leave behind everything that they hold dear to try to find the one that was lost.

It’s almost impossible not to hear these stories today as though they were anything other than speaking to our own national loss that we recall from fifteen years ago.  It was a day of deep and profound, almost unspeakable loss.  It was felt here, in these communities, in visceral and acute ways, but it was also felt very deeply all around the country, and even around the world.  Even among those of us who didn’t experience the loss of a loved one, we all experienced loss.  And, for our society, more broadly, it was regrettably a loss of innocence that we hadn’t even known that we had.

And by no amount of searching will we reclaim what was lost.  We were changed forever.  It wasn’t like a coin or a sheep.  It was something deeper.

This lesson is one of those that we, in communities of faith, often struggle with.  How could Jesus have advocated leaving everyone behind to search out the lost?  Might we not be better off holding tightly to all that we have to avoid further loss, rather than leaving behind all that we have to recover what was lost?

My father and I were talking about these parables a few weeks ago, and we were discussing precisely that problem, as we were thinking about challenges that we saw in our communities and all around us.  We found that usually, the problems that we face, and the loss that we encounter, isn’t quite as clear-cut as it seems to be in the parables.  Very often, it’s hard to discern which of the sheep are lost and which aren’t.  The world is just a little more complicated.

But as we were talking, it occurred to me that what we’re talking about here, isn’t really the “lost” and the “found”.  Instead, the real issue here, and if you’ll notice in Jesus’ teachings throughout his life, the real issue everywhere, is more about recognizing the differences and the different needs between the ones who are secure and those others who are vulnerable.

The issue with the sheep who had wandered off was not just that it was lost, but that it was vulnerable.  The sheep in the herd had each other.  But the one who had wandered was all alone.

The coins that were accounted for were secure.  The one which had fallen away was not.

The message of Christ is that we are to advocate for the vulnerable.  We are to seek out those who are alone and help them to be more secure.  We are to strive for oneness and to eschew isolation in all its forms.

Most of us remember what is was like in those days following September 11th fifteen years ago.  Despite all that we had lost, there was a real sense of oneness that held us together, even amidst previously unimagined uncertainty.  But sadly, it wasn’t long before that oneness grew into a united front in the face of a common enemy.  And, among many, that has since distilled into a seething hatred and distrust of anyone who is suspected of being outside the oneness to which we once were clinging.

Almost without our noticing, oneness has faded into division.  Our striving for our own security has increased everyone’s vulnerability – even our own.

When we think of the story of the shepherd leaving the heard to find the lost, we can sometimes fear abandonment.  How could he have left us alone?  Why was that one so important?

But here’s the thing: we are the lost.  Whenever we fail, and miss the calling of caring for the lost and vulnerable, we are the ones who are lost.  We are the ones that Christ is searching to bring home.  Whenever we fail to see the value in those others outside of ourselves, we are the coin – that piece of value – that has gone missing and is astray.

On this solemn day, when we consider all that we have lost, we would be wise to remember all of the ways that we have become lost.  Christ is calling us home.  The more lost we are, the more we are being called.

There’s and old southern hymn that goes like this:

“Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,
Calling for you and for me;
See, on the portals He’s waiting and watching,
Watching for you and for me.
Refrain:
Come home, come home,
Ye who are weary, come home;
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
Calling, O sinner, come home!”

When we’re lost, Christ is calling us home.  Come home.  Come together.  Amen.