|July 27, 2016
I have been away on a family vacation for the last two weeks and it has been a blessed wonderful time of our extended family all in one household; seeing the beauty of the sea shore, experiencing 24 / 7 the raucous joy of small children expressing their own individual spirits, while sometimes (not always smoothly), learning to get along with others; the pride of seeing my own grown children as adults in all their maturity and wisdom, already surpassing my own. I thought it would be pure joy but it turned out to be both joy on the one hand and and hard work and less sleep on the other; about 49 to 51%. I will let you guess which.
But, although away from the daily and sometimes hourly headlines we all usually receive; I, like you, I am sure, have been devastated by the violence, injustice, and retribution in our society in just this past two weeks. As I spoke with others about bringing this morning's good word, I confessed that "I just did not know what to say?" I thought Orlando had done it to me. So unraveled my spirit and sense of security and understanding of people, that I was just down on my knees picking up the pieces....trying coming to terms with it......figuring it out a little......realizing: (1) that if we sell automatic military weapons on the streets that yes crazy people will buy and use them.....realizing: (2) if we overtly or secretly disparage gay folks and treat them as less than human and so different from us for all these years that some folks will continue to do so for many years to come......realizing: (3) that there are those that seek acceptance and notoriety in the perversion of religion from something loving into something hateful, be in Islam, Christianity or Judaism.
And then, and now, a black school cafeteria supervisor in Minnesota (the humorous light-hearted state of Lake Woebegone) with albeit a highly tainted driving record, for a minor broken tail light violation, is gunned down in broad daylight and a troubled homeless man shot in the streets of Louisiana by nervous ill trained; prejudiced or at the least, stereotyping, white police officers - continuing the seemingly sanctioned state sponsored terrorism upon men of color and the disenfranchised. And now, a self appointed vigilante; not taking "justice" into his own hands but taking "mindless arbitrary hatred " into his own hands --guns down Dallas police officers. I came of age in the 60s and greatly admired many of the founding principles of the Black Panther Party - the early Mr. Cleaver and Newton, and their emphasis on self defense and social programming. That was about as far away from what happened in Dallas as you can get - but that is another story. You start randomly killing police officers here in this District of Columbia and for every white officer you kill you will kill 2 black ones. Is that anyway to gain justice and stop oppression?
I do not know if you have ever seen the Back to the Future movie series in which due to a twist of fate in the second Back to the Future production, Marty McFly finds himself in a terrible alternative violent and lawless universe. That is what I felt like, but it wasn't funny at all.
For too long in our country we have had this division between "law and order" on the one hand and "justice and freedom" on the other. And we seem to think you can't have both. And it is correct that you can not have both in the ultimate or the extreme. We will never have perfect law and order or never have perfect justice and freedom, because this is not a perfect world and we are not a perfect people.
But we can come to understand that law and order means that laws are fair. Laws that our equally applied to all. Laws that strive to enhance justice and freedom not further restrict it. And when things are in good order, they are just not "working" or "functioning". They are working and functioning correctly / fairly / equally; enhancing and bettering people’s lives, not holding them down. Laws and good order are not opposed to justice and freedom; they are meant to provide it and defend it!
But in our world, our current social and political state, it seems like this spiral of injustice and violence will never end. This cycle of depressing and hopeless news.
And so thank God for Sunday. (I recommend to anyone with depression - make yourself write a sermon every week) (Forget about vacation) (Grab the bible and the Good news by the throat and do not let it go until it speaks to you) .
At first all the sweet and religious talk about Jesus knowing our troubles and being our Shepard and friend seemed so hollow. Somehow I just couldn't make the connection. I felt the perfect Jesus just did not know really how bad it is. A this violence and bloodshed; all this distrust; this dream and hope of Dr. King that presently looks like will never happen. And to boot, Jesus never had to deal with the possibility of Donald Trump becoming President!
And then I thought to myself who am I kidding? I have been a protestant way to long and carrying around an empty cross. The cross is THE CROSS not only because of the resurrection but because Jesus once hung on it. And through it all, he seemed to know what was coming and prepared for it. You do not have to go to Mel Gibson's bloody portrayal of Jesus last days in the Passion of Christ to realize that Jesus too lived in violent times. From the day he was born and the petty dictator and tyrant Herod was after him and slaughtered the babies in Bethlehem to be sure and get rid of him; living through Roman occupation and brutality; seeing stonings and other crucifixions; Judea and Galilee rampant with bandits; Zealot patriotic uprising and terrorism; ostracizing the ill and underclass; class and religious conflicts. The world Jesus came into was 10 times worse. It made Jesus cry. He set himself on the hill above Jerusalem before Holy Week and he wept and said "Oh Jerusalem - If you only knew of the things that made for peace ". But they did not / and neither do we. This bible of ours does not gloss over or extract us from the world as it is. The bible tells our story and God's story through the pain of it all. And when Peter tried to convince Jesus not to do so; not to go to Jerusalem. He said bluntly "Get behind me Satan".
The answer I got from Jesus at the end of these two tragic weeks was not to run away but to "double down". Now I realize my language is not quite the Kings James Version but I think it is accurate and makes the point. It is not a term that I usually use (although I recall when I first came to 15th st there was a bus trip going to Atlantic City so I am guessing some of you know this term). I looked it up and it is technically a black jack term that doubles your bet on the next card; because you have grown surer that you will win and win big. But what I mean, is to double down on the gospel. Double down on goodness. Double down on the righteousness. Double down on God. Yes, no matter the events of the day.
It became clear to me that this is how Jesus lived his life! If a soldier commands you to carry his pack at mile? Double down and carry it two miles he said! You have heard it said do not murder. Double down. I say do not be angry with your brother. You have heard it said go to church. I say forget church first. Double down; settle up; apologize; make things right with your neighbor first, then go to church. You have heard it said do not commit adultery. Double down. I say do not debase anyone. You have heard it said do not break and oath. Double down. Just do not lie. If some one wants your shirt. Double down. Give them your cloak as well. You have heard and eye for and eye; double down and turn the other cheek. You have heard that you should love your friends. Double down. I say to you anyone can do that. Love your enemies. Time after time Jesus life and teachings were about extreme and extravagant acts of mercy and goodness. And when the times got tough, the love got greater. It wasn't the priest or Levite that helped. It was the Samaritan (the outsider/the one here from another country). It wasn't the 99 good sheep that brought joy. It was the one roving one. Not the good kid but the wayward one.
I was looking for some secret answer; some magic potion; some greater understanding; and it is not there because the world is the world but more importantly the gospel is the gospel. I do not think that I know a better definition grace than the doubling down on goodness. The doubling down on love.
Surely this is true in our personal life as well. When you do not know what else to do.
When it seemed as if you tried everything to reconcile or to get along or to resolve a problem; to end a feud. And we are prone to harden up; to circle the wagons; or one ups man ship; maybe the same response you gave yesterday will not make progress. But extravagant unexpected mercy. A dramatic act of love. Going beyond. Surprising the heck out of them and maybe even yourself with a loving or merciful act? This was Jesus' response to a violent troubled world: more and greater love. And it needs to be ours as well.
I want to be clear that this is not easy. And to be sure, I am not talking about a milquetoast subservient kind of love. It is the love of Gandhi and Martin King and Nelson Mandela . A love that changes people and nations. A strong defiant love. The love of both black and white young people sitting at segregated lunch counters and had their face spat into and crossed bridges fire hoses and night sticks flailing It is a love like that - that has non violence - and transformation - and power - and change written all over it. Marcus Borg writes, “Jesus discloses that at the center of everything is a reality that is love, love that is with us and wills our well-being, an image of God as the compassionate one who invites us into a relationship, which is the source of transformation of human life—individually and corporately.” (Rev John Buchanan)
We know this true because we are all loved with a love like this - from God. A love that will never let us go. A love of such extravagance and grace, that often despite our stupidity and hardness of heart and intransigence- loves us all the more.
Give up? Hell no. Double down.
Sermon by Rev. Robert Bell 7/17/16