Giving Voice

(Below is the text of the sermon I preached this morning, which I am posting because a few folks have asked for it.  The title of the sermon that appeared in the bulletin was for the first sermon I wrote; this one is still untitled.  But the blog post is called “Giving Voice” because, as  my husband commented, the sermon gave voice to the thoughts and feeling many have been having.)

Texts: Micah 6:6-8, Matthew 5:1-12

If you’ve ever had a guest in your home who stayed for a while, you know what a challenge that can be. In the summer of 2015, a friend of mine from high school – with whom I’d not been in touch since high school – stayed with us for ten days. She was moving to Portland, I had learned on Facebook, and I offered our house as a home base while she looked for a place to live.

She was a perfectly polite guest, but it’s hard to have someone else around, especially when you only have 1.5 bathrooms. Your guest’s schedule may differ from your own; they may eat different food, watch different tv shows, wear patchouli and you can’t stand patchouli (my friend did not wear patchouli). Your guest may start to grate on your nerves; you may start to grate on their nerves, despite all your generous hospitality.

My friend developed a terrible cold while staying with us. During her ten days with us she went to the beach for a day and a half and miraculously the cold went away, only to return when she came back to us. She thought she might be allergic to something. She thought we might have mold in our basement, where our guest room was. She was right.

So a year later, with a generous loan from the bank, we have gotten rid of the mold from our basement, and fixed the leaking pipes, and the crack in the foundation, and the drainage system. My friend’s visit proved to be expensive for us. It also proved to be quite beneficial to us in the long run.

My friend, with whom I had not spoken for thirty years, was a bit of a stranger to me. And I will be the first to admit that welcoming the stranger is hard. Welcoming the stranger is also a moral imperative, a constant thread throughout our holy scripture. Welcoming the stranger is the basis not only for our faithful understanding of hospitality, but also the way in which we live out what the prophet Micah commanded: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.

There is injustice in the world. There has always been injustice in the world. This week the world observed Holocaust Remembrance Day and I could not hear the news without getting teary, listening to the survivors of concentration camps tell their stories. Part of the story of the Holocaust, the story of Hitler’s attempted genocide of the Jewish people, is the anti-Semitism that pervaded the world, including the United States.

Let us not forgot our own role in that. “In June 1939, the German ocean liner St. Louis and its 937 passengers, almost all Jewish, were turned away from the port of Miami, forcing the ship to return to Europe; more than a quarter died in the Holocaust.”

Then, “in the summer of 1942, the SS Drottningholm set sail carrying hundreds of… Jewish refugees, en route to New York City from Sweden. Among them was Herbert Karl Friedrich Bahr, a 28-year-old from Germany, who was also seeking entry to the United States. When he arrived, he told the same story as his fellow passengers: As a victim of persecution, he wanted asylum from Nazi violence.

“But during [the] interview process… [his] story began to unravel.” Through a long investigation and trial, he was found guilty of being a spy for the Gestapo. Then “his story would be used as an excuse to deny visas to thousands of Jews fleeing the horrors of the Nazi regime.

“Government officials from the State Department to the FBI to President Franklin Roosevelt himself argued that refugees posed a serious threat to national security. Yet today, historians believe that Bahr’s case was practically unique—and the concern about refugee spies was blown far out of proportion.”

There was justice for Bahr, who was found guilty of his crime. But where was the justice for the Jews trying to save their lives and the lives of their children?

Earlier this week I attended a gathering of folks from the faith community, from the Muslim community, from APANO (the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon), IRCO (the International Refugee Center of Oregon). We were there for a press conference which did not happen that day, but as we waited to see what would unfold, we introduced ourselves.

This is what I heard: people are angry and afraid. People who came to this country as immigrants and refugees are afraid. People whose skin is not pale like mine are afraid. Person after person who spoke – Portlanders who are contributing to the good of our community – spoke through tears and strained voices.

I believe many of us who are majority people – we who are white Christian Americans – have forgotten how to do justice, how to love kindness, how to walk humbly with God.

I live a comfortable life. I have a home with a room set aside just for guests. I have a job I love. My child goes to a fantastic public school. There is no good reason why I should have to worry myself about the plight of people across the world. I’m good. I have everything I need. I can just stay in my little bubble.

Except for this: I believe in God and I love Jesus and everything he taught about how to be human. And try as I might, I cannot turn away from the 3000 year old teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition. I cannot turn away from the tug in my heart. I cannot turn away from that voice that whispers into the depth of my soul, “Do you not see My children who are suffering?”

The words of Matthew 25 haunt not only my dreams but also my waking thoughts.
“…I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,
I was a stranger and you did not welcome me,
naked and you did not give me clothing,
sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’
“… ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

I don’t know if I believe in eternal punishment. Most days I believe that at the end we will be called to account for how we lived. I will admit I could be wrong about that. I don’t know if I believe in Hell. But I do believe there are people who live Hell on earth, in part because comfortable people like me do nothing about working for justice for them, offering kindness to them, or walking humbly with God.

So let me say, quite plainly, something about Friday’s executive order – to suspend the entry of refugees into the United States for 120 days; to stop receiving refugees from Syria indefinitely; and to bar from entering the United States for 90 days refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.  I think this executive order is immoral and stinks of fear and hatred. I am not alone. Just ask the Pope or Dick Cheney.

As the primary preacher here, I am aware of the one-sided voice of the pulpit. I know there are some who would love to hear political sermons every week, and some who never, ever want to hear a political sermon. Because I believe so deeply in welcoming the stranger, every time I write a sermon that veers into the political, I picture the faces of those I know in the congregation whose politics, I imagine, are different from mine. Because I think we come to worship for a variety of reasons, and because I know that we need to be encouraged as much as we need to be challenged, I will not preach a political sermon every week.

But this week I have felt compelled to because politics has collided head-on into faith. This executive order shows no justice, no kindness, and no humility. It flies in the face of the imperative to welcome the stranger, to remember that the Israelites were refugees, and Jesus was a refugee. And I don’t know what to do, because I am powerless to undo that action.

But I – and you – can continue to welcome the stranger into our midst. It is hard, uncomfortable even, like having a house guest who wears patchouli for ten days.

I think about the courage and humility it takes to be the stranger, too. I think about the first two women to be ordained as elders here at Westminster, and how strange or uncomfortable it must have been for all those men on session to have women in their midst.

I think about the courage it took for the first people of color and the first bi-racial couple to come to Westminster, the courage of their presence where they did not look like others around them.

I think about the courage it took for those first gay and lesbian and transgender folks to say who they are, how brave it was for them to come to church when all the big C church had ever done was tell them they were, in the core of their being, wrong.

We who are comfortable may feel uncomfortable. That’s okay. Discomfort won’t kill us. It may make us grow, though. Doing justice may make us uncomfortable too. It’s still the right thing to do. Loving kindness and walking humbly with God are blessings, they are cups that runneth over, they are the reward we get for following this God who calls us to great and challenging and world-changing things. Blessed are the kind and humble, indeed.

I want to leave you with a story that may help. It may not. But it’s a good story, and I give the last word to a man named Darren O’Conner.

“My dad and I, him a Trump supporter, me, Green Party supporter. He believes we went into Iraq (twice) for good reasons, I believe it was for oil and power…. Both of us speak out for the poor, both of us have spent much of our lives being poor, both of us advocate for unhoused people, both of us bring them into our homes. My dad, however, does so for months to years at a time.

“A couple of years ago, he brought a man into his home who had pancreatic cancer, an extremely lethal disease, expecting the man had weeks to live. He lived much longer, and my dad and his wife walked his path with him, providing shelter. Despite our political differences, we don’t differ on this: every person has value, everyone deserves love, and every time we step in to help, we are the ones who come out enriched….

“… I love him, and sometimes I just can’t talk about things we disagree on. So we don’t.

“My dad now has pancreatic cancer himself, and his life is in God’s hands. I pray often that God will continue letting him do his work…. In my prayers, I accept that God will do what God wills, it’s not for me to demand anything. But I hope and pray for more years of being able to agree and disagree about most anything and to still share love with [my father] John Malcolm O’Connor, blood of my blood, bone of my bones. I wouldn’t be who I am without him.

“This life is temporary y’all. Our walk here is not meant to be about what we can accumulate, unless those things are friendship, love, friendship, justice, friendship, helping others, friendship, common ground.”

Amen.

 

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The Kindness Place

acts_of_kindness_--necklace_7eb95eceA few weeks ago a child at church came into worship near tears.  Her feelings had been hurt because she perceived that a couple of other kids had purposely excluded her from something.  Normally I would probably not have been aware of any of this but the sad child was my own.  She sat down in the front pew and curled herself up into a little ball.  It was one of those moments when I decided to be mom and not pastor.  I sat with her and cuddled her and tried very hard not to give the other children the stink-eye.  By the time the first hymn started she was okay and life went on.

Kids will be kids and I know that when two kids are gathered, fun ensues, and when three kids are gathered, one of them usually ends up feeling left out.  I harbor no resentment to the other two – it happens, and some day it might be my kid that does the leaving out, because kids will be kids.  But if and when that does happen, I might be in a slight pickle, because I hold fast to the notion that church is a place where you can count on everyone being kind to each other.  I want my child to know that and I want every person in every church to know that.

But it might take me a while.

I grew up in a church where I was very involved as a teenager, and church was, for me, a place where I belonged and was welcomed and where everyone was kind – to me, at least; it was in stark contrast to what I often felt in school.  My adolescent church experience is part of what led me to ordained ministry and it’s definitely shaped my sense of church being The Kindness Place.

Too many people can tell stories of church being anything but The Kindness Place.  People get the stink-eye when they sit in “someone else’s” pew.  A couple is divorced and one of the parties is told to leave.  Someone spills their coffee during fellowship hour and are yelled at rather than helped.  An LGBTQ person shows up and, while not overtly told they aren’t welcome, receive enough cold shoulders that they decide never to darken those particular church doorways again.

It’s not like kindness is difficult.  It’s not as though it takes a great deal of effort to sit in a different pew for a week, or for always.  Kindness is not a finite resource that when it’s gone, it’s gone.  It is possible to disagree with someone or even to dislike someone and still show that person kindness.

Is kindness the antidote to judgmentalness?  Are we unkind because we lack empathy or are generally clueless?  Maybe acting in an unkind manner makes us feel powerful.  A few weeks ago I snapped at a parishioner (and immediately regretted it) because I was feeling inadequate, which had not been the other’s intention at all.  I’ve known a few curmudgeons who are actually quite kind and considerate so I don’t think it’s a matter of one’s personality.

There’s a lot of pain out there that is utterly beyond our ability to erase.  I am numbed by the news of yet another ISIS beheading.  I still ache for those Nigerian schoolgirls to get home.  I was unexpectedly attacked by grief the other day by something that reminded me of my friend who committed suicide in September.  Kindness cannot fix any of those things, but it can be a balm that alleviates some of their deadening force.

Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”  Maybe I’m just getting old, but I like to think I’m just getting started.

May you experience some kindness today, and may you create some as well.