Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Required


Micah 6: 1-8; Matthew 5: 1-12
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
January 29, 2017



            Two skills I would like to develop and hone to reflex quality are thinking on my feet and reframing negative and irrational thoughts into positive ones. I can identify with Meg Ryan’s character in “You’ve Got Mail” in her small business owner battle against big box store mogul, Joe Fox: when confronted with someone who is horrid and insensitive, she wishes she could know exactly the right words to say and then have the presence of mind to say them, rather than after the fact when the moment is gone.

            But I don’t want to be horrid or insensitive myself.  So earlier this week I was speaking with some colleagues about how to reframe on one’s feet in a good way. One of them reminded me that oppressed groups have always done this with insults and slurs.  LGBT folks took the word “queer”, owned it, and now use it as a source of pride and as a means of inclusion of anyone who doesn’t fit narrow gender norms or expression.  It’s hard for me to do this sort of reframing in the moment, to think on my feet in the presence of anger, pain, and hate, most likely because I haven’t had to do it much, given the privileged life I’ve had so far.  More than anything else, it breaks my heart to listen to vitriol because I know I am in the presence of a wounded human being.


            Case in point:  during my Community Office Hours on Wednesday this week I encountered my polar opposite.  Those of you who remember Rod Schaffter:  he said my polar opposite would be “a tall rotund bald atheist Republican teetotaling oil rig worker who is a rabid Yankees fan”.  Not quite.  This particular polar opposite’s name was Joe and he’s a plumber—true story.  He said he was 63 years old, as in too old to change now, he said; from lower Delaware and absolutely delighted that Trump is president.  When he said he slept better at night with Trump in the White House, I respectfully said that I haven’t been sleeping so well since the election.

            I could see how this conversation might continue, so I posed this question to him:  You and I, right here, we’re the United States of America.  How do we listen to each other?  How can we speak to each other and find some common ground?  I asked this twice in the course of our conversation, in a different way the second time around.  The sad thing was he didn’t even really try to give an answer.

            It wasn’t until the next day that I thought of a response when he called former President Obama, Michelle, and the girls maggots:  “I’m a maggot, too, then; a maggot for Jesus”.  Think of what a maggot does for a diseased body, for decaying flesh, and the healing it brings.  Or when he used the term ‘libtard’:  “I’m a libtard, a libtard for Jesus.  Jesus was a libtard”.  Within the anger, the insult, there is also the power of transformation, courage, strength, and a different kind of kindness.

            “The Holy One has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you:  to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”  The Hebrew word for kindness, or lovingkindness, chesed means more than mercy, more than unchanging love, more than deeds of devotion.  Rabbi Yair Robinson, the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington, says it is, “Kindness as a radical act.  Kindness as spiritual resistance.  Kindness as an expression of righteous anger.   Kindness as prophetic living.”

            In essence, chesed means to reorder, reframe our lives into a community of kindness that is lived out in the radical act of being loyal to our covenant with each other even when we disagree—where else will you find that kind of covenant community?   Kindness lived out in our spiritual resistance to injustice; kindness lived out in our expressions of righteous anger; kindness made known in our prophetic, wholehearted living and giving.

            Through these verses from the prophet Micah, God declares a controversy with God’s people, and through some hyperbole, reframes this controversy into God’s scandalous vision of radical inclusion and wholehearted living.  God overturns the expectations of who can enter the temple for worship and reframes who belongs and who doesn’t.  Is it the very rich, those with offerings in abundance?  Will God be impressed with how well we follow God’s laws and statutes?  Micah even goes so far as to recall the story of Abraham and Isaac with these words:  shall I offer my firstborn as payment for my sin?  To all of this God answers “no”.  What is required is to do justice, to love kindness, mercy, and walk humbly with God, which means to abandon any notion that we are self-sufficient and have the answers.  As we say in our church’s covenant:  We, the New Ark United Church of Christ, covenant with You and with each other to be your faithful, witnessing community, and depending on your grace, not our merit, vow to let our lives be shaped by your Word.”

            “Vow to let our lives be shaped by your Word”.  Vow to let our lives be reframed by your Word, because life—as well as our desires, our emotions, our will, our needs—can shape and frame us in ways that shrink and limit us.  When Jesus saw the crowds, he was faced with those who had a poverty of the soul, people who were grieving an aching loss; those who would never dream of putting themselves forward because they had been pushed back and down so many times; people who were so desperate for the powerful to do the right thing they could eat and drink it; people who were merciful, who lived out the meaning of chesed in their lives, despite what life had done to them; those who were pure in heart, who were peacemakers even though they lived with a violent occupying force; people who were being persecuted because others thought it was their moral duty to do so.

            And so Jesus taught his disciples to see these people in a different way, taught the people to see themselves differently.  Rather than worthless or on the bottom of society or the least likely to succeed or forgotten or banned or beyond God’s reach, Jesus said they were blessed, from the Greek word for ‘happy’, because they were at the center of God’s attention; they were living God’s way.  These were ones who understood the way of the cross: not the way of winners and losers, not the way of power and control, not the way of fear and violence, but those who understand that the pain and struggle for justice and peace and wholeness requires what Paul calls the foolishness and weakness of the cross.

            The Beatitudes weren’t talking about people with lives like yours and mine.  In our time it would be Muslims and refugees banned from entering our country; illegal immigrants; the Black Lives Matter movement; women and men who can’t get the healthcare they need without Planned Parenthood or the Affordable Care Act; climate change scientists who produce data that no one really takes seriously; water protectors; transgender men and women with no job protection and children and teens too who require the freedom to use the bathroom that matches their gender; and my friend Joe who some might call deplorable but who feels forgotten and has suffered in his own way nonetheless, who is also at the center of God’s attention whether he knows it or not.


            James Baldwin, an African-American poet and playwright, wrote, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”  Perhaps that is the ultimate reframing required of us:  to remember that most if not all of us are carrying some form of pain, and thus requires from us a love that is patient and kind, a love that is not arrogant or boastful or rude, a love that does not insist on its own way.  A love that "isn’t always “me first,” doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel; a love that takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end."  (1 Corinthians 13, The Message)

            Amen.