Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Truth about Shame

Matthew 5:38-48
Shady Grove Presbyterian Church
February 23, 2014

Prelude to Worship:
Once upon a time in Jacksonville, Florida, there was a white man who stopped at a convenience store so his wife could run inside and pick up a six-pack of Coca Cola. The man waited, turning up the volume on his gospel music sounds. Lifting his face upward, he joined the Blackwood Brothers, singing at the top of his lungs and lifting his hands upward toward heaven. He was in praise mode. 

A car parked beside the white man and he turned the volume up just a notch. Four black teenagers got out of the car. One of the young men spoke to the singing man. “Your music is too loud.” The white man ignored him. “I don’t like your music; turn it down!” the teenager yelled this time. The white man didn’t touch the volume on his radio but he reached under his seat-- to get his New Testament. 

It was just a small black book in his hand but the boy thought it was a weapon. All four teenagers felt afraid, threatened. The teenager shot at the man. Killed him. And the incident went to trial.

A jury heard the story. Will they call it murder? Will they be able to convict the shooter?

Jesus preached on a mountain side. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.” This does not mean to keep your nose clean at all times, to have every hair on your head neatly in place. It does not mean that we are called to live free from any mistakes or wrong doing. What it does mean is this: God gives us a promise through the witness of Jesus among us. There is always the possibility that we, even we, may love the world as God has loved us: fully, richly, abundantly and completely. 

The Sermon:
“One of the most interesting and effective exercises we can give a child is to instruct them to make up their own games,” says Joan Chittister, feminist theologian.  By creating their own games they become inventors, writers, artists and problem solvers. Teach children to use and trust their imaginations and they will learn to create a better world. 

Carl Sagan taught: “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it, we go nowhere.” 

It takes a healthy imagination to work with our scripture text today. Imagine: turning the other cheek, giving the cloak as well as the coat, going the second mile, praying for persecutors and oppressors. Imagine being perfect?

John Wesley took seriously this verse from Matthew 5:48. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.” Why would Jesus command such a thing if it were impossible? Wesley wrote about the “third means of grace, entire sanctification.”  Because of the love of God and as a result of the sacrifice of Jesus, it is possible, according to Wesleyan tradition, to be perfect. 

In his journal John Wesley records an incident when he rode his horse all day long across the country side, having heard about a man who claimed to be sanctified holy and living beyond the struggle with sin. Wesley was having trouble imagining such a thing, having never attained perfection himself and having not yet met a perfect person. He rode for miles to see this model of perfection. Following that experience Wesley wrote in his journal, “I met the man for myself. And then I rode my horse back home, having not yet been satisfied, having not yet met an example of spiritual perfection.”  

That amuses us and we sigh with relief, relaxing our tense shoulders and reassuring ourselves, “Nobody expects me to be perfect, not even Jesus could expect that.”

Jesus is challenging us with this Sermon on the Mount. We are forced to think, to consider some significant things about ourselves, life and living freely among other people. Can we love those who do not make our life more wonderful?

I am sure of some things in this text. I am confident that Jesus does not expect victims of domestic violence to roll over on the kitchen floor, allowing themselves to be kicked again and again in the name of faith and discipleship. I am sure that Jesus is not telling oppressed people to be passive to the point of apathy. I am certain that Jesus is not telling us to accept persecution from others as if it were right and good in God’s eyes. That would be misconstruing the text altogether. 

I am sure Jesus is challenging us to take our faith seriously. Jesus needs every disciple to take the Christian faith seriously because there is serious reconciliation work to be done. 

There’s such a deep divide between the haves and the have-nots these days. Religion has us polarized around the globe as much or more than any other polarizing issue of our day. Matters of race are so painful that we have gone to our separate corners and stopped talking about the issues with each other. 

Maybe Jesus is on to something. Maybe this turning of the cheek and going the second mile would help. Seems like what we’re currently doing is only allowing more people to be killed in our streets and more prisons to be over-crowded. Anger is everywhere: in traffic, airplanes, theaters, parking lots, Walmart and home. Nobody is safe. Not really. No matter how sophisticated the security system, we are all vulnerable to attack. So if nobody is safe than all of us are together—whether we want to be or not. We’re in this dangerous place united by our fear. Maybe we should all stand our ground and together look fear in the eye.

We are caught, today, in the tension between human nature and being children of God. Maybe we could consider Jesus’ sermon and his requests of us. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Brene’ Brown has written a book about her own struggle to be perfect. It is titled: The Gifts of Imperfection. A research professor at the College of Social Work at Houston University, Dr. Brown is a leading expert on shame, authenticity and belonging. Brown says the quest for perfection will lead us many places but nowhere that’s helpful or healthy. We can, however, learn to be perfectly ourselves.

That process begins with the courage to get honest about how imperfect we really are. Tell your story, she says. Tell it to someone who has earned the privilege of hearing your truth. Shame hates nothing more than our decision to reach out and tell our story. Shame cannot live with exposed truth. Out of our truth telling comes the realization that our flaws and imperfections are actually gifts, gifts that contribute not only to our health and to the fullness of our own life but also to the health and fullness of the lives of those around us.
Brown writes: “Every time we choose to courageously speak our truth, we make everyone around us a little better and the world a little braver.”

Telling the truth is noncooperation with shame. And shame flees when truth moves in. Our shame is not very courageous. It doesn’t take much effort to dislodge it once we shed light on it and see it as the enemy.

Jesus says, “Do not resist an evildoer, your persecutor, the oppressor.” 

When I see films of the lunch counter sit-ins during the Civil Rights movement, I am touched, emotionally moved and amazed at the courage, the training, the determination not to resist but to stay connected to the truth. Those African American students sat down at the counter knowing they had every right to be there, knowing they belonged at that dime store lunch counter, aware that they were as worthy as anyone who had ever ordered a grilled cheese sandwich there. They were authentically present on those stools at the lunch counter.

Drinks were poured on their heads. Lit cigarettes burned them. They were spit on, shoved, punched. The force that made it possible for those African American students not to strike back was their lack of shame, their authenticity and their own connection to the perfect love that was as much a part of them as their hands that could have become fists and struck back, their legs that could have started running for safety, their eyes that could have closed and shut out the brutality before them. Their eyes… seeing the contorted faces of the persecutors. Seeing the face of the oppressor and a lust for power over others. The shame visible to the persecuted. It’s an awful sight. They did not resist. They saw it all as something less powerful than perfect love. 

In 1932, Myles Horton, a former student of Reinhold Niebuhr, established the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee.  The school, situated in the Tennessee hills, initially focused on labor and adult education. By the early 1950s, however, it shifted its attention to race relations. Highlander was one of the few places in the South where integrated meetings could take place, and served as a site of leadership training for southern civil rights activists. Rosa Parks attended a 1955 workshop at Highlander four months before refusing to give up her bus seat, an act which ignited the Montgomery bus boycott. 

One evening in the late 1950’s, white thugs staged a nighttime raid on the Highlander School. According to Myles Horton that was the night when a new verse was added to the song, “We Shall Overcome.” Horton says:

A group of young people, a youth choir…was at Highlander. …They were looking at a movie called “Face of the South.”  It was dark. Suddenly, raiders came in with flashlights. They must have been vigilantes and some police officers, but they weren't in uniform. They demanded the lights be turned on, but they couldn't get anybody at Highlander to do it. The thugs were furious…running around with flashlights. In the meantime, the kids started to sing "We Shall Overcome." Singing together made them feel good. The raiders yelled, "Shut up and turn on the lights!" Then some kid said, "We're not afraid." That’s when they started singing, "We are not afraid. We are not afraid." A new verse was born. Amazing courage was born in the hearts of those young people. Perfection. No need to be afraid. Nothing for which to be ashamed. No need to resist. The power of perfect love was alive and at work within them.

Jesus challenged his disciples and the gathered congregation. Jesus challenges us today. Turn the other cheek. Give your coat and your cloak as well. Go the second mile. Pray for those who persecute you. Be perfect. Enter into a season of change. Let go of your own shame so love can come to stay, love that has no need to put up resistance because love is the resistance. 

Our call today is to have the courage to speak truth, tell our own story to one another and make way for perfect love.  Make this world a more wonderful place for all of us to live together in love.


Sunday, February 16, 2014

Choose Life

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
First Presbyterian Church, Memphis
February 16, 2014

I’ve just started the fifth year of going into our county jail and listening to the women who are incarcerated. I call the process “Prison Stories.” I sit in a circle with twelve women and we listen to each other. There are stories told about kids, mothers, memories of childhood, experiences of abuse and neglect, stories about crimes, addictions, hopes and dreams. 

I went to the jail in January of 2010 because I had a theory. My theory is that if people are given a chance to tell their stories and to be heard (really listened to with respect,)  those people will find a way to be free. Free from whatever trap or limitation they have constructed in previous stories, free to ask questions, free to imagine new relationships, free to dream dreams, free to discover a new story, free to choose an improved future.

Initially the stories are something like this:

“I am not very smart; so school is not for me.”

“I’ve never felt loved, so I’ll give birth to a child who will have no choice but to cling to my side.”

“My daddy beat my mama regularly and my boyfriend beats me now. My kids are screaming in fear. Pain pills keep me standing.”

“Nobody has ever believed a word I have to say, so I no longer choose to waste time on telling the truth.” 

Early in my experience inside the jail I learned to provide choices for the women in the story sharing circle. Small things. Chocolate brownies or oatmeal cookies? Two or four? I bring paperback books to the classroom with me, about 20 of them. I display them on a table top and invite the women to “shop” for a book before the class gets started. Small things, but choices nonetheless. 

People in jail are not allowed many choices. You get what you get when it’s given to you. That’s part of the punishment. That’s being in jail.

We all want choices. Certainly Starbucks has learned to use our desire for choice to their business advantage and for their increasing profit. The more choices you’re given, the more special you feel. The more attention given to your special latte, the more you feel cared for. The more you feel special and cared for, the more often you will pull into that paved lot and pay high dollar to have your coffee needs met. 

Let me provide you with some context for today’s Old Testament scripture passage from Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is mostly devoted to Moses’ farewell speech before the twelve tribes  of Israel as they prepare to enter the Promised Land. Moses talks on and on really. He reviews God’s activities among the chosen people. He goes over Torah. And then he explains to the people that he will not be going with them to the Promised Land. They will be led instead by Joshua. Moses says, “I’ve laid it out for you, life and death, good and evil. Love God. Walk in God’s ways.  Choose to keep the commandments so you will live, truly live, passionately, joyfully, blessed by God’s presence and power. Choose life!”

This farewell address is twenty-six chapters long, far longer (I promise you!) than my sermon will be today. Moses’ spoke far longer than any contemporary congregation would choose to listen. 

His message was lengthy and his message has another, deeper, problem. Taken at face value, Moses seems to be saying that people who love and obey God will be blessed while those who do not love and obey God will be cursed. If you have read the book of Job, you know this is not always the way the story goes. In fact bad things happen to good people. And you, I am sure, can tell me stories about good things happening to people you would not refer to as particularly righteous. We can choose to love and obey God but beyond that so much is out of our control. 

Things don’t always work out the way we planned. In spite of our best efforts to be faithful, truthful, loving and kind- life can disappoint us and hurt us. We all live with questions about that. And we all look forward to our opportunity to ask God, face to face, why things are the way they are here in this reality.

My neighbor, Benjamin Liggett, is only sixteen years old but he has impressed me repeatedly. He’s easy to talk with, thoughtful and kind. He’s been nurtured well by his mothers. And he has the courage to nurture his own curiosity. He asks lots of questions.
Benjamin is a student at White Station High School and apparently a group of anti-abortion activists have been picketing there lately, standing on the sidewalk before and after school. They call themselves The Abolitionist Society of Memphis-MidSouth. One day this week Benjamin arrived at school and chose to engage the activists in conversation. He says he was just curious about what evidence they might site for their belief in God. The conversation, which was filmed by the activists and posted on their Facebook page, never turned to the issue of abortion. Benjamin asked questions about the existence of God and the adult activists did their best to belittle his curiosity. They told him there is no need to question God’s existence. They were patronizing toward his sincere exploration into their faith. If he didn’t buy their platitudes and empty phrases then he was simply someone who needed to be converted, someone who should be shoved into thinking the same way the activists were thinking. 

The video is posted on the Facebook page under this tag: “A self-professed atheist challenged a couple of abolitionists.” They say Benjamin rejected the gospel.  I am impressed, having watched the video, with how respectful Benjamin was in his attempts to connect, human to human, with those two men. When I asked Benjamin about the encounter he said, “I just couldn’t get through to them. It was annoying. I only wanted to know what evidence they have that God exists.” 

How hard is it for us, those of us who claim to live faithfully, to speak the truth? We have no real evidence, nothing that would stand up in court. What we have are longstanding relationships with tradition, spiritual disciplines, scripture, and a cloud of witnesses who have gone before us. We have our own experience with the one who created us and as we choose to engage with the creator, to love and obey God as best we can—we come to live in a meaningful partnership that increases the light of love around us. We are empowered in our best moments to be more patient, more compassionate, and more generous. But most moments are not our best moments. And there are no guarantees in life. And this is all we’ve got to offer the kids. So of course they’re going to ask us questions. 

Young people know that life is complicated and the answers to thorny questions are elusive. If faith is to be of any substance at all- then we must all be given permission to question, explore, experiment, learn, grow and develop. And we must feel respected along the way, reassured that God is with us, living in the questions and rejoicing in our courageous choices for life and love-- even in the face of our struggles to understand. 

In spite of our obedience and our love for God, things do not always work out the way we had planned.

Last Sunday Memphis lost one of its most faithful and memorable neighbors. Nina Katz passed away at the age of 89. David Waters wrote about her in the Commercial Appeal this week. A Holocaust survivor, Mrs. Katz became a voice for tolerance, diversity and literacy in Memphis. She was born in 1924 in Poland. In 1939, her parents, grandparents and younger sister were taken to Auschwitz concentration camp where they died. Nina was sent to a labor camp, a textile factory called Oberalstadt where she was among 800 survivors who were liberated by Allied troops in 1945.

Mrs. Katz said she had no idea why she survived. But she did. And she chose to make her survival count, make the remainder of her life meaningful.

Her family was all gone. But Mrs. Katz went to work for a United Nations organization helping people reunite with their families after the war. She met Morris Katz, a friend from her home town. They married and immigrated to the United States in 1949. They came to Memphis. To her horror, Mrs. Katz said, “I arrived at the peak of segregation in America and the familiarity was more than I could bear. I became immediately involved in equal rights among all people.”

She was one of the founders of “Diversity Memphis,” an organization dedicated to bringing people together regardless of their cultural, religious or racial differences. She gave speeches regularly at schools, churches and community events. She felt that it was her duty- to tell her own story so the stories of those to come after her might not include something as unspeakable as the Holocaust. 

Nina Katz chose life. She could have chosen bitterness and resentment. She could have hidden any light the work camp left inside her. She could have refused to ask any more questions of God or others. She could have chosen so many responses to all that she lost in those awful years. She chose life. And we in Memphis are so much better off because she was our neighbor, because of her choice.

In this most recent class of Prison Stories there was a woman, Tate, who has had long  and awful struggles with heroin addiction. Heroin is a lover, she told us, who will not go away. Once a person gets into a relationship with heroin, the high is something impossible to forget and almost impossible to stop pursuing. We listened to stories that involved the needle and its destructive consequences. 

Over the four months we spent together Tate grew more confident about herself and her future story.  She could look back and see the choices she had made and what those choices had cost her.  She looked into the future with hope—and understandably with some fear. Tate said it clearly, “There’s got to be something more in my future story than the next high. I’ve got to find a way to become the best woman I can be.”

She is choosing life.

As my neighbor, Benjamin, finishes high school and moves out into the world, I hope he will continue to ask questions. And I hope that the rest of us will be faithful in listening to his questions and learning from them. 

As we live our lives in the memory and the glow of Nina Katz’ witness among us, we long to be worthy of her commitment to our community. We long to be the best Memphis we can be, deserving of Mrs. Katz’ trust in us to carry the light and to tell our own stories.

You and I are the church. We come together this morning not as people who have all the answers. We come together today as people who need each other on the journey to the Promised Land. Courageous. Curious. Creative. We are a community of hope, free to choose life.