Sunday, June 29, 2014

Welcome Outside the Walls

Psalm 13
Matthew 10:40-42
Preached for Holy Trinity Community Church
June 29, 2014

Jesus is talking to his specially selected disciples in this short Gospel text from Matthew.  The entire tenth chapter records a speech Jesus gave to the gathered disciples. He gave them authority to cast out unclean spirits and the power to cure every disease. He sent his selected disciples out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Jesus refers to them as prophets, righteous ones and little ones. Those who welcome them, giving even a cup of cold water, will not lose their reward.

Although the disciples were given authority over unclean spirits and the power to cure any disease it is interesting to note that they were apparently not given the capacity to over-ride any lack of hospitality on the part of other people. The disciples would have to lean on the hope that somebody, anybody, whenever and wherever they carried the good news, would open their hearts and their homes to receive them graciously. And, as you can well imagine, some did and some did not receive those disciples graciously.

What is it about us as human creatures? What slams the door and closes us off from truly encountering one another?

We read the 13th Psalm and it is clear that fear and dread of our enemies is not a new thing. “How long, O Lord, shall my enemy be exalted over me?” I wouldn’t want to dismiss or minimize the reality that we live among people who are not worthy of our trust. There are good reasons for locking our doors and using good judgment about who we allow in the house.

Anna and I were in Washington DC this past week and we visited the Holocaust Museum. Cruelty is real and terrible. The level of cruelty inflicted on others at the hands of the Nazi regime was awful, painful and infuriating. Six million people died. It’s the agony they endured before their death and the terror that the survivors and the liberators witnessed…that leaves us wondering: What happens to us as human creatures? What slams the door and closes us off from truly encountering one another?

Rush Dozier, Jr. has written a book, Why We Hate, and he makes it clear that hate is born from fear and it is irrational when humans hate each other. The fear comes from a feeling that survival is threatened in some way. To combat irrational fear of the other person, Dozier suggests programs that mix people of diverse backgrounds in a positive setting where unique individual qualities can be seen and shared. I would suggest that storytelling circles are a very helpful tool for breaking down the fear that generates hate and dangerous prejudice.

In his book Dozier reminds us of the terrible dragging death of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas. The shocked citizens of that small Texas town, a population of only eight thousand, tried to follow some of Dozier’s strategies for righting what had obviously gone terribly wrong. Black and white people got together and went through an intense period of community soul-searching. While some worked on reconciliation, the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers were also meeting in the town, calling for new members and more divisive action. Those groups were largely ignored. A series of vigils were held in memory of James Byrd. Crowds came to the lawn of the courthouse and people began to look at each other. They started listening to each other. They made it their business to know each other as neighbors and friends.

In January 18, 1999, the mayor of Jasper and a large committed crowd gathered in the city cemetery. They watched as workers tore down a long, rusty iron fence. For seventy-five years that fence had separated the graves of black people from the graves of white people. A barrier came down and people resolved to work on their relationships, their faith in one another and their trust that human life is valuable and dignified by the love of God within us. We are no longer a threat to each other when we realize how much each one of us has to offer the other. That kind of realization takes time, effort and the courage to change.

Jesus sent his disciples out to share what they had been given: the good news that God is love and all human life is dignified by the love of God within us. Jesus urged his disciples to go where people live, learn to know them where they met them and to be sure that, when they were welcomed, to realize this as a generous extension of God’s love and welcome, a gift, a joy, something worthy of reward.

What are we afraid of losing if we actually welcome the stranger in? Sitting here in this warm and welcoming church building among friends it is easy for us to imagine that we are the good guys, the ones who would open the door widely to learn something new. We would allow for a new relationship to be born. Because in this place and in this hour of worship we are feeling welcomed ourselves, grateful for a place to belong, a place where we are known and valued. Here we feel safe.

Anna, and I enjoy watching real estate programs on television. It’s good TV while we eat dinner. House Hunters are led from place to place by real estate agents. We watch couples search for a home that meets their list of requirements. Until I started watching all these HGTV shows I was unaware that double sinks in the master bathroom are a must-have.  I have discovered the concept of the “man-cave” by watching HGTV. And I am constantly amazed at all the twenty-somethings who get their first job, get married and seriously expect to move into a 5 bedroom home with an open floor plan, a three car garage and an outdoor kitchen for entertaining. All of these homes have guest rooms, fully furnished and nicely appointed. And even so—with all this space, all this focus on entertaining and a room that is designated for guests –we have become, as a society, more and more closed off to the other. It’s interesting. And it’s a hard pattern to shake and shift toward greater hospitality.

The church has not been helpful in breaking down the walls. As an institution, the church has done its share of contributing to the shut down and shut out of the other. Certainly from that day in the year 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 these on the front door of the parish church in Wittenberg, there has been a clear divide: them and us. They wait to be told by the priest what the Bible says and what it means.  But we read the Bible for ourselves and interpret it for ourselves. And so on and so on the divisions go. We construct reason after reason to build these walls of separation. And that’s the way we do church behind our walls of brick and mortar. We feel safe with our little family inside here.

Let's be clear...Jesus sent his disciples out to meet people, to spread good news. He didn't say, "Go forth and build brick buildings. Invest all your money in heating and cooling huge structures. Plan on spending large portions of your budget on upkeep."

I think it’s time for us to shake things up and shift our way of being together toward a more generous welcome, a ready hospitality. I think it’s time for the church to act less afraid of difference, change and the challenges of being human together under the roof of God’s love.

David Waters wrote an interesting column for yesterday’s Commercial Appeal. He informed us that Islam is now the second-largest religion in all the southern states except for South Carolina. Waters says, “What an astounding and outstanding development in Southern hospitality, although not everyone is feeling particularly hospitable about it.” Christians in Middle Tennessee had to be reminded by the U.S. Supreme Court to read the first amendment when Muslim neighbors started building a mosque in Murfreesboro.

Memphis has a friendlier story in terms of its hospitality. The seventh house of prayer here in Memphis has opened its doors at the corner of Bill Morris Parkway and Hacks Cross. Dr. Mohammed Assaf, a member of the Islamic Association of Greater Memphis, says, “We are blessed to have good neighbors. The interfaith community here is very strong. We know each other, like each other and trust each other.”

Part of that trust comes as a result of the Annual Ramadan Dinner hosted by the Islamic Association. People from all over town, all races from all walks of life and from all faiths sit down together and eat. I think there were 800 people at the feast last year. We share a table experience. We talk to each other, ask questions and learn about one another.  On July 13th we will gather again. For the eighth year, we will be welcomed to a feast provided by the Islamic Association.

Lately I have realized that one way we could chip away at racism’s fear and hate would be to rebel against the pattern of inviting only people of our own race over to dinner. Eating together breaks down barriers and shines light on the love that lives within us all. Racism remains a strong wall that divides us only as long as we do not eat together, for as long as we do not share our homes with each other and do not come to know the life stories of the other. Effective anti-racism efforts involve the intimacy of our own homes and our own tables. Public encounters are not nearly as effective as private encounters.

The real work of the church has left the building. We can claim to be a welcoming church but how welcoming is it when we insist that the other has to find us, get transportation and arrive at our door and walk inside the walls that we have constructed and claimed? We can stand at the doors of this worship space and smile as brightly as possible. We can shake hands and hug every person who comes to the door. We can give away excellent coffee and donuts on Sunday morning. But as long as it is just us coming in the door we are not growing…not personally and not in our faith.  Until we leave the building we are stagnating, withering and dying. I am looking forward to the day when the walls of the church, with all of its barriers, come tumbling down.

If that sounds  disastrous to you then I might remind you how we all come together in times of disaster. Differences disappear and we work side by side as one family when we experience disaster.

Outside the walls we stand--vulnerable and filled only with the promise and power of God’s love within us— we can meet the other face to face and share the good news that all of us are vulnerable and all of us need each other to become fully human. When barriers come down people can resolve to work on their relationships, their faith in one another and their trust that human life is valuable and dignified by the love of God within us.


Sunday, June 8, 2014

Ring the Bells

Preached at Neshoba Unitarian Church
Cordova, TN
June 8, 2014

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”

From “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen

I’ve said it so many times and I feel the need to say it again: It is challenging and often very difficult to be a human being.  I look at my cat, Alex, lying in a circle of sunlight on the floor and I know he isn’t concerned with climate change, violence against women and the problem of racism in our justice and corrections systems. Alex never worries about getting the oil changed in the car and he is totally unconcerned about his security when it comes to retirement. But we, as human beings, have all of these concerns on our minds and we tend to feel overwhelmed or indifferent. The flood of information is so much that we drown in it sometimes, even those of us with the highest educations and the best intentions. 

That’s why I keep telling stories. Because in the moments when I am telling a story, I am not struggling. I am not worried. I am not confused or frustrated. I am simply being myself and “ringing the bell that still can ring.” It may not be perfect. My stories are certainly not powerful enough to put an end to violence against women but the stories are the bell that I ring and it keeps me centered, motivated and hopeful.

In the five years that have gone by since I was the Religious Educator here at Neshoba Unitarian Church, I have spent much of my time in jail. I went to Shelby County’s jail for women to tell stories and to listen to the stories of women who are serving time there. I went to listen to them because I wanted to find a hungry place, a place where people thirst for a chance to be noticed, heard and valued.

I have been disrespected and dismissed in my life. I know that kind of pain and I went to the jail to listen to stories because I have learned how much healing happens when people listen to my stories. There is freedom in the experience of face to face respectful storytelling. Freedom. Even in jail, human beings can be liberated to be the best human being they can possibly be—when light comes in through the cracks. 

Each one of us has the power to liberate and to be liberated—to the extent that we do what we can with what we’ve been given to make the world a better place.

In 1961, Clarence Gideon, a poor man in Florida, petitioned the United States Supreme Court. Gideon was in jail in Raiford, Florida and serving time for breaking into a pool hall. He was poor and poorly educated, a drifter with a criminal record. He couldn’t afford an attorney.  Clarence Gideon thought that was unfair and he claimed it was unconstitutional for a man to be denied legal counsel because of his inability to pay. 

Until recently I would have guessed that the law in the United States of America has always provided legal counsel to the poor. But (to put it into context) I was nine years old at the time Gideon wrote his letter.  It is very recent in our nation’s history that legal counsel has been guaranteed to the poor among us.

The letter was written with a pencil and in big block letters. It was processed and given the respect it deserved. But Gideon was not the first person to claim the right to counsel regardless of inability to pay. Twenty years earlier (1942) in Betts vs Brady the Supreme Court had ruled that the constitution did not guarantee counsel in state criminal cases. 

“But the Supreme Court never speaks with absolute finality when it interprets the constitution. From time to time the high court overrules its own decisions. Clarence Gideon, from his jail cell in Florida, was asking the Supreme Court to change its mind.”
Anthony Lewis/ Gideon’s Trumpet

And they did. We now have public defenders, attorneys who focus on cases where indigent citizens are in need of counsel. The Shelby County Public Defenders are bright, dedicated, and good humored. They are overloaded with cases; and determined to do the best they can for every one of them.

Because Clarence Gideon rang his bell—doggedly determined to be noticed and heard—our public defenders are out there ringing their bells and letting light shine into so many otherwise dark places. The needs are enormous and the problems are complicated.

According to a recent feature story on CNN, there are about as many people behind bars in this nation as there are people in the city of Chicago. One in every 108 citizens is locked up and living under supervision. According to the NAACP, one in three black males born in the United States today is likely to spend time in prison at some point in his life. That’s compared with one in six Hispanic males or one in twenty-five white males.  More than two million of our neighbors are locked up right now in some prison cell and-- because we do very little to encourage and educate them while they are incarcerated-- far too many of them will return to jail within a few years after their release.

This kind of information is discouraging. It’s the kind of information that can leave us feeling overwhelmed and helpless. I want to point out that feeling overwhelmed and helpless is as much a trap, a prison cell, as any iron bars can be. To throw up our hands in despair is to trap ourselves, silence the bells and turn out the lights.

It costs on average $47,000 a year to keep an inmate in jail. But what would it cost us to help somebody in jail? What would we have to give up in order to liberate one human life? And what would we gain if we set ourselves free from the belief that there’s nothing I can do about the crisis of mass incarceration?

Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, is an excellent read and an eye-opener. In her last chapter she says, “It is this failure to care, really care across color lines that lies at the core of this system of control and at the core of every racial caste system that has existed in the United States or anywhere else in the world.” 

I know you care. I know this congregation well enough to know that I am preaching to the choir here. It is my hope that my words today might inspire one or some of you to go to jail and ring the bells that still can ring. Contact the volunteer coordinator and volunteer to be a literacy tutor. Help somebody earn their GED. Start a book group. Teach a craft or an art. Set up a series of lectures in which eight of you talk to the inmates about your own careers and how you got where you are, what matters to you in life. Give someone a chance to play a keyboard, to sing a song, to write a poem. Call the office of the Shelby County Public Defenders and ask one of them to give you a name for one of their clients, somebody who needs a friend, somebody who currently has nobody coming to jail on visiting day.  It’s not what you do that matters so much. It’s doing something that will make a difference.

Clarence Gideon was a poor man, poorly educated and incarcerated. He wrote a letter with a pencil and he mailed that simple communication to Washington DC. And because he did something—we now have public defenders for all of us in this country. 

I met Carolyn while she was serving time in our county jail. A short and round African American woman. Thirty-seven years old when I met her. Carolyn has spent most of her life around North Memphis. Sometimes she lived with her mother in an apartment or in the home of a friend or relative. Sometimes she lived on her own on the streets. She started prostituting at the age of thirteen. Dropped out of school. Fell in love with crack cocaine. No one urged her to stick with her formal education. She learned how to survive by the strength of her own body and spirit. 

She chose to join us in Prison Stories class. For four months she sat in the circle with me and eleven other women in the jail. Carolyn told stories about her life. Some of them were so funny we slapped our knees and laughed til we cried. Some of her stories were frightening, so frightening it made me see the world through different eyes when I left the jail and headed for home. Her stories opened windows on worlds I had never seen, places and people not far from my home but previously invisible to me. 

At the close of our time together and at the performance of the class stories, I called Carolyn up to the front and gave her the certificate of completion she had earned.  She turned to the gathered audience of incarcerated women, family members, jail staff and community guests. She held that certificate up high over her head and she announced, “I took this class because I wanted to tell my story to somebody. And somebody listened. Ms Elaine and my sisters listened to what I been through and I saw the truth. I used to think I was a bad girl, a fast girl. I used to think weren’t no hope for somebody like me. But now I told my story and I can see… I ain’t no bad girl. I ain’t no fast girl. I am a girl what had bad things done to me and I can get over that. I can be free.”

And so can we all. So can we all.

“There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”