Huffington Post: I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People

I haven’t run out of salient points or evidence for my political perspective, but there is a particular stumbling block I keep running into when trying to reach across the proverbial aisle and have those “difficult conversations” so smugly suggested by think piece after think piece:

I don’t know how to explain to someone why they should care about other people.

Dragged into the Sunlight

This sermon was delivered at Peace Lutheran ELCA in Port Byron, Illinois on June 25, 2017. The scriptures for this sermon are Matthew 10:24-39 and Romans 6:1-11.

When I was little, thirty years ago or so, my family used to go to a restaurant called the Golden Gate. It was a diner kind of place, and I can remember with some fondness regularly getting what I’m sure was not-very-good chicken noodle soup and not-very-good hot dogs and not-very good crinkle cut french fries. Like so many things from childhood, it brings back good memories of things that probably weren’t as good as I think they were.

Being little, I didn’t always have good restaurant manners. And one day, I went to the bathroom and, since bathrooms have such good acoustics, I sang. There’s some debate over what I sang. I think it was Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler”. My brother, I think, thinks it was Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”. Either way, my brother — seven years older than me and therefore in the throes of teenage embarrassment — had to come get me. And everyone was mortified.

I hate that story. I think it’s the most embarrassing story ever in the history of the whole world.

My family loves that story. They think it’s cute. It’s the kind of story that I had to beg them not to tell people.

And I still hate it.

But I’m telling it to you for two reasons. First, I don’t live here. This is just a story that some guy filling in for your pastor is telling you. And I hope you’ll forget it sometime this afternoon.

Second, we all have stories like this. We all have stories that are the most embarrassing stories ever in the history of the whole world. And we all have stories that are worse. I have stories that are worse. We have all done things or said things or thought things that would leave the people who love us horrified.

And we don’t just have those stories as individuals. We have those stories as families, as communities, and as a nation. There are parts of our history we do not look at. They are hidden in the shadows of locked rooms in secret bunkers in the wastelands of forgetfulness. And there are parts of our present there, too.

So let me tell you another story. It isn’t a story about me, but it’s a story that is embarrassing to me; it’s a story that’s shameful for me. And it’s a story that I want you to remember.

A few years ago, a 20 year old Bangladeshi woman named Rehana Khatun went to work in a textile factory. The building she worked in hadn’t been built to handle the vibrations of hundreds of sewings machines day in and day out; and people who worked on the lower floors had noticed cracks forming in the walls. But the powerful apparel industry didn’t want building codes enforced, so they weren’t enforced. And Rehana couldn’t afford to lose her slighty-less-than-thiry-cents-an-hour, so she climbed the stairs and went to work.

And that day, the building collapsed. And Rehana was trapped under the rubble. And while she was one of the survivors, both of her legs had to be amputated. And now she can’t work.

Rehana is part of a lawsuit right now, suing a Canadian company whose supply chain went through that textile factory. Last year, a similar lawsuit against an American company was dismissed. The American company didn’t directly employ the workers who were killed or injured, so they didn’t have a ‘duty to care’.

That’s a hard story to hear. It’s embarrassing. It’s shameful. It’s sinful. But one of the reasons that so many products that we buy are so affordable is that the human costs of of producing them are paid by people like Rehana Khatun. Physically, those human costs are hidden in Bangladesh or China or Sudan. Mentally, they’re hidden in the shadows of locked rooms in secret bunkers in the wastelands of forgetfulness.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is sending out the disciples as missionaries. He’s already told them to preach the good news, to cure the sick and raise the dead and cleanse lepers and cast out demons. He’s already told them not to take much with them. He’s already told them not to worry about what to say.
And now we’re here. “A disciple is not above the master,” he tells them, “think about what they’ve said about me; they’ll say worse about you. But don’t be afraid. For nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.”

And I want to be clear: that’s a threat.

All of those things that we hide in the shadows of locked rooms in secret bunkers in the wastelands of forgetfulness are going to be dragged into the sunlight. That’s the kind of thing that sounds great when it’s about other people. I know there are people who would love to see the truth come out if it were the truth about Donald Trump or the truth about Hillary Clinton. We like to hear other people’s deep, dark, secret truths.

But it sounds a lot worse when it’s about us. It sounds worse when it’s the most embarrassing story ever in the history of the whole world. It’s a lot worse when it’s the truth about the role that we’ve played in Rehana Khatun’s life and the lives of millions — maybe even billions — of people like her.

And I’m sure that Peter and the two Jameses and Andrew and John and Philip and Bartholomew and Thomas and Matthew and Thaddeus and Simon and Judas — oh, especially Judas — all have things they would rather hide.

But more than a threat, it’s a promise. Justice happens in the light. Restoration happens in the light. Healing happens in the light.

Nothing will change as long as the stories of the people we hurt are kept safely in the shadows of locked rooms in secret bunkers in the wastelands of forgetfulness. It’s keeping those stories safely hidden that lets us continue as though nothing is wrong. It’s when we hear those stories that we can begin to act, that the world can change.

And that’s why I want you to remember Rehana Khatun’s story. It’s why I want you to remember Philando Castile’s story; killed by a police office during a routine traffic stop. It’s why I want you to remember Andrea Constand’s story; a victim of sexual assault by a well-loved celebrity. It’s why I want you to remember Lucas James’s story; a victim of the fire in Grenfell Tower in London. And I could go on.

Telling the stories of those for whom the world thought that it did not have a duty to care is part of the hard work of justice. And it is the first step on the road to healing.

But more than a promise, it’s good news.

In today’s reading from Romans, Paul writes, “All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. Therefore we have been buried with him. And if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. Our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.”

Or, as Jesus says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

God knows us. God knows all of the things that we keep in the shadows of locked rooms in secret bunkers in the wastelands of forgetfulness. And God loves us. God loves us just we are, with all of our baggage and all of our issues and all of our embarrassment and all of our shame. And God loves us enough to help us change.

I am no longer the little kid at the Golden Gate restaurant. We do not have to be a world where there are more Rehana Khatuns, or Philando Castiles, or Andrea Constands, or Lucas Jameses. Through Christ, we can die to sin and live for God, we can lose the life that sin demanded and live the life that Christ calls us to.

And the first step in doing that is taking those things that we have hoarded in the shadows of locked rooms in secret bunkers in the wastelands of forgetfulness, and dragging them into the sunlight, and letting them go.

And in Christ we can do just that. Even if it’s the most embarrassing story ever in the history of the whole world. Hallelujah. Amen.

The Atlantic: Escaping Poverty Requires Almost 20 Years With Nearly Nothing Going Wrong

And how is one to move up from the lower group to the higher one? Education is key, Temin writes, but notes that this means plotting, starting in early childhood, a successful path to, and through, college. That’s a 16-year (or longer) plan that, as Temin compellingly observes, can be easily upended. For minorities especially, this means contending with the racially fraught trends Temin identifies earlier in his book, such as mass incarceration and institutional disinvestment in students, for example. Many cities, which house a disproportionate portion of the black (and increasingly, Latino) population, lack adequate funding for schools. And decrepit infrastructure and lackluster public transit can make it difficult for residents to get out of their communities to places with better educational or work opportunities. Temin argues that these impediments exist by design.

Self-Sustainability Isn’t a Thing

There’s a buzzword that I keep hearing from colleagues in the social services sector: self-sustainability. If you gathered a bunch of professionals in one room and asked them what their primary mission is – not as individuals or organizations, but as social services agencies – my guess is that a lot of them would say, “To help the people we serve become self-sustaining (or self-sufficient or independent or whatever).”

And that’s strange to me. Because no one is self-sustainable.

Here’s a thought experiment to illustrate that point. Imagine, for a moment, that you are lost in the desert. How long would you survive? Probably not long. You aren’t self-sustaining. You need things like food, shelter, and water.

But let’s say that you had the skills to survive in the desert. You know how to get water from cacti (and which cacti it’s okay to get water from), how know which plants are edible and which ones aren’t, and you can use what’s around you to make a crude shelter. You still aren’t self-sustaining. You are dependent on the environment around you, as well as the people who taught you how to survive.

I am not lost in the desert right now (and, hopefully, neither are you). But I am dependent on a wide array of people and institutions. I’m dependent on by family, my employer, my landlord, the various companies from which I buy the things I need, the government services that make it possible for all of these things to operate, and so on. I am enmeshed in a complex web web of relationships. I am interdependent with others.

I am not self-sustainable. You are not self-sustainable. No one is self-sustainable.

Self-sustainability isn’t a thing.

We are all interdependent.

When people in social services sector say ‘self-sustainability’, what they mean is ‘interdependent in a way that I approve of’. That tends to mean, ‘interdependent in a more-or-less middle class way’: depending on their employer, on their landlord (or mortgage holder), on the companies from which they buy the things they need, and so on. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that (well, there are many things wrong with that, but that’s for another post, maybe). But when we call that form of interdependence ‘self-sustainability’, we hide the fact that it is interdependence. We make it look like it’s something else, like it’s independence. And, in turn, we make other ways of being interdependent look bad, like they’re being dependent.

And that helps us disguise the fact that we’re all relying on each other; that we’re all interdependent; that none of us is self-sustaining. It helps us, in other words, lie to ourselves about the nature of the world.

Yes, It’s Time to Change the Pattern of Giving

Excuse me while I get a little provincial.

My denomination, the United Church of Christ, adopted a fundraising policy known as the Pattern of Giving in 1968 (and revised it in 1984). The policy says, basically, that individual donors give to their local congregations. Local congregations then give to their conferences and associations (our middle judicatories). And the conferences and associations then give to our national setting. Dollars move nicely and evenly from the donor, through the local congregation, and on to other expressions and ministries of the United Church of Christ.

It’s a system that was never going to work over the long term. I find it a little hard to believe that it really worked in 1968 or 1984. As the New Ecology of Giving report points out, the Pattern of Giving was good at managing the flow of existing gifts; it was not (and is) not good at attracting new donors or developing relationships with existing donors.

There are three big problems with the Pattern of Giving.

First, local congregations are struggling financially. That means that there is less money available to pass on to conferences and associations and, eventually, to the national setting. As congregations continue to struggle, there is less and less money being passed on every year.

Second, many local congregations don’t really know what the conferences, associations, and national setting actually do. They don’t feel any significant connection to the denomination and its expressions, and so they don’t feel any real impulse to give. Congregations that are struggling financially simply aren’t going to support ministries that they don’t feel a connection to.

Third, I don’t know that many expressions of the United Church of Christ are really following the Pattern of Giving anyway. Certainly, church related institutions like health and human services ministries, camps, and seminaries have had to develop far more robust fundraising strategies than hoping that conferences give to them.

The Pattern of Giving needs to be replaced with strategies and practices that will help expressions of the United Church of Christ – from the smallest local church to the national setting – raise the money they need to realize their missions in the world. Two resolutions about the Pattern of Giving will come before the General Synod this year. I’m confident that these will be combined into a single resolution. I do not know whether that resolution will ask the denomination to lay aside the Pattern of Giving or to explore new options over the next few years. Either way, it is time for the Pattern of Giving to change. It is time for the United Church of Christ to adopt better and more faithful practices for fundraising.

Without Permission

This sermon was delivered at Union Congregational United Church of Christ in Moline, Illinois on June 4, 2017. The scripture for this sermon are Numbers 11:24-30 and Acts 2:1-21.

Some of you may know that I work for a mid-size nonprofit in Mississippi. And some of you may know that we work on a bunch of issues around poverty. Well, a few weeks ago, I was at a fundraising event and I talked about poverty and I met a guy who was in a similar line of work. And we were chatting after the event and he quoted Jesus to me: “The poor you will always have with you.”

I pushed back a little, but he was insistent: “The poor you will always have with you.”

What he meant, and he was very clear about this, was that Jesus had told us that there would always be poor people. What he meant was, on the one hand, that our work would always matter; and, on the other hand, that I had job security in the misery of others.

I rarely get to preach to the same congregation two weeks in a row, so I hope you’ll indulge me if I repeat a refrain that I used last week: we are small… and we have small imaginations.

Last week, I told the first part of a story.

The disciples had been through a lot. They had seen Jesus betrayed and arrested and denied and crucified and resurrected. And they stood before Jesus and asked, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?”

And Jesus replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father had set by his own authority. Power will come. You will be my witnesses.”

And he was lifted up, and a cloud passed by, and he was gone.

And now, it is Pentecost.

We know this story. There are some stories we hear every year, and this is one of them. The disciples are gathered together when a there’s a rush of wind and tongues of fire appear around them. And suddenly they are filled with the Holy Spirit and speaking in other languages. And the people of Jerusalem are amazed by this and someone says, “Eh. They’re drunk.”

Because, as I hope you are reminded every Pentecost, when you are drunk, you can speak other languages.

And Peter answers that accusation:

“We are not drunk,” he says, “it’s nine in the morning. What is happening now was foretold by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.’”

And he goes on for a bit. And three thousand people are baptized. Not bad for nine in the morning.

But if we focus on that, it’s easy to miss something important.

You see, Peter is doing something pretty gutsy. He’s saying to a crowd in Jerusalem, “Do you know this prophecy from Joel? That’s happening right now.” And I know there are people in the world today who don’t hesitate to say that kind of thing, but most of us are pretty careful. We don’t boldly and definitively interpret prophecy to other people.

And here’s the thing: Peter doesn’t really have permission to boldly and definitively interpret ancient prophecies to crowds in Jerusalem. He isn’t a rabbi. He isn’t a priest. He doesn’t have years of schooling. He hasn’t written a treatise on Joel or on the last days or anything like that. He’s just this guy who used to hang out with this troublemaker named Jesus. And a few minutes ago, people thought he was drunk at nine in the morning.

But here he is:

“What is happening now was foretold by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.’”

This has happened before.

When the Israelites came up out of Egypt and were wandering in the desert, they complained. Leading them was too heavy a burden for Moses. And he got so frustrated that he said to God, “Kill me, so I don’t have to deal with these people.”

And God responded by having Moses bring seventy elders together outside the camp in the meeting tent. God took the spirit that he had put on Moses and put some of it on the elders, and they prophesied. And, for just a while, they shared Moses’s burden.

But, there were also these two men. Eldad and Medad weren’t in the meeting tent. They were still in the camp. And the same spirit that God put on the seventy elders — the same spirit that God put on Moses — rested on them.

And they prophesied.

And someone told on them and one of the elders got upset. But Moses… thought it was kind of cool: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets,” he said, “and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

You see, here’s the thing about the Spirit. She isn’t confined to elders in a tent. She isn’t confined to rabbis and priests. She can go anywhere. She shows up where she’s needed. She can be with Eldad and Medad in the camp. She can be with the disciples in Jerusalem.

She can be with us… here and now. She can be pouring out, causing us to prophesy and see visions and dream dreams.

We are small and we have small imaginations. And, as I said last week, those small things that so many people want are important. They are powerful. They matter. Our heavens are so small we could make them right here, right now. And for some reason, that I have never really understood, we don’t.

And I wonder if the reason that we don’t is that we constantly have people telling us that making those little heavens is reserved for elders in a meeting tent.

I wonder if the reason that we don’t is that we constantly have people telling us that making those little heavens is reserved for priests or preachers or politicians.

I wonder if the reason that we don’t is that we constantly have people telling us that making those little heavens is reserved for scholars or saints or saviors.

I wonder if the reason that we don’t make those little heavens — even my little heaven, where everyone has enough money and food and housing and all of these pesky little problems are solved — is that we constantly have people telling us that making those little heavens is reserved for someone else.

And I wonder when we’ll learn to reject that idea.

Last week I told the first part of a story:

The disciples had seen Jesus betrayed and arrested and denied and crucified and resurrected. And they stood before Jesus and asked, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?”

And Jesus replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father had set by his own authority. Power will come. You will be my witnesses.”

And he was lifted up, and a cloud passed by, and he was gone.

But today it is Pentecost. It is the birthday of the church. The Holy Spirit has come and filled us and made us into Christ’s body here and now.

And that power isn’t just for the elders. That privilege isn’t just for the disciples. That burden isn’t just for Moses. That responsibility isn’t just for priests. No one has a monopoly on prophecy. No one has a monopoly on visions. No one has a monopoly on dreams.

No one has a monopoly on generosity or hospitality or love. No one is alone in this work. All of us can do something.

I don’t know if the poor will always be with us. Maybe, in the end, God has to come in power and glory and make a new heaven and a new earth and we’ll all just be standing there watching the miracle unfold.

But, in the meantime, I will trust that God has given me — has given us — the power to bring the world a little closer to the world that God wants. A world of abundance and generosity and wholeness. A world of shalom.

Hallelujah, Amen.