Rewriting Sermons

A while ago, I was having trouble with a sermon that I was working on. I had read the scripture carefully and I had a message that I wanted to deliver, but the words just weren’t coming. Every story I tried to tell felt wrong. Every sentence’s feel was just a little off. And, weirdly, it all seemed very familiar. I kept feeling like I had delivered this sermon before… so why wasn’t it working now?

So I went back and checked the sermons I had given in the past. And it turned out that I had given this sermon before. Or, at least, I had given a sermon that used the same scriptures and had the same basic theme that I was trying for in the one that I was working on. And I was faced with an unpleasant choice: should I scrap the one I was struggling with and look for a different angle on these scriptures… or should I scrap the one I was struggling with and just use the old one?

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A little background might be useful here. Before I was a pastor, there were usually two reasons I would preach. One was plain old pulpit supply. When a local pastor had an emergency or was just on vacation, they would call me in to lead worship. The other was for my job with Back Bay Mission. I would book preaching gigs where I could use the sermon to preach the gospel and tell people about the Mission’s work. Either way, I almost always used the texts from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for whatever Sunday I was preaching.

The RCL provides several texts for every Sunday and rotates through a three-year cycle. So the RCL readings in 2015 and the RCL readings in 2018 are identical. But I don’t always use all of the readings for any given Sunday. In fact, I almost never use all of the readings; I use one or two for the sermon, and maybe base the call to worship off of the psalm of the day. So there’s a bit of a coincidence here: not only did I happen to preach on the same Sunday in 2015, but I choose the same scriptures from the RCL suggested readings!

Now, I pride myself in never delivering the same sermon twice. That’s part of why I use the RCL. It would have been easy enough to have one or two Back Bay Mission sermons and one or two other sermons and just recycled them again and again. But I wasn’t preaching that often (eight sermons in 2015), and writing a sermon usually isn’t a big challenge for me. Moreover, the sermon that I gave in 2015 was a Mission sermon. And while I sometimes mention the Mission in a sermon in my current position, a lot of it wouldn’t have made sense if I just grabbed this sermon and delivered it again. Giving the same sermon wasn’t an option.

But then I thought a little bit about how music works.

I’m not a professional musician, but I do play the saxophone. And I practice several times a week (and even every day when that works for my schedule). And the fact is that it would never occur to me to play a tune once—either in the practice room or for a performance—and then put it away and never play it again. Instead, I work on a single tune for ages. I learn the melody, I learn to hear the chord changes so that I can solo over them, I listen to recordings of other people playing the same tune, I analyze the harmonies. My goal isn’t to get through the tune, it’s to really learn it, deep down.

I play the same tune over and over again. I never play it the same way twice, but I keep what works and get rid of what doesn’t. A certain phrase might show up in many solos, while another phrase only shows up once. I revise and refresh. Constantly. Every time I play the tune.

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And realizing that made me wonder: why don’t I do that with sermons? In fact, why am I so resistant to the idea of taking an old sermon that’s been lying around—maybe even for three years or so—and reworking it, keeping what works and getting rid of what doesn’t, revising and refreshing? Note that I am not suggesting simply reusing the same sermon. But why not take something that worked once and see if I can make it work better?

Of course, there are challenges to doing that. As I wrote above, I’ve been using the Revised Common Lectionary, which means that I only get the same texts once every three years. And this spring, I’m planning on switching to the Narrative Lectionary, which runs on a four year cycle! But… the Narrative Cycle doesn’t have any prescribed readings during the summer, which opens up some options. Maybe I could take a Sunday or two during the summer to rework an old sermon.

Or maybe not. Preaching isn’t the practice room or a gig. But surely we shouldn’t just let old sermons lie around collecting dust. There must be some way to reconsider, rework, and revive the work we’ve put into them.

Shouts of Joy. Cries of Mourning.

Mariah and I had a pulpit exchange this week, with her preaching at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, and me preaching at Church of Peace United Church of Christ in Rock Island, Illinois. That means that I don’t have a recording this week. And that the sermon is a little more directly about Church of Peace.

There used to be a building over on 9th street. It had a stone foundation and a wooden exterior and stone stairs leading up to its doors. And on top of the building was a… I don’t know the right term… a cupola, maybe?

It wasn’t a big building. It wasn’t an impressive building. But people made memories there. There were births and deaths, baptisms and confirmations, weddings and meetings. There were good mornings over handshakes, and conversations over coffee, and community dinners and casseroles.

And on Sunday mornings, some folks from an immigrant community gathered together. And they worshipped in their native language. And they called themselves the Deutsche Evangelische Friedens Gemeinde.

There’s this song where a man walks around his neighborhood and remembers how things used to be. He remembers an ex-lover, and he sees the ways that the buildings have changed, and he thinks: I’ve ascribed these monuments / A false sense of permanence / I’ve placed faith in geography / To hold you in my memory.

Buildings aren’t just places where we meet; they aren’t just places where we keep our stuff. They’re places where we store our memories.

And our reading from Ezra, in its full context, really should begin with these words: once upon a time.

Once upon a time, God travelled with the Israelites, alongside the Ark of the Covenant. And then the Israelites settled down. And they conquered a city called Jerusalem. And Solomon built a temple. And it was an amazing temple.

There were great outer courts, with an altar for burnt offerings and baths where the priests could be purified.

There was a Holy Place: a long room with cedar walls and fir-wood floors and olive wood doors. And all around that room were carvings of cherubim and palm trees and flowers. And they were overlaid with gold.

And beyond the Holy Place was the Holy of Holies. It was a cubic room, about 30 feet by 30 feet by 30 feet, with cedar floors and wainscoting, overlaid with gold. And there were two huge cherubim stretching across the room. And in the middle was the Ark of the Covenant.

And people made memories there. There were dedications and sacrifices and festivals. Surely God lived in this temple!

And then the Babylonians came. There were arrows and swords and slings. There was fire and blood. They razed Jerusalem to the ground. They destroyed a temple that had stood for centuries. They carted the people off into exile.

In today’s reading, we are 70 years after Solomon’s temple was destroyed. Persia has defeated Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to their homes, and to Jerusalem, and to rebuild. And a couple of years later, they laid the foundation for a new temple.

And when they laid the foundation, the priests blew their trumpets and the Levites clanged their cymbals, and there was a great cry. Many people shouted with joy. But there were others. There were people who had seen the old temple in all its glory, and some of them wept with a loud voice. And no one could tell the cries of joy from the cries of sorrow.

Yeah… I know that feeling.

Most of you know that Mariah and I went to seminary together. We met in the courtyard. We lived in the same apartment building. We had classes in the same rooms. Our first jobs after seminary were in the development office and the admissions office. We were married in the chapel.

And today… today the seminary building where Mariah and I made our memories is the Gary Becker-Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics. The chapel where we said our vows is a lounge.

That seminary is in a new building. I’ve been there. It’s cool. It’s LEED certified. It’s fully accessible. It has a beautiful chapel with lots of natural light. It has smart classrooms. And I am happy for the students who get to learn there.

But it’s not where I was married. It isn’t where I took classes. The steps don’t have the little worn out bits where students climbed them before me. It isn’t a home. At least, it isn’t a home for me. Buildings are where we store our memories, and mine are carefully packed away in the Gary Becker-Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics.

I know what it is for the shouts of joy and cries of mourning to rise up inside me. I know how it feels when they get so intermingled that you can’t tell the difference.

There used to be a building over on 9th street. It was a small building. The kitchen was in the coal room. And it was too small for the Deutsche Evangelische Friedens Gemeinde to grow. So they sold it to the B’nai B’rith and they built a building here at the corner of 12th and 12th. The architect chose a Byzantine revival style, with rounded arches and a dome. And, over the years, the church grew: a parsonage, an education wing, a little chapel off the sanctuary, new organs.

And I know that there were should of joy when the new buildings went up. But I can’t help but wonder if there weren’t some people in the crowd thinking, “This isn’t where we celebrated my wedding,” or, “This isn’t where my son was baptized,” or, “This isn’t where we held my mother’s funeral.”

Buildings are where we store our memories, and there must have been people whose memories were carefully packed up in a little building over on 9th street. There must have been people who cried… just a little.

Buildings are where we store our memories… and losing a building is hard, even when it’s replaced by something new and shiny and amazing. And we don’t even have to lose a building all at once. I don’t think that any of you are old enough to remember when this building was new, but some of you might remember the educational wing. Or you might remember when something was a little newer than it was now.

And that has its own kind of sadness. The carpet gets worn down. The wood of the pews changes character. The cushions get torn and stained. You open a hymnal to find a doodle on the same page as “Joy to the World.”

It’s easy to wish for the day when the old was new, and for all of our memories to be neatly packed away in a nice shiny place.

But here’s the thing. Our memories aren’t packed in boxes. They are encoded in the marks that we leave on a place.

The carpet is worn down because we walked on it… whether we were processing in for a wedding, or an ordination, or a funeral, or with the choir, or even if we were just walking on it on the day-to-day.

The wood of the pews changes its character because we touched it and the oils from our hands got rubbed in.

The cushions are torn and stained by moving bodies, and wax from Christmas Eve candles, and a thousand other things.

The doodles are on hymnal pages because… there are children.

Each of us leaves our mark—usually in ways that we can’t even see—and the community of the faithful keeps changing.

Sometimes, we change because we have to leave a building behind. The ancient Israelites were forced from their home; and when they came back, they had to build again.

Sometimes, we change because we choose to leave a building behind. We were once the faithful who met over on 9th street, in a building with a stone foundation and a wooden exterior and stone stairs leading up to the doors and a cupola maybe. And our ancestors in the faith moved here so that there would be space for new memories.

And now we are the faithful who meet on the corner of 12th and 12th, in a building where we have made memories; in a building where we have left our marks alongside the marks of people who have left us.

And who knows? Maybe we will stay here and those who come after us will leave their marks alongside ours. Or maybe we will go somewhere else and make room for new memories. Or maybe someone will come along after us and clean some of our marks away only to add new ones.

But no matter what, I know this. Change—maybe not all change, but a lot of change—brings shouts of joy and cries of sorrow. Among all of us and in each of us. As we mourn who we were and wait for who we will be.

And I also know this. In all that joy and all that mourning—in all that bravery and all that fear—God is leading us into new worlds that we could not imagine. The people who saw Solomon’s temple fall didn’t know what exile would bring. And the people who returned home with Ezra didn’t know what that would mean. The people who travelled across an ocean to what was then the middle-of-nowhere-Illinois didn’t know what that would mean. The people who left a little building over on 9th street didn’t know what that would mean.

And we do not know what is to come. But we can have the same faith as those people who saw the foundation for the second temple be laid: God is good, and his steadfast love endures forever. Hallelujah. Amen.

A Blind Workforce and Problem Solving

A while ago, my local NBC affiliate ran a news story about the Northeastern Association of the Blind at Albany (NABA). The story focused on NABA’s manufacturing program, which employees blind people, other visually impaired people, and sighted people. More specifically, the story focused on that program’s work making safety vests and neck tabs for women’s military uniforms; work that involves both sewing and ironing. The story makes it clear that there are challenges to this—the sewing machines need minor accommodations, and at least one of the employees was a little worried about using the iron when she started—but that it is also an important program in a population with a 70% unemployment rate.

And I like a few things about this program:

First, it’s just awesome to provide blind and other visually impaired people with meaningful work.

Second, the jobs that it provides don’t seem like stereotypical jobs for blind and visually impaired people, though on reflection I have no idea what the stereotypical jobs would be. Giving people jobs that don’t fit into a stereotypical mold helps show that those people can do more than sighted people often think that they can.

Third, NABA makes sure that blind, visually impaired, and sighted people work together, and that kind of integration is important.

But the fourth is the most important: NABA actually solved the problem that they set out to solve. That’s not exactly right: the blind and visually impaired community still has a very high unemployment rate and NABA hasn’t solved that problem. But what I mean is that NABA decided to approach unemployment in the community in a straightforward way: by hiring people.

Too often, when we try to solve big social problems—especially when they’re related to things like employment and poverty—we try to solve them from the edges. We create classes that teach people ‘soft skills’ or budgeting or how to manage a checking account. NABA also offers programs like that, but when they saw that blind and visually-impaired people needed jobs, they started providing jobs.

And that’s important. As I’ve written elsewhere, organizations that work with people living in poverty often get the direction of causation wrong. They think that some maladaptive behaviors cause poverty. And while they’re not wrong in every case, it’s also true that poverty causes maladaptive behaviors. In fact, it’s more likely that poverty will cause maladaptive behaviors than vice versa. And that means that trying to fix the behavior without directly addressing the poverty is a lot harder; and that addressing the poverty will probably also fix the behavior.

In other words, if the problem is that someone is unemployed, it is probably more helpful to just give them a job—even if that requires some accommodation—than to focus on soft skills or budgeting or whatever.

NABA’s approach is the right one: if blind and visually impaired people need jobs, the best approach is to give them jobs.

Now we just need to approach the broader unemployment and underemployment problems the same way: create employment opportunities, give people jobs.

The Big Table

 

I listen to a lot of podcasts and a lot of NPR. They’re nice things to have on when I’m driving, or in the background when I’m writing, or to pay attention to when I’m doing yard work.

And I listen to the news sometimes. Other times, it’s stuff that’s funny and relaxing: Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me or Ask Me Another or The History of Fun.

But, the last couple of weeks, everything has been less funny and less relaxing. The podcasts and NPR, the evening news, the conversations, the social media feeds… everything has been about a Supreme Court nominee and a woman—multiple women, really—who have accused him of sexual misbehavior and sexual assault.

And it isn’t the beginning of that conversation. The story of this nomination is part of a bigger story that’s been ebbing and flowing through our national discourse. The stories of #metoo are stories that we’ve needed to tell and that we’ve needed to hear. And we’ve been hearing them a lot over the last couple of weeks.

And, I’ll tell you, I don’t want to start a sermon with a Supreme Court nomination. I’d much rather start with a story about Hildegard. But when you have the bible open in your web browser and Pod Save America playing in iTunes… well, sometimes you hear God calling you.

And I know that it’s on the minds of people sitting in this sanctuary. You have talked about it in the prayers of the people. We have prayed for Judge Kavanaugh and we have prayed for Dr. Ford. And we have prayed for the people who have listened to their testimony, or who have listened to the news, and who have heard the echoes of their own stories.

So we start here, with these words from the Epistle to the Hebrews: you are crowned with glory and honor. And that’s another way of saying, at least a little bit, you are loved and you are worthy of love.

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, in the United States, one in three women, and one in six men, will be the victim of sexual violence in their lifetime. It is worse for people who are transgender, genderqueer, or gender nonconforming. Look at the people around you. Do the math.

Over the last couple of weeks, countless men and women—and more women than men—have heard their own stories echoed in the news. Some have had to relive those stories. Some have been called to tell their stories. Some have longed to hear the words of the church: you are crowned with glory and honor, you are loved and you are worthy of love.

And, as the church, we have a responsibility to show those survivors of sexual violence that they—that you—are crowed with glory and honor; that they—that you—are loved and worthy of love.

But it doesn’t end there.

Statistics on perpetrators are hard to find. But I know that there are some men—and some women—who have heard the stories in the news or read the stories on their social media, and who have started reviewing their own lives. Some people are obvious perpetrators. More people are asking if they crossed a line, if a moment was really consensual, if they hurt people they cared about, if they failed to care when they should have.

Some of us have had things happen to us that have broken our hearts. Some of us have done things that have broken our souls.

And here we are, on World Communion Sunday.

Today, churches around the world are celebrating communion together: churches who celebrate communion once a day, or once a week, or once a month, or once a quarter, or every-so-often.

And I know that I like to say that this is the biggest table. And what I mean is that this table in this sanctuary is one corner of a great table that stretches through time and space, a great table that we share with Christians around the world and through the ages.

We come to this table and join the earliest Christians in the upper room. We come to this table and join people who will be baptized generations from now.

We come to this table and eat the feast that Christ prepares for us again and again. And we do that together.
And that is terrifying.

We come to this table and eat the feast that Christ prepares for us again and again. And we do that together. And that is terrifying. Click To Tweet

We come to this table to eat with psychopaths and thieves and murderers. I am eating at this table with the kids who made fun of me in school, and the boss who made me cry at work, and the teacher who punished me for something I did not do…

…and people who hurt me in ways that are so much worse. People who have hurt me in ways that have broken my heart. And if they are not at the table themselves, then someone like them is.

And we come to this table to eat with the victims of our sins. I am eating at this table with the panhandler who I told I didn’t have any change, and the underpaid textile worker who made my shirt, and the child who mined the cobalt for the battery in my phone…

…and people who I have hurt in ways that are so much worse. People who I have hurt in ways that have broken my soul. And if they are not at the table themselves, then they are present in Christ.

This is a hard table. I am here with my friends… and my enemies… and my victims.

And I will tell you: there are times when my broken heart makes me wonder if I am worthy of eating at this table, let alone serving at it. Because I know that when I look across this table—this table that stretches through time and space—I see the faces of people who hurt me and who I cannot forgive.

And there are times when my broken soul makes me wonder if I am worthy of eating at this table, let alone serving at it. Because I know that when I look across this table—this table that stretches through time and space—I see the faces of people who I have hurt and who I do not believe can or should forgive me.

And yet…

In our reading from Hebrews today, the author of that epistle tells us the story of our faith. God used to speak to us through prophets. And now God has spoken to us through a Son, the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. Who became like us. Who gave up his privilege to be one of us. Who suffered and died like us.

And who was raised. Who is crowned with glory and honor. Who is the pioneer of our salvation. Who calls us brother and sister and friend and neighbor. Who invites us into the Kingdom of God.

And when I say us… I mean all of us. Even you. Even me.

Our faith is not an easy faith. It is a faith begun in the crisis of suffering and death. It is a faith brought to life with the resurrection of our Lord. It is a faith forged in the crucible of persecution.

It is a faith where we see, with terrible clarity, that we are both slaves to sin and redeemed by Christ. And it is a faith where we see, with terrible clarity, that the same is true of our friends… and our enemies… and our victims.

It is a faith where we have to look Christine Blasey Ford in her eyes, and remind her that she is crowned with glory and honor, that she is loved and worthy of love. And where we say to her, this is the body of Christ, broken for you.

It is a faith where we have to look Brett Kavanaugh in his eyes, and remind him that he is crowned with glory and honor, that he is loved and worthy of love. And where we say to him, this is the new covenant in Christ’s blood, poured out for you.

Our faith is not an easy faith. It is a faith where we know that our hearts have been broken by the things that have happened to us, and where we know that our souls have been broken by the things that we have done.

Our faith is not an easy faith. It is a faith where we know that our hearts have been broken by the things that have happened to us, and where we know that our souls have been broken by the things that we have done. Click To Tweet

And once a month, we do something that is so hard: we come together at a table with the people who have hurt us (even if they aren’t in this time and this place) and the people who we have hurt (even if they aren’t in this time and this place). And we see each other. And we know that all of us rely on the same God, the same Christ, the same Spirit.

There is a rule that I follow in preaching: I will preach from my scars, not my wounds. And that means that when I preach from the places where I am hurt, I preach about the hurt that I have processed, and dealt with, and healed from. I preach from my hurt after it has healed, not while it is still red and raw.

And I can tell you honestly, in these last couple of weeks, some of the scars have been torn off and some of my wounds have been reopened. I have been looking through my life. I have been reviewing my story.

I have heard echoes of my story in the words of Dr. Ford. And I have felt my heart break.

I have heard echoes of my story in the words of Judge Kavanaugh. And I have felt my soul break.

And for you who are in this sanctuary, or who are reading a manuscript of this sermon, or who are listening to the recording: that is where I am leaving it.

I will not put my wounds on display. But rest assured that things that have happened to me that cause me pain. And there are things I have done that I am ashamed of.

And I know that some of you—maybe even a lot of you; maybe even most of you; maybe even all of you—are in the same position. We are broken in so many ways. We bear our wounds in so many ways.

But the reason I am telling you that, is that sometimes, those of us who preach, preach the sermon that we need to hear. And I know what I have needed to hear for the last week or two, and I know that there are other people who need to hear the same thing:

No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, no matter what has been done to you, and no matter what you have done… you are welcome here. You are welcome in this church. You are welcome at this table

Whether you are a victim, or a perpetrator, or both, or neither, or somewhere in-between, you are crowned with glory and honor, you are loved and you are worthy of love. And because of that, you can live a life that is not defined by what has happened to you or what you have done to others. Because of that, you and I and all of us can live lives that are defined by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, by the love of God, and by the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

Whether you are a victim, or a perpetrator, or both, or neither, or somewhere in-between, you are crowned with glory and honor, you are loved and you are worthy of love. Click To Tweet

And that begins, in some small way, with coming together at this little corner of a big table, with people who we cannot yet forgive and with people who cannot yet forgive us.

It begins, in some small way, with coming together at this little corner of a big table and eating together in our mutual brokenness.

It begins, in some small way, with coming together at this little corner of a big table, with all of the other people who depend, in faith, on the promise and hope of Jesus Christ. Which is to say, everyone.

And it begins with the knowledge—even when we can’t quite believe it—that we are welcome at this table and we are worthy of this table.

Hallelujah. Amen.

Church Stewardship is Weird

Not too long ago, I finished writing my first book. Since that manuscript is now in the editing process, some thoughts that I already had about a second book are coming back to the front of my mind. The idea that I’m toying with for that book stems from this idea: church stewardship is weird.

I’ve sat through a lot of church stewardship campaigns. I’ve helped run some of them. And, in general, they have a pretty simple argument. First, they point out that God has entrusted wealth to (some) members of the church. Second, they tell those people that they should be responsible with the wealth that God has given to them. Within the church, and within Christian theology, neither of these points are controversial. These ideas have a long history and a strong position in Christian thought.

Church stewardship campaigns add another step to this argument: they argue that one important way that church members can be responsible with the gifts that God has given to them is to give a portion of those gifts to the church. 

Now, that’s not a bad point to add. And I know that there are churches who do a good job. But, in my experience, where a lot of churches fail is that they don’t make a case for why giving to the church—and, really, to a specific congregation—is a responsible use of the wealth that God has entrusted to the care of church members. Church stewardship campaigns are too often nothing more than statements that good Christians give to their churches.

These churches are teaching a very simple principle: churches are entitled to benefit from the good stewardship of their members.

And every year, churches across the United States see fewer pledge cards turned in, less money pledged, and tighter budgets.

Here’s what’s weird about church stewardship. In the church, ‘stewardship’ is really just another word for fundraising. And it’s usually a word for fundraising-that’s-not-very-effective. In the rest of the nonprofit sector, stewardship is part of a larger fundraising process. It’s the part of that process where the organization proves itself to a donor. It tells the donor that the gift was received, that the organization was glad to receive it, that it’s being put to work as the donor intended, and that it’s having the effect that the donor wanted it to. Thank you notes, annual reports, photos and videos of the people who the organization helps, statistical reports, and all of those things that say, “Hey, thank you for giving to us, here’s how we’re going the things you wanted us to do,” are examples of good stewardship.

And here’s why that matters. The most basic principle of fundraising is that people give because someone who they trust asks them to. A donor might make that first gift because a friend asks them to. For example, someone might say, “For my birthday, I’d like you to give to this thing.” But now the ball is in the organization’s court. The second gift will only come if the organization can show the donor that their first gift—no matter the reason that they gave it—was a good investment; it did the thing that the donor wanted it to do.

And the way that we show the donor that their gift did the thing that they wanted it to do is stewardship. An organization might just show you how happy a donor made their friend, or tell them about the puppies they saved, or show them the person who moved from the street into an apartment. The organization looks at what the donor wanted to accomplish and demonstrates that their gift accomplished that thing. And when that organization does a good job of that, it gets more gifts and bigger gifts.

Stewardship in the wider world is more-or-less the opposite of stewardship in a lot of churches. As I wrote above, in churches, stewardship campaigns teach the principles that churches are entitled to benefit from the good stewardship of their members. In other organizations—and especially in organizations that are successful fundraisers—stewardship is based on the principle that donors are entitled to benefit from the good stewardship of the organizations. Even if that benefit is just the warm fuzzies.

Church stewardship is weird because it’s backwards. And turning it around can make all the difference for a church that’s struggling to raise money. Instead of asking members to show the church that they are good stewards, we need to show members that we are good stewards. And once people know that we’re a good place to put their money, they’ll be happy to give.

Privilege

 

There are people in the world who believe that the Bible is boring. Some of them are taking a confirmation class right now; not at this church, of course, but somewhere. And to those people, I offer a counterpoint: the Book of Esther.

For those of you who don’t remember this story, a summary:

The Jews were conquered by the Babylonians and exiled from their homeland. Then the Babylonians were conquered by the Persians and, as we open our story, the Jews are living in exile in Persia.

Due to some palace intrigue, the King of Persia does not have a queen. He has beautiful women brought to him from all over his empire. And he chooses Esther, a Jewish orphan who is being raised by her uncle Mordecai. Esther keeps her Jewishness hidden.

And Mordecai uncovers a plot to kill the King. Mordecai stops the plot, and his service is noted.

The king appoints a man named Haman as his viceroy. Now, Haman hates Mordecai, because Mordecai would not bow down to Haman, because Mordecai is Jewish, and he will not bow down to anyone but God. And Haman doesn’t just hate Mordecai, he hates all the Jews. He wants to kill all of the Jews in the Empire. And pays the king for permission to do this. And the king agrees.

So Haman casts lots to determine the date. On the 13th of Adar—so, sort of March-ish—the Jews will die.

Mordecai, of course, discovers the plot and goes to Esther—who, remember, has hidden her Jewishness—and implores her to help her people. But she is afraid. Still, she holds some feasts for the king.

Meanwhile, Haman decides to hang Mordecai and wants to go to the king for permission to do that. He even builds a gallows outside his house. But just before he shows up, the king is reminded that Mordecai uncovered the plot against the king, but never had a public ceremony to honor him.

So, when Haman shows up to ask about hanging Mordecai, the king absentmindedly asks him how he should honor his servant.

And Haman, thinking, “Oh, the king is going to honor me because I’m awesome,” suggests a bunch of crazy stuff. And then the king orders Haman to give Mordecai that honor!

The king and Haman go to one of the feasts that Esther is holding. Esther reveals that she is Jewish and that Haman plans on killing all of her people, including her. The king is furious and leaves the room. While he’s gone, Haman begs Esther for his life and falls on her in desperation. At that moment, the king enters the room, sees this, and thinks that Haman is assaulting his queen.

He orders Haman hanged on the same gallows he built for Mordecai.

Now, for some reason, the king cannot revoke a royal edict. The Jews are still in trouble. So he lets Esther and Mordecai write a new edict that allows the Jews to defend themselves. And they do. Tens of thousands of people attack the Jews… and the Jews kill them.

The Jews are saved, Esther continues as queen, and Mordecai becomes the king’s right hand man. And to this day, Jewish people mark this event with the festival of Purim.

How is this not a movie? And I don’t mean one of those bad Christian movies. You know the ones I’m talking about. I mean a good movie, maybe a sci-fi setting, Natalie Portman, Daniel Day Lewis, Ben Kingsley. We could have a blockbuster on our hands.

But I’m not a producer. I’m a pastor. And this is not just a political thriller story. It is a story about privilege and what we can do with it.

Esther did not choose to be queen. She was chosen. One day, she was called before the king and the king said, “Her.” And that was it.

And I did not choose to be a straight white cis-gendered able-bodied neuro-typical well-educated English-speaking professional middle class man between the ages of 18 and 49 who lives in the United States of America. I was born. There was history and genetics and a whole lot of chance. And that was it.

And I really believe that most of us are in that same boat. Most of us sitting in this sanctuary today have some privilege. We didn’t choose it, but we have it.

When I’m driving down the highway and police lights come on behind me—not that that’s ever happened—I don’t fear for my life.

I have never imagined that I might have to pick up what I can carry and travel hundreds of miles to a new country where I might not be welcome… just to get away from the violence in my own neighborhood.

I have never been told to go back where I come from, or insulted for speaking the language that I speak, or mocked because of the way I dress.

In fact, because of who I am and the position I occupy in our society, I can be pretty confident that authorities will respect me, that power will work for me, and that—even if things go wrong for a while—there are whole social systems that are designed to make sure that things work out for me and people like me… alright enough… in the end.

And that doesn’t mean that I never have trouble, or that I never suffer, or that I didn’t work hard for what I have. It just means that I have advantages that not everyone gets. And that’s it.

I didn’t choose it. And whichever boxes of privilege that you tick, you didn’t choose it. That’s just how it is. But that doesn’t make us any less privileged.

Esther didn’t choose to be queen. She was chosen. One day, she was called before the king and the king said, “Her.” And that was it. But that doesn’t make her any less the queen.

And the question for you and for me is, “What are we going to do with that?”

This is the choice that Esther faces. She can keep her secret. No one knows that she’s Jewish. Maybe she’ll survive and be okay.

But Mordecai doesn’t think so. He’s confident that help will come from somewhere, but, “Esther,” he says, “maybe you came to royal dignity for such a time as this.”

Maybe you came to royal dignity for such a time as this. Maybe all of the things that had to happen to put you in this place at this time—choices that you made and choices that were made for you, things you controlled and things that you didn’t—put you here and now for a reason: to save us all.

In today’s reading—in the little snippet of this story that we heard—we get to see this choice. At one of Esther’s feasts, the king turns to her and asks, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.”

That is the question of privilege. And I’m confident that none of us here have been offered half a kingdom, but the world asks us a question a lot like that one. Do we have a petition? Odds are we can get it granted. Do we have a request? Odds are we can have it.

At the very least, it will be easier for us than it would be for a lot of people.

And Esther answers, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request.”

And there’s a risk here. It’s true. If the king says no, she will perish with her people. But she knows that her privilege is her responsibility: “If it pleases you, give me my life and the lives of my people.”

And that’s good for Esther. She saves her people. To this day, Jewish people mark this event with a feast.

But it is not enough for us.

I am, if anything, more privileged than Esther. I don’t fear for my life. I don’t fear for the lives of my people, whatever that could mean. I cannot use my privilege for myself.

But…

There’s this theologian, Basil. He is, hands down, one of my favorites. In one of his sermons, he asks his congregation why there are rich people and poor people, why there are haves and have-nots. why God has seen fit to distribute things unevenly.

His answer for why there are have-nots isn’t very satisfying. But his answer for why there are haves is beautiful: it’s so we can share.

I have power and privilege because there is injustice in this world. But God has arranged things so that I can share what I have. I can put my power and privilege to work for others. I can give to people in need. I can stand up for people in trouble. I can amplify the voices of those who go unheard. And that is a gift.

I don’t have to use what I have for myself. I don’t have to use it for my people, whatever that could mean. I get the honor of using what I have for this whole wide world.

Maybe all of the things that had to happen to put me in this place at this time—choices that I made and choices that were made for me, things I controlled and things that I didn’t—put me here and now for a reason: to save someone… anyone.

And maybe all of the things that had to happen to put you in this place at this time, put you here and now for the same reason: to save someone… anyone.

And maybe—just maybe—all of the things that had to happen to put us in this place and this time, put us here for an even bigger reason: to save someone… anyone… everyone.

And, yeah, that can carry some risk. But how much really?

Because the reward is so much greater: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free; to do justice and to love kindness; to walk with our Lord and our God.

Amen.

Naivety

 

There are very few people in the world who will defend Pollyanna. It’s one of the things that makes my wife unique. She gets righteously angry about a few things, and one of them is the flagrant misinterpretation of this beloved children’s classic.

If you don’t know the novel, it follows an orphan named Pollyanna, who moves to Beldingsville, Vermont, to live with her Aunt Polly. Now, Aunt Polly is not a pleasant person. And neither are many of the other residents of Beldingsville. But, in good early-twentieth-century children’s novel fashion, Pollyanna is going to change that.

You see—and this is how everyone interprets the book—Pollyanna’s defining characteristic is her relentless optimism. She plays the Glad Game. Whenever she finds herself in a less-than-ideal situation, she plays the Glad Game. She finds something—one thing… anything—to be glad about.

When she looks in a charity box one Christmas and finds crutches instead of a doll, she is glad that doesn’t need the crutches.

When her aunt forces her to stay in a bare room in the attic, she is glad that it has such a wonderful view of the garden.

When she is sentenced to have a dinner of bread and milk with Nancy the serving-girl, she is glad because she likes bread and milk and Nancy the serving-girl.

And because she is so relentlessly optimistic, her name has become a by-word for naive optimism.

When someone is unrealistically optimistic—when someone maintains their gladness by ignoring the harsh reality of the world around them—we say that they are a Pollyanna. A word which here means, a fool.

And in today’s reading from James… James sounds like a little bit of a Pollyanna.

“Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom,” he writes, “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace… Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.”

Draw near to God and God will draw near to you. Resist the devil and the devil will flee from you. Be a peacemaker and there will be peace.

It all sounds a little… unrealistic.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is teaching, and the disciples are arguing. It’s an argument that you know. It’s probably an argument that you’ve been a part of. It’s the argument about who is greater.

And I always imagine that the disciples are arguing about who is greater because we so often think that greatness is about power. Somewhere in life, we learn—and those disciples learned—that greatness and power come as a set. You get one, you get the other. If you are great, you get power; if you have power, you must be great.

We argue over this. We jockey for position. We fight wars for power and control and authority.

And cruelty is born out of those battles. The big cruelties of one nation subjugating another and driving out its people. The petty cruelties of an aunt forcing an orphan girl to stay in the bare room in the attic. Cruelty is born out of those battles.

And Jesus responds to his arguing disciples, “If you want to be first, you have to be last. You have to be the servant of everyone. Here is a child, she has no power, she has no status, she is the least among us. Welcome her. Show her a world defined by love.”

Holy power is not power over others. It’s power under others. It’s not the power to push someone down. It’s the power to lift them up.

Whoever welcomes a child, welcomes Christ. And whoever welcomes Christ, welcomes God. And what better thing can we do than welcome God?

There are a million things in the world that I cannot control. But one of the things—one of the things—that I can control is how I look at the world. One of the things—one of the things—that I can control is how I look at other people. One of the things—one of the things—that I can control is how much power I give to a world that relishes power.

Pollyanna’s defining characteristic is not her relentless optimism. She is not a naturally optimistic person.

Pollyanna’s defining characteristic is her relentless discipline. She works at the Glad Game.

Pollyanna knows that the world is a dangerous place. She knows that the world is, sometimes, an evil place. he knows that the crutches aren’t a doll. She knows that being forced to stay in a bare room in the attic is a form of abuse. She knows that a dinner of bread and milk with Nancy the serving-girl is a punishment.

She knows that there are thorns and thistles in life. And the Glad Game is her way of refusing to accept that.

There’s an old ‘Native American’ story that floats around the internet. In it, an old man tells his grandson about a fight going on inside him. There are two wolves. One is evil. He is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. One is good. He is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.

And the same fight is going on inside is grandson. It’s going on inside you and me and everyone else.

His grandson asks him, “Which wolf will win?”

The old man answers, “The one you feed.”

And that is not a First Nations story. It was invented by Billy Graham sometimes in the late 70s. But it’s still true. What we feed, thrives. And Pollyanna is absolutely committed to feeding the goodness in the world and the brightness in herself.

And, more than that, she is going to tell the evil in the world that it does not have power over her. She is going to say that even in the face of her own suffering—even after a car hits her and she loses the use of her legs—she is going to find and celebrate the goodness in the world.

And by doing that, she will make the world slightly better. A little bit of the tarnish will come off. A little bit of the shine will come back.

And James is fully aware of the position that his Christian friends and neighbors are in. They are a persecuted religious minority surrounded by the most powerful empire in the world. Any sane person would be afraid. Any sane person would be preparing to fight. Any sane person would be grasping for power over the forces that are arrayed against him.

But the wisdom that comes from above is pure and peaceable. It is gentle and willing to yield and full of mercy and good fruits… even with its enemies. It is without a trace, even a trace, of partiality… even towards the people who are already on its own side. It is without a trace, even a trace, of hypocrisy: we don’t just talk about love, we go out and love.

And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

Being a Christian—following this Jesus person—is a choice. It’s a choice every day. It’s a choice every time we are faced with the temptations of power. It’s a choice every time we are faced with the struggles of this world.

And one part of that choice is welcoming the lost child, even if they aren’t our child, because there’s no such thing as other people’s children.

And one part of that choice is finding the good that God has so carefully planted in this world. Part of that choice is pushing the thorns and thistles aside to get to the flower of love that they are hiding. Part of that choice may even be finding the beauty in the thorns and thistles of life.

Now, I need to be clear here. This doesn’t absolve us of responsibility. Just because we see and acknowledge and nurture the goodness of the world does not mean that we are unaware of injustice and poverty and terror and hurt and evil.

Pollyanna can play the Glad Game. She is still staying in a bare room in the attic, she is still having a dinner of bread and milk with Nancy the serving-girl, she still has to learn to walk again. She is not ignorant of the world, and we can’t be, either.

But, when someone looks for the goodness in the world, it is easy to call them a Pollyanna. A word which here means, a fool.

When we look for and nurture the goodness in the world, it will be easy for people to call us a pack of Pollyannas, a phrase which here means, a group of naive folk who do not know how the world works.

But here’s the thing: that is how the world works. And part of the work of fighting injustice and poverty and terror and hurt and evil is finding the goodness in the world and making more of it.

It is sowing a garden of peace in the hope that there will one day be a harvest of righteousness.

Amen.

Words

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O God, my rock and my redeemer. Now and forever.

When I was young, I learned a saying. You know it, too. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

And I can tell you something that I’m sure you already know: that saying isn’t true. It’s a lie. It’s a lie that we tell ourselves and our friends and our children when someone else is teasing them or insulting them or bullying them. It’s a comforting lie. It might even be a useful lie. But it’s a lie all the same.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words… words have almost unimaginable power.

Baptism is as much about the words as it is about the water: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The Lord’s table is as much about the words as it is about the bread and wine: “This is my body broken for you… this cup is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you.”

Marriage is as much about the words as it is about the signature on a license: “I do… I now pronounce you…” Years are taken away as much by the judge’s words as they are by her signature on an order, “I sentence you to…”

Or, closer to home… remember the first time that the right person said, “I love you.” Think about the names people called you or the ways they insulted you, when you had to remind yourself that sticks and stones may break your bones, before breaking down in tears. Let your mind sidle up to the words we don’t say: the cursèd words that we call only by their first letter: the n-word, the c-word, the f-word.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words… words have almost unimaginable power.

And James knows this. In todays reading from his epistle—his open letter to all of the churches, to the twelve tribes in the dispersion, to all y’all—James is writing about the power of words. He knows that words are small fires that can set a whole forest ablaze. We can use them to bless our God and savior. We can use them to curse people.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words… words can bless and curse me.

And here is Jesus, asking about words.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus and his disciples are on their way to the villages in the region of Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that I am?”

And his disciples reply, “Some people say that you are John the Baptist, back from the dead. Other people say that you’re Elijah, back from his sojourn in heaven. Still others say that you’re one of the prophets.”

You see, people are looking for the words to describe Jesus. They’re looking for someone to compare Jesus to. They’re looking for a category to slip Jesus into. And they know who John and Elijah and the prophets are. They know what those words mean. If Jesus is one of those, then they can make sense of him.

But Jesus pushes the question further. “Who do you say that I am?” he asks, “Not your families or friends or people who we’ve met along the way. You… you who know me the best. Who do you say that I am?”

And Peter, as usual, doesn’t miss a beat, “You are the Messiah.”

And he thinks he know what that means. He says, “You are the Messiah.” And he means, “You are God’s anointed, the great king, the one who will redeem the Jewish people, the one who will make Israel great again.”

Words are powerful things. But they are also living things. Words change and grow and shrink.

The word ‘naughty’ used to mean ‘poor’, as in a person who had nought. Now it means bad.

The word ‘nice’ used to mean ‘ignorant’. Then it wandered drunkenly around the language and meant ‘showy’ or ‘refined’ or ‘cowardly’ or ‘lazy’ or ‘intricate’. It settled on ‘precise’ for a while. And now it means agreeable.

Words are powerful things. But they are also living things. Words change and grow and shrink.

And Jesus is about to do something to the word ‘Messiah’.

He is about to tell his disciples that the word ‘Messiah’ means that he must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

And that… sounds bad. That doesn’t sound like God’s anointed, the great king, the one who will redeem the Jewish people, the one who will make Israel great again. That sounds like someone who will die. And Peter doesn’t like that. But it gets worse.

Because if we want to follow him, then we’re gonna have to follow him. Cross and all.

When we say, “Jesus is the Messiah.” When we say, “Jesus is the Christ.” When we call ourselves Christians, we are saying something about ourselves. We’re saying that we will pick up our crosses and follow him; that we will lose our lives for his sake and for the sake of the gospel.

Jesus asks us who we say that he is, and we put our lives on the line.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words… words have almost unimaginable power.

And it isn’t just about who we say Jesus is. It’s about who we say anyone is. It’s about who we say each other are. There is amazing power in what we call each other. There is amazing power in how we speak to each other.

Most of you know that I used to work for a nonprofit organization in Mississippi called Back Bay Mission. That is something that might come up on a quiz sometime, so I’ll repeat it: I used to work for a nonprofit organization in Mississippi called Back Bay Mission.

And one of the things that I learned there was the power of words. We didn’t call the people who came to spend time in our day center ‘clients’. We called then ‘guests’. There is a difference between calling someone a client and calling them a guest.

And one of the things that was drilled into me starting on my first day at the Mission was that everyone who came to us was, first and foremost, before they were anything else, was a precious child of a loving God.

In a world where people living in poverty are told that they are small or worthless or really nobody at all, we started with, “You are the precious child of a loving God.”

And that meant something to the people we served. And it meant something to me.

I believe that people will tend to live up to the expectations we put on them. Not every time, but most of the time. If we tell someone that they are small or worthless or really nobody at all, they will meet that expectation. If we tell someone that they are the precious child of a loving God, they will strive to meet that expectation. Those words can make a huge difference. They have almost unimaginable power.

But there’s more to it than that. When I say that someone is the precious child of a loving God, I’m putting an expectation on myself: I have to act like that person is the precious child of a loving God. I cannot call someone the precious child of a loving God and then treat them as anyone less; as anyone small or worthless or really nobody at all. When I say, “You are the precious child of a loving God,” I call myself to be something greater than I was before I uttered those words. Those words can make a huge difference. They have almost unimaginable power.

The words we use matter. What we call people matters. What we say to each other matters.

I’ve been preaching about love the last few weeks. Love is a good sermon topic. It’s a major Biblical theme. It’s the kind of thing that we should talk about in church.

But love isn’t just something we talk about. It isn’t just something we say. It’s something we do. Love is a verb. Love is an action.

It isn’t enough to say, “I love you.” I have to love you.

It isn’t enough to say, “You are loved and you are worthy of love.” I have to live as though you are loved and you are worthy of love.

It isn’t enough to say, “You are the precious child of a loving God.” I have to treat you as the precious child of a loving God.

Love isn’t just something we talk about. It isn’t just something we say. It’s something we do. Love is a verb. Love is an action.

But, like so many things, it starts with those words that have almost unimaginable power. So I want to try something a little bit different. I want you to turn to someone who is sitting near you… maybe not a family member, but someone who just happens to be nearby.

And I want you to say this. Just repeat after me.

You are loved and you are worthy of love. (Repeat)

You are the precious child of a loving God. (Repeat)

And I will love you, by the grace of God. (Repeat)

Amen.

The Revolution Will Be Commodified

Last week, Nike unveiled Colin Kaepernick as one of the faces of an ad campaign celebrating the 30th anniversary of their iconic ‘Just Do It’ slogan. That’s something to celebrate. Kaepernick has been marginalized by the NFL and mocked by the political right for his protests against police violence in black communities. Having his face on print ads and his voice in commercials has helped reignite a national conversation about those protests and, maybe, it will encourage more conversations about these issues.

But I’m not writing this post to congratulate Nike for good marketing. Nike has been an expert at using both advertising and earned media to sell its products.

I’m writing this post to expand on something that I put on Twitter and on my personal Facebook timeline, and that generated some serious discussion. Here’s the content of the original post (on Facebook, I added an edit later):

God, I hate to be that guy, but does anyone know Nike’s current practices around sweatshops, prison labor, and environmental exploitation? Asking, apparently, for all of my friends.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like the message of the new ads. I just kind of think that the motivation isn’t justice so much as it’s profit. And we shouldn’t let an ounce of social justice sauce cover a multitude of sins.

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Let me start with some background. Most of my friends, almost regardless of what part of my life they’re from, share two things in common. First, they are strongly supportive of social justice movements in general—though different people have different issues that their own struggles are centered on—and of Kaepernick’s protests in particular. Second, they tend to be suspicious when it comes to the motives of large corporations. A lot of my friends are people who have participated—or who are participating right now—in boycotts of Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Chick-fil-A, Amazon, and other companies.

While Nike’s ad debut sparked a predictable outcry from the right, I also saw something I wasn’t expected among my friends. On the right, people were cutting the Nike Swoosh off of their socks, burning their shoes, and otherwise destroying things they owned in their frustration with Nike and with a protest that they don’t understand. Among my friends, I saw people celebrating Nike… and people bragging about how much Nike stuff they were going to buy.

One of the things I write about in my upcoming book is how capitalism shapes the ways that we think. Capitalism isn’t just an economic system that we happen to use, it involves a specific way of imagining our world. In the book, I mostly focus on how capitalism encourages market thinking: the idea that anything can be bought and sold, that assigning a price is the same thing as determining a value, and that transactions and trades are the basis for social interactions.

In the book, I focus on charity, and we can see one of the big ways that capitalism and market thinking have affected charity in the ways that charity skeptics promote a kind of compassionate capitalism as the solution to poverty. Charity skeptics are obviously skeptical about charity, but they embrace more capitalism-friendly tool like microfinance, entrepreneurship programs, and so on.

But the reaction to Nike’s ad campaign highlights another way that capitalism affects how we think, and, specifically, how we think about justice issues. I don’t have a clever name for it yet. For now, let’s call it ‘justice branding’.

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Brand loyalty is an important idea. Most of us are loyal to a few specific brands. And, once we are loyal to a brand, we tend to stick with them unless something major happens. I’ve worn Skechers sneakers for ages; I even bought the same design several pairs in a row. I drive Toyotas because I grew up with them. Different clothing items come from L.L. Bean, Old Navy, Banana Republic, and Brooks Brothers. My ice cream is Ben & Jerry’s. My tomato sauce in Newman’s Own. My computers and phones are Apple. I use Expedia for travel.

And I am fully aware of two things. First, I am psychologically locked into these brands in the same way that other people are locked into their preferred brands. They aren’t rational choices. In fact, I buy most of them because they worked once and it is almost always easier to buy the same brand the next time than it is to switch to something new. Laziness wins.

Second, most of them—if not all of them—have deep ethical problems. I know that my lifestyle is dependent on sweatshops, slavery, poverty, child labor, environmental destruction, government oppression, and dozens of other evils that I preach against on a regular basis. The fact that I am embedded in a web of marginalization, exploitation, oppression, and violence is precisely what I mean when I say that I am a sinner. It isn’t just that I sometimes break rules—though I absolutely do that, too—it’s that my very way of life relies on systems and structures that hurt others. And the fact is that I am complicit in those systems and structures.

I’ll come back to that another time. For now, I want to focus on this: justice identities are ascendant brands.

Politics has always been about a certain amount of branding. I vote for Democrats because that is usually the party that is most closely aligned with my views and that win, but it’s also true that my family has supported Democrats for as long as I can remember. I am a progressive because, well, I support the things that progressives support. But it’s also true that I grew up in a liberal family, went to liberal schools, belong to a liberal denomination, and so on. Social realities have shaped my political choices, and my politics have shaped the social circles I choose. It’s not a delightful idea, but the fact is that the way I select candidates probably isn’t that different from the way that I select tomato sauce.

In today’s highly polarized political environment, these identities are incredibly important. And that’s not only true along the Republican-Democrat axis or Conservative-Progressive axis. A lot of factors come into play to give someone an identity as pro-Kaepernick or anti-Kaepernick.

And Nike knows that.

According to Vox, Nike, “has had Kaepernick under contract since 2011, and reportedly began negotiating a ‘new, multi-year pact’ with him months ago, well after he initiated the lawsuit alluded to in the ad’s text. The timing is not a coincidence.”

Nike knew that people would be mad at the Kaepernick ads. I’m sure that Nike knew that people would not only destroy their products, but would buy their products in order to destroy them. And I’m sure that Nike knew that people would broadcast that destruction on the internet. Nike knew that it would make money from people who wanted to reinforce and broadcast their anti-Kapernick identities.

Nike also knew that people would be elated by the Kaepernick ads. I’m sure that Nike knew that people who normally didn’t buy Nike products would rush to buy Nike products in order to show their support for Kaepernick. And I’m sure that Nike knew that people would talk about that on the internet. Nike knew that it would make money from people who wanted to reinforce and broadcast their pro-Kapernick identities.

And there’s one more thing: Nike knew that each of those identities, broadcasting their actions on the internet, would not only reinforce a message to people who shared their identities, they would galvanize the other side! People would buy Nike products to destroy or wear just to own the people who were doing the opposite.

§

Ethical consumerism is probably impossible. And apparel companies present a particular challenge to anyone who even wants to try to be an ethical consumer. Global supply chains are often opaque. We all know that an American brand might sell clothing made in China, Bangladesh, India, or any number of other countries. Just as importantly, that clothing might be made by en entirely different company, in a factory owned by another company, and transported by yet another company, and so on. By the time we actually get to the person sewing an item of clothing in a factory in Bangladesh, the work might have been contracted and subcontracted so many times that the American brand has no idea who is making them.

And that means that American consumers often have no idea who is making their clothes. In his book Out of Sight, labor historian Erik Loomis writes about corporate mobility in general, and puts it this way:

Corporate mobility— supported by state and federal governments through trade agreements, free trade zones, and labor law exceptions— has outsourced industrial risk to the world’s poor, separating the costs of industrial production from consumers and undermining labor rights and environmental protections in the United States and around the world.1Erik Loomis. Out of Sight: The Long and Disturbing Story of Corporations Outsourcing Catastrophe, Kindle Edition. (New York: New Press, 2015), p. 11

We might now know who is making our clothes, but the people who are making them are almost certainly poor and exploited women of color.

And when we start talking about justice identities, that matters. Nike used to have a reputation for deeply unethical labor practices that were enabled by their supply chains. At the time, Nike took the attitude that, since they didn’t own the factories, they couldn’t control what happened in them, and therefore they weren’t responsible.

Now, I’ve been assured that Nike has made major improvements in their labor practices. But they are still a multinational apparel company using global supply chains that often support labor exploitation in developing nations.

And that matters when we think about racial justice and justice identities. The question I wanted to raise in my Facebook post and Tweet is whether those of us who are pro-Kaepernick were being too eager to support the use of one of the faces of Black Lives Matter by a company in an industry that regularly exploits black and brown lives in other countries. Were we saying #AmericanBlackLivesMatter while living as though #BangladeshiBrownLivesDon’t? Were our identities divorced from our actions?

As I wrote above, ethical consumerism is probably impossible. Especially when it comes to apparel, we almost certainly don’t face a choice between good and evil. We face choices between evil and evil. But that doesn’t mean that we’re absolved of our responsibility or that we don’t have a need to repent. And while we will often fail—and I will certainly often fail—to make the most ethical decision among a selection of unethical ones, we have a responsibility to try nonetheless.

And part of that is asking how corporations and marketers might be manipulating our justice identities: are we buying something because a company is doing the right thing, or because they are creating an image that we want to be associated with?

§

So, where does that leave us?

First, Colin Kaepernick appearing in Nike advertisements is a good thing and there is room for celebrating that this is happening. Hopefully, it will reignite conversations around protest, police violence, and related issues. Even if it doesn’t, it provides recognition to a figure who has been marginalized by his profession for his justice work. We can recognize and celebrate that even as we acknowledge that profit—not justice—was probably the primary motivating factor for Nike.

Second, even as we celebrate this ad campaign, we can recognize that Nike, the broader apparel industry, and capitalism in general have major ethical problems. And if we are serious about our justice identities, we cannot simply suspend our criticism in the face of an ad campaign that speaks to those identities. We can celebrate that Nike did a good thing—and we can buy Nike products—and still call Nike and ourselves to lives that are more aligned with justice and mercy.

Third, to take that point even further, those of us who are Christian can celebrate this ad campaign as a good thing done by a sinful company in a broken world. And when I say that Nike is a sinful company, I mean that it is no different from other companies or us as individuals. We are all caught in those webs of marginalization, exploitation, oppression, and violence that I mentioned earlier. And while we can strive to do our best within those webs, we are dependent on the grace of God to push us further.We can celebrate that Nike did a good thing—and we can buy Nike products—and still call Nike and ourselves to greater repentance.

Fourth, and finally, it is important to maintain our hermeneutic of suspicion when we see something that we like. It might even be especially important to maintain it then. As justice identities become more important brands, there will be more and more companies who seek to manipulate them in their advertising: who want us to align with their message instead of their practices. We should be aware of that and we should be critical in the face of that.

So, by all means, buy your Nike stuff and celebrate the ads. Just be careful about falling into the kind of thinking that appeases the pleasure centers of your brain while tarnishing your soul. Because the revolution will be commodified, and there is a difference between the substance of that revolution, and the shiny packaging that will hold a cheap imitation.

Footnotes   [ + ]

Cool.

Last weekend, there were two funerals.

I don’t know how many of you saw Aretha Franklin’s funeral. I didn’t watch it live, but I watched some of the eulogies and musical tributes on YouTube after it was over. And while there were a couple of rough spots, it was a good service. The music honored God and Aretha, and Jennifer Hudson can sing here any time she wants. The eulogies talked about Aretha’s art and about her work for justice, and Rev. Dr. Barber can preach here any times he wants.

It honored the Queen of Soul and it called the people who watched to continue her work. It was a good service.

I don’t know how many of you saw John McCain’s funeral. I saw a little bit of it live, and I watched some of the eulogies and musical pieces on YouTube after it was over. And it was also a good service. The music honored God and John, and Renee Fleming can sing here any time she wants. The eulogies talked about John’s service and about his legacy, and President Obama can preach here any times he wants.

(I know not all of you liked him as a president, but the man can give a speech).

It honored the maverick of the Senate and it called the people who watched to continue his work. It was a good service.
And I know that there were people watching them on television or the internet or wherever, who saw them and thought, “If only my church could be like that.”

I know that because I know that some well-meaning white pastors got on Twitter and Facebook and said so. They said, “Lord, I wish my church could be like Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, Michigan. I wish someone would shout ‘Amen’ during the sermon. I wish there was dancing in the aisles during the hymns. I wish that people would clap on two and four.”

And I’m sure that some well-meaning pastors said, “Lord, I wish my church could be like Washington National Cathedral. I wish that we had flying buttresses and a mighty rose window and clever gargoyles. I wish that we had our own string quartet. I wish that we had the pomp and circumstance and weight of tradition.”

And I’ll bet a few people who attend church faithfully on Sunday mornings said the same things.

And I get it. I know where folks are coming from when we wish for those things. We are here this morning in a mainline, Protestant church. And while we generally have good attendance, there aren’t as many people here as there used to be. And while we aren’t panicking about money, the budget isn’t as big as it used to be.

And, let’s face it, it’s-not-how-it-used-to-be is a story that’s playing out in churches across the country. In mainline churches, in evangelical churches, in Catholic churches, in Orthodox churches. In white churches and Black churches and Korean churches and Latinx churches.

And we are all looking for the thing that will get folks to come through the doors on Sunday morning and open their hearts to the gospel and join our community. We are all looking for best projections, and the gospel choir, and the pomp and circumstance, and the dancing in the aisles, and the hip young pastor.

We all want to get some of that cool. And when the line-up has Michael Eric Dyson and Tyler Perry and Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan, or a couple of former presidents and the United States Navy Brass Ensemble… well, that’s pretty cool. We all want to get some of that cool.

One of today’s readings is from the Epistle of James. The Epistle of James is the ancient equivalent of an open letter. It wasn’t written to a specific church. It was written to all of the churches. To the twelve tribes in the dispersion. To all y’all.

And in this morning’s passage, James is talking about the difference between style and substance. And he’s telling us about a problem he’s seeing in too many churches: they’re trying to look cool.

When someone with gold rings and fine clothes shows up, they pull out all the stops. They usher them in and say, “Here’s the best seat, please. And be sure to fill out the little visitor card. And please join us for coffee after the service, use one of the special mugs with the black outside and the red inside and the logos on it. Oh, and let me introduce you to our pastor. It’s so nice to have you here.”

But when… other people… come in. Well, they’re not as nice. Maybe they’re even a little dismissive.

You see, they’re trying to be the church where the influencers go. They’re trying to be the church were the hip kids go. They’re trying to get people who aren’t there yet to say, “Did you hear so-and-so goes to that church? We should check that out. I heard Ariana Grande is doing the special music next week.”

They want to look cool. And I get that. I want to look cool.

But James reminds them… and us… and everyone… that looking cool isn’t the same as being cool.

And he says to them… and us… and everyone… “You say you’ve got faith, but you don’t have works. You see someone who’s naked and hungry and you say, ‘Oh, go in peace, keep warm, eat your fill,’ but you don’t give them any clothes or any food. You’ve got the look, but not the thing; you’ve got the style, but not the substance. You think you’re cool, but I can see right through you. You are posers.”

You see, it’s not about the gold rings and fine clothes. It’s not about the best projections, or the gospel choir, or the pomp and circumstance, or the dancing in the aisles. It’s not even about clapping on two and four. It’s not even about having the hip young pastor.

It’s about something else entirely.

Way back in the third century, there was a theologian named Tertullian. Even if you’ve never heard his name, you’ve probably heard a quote from one of his many writings.

In one of his books, he is describing the Christian community and contrasting it with the pagan world that surrounds it. He describes worship and prayer and discipline and charity. “But,” he writes, “it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. ‘See,’ they say, ‘see how they — see how those Christians — love one another.”

Now, Tertullian was writing when Christianity was a minority religion, surrounded by a society that did not share its beliefs or its culture, persecuted by the powers-that-were. And he imagined that non-Christians did not so much love one another. He imagined that Christian love was unique and impressive and radically counter-cultural.

And we are not in the same position. As Christians in the United States today, we are part of a majority religion; we are surrounded by a culture that we have influenced and, and times, dominated; and we are far from persecuted. Some of our Christian friends and neighbors are far more likely to be doing the persecuting, than being persecuted.

But… we live in a society where there is not enough love.

Last week, I reminded you that you are loved and that you are worthy of love. And the truth is that there are far too many people in this world who do not know that they are loved and who do not know that they are worthy of love. We are so desperate for love that we will run to anything that looks like it might be love.

And worse than that, we live in a society where people look at the church and see a community that does not love. They see a community that talks about love. They see a community that pretends to love. They see a community that has a the style… but does not have the substance. They see a community that does not love.

And far too often, far too many churches are happy to live up to the low expectations that people have of us.

And we can do better than that. We — we the whole big worldwide church, we the people of First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa — can do better than that. It is not about the style. It’s not about the best projections, or the gospel choir, or the pomp and circumstance, or the dancing in the aisles. It’s not even about clapping on two and four. It’s not even about having the hip young pastor.

It’s about love. That is what people are hungry for. That is what God calls us to do. To love.

See how they love one another.

And more.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is in a house in Tyre, and he’s trying to not be noticed. But this woman — this gentile woman — comes up to him and starts talking about her daughter, who has a demon.

And Jesus, who we know is loving and caring and ready to help and ready to heal… dismisses her. He isn’t for her. He is Jesus. He is Jewish. He is the deliverer of the Jewish people. He is the Messiah of Israel. And this woman is a gentile. He isn’t for her.

“Let the children be fed first,” he says to her, “for it is not fair to take the children’s food… and throw it to the dogs.”

‘See how they love one another’ means ‘see how they love one another. See how they love people who are already inside.’ But there are people who aren’t inside — there are people out there who need love. They need to know they are loved. They need to know they are worthy of love.

And this woman won’t let go. This woman is going to school Jesus, who is in this house in Tyre trying to not be noticed, on love.

“Sir,” she says, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

“If you want to call me a dog you can call me a dog. But you are still responsible for the dogs. You don’t get to have this gift — you don’t get to have this power — and not share it around.”

We don’t get to have this love and not share it around.

See how they love one another? No. See how they love everyone.

See, that’s the thing. That’s the substance. That’s the cool. It isn’t about the best projections, or the gospel choir, or the pomp and circumstance, or the dancing in the aisles. It’s not even about clapping on two and four. It’s not even about having the hip young pastor.

It’s about the love. It’s about the endless, infinite, indiscriminate, foolish love.

It is about love when we are celebratory and raucous. It is about love when we are somber and staid. It is about love in our joy. It is about love in our sorrow. It is about love for people inside. It is about love for people outside. It is about love. It is about love. It is about love.

And, yeah, I really believe that love — endless, infinite, indiscriminate, foolish love — is the thing that will get people to come through the doors on Sunday morning and open their hearts to the gospel and join our community. But, just as importantly, it is what will bring us closer to God.

Cool. Cool cool cool.

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