Tuesday, May 26, 2015

sermon on Psalm 1, privilege, and racism

Psalm 1, has a lot of meat. It reads:
1 Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;
2 but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.
3 They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.
4 The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6 for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.
On a first reading, it’s fairly innocuous.
Yes, we’re happier when we’re not terrible to each other.
We’re more fulfilled and connected to God
when we participate in what God is doing.
We are more fruitful when we pay attention to God’s desire for love.
I’m into it.
And wickedness—or sinfulness,
we often experience as that rootlessness,
that powerlessness over our wrongdoing
that the psalm describes as chaff that the wind blows away.
We get bandied about by our desires.
And we crave justice—“those wicked people need to be punished,”
maybe even “I’m so wicked I need punishment.”
We long for a just universe where good is rewarded and evil punished.
I’m still into it.
Maybe we just end the sermon here?
Maybe not.
There’s a thread in modern theology that says
this psalm and many other bits of scripture
are about something more concrete.
It’s about the haves and the have nots.
Certainly those who “have” God, as it were, and those who don’t.
But also about those who have prosperity and lots of stuff
and those who do not.
As though those things are entirely related to whether you have God.
The righteous have much, are blessed, succeed.
The wicked have little, are miserable, and fail.
So, it follows from this simple reading that
those who have little, are miserable, or fail must be wicked. And those who have much, are blessed, and succeed
are righteous.
Don’t we say God helps those who help themselves?
Sure, it’s not in the Bible, but it’s true, right?
And look at statistics: look how closely crime and poverty line up.
But this reading is from a place of privilege.
Let me complexify this for us.
A number of years ago,
I took my diocese’s required Racism Awareness workshop.
There was a mix of folks from across the diocese there.
As a conversation-starter,
we were given an envelope with 26 notecards inside.
On each notecard was a question
and we were asked to put those cards into two piles:
“this does apply to me” and “this doesn’t apply to me.”
Let me share with you some of the statements on the cards.
Maybe you can keep a tally of where you’d put them:
“I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the person in charge,
I will be facing a person of my race.”
“I can turn on the television or open the front page of the paper
and see people of my race widely-represented.”
“I am rarely asked to speak for all people of my racial group.”
“I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials
that testify to the existence and contributions of their race.”
“I can worry about racism without being seen
as self-interested or self-seeking.”
“I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color
and have them more or less match my skin.”
“Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash,
I can count on my skin color not to work against
the appearance of financial responsibility.”
“If a traffic cop pulls me over, or if the IRS audits my tax return,
I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my color.”
Hearing where each person put their notecards was
—and I cannot put this dramatically enough—
earth-shaking for me.
I had put 25 of the 26 cards in the “it does apply to me” pile.
And the white folks around me were similar.
All of the people of color in the workshop
had put a majority of the notecards
in the “it doesn’t apply to me” pile.
In this moment, I had a sudden, intense, clear vision
of the privilege that I enjoy as a white person.
Just recently I read an article in which the author spoke
of grocery-shopping with her half-sister at their regular store.
Both of them are of mixed-race, but the author “passes” for white,
that is, she has more Caucasian features,
whereas her sister looks clearly black.
The sisters were in line to check out with their groceries.
The author was first in line, wrote a check, was not asked for ID,
and began bagging her groceries
while her sister’s were being scanned.
The sister then began writing a check as well
and the cashier immediately asked for ID
and looked intently, the author says “suspiciously,”
between the ID and the check.
The author called attention to this behavior,
asking what she was looking for.
The cashier replied it was policy to ask for ID.
The author asked why she herself hadn’t been asked for ID
moments before.
The store manager was called. It became a bit of an issue.
I’m aware that this is an anecdote,
but one which our black brothers and sisters
would not find surprising.
What is going on here?
I want to be clear that there are all kinds of privilege,
not just this example of embedded racism.
In this country there’s the privilege of being comfortable or even wealthy,
of being male, of being straight, of being educated.
And being privileged in some way doesn’t mean things haven’t been hard.
Of course wealthy people have depression and anxiety
and difficult family situations,
but they know they’re going to eat for the foreseeable future
and they’re going to be respected.
And of course a poor white family will have significant struggles
just as a poor black family will,
but that poor black family will have other struggles as well.
And an educated white woman might enjoy many privileges
in her hometown
but be targeted by rape and death threats in some online communities
because she is a woman.
Privilege changes and overlaps with lack-of privilege
—we call this intersectionality.
Now, I suspect that by my bringing this up in church,
some folks out there are tensing up.
If it’s because you disagree with me, I understand, but please hear me out.
I think scripture has something to speak into our lives here
that’s both difficult and freeing.
If it’s because we don’t talk about this kind of stuff in church,
I have to ask why not?
Why wouldn’t we talk about the ways in which
we Christians act like Pharisees, whether we know it or not?
Why wouldn’t we open our eyes to systems of oppression
and do what we can to make folks’ lives better?
Isn’t that basically what the prophets and Jesus were doing?
My point is this:
It is very easy to fall into the belief that something is not a problem
because it’s not a problem to us personally.
It’s so difficult to identify with this idea of privilege
because by its very nature, it’s invisible if you’ve got it.
And my second point is that
privilege isn’t a bad thing per se,
it’s a question of what we do with it once we see it.
How do I respond, for example, when I get pulled over for speeding,
and the officer literally backs away from me and says
“I can’t give a priest a ticket!”
Rejoice at my good fortune? Insist he give me a ticket?
Give him a lecture about privilege?
Ask some other officers about policy and practice and begin dialogue?
Our scriptures are rife with folks getting away with things
because they’re in charge or favored or pretty.
And those stories portray privilege sometimes as violent and terrible
like David’s sending the husband of the woman he lusted after
to the frontline to be killed.
And sometimes as the only way to save thousands of lives,
like Esther’s ability to speak to the king her husband
to spare the lives of the Jews.
And they’re rife with stories of people on the other side of things,
seeing the imbalance of power,
experiencing the oppression of invading forces
or economic pressures.
They’re rife with stories of the outsider and the rejected
pushing back against power and privilege.
This is Ruth. This is Tamar.
This is Moses in Egypt. This is Mary Magdalene and Peter.
This is too many people to list.
Looking back at my first description of Psalm 1,
I think we’re being called to awareness and compassion.
I said, “we are happier when we’re not terrible to each other.”
Which means we need to notice when we’re being terrible.
And when someone else is being hurt by our privilege.
How do we use that awareness to show that person love?
We are more fulfilled and connected to God
when we participate in what God is doing.
Maybe we ask what God is already doing in our community
rather than plowing forward with what we know needs to be done?
We are more fruitful when we pay attention to God’s desire for love.
Not productive, mind you, that’s our consumer culture speaking.
No, we make the fruit we were meant to
when we’re paying attention to love and forgiveness
and understanding and creativity.
How do we educate ourselves about issues
that don’t affect us personally?
And how do we learn to forgive?
This is where Psalm 1 gives us some beautiful grace.
It doesn’t say that the Lord watches over the righteous
but the wicked will perish.
It says “the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.”
The way. The way in which we do things.
The path we walk. The way of seeing the world.
God watches over and fosters and delights
in the path of love that each of us walks.
I even imagine God,
with one of those brooms they use in curling,
shuffling backwards in front of us,
sweeping the broom back and forth,
smoothing out the path when it gets rough…
And God will allow/is allowing the path of sin and misery
that each of us walks to fall into disrepair.
Psalm 1 is maybe foreshadowing Psalm 30,
“weeping may linger the night, but joy comes in the morning.”
In other words, everything will be okay in the end.
If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.
And God invites us to participate in making things okay.
It will be uncomfortable for us to face how we are complacent
in the face of suffering.
It will be hard to begin dismantling our individual and corporate sin.
But we don’t do it alone.
God is walking that path with us,
nudging us towards the one that’s been cleared,
raising us up when we fall,
and celebrating with us when we succeed.
This is one message of the cross:
in Jesus’ death and resurrection that we celebrate this Easter season,
it is not that Jesus reminds an angry God that we are God’s beloved,
we are reminded that we are created in God’s image,
that we are God’s beloved, that we were made for love.
God’s been there all the time, maintaining the universe,
shining love on all of us.
We just forgot.
On the cross, Jesus showed us
where all our grasping and violence and moralizing lead us.
And in the empty tomb, Jesus shows us
all the possibilities of creation.
We can be and are like trees planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
May it be so.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Good Friday meditation on Psalm 31 and bodies

Let’s talk about sex offenders for a moment.
If we can’t talk about them on Good Friday
when Jesus gave up his body for the sins of the world
—including not just we God’s faithful people
but also all the people we look down on or are disgusted by
—when can we?
I’ve been in a pastoral relationship
with someone on the Sex Offender Registry for several years now.
And I’ve been pondering for most of that time
why there are such extreme reactions to this person’s offense.
Over and above other kinds of offenses, that is
—it’s a different reaction than if you disclosed to me
that you’d stolen a watch
or even that you’d murdered someone.
It’s a powerful, visceral, angry reaction
which leads not only to creating the Registry in the first place
but also to everyday folks regularly checking out that Registry
for people in their neighborhood.
Registered sex offenders are the second least likely to reoffend…just behind murderers.
Why do we do this to ourselves? And to them?
It’s something to do with our essence, our being, our bodies.
A sex offense is…intimate and personal,
and an offense against our bodies
is somehow an offense against more than our bodies.
It’s like when you’re badly hurt with a broken leg, say,
or when you’re throwing up everything you ever ate,
the world condenses to this one primal, vulnerable space
where your body is.
All your being is concentrated on the misery of your body.
But somehow a sex offense magnifies that feeling.
Regardless of what the offense was
—and believe me, there is a wide spectrum
represented on the Registry—
knowing that a hurt was sexual in nature
brings up bone-deep revulsion
which seems to be the only truth.
To be clear, yes to all those feelings.
Violation of the body is deeply painful and emotional
and no one who perpetrates such violation should be given a pass.
If you’ve experienced such hurt, please tell someone
—don’t suffer alone.
It turns out, the violence of those encounters
leaves its scars on the perpetrators as well.
This person whom I know has struggled and been to jail
and to all the therapy and has transformed themself
in ways I frankly envy.
Even after all that, they fear reoffending
and even more the emptiness that comes
when a new friend finds them on the Registry.
Which happens all the time.
This person is outcast from social media, from employment,
and from more than one or two long-term friendships.
Perhaps you might justifiably say, “good.”
And perhaps you might also notice
the similarity between this person
and the people Jesus spent much of his time with.
Not because they were paragons of virtue
but because they were imprisoned by something
and wanted to be set free.
*       *       *
Let’s talk about close male friendships for a moment.
There was a time, as recently as the first World War,
when men who were friends
might be seen holding hands or hugging in public,
slinging their arms around each others waists, cuddling of a sort.
If you don’t believe me, just Google “male affection photo”
for an article called “Bosom Buddies.”
Human beings need touch—you know the studies
about babies who die because they’re not touched.
But more than that, we all need loving, gentle, consistent touch
for brain development and for spiritual development.
Our children are built for it,
demanding cuddling at wonderful and inopportune times.
But in the last 50 years, such touch between adult males has become rare.
Some folks wonder if societal homophobia
has robbed us of close male friendships.
My husband tells me his high school students
can’t even express the bare minimum of verbal friendship
without someone suggesting they might be gay.
Could we as a people be so concerned over the possibility of a come-on
that we’ve lost something precious?
“Boys imitate what they see.
If what they see is emotional distance, guardedness, and coldness
between men they will grow up to imitate that behavior…
What do boys learn when they do not see men
with close friendships, where there are no visible models
of intimacy in a man’s life beyond his spouse?”[1]
Women may be more able to show affection,
yet we participate in a culture of homophobia and touch-me-not.
We are made in the image of God and we are built for physical intimacy.
Perhaps you might justifiably say,
“But it can go so wrong so easily, even without assault.”
And perhaps you might also note that Jesus spent the Last Supper
reclining beside the beloved disciple John
whom our Celtic brothers and sisters say was so close
he heard the heartbeat of God.
No matter how enlightened we are,
we are imprisoned by our fear of closeness and we need to be set free.
*       *       *
Let’s talk about being unworthy for a moment.
I know students at UC who can’t fathom
that anyone would respect or love them.
They may seem happy or calm on the surface,
but it’s a cardboard cutout of themselves.
I know folks at UC who fill their days and nights with work
because they can’t trust themselves or others
to have their back and they fear failure.
I know friends who know deep in their hearts
that they’d never really be welcome in church
because they haven’t attended in years
or because they think God hates what they do with their bodies
or because they’re not good enough.
I know people who, because of their gender identity or homelessness
feel invisible.
And when they hear that God loves them,
they scoff or cry or get angry because how could God possibly love them. It’s patently ridiculous.
Peter at the Last Supper shows us a silly version
of this deeply-held self-revulsion.
When Jesus arrives at Peter’s feet, Peter says,
“wait, what? You can’t wash my feet! They’re gross.
And you’re…you know…God or something.”
And Jesus patiently explains it again and Peter says,
“Oh, right, I’m so filthy, I need you to wash my whole self!”
We don’t wash the feet of our dinner guests anymore.
But my friends Chris and Kevin once did something similar for me.
After my entire family had been sick simultaneously
with a stomach bug for several days,
my friends came to our house and cleaned up.
While we were still weak,
they swept and mopped and did dishes
and sanitized counters and doorknobs.
They didn’t hesitate to touch
where our disease had made things unclean.
How could I have been worthy of such a gift?
Perhaps you might justifiably say, “oh man, that’s me. I’m just the worst.”
And perhaps you might also recall
just how many times our scriptures record
the consistent and overwhelming love of God
for some really filthy people.
All of us are imprisoned by sin and we need to be set free.
*       *       *
Now, let’s talk about Jesus’ body.
We say that he was God made human
and centuries of theologians have written
about how he was REALLY HUMAN.
It’s not that he just looked like us but was actually smoke and mirrors.
He didn’t have a glowing God center with a crunchy human shell.
He was really, really, physically, emotionally a person.
Jesus is God becoming a vulnerable, squalling, pooing baby
and a vulnerable, squalling, pooing adult
—that’s his whole deal.
That’s the whole point.
Our God who created the universe,
who made this world in all its amazing variety,
who made us—
these complex, thinking bodies charging through space—
our God didn’t just watch from afar,
munching popcorn like we’re some kind of soap opera.
God got themselves a body and ate hummus
and snuggled with Mary and Joseph
and in the teen years refused to be touched
and walked the dirty roads of Jerusalem
and touched disgusting sick people
and touched unworthy prostitutes and office workers
and touched cruel sinners
and then died in extreme pain in front of his earthly parents,
watching them sob.
And then—spoiler warning—came back to life for real.
It’s all about God’s body.
Jesus body standing in for all the bodies in the world.
All of them.
Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection
is about our bodies being strong and resilient
and vulnerable and imprisoned and…worthy of being set free. And it’s about God loving us more than enough to do it.
That freedom is scary.
It’s a painful and fascinating transition.
But as the Psalmist says in the 31st Psalm,
“Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.”

[1] Kindlon and Thompson, Raising Cain