Who Is My Neighbor?

With my coffee in hand, I spent this morning flipping through the pages of my Feasting on the Word commentary to study the Gospel Lesson for this Sunday only to discover that I’ve preached this one before. Of course I had. I couldn’t quite escape that feeling as I had started writing earlier this week but there wasn’t anything in my files. There was no manuscript to be found.

I finally did the math and realized that it was the summer of 2013 that this lection last appeared. This should have been obvious, but I was clearly under-caffeinated. Three years ago, I was pastoring the United Churches of Olympia. It was my first summer there, actually. And it was the summer that I had decided to preach without notes! A ha! I am, however, no good at getting up and speaking spontaneously. So there was definitely something written so I searched the archives of my blog and discovered this post.

I remember this vividly. I remember waking up that morning and reading the news. I remember the horror I felt so that I felt I had to scrap what I’d written earlier that week. I remember that I began that sermon from the aisle of the Sanctuary with a question. Or perhaps it was a statement. I inferred that every one gathered for worship that day knew what I knew. They had read the horror. They had seen the headlines and their outrage matched mine. But, they hadn’t yet seen it. They didn’t know that the verdict had been made the night before so that it took some time to get to the same place.

It’s something I often feel as a preacher. I feel the discord. I feel the tension as my heart and soul marches for justice through the words I proclaim. It’s not what they want to hear, those people in the pews. They want to hear good news. They want to be told it will all work out in the end. I want that too but it chills me to the bone to read these words again when in the last 24 hours the horror has hit again.

There are new names: Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. There are new names of beautiful hearts and souls that have been stripped and beaten and left for dead and it feels like words do not matter. But, they do. Words like these matter and if we can actually hear these words within the context of the Gospel then perhaps this parable matters too.

It matters to me.

It is not my words or even my interpretation of these words that matters but how we dare to answer the lawyer’s question. “Who is my neighbor?” he asks. There has never been a more important question. It is the question we must ask when we continue to label differences between us rather than insisting upon the humanity we share. We must ask this question again. We must continue to ask it until we — good white Christians — stop turning our backs on our black sisters and brothers.

Who is my neighbor? Three years ago, I concluded this:

The message is pretty simple (impossibly hard to do, but simple): if you want to feel God’s presence, if you really want to feel that kindness, you need to allow yourself to get uncomfortable. In the way this story goes, this sounds passive. You just wait for help to come along — and then when it finally comes from the last person on Earth you ever would have wanted, you receive it. I don’t want to sound too jaded, but you could be waiting a long time. What’s more: you’re not alone. There is someone else that is asking those exact same questions. There is someone else that feels as stripped and beaten as you do. Why are you waiting in a ditch by yourself? If you believe that change is possible, that we could live in a world where every neighbor might feel safe and protected, it seems to me that you can’t just wait around for someone else to inspire you. You gotta seek that out yourself. You gotta ask the questions that everyone is afraid to ask. That is how we will go and do likewise.

But, we haven’t. We haven’t gone and done likewise and so there has been a slow and steady loss of humanity because we haven’t made ourselves even a little bit uncomfortable. Now is the time. Get uncomfortable. Challenge your own arrogance and I’ll challenge mine.

Running Naked

It was only a few weeks ago that I found this beautiful passage from a colleague’s sermon on her blog Spacious Faith. That little passage from her sermon archives inspired what I preached that Sunday. I tend to be in the camp that thinks I have to write something new each time I preach on a particular passage. I’m setting myself up for that challenge this week — but that didn’t stop me from rereading a sermon from my archives.

I distinctly remember reading this story in Runner’s World when a friend posted it on Facebook a few years ago which I translated directly into the story of Bartimaeus in this week’s lectionary gospel reading from Mark 10:46-52. Here is a excerpt from that sermon.

Like the blind beggar, I want to throw off my cloak and run. Naked, even. Adam Cohen was just that brave when he toed up to the starting line for the Trail of Tears 5K in Oklahoma. He was tempted to wear a long t-shirt, but decided that if he was going to truly participate in this “clothing optional” race, he better just do it. You might say that he threw off his cloak and ran, but as his wife so keenly observed before the race began, “There’s more to being naked than exposing your private parts.”

That’s what strikes me about this strange little detail where a beggar throws off his cloak. It’s more than being vulnerable or exposed or even finding the right words to express exactly what you believe. That cloak is probably the only thing he owns. It’s his only possession in the whole world. He’s probably not naked underneath that cloak. It’s probably just an outer garment, something that has been keeping him warm beside of the road. But, throwing off that cloak, he exposes something private. He reveals something about himself. After all, there’s more to being naked than exposing your private parts.

It’s about admitting what you really need. It’s about that desire to see more clearly than you ever have before. It’s about throwing off that word that isn’t working for you anymore. No matter how much warmth and security it has given you in the past, it doesn’t fit who you’ve become. Maybe the word has changed. Maybe you have changed. Something has changed — so that now, you just want to run naked unadorned of the words that may have once defined you.

A DIY Faith

It was only a month ago that I dared to imagine what might be possible with the good folks gathered from #NCLI15. Together, we dared to imagine to get past the headlines preaching decline and destruction of the church and we did so by entertaining these popular trendlines from crowdsourcing to the sharing economy to the local movement to DIY.

Each trendline was its own breakout group where we got to talk about what this thing is and how it functions. Then, we tried to grasp what it might mean for the church. Is there good news in these trendlines that counter the narrative of decline? It was assumed by the organizers that the answer is obviously yes. These trendlines tell another story. That’s what we were supposed to feel in each breakout group.

I remained unconvinced.

I remain unconvinced. As much as I wanted to believe that there is another story, it felt like a gimmick. It felt so forced that each breakout session seemed to conclude with some aphorism of faith that we’ve heard a thousand times before.

Maybe we need to hear those things again. Maybe they are still true.

Maybe that’s the whole point but it’s hard to sit with that old, old story when there are big promises of something new and exciting.

It introduces a different kind of despair because the other thing the headlines continue to tell us is that those people out there don’t want that old, old story. They’ve heard it before. They are not interested.

I wonder if that’s the destructive story that we’ve claimed as gospel. People don’t want religion. We’ve come to believe this so much that we’re contorting ourselves to be new and exciting when what we really want — what we really need — is the old, old story. Because there is no news like good news.

While religious leaders and organizations have slumped into despair because no one wants our old, old story, the good news continues. It’s still out there. It’s still happening.

It’s just more of a DIY kind of faith. It’s what the non-profit Kevah is doing to bring people together in studying the Torah. Reading the Torah isn’t new and exciting. It’s something that is expected of any Jew or any Christian or any Muslim. As people of the book, we’re actually supposed to read those sacred words. We’re supposed to meditate on them and try to figure out what in the world they mean. Kevah is inviting people to study that old, old story in groups of their own creation. Be it geographic or demographic or particular topic of interest. They form their own groups — and then Kevah offers them a trained teacher. There’s a fee that comes with that finder’s fee. But, once that match is made, the group gets to create its own adventure in Torah study.

open-343297_1280It’s not a gimmick. It’s not forced. It’s responding to a genuine need that what people really want is relationship. We want something genuine and real. We want people that we can trust surrounding us in a sacred circle so that we can ask the hardest questions and know that we won’t be shunned or mocked.

There is no reason to despair because this DIY approach is creating something that religious institutions and religious leaders have completely failed in doing. It’s not something I really understand but it’s something I hear about from people that stumble into the bible studies I’ve led. They haven’t felt loved. They haven’t felt supported. That’s what they are looking for as much as that sacred study. So, when they come to bible study, they are very quiet. They think they have to be an expert in Greek or Hebrew more than their own lives. So, they don’t speak.

It makes me sad every single time. Because, for whatever reason, we have focused so much on the text that we have forgotten to listen to each other’s hearts. We aren’t focused on the people before us but on the words on the page. Those words matter but they matter so much more when they are connected to the person holding the text beside me. Sometimes that means we go off topic. Sometimes it means that there are more questions than answers. Of this I am convinced, as much as the trendline wants us to believe we can do it on our own, the truth is: we can’t.

A DIY faith is one where we realize that we are each called to be disciples and apostles and teachers. There are some that are set apart to shepherd us. I am one of those ordained people that gets to do that cheerleading but I know that I can’t do it on my own. I can’t change the headlines all by myself. I need others that will help me. This is something that I’ve tried to instill in the churches I’ve served. The pastor doesn’t need to be at everything. She doesn’t need to teach every class. She doesn’t need to lead every prayer. She doesn’t need to have any idea for every new program because the better ideas are out there in the congregation. I created my own DIY approach in this step-by-step guide about how to start a small group ministry which you’ll find in my Ideas and Resources page. Download it. Use it. Because I can’t do it alone. You can’t do it alone. We must do it together.

That’s the old, old story that never gets tired. It’s the gospel we need to remember when the headlines tell another story. We need each other. We need every disciple, every apostle, every teacher and every person with a crazy idea that will help us re-member that good news within ourselves.