Reflections on the hurt we’ve caused

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For the last couple of weeks, I have been processing an experience that I had at work. It was one of those clarifying, focusing moments that don’t come along all that often. It feels right now like the ramifications are huge, not just for my work, but for the church at large.

I was invited to attend a meeting of a group of peer navigators. Peer Navigators work in clinics and community centers to accompany those who are living with HIV. They help people to maneuver through the health care system, get connected with basic needs, and provide a basic emotional support system. They are on the front lines, in the trenches, or whatever war metaphor you’d like to use. They are doing the dirty work of loving people at close range.

My invitation came from a staff person at the health department so that I could share information about the work that HopeSprings does. The plan was for to take 10 to 15 minutes explaining our programs, talk about the referral process, and answer any questions. What actually happened took about 45 minutes. After explaining the programs, I got peppered with questions. While a few were about logistics, the bulk of the questions had one overriding theme:

How do we protect our clients from the church?

This theme presented itself in many forms.

“Do churches know that most of our clients are LGBTQ+?”

“Will you make them sign a profession of faith?”

“Are you going to try to change their sexual orientation?”

“Are you trying to convert them?”

My answers to most of the questions were clear; we do this work because we believe our faith calls us to care for the most vulnerable. We’re not trying to change anyone. We’re here to love people as they are.

After about a half hour of these kinds of questions, the room settled. I think people felt comfortable with the answers I gave and seemed to genuinely look forward to working with me.

It was a first step.

I walked away feeling a deeper sense of obligation than what I had come in with. For the last nine months I have been desperate to get volunteers from the faith communities in and around Baltimore. I was reminded though that my desperation for volunteers cannot come at the expense of the very people we are trying to serve.

What I was hearing both implicitly and explicitly was that the church has hurt a lot of people. The capacity for the church to do damage (or further damage) in the lives of people living with HIV seems high, particularly to those who walk beside this population everyday. I heard distrust, skepticism, and wariness, all of it justified. I know a bit about the church’s ability to do damage, both by being on the receiving end and, as a leader, doing damage myself. I will never know, however, the levels of hurt that those in the LGBTQ+ community have experienced, less known those living with HIV. What I heard was a protectiveness. “How do we know that you don’t have more of an agenda than what you’re letting on?”

The church has earned this distrust. No, not every congregation, but the institution as a whole. It’s a hard thing to admit. Decades of shaming, judgment, false pretenses, and hypocrisy have created situations where people are willing to say “thanks, but no thanks” to the faith communities offers of help.

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It reminded me of the importance of humility in walking into these situations. We have to have the patience to absorb the hurt we’re hearing without being defensive. Spaces like this room to which I was invited are Holy ground and have to be treated as such. The burden of building trust with the people in that room falls on me as the burden of building trust with any group who has been hurt or traditionally marginalized from the church falls on the church. It requires that we confess how we have been a source of pain and work to be a source of healing wherever we can. This is complicated by the fact that there are still many places where the church continues to do damage.

I take hope in knowing that there are people out there doing the good work of restoring trust and creating spaces of healing. One of the peer navigators mentioned my friend Emily Scott. She recently began a faith community called Dreams and Visions that is working to create spaces of restoration rooted in the experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals. I was happy to know that there was someone in the room who was familiar with her work, happier still knowing that there are people like her in the world making the critical spaces for healing. The church needs more of such spaces.

We have a lot of work to do…

To Build Up and To Destroy: Day 18

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Let us therefore no longer pass judgement on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling-block or hindrance in the way of another. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. So do not let your good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual edification. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat; it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble. The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.

We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’ For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 14:13-15:6

 

Paul’s argument, and perhaps the most important thing that we can hear as people trying to be faithful is that it is part of responsibility to build each other up. At the core of our faith is an obligation to go beyond the “do no harm” ethos of some and to actually add value to the lives of others. This is maybe one of the most difficult aspects of faith to live out.

Paul’s example is specifically focused at the community of new believers forming in Rome. Some follow are Jews who follow the dietary restrictions of their ancestors. Others are new convert who have grown up without such restrictions. Paul’s admonition to those without the restrictions is to honor the choices of those who have them because they are deeply rooted and cultural.

There is a lesson here for a pluralistic society. How we manage the deeply held beliefs of those around us matters and whenever possible, we should show deference especially in situations where we don’t have strong feelings. More importantly, we should be looking out for those of our community who might be more vulnerable.

A Jew living in Rome would have been in the margins of society. A Jew who converted to Christianity in first century Rome would have been on the margins of the margins. Paul’s statement to the gentile Christians in Rome is essentially, “what do you lose by not offending your Jewish brothers and sisters with the way you eat? Nothing. So err on the side of caring for those who already have the heavier burden to carry”.

Paul refers to the “failings of the weak”. Not a fan of that language. I would simply refer to people’s vulnerabilities, recognizing that at various times, we all take turns being the “weak” and the “strong”. The point is to go beyond “putting up” with to “building up”. It’s about seeing others thrive and desiring that thriving for them. It’s about removing the barriers between people and God. It’s about allowing people, to the extent that we have power, to find the most authentic version of themselves. It’s about not exploiting the vulnerabilities of others to make ourselves look better, but taking the time to love and support people through whatever challenges they may be experiencing.

What this also reinforces for me is the central place of the table in the life of faith. At meals are where our shared lives come together and where we are made equal by our mutual need for sustenance. It is also a place of joy and celebration. It is the one place where there should be no signs of injustice or hierarchy.

Ultimately, what we’re building is empty and hollow if it doesn’t build up our neighbor and specifically if it doesn’t build up the most vulnerable of our neighbors.

 

 

To Build Up and To Destroy: Day 17

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‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’

 Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures:
“The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
   and it is amazing in our eyes”? 
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’

 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet. – Matthew 21:33-46

Jesus’ primary opposition was the religious establishment.

Let me say that again…

Jesus’ primary opposition was the religious establishment.

Jesus’ primary opposition remains the religious establishment.

I’m convinced of this more and more everyday… nothing keeps people from experiencing God like religion.

Jesus compares the religious leaders of his day to renters on someone else’s land. When workers come to collect the fruit the land has produced, they are attacked and killed by the renters.

I had to put this in my own terms. It’s as if I asked a friend to house sit for me, but I also asked a neighbor to water my garden while I was gone. When the neighbor comes over to water the garden, they are attacked by my friend who is housesitting who is assuming that they are doing a good thing, protecting my house.

The point isn’t to protect the vineyard. There’s a fence and a watchtower for that. The job of the tenants is to collect fruit or at the very least not get in the way of others collecting fruit.

But Jesus sees the religious leaders of his time as actively working against the aims of the landowner, God.

And I see religious leaders doing the same today.

I say this as someone who was once a religious leader. Too often we think that our job is to protect the institution. We can easily become hindrances to ministry in the name of keeping the doors open. And we can become envious and hostile towards those who are doing good in the world because they’re not doing it by our rules.

We miss the point so easily.

The answer to this problem is not the reform of the tenants. This is hard to hear. It is finding new people to do the work. Once we’re in, we’re often too entrenched, too invested to see anything beyond the maintenance and security of what we think to be important. In the meantime, we miss out on relationships with the very people who need to hear the good news that we supposedly offer.

Jesus was trying to build something that looked markedly different from the religious structure of his day. To thank him, we built something that looks surprisingly like the religious structure of his day in His name.

Oops!

Jesus is building with the rejected stones, the people we find expendable. And unless we find ourselves building with and among them, we’re likely just contributing to a system that bears no fruit.

To Build Up and To Destroy: Day 16

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As I was looking through old sermons this weekend, I was surprised to see how often this “building and destroying” theme that I have been meditating on this Lent came through in my preaching. I am wildly inconsistent on somethings, but I have been pretty consistent in my theology even as it continues to evolve.

Here’s the thing, this theme emerged because it is the cornerstone of my theology. In essence, what I believe in most is the thing that Jesus himself preached most often: the kingdom of God is at hand.

To put a point on it, what is being built is the kingdom of God. What is being destroyed is the kingdoms of humanity.

The biblical witness is a record of the ideals of the God’s kingdom coming up against the realities of humanity, always with trade offs, some of which have been disastrous.

Many of my liberal friends dislike the language of “kingdom of God”. They prefer more familial language like the kin-dom of God. That’s cool and I respect the impulse, yet I stick to the original kingdom (or reign) of God language. I worry that we risk missing or losing the insurgent nature of what Jesus is proposing. Jesus is proposing an empire whose machinations work diametrically in opposition to those of the Roman empire or any of the empire that came before or will come after. Jesus’ language is revolutionary. It requires the destruction of what has come before, but not by the means of other imperial rulers. God’s new empire will spread through love and justice, not violence and oppression.

Normally when I talk about this, I use the language of “empire” vs. “community”. Empire is what the kingdoms of this world are trying to build. It is what John Dominic Crossan calls the “domination system” or “the normalcy of civilization”. “Community” is what Rev. Fred Rogers calls “being neighbors”. “Neighborhood” would also work as an alternative to empire. God challenges us to love our neighbor and to then see the neighbor in everybody.

Lent for me is about finding those things within myself that represent “empire” and cultivating those things within myself that encourage neighborliness. During this time, I have tried to examine the ways in which the building and destroying within the biblical narrative do or do not reflect his movement from empire to community.

Maybe this is what I should have written on day 1, but I felt like for my own edification I needed to say this as plainly as possible. This is the core of what I believe. The nuances of how it is lived out are… messy, but this is where I rest my head at night.

To Build Up and To Destroy: Day 15

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Well, I’m cheating a little bit today. This weekend I was going through some old sermons in a failed attempt to help my wife with her’s and I found this one which matches the theme I have been working with. It was written as Trayvon Martin’s murder was getting more media attention. I think it still resonates.

The link has both the text and the audio of the sermon.

https://dweston.typepad.com/transitions/2012/03/sermon-audio-and-text-3-25-12-tear-down-build-up-.htm

 

 

To Build Up and To Destroy: Day 14

 

 

photography of stones

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Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. Matthew 16:13-20

You are Peter.

You are the rock. The rock upon which I will build my church.

There is a lot of wordplay going on here.

First off, “Peter” has been anything but a “rock” up to this point. He’s been a rockhead, maybe. But he’s done a bunch of stupid things already with more to come.

The declaration of that Simon will become the rock is a sign of Jesus’ intentions. I’m building something. You can’t see it yet. Moreover, I’m going to build it with the most unlikely of source material.

People like Simon.

Simon, the lowly fisherman, who likely has to give over much of what he catches to be used to feed the imperial war machine of Rome. Simon, the son of a fisherman, another nobody.

This Simon will be the foundation of what Jesus is building.

And what is that, exactly?

An ekklesia, naturally.

The wordplay again is important, Peter is rock to build upon and looking at that through the modern lens, we can easily fall into our now traditional understanding of ekklesia (church) as building.

But ekklesia in the ancient Greek world meant “assembly” the gathering of the people who came together out in the public to do important work on behalf of all. The word literally means “called out”… the people summoned from their homes to gather to make the republic work.

Peter is the foundation of a new ekklesia, a new gathering of people who will leave their homes to work for the good of the people. A new democratic system is being formed that will benefit all, not just the rich and powerful. It will be a gathering of people who look like Peter, lowly nobodies whose only real advantage in this world is recognizing something special in the person of Jesus.

Some times I look at what the church has become and I think, “this isn’t the thing that Jesus is building… the thing for which Peter was the groundwork”. I more often see a group of people clustered by political preferences and gathered for their own comfort.

The thing that Jesus is building is a gathering of people, mostly those on the lower rungs of the social ladder, brought together for mutual love and to work for the good of the community of which they are a part. It is an assembly of people which the defenses of hell can’t stand against because the offensive of love is too overwhelming. It is a militant gathering of peacemakers, forgivers, reconcilers, and truth tellers.

It is a revolution, made of flawed, broken people whose only redeeming factor is the knowledge that they are loved and made to love.

To Build Up and To Destroy: Day 13

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[I am way behind on this project. If I am consistent on anything, it is being inconsistent. I will get 40 entries done, hopefully within reasonable proximity to the end of Lent. When I started this project, my intent was to do 20 days using the Hebrew Scripture and 20 days using the New Testament. Since we are at the halfway point of Lent, I am switching to the NT passages, but I will come back to the even things up at the end]

 

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. – John 2:13-21

I love this story!

I don’t just love this story, I love John’s version of this story.

What’s notable about John’s version versus the synoptic gospels? Two things: John puts this at the beginning of his story. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this episode is a part of the narrative of Jesus’ last week and it’s hinted that it is a part of what lead people to want to kill him. Here, in John’s gospel, this is right at the beginning of Jesus going public…

…which leads me to believe that, at least within the Johannine world, this was an annual thing that Jesus did. Annual at least!

I love the idea of Jesus just knocking over the tables of anyone he saw trying to make a profit by exploiting people or trying to make a buck off of religious good and services.

Can you imagine Jesus walking through a Christian bookstore and trashing everything? Cause I can!

(RIP Lifeway)

The second thing I love about John’s version, and maybe Mark and the boys were just a little too timid to add this detail, is that Jesus made a whip.

Jesus. Made. A. Whip.

Jesus turned into Indiana Jones. That’s pretty badass!

The integrity of the temple is this serious to Jesus. It was important not because the place was special in and of itself but because it was the symbol of people’s access to God. This access is not a thing to be commodified. It is our birthright.

And that same unhindered access to God is what He represents, a point He makes clearly in his remarks about the temple.

Jesus is passionate about people having access to God. I think that is a passion worth sharing. It is a passion worthy of our anger and outrage when we see that that access is being denied or dictated by others.

As we build we need to obsess ourselves with the question “what might I be doing that is a hindrance to people experiencing God?” and then we must purge those a way.

Preferably with a whip.