Sunday, March 15, 2015

Not to judge

fragment of mosaic
There are certain times in life when words from God come at just the right time… I’m reading a quote that a friend has shared and it goes straight to the heart. OR, we flip open to a verse in Ephesians or a devotion for the day and it just hits home, bringing the peace and joy we need. There are other times when a word cuts to the heart.

So, at last week’s Vision Summit, when a participant stood and said, “You know, I wasn’t going to say anything… but I just have to notice who is in this room, and how we are missing many important voices in this conversation… and it makes me wonder, are we really one church?”
That was a word that cut to the heart, not just for me, I think… but for many of those gathered. It was a word that we talked about at the Council meeting the next Monday… it’s a word that’s going to need to be worked through in the days and weeks and months to come. Because it raises a question about where we are broken as a community, as broken as those impatient wilderness wanderers that we hear about in the reading from the book of Numbers today…

From the Vision Summit, my family went directly to a play at the Children’s Theatre in Minneapolis and we saw Huck Finn, a classic, controversial American story by Mark Twain. It’s a story that’s been banned many times over the years… for its racist language, for its depiction of boys making trouble, but maybe even more than that, because it exposed what poor white boys from the south were taught. I was shocked all over again when I heard Huck Finn, a fictional but true-to-life character, say that in Sunday School he was taught that he would burn in hell if he befriended a slave, a Black man. But, he says after some struggle, I’m going to have to do it anyway! Because it’s clearly right.

And then on Sunday afternoon, several of us joined together with students marching in solidarity with those gathering the same way in Selma and Washington D.C. and many other places, in memory of that historic march—the Selma to Birmingham Voting Rights march—50 years ago. Speakers at the event both noted how transformational that march was… And it was evident as each speaker took the podium how very far we still have to go before we as human community are truly healed, are truly one, are truly united…

And like the wilderness wanderers, it would be easy to look at this long history of failures… and grow impatient… and pick apart everything. As the people in the desert said to Moses, “And in addition to everything else, we’re sick of this miserable food!” Of course, when poisonous snakes came among the people, they blame God. God did this to punish people, they assume. People blame God, we blame each other… and we grow farther apart rather than stronger because we have so little faith.

So God invites us, caught up in our divisions, our criticisms, our judgments of ourselves and each other; longing for healing, longing for activities that teach us how to bridge divides, longing for real community in spite of and because of our differences…

God invites us to imagine together that God came among us, just as we are… and that God came with such immense, all-embracing love that we cannot even really picture it.

God came in Jesus who upset the power structure, based on fear and violence and structural domination. God came in Jesus who like the troubled, abused, broken boy Huck Finn… befriended people that he never expected to love. Jesus came like the fatherly, wise, humble ex-slave Jim and kept saving people’s lives over and over again.
This is what we can be… in another time of life when many things are changing, sometimes too fast and sometimes not fast enough… we can be people who walk with each other.

As we gather as church, we do not live the same lifestyles. We have not had the same life experiences nor do we even share the same culture(s), but God has gathered us here for reasons that are still unfolding. Maybe one reason God has gathered us is so that we can be exposed to parts of life that we would not know except that we are walking with each other… for example:
-       how easy it is to become homeless
-       what it is like to have a spouse, parent, grandparent, friend in the grip of dementia
-       how frightening it is when a loved one has given up on life or cannot face death
-       how to make it day-by-day through deep grief

This can be a place where we don’t have to hide all that but where it can be brought to light. Where although we are all subject to judgment, we can be free from judgment.
When we speak, we might say the wrong thing. When we gather, we might do the wrong thing. But, in Christ, we hear in the gospel today, we are forgiven over and over… there is no condemnation here. There is only coming together with trust that God will act, the God who deeply loves the whole world, the whole cosmos.

When it feels like it’s taking too long—to overcome structural racism, to build beloved community, to really be ONE church—God comes among us and points to a cross and says, “I can transform even that—even that tool of torture and death… into a tree of life.” God says, “I can transform even you… broken, disappointed, despairing… so do not be afraid.”

There are certain times when a scripture cuts to the heart—filling us with life and faith and hope and gratitude. Still other times, we read something and it just leaves us… filled with questions. I’ve felt like that all month, as we’ve read scriptures in worship and some word or another has stood out to me in the reading that just feels alienating… and today, it’s how John uses light and dark imagery. As a person who has been in some form of anti-racism work for at least 20 years, it’s hard to deal with verses that equate light with good and dark with bad… and know that through so much of human history, Christian history, American history, those texts have been used to abuse people with dark skin… just like in Huck Finn’s religious education.

So I want to say a couple of things in response… first, that I personally struggle with light-dark imagery in scripture because I don’t find it very helpful. Secondly, that I find myself doing gymnastics in my brain trying to come up with counter illustrations and interpretations and just better words. Thirdly, that there are beautiful images of good dark within the Bible, too… and then also it’s important to say that when these writings were put down, it was in a time and place in which there was no generated light besides candlelight; and in that context, the words sounded different.

But also, as we think about what was done to marchers after dark on the way home from Birmingham to Selma, as we walk through times together when things are not clear, as we remember the fear that many children, even adults have of the dark… and sometimes, for good reason…
In light of all that, maybe it is good to hear that although death and mistrust are real… God is present constantly inviting us to life without fear. God is loving. It is harder to see your deep value, your belovedness when life is very difficult… when you are on the underside of structural racism, when you’re surrounded by poisonous snakes, when you’re facing suffering… but these obstacles make God’s real presence no less. God is here, not as judge but as savior. God is not afraid of the bad parts of us. God does not avoid us when we are going through the hardest times.  Take a moment—quiet moment for reflection… what is the snake on the stick for you, the thing that is killing you, that you want God to transform into something that heals?  [silence-40 secs]

And as we do the work of looking carefully, honestly, openly at the things that are killing us—racism, divisions, illness, hardship, judgment—we can look without fear or shame, but with trust and hope in the saving, forgiving, transforming Christ to bring new life.
You can trust, Jesus says, that I have come to bring life because of God’s deep, unending love for you—and the whole world. I have come to the world not to judge you but to save you.
Amen! Come, Christ Jesus.

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