“Bridging Divisions”

A Pentecost Sunday sermon from Acts 2:1-21

Back in the middle ages, the church became expert at celebrating Pentecost Sunday.

It helped that, first, they built breath-takingly huge cathedrals with dramatically high, vaulted ceilings symbolizing the distance between earth and heaven.

Second, our church fathers and mothers painted sacred scenes on the ceilings of many of those cathedrals.

The most famous is the artwork Michelangelo painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. It features scores if not hundreds of biblical scenes, such as God reaching out from heaven to create Adam.

If you go to one those old cathedrals today and glance up at the ceiling, you are likely to see biblical history unfolding overhead in living color.

But what in those cathedrals most causally related to Pentecost was a third innovation very few people are aware of.

Sometime around the end of the first millennium, congregants began cutting holes in the ceilings of these cathedrals. They actually drilled small openings in the ceilings all the way through the roof.

During the Pentecost worship service, some of the church members would ascend to the roof. At the appropriate time during the Pentecost service, they released live doves through those holes.

The doves dove and swooped out the holes and into the cathedrals, symbolizing the Holy Spirit descending on the people below.

And when the doves appeared, cathedral choirs joined in with the whooshing and drumming sound of a holy storm— wind blowing, cymbals clashing, drums pounding. Thunder, lightning and wind filled the sanctuary.

Finally, as the doves flew and the winds blew, those on the roof poured bushels upon bushels of rose petals through the holes to drift down upon the congregation. Those red petals floating upon on the worshippers symbolized the tongues of flame which came upon the disciples that first Pentecost morning.

You must admit that it sounds like quite a production!

But for my money, at least, it was nothing to compare with the very first Pentecost.

You might remember that before that day came, Jesus had told the disciples several times that the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, would be given to them. He also told them to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the Spirit.

I doubt it was any surprise to the disciples when the Holy Spirit did show up, but the specifics must have shocked and awed them.

Certainly, the Spirit made an immediate impact.

The disciples were all together in one place, probably in the same upper room where so much had already happened.

The book of Acts tells us that suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the house.

Then, each of the disciples saw what seemed to be tongues of fire coming to rest on them.

Acts tells us that all were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them the ability.

Now, you might want to pay attention here.

When people hear this part of the story about disciples speaking in other languages, they often confuse it with what is known as “speaking in tongues.”

That is not what happened.

The Apostle Paul tells us that “speaking in tongues” is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but also that “speaking in tongues” is unintelligible to almost everybody other than the speaker.

Having heard people speak tongues and had a few pray over me, I can verify that. They were all very sincere, but I had no idea what they said.

That is not what happened Pentecost morning.

In fact, it was quite the opposite. What did happen is, I think, the miracle of Pentecost and a miracle we need repeated in our lives today.

What happened is a miracle of communication, understanding and connection.

First, these illiterate disciples of Jesus started talking in foreign languages, languages from a number of countries and regions around the Mediterranean Sea.

Let me tell you why that was important.

While the Holy Spirit was transforming Jesus’ disciples inside the upper room, outside of the upper room, Jews from all over the world had gathered in Jerusalem that week for a big festival.

Many of those foreigners heard the commotion going on inside the upper room, and heard these disciples speaking in their own language. More importantly, they understood them. And they came to be drawn into the Christian community by the power of the Holy Spirit.

If we think about it, that is a wow moment.

Things that divided them were bridged by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

It is like human community and harmony and peace are God’s will.

Unfortunately, we have become so used to our divisions in the United States—and their bitter results— that it is even hard for us to hope and pray for unity.

How hard it is to bridge our differences and communicate well with, and understand, each other! And it is even harder to connect despite those differences.

But that morning, even better, as this communication, understanding and connection was happening, Peter stepped it up a notch.

He stood up, cleared his throat and preached a sermon so powerful that three thousand people came to Jesus that day.

All in all, it was quite unforgettable.

The Holy Spirit blew in with power, with gale force winds and something like tongues of fire and filled the disciples with divine power and purpose.

The Holy Spirit then empowered them to speak in languages unknown to them;

empowered others to hear and understand what was being said;

empowered Peter to stand and offer words of hope, mercy, forgiveness, life, love; and,

empowered thousands there to see, hear, understand and respond to the message.

The story of the early church after Jesus ascended is the story of the Holy Spirit working in and through those first disciples to help build God’s kingdom.

Surely, in those early days, the first disciples needed a pick-me-up, a bit oomph, and a lot of purpose and direction.

They had experienced quite a couple of months since the night Jesus was arrested.

First, they scattered like a covey of quail when he was arrested.

Then they went into hiding when he was crucified, died, and buried. After all, any hope they had for the future had melted and evaporated like an ice cube put on a sidewalk during a Texas summer day.

But then God intervened, and brought life out of death, light out of dark, hope out of despair— and raised Jesus from the dead.

Now he was gone again.

But he had promised the disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit.

And sure enough, the Spirit roared into their lives, giving them the real meal deal of God’s power and purpose moving and directing them in life.

Wow.

We would like some of that, wouldn’t we?

As a matter of fact, we need that Holy Spirit power.

Our nation needs that Holy Spirit power.

The world needs that Holy Spirit power.

Remember, God can move through believer and atheist and anyone in between those poles, including those of other religions.

We do need to need something or someone to get us through.

There is no lack of major problems that need fixing and transforming.

Those ill with coronavirus across the world approaches 6 million.

In the United States, we are approaching 2 million cases.

About 105,000 of our fellow citizens have died.

That is about one-third of the world-wide total.

Caseloads and deaths are increasing and not decreasing in a number of states and nations.

Meanwhile, about 40 million of our fellow citizens are out of work.

There are long lines at food banks across the nation.

And of course, continuing racial injustice in America seen in the sudden, horrific murder of a black man has led to peaceful demonstrations, which have grown into relatively widespread conflict, violence and even death.

And this all comes at a time when we are deeply divided politically, many are seriously alienated from their fellow citizens and have no desire to bridge the gap, and the political leaders of our nation seem to be at a standstill about what to do.

We need some Pentecostal power, particularly some Pentecostal power of communication and understanding and connection.

We need bridge-building.

We need our common humanity to come to the fore.

That is what happened that day in Jerusalem.

People of different nations, languages, cultures, subcultures, as well as different family, economic and educational backgrounds were drawn together by the power of God.

Understand well that they were drawn together by God who appreciated and honored this diversity of nations, languages, cultures, subcultures, family, economic and educational backgrounds.

God had made them different and loved all the differences.

And I note that God used some hicks from the sticks, some people from the notoriously backward area of Galilee, mainly illiterate fishermen, to be His vehicles of reconciliation and growth.

It is an astonishing story that only God could produce and direct.

I know we in the Hill Country often feel far away and almost insulated from what is happening in other parts of the nation and world.

But we are not. We are part of this nation and world. God calls us to do his work in them.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, we need to call upon God to help us be his agents of reconciliation and connection. In II Corinthians, Paul tells us to be those kinds of agents.

We can build bridges right where we are today.

It starts in our hearts and minds, our thoughts and prayers, our words and action.

I am a boy of the Old South. Born in Austin and raised in Houston.

My daddy was born in 1916.

He grew up as a tenant former in an area just east of Waco.

Those cotton fields around the little towns of Marlin, Chilton and Lott looked a lot like the cotton fields in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.

He was a good man in many ways but also burdened with the racial biases of the Old South.

Early on in life, he began passing them to me.

I remember, though, something that happened when I was about 10.

Our next-door neighbors had a fishing cabin on a river northeast of Houston.

They asked me to their cabin for a weekend of fishing.

To there, we had to pass through a number of African American neighborhoods in Houston.

As we drove through one, I said what I had once heard my daddy say, “Well, doesn’t it stink around here.”

It was one of the more shameful moments of my life.

Mrs. Bowers turned around from the front passenger seat and barked at me to never say that again.

She said blacks were no different than anybody else, that she had black friends, and that they apparently had more love in their hearts than I did.

If I had known than then what I know now, I would have thanked her for the lesson.

But she shut me up, open my eyes, change my heart and put me on a different path—not a perfect path but a different one, that was at least less racist than before and more open to black lives mattering.

Friends, we are all affected by these divisions, which include not only racial and ethnic divisions, but also conservative-liberal and Republican-Democrat divides, as well as rich-poor, urban-rural and other divisions as well.

It has been said by many that a nation divided against itself cannot stand. If we continue on the present path, we will end tearing ourselves apart.

Even worse, if we harbor ill will for other people or groups, we are sinning and failing God, who creates us all, calls us all to be his children, and seeks us to join together in doing his work in world.

God’s main work on earth may be just to keep creation going, but among human beings, God’s main work is love. That includes reconciling differences and bridging divisions.

As we get ready to leave and do our work in our Lord’s world, let us all remember:

God calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves.

            God calls us to pray for enemies.

            God calls us to do good even to those who persecute us.

God calls us quite simply to love.

And in this marvelous story of the coming of Holy Spirit,

            God calls us to reach out and understand

that whomever we are

            and whomever they are,

            we are all His children,

called to follow His will and his ways.

Bless God’s holy name. Amen.

Let us join in prayer.

Good and gracious God, pour your Holy Spirit upon us today because we need a Pentecostal miracle. Our country and world are divided; strife, violence and injustice abound; lives are lost, property is destroyed, and fear has spread. You call us to be your agents of reconciliation in the midst of this division, to be builders of your kingdom and spreaders of your divine love. Send your Spirit to lead and direct us on these paths and teach us to cherish our differences as precious gifts from you. Amen.

It’s Hot in Hell

My conservative brothers and sisters– real meal deal, red meat conservative evangelical Christians– often claim that America is going to straight to hell.

They are the ones who nod in agreement when preachers blame the latest devastating hurricane (e.g. Katrina, Irene, Sandy, et al) on American LGBTs; rail against government spending while warning against anyone taking their Medicare; roll down their car windows upon seeing a homeless person and yell, “Get a job;” and, claim to believe in the in the “right to life” while staunchly upholding the death penalty.

I used to roll my eyes at their beliefs, but am coming to believe they are right, at least in their conclusion about where we are headed. If it is not to hell, than it is to someplace equally as dreadful.

Several events of the last two weeks well illustrate our national downward journey.

Gianforte

Gianforte: A kick butt kind of guy

Yesterday, Montana elected a temperamental, violent man as their congressman. The night before the election, he assaulted a reporter. Here is a recording of the assault.

When the news went public, his press office issued a dishonest explanation. Meanwhile, some applauded his action and others justified it. The best Republican leaders could do is whimper, “He should apologize.”

No, they should condemn his physical attack on the free press.

Ironically, as they ignore or attack freedom of the press, this man, his supporters and Republican leaders beat their chests about the freedoms of speech, religion and bearing forearms and how their opponents are trying to subvert them.

We need freedom of the press far more than we need another hothead in Washington.

The assault took place after he was asked about our second revolting item of the week– the CBO score on the cruel-hearted Republican take-away-healthcare bill.

That score said that, if the bill is enacted, 23 million Americans will lose healthcare coverage and millions of others, including many with preexisting conditions, will be priced out of coverage.

Instead of owning these outcomes and their real goal of using the resultant savings to hand a tax cut to the rich, Republicans have the temerity to run a series of national ads claiming that the bill increases coverage and reduces premiums while also protecting those with preexisting conditions.

In other words, they lie and present night as day and fact as fiction.

These have also been the weeks the Seth Rich conspiracy theories have circulated, a conspiracy born in conservative minds with no basis in fact. The claim has aired on Fox News, the Sean Hannity show, other conservative media and interviews with former House speaker and should-be felon Newt Gingrich.

The story has been thoroughly debunked, but some undoubtedly still hold onto it.

Its airing was devoid of decency and unneeded misery for the Rich family.

Our president has been abroad during much of this. His visit to Saudi Arabia, including a meeting with numerous Arab heads of state, reportedly exceeded expectations.

Apparently, our gets along well with autocratic despots, including those in Saudi Arabia and Qatar who excel in exporting their vicious version of fundamentalist Islam that radicalizes young minds.

Leaders Meet For NATO Summit

Trump at NATO meeting

By contrast, however, Trump embarrasses us among our European, more democratic allies (do they still let Erdogan in?) by lecturing them on his misguided understanding of NATO funding and shoving people aside to get in front of cameras.

At least we were spared seeing Trump respond to revelations about his son-in-law’s entanglement with the Russian investigation and the release of his budget requested that balanced the United States budget by double counting $2 TRILLION.

This is Republican America were up is down and bad is good.

If it is not hell, it is close enough.

And it not the fault of LGBTs or any other liberal bogeyman.

 

Damn the Poor!?!

Trumpcare and the administration’s budget submission propose slashing the social safety net by about $1.7 trillion over the next ten years.

Most of the savings would be stuffed into already bulging pockets of the well-to-do, the top 1% or 2% of income earners.

Meanwhile, the cuts would not only target the poor, but more particularly those who are children, disabled, sick or hungry.

These proposals show the lie that were Trump’s campaign contentions not to cut Medicaid.

You can find articles on the impact of these cuts here, here and here. Here is a rather sad article on the rationale behind the cuts and how a Russian news reporter schooled Trump’s budget director on some aspects of it.

Christians who support this war on the poor don’t even have a fig leaf to wear in justifying these actions.

If you believe scripture, while we may not like it or understand it, God wants fairness and justice for the poor.

Bible verses attesting to God’s concern for the poor:

“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God.” Leviticus 23:22

“Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land . . . buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat. The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.” Amos 8:4; 6-7

“Jesus answered, If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.'” Matthew 19:21

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” Matthew 25:35

“They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely.” Mark 12:40

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed.” Luke 4:18

“So he replied to the messengers, “‘Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.'” Luke 7:22

“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.” Luke 12:33

If Trump’s budget and healthcare proposals are enacted, tens of millions of Americans will be worse off than they are today.

According to the latest Census figures, about 45 million Americans live in poverty and over 16 million of those are children.

According to the same figures, about 30 million Americans live just above the poverty line and, again, about one-third of these are children.

Some, such as Franklin Graham say in earnestness, and with faith and hope, that Trump is sent by God.

If that is true, my thought is that if these proposals are to be believed, God sent him not as a blessing but as a curse.

 

An American Mean Streak

Many Americans are proud of our individual freedoms and acclaimed generosity.

However true these qualities may be, our continuing struggles with racism, nativism and xenophobia indicate we still struggle how far those freedoms and generosity extend.

Indeed, racism, nativism and xenophobia are on ample and sometimes heart-breaking display in the Trump administration’s enforcement of immigration laws. Some of those actions are hard-hearted.

Last month, a mother of four was ripped from her family and deported to Mexico. Maribel Trujillo Diaz had lived in Fairfield, Ohio for the post several years. A native of Mexico, she is the mother of four children, ranging in age from three to fourteen, including one with special needs.

Interviewed earlier this year,  Trujillo said that she crossed the border in 2002 to flee threats from a drug cartel and “find a better way of life.” She has been living here since then, and has had work permit for the last several years. That permit was due to expire in July.

That made no difference to ICE, which arrested her in early April, irrespective of the work permit, her job and a clean criminal record. After her arrest, a trio of high-placed Ohio officials, Gov. John Kasich, Sen. Rob Portman and Sen. Sherrod Brown asked ICE to reconsider their decision to deport her.

ICE declined and proceeded with its action. Trujillo has now been “removed” from the country and become another statistic, while her children apparently remain motherless in Ohio.

Two articles covering her deportation are here and here.

It was reported this week that immigration arrests increased 38% over the first 3 months of 2017 compared to the same period last year. The Administration contends that its policies have emphasize the deportation of criminals. An article on that is here.

That is false as ICE “criminal” figures include anyone charged with an offense. Moreover, one of offenses included within the figures is being in this country without proper documentation. In other words, the government includes arrests of suspected immigrants without papers in its statistics. These things obscure the truth.HOew

There are now scores of reports like the one about Ms. Trujillo.

It is true that Trump’s deportation policies are working as he intended. Their consequences include arresting mothers at home in front of their minor children, ripping families apart, ridding the country of the “menace” of high school valedictorians without proper papers who hope to attend college here; and, hauling away people recognized as pillars of their community.

This is a national shame.

I say this because of personal and religious views.

My mom’s lineage is pure Anglo-Saxon and rather well-to-do. It is family lore that her father’s line in America began when a forebear was sent by England’s king sometime in the early 1700’s to serve as a royal official in the Carolinas. After that, the family became prosperous farmers, well, to be honest, plantation owners in South Carolina. We don’t like to talk too much about that odious slave-owning history.

Instead, I consider with some pride that I am from my father’s line of Scotch-Irish-English mutts.

We have no idea when that line began in the United States, although my theory is that a an ancestor was on the lam from the law in England and stowed away on an American-bound ship to get a second chance at life. There is something mutt-like, populist and hopeful in seeking to improve one’s life through radical risk and hard-work.

I view most immigrants out of this lens. My interactions with undocumented immigrants have been consistent with this. To a man and to a woman, they have been friendly, hard-working, humble and hopeful.

My Christianity also reinforces my inclinations toward sympathy and understanding.

There are some Bible verses to the contrary, but the heavy weight of both testaments emphasizes just, fair and even generous treatment of the foreigner, stranger and alien.

This is easily seen with even a casual reading of the Bible or the simple consideration that, in their own ways, Jesus and the early evangelists were at one time or another “foreigners, aliens or strangers.”

I deplore the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented workers. It has led not only to the deportation of so-called dreamers, but split families, swept up innocents and weakened local law enforcement.

You will find several hits on these items if you google “deportation of mother,” or “deportation of dreamer,” or “sanctuary cities.”

 

Who You Are

This is a sermon from Acts 7:55-60 and I Peter 2:2-10 that I preached on Sunday. It has been reworked a bit before adding it here. It speaks to an issue that confronts many of us today as we get “siloed” together with our group and drown out other opinions and don’t see other people.

Overview

Stephen’s execution is a horrific example of a widespread human tendency that sometimes turns lethal.

Background

Before he was martyred, Stephen was one of those who came to believe in Jesus sometime after the day of Pentecost. After that, he rose to be a deacon in the Jerusalem church. His primary work there was to distribute food and other aid to the poor.

Unfortunately, as happened with Jesus, and continually happened to his early followers, Stephen became controversial. He did so basically because he talked and taught Jesus’ resurrection and Jesus’ being the long-awaited messiah.

Over time, his beliefs and actions upon those beliefs gained a growing number of enemies. Some of them accused Stephen of blasphemy, of saying untrue and profane things about God.

Stephen’s trial

We don’t do it in America these days, at least not formally, but back then in Israel, there were people who policed blasphemy. You might remember them. They were who arrested, tried and convicted Jesus of blasphemy. We know them as the Sanhedrin, the group of men who together ruled and enforced the Jewish religion. So, just as Jesus had been drug in to respond to charges, Stephen was drug in to respond to similar charges.

To be fair to the members of the Sanhedrin, I left out of today’s reading some verses that tell some hard and harsh things Stephen said to them. He spat out that they were traitors and murders who were unfaithful to God.

If any of them were sleeping, those words woke them and flipped their anger switches. You can imagine that as Stephen spoke those words, he got their full attention and they leaned forward to hear what else the man might say.

It was then that Stephen crossed the line. The Bible says it was the Holy Spirit who led him to do it. Medieval paintings portray the moment the Holy Spirit did that, with Stephen looking worshipfully and beatifically up to heaven where he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Stephen then voiced his vision. His words transformed his judges into his executioners.

Stephen’s execution

 

Stoning of St. Stephen, Saint-'Etienne-du-Mont

Stoning of St. Stephen, by Saint-Etienne-du-Mont

To use a modern term, they got weaponized. They covered their ears, shouted to drown out his voice and charged toward him as one. Then they dragged him out of the city and stoned him until he was dead. As the stones broke his bones and tore his skin, Stephen prayer his last words, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

 

In those words, he echoed words Jesus prayed as he hung from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” It is likely that none of his executioners heard those words. They had long since quit listening to him, devoting themselves instead to ensuring that his voice was permanently stilled.

The Human Condition

The horrible irony is that Stephen did not die for blasphemy nor did he die for speaking falsely about God. Quite the opposite, he was stoned for speaking what he believed to be the divine truth of Jesus Christ.

Another way of looking at it is that he died because he said some his judges and executioners disagreed with. He offended them and they hated him and killed him because of it.

Friends, be careful if anyone who offends you. If anyone does, be careful how you react to them.

This mob shows us what people are capable of when we judge others; think of them as beneath us; consider them to contemptible or unworthy. Oh, what horrors can happen when we see a person or group of people in those ways.

The long, sad history of America’s tolerance and practice of slavery, followed by decade after decade of hard-hearted, dehumanizing and sometimes murderous racial discrimination bears sad witness to this.

Of course, racial discrimination continues in the United States as we speak. On Saturday, white supremacists demonstrated in Charlottesville. Va. with KKK-type torches blazing while they chanted that they would not be replaced. Never mind that the term “white supremacist” alone defines them as a hate group that menaces others and that the torches linked them to the viciousness of KKK lynchings and terrorism.

To be sure, people in other countries also are guilty of dehumanizing, demonizing or murdering others.

The most-cited example is the Holocaust and Nazi incineration of millions of Jews and others they considered inferior and unworthy. Last week, we also learned of Chechnya’s brutal and often torturous or murderous treatment of LGBTs. Yesterday, we learned of Syria’s mass murder and incineration of its own people.

We have the same human tendency

We might absolve ourselves not only of the stoning of Stephen but also of the examples of hate I just listed. Unfortunately, we have the same seeds within our hearts and minds. We have the same tendency to judge, belittle, condemn others.

Oh, I wish I could escape that fact for myself but I cannot because I am guilty, too.

The ugly truth is that no matter what Jesus might tell us, we still judge people. And, no matter what Jesus might tell us, we are not good at loving our enemies or praying for them. Even worse, we sometimes we do not even try. And, we sometimes we can even pick up a prejudice or even hatred without noticing. It comes naturally. It is as if we inhale from the air around us. Indeed, in some way that is just what we do. I know because I was born into a racist family and early in life had no idea there was another way to be.

It would be nice if we could be like Stephen and remain faithful to God in all things, especially as the worst happens to us. And, I understand that we might still consider ourselves above all the things I have described. After, we rightly think that we did not raise stones at Stephen, we did not own slaves, and we do not hate anybody that we know of.

Some questions to consider

Let’s look at ourselves though.

Do you refuse to listen to perspectives that challenge your opinion or worldview and look dimly on those who voice them?

Do you narrow your eyes and fur your brows at people who practice other religions?

Do you look askance at foreigners or undocumented immigrants and consider them unworthy?

What are your views of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals?

Whatever your answer to these questions, when we look at the world around us we see that there are many people who have fallen prey to judging, demonizing, and hating not just individuals but entire groups of people.

In fact, we in America are good at judging people and dividing out people who are not like us; people who do not believe what we believe; people who look or act differently; anybody who are different from us in some way that we think is significant.

We in the church are part of that. We cannot ignore that. It is for sure that recent polls indicate many people think we are the worst ones about clinging to our views and shutting our minds to those of others.

We may not be that bad, but we are likely just about as guilty as the rest of this fallen world. We’re just as guilty of dehumanizing, even demonizing, those people we deem to be “the other,” those people who fall into our definition of evil,

I think of the growing Republican-Democrat, Liberal-Conservative division. And the noticeable way many people regard those with different skin color or those who follow other religions.

There are others whom we might judge, too. The homeless, even though most are veterans or children. The addicted, even though many are those who have given up hope or fallen prey to something they cannot fight alone.

And we judge the poor or the sick or the inmate, even though Jesus tells us that when we seem them, we see him.

Who we are and what we are called to do

Peter tells us, though, that we are to fight against this all too prevalent human tendency. He says we are to aspire to something better, something higher, something divine.

He says that God calls us to be the kind of people who hear, see and remain open to “the other.” He says God calls us to see them as God’s children who are made in his image just as we are. He says we are called to do that because God has made us to be his living gospel.

Let’s remember together today’s reading from I Peter 2:

“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

Peter says that once we were not a people, but now we are God’s people. For us, that means in part that we are called out of the darkness of judging, dividing, hating, resenting, and demonizing and into the light of love, acceptance, conciliation and reconciliation. We are called not to live out of our basement selves but our highest selves.

Peter tells us who we are: God’s people. God chose us and united us so we might testify to the greatness of God’s work. Through the power of the gospel, all of us are brought together into one holy nation. That is Peter’s version of what Paul said that we are the body of Christ.

Irrespective of whether we think of ourselves as a part holy nation or part of the body of Christ, it does not mean that are to bask in our glory. It means that we are called to do the demanding work of offering love, grace and mercy to all of God’s children. It means that we are God’s people knit together by our experience of God’s love; that we are God’s people knit together by our experience of God’s grace; that we are God’s people knit together by God’s mercy. And, that of our common experience of God’s grace, mercy and love, we are called to show that some grace, mercy and love to others.

Stephen’s prayer shows us that, in Christ, there is another way. We do not have to succumb to the human tendency to judge, belittle or demonize the other Instead, like Stephen praying for his murderers, we are free to love people whom the world around us say that we should reject or even hate. That love doesn’t make our differences and disagreements fall away, but it allows us to accept and hear others despite those differences or disagreements.

As the Sanhedrin did, it is easy to cover our ears, and it is hard to keep our hearts and minds open to people we do not understand, people who are different from us, people who challenge our ways of thinking, people whose existence might even require us to change our ways of thinking.

But “the mighty acts of God who called us out of darkness and into marvelous light” call and empower us to take on this holy work.

If we look to him, like Stephen did, God will give us the strength to love and show grace and mercy . . . and live out the truth that we are his people.

Amen.

They Aren’t the Enemy

I’m an oldie who remembers the Watergate scandal unfolding drip-by-drip over a period of almost two years until the president resigned in August, 1974. Looking back, it felt like there were almost daily revelations of someone associated with the president having committed one or another illegal act. Finally, “the smoking gun” was discovered and Nixon resigned shortly thereafter.

For some reason, one of my most vivid memories of the time is of sitting at my kitchen table reading the Houston Post a few weeks after his resignation. The Post had an article stating that polls showed that a number of people still supported Nixon. I remember thinking something like, “Who are these people? How can they do that?” It made no sense to me. I thought he was virtually a criminal.

This week, I checked polls from those months and found out that, sure enough, a Gallup poll taken shortly after Nixon’s resignation revealed a bit over 20% of the electorate still supported him.

[You can find the articles of impeachment here and the Gallup poll here.]

Despite my shock at that those polls, supporting Nixon made a great deal of sense to my father, who was one of the diehards. He maintained, and probably still does forty years after his death (Daddy was never much on changing his opinions), that the whole thing was a witch hunt and Nixon was a great president.

When he and I discussed it at the time, I could not understand his point of view about something so clear to me.

In turn, he couldn’t understand my point of view about something so clear to him.

Most people are like Daddy and me. We humans have a tendency to be unable to understand how others can hold differing opinions about important matters that are  clear to us.

There are times when we need to look past those opinions and seek to understand “the other.”

Understand that my point is not that we need to seek understanding in the face of any disagreement, because it is sometimes incumbent upon us to confront and battle injustice.

Our country’s history shows clear examples of such times: the dispute with Britain about independence in the 1770’s; the vast gulf between the North and South over slavery and secession in the pre-Civil War years; the continuing fight against racism, with all of its injustice, violence and dehumanization; and, the decades-long battle in the early part of the last century for workers’ rights.

However, there are also times when we should seek to understand the differing opinions of others, and perhaps reach out in friendship to them despite those differences.

I think this is one of those times. Unfortunately, the chasm between Democrats/liberals/progressives and Republicans/conservatives is widening and hardening.

This is illustrated by a recent NBC News poll showing the same wide partisan split over Comey’s firing as other polls have shown about other executive actions taken by Trump, such as the travel ban(s), Gorsuch appointment and global warming actions.

In addition, conservative columnist Charlie Sykes writes this weekend in the New York Times that what was once a conservative movement has become in the age of Trump an anti-liberal movement or, more accurately, an anti-anti-Trump movement.

Sykes says, “As the right doubles down on anti-anti-Trumpism, it will find itself goaded into defending and rationalizing ever more outrageous conduct just as long as it annoys CNN and the left.”

Similarly, Republican consultant and pollster Frank Lutz said recently that people sympathetic to Trump automatically side with him because they believe he is constantly held to an unfair standard.

For their part, Democrats/liberals/progressives are the mirror image of their Republican/conservative brothers and sisters. I am one of the former, but think we also cling tightly to our beliefs and habitually fail to seek to understand opposing points of view.

For example, when I checked my email while writing this piece there was a fund-raising request from a liberal group urging me to donate to it in order “to punish the GOP right now.” And, there was a separate request from another liberal group beseeching me to sign a petition against Trump because it would take “only six seconds to hammer the GOP.” Uh, no thanks.

[Most of the below applies to Democrats/liberals/progressives, but others might find it useful as well.]

For a variety of reasons, we need to overcome this hostility and division to and build some bridges across the divide.

First, we do not want to end up with a liberal version of Trump.

Second, we do not want to end up with a liberal version of Infowars and Alex Jones.

Do not think these first two cannot happen. Remember that Trump is a creature not only of contemporary culture but also the Tea Party movement. If we continue down the Tea Party path of virulent opposition and even hatred of “the other”, we are in danger of engineeting the emergence of a Trump-like figure.

Third, we lost the election and need to gain voters, not alienate them. I know that Hillary won the popular vote, but it is the electoral college that matters. We will not convert people by attacking them.

Fourth, most people on both sides want to address national problems like jobs, infrastructure, economic development, climate change, true religious freedom, equal justice under the law, etc. We need broad, bipartisan and nonpartisan support instead of yawning division to do this.

Fifth, personal attacks dehumanize our brothers and sisters who disagree with us. We need to realize that they are just folks like us and are due respect and fairness.

Sixth, our fight is not so much with them but with the policies and incompetence of Trump and his administration.

In that regard, it is useful to point out that Nixon had approval ratings of about 70% right before the Watergate revelations started becoming public.

That support fell 50 points over the next two years not because of partisan vitriol but because of the president’s words and actions. In other words, he hung himself.

Trump will do the same and, as that unfolds, we want to be in position to welcome into our fold any who become alienated from him.