Monday, July 2, 2018

Light a Candle

Last Sunday a colleague of mine served as a guest preacher at an Episcopal church in another state.  Like many pastors in recent weeks, her sermon addressed our current immigration situation.  She posted it on-line and I read it.  It was thoughtful and articulate.  She built on the scriptures for the day and the theology of our baptismal covenant.  She was respectful of those holding a different opinion.  She invited parishioners into a place of reflection and conversation.  Still, two people walked out of church during the sermon and two other people waited until after the service to “lambaste” her before storming out in a huff.  The experience left my colleague shaken, anxious, and fearful.  I have other colleagues who have been criticized from the opposite direction by people who believe they have not preached strongly enough about objectionable things happening in our country.

Increasingly, preaching, like many other forms of communication, is becoming caught up in the growing incivility of our national discourse.  Our minds are made up, our positions solidified, and our defenses are on heightened alert to reject anything not in accord with what we believe.  Given this, what is a preacher to do?  Well, in an article this week, one minister suggested we clergy should preach the Gospel.  Now there, I thought, is a novel idea.  How much trouble can one get into if he or she sticks to the Gospel?  Well, Jesus was executed for it and all but one of his Apostles were martyred for their faith.  Still, I am willing to give it a try.

In today’s Old Testament reading, God states a decided preference for the most poor and vulnerable people in society – widows (at that time a group with absolutely no status or rights), orphans, and strangers.  “You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  The New Testament reading describes how directs God Abraham to pack up his family and belongings in order to move from a land where they are threatened to a place where they will be safe and can prosper.  Jesus ratchets up the Gospel imperative to a level almost unimaginable: “You must love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.” 

The readings challenge us to acknowledge the humanity of the person who is other and the person who is against us.  It is easy, Jesus says, to find humanity in the person who looks like you and talks like you and thinks like you.  If you want to be my follower than you must find the humanity in the person who does not look, talk, or think like you. 

And if you manage to see the other as human, what then do you do with this?  What should our actions look like?  Here is one suggestion with deep roots in the Christian tradition: while we fail to recognize him at first, most often we meet Jesus in the person who is other.  Offer to the other what you would offer to Christ.  So, for example, if you own a Colorado bakery and a gay couple asks you to bake a cake for their wedding, bake them the kind of cake you would give to Jesus himself.  And if, for example, you own a Lexington restaurant and an administrative staffer sits down at a table, make her the most delicious meal you can and offer to her and her companions the best service ever, just as you would do if you were preparing a dinner for Christ. 

It is time for us in America to stop pushing each other away and pull closer together, to talk about our differences in a way that is articulate, civil, and respectful, not hateful, accusatory, and divisive.  We need this from our elected officials, people in the media, and from ourselves. 

I have had several very interesting Facebook threads discussing some of the current issues facing our country.  I try to be honest about what I don’t know (immigration law and statistics about crime) while lifting up what I do know – a moral and spiritual perspective.  I am learning a lot and I think what I have contributed has caused some people to think in slightly new ways.  There are disagreements, but no one has been disagreeable. 

At the end of the day, I will have only one vote to cast in a general election, so I don’t believe I alone have the power to change the world.  Still, I believe my opinion matters and I believe how I express my opinion matters even more.  How I express my opinion contributes to who we are as a people and influences – for good or for ill – who we are becoming.  Benjamin Franklin famously said, “Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain and most fools do.”  I say in times like these, it takes someone really special to contribute to the common good.  Jesus suggests you can tell who a person is and whose a person is by how that person treats those of whom they differ most.

Are you familiar with an organization known as The Christophers?  Father James Keller founded it in 1945 to counteract a deep-rooted American suspicion the Roman Catholic Church wanted to take over our country.  The name ‘Christopher’ means Christ bearer and the members of this group commit themselves to bring our Lord and Savior to a people prejudiced against them.  Although it is born in the Roman tradition, it advocates for religious tolerance and respect.  It continues on in our own time, guided by its founding motto: “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”  Members of The Christophers are encouraged to commit simple acts of kindness and goodness each and every day in order to bring the light of Christ into a dark world.

If ever there was a Gospel message for our time it is this: It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.  In truth, each one of us is going to have to light a lot of candles.  Everywhere we go, with every encounter we have, and especially as we meet ‘the other’, we are going to have to light a candle.  It will be a candle of civility and respect and regard for the dignity of every human being.  It will be a candle created in the theology shop of our Presiding Bishop, who is fond of saying, “If it isn’t about love, it isn’t about God.”

Debbie Askew shared with me a Facebook post she had seen and I want to read it for you.

[We went to] a New Mexican restaurant in Suffolk called El Korita.  It is at 200 E. Washington St.  We got there about 12:30 and it was busy.  It is a tiny little restaurant.  Family run, painted bright and clean. 

We were seated right away, one waitress running from table to table, super friendly.  We were brought chips and drinks right away.

I immediately notice what looks like a homeless older lady.  She is pushing a buggy with lots of belongings, she is not well kept, wearing a shirt for a skirt.  She is sitting at a corner table.  She gets up several times, goes to the counter and back.  I pointed her out to Meg and we waited to see what was going on.  Very quickly in the midst of this busy lunch rush, the owner hands her a plate of food.  She goes back to the table and sits down and eats.  When the waitress, who is the daughter of the owner comes over to take our order, we tell her that we will cover her lunch.  She just (literally) joyfully says... we have it!  She is here every day and we feed her.  We know what it is to be hungry, so we make sure she isn’t.

When that lady was finished with her meal, she picked up her plate, took it back to the counter.  The owner came from the back in the kitchen, met her, had a conversation with her and walked with her to the door.  He gently put his hand on her back, opened the door for her and then went back to working. 

When we went up to pay I was talking to his daughter and she thanked me again for wanting to cover her lunch.  She told me that everyone that worked there saved their change and put it aside to cover anyone that came in that was hungry.  She said they do not judge and will feed them.  Meg and I paid our bill and gave them money to put in for that too.

I tell this story for several reasons.  The most important is that this family is showing LOVE with no judgment.  Salt and Light. 
A brand new restaurant that was crazy busy and he could have taken the time to talk to the people that were there in suits and ties and little kids, but he was genuinely loving and caring on her.

It costs NOTHING to love and not judge.  Be salt and light!
OH!  The food was great too!!!!  Go eat there and maybe leave a little extra for their “mission.”

This is the kind of community I want to live it.  This is the kind of community I want to help create.  This is the kind of thing that happens more often and in more different ways than most of us could ever imagine.  These are the kinds of stories we need to share… the stories about people who light a candle rather than curse the darkness.   

I can’t change the world and, like many of my colleagues, I struggle with how to preach about the world today.  But here is one thing I can do and no one can stop me: I can light a candle… and then another… and then another.  The darkness is dark, but the light of Jesus – should you and I choose to manifest it in our lives – will overcome the darkness.