Tag Archives: xenophobia

Preaching to High Schoolers after a Tough Week

LSM2015worshipDuring the month of July, I have the honor of serving as chaplain to the community of the Lutheran Summer Music Academy and Festival, held this year at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. The Academy brings together high school students from all over the US, young adults (mostly college students  or recent graduates) who serve as counselors and interns, and outstanding faculty musicians who teach in colleges and universities all over the country. The community is based on the values of musical excellence, building community, and worship and faith formation in the Lutheran tradition. This is my sermon from yesterday, based on the parable of The Good Samaritan from Luke 10 to this diverse community that formed on June 26 and will disperse on July 24. 

Remember that book you just loved as a kid? That one you made your mother read over and over and over so that you had it memorized. The parable of the Good Samaritan is kind of like that. It’s the one we love, the one we read over and over. It’s the one that just might be the most familiar of any of the stories of the bible.

Because the story is so well-known, we’re pretty sure we know what it means, right?  When you see someone in need we have both the Christian and the human obligation to provide assistance.  Just like the Samaritan did for the man in the ditch, right?

Except maybe not exactly. Recall that the story comes in response to a couple of questions from one of the elite members of the society in which Jesus lived. Our translation says, “lawyer.” Elsewhere they’re called scribes. He was an expert in interpreting the law of Moses. So, when he asks what he has to do to inherit eternal life, this was not a seeking question, it was a trapping question. He knew good and well the answer to the question. He was hoping he could trap Jesus into an answer that would put Jesus in hot water. Typical of Jesus, he answers the question with another question. “What does the law say?”  Now, that’s a no brainer for a lawyer, the guy who knows the law better than he knows his own kids. He answers ‘you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ “Well played,” Jesus says. “Do this and you will live.”

But the pesky scribe isn’t finished. He asks another question, not from a place of curiosity, but wanting to justify himself, to have Jesus say what a fine, upstanding man he is. And here’s where we get to the point that I hinted at earlier. The question he asks is not, “What should I do if I see someone in need?”  The question is, “Who is my neighbor?” That is a much more difficult and condemning question. See, I don’t think this story is a morality play. It is a condemnation of every one of us who divide our world into those who are like us and those who are not; people we like and people we don’t; people we are comfortable around and people we are afraid of. People who are our friends and people who are our enemies. It’s a story for people like us who want to justify ourselves because we think we’re pretty good people. The moment we fall into that ancient trap of justifying we somehow forget about caring about those around us.

So, back to the central question: who is my neighbor? In the story, the man who is least like the man in the ditch is the neighbor — the hated Samaritan becomes a neighbor to someone in need. Who is your neighbor?

So, let me tell you how it is in your high school. I know because it was that way in my high school, and my kids’ high school and and when I talk to the high school kids in my church they tell my it’s like that in their high school, too. The choir kids and the band kids. The jocks, the computer geeks, the airheads, the popular kids. We divide ourselves into tribes. We can take that high school micro-culture and expand it to nearly every corner of our society. Hillary supporters and Trump supporters and those who feel the Berne. Pro-immigrant, anti-immigrant. Christians and Muslims. City dwellers and country dwellers. Blue collar and white collar. And the the list goes on and on and on. Especially in times of instability and uncertainty, sociologists tell us, we divide ourselves into like-minded tribes and circle the wagons. We are loyal to the ones like us, and if they are not like us, we pass by on the other side of the road and leave them in the ditch. We have seen this week the violent and tragic consequences of what happens when we divide ourselves into us and them.

By contrast, Jesus’ answer to the scribe suggests that even the ones least like us, those we would most easily categorize as outsiders and even as enemies — those are our neighbors.  Think of that kid that is least like you in your high school. He is your neighbor. She is your neighbor. If you are a Republican, the Democrat Facebook friend that annoys you, she is your neighbor and vice versa. The families fleeing war in Syria, families who happen to be Muslim — they are our neighbors. The children and men and women fleeing brutality in El Salvador, those fleeing economic hardship in Mexico, trying to find a life in the US — they are our neighbors. Alton Sterling, the black man shot outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge is your neighbor. Philando Castile, the black man shot near St. Paul, Minnesota after he was pulled over for having a broken tail light — Phil is your neighbor. The five Dallas police officers that were shot and killed by a sniper — they are your neighbors.

Btu what can be done? Doesn’t it seem like the problems are so big that there is not a single thing that you and I could do about it? The despair comes from the false belief that the problem is out there. That’s not true. While the world is a messed up and broken place, the brokenness doesn’t start out there; it starts in here. Jesus reminds us that the problem is in each of our hearts. We are the lawyer in the story who constantly wants to justify ourselves; I’m a pretty good person. I’m not prejudiced; I’m not racist. But the problem is in here. The problem starts with our own diabolical impulse to see some as friends and others as strangers. The great spiritual writer and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton wrote, “Instead of hating the people you think are warmakers, hate the appetites and the disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed — but hate these things in yourself, not in another.” And with respect to the tragedies of this week, I might add, hate the racism in yourself not in another.

Our embrace of the stranger and our call to regard the stranger as our neighbor is rooted in the very heart God. We have been God’s stranger. We are the ones who have wandered away from the Father’s estate, the sheep who have wandered, the children who have rebelled. Yet in Christ, God has come close to us and loved us. With no guarantee that anyone would receive accept the invitation to come home, to be reconciled to God, God left God’s home and made a home with us in Jesus. We are that wounded man lying in the ditch; God is the one who has come close to rescue us and to bring us healing.

That’s what changes everything. That’s what makes this not so much a morality tale as much as a new-life-in-Christ tale, a life-that-flows-from-the-font-and-the-table kind of tale. Regarding the stranger as a neighbor is not natural; but we are no longer naturally born. We are divinely born and are called and empowered to go in to the world and see the ones the world doesn’t see, no longer walking by on the other side of the road, but getting down in the ditch, binding wounds, filling empty bellies, clothing naked bodies, sitting with the lonely, crying with the grieving. And for those us us with white skin, I think the life that flows from the font and the table means recognizing that we have a different experience in this country than what our brown-skinned brothers and sisters experience. Being a neighbor means sitting with them, standing with them, and walking with them and refusing to rest until justice flows down like waters.

Jesus finished the story by telling that the Samaritan went to the wounded man and poured oil and wine on the wounds and then bandaged them. He put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. He paid for his hotel room and then gave him his credit card number in case he needed anything else.  And here’s the last thing Jesus said, the punchline of this whole story.

Go and do likewise.


What If the Problem Is in Our Hearts?

fearoftheothercoverI’m reprinting here a review of the profound and timely little book by William Willimon, “Fear of the Other”. I had the privilege of reviewing this book for the Englewood Review of Books, and the review is reprinted here as it appeared in ERB. I think every person of faith should read this book. In this foggy time of fear and uncertainty, Willimon calls us back to the fundamentals of the Christian faith.

The long months of the presidential campaign have given people of faith plenty of self-righteous high horses from which to rail at those who would stir up the juices of our all too common human fear of the other.

Reminds me of that delicious story in Luke’s gospel of a Pharisee named Simon who throws a dinner party and invites Jesus (Luke 7). When a woman with a reputation crashes the party, Simon takes the occasion for some self-righteous harrumphing about Jesus’ rusty skills as a prophet. Jesus doesn’t even know who it is who is wetting his’ feet with her tears and wiping them dry with her hair, Simon says to himself. In a brief and masterfully told parable, Jesus turns the tables on that highly religious man, exposing Simon’s self-righteousness and need for forgiveness.

While it’s quite easy — and satisfying in a self-righteous kind of way — to point at those who stoke our fear of Muslims and Mexicans, and anyone else who is different, what if the problem is not them, but us. What if the problem is that we are so naturally inclined to a fear of the stranger, even we people of faith who claim to love our neighbors. What if we unwittingly operate from a position of fear over against the one who is not like us, the one who for any of a number of reasons is outside our tribe? What if the problem is not out there, but in our own hearts?

That’s the point from which Bishop William Willimon begins in his masterful little book, Fear of the Other. In the introduction he draws the reader in, particularly the reader who takes their faith seriously, that serious Christian who decries the fear-mongering rhetoric of our public discourse. Willimon won’t let us stay in our comfortable place of pointing our fingers at the public figures. We are the Other; we are the ones who have been separated from God by our own sin and brokenness; we are the Other with respect to God. And God has come to us in Christ. The command to welcome is rooted in that very basic salvific event at the heart of the Christian faith, the crashing of the divine into our lives by way of incarnation. And just like the welcome that we received in Christ was costly, so we are commanded to welcome regardless of the cost. Christianity’s default position is hospitality, even as we have received hospitality at the cross of Christ.

Willimon doesn’t try to explain away or deny the reality of fear. We are hardwired for fear. It’s part of who we are as humans. And with good reason. In the ancient days when human interaction with predators was a part of daily life, a quick flight or fight response was the difference between living to tell about it or not. But that’s not how most of us live. We have unwittingly allowed ourselves to fixate on what we perceive as a danger and misplace that fear towards those who are different. When we allow ourselves either to misplace our fear, to fear excessively, or to be dominated by the avoidance of evil rather than the pursuit of the good, then we no longer are responding faithfully to the brokenness of the world around us. The faithful response is to recognize how we have been changed in the relational and redemptive transaction with a God who has come to us in Christ. All the signifiers that serve to divide us and engender suspicion and fear of the other: class, gender, tribe, race, and history are being reframed and reinterpreted by this single qualifier: we are the baptized.

In the national climate of ramped up fear of the Other, Willimon argues that the church is particularly needed. The church is how God gets what God wants out of us and for getting what God needs for the sake of the world. The gospel of Jesus that saves us does not allow us to turn in on ourselves, but thrusts us toward the Other. Especially in an age of increasing diversity, the church has to answer the challenge of whether we will follow the expanding boundaries of God’s kingdom or not. When it comes to the church’s response, Willimon gets practical, offering a long list of concrete suggestions and challenges for how the local congregation might embody the welcome and hospitality of the Gospel.

I love this book. I want every member of my congregation to read this book. I want this book within reach every time I sit down to write a sermon. It’s not only timely in the sense of a clear response to the fear that has consumed our public discourse, but it’s timeless in the sense that it offers solid biblical and theological reflection for that symptom of our human brokenness that lies pretty close to the heart of things. In his inimitable style, Willimon not only offers profound theological insights and a crystal clear call to living as a Christian in a broken world, but he does so with abundant stories, blending his his keen gift for storytelling with an engaging sense of humor that brings a chuckle as well as a challenge.

I only have one bone to pick, and it’s not with the author, but with the publisher. This is a tiny book in comparison to nearly everything else on your desk; it’s 90 pages and the cover is the size of a 5×7 photograph. It almost feels more like a pamphlet than a book, the kind of pamphlet that, literally, I want to put in the hands of every member of my congregation. But at $15 a copy, I won’t be doing that. I don’t know the exigencies of book publishing and I’m sure it’s more complicated than I can imagine, but how I wish there were a less expensive way to get this in the hands of my people.

As I said, that’s a small criticism. Go buy the book. Take the two hours that it will take you to read it. And then spend the rest of your life attempting to put it into practice.


On Being Afraid to Open My Scriptures in a Coffee Shop

bibleI had a morning meeting in Hyde Park. It’s about 25 miles from where I live and takes me through the heart of downtown Chicago. At best it’s a 45 minute drive; at worst, it can take more than an hour and a half. I hate sitting in traffic. My solution? Get up when the humans are still asleep and get on the road. Early. Upon arrival, sit in a coffee shop and get some work done until it’s time for the meeting.

It took 45 minutes. Perfect. Found that coffee shop, did my journaling and then turned to one of my lenten commitments: to read through the gospels in these 40 days. I sat there in that public place at a small table next to the counter with my little pocket bible open, reading Matthew 13 and 14.

Where I live, that’s a common thing. On those days when my morning meeting schedule takes me into Panera or Starbucks or Blackberry Market or River City Roasters, I can virtually guarantee that someone will be sitting there with a bible open. Just as often there’s a group (usually it’s men) having their small group/accountability group/prayer meeting right there in that public place. In fact, I remember some of those books I had to read for evangelism class in the seminary encouraging that very tactic as an opportunity to witness to the faith. Someone will stop and ask what you are doing and you can tell them about Jesus. It’s ubiquitous. It’s expected. So, afraid to open my scriptures in a coffee shop?  Never.

On Monday evening, I sat with a group of Muslims and Christians. This came up in the conversation:  my friend and colleague said in passing that she’s “afraid to open my Koran in a public place, much less pray.” A public place like a coffee shop. Or restaurant. Or library. Afraid of harassment, or worse, of physical abuse.

And I cried inside. A simple thing that is so common for Christians is something that our Muslim neighbors are afraid to do.

This xenophobic climate being fanned by public figures is not theoretical. It’s not empty rhetoric. Words matter. These are real people. And they are our neighbors. Fellow Americans. Fellow citizens.

Silence is complicity.

The Parable of the Assistant Manager in the Grocery Store


grocerystoreparable.jpgThere was once a woman wearing a hijab who was doing her weekly grocery shopping at her usual grocery store near her home. As she headed down the detergent aisle, a couple of middle-age white men made angry comments about her religion and ended with an obscenity to describe the woman and others of her religion. The woman went to the customer service counter and said, “I’m not done shopping,” she told him, “but I don’t feel safe here.”  The assistant manager told her he would protect her. For the next half-hour, he walked alongside her pretending to check inventory as she did the rest of her shopping. When asked about his actions, he said, “I was just doing my job.”  (Read the whole story by New York Times religion writer, Samuel G. Freedman.)

A few reflections:

1. In these times, we are told to be vigilant for things that are out of the ordinary. If you see someone suspicious, call the authorities. When we’re cautioned so often to look for the suspicious, does every stranger begin to look suspicious?

2. Maybe we should be more vigilant for someone who needs a helping hand or a gesture of kindness. Maybe we should be more vigilant for instances of hatred and discrimination and when we see them, call them out. We could use more expressions of our common humanity.

3.  I don’t know what it’s like to walk into a grocery store and be harassed. Worse, I never even have to think about it. I don’t have to worry about the management following me around on the assumption that I’m a criminal. I don’t have to worry about hate speech directed towards me because of my religion. I don’t have to wonder what kind of ogling I might be subject to. I never give a thought to my safety when grocery shopping. The very structures of our society are programmed to make me feel safe. Mostly I don’t even see it. That’s privilege.

4. I love the assistant manager’s words when asked why he did it. “I was just doing my job.” He didn’t ask permission or look for adulation. He was just being neighborly. Showing basic kindness and compassion. And he didn’t, apparently, think about it. Jesus once asked his disciples why they were looking for reward for following him. They were, he said, just doing what they were supposed to.  “I was just doing my job.”

In my Christian belief system, God has called me into the circle of God’s love and transformed me. God has made me part of a community that is to be good news for the world. Being good news for the world is not so much about having the right answers, but about being God’s loving presence. To be God’s loving presence is not that complicated. It may be hard, it may take patience, it requires persistence, it is undoubtedly counter cultural. But at it’s heart, it’s not that complicated. Exercise kindness; be neighborly; assume a shared common humanity in the midst of the differences.

That assistant manager? His name is Mark Egan. If God is at work bringing the peaceable kingdom — and I believe God is — Mr. Egan has given us a glimpse of what that might look like.