Sermon for August 11, 2019
This summer we have been tackling some of the profound truths and divine expectations for each of us. We have talked about getting to know, welcome and love neighbors and strangers as individuals. We have considered prayer and our need to communicate with God more frequently, and last week we contemplated the meaning of life, which turns out is not about accumulating more stuff, but rather, is about divine connection with God and community.
As we continue our summer pursuit of living into God’s expectations for us and practicing what Jesus preaches, this week we are invited to live by Faith.
We are blessed this morning to have a beautiful definition of faith in our Epistle reading from Hebrews. Brad just read that “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. By Faith, we understand what is seen was made from things that are not visible”. The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Beautiful and gentle concepts with an example offered to highlight faith’s impact.
This morning’s Epistle sets before us the faithful example of Abraham and Sarah who desperately want a child – and while poor Abraham is described as being so old he is “as good as dead”, they are promised descendants more numerous than the stars, innumerable like grains of sand at the beach, and their faithful lives are miraculously rewarded with children.
By contrast, we also heard the reading from Isaiah with its description of the Prophet’s anger and frustration with the people of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Perhaps our ears perk up thinking of the prurient sins ascribed to the people of each enclave, but in fact, both Isaiah and the prophet Ezekiel consistently condemn the failure of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah to offer hospitality and to aid the poor and needy. Isaiah excoriates his listeners telling them to: “learn to do good;seek justice, rescue the oppressed,defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
He directs people to live faithful lives through action. Seeking justice is faith in action.
But where do we begin? If justice is God’s love made visible, what keeps us, as faithful people, from taking action and seeking justice as an expression of God’s love?
One of the more effective and insidious barriers that blocks loving action is fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of failure. Fear of doing it wrong, fear of making something worse, fear of inconvenience or conflict. Fear.
Fear enervates much of our social narrative right now. Those screaming headlines about nearly everything including the climate, the stock market, the housing crisis, aging, the justice system, health care, immigration, education, guns. We’ve all seen and read dire predictions or scary statistics about any one of these subjects and I’m sure you could double that list with topics of your own.
When we are overwhelmed and afraid, we tend to do nothing. Yet we are called to be people of faith, and faith requires action.
I have a mentor who says that fear is sin. He says that fear is the manifestation of a disconnect from God. That if we are fully connected to and in communion with God, we have no reason to fear. Scripture certainly backs him up. How many times does Jesus tell people “Be not afraid,” or “[F]ear Not?” We should probably take Him seriously. The opening sentence of this morning’s gospel from Luke is “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom”. Luke also reminds us to be “dressed for action”.
So how might we be faithful rather than fearful, prepared for action rather than retreat? Our fears can be dispelled through familiarity and practice.
Remember what it was like to learn to ride a bike? The fear of the unknown, the fear of falling, but the driving motivation to keep trying, to conquer our fear in order to be able to gain a tiny taste of freedom and joy that comes from riding a bike with abandon?
Summer is a great season for bike riding, and for trying new things, including attending to our fears. This summer we have been offered the opportunity to tackle one fear in particular – fear of the other, or fear of people who are unlike ourselves, by participating in our Annual Summer Read.
We are indebted to the members of the Courageous Conversations Committee for their excellent choice of books and for their leadership and others including participants of the Living Stones project who have led our efforts to address racism, understand white privilege and the fear-based residue that each leaves in our daily lives. This is God’s work and our summer reading list offers the opportunity to enhance our faith and understanding of God and our neighbors.
The faithful action that I am going to highlight this morning is the act of reading. We are offered the opportunity to walk around in the stylish Air Jordan’s of Starr Carter, the narrator of the book The Hate You Give (aka “THUG”) whose childhood friend Khalil is shot and killed by a white police officer, or you can start with “Dear Martin” and meet Justyce McAllister and his best friend Manny.
These four African American teenagers straddle lives of lost hope and faith, and a world of possibilities and big expectations. We are invited to get to know them, understand their families and live in each of their communities for a while. Familiarity dissipates fear. As readers we are invited to better understand each setting through their eyes, so that by the end of the books, neither world is populated by strangers, but we have gotten to know and care about each.
Last Friday, we marked the 5thanniversary of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri. An African American teenager who was walking down the street with his 22 year old friend, Dorian Johnson when he was shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson.
That police shooting in 2014 set off days of protests and riots in Ferguson and sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. There are scenes in Angie Thomas’ book The Hate You Give that are taken directly from the headlines about Michael Brown five years ago.
In the Michael Brown murder case, we were told that Michael was a robbery suspect and store tapes were released that were supposed to show him robbing a store just minutes before Darren Wilson killed him. It is impossible to relive or re-read those facts with dispassion after reading either Thug or Dear Martin. The facts are more suspicious. Michael Brown more human – and a kid of only 18 years old.
Five years ago the news-consuming public was not given biographical information about Michael Brown like the fact that eight days before his murder, he had graduated from high school, working his way through an alternative academic program. A cause for pride and celebration at the new possibilities ahead. Instead, he was killed on August 9th, and was scheduled to begin a vocational training program just two days later – August 11th, five years ago today.
All of those personal and aspirational details about Michael Brown’s life were lost in the rhetoric that followed. He was maligned and somehow made responsible for his own murder. There are other horrible details about Michael’s death that are nearly identical to details included in our summer reading selection Thug. They are compelling and easier to access and digest when shared through the voice of a talented, bright, emotionally struggling teenage girl, our fictional heroine and narrator, Starr Carter.
I invite you to take up the summer reading and get to know people whose dopplegangers are in the news nearly every day.
Once you have read one of these excellent books and walked around in the characters’ unfamiliar shoes, I hope that you too will listen with love and compassion as Michael Brown’s father in Ferguson, Missouri makes a plea for a re-examination of his son’s death. That we might join Mr. Brown and other similarly situated, grieving families who are seeking justice for their loved ones. That we might be the people the prophet Isaiah calls us to be — learning to do good, seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed.
Our summer reading list offers a road map for addressing fear that might otherwise prevent us from taking action.
We are truly called to be a faithful and not fearful people. Banishing our fear and taking faithful action takes practice. But it is like riding a bike. Anyone can do it, and once you’ve succeeded, you have the freedom of having conquered that fear forever.
The Reverend Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, Esq.
Sermon for Sunday 10:30 am service, August 11, 2019 || All Saints Parish Brookline || Proper 14 Year C || Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40