It’s Not About Being Nice

[The gospel reading is sung using a recorded version from the group “Sweet Honey and the Rock.” There is a large wooden cross in the pulpit. I move it to one side.]

Oh how I wish our readings today were just about being nice, but this cross keeps complicating things [move cross again]. I wish we were given some simple advice about how to be decent, ethical people without worrying about anything apart from our own individual pursuit of happiness – but this cross just keeps getting in the way [move cross].

Sometimes the cross can be like that. Sometimes the cross – if I even see it – can feel like an imposition. But when I look at it, when I really look at it, the cross becomes something more. I mean, for one, I’m not hanging on it, so that’s good. In fact, no one is, and that’s even better.

Thinking about it that way, the cross is a symbol of hope. It’s a reminder that God’s love is stronger than death, and that’s something that we all need to keep in mind these days. It sounds trite. It sounds oversimplified. God’s love is stronger than death. Love is not what we typically associate with strength – passion, maybe, but not love. We think of love as tender and needing to be protected. We think of power as the ability to force our will upon someone else.

Yet our scriptures tell us something else. Paul tells the church in Corinth that it is the foolishness of the cross – the very idea that love is stronger than brute force – that is the bedrock of our faith. Maybe the cross doesn’t seem foolish to you, but have you ever talked about it to a non-believer? It’s really just received as mythology to someone who does not believe. In fact we all have points where we must reconcile the story of faith with our own understanding of the world.

The beautiful thing is that we all have pieces of this amazing puzzle – this amazing puzzle that even includes your story and mine. Like some giant multidimensional Escher painting (like the hands that draw each other) we are offering salvation – the very same ridiculous and wonderful love that we have been given!

And through our improbable, impractical faith we become a part of the foolish things that God is doing in our midst. Now, although I would like to tell you that the best example of the foolishness of God is a giraffe (seriously, watch them run), a more immediate example is our Session (yes, that includes me). I say that because of the serious discussion we had yesterday about our recent escapade as a hard freeze shelter.

We talked about the fact that our recent actions have caused a shift in our relationship with those in the community who are without homes. Many of them now see us as a friendly church. Some have come by looking for resources, and some have worshiped with us. Some have come by looking for shelter during times that we cannot offer it.

I want you to know that your Session, as elected spiritual leaders in our congregation, talked seriously about the risks that come with reaching out and agreed that risk is an essential part of faith. So here are some things that they want you to know.

1)    Homeless people are people who live in our community, just like you and me. Although they may have many needs, the first need is to be recognized as a child of God.
2)    If someone comes in while food is being prepared, there is nothing wrong with sharing what we have.
3)    The Monday class maintains emergency food bags that can be given out from the church office.
4)    It’s always a good idea to secure your belongings, no matter where you go.
5)    We maintain our policy that our church staff does not give money directly, as we want people to be encouraged to go to places that can help them succeed – such as the Stella Maris Center.
6)    During the rest of the year, while Catholic Charities is remodeling, we will make our fellowship hall available if the weather is below 32 or if it is raining and below 40, assuming that we do not have a PDA volunteer group here and we have the support of the Sheriff’s office.

My hope is that we can be very clear in our language and our conversations about what we are able to offer and what we are not able to offer – not just to those without homes, but also to one another and to the world.

Because this cross goes with us, this cross stands before us. It remains a symbol of hope, just as it forces us into relationships that twist and flip our understanding of the world again and again and again. When we hear the cries of those with opposing views, this cross can make us feel like we are standing in the court room with Micah – being accused for things we cannot atone for.

Somehow I’m reminded of a man named Reggie that I worked with in a restaurant years ago. I was a waiter; he was a cook. In this particular restaurant, there was some friction between cooks and waiters. Reggie was a tall, imposing, and attractive dark skinned man. He was a Muslim in the tradition of Louis Farrakahn. This was around the time of the public beating of Rodney King, and Rodney was complaining about something when I came to the window to get some plates. In my naive way I said, “Come on Reggie, why can’t we all just get along?”

Well, he looked over at me, leaned over a bit and said, “Because we never did.” I just nodded and took my nachos, and went about my business. A few nights later I noticed he was waiting for a ride and so I offered to take him home. He accepted, but he said, “When we talk of God, let’s just say ‘God Most High’ instead of ‘Allah’ or ‘Jesus’.” I accepted, and we had some really good discussions about the way we each live in the presence of God Most High.

I wish I could tell you that this experience erased all of his biases and all of mine. I wish I could tell you that we each have set about to fix the problem of racism or religious extremism in our own ways. Maybe we have to some extent. I’ve often thought that our actions are all like rocks in a pond that ripple out into the world.

The thing about those ripples, though, is that they aren’t just made of energy that moves out. Some of it comes back in to the center before meeting and moving out again. I think that’s part of what calls us together as the church.

This cross, this ridiculous claim that in our vulnerability we are stronger than anything the world can throw at us, calls us together and sends us out. It helps us see our responsibility in the world as agents of justice and righteousness and humility.

And when we talk about justice from a Biblical perspective we are not talking about crime and punishment. We are talking about a reward that fits our behavior, and we are talking about taking care of the vulnerable.

And when we talk about righteousness we are not talking about being able to prove that we are correct; we are talking about being in a right relationship with God as expressed through our relationship with our neighbor.

And when we talk about humility we are not talking about the kind where we pretend that we don’t believe that we are worth anything. We are talking about a deep and abiding recognition that God is the ground of all being, the one whose name is “I am,” and the one who chose not only the foolishness of the cross but also the foolishness that is me and that is you to express love and grace and mercy.

So, when we watch the news, when we go on line, when we post on social media, the lens we must look through is not one of self preservation but of vulnerability. The hope that we have is not based in the security that we can muster, but in the grace and mercy that we can reflect.

That doesn’t make sense, and it never has. But the cross isn’t about “making sense” of things. The cross is only and ever a recognition of the power of God to make all things new – even here, even now, whether you want it or not. And to God be the glory for that. Amen.
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