Faith and Food: Eating in the Kingdom

Scripture: Isaiah 25:6-9; Luke 14:15-24

Picture a typical dinner from your childhood.  Where are you?  What are you eating?  Who else is there?  Any other details that seem important?

I was at a conference recently—on food and faith, appropriately, where I drew a lot of my inspiration for this series—and we did this at the beginning of our time together by drawing a picture and sharing what we had drawn with others.  As it turns out, one of the things we may find out from an exercise like that is that our stories may differ a lot.

If I were to describe my typical childhood meal for you, it would be in the kitchen of our house in Vienna.  We always ate in the kitchen except on special occasions because the dining room table was always piled high with books and homework and pretty much anything we wanted to put down somewhere, much to my mom’s dismay.  It would be me, Mom, Dad, my younger brother Eric—plus the cat, who got her own chair and always sat with us even though she didn’t technically eat with us.  Dinner was never fancy, but it was always healthy, maybe something like whole wheat spaghetti and salad.  When we timed it right, we could hear the church bells that played each night from our church down the street.

When we did this sharing exercise at the conference I attended, some of my group had similar stories to mine, but one drew his picture of his family in the car, eating fast food on the way to some lesson or practice.  For others it might be something heated up after a single parent got home late from work.  Maybe some of us ate in front of the TV, or sat around a low table on the floor instead of on chairs, or ate with our hands instead of forks.  I know if you were at my in-laws’, the picture would probably involve everyone cooking together.

You see, it’s about a lot more than food, right?  These pictures can provide a lot of insight into who we are.

Last week I talked about how food is an integral part of our story as people of faith and how it’s so much more than just numbers on a nutrition label or Weight Watchers points.  Food is comfort, memory, fellowship, hospitality—and food is also tightly wrapped up in our identity.

How many of your strong memories have to do with food?  I could tell you that if I went back to the town on the Jersey shore where we spent our vacations growing up, there would be one specific ice cream place I would want to go to, and I would need to eat a funnel cake on the boardwalk.  I could tell you that I’ve tried unsuccessfully to replicate my grandmother’s macaroni and cheese.  And I can tell you that when I’ve traveled abroad, as much as eating different food is part of the experience, after a little while I always want pizza—because pizza is somehow ingrained in me as an American.

What if I told you that God also paints an image of a meal for us?

We heard it in Isaiah, which we used as our call to worship earlier.  “On this mountain,” Isaiah says, on God’s mountain, “the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.”  Where are we?  On God’s mountain, Mount Zion, the place where we dare to hope for what is to come.  What are we eating?  Only the finest food, the kind we can’t afford in real life.  Who is there?  All peoples.

If the image of a meal can say so much about our identity as individuals, what might this image of a meal have to do with our identity as Christians?

How does this futuristic, heavenly meal say something about us now?

Maybe it’s just a metaphor.  Is there really going to be food in heaven?  Is that going to be a thing?  Maybe this is just another image of how much better things are going to be in the sweet by and by, like the image of streets of gold.  Or maybe it’s meant to tell us about God’s welcome in a way we can understand, like the image of a house with many rooms.

Early Christian theologians—actually, probably also later ones—disagreed over whether there was eating in heaven.  Irenaeus envisioned a renewed creation which would “abundantly produce a multitude of all foods out of the rain from the heaven and the fertility of the earth.”[1] Tertullian, on the other hand, argued that we won’t have bodily needs in heaven in the same way we do now, and thus we will have no need to eat.

The scholar Norman Wirzba, who is my inspiration for much of this series, points out in his book Food and Faith that one of the aspects of our Christian story is that God thinks bodies matter, which is why God came to earth as a real live person, who was then resurrected not as a disembodied spirit but as a real live person who had scars and ate breakfast.  Eating, he says, is so much a part of the fabric of our lives that it would be hard to imagine life, even the next life, without it.  And again, food is about so much more than just fulfilling basic nutritional needs.  It’s love and comfort and fellowship—all things that we could guess would characterize the Kingdom of God.  So who knows, but maybe it’s not actually so metaphorical at all.

I’d add that if heaven weren’t going to be like a feast it is strange that there are so many depictions in the Bible of heaven as a feast!  Besides Isaiah, my favorite is the one we just heard from Luke, the parable of the Great Banquet.

Jesus tells this story, appropriately, at a dinner.  It’s a dinner where everyone is scrambling to call dibs on the best seats, and Jesus notices and tells them it would be better to claim the worst seats and be invited forward than the other way around.  Then he says to these very status-aware guests, “When you host a meal, don’t invite your friends or your relatives or the rich people, the ones who are going to be obligated to invite you back.  Instead invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, the ones who can’t do anything for you.  Your reward will come later.”

One of the guests responds by saying, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God!”  It’s kind of an awkward thing to say, possibly just to break the uncomfortable silence, or maybe he is feeling particularly assured of his later reward.  Jesus, as Jesus likes to do, responds with a story.

In this story that Jesus tells, God is throwing a party.  He doesn’t say the host is God, but because this is how Jesus tells parables, and because we are already talking about eating bread in the Kingdom of God, we can imagine from the beginning that it probably is.  And God invites all the important people to his party, but they all have some excuse.  They’re too busy.  “I have to try out my new oxen,” one guy says.  They send their regards.  So as these “no” RSVPs build up, God sends out another set of invites.  He tells his guys to go out and gather up the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.  The ones who never get invited to the cool parties.  The ones who no one sits with in the cafeteria.  And then there’s still room so he sends the servant back out to bring in everyone he sees on the street.  Everyone.

You’ll notice that this is a picture of a heavenly feast that is a lot less about what’s served, and a lot more about who’s around the table.

When I was studying in India I had dinner with a professor who told me he though the table was Western civilization’s best contribution to the world.  The table, he said, changes the dynamics.  Maybe it’s perfectly possible to say that about other traditional ways of eating too.  The fact is, that when we eat together, relationships form and change.

What you eat and where and how you eat it may say a lot about you, but so does who you eat with, as any middle schooler can attest.  In fact, that was always Mom’s way of getting information out of my brother and me when we were teenagers—she would ask, “Who do you eat lunch with?”  Those were my people—the people I ate lunch with.

Think about the answer to that question now: Who do you eat with?  Who is in the picture?

For some of us, the answer might be often no one.  We eat at our desks and, if we live alone or run on different schedules from our partners or families, make something for one when we get home.  Or it might be the same people all the time—the same coworkers who go out to lunch every day.  Or it might be a group of friends who get together for dinner every so often.

How homogeneous is that group of people?

And how much does the group ever change?

Who is welcome at the table?

How much does God’s image of a meal have to do with the way we, who call ourselves God’s people, eat?

The people around God’s table, Isaiah tells us, are all nations, not just the one nation we happen to think is best.  The people at God’s table, Luke tells us, are the unexpected.  They are, perhaps, exactly the people it would not be our first inclination to eat with.  We might feed them.  But that is very different from eating with them.  There’s a very different power balance there.

It’s a powerful thing, speaking of power, to invite someone new to your table.

It’s a powerful thing to eat with someone you never have before.

Did you know the word “companion” comes from the Latin “to eat bread with?”  When we eat together, strangers become companions.

I wonder how many of you saw in the news this week that in Wichita, Kansas, the local Black Lives Matter group had a cookout with local police.[2]

The event was originally scheduled as a protest.  After talking to the police force, the protest organizers cancelled the protest and instead agreed to come together with police in a nearby park to eat and talk.  Police officers flipped burgers and members of the two groups played basketball and danced together.

They also had some real conversation.  Members of the community voiced their concerns and the police addressed their questions.  They also broached on the question of whether a cookout was really going to do any good or change anything.  But for many of the people there, it was the first time they had ever sat down at a table with a police officer.  It was, perhaps, the first time they had seen police officers as people.  And—just maybe—vice versa.

Is eating together going to change everything?  Probably not.  This week in America there were even more reports of police violence against black people elsewhere—and, more reports of violence against police.  Clearly the solution lies in more than a cookout.  But it seems like a really good start.  Because around a table, people become equals, at least for a little while.  It’s not one person serving and one person being served.  It’s not one person feeding and one person being fed.  It’s not a person with a badge and a thug.  It’s people, eating the same burgers and drinking the same lemonade and getting to know each other and maybe even playing and dancing together.  And it’s not perfect, and it’s not magic, but I think there is something of heaven on earth in that picture.

How does God’s picture of a meal shape who you are—and who you eat with?

Your mission this week, if you choose to accept it: eat with someone new.  When we eat together after the service today, sit with someone you haven’t talked to much before.  Invite a new coworker to join you for lunch, or invite a neighbor you don’t know well over for dinner, or buy lunch for someone panhandling on the street and actually eat it with them.  Make your table look a little more like God’s heavenly table.  A lot could change.  It’s not just about food.

[1] Quoted in Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, by Norman Wirzba, p. 225.

[2] http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2016/07/19/kansas-black-lives-matter-holds-picnic-police-instead-protest/87299934/

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Faith and Food: The Ethics of Eating

Scripture: Daniel 1:3-17

Our story begins as a story of abundance and hospitality.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and God made the earth green with plants and trees of every kind, good trees, bearing fruit.  And God made the animals and the birds and the fish of the sea and then God made us and gave us this beautiful, abundant, fertile place and said make yourselves at home.

Years later when the people God had chosen to be God’s people were enslaved in Egypt, God saved them through a meal and the blood of a sacrificial lamb smeared on their doorposts.  And when they wandered in the wilderness not knowing what to make of their newfound freedom, God fed them with manna from heaven, and God led them toward a land flowing with milk and honey.

In the time of the prophets Isaiah foresaw a heavenly feast set on God’s mountain, to which all peoples were invited and at which all would be fed.

When Jesus walked on earth his first miracle was providing wine for a wedding reception where they were running out.  He called fishermen to follow him and was known to help with their catch when it was low.  In his ministry he called himself the Bread of Life and he fed five thousand men (not including women and children!) with a few loaves of bread and some small fish.  On the night before he died, at a Passover meal, Jesus took a loaf of bread and cup of wine, gave thanks, gave them to his disciples, and said take and eat and drink.  This is my body and blood, given for you.

And when Jesus rose again he appeared to a couple of his disciples on the road to Emmaus, and they thought he was a stranger, until they ate together and he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Our story of faith is a story of God making room for us, and providing for us, in ways both tangible and tasty, which is why the scholar Norman Wirzba calls food “God’s love made nutritious.”

It has never been the case, though, that this hospitality calls for an unmitigated free-for-all of eating.

Because from the beginning, there have been limits and boundaries that have helped us—when we have followed them—to eat well and faithfully in response to what God has provided.

In the beginning it was an apple—or rather a tree of unspecified fruit, called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Of all the trees in the Garden of Eden, it was the one the humans were not supposed to touch.  And we all know what happened there.

In the wilderness it was the dietary laws.  The Israelites were not to eat certain types of foods, because they were to be set apart from other people as God’s people.   It was these laws Daniel and his friends struggled to keep as they served in the king’s court during the Babylonian exile, and God blessed them for it.

In our Christian story, some of these rules and boundaries had to be loosened or change.  Jesus allowed his disciples to pluck grain on the Sabbath, asking us to consider the spirit rather than the letter of the law.  He ate with people other people wouldn’t have eaten with.  After his resurrection, Peter had a vision of God telling him to eat all sorts of unclean animals, three times, and that was what made him realize that God invited non-Jewish people into God’s story, too.

Even so, early Christians fought about food and our proper relationship to it.  Should it matter if we eat meat that had been sacrificed to Greek gods?  Or not?  That was something several early churches had to hash out for themselves.

Today, most of us who are Christian aren’t terribly worried about keeping kosher.  For better or worse, we prepare and eat the food we want even on the Sabbath, and I’m not sure any of you here have ever stopped to wonder if the hamburger you’re about to put in your mouth has been dedicated to the glory of Zeus.

But I would still argue that what and how we eat still has something to do with living faithfully in response to what God has provided for us.

When I heard Norman Wirzba speak—the scholar I am indebted to for a lot of ideas in this series[1]—he was quick to issue the caveat that he is not the food police.  I will echo that.  This series is not about me standing up here telling you that the only way to be a good Christian is to eat organic local gluten-free non-GMO stuff with no additives.  I hope it’s clear from our whole faith story that our relationship with food is a little more complicated, and richer, than that.  What I do want to do is bring up a few things that might help us think more theologically about our relationship with food.

It’s a little mundane, perhaps, to be worrying about, given everything else going on in our country and our world, but eating is something we do every day, and it is unmistakably a central part of our story and identity as people of God.  So it’s worth it to think about how to do it well.

We might start by recognizing that as a people—I’ll speak for Americans in general here—our relationship to food is kind of messed up.  We might even call it broken, or sinful, though I mean that in a way that goes well beyond our particular personal choices.  Overall, here, we live in such abundance as far as food is concerned that we don’t even know what to do with it.  I think about this every time I finish my food at a restaurant and immediately regret it because now I’m so full it hurts.  And then I want ice cream.  Of course, not all of us have equal access to that abundance, and not all of us have access to the same parts of it.  Here in America, obesity and malnutrition go together.

I once ready about a study in a Michael Pollan book where the researchers asked a group of French people and a group of American people how they knew when to stop eating.  The French people said, “When I get full.”  The Americans said, “When my food is gone.”[2]

We know this about ourselves, I think, and we feel some shame in that, so then on the other hand food becomes the enemy.  Food becomes solely about calories and nutritional information and points.  It becomes something that I have to resist, every day, and that causes me shame too.

I don’t think that’s what God wants, either.  Because, again, if food is one way God’s love for us is made tangible, it’s so much more than some numbers on a label.  It’s comfort, and memories, and enjoyment, and fellowship.  It’s not an invitation to gluttony, but neither is it something that I believe God wants to cause me shame.  At its best, or maybe our best, eating should be something that connects us to God, to the rest of creation, and to each other.  But something went wrong—probably as soon as Adam and Eve ate that forbidden fruit.

Norman Wirzba says we are “eating in exile.”  What he means is that these connections that are supposed to be there are broken. Think of what you had for breakfast today, if you ate something, or for dinner last night.  Do you know where it came from?  Who was involved in producing it?  How did it get from there to here?  What was in it?  What happened to it along the way?  How was the environment affected—which is also to ask, how were other people, present and future, affected?

Back in the day, people grew their food, and they knew these things.  They were connected to it, through the whole process.  These days, not many of us are, in a big way.

I say to that, thank God for the division of labor.  I like the idea of gardens, but I have never had any real urge to be a gardener, much less a farmer.  My vision of the Kingdom of God is not one where we all become subsistence farmers.  And short of growing it, who really has time to ask and answer all those questions about their food?

I will admit not me, not all the time, but I’ve learned to start asking them a little at a time, when I can.  One of the best mission trips I ever went on was one where groups went out to different sites each day and did mission work in inner city Atlanta.  But each day, one group stayed behind at our host church and prepared food for dinner and the next day.  Every other mission trip I’ve ever been on has been either school cafeteria food or white bread sandwiches and Doritos procured from Walmart, so this was a different kind of experience.  We baked bread and air-popped popcorn and prepared simple meals like bean soup.  And as we did we talked about the food.  The director talked to us about how we expect and demand food to be cheap, and how we spend less on food as a percentage of income than at any other point in history.  And he talked about some of the tradeoffs of trying to get the most “ethical” food he could.  Should he buy ingredients locally, or was it worth it to have the organic version shipped from a few states away?  There wasn’t any automatic answer, but we all learned to think about these things.

It’s easy to get sucked in by labels that promise us that we are doing the right thing.  But sometimes those labels are just labels.  It may take a little research to decide, what really makes a difference if I buy it organic?  What is truly creating a more sustainable environment that will be able to feed people into the future, and what’s just a way to justify charging me more?  What does “fair trade certified” mean?

Not long ago I picked up a bag of chocolate chips from Giant and noticed that the bag said “Made from sustainably sourced cocoa.”  I know the chocolate industry is a really, really bad one, especially in terms of how its laborers are treated—maybe worse than coffee.  It was one of those things I always conveniently ignored, because I really like chocolate.  So I was excited to see that on the bag and immediately felt virtuous for buying these chocolate chips.  The thing is, I have no idea what they meant by “sustainably sourced.”  It could have meant anything, and it made me feel good about buying their product, which I’m sure was the point.

I don’t think the right answer is to become so paralyzed by questions of where my food came from that I can’t eat anything like a normal person.  I do think increasing awareness in a way that can help us make informed decisions about our food when we are in a place to make them is one way of responding faithfully to God’s hospitality.  We acknowledge the ways, good and bad, our food connects us to creation and to other people.

That does get us into an issue of food justice, though, because again, some of us are in a lot more of a place to make intentional decisions about what we eat than others.  The danger of harping too much on labels is that eating becomes kind of an elitist activity.  The “good” people shop buy organic, fair trade food from Whole Foods and the “bad” people shop at evil Walmart.

Well, not everyone can afford to shop at Whole Foods, and some of our neighbors, even some of us here, may be asking very different questions about the food we buy and eat.  What’s the best way to stretch my SNAP benefits so my kids don’t go hungry?  Is it worth the extra dollar to buy the version with less added sugar?  Can I afford fresh vegetables this week?  Will I be judged if I splurge for a special occasion?

I think we can name it as a cultural sin that these are the choices people have to make in the first place.

I think of that in relation to our Fellowship Hall food basket sometimes.  You know I’ve told you all to bring in food like soups and ravioli and easy mac so that people can come into our church and get something to eat.  And there’s a good reason I’ve told you to bring in those foods—because they are easy to prepare and many of our neighbors don’t have a kitchen to go home to.  But I’ve also talked to plenty of our neighbors who would love a fresh salad now and then.  Or who suffer from high blood pressure and need to watch their sodium intake.  When we talk about eating ethically, it’s not just what’s on our plates that we should be worried about—probably God is just as concerned with what is and isn’t on our neighbor’s plate.

We also have ways to address this question.  If you went down to AFAC on a Saturday afternoon, for example, you could be part of sorting and bagging the produce that comes in from local gardens and farmer’s markets so that clients who come in during the week can get fresh fruit and vegetables.  Or maybe you’ve been gleaning, picking up the leftover produce from farms and orchards that hasn’t been harvested, so that others can have access to that good food, too.  Part of recognizing food as God’s love for us means it’s our job, as much as we can do it, to make sure it is available to all.

Finally, it matters not just where our food comes from but where it goes to.

I don’t think it’s a secret to any of us that we waste a lot of food.  I know every week I throw away stuff from my refrigerator that I didn’t get around to eating and has since gone bad.  I know that whole meals get thrown away at restaurants and whole crates of food from grocery stores because they don’t get sold in time.

It doesn’t do any good to finish a meal we aren’t hungry for because there are starving children somewhere else in the world, but it does make sense to try to bring or prepare or order less food next time so that ultimately there’s more of it to go around.

I did also learn some surprising things recently about food waste on a higher level.  I was listening to a talk by a woman who works for the Society of Saint Andrew, an organization that does a lot of gleaning.  What I had never known is that the USDA has these very specific guidelines for food that can get sold in our grocery stores.  So, for example, a green bean has to be between such and such a length and such and such a length.  Otherwise it’s too big or too small to be sold.  A peach has to be the perfect size to fit in one of those cardboard fruit cartons.  Otherwise it’s too big or too small to be sold.  This woman talked about driving up to farms and orchards to just find mounds and mounds of perfectly good fruits and vegetables ready to be turned into pig fodder or compost.

We make enough food in our world to feed everyone, but this is what we do with it.

Again, it’s worth thinking about what we might do opt out of this system.  My friend Nancy has a friend who is a dumpster diver.  He eats what he finds in the trash.  It’s not that he’s poor or desperate—he sees it as a justice issue.  We simply throw away too much food.

I’m not going to give you the assignment of fishing food out of a dumpster for one meal this week.  Maybe your assignment as well as mine is to think a little harder about what we get and what we waste, and whether that might not in some way be shared instead.

We do not live in the world of Leviticus and its food laws.  But, like Daniel and his friends, we do get to make choices about how to eat faithfully in exile.  Like most answers, I don’t think the answers are clear cut.

What we can’t forget is that food is one important way that God’s love and abundance and hospitality has been made real to us since the beginning of our story.  When we eat, no matter what we discern is a faithful way to eat, it should always be in grateful response to that.

[1] See his book, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating

[2] Pollan, Omnivore’s Dilemma

Love that Casts Out Fear: Reflections on the past week

Scripture: 1 John 4:16-21

I was going to preach about food today.  I was going to tell you about how food has been central to our story as God’s people from the beginning, from creation and the Garden of Eden right up to Jesus offering himself in bread and wine and the promise of a new creation where God sets a banquet and all are invited.  And I was going to talk about God’s hospitality toward us, how food is as one scholar put it “God’s love made nutritious” or even “God’s love made delicious.”

But this week we’ve been killing each other in this country, and honestly it just didn’t feel like the week to be talking about food.

It seems every morning this week we’ve woken up to hear that someone else is dead.  On Wednesday it was Alton Sterling, a black man shot and killed by white policemen as he was pinned down outside the convenience store in Baton Rouge where he sold DVDs.  On Thursday it was Philando Castile, a black man killed in Minnesota by white police in front of his girlfriend and four-year-old daughter after they pulled him over for a busted taillight.  And on Friday it was five police officers, with six others injured, shot by a sniper at a protest against police violence in Dallas.  Every day.

It’s the kind of week we need to talk about in church if church is to be relevant to the world around us at all.

It’s one thing to come here and escape from the realities of life, to focus our minds not on earth but on heaven for a little while, sing some uplifting songs, but the thing is I don’t think that’s the kind of God we worship, because the God we worship came on down here.  The God we worship wasn’t content to sit up in heaven while we fought it out for ourselves here on earth.  God became one of us and entered into the immense brokenness of this world, and if we call ourselves the Body of Christ, that’s our job too.

But after that I don’t really know what to say.  I wish I had some words that would change the world, or at least that would equip you all to change the world.  But I don’t have those words.  I also am not sure I have anything to say that I haven’t already said after Ferguson or Charleston.  But maybe that’s OK; maybe we need to say and hear things again sometimes.

So I’ll begin with what is hopefully obvious: none of the events of this week are OK.  From Louisiana to Minnesota to Dallas, none of them are OK.  It is tragic for police to be killed in the line of duty, especially as they are protecting the right of people to protest, and it is tragic that Alton Sterling and Philando Castile lost their lives, and furthermore it is tragic for black people, especially black men, to have to fear the very people who are supposed to keep us safe.  That’s not to say all police are the same; it’s simply to say that this keeps happening.

Seven children of God lost their lives this week in these incidents.  We don’t have to make this about “sides;” all of them were precious.

Some of you might say that we don’t know all the details of what happened to Alton Sterling or Philando Castile, and that’s true, I don’t know more than you know from watching the same news.  I know that the videos do not look good.  And I know that the list of names keeps getting longer—Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland—and also that whenever I read one of these lists of names, of black people killed by police, there are more names on it that I don’t even recognize, because I have the privilege of not always paying attention.  And I do know that black men make up 6% of the population in the US, but 40% of unarmed men shot and killed by police in 2015; and that young black men are nine times more likely than any other group of people in America to be killed by police.[1]  This isn’t about one or two people, it’s about black people in this country having reason to fear for their lives just by going outside.

And I know that my black friends and colleagues are asking white people to speak up.  So while I don’t know if I have the right words, I am trying.

The Bible verse that’s been coming back to me all week is from 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”  That’s because all of this has to do with fear.  We are afraid of each other.

We can’t snap our fingers and stop being afraid of each other, and that’s why it can make a difference to support laws and policies that hold our police accountable, like body cameras, and to give them the tools and training they need to deescalate potentially dangerous situations instead of escalating them, so they don’t come to this as often.  You can’t solve racism overnight, but you can control its effects.  I read that in Dallas, where the five police officers were killed, de-escalation training is already making a difference in complaints of excessive force against them.[2]  Let’s push for that to continue and expand.

But in a way I think that’s the easy solution because it has to do with other people, and the hard solution has to do with us.

We’re afraid of each other.  Not those of us who sit here of different colors, probably, but in a more general sense—we are taught by our families and our friends and our society around us, at a very young age, who is dangerous and who to be afraid of, as well as things like who is smart and who counts beautiful.  We make these judgments in an instant, as soon as we see someone on the street or on the Metro or in a shopping center, and a lot of times we don’t even know we have made them.  Studies have shown that when we are presented with images of two faces and asked which one we trust more, our prejudices come out.

It might be someone in a niqab, or someone with a lot of tattoos and piercings, or it might be someone with a badge, or someone panhandling on the street, or it might be a black man.

Most of the time, there’s no gun involved.  Instead we just avert eye contact, cross the street, give someone a wide berth, clutch our bags a little closer, or just feel on edge for a moment.  No overt harm done.

One morning maybe a year ago I pulled up to church and there was a guy standing outside wearing what looked to be the traditional garb of a Middle Eastern country—I couldn’t tell you which one.  And I paused before I got out of the car.  Because what do you think my first thought was?

Terrorist.

Now, that was not my reasoned or enlightened first thought.  I have lived in Northern Virginia for most of my life and am used to seeing people from all different places dressed in all different manners.  I absolutely do not believe that Middle Eastern people are all or mostly terrorists, any more than white Americans are all or mostly terrorists.  I’m also fairly used to seeing an eclectic group of people outside or inside our church doors.  But the society I live in has painted a picture for me of what a terrorist looks like, and that image is ingrained in me, like it or not.  So that was my honest, knee-jerk, gut reaction.

I hope it’s obvious that I’m not telling you that because I’m proud of it.  I’m telling you that because I am actually deeply ashamed of it.  For someone who likes to pride herself on her supposed openness to all different kinds of people, that is a deeper confession than I am usually willing to make here in front of you.

But I’m saying it anyway because I believe that if we are not honest with ourselves about our own gut-level prejudices, nothing is going to change.  I’m just going first.

I can’t say for sure what was going on inside anyone’s head when white police officers kill black men.  But society does teach those of us who are white, early on, to be distrustful and scared of people who are black.  It usually doesn’t use those words, but it teaches us just the same.  And no matter what good and open-minded people we are, we can’t escape that that easily.  So I can’t imagine that wasn’t a dynamic at play somehow in the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile—or Michael Brown, or Freddie Gray, or Walter Scott, or anyone else whose name has become a hashtag in the past few years.  Even if those officers were no more racist than the next guy—even if they were no more racist than me.

A police officer, in the moment, might not have time to question his or her own fear and prejudice.  But I usually do.  I usually have time to take a breath and say, “This is how I am reacting to this person.  There is no reason for me to be reacting this way.”  I might even say a short prayer: “God, I repent of my fear.  Take away my fear.”  And then I proceed.

On the day when I saw the guy in Middle Eastern dress outside the church, I called myself out on my reaction, and I got out of the car and I went into church.

The guy turned out to be someone I had met before, who was not Middle Eastern and had not been wearing traditional Middle Eastern garb at the time, so it was actually genuinely weird that he was that day.  But that wasn’t the point: in an instant, the prejudice that society has ingrained in me came to the fore, and I had to intentionally decide to reject it.

The fact that I usually have the time to make that decision makes it all the more important that I do, because that way at least I can contribute to this being the kind of world where we don’t pass on those deeply ingrained prejudices, and where those aren’t the basis of the snap judgments we make.

Sometimes, even, we have to help each other out.  We have to call each other out—gently, in love, not with accusation or self-righteousness—when we can’t see clearly enough to do it ourselves.  That, too, is our job as the church.

Mother Theresa said that if we judge people, we don’t have time to love them.  1 John tells us that if we fear people, we don’t have room to love them.  In this country we are afraid of each other, and that means that we are doing a bad job at loving and protecting each other.

Fellow white people, this week I’m especially talking to you.  We have more power and privilege in this country than others, and that means it’s our job to put that to work to change things—to change ourselves.  Or better put, to ask God to change us.

For those of you who are people of color, your lives matter, and I hope this is a place where you know that.  And if there’s more we should be doing as a church, let’s talk about it.

None of this will change the world overnight.  Probably none of it will prevent the next shooting.  But our very basic job as Christians is to love our neighbor, and we simply can’t do that when we are afraid.  And when fear runs deep I think the only way to eliminate it is to confront it when we feel it and ask God to cast it out so that we have more room to love.  Over and over, every time.

In our hurting country, in our broken world, may God help us to love one another as God first loved us.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/31/the-counted-police-killings-2015-young-black-men

[2] http://www.dallasnews.com/news/crime/headlines/20151116-dallas-police-excessive-force-complaints-drop-dramatically.ece

Who is My Neighbor?

Preacher: Kelvin Mulembe

Text: Luke 10:25-37

How well do you know yourself? Most of us don’t. If you want to know yourself deeply, examine your questions. You can learn more about someone by studying their questions. Questions reveal our intentions, fears, hidden anxieties, our deep seated desires, and often our trouble spots. I am sure you’ve been in situations where you felt uneasy about certain questions. You can tell a swindler by their questions and how they respond. Often, they are very elusive and vague. Therefore, pay attention to questions, especially your own. They reveal your most valued areas, and often were God is drawing your attention. Our questions matter.

Jesus can be said to be a great questioner. In fact, he is known to have asked more questions than he answered. A study by Martin Copenhaver identifies 307 questions Jesus asked and only answered a few. In the Gospels he only answered eight questions directly. Jesus often responded with follow-up questions. He always asked provocative questions to evoke new understandings and change lives.

When the lawyer asked Jesus, “Teacher” what must I do to gain eternal life?” Jesus responded with a couple of his own questions. “What is written in the law? How do you interpret it?” “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself” This was the best response. After all, he was an expert in the Law of Moses – a Pharisee. Every Jewish child is taught this “double command” from birth (Duet 6:7).  Love God and your neighbor.

But since the lawyer’s intention was to trap Jesus, not wanting to lose the debate, he pushed further.  “Who is my neighbor?” On face value, the question sounds innocent, but Jesus’ response exposes lawyer’s hidden motive, – trick Jesus into saying something controversial and discredit him. They wanted a reason to kick Jesus out of the synagogue.

It reminds me of the presidential debates when candidates were asked to say if they thought Black Lives Matter. Whatever response the candidates gave had serious political implications. They were making policy statements and could be held accountable for whatever they said down the road. That is how serious that engagement between the lawyer and Jesus was. But, Jesus perceived the trap in the question “who is my neighbor?” and avoided to give a direct response. Instead, he opted to give the parable of a Samaritan.

Nowadays, the word neighbor is losing popularity. We are using more terms like housemate or roommate. We barely know people that live next door in our apartment buildings. The word neighbor has been overused and over-preached that one has to be extra careful when using it. Our society is now structured in more complex ways, influenced by our advancement in technology, architecture, globalization, and cultural diversity. Consequently, the language of “neighbor” takes on a vague and complicated meaning. But we the church must redeem it.

For some of you, words like neighborhood may invoke negative images – street fights, drugs, liquor stores and violence, unending sounds of gunfire and sirens. For others, it may bring images of Aunt Maggie’s apple pie and potato salad. As we celebrate this Independence Day, people across America will be having barbecues and eating sumptuously. We will watch fireworks and drive back to our safe and air-conditioned homes.  Rarely, if at all, will it cross our minds that some people will have nothing to eat, no place to sleep, will be beaten by robbers and left for dead. How will July 4th make any sense to them? Do we have a responsibility as Christians to make their July 4th meaningful?

In the parable of the Samaritan, what Jesus is suggesting is scandalous – redefining the meaning of neighbor. Think of it as our debate on redefining marriage. That’s radical. For Jews to associate with Samaritans was a taboo. It was considered an abomination. The hostility between them went centuries back. Yet this parable demonstrates the core/heart of Jesus’ ministry – to love God and love your neighbor. This parable is not a story about being nice or friendly. It’s not even about compassion although compassion is implied. It provides much deeper instructions on avoiding idolatry and responding to injustice. It’s about acting out our faith and not just quoting it.

We thank God for our independence, and let us celebrate. But, let us also ask, how are we celebrating and with whom?

Getting along with people we like is easy. They look like us, think like us, talk like us, and share our values and beliefs. But Jesus always pushed the envelope. He intentionally included people who were considered outcast – tax collectors, adulterers, Samaritans. That is what cost him his life.

The question, “who is my neighbor?” is the opposite of what the lawyer is really asking. In essence, he is asking “who am I obliged to love?” my family members, fellow Jews? What about us? Is it my church, or just my fellow Americans? What about Mexicans and undocumented immigrants? What about Muslims? Shouldn’t there be a limit to how far my love can reach?

The lawyer is subtly seeking permission to exclude certain people from his definition of neighbor. Luke tells us that “he wanted to justify himself.” He harbored ill feelings towards foreigners (Samaritans) and was condescending towards other Jews. As a Jewish law expert, he felt religiously and ethnically superior. So if by defining neighbor we draw boundaries on who should be included, we at the same time mark certain people for exclusion. And as such, we can justify how we treat them.

This is what happened in America not long ago. Slavery and the Jim Crow Laws were designed for the purpose of excluding other people, for control. Slaves were considered property and they were property because they were black. The constitution did not recognize blacks as American citizens and therefore were deprived of the rights that non black Americans enjoyed (PBS, p. 1). Blacks and Native Americans were subjected to inhuman treatment and bogus theories written to justify this evil. Unfortunately, even the Church participated in propagating questionable theologies.

The same thing happened during the Jewish Holocaust. Around six million people were killed in the Holocaust, the Nazis’ systematic attempt to exterminate the Jewish people. Jews from across Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe were rounded up, and either transported by train to extermination camps where they were gassed, shot locally, or starved and abused in ghettos and labor camps until they died.

It’s hard to imagine that ordinary people would do such things. Yet it was the neighbors who turned on their Jewish friends and handed them over to the killing industry or lynched them on their streets.  Who is my neighbor? For the Nazi Germans, the neighbor became everyone except the Jews.

Sadly, we are beginning to see the same spirit of exclusion reemerging in America. The negative language towards immigrants and people of other faiths has reached dangerous levels. The separation of families by Immigration and Customs Enforcement is heartbreaking. Across Europe, the same wave of racism is on the rise. The recent referendum in Britain to exit the European Union was primary driven by anxieties and attitudes towards immigrants. Of course many arguments can be raised. But, the increase in targeted vandalism and racially motivated violence speaks clearly.

We as a church, as people of God must, therefore, carefully examine where we stand? Who are we excluding? How are we limiting our reach to love? For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him will be not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).

Jesus’ mission of grace was inclusive. It was to the whole human race that he gave himself. Therefore, He is not impressed by our correct and obvious answers. Quoting the Bible and living it out are two different things. Jesus’ statement…”go and do likewise and you will live,” is what we have been called and sent to do.

If we are honest to God, we have to confess our sins for excluding other children of God. In our quest to justify ourselves or cover up our guilt, we have asked the same question the lawyer asked. But, I want to challenge you to ask it differently. Instead of a generic approach, ask yourself, “Who is NOT my neighbor?” Who have I habitually excluded from loving and reaching out to? This will challenge us to pray and think differently.

God will begin to reveal those deep seated attitudes and judgments you hold towards others.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said;

“The ultimate measure of man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.  The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, even his life for the welfare of others. In dangerous valleys and hazardous pathways, he will lift some bruised and beaten brother to a higher and nobler life.”

As we go out to be God’s people in the world, let this question inform how you live out your life this coming week. Who is NOT my neighbor? Who have I excluded from reaching with love? Therefore, go and do likewise. Amen!