Ash Wednesday: The Grace of Ashes

Scripture: Joel 2:1-2, 12-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10

Sometimes I think I don’t believe in grace.

That may be a shocking thing for a pastor to say, and of course it’s not completely true.  I believe in grace, theologically.  I could define it for you, as God’s unmerited favor.  I can tell you all about how John Wesley thought it worked in the life of a Christian, how it is present in our lives before we even know it, how it leads us to the point where we can say yes to God for ourselves, how it continues forever to shape us into holy and loving people.  I can tell you about how we are saved by grace alone, not by anything we do or don’t do or have done or haven’t done.

I mostly believe in that for other people.

It’s just that sometimes things in my life go well, and I feel like I should be able to take the credit for that.  I worked hard and I did it, and that says something about me and my value to this world and to God.  And on the other hand sometimes things aren’t going so well.  Those are the nights I lie awake worrying about how I just don’t measure up to what anyone expects of me.  My words don’t say enough and my church isn’t big enough and I make so many mistakes as a mom and I’ve forgotten to be a good friend.  And again, the personal value judgment: I, myself, am not enough.

I hear a text like Joel, which is heavy on the judgment before it get to words of hope, and I can get behind it, because I can believe I am being judged; I feel it all the time.  Judged by people who are cooler than me or have it more together, judged by my supervisors and teachers, judged even, I fear, by God.

The thing about Ash Wednesday, though, is that it reminds me that all of that is a lie.

Not because I’m not sinful or broken, not because I am enough, all on my own, but because I don’t have to be.  Because in the end, in the face of eternity, even my wins and my successes and my achievements are nothing more than dust.  The goal was never to be enough.  But I am, by God’s grace.

I’d be the first to say that we shouldn’t move too quickly from cross to resurrection.  We need time to repent of the ways we have fallen short without glossing over them too quickly and excusing ourselves.  That time is the gift Lent gives us.

Somehow, though, it’s in ashes, in this very sign of my own brokenness and mortality, that I find the freedom to receive God’s grace.

I wonder sometimes what it would mean to really live by grace, to live as though I believed in it, to live as though I depended on it?   I’m sure it doesn’t mean giving up on love and holiness and all the things I’ll never measure up on – that would indeed be to receive God’s grace in vain, as the Apostle Paul puts it, as if grace didn’t demand anything of me.  Instead listen again to how Paul describes his ministry:

As servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

Grace certainly demanded something of him.  In fact, at first glance it maybe sounds like one more way to measure up: wow, I’m not going through beatings and imprisonments and riots and all those things that Paul did, so what does that say about my faith?

But at the same time I want what he had, because he was able to stare death and suffering in the face, and find life.

And in fact maybe it was because he faced those things that he could find the life that was more than them.

Back at the beginning of 2 Corinthians he says it this way: We felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we could rely not on ourselves, but on God, who raises the dead.

That is grace: life that is only found in the face of death; wholeness that only comes when we recognize our own brokenness; the freedom that comes from never having to be enough on our own.

Everything else?

Ash.

The world’s expectations of me? Ash.

The amount of money in my bank account? Ash.

To to-do list that never gets checked off? Ash.

The goals I will never reach? Ash.

The ones I will? Ash.

My good deeds? Ash.

All the ways I fear I’m not enough? Ash.

My very mortal life?

Ash.

These ashes help me believe in grace for myself.

Because when everything else is ash, grace is all that’s left.

Saying Yes to God

Preacher: Kathleen Hugh

Scripture: 1 Peter 3:13-17

We all know, or live in, eccentric families.  (I am certain that they began the minute Adam and Eve had their first children.) I was raised in such a home.  I had a very loving mother, and a father who was a well- known research psychologist. He was also a womanizer and a drunk.  By the time I was 12, we had moved 8 times so he could teach at different universities. Those moves, plus the presence of highly religious and somewhat strange aunts in my life led me to become very wary of God and God’s religion.  For me, most of that was the High Church Episcopal in the deep south: rigid and exclusionary.

And I was required to go to church.  However, I spent most of my time being so disconnected from the service that I made up an adventure to help me stay awake.  I would imagine a tiger coming into the sanctuary, and I would have to figure out how to escape each Sunday, and perhaps save a couple of others.

I saw other people who seemed happy in their religions. To me it looked like they fit in easily and felt safe; and I did want that.  But after church I would come back home to the turmoil.  I learned to read body language and tone so that I knew whether or not this was one of those days that it was safer to go hide in a closet behind boxes. Dad was not safe when he was drunk. I had heard God called “the father” in church. And what I saw at home was God, the father, lying drunk on the living room floor.  And none of the women I loved so much who were so involved in their church seemed happy either.

There was not one time that I was ever allowed to question anything I had heard in church.  And I had so many questions, because I did want to understand why all these people seemed so content in church.

Then there were my beloved aunts and grandmother.  When I was 11, my father went on one of his many drunken flights and simply never returned.  We were evicted and homeless. But unlike so many others, we had family take us in: my grandmother who had Alzheimer’s, and my mother’s very religious sisters. And this is when things really got eccentric in our two sides of the duplex!  One aunt refused to have a Christmas Tree on her side of the duplex, since it came from a pagan rite.  But she loved coming over to enjoy ours. Or she would be angry at the drier and kick it, cussing.  When I caught her once, she told me, “But I did not take the Lord’s name in Vain!” There seemed to me to be such hypocrisy in those who were religious.

My other aunt, equally religious, had married my uncle who was paranoid schizophrenic; because, she said, God told her to.  She spent the rest of her life in a house practically covered in aluminum foil so that no one would spy on him.  And she went everywhere with scotch tape on her face to keep her wrinkles from spreading.

So this was my earliest introduction to religion. I was so disillusioned. Everyone pushed me to believe; but what good was this God of theirs?  My aunts were only happy on Sundays, and frankly they were a bit odd. Mind you I loved them all, and I wanted to make them happy, but… So when I turned 15 I gave up trying for a while.  I prayed to God, “Dear God, I know you will understand why I do not believe in you.

During the high points I had no need for God, but at the low points I was grasping desperately at anything that I thought would bring me into that joy I saw in others.  Frankly there were times that a Hare Krishna could have thrown a robe at me, and I might still be selling flowers at an airport somewhere.

Three days out of college, I moved to Atlanta, I became a singer in a band, and married my bass player. Nine years later I got divorced and moved back to the family turmoil hotel in Columbia SC. My beloved ladies were happy to see me, and still openly praying that I might still find Jesus. But I had no real understanding of who this guy was, and was not motivated to look for him; and he didn’t seem like the kind of guy I would want to date. First, based on the pictures I had seen at church, my ex-husband kind of looked like him. You know: thin rock musicians with their long hair. My takeaway from Bible school was that Jesus was unemployed, and couldn’t even hold down a job as a carpenter, and he had so many enemies. Also, he talked a lot to someone invisible in the sky, and that sounded way too much like my uncle!

I did begin to try some different religions, because I was at another low point.  Churches seemed to be a better place than bars to meet people, especially since I didn’t drink. So I wondered which one to try first. Episcopal, you might guess, was already out for me. There is an old southern joke about denominations: “Baptists believe you will go straight to hell, and Presbyterians already know you will go straight to hell, and Episcopalians, well, they just dress nice.” I tried many churches in my twenties and thirties.  I tried the Unitarian Church, which my scotch tape aunt said, sad for my soul, “Kathy, they could believe in Porky Pig.”  I tried Lutheran, Quaker, synagogue, and Bahai. I finally tried the Methodist Church, and eventually married my second husband Ray there, after I met him on what I liked to sarcastically refer to as the new church called American Online.  My 25-year-old friend asked, “What church is that?”  If you are under 30, check it out on Google!

When Ray and I met, we both saved each other, and were deeply in love.  We adopted two girls from China, who remain to this day my pride and joy.  Most of those years were wonderful and loving.  We had a shared purpose: our little family of four.

But as time went on, our marriage began to have some difficulties.  Our idea of communicating became me saying too much and Ray saying absolutely nothing. In fact, I heard my brother tell someone a few years ago that he had known Ray for over 20 years and had written down everything he had said, and he almost had a complete sentence.  It was this difference that began to damage our marriage to the point that I remember thinking in the last few years:  Is this it? I knew I would never leave him, but this was the loneliest of lonely. It was purgatory.  At the same time, I was feeling lost in the rest of my life. I had been lucky to have had several careers: storyteller, educator, group facilitator, national disaster relief director, to name a few.  And while I truly enjoyed each and every one of those experiences, I had spent years wondering why I felt no strong drive to pursue one of them more fully. I felt like a bit of a failure to have let all these opportunities slip away.  And as my marriage was beginning to fail and my daughters were growing up and getting ready to go off to college, I began questioning everything I knew about myself.

Which brings me back to God.  Everything always brought me back to my higher power, as much as I would protest that it did not.  I remained an unhappy person with happy times, but I wanted to be a happy person with unhappy times. I so wanted to experience, even if for a brief moment, that elusive joy that I saw in my religious friends: that sense of belonging, of fitting in.  At first, however, I didn’t think to turn to religion. But I have always been fascinated by science, and especially the science of the brain. So one day I sat on my couch and decided to reach the part of my brain that it was said we did not use, just to see what happened.  Maybe that is where I would find my answers.

So I thought, How will I reach that part or the brain? Meditation?  I would fall asleep. Heavy cathartic exercise?  Are you kidding me!? Drugs? No way. I saw enough of that when I was four and Dad, teaching at Harvard, had gotten involved in the early days of experimenting with LSD.  Great professor parties at our home.

That left only one thing I could think of: go back to my shaky southern church routes. But where would I start? And I knew that if I went this route yet again, I knew that I had to go ALL IN. No tigers in the sanctuary this time.  I had no idea what ALL IN meant, but I suspected it had something to do with Jesus.  But how could I rally around him when I had spent most of my life rallying against him?  But here I was about to go to a Presbyterian church.

But it is never too late, I learned, for God to find you. I did start going to church with my daughter.  But the Pastor wouldn’t let me take communion, even though I had been baptized and confirmed.  He said, “Kathy, you have to fully accept Jesus in your life first.”  Otherwise, I was to come up with my arms crossed and they would pray for me to find Jesus, instead of giving me sacrament. Talk about publicly outing a person as a heathen! I was just beginning to think about God, and Jesus was still a long way off for me.  But, luckily, I did learn to pray with real honesty for the very first time.

Six months later, Ray was transferred from NY to Denver. And there I tried another Presbyterian Church. I was trying hard to not give up, but I did not feel I belonged. Only four months later, in our 24th year of marriage, at the age of 56, Ray died suddenly of a heart attack.  I was devastated. At the same time I remember thinking (somewhat guiltily), “God has given me a second chance”, because I was no longer trapped in marriage purgatory.

I continue to wish, to this day, that Ray was still here on earth, because he was a wonderful man and an amazing father.  But back then, I no longer wished to be in Denver.  My sister came out to get me.  She told me that she was taking me back east so that I could be closer to her and to my girls in NY. And she moved me to Arlington, Virginia two blocks from her, and four blocks from Arlington Temple United Methodist Church.

The first time I came to this church, I had no expectations.  I had visited other churches in the area and was underwhelmed. But I had promised myself that I would go ALL IN, and that meant not giving up. Plus, I knew I had to change how I did and saw things. But I was surprised, because everyone here was welcoming.  And not just the first time, but every time after that.  What really blew me away was that it was communion Sunday. Pastor’s sermon moved me, as it always does; and when Pastor said that all were welcome to God’s table, I almost cried.  I could not believe what I was hearing.  And I took communion that day for the first time in decades, and no one could tell that I was still a heathen.

I was still confused about the God connection, though.  I felt that I was getting closer to understanding. Back in my apartment one day, I said a prayer I had made up on the drive from Denver with my sister, desperate for answers:

“Dear God, please clear my path and show me the way.”

On this day, unlike the other times I prayed this, I heard/felt..a God whisper: “Kathy, God was always there, but God wanted you to have those experiences and learn from them so that you could one day help others.” The moment was surreal.  But I saw my life clearly for the first time, and I saw that the path ahead was much clearer than the path behind me.  I felt the presence of God with me for the first time ever, and I understood that God had been with me, though I did not know it.  And that if there were any roadblocks ahead, I did not need to be afraid, for God would still be with me.  But it would be something I needed to learn from.

As I became more involved in the church and community, I began to see how all my experiences, good and bad and Dad, were gifts from God. I didn’t have to pick just one experience to pursue anymore, but I could now use them all.  I cannot say that I would choose those particular gifts for my girls. But I am now happier than I have ever been.  I am finally a happy person with some unhappy times; and I am no longer afraid and no longer feeling alone or scared.

I have learned many things since I came here.  I have learned that a building does not a church make.  When I came here, I found what I had missed for those 64 years:  a community, a community of faith.  All of us together with a common purpose to go out into the world to be God’s people. I love when we say that together at the end of each service.  It invigorates me. This church is a very special place; and what makes it so special to me is because we are all tuning in to God together at whatever belief stage we are each in. I also learned that this church does things the way I believe God would want us humans to do them.

Here I was able to come and be exactly my authentic self.  I realized it was never about fitting in just to fit in. Here I realized it was about finding a loving community in which it is safe to be oneself.  And to be oneself no matter where you are on your faith journey.  Here I feel allowed to question, to make mistakes without being judged, and to be open about my faith journey. I believe that’s what God does too:  God takes us where we are, and is always there for us. I just had to learn to pray and listen.

And I could not have learned that anywhere else but here, in this time and in this place. Only God knows when and where we will land in God’s world, and I will never ever judge someone else’s journey like mine was judged for all those years, because God doesn’t judge us for that either. I also have learned that I have no right to judge those who have always known God. That early arrival is just as valid as my slow and plodding one.

I have no idea where this new journey will take me, but I know with a certainty I have never felt before: that it is the right journey with new purpose for me now. I have even been attending the Methodist Neighborhood Seminary, a two year program to train people as lay leaders, to help us to better reach out into the community and work together to give our neighbors what they want, not just what we want for them; and to discern God’s path individually. I also love being part of our work with our community of unhoused and poor.  There is so much to do right here in our neighborhood, and here we can do it together with the love and kindness that Jesus preached. Through all of these new experiences I am feeling as if I belong and am safe, and have purpose.

Being in this faith community with all of you is a true blessing. I have a friend who told me her first Rabbi said, “Sarah, go to 1000 different synagogues if that is what it takes for you to find YOUR faith home.” And I have finally found mine here with all of you. With all my experiences here, I have been able to do something I never thought possible:  say YES to God.

 

Don’t Lose Heart!

Scripture Text: Luke 18:1-8

Preacher: Kelvin Mulembe

What an excellent and captivating story. A poor, powerless and vulnerable widow finally gets justice from a powerful and corrupt judge. This parable tells us of the kind of thing that could happen to us, and often did happen in Jesus’ time. Jesus loved to teach using parables. A parable is a story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson, as told by Jesus and his contemporaries. We see two characters in it:

a) The Judge, obviously not a Jewish judge. We know from historical records that Jews had a different system for resolving disputes. All ordinary Jewish disputes were taken before the elders, and not into the courts. Under the Jewish law, matters were taken for arbitration before a panel of three judges. One chosen by the plaintiff, one chosen by the defendant, and one independently appointed. Cases where not decided by just one judge, but by a two third majority.

b) This Judge is likely one of the paid magistrates appointed by Herod or the Romans. Such judges were notorious and very corrupt. Plaintiffs had to be persons of influence or money to bribe their way to a favorable verdict or they had no hope of ever getting their case settled. Poor people had no chance of even having their cases heard by these gangster Judges. In fact, they were famously nicknamed robber judges. Judges of prohibition or punishment.

c) The widow, thus, represented all those who were poor, marginalized, and defenseless. Those whom theologian Howard Thurman calls the disinherited. It is likely she was an immigrant woman who could not go before the Jewish elders. Being poor and broke meant that she did not have any chance of receiving justice from such a judge. Her only resource was persistence. She never gave up. I could envision her showing up everywhere the judge went. At his house, at the grocery store, showed up as he was walking his dog, and at the night club. It is possible that she pestered him so much that the Judge began to fear for his physical safety as well as his position. The word translated here as, lest she wears me out with her constant request, can literary be translated as, “lest she gives me a black eye” or blemish. He’s not giving her justice because he has finally come to his senses, but because the pressure is heating up, and he’s getting scared of being exposed.

This parable has been preached multiple times by prominent preachers, but often from the perspective of the widow’s perseverance. That she never gave up, and this is why she got her justice. That is only partially true. This parable is not about the widow as much as it is about God. This woman was risking her life and she could have ended up in prison or worse. She got her justice yes, but not because of her perseverance alone. Instead, her perseverance helped her to witness God’s faithfulness for her vindication. It is amazing what God’s grace can do for us. God can use the wicked to bless us. The parable’s main purpose is to reveal the nature and image of God. It contrasts God’s righteousness from the character of the unjust and wicked Judge.

i) God is just whereas this judge in unjust. God is Faithful, this judge is unfaithful. God is Loving and Cares about people. This wicked Judge does not care about people, or about God. And God is always present with us, pleading our case. This Judge doesn’t want to be bothered. God’s grace is enduring while human commitment wears off.

ii) I am not saying that God does not desire and expect us to persevere in prayer. Let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season you will reap harvest, if we do not give up (Galatians 6:9).” To persevere is to continue in a course of action even in the face of difficulty or with little or no prospect of success. To carry on. To not give up. To persevere in prayer is to maintain our faith and hope in God’s provision. His intervention. His Breakthrough. Yes, things are messy right now. And they may be messy for a while. You don’t even have a clue of how your situation will ever change. I came to let you know that God will come through for you according to God’s word.

iii) It is God’s hope and request that we teach our children and grandchildren to pray and persevere. That we remind each other to pray and be courageous. God desires that the church be a praying church, a persevering church. The church cannot rightfully represent God and carryout God’s mission of making disciples and transforming the world without engaging in constant prayer and perseverance.

I learned at an early age the importance of prayer and how to pray from my grandmother. Grandma Eka was my mom’s mom. She embodied a life of constant prayer. As far as I can remember, she only owned one book that she could read over and over. I remember asking her, “Grandma, why do you always read the same book?” Her response was that every time she read it, she heard something new. She never went a week without reading the Bible. Now I know what she meant. God’s word is living. It is active. It’s powerful.

But was more remarkable about her is how often she brought God and her faith into every aspect of her life. Grandma loved gardening. And she would make us work. Off course you have to if want to taste any of her fresh carrots. We would be working in the garden, sweating, and complaining, but she would burst out in a song about the beauty of the sky, sunshine, the wind, and the trees and how life was an amazing gift from God. You kidding me? Her favorite phrase was “in God’s time.” God makes all things beautiful.

Now that I am older, I understand.

a) To pray is to enter into dialogue with God. Three conditions are required:
a. To experience one’s life story as God’s word addressed to one-self;
b. To understand that God is really present in your actual life story – past, present, and future; (Luke 15:31) – as a free and undeserved gift of himself to us
c. To accept freely one’s life story as the word of God in which God promises his word to us through Christ (Matthew 28:20) “I am with you always, to the end of the world”)
To persist in prayer and not give up does mean endless repetitions or painfully long prayer sessions. Constant prayer means putting our requests continually before God as we live for him day by day, believing God will answer. Living by faith means we don’t give up. God’s answer may seem delayed, but we must always believe that there is good reason for that. As we persist in prayer, we grow in character, faith, and hope.

b) Let me caution here, that many of us have more in common with the wicked judge than with the widow. We are not that poor. We have a tendency of not caring about other people’s struggles. We always want to see what is in it for us. We do not want to be bothered. The unrighteous judge did not care about people or about God. Selfishness sometimes masquerades as self-care. Greed comes naturally. We are a fallen people. With warped desires and a twisted sense of justice. Only God’s grace can redeem us. We need the Holy Spirit to transform us.

c) The widow’s resource is not power or property but legal persistence. The question is not whether God will vindicate the persecuted, but whether the persecuted or oppressed will persevere until they receive vindication.

It reminds me of the old Negro spiritual “We shall overcome someday”:

i. We shall overcome, we shall overcome
We shall overcome some day
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe
We shall overcome some day
ii. The Lord will see us through, the Lord will see us through
The lord will see us through some day
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe
The Lord will see us some day
iii. We’re on to victory, we’re on to victory
We’re on to victory someday
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe
We’re on to victory some day
In many instances, we are like Jesus’s audience. We are living in a time of great injustice. A society in which poor people tend to receive longer and unfair prison sentences compared to those who have resources or belong to a particular class even when convicted of the same or more serious crime. Today, social justice is just another cool slogan. Something to add to our resume. Or to make us feel good about ourselves.

When the concept of justice has no universal definition or enforcement, the reputation of our courts becomes highly suspect. A justice system that clearly works for one class of people but not others is no justice at all. It is similar to a kangaroo court. If you can acquit someone without allowing evidence or witnesses. That’s a kangaroo court. Its concern is more about wrapping up cases than about justice.

It is unfortunate that the highest court of the land – the Supreme Court is an openly politicized institution. It has become common to predict verdicts almost with precision depending on who is being charged. That is an example of a perverted justice system.

Fortunately, God’s justice is different. God’s justice does not depend on the influence of those with the power or resources. If anything, God’s justice looks out for those who are weak, and vulnerable. The poor, the homeless. The immigrants. Those whom society has given up on.

God’s justice is guaranteed. God cares about people and cares about God’s word. God cares about you and me. No matter how insignificant your concerns may be to others. God says, “my word shall not return to me void, but it shall accomplish the purpose for which it was sent.”

You may be broke, busted and disgusted. You shall overcome. You may be addicted and evicted. You shall overcome. You may be divorced and lonely. Or married and still lonely. You shall overcome. You may be fired, or enduring in a dead-end job, or searching for a job, you shall overcome.

We as a people of faith, as a united Methodist church, as Arlington Temple, we shall overcome.

As the widow persisted until she was vindicated, let us persist in prayer and not lose heart.

Deep in your heart believe that you shall overcome. The Lord will see you through. Yes, you are onto victory and you shall not be afraid. You shall overcome. And in the words of my grandmother, “in God’s time. God makes all things beautiful.

Amen.

A Methodist Cloud of Witnesses

Scripture: Mark 3:13-19; Hebrews 12:1-2

Once in a while, I will recount pieces of our Methodist story to you.  I know well that we who gather here each week consider ourselves personally Methodist to greatly varying degrees, but our Methodist story and history has shaped who we are as a church, both here in this place and as part of a bigger church.  It provides a theological lens through which I preach, and if we let it, I believe that it can call us back to our mission today.

It’s also, as usually told, a pretty white story.

It is, after all, a story that starts with two brothers in England in the 18th century, and probably about reflects the limited diversity of the circles they moved in.  But that is also far from the whole story, and so today in honor of Black History Month I want to tell you another piece of it, and to introduce you to some of the people beyond the white Europeans who helped shape the church we have today.  I first want to acknowledge my main source for what I’m going to tell you today, Black People in the Methodist Church: Whither Thou Goest? by William B. McClain.

I just said the usual “white” Methodist story reflects the diversity of John and Charles Wesley’s world, but even that isn’t completely true.  Almost from the beginning, the Methodist movement counted people of color among its ranks.  John Wesley wrote in his journal in 1758 that he had baptized two slaves from Antigua – the first “African” Christians he had ever known.  He doesn’t record their names, only that they belonged to a Mr. Nathaniel Gilbert, and judging from his use of pronouns at least one of them was a woman; but he does record that they were so filled with zeal and enthusiasm from this new experience of God’s grace that they went back home and converted Nathaniel Gilbert, who later became a Methodist preacher.  When the three returned to Antigua, they started the first Methodist meeting in the “New World,” and by 1786, only two of its 1500+ members were white.

The Methodist movement came to the American colonies in the 1760s, and in 1784, in the wake of the American Revolution, officially became the Methodist Episcopal Church.  The movement from its inception in England had tended to attract poorer, less educated people, who were drawn to the dynamic, plain-language preaching and the emphasis on an experience of grace, rather than the heady high-church services they were used to. The early Methodist movement in America was no exception, and it began to attract both slaves and free black folks, among others – it also helped that Wesley and many early Methodists were fervently anti-slavery.  (“That execrable sum of all villainies,” Wesley once described it.) The first Methodist Society in the colonies was begun in 1764 in Frederick County, MD, and included on its rolls Anne Sweitzer, a slave belonging to the Sweitzer family.  A few years later when the John Street Society started meeting in New York City, one of its charter members was Betty, a black servant of the founding preacher’s cousin.  Multiple white leaders of Methodist societies wrote about how impressed they were with the number of black people coming to meetings.  Some of the black Americans who joined the movement also went back and converted their masters.  (Conversion doesn’t necessarily seem to have meant that those slaveholders released their slaves.)

Even so, the idea that back in the 1760s and 1770s Methodists were having integrated worship gatherings is a pretty powerful one to me.  It didn’t last long; at the John Street Society, for example, a balcony was eventually put in so blacks and whites could sit separately.  But it makes me think about how church can and should be a place where these social boundaries and hierarchies are rendered powerless in light of our identity in Christ – and how easy it is for churches to become places that uphold and theologically justify those boundaries instead.  We have not been immune to that.  But the best parts of our Methodist heritage at least point us in the direction of inclusion and equality, and call us to a higher standard than the world around us on those things.

One thing the Methodist movement did that some other churches didn’t was allow black folks to preach as lay preachers. (It allowed women to be lay preachers, too.)  Later some places passed laws forbidding black people to preach, so the Methodists sent them out as “exhorters” instead.  These black preachers went out and preached and converted others, largely slaves, and they became in effect the pastors of their own congregations.  And they were good. Some of them became known as “Sons of Thunder,” from the passage we just heard where two of Jesus’ disciples get that nickname.

One of these “Sons of Thunder” was Harry Hoosier, also known as “Black Harry.”  He was a free black man who happened to meet Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury sometime around 1780, when he was working as a carriage driver.  Asbury noticed that though Hoosier couldn’t read or write, he had a gift for both memorization and speaking, and he began to teach him the Bible and train him as a preacher.  One Methodist historian wrote that while Hoosier continued to sometimes serve as a carriage driver for his more prominent white Methodist counterparts, “he excelled all of his masters in popularity as a preacher” (41). Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, said that “making allowances for his illiteracy, he was the greatest orator in America.”  Someone else noted in a letter that while Harry Hoosier officially preached to black people, white people always hung around to listen, too.

Harry Hoosier was in attendance at the Christmas Conference of 1784, when the Methodist Episcopal Church was born. He was not allowed to vote.

Also in attendance was Richard Allen, a former slave who was licensed as a Methodist preacher at that conference.  Instead of becoming a traveling preacher like Harry Hoosier, he moved to Philadelphia and became a preacher at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, where he got to preach the early services – 5 am, attended by black folks.  As Allen’s services grew, the white congregants of St. George’s decided to restrict him to a separate area of the church, which he justifiably did not take kindly to.  In 1787 he and fellow preacher Absalom Jones led their congregants in a walk out from St. George’s and never looked back.  They bought land and built their own church.  This was the beginning of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

It seems to me that in the ongoing fight against evil, injustice, and oppression, there can – potentially – be multiple faithful responses.  One is the response that says I refuse to stay and stand for this anymore, I won’t let my presence lend legitimacy to what you are doing.  The other says I’ll stay; I’ll work for change from the inside; I’ll let people see through experience and relationship that they were wrong about me.  One was the path of Richard Allen; one was (arguably) the path of Harry Hoosier.  Both, are parts of our story.

I mentioned before that early Methodists were anti-slavery.  But as the Methodist Episcopal Church became more established, it began to make compromises.  In 1780, back before there was an official denomination, the Baltimore Conference of Methodist Societies asked the question: Does this conference acknowledge that slavery is contrary to the law of God, man and nature and harmful to society?  They voted yes.  Then they asked: Ought not this conference require those traveling preachers who hold slaves to give promise to set them free?  Again, they voted yes.  And in 1784 when the Methodist Episcopal Church was formed, they voted that they considered it their “bounded duty to take immediately some effectual method to extirpate this abomination from among us.” (57)

Spoiler alert, they never extirpated it.  By 1785 – one year later – they changed things so that this rule only applied as much as it was consistent with the laws of individual states.  In 1808, the rule against slaveholding was struck from the Methodist books altogether.  And it wasn’t long before slavery as an institution was being justified theologically.  As William McClain writes, “Compromises which had once tortured the conscience became virtuous in themselves.”

The Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) did eventually split over the question of whether slaveholding was acceptable.  That was in 1844, and the church became the MEC and the MEC South – clearly, mirroring divisions in the country as a whole at the time, which the church can be so good at doing.  To me it’s interesting to think about this history in light of the present reality of the United Methodist Church, in which we are standing on the brink of a split again, this time over same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT people.  They’re not the same issue, and I think we can argue about what parallels can and can’t be drawn, but to me this part of our story is a good reminder that compromise and staying together aren’t ultimate goods in themselves.  Certainly God wants us to share and model a higher unity in Christ despite our political differences; and certainly many of us would look back and say it’s better to split than to compromise the witness of the whole church around something like slavery and the inherent worth and freedom of God’s children.

Of course, we can’t just implicate the Southern church here; the American North has historically never lacked for its own share of racism.  As the Civil War drew to an end, and the MEC (North) thought about how to incoporate freed slaves into their church, they decided to establish black missionary conferences, which essentially meant that black people had their own churches and church governance system, but of course under the umbrella of white denominational leadership.  At first these missionary conferences did not have the right to send delegates to General Conference, but two years later a couple conferences sent delegates anyway, so James Davis of Delaware and Benjamin Brown of Washington were the first two black people to have a vote at General Conference.

In 1920, Robert E. Jones was elected as one of the first two black bishops in the Methodist Episcopal Church, still under this missionary system.  He later became the first black bishop in the reunified Methodist Church.

When the MEC and MEC South finally united again in 1939 and became the Methodist Church, this missionary conference structure was institutionalized in what was known as the Central Jurisdiction.  The church – today, still – is divided into jurisdictions, comprised of annual conferences: for example, we are in the Virginia Conference in the Southeastern Jurisdiction.  What the Central Jurisdiction did was take the black churches all over the country and make them part of one big separate jurisdiction, in a fully segregated church.  One delegate recorded that when this plan was adopted, the white delegates got up and sang “Marching to Zion,” while the black delegates remained seated and wept (75).

When do you think the Central Jurisdiction was finally abolished? 1968, when the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren and became the United Methodist Church.

Nothing justifies institutionalized segregration.  Still, Bishop Jones and other leaders in the Central Jurisdiction did a lot to build a robust black Methodist Church on their own.  They supported black colleges and seminaries, established religious retreat centers, and built up the Methodist Church in Liberia; women’s mission groups flourished.  Some leaders saw the situation as an opportunity, while still hoping it could lead to something more. Bishop Jones said at the first meeting of the Central Jurisdiction in 1940: “We of the Central Jurisdiction of the Methodist Church have an advantage for the promotion of interracial Christian brotherhood which is not held by any other religious group of people” (88).  In other words, the connection that did exist between white and black churches and white and black Christians wouldn’t have been possible between two different denominations.  There were other leaders who took a more biting approach, such as Bishop Alexander P. Shaw, who said “We consider [the plan] expedient only on account of the Christian childhood of some American Methodists who need a little cuddling until they can grow into full grown manhood and womanhood in Christ Jesus.” (90)

The church has come a long way since then.  And it hasn’t.  Kind of like our country as a whole.  The legacy of racism is one that is not easily shaken.

In 1968, with the Central Jurisdiction abolished, the way was finally opened for black Methodists to be leaders over the whole church.  Here I want to introduce you also to Bishop Leontine Kelly.

She was the daughter of a Methodist minister and the wife of a Methodist minister, and when her second husband died, she became a Certified Lay Speaker herself, and was eventually ordained and served right here in the Virginia Conference.  In 1984 she became the second woman and first black woman to be elected bishop in the United Methodist Church.  She was elected by the Western Jurisdiction, despite opposition from her own Southeastern Jurisdiction, which by the way wouldn’t elect a black female bishop until 2016 when our own current bishop, Sharma Lewis, was elected.[1]  Bishop Kelly grew up with parents who were strong advocates for black people and for women, and she carried that legacy into her own work as a trailblazer in the UMC.

This is our Methodist story as much as John and Charles Wesley are our Methodist story.

It’s a complicated story: one that has both good and bad things to say about us as a church, from abolitionism to institutionalized racism.  The United Methodist Church still has this legacy of racism and segregation to contend with.  Racism and segregation are hardly unique to our story, but they are part of it.  The United Methodist Church today is still something like 90% white in the US, though membership is growing in African and the Philippines even as it declines here (which makes for some interesting global dynamics at times, since our denominational structure still assumes a church centered in America.)  Just because you change the rules officially doesn’t make things automatically inclusive or just; that takes a lot more time and intentionality and listening, but often changing the rules is enough to make us think we don’t have more work to do.  Just because everyone is allowed doesn’t mean everyone will feel welcome, or everyone’s leadership will be honored.

I hope this story helps us contend with that history a bit, but I also want to lift up these faithful people who are part of our Methodist story.  Some of them worked within the institution to strengthen the church with the tools allowed to them, never giving up on the hope of greater justice.  Some broke barriers and challenged other people’s assumptions and prejudice.  Some broke free of a structure that never reflected God’s will for the church.

All of them used their God-given gifts to build up God’s church.  And all of them called, and continue to call, the church to something greater: to be a place where human rules and boundaries and hierarchies can be rendered powerless in the name of Jesus.

Thanks be to God for this great cloud of witnesses, who still accompany us on our journey.

 

[1] https://www.umnews.org/en/news/bishop-leontine-kelly-dies-at-92

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?: Many Ways to Say I Love You

Scripture: Matthew 22:34-40

Some Christians have good stories of repentance and transformation: stories of how they were given over to their own selfish and destructive ways until they found Jesus and he helped them turn it all around.

Mister Rogers is not one of those Christians.

That’s not to say that he was a perfect man, of course, or not in need of God’s grace – just that, as far as I can tell, he was from birth fairly Mister-Rogers-y.

Fred Rogers grew up in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, a small town outside of Pittsburgh, in a family that knew the value of people and good deeds.  His father, Jim, was a businessman who owned a number of factories, and knew every one of his over five hundred employees by name.   His mother, Nancy, gave Christmas gifts to hundreds of residents of Latrobe each year, including sweaters she had knit herself.  She was, said Fred, “the original Meals on Wheels person.  Whenever she heard of someone who was sick or hungry, she’d show up wherever they were with a covered dish.”  She volunteered at the local hospital, and once, when Fred came home from school talking about how one of his classmates couldn’t afford new shoes, that boy went back to school a few days later with a pair of brand-new high tops.  As time went on, the family made bigger investments in their community, such as a new community swimming pool after a local boy drowned in the town’s swimming hole after a flood.[1]

The Rogers family loved their neighborhood, and they loved its people. And they found lots of different ways to show it.

Later, on his show, Mister Rogers would sing a song about that. Not about Latrobe in particular, or about his family’s philanthropy.  But about a lesson I imagine he began to learn in childhood: that there are many ways to say I love you.

Let’s listen to it now. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSbiUXN6Nwo

Over the years, Mister Rogers sang different versions of this song, and added in different ways to say I love you.  As we heard here, there’s the being there way; the cleaning up a room way; the drawing special pictures way.  There’s also the telling way, and the feeding way, and the “143” way: his special code for the number of letters in each word of “I love you.”  All of these ways to say I love you are accessible and doable for children, but also, with a little extrapolation, for adults.

What kinds of ways to say I love you might you add to that song?

Are you all familiar with the so-called five love languages? This was a book published in the early 90s, and it’s all about understanding that people express their love in different ways.  Some people express their love in words.  Some people express their love by giving gifts.  Some people express their love by giving you their time, by showing up.  Some people express their love in acts of service.  And some people express their love through touch (always consensual touch if it’s a real expression of love, of course.)

The book (which I have not actually read, by the way) was originally meant as a way to help people improve their relationships with their partners, but the concept has been helpful to me in think about my relationships more broadly. The idea that our expressions of love can differ helps me both appreciate expressions that are different from my own, and think about how I express love to people I care about.

I doubt Fred Rogers ever learned to knit sweaters like his mother, but from all accounts, anyone who talked to him was made to feel like they were the only person in the world.  That’s because how we show love comes out who we fundamentally are, and the ways God has made us.  And because we’re different, those ways are going to be different too.

In one famous passage of Scripture, a Pharisee comes to Jesus with a question.  Jesus has been engaging in some verbal sparring already with both Pharisees and Sadducees, two sects of ancient Judaism. In this case the Pharisee challenges him: “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?” He’d better not answer wrong, you see.

Jesus answers, quoting Deuteronomy: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength.”  And then, he says, “The second is like it,” and, quoting Leviticus: “you must love your neighbor as yourself.

“All of the Law and the Prophets,” he says, “depend on these two commands.”

It’s the right answer to a question to which there was supposed to be no right answer. (That is kind of Jesus’ specialty.)

As on the nose as Jesus is, here, he doesn’t provide a lot of detail.  What does it actually look like to love God and to love our neighbor?  Does loving God mean reading our Bibles every day, or hanging decorative versions of our favorite verses up in our home, or singing praise, or volunteering at church?  Or is there actually no other way to love God than by loving our neighbor – by welcoming them and feeding them and making sure they have a coat or a sleeping bag when it is cold outside, by giving them our valuable time and our helping hands?

We might say that the rest of the Gospels, and indeed the rest of the Bible, answers that question for us.  In Scripture, There are people who sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to his teaching; people who give their money to support his ministry; people who care for orphans and widows, the most vulnerable members of society; even people who punch a hole in a stranger’s roof to lower their paraplegic friend down into the house to be healed by Jesus.  In the Bible, there are many ways to say I love you to God and to our neighbors: as many ways as the ways God has made us.

And that’s important, because it means we don’t all have to do all the ways.  Some of us are artists, and we say I love you with our art.  Some of us are nurturers, and we say I love you with some homemade soup when someone is sick.  Some of us are good listeners, and we say I love you with our listening ears.  Some of us are detail people, and we say I love you by taking care of logistics at times when others feel lost in the jumble of everything that has to happen.  Back at the beginning of this series we talked about being fearfully and wonderfully made, and beloved just as we are, and the offering God expects back from us in terms of love for God and neighbor come out of that goodness.

I think we would be remiss, though, to only talk about love as if it consists primarily of good deeds, homemade cards, and chicken soup.  Those are good ways to be neighbors.  But being a good neighbor is also about more than that.

In Luke’s version of the passage we read from Matthew, it’s a lawyer who asks the question: what must I do to inherit eternal life?  Jesus answers, well, what does the law say?  And here the lawyer supplies the answer himself: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. “You have answered correctly,” Jesus says. The lawyer then responds with another question (what is that question?): Who is my neighbor?

Jesus tells a story about a man who was walking down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.  He falls into the hands of robbers, who mug him and beat him and leave him for dead on the side of the road.  A priest passes by, and then another religious leader, both without stopping to help.  And then a Samaritan comes upon him, dresses his wounds, puts him on his donkey, and takes him to the nearest inn.

The Good Samaritan is a story about a man who was a good neighbor through his good deeds.  He loved his neighbor by letting his own journey be interrupted for an urgent need, by putting up his own money for this stranger’s care.  It’s also a story about more than that: it’s a story that addresses stereotypes and prejudice head on, because the hero of the story is someone who would not naturally have been the hero of that Jewish lawyer’s story (or, probably, vice versa.)

Loving our neighbor means taking on the bigger issues, too.

It’s hard, these days, to think of a more neutral, less controversial personality than Mister Rogers.  But that wasn’t always the case.  Mister Rogers dealt with real-world issues with his audience of children, and that meant sometimes taking risks and even making people mad.

On one episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Mister Rogers invites Officer Clemmons, the friendly neighborhood police office, to stop on a warm day and soak his feet in the cool water of a kiddie pool.  It wasn’t that notable an event, except for the fact that it was 1969, and Officer Francois Clemmons was black.  Integration was not a given, and in fact the Civil Rights Act had passed just a few years earlier, after protests that specifically targeted segregated swimming pools.  There in Mister Rogers’ front yard, the two men sat, feet soaking together in a kiddie pool for everyone to see.  Officer Clemmons has not brought a towel, so when they are done, Mister Rogers kneels down to dry Officer Clemmons’s feet with his own.[2]

It was a kind gesture on a hot day, and thus a way to say I love you to a neighbor. But it was also Mister Rogers’ way of taking a stand: a stand that said in Mister Rogers’ neighborhood – and in God’s – all God’s children go together.

Mister Rogers knew, I think, that sometimes being a good neighbor means more than being kind, or bringing food, or knitting sweaters,  Sometimes loving our neighbor means, as it says in our baptismal vows, resisting evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.  It means saying no to racism, even racism in the often more subtle and insidious forms it tends to present itself now.  It means standing up against policies that fail to protect the poor and the immigrant.  It means asking ourselves honestly if everyone is really as welcome in our churches as we like to think they are.

It means seeking justice, because on the other end of every one of those policies and structures and isms are neighbors, who God has called us to love.

As Dr. Cornel West reminds us, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

Did Mister Rogers perfectly stand up to all systemic evil on his show?  Of course not. He was a product of his time, as we all are.  He was the white son of wealthy white parents, and it is hard for all of us to see outside of the blinders of our privilege sometimes.  Francois Clemmons balked at first at the idea of playing a police officer on the show.  Where he came from, the police weren’t the good guys.  For better or for worse, Mister Rogers overruled him.[3]  Francois Clemmons also once approached Fred Rogers with the idea of appearing on the show with a white woman as his wife.  Mister Rogers did not agree.  There were concessions to his viewing audience that still had to be made, or at least he felt that way.[4]

And yet he did take risks to use the platform he had to address these bigger issues of inclusivity and justice.

What I love most about the story of Officer Clemmons and the kiddie pool, I think, is that it takes a stand against the societal evil of racism, but it does so in such a Mister Rogers way.  It challenges that evil with gentleness, and kindness, and the simple, normal act of being a neighbor.

Some people may say I love with protest signs, or giving money to organizations that defend the vulnerable members of our society, or by knocking on doors and community organizing.  Those things might all be called for at times and none of them have to be to the exclusion of the others, but the beautiful thing is that when it comes to loving our neighbors in bigger, broader, more justice-focused ways, there are still many ways to say I love you; as many as the ways God made us.

We have been given many different gifts, but we all have one call: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Everything else depends on that.

One of Mister Rogers’ biographers wrote that, for him, heaven is a neighborhood.[5]  It is a place where all God’s children know their own goodness and belovedness, and a place where neighbors love each other with everything they’ve been given.

May it be so, on earth, as it is in heaven.

 

 

[1] Shea Tuttle, Exactly As You Are: The Life and Faith of Mister Rogers, p. 15-17; Newsweek Special Edition: Mister Rogers, p. 11

[2] Exactly As You Are, p. 112

[3] Exactly As You Are, p. 111-112

[4] Exactly As You Are, p. 116

[5] Exactly As You Are, p. 109

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?: Sometimes People Are Good

Guest preacher: Rev. Sarah Harrison-McQueen

Scripture: Philippians 2:12-16

 

Video clip: Sometimes People Are Good: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ro2qQuWUEs0

Sometimes people are good
And they do just what they should.
But the very same people who are good sometimes
Are the very same people who are bad sometimes.
It’s funny, but it’s true.
It’s the same, isn’t it for me…
Isn’t it the same for you?

 

Many of us want life to be simple – to be able to divide into categories: good people and bad people. That’s what we see so often today in the polarizations of society, politics, and our churches. We want people who are good to be all good. And we act like people who are bad are all bad. But, Fred Rogers knew it was more complicated than that, as you heard him sing in the song he wrote in 1967.

In the last few years there have been numerous books written about the life of Mr. Rogers, who was ordained in the Presbyterian church so he was also Rev. Rogers. Two films were released in the last two years about his life and television ministry. There are some people so enamored with the way that Mr. Rogers lived, and with the wisdom that he shared with generations of children here in the U.S., that they might consider him a saint – some type of perfect person, different from the rest of us.

An artist created this icon of Mr. Rogers. He appears in his iconic red sweater, and is pictured along with the puppet, King Friday, and the neighborhood trolley. This icon labels him, “Saint Fred.” When we call someone a saint we are recognizing God’s light shining in them so brightly is it as though they are “like stars in the sky” to use Paul’s words from his letter to the church at Phillipi. Too often when we hear the word “saint” we conjure an image of someone so holy that we can’t imagine living that way ourselves.

The filmmakers who created the movie, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” asked Mrs. Rogers for her blessing on the project. They stated to reporters, “She really only had one request: that we not treat her husband as a saint.”[i] Let’s listen now to a short clip of an interview with Joanne Rogers as she shared why she doesn’t like it when people call her husband a saint:

Video clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9W7eF26jzEA

So, Mr. Rogers wasn’t a saint in some unattainable way. He was a saint in the same way you and I are saints: when we say “yes” to the work of God in us and when we choose to “walk the walk.” Joanne Rogers said there was, “a sense of hard-work and inner discipline to his work.”[ii]

I believe that what Mrs. Rogers describes was the way that Fred Rogers worked out his “salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12b) He said “yes” to the work that God wanted to do in him and to do through him.

Paul is clear in his letter to the church at Phillipi. When we work out our salvation we are not working for our salvation. We cannot earn God’s love. Nothing we can do can cause God to love us any more – or to love us any less. Instead, when we say, “yes” to the work that God wants to do in us and through us, we acknowledge that we are working out our salvation because as Paul wrote, “for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Philippians 2:13)

Allowing God to work in and through us allows us to become more holy – sanctified – more perfect in love. It’s not the kind of perfection that means we won’t ever make a mistake. Instead, it simply means that our hearts and lives are overflowing with the love of God which pushes out the room sin was taking up in our life. This is the only way that we could possibly, “Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that [we] may become blameless and pure.” (Philippians 2:14-15a)

From the accounts of Mr. Rogers that I’ve read and the ones I’ve seen portrayed on film he was a gentle and kind person.

But, he wasn’t one-dimensional. A Washington Post article about the 2018 Mr. Rogers documentary stated:

…the documentary doesn’t deify Rogers. It shows him as someone who struggled at times — with his lonely upbringing, and with the enormity of the problems that he hoped to explain to kids, such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

“He wasn’t . . . this being of pure goodness who sort of existed on some other plane,” [Nicholas] Ma said. “He was someone who said, okay, well, what’s the best version of me that I can bring to the world, and how do I really make sure that I create that?”[iii]

We might think it was easy for Fred to be “blameless and pure” as Paul put it, but Mrs. Rogers shared in an interview that it wasn’t easy for Fred. He worked at it. He had a number of spiritual disciplines that were foundational for his life. He got up every day by 5:30 a.m. for prayer, reflection, and Bible reading. He kept a long list of names and prayed for people individually.

His prayers didn’t end there but continued into his daily swim. Before diving into the pool, he would sing (out loud but not too loud) “Jubilate Deo,” a song Henri Nouwen had taught him from the Taizé community in France. “Jubilate Deo, jubilate Deo, alleluia (Rejoice in the Lord, rejoice in the Lord, alleluia),” he would sing and dive in. He emerged from the pool ready to face a new day with a fresh slate, as if wet from baptism.[iv]

Mr. Rogers embraced a disciplined life of prayer. So what we see in his life and in the show that was his ministry is the spiritual fruit of that discipline. Every morning he woke up and said, “yes” to God at work in him. That is how he worked out his salvation with fear and trembling. Those words might seem a little scary for us, so I looked in another translation, and that translator put it: with “awe and reverence.” Mr. Rogers worked out his salvation with awe and reverence. He not only prayed for others, but he believed so strongly in the power of prayer that we would ask other people to pray for him. His wife stated in another interview:

He would ask people who were very disabled, challenged. He would ask those people to pray for him. And, Tom Junod, who was the real journalist in the story, asked him: “Oh, are you doing that just because you want to make them feel good?” And he said, “Oh, oh, not at all. Not at all. I just feel that people who have gone through as much as they have are very close to God.”[v]

This journalist, Tom, whose life was changed by his friendship with Mr. Rogers tells of another time when he visited Mr. Rogers at his office in Pittsburgh. There he got to meet Deb. She was a minister at Fred Rogers’s church. Tom wrote:

She spent much of her time tending to the sick and the dying. Fred Rogers loved her very much, and so, out of nowhere, he smiled and put his hand over hers. “Will you be with me when I die?” he asked her, and when she said yes, he said, “Oh, thank you, my dear.”

Then, with his hand still over hers and his eyes looking straight into hers, he said, “Deb, do you know what a great prayer you are? Do you know that about yourself? Your prayers are just wonderful.” Then he looked at me. I was sitting in a small chair by the door, and he said, “Tom, would you close the door, please?” I closed the door and sat back down. “Thanks, my dear,” he said to me, then turned back to Deb. “Now, Deb, I’d like to ask you a favor,” he said. “Would you lead us? Would you lead us in prayer?”

Deb stiffened for a second, and she let out a breath, and her color got deeper. “Oh, I don’t know, Fred,” she said. “I don’t know if I want to put on a performance….”

Fred never stopped looking at her or let go of her hand. “It’s not a performance. It’s just a meeting of friends,” he said.

He moved his hand from her wrist to her palm and extended his other hand to me. I took it and then put my hand around her free hand. His hand was warm, hers was cool, and we bowed our heads, and closed our eyes, and I heard Deb’s voice calling out for the grace of God.

What is grace? I’m not certain; all I know is that my heart felt like a spike, and then, in that room, it opened and felt like an umbrella. I had never prayed like that before, ever. I had always been a great prayer, a powerful one, but only fitfully, only out of guilt, only when fear and desperation drove me to it…and it hit me, right then, with my eyes closed, that this was the moment Fred Rogers—Mister Rogers—had been leading me to … the prayer I’d been waiting to say a very long time.[vi]

When we allow God’s grace into our lives; when we cultivate habits that allow us to say “yes” to grace again with every new day we allow God’s light to shine in us, just like the stars in the sky that Paul wanted us to be. We become beacons of God’s grace in this world. We allow others to encounter God’s light and love for themselves, just by being who we are when we say “yes” to God’s work in us and we choose to walk the walk.

I don’t know what spiritual disciples were important to Pastor Deb. All I know is that she must have been saying “yes” to God’s grace on a regular basis so that God’s light would shine in her. She was the beacon of light that day for the journalist, Tom, so that he could discover God’s grace in his life.

Paul wanted the Philippians to shine like stars. The phrase “shining as stars in the universe [can also be translated], “appearing as luminaries in the world.”[vii] Sometimes, thinking of shining like a star in the sky is like thinking of Saints – far away and untouchable. But, when we think about appearing as a luminary in the world that’s easier to imagine.

Paul wanted the Philippians “to be luminaries (light-bearers) in the world … and thus be witnesses for Jesus Christ.”[viii] This means allowing God’s light to shine through us, whether that light is like a small candle, a flashlight, or torch, or a bonfire as we are ablaze with the light and love of God in us.

For most 21st-century people, stars are merely beautiful objects in the night sky; but for people in the first century, stars were not only beautiful, … stars were also indispensable in navigation. The movements and patterns of the stars showed direction, and travellers [sic] studied and watched them carefully on their journeys.[ix]

By holding close to the light and love of God we become like the stars in the sky, helping others navigate a path to God. We can be beacons of God’s light and love in this world.

Mr. Rogers allowed the light of God to shine within him. And, he invited us to also be light-bearers. By reminding us that we are loved and are capable of loving others he invited us to live a life modeled on Jesus Christ.

[His] faith surfaced in subtle, indirect ways that most viewers might miss, but [his faith] infused all he did. He believed “the space between the television set and the viewer is holy ground,” but he trusted God to do the heavy lifting. The wall of his office featured a framed picture of the Greek word for “grace,” a constant reminder of his belief that he could use television “for the broadcasting of grace through the land.” Before entering that office each day, Rogers would pray, “Dear God, let some word that is heard be yours.”

Mr. Rogers told kids they mattered, that they were worthy of love, and that emotions were to be embraced, not buried. He spoke to children like grown-ups, and helped them tackle topics such as anger, trust, honesty, courage, and sadness.[x]

He gave children the gift of acknowledging that life is complicated. We want good people to be saints without any flaws. Friends, when you and I open our lives to the work of God’s grace in us we are then counted among the saints of God.

That means the very same people who are good sometimes are the very same people who are bad sometimes. My prayer for us today is that we are brave enough to say “yes” to God at work in us, so that we too can “work out our salvation” and allow God’s light and love to shine brightly in us as we beacons of grace that Paul calls us to be.

 

[i] https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2019-11-26/mister-rogers-widow-legacy-a-beautiful-day-in-the-neighborhood

[ii] History, Captivating. Fred Rogers: A Captivating Guide to the Man Behind Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (p. 27). Kindle Edition.

[iii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/my-family-knew-mr-rogers-and-yes-he-was-like-that-in-real-life/2018/06/07/095503f0-6815-11e8-bf8c-f9ed2e672adf_story.html

[iv] Hollingsworth, Amy. The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers (pp. 20-21). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

[v] https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/social-issues/mister-rogers-widow-talks-about-her-husbands-lived-faith-love-of-routine-and-view-on-death/2019/11/22/95069338-0d40-11ea-97ac-a7ccc8dd1ebc_story.html

[vi] https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/tv/a27134/can-you-say-hero-esq1198/

[vii] https://margmowczko.com/philippians-2_12-18/

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/11/mister-rogers-saint/416838/

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?: What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?

Scripture: Psalm 137

I’ll come out and say what you might be thinking: this Scripture reading ends kind of heavy for a sermon series on Mister Rogers.  I’ve always felt that this is one of those psalms that gets off to a good start – the beginning is sad but beautiful, with this image of hanging up harps on the willows by the rivers of Babylon – but then we get to the last line and read something about dashing babies against the rocks and you think, wow, maybe we shouldn’t be reading this in church.  And certainly not on Mister Rogers day.  The man hosted a children’s television show, for goodness sake.

It may be tempting to think of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as an opportunity for a bit of escapism.  Here we can put away the roughness of the real world for a while and enter into a nice neighborhood where days are always beautiful and people are kind and wear cardigans.  But the Neighborhood was never meant to be a place where children went to get away from the real world. Rather, it was a place where children were given tools to process the real world at a child-appropriate level.  Mister Rogers talked about things like death and divorce.  His puppets in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe acted out scenarios related to nuclear proliferation and preparing for war, always connected to things going on in the news at the time.  And, always, he talked to kids about their feelings, including anger, fear, sadness.

Last week we talked about Mister Rogers’ gospel of acceptance: that we are created good, and both he and God like us just as we are.  For Mister Rogers, part of being accepted as we are is knowing that our feelings are accepted too.  All of them, even the ones that don’t always seem so good or holy.  One of the songs Mister Rogers came back to again and again on his show was this one, What Do You Do With The Mad That You Feel.  Let’s listen to it now.

What do you do with the mad that you feel
When you feel so mad you could bite?
When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong…
And nothing you do seems very right?

What do you do? Do you punch a bag?
Do you pound some clay or some dough?
Do you round up friends for a game of tag?
Or see how fast you go?

It’s great to be able to stop
When you’ve planned a thing that’s wrong,
And be able to do something else instead
And think this song:

I can stop when I want to
Can stop when I wish
I can stop, stop, stop any time.
And what a good feeling to feel like this
And know that the feeling is really mine.
Know that there’s something deep inside
That helps us become what we can.
For a girl can be someday a woman
And a boy can be someday a man.[1]

Like most things on the show, this song is addressed to kids, but its message is not just for kids.  Plenty of adults have trouble naming and expressing their feelings too.  I wonder sometimes if the church doesn’t make this problem worse: we may get the message, intended or not, that as faithful people we’re not supposed to feel certain kinds of ways.  If we are sad or mad, we’re not grateful or joyful (2 Blessed 2B Stressed)!  I know I’ve found myself buying into that idea kind of subconsciously at times – when I’ve gone through periods of depression or just had bad days, I end up feeling guilty that I’m not more grateful, when God has given me so much.

Unfortunately, when we can’t acknowledge and process our feelings, we often end up expressing them in unhealthy ways.  We bottle our anger in until we explode.  We suffer our sadness in silence, adding isolation to the mix.  We take our stress out on people who didn’t cause it in the first place.

That’s what Mister Rogers wants us to avoid.

It may be hard for us to believe that Mister Rogers ever got angry.  But he did.  One particular example involves a traumatic experience that happened to his son when he was young.  Johnny Rogers wasn’t even a year and a half old when he needed a hernia repair surgery.  It wasn’t supposed to be that big a deal, but when they got to the hospital, a nurse brought a crib on wheels that looked like a cage, grabbed Johnny, and wheeled him down the hall as he screamed, while Fred Rogers and his wife Joanne looked on helplessly.  They learned later that it took 45 minutes to get him sedated for the procedure, and he ended up needing extensive therapy on the other side of this surgery – not for anything physical, but for this traumatic experience of separation (which probably brings up lots of current events today.)  Even 25 years later, Fred Rogers said, “To this day I have nightmares about it, and I get so angry when I talk about it that I find it hard to be the least bit charitable.”[2]

Mister Rogers isn’t alone.  As much as we might like to imagine the Bible is full of holy, faithful people who simply close their eyes and say that everything happens for a reason, the truth is the Bible is full of stories of people unapologetically and unrepentantly feeling feelings, from brothers and sisters jealous of a more favored sibling to prophets afraid to fulfill their prophetic commissions to mothers who refuse to be consoled over the loss of their children.  Jesus himself got annoyed at people bothering him (and at his disciple’s inability to ever understand what he was trying to tell them), burned with anger at the hypocrisy of religious leaders, wept at the death of a friend, sweated drops of blood the night before his death as he begged for this cup to be taken from him, and cried out in abandonment from the cross.

Some of our most vivid examples of feelings as part of our holy story come from the part of the Bible meant to lead the congregation of God’s people in prayer, individually and together: the Psalms.  The Psalms run the gamut of human emotion: there are joyful songs where every line begins with “Praise the Lord,” Psalms that speak to calming an anxious soul (“Be still and know that I am God”); Psalms that cry out in forsakenness (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” quoted by Jesus on the cross); Psalms of confession and grief (“Cast me not away from your presence”); and angry Psalms (“may my enemies be like chaff in the wind.”)  All of these psalms and all of these feelings are included, not just to tell us how someone else might have felt a long time ago when they were writing them, but for our use in prayer, because undoubtedly over the course of our lives and sometimes even over the course of our days, we will feel all these ways, and at all those times, we are invited to pray.

Psalm 137 is in my opinion one of the best examples of the angry Psalms, also called imprecatory Psalms – the ones that wish smiting on the Psalmist’s enemies.  Of all the Psalms, these are the ones that are hardest to use in church.  When I am choosing Psalms to use for our call to worship I often find myself doing a little bit of selective editing, a little cut and paste, when we get to these parts, because the tone of a Psalm can turn on a dime sometimes, and we just don’t need to open worship asking God to zap our enemies.

I also believe that these Psalms have their place.

In 587 BCE, the Babylonian army rolled in Jerusalem, cast its leaders and elites into exile in other parts of the empire, and turned the city to rubble.  Psalm 137 is the prayer of grieving people who have been exiled from their homeland, who have seen God’s Temple lying in ruins as they were led away in chains, who are still vulnerable and afraid at the hands of their captors.  Sing for us, those captors taunt them, but how can they sing God’s song in a foreign land?  It’s not time for singing, it’s time for devastating grief.  And so that leads us to the final lines of this Psalm, which I hear as filled with anguish and helplessness: Daughter Babylon, happy are those who will repay you for what you’ve done!  Happy are those who take your babies and dash them against the rocks.

I’d be careful about how I prayed this one.  But it’s there.  No scribe surreptitiously took it out and put something else in its place.  There’s no footnote telling us how the Psalmist didn’t really mean it.  It’s just there, in all its big and raw and painful feeling.  Feelings like that are part of human life, and that makes them part of a whole and honest relationship with God.

Fred Rogers often quoted a mentor of his when he said “Everything human is mentionable, and everything mentionable is manageable.”[3]

In other words, it doesn’t help us to pretend that strong people, or grown up people, or good people, or faithful people, are above sadness and anger and pain.

What does matter is what we do with those feelings.  That’s the whole question Mister Rogers asks – what do you do with the mad that you feel?

The song gives us some options – do you get out your aggression by punching a bag – instead of someone’s face? Do you pound some clay or some dough, channel it all into creativity? Find some friends to do something fun and help drag you out of the pit of rage and self-pity?  Work off some energy by running really fast?  In real life, Fred Rogers talked about music being an outlet for his feelings, and in fact if you saw the recent Tom Hanks movie about him, that’s what we see in the very final scene –  Fred Rogers sitting down at the piano, mashing on some keys. He channeled his anger over his son’s traumatic hospital experience into his advocacy for children that went far beyond the screen, that even took him to Congress.

Feelings are human, he tells us, but they don’t have to control us.  We can (with God’s help, I would add) redirect our pain and our anger; they are a part of our story but we don’t have to let them write the next part of our story on their own.

When I think of Jesus getting mad, the first story that comes to mind for me is when he goes into the Temple at Passover and sees the moneychangers and knocks over their tables and fashions a homemade whip to chase them out.  It’s the kind of scene where if it were anyone but Jesus, I might tell them to go watch some Mister Rogers.  But there’s another scene that comes to mind, too, a very different one.

It happens in John, when Jesus has already begun to get into some public disagreements with the religious leaders.  They are caught between wanting to arrest him for blasphemy and rabble-rousing, and knowing the crowds love him.  One morning he is teaching in the Temple and the religious leaders bring in a woman who has been accused of adultery – caught in the act, so they say – and make her stand before him.  “Teacher,” they say, “this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery.  The law says we should stone her.  How about you?”

It’s a trap, you see.

How do you imagine Jesus must have felt at this moment? Far be it from me to enter into the mind of Jesus, but I think if I were him I’d be mad.  Mad that they are doing this, the very people who are supposed to represent God; mad that they are using this woman as a pawn in a conflict that has nothing to do with her.  And maybe sad that it has all come to this; afraid, even, of what comes after his answer.

So what does he do with all those feelings?

He is quiet for a moment, and then he looks down, and begins to write something in the dust of the ground.  They keep talking, trying to get him to take the bait, he keeps writing, and then finally he looks up and says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin cast the first stone.”  And then he bends down to write again.

No one really knows what exactly Jesus was doing.  Was he writing something for them to read?  Was he just doodling, refusing to engage?  Was he buying time?  No matter what, he acts in a way that changes the narrative.  He doesn’t let his feelings control him or his response, instead he pauses, and he thinks, and he catches them off guard with his refusal to be trapped, and in the end, his words are intentionally chosen, and one by one, the leaders leave.

This is the kind of transformative story you don’t get by denying or bottling up your anger, but by acknowledging it and deciding where to go from there.

Back by the rivers of Babylon, the captives from Jerusalem are grieving.  They are sad and angry enough that they hang up their harps on the willows; they can’t sing the old songs anymore.

The ironic thing is – what do they do with all that? They take a page right out of Mister Rogers’ book, and they write a song about it, and we call it Psalm 137.

And it’s a sad song, and an angry song, and it includes lament and curses and unspeakable wishes that as far as we know will never be acted upon, and that’s maybe even the point. This song isn’t a call for revenge.  It’s a real, raw offering of everything they have right now to God.  Because when you can’t sing the old songs anymore, sometimes you have to sing a new one.  And if you do, sometimes, if you make that offering because it’s the only one you can make, it will lead you back to the old songs again.  Or at least, some new ones in a major key again.

I’ll let Mister Rogers have the last word here in another song, The Truth Will Make Me Free:

What if I were very, very sad
And all I did was smile?
I wonder after awhile
What might become of my sadness?

What if I were very, very angry
And all I did was sit
And never think about it?
What might become of my anger?

Where would they go,
And what would they do,
If I couldn’t let them out?
Maybe I’d fall, maybe get sick
Or doubt.

But what if I could know the truth
And say just how I feel?
I think I’d learn a lot that’s real
About freedom

I’m learning to sing a sad song when I’m sad
I’m learning to say I’m angry when I’m very mad
I’m learning to shout, I’m getting it out
I’m happy learning exactly how I feel inside of me
I’m learning to know the truth
I’m learning to tell the truth
Discovering truth will make me free [4]

When we discover that truth about ourselves and aren’t afraid to tell it – then, with God’s help, we can write the next part of our story.

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F9E-I7yBwIc

[2] Shea Tuttle, Exactly As You Are: The Life and Faith of Mister Rogers, p, 66

[3] Exactly As You Are, p. 149

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jEV51aU8R1Q