Caring for Lives, Forsaking Fear

Matthew 10:26-31

So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in gehenna. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Dear friends, you may be tired of hearing words like “these are unprecedented times.” You may be weary of red, yellow, and green phases. Today you may be vacillating between hopeful feelings because you may be able to see people you haven’t seen in a while, to anxious and uncertain feelings, as deep down you don’t really know if covid-19 cases are going to keep dropping or if there will be a second wave. It’s okay to feel both of these things, even simultaneously.

When all this started to be all we talked about and saw in the media [back in January, really] I said to not get distracted by headlines. I’ll repeat that again.

Don’t get distracted by the headlines.

Do your best to be present in the moment that you are in, in the place where you are, and with whom you are. And then, do not judge where other people are, nor their experiences. Validate what they experience and feel, regardless of how different it may be from your experience. Especially when people are hurting; when they feel marginalized, targeted, or held down or back. See, since covid-19 became a real concern, each and every one of us has experienced this differently. Some of you who are nurses or doctors or who work in grocery stores or other occupations deemed “essential”, well your reality has certainly been different. Those of us fortunate enough to have jobs that allow us to work from home—of course, a totally unique experience. And those of you who have lost work or lost a job completely—your experience has been uniquely difficult. Add to that any of you who have lost family members, friends, or close colleagues during this time. Extremely challenging. And I must mention that covid-19 has disproportionately affected certain communities. Some of my friends and colleagues who serve churches whose members are predominately people of African descent; others who serve congregations that are made up of folks from Latin America and the Caribbean. They have had significant deaths during these past few months. Funerals and memorial services have been either impossible or incredibly difficult to manage. So again, please be present in what you are experiencing, but also validate other people’s experiences. Very important to do so.

And this is where I’m going today with our conversation. Because the headlines will try to tell you and me to shift our gaze to yet another story. What will it be this time? A presidential election upcoming in Nov? Or will we be seeing headlines about the next group to scapegoat in society? Or the next facial recognition app, or the newest tech toy? What’s next?   

We shouldn’t get distracted by the headlines or even what civic leaders tell us to care about or pay attention to. I’ve been talking about empires the last few weeks, and that’s what empires do. They tell us who to care about. They tell us who to hate, who to mistrust, who is dangerous for us and who is safe. This is of course rears its ugliest head in white supremacy, which blatantly tells us all things Anglo European are trustworthy, successful, and safe. To be “white” is to be “clean” and “pure” and “superior.” This lie is a disease. It’s a disease, friends.

So while the headlines shift, what if we don’t? What if we keep saying Black Lives Matter and No Justice, No Peace? What if we keep on standing up to prejudice and injustice, regardless of the headlines and what we are told? In this space, in this gap between headlines, we have an opportunity to choose an alternative path.

We can choose to care for each other no matter what.

I’ve been using the three-part phrase “From Reeling to Kneeling to Healing” because it’s resonating with me. See, some of us are really reeling. If you’ve been discriminated against just because of your beautiful, brown, black, charcoal, or nightsky skin tone; if you’ve had your homeland taken away and been pushed aside and forgotten even though you are a proud tribe that cares for the natural world while others destroy it; if you’ve been put down because English isn’t your first language; if your gender identification or expression is often criticized or even refused; if you feel like “human rights” and dignity are things that you have to daily fight for, because you’ve never really felt you had them. You’ve been reeling for years, for generations. And your resiliency, courage, and brave choice to still care for others in spite of all this inspires me to no end. You’re kneeling too, because you are in solidarity with all the George Floyds of the world. You also kneel to pray in many languages and with many religious and spiritual traditions. But you don’t stay on your knees. You get up and then you are agents of healing. And this is the only chance we have as a human race—to reel together, kneel together, and then heal together.

And for those of us with privilege [like me], we have to reel, not feeling sorry for ourselves or being fragile or defensive. Not hesitating to say the names of people like Breonna Taylor, not saying “all lives matter” when they obviously don’t. We need to reel with those who have been reeling for years. We need to hear them—really hear them. Provide space for truth, even when that truth makes us really uncomfortable. Even when that truth makes us re-examine ourselves. We mustn’t judge the anger and pain and sadness of those who are tired of reeling. As was expressed on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah, a social contract has been broken. People of African descent are not enjoying unalienable rights; Native Americans are mistreated and lied to; children, youth, and adults with heritage from Mexico, Central America and other parts of the Americas are put in cages.

People are reeling. They are tired.

And then, after listening, we must kneel together. Do it right now, if you can. Take a knee for just over 8 minutes. How does that feel? It’s a LONG time. George Floyd was just a year older than me. 8 minutes is a long time. We have to kneel together, to know that there are injustices happening in our communities, injustices happening to people in a systemic way, a cruel and planned way. And so, we must kneel. We must recognize it and stop hiding from it. And if you are a spiritual person, kneeling is necessary. Doesn’t matter how you pray or who you pray to, or if you meditate. When we kneel together, we are in solidarity, knowing that we will also arise from our knees and work then towards healing.

And please understand that healing is not forgetting or washing over the evils that we do to each other. Healing is honest vulnerability and work to bring justice where there is none. The reason for the chant “no justice, no peace” is that we cannot be at peace as people if our neighbors are suffering great injustices. I cannot be at peace with myself if someone my age has their life taken from them just because of how they look on the outside; I cannot be at peace when people are not judged by their character; I cannot be at peace as long as empires and systemic racism run rampant in our world and infiltrate our everyday lives. Can you?

So friends, we have to care for each other regardless of the headlines. And we especially have to care for those whose lives aren’t valued as they should be. I don’t know, if feels like common sense to me. If my neighbor George Floyd cannot live his life in peace, if his daughter doesn’t get to grow up in front of his eyes, I’m out of balance. The world is out of balance. And so, we have to care for each other more.

Don’t know if you know this, but Jesus of Nazareth actually wasn’t a nice, Anglo-European pacifist who then started an imperialistic religion that invaded and conquered lands and stripped people of their cultures and their lives with a big cross symbol leading the way. Jesus of Nazareth stood up against both the Roman Empire and the religious Sanhedrin. He knew that they were all about fear. They used fear to keep people in line, and at certain levels. And they lied. Oh, they lied. They made up lies so that people hated each other, for generations. Sound familiar? So Jesus said: don’t be afraid of them, because eventually, their lies will be exposed, and all that they try to hide will be in the open. And Jesus also said that those who always felt they had to be silent out of fear should now be speaking up, in the light. Don’t fear them, the fear mongers, the ones who kill and lie. They devalue you. They tell you to devalue others.

No, instead, what Jesus taught was this: God values life. God values life.

And, now a word about sparrows.

How to Spare Yourself from Sparrow Troubles - Bird B Gone, Inc.

You’ve seen those cute little birds, no doubt. Sparrows. In Jesus’ time, sparrows were sold two for one small coin. Why? They were food for the poor. Last resort meal for people with nothing else to eat. And Jesus’ point is, God cares deeply about the lives of those sparrows. What society, what the world says is insignificant and devalued and de-humanized is highly valued as a life. And so, if God so cares about the lives of these sparrows, then know that God cares deeply about human life too.

Last thing: there is no reason to be hesitant to say Black Lives Matter or to call attention to the mistreatment of Native Americans or to shout from the rooftops that the systemic classification of people from all the Americas as “aliens” or “illegal” is a lie. There is no reason to be silent about the lies of racism and white supremacy. We have to bring these things into the light. We have to expose them. They are not headlines. They are lives. And we need to care for lives. We need to care for people. Whenever Jesus of Nazareth saw someone getting mistreated, bullied, targeted—Jesus stood up to it. Jesus said once: “Go ahead, you without sin, cast the first stone!” Jesus protected the vulnerable and marginalized. And so should we. We need to care for each other. We should not be afraid to expose the lies. We should not hesitate to stand up to injustice. We need to care for each other.

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Josh grew up in the Midwest before completing a B.A. in Theatre at Northwestern College [IA] and a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ [UCC], Josh has lived and worked in the Midwest, East Coast, Hawai’i, and Mexico. He is the co-founder and Executive Director of The Welcome Project PA, host of the Bucks-Mont PRIDE Festival, and he is Pastor of Love In Action UCC, an open and affirming congregation featured in a Vox Media episode of Divided States of Women with Liz Plank and in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Josh has 20+ years of nonprofit experience, including leading workshops and training in corporate, medical, and academic settings, focused on diversity & inclusion, grant writing, fund raising, and program management. Josh is a fellow of Interfaith Philadelphia, and designs and coordinates HS and University student groups for interfaith immersion service-learning weeks. Josh also co-facilitates Ally trainings for LGBTQIA+ inclusion and interfaith cooperation. He is a founding member of The Society for Faith & Justice, and a Collaborator for Nurturing Justice, and a member of the Driving PA Forward team via New Sanctuary Movement. He also performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, and has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in religious and secular settings. Josh also enjoys running, singing, traveling, learning languages, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philly.

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