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Posts tagged ‘Iraq’

Room in the Tomb, Room in Us All

Luke 24: 1-12
Empty-tomb

I’ll admit it. During this particular Holy Week and then, on Resurrection or “Easter” Sunday, I didn’t feel so up to painting eggs, eating candy, or singing hallelujah, Christ is risen! My role here is not to be a Debbie Downer–it’s just to be honest. I’m not up to it. Because, doesn’t it just seem like yesterday that people were changing their Facebook profiles and creating Twitter hashtags like #jesuiparis [i.e. I am Paris], after terrorist attacks?

jesuisparis
And then the attacks in Brussels. And then another attack outside of Baghdad, Iraq at a soccer game; a bomb in Turkey; and then, on Good Friday, bombs in a Nigeria mosque that take the lives of worshipers. And on Easter Sunday, a bombing in a park in Pakistan where Muslims and Christians [many of them children] mingled and played and enjoyed the outdoor festivities.

pakistanLike the Paris attacks, Brussels was trending on Twitter and on the news–along with some guy named Ted Cruz, another guy with a squirrel on his head, a Spice Girls reunion, and peeps. Lots of peeps.

peepsBut Baghdad? Turkey? Nigeria? Pakistan? Not so much. Really, I’m not bringing this up to bring you down. I’m just being honest.

So before I seemingly ruin your holiday, let me explain. This is not about despair, or pointing fingers, or whatever else.

This is about being honest and being connected.

We live in a world with many people in it, who speak different languages and practice different religions [or no religion] and who eat different things and wear different clothes. It’s always been like that. This is humanity. When we get into this kind of violence and fear is when we forget our humanity.

When we think that “our” way is the best way, or even worse, the only way, we impose that way on anyone who gets in the way.

And let’s not go down this road of accusing Muslims or Arabs for being the group of people that is doing this the most. It’s not true. Anglos in America have done it [and do it], Europeans do it, too. You can blame whole religions if you wish [though it’s misguided], because people kill others because they choose to, or are moved to by charismatic, evil-crafty leaders with authority, power, and money do it. Individual people decide to commit violence, and yes, some are desperate and destitute and coerced into it. But we can make no blanket statements anymore. When we accuse a whole religion [or cultural group] of something as terrible as these violent acts, we show our ignorance and unwillingness to embrace a difficult truth: we are all connected. So if we propagate hateful and prejudice rhetoric about ANY group of people, we are contributing to this awful mess.

So don’t do it.

This is why I refuse to stand by and watch while many people [whether religious or not] give into fear. This is the last thing we should do. Fear only creates more fear, and then more misunderstanding, less connection and cooperation, and more violence. In wake of such violence and tragedy, fear should not be an option. Understanding, relationship-building, and cooperation are the options. For as much as we move from hashtag to hashtag and headline to headline, we are not governed by these things. We choose whether or not we will know our neighbors and even those outside our neighborhood and community. We choose whether or not we shrink back in fear or whether we respond with love and empathy.

In this very moment, there is a Muslim refugee family from Syria that just arrived in the Warminster, PA area. The United Church of Christ in Warminster and other congregations and non-religious folk too will be involved in helping them get settled here via co-sponsorship, housing provision, transportation, language courses, job assistance, etc. So they feel welcome.

This is a choice.

And on resurrection Sunday, there is a story that presents a choice as well. Most of you have heard or read this story in the four Gospels, so it may seem familiar. This time, we’re in Luke’s Gospel, pretty similar to the oldest Gospel, Mark, but with its own nuances. The story begins as all the resurrection accounts do–without fanfare and quite gloomy. Women go to the tomb where Jesus’ body was placed for burial [which is a cave] and they come with spices. They see, however, that the protective stone placed in front of the tomb has been rolled away. So they go in. To their surprise, the body of Jesus of Nazareth is missing. Luke offers no details here and leaves room for us to ask questions like: was the body stolen by fanatic followers of Jesus? Was the body removed by the Romans? Or the temple authorities? Was the body ever put in that cave in the first place?

As we are asking these questions, two men in shining clothes appear to the women and ask a different question: Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here; he has been raised. REMEMBER what he spoke to you, in Galilee? It is necessary for the son of man to be delivered into the hands of sinful human beings, and to be crucified, and on the third day to rise.

And now, Luke’s author is making us do our homework. First, the two men in shining clothes are JUST like Moses and Elijah in the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain that Luke told in chapter 9. So it’s an identity moment for Jesus. He’s on the same level now as those great prophets.

And then, the questions. The women are asked to remember. In Luke, remembering is a constant theme. Jesus asks his friends the disciples to remember, time and time again. Now, the women are asked to remember. The son of man [i.e., the son of adam, or son of humanity] is delivered into the hands of sinful people, and crucified, and then will rise on the third day.

Consider that for the entire Gospel of Luke, the sinners were always the ones who hung out with Jesus–the marginalized, the oppressed, the left out. Now, the sinners are the authorities who led to Jesus’ death.

The women choose to remember.

So they don’t stay in the tomb, crying out of sadness. They don’t shrink away from the situation out of fear. Instead, they leave the empty tomb and tell the disciples about it. They are named: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary of James, etc. These courageous women are met with not only skepticism, but are considered crazy by some of Jesus’ closest followers. In fact, the only guy who considers their story is Peter. He goes to the tomb [running] and finds linen burial clothes [but no body]. And he leaves the empty tomb wondering what actually happened.

Here’s what I take from this story, and I don’t know if what I say matters, but I do think the story can matter, that is, if it moves you to do things in your life that matter. Ultimately, how we decide to act–how we treat people, matters the most. So here goes:

Why did Jesus die? A question we have to ask if we plan on talking about resurrection. Why did he die? I’m not one who thinks that he had to die. I know that many, many people will disagree, and that’s fine. But I don’t think his dying was the whole point. I think he died because he was a threat–not as a violent revolutionary, but because Jesus of Nazareth challenged the whole societal system of violence and death. Jesus preached a different way of life that he called the reign of God. It wasn’t based on fear, death, or violence. Rather, it was based on faith, hope, and nonviolent love.[1]

Ask yourself: what do violent religious fanatics, power-wielding authorities and fear mongers have in common? They attempt to channel our fears against certain groups of people, separating us and creating more chaos and less cooperation. Rather than raising our children to be peacemakers and to have friends from a variety of cultural and religious backgrounds, we are told to be fearful and to shrink back, protect our own, and to shelter children and youth from the world. What killed Jesus was indeed fear.

But this story tells us that we are not supposed to give into that fear.

The resurrection story isn’t flashy at all. Maybe that’s why the bunnies and baskets and painted eggs and peeps need to be there. Because really–the tomb is empty and we’re left to ponder: what happened? The real symbol of Easter is the empty tomb. No pageants, no lights, no trumpets or angels. Nobody is exchanging gifts under a tree or singing old songs.

The tomb.

Is.

Empty.

We are left with emptiness.

The emptiness makes space for us in our distress and sadness about what’s happening all over the world. The emptiness leaves space for us to ponder like Peter: what happened? The emptiness leaves space for us to make decisions. How will we react? Will we respond out of fear? Or possibility, promise, new life? Will we react like Mary Magdalene, the one who kept on searching for the face of mercy and love, in spite of the uncertainty and despair all around?

Friends, there is room in the tomb for your doubts, your questions, and even your despair. But there is also room for your dreams, your joys, your whole selves. What will we choose? There is room. There is room. There is ALWAYS room for you. Love is that big, that wide, that accessible. So make room in yourselves for new life, for love, for mercy, for empathy, for light. Find yourself and embrace your uniqueness.

And always make room for others–all others. Make the choice to work for peace and cooperation, and empathy. Speak life to the death of prejudice and violence.

May every day be resurrection day.

[1] Ericksen, Adam, Jesus Was Killed For National Security Reasons: Good Friday, Fear, and Muslim Surveillance, March 25, 2016.

Mercy and Compassion Come Out!

Matthew 15:10-28

This week I was taking with a guy I know who works in a store that I shop in frequently. He and I always have funny or interesting conversations. This time, we were joking about his nickname and his favorite superhero, and then, he told me an unexpected story that I will now paraphrase. He said:

When I worked in another store, I used to wear my stocking cap down over my hair. And, you know, since I am not as “black” as other African-Americans, this guy who worked with me kept staring at me and then finally he said to me:

What are you? Are you Puerto Rican or something?

I then took off my hat to reveal to him my hair, which I assumed would show that I was indeed black.

Oh…

He said.

You are one of those good-looking blacks…

My friend, as he finished the story, said that he didn’t curse out the other individual, but simply remarked about how shocked he was, and also how inappropriate the comment was.

Truthfully, it makes me sick to my stomach to think that we still do this to each other.

What are you?

Oh, you are one of those good-lookin’ blacks…

And yet, this is all too real.
Racism. Prejudice. Discrimination.

Words many Anglos avoid using.

But they are more than words to many, many people who are black or brown; very real to people who are discriminated against or mistreated simply because of the color of their skin, their cultural or national background, or their religious background.

Of course, after my friend told his story, we started talking about Ferguson, MO and Mike Brown and racism in the U.S. and white privilege. Many people choose not to talk about these things because they are too heavy or maybe because the topic makes them uncomfortable or maybe because they prefer to live in isolation from what is really happening in the world.

But the thing is, we have to talk about how we treat people.

We have to be aware of prejudice and stop denying its existence. And those who have privilege and never have to look over their shoulder in a store because someone might think they will steal something; or who never have to fear police officers in particular neighborhoods or immigration officers and the TSA in airports; or who never have to put up with ignorant, offensive comments about their skin color, nationality, or language—those with privilege need to accept that much of society is built upon prejudice systems that favor only a few and push down many others.

If we ignore that, we are compliant.

And all people—not just people of faith—should care about people in Ferguson, MO; in North Philly; in Central America; in Iraq; in Gaza. They are our neighbors and we must remember that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. So said Martin Luther King. And so hatred and violence against anyone due to the color of their skin, their nationality, or their religious background should matter to us.

Even if it does not happen directly to us.

And now to the Matthew story.

Jesus of Nazareth leads with this:
Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.

Apparently, this was an inflammatory thing to say, because the disciples were worried. Why?

The Pharisees were offended; this scared the disciples because they obviously cared more about appearance and pleasing people than they did about the truth of what was going on.

The “what was going on” part has to do with rules, once again. The Pharisees, the disciples, and others were more concerned with what people ate and drank, what they read and studied, what they put “into” the mouth [or mind], rather than what actually came “out” or in other words, how they behaved.

Jesus was getting impatient with his own disciples.
What goes into the mouth goes into the stomach and into the sewer.
What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.

People’s hearts inspire them to do evil, hate, murder, steal, lie, etc.
But if someone doesn’t wash their hands, in other words, if he/she does not follow your specific rules, that doesn’t make him/her a sinner.

And then, the disciples are tested, and they fail the test miserably.
They are in Tyre and Sidon and a Cannanite woman starts shouting:

Have mercy on me! My daughter is tormented by a spirit.

The disciples get impatient.

Let’s go, Jesus. Send her away. She’s annoying us.

The woman [and her daughter] do not count. They are unimportant to the disciples.
Wasn’t Jesus supposed to help the people of Israel first?
Shouldn’t he give his teachings and his healing and his time to them?
The disciples thought so.

So nobody listened to the Canaanite woman.

But the woman was persistent and came to Jesus of Nazareth and knelt before him.

Help me.

She was called a dog and not worthy to eat at the table with everyone else.

But what came from her heart impressed Jesus.
The mere crumbs would be enough. She was not a dog, but a human asking for healing. She deserved to be heard, to be treated like everyone else; to be afforded the same opportunities.

And so the healing happened.

The story is relevant for today.

Many times, Christians are just like the disciples and just like the Pharisees. We argue and argue about religious rules, cultural norms, and who is clean or unclean. We crave attention for ourselves and wish none for others. It’s about me, me, me or us, us, us and we forget about her or him or them.

We focus too much on appearance; we focus too much on the outside.
We ignore what comes from the heart—real human behavior.

And in doing so, we ignore and disenfranchise others; we say they don’t count.
We don’t listen to them; we send them away.

Friends, the story cuts deep, does it not?

I wonder how much good we could do in the world if we focused less on the surface and more on the behavior that comes OUT of people. What words do we say? What actions do we perform? And…most importantly, how do we treat other people?

The Matthew story is a challenge to anyone who thinks that believing in Jesus or God or religion is enough. The disciples said they believed. But then they were still worried about appearance and wanted to push away a woman asking for healing.

Where was the mercy and compassion that was supposed to come out of their belief?

Where is our mercy and compassion that comes out of our belief?

In Ferguson, Missouri; in Gaza; in Iraq; in Syria; in West Africa; in Central America; in Philly and in Warminster.
Where is our mercy and compassion?

Perhaps this is a lament more than anything else.
I’m saddened and maddened by how poorly we treat each other in this world.
And how people are ignoring Michael Brown’s story, and the story of others who have been attacked because of their skin color.

Are we listening to their stories?
Or are we pushing them away?

It is sad that Twitter has to explode with #dontshoot for people to pay attention.

Howard University students shouldn’t have to do this to get people to listen to the cries of those who suffer discrimination every day in this country.

howardunivPrayers are fine but not enough when teenagers are shot out of fear.
This doesn’t need to happen.

The appearance that we live in an accepting and open country is a fallacy.
Prejudice is alive and well once you move past the surface.
There are imbedded systems that are built on prejudice and give advantage to a certain few while pushing down others.

So people of faith [and no faith], let’s stop being silent about it.

Stop justifying it.
Stop ignoring the real stories of those around you.
Listen to them.

And when you see or hear this kind of prejudice, don’t stand by and watch it happen. Don’t be a bystander.

Any of your friends, family, or neighbors who make prejudice comments—challenge them; call them out. Don’t put up with it, because you care more about the heart and aren’t fooled by the surface.

Be friends with people who are different than you. Stand up for anyone who is pushed down.

May the behavior that comes out of your heart be more important than any appearances you try to keep up.

Let mercy and compassion come out!

P.S. I have permission to share the following comments from one of the members of the church I serve:

We haven’t mentioned anything to our daughter–she’ll be 10 next month and probably at that age where we should talk to her about these things, but she is so naive and innocent still. We want her to stay that way for as long as possible. 🙂

We believe in setting a high bar for these girls to reach, because they will reach it. We believe in teaching them to be kind and thoughtful first and foremost. We believe in showing them how to set a good example for others to follow.

And in doing those things they will SHOW people that maybe their initial judgment of them, based on skin color, was incorrect and maybe teach someone something without even realizing they were doing so.

That is our hope.

I know some day they are going to get awakened to racism and pre-judgment. But I hope when they are, they are strong enough to know who they are and don’t let it define them. 

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