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A Note from the Preacher’s Desk

Over the previous month, our primary preaching texts have been taken from either the Gospel of Luke or the assigned Old Testament readings, Jeremiah/Lamentations and the psalmist. Luke served up three weeks of teachings on wealth: the parable of the lost coin/lost sheep (15:1-10); the parable of the dishonest manager (16:1-13); the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Over the last two Sundays, we shifted gears into the writings of Lamentations and Jeremiah.

Luke starts us off with the parable of the lost coin/lost sheep: the emphasis is not on the quantity lost (which we could live with) but the quality of wholeness which is missing (one coin out of ten/one sheep out of a hundred sheep — it’s not complete). One possible analogy for us, according to the sermon: 

If we self-identify as white, and we recognize racism and white privilege but don’t talk about it, don’t name it, why is that? Have you ever wondered? Maybe we say something is missing, but maybe, not too loudly, we say, you know, there’s racism, and I participate in that, I get it. But I also have ninety-nine good things going for me and I’d rather take care of those ninety-nine things rather than the one thing that seems almost a lost cause anyway. That’s a quantitative form of reasoning: I’m only missing one thing. And that one thing, well, it’s too far gone. But our narrator suggests that it’s not the quantity so much as the quality of wholeness that inspires these two characters [woman and shepherd] to search, to find, and to rejoice.

The sermon extended the analogy by reflecting on the involved work of Memorial Episcopal Church in Bolton Hill, as it seeks to make itself whole through racial reconciliation. The question is still out there for First & Franklin: what would that kind of reconciliation work look like for this community of faith? As we continue to diversify on Sunday, how does that shape how we think about racial reconciliation in our life together? 

The dishonest manager provided us with a reminder that while wealth includes powerful temptations, it is possible to use wealth in ways that align with God’s reign. Specifically, this possibility was connected with “debt forgiveness” and the debate about reparations to the descendants of enslaved African American peoples. The text reminds us that the big vision of the gospel (debt forgiveness) is enacted by realistic agents (who have mixed motives) rather than by people with heroic self-conceptions.

When preaching from the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, we touched again on the way whiteness may act as a kind of addiction, which separates us from a deeper longing for human connection with the figure of Lazarus in our world:

The whole story of Lazarus and the rich person is about radical connection; read it yourself, the desire, thirst, longing for connection. An intimate talk with Father Abraham. . . . But there’s something here that we need to reckon with: We’re only now, as a nation, beginning to feel the pain of the opioid epidemic. Joel James Shuman, theologian, notes that as long as the victims of opioids were poor, brown, and black, they were ignored unless they were viewed as a criminal issue. It only became a national crisis when suburban white kids started dying. And we felt in the white body the sores of addiction; the painful longing of addiction; the dependency of addiction; the shame that haunts the addicted, the opioid crisis. We’re in a pharmaceutically created hell. And only now, do we call out to God, or perhaps, like the rich person, we call out of a sense of withdrawal.

One question we’ve been chewing on since the sermon, Being White These Days (May of 2019), is the problem of being white in a majority African American city. With Luke, we’ve revisited the question again, especially the work of reconciliation (becoming whole), neither being heroes nor villains in a story where we are invited to be complicated disciples (dishonest managers acting to undermine a slaver economy), and what it means practically to surrender the privileges and self-delusion of whiteness in order to connect more authentically to our collective humanity.

The previous two weeks took us into the work of the prophet Jeremiah and the poetry of Lamentations. With Lamentations, the lectionary called for just 1:1-6, 3:19-26, which includes the most frequently quoted portion of this 5-part poem: “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’” Lamentations begins by asking, how Jerusalem, once a city of promise and beauty, could lose so much so soon and so decisively. The poet personifies Jerusalem as a woman, saying, “Gone her glory, gone her children, gone her name.”

A woman’s first-hand testimony begins at v. 12a: “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow!” Although Lamentations is relatively rare in the American pulpit, I was especially struck at the resonances between the testimony of the City Woman (a way of naming her persona in the poems) and the experiences chronicled by Chanel Miller in her recent book, Know My Name. Like the poet of Lamentations, Miller meditates on how it is possible for women’s testimony to be disbelieved, how it is possible that men who are guilty of sex crimes are treated with kid gloves, how it is possible for people to rationalize sexual assault with notions that women need to watch themselves (how much they drink, what they wear, and so on) — and, in the event that it does happen, they bear responsibility for being victims of sexual violence. Miller makes it plain, responding to her attacker’s explanation for the attack: “Being drunk I just couldn’t make the best decisions, and neither could she.” She writes in reply:

Alcohol is not an excuse. Is it a factor? Yes. But alcohol was not the one that stripped me, fingered me, had my head dragging against the ground, with me almost fully naked. Having too much to drink was an amateur mistake that I admit to, but it is not criminal. . . . We were both drunk, the difference is I did not take off your pants and underwear, touch you inappropriately, and run away. That’s the difference (Chanel Miller, Know My Name, 246-47).

Miller helps to give a contemporary dimension to the City Woman’s testimony. Pastorally, Miller’s experience spoke to many (male and female) who have experienced catastrophic loss, whether through assault, or disease, or mental illness. Miller became a way of interrogating how we rationalize sexual assault and also a way of naming a possible response for “when” it happens. 

The final sermon was from Jeremiah’s “Letter to the Exiles” in which he urges the exiled community to “build houses, plant gardens, get married” — in other words, to create beauty amid hardship. With this, the sermon pointed to the work of Devin Allen, West Baltimore native and photographer (whose work received national notice during and after the Freddie Grey uprising) and how he saw deeper into the ghetto — and its potential beauty — than most would ordinarily recognize; the sermon also highlighted local businesses on Howard Avenue, next door to the church; and Hungry Harvest, a Baltimore start-up that seeks to ease food insecurity through the purchase of what it calls the “ugly but edible” produce which would otherwise end up in a landfill, while real people exist in food deserts. This was also a baptismal sermon for Nkem, daughter of Onyeka and Obi Anaedozie. Baptism signifies our future hopes and joyful present. Interestingly, one person commented that the baptismal ceremony resembled a wedding rite. True, but in reverse: the wedding liturgy is derived from the baptism liturgy — in baptism, we gave ourselves to Nkem in marriage, pledging to build, plant gardens, prosper the city, and pray for the welfare of Babylon, a city she calls home.

Yours in Christ,

 

Pastor Rob

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