Overcoming Hate with Patience

A version of this sermon was preached by me at Spring Friends Meeting on December 11, 2016.

– Greg

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

– James 5:7-10

After first reading this passage, I was like “Really, be patient for the Lord to come! How can I be patient when the world seems like it is crumbling down all around me? What about the people of color being unjustly gunned down in the streets by the people who are supposed to protect them? What about my Muslim friends who are scared about whether or not they will be able to worship in this country under Trump? What about my undocumented friends who want to stay in this country because they cannot go home or this is only home they have really have known? How can I be patient with all of this going on around me?” After this first reading, this passage seemed to be utterly useless to be preached this Advent season as we are about to have President-elect Trump inaugurated in just over a month.

Ultimately I was drawn back to this passage with the farming metaphor. In the last month I have often been outside pacing my backyard thinking about what is this world coming. As I look around my backyard and the neighbors’ backyard. I see garden beds sitting still and fallow waiting for the Spring crops to be planted, squirrels busily collecting acorns before winter sets in, birds looking for scraps to eat, my compost piles steaming in order to help provide nutrients for our garden next Spring. I realize that even though my lens on the world look pretty bleak, because of recent events, the natural world continues on. New life will spring up in my backyard, no matter who is President. In the same way God will still be with us in the Springtime too, no matter who is the President.

Then on Friday, my friend Mark posted a quote on Facebook from the esteemed Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman: “No prophet ever sees things under the aspect of eternity. It is always partisan theology, always for the moment, always for the concrete community, satisfied to see only a piece of it all and to speak out of that at the risk of contradicting the rest of it.” I thought back to the last part of the passage from James’ epistle: “As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.”

If we look back on the prophets, we find many examples of prophets standing up for justice in the face of injustice and suffering. For example, Old Testament prophets, Amos and Micah, spoke against corrupt rulers in Israel and Judah, respectively. These rulers took advantage of the downtrodden and the poomicah-6-8r for their own gain. This is not the way of the Lord both prophets argue. Instead, in Micah 6:8, we hear that the Lord requires of us “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

For these reasons, I do not see this passage from James as actively promoting passivity as I initially thought. This is definitely not the time for passivity. I know a lot of people are trying to figure out what to do to oppose the draconian proposals that Trump has already offered.  James has a good response for us all. In raising up against the new regime, we need to reflect that our works are not done out of hate for others, including those in power, no matter how evil their deeds may seem, but instead coming from love and rooted in justice.

Let’s remember that the ultimate prophet of Christianity, Jesus said, in Mark 12:30-31, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

My wise friend, Margaret, who pastors New Garden Friends Meeting once remarked that there are actually three commands in this passage. 1. Love God 2. Love your neighbor and 3. Love yourself. Without the third command, you cannot love your neighbor or even love God with your whole self. I have been thinking about the third part. Sometimes loving myself is the toughest command of the three of them. But if we are to ever love God and love our neighbor, we need to possess that love within ourselves before we can give it out to God or others.

For me this means all our neighbors, not the ones we like. It means loving our neighbors who are ok with having Muslims being registered or ok with gay marriages being nullified. Loving our neighbors does not mean agreeing or condoning all their actions. We can love our neighbors while vehemently disagreeing with them. We can still work for justice so that all of our neighbors are treated with dignity because we are all children of God. All of our neighbors have a piece of the Light within them and we should work for a more just world that recognizes that. Hopefully along the way our neighbors will recognize that others they hate do have that same Light within them as they themselves do.

Friends, in this time of Advent, the season when we are awaiting the miracle to happen in a stable in Bethlehem, we need to keep building the Kingdom of God. It may seem dark, but the Light is coming. We need to keep working for justice, working with the oppressed so that we are free. This work would have still needed to be done under Hillary Clinton if she had won the electoral college, as it has been needed to be done under President Obama. Yes, it may be harder now, but I am also sure that we are up to this task.

Just as we try to be patient waiting for the baby Jesus to be born in a manger in the back of an inn in Bethlehem, we need to be patient and continue to work like the prophets did before us, slowly building the Kingdom of God here on Earth, despite all the odds.

Just as the Romans did not have the last word on Jesus, the politicians in Washington will not have the last words, Love will ultimately win and we need to work together to make the Kingdom of God here on Earth a reality, no matter who is in the White House.

Birthday Poem & Queries about Dismantling Oppression

For the third year in a row, I want to share a poem with you all for my birthday.

A Small Needful Fact
Ross Gay

Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.

For the last several years, I have been working on understanding racism and the ways I benefit and how I uphold structures of oppression, especially racism. This is hard work and I constantly continue to make mistakes.

In this ongoing work, I have learned that while dismantling systems and structures of oppressions, I need to also think about how to create new structures and new systems that work to center the experiences of the oppressed. We, the oppressed and oppressed, need new models of how to be truly free from systemic oppression.

In thinking about this new growth, this poem reminds me that the fruits of our labor may outlive us and continue to subvert the power structures for a long time. As the poem points out, even through the state unjustly took away Eric’s breath, his own handiwork might still be helping others to breathe and thrive to this very day.

As a Christian, that is what encourages me about the Cross, death and the state did not have the final word. Jesus rose again to give freedom to the oppressed.

Here are some queries:

  • How are you working to understand how systemic oppression affects your life?
  • How are you working to be free?
  • Where are you seeing new growth in your daily lives that subverts these oppressed structures?

I am interested in reading your responses. They would be great gifts to me on my birthday.

A Kind of Love That Never Ends

This is the sermon I preached on February 14th at Spring Friends Meeting.

Today is Valentine’s Day, a romantic holiday, which celebrates love. A lot of couples will celebrate today by sharing gifts, eating out at a romantic restaurant, or getting away for the whole weekend. I have a hunch that 1 Corinthians 13 will be read or recited a lot today between couples and in churches around the country in honor of today. You may even see it quoted on church signs or posted on social media today. I am fairly certain that I am not the only person preaching on this chapter today.

I am glad that this chapter will be read a lot today. 1 Corinthians 13 is a beautiful piece of writing. My favorite part of this chapter is verses 4-8: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

These verses are often recited at weddings. It is really beautiful to reflect on what romantic love could be like. If a couple followed these guidelines for love, it would certainly build a great foundation for an long-lasting, romantic relationship.

Yet, people often take this chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth completely out of context. Paul is not talking about romantic love at all in 1 Corinthians 13, not even close. Paul does not care at all about the romantic lives of the Christians in Corinth. He is talking about a greater kind of love.

In Chapter 12 of his letter to the Church in Corinth, Paul is talking about the variety of spiritual gifts that Christians may possess. His overall point for Chapter 13 is about how we can only use our spiritual gifts in the most effective way if it is done with love. The Greek word that Paul uses in this chapter is agape. Paul does not use the Greek word eros, which is translated more as romantic love. Instead, agape translates to mean benevolence and good will. Christians have translated agape to mean God’s unconditional love. For example in the King James Version, agape is translated to English as charity, instead of love, unlike the New Revised Standard Version translation that I just read from.

Even though Paul does not talk about romantic love in this chapter, I still want to talk about this type of love on Valentine’s Day. For me, to only define love in one way, only in the romantic sense, robs us of a deeper love that Paul is talking about. A love that Jesus came to teach us about himself: An unconditional love from God that is given to us just because we exist. No matter who we are or what we have done, God still loves us, each of us.

On Facebook in recent days, I have seen friends my age reminiscing about what Valentine’s Day was like in elementary school. Valentine’s Day back then meant that everyone received a card and some candy. Ideally, back then, no one was singled out to get more cards or candy, nor left out of the exchange at all. For me this example illustrates what I believe God’s love is like. God loves each one of us the same way.

With the knowledge of this love comes responsibilities that we must bear. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul is reminding us about these responsibilities that this love entails. We need to treat each other like the children of God we are, reminding ourselves of Jesus’ exhortation to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is not an easy task by far. I often fail to love others, especially the people who I disagree with on matters I hold dear.

This is perhaps a great reminder to have right now. Currently, we are struggling among each other in the yearly meeting and also we are in the midst of yet another bitter Presidential election season. In this time of intense disagreement, let’s keep asking ourselves: How do we seek that of God within everyone we encounter?

At the same time, more is required of us than just passively loving each other despite our differences. It is a good start, but it is not nearly enough. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly implores His followers to show solidarity with the oppressed. We need to take heed of this call to action, especially with the numerous injustices currently happening within our wider community, like mass incarceration, police brutality, eroding of voting rights, mass deportations of undocumented people of color. I could go on listing the social ills affecting our society. Most of these injustices do not directly affect us, as a congregation largely made up of privileged white people. This is precisely why we need to be working in solidarity with those affected by oppression at the same time challenging the status quo.

The scholar and activist Cornel West once said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” We need to be showing up in solidarity with the oppressed to fight for justice, whether that means attending Moral Monday protests, educating others about injustices in our community, or helping people learn their own rights. To take action will look different for each person, but we all need to be doing something.

Whatever we do, we must continue to be mindful that we are affirming the dignity of the oppressed, not using them just to pat ourselves on the back. In the same vein, we need to lovingly challenge people in power, not demonize them. We should not be doing this work if at the end of the day we still feel superior towards the oppressed or smug towards people in power. This work should be done in partnership to achieve liberation for all. The Aboriginal activists group once said: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” God is calling us towards a collective liberation. Are we heeding this call?

On this Valentine’s Day, let’s remember to love each other unconditionally just as God love us and further challenge ourselves by asking: How are we seeking that of God within each person we encounter? How are we showing up for justice in our communities? Where is God calling us to challenge the systems of oppression affecting our neighbors?

Because this kind of love never ends!