Who We Are
November 20, 2016
Sitting at lunch with a friend the other day, I reached into my pocket for a tissue and found instead a folded up piece of paper. It was a short list of things I’d thought of during breakfast that morning, things I needed to do that I didn’t want to forget — order the pies for Thanksgiving dinner, call the doctor’s office to make an appointment, stop at the bank, buy milk.
I have notes like this all over my life. Every bag, every pocket, every pile of papers on the counter in my kitchen – search through those and you’ll find a list of things I want to remember to do – call my mom, pay a bill, buy soap for the washing machine, catch up on my email, proofread the newsletter…
Or I use my phone — sitting at a red light, I’ll think of something I want to remember to do, and I’ll push the button on my phone and say, “Hey Siri, remind me tomorrow morning to check in with Mike about the board meeting,” Or, “Hey Siri, remind me on Tuesday to thank the Worship Team for decorating for Christmas…”
There’s all kinds of ways to remember what we’re supposed to do.
But I’ve been wondering: how do we remember who we are?
In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses stands at the edge of the promised land with the Hebrew people, the people who have traveled so far and so long with him. He peers into the promised land, can almost see it, can almost taste the milk and honey. He won’t get there, and he knows it, but the people will.
They were slaves once, back in Egypt, and before that, they were immigrants… Remember how the story goes? Joseph’s jealous brothers sell him to some slave traders who take him to Egypt. Not long after, there’s a famine back at home and Joseph’s father, Jacob, and his sons, flee to Egypt, in search of a better life.
And they found it for awhile, but then, the situation changed. The book of Exodus tells us: A king came to power who did not know Jacob’s son Joseph and their people became slaves.
And there were plagues and death and sorrow and grief, but then there was freedom, across the Red Sea, where they had to learn to live as free people, which they didn’t remember how to do because they’d been enslaved so long.
Then there was wandering in the desert, forty years, a whole generation… and now, they were almost home, almost home to the land God had promised them.
So close they could see it.
Moses climbs up on a high rock somewhere, someplace tall where the people could see him and hear him, and he points out the promised land and says, “There, that’s where you’re going.”
Then – I imagine – that the people turn, and start to move there now, eager to see this new land, eager to stop their wandering, but Moses has something to say to them first, and calls them back – and really, what’s a few more minutes when you’ve been wandering for forty years.
And then he gives them a to-do list, things to remember to do once they get there and build their homes and settle down.
When you’ve been there awhile, he says, when you’ve been through a planting season and you begin to grow some crops, do this:
Take harvest, put it in a basket.
Go to the place where you worship.
Offer it up.
Say to the priest: My father was a starving Aramean, He went down to Egypt, living as an immigrant there with a few family members…” In other words, Moses tells them, tell the story of your people.
Set the basket down.
Celebrate and give thanks.
It’s a to-do list:
Is he telling them to remember what to do?
Or is he telling them to remember who they are?
This story from Deuteronomy is one of the traditional Thanksgiving scriptures – it’s clearly a story about gratitude, about remembering what God has done and giving thanks.
We’ve been talking about gratitude this month. Two weeks ago, Amanda reminded us that Sabbath-keeping is an essential practice of a grateful people, and then last week, our elders and other lay leaders led worship and we heard from several people who talked about how and why we practice gratitude.
I confess that one of the things I was grateful for last week was that I didn’t have to preach. Not just because it’s nice to sit out in the pews with my family sometimes – though it is – but because last Sunday was a little too soon after last Wednesday, the day after election day, for me to be ready to put some thoughts into words about the results of the election mean for us and our church.
In the last week and a half, I’ve had a chance to talk with lots of you about how you’re feeling, and I know that many of you are feeling a whole lot of sadness and grief about how things went and are going. You are worried about the future, you are worried about your families, you are worried about our neighbors and our community.
And I also know that some of you aren’t feeling that sort of grief – that maybe the election went the way you wanted it to go, or that you’re feeling ambivalent about the whole thing. As a congregation, we are not always of one mind. That’s one of the things we value around here – we know that a differences enhance our community, make it stronger. We named embracing diversity as one of our key callings this year.
There was an editorial in the Christian Century magazine a couple of days ago that made me think of us. The editors were suggesting that this election – not just the results but the whole election season – was a result of a failure of communication between people who think differently about things, and that perhaps churches like ours might have something to offer.
“In this polarized nation, churches are one of the few places where Trump and Clinton voters not only inhabit the same space but have reason to communicate with one another. They sing in choir together, serve on committees together, feed the hungry together, take communion together. Congregations are also places where people have a divine mandate to take each other seriously enough to argue about the things that matter.”
That’s true, right? That sounds like us?
A lot of us disagree about a lot of things, and yet, we’ve committed to be part of this community together, and perhaps we ought to do a better job of listening to each other.
It’s tempting to circle the wagons, at such a time as this, to isolate ourselves with others who think just like us. I was tempted to do that last week, as I took in the news of who had won. For awhile I only wanted to talk to people who understood why I felt the way I did. It’s tempting to only talk to the people who think just like us. That’s sure easier.
But that’s also part of the reason we’ve become so divided, and it must not be the way we go forward.
Many of you attended the Multicultural Thanksgiving Dinner Monday night, put on by Faith Action International House — which is an organization who I think are doing as good a job as anybody at building bridges across cultural divides. Those of you who went told me that it was a sea of people, from all walks of life, from all cultures and all countries. I spoke to Faith Action’s executive director this week, and he told me that the people he works with, many of them immigrants, are so very frightened that the new administration’s promises of mass deportation will divide their families, will tear them from the lives they have made here.
One of you who went Monday night told me that – while it was beautiful to see so many cultures represented – it also felt a little forced. A sort of mandatory mingling that didn’t come exactly naturally. And I think that’s true — it’s not easy to get to know someone different from you. Sometimes we have to force it when it doesn’t come naturally.
So here’s a challenge for you today:
Over turkey downstairs, turn to somebody and ask how they are. And then ask them, “how are you feeling after the election?” Then listen, really listen. And ask them to listen to you.
That might be hard. You might have to take a deep breath first. You might have to bite your tongue while you listen, and you might have to choose your words carefully when you respond.
But you can do this, because you love each other. You can do this, because a few weeks ago we stood up and promised each other that we would create safe places for hard conversations.
You can do this, because you remember who you are.
But here’s the thing: That’s not it.
Careful conversation and deep listening are important, and we are well equipped to do it. But that’s not it. I’m not particularly interested in a conciliatory, let’s-just-all-get along approach now that this election is over.
Sometimes, it is good and right and holy to agree to disagree. Christians have always disagreed on, say, the best way to receive communion. Some of you prefer the Sundays when we come forward and receive by intinction; some of you prefer to pass the trays. We can agree to disagree on that.
We can agree to disagree on what songs we like best or what basketball team to root for (that’s harder for some of you, I know.)
We can agree to disagree about politics, about who to vote for, about how to best fund social programs for the poor. We can agree to disagree about policies and practices.
But there are also some things about which we must agree. Some core values that we hold dear as humans, as people of God, as followers of Jesus.
All that is pure, all that is holy, all that is just…The letter to the Philippians reminds us.
Friends, there are some things we can’t disagree on:
The dignity and worth of every human being. We have to agree about that.
We have to agree that acts of hate — harassment, speech, and vandalism, and violence — the sort of which we’ve seen in record numbers in the past ten days, right here in Greensboro, right here in 2016 — we have to agree that such acts should be condemned loudly and swiftly by those who have the ear of the public, and that we should do the same.
We have to agree that no one should treat women the way the way our incoming president has talked about treating women. We have to agree on that, and we have to say so loudly and clearly so that our little boys and our little girls know that that is not okay.
We have to agree that racist policies and racist politicians have no place in American government. We have to agree on that, and we have to name the ways that racism shows up in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
We have to agree that people from other countries and other religions and other genders and other sexual orientations are just as fearfully and wonderfully made as anybody else. And we have to agree to stand against anything that denies the humanity or the freedom of any other person. We have to agree on that.
It may be that the world needs the church more than ever right now.
It may be that we need to speak more loudly than we have been speaking.
It may be that we need to be bolder than we have been.
It may be that we need to work even harder to make sure that this church is a safe space for all people because there are a lot of people who aren’t feeling safe right now.
It may be that we need to remember who we are.
We need to remember that we are descendants of Jacob, an immigrant, and Joseph, whose family were slaves.
We need to remember that we are followers of Christ, who drew an ever-widening circle to include the least and the last and the lost.
We need to remember what God has done for us, that none of us got here on our own.
We need to enter into God’s presence and offer up our harvest basket with gratitude and tell our story and remember who we are.
The good news is that we have not entirely forgotten:
On the sidewalk outside of a mosque in northern Virginia, an anonymous person or people used brightly colored sidewalk chalk to write a message to their Muslim neighbors: You are a cherished part of our community.
At Baylor University when a bully pushed a black woman off the sidewalk on the way to class and shouted a racial slur at her, 300 people showed up the next day to walk with her. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2016/11/14/a-baylor-student-was-shoved-and-called-the-n-word-this-is-how-the-school-responded/)
When swastikas were spray painted on some playground equipment in a park in New York City, families from the neighborhood decorated over top with flowers and are holding a “stand up against hate” rally this morning. (http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/11/19/502710608/swastikas-are-painted-at-adam-yauch-park-in-nyc-but-kids-win-the-day)
We have not entirely forgotten, and we have ways to remember.
We have the stories of our ancient scripture.
We have prayer.
We have worship.
We have each other.
Whatever is pure, whatever is holy, whatever is just…
Let us be grateful.
Let us be just.
Let us remember.
People of God, a feast has been set for us, a feast of grace and peace. A feast of hope and remembrance. Here at this table we come just as we are. We come to remember who we are. Come, for the feast has been made ready.