Not a Matter of White, Liberal Guilt: On Discipleship, Leadership, and the Role of the Church

As a part-time pastor–18 hours–I always have to prioritize my time. The church has hired me to perform the duties of a pastor, but certain aspects of the job have had to be put on the back-burner. From the outset, I was told that good, solid preaching was a priority. Some weeks I’ve delivered, so weeks I have not; but the sermon has always been at the forefront of my ministry.

Over the past couple of months, though, I’ve started to fear that I’m slipping into an identity that I do not want: a person who talks the talk, but claims that I don’t have the time to walk the walk. To be sure, I am always pastoring, and people know that I will be present in their lives. But central to my ordination vows was the promise to seek justice, to champion equality, to speak truth to power, and to live in a prophetic manner.

I am a cisgender, white man in a heterosexual marriage; my privilege is legion.  But I am a follower of Jesus Christ, so my responsibility is even larger. I cannot and will not stand by any longer, merely pointing out what is wrong and leaving it to others to do something.

At today’s service, I committed myself to community action. I committed myself to being a leader, a servant, a voice that will not be silenced, a person who will make calls, attend meetings, will not let up until there is a change. Today, I promised my church that I will be the pastor they deserve, that I will be someone to whom they can point and say, “This is our shepherd. This is the person we trust to lead us, to serve us, to love us, to protect us, to guide us.”

It is not a matter of words, it is one of action. It is not a matter of liberal white guilt, it is a matter of discipleship. It is not a matter of ego, but a matter of leadership.

You can read my sermon on Matthew 16:13-20 below:

“Don’t shoot.”kairos time

 My parents never had to teach those words to me as a child. Outside of water gun fights or situations in which someone is donning a camera and I don’t want my picture taken, I’ve never had to say, “Don’t shoot.”

 But when I talk to my friends who raise African-American, Hispanic, or bi-racial children, they tell me that the “Don’t shoot” conversation is pretty common. It generally coincides with conversations about what to do if you are pulled over or questioned by the police; what to do if you are the only person of color at a party getting shut down or busted; what to do if you are detained for walking while not-White.

 By choice, I have long hair, earrings, and visible tattoos. At times, people judge me for this, but it is nothing compared to the assumption that I am a threat or a thug because of the color of my skin. When I was a kid, I shoplifted. I was caught by my parents and forced to return the items to the local store. It was chalked up to my “being a kid,” and I know that my parents never feared that I would be shot if I entered the store again; I can’t imagine that, if images of my stealing a cap gun from UDF had been put on TV, people would have said that an officer, who had no idea that I had shoplifted, was justified in shooting me 6 times, twice in the face. This has never been my reality. But it was the reality for Michael Brown, who was shot and left in the street for four hours before his body was removed.

How does this happen? How do we become, at best, indifferent, at worst, antipathetic, to the lives of people based upon race and social class? There are many different reasons to which we can point: the legacy of slavery; deeply entrenched racism that still thrives in most parts of the country; a sense that talking about racism means that one is “anti-white.” Today’s passage of scripture points us toward another possibility, though: the assumptions we make when we try to identify someone else.

I often wonder about Jesus’ motivations for asking the question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Is he worried about this reputation? Feeling a little self-conscious about whether he is getting the message across clearly enough? Curious about the scuttlebutt? Probably not. The gospels are filled with pericopes—units of Scripture—that concern identity. Throughout Mark and Matthew, especially, Jesus is often confused with John the Baptizer, Elijah, or one of the prophets. I think that this is revealing; we human beings are meaning-making machines. We try to connect new experiences with those we’ve had before; familiarity may breed contempt, but it also breeds certainty and comfortableness. How often have you heard—or even said—“You remind me of someone I already know…”

So here, people are saying that Jesus’ words and actions are somewhat familiar; he’s a bit like John the Baptizer; he reminds people of Elijah; he acts like one of the prophets; but yet, he’s more. People try to fit him into a box because that way they can make sense of him, frame him up, feel more comfortable with his radical message and revolutionary way of life.

 Assumptions and stereotypes are easy; it takes courage to get to know someone. But we are a society that operates on stereotypes. Norman Stamper, who was Chief of Police in Seattle, Washington during the so-called “Battle for Seattle” riots in 1999, recently said in an NPR interview that white police officers are trained to see black men as threats and thugs.

But the answer is not to stereotype all white police officers as trigger-happy racists. While the fear that many persons of color feel when confronted by police officers is real and earned through experience, police officers also are attacked, shot, and targeted. Well-meaning public servants are regarded with disdain and mistrust, which makes it increasingly difficult to provide protection and service to the public. Far too many people look at police officers and automatically assume that they are corrupted and violent.

 So what is the answer? Jesus asks the disciples what they say about him. Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The Greek word here is christos, which comes from the Hebrew mashiah; both the words, from which we derive Christ and Messiah, respectively, mean “anointed one.” There are many “anointed ones” in the Judeo-Christian traditions: priests, prophets, and royalty all were anointed by God for a specific purpose. Indeed, a central Christian confession is that all of us have fruits of the Spirit, a purpose for which we have been anointed by God. Peter sees it in Jesus and declares Jesus’ identity, the Son of the living God.

Jesus responds by giving Peter the keys to the kingdom, linking whatever is done by him on earth to the will of heaven. Catholics, of course, interpret this to be evidence of Petrine supremacy, that is, the supremacy of Peter and proof for the office of the Pope. I do not wish to wade into that controversy, but this passage is significant.

 We often forget that Peter’s real name is Simon; the Greek word petra means “rock,” so the name Peter is a nickname; in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, the name is Cephas. So we can certainly point to this passage as indicating Peter’s central role in establishing the Church, but we can also read it in a broader manner: Peter is a disciple just like we are disciples. We are called to act like the kingdom of heaven is a present reality. We are to advance justice, mercy, and compassion; and we are only able to do that we when identify people correctly.

 I want to share something you. On Friday, Mr. Kennedy came into my office, saying that he wants to “put me to work.” He is concerned about how many young people are dying, how they are shooting each other and being shot by police. The pain on his face was palpable, and he wants to see our church do something about it. I felt God’s presence in that room, as I had been engaged in numerous conversations about just this issue, and now, here was Mr. Kennedy, a member of this church for over 60 years, asking his pastor to act.

 I grew up here. When I was a kid, all the police officers knew me. Not because I was in trouble, but because that was our culture. I knew the owners of the businesses, I knew the librarians, I knew the Village workers, the school janitors, the people who ran the pool. When I was acting up, someone would say something and I listened because I understand that these adults ultimately cared about me.

 I don’t feel that same culture in YS anymore. And I am not alone. In the past 48 hours, since Mr. Kennedy contacted me, I have set up an appointment to meet with the Village Manager; I am talking to the Boy Scouts tomorrow night; I am attending a meeting on September 4 in which the police chief will be present; I have other meetings set up with community leaders who want to be part of a mentoring program in which we make solid, meaningful connections between the youth and adults. Connections that will allow us to identify ourselves correctly, to see God in one another, to realize that it takes a Village, that we are that village, and that we are our brother and sister’s keeper.

 Will you join me? Will you help commit your time and talent to this program? Let’s talk. In the coming weeks and months, I will be collaborating with community members to vision how we can make 2015 the year that we transform our culture back to one in which we communicate, feel connected, and understand what it means to be Yellow Springs. A culture in which no child ever has to say, “Don’t shoot.”

That time the pastor dropped the “b-bomb”: On cursing in the pulpit

This past Sunday, I made a bold decision: I used a curse word from the pulpit for a specific purpose. To be sure, I wrestled with the questions for days, vacillating back and forth, even considering replacing the word that properly means “a female dog,” but most often is used as a derogatory term for a woman, with another, kinder term. To curse or not to curse. That was the question. On the advice of my wife and my mother, I decided to keep the stronger language in my sermon, which you can read below.

As I stepped into the pulpit, the moment of truth had arrived: I scanned the faces present, took a deep breath, and began to deliver the homily as written. The “b-bomb,” as I have come to call it, arrives early in the sermon, as you will read in a few moments. Sure enough, the reaction was swift and vocal: half of the congregation laughed, the other half gasped. I quickly began to explain my purpose for using the word–the text is Matthew 15:21-28 (–and within minutes I realized that everyone was listening. 

Really listening.

At first I concluded that it was the curse word alone, and that by the time I got to the end, people would be back to shuffling their programs and looking up the next hymn. But that didn’t happen. Indeed, when I received the congregation after service, people had a lot to say about my sermon, and not just the use of the controversial word. Congregants understood the connections that I was making and appreciated my dealing with a rather difficult text in such an honest way.

Sometimes we as pastors need to be willing to take a risk, because Jesus often did in his own ministry. Too often, the harsh language of the Bible–the shocking comparisons; the rough terminology; the disconcerting ways in which God is described–has been softened by preachers and exegetes. We should not curse merely to shock, but if we can use contemporary language that has a direct or explainable parallel to language contained in the Scripture–and in so using, increase comprehension–we should not shy away from using it.

This also left me wondering if I should start dropping swears into my sermons every week…

Read the sermon here:

        I heard tell of two girls who were moving into a dorm room. Both of them had their mothers in tow. One was from Boston; the other, Atlanta. The southern girl, in her chipper and distinctive accent said, “Hi, darlin’! My name is Mary Louise, and I’m from Atlanta. Where y’all from?” The mother of the Boston girl looked down her patrician nose and said, “We’re from a place where we know not to end a sentence in a preposition.” The mother of the southern belle smiled and said, “My apologies for my daughter’s uncouth behavior. So, where y’all from, bitch?!”

        Now before you begin a mass exodus because the pastor just dropped the “b-bomb,” bear with me; there is a reason for my crudeness. Did anyone catch the interaction between Jesus and the Canaanite woman? He essentially calls her a dog! Now, this often is softened by preachers and biblical scholars, who note that the Greek uses the diminutive, essentially making the word mean “little dog” or “puppy.” And who doesn’t want to be called a cute, adorable puppy, right? But such a rendering is rather anachronistic. The fact is, Jews in the first century did not own dogs as pets. Gentiles did; and the word was used as an epithet against Gentiles, a way of calling them unclean and less-than-human. So, yes. I dropped the “b-bomb,” but in a way, so did Jesus.

          How do we make sense of this exchange? Jesus engaging in name-calling does not line up with the justice-orientated, grace-filled, man-of-God I’ve come to know and love. Was Jesus having a bad day? Was he in need of a snack and a nap? Or, as so often is the case in the Scriptures, is there something else going on here?

          The pericope first appears in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 7. Matthew changes a few details: the Syrophonecian woman becomes a Canaanite woman; Jesus’ declaration in Mark that “the children be fed first” becomes in Matthew, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Indeed, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus commands his disciples that they should never enter into Gentile territory or come into contact with the Samaritans (Matt 10:6). This is a huge theological concern for Matthew: Jesus was sent for the Jewish people. Any opportunity for salvation offered to the Gentiles can come only after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

          The Canaanite woman is a potent symbol of otherness. That she approaches Jesus, a Jewish holy man, might indicate that she is a single mother, either through licentiousness or widowhood. In Jewish culture, a man should be engaging in trying to find healing for his progeny. Yet here she is: bold, brash, audacious, and, to our surprise, faithful. Notice her first words to Jesus: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” This salutation develops among the early church—and therefore seems to be evidence that the event, as recorded, did not happen—but it is also most Jewish. Why would a Gentile woman be concerned with Jesus’ connection to King David? Further, she comes to Jesus with a distinct problem—“[M]y daughter is tormented by a demon.” She clearly has faith that Jesus can provide a healing. Recall that, in last week’s passage, Peter, upon having Jesus declare himself the great “I AM,” a clear signal that he is God, Peter says “Lord, if it is you command me to come to you on the water” (Matthew 14:28). Peter demands proof; Peter sets up a test. But not the Canaanite woman; not this symbol of the unclean, dangerous “other.” She simply believes that Jesus can heal her daughter.

          The inherent racism of Jesus’ dog comment cannot be ignored. After he has tried to send her away, the woman kneels down and says, “Lord, help me.” Jesus responds, making it a justice issue: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This seems a direct contradiction of Jesus’ work in the Feeding of the Five Thousand, in which he ensured that all persons were fed. We can assume that everyone gathered was Jewish, but this would just be an assumption; we cannot know for certain. Here, though, Jesus clearly indicates that priority is given to the children of Israel. In some ways, this makes perfect sense. Jesus was a devout Jew and was understood by his followers to be the Jewish Messiah. However, Mark disagrees with Matthew, in that Jesus ministers to Gentiles in Mark’s gospel, and redemption is available to all persons who have faith.

          This, dearly beloved, is the crux of the issue: the nature of faith. In the 1st and 2nd centuries of the common era, followers of Jesus disagreed on what was required to be a member of the ekklesia, the assembly of people “called out” by God. For some, it required becoming Jewish: eating kosher, keeping all 613 commandments, and, for men, undergoing circumcision. Other church leaders, like Paul, argued that this was not necessary: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus” Paul writes in Galatians 3:28. Yet, in Romans 1:16 Paul writes that God’s salvation came to the Jew first and then to the Greek. Reasonable people can disagree as to whether Paul was stating that God came first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles, or if he was making a statement about Jesus’ earthly ministry; what is clear, though, is that from an early point, there was division as to whom Jesus ministered during his life.

          But what does this have to do with us? What are we to take from this difficult story? It is interesting to point out that this exchange with the Canaanite woman is a reversal of Jesus’ usual arguments. Typically, Jesus is presented with some question or is accused of violating the law by a Sadducee or Pharisee, and Jesus then trips them up with a superior understanding of Scripture. Not here. In fact, it is the woman who seems to “win” the argument by saying, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Has Jesus met his rhetorical match?

          Probably not. His response seems to indicate that the woman understands something that even the disciples fail to see: faith is the great leveler. It doesn’t matter if you are a disciple; if you fail to live into the fullness of faith, fear will overtake you. Peter walked on the water for a moment, but sank into the depths when he began to doubt. The Canaanite woman, despite being called a dog, despite being told that she is less-than, believes that God’s healing and grace is still available. She doesn’t care in what order she receives it, she simply cares that she is given access. To our 21st century minds, this may seem wholly inadequate; it may seem a justification for continued racism and sexism. Perhaps it is, but perhaps it is also a profound statement about how God works outside of our expectations. The final words Jesus gives does not concern her status as a Gentile or as a woman, they are directed at her faith. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” The daughter is healed, and the woman disappears from the narrative.

          Perhaps the message here is that no matter the understandings that humans set forth—this group is to be preferred over this one; these people are not deserving of salvation but there others are—God does not work that way. God responds to faith, and our greatest hope is to remain faithful even when others call us names and seek to denigrate us. To be sure, it is most difficult to see Jesus as the one name-calling and denigrating, but he gives freely of the grace bestowed by God in the face of fearless faith. And that, my friends, is a message we all need from time to time.

When laughter is not enough: On the death of Robin Williams

Like many people around the world, the news of Robin Williams’ death came as a shock to me. Reports filled my Facebook feed so quickly I had very little trouble determining that it was not a hoax; the beloved actor and start of many of my favorite films was indeed dead at the too-young age of 63.

My reaction was amplified, though, by a single, important detail: Mr. Williams appears to have died by an apparent suicide. Reading this word, suicide, the death was no longer that of Robin Williams; it was that of my brother, a paranoid schizophrenic who took his own life in 2002. And I imagine that my experience was not that much different from how other suicide survivors—relatives and friends of those who have taken their own lives—reacted to the news as well. Fellow suicide survivors reached out to me to confirm that they, too, thought of their loved ones; they returned to that time and place in which they first heard the news. Upon reading the word “suicide,” I knew what would come next; indeed, as I scanned the comments attached to online accounts, I saw the familiar verbiage: “selfish,” “cowardly,” and “sinful.” I thought of how many times that has been said about my own brother, albeit in private or in conversations that did not take place on the national scale, and my heart began to hurt for the family members of close friends of Mr. Williams. In the coming days, we unfortunately will hear a good deal of commentary from persons who know little or nothing about Mr. Williams’ own life, yet feel qualified to speak about his act of suicide.

To be clear, I do not advocate suicide. I volunteer for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and as a pulpit pastor and campus minister, I work diligently to be present in people’s lives when they are most vulnerable, praying with them and encouraging them to seek help. But I also know, as a pastor and as a brother, the incredible pain of mental illness and depression. I have seen firsthand how the medications fail, the talk therapy falls short, and the ravages of the disease take their toll on the afflicted. I have seen the panic and exhaustion in the eyes of those who suffer day in and day out with mental illnesses we barely understand; I’ve seen the frustration on the faces of those who are told, “Just get out of bed and do something; you’ll feel better!” I’ve seen the anger, the confusion, the desperation on their faces as they fail to find the words to explain their own private hell.

I also know what it is like to be left behind by one who commits suicide. The sudden death of any loved one is incredibly difficult to take, but suicide adds another level of pain and confusion. Unfortunately, attitudes within organized religion can be among the most stringent and uncompassionate. People throw around words such as “sin” and “hell” in a blasé manner, misquoting Scripture and championing poor theology. The simple fact is, nowhere in the Hebrew Bible or in the New Testament is suicide prohibited. Many of our cultural attitudes regarding suicide come more from Augustine than they do from the Bible (for more information, see my book The Many Deaths of Judas Iscariot: A Meditation on Suicide). Yet in the depths of grief and suffering, far too many suicide survivors hear people of faith speaking authoritatively on the fate of their loved one’s soul. One need only hop online, click an article about Mr. Williams’ death, scroll down to the comments, and start reading. Chances are, you won’t be reading long until you happen upon just such a typed statement.

The death of Robin Williams is a private tragedy being played out on a public stage. His talent was undeniable; he was open about his struggles with addiction; and reports of depression, especially in the last months of his life, were public. An overwhelming majority of us never knew Robin Williams; we certainly feel as though we did, given his powerful performances and general affability. Our grief cannot touch that of his family and friends, but what we can do is take this opportunity to pause and think about the ways in which we discuss suicide. We can examine our language and assumptions; we can use this opportunity to speak to one another about the ways in which suicide has touched our own lives. We can look around to see if there are people within our own circles that are crying out, who are looking for someone to care, to listen, to pay attention, to notice their pain. I cannot and will not speculate on what led Mr. Williams to his final act; that is not my business, and knowing those sorts of details will not change the fact that he left an incredible mark on this world that will not be sullied by the way he exited this realm. But I will speculate on what we can do as a society to improve our mental health care industry; what we can do to improve our communication with one another; and what we can do to be more compassionate, caring, and understanding to those who are most immediately impacted by suicide. We cannot and should not use the name of God to justify saying abhorrent things to those in the grips of ultimate despair.