We had such a beautiful Sunday, yesterday. Teresa and I fasted for social justice and mercy during the day with our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and many others from the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. We also heard from a special guest in Sunday School, Imam Tarif Shraim of the Islamic Community Center of Potomac (the ICCP). He attended with another teacher from the ICCP and several of their youth.
I met Imam Shraim at his mosque on my birthday, March 31 of this year, when I attended Friday prayers with other guests invited from our parish of St. John’s Episcopal Church Norwood. By the way, both Imam Shraim and Reverend Sari Ateek, our pastor, are Palestinians. When they are together you can feel the contagious energy of two humans thrilled to be present with each other.
Imam Shraim was gracious and wise as he shared with our combined Sunday School of 8th to 12th graders some of what it is like to be a Muslim in America. He shared his own story of facing racial and religious hatred here in America (a high speed pursuit and attempt to run his family off the road) because they have brown skin and his wife chooses to wear a head scarf. He expressed sincere gratitude for his welcome at St. John’s, and he invited us all to visit the ICCP any time we can make it. I plan to visit again as soon as my work schedule allows, hopefully during the coming celebration of Ramadan, beginning the evening of May 27 until June 25.
It warmed my heart to spend our class time helping our students grow in their understanding of our shared humanity with our Muslim neighbors, and our shared religious heritage and aspirations. I loved that our epistle reading in worship that morning was of the Apostle Paul in Athens, Acts 17:22-31. I’ve always believed that this should be a foundational text for our interaction with other faiths and adherents of other faiths. Paul shows respect for them and appreciation for what they share in common, and he even quotes their own poets. There is a humility and graciousness in this text that we have lost in so many of our own interactions with other faiths. Paul has a message to share and his own faith convictions, of course, but he doesn’t belittle, hate, fear or condemn the aspirations of the Athenians.
I pray that this is a week marked by more love, more learning and more service. May we find ourselves drawn to a shared grace and mercy for all people, and may we speak loudly and consistently against the hatred, fear and violence that threaten so many of our neighbors. And to support our prayer, may we do more loving, do more learning, and may we do more service. This is our calling as followers of Christ, to be known by our love: love for neighbors, love for friends and family, love for enemies, love for all. “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Colossians 3:14
You are not alone.
To every one of my Muslim friends and neighbors, you are not alone. The demonizing of your religion will not go unchallenged. Threats to discriminate against you because of your faith will not go unchallenged. You are our neighbors, friends and family. There are so many Americans, so many Christians, who will defend you.
To every immigrant, even those who came to us undocumented, you are not alone. We will still speak of your dignity and worth and celebrate our connection as human beings. You are our neighbors, our fellow humans, and you matter to us. Your children matter, and we will not leave them forsaken.
To every woman who feels that deep pain in their soul when men use and excuse demeaning language like “grab them by the pussy,” you are not alone. We will continue to hold people accountable for their words and actions. We will always speak of your value and we will defend your bodies and rights.
To every LGBTQ friend and neighbor, you are not alone. We have seen important civil liberties achieved in the last decade for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer minorities, and we will not sit idly by when those are threatened. You matter to us, and we will continue to safeguard your life and liberty.
To the millions who have healthcare for the first time, and those who finally have coverage even in the face of preexisting conditions, you are not alone. We will not sit idly by while your health is threatened by political games and rhetoric. We will fight for you and with you to keep the healthcare you so desperately need.
To our non-white friends and neighbors who have been vilified, faced condescension, and suffered demeaning, racist abuses, you are not alone. We will continue to stand with you for equality and truth. We will continue to work for a day when no one’s race or ethnicity is used as a weapon to disenfranchise, demean or discredit them.
To refugees around the world and those who have made it to US soil, you are not alone. We will not allow you to be further victimized by fear and suspicion, but will loudly proclaim your dignity, value and humanity. You are our sisters and brothers.
Those holding public offices change, but some things will never change. We will always stand together to create a better world, a safer world and a more beautiful world where our diverse gifts and shared dignity brighten every dark time. We will work harder each day to embrace love and accept our differences, and we will safeguard one another against all threats. We will stumble and we will misstep, but we will always rise and be better for our shared efforts.
You are not alone.
I realized today that with the drama of Snowzilla last Sunday, I forgot to make a Weekly Grace! I mean, wow. I haven’t missed one in a few years. So, I wanted to make sure we finished and finished well this month of intention based around civility.
It’s an election cycle year, and it’s a pretty heated race for all concerned. That’s one reason I wanted to start the year on civility. Another reason is that sometimes it’s so hard to keep my words flowing from love. It’s so easy to let something else step in and drive my speech.
In our focal passage written to the church in Corinth, Paul says that nothing is as important as love. Nothing should be allowed to take it’s place. There’s no miraculous spiritual gift, no self-denial, not even any great knowledge or correctness that surpasses love. This is not a message that religious people like to hear. We are very enamored of our personal gifts and, oh my… our correctness? We often like to stake our very salvation on it or deny another person theirs.
1 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part;10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Paul says that his ability to understand every question and mystery is nothing if he does not have love for others. The capacity to love matters more than the capacity to be right. I won’t belabor this point too long, but come on! I think it’s one of the clearest passages that teach us that we should let our love help us understand more often than letting our understanding teach us to love.
Our civility will grow as we move more fully toward letting love take it’s place of preeminence in our lives. Our words will grow to reflect that we have matured past the idea that our own perceived correctness gives us license to fight, humiliate, defame or condemn. We will listen better, with more desire to understand one another. We’ll ask good questions, meant to free and not to trap. We’ll grow together as we share and understand one another better. This could be a good year, even with a presidential election.
One of the uses or blessings of civility is it’s ability too turn things around, to take a bad situation and make it better, to help a person having a bad day begin to have a better day. An important part of civility is acting out of that civil impulse to positively engage and support one’s community.
Do you see someone around you struggling? Do you see someone who needs encouragement? Lift them up! Be a person who spreads joy and increases peace in the world with kind words, encouraging and positive contributions.
The proverb in our Weekly Grace is at once obvious and such a needed reminder. Our words have an effect, so let’s plan for the best effect possible. As children in Sunday School classes we often put our fingers over lips and sang “O be careful little lips what you say!” and I hope we never grow too old for that lesson.
Civility begins within and then manifests in speech and action. This is true of everything, good and bad, better and worse. Out of our hearts we incubate ideas and expressions that take form in our words and responses. For this reason our God is not just standing around waiting to slap our wrist and cluck at us, but God is working to rehabilitate our heart and inmost being!
Are we open to this? It’s one thing to capitulate and obey a greater power or a higher influence, but are we ready to allow ourselves to be fundamentally changed from the inside out? This is the difference between obeying the great sermon points in Matthew 5, 6 and 7 out of legal and religious obligation or allowing the Beatitude Statements in Matthew 5 to frame a change of our hearts and minds as we navigate the reorienting of life that Jesus presents for us to follow.
This is not Christianity 2.0 or any new innovation or deeper level… this is actually the beginning of religion and faith. Jesus often gave this invitation to people, “Follow me.” This is the invitation of a teacher, mentor and life-changer. This is an invitation to reflect on who we are and how we are, with Jesus’ help. And it’s an invitation to change.
Want to change the urges and reflexes of destructive negativity in your life? Begin by reflecting on your heart and cultivating a change there… work with energy and consistency to remove the negative things and plant beautiful things in their place. Where their is hurt and injury, sow some forgiveness. Where there is anger, sow some quiet and prayer. Where there is hatred, sow some empathy and hope. Christian saints and mystics often rooted this in their prayers: St. Catherine of Siena, St. Ignatius of Loyola & St. Francis of Assisi.
Even as I begin a new year no longer serving a congregation as pastor and shepherd, I want to renew my commitment to being a spiritual friend and brother to you. And I have to remind you that I need you. Jesus didn’t invite one person or single individuals to follow this path of change, he called us into community, together. Let’s do this together. Let’s chat.