Refugee Sunday: This is Us

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Omran Daqneesh, seen bloodied and shellshocked in this still from a video taken by the Aleppo Media Center, quickly gave a human face to the humanitarian conflict in Syria. 

Micah 4:1-5
Matthew 13:1-16

It seems that there is more suffering and crisis in the world every time we gather here. Puerto Rico, Mexico, Myanmar, London, Texas, Florida, Oregon, Syria, and countless other places are in crisis or have experienced crisis recently. And on a day like Refugee Sunday, those of us who are practically-minded tend to think, well, practically: what is our role in all of this suffering? What, if anything, have we done to contribute? Now that suffering is happening, what can we do to alleviate it?

I heard about a book this past week whose title made me laugh as much as it made me want to buy the book. It’s called, How to Be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use. It’s written by psychologist Randy J. Patterson. (1)

There are several negative books and articles like this coming out now, giving us things not to do if we want to be happy or fulfilled. There are many from a few different sources: if you want to be miserable, they say, do things like maximize your screen time, pursue happiness directly, work too much, and don’t get enough sleep. 

Another strategy for unhappiness: direct all blame either inward (to yourself) or outward (to something else, completely absolving yourself). A fulfilled and healthy person, naturally, realizes that we all have a starring role in our own failures, but that we are also usually not solely responsible for any failure. Other people, situations, and environmental factors can and do all contribute to our success or failure at anything we do, as do we ourselves.

When we broaden the scale to look at the humanitarian failures around the world, the same is true. Some institutions and churches put it all on us — we can solve this problem, they say, we’re just not. “Look at these poor people,” they say. “They’re suffering because we’ve failed.”

This, of course, makes it all about us, ignoring the strength and resourcefulness of refugees around the world as well as making the plight of someone else about our own navel-gazing.

Other religious institutions put it all on God to fix it, theologizing away the problem. “Everything will be fine in the end,” they tend to say. “There’s no need to get political. God will take care of those people. We just have to pray for them. #ThoughtsAndPrayers”

Of course, we never consider when we say this that maybe we can be an answer to prayer. As Luther wrote, “God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does.”

And like the lawyer in the Gospel of Luke, we’re always trying to justify ourselves in reply: “And who is my neighbor?”

My answer is that our neighbor is anyone we consider an “us” and not a “them.” That was definitely Jesus’ idea when he told that parable about the Good Samaritan, who to the Jews at the time was the ultimate “them.” Jesus always seems to be trying to broaden our idea of who our neighbor is, and whom we consider part of “us.” 

Refugee Sunday is about gathering around the table to remember the us all around the world that are driven from their homes by violence, economic hardship, and disaster. Refugees around the world are part of Christ’s body and all refugees of any faith were created by God. You all know that better than most congregations — this congregation and many of you as individuals have long been part of refugee resettlement, advocacy, and aid. You understand that refugees aren’t an issue — they’re people.

Refugees are part of us.

One such person was a little boy who made the world weep for Syria a year ago as he sat, shell-shocked, bloodied, and dusty, in an ambulance after an airstrike. His name is Omran, and in the photo, he was five years old. I haven’t been able to quite find out where he is today.

Only a few days after this photo of Omran hit the news, a little American boy named Alex recorded a video of himself asking President Obama if Omran could come and live with him and his family.

“We will give him a family and he will be our brother,” Alex wrote. “Catherine, my little sister, will be collecting butterflies and fireflies for him. In my school, I have a friend from Syria, and I will introduce him to Omar. We can all play together.” (2)

“He will be our brother.”

Sometimes I think that having “faith like a child” also means seeing others the way that children tend to.

Each of us is us. Which is just another way of saying, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

And like the lawyer in the Gospel of Luke, we’re always trying to justify ourselves in reply: “And who is my neighbor?”

I think by this point, we have our answer.

To be partisan from the pulpit is an abuse of power. To speak out for those who are in need or abused is historically one of the most traditional forms of Christian discourse. You can check the record on that, and I can recommend some socially active early church saints for those who are curious.

And of course, nothing is simple. I spend hours each week with earbuds in, listening to geopolitics streaming through podcasts of multiple political stripes as I do just about any household chore. I read a lot. I know that refugee resettlement, resource management, national security and geopolitics as a whole are complicated. That’s obvious.

What I’m asking for is a small, but also seismic, shift in how we frame the conversation. Let’s acknowledge what we already know, and what you’ve heard today: refugees aren’t a them. They’re an us.

Most of us will never understand the horror or the hardship that refugees around the world have faced or are facing, but how differently might we approach these conversations if we simply framed the conversation differently? They are us. Literally. Members of our own congregation are former refugees and their children.

And yes, it’s complicated, and yes, in any such conversation we’re all bound to get offended. But that’s just the thing: grace is offensive. Go back and read that Gospel reading again. Grace isn’t easy. Sometimes grace even seems unjust, or makes us mad.

The workers who show up last in the parable get the same wage as the ones who worked all day. The landowner, meant to represent God, just scoff back, “What? Are you envious because I am generous?”

We don’t get extra points for good behavior, and we don’t get to demand good behavior from others as a prerequisite to loving and serving them.

We don’t get to choose anyone’s worth based on our judgement of their status or behavior. It also means that no one gets to choose ours. Our worth belongs to God, the landowner, who is always coming to get all of us.

Our worth is not our immigration status, nor is it our stellar record on social justice. And I hope you know that it means that whether you and I ever agree on anything related to politics, you are still us to me. Your worth depends on God, no whether your opinions are correct.

About this Gospel text, ELCA pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, writes, “Our gospel text for today is not the parable of the workers. It’s the parable of the landowner. Because what makes it the kingdom of God is not the worthiness or piety or social justice-yness or hard work of the laborers…it’s the fact that the trampy landowner couldn’t manage to keep out of the market place. He goes back and back and back interrupting lives…coming to get his people.” (3) 

The truth, beloved, is that God is always coming to get God’s people, in many ways, places, and times. God’s coming to get some of us to drag us to work, helping vulnerable people around the world. God’s coming to get refugees around the world through the hands of workers and the hands of angels. And finally, God’s coming to get — to rescue — the whole world.

Because we can’t.

No matter how good we are, no matter how much we do, this whole thing is bigger, more complicated, than us. Because we are the Church, we will strive and we will act and we will help, but ultimately we will fail, because it’s bigger than us. We’re finite. We can’t even see the end.

But I need to believe that God can.

I know that it seems crazy to my counterparts who aren’t religious, but this is the truest confession of faith that I can make: the world is so messed up that I need to believe that somehow it will all someday be made right.

Our Old Testament reading is from Micah. George Washington quoted it more than fifty times in his writing about his vision for America. His dream was that in America, everyone could sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.

We’re not there yet. We may not ever get there: achieving true peace for every person is something that no nation has never achieved. We keep messing it up, for others and for ourselves. And things keep happening — just this week, more earthquakes and more hurricanes.

Humanitarian crises keep being bigger than any of us.

But before being able to live without fear was America’s promise, it was God’s.

I am a person of faith because I have to hope that someday, Micah’s vision will be real, that someday,

“…they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and fig trees,
    and no one shall make them afraid.” Micah 4:3b-4

My friend Joe describes grace sort of like this — if you knew that a problem wasn’t yours to solve, that the burden wasn’t on you anymore, if the pressure was off — how much good could you do?

Oscar Romero was a Catholic archbishop who was assassinated in 1980 for speaking out and advocating for the poor and vulnerable in El Salvador.

In one of my favorite writings of any saint, one that I need to revisit often these days, he writes,

“It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

“This is what we are about: we plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

“We are prophets of a future not our own.”

The crises we see on the news are neither all our fault, nor are they ours to abandon. Either way of thinking of it will make us miserable.

The future is God’s, that someday all of this will be redeemed. The present is ours to work. God is coming to get us in the marketplace, so let’s go to work.

It’s not for a them — it’s for us. Amen.

1. I heard about this book thanks to Atlas Obscura’s David Plotz on the Slate Political Gabfest.
2. You can read more about Alex and his letter here.
3. You can read Pastor Nadia’s whole sermon here.

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Telling Time

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Learn to face things — “tell time” — better than the moose.

Ezekiel 33:7-11
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

I’m not a big consumer of much of anything and I don’t have too much brand loyalty, but

I love funny commercials. I hold onto them and quote them for years.

I think I like them because they follow a lot of the same rules as other art forms like film and literature: if it speaks to something timeless about being human, something everybody can relate to, we remember it. Or at least I do.

I had two new ones to add to my list during the Pats game this week.

The first one featured a blue-toned screen focused on a white man in his mid-forties. He appears to be in a support group of some kind as he leans forward with a sincere, emotional, and somewhat distracted look on his face. He finally says, “You know, no job, no responsibilities — just leave it all behind.

The scene zooms out to reveal one guy standing in front of a white board with Fantasy Football picks listed on it. He and several other people in the room stare at the first guy uncomfortably. Finally, the guy at the board says, “…. Your fantasy pick, John.” while the others chime in, “Pick, yeah, pick!” 

The other one appeals slightly less to the darker side of my sense of humor:

It features three people sitting around a campfire talking about car insurance. Quickly, the camera zooms to the stickers on the RV behind them. One of them, a cutout of a buffalo, also brings up car insurance conversationally with the other stickers. The buffalo ends with, “They even insure RVs.”

A sticker that’s a silhouette of a moose says, “What’s an RV?”

A drawing of a howling wolf says, “Uh, the thing we’ve been stuck on for five years?”

The moose replies, “Wait. I’m not a real moose?”

The buffalo says, exasperated, “We’ve been over this, Jeff,” while the wolf chimes in, “We’re stickers!

“I’m not a real moose,” says the moose silhouette as he hangs his head.

The buffalo and the wolf say, “Give him some space,” and “Deep breaths, Jeff,” as the moose’s little silhouetted eye widens and he says, “What’s a sticker!?” (1)

Humor is always up for interpretation, but I think this sort of thing is funny to people because there is so much that we don’t openly acknowledge because we don’t know how to deal with it. Denial really isn’t just a river in Egypt — it’s a state of mind that most of us go swimming in about something every day: our health. Our job. Our family or other relationships. The state of our finances.

We resist hard things. It’s just human nature. It’s easier to deal with the day to day than to do a lot of deep work on ourselves or our relationships: to really think and talk about and deal with the thing you try to put out of your mind, or to have those hard conversations with people you love — it really is much easier to just carry on as if everything is fine.

This is what makes crises such a jolt to our consciousness. Crises are times when the deep issues we avoid become immediate — when there is no denying the unpleasant thing anymore, and all that’s left to do is act. Often, we treat crises like moral pop quizzes, because you never know how you’ll react until the time comes: what do you do when the unthinkable happens? How do you react when lives are on the line? Crises are when we see humanity at its most raw, and we see the most compassion, bravery, and self-sacrifice — as well as, in other cases, the most selfish, the most cowardly, the most evil. What we do when we are afraid reveals something about our character, and we know that.

And these days, especially, we understand crisis. There are storms everywhere, literally and metaphorically. Studies show that the earth’s crust in Houston flexed under all of the water that was dumped on it by Hurricane Harvey. The ground is literally shifting under our feet.

The prophet Ezekiel, featured during our Old Testament reading today, was alive and writing during a crisis in Israel’s history — when Jerusalem fell in 587 BCE. An invading force had taken over Ezekiel’s country, and he calls for the people to wake up. In exasperation, he writes: “Why will you die, O house of Israel?!”

Ezekiel calls for dealing with the unpleasant because it can’t be avoided anymore. The crisis is here, and it’s time to see what Israel is made of.

Paul’s words in the epistle could also have been Ezekiel’s: “You know what time it is.”
The crisis is here. The ground is shifting. No more pretending. No more carrying on as usual.

Paul calls the early church in Rome to wake up and get kicking. They’re suffering from persecution. Christians are dying. But Paul urges them into action: You know what time it is. Salvation is near. Crisis is an opportunity: you just have to be able to tell time.

This weekend, I went to see the movie Dunkirk, about the famous battle to get French and British troops, driven to the sea by the Nazis, out of France to fight another day. It was the very definition of a national crisis of the worst degree: an invading army is winning. I won’t reveal any spoilers, but at times the movie seemed (to me at least) to be an illustration of a sinner/saint theology, as the crisis pushed the troops and the officers and ordinary civilians to display the best and the worst of humanity.

Crisis is an opportunity to show what you’re made of: you just have to be able to tell time.

Then there’s the Gospel lesson, which is one of those passages that one of my colleagues refers to as “Practical life advice from Uncle Jesus.” And it is. Jesus gives a practical guide to dealing with crises and not putting it off — in other words, to telling time. He’s talking about the kind of crisis when we in the church hurt one another, which happens all the time. We’re human: sinners and saints, all of us. We have an enormous capacity to love each other and lift each other up, and an enormous capacity to hurt one another. And here, Jesus tries to guide us through the latter: we deal with these things in community. We don’t put them off.

We don’t pretend like everything’s okay until it’s not, and then disengage entirely.

Except that sometimes we do. Because we’re human.

We can work crises in relationships out, too: we just have to be able to tell time. We have to know when it’s time to love by giving space and when it’s time to love by confronting. This congregation’s had a lot of experience with that over the years, and so have I — and we’ve all bungled it up royally and we’ve all occasionally gotten it really right. But we keep trying.

And you know, sometimes, I think that’s one of the best gifts a church can give: teaching one another, gently, how to be kind and patient and loving and part of a community. To teach each other, gently, how to confront the unpleasant things head on. To teach each other, gently, how to tell time.

In my initial notes this week about the Gospel text, I quoted the verse where Jesus says, “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:19-20).

Beside it, I wrote, “Given the current state of things, you’d think he’s being sarcastic.”

“I mean, seriously guys, agree on anything and I’ll do it. Like even two or three of you.”

Seems like what’s true of rabbis has become true of American Christians: where you’ve got four of us, your’e got five opinions.

If I’m one of those Christians, three of those opinions are usually mine.

But “You know what time it is.”

There’s storms raging and more storms brewing, both in the Atlantic and in our souls, and whether we like it or not, it’s time to deal with some difficult stuff. The ground is shifting.

You know what time it is.

For our part, we are not a church in crisis. We are a church with a strong foundation of kindness and generosity and action. We are a church that’s already given $500 to Hurricane Harvey relief, who sponsored a child in Haiti long before Irma came along. We’re a church that looks after each other, too, and does what it can in the community. Today, we’ll gather and go help a neighbor with house and yard work just because she needs it and has become unable to do it herself.

This “small and mighty” congregation feeds people, fixes homes, and gives funds to send kids to camp. You are the kind of congregation St. Paul describes as he doles out the advice: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). Uncle Luther gives some similar advice when he says, “God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does.” You know that.

And you know what time it is.

So as the storms rage literally and metaphorically in our world and in our lives, let’s remember what time it is. It’s time to help. It’s time to reach out. It’s time to be an anchor for the community around us. It’s time to deal with what we’ve been putting off, to take better care of our neighbors and ourselves — I am by far not the first to point out that “Love your neighbor as yourself” requires that you love yourself.

Let’s continue to root ourselves in the sacraments and in God’s deep grace as we go forward. In a few weeks as we enter stewardship season, you’re going to hear a lot about building our future together. This is where it begins: rooted in the foundation of generosity and kindness that you have, and we have, over decades, laid in our lives and in this assembly. As Paul told the Romans, salvation, and God, are nearer to us now than when we started this whole thing together, not because we’ve moved closer, but because God keeps showing up here among us. God keeps moving towards us. This is our foundation.

And now, let’s move forward to be an anchor for each other and for this community as we build our future together. Let’s go — it’s time. Amen.

1. Full commercial can be viewed here.

“Rock Bottom”

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A news report on the vandalism at Masjid Al Salam mosque in Fort Smith, AK, from KNWA, a local news station out of Fayetteville.

Matthew 16:21-28

There’s a current Gatorade commercial that’s stuck with me lately.

It begins with a shot of a high school gymnasium, then pans to none other than Michael Jordan, basketball legend, sitting in the bleachers. Michael looks at the camera and says, “What is the secret to victory? Fail to make your high school basketball team.”

It then goes through a series of other athletes all giving their secret to victory:

J. J. Watt, Houston Texans defensive end says, “Start your career as a walk on.”

Peyton Manning, who holds NFL quarterback records in passing yards, touchdown passes, AP MVP awards, and Pro Bowl appearances offers his secret to victory: “Go 3-13 your rookie season.” His brother Eli, also among the NFL’s best QBs, adds, “Lead the league in interceptions.”

Other athletes chime in, including tennis legend Serena Williams saying, “Be on the wrong side of the biggest upset in your sport,” and Kyle Schwarber of the Chicago Cubs, who says, “Spend 108 years as a lovable loser.”

Finally, the scene pans to the inside of NRG Stadium in Houston, as the ticker tape falls at the end of last year’s Super Bowl. A dejected Matt Ryan, quarterback for the Falcons team that blew a huge lead, looks directly into the camera and says, “You really want to know the secret to victory? Defeat.” And then he walks off the field, head down, and the commercial ends (1). 

Clearly Tom Brady wasn’t available for this one, because we all know that the GOAT started his NFL career as Pick #199, in the sixth round. Nobody expects too much of sixth round picks, and while we all know how his story led him to five rings (and counting), it’s important to remember where it started.

Though these defeat-to-victory stories are common, this commercial about defeat is quite a turn on the usual positive thinking that sports usually promotes. When I was an athlete, I would often get tired of the relentlessly chipper, positive thinking that kept telling me to focus on victory and ignore and shake off the negative.

I’ve most often subscribed to the sentiment described by rapper Drake: “Working with the negatives can make for better pictures.” (2)

If you haven’t failed, you’re not trying hard enough, and the number of times you fall doesn’t matter as long as the number of times you get up is one greater than the number of times you fell. All of that.

It’s easy to think about and gain motivation from it when it’s sports, when it doesn’t entail any kind of moral failure. But what about when we’re not talking about making the team or making errors or throwing interceptions during the big game? What about when we’re talking about addiction? Infidelity? Abusing someone else? Telling a big lie? Stealing from a loved one? What about when we’re talking about the worst thing you’ve ever done?

What happens when we move this motivating conversation from sports to life off the field?

Talking about failure gets a lot harder then.

We like to think of ourselves, after all, as good people. And as I often say, thinking of ourselves as “good” people keeps us from becoming better people. It excuses our faults and keeps us from improving on them. We are all saints, and we are all sinners. Thanks to Jesus, we are all good people — and thanks to our nature, we’re all terrible people. We all have an enormous capacity for good and an enormous capacity to be destructive to ourselves and others.  We all have the ability to be deeply selfish, prejudiced, and hurtful.

If we can get honest about that, then we can have a real conversation about failure and defeat. Only then can have a real conversation about sexism, racism, and homophobia, because when we do, these things become less about what “those bad people” do and more about overcoming our own subconscious prejudices and our own failures to be inclusive. We can’t control “those people,” after all, but we can control ourselves.

Like I said, thinking of ourselves as “good” people keeps us from being better people, and it keeps our world from becoming a better place.

What makes a good person, after all, is realizing that we aren’t perfect, but are loved in spite of our failures, and because of that, none of our failures is final. God is always redeeming us, breaking down our prejudices, showering us with grace, and making us better.

Last week, Simon Peter found himself in a kind of path of totality where he seemed to understand everything. He finally said out loud, the first among the disciples to do so, that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God. It was a high point where he got his new name — Peter, which means Rock, and Jesus declared that he would build his church on this Rock, this belief, this sureness.

Then right after that, Peter sinks like the stone he is.

Now that they know and have talked about who Jesus is — that he is, as Peter said, the Son of the Living God — Jesus starts to prepare them for what’s to come. We, of course, have the benefit of knowing the end of the story: that he’s crucified and raised again, as we say every Sunday.

Peter does not have the luxury of recounting that every single Sunday. He does not know the ending of the story he’s living any more than you know how your life will be in the future. Peter only knows that he loves his teacher and that he will not see him die like a criminal. So he lashes out: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!”

Heckuva thing to say to someone you know is the Son of God. In response, Jesus jumps all over him and verbally mauls the guy. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me!”

Jesus’ Rock has become a stumbling block. We don’t say “stumbling block” anymore, but we do say, “You’re getting in my way.”

If I was Peter, I would forever remember this as the day that the Son of God called me Satan and told me I was in his way.

Peter was trying to protect him, but Jesus understood immediately that Peter was just trying to control him. It was, obviously, a big mistake. And Peter would go on to screw it up more later. While Jesus sat in Roman custody with his life on the line, Peter would deny three times that he even knew him because Peter was afraid.

Peter up until the resurrection is afraid: he wants to control things to make them less scary. He doesn’t want Jesus to die, and ultimately, even if Jesus dies, he doesn’t want to die himself. In today’s episode, Peter the Rock hasn’t hit rock bottom yet, but he’s headed there, and when he does, that will be the beginning of redemption.

It’ll be Peter that Jesus forgives welcomes back into the fold after his resurrection, giving him the charge as they walk along the beach: “feed my sheep” (cf. John 21). This is the beginning of ministry, the beginning of Church as we know it today. As Christina Williams, a pastor in Hadley, so succinctly put it: “Peter hits rock bottom, and from there, Christ builds the church.” (3)

Christ builds the Church on hope and redemption and second and third and fifth chances.

Christ builds the Church on grace.

Every morning, I listen to two podcasts while I eat breakfast and get dressed: NPR’s UpFirst, with the day’s headlines, and the New York Times’ The Daily, a deep dive on a story relevant to the day’s news. There was a story this week about Abraham, a young white man from Forth Smith, Arkansas. Abraham grew up in poverty, and he never felt like he’d amount to much. He always imagined that he’d end up in prison, like many before him. One night, he got drunk on cheap whiskey with his friends. Abraham drove, on the suggestion of his friend, to go vandalize a mosque. Abraham barely remembers the night that would change his life and terrorize a community.

While Abraham stood watch, his friend spray painted swastikas on the side of the building. He also wrote “Go Home” on the wooden front door, just above a babysitter-wanted sign. On another part of the facility was scrawled,  “We Don’t Want You Here U.S.A.” And on one of the front windows, among profanities about Islam and Allah, a phrase from the crusades: “Deus Vult,” Latin for “God wills it.”

In the weeks to come, Abraham was identified via security cameras. When he discovered that he’d been found out, he went first to explain what happened to his crying mother, then went to the police station and turned himself in. Not long after that, while Abraham sat in jail, the members of the mosque were gathered for Friday prayer when another young white man came in, took his shoes off – a sign of respect not often known to non-Muslims, which impressed them – and approached them. This was Noah, Abraham’s younger brother, and he was there to deliver a letter from Abraham.

“Dear Masjid Al Salam Mosque,” Abraham wrote. “I know you guys probably don’t want to hear from me at all, but I really want to get this to y’all. I’m so sorry about having a hand in vandalising your mosque. It was wrong and y’all did not deserve to have that done to you. I hurt y’all and I am haunted by it….You are much better people than I.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen to me, and that is honestly really scary. But I just wouldn’t want to keep going on without trying to make amends. I wish I could undo the pain I helped to cause. I used to walk by your mosque a lot [before I was arrested] and ask myself why I would do that. I don’t even hate Muslims. Or anyone for that matter.
“All in all,”
he concluded, “I just want to say I’m sorry.”

This impacted the members greatly. As Dr. Louay Nassri, a member of the mosque, said, “We did not want to destroy his life.” From that point on, the members of the mosque pleaded for leniency on Abraham’s behalf. Despite their pleading for mercy, Abraham was still charged with a felony and, much to the mosque and Abraham’s dismay, he was slapped with a restraining order keeping them from contacting one another.

After he got out of jail, Abraham wrote on Facebook, “Well, I’m home now. I just want to say thank you to all those who have been supporting me and a big thanks to the guys at the mosque who have been supportive and helpful and I pray blessings over them.”

The next day, he saw a response from Wasim, the son of one of the mosque’s leaders.

“Brother…we forgave you from the first time you apologized. Don’t let that mistake bring you down… I speak for the whole Muslim community of Fort Smith — we love you and want you to be the best example in life. We don’t hold grudges against anybody!”

God extends grace in many ways and through many people. What the members of the mosque knew is Gospel truth: none of us deserves to be defined by the worst thing we’ve ever done.

In addition to the redemption of Abraham, one of the anecdotes from the story that most stuck with me was this: there was an outpouring of support for the mosque from the town and around the nation after the vandalism hit the news. One man called the mosque crying. “I’m so sorry this happened,” he said. Through tears, he sobbed, “And Christians! I can’t believe Christians would do this.”

The person answering the phone at the mosque responded, “I know exactly what you mean. I feel the same way every time ISIS carries out an attack.” (4)

None of us deserves to be defined by the worst thing we’ve ever done. No faith deserves to be defined by the worst acts committed in its name, either. The same goes for cities: Fort Smith, Arkansas deserves to be remembered for its response, not the vandalism.

In the same way, Houston should not be remembered as the most flooded city built in a precarious place, but for the outpouring of love and help that its citizens have extended to one another over the past week, even as they have faced unimaginable pain. Though their city is underwater, still they rise. They will not be defined by the worst thing that’s ever happened to them, either.

None of us deserves to be defined by our own versions of Rock Bottom, whether they were caused by us, by nature, or by other people, and by the grace of God, none of us will be.

Even if you do mess up bigtime.

Even if you mess up so bad that Jesus calls you Satan. Even if you deny that you even know the Son of God while his life hangs in the balance. There is grace. There is always grace, breaking through in unexpected places and in unexpected ways.

Just ask Peter. Or Abraham from Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Redemption and resurrection are always a surprise: where what you thought was lost is somehow redeemed.

Neither death, nor failure, nor disaster, is the end. There is grace. There is redemption. There is hope.

Peter is not remembered today as a controlling or selfish figure who was afraid of dying. Peter’s Rock Bottom is the very foundation of the church’s legacy of grace.
And that legacy is ours.

So let us gather at the table of grace, where all are welcome, and all are fed. We bring our regrets, our sin, our defeat, our own versions of Rock Bottom, and in exchange, we receive the bread of life and the wine of grace.

Every. Single. Time.

In the words of Joseph R. Cooke, “Grace is the face that love wears when it meets our imperfection.” (5)

So you really want to know the secret to victory? Defeat.

It’s screwing up, over and over. It’s the Rock hitting rock bottom and having Christ build the Church on top of his failure.

The secret to victory is defeat. 

And it’s finding grace, one way or another, every single time we fall. Amen.

1. You can watch the whole commercial here.
2. That’s a line from “HYFR,” from the album Take Care (2011, Young Money Entertainment, Cash Money Records, Republic Records). (Lyrics besides the one quoted may not be suitable for all listeners.)
3. This quote comes from a sermon quoted by a colleague. The Rev. Christina Williams is the pastor of the First Congregational Church of Hadley.
4. You can read the full story in much more detail here.
5. Joseph R. Cooke, Celebration of Grace: Living in Freedom, 1991.