Humanity from the Bike Lane

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James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

Being a bike commuter taught me more about interpersonal dynamics on a macro scale  than any class I ever took. 

That is to say, cycling to and from work when I was in Atlanta taught me a lot about humanity’s tendency to mistreat, abuse, and disregard those who they perceive to be smaller and weaker, and those whom they perceive to have no power over them. It was the whole, “you can tell a lot about a person by how they treat children, the elderly, and service workers,” but on a larger and more impersonal scale.  

You see, when I am on a bike, I am much smaller and more vulnerable than the average driver. If a cyclist collides with a driver, chances are incredibly high that it is the cyclist’s body that will bear the brunt of the impact. Chances are also high that the driver will leave the encounter physically unscathed.

People say judgy things about cyclists all the time. They lament that cyclists don’t stop at red lights or stop signs and don’t always obey all the rules of the road. And in some cases, they’re 100% right. Some cyclists are jerks and outlaws, because some humans are jerks and outlaws. But if someone had a serious prejudice against all cyclists because she had encountered some who were poorly behaved, I would begin to worry about how she treated other groups whose members she had once seen behaving badly. We’re all predisposed to prejudice; the trick, like most things, is to be self-aware about it. 

I am always grateful for those who understand how difficult life is for someone else, even when they don’t have to. 

For those who are white, but take the time to see the ways that nonwhite people are pre-judged and mistreated. For those who are men, but see and understand and speak up when women are talked over or abused. For straight people who speak up for LGBTQ+ people. For young people who go out of their way to befriend the elderly, and for older people who go out of their way to mentor younger people. For people who do not struggle financially who take the time to understand the plight of those who do struggle, and who advocate for them.

For those who have no personal reason to believe or stand up for or be kind to others, but believe them and stand up for them and are kind to them anyway. For drivers who pull up next to a cyclist at a red light after the cyclist has just been dangerously and harrowingly cut off by another driver and say, “I saw that. I don’t know what’s wrong with that guy. Are you okay? 

It’s pretty easy to care about something that directly affects you or your family and friends. It’s much harder to care when it doesn’t directly affect you.

What’s more, though, caring for those we don’t technically have to care about is also where we find our fullest humanity. This is also, I think, where Jesus was ultimately pushing us with this “kingdom of God” stuff. That the kingdom of God — a better translation is the “reign” or “rule” of God — is where all are heard, believed, and cared for, and where injustice is brought out into the light and corrected. Where we really do care about things, even when we could easily go about our lives not caring.

Because you see, it’s much easier not to care. It can even feel temporarily satisfying to take out our anger on such people — those we perceive to be somehow “lower” than us. It can feel pretty good, even, to yell a cyclist to get off the road (knowing full well that they have the right to be there), or to be rude to a waiter, all because you’ve had a bad day. It may seem sort of harmless, in the grand scheme of things, until we remember that trying to feel better by keeping others down has led to a lot of evil in the world. Any good Southerner and student of history knows that it was poor whites who were the foot soldiers of the KKK; after all, if blacks were not kept down, whom would poor whites have to feel better than?

The urge to be the greatest — or at least to not be the least — is ingrained in us from childhood. Not just “us” Americans, either. Us humans. We learn from an early age that the better and greater you are, the less likely you are to be anyone’s victim. So we beat others down in order to feel better and to send the message that no one better mess with us. If we’re self-sufficient, we think, we won’t be dependent on anyone. That’s the goal. 

There’s only one catch: at some point, most of us do become the least, whether by circumstance or, if we’re lucky, by choice. At some point, we all find ourselves dependent on the kindness of others. We all find ourselves hoping that someone who doesn’t have to care will care. Whether it happens because we are part of a hated or outcast group or because we are simply lonely, we all eventually find ourselves hoping that someone who’d doesn’t have to care about our plight will care — that they will stand up for us, call us, show us kindness. We’ve all been there. If you haven’t, it’s incredibly likely that you someday will be. 

This is why we are our best selves when we show kindness that we didn’t have to show: because it seems that we’re wired towards self-importance, and kindness breaks that pattern. Kindness moves us from thinking about ourselves and worrying about having enough — enough status, enough money, enough attention — and helps us to think in terms of abundance and whether someone else has enough.

The Gospel lesson today is another relatively familiar one — Jesus predicts that someday soon he will throw himself at the mercy of angry strangers, and be killed, and in three days rise again. The disciples, as you might imagine, really don’t get it, and Mark says in a moment of remarkable candor that they were too afraid to ask him. 

Then Jesus overhears the disciples getting into an argument about who’s the greatest among them. They know this Jesus character that they’ve been following is pretty important; he’s quite popular with the crowds. It becomes a natural human question, then, who among them is the handsomest, most popular, most useful, best disciple. 

Then Jesus brings a child among them to illustrate his point. Children were, in those days, of quite a low status. They weren’t very useful for working, and they were prone to dying of disease and injury. And Jesus uses the child to say, essentially, the wisdom we discussed at the beginning — “what matters is how you treat people who can’t give you anything in return. Those who have no power over you. Those you could go on about your life not caring about.” And Jesus says the famous line: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” 

It’s a cute image, Jesus holding a child, but this is about way more than only children. It’s about how we treat anyone who can’t give us anything in return. The Kingdom of God is shown through us when we don’t have to care, but do. When we advocate for those who are burdened by society in ways that we are not. When we show kindness to someone we didn’t have to notice in the first place. 

That’s what we try to do here. 

Look, today is commitment Sunday, the height of our stewardship season, as we try to figure out how to do God’s work in the world in the new year. You don’t have to care about church. You don’t have to give. As good Lutherans, we believe that God loves you regardless of how much you give or don’t give or how much you show up here or don’t. You are loved because you breathe. 

When I ran across New Hampshire this past weekend to raise money for kids to go to summer camp, at our dinner before the race, someone said, “When it gets hard, just remember — you get to do this.” The race could go on without any of us. We would all be loved by God and kids would go to camp regardless of whether any individual person in the room ran that race. But we were the ones who got to do it. 

The same is true here. God’s work could go on, easily, without us — without any individual person and without this congregation as a whole. But that’s not the end of the story.

We are here. We get to do this. We get to show up for people and show kindness. 

We keep showing up, doing good, and giving of all that we have not so that God will love us, but because God already does. My work here, and my offering each month, is not some sort of divine bribe to get God to love me, and neither is yours. 

We do this, not because we have to, but because we get to. And that, my beloved, changes everything. Amen.

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Full Disclosure

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This sermon is, in part, a tribute to Dr. Gail R. O’Day, one of the most influential professors of my seminary career. The title is a nod towards one of her book titles, The Word Disclosed: Preaching the Gospel of John (Chalice Press, 2002)

Mark 8:27-38

The New York Times’ “Metropolitan Diary” is a human interest section that details the trials, heartbreak, and joy of life in New York City. It’s like a verbal version of the social media photo series “Humans of New York,” highlighting individual humans and the beauty and pain of their stories in New York’s constant streams of anonymous faces.

One recent rendition of Metropolitan Diary, entitled, “Parking Lesson,” went like this.

“Dear Diary:

I pulled onto West 130th Street between Lenox and Fifth Avenues looking for a parking spot. I noticed one between two cars. I knew there wasn’t a fire hydrant there.

Getting into the spot would have been a tight squeeze, but nothing I couldn’t handle. Luckily, though, I saw that there was a man sitting in the Jeep parked in front of the empty space. He had easily half a car’s length ahead of him that he could move up into. I figured I would ask if he would mind making my job easier.

Pulling alongside the Jeep, I saw that the man was leaning back in his seat. His window was already down. I rolled down my front passenger side window.  

‘Hi, excuse me.’ I said, ‘Would you mind pulling up a bit so I could squeeze in behind you?’  

No response.

‘Excuse me, sir?’

This time, he answered.

‘Can’t you see I’m busy?’

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I just wanted to ask if you could move up a tad, maybe three feet.’

‘I heard what you said,’ he said. ‘I’ll move up two feet, and learn how to park.’ 

Now I was annoyed.  

He pulled the Jeep up, and I backed into the empty spot easily. Turning off the ignition, I decided to ask the man if he would evaluate my parking job. After all, he had said I needed to learn.

As I approached the Jeep, the man was reaching out the window with his hand open. Almost magnetically, my hand was drawn into his.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I’m on the phone with the funeral home. My father just passed. Please, go easy on me.’

It doesn’t take much to set us off when we’re surrounded by millions of people, especially in the heat. So go easy on each other.” (1)

He just laid it out there, that man in the Jeep. His bluntness about his situation saved both people from a confrontation.

I know that I’m meant to identify with the man who needed to park, and that the lesson I’m meant to take is to go easy on my fellow human because I have no idea what they’re going through. That is a good lesson indeed.

However, what’s truly remarkable to me about this story is the directness and vulnerability of the guy in the Jeep. It took courage to do what he did — to reach out, literally, and be direct about his own pain. To put himself on the line rather than hide, roll up the window, or start a fight. The writer wouldn’t have been able to go easy on the man in the Jeep had he not disclosed his pain and thrown himself at the mercy of an angry stranger: “I’m on the phone with the funeral home…. Please, go easy on me.” 

The Gospel lesson this morning is known for two things: Peter’s direct confession of Jesus as the Christ and for Peter’s royal screwup two verses later. When he goes from getting it right to getting it so wrong that the Son of God calls him “Satan.” 

Jesus does what seems like a strange thing in Mark — nearly every time he does something extraordinary, or every time someone knows who he is, he shushes them immediately. Scholars and theologians have debated why for centuries, but narratively it’s always made a lot of sense to me: Jesus knows, not because he’s omnipotent, but because he’s alive and conscious, that his miraculous actions and his believers’ claims about him are going to get him into trouble on more than one front. He will eventually throw himself at the mercy of angry strangers, which is part of what Peter objects to.

We’re not there yet, though.

No, this time, it’s Peter that makes the bold disclosure. Whenever we’re trying to be direct and tell the truth about anything, especially our own convictions, saying, “This is the whole truth as best I know it” takes courage.

You see, the gathering here in Mark 8 is more intimate than the familiar setting might suggest. Jesus is walking on the road with his disciples. If you’ve done all that much Bible reading at all, at this point, your eyes might start to glaze. “Yeah, yeah — we know. He’s, like, teaching them, right? Imparting the truth on them or something. Profound, neighbor-loving stuff.” That colors how we hear the rest, if we hear it at all. 

It seems that this is a sort of impersonal exchange wherein Peter boldy and in a direct and no B.S. fashion gets Jesus’ Sunday school question right.

I suppose that’s how it is — if you forget that this is a story involving humans.

Much has been said over the years about the car as a place where it’s sometimes easier to have hard conversations. You don’t have to look directly at the person — in fact, if you or the other person is driving, it’s impossible (and unsafe) to maintain long eye contact. An early 2000s emo band was even named after the phenomenon: Dashboard Confessional.

I imagine that this phenomenon of having hard conversations while traveling didn’t start with cars. It  applies to travel more generally too — including walking. Anytime you’re moving and facing forward, you have an easy excuse to look elsewhere, easing up the emotional pressure brought on by facing someone. 

So Jesus and his disciples are walking, presumably facing forward, and he asks a rather vulnerable question: “Who do people say that I am?”

“What do people think of me, really? Who do they think I am? What do they think I’m here for?” 

So the disciples give him a laundry list of the things they’ve heard. Disciple next to Jesus kicks up a little dust with his feet and answers, “Some say John the Baptist.” Disciple in the back says, “Other people are saying you’re Elijah.” Another chimes in, “Or one of the other prophets.” 

Then Jesus drills in with an even more intimate question: “Who do you say that I am?”  

“You’ve been following me for awhile now. Why do you think you’re here? Who am I to you?”

They are about to tell Jesus how they’ve viewed all the time they’ve spent together. They’ve been following him, eating together, laughing together, seeing miracles together. And Jesus has essentially just said, with all their eyes fixed forward, “What has all that meant to you? Who do you think I am?”

What’s more, you see, no one in the group has ever said it out loud.

Peter comes right out with it: “You’re the Messiah.”

It’s not a term that encompasses everything. But it says a lot. And he just came right out with it.

I’ve always appreciated the directness of your average New Englander. I’m no regional essentialist or anything, but my experience with Southerners is that we tend to tell more stories, use more niceties, and beat around the bush a bit more. Our primary goal is often to protect the feelings of others and maintain social norms. New Englanders, I find, often give “just the facts,” preferably without sugarcoating it.

“You’re the Messiah.”

Many Southerners read this kind of demeanor as cold. Thanks to one person in particular, I read it now as more efficient — and brave — than anything.

I’m fairly sure that the Rev. Dr. Gail R. O’Day was the first person from this region that I ever interacted with on a daily basis. She was the academic dean of the Candler School of Theology at Emory in Atlanta for my first two years of seminary. I also had the pleasure of taking several of her courses on preaching and on the Gospel of John. There are, as I’ve said before, classes that make us all better at our jobs, and then there are those that make us better people. Seminary is no different, though I can also count a third category there: there were courses that made me realize that I actually believe this stuff, courses that formed my actual faith and gave me words to describe it. Gail’s courses were among those. In my own preaching voice, I hear echoes of her own, and when I hear someone from my era at Candler preach, I can often tell if they were among her students, too.

I found that she has a keen eye for finding depth and meaning and little patience for showing off in trying to convey it. Just get to the point. She also taught me to get past my assumptions in reading a Gospel story, often asking, “Yes, but what does the text say?” We were allowed to imagine and fill in the details, but we had to be faithful to the text. We had to tell the truth as best we knew it.

Once, while standing with a group of my friends as she passed by, I remarked of a paper I had just turned in to her: “I feel like it went somewhere; I’m sorry for my intro, though — it was kinda fluff.” Deadpan, her blue eyes fixed on me and she said, “I know.” My friends let out a low “oooh,” but by that point, I felt the love. I think I made a B.  

From watching her, I learned to really look at the people to whom I was preaching, even when I was nervous or afraid. From her, I learned to look at individuals in the congregation in a way that says, “This is the truth as best I know it.” 

I’ve been thinking about her, and about preaching, life, and resurrection more generally, because she’s been pretty sick lately. 

Some scholars and theologians and spiritual leaders appeal to our emotions with flowery words including lots of adjectives. With Gail, it was just the facts, and I often found myself feeling things in spite of myself. Because something else was also true: she really believes this stuff. To me, she was a scholarly giant. And if she could believe this stuff, then maybe I could, too.

Peter took a risk in proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah, and I wonder if it didn’t have a profound effect on the faith of his fellow disciples. Because if Peter can believe it, well, maybe it is real after all. 

Yes, moments later Peter’s boldness will go to his head and he’ll say too much. Peter lacked New England discernment to go along with his bluntness. He underestimated the vulnerability and openness that the Messiah would have to endure — the cross. He misunderstood that it was ultimately Jesus who’d have to lay himself at the mercy of strangers, die, and rise again.

Still, Jesus calls us to open our arms, to be vulnerable, to lay it all out there: in short, to take up our cross and follow. Tell the truth as best you know it. God will be there. 

After the Orlando shooting in 2016, Gail wrote these words with which I close, which echo ever more true to me now. It was the truth as she knew it: “…the struggle between life and death, love and hate is the struggle of human existence. We are called to live in hope, because to live any other way is to say that love is not real, that love has no power. And we are called to be witnesses to the love of God that cannot be overcome by hatred and that will carry us all forward in hope toward a justice-filled future. We lament, we mourn, we will seek justice, and we will love. With prayers and hope for a new day, Gail R. O’Day.

It takes courage to tell the truth as you know it: about your own soul, about the state of things, about the existence of hope when nothing is hopeful. 

But you’re New Englanders. Just lay it out there, because we really believe this stuff — about life and death and resurrection.

We are called to live in hope, because to live any other way is to say that love is not real, that love has no power.” So keep laying it out there. God will be there when you do.

Because if you can believe and proclaim it, you just might give someone else the courage to believe it too. That is why we are here: full disclosure. Amen.

1. New York Times Metropolitan Diary, 3 September 2018. You can find the article here.
2. You can read Dr. O’Day’s entire statement after the 2016 Pulse massacre here.

The Insulted, Forgotten, and Healed

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The Canaanite woman asks for healing for her daughter.” Naskh is the caligraphic style for writing in the Arabic alphabet that the biblical text is written in for this manuscript. The artist, Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib, was most likely a Coptic monk in the late 17th century in Egypt.
SOURCE: Vanderbilt Divinity Library.

Isaiah 35:4-7a
Mark 7:24-37

Whenever I am asked to do math, I simply reply that I am a liberal arts major who had to take remedial math, so I cannot be trusted with the church finances. My degree is in history; my minor and first love, however, was English.

English poet William Blake, born in 1757, died in 1827, wrote enduring works of poetry. Why a work of art lasts in our common psyche is often something of a mystery, but when Blake opened his work Songs of Innocence, he gave us a clue:

“Piping down the valleys wild,
Piping songs of pleasant glee,
On a cloud I saw a child,
And he laughing said to me:

‘Pipe a song about a Lamb!’
So I piped with merry cheer.
‘Piper, pipe that song again.’
So I piped: he wept to hear.”

Every piece of art from the beginning of human history has tried, ultimately, to do one thing: in the words of preaching scholar Anna Carter Florence, to try and “say something true” (1). When the song that the artist pipes strikes that common, human chord in us, we know that they have said something true; we weep to hear.

What truth we get out of things changes from era to era, but lasting works of art have spoken to the core of human existence so universally that we have continued to keep and preserve them. All of us has some movie, some work of art, some poem, some song, that inspires or touches us so deeply that we weep when we are reminded of it.

When we hear something true, it does not leave us unaffected. It shows us something true about ourselves, our fellow humans, and what binds us together. 

In popular culture, some programs tell us quite plainly what truths we are to gain; Criminal Minds, for example, is known for weaving thought-provoking quotes through its nerve-wracking, raw drama about the human psyche. I love the show, but admittedly, some of the quotes are a little on the nose. I prefer to be shown, not told, what true thing I am to gain. When a character intones at the end of an episode, “Nietzsche once said, ‘When you look long into an abyss, the abyss looks into you,’” I admit that I feel more hit over the head than haunted by nihilism.

Scripture, too, is a work of art in its own ancient way; it’s an enduring one at that. What is it that has kept people coming back to this collection of texts, century after century? No doubt a fear of hell has been compelling enough for some, and the Church for its part has too often encouraged that. As with anything, humanity is a messy lot, even and sometimes especially where God is involved. Best case scenario, though, we read the Scriptures together or separately and we hear something true. We hear something beautiful, we hear good news, and we weep to hear. Things like the Isaiah reading, where an embattled, traumatized little nation is told: “‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you’” (Isaiah 35:4). 

If you don’t like that image because it portrays a vengeful God, consider the plights of those who are consistently violated. People who have been driven out, othered and abused often look to God for justice. 

Then, sometimes, the Scriptures outright confound us. 

Like this Gospel passage where Jesus calls a woman a dog. And not just any woman: a Syrophoenician woman, a woman of another race and religion than himself, a woman despised by Jesus’ own people.

No wonder this is a common text that preaching teachers like to afflict on their students. This text is the New York City of Gospel passages; if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. 

So what are we to do with this passage where an oppressed woman with a sick daughter approaches Jesus, and he seems to dismiss her with contempt? This is distinctly not gentle Jesus, meek and mild. This Jesus is rude and dismissive and not nice at all, thank you very much. This Jesus even seems to have his own prejudices. 

God? Have prejudices?

This is where we must resist the temptation to either make excuses for Jesus or to reprimand him from our modern, woke point of view. Because quite frankly, if making excuses for Jesus and arguing that he didn’t really mean it or he had some greater purpose for insulting her is a little dumb, then reprimanding the Son of God is very dumb. 

Here’s the thing: I don’t think that’s the point of the story. I also think we sure can learn from it simply by throwing up our hands and admitting we don’t know why he was so rude to a hurting woman.

Because people ask me, and probably you too if they know you’re a church person, all the time: why does God allow suffering? Would a loving God really do that?

And which one of us hasn’t felt a little insulted by God from time to time? Who among us hasn’t felt a little forgotten or dismissed by God? I think we’ve all been going through something hard at some point and have wondered if God didn’t hate us or if God even exists or if you’ve been banging on this metaphorical door all your life when there might be nothing at all on the other side. 

Or, if you’re the Syrophoenecian woman herself, you might be wondering if this teacher you heard so much about isn’t just a rude jerk of a prejudiced Jewish man. You might worry that you’ve put your hope in him for nothing. She tries just one more time with the tolerance and love and persistence that only a mother with a sick child could have: “Sir, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” 

Look, man. Nothing personal, but my daughter is sick. If you can do anything at all, please do.

Then we get to the actual point of the story: her daughter is made well. 

The only true thing I, or you, or the Syrophoenecian woman who doesn’t even have a name in the story can say is that she came home to find that her daughter was healed.

She went to Jesus, and ultimately, though the whole experience must have been confusing, she found healing.

The only true thing that I can say is that I keep coming back here because I find healing here, and love, and grace here. Even when I might feel like God is ignoring me at best or is flat out insulting me at worst. It doesn’t matter. I keep showing up and finding grace. I hope you do too. 

Whether you continue to persist or whether you give up and God finds you years from now, the true thing is that every human life deserves hope and life and love and when we find it, we want to give it to other people, too. And we folks happen to find it here in bread and wine and water and words and little kids with backpacks. 

At the end of one episode of Criminal Minds, the character Morgan intones, “No matter how dark the moment, love and hope are always possible.” George Chakiris.

Love and hope are possible as long as the Spirit of God — of art and truth and creativity endure. So let’s continue to find something true, together, no matter how dark the moment or difficult the search. Sometimes God may seem like a jerk, but that’s not the point.

The point is that our perspective is limited, but that God? God is here. And that, my friends, is something true. Amen.

1. Anna Carter Florence, Rehearsing Scripture, 2018.

The Good News for “Them”

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An illustration of filter bubbles by Ben Celsi for Medium (2017). 

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

If you use the Internet often, chances are that you have, at some point, gotten a message from a stranger. I admit that, due to my obsession with locking down the availability of as many accounts as possible with few exceptions, this doesn’t happen to me often. It happened this week, though.

Messages from strangers can take many different forms, of course — they can be weirdly flirty, laden with viruses, claims to be from your long-lost family, or just the mysterious universally creepy “hey.” 

But this wasn’t just any message from a stranger; it was a startlingly short and particularly insulting message. Mind you, my alarm at getting it wasn’t so much that it hurt my feelings; it didn’t. You see, I care about the opinions of many people, but people who send random insults to strangers on social media are not among them. Mostly, I was just confused. Given the public nature of my job, of course, I began to wonder if this was someone I somehow knew peripherally. The insult itself was quite generic, but an insult possibly coming from someone you’re connected to in person, of course, carries more of a sense of threat than some rando in Nebraska or Texas.

Long story short: I did some sleuthing and found, in about thirty minutes, that this man had commented on a political thread  I had long forgotten, and had said some objectively cruel and stupid things by any standard. This didn’t explain why I got insulted – I had not commented on this thread at all. 

Turns out, someone else had poked fun at him for being such a dillweed, and I was one of five people to give a digital “thumbs up” to that comment. And for that, this man had, I assume, gone to the trouble of finding each profile of not only the commenters who had made fun of him, but the people who had publicly approved of those comments, and had gone to the trouble of personally insulting each of us. He insulted us all, of course, for the offense of laughing at him for the things he chose to say publicly. By the time I discovered this, I felt a deep sense of pity for him — well, and some lingering amusement at his expense. Jesus and I had a talk about it and I’m not sure we agree, but we’re working on it. 

We said goodbye to John McCain this week, and while most of us disagreed strongly with at least some of his actions over his long and storied career, McCain also tended to hold up, at various points in his career, the banner of decency and collegiality that has long been draining out of politics at every level.

You see, increasingly, we have a harder and harder time seeing one another as human. An increasing number of people is saying that those on the “other side” of the political spectrum are a greater threat to the United States than an organization like ISIS. I don’t think it’s alarmist to say that, if this continues we will as a nation either have to figure out a painful separation or we will destroy each other one way or another.

Your social media feeds, if you have them, may and probably are tailored to your desires. Your social circles are too. Those you choose to talk politics with probably do believe similarly. I know that these things are true of me, so feel free to admit it to yourself if they are true of you too. I try, of course, to broaden what I read, but often I only have so much extra time for consuming information not directly related to my life. If you’re one of those folks who goes out of your way to engage opinions different from your own, that’s great — but you are in the minority.

Then there are our own biases. As Ben Yagoda of The Atlantic put it in a great article on political bias this month, biases are “the collection of faulty ways of thinking that is apparently hardwired into the human brain.” (1) In other words, it goes far beyond politics, but it affects politics: we are incredibly unlikely to actively engage with information that contradicts what we already believe. In short, we have so access to so much information that we can choose our own facts like choosing milk at the supermarket, with few consequences.

Before civilization, this kind of thing would get you killed by a saber tooth tiger. Now, we have the luxury of believing what we want and claiming our “right to an opinion.” 

But before we get wistful about the days when those who refused to acknowledge reality got eaten by actual tigers, maybe we should listen to Jesus and admit a few things. 

The first  and key one is that we are all, in some sense, already in realities that we have constructed. This is as simple as the theological concept that none of us knows everything; in short, sweet, orthodox Christian terms, none of us is Jesus. It’s a call to humility. 

The Pharisees in the Gospel lesson thought they had a real corner on truth. They call the disciples out for breaking the law — facts, as they saw it. Jesus responds, quick like the Son of God: “It’s not what goes into a person that makes you unclean, it’s what comes out.” 

It’s important to point out that this was not a poop joke. 

He says there’s nothing that you take in that can make you unclean, but what comes out, because what comes out: things like deceit, envy, slander, theft, murder, sex abuse, and violence of all kinds. This is clearly not about food. 

I think it’s no real accident that this text usually appears around the time that everyone goes back to class to take in new ideas. To that end, I once heard a preacher say,  “So if it is not what we take in, but what we produce, that makes us unclean — I wonder if that doesn’t also apply to ideas.” Read everything. Test everything and keep what is true and reject what is false, but know — there is no need to be afraid of ideas. An idea will not defile you, and the person who brought the idea to you is still a human being created and loved by God.

That’s the second thing: we cannot treat ideas and people the same way.

I say that we all live in filter bubbles, but the honest truth is that, largely thanks to my involvement with the church, that’s only true digitally. The church has introduced me to all kinds of people, and we have all kinds of people here. As I observe the social circles of my nonreligious friends, I’ve noticed that this doesn’t appear to be as true for many of them. They may be friends with a diverse group of people racially and religiously, but their friend groups tend to be pretty static economically and politically. Over the years, the less I’ve been connected to church, the truer this has been of me, too. 

I’ve touted this about us a bunch of times because sometimes I don’t think you all fully appreciate it: this is not common, especially among churches. So rarely do Republicans and Democrats really interact, hold each other’s children, laugh and have a beer together, that we call each other a greater threat to the nation than ISIS. However, after leaving this place, I cannot in good conscience do that. I know too many names and stories. 

That’s not to say that this is easy. If it were easy, everyone would do it and go home feeling warm and fuzzy about it. It pushes against everything that we are to look someone with whom we vehemently disagree in the eyes and say, “If God loves me, God must love them too.” The end. 

If you’ve been going here for very long at all, you’ve already interacted with people with whom you probably disagree about a lot of things. You’ve seen their humanity. God has brought you to the table together.

Now, in the words of the Deuteronomy reading, “Do not forget what your eyes have seen.” Not the next time you watch the news, not the next time you get on Facebook. 

Ideas that are false and harmful must be rejected. The people who hold those ideas, however, are still God’s own children. This is the offensiveness of the Gospel: the Gospel is for you, for me, and for everyone we can’t stand.

Because either the Gospel is for everyone born, or the Gospel is just like every other offer: exclusive, temporary, and here for whoever earns it. 

Because the heart of the Gospel is that God doesn’t love us because we’re right about things. God loves us because God is love, and there’s nothing that we can do about it. We don’t earn it; we only have to figure out how to live in response to it.

In the words of James, “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger…” James talks about hearing the Gospel as looking in a mirror. In your fellow human, you must see yourself. Don’t walk away and forget what you look like. 

I came across a very short poem a few weeks ago that’s been attributed to St. Francis.

This is where I end.

Such love does
the sky now pour
that whenever I stand in a field
I have to wring out the light
when I get
home.

May you see yourself reflected in every person here, and may that change how you see all those outside of this place. I pray that such love and grace we pour and receive at this table, in wine and bread and God’s own self, that you may be convinced of your own belovedness and the belovedness of everyone here. 

I hope you have to wring out the light when you get home. Amen.

1. Ben Yagoda’s whole Atlantic piece on cognitive bias is here.