Hope in Common

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2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27

Mark 5:25-34

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If religion is to contribute to a global renewal of hope, it will have to transcend its own descent into tribalism and realize its vocation to incarnate truth and justice for all.

To realize that we live in a society in a world desperately in need of hope, we need turn no further than the front page of the newspaper, or better yet, to flip on our local NPR affiliate. There we may learn of children separated from their parents and thrown in cages. We may learn that it is constitutional to blatantly discriminate on the basis of religion as long as we can come up with a second, more legitimate reason for doing so. We may learn that principles applied to legislative confirmation of appointments when the opposing party leads the executive branch need not apply when the party of the legislative majority holds the White House. We may learn that the dignity and integrity of those entrusted with holding each and all of us to our highest ideals in the public forum are derided for doing just that, and their lives and safety threatened, by those they in fact call to account. All of this callousness and hypocrisy and evil has been carried out by our government in our names just this week.

“Surely there has never been a generation in the course of human history with so little ground under its feet as our own… The great masquerade of evil has wrought havoc with all our ethical preconceptions. This appearance of evil in the guise of light, beneficence and historical necessity is utterly bewildering to anyone nurtured in our traditional ethical systems.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: MacMillan, 1959). No, this is not an original commentary on the present situation, though you could be forgiven for assuming it so. It is Dietrich Bonhoeffer commenting on Germany under the Nazi party while in prison for his activities as part of the resistance movement.

Out of the depths have I cried to you, O Lord;
Lord, hear my voice;
let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.
If you, Lord, were to mark what is done amiss,
O Lord, who could stand? -Psalm 130: 1-2 (NRSV)

Resistance is what we are called to in our time as well. But if our resistance is going to amount to anything it will need to be inspired by, grounded in, and oriented toward a hope for what we aspire to beyond the present tribulation. I for one, and perhaps you as well, would like to think that religion might play a role in envisioning and enacting such hope. At the same time, I for one, and perhaps you as well, have a deep awareness of just how much religion is bound up in, and too often supportive of, the callousness, hypocrisy, and evil we are supposed to be resisting, not only here at home, but around the world. Indeed, if religion is to contribute to a global renewal of hope, we will have to transcend our own descent into tribalism and realize our vocation to incarnate truth and justice for all.

Religion too often succumbs to tribal idolatries. This includes Christianity, often as not at the vanguard of the fall from grace. Paul Tillich reminds us that idolatry is mistaking the finite for the infinite. Tribal idolatries mistake the finitude of our personal identities with the infinity of God’s grace. In the Christian idiom, the bible is mistaken for God, masculinity is mistaken for Christ-likeness, whiteness is mistaken for purity, the nation state is mistaken for the realm of God, and money is mistaken for salvation. When identities are so cosmologized against the backdrop of divinity, they become potent principles for discriminating in-groups from out-groups. Rich, white, male Americans who believe in the bible are in, and everyone else is out.

Well, now, this is strange. Here we are speaking in the Christian idiom, and yet there seems to be a glaring omission from the supposedly Christian tribal idolatry. Hellooo! Jesus! How odd. Jesus appears to have been written out of Christianity.

Of course Jesus has been written out of tribalistic Christianity. Jesus was fundamentally opposed to tribalism, as were the founding figures of most, if not all, religions. Including Jesus would result in an inevitable iconoclasm. Consider our Gospel reading for today, which concludes with Jesus saying, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” -Mark 5: 34 (NRSV). So much for Masculanity. If you need it spelled out for you, my mother preached a fantastic sermon on that passage a few years ago. Then there’s our passage from the first chapter of Second Samuel. I’m just going to set the 26thverse here and let you meditate on it, merely noting that we’ve just concluded a fantastic Pride month in spite of the Supreme Court letting a baker get away with discriminating against LGBTQ folk. David says, “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” -2 Samuel 1: 26 (NRSV).

Please note: today’s scripture readings were prescribed by the Revised Common Lectionary. I did not select them: they were set for today in 1994, and Dean Hill assigned me to preach today.

Jesus does not play the in-group/out-group game, and neither should the religion founded in his name and on his teaching. Neither should the religions whose founders similarly decried tribalism in its many guises, that is, nearly all of them. This is not to say there has necessarily ever been a pristine expression of religion apart from the temptation toward idolatry. All of the tribalistic framings have been written in since the beginning, including in the sacred texts themselves. Our calling, like the calling of all people of faith down through the ages, is to do better: to be more faithful, to exhibit more integrity, to press onward toward perfection.

This does lead us to a troubling conundrum, though:

If religion is not about controlling women’s bodies, minds, and spirits;

If religion is not about judging the character of people by the color of their skin;

If religion is not about claiming God for ourselves over against our neighbor;

If religion is not about gaining and parading extravagant sums of money;

If religion is not about justifying our worst proclivities by beating others over the head with a book;

Then what is left for religion to be about?

Hope. Religion is about hope. “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you” -1 Peter 3: 15 (NRSV). Yet, even here, at the brink of a turn toward redemption, the temptation to tribalism looms. Religion is about hope, but it is not about your hope, and your hope, and your hope, and my hope, and her hope, and his hope. Hope is not individual. Hope is not even collective. Hope is in common. Hope is for all of us, together. As Howard Thurman taught us, “People, all people, belong to one another.”

In what, then, are we to hope? The good news, the gospel, for us today is that religion is not rocket science. The hope of religion is really so simple and so straightforward that it is little wonder it so often gets overlooked and that we become suspicious that it must be some sort of trick. Hope is simply this: all means all. That’s it: all means all, no ifs, ands, or buts.

All means all. Not, “all if you are male.” All. Women and men and trans and intersex and gender-nonconforming. All.

All means all. Not, “all if you are white.” All. Black and brown and white and every shade in between and beyond. All.

All means all. Not, “all if you are a U.S. citizen.” All. Canadian and Mexican and American and Chinese and Indian and Nigerian and Kenyan and Iranian and Russian and Colombian and Irish and Italian and all the rest. All.

All means all. Not, “all if you are rich.” All. Poor and rich and middle class that “As it is written, ‘the one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little’” -2 Corinthians 8: 15. All.

All means all. Not, “all as long as you believe every word that is printed in this book as I understand it.” All. Jews and Muslims and Christians and Hindus and Jains and Sikhs and Bahais and Buddhists and Daoists and Confucians and atheists and agnostics and spiritual but not religious and nones. All.

All means all. God makes all of us and God calls all of us to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly. That includes you, and you, and you, and you, and me, and her, and him. All.

“People, all people, belong to one another, and those who shut themselves away diminish themselves, and those who shut others away from them destroy themselves” (Howard Thurman, paraphrased from The Search for Common Ground). All means all because all is all having been made by the all in all.

Last night, like most nights, before I went to sleep I went into each of my daughters’ bedrooms and watched them sleeping peacefully surrounded by too many stuffed animals to count. This week, however, it is impossible to look at them sleeping soundly and then walk across the hall to my own bed without immediately thinking of the thousands of children ripped from their parents’ arms and made to sleep under foil blankets, wailing themselves to sleep with cries for their mothers. This egregious human rights violation is being carried out in our time, on our watch, by our government, in our names. You see, a corollary of insisting that all means all is that the terror and torment being visited upon these children even as I speak is on all of us, regardless of who we voted for.

On Wednesday we will celebrate Independence Day, the foundational principle of which is liberty and justice for all. As a country we have never fulfilled this principle, always leaving liberty and justice a promissory note for some. Yet, those whose dignity and worth has been violated continue to come in hope of receiving what we have promised. Thus, our failure only compounds their violation. We must do better.

I have two beautiful daughters. Hope too has two beautiful daughters: anger and courage. If you are angered by what is being done in your name, then you must wrap yourself in hope that you may have the courage to resist. A Bonhoeffer moment is fast approaching when we may be called upon to resist in ways we had hoped would never be necessary. We will then have to answer, in real time, the question posed by our Baccalaureate speaker in May, the honorable Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto: what will youdo in a moral crisis?

If this sounds to you like a kind of extremism, good. Like Bonhoeffer, Dr. King gave voice to some of his most profound thinking from prison as he reminds us, “Was not Jesus an extremist in love? – ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice? – ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ? – ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ Was not Martin Luther an extremist? – ‘Here I stand; I can do no other so help me God.’ Was not John Bunyan an extremist? – ‘I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a mockery of my conscience.’ Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist? – ‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’ Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist? – ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?” (Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail).

Perhaps the greatest sign of hope this past week was the Democratic primary victory by just such an extremist in the 14thcongressional district of the state of New York, Boston University alumna Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In an article for America magazine she reminds us just how deeply the pursuit of justice is implicated in the life of faith. She says, “By nature, a society that forgives and rehabilitates its people is a society that forgives and transforms itself. That takes a radical kind of love, a secret of which is given in the Lord’s Prayer: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.And let us not forget the guiding principle of ‘the least among us’ found in Matthew: that we are compelled to care for the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick and, yes—the imprisoned.”

All means all. God makes all of us and God calls all of us to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly. That includes you, and you, and you, and you, and me, and her, and him. All. Amen.

– Brother Lawrence A. Whitney, LC†, University Chaplain for Community Life

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