WWJD?

Yesterday, I went in search of this meme that I remembered seeing on Facebook some months ago.

WWJD Temple MemeJohn’s account of Jesus “cleansing” the Temple” is the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday. Not only is this spin on WWJD? hilarious, it prompts us to reconsider the tame, saccharine image of Jesus so often portrayed in popular culture. This Jesus challenges systems in direct, uncomfortable ways.  Funny captions that spark serious questions are how social media memes function at their best.

My Google image search also revealed this meme, which I had never seen before.

no_dinner_for_obama_croppedI clicked on it to make sure I was reading the thumbnail correctly. Sadly, I was.

This meme appears to have circulated on social media in 2012 in an attempt to persuade Cardinal Timothy Nolan to uninvite President Obama from the annual Alfred E. Smith Dinner, where the President and Mitt Romney were scheduled to speak. Presumably, the meme’s creators disagree with various aspects of the President’s politics and felt the Cardinal’s invitation amounted to a blessing of his policies (never mind the dinner’s long-standing tradition as a forum for both Presidential candidates in election years).

Whatever the partisan politics of the moment might have been, this meme is as abhorrent as the WWJD meme is provocative. The idea that faithful Christians don’t eat or otherwise associate with those who aren’t also faithful Christians is about as Christian as Obama is Muslim. (Jesus had a slightly different take on the subject). It flows from a mindset that says: if you believe differently from us (or we think you believe differently from us), then you are the enemy. You must be isolated and ultimately defeated.

Such rationale is nothing new. It is the basic syllogism of fundamentalists in every religious, ideological, and political camp. Southern Baptists succumbed to it in the 1980s and -90s. The poles of both the Republican and Democratic Parties are rife with it today. Theofascist groups such as ISIS and the Taliban embody its most extreme forms.

Tragically, it is also a mindset now infecting elements of the US criminal justice system. The Justice Department’s investigative report on the August shooting death of Michael Brown at the hands of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson has confirmed the infection many have long suspected. Like a parasitic worm, a fundamentalist rationale has wrapped itself around the entrails of the Ferguson police department as well as local courts. The report’s findings include:

“Blacks make up 67 percent of the population in Ferguson. But they make up 85 percent of people subject to vehicle stops and 93 percent of those arrested. Blacks are twice as likely to be searched as whites, but less likely to have drugs or weapons. 88 percent of times in which Ferguson police used force it was against blacks and all 14 cases of police dog bites involved blacks.”

“Blacks were 68 percent less likely to have cases dismissed by Ferguson municipal judges and disproportionately likely to be subject to arrest warrants. From October 2012 to October 2014, 96 percent of people arrested in traffic stops solely for an outstanding warrant were black.

“Blacks accounted for 95 percent of jaywalking charges, 94 percent of failure-to-comply charges and 92 percent of all disturbing-the-peace charges.”

The Justice Department also uncovered damning emails from within the Ferguson police department. Again, the mindset is the same as the Alfred Smith Dinner protest meme, but the content too extreme to be circulated in the media.

One [email] says Obama will not be president for long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.” Another says a black woman in New Orleans was admitted to a hospital to end her pregnancy and then got a check two weeks later from ‘Crime Stoppers.’ “

These are the patterns and communications of a system that believes African-Americans are the enemy, and they must be isolated and defeated.

Reading the Ferguson report is nauseating, but we need to recognize the infection for what it is and take this twisted system on – head on.  Awareness of such a fundamentalist mindset is the first step in treating the parasite and reversing its effects. Healing will take time, and require a medicinal cocktail of procedural overhauls, training improvements, and changes of heart. This last piece of the prescription will be the most difficult. Ironically, the Alfred E. Smith protest meme provides a path for affecting such changes of heart – not unlike a spiritual form of penicillin.

We need to break bread with those who are different from us.

To break bread with someone is to invite them into relationship with you. When we eat together, we talk. When we talk, we get to know one another. The space around a table is intimate space, and sharing food is an essential component of hospitality.

Jesus understood that, which is why it’s really not the least bit surprising to find a Table at the center of the Christian faith narrative. He may have overturned some tables in the Temple, but Jesus gathered His disciples around a Table on the night He was betrayed. He offered them bread and wine. In so doing, He offered His very Self. That simple meal constituted a new covenant with each of them – different though they were. Even His betrayer was included. Re-enacting this meal, sharing in the bread and the cup together, is still how Christians of different races, ages, sexes, economic backgrounds, education levels, and theological persuasions find (and demonstrate) unity with each other in Christ.

In Bishopville, SC, another kind of meal is specifically bringing black and white football players together across a deep gulf of historic racial division. Click here to read the article from the Washington Post.

Southern Football and Race Relations in the SouthBishopville is no racial utopia; many of its problems and issues are identical with those in Ferguson and elsewhere.  But Bishopville’s mindset is the antithesis of Ferguson. This small southern town is making strides through consistent effort and intentional practice that is as simple as having boys from different backgrounds who share a common interest in football sit down and share a common table as well.

As we continue to digest the Ferguson report and grapple with its findings and implications, may Bishopville serve as an example – not only that things can be different, but how.

WWJD?

Affirmative Action

This post originated as a sermon intended for Sunday, February 22, 2015 at First Baptist Church of Hyattsville. It wasn’t preached (at least, in full) due to snow.  It is based on Genesis 9.8-17 and Mark 1. 9-15.

Today is my birthday. It’s a special day to be sure, but I must confess that I don’t welcome birthdays as much as I used to, now that I’ve crossed the threshold of 40. My 76-year-old mother assures me that the time will come when I will once again look forward to my birthday – in relief if not exuberance.

One nice thing about birthdays at any age is the well wishes. I find I look forward to the cards more than the presents nowadays (though that is no excuse not to get me a present, mind you). While I’m not terribly excited about turning 41, it is thrilling to see my Facebook page fill up with celebratory posts.

I need those affirmations from time to time. We all need them, and we know we need them. Science has demonstrated that all of us need a certain level of affirmation to thrive as human beings. If we don’t receive it, there are mental and emotional consequences.

Research shows that one of the reasons poorer children lag behind more affluent children in school is that their cognitive development is stunted long before they even reach school by something called “The Word Gap.” Children from more affluent families, on average, will have heard something in the neighborhood of 30 million more words than poorer children by age three. And not only that, children from stable families will have heard some 440,000 more positive comments from their parents than children from dysfunctional families by the same age. This gap has a huge impact on both the cognitive and emotional development of these kids.

And this need for affirmation doesn’t subside once we’re grown. Lovett Weems of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Seminary has written that one of the limitations of the feedback we so often receive on our jobs is that traditional feedback systems tend to accentuate the negative. Few would dispute that feedback is necessary for growth, but evaluation processes often leave us more discouraged than energized to improve. Why? Because we tend to remember the criticism from reviews, while it is praise that truly motivates us to change.

So, affirmation isn’t just about positive feelings, it yields positive results. We need it to become all that we can be.

Why is it, then, that so many of us (especially adults) receive precious little affirmation unless we achieve something exceptional or do something especially kind – or we live to see another year? Why do our systems and impulses tend to gravitate toward critique and criticism?

Perhaps it is because criticism of others, rather than affirmation, comes with the added bonus of helping us feel superior: another basic desire we’ve had at least as far back as Eden. We may be God’s children, but we’re the Serpent’s groupies – emulating his style, attitude, and mannerisms.

We’ve come to think criticism and contention will get us what we really want, and help us to be who we really want to be. And so, just like Adam and Eve (the founders of the Serpent’s fan club), we’re still hiding from God and still pointing fingers at one another. That bite of forbidden fruit may not have made Adam better than God; but if Adam could lay blame at Eve’s feet, well then at least he could say he’s better than her. All these generations later we’re still following Adam’s pattern and his train of thought. Fear-fired critique is still our baseline response to the other.

We should note, however, that God’s baseline response to Adam and Eve is different – and He, too, continues to follow suit. God was angry with them, of course; but the more I read the story of “the Fall” the more I hear undertones of grief in God’s angry voice. He punishes Adam and Eve for their disobedience, which is God’s prerogative as Creator and Lord of all; but while they are cowering behind the bushes, ashamed of their nakedness, He also provides them with their first set of clothes (Genesis 3.21). God puts them out of the Garden, but He does so not so much to deprive them as to protect them: to prevent them from also eating of the Tree of Life and living forever in their fallen state.

God does something else, too. He continues to walk with Adam and Eve and their children east of Eden. He claims their children as His children. With His presence, God affirms humanity as creatures made in His image.

When Cain kills Abel, for example, God places a mark of protection (not shame!) on Cain’s forehead. Even though Cain has committed a heinous act and God is sending Him away, God still affirms him as one of His own. Later, when God wipes most of humanity  off the face the earth in the flood of Genesis 6, He also places the rainbow in the sky for Noah in Genesis 9. Noah himself has done nothing wrong, but he has endured a wild and crazy ride with God. God places the rainbow in the sky for Noah as an affirmation of the promise God makes to never again destroy the earth with water. The next time it rains, Noah won’t have to wonder, “Oh no! – could this be…?”

God takes affirmations seriously because He takes His children seriously. And so for generations and generations after the flood, God continues to be present. God continues to affirm His people as His people; He continues to affirm the promises and covenants He has made with them; He continues to offer forgiveness for their transgressions; He continues to speak to them and engage them through prophets and poets – and He has continued all this even though God’s people repeatedly have responded to His words and affirmations with hardened hearts, grumbling lips, and serpentine strategies.

Whatever else stunts (or has stunted) our spiritual growth, we cannot claim that our relationship with God suffers from a Word Gap. There’s a big difference between parents not speaking and children not listening when they do.

The truth is we’re still charmed by the Serpent’s rhymes and rhythms, even though they’re rather dated at this point. Most days, we’d still rather listen to them than listen to (or for) God’s still, small voice. The Serpent is a master at telling us what we want to hear.

The Serpent’s lingering appeal is one reason why Jesus came to show us a better way, to demonstrate what is possible when we who are both flesh and spirit, dust and light, walk in solidarity with God. When we pay attention to what God is saying, when we set our priorities by God’s priorities – that’s how we discover the healing, the belonging, the LIFE we have been seeking for eons. And this process of discovery begins with affirmation.

God the Father and God the Son model this process for us in Mark 1. At the outset of Christ’s earthly ministry, the Father affirms Jesus’ identity as His Son before Jesus has done anything remarkable: before He has healed a single person, cast out a single demon, or uttered a single proverb. All Jesus has done at this point in the narrative is show up and offer Himself. Yet, God sees Him and says, “You are my Son, the Beloved. In You, I am well pleased.”

Jesus took these words of love and affirmation with Him into the wilderness. We have no way of knowing for sure, but I believe these words helped sustain Him during those forty days in the desert, as Satan tempted this new Adam with the same opportune, enticing, and eloquent guile he used to lead the original Adam astray. And I believe that because Christ was flesh and blood as I am flesh and blood – and words of affirmation certainly sustain me.

As disciples and would be disciples, we need to take this example set by God the Father and God the Son seriously. If affirmation is a defining feature of the Trinity’s mission, affirmation should be a prominent feature of our shared pilgrimage as the people of Jesus. We need to dedicate ourselves to the work of building each other up (to use Paul’s words), and repent of tearing each other down.

That doesn’t mean we let just anything slide, or allow others to use us as doormats or dust mops. We’re called to be disciples, not peons. But discipleship entails picking up our crosses and following Jesus, emulating His example and obeying His commandments. Jesus warns us not to judge one another for much the same reason God expelled our ancestors from Eden: as much to protect us as to protect those whom we are all-too-eager to sentence. Firstly, judgment is God’s prerogative, not ours. Secondly, it’s hard to shoulder our crosses while banging our gavels. Thirdly, the standards we use when we critique, criticize, and otherwise pass judgment are typically our own, not the Lord’s. When we use our standards, we don’t judge to help others stand taller; we do it to help ourselves look taller while standing next to them.

The Apostle Paul, likewise, denounces laying blame because finger pointing fractures the unity of the Body of Christ and undermines our faith witness.

“These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. 8 But now you must get rid of all such things— anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10 and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.

12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”  – Colossians 3

Our fallen world is brutal enough as it is. If we want to be beaten down, there is no shortage of opportunities available. Church should defy the fractured and fracturing realities of our age, not conform to them. That’s why we refer to our worship spaces as sanctuaries. They are (or should be) oases of peace, love, and renewal in the midst of life’s often-arid and turbulent climate.

Just as we need affirmation to grow and become healthy human beings, we need support and companionship to sustain us and nourish us on our faith journeys, too. When we follow Jesus, we necessarily embark on a wilderness experience – and not just during Lent. As new creations in Christ, we follow Jesus into a wonderful but strange new world, where the logic of our former lives no longer applies: a world where the last shall be first; where leaders must become servants; where we bless those who persecute us; where we offer our left cheek to those who strike us on the right. It’s the same path the first disciples walked, and the journey can be as bewildering as it is beautiful – especially because Jesus is the one who is turning everything upside down and inside out for us.

So, let’s not wait until our birthdays to affirm one another and wish each other well. Let’s walk with one another, building each other up, and leave the judging up to God. The Father and the Son have set an example of affirmation for us that we need, and the world needs from us. When we focus on seeing each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, as men and women made in the image of God; when we see the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, strange, and imprisoned inhabitants of the world as Jesus Himself, it’s difficult for the siren song of the Serpent to sway us, and the strife Paul decries to gain traction. Affirmation is what sustains us in the face of trials and motivates us to aim higher and go deeper in our faith. And affirmation is also one of the simplest, most direct ways we can help bridge and back-fill the gaps that divide our world and its people.

May we allow Christ to clothe us with love, not to cover our shame, but to bind us together in perfect harmony. Amen.

  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 853 other followers

  • RSS Weekly Scripture from the Revised Common Lectionary

  • Editor’s Choice

  • Recent Posts

  • Previous Posts

  • Categories

  • Art Matters

    Marc Chagall, The White Crucifixion, 1938

  • Follow Me on Twitter @RevBTT

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 853 other followers