Cynicism or Shameless Expectation?

Pastor Ingrid’s sermon from July 24, 2016. Listen along here.

The gospel according to Luke, the eleventh chapter:

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2 He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” 5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. 9 “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.


I am going to go out on a limb this morning and say that I think one of the threats to love and community these days is cynicism. Please don’t hear me incorrectly. I’m not talking about your harmless uncle Albert, who consistently plays the part of “cynic” at the family’s summer reunion. I’m talking about something much bigger. I’m talking about what I observe in the media, overhear in my conversations with family and friends, and witness on Facebook and in the Twittersphere. When I talk about the cynicism that threatens us, I’m talking about the pervasive and overwhelming sense that the world is somehow rigged and there is nothing we can do to change that.

I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that some days I, too, get swept up in cynicism’s powerful tide. The past few weeks, it seems like every which way I turned, there was something that made me suspicious and that caused me to distrust the motives of others. Philando Castille. Dallas. Nice. Kabul. The convention. By the end of the day, the tide often had me feeling defensive and despondent. Wise essayist Rebecca Solnit writes that “[cynicism has the ability to] bleed the sense of possibility and…the sense of responsibility [right] out of [us].”[i]

Jesus never names it as cynicism, but in this text from Luke, we see that the disciples’ sense of possibility and sense of responsibility are in peril. The First Century questions that stand behind the text have remarkable resonance in a twenty-first century world: “Jesus, if we ask, will God really give?” “Lord, if we knock, will doors really be opened to us?” “Teacher, if we seek, will we really ever find something?” Keep in mind, these devotees have been out door-knocking from village to village. They’ve been listening attentively to their neighbors. They’ve been spending all of their free time working to change the political and religious systems that trampled the lives of many for the sake of the few. It brings me comfort that, back at headquarters, the text indicates that the disciples wonder like we wonder: Does all of this really matter? Will the arc really bend toward justice? Why should we keep going in a heartbroken world?

To be certain, these are questions about the disciples’ sense of possibility and responsibility in the world. They are also questions about the nature of God. Peter, James, John, and all the rest want to know if God is still with them in the muck, in the mess, in their daily hardships, and in their little victories. The disciples want the Son of God’s assurance that God hadn’t abandoned them to their own, oft fickle, devices.

Jesus answers them clearly, which—lest we let it pass without notice—is its own kind of a gospel miracle. He says: “Ask, and it will be given to you; search and you will find; knock, and the door shall be opened for you.” One theologian says that “the temptation is to interpret Jesus’ parable as indication that God needs cajoling, or at least that the hallmark of Christian prayer is persistence. The Greek word, however, is better translated “shamelessness” than “persistence,” and implies a boldness that comes from familiarity…Jesus [suggests] that we too should boldly offer our petitions to God, shamelessly calling on God to keep God’s promises.”[ii]

And here is where I go out on a limb for the second time this morning when I say: Shameless expectation is incompatible with cynicism.

This truth became clearer to me two weeks ago, when I had the Sunday off. I had just come back from vacation and was gearing up for a week of continuing education. The city, country, and world felt tumultuous. My husband Paul and I decided to go to church at Fellowship Missionary Baptist in North Minneapolis, where, Marcia, a friend of ours is a minister. The sanctuary was packed in the wake of Philando Castille’s roadside homicide, and all those who greeted us as we entered indicated it had been a particularly hard week for their faith community. I admit that I expected to find a cynical congregation—filled with suspicion and distrust. But those expectations were turned upside-down the moment worship began, when an elder stood up at the microphone and simply said: “Even in our deepest sorrow, we sing our hallelujahs.”

It was the least cynical word I’ve heard for a long time. It was a word spoken by a faith community deeply familiar with hardship and sorrow. It was a word spoken by a community even more deeply familiar with the goodness of God’s promises. For the next three hours, I sat with a community that chose to trade cynicism for the shameless expectation of God’s promises of love, fidelity, mercy, and justice. As I worshiped alongside that community, I experienced what Denver Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber called a divine heart transplant—that is, God reaching in and replacing my heart of stone with a heart of flesh—something that was actually warm and beating again.[iii]

Luke offers the same warm-hearted gift to us today when we hear Jesus say: “Should you think for a moment that God has abandoned and forsaken the world for its negligence or maliciousness, its forgetfulness or foolishness, think again. These options aren’t even on the table. God promises to love the world, and God’s promises are to be trusted.” And because we tend to forget this divine promise, Jesus gives us a prayer as a kind of reminder string permanently tied around our fingers:

Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.

With warm and beating hearts, we’re sent back out on the road to do what we know how to do (or at least sometimes know how to do). Drive out demons, tell stories that reshape the world, speak truth to power, and welcome the children. In his book, No Future Without Forgiveness, Desmond Tutu says that discipleship is the acknowledgement that “what each of us does can retard or promote, can hinder or advance, the process at the heart of the universe. Christians would say the outcome is not in question. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ puts the issue beyond doubt: ultimately goodness and laughter and peace and compassion and gentleness and forgiveness and reconciliation will have the last word and prevail over their ghastly counterparts.”[iv]

People of God, this is our shameless expectation. And that’s why, even in our deepest sorrows, we choose to sing hallelujah.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


[i] Rebecca Solnit’s article entitled “The Habits of Highly Cynical People” in the May 2016 issue of Harper’s magazine. Read more here.

[ii] This comes from David Lose’s commentary on Luke 11. Read more here.

[iii] I’m sure she’s said it many times, but here’s where I was first introduced to Bolz-Weber’s concept of divine heart transplants.

[iv] Tutu, Desmond. No Future Without Forgiveness, 86-87.

 

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With Eyes that Speak Life. Jay’s sermon from July 10

Luke 10:25-29

A scholar of the religious law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

 

Pastor Danny Givens, who knew Philando Castile well, said that his friend’s “eyes spoke life to you.” He said, “He saw you, and he saw you, and you felt seen by him. He acknowledged you, and you felt like you mattered and you meant something to him.”

Others have commented on how well Philando knew and cared about the kids at J. J. Hill school where he worked. He called them by name. He saw them. He noticed when they were having a bad day and could use an extra Graham cracker thrown in their lunch bag. He conveyed to them that they mattered, that they meant something.

Alton Sterling also knew and was known by his family and close friends in Baton Rouge. The same is true of five police officers who lived and served their neighbors in Dallas. And it is the loss of those precious lives and the loving relationships they had that has caused so much grief and pain this week. Lives have been cut short, and it is senseless. And what’s worse is we know, sadly, that it won’t be the last time that we are witness to such horrific violence.

Here in our worship this morning, it is a time for us to grieve and give voice to our lament, “How long, O God?” How long will such violence persist? We grieve because when one suffers we all suffer. All of our lives have been changed this week. And we also grieve because we are growing in our awareness that there is at the root of so much violence a systemic racism that pervades our nation. Now, people of color in the room today and in communities everywhere did not need their eyes opened to the threat of violence against them by police officers, but many of us who are white did. The experience I hear again and again from people of color in their interactions with police is not my personal experience solely because of my race. I do not suffer the effects of racism on a daily basis in that way, though it is all around me—not just other places in the country but here in my community, too. We’ve been shown that very clearly now. Many of us, though, have too often been blind to the experience of our neighbors. Worse, we have sometimes willfully turned away from it, and it’s long past time to confess our complicity.

I expect that like me a lot of you watched the video recorded by Philando Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds. At first, I wrestled with the question of whether or not to watch it. Was it respectful to watch that man’s suffering? Was I helping anything by watching it? Finally, I decided I had to watch it because I could not turn away from the truths of the world that it represents, the very real threat of police violence against people of color. While in my privilege I could choose not to watch and then go about my life as usual, to do so would be to continue to live a lie. It would be to pretend that I live in a different world than my black and brown neighbors. No, if we’re going to be what God created us to be, we need to really see one another.

It seems to me that it’s precisely that kind of seeing that this Gospel parable is all about. A man lay in the ditch, left half dead by robbers. A priest saw him, but just well enough to decide to step across to the other side of the road and pass along the way. Same for a Levite, another upright, religious person. A Samaritan came near that man, and he did more than just notice him. He really saw him for his unique experience of suffering. He saw him, and he saw him. He saw him in a way that transformed his very heart and moved him to compassion. He saw him, I imagine, with eyes that spoke life. Unlike the scholar who prompted the parable in the first place, he wasn’t concerned about what was required of him in that moment; he was concerned for what he saw, for the human being before him in a time of need. It wasn’t the law that moved him to act; it was having his eyes opened.

Seeing and being moved to action is a theme in the Gospel. Jesus saw a woman grieving the death of her son and had compassion for her. He looked at a boy suffering from a demon. He got down on his knee and saw a woman who was unable to stand up straight. In each case he saw and was moved to take action for the sake of healing. And when he was in the home of Simon the Pharisee, he said to him, “Do you see this woman who is washing my feet? Do you see what she has been living with?”

It’s clear to me that this kind of seeing reveals something very central about who Christ is for us. Christ will always notice—really see—the suffering we experience, no matter what it is that we are going through. And as his followers, he calls us to see one another, too, as beloved children of God.

Of course seeing in itself is not enough; there needs to be action, too, that is both compassionate and sustained. But seeing is a necessary step, and it isn’t always very easy. Doing do means dismantling the bias, suspicion, and fear through which we often look at others. It means understanding ourselves enough to know what gets in our way.

There are opportunities for us as a congregation to do this work together for the sake of racial justice. Tonight there will be a service of Prayer, Repentance, and Recommitment at 5:30 at St. Paul-Reformation Church in St. Paul, which will be a good place to start. Many of you have participated in racial justice discussion groups here at Holy Trinity, and those will continue in the coming year. We are planning to host a large weekend conference in October called, “Journeying toward Justice: Privilege and Race in Our Church.” Our symposium in November will help open our eyes to issues of race and difference, too. And also, we’ll keep learning from the Black Lives Matter movement, which is a movement that is helping us to see the effects of systemic racism in our country, especially in policing and the criminal justice system. It’s a movement that itself came under attack in Dallas Thursday night during what had been a peaceful protest because it is a movement committed to bringing pain and anger into the open and dealing with it nonviolently. Just think of the grief that could be avoided if we could all acknowledge and discuss our heavy feelings in that way. I have learned a lot from leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement, and I have a lot more to learn.

It’s when our eyes are opened enough to see that the suffering of our neighbors—beloved children of God whoever they might be—is our suffering, too, then change will start to come. Healing will start to come. New life will emerge for all of us. This is the promise of our God of resurrection. It is the promise of our God who sees us and loves us with unimaginable compassion and will never leave us. We may be tired. We may at times start to lose hope. But the promise is certain: God’s steadfast love endures forever.