Our Response to Violence – Mark Miller (11/8/15)

Our Response to Violence

Matthew 5:43-45

Cain & Abel are the first children born from Adam & Eve. Cain, the oldest, grows up to work the fields and till the ground - Abel is the keeper of the livestock- the sheep.

 

Anyone who grows up with siblings knows there can often be tension in that relationship.  We bicker, we argue, we can be competitive, we fight.

I remember the very first and last time I boxed. I was about 10 years old at my Grandparents house and my cousins were egging me on to fight with one of my older siblings. Well, I did…and after one punch she beat me! My sister gave me a bloody lip. Our Grammy came running in the room to see the commotion and I was the one she yelled at.  As you see, I don’t harbor any bad feelings almost 40 years later…

 

In the case of the siblings in Genesis, Cain feels slighted, marginalized, no access to the privilege Abel receives because God thinks higher of his sacrifice. Now that’s a pretty big dis…you might have your company pass you up for a promotion or get overlooked for a school award…but this is GOD saying…”you know your brother really did better at this sacrifice thing...I appreciated his lamb sacrifice a lot more than fruits and grain on the altar…Cain feels angry, frustrated, maybe hopeless- He gets mad- he is SO Angry…and in a moment of hot-headed rage, he kills his brother.

 

So, from the earliest chapters in the Bible we have violence and murder as a part of our story. At this point in the book of Genesis, there were only FOUR HUMAN BEINGS on the earth, and still we could not manage to get along without murder being a part of the story.  So since it’s always been there since the beginning should we resign ourselves to a way of life of violence?

 

I got my hair cut yesterday at the same barber I have for about twenty years. I met my barber Lee when he was about 19 cutting hair at Roger’s shop in Plainfield. Now Lee has a shop of his own over on Plainfield’s west side, near the corner of Front St. and Clinton.  As I sat in the barber’s chair we began to talk about life. He said ‘Well, you heard about the terrible news I guess.’ I asked ‘What news?’  He told me about a shooting that occurred on Friday afternoon up the street. A 24 year old man was killed, and a 6yr old girl was shot in the leg and survived.  Lee said ‘we shake our heads and say it’s terrible and then go on about our business almost as if this has become routine.’ It’s a frightening development in our common lives if we have become numb to tragic violence like this. Our calling as a faith based community is to not turn away, not to act like this is routine- we have an obligation to not succumb to fatalism... We do have a choice in how we respond to violence we see in one ourselves and in our society.

 

We need to confront the violence that is harbored in the homes in which we live.

Domestic violence is not an argument or disagreement. [according to the clark county prosecutor’s page] It is a whole pattern of behaviors used by one partner to establish and maintain power and control over the other or the children. The use of coercion, threats, isolation, economic abuse- (which is not allowing any control over finances) or sexual or physical abuse is used.

Domestic violence is an issue that touches us all but remains largely hidden because of fear, shame, and guilt.   Advocating for victims of domestic abuse and calling perpetrators to accountability and get help is a part of our call as a community of faith.  There is a ritual in Christian churches around baptism that asks the question of those getting baptized or sponsoring the baptism- Before the water is applied,   the minister asks us ‘Do you Reject the forces of wickedness and evil?’ I see that crucial question asking us Will we do our part in naming and dismantling the cycles of violence that perpetuate themselves in our homes, on our streets, and in our world?

 

The Black Lives Matter campaign didn’t appear out of thin air – it is born out of the tragic racism of our history - and the more recent deaths of black people. Some of you might have heard the names:

Dontre Hamilton

Eric Garner

John Crawford

Michael Brown

Ezell Ford

Dante Parker

Tanisha Anderson

Akai Gurly

Tamir Rice

Rumain Brisbon

Tony Robinson

Phillip White

Eric Harris

Walter Scott

Freddie Gray.

 

This list of people (this is not exhaustive but the ones I could find) have the following tragic things in common: between April 2014 and April 2015, they were unarmed people of color shot & killed by law enforcement or while in custody of police.  In these cases the police were not only white, but black or other ethnicities.  This is my question:   can we withhold Use of Deadly force in situations where people are unarmed?  One friend said to me “Black Lives Matter because All Lives Matter”.  This is a huge problem that threatens to overwhelm us- what can we do? How can we have an impact?

We need to begin by looking at ourselves- and dismantling the stereotypes and quell the fear  we have at people who might look differently from us , who may appear not to have anything in common with us, and we start to talk with one another.  It is very encouraging to see the dialogues around race hosted by the interfaith community here in Summit.  STAR- Summit Teens against Racism is another powerful example of this very idea, that we can come together across racial lines to understand each other and underscore our shared need for basic human rights and dignity.  I mentioned my barber and friend Lee from plainfield- he talks to young men on the street who don’t really have a home to go to and tells them there is a way out of the dead end path of quitting school and pushing & dealing drugs.  He knows, because as a young man he was out on those streets. Lee has founded a boxing academy where he gives young boys and girls a place to go and realize their self worth- that they are somebody.  But he struggles because he sees so many young people who don’t seem to have hope. Have lost a sense of hope…and some turn to violence

 

I cannot speak about the havoc violence is wreaking on our society without mentioning the disturbing and frightening proliferation of guns in our nation.

According to Gun Violence Archive there were 12,567 deaths from guns in this country in 2014. And almost double that number of people injured- 23,021.

There are 897,000 guns assigned to law enforcement in this country. Does anyone have an idea how many other guns are out there? 1 million, 10 million, 100 million? Somewhere around TWO HUNDRED AND SEVENTY MILLION. 270 million.  This is madness. The man in his 20s that was killed and the 6 yr old who was wounded were shot by a machine gun- an UZI…

It’s difficult for me to think of our country as civilized when we cannot keep semi-assault weapons banned and off the streets. Can faith communities across the nation…can our  community come together to resist the powerful and well-financed  gun lobby and live to see a law in our land (again) that would ban these kind of weapons? We owe it to our children to try.

 

How do we not become cynical and bitter? How do we resist choosing sides and laying blame at the feet of those we disagree with? How do we not decide to just arm ourselves and meet out violence with violence and retribution?

Before we do that let’s revisit the end of the story of Cain and Abel- Cain has killed his brother Abel and Cain is afraid that God will cast him out and he will die. But God does NOT take his life…in fact God protects his life and will not give the punishment of death for death.

 

‘Hatred cannot drive out hate….only love can do that’  those are the words of Martin Luther King- believing that non-violent civil disobedience in the face of intimidation and terrorism was the key to transforming an unjust society. Where did he find the will to resist violence?

 

Where did the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania   find the strength to forgive the attacker, who in 2006 killed five school children and injured 5 others? In fact the community reached out in love and concern to the family of the killer.

 

Where did the congregation of Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal church find the courage and the will to say ‘we forgive you’ to the man who shot dead 9 people at a Bible Study in the Sanctuary?

That power and strength and courage comes from a deep spiritual reservoir.

Earlier you heard in the good news of Matthew when Jesus turned the saying upside down of love your neighbor/hate your enemies and said Love Your Enemies- pray for those who persecute you.  Jesus is asking us, in essence, to Break the cycle of Violence. That is not an easy saying- in fact, in certain tragic horrific circumstances it might be too hard for us to bear as individuals. But I’m convinced we are not called to anything this challenging, this difficult, by ourselves. These are only things we can achieve together as a community of faith…

Together we Cultivate values like Respect- respecting and honoring our wonderful differences, our diversity of age race, gender orientation, abilities, and talents and gifts…Together we discover the truth that each one of us is a child of God, of sacred worth- everyone here, called Beloved. Together we nurture Values of Forgiveness and Reconciliation…that doesn’t mean we don’t fight and bicker, like family, that we don’t argue and disagree… but that we find away to not let anger get the best of us- to resolve conflict without resorting to violence.  Together we immerse ourselves in these values - right here in this church - we rehearse them through our Sunday school and preaching- through study and dialogues, through readings and poetry and  prayer and music- we become a place, with all our human failings that tries to mirror the love that Jesus shows through his teaching, his living, his dying and his resurrection which offers us the truth that Love (love that bears all things, the believes all things, endures all things) is, in the end, more powerful than death.  May you and I be vessels of this life-giving- death defying love.   And together, like vessels, may we be freely poured out to a world this is thirsty for justice, for hope and for peace.

 

For the Love of God, may it be so. Amen

 

 

 

We are called to stand up to use our time, our talents, our gifts (our money)

Person on person violence.  Effects of Racism and poverty a pervading sense of hopelessness leads people down wrong paths

 

 

 

But it is not just guns- we in the church have the responsibility of instilling the values and creating the community that keeps us connected.

 

Somehow we have to not return evil for evil. This is what Jesus is teaching us.

 

 

 

 

 

Something very powerful about a people, a community that answers violence and murder with forgiveness and love. But it not just what we reject that will give us the power to help shape community towards the good. It is the active intervention of people that will

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Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.

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