Friday, February 26, 2016

Wake Up!

 This is the text of a homily I delivered as part of a Lenten series at Hollywood Presbyterian Church on Wednesday, March 2nd, 2016 at 7pm in Wylie Chapel.  

And you can link to the full series, multiple preachers, here: FPCH LISTEN ONLINE.  

Matthew 26:36-46, The Message: Then Jesus went with them to a garden called Gethsemane and told his disciples, “Stay here while I go over there and pray.” Taking along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he plunged into an agonizing sorrow. Then he said, “This sorrow is crushing my life out. Stay here and keep vigil with me.”

Going a little ahead, he fell on his face, praying, “My Father, if there is any way, get me out of this. But please, not what I want. You, what do you want?”

When he came back to his disciples, he found them sound asleep. He said to Peter, “Can’t you stick it out with me a single hour? Stay alert; be in prayer so you don’t wander into temptation without even knowing you’re in danger. There is a part of you that is eager, ready for anything in God. But there’s another part that’s as lazy as an old dog sleeping by the fire.”

He then left them a second time. Again he prayed, “My Father, if there is no other way than this, drinking this cup to the dregs, I’m ready. Do it your way.”

When he came back, he again found them sound asleep. They simply couldn’t keep their eyes open. This time he let them sleep on, and went back a third time to pray, going over the same ground one last time. When he came back the next time, he said, “Are you going to sleep on and make a night of it? My time is up, the Son of Man is about to be handed over to the hands of sinners. Get up! Let’s get going! My betrayer is here.”

A week and a half ago, Pastor Dan Baumgartner opened up about his childhood love for the legendary Batman and Robin of black and white TV.  Full confession, I loved that show too, though I benefitted from syndicated reruns a decade or so later.  The modern network TNT claims that “they know drama,” and if that’s the case, they must have learned it from our original hero, the storytelling Word of God himself.  I mean, check out this cliffhanger:  My betrayer is here!  Spoiler alert: next week’s episode, if we followed this text, would involve some overzealous police brutality, a kiss of death, an actual riot, an ear sliced off and being miraculously put back on, that is if we turned to Luke’s version, or treatment, as we call it in Hollywood.  I can think of few other moments in Scripture where the drama is so heart-poundingly intense, such an intersection of divinity and humanity, with dialogue much like an actual script.  In the universe of Christianity, the Garden of Gethsemane is like a big bang.  This is really good television!
            But: this is real, we hang our faith upon the truth of this drama.  And I think even Reality TV has been touched: Jesus coming down from high and experiencing what it feels like to be human.  CBS’s show Undercover Boss, where a CEO poses as an entry-level employee and gets to know the company from the ground up through serving alongside workers and sharing lunch together in break-rooms, was the most popular new show in any TV genre in 2010, and has remained strong for the past 6 years.  I believe the gospel to be the most important story in history, and our very souls, whether we claim to follow Jesus or not, have been imprinted by God to know that trust is best built through empathy, through walking alongside people in their real lives, both the challenges and the triumphs, and that trust is absolutely necessary for forgiveness or reconciliation to ever be possible.
            So what can we learn from sitting, hopefully not sleeping, in the Garden of Gethsemane tonight? 
            First and foremost, we come alongside Jesus in his agony.  Even though we know what’s to come, this just pounds with suspense.  A long, terrible sleepless night for him.  Not once, but three times, Jesus pleads with God to find another way.  Could there be a brilliantly creative way to fulfill the Scriptures, achieve the reconciliation and forgiveness from sins, but not have to endure the vicious torture and literal hell that was on its way?  Ambar, one of DOOR Hollywood’s current Dwellers and service workers at our Lord’s Lighthouse puts it best in a devotional she authored: “Jesus completely understood because he himself went through a moment of deep suffering in asking for this cup to pass from him. It’s as if Jesus was saying, “Dad, Father, please, is there really no other way to do this?  Come on, please think of something else.  Pleeeeeeeeease!”  Of course, each of those times, Jesus moves into yielding to the will of God.  
But let’s pause here.  There is something that can be lost when we just read through the text, and its one of the particular ways, as Professor David Taylor at Fuller taught us, that art, in this case, acting out a scene, could maybe help.  Remember, this is going on all night, and perhaps there is a longer passage of time than the “period [space] [space]” between Jesus’ pleas and his acceptance of God’s will as we read it.  So, imagine this possibility:
            -“My Father, if there is any way, may this cup be taken from me!”
[Walk away from podium, express agony, heavy sighs, pull at hair and face, sit on floor, then, with resignation and peace: ]
            -“But no, please, not what I want.  Your Will be done.” [return]

            Something else is going on here, too, and that is Jesus wrestling with feeling humanly alone because his disciples, his friends, couldn’t remain awake with him.  He was looking to them in a similar way that, I imagine, a person sentenced on Death Row looks to a pastor on that long last night.   But they keep falling asleep.

            I think, then, that the two questions we should ask ourselves tonight are: what cup might God be asking me to faithfully drink from, despite how uncomfortable and frightening it might be?  And, how are we prone to falling asleep in the midst of what Jesus is doing right around us?

            Many of you know me as the outgoing director of DOOR Hollywood, part of a faith-based network of cities that provides opportunities for service, learning, and leadership development within the urban context.  We host and shepherd individual volunteers and mission trip groups for a weekend to a year.  Part of this work has involved traveling to ecumenical gatherings around the country for networking and promoting our mission.  Just one year ago, almost to the date, I sat down with Robin McCants in a coffee shop in Detroit’s Mexicantown.  Robin is an assistant to a Bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church.  She is working on bridging some of the racial divides amidst neighborhoods and church communities that still exist along 8-mile road, the border of Detroit and Southfield, the suburb in which I grew up.  Now, one good thing about a foot of snow while you cozy up in a coffee shop is that you settle into some good, long, warm conversation.  I shared with Robin the Table Setting curriculum that Marvin Wadlow Jr. and I were developing at that time, of building respectful “color-brave” instead of “color-blind” dialogues amidst Evangelicals and secular college students as a stepping-stone towards racial reconciliation.   I shared how we believe that service and mission falls flat if you just do the work without reflecting on the systemic issues surrounding the needs.  We ask our participants: why are the majority of people on Skid Row African-American?  Is there a link between the cradle to school to prison pipeline that leads to homelessness, life sentences, early death, and the ongoing lack of equity in this country?  And why should the Church care?  Robin asked me how I had come to care, and I shared testimonies of myself being cared for by Black, Latino, and Asian folks living in lower income areas.  In more ways than one these past 20 years, people of color have saved my life.
            And then Robin interrupted me and asked, “so, why am I not reading your book, why are you not writing more of this down?” 
            I smiled, and said that DOOR and raising two daughters with Darcie keeps me pretty busy.  Which is true, but not the whole truth.  I was scared.  It’s not really about a book, per se, but if I actually care about working on justice for the people who have given so much of their best to me, it demands that I speak boldly and often to people in power, to speak fearlessly to brothers and sisters who look like me but do not want to be asked to make any changes whatsoever.  DOOR has taught me to lead discussions and ask good questions, but surely God, you can’t be asking me to step out into the unknown and start criticizing our Anglo-fears of diversity, especially from within the Church?  So I hid Robin’s question deep in my heart.   Sometimes, over the past year, it would choke me awake in the middle of the night.  Often, my waking even woke up Darcie.

            All last summer, Marvin and I, along with our Discerners, local Latino, African-American, Anglo and biracial teens who we hire to help lead discussions with our short-term visiting mission teams, what we call a Discover group, worked to ask these tough questions, some of which we borrowed from Dwight Radcliffe, (left) Pastor Joel’s friend who just spoke at the Men’s Breakfast on Saturday.  Why does God ask us to serve?  Why is Jesus’ reply to “who is my neighbor” a scandalous story of the “dirty” Samaritan who risks his life to save the life of a Jew?  Why should modern Christians talk about racial injustice and diversity matters in the midst of volunteering and mission work? 
On our closing night one particular week, a very hot scene erupted between the visiting group leaders and me.  To set the visual imagery: there were ten Discerners, our board member and regular speaker Toni White, Marvin, myself, and ten high school students from the east coast with their three adult leaders, all of European/Anglo descent, crammed into a living room meant for a family of four.
            I was discussing a linkage between Paul’s description of diverse table setting in Romans 14 and the parable of the Samaritan.
            The male group leader, from the other side of the galaxy, loudly mutters through gritted teeth, “Matthew, you have five minutes and then we are done.”
            “Yes, you have said the word ‘race’ more than you’ve said the word ‘Jesus.’”
            “But I’m literally reading a parable of Jesus to bring it into modern cont-’”
            “We have never felt so accused in our entire lives!” the group leader’s wife shouts.
            “Accused of what?”
            “Of being called racists!”  My fears had completely been made manifest.
But immediately is also a moment of miracle.  Here is the beloved and diverse community of God in full-fledged glory.  Here is where I received support in my time of need, where our team was very much not asleep.
            Kevyn, a Discerner about 20 years old, voice tentative but still strong, eases in and says, “excuse me, Matthew and Marvin have never called anyone racist, and neither have any of us.  But let me share something with you.  I’m sorry you feel accused, but as a young Latino male, I feel accused of being a thief every single time I go to buy anything at the 7-Eleven at the end of my street.  I am watched and suspected and it hurts everytime.  So, I guess what I’m saying is, welcome.  Welcome to my world.”
            Time stopped, people inhaled sharply, and then, like the rush of cool ocean air through Malibu Canyon, the Spirit came to life in a big collective exhale and drove out my fear.  The evening was in fact, not done.  Our Discerners took the teenage Discover guests outside on the patio and just talked and laughed and played their favorite YouTube videos together.  Toni, a naturally gifted mediator, worked on a discussion between all of us adult leaders.  Confessions were made, fears were spoken, tears were shed, and the evening ended in a prayer circle, everyone rejoined.  A glimpse of God’s ultimate reconciliation, and even though all was not fully well, it was hopeful.
And yet, even still, for a few months I wanted You, God, to take this cup from me.  I still just wanted personal peace: Jesus, go do your God thing, let me get some sleep.  The girls are gonna be awake soon.

But increasingly, the stories gathered around me like a warm blanket, stories of how God has formed me.  Me: a young white man mentored and taught, fired and teased and hired by people of color.  Me: the guy who lost his vegetarianism in New Orleans because black families invited me over and made me a special pot of gumbo with “no meat” (which, in the South, can still mean there’s chicken, shrimp, fish, crawfish).  This guy: who watched another student giggle when he mispronounced Phở at the Vietnamese restaurant owned by her parents.  And also the stories that boil my blood, like growing up when I heard neighbors say they'd move if a black family crossed the boundary of 8 mile into our suburb.  And they did.  And I heard family friends saying: awwww, black boys are so cute as babies, but then….sensing even as a teenager that the way the white speaker never had to finish her sentence; the way my white imagination was supposed to fill in the unspoken space with something monstrous; I think this attitude has done more damage and killed more young black and brown men than any cop baton or bullet ever will.  God formed me through Levi’s guidance, the man with no possibility for parole, the man who loved Jesus more than anyone I’d ever met.  Levi asked 19 year old me to make sure his story, and those of his brothers behind bars, got told more truthfully.  And ever since that day, I have felt like I imagine Onesimus may have felt towards Paul: I am Levi’s servant, he is my first true brother in Christ.  Rest in Peace, dear man, I pray that your soul is cuttin’ up a rug and laughing that big, deep belly laugh with Jesus right now.
Okay God.  Okay.  When I got Pastor Dan’s email that this was to be the text I would reflect on, it woke me up.  I finally started writing, directly writing, the stories I’ve been carrying and how many people who look like me are just not getting a well-rounded story of our modern day Samaritans, especially if their only context is the news.  I believe this to be my cup: to walk the fine line of racial reconciliation by celebrating the many lessons I’ve learned over dinners and prayer-vigils with people who don’t have the inherent privileges that come with being white.  It also means I must be very careful, to not speak FOR people of color, but to trust that when my friends have told me they are tired of being accused of playing the “race-card” when they have shared real-life pain to people who look like me, that I have been formed to use my voice to carve space and build patient bridges, especially in Christian circles.   Right now, this writing is in a blog form, and it is not against white people, but it does take aim at the idea that white Christians shouldn’t talk about race because it is somehow rude or irrelevant or someone else’s problem.

Because the way I am really coming to see it, this is Christ’s mission.   Of course, he came to overcome sin, both Systemic Sin as well as each of our personal sins.  Racism, in both its overt and subtle forms, certainly fits into both of those sin categories.  After reminding us to Love God with all we have, Jesus said we must love our neighbors.  And our neighbors, by his definition, are not just the people we group ourselves around, but the ones down the way, on the other side of town.  God loves diversity, calls it good in the creation of the world. And therefore, human diversity, not tokenism but authentic diversity developed with love and patience and spending time together, must matter deeply.  Not just as a politically correct, pie-in-the-sky, liberal, bleeding heart thing.  But as a Biblically correct, New Jerusalem-minded, God-honoring, blood of Christ thing.  
            So will I be the betrayer at the end of our episode?  Or will I be like the sleepy ones who are either too exhausted or too afraid to actually be what Jesus is asking me to be?  Meanwhile, the story that starts in a garden, has a pivotal moment in this garden of Gethsemane we are in tonight, will lead to another garden in the center of the City in Revelation 21.  This is the City where all peoples will walk in together, bringing the glory and honor of each nation into God’s reconciled and re-created City, the ultimate and perfectly diverse Beloved Community.
            My sisters and brothers, how is Jesus asking you to awaken this Lenten season?  What cup is God asking you to drink from?  Confronting racial injustice may not be your call, but to be dismissive of its importance is to fail to fully appreciate the way God has created humans, and to lament how we humans have broken ourselves over differences.  In this divine diversity, God may be forming you to tend to another vital role within Kingdom work, and maybe you’re like me, maybe you’ve been wishing God would find someone else to do it.   But if it wakes you up at night, keeps you up some nights, I urge you to pay attention.  I urge you to pray.  And the very good news is this: even when we don’t think we can, especially when we don’t think we can, God stays awake for us.  The Spirit of God is with us through every night, through every battle, and deeply wants to celebrate with us.  I’m starting to dream of an infinite block party with enchiladas and collard greens and kimchi and gumbo and apple pie and phở while bands play music that miraculously harmonizes Hip-Hop with Mariachi with Gamelan with Rock and Roll with the Anthems of every Angel.  Can you hear it, can you taste it, can you feel the rhythm of all of us there, you, me, Jesus?  There, worshiping God in the City that will never have to sleep.

May it be so, and may we see glimpses of it even now.  - @matthewjschmitt

The song Wake Up, by John Legend, Melanie Fiona, The Roots, and Common was playing on the day I received the text.  It just seemed divine.  Watch the video above.

And, Tori Amos' song America, about "the other America," is so fitting here too.  Will we wake from our rest? This is not official, but a fan put this together with lyrics and Diane Arbus photos, it's pretty well done:

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