Sunday, March 18, 2018

Bringing bones to life

March 18, 2018, Edgerton Congregational UCC
Today's texts: Ezekiel37: 1-14 and John 12: 20-24

I suspect for many folks, the most vivid connection they have to the story we heard from the Prophet Ezekiel this morning about the dry bones in the valley is the old spiritual

“Them bones,  them bones, them dry bones,
“Them bones,  them bones, them dry bones,
“Them bones, them bones, them dry bones,
“Now hear the word of the Lord.”

But there is so much more to this story than a lively song. And as we will see, it even connects to that reading we also heard today from the Gospel according to John.

Have you ever felt like you were wandering in a valley filled with dry bones? It’s a pretty stark image. It’s not a place where I’d like to linger. I can’t imagine how I could bring those bones back to life.

Yes, I know Jesus talked about a grain of wheat falling into the ground and dying before it could come to life, but these bones seem really dead. Where is there any sign of life in this scene?

Let’s take just a moment to get some context for this reading from Ezekiel.

He was a Jewish prophet who lived about 600 years before Jesus. He was part of the staff of the Temple in Jerusalem. And then the army of the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, swarmed into Jerusalem, captured the city, destroyed the Temple and sent the leaders like Ezekiel into exile in Babylon – the place we know today as Iraq.

Now Ezekiel was a bit of an eccentric. Maybe the whole experience of exile spun him out of what we might consider normal.

In the writings attributed to him in the Hebrew Bible, he talks about eating manure – not exactly a tasty meal – and about lying on one side for years before switching to the other side for many more years. He did not speak at all for a long time after the destruction of Jerusalem and when his wife died, he writes that he did not take time to mourn her because he was so focused on the loss of his people.

Out of all that, though, he began to create these vibrant images rooted in the destruction of the past and his hope for the future. If you read them, you might think he was hallucinating, maybe on a psychedelic trip. But keep in mind some of the vivid imagery that has shaped literature in our own time – the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, A Wrinkle in Time or The Black Panther.  He will end his book with a vision of a glorious new temple in Jerusalem.

That’s because what Ezekiel was writing about was not only the devastation of the past – the dry bones scattered about the valley – but his trust that God would bring the people back home, that the dead bones would live again.

Even thought that famous spiritual makes it sound as if all the bones will be reconnected and an individual will live again, even if we think of this story in the context of Jesus’ promise of resurrection, that’s not what this story is about. It’s not about an individual returning to life. The Jewish people in that time had no concept of a life after death. It is about a society being restored to the way God had envisioned it to be.

In the chapter just before the passage we heard today, Ezekiel channels these words from God:

“I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land…A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you…I will put my spirit within you, and make you … careful to observe my laws. Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”

It’s a call away from desolation and into life. It’s God’s breath, God’s spirit bringing life out of what seemed hopeless.

As I was thinking about the story of the dry bones, I spent some time with an illustration in what is known as the St. John’s Bible.  This is an amazing 21st century version of the Bible with the words written in calligraphy and the highly artistic illustrations giving a new depth of understanding to some of the passages in the Bible.

There is a two-page illumination by artist Donald Jackson of the story of the dry bones. Let me describe it and in the process, I hope as it did for me, this will help widen your view of this classic story and give it life in our time.

Across the bottom of the two pages, Donald Jackson has created what seems like a long junk pile. What is in that junk pile, however, tells a good part of the story.

At the far left are stacked skulls, images from the killing fields of Cambodia in the 1970s when the regime of Pol Pot killed about 25 percent of his country’s population.

On the far right are starved corpses, representing the Armenian genocide in Turkey that killed some 1 million people between 1914 and 1918.

Across the whole bottom of the picture are piles of dry bones, representing more current wars in Rwanda and Iraq, Bosnia and Afghanistan.

Heaped up near the center is a pile of eyeglasses, a symbol of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.

There is broken glass from windows shattered in buildings during suicide bombings and terrorist attacks.

There are the empty buildings of a desolate urban landscape and a junked car symbolic of the environmental disaster that has become part of our valley of dry bones.

Along the same lines, there is an oil slick in the lower right part of this scene.

Friends, we know well what it is like to live in the valley of dry bones. It is part of our world today. And it can feel overwhelming, hopeless.

These bones seem really dead. Where is there any sign of life in this scene?

If you look a little closer at the oil slick, though, you can see something common to oil slicks. There is a rainbow of colors reflected on its surface.

Wait. Is there a glimmer of hope in the midst of all this?

And then as you look across the grayness of the skulls and bones, the shattered glass and piled eyeglasses, you see seven gold squares.  In the St. John’s Bible, a gold square is how the artists portray the divine. God is here even in the midst of all this suffering. The words across the bottom come straight from our Ezekiel reading: “I will put my spirit within you and you shall live.”

All is not lost, even in a world where far too often, death and destruction seem to be dominating our consciousness.

Consider this story. Corrie Ten Boom was a Dutch citizen who helped Jews escape from the Nazi Holocaust until she herself was imprisoned. She was in a very real valley of dry bones. She made famous the last words of her sister who died while with her in prison: “There is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still.”

Across the top of the pages are the brilliant colors of a rainbow, many gold squares, and five Jewish menorahs, symbolizing God’s covenant with God’s people.

“I will put my spirit within you and you shall live.”

Out of the valley of dry bones, there is indeed the promise of life.

But here’s something else to note in this story. God brought life through the words and work of Ezekiel. So that suggests to me that we have something to do with bringing life and hope to the gray places in our world.

Within the wider church that we are part of – the United Church of Christ – people are using a something called the Three GreatLoves as a way to do some of the work that God has for us as we try to transform the world so it comes closer to God’s vision, as we help those dry bones to live.

They are simple phrases – Love of Neighbor, Love of Children, Love of Creation. Living out those loves is not always easy and it can be controversial.

How do we love our neighbor when there seem to barriers between us? Maybe it’s politics or maybe it’s race. Maybe it’s gender or maybe it’s immigration status.

How do we do that as individuals? How do we do that as a congregation of people who gather together to follow Jesus? How do we do that when I’ll bet there are some widely differing ideas about how best to live out the love of neighbor.

Let me suggest that whatever our differences, we ought to able to start from the notion that Jesus calls on us to love our neighbors in the broadest sense of that word.

And what about loving our children? The focus on school shootings over the past month, indeed over the past years, is one place that demands a response as we try to bring life to the valley.

So too does the extent of child poverty in our state and nation. The Wisconsin Council of Churches along with several other groups has launched a campaign to cut child poverty in half in Wisconsin in the next decade. Right now, 250,000 of Wisconsin children live in poverty.

Again, there are lots of ways to tackle those issues. But can we come together around the central call to love children?

Then there is loving creation. We in this state know well the beauty of God’s creation and the many ways it enriches our lives. We also have become more and more aware of the many ways we put  God’s creation at risk.

When the Southwest Association of the United Church of Christ gathers for its annual meeting on April 14 in Verona, the theme will be “Ask the Earth and It Will Teach You: Your Congregation’s Part in Creation.”

That’s a place where you may hear about seeds dying in the ground before they create the beginning of new life.  That’s an appropriate image for all of this, because the work of bringing dry bones back to life, the work of bringing life to a world that struggles with death and desolation is hard work. It’s work where we often have to give up a little bit of ourselves, to die to ourselves in effect, to bring life to the valley.

Remember those words from Jesus that we heard today?

“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

 Jesus is not talking about self-hatred here. He’s not trying to encourage us to have a bad self-image. He’s encouraging us to not be quite so self-centered, so we can be focused on those in our world who need to experience God’s love through our actions.

One last thought from the story in the Gospel according to John.

The passage we heard today opened with two of Jesus’ closest followers – Philip and Andrew.  When Jesus first met them early in the Gospel according to John, they led others to Jesus. Andrew told his brother Simon, who we know as Peter, “We have found the Messiah.”

Philip told his friend Nathaniel about Jesus and when Nathaniel doubted that anything good could come out of Nazareth, Philip issued a simple invitation – “Come and see.”

So in John’s telling of the story, Philip and Andrew brought the first of their fellow Jews to Jesus to become his disciples. In today’s story, Philip and Andrew are the ones who bring the first Greek or Gentile – non-Jewish – disciples to Jesus. They are the bridge between the Jews and the Gentiles who follow Jesus.

The arrival of the Greeks symbolizes the drawing of all people to Jesus, the winds carrying them from the north and the south, from the east and the west. When Jesus saw that his band of followers has grown in its diversity, he says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

That expansion of Jesus’ followers would continue with story of Pentecost when peoples from many lands felt God’s Spirit in their midst, when Peter welcomed a Roman centurion into the community, when Paul carried Jesus’ message to Gentiles throughout the Mediterranean region.

Jesus and his followers crossed the religious and ethnic and gender boundaries of their time and in the process, brought new life to the world.

I’m left, then, with this question: If these bones are to live, how do we build bridges in our time? How do we make the three great loves of neighbor, children and creation infuse our world – and our lives – with hope?

Let’s keep our ears – and our minds - open as we hear the word of the Lord.


Sunday, October 15, 2017

Our very own golden calves
October 15, 2017, Middleton Community UCC

In the spirit of that scripture reading from Exodus about the Israelites gathering up all of their gold and shaping it into a golden bull-calf, I’d like to ask you to put all of your gold in this basket that Laura will bring around. You know – the gold rings, earrings, bracelets, watches…

Well, now that I have your attention…

There are good reasons you did not want to part with your gold this morning.

First of all, what the heck is he going to do with it? Take it all and run out the back door? Melt it down in here in violation of fire regulations?

Besides, that gold has more than monetary value to you. The gold rings may be a sign of your love. The gold bracelet may have been inherited from your mother. The gold watch may have been a retirement gift. (Do they still do that? My gold watch was a wonderful ordination gift from my wife, Ellen.)

There are many things in our lives that are precious. We do not necessarily turn them into idols – the things that we use as replacements or alternatives to God.  And it is easy to focus on money as an idol when there are so many other candidates in all of our lives.

Let me explore the story of the golden calf with you a bit because it turns out it is a pretty fascinating story. And then let me explore the idols in my life, ask you to think about those in yours and look at some of the potential idols in our nation. I hope to wrap up with a few thoughts about how we might deal with all of these idols in light of the story from Exodus and the words of Jesus.

The section of the Exodus story that we heard today is only slice of the drama.

The part we heard today is pretty straightforward. After escaping from slavery in Egypt, they are about three months out in the wilderness at Mt. Sinai. As the story goes, Moses has gone up the mountain. God has given Moses the rules to guide the Israelites in their freedom.

This takes awhile and the Israelites at the base of the mountain are getting restless. If you’ve ever had any experience waiting, you have a clue to how they felt. Moses was gone and he was their link to God. They wanted a new leader and they wanted their own gods.

They asked Moses’ brother, Aaron, of all people, to fashion the image of the new gods, portrayed as a calf – or, more accurately, a bull-calf – a potent and powerful young bull.

As Jonathan Kirsch writes in his book, Moses: A Life, “The bull was revered throughout the ancient Near East as the symbol of fertility, and the bull-calf was the sign of the supreme god in the pantheon of the pagan Canaanites.”

Meanwhile, up on the mountain, God has taken notice of what is going on below and God is not pleased. Remember, when the people were escaping from Egypt, they thought it was God who was leading them out? Now listen to how God addresses Moses: “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.”

No worries, Moses. God has a solution: “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”

It sounds a little bit like the story of Noah and the ark, doesn’t it? God will destroy the rest of humanity and start over with Noah and his family. But Moses does not think that’s a good solution and appeals to God’s mercy. So the last verse we heard today was: “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”

A happy ending, right?

Except the story does not end there. In brief, Moses comes down the mountain, hears the singing and dancing around the golden calf and smashes the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments that included the first two that read: “I am the Lord your God, no shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall not make for yourself an idol…you shall not bow down to them or worship them.”

The furious Moses pulverizes the Golden Calf, accuses his brother Aaron of bringing a great sin upon the people and then calls all those who were on the Lord’s side to come and stand by him. Here’s where the story gets interesting…and brutal…and confusing.

Those from Moses’ own tribe – the Levites – come and stand by him. Then he orders them to slaughter everyone else. And they do, killing some 3,000 of the Israelites. So much for Moses’ mercy. In this story, only God gets to be merciful.

There’s another story of golden calves in the Hebrew Bible and it comes much farther along in the story of Israel. It involves Jeroboam, who ruled the northern kingdom of Israel, a rival to the kingdom of Judah in the south. Jerusalem and the temple and the temple priests – the descendants of the Levites and Aaron – were in the south.

Jeroboam said you don’t have to go to the temple to worship God. You can do it at sanctuaries in the north, where he installed figures of young bulls cast in gold and he told his people these were the gods who brought them out of the land of Egypt. Sound a bit familiar? You heard that same line from Aaron in our reading today.

So either Jeroboam decided to re-enact the worst sin in the history of Israel – worshipping the image of a false god – or as the competing factions gathered together these stories of Moses and Jeroboam a few hundred years later, the authors decided to make Aaron and the priestly class in the south look bad or other authors tried to make Jeroboam and his kingdom in the north look bad.

I’m not going any farther down that little trail, other than to note how we hear the stories of our faith has something to do with who is telling them and what their agenda is.  Whatever the political motives of the writers, there was a common theme – making a golden bull calf and worshipping it is a really bad thing. Idols are not good.

Which got me to thinking about my idols. And that maybe will get you thinking about your idols. I’m not going to ask to name your idols publicly – OK, sigh of relief! But let me give you two examples of my idols – one personal, one collective.

The personal one is technology. I love having a smart phone, a laptop. I love connecting with people on Facebook and reading clever tweets on Twitter. I can check with Alexa to get today’s weather and ask Siri to map my driving route.

So think about this for a minute. My phone is virtually always with me. I put my trust in it to wake me up in the morning with its alarm, to keep track of my steps, to map my routes, to connect me with family and friends in a variety of ways. When it is not around, I start to feel a bit lost.

Hmmm. Always present. Worthy of my trust. Does that sound like what we sometimes say about God? At least I have never bowed down and worshipped my phone.

My collective idol is the United Church of Christ. Bet that brought you up short for a second. So let me explain.

When Ellen – my wife – and I were trying to find a church home in 2000, we checked out a number of churches and denominations. Our visit to Lake Edge UCC on Madison’s east side went well, so I started learning what the United Church of Christ was all about. I was really impressed. We are a groundbreaking denomination, embrace people with a questioning spirit, foster a wide variety of worship experiences. We define ourselves by our unconditional welcome and our commitment to justice. I could go on and on – and so, perhaps could you.

So when I encounter people from other denominations, my inclination is to think that we are the best. In my less generous moments, it is to think that we have the truth and they…ah…still have a ways to go. So I settle into my theological silo. And that Golden Calf at the entrance to my silo gets a nod each time I go by.

Whoops. I think I have created an idol.

Now let me just pause for a moment to ask you to think about an idol or two in your life. No need to shout them out. Just hold them in mind. (Pause)

No stone tablets smashed here today. I won’t ask the people on the left side to cross over and kill all of you on the right side. But it’s still worth seeking recognition of the idols that we create.

The same goes for recognizing the idols in our society. Here’s where this sermon can get a little dangerous, because it gets into some of the hot spots in our culture.

Some are easy. The piling up of wealth through the exploitation of others certainly gets into idol territory. So does the abuse of power like the stories we have heard this year of men demanding sex from the women they think they can control.

Let’s take that another step. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. This is a subject that I have spend a lot of time on in the past half dozen years. While both men and women can be victims of domestic violence, the overwhelming percentage of perpetrators are men.

For me, that raises the question about how we have made an idol out certain notions of masculinity. How do we stop worshipping an idol that leads to violence against others? What changes do we need in our own lives and in our culture around what it means to be a man – and a woman – as followers of Jesus living in the 21st century?

I get to add another potential idol to my life. I’m not only a man, but I’m a white man. We have seen all too vividly in our nation in the past few months what happens when people who idolize being white try to claim supremacy over anyone different from them. And we know how Jesus pushed against those claims of supremacy in his times, crossing lines that separated Jews and Gentiles, Jews and Samaritans, men and women.

Here's another hot button. We as a nation are struggling with how we treat those who come into our midst from other nations, either through a convoluted immigration process or through a risky border crossing. In our history, we have demonized the Chinese and the Irish, the German and the Italian, the Somali and the Mexican. What idols have we created around what it means to be an American – and how do we as followers of Jesus living in the 21st century respond?

And then there is football. Yes, I know we often create an idol out of sports. Churches routinely check the Packer schedule when planning events in the fall or on Super Bowl Sunday lest the lure of the game diminish attendance inside our walls. But there is another dimension of football that is in focus right now – how the players and the crowd  act during the singing of our National Anthem.

I don’t think it is going too far to say that some folks have made an idol out of the flag and the anthem. It’s not the ideals that they represent that are a problem – ideals we as a nation have struggled to achieve every year over the past two-plus centuries and that people have died to uphold. It is separating the symbols from the ideals and turning the symbols into idols and thereby missing the essential message of the protests, which is about how African Americans are still treated in a nation that proclaims equality for all.

So what are we to do with the idols in our lives?

The story of the Golden Calf makes it sound like we just smash the idols and move on. But the Israelites were still wandering through the wilderness. They were only three months into a 40-year journey. They may not have created other idols, but they continued to challenge Moses and question God.

Actually, the followers of Jesus were not shy about asking questions of him either, of challenging him. But they also listened to what he had to say, they pondered what it meant for their lives, they struggled together to find ways to live out his message of love and inclusion and service.

Like us, they were not perfect at it. They had to keep pushing aside the idols that sought to replace their trust in God and their commitment to the way of Jesus.

Maybe a place to start in confronting the idols we have is to put them back in their place. I don’t really think my iPhone is a divine being. I don't think that the UCC has a corner on understanding what Jesus’ message was about. Whatever your idols are, maybe take a little time in the week ahead to put them in perspective.

And another – perhaps even more important way - to start in confronting the idols we have is something as simple as renewing our own willingness to trust in God, to follow Jesus’ way.

There’s a song that can help us focus on that. It’s Hymn 416, “I Will Trust in the Lord.” Let us together sing the first verse. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

Love in a time of resentment: 

Seeking hope in today’s politics

Lakeland University Mission House Lecture, Oct. 18, 2016

The tension between religion and the public authorities goes back to the earliest days of Christianity. But what does that mean for us today, living in a democracy, but where resentment seems to be the coin of the realm this year. How might we find paths to living as followers of Jesus or from other faith perspectives while still acting as engaged citizens in our nation.

It was early in the morning in June of 2007. Really early. Like 5 a.m.

Kathy Cramer, a UW political science professor, was getting out of her Volkswagen Jetta at a gas station in a village along the Wisconsin River about an hour west of Madison.

She was not there to get gas for her car. She was there to talk with a group of men and women, employed and retired, who gathered at the station regularly to start the day with coffee and conversation.

Well, not really to talk with them. More to listen to them.[1]

Kathy Cramer was at the beginning stages of a research project that would stretch from 2007 to 2012 – five years. She would spend time with small groups in about two dozen communities all over Wisconsin.

During those five years, voters in Wisconsin would support Barack Obama for president in 2008 and elect Scott Walker governor in 2010. They would reject an attempt to recall Walker in 2011 and then they would support Obama for re-election in 2012.

Kathy wanted to hear what people in Wisconsin were thinking about government, about education, about their communities, about their future.

What she heard was a lot of resentment.

Yes, resentment about government and resentment about the big cities of Madison and Milwaukee from those who live outstate. But even deeper, resentment toward their fellow citizens.

Kathy called the book that presented her research The Politics of Resentment.

Here's how she described what she observed:

The politics of resentment is “a kind of politics in which people do not focus their blame on elite decision makers as they try to comprehend an economic recession. Instead, they give their attention to fellow residents who think they are eating their share of the pie. These interpretations are encouraged, perhaps fomented, by political leaders who exploit these divisions for political gain.”[2]

She said that grows out of “political differences that have become personal” and the differences in political points of view are treated as “fundamental differences in who we are as human beings.”[3]

Where is love, where is hope?

I’m calling this talk today “Love in a time of resentment: Finding hope in today’s politics.” The challenge for me – maybe for many of you – is where to find a spirit of love when there seems to be so much meanness pervading our public life – and maybe even our personal lives - and how to find hope in a year when our political system seems dysfunctional at best, possibly even destructive to the ideals of democracy.

I am coming at this from my own understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, so you’ll hear a lot of that in what I say. But I don't think the ideas I’ll be exploring are limited to Christians. They are ideas folks of many beliefs and no beliefs in particular can use to help shape a more promising future. It’s just that mine grow out of my understanding of the message of that itinerant rabbi who lived 2,000 years ago in an always-contested narrow strip of land we know as Israel.

And – spoiler alert – here’s the conclusion: The politics of resentment may fracture democracy but people of faith can draw on their resources to change the tenor of public life by living in a way that offers an alternative to what see around us. Within that, there is hope.

I’m going to explore this by delving into the experiences of about a dozen people, including some of my own experiences. There will be some common words in these stories – listening, crossing boundaries, proximity, courage, humility, hope.

For Kathy, listening was at the center of what she was doing. It was not always easy.

First of all, she was a university professor driving a foreign car, often pulling up next to Fords and trucks to visit people who figured most professors mostly just looked down on them. Kathy wrote: “I am somewhat of an introvert, so often resorted to a chunk of dark chocolate and a deep breath for courage. Most of the time, people welcomed me warmly. Sometimes I had to have tough skin.”[4]

There’s a bit of a model there for the rest of us if we want get beyond our own familiar circle of family and friends. It’s not always easy. Sometimes it will not go well.

At that gas station along the Wisconsin River, folks chatted amiably during her first two visits. But in April of 2011, when the state was being torn asunder by Gov. Scott Walker’s efforts to gut pubic employee unions, when she arrived, most of the regulars at the coffee gathering got up from the table and waited on the other side of the room until she left. The topic was simply too explosive and she was seen as one of those public employees.

It was not only public employees who were the targets of resentment as Kathy drove around the state. It was immigrants and blacks, professors and tourists. It was anyone not considered a “hard-working American.”

In one of my favorite moments, when Kathy asked one group to describe a hard-working American, one of the men asked if she had taken a shower that morning. The question seemed odd, a bit too personal. Then he explained. If you take a shower before you go to work, you are not a hard-working American. They take showers after a hard day at work.

Still, she found that in rural settings and urban ones, in those gas station coffee klatches and in restaurants in the suburbs, people were more open than you might expect.

“In general,” Kathy wrote, “I find that if you sincerely convey to people that you are interested in what they think and are there to listen, not to preach or lecture, they have a lot to say.”[5]

Listening as a journalist

Since I came out of the world of journalism before I entered the ministry, you might think that I have done my fair share of listening over the years. I have interviewed lots of people, a grieving mom after a son’s death in a car accident, teachers in schools, and while on strike, mayors, bishops, presidential candidates.

Along the way, I hope I developed the ability to listen carefully to people and then convey the essence of their ideas to those who read my articles. But journalism as a whole seems to have a problem in that arena and as a long-time journalist, I suspect that I was also part of the problem.

People in the news business think we have a pretty good idea of what readers will want to know - or should want to know. So that’s what guides our coverage. There are folks out there trying to turn that idea in a new direction – not with lots of cute videos of cats (although we know those are great click bait) but by finding out what questions and concerns readers have and then working with them to find some answers.

My daughter, Julia, who has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and now a master’s degree in social journalism from the City University of New York, is working for a company that is at the cutting edge of this. Besides the fact that she is my daughter and I am proud of what she is doing, I think the approach her company is taking has some resonance with Kathy Cramer’s work and with the experiences of other people I will be talking about today.

The company she works for is called Hearken. It works with news organizations to get in touch with people in their communities to find out what their questions and concerns are, then makes them partners in the development of the stories. Her colleague Ellen Meyer writes that this has led to reports on about the names of streets and towns, the history of accents and indigenous languages, and why some public transit lines are so indirect and twisty.

As Ellen wrote, “These stories aren’t necessarily pegged to current events, they’re not breaking news…but they’re also not fluff…Every single one of these stories illuminates a power structure, unearths a history rarely told, or helps audiences understand the fabric of their community. A street name connects to a displaced indigenous tribe. A suburb’s ban on ‘For Sale’ signs is actually a corrective for housing segregation. A train line follows the path of least financial resistance.”[6]

Jeff Jarvis,  recently offered this suggestion to reporters covering politics in 2016: “Listen. Go to the many constituencies who are unreflected in media and do not ask for quotes to fill in the stories you've already invented. Ask them what matters to them. And listen.”[7]

When listening is hard

Sometimes people learn the hard way about the importance of listening in the midst of difficult situations. Here's the story of Sister Helen Prejean.

Sr. Helen is a Catholic nun who was working in New Orleans in the early 1980s, serving the poor in a housing project, teaching young people who had dropped out of high school. A man from a group that worked with prisoners in Louisiana asked her if she would be willing to be a pen pal with a man on death row in Angola prison.

“I’ve come to St. Thomas (the name of the housing project) to serve the poor and I assume that someone occupying a cell on Louisiana’s death row fits that category,” she wrote in her powerful book Dead Man Walking.[8]  She had no idea what she was getting herself into.

She had come to New Orleans as part of a shift if the Catholic Church to link faith to the work for social justice, standing at the side of the poor. She was uneasy with that to begin with. Her faith involved a personal relationship with God, kindness to others, not challenging social and economic and political systems.[9] She really had no idea what she was getting herself into.

Elmo Patrick Sonnier – number 95281 to the Louisiana prison system – along with his brother had abducted a teenaged couple parked in a lovers’ lane near their town. They raped the girl, then shot both the boy and the girl three times each in the back of their heads.

“I wonder what I can say to this man?” Sr. Helen reflected. “What will he have to say to me?” And as she wrote to him, she thought briefly of the families of the two victims, but figured by now – five years after the murder of their children – they had put the pain behind them and want nothing to do with someone befriending their children’s murderer.”[10]

A year and a half later, at a Pardon Board hearing seeking to stop his execution, she met the families of the victims.

As she left the building, she ran into Lloyd and Eula Le Blanc, the parents of the young man who was murdered. Here’s how she describes that moment:

“My heart is pounding. I fumble for words. ‘I’m so sorry about your son,’ I say.

“LeBlanc says, ‘Sister, I’m a Catholic. How can you represent Elmo Patrick Sonnier’s side like this without ever having come to visit with me and my wife or the Bourques (the parents of the young woman) to hear our side? How can you spend all your time worrying about Sonnier and not think that maybe we needed to you to?”[11]

It was a deeply unsettling moment for Sr. Helen. I think it would be for any of us. I know it would be for me.  But it is those deeply unsettling moments that can help us transform our lives.

Sr. Helen did not back off her opposition to the death penalty or her ministry to those on death row. But she learned the importance of also caring for the families of the victims, of being in touch with them, of listening to them, as hard and as uncomfortable as that would be in each situation.

She wrote: “I feel I am still right to oppose capital punishment, but I had not thought seriously enough about what murder means to victims’ families and to society. I had not considered how difficult the issue of capital punishment is. My response had been far too simplistic.”[12]

Chutzpah and humility

One of my guides as I thought about where love might fit in a time of resentment is a teacher and an author and spiritual mentor named Parker Palmer. Parker lives in Madison and has become a friend over the years, but the scope of his work is national, even international.

In his marvelous book from 2011, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthyof the Human Spirit, Parker wrote about the two words that Americans need in our era. They are chutzpah and humility. I think you saw both in the story of Sr. Helen.

Chutzpah is a Yiddish word for noncomformist but gutsy advocacy. Parker uses it in the sense of “having a voice that needs to be heard and the right to speak it.” But it shares top billing with humility, which Parker says means “accepting the fact that my truth is always partial and may not be true at all.”[13]

A few years ago, I was at a conference of journalists who cover religion. One of the panels was called “Atheism Revisited” and on the panel was Wendy Kaminer, who at that time was a regular writer for The Atlantic magazine. I had gotten to know her husband, Woody Kaplan. They are both active in a group known as the Secular Coalition for America.

It was an interesting combination – a Christian minister and two advocates from a group that defends the interests of atheists, agnostics, humanists and others who do not embrace religion as I know it.

As I chatted with Wendy, I told her I appreciated her presentation and her perspective on the panel. I quoted one of my mentors – an alumnus of Lakeland and a long-time member of the board of directors here, Rev. David Michael. The words he used were not original, but they have become a mantra for me.

“Here’s what I believe – but I could be wrong.”

Wendy smiled and said, “That’s what I think, too.” Then there was a pause. “You could be wrong.”

She was teasing, of course. But it was a vivid reminder that as we engage in conversations about politics or religion or any other hot-button topic, we would do well to embrace what Parker Palmer called the two essential words – chutzpah and humility and what Dave Michael articulated so clearly – what you might remember about this whole presentation – “well, I could be wrong.”

Parker Palmer had something else to say in Healing the Heart of Democracy that I think has bearing on our engagement with public life in a time of resentment.  One source of resentment comes when we believe that some issue we believed in, that people we support had struggled for, that seemed settled is suddenly being contested again.

This is not unique to either the left or the right on the political spectrum. We wish that the things we believe in were in place once and for all, not to be disturbed by forces seemingly beyond our control.

What Parker reminded me is that democracy does not work that way. Democracy works not by orders from on high that settle things once and for all, but from the tension that exists as people work out over time how things need to be adapted for each era.

Parker quotes historian Joseph Ellis, who wrote, that the governing institutions the founders of our nation created were “not about providing answers” but about “providing a framework in which the salient questions could continue to be debated.”[14]

Because the world around us changes, the needs and solutions change as well, Parker observed. He wrote: “In the democracy crafted by the founders, the most recent solution to a problem does not remove that problem from our national agenda. Sooner or later, someone calls for a different solution, and we continue to work away at problems so complex that they cannot be resolved with a final stroke of a pen.”

Think about the issues before us today – immigration, guns, race, marriage, abortion, economic inequality – pick your favorite. We continue to work through the tensions as we grapple with basic principles and changing times.

Parker suggests that religion is one of the entities that helps us hold these tensions in our lives creatively. That may come as a bit of shock to you if you think of religion as a static or rigid force in society, always looking back instead of looking forward.

Here’s how Parker approaches that: “The true intent of all the great world religions is to help people find meaning and purpose amid life’s endless tensions – especially the tension involved in trying to live a meaningful life despite the certainty of death, which would seem to obliterate all meaning.”[15]

Transformation in South Africa

Let me take you to South Africa, where some of these threads of chutzpah and humility, of daring and of hope, of seeking meaning in the midst of change, came together in a fascinating way.

Let me first take you to St. George’s Cathedral in Capetown, South Africa, in 1984, in the midst of the struggles of the black majority in that nation to break free of the evil of apartheid – the laws of the white government there to keep blacks segregated from and subject to whites.

The white government had just cancelled a political rally and Archbishop Desmond Tutu had called for a worship service as an alternative.  Riot police and armed soldiers massed outside the church. Police stood along the walls inside the cathedral, conspicuously taping and writing down what was being said. 

Tutu denounced the evils of apartheid. Then pointing his finger at the police, the archbishop thundered, “You may be powerful, very powerful indeed, but you are not God. You have already lost.”

Then Tutu came out from behind the pulpit. A smile broke out on his face as he looked at the stone-faced police. “We are inviting you to come and join the winning side.”

The winning side? Really. It surely did not seem like it at the time. There was chutzpah and daring and hope. A decade later, apartheid was gone. But the nation still was in desperate need of healing.

The new South African government set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, led by Archbishop Tutu. It was a place where victims of gross human rights violations could tell of their experiences and perpetrators of violence could also give testimony and request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution.

It was a place of listening to the other side. It was a place to let love act in a time and place of deep resentment and distrust. It was not a perfect process, but it helped South Africa acknowledge the past and move beyond it. And for Tutu, it was his religious grounding that enabled him to provide the leadership that was needed.

Tutu wrote in his 2009 book No Future Without Forgiveness about what I think is an essential part of listening: “Theology reminded me that, however diabolical the act, it did not turn the perpetrator into a demon…The point is that if perpetrators were to be despised of as monsters and demons then we were thereby letting accountability go out the window because we were then declaring that they were not moral agents to be held responsible for the deeds they had committed. More importantly, it meant that we abandoned all hope of their being able to change for the better. Theology said they still, despite the awfulness of their deeds, remained children of God with the capacity to repent, to be able to change.”[16]

OK, so most of us are probably not going to be dealing with people on death row or the parents of their victims. Most of us are probably not going to be standing in the pulpit in a cathedral in a time of danger or leading a nation in search of truth and reconciliation. Most of us won’t – but maybe a few of you will have that opportunity.

Moving beyond the familiar

I find those stories sources of inspiration, not because I am likely to be in those situations, but because they give me opportunities to reflect on how I live in my daily life.

They are stories that encourage me to move beyond the familiar and the comfortable, to get beyond just talking with people who are like me, who think like me. They are stories that encourage me to treat them with respect even when I disagree with them or with what they are doing.

I grew up in northeast Wisconsin, in a city on the Michigan border called Marinette. It was a virtually all-white community in those days. Diversity meant Catholic or Protestant (although there were some Jewish families in town.) It meant your heritage was German or Polish, French or Irish.

When I was in the first years of college, I had a chance to spend a week in Chicago with an organization known as Friendship House. This was in the late 1960s, when the Civil Rights movement was changing our nation.

It was a week designed to give people like me a chance to immerse myself in the lives of African Americans in Chicago. We attended programs during the day and I lived with a black family in the evenings.

The first day I went to the bus stop to ride down to Friendship House, I was acutely aware that I was the only white person on the bus. I had never had that experience before.

A couple of nights in, as my host parents and I were getting to know each other a bit better, they began telling what it was like to be an African-American man and woman in America, in Chicago.  I felt uneasy, defensive, like somehow what had happened to them was my fault. I had never had a conversation like this before. I had never thought about all the benefits I had as a white man that had come about in part because of the work their ancestors did as slaves in our shared country.

It’s not like they were attacking me. They were kind and gentle folks, educating this white kid from the north woods about their lives. Thank goodness, I had enough sense to listen and ask questions instead of trying to tell them it could not possibly have been that bad.

Jumping across several decades, someone I have gotten to know in the last year is Dilshad Ali. She is the managing editor of the Muslim channel on the Patheos web site – a site devoted to global dialogue about religion and spirituality.

When I first met Dilshad, she was on a panel of journalists and talked about the worry her folks had when she took the job at Patheos a decade ago. As you well know, there are factions within Islam just as there are in Christianity and every other faith group. Her father was worried about her getting in the cross fire not only with Muslims, but with her fellow Americans who have targeted Muslims for special ire.

As I have gotten to know her, I have had a chance to learn from her web site and from our conversations about the complexities and confidence of Muslims. Here’s one example. Dilshad wears a hijab – the headscarf the many Muslim women wear. She chose to wear it when she was a young woman, a decision that put her at odds not only with her mother, but also with her husband.

This is interesting because the common American view of the hijab is that men force women to wear it as a sign of submission to them. For Dilshad, it is just the opposite.  It is a sign of her independence and of her identity as a Muslim. And yet she listens respectfully to those who take other approaches.

One more recent excursion for me of learning from people who are not normally in my orbit involved Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.  Southern Baptists are the nations’ largest Protestant denomination – and theologically and politically, they are a long ways from where I am and where the United Church of Christ is.

And yet Russell Moore has given me fresh insights into a dimension of Christianity that I have not always understood or agreed with – and he has helped me clarify my understanding of the role I can play in a sharply divided society.

In his book Onward:Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, Moore writes that Christians are called to what he describes as “engaged alienation” – a “Christianity that preserves the distinctiveness of our gospel while not retreating from our callings as neighbors and friends and citizens.”[17]

Listen to his words on one of the hot button issues of our day – what to do about the proliferation of guns in our society.

“I have a position on gun control,” Moore writes – and his position is different from my position. But here’s the critical part, the thing to remember when we want to claim God’s mandate for whatever political position we take.

Moore says he does not believe that his position on gun control is a matter of divine revelation, “so I am more than happy to gather around the Lord’s Table both with those with lifetime memberships in the National Rifle Association and with those who think guns ought to be licensed and restricted for public safety. Those aren’t gospel arguments but prudential arguments about whether gun control works and what the Constitution guarantees.”[18]

What this means is that Russell Moore and I can have a discussion, listen to one another, about a volatile issue like guns in America and not wind up consigning the other to eternal damnation. We can respect one another as two sincere Christians, created in God’s image and likeness, who see the world in different ways, shaped by different experiences, yet we still can find space in our hearts for love.

Grounded in religious tradition

Ebo Patel learned about that in another way. He is an American Muslim whose grandparents live in India. He grew up in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, a comfortable Chicago suburb. As he moved through high school and college, he shed his Muslim identity. He hung out at a Catholic Worker house in Champaign, Illinois, while he was a student at the University of Illinois.

Catholic Worker houses, based on a model started by Dorothy Day in New York City in the 1930s, are places volunteers and people in need work together, eat together, cross the boundaries that so often keep people apart. Ebo stayed for dinner one night and asked, “Who are the staff here? Who are the residents?” And the person he was talking with responded, “We’re a community. The question we ask is: ‘what’s your story?’”[19]

That’s a good question for all of us as widen our circles and strive to listen.

But Patel was still seeking. He explored Buddhism, but did not feel at home in that tradition. He visited his grandmother in India. At first he was turned off by customs there, but in time, came to understand that she was living a life of service to others. Why do you do that, he asked her. “I am a Muslim,” she replied. “This is what Muslims do.”[20]

He had a chance to meet the Dalai Lama, that revered Buddhist leader, who saw Ebo not as a skeptic or a Catholic or a Buddhist but as what he truly was – a Muslim. And in time, he reclaimed his Muslim identity, encouraged others to find their religious identity and then to listen and learn from one another, not by giving up the essence of each one’s beliefs, but by being open to divergent views in a very complex world.

A lesson in listening

A few weeks ago, I was standing outside the brand new National Museum of African American History and Culture on the mall in Washington D.C.  There have been huge crowds since it opened on Sept. 24, so there was a line waiting to get in. I started talking with the African American woman next to me, a lady probably in her 70s from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

As you may know, Tulsa is the place where a white female police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man as he stood outside his car on Sept. 16. The woman from Tulsa knew the man’s father, knew the man himself. She had been at a prayer service for him the week before we met. Now here she was at this museum that tells the story of both the pain and the promise of the African American experience in our shared nation.

So we talked. I heard her story. I learned about the Tulsa race riot of 1921, when the white citizens of Tulsa rampaged through the prosperous black neighborhood in that city, burning down 35 city blocks, killed up to 300 black residents. In the aftermath, every insurance claim from the black businesses and residences was denied.[21]

I knew nothing about that awful episode in American history. Taking time to listen to someone from a different background, with a different life experience, helped me expand my understanding,

Let me introduce you to Katharine Hayhoe, an evangelical Christian, a scientist, and someone who has worked hard to learn how to talk with people who disagree with her about climate change.

A profile of her in TheNew York Times on Oct. 10 captured her approach: “She has found that she gets her science across more effectively if she can connect with people personally. In a nation seemingly addicted to argument as a blood sport, she conciliates. On a topic so contentious that most participants snarl, she smiles. She is an evangelical Christian, and she does not flinch from using the language of faith and stewardship to discuss the fate of the planet.”[22]

I had a chance to hear her last fall and was intrigued by the spirit with which she approached a topic that can quickly become a hostile conversation.

“If you begin a conversation with, ‘You’re an idiot,’ that’s the end of the conversation, too,” she said. She has learned to listen carefully to people’s questions, concerns, objections. She treats them with respect, even if she has a different conclusion. She incorporates their concerns into her presentations.

What I draw from all of these stories is that it is possible to encounter one another across the political, racial, religious divides in our country at the moment. It is possible to listen to and learn from those we disagree with.

Listening with respect

There was a vivid example of that last August on an obscure Sunday morning program on C-Span, the network that covers government and politics. The guest was Heather McGhee, the president of a public policy organization focused on democracy and equality. (Here's a link to the video.)

A caller from North Caroline posed this question:

“I’m a white male and I am prejudiced. It’s something that I learned.”  He made references to the crime rate, drugs, his fears. “I don’t like to be forced to like people. I like to be led to like people through example. What can I do to change, to be a better American?”

OK, this was a question that invited a thoughtful response, it was a question that suggested the man who asked it was open to listening a view from outside his worldview. Heather McGhee’s answer was a classic example of treating someone with a different worldview with respect and with seriousness.

“Thank you so much for being honest and for opening up this conversation,” she replied. “Asking the question you ask – how do I get over my fears and my prejudices – is the question for all of us, people of all races and ethnicities and backgrounds who hold these fears and prejudices. Most of them are actually unconscious, right? Your ability to just say, ‘I have these prejudices and I want to get over them,’ is one of the most powerful things we can do right now.”

She did offer some specifics as well.

“Get to know black families. Turn off the news at night because we know nightly new overrepresents African-American crime and underrepresents crime by white people. Join a church that is interracial. Start to read about the history of the African American community in this country. Foster conversations in your family and in your neighborhood where you are asking exactly those kinds of questions.”[23]

Yes, I know that can be hard if the other person does not want to listen to you as well, wants to shut you out or put you down. Sometimes, we may need to step back. And yes, there are times when we simply need to articulate what we believe without worrying about whether everyone will see it our way. Here’s a clue – not everyone will see it our way. The world is way too interesting for that kind of uniformity.


I’d like to leave you with two final thoughts and one image.

The first thought comes from a theologian of the last century who wrestled with great dilemmas like power and progress, good and evil. His name was Reinhold Niebuhr and one of his famous quotes is a good reminder that when we think we have got things all figured out, we really are not at the finish line yet.

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime;” Niebuhr wrote. “Therefore we must be saved by hope.

“Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.

“Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.

“No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”[24]

“Love” is the vital word here. It’s how we can counter the destructive forces of resentment that swirl around us. It’s a reminder of some of the words that Jesus said about loving our enemies. Yes, even our enemies. Even forgiving them.

The second thought comes from a United Church of Christ minister and author named Richard Floyd offers a reminder that even after the whole election campaign of 2016 comes to an end, even after we have new leaders, “many of the same old problems of race and class and injustice will remain. We will still have public institutions that do not serve everyone equally. We will still have dying cities and crumbling infrastructures. Inflammatory rhetoric will not solve these problems that affect us all, no matter what our political party.”

Bypassing inflammatory rhetoric does not mean putting away righteous anger over the injustice in our world or the passion to make our world better, Floyd wrote. Our challenge is, in his words, “to model a way of living that treats others with respect and dignity.” [25]

The bridge to cross

The image comes from Jim Wallis, who has long been one of my personal heroes. Jim is one of the founders of Sojourners, an organization based in Washington, D.C, that has been around for 45 years, seeking social justice, peace, environmental stewardship across faith boundaries, even though they are rooted in an evangelical approach to Christianity. They publish a magazine and have a vibrant web site and Jim has written a dozen books.

In his most recent book about racism in America – America’s Original Sin, he calls it – Jim describes being on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 2015 as people gathered to reenact the walk across that bridge 50 years earlier, risking their lives in the face of hatred and violence trying to establish the right to vote for African Americans in this country 100 years after the end of the Civil War. If you saw the stunning movie Selma that came out in 2014, you know the story.

Jim joined people who had marched across that bridge 50 years ago and today’s workers for racial justice as they walked across the bridge once again, this time with President Obama, the nation’s first African-American president in the lead. At the top of the bridge, Jim hugged John Lewis, now a member of the U.S. Congress, but 50 years ago a Civil Rights marcher who had his skull cracked on that bridge.

Through the tears welling up in his eyes, Jim saw the Edmund Pettus Bridge - a bridge named after a Confederate General who became a Grand Dragon in the Ku Klux Klan, a bridge that had been a symbol of resistance to racial integration and then a symbol of justice overcoming hate. Now that bridge offered a symbol for our future as we cross over to a new America.

Here’s what Jim wrote: “Seeking, finding, learning, welcoming, embracing, and creating new relationships and frameworks for a richly multiracial culture, with economics and policies that reflect our diversity, is the great task before us now…Perhaps the first and most important thing to learn is how to listen, really listen, to one another, as we are walking together to a new America.”[26]

Reuniting the frayed fabric

Listen to one another. Do you detect a recurring theme through all of this?

I called this talk Love in a Time of Resentment. And my argument is that one way to overcome the resentment that poisons our civic life is to make efforts to listen to one another. I think that requires a willingness to do what Jesus talked about 2,000 years ago, what the Hebrew scriptures said thousands of years before that, which many faith traditions say in one form or another – love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Out of that love can grow respect. Out of that love can grow a willingness to hear those we disagree with. We don’t need to agree with them – I know I surely don’t agree with everyone. I know I have core beliefs that I hold on to.

But I also know that I could be wrong. I also know that I can learn from people when I least expect.

I know that when Kathy Cramer got up early in the morning and drove to a gas station in southwest Wisconsin, she showed me how listening can increase my understanding and out of that understanding, we can begin to reknit the frayed fabric of our society.

I think that is a holy task. I hope you will join me in that effort.

[1] Katherine J. Cramer, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker, The University of Chicago Press, 2016, p. 34.
[2] Ibid., p. 6
[3] Ibid., p. 211
[4] Ibid., p. 34
[5] Ibid., p. 39
[6] Ellen Mayer, “More Than Fluff: Dismantling Journalism’s Hard New Bias,” (Medium), Aug. 17, 2016,
[7] Melody Kramer, “How To Do Good Journalism Between Now and Election Day,” (Poynter Institute) Sept. 27, 2016,
[8] Sr. Helen Prejean, Dead Man Walking, Vintage Books, 1993, p. 3.
[9] Ibid., p. 5
[10] Ibid. p. 11
[11] Ibid, p. 64
[12] Ibid., p. 65
[13] Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2011), p.  43
[14] Ibid, pp. 74-75, quoting Joseph Ellis, American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies in the Founding of the Republic (New York, Knopf, 2007), p. 123.
[15] Ibid., p. 83
[16] Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, (New York, Crown), 2009, p. 95
[17] Russell Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel (Nashville, B&H Publishing Group), 2015, p. 8.
[18] Ibid., p. 105.
[19] Ebo Patel, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Beacon Press, Boston), 2007, p. 49.
[20] Ibid., p. 100
[21] Sarah Sidner, “Tulsa Shooting Stirs Memories of Bloody Race Riot,” CNN, Oct. 4, 2016,
[22] John Schwarz, “Katharine Hayhoe, a Climate Explainer Who Stays Above the Storm,” The New York Times, Oct. 10, 2016,
[23] Heather McGhee on C-Span’s Washington Journal, Aug. 21, 2016,
[24] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, (University Of Chicago Press), 1952, p. 63.
[25] Richard Floyd, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” Stillspeaking Daily Devotional, United Church of Christ, Sept. 25, 2016,
[26] Jim Wallis, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America, (Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, Mich.), 2016, pp. 194-5