Sermon August 23, 2020 “Kindness” by Rev. June Fothergill

Exodus 1:8-2:10 Romans 12: 1-8

   Once when Lowell was babysitting, his six-year-old grandson refused to eat anything set before him. In exasperation Lowell asked, “ Jonathan, you tell me you don’t like beef, you don’t like chicken, your don’t like fish, you don’t like fruit, you don’t like vegetables, you don’t like milk and you8 don’t like juice. Tell me, what do you like?”  Turning his innocent blue eyes on me he answered, “I like you, Grandpa.” (p. 152 An Encyclopedia of Humor, Lowell D. Streiker, ed.)

   Such a kind word can go far, can it not?  I think that most of us would agree that treating others with kindness is a good idea.  We long for a more civil society and for less conflict and anger in our political discourse.  Yet, what if what is happening makes us angry? What if we feel strongly about different issues we face in society?  What do we do with those strong emotions?  Can we be kind and also be real?

    In Romans 12  Paul suggests that we do not need to be conformed to this world but can be transformed by the “ renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God- what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (12:2)   So Paul thinks that we can figure this all out!   But then, before we get too self- assured, he adds in vs 3. “ For by the grace given to me, I say to everyone among you not to think of yourselves more highly than you out to think but to think with sober judgement each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”    I think what Paul telling his folks and us, is that we need each other.  I need that Facebook friend who has the opposite response to the political convention than I do.  We need the ones who challenge our thinking and help keep us humble. We learn how to be kind by listening to the needs and perspectives of those around us.  We learn God’s will by our willingness to be transformed by God through the process.

     I think that the stories of the Hebrew women in Exodus 1 help us in this learning process. They show us women who are not just nice ladies, not just kind persons but also women who have the courage to resist oppression and evil.  Their stories give us a deeper understanding of what God calls us to do and be.  

    So, what was happening in Egypt?  

The powerful – the king of Pharaoh was afraid of the people who are different (outsiders.)  Joseph was long gone from the memory of the ruling elite and now they are worried about this group of outsiders- the Hebrews.

So, these powerful ones chose to oppress the different ones and enslave them.  They are put to hard service and labor for the crown.  Not only that,

The powerful seek to turn the enslaved against each other. They call upon the Hebrew midwives to harm the mothers and babies they serve.   They try to control the women and reproduction.

 What a terrible situation?  What do the midwives do?  They resist through noncooperation and deception.     They simply don’t do what Pharaoh commands and when called to account, they deceive him.   They use the power they have, Pharaoh and other elite, clearly do not enter the birthing chambers or realm. They try but cannot control this women’s realm.  The midwives have names in the story- Shiphrah and Puah. Their courage and story are honored by the text.

  But then, the powerful up the ante and seek genocide by decreeing that all male Hebrew babies be killed at birth.  If the midwives won’t do it, the Pharaoh used all his power to try to do it.  But the women continued to resist by non-cooperation:   The other of Moses hid him and then put him in the river in a basket, his sister watched over him.  And by compassion: Pharaoh’s daughter finds the Hebrew baby boy and has compassion and with sister’s cunning, his mother was restored to her child.   This child, Moses will grow up in the palace with a Hebrew nurse/ mother.  He became bi-cultural.  And as we will see he was saved for a purpose from God. 

    What this story teaches me about acts of kindness is that they need to be coupled with a willingness to resist evil and oppression.  Kindness without resistance to evil only placating band aid, can become paternalistic and harmful.   The midwives didn’t just show compassion and kindness by not killing the babies, they also had to have the courage to face the Pharaoh’s questions.  The Pharaoh’s daughter showed compassion on the little baby in the river, but she also stood up to the prejudices of her father by allowing a Hebrew woman to nurse the baby. 

  But also, resistance to evil without kindness creates ruptures and divisions and can lead to violence, harm to others.   We can see this when the peaceful protest becomes a looting mob.  Or when people start to demonize those on the other side of an issue from themselves.  Jesus for example had not problem calling out the Pharisees on their hypocrisy, but he also chose to share table fellowship with them. People may choose to participate in evil actions and policies, but they are still God’s children.   As Paul reminds us, we all are in need of the grace and transforming power of the Spirit in our lives. 

     One of the questions the church (and others) have wrestled with in work in poor countries and communities is how can we help without harm?   We have learned that sometimes our intentions to be kind, even to resist evil have outcomes that harm others.  We have been learning to look at unintended consequences and outcomes rather than only intentions.  

     I read recently in Time magazine an essay by Rebekah Taussig, “What Does Kindness Look Like?”   She subtitles the essay, “Your efforts to help disabled people may not always have the intended effect.”  (p. 69) She tells multiple stories of people’s attempts to help her with her wheelchair that end up making her feel discounted. Especially when she tells people that she is fine, and they keep watching her to “make sure.”    She describes one instance, “One this particular day I’m, assembling my chair when I hear a man yelling at me from across the parking lot. It’s safe to assume he wants to help me, and I have decades of data to attest that he will not be able to make this routine even the slightest bit easier for me.”     She tells him that she is fine, puts together her chair but with him worrying over her and telling her not to fall.  She successfully takes care of it he still cries out to her “Don’t fall”.    She thinks to herself, “I’ve used my words and demonstrated through action: I’m fine. Why doesn’t he see that?”  Later in the essay she adds, “We have ignored the perspectives, stories and voices of disabled people for so long that their actual need, feelings and experiences are hardly acknowledged.”   (p. 70, 71 Time August 31/ Sept 7, 2020)      

    To practice kindness, we have to have awareness of needs.   Then for the best impact, we need some analysis.  This means paying attention to the insights of those affected or taking the time to understand another culture and its values.  Then of course we have to act.   Kindness is not just something we do in our heads or a feeling of compassion. We have to reach out and take that Hebrew baby out of the water.   And then it is a good idea to assess or evaluate our actions and hopefully gain new awareness. Awareness- analysis- action- assessment.

     Rebekah Taussig ends her essay with one more story about assembling her wheelchair.   “I pull up to the car repair shop and see a man watching me pull my chair out of my car and put it together on the pavement. This set up ends with my feeling small so regularly, my prickles spike before I even process the emotions. I will myself to throw my chair together at turbo speed before he can read me as despite and flailing. The I hear him. Such a simple, casual sentence, “Looks like you’ve got this.” He says.   “I look up, “Yes! “I say.” I really do.”   (p. 73 Time, August 31/ Sept 7, 2020)

    To follow in the footsteps of those women in Exodus, we are invited by God to acts of kindness- acts of kindness that save life and resist evil.  What could these acts of kindness look like?  I think that sometimes they can be simple:  like the cartoon Baldo the other day showing that family delivering groceries to an elderly lady.  Or taking the time to bake cookies for new neighbors, or sharing a story on YouTube to encourage  young families, or paying for someone’s groceries in line at the store or giving to a charity that helps those in need and resists oppression.  Or they can be riskier. In Romans Paul gives us the guidance to decide by saying- do what the spirit calls you to do, do what God has given you the faith to do.  Not everyone has to act in the same way. 

  I would say, become aware. Look around your neighborhood or town or the world for a need that tugs at you. Then do some homework or analysis- what is truly needed, what might really help and not harm?  Then try something and see what happens.  I invite each of us or as families to decide some act of kindness we want to try this day or coming week.   Next Sunday, we will have opportunity to share our stories about doing this.

   I close with a story from France about a village who chose to follow in the legacy of kindness and resistance of those Exodus women.   During the Nazi occupation of France in World War II, a village, Chambon- sur- Lignon in the mountains near Spain chose to follow their courageous pastor, Andre Trocme in taking in Jewish refugees.  Even when the Nazis came to the village and searched for them, the villagers did not give them up.  One of the villagers was sent to prison for refusing to tell. He died in a prison camp.  The village did this because of their strong faith and their own experiences of being persecuted. As the pastor said when asked about the Jews, “I don’t know what a Jew is. I only know human beings.”      

Sermon  August 9 , 2020 “ Am I My Brother’s Keeper?”  by Rev. June Fothergill

Scriptures:  Genesis 4: 1-16 ( not read) ; Genesis 33: 1-11; Genesis 37: 1-4,12-28

   A mother was preparing pancakes for her sons.  The boys began to argue over who would get the first pancake. Their mother saw the opportunity for a moral lesson. “ If Jesus were sitting here, He would say, ‘Let my brother have the first pancake, I can wait.”  One of the sons turned to the other and said, “ Cool, You can be Jesus.”  (p. 132 The Prairie Home Companion Pretty Good Joke Book.)

     The book of Genesis holds many stories about the relationship between brothers.  The first one is the story of Ain and Abel.  These two brothers are in competition about the offering they bring to God. Abel’s is more acceptable to God than Cain’s. Yet Cain has conversations with God in which God warns him about his anger.  But he goes ahead and kills his brother.  Then God asks him, “ Where is your brother?”  And Cain answers, “  I do not know . Am I my brother’s keeper? ( Genesis 4:9)

   “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is a question that reverberates through Genesis, even the whole Bible to today.  In what ways are we responsible for each other? Why is it that we hurt the people closest to us? What do we do about the problem of sibling rivalry?  In the Cain and Abel story there is depicted an old rivalry between the keepers of the soil or farmers and the keepers of the animals or ranchers/ cowboys. I think of the song in the musical Oklahoma with the line, “ Can the farmers and the cowboys just be friends?”  The deeper question for humankind is, “ Can people from different cultures be friends?” or are we always to be competing for land for power, for dominance? Can we truly be our brother’s keeper? Or is the guilt and shame of that first murder our human legacy?

   Genesis is not sure.  The stories of the brothers don’t fare very well. In each family there is conflict- Isaac and Ismael parted early on and only came together for their father’s funeral.  We have just been hearing of the conflict between Jacob and Esau and although Esau accepts his brother in the end, Jacob choses to separate their families.  And then we come to the story of Jacob’s sons. Joseph, the father’s favorite doesn’t fare very well with his brothers.   Some want to kill him and they sell him into slavery and tell their father that he is dead.  This disaster devastated Jacob. The family is clearly broken. When we look at the human side of the story we see our human sin, our struggle to overcome sibling rivalry, our broken human community. 

  This is still the news of our day. We know from studies of human origins and genetics that we are all brothers and sisters in a human family and are 99.9% genetically the same.  But knowing this and really living it still eludes us. 

   On June 15, 2020 the cover of  Times magazine was this picture ( show)

and around the outside on the red boarder was the names of 35 men and women whose deaths in many cases at the hands of police were the result of systemic racism and helped fuel the Black Lives Matter movement.  The person who created the picture, Titus Kaphar wrote a poem about it:

“ I cannot sell you this painting 2020”

I

Cannot

Sell

You

This

Painting

In her expression, I see the Black mothers

Who are unseen, and rendered helpless in

This violence against their babies.

As I listlessly wade through another cycle

Of violence against Black people,

I paint a Black mother…

Her eyes closed,

Furrowed brow,

Holding the contour of her loss.

Is this what it means for us?

Are black and loss

Analogous colors in America?

If Malcom could not fix it,

If Martin could not fix it,

If Michael,

Sandra,

Trayvon,

Tamir,

Brenna and

Now George Floyd

Can be murdered

And nothing changes…

Wouldn’t it be foolish to remain hopeful?

Must I accept that this is what it means to

Be Black in America?

Do

Not

Ask

Me

To be

Hopeful.

I have given up trying to describe the

Feeling of knowing that I cannot be safe

In the country of my birth…

How do I explain to my children that the

Very system set up to protect others could

Be a threat to our existence?

How do I shield them from the

Psychological impact of knowing that for

The rest of our lives we will likely be seen

As a threat, and for that

We may die?

A MacAurthur won’t protect you.

A Yale degree won’t protect you

Your well spoken plea will not

Change hundreds of years of

Institutionalized hate.

You will never be as eloquent as Baldwin

You will never be a kind as King…

So, isn’t it only reasonable to believe that

There will be no change soon?

And so those without hope…Burn

This Black mother understands the fire.

Black mothers understand despair.

I can change NOTHING in this world

But in pain

I can realize her

This brings me solace

Not hope, but solace.

She walks me through the flames of race

My Black mother rescues me yet again

I want to be sure that she is seen

I want to be certain that her story is told

And so, this time

America must hear her voice. This time

America must believe her

One

Black

Mother’s

Loss

WILL

Be

Memorialized

This time

I will not let her go

I Cannot

Sell You  This  Painting.

( Time, June 15, 2020 p. 4 Behind the Cover and Cover)

So what are we to do?  Of course, the human side of the story is only one aspect of the story. We also have God’s side. In some ways, God’s role is unclear enough that it’s been used to justify our division- the use of the mark of Cain as justification for black inferiority and slavery, the rivalry of Ishamel and Isaac to justify Jewish- Arab conflicts over land. Oh we humans are good at justifying our ideas. 

But God’s story is different.  Jacob gives us a clue when he tells Esau,” Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.” ( Genesis  33:10)  God’s side of the story invites/ demands our repentance.  It asks us to see  God’s face in our rival, our enemy, the ones we deem lesser or inferior or different.  Too see God’s face and repent.  When God asks Cain, “ Where is your brother?”  it is an invitation to repent. For God the answer to Cain’s question, “ Am I my brother keeper,” is “Yes.”    God wants us to repent and to shed all the ideas and history and cultural trash that keeps us from seeing each person as brother or sister, as equal in human worth, the face of God.

      I remember when I was younger, the oldest of three sisters, my middle sister and I used to have our moments of conflict, our sibling rivalry.  Then as young adults, we lived together for awhile and discovered that we both thought the other was smarter and better than ourselves.  This insight helped us to “ see the face of God’ in one another and to have a good laugh.

    I know that not all conflicts between siblings are easy to resolve. There is much brokenness in this human family.  But the God part of the story is that redemption and better relationships are possible.  It starts with a recognition of our failings, our broken places, our sins.  When we face the truth about these things, then we can repent. We can turn around toward God and a new way of being in the world.  We can be forgiven by God and begin to learn to see the “ face of God” in one another. 

    Friday, I read the Dear Abby column which included a person writing in about feeling guilty about an injustice.  The column read, “ About 40 years ago I did someone an injustice and I have felt guilty ever since.  I worked for a consulting firm… what fired an accounting clerk… I didn’t know why she was fired and I never saw a cross word exchanged between her and her supervisor. She seemed capable and friendly.  A prospective employer called me for a reference, and because my company told me that it did not respond to requests for references, I didn’t give her one.  Ever since I have wished I had shared what I knew about her. If I was allowed a do over, I would have told the employer about my positive experience with her…. Her being Black and not having my reference may have increased her difficulty in finding a job.  I am sharing this with your readers so they may avoid making a similar mistake.”  ( 8-7-2020 register Guard)

    Dear Abby responded that the letter writer should not feel guilty because on the advice of legal counsel some companies have the policy to only disclose dates of hire and discharge. She assured the writer that this has nothing to do with race or ethnicity and it was not a mistake to do as the employers instructed. 

  I would answer differently.   It seems to me that the writer has a sense that on the surface such policies pretend to be fair, but they allowed an injustice.  They can benefit the white employees who have more job opportunities and personal connections and less need of work place references.  The person knew that the system was stacked against the black woman and could have helped.   I see this letter as an act of repentance. I would say, you can do nothing to help her now, but go deeper. What does your guilt tell you about your current awareness of racism? Are there other things you can do for a fairer system or to fight racism? Take your guilt and let God guide you to new actions. Ignoring guilt and justifying polices that lead to racist actions does not help.   Repentance and learning new ways can.  The writer was realizing that they could be their sister’s keeper.

      In our broken world, in our broken relationships,  we can turn to God’s story and seek to find the forgiveness and healing  God offers so that we can grow in our ability to “ see the face of God” in one another and be our brothers and sisters keepers.  Amen.  

Sermon  August 16, 2020  “ Joseph and His Brothers” 

Scriptures:  Genesis 45: 1-15, 50: 15-21

     Alice and Mildred, two sisters kept up a feud for 30 years. On Mildred’s 70th birthday Alice, who was 75, felt a pang of remorse but it passed.  Yet, later when she heard Mildred was ill, she felt compelled to visit.  From her sick be, Mildred looked sternly at her sister. At last she said in a faith voice, “ The doctors say I am seriously ill, Alice. If I pass away I want you to know you’re forgiven. “  Alice started to say something but then Mildred added, “ But if I pull through, things stay as they are!”  (p. 130 Encyclopedia of Humor ed. Lowell D. Streiker)

    I remember several years ago at Myrtle Creek Church, I started a new small group by reading the Companions in Christ book about Forgiveness.  Yes, I think the ladies in the group did eventually forgive me. It was a tough book to work through because forgiveness is difficult!    When we have been deeply hurt by someone else. When our family has been hurt by someone’s actions.  Most of us don’t just run eagerly to forgiveness. 

   Not even Joseph in the biblical story.  If you read the whole story of how his brothers came too Egypt and how Joseph treated them- well it’s not so nice and neat.  When the brothers first arrived Joseph recognized them right away but he treated them harshly and called them spies and threw them in prison for a few days. Then, he demanded that they bring back their younger brother and that one of them be kept as a hostage.   When they come back with Benjamin, he tricks them by hiding a goblet in Benjamin’s belongings.  Oh, Joseph is not particularly nice to his brothers at first. In fact, they talk about it with each other and speculate about whether their troubles might be because of what they did to Joseph.  Reading the whole story, one has the sense that Joseph is getting just a bit of justice, like his brothers imagine. 

   I think that it is part of the path to forgiveness to want to seek justice.  It is a human tendency to want vengeance or some sort of accountability for harm done.   This is a reason we have developed a system of laws that we hope will help with this.  Why we get upset when those laws are not practiced with fairness and equity.   Rushing too quick to forgiveness can seem to be negating accountability and justice.  This is one reason why forgiveness is difficult.

   Yet, there is another reason forgiveness is difficult. That is that most of us when we have been hurt harbor emotions about that hurt.  To rush to forgiveness can sometimes mean discounting those feelings or a least burying them.  This can be harmful to us as an individual and to our communities.  Buried feelings don’t just go away. They can erupt into violence. They can slowly infect with depression.  Their hiddenness can perpetuate unjust systems and institutions. 

    Waltrina N.Middleton is one of the family members of the persons shot and killed at their Bible study by a white supremist they had welcomed to their meeting at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, SC.  Twelve people gathered that night in 2015.  Three survived, nine did not.   She suggests that for her the response that is most faithful for her is that not of forgiveness but of lament. 

    She writes, “  We can be committed to love and radical hospitality to welcoming the stranger into our midst, to extending a seat to join us at the table- while also maintaining our right to be angry and to righteously resist the violence against our humanity. To insist on a narrative of forgiveness is dehumanizing and violent, and it goes against the very nature of lament. As Christians we celebrate the donning of ashes and sackcloth as a priestly act of lamentation and mourning. Why deny families, in a watershed moment of grief the right to lament?   My family did not offer forgiveness in the courtroom. The words of a few became the headline for all, which became in turn a marketable narrative made for television and for profit, for pulpits and for politics in order to ease the guilt of white supremacy. “

“The insistence of a narrative of ‘the family forgives’ created a missed opportunity for a time of deeper truth telling, reconciliation and healing.”  (  P. 27, “Lament, not forgiveness”  Christian Century July 15, 2020.)

   I made such a mistake once in my ministry. Many years ago, I went to visit a family who had a conflict with another family in the church. They refused to come to worship because the other family as there. Looking back, I realize that I laid it on too thick about how they “should” forgive the other persons in the church.   I say it was a mistake because I didn’t truly listen to the person’s hurt and try to understand their reluctance to start the path to forgiveness.  I now realize that forgiveness is misused if one tries to impose it on someone else.  There are feelings and hurts that need to be expressed and find healing before true authentic forgiveness is possible.   The story of Joseph does not tell of him lamenting, but it does tell of him breaking down and weeping several times after encountering his brothers again.  Forgiveness is difficult because is involves the difficult times and emotions of our lives.

     Maybe that is why Jesus talks about forgiveness within the context of prayer.  When his disciples ask about how to pray, he gives us a prayer that includes the famous line, “forgive us our sins/ trespasses as we forgive those who have sinned/ trespassed against us.”  (Luke 11: 1-4)    It is clear that Jesus believed it was important to forgive others.  Yet, he also knew that to do so we need to have the connection of prayer.    For Joseph, he was able to forgive his brothers when he saw that God was at work even in the bad things that his brothers did to him.  He was able to put the hurt and his own suffering in a wider perspective.   He needed to weep; he needed to exact some punishment, I suspect he needed to hear them ask, “Maybe these bad things are happening to us because of what we did to Joseph.” (42:21) Yet, ultimately, he was able to reestablish a more positive relationship with his brothers because he saw them and what happened through the wider lens of God. 

    This is the spiritual work of forgiveness.  It can include taking the time and attentiveness to lament, to grieve, and to explore possibilities for restitution and accountability.  It can include the accompaniment of others who listen and care.    Finally, it involves listening to the movement of God in our lives toward abundant life.

  After many interviews with the families of those killed by a white supremist in Charleston , Emmanuel AME church, writer of an article in Time  several month later concluded  that the expression of forgiveness by family members was “ An expression of genuine hearts. The nine lost lives belonged to church folk, Wednesday people. True believers. And their family members- for all their anger and shock and loss- all in their own ways seek to honor that and give them a victory despite the killer’s hatred.”  ( “ Murder, Race and Mercy, Stories from Charleston” by David Von Drehle with Jay Newton-Small and Maya Rhodan, p.44f Time, Nov. 23, 2015)

   In God’s time, we will know when to let go of bitterness and desires for revenge.   With God’s tender care, we can discover healing and recovery from the wounds of life.  The journey of forgiveness begins when we turn to God.

  Who laments and grieves with us.

  Who suffers and dies with us. Who brings resurrection and transformation to us.  AMEN.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *