This week, I needed Houston, maybe this week we all needed Houston. But I definitely needed Houston.
For several weeks, since August 12th, I have been in a funk, as all of Charlottesville, as probably most of the nation, as no doubt YOU have been in a funk. We didn’t know until August 12th that there was this element, this hateful, gun-toting, angry element—or maybe even a movement, let’s hope not, but at least an element, among us. Yes, this “element” --we have been rubbing shoulders with, maybe standing in line at the grocery store with, maybe sitting next to in the movie theater with —yes, this element, we didn’t know about--until August 12th. This angry, despicable element has its collective teeth clenched in rage, and its collective finger on the trigger.
Oh, maybe we knew about it in an academic sense, like we know about human trafficking, and bombs, and terrorists and a lot else that is ugly in the world. But we didn’t KNOW about it—as a real, touch it, speak to it, up-close-and-personal threat. And then Charlottesville happened.
We witnessed it. We saw the camouflage outfits, the Ak 15s, the military boots; We saw the Nazi spider brandished on banners, or on placards. We heard the chants—“Blood and Soil,” and “We will not be replaced by the Jews.” No, until August 12th, we didn’t know about it in an up close and personal sense—that element, those people, our people, United States citizens people. We didn’t know these people among us could be like that.
For so long we had been deceiving ourselves. We thought our country was getting better, nicer. Our children, our grandchildren brought home brown skinned and black skinned and yellow skinned playmates, they brought home playmates who spoke with accents, and who maybe didn’t go to church—they went to a temple, or a mosque or a synagogue. You saw your children accepting all those differences, and like God in Genesis, you saw that it was good.
You had exchanges like this with the children you care about: “Mom, Layutha invited me to an Iftar at her Mosque can I go?” “What is an Iftar?” you said. “It’s the breaking of the fast during Ramadan.” You heard that, and your soul sang, Amazing Grace. Surely it was grace that had entered your child’s life and was allowing her to grow in her understanding of the Other. Maybe you thought, as I thought, that our nation was experiencing an evolution that was nothing less than a quiet, subtle revolution. It was happening in your neighborhood and if your neighborhood then in other neighborhoods, and it was happening in your children’s school, and if in your children’s school, then in other children’s schools. And if THAT was the case, then it was only a matter of time for the same thing to happen in our businesses and one day, yes, one day, even in the halls of congress.
But that ugly rally in Charlottesville, brought us to our senses. It pulled us down from the clouds into the muck and mud of hate, anger, racism, xenophobia. People don’t change. Societies don’t evolve. Yes, we had been deceiving ourselves.
And then came Houston—Oh, how we needed Houston.
Yes we needed Houston, to remind us that love still exists. Glory be, love is and has always been the default emotion in our country. People demonstrating love for each other—making sacrifices for each other--that is what we witnessed as we sat on our couches leaning into our TV screens this past week. We saw people reaching out to help each other with seeming disregard of skin color, accents, religious or political persuasions. “Do you need help? Just hang on now, the police helicopter is on its way. You must be thirsty. Here’s a bottle of water. Gee, you are soaked. Let me get you a dry blanket.” As far as I know, no one said, “I might give you this blanket, but tell me this first, are you a democrat or a republican? I have bottled water, but you see it’s not for Mexicans. It’s not for Jews. It’s not for Blacks. It’s not for Muslims.” That didn’t happen.
Yes, we needed Houston,
to remind us that most people are decent and good and loving. When the water level started rising in Houston, and Houstonians knew they had to leave their homes or perish, they didn’t grab guns or Confederate flags. They packed up their baby boy or girl, or maybe it was grandma in a wheelchair, or maybe it was a dog, or maybe it was a neighbor’s dog, or a neighbor’s grandma, or a neighbor’s baby, and they left everything else behind to be swallowed up by dirty, foul smelling water. The Houstonians had priorities. Their priorities were love of family, love of neighbor, love of humanity.
The ancient Greeks called that kind of love for humanity, Agape. Not erotic love, eros, not friendship love, philia, but love of fellow humans, Agape. You don’t have to have a personal relationship with another human being, to have AGAPE. You just have to have a deep regard for what it is to be human. Agape is the kind of love that Paul preached and wrote about. In first Corinthians 13: If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, AGAPE, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol.” And, later, “And now faith, hope and love, AGAPE, abide, but the greatest of these is love, agape, love.”
Agape was missing on August 12th. Not everywhere, but definitely among the White Supremacists. I guess you could call them noisy gongs. They definitely were noisy when they chanted their Nazi chants and screamed their racial slurs.
A fellow clergy person reflecting on that day, said this, “You know, Gay Lee, I tried to look into the eyes of the White Supremacists as they climbed down from the bus that brought them to our city. Those White Supremacists: their eyes did not connect with mine or with anyone’s that I could tell. They looked straight ahead. It was chilling. Do you think they had been told to not make eye contact?”
Maybe. Or maybe it was an intuitive, self-protection thing with them. You make eye contact with “the enemy,” then you are apt to recognize in the other, your shared humanity. You just might experience agape. Difficult to pull that trigger or raise that club, if you recognize in the other, a fellow human being with a job, with a family, with concerns and responsibilities.
As I have been reflecting on August 12th and the flooding in Houston this week, I have come to some conclusions—theological conclusions—so for the last part of this sermon I want to share those with you.
I think there are two ways to read our Bibles. One way is to see in it a progression, an evolution of our humanity. We read in the Old Testament, stories about battles, and about all the cruelty that humans are capable of inflicting on one another—maiming, murder, rape, incest. Just as one for instance, Joshua fits the battle of Jericho burning down the entire city and plundering it. Then Joshua puts that plunder in the Temple treasury. And his deeds are celebrated! Today we are apt to say to ourselves, “My, people back in Old Testament days really were mean-spirited.”
That idea is bolstered by what we find when we turn to the New Testament. Jesus healed, Jesus shared bread and wine. Jesus even wept, for heaven’s sake. And, Jesus warned us, “Those who live by the sword, will die by the sword.” Jesus himself, never took up a weapon. He shared stories about fathers loving their prodigal sons, and Samaritans showing compassion to Jews.
And so, maybe we conclude, humanity is making progress. Definite progress. Between the Old Testament and The New Testament civilization’s moral compass shifted. The needle moved. Or if we’re talking thermometers, we might say, that between Old Testament and New Testament times, the mercury climbed. That way of understanding scripture is our balm; it is a sedative for our sometimes frazzled souls. But is it true? We want to know the truth; only that can set us free—so says the gospel writer, John.
We have to concede that even in the Old Testament there are moments of Agape—the midwives saving baby Jewish boys from Pharaoh’s harsh decree; Pharaoh’s daughter plucking baby Moses from the river.
Likewise, in the New Testament there are moments when humanity is portrayed at its worst—Peter denying Jesus three times, Judas betraying Jesus to the Roman authorities; Roman and Jewish leaders colluding to crucify a good and loving Jesus.
A better way moving forward then, is to acknowledge that as in the Bible, so too in life--always good and evil, peace and violence, love and hate exist side by side. If we have taken a forward step at all toward the healing of the world, it is not even a millimeter, and as Robert Frost said, we have miles to go before we sleep.
Sad to say, but it is probably the case that good and bad will always co-exist. We can choose to ignore the evil, the violence, the hate, yet ignoring it does not make it go away. And sadly, ignorance is only bliss in the short term.
Still, let’s not forget to celebrate what is good. There IS a lot of love in the world. The actions of the good people of Houston are evidence of that. Let us never, ever forget Houston.
For you as for me. Amen