Monday, July 11, 2016

A Moment of Clarity

Facing Forward: Bearing Fruit
Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 13: 6-9   
First Baptist Church, Asheville, NC
July 10, 2016

Note: There are many things that must change on many levels: operational, legislative, executive, judicial, and electoral. This sermon focuses on the one level that each person can and must change: the relational. 

One afternoon some years ago, while a pastoral staff was gathering for its weekly meeting, one staff members finished a phone conversation with her husband with a cheery, “I love you too, sweetie. Bye bye!” whereupon several of her colleagues responded with a spontaneous and unison, “Aaw!” The young minister looked momentarily taken aback; and then she looked around and said quietly, “Well, in his line of work, you never know when a good-bye might be the last one.” Her husband, you see, was a city policeman, and now it was her colleagues’ turn to be taken aback. I thought of that exchange on Friday morning when like many of you, I awoke to learn that five law enforcement officers in Dallas, TX—Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa—had said their last goodbyes without having known it.

That’s not the only flashback I’ve had this week. The shooting deaths of Alton Sterling in Louisiana on Tuesday and Philando Castile in Minnesota on Wednesday took me back to another incident, one that didn’t make the news. A college student out for the evening in a town like any other town ended up beaten and incarcerated. When the investigation into the charges against him was complete, it turned out that his only crime had been being black at night in an encounter with the wrong officer of the law. No one involved wanted the story told. The local law enforcement agency wanted it to go away, as did the local Solicitor, as did the college where the young man was a student and an athlete, as did his father who owns a business with sensitive law enforcement connections. It didn’t end like the stories from Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights this week, but it could have.

For my wife and me, it was a deeply disturbing reminder that parenting a young black man in the United States is a very different experience than parenting a young white man. What happened to him could very well have happened to our son who was one of his best friends, a teammate, and a frequent companion out on the town. Except that it would not have been likely to have happened to our son because in spite of how much time he has spent over the years with black teammates and roommates and coaches and friends, he can’t commit the crime of being black at night in an encounter with the wrong officer of the law.

But this week we may have arrived at a place we have never been before. Van Jones, a political activist, commentator, and attorney, says that police and African-Americans are now more alike than they realize. “I think there may be only two groups in the US who actually can understand each other. One: black young people. Two: the police. They literally are having and describing the same experience.” They both say they feel vulnerable. Both say they feel like it’s open season on them to be shot at and shot up. Jones says, “If to both sides it seems that the world is misunderstanding them, it’s a good time to say, ‘You know what? Let me open my heart up a little bit.’ And listen to the pain of the law enforcement community, listen to their fear, listen to their sense of being labeled and wronged and misunderstood. Or let me listen to those African-American kids. . . . they . . . feel like they have a target on their back because of their skin color. Maybe that’s a reason for them to actually have some common ground. We can actually, rather than turning on each other, turn to each other. Instead of coming apart, we can come together. Because there’s now enough pain in both communities that we should be able to understand each other.”

I want to suggest this morning that Van Jones has put his finger on something that is bigger even than the horrific events of the past week. “Let me open my heart up a little bit.” And listen to the vulnerability and the pain and the fear and the sense of being labeled and wronged and misunderstood and targeted. “Rather than turning on each other, turn to each other. Instead of coming apart, we can come together.” Just maybe we can.

Listen to what happened in Andover, MA, on Friday morning. Natashah Howell, a young African-American described a trip to a convenience store in a Facebook post [reproduced here as it was written].
As I walked through the door, I noticed that there were two white police officers (one about my age the other several years older) talking to the clerk (an older white women) behind the counter about the shootings that have gone on in the past few days. They all looked at me and fell silent. I went about my business to get what I was looking for, as I turned back up the aisle to go pay, the oldest officer was standing at the top of the aisle watching me. As I got closer he asked me, “How I was doing? I replied, “Okay, and you? He looked at me with a strange look and asked me, “How are you really doing?” I looked at him and said “I’m tired!” His reply was, “me too.” Then he said, “I guess it’s not easy being either one of us right now is it.” I said, “No, it’s not.” Then he hugged me and I cried. I had never seen that man before in my life. I have no idea why he was moved to talk to me. What I do know is that he and I shared a moment this morning, that was absolutely beautiful. No judgments, No justifications, two people sharing a moment.”
Her hashtag at the end of the post was #Foundamomentofclarity.

That moment of clarity, that moment of turning to each other instead of on each other, of coming together instead of coming apart, is a model for what must happen in this congregation, in this community, in this state and region and nation and world. I’d like to propose it as a new liturgical moment. I propose that “It’s not easy being either one of us right now is it” . . .  “No, it’s not” . . . be adopted as a 21st-century variation on “The peace of Christ be with you” . . . “And also with you.” “I guess it’s not easy being either one of us right now” . . . “No, it’s not” . . .  That would pretty much take in all of us in this room in one relationship or another in church, in school, at work, at home, in the community. That moment of clarity models the way forward for us all on Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, on Muslim-Christian relations, on immigration, on sexual orientation and identity, on same sex marriage, and on which bathroom which law requires me to use when I’m in the state of North Carolina. You name it, it’s not easy being any of us right now; and therein is common ground we must cultivate and plant and water and feed and week and harvest.

In Luke 13, Jesus told a parable in which a man with a fig tree in his vineyard came looking for fruit on it but found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” The gardener replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down” (Luke 13:6-9). The parable that Jesus tells puts us all on notice that what we are most looking for and what we most need right now takes years of cultivation and care to come to fruition.

This morning’s epistle lesson from Colossians 1 says in verse 6 that the gospel has been “bearing fruit and growing in the whole world” and bearing fruit in the congregation at Colossae. Verse 10 goes on to characterize leading “lives worthy of the Lord” as bearing fruit in every good work. And bearing fruit is a long, slow process that requires constant cultivation and care. The exchange in the convenience store between Nastasha Howell and the police officer was spontaneous on the face of it, but I assure you that there is a long backstory that brought these two unlikely strangers to a hug at a time when racial tensions in our country are running the highest they have since the 1960s. That hug didn’t just happen: It was years in the making, just like the figs on the tree in the parable in Luke 13. One of my grandfathers grew up working for a farmer who had a peach orchard on his farm, and my grandfather liked to say that the best way to tell that a peach is ripe is when it drops off the tree. The peaches are dropping off the trees right now. The trees are heavy with fruit, and the fruit stands are full. But a peach tree must be cared for and cultivated for three years—and in some climates for four years—before it is ready to bear fruit. “Bearing fruit and growing,” living lives that are worthy of the Lord, bearing fruit in every good work, requires a long-term commitment of time and energy and will and resources. And whatever else it takes, it requires opening up one’s heart to share in the vulnerability and the fear, to listen to the sense of being labeled and wronged and misunderstood and targeted.

In Galatians 5:22-23, the apostle Paul offers us an inventory of what he calls the “fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. That’s the fruit we are called to bear in living lives worthy of the Lord. It takes years of cultivation and care for love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control to bud and bloom and set and grow and ripen and then to go to seed so that the gospel will bear fruit and grow in the whole world and in a congregation and in a community and a state and a nation. It takes years, sure, but you can break those years of cultivation and care down into moments of clarity in which you open your heart to simply ask someone how they are really doing, and in the common ground of your mutual vulnerability and fear, turn to each other instead of on each other, come together instead of coming apart, and in so doing model living lives worthy of the Lord, bearing fruit in every good work. #Foundamomentofclarity. May it be so for you. Make it be so for you. 

Copyrighted © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Rogers. This material may be copied or disseminated for non-commercial use, provided this notice is included. The author can be contacted at