Let Us Ramble: Nineveh and Change

I would like to begin this entry by pointing out that I sometimes struggle with the work of the Council of Bishops. I find that they often equivocate on challenging issues and I long for firm statements marked by honest reflection on scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. I long for deep statements based on the discernment that comes from the Holy Spirit. I sometimes feel disappointed, but that’s what happens when imperfect people gather together. Disappointment happens and that disappointment is inevitable. I still respect that body of leaders and consider their words carefully.

So, when I see statements like the one made last week by the Council of Bishops, I find myself doing more than simply paying close attention. I practically cheered when I read the Council of Bishops refer to racist behavior as racist, harmful behavior as being harmful, and urging on United Methodists to call for an apology from President Trump. These unequivocating and straightforward statements were startling coming from the voice of the bishops of the United Methodist Church. I would expect such words from an individual bishop, the General Board of Church and Society, or even individual conferences, clergy, or churches. As it would be almost impossible for the General Conference to gather globally to release a real-time call for repentance, this is probably as close as a statement can come to being a statement on behalf of the church. In the very least, such unity among so many of the leaders of the denomination is a powerful statement. My wife summed it up when she looked it up last night after we discussed how the statement had affected me. She simply said: “Wow!”

So, today I am honoring their request to call for an apology. To be honest though, I do not believe an apology will be enough. I want to call for repentance, but not just from Donald Trump. I believe we have an illness in our society that has allowed us to bring this kind of behavior to the highest levels of leadership. I believe we need to take a long, hard, and somber look at ourselves.

This past weekend the Revised Common Lectionary scripture included John 1:46. I did not preach out of the lectionary this past Sunday, but I know many of my colleagues did preach out of that prophetic moment in scripture. Jesus is beginning his ministry and calls Philip to follow. Philip comes across several of his friends and invites them on the journey with him. One of them, Nathanael, asks Philip if anything good could possibly come out of Nazareth…

Many of my colleagues point out that Nazareth was one of “those places.” Recent national news has focused conversation on several of “those places” in our own world. Could anything good come out of Haiti? Could anything good come out the heart of Africa? Could anything good come from one of “those places?” How are those places tied to the people who live in them? What does it say about the descendants of those places when we speak it such hateful terms?

As many of “those places” are filled with people created in the image of God, many of my colleagues had a field day, but I avoided the temptation to lash out. Today is a national holiday celebrating Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man whose ancestry arose out of one of “those places.” I wanted to save my words for a more fitting day like today.

So today, I wanted to begin with a story. The story is an old story and was once passed from family to family and from community to community until it was written down.

Once upon a time, there was a kingdom in a far off land. The people of this kingdom were wicked, cruel, and hostile. The king was powerful, mighty, and by no means innocent. People affected by the people of this kingdom cried out to God on account of the kingdom and the great city within it. God heard the cries of the injured, saw the wickedness of the land, and sent a prophet to tell them that their end was coming. For three days the prophet walked across the city and stated their fate.

People burst into a panic. They stripped off their fine garments and covered themselves in sackcloth. They stopped eating—mighty and meek, all of the people joined in mourning. When the king of the kingdom heard the news, he joined in their grief, he sat down in ashes in garments made of sackcloth. He decreed with his nobles that all would join in the great mourning. Humans and animals together joined in the mourning.

God saw their repentance and changed their fate. Their humility and repentance saved them from their own destruction. The prophet was not exactly happy about the situation, but repentance came to that city.

Those of you who enjoy your Hebrew Scriptures probably realize that I was retelling the story found in the book of Jonah about the city of Nineveh. In my career I have preached several times about the story of Jonah being swallowed up and many more times about how Jonah needed to learn about compassion, but I am not certain that I have ever preached on the subject of what happens in Nineveh itself. Nineveh, the great city and all of her people, has sadly become a bit of a means for other lessons in most of my sermons, messages, and reflections.

Yet, I find myself drawn to Nineveh as I consider recent events. In the translation that goes by the name the New Revised Standard Version, Hebrews 13:1-3 says:

“Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”

The author of Hebrews calls on the church to do many things in this chapter of scripture. We are called to things like mutual love, empathy, compassion, and even to simply remember what others are going through in different circumstances. We are warned not to forget our duty toward hospitality, for who knows when we might seek to entertain strangers and instead find ourselves in the company of angels?

As a Christian, when I hear words like those shared by the President of the United States last week, I find myself appalled. When the door is slammed shut in the face of people and places where there are serious problems, Is slamming the door in the face of those facing modern struggles really all that different than the people of the early church forgetting those struggling in prison or facing torture? If these conversations really do go hand in hand with conversations around harder standards for asylum seekers, then we need to realize that the words of Hebrews might apply directly to us without much interpretation.

it is my great fear that we are slamming the door in the face of not only angels, but in the face of people created in the image of God. We are slamming the door in the face of those who call out for justice to a God who listens. When we willingly forget our duty to Christ by neglecting love, compassion, empathy, and even memory, we are doing something incredibly wicked. Do we actually believe that we are so unique as a nation that we are above reproach? Where does that kind of blindness come from as a people? Do we forget that God is ruler above nations and not for nations?

Surprisingly enough, when I googled the phrase “sackcloth suit,” there were entries and sponsored ads. Unsurprisingly, the Brooks Brothers suit Google tried to sell me was not made up of sackcloth. In honesty, looking back into Catholic tradition, there has been a history of “hair shirts” made of irritating haircloth meant to inspire discomfort and thus inspire humility, which is quite fascinating. Looking at the history of the practice, the rarity of practice in modern times, and it seems unlikely that I could find any hairshirts at the local mall.

Of course, that’s probably a moot point. I have difficulty seeing sackcloth on many of the folks that I see when I walk past an interview on a television in a store, in restaurant, or on my Facebook feed. I will say that I did go out of my way to pick up a swatch of burlap while out after church yesterday and attempted to make a burlap necklace. I can tell you two things:

  • First, I’m not great at arts and crafts.
  • Second, wearing it for a couple of hours was a real irritating experience. My neck was itchy, irritated, and it made my shirt look terrible. I was considering wearing it for Lent, but it was so difficult to wear without being noticeable that I am going to have to consider alternatives if I am seeking to practice my piety before God and not before other people.

My terrible necklace, wound around my wrist, so you don’t need to see the hints of gray beginning to show up in my goatee…

The attempt did answer a really important question for me though. Is it comfortable to go out of one’s way to repent? Oh, heavens no. The King of Nineveh and the people of that place must have been really uncomfortable and very motivated. They went out of their way to not only refrain from food and drink, but went further to introduce a level of discomfort into their life that must have been incredibly frustrating.

The Council of Bishops is correct. President Trump’s words were racist, are offensive to all people of God who believe that the people of those nations are made in the image of God, and they caused a significant amount of harm both internationally and domestically. President Trump needs to repent. We need to repent also.

I say these things as someone who has needed to do a significant amount of repenting in his own life. I grew up on Grand Island, NY. I grew up believing the Seneca Nation was trying to take away our hometown and I had a lot of very strong opinions about the Seneca. I grew up among a people who looked at the native population of what was my hometown with a less than Christian light. Let’s be honest, at times I was downright racist. I thought of reservations in ways like our President speaks about other sovereign nations like those named last week.

I was wrong. The things I believed were wrong. The way I acted in my heart towards my human sisters and brothers in the Seneca nation was wrong.

My change in attitude started thanks to a band called Five Iron Frenzy singing about social justice and introducing me to a book. I read“Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee” by Dee Brown as a teenager and it confused me greatly. The stories I read were so unlike the stories people had shared throughout my life.

My convictions continued to change when I was invited to go on a Volunteer in Mission trip to Four-Corners Native American Ministries. I was broken down further in my heart while helping fix windows in the homes of widows, standing underneath the Window Rock in the heart of the country of the Wind Talkers, looking over American flags flying over the graves of brave patriots and warriors, and walking through the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, AZ. My best friend Michael (rest in peace, my brother) stood with me under a blue sky as I began to confess my sin and my struggle underneath the eye of Window Rock. It was Michael who told me that I had a lifetime of amends to make and that I would have to keep working at things. I have sought to challenge and grow in my understanding since that day and since that conversation.

I was so ignorant and so foolish to accept as normal what I had swallowed hook, line, and sinker as a kid. I never had an issue with hanging around North Buffalo near my grandmother’s house, even as the neighborhood changed from a primarily European neighborhood to a more diverse neighborhood. I was happy to spend time within walking distance of a comic book store and a “Record Theatre.” (Thanks for the memories Mr. Silver…) I didn’t care who lived between Grandma’s house and my comics and my music. To this day, I still feel more nervous on a reservation than I do in a city, but I know this one thing to be true: If I believe that God’s image is in all people, then all people are worth treating as children of God, whether they live in a city, on a country road, in a Haitian village, on the coast of Africa, or anywhere in God’s beautiful creation.

I do not aim criticisms at the President of the United States lightly or from a place of superiority. I have been complicit in my own biases over the years. Still, truth must be held as truth. Evil is evil. Racism is racism. There is a severe need for not only an apology, but for true repentance when we engage in the acts of accepting and advocating for evil.

The old phrase of Rev. Charles F. Aked stands true as much today as it was in the fight against the abuses of alcohol: “It has been said that for evil men to accomplish their purpose it is only necessary that good men should do nothing.” As a people, we cannot in good conscience stand by in times like these without calling for repentance. What’s more, we cannot in good conscience stand by without examining our own behavior and seeing if we are also in need of repentance.

May God help us all in these challenging times. May we move towards repentance without hypocrisy.

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