February 23, 2020, Knowing Our History by Pastor David Tatgenhorst
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-10, 15-18 GOD told Moses to tell the entire Israelite community these things: Be holy, for I, your GOD am holy. When you reap the harvest from your fields, do not cut the grain to the very edges of the field, or gather in all the gleanings. Nor are you to completely strip your vines or pick up the fallen fruit. Leave the extra grain and fruit for poor people and foreigners to gather for themselves. I am your GOD. Do not show partiality to the poor or give honor to the great. Judge our neighbor with fairness. Do not go about slandering others. Do not profit by the blood of your neighbor. I am the LIVING GOD. Do not nurse hatred for a neighbor. If you are angry with your neighbor, speak frankly about it, to avoid storing up ill feelings. Never seek revenge or hold a grudge toward your relatives. You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. I am your GOD.
As we reflect for a moment on these words, let’s notice God’s presence with us throughout our history - in the hard times and in the totally ordinary times and in the shiny times of transfiguration.
February 23, 2020 Knowing Our History St. Luke UMC
Not to brag, but I got an ‘A’ on my 10th grade history paper. It’s not the grade that makes me think about it in retrospect as an ordinary God moment though. It was the comment the teacher made about the paper, a kind of difficult comment.
Let me tell you the story. In 10th grade, I was in my public high school, Western Hills in Cincinnati. My teacher told us we had to write a term paper. This was the first term paper we ever had to write. It had to be 10 pages long, which sounded outrageous to me - like writing a book or something. The teacher told us to pick an event in history and try to narrow it down to something specific, so we could get our own perspective on that event.
I chose to write about the textile industry and worked really hard on the paper. I got it back and the teacher gave me an ‘A.” (I told you about that already.) Then he said something I’ve never forgotten. He said, “This is good, David. Thorough and well written. You know though, next time you might want to choose a topic you actually are interested in.”
That advice, embarrassing as it was, helped me reorient a bit, to realize that history and studying didn’t have to just be going through the motions, that busy work is not what we’re meant to be about. Enthusiasm and excitement can be a part of helping us know God’s presence, and even help us understand holiness.
Today we celebrate God’s presence with us on the holy mountaintop, the high before entering the valley of our Lenten journey starting on Wednesday. Lent is a more somber time, a holy time for introspection and fasting, and reflection. We know and we expect God is present with us during those low times as well, the lead up to Easter, the next big high point, the biggest, highest point.
Today is a big day at St. Luke. We share soup with each other, and this afternoon, we have this event that some of us in POWER Main Line have been working for for months. We expect 150 to 200 people here this afternoon to hear about the history of slavery in this country and why that is still relevant to us today.
I get to welcome people this afternoon, but I don’t get to say a lot more than that, so let me tell you why I think it is so important for us - particularly us white people - to uncover and pay attention to the history of slavery in this country. Slavery was such a significant event in our history that it still is operative in our society, still effecting the way interact and don’t interact with each other.
It’s not just because our scripture for today, this passage from the very center of the Torah, the middle book of Torah and the middle part of Leviticus… It’s not just because this central passage tells us to love our neighbor as ourself. It’s not just that this is the central message of Jesus as well. It’s that when we don’t face full truth or the history of slavery in this country, we do not understand or experience the full presence of God - in the highs or the lows or in the ordinary times.
When we deny the history of slavery, we deny our own history. We lie to ourselves about why things are the way they are. We lie to ourselves about why we live where we live, and why we have what we have. And then there’s all kinds of things that we can’t see. We learn to ignore the treatment that people of color endure. The toxic environment of asbestos in schools in the city is not our problem, because we can hardly see it or pay attention to it. We are anesthetized to the reality around us.
We get away with intending to help, intending to be a good neighbor, intending to make a difference. We give to charities that help an individual here and there to get food, but we don’t deal with what makes folks not have food in the first place. And then we isolate ourselves from other people because it is too painful to look at the realities that we are actually a part of. We lose out on real relationships with the majority of the world’s people. We start to live in fear of those people and think that it’s their fault.
This denial, blindness, isolation and fear are spirituality debilitating. They keep us from knowing God’s presence in our neighbor and in ourselves. We have trouble loving ourselves, let alone love our neighbor. These deficits can keep us from fully knowing God’s presence in our hardest times, and even in our best times and ordinary times.
We cannot be on the right side of history unless we know our history and how we are related to that history, unless we face our full history. It may be true that our ancestors did not enslave people directly, but almost all our ancestors benefited as we do from the enslavement and oppression that continues to divide people in our society.
The Leviticus passage says “Be holy, for I, your GOD am holy.” We really have trouble knowing what holiness is - and that God is really with us - holiness in our every day ordinary lives. We think holiness is reserved for the hermit or the saint - the Mother Teresa’s or the Martin Luther Kings. But God is with us in every part of our lives. We are called to live in holiness, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to live the ‘alien’ as ourselves.
Holiness is not some ethereal state of being. It is how we act in everyday places and relationships. Leviticus talks about holiness being the act of leaving the edge of our fields unharvested so that people who are hungry can have something to eat. Holiness is not always about making grand sacrifices to God, or speaking pious prayers. Holiness is deciding not to lie, even unconsciously, holiness is deciding to share what we have and not to take what belongs to someone else.
Holiness is not getting an ‘A’ on a term paper. Holiness is getting excited about learning and getting excited about making a difference for someone who is hurting. Holiness is knowing that God is with us right now as we share soup with each other and beyond this place. Holiness is deciding to learn about our history and connecting with each other in our broader community to make the future different than our past.
Holiness is opening our eyes even when we know we might be embarrassed by what we see. Holiness is connecting with each other beyond the artificial boundaries our society and our history has set up for us. Holiness is facing our fears - even death itself and not letting them rule us, as we sing to death, “I’ll Fly Away.” Holiness is knowing God with us, all the time, in the highs and the lows and all the times in between. Holiness is knowing that God will turn all of our history and all of our present into opportunities for love.
Responsive Hymn: 2282 I’ll Fly Away