Persevere Through Hate…to Love
A Holy Wednesday Sermon
April 17, 2018
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
You can definitely count me as one who cringes when recalling her youth. I wasn’t at all comfortable in my small Iowa town. I didn’t fit. I didn’t identify with many of the values I saw, and every day they made me more eager to leave. There were many reasons why – my family was poor, my dad was chronically ill, I was chubby and didn’t look right, and – yes – we didn’t own a farm. Most of all, we were considered different for our heritage and beliefs. We were the only Jewish family in a county of Lutherans and Catholics. The small town where I was raised was away from the rest of my extended family, far enough away to be considered too “Jewish” by the locals and too “rural” by our synagogue 20 miles away. It was routine to hear religious insults in public school, and on Sunday be snubbed by Temple kids at religious school. I was never comfortable; I always was the “other,” always the square peg.
Where I grew up, swastikas and anti-Semitic statements were graffiti on trash cans in my high school. People thinking they were well-meaning tried to convert me in elementary school because their upbringing and religious systems told them this little kid was different, she was wrong, and she was going to hell. This was a place where my kindergartener little brother tried to fight a boy who was hurling Nazi references my way while yelling at my best friend for having the audacity to be black and Latina.
Back then, I couldn’t stand up for myself effectively. I was just a little kid and I didn’t have any power. I picked my battles, and I quietly identified a few allies, but I really just wanted to be left alone to play with my friends and be normal. Not to be singled out by teachers to bring in “your traditions” to share in December. Not to feel like a traitor to my congregation while singing Christmas carols with the rest of my class in my elementary school choir. But, in the end, few stood up for me in my town or in the temple, and few were willing to use their privilege and relative status to steer hearts and minds toward acceptance. So, I kept my head down, and my happiest day in that town was the day I left for college. I will always have a link to that place, where my mother still lives and where my father is buried, but I always return with a knot in my stomach.
Later, as an adult, I inexplicably found myself gravitating toward Christianity, dragging all my associated baggage behind me. I wanted to comfortably fit into a place bigger than myself. I felt the injustice of the world and was seeking answers, and I thought I glimpsed them in the church. I saw the power of praying with my full heart and mind in community, and the force for good from a congregation. I struggled with the pull toward Christianity for years, observing from the sidelines, until one day I came to an unexpected thin place and my fear and doubt fell away.
Looking back on my youth, I think I was lucky. My feelings of exclusion and my lack of power were damaging, but they didn’t break me, and they didn’t put my family in significant danger. Today, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, homophobia, and misogyny are on the rise, with scapegoat rhetoric and hate violence becoming more brazen. Hate like this is impossible to quantify accurately; if you aren’t directly affected, it can be easy to pretend it doesn’t exist. The media tries to summarize the trends, but can do little more than piece together the voices of each single victim and name larger acts of violence. Some people dismiss these victims’ truths and experiences as fake news. Some think that because they haven’t been a victim of hate, the hate must not exist. (e.g. It’s all lies. You can’t believe those people and their complaining, who are they? Believe me instead, because I have money. Believe me, because I have respect. Believe me, because I have power.) Yet others hear these desperate pleas for change toward equity, dignity, and safety, and rather than respond with compassion, they instead perceive a threat to their own power, their own privilege, their own civil rights. Their feelings of powerlessness lead them to find something, or someone, to control. The most effective way to control the voices of pain and protest is to muffle them, end them through hate. Stop and listen. As the voices of the afflicted are silenced, whose voices are getting louder?
Even with all this injustice and inequity, I do have faith that God will ultimately heal the world and bring justice. However, this work must happen through God’s servants, witnesses, and the faithful. It must happen through us. But, it won’t come easy. There are few quick rewards in this work to ceaselessly love our neighbor as ourselves. We must doggedly stay the course by continuing to spread compassion, faith, and love, and to tirelessly call to end acts and systems that prop up hate and strip people of their dignity and rights. Today’s epistle lesson from Hebrews tells about the power of harnessing the voices and actions of the faithful for good, and to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”
As a single voice, a person has limited power to effect change. But, joining your voice with others amplifies a message until it is eventually heard by those with the most power and influence. This is how change is made. This is the work that is happening in Minnesota as we speak, through ISAIAH. ISAIAH is the epitome of today’s epistle lesson; it joins voices from faith communities together toward a multiracial democracy and a caring economy for everyone. I volunteer for ISAIAH because I identify with the faith values it embraces. I was initially drawn to the church for its innate reflex to care for those in need, but I came to ISAIAH so that the church’s values of equity, dignity, and hope could in turn be amplified to heal the community. ISAIAH has turned out to work for affordable housing, child care, a living wage, healthcare, education equity, and climate justice, among others. They team with local faith leaders to find why people are hurting, and then use the amplified ISAIAH voice across Minnesota to speak for them, to increase the power of the silenced so they can speak their truth to power, and to run with perseverance toward a just society.
To close, I’ll lean on one of my favorite justice statements, from the American Transcendentalist Theodore Parker (more famously attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.): “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I say it to myself, I write it on protest signs, I read it from many others who also find resonance in this soothing balm of a quote. It reminds me that I can’t give up. The road to justice and equity will not be smooth and straight, but I’m on the path with many others because God asks me, asks us all, to persevere and stay the course in love for our neighbor.