Category Archives: Politics and Culture

Nothing, Something, Everything — The Gospel & Wonder Woman

By request, here is the sermon I preached on Wonder Woman two Sundays ago. This isn’t exactly what was said, but a close approximation. If you read my article for the Presbyterian Outlook, you will recognize some of those ideas, which I expand upon.

(Ten on Tuesday will be back next week! In the meantime, here are the archives.)

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
St. Matthew Presbyterian Church
July 9, 2017
Matthew 25:31-46

 

31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.” 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

I had a friend some years ago, an older gentleman, who would answer the question “How are you?” with “Better than I deserve.” It always made me chuckle, wondering what kind of trouble he was getting into that he somehow escaped unscathed. I would also flash back to Reformed Theology class with George Stroup at Columbia Seminary and the idea of unmerited grace. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” Paul reminds us in Romans, and our Brief Statement of Faith bluntly agrees: “We deserve God’s condemnation.” The redemption Christ offers us is better than we deserve.

I was amused to hear my friend’s greeting echoed in the recent Wonder Woman movie, in a toast that three good-hearted scoundrels share with one another:

Charlie: May we get what we want…
Steve Trevor: …and may we get what we need.
Sameer: But may we never get what we deserve.

What do we deserve?

*          *          *

Wonder Woman, or Diana as she’s known in the film, is raised by a tribe of Amazons on the island of Themyscira, and their mission is to fight on behalf of humanity. Specifically, the Amazons believe that Ares, the god of war, has ensnared humankind in endless conflict, and once Ares is defeated, an era of peace will reign. Diana takes on this mission after meeting Steve Trevor, an American soldier who’s been spying on the Germans on behalf of the British in World War I. It’s “the war to end all wars,” Trevor tells Diana, and that’s all the invitation brave Diana needs to leave Themyscira and take on Ares—and thus, to defeat war itself.

Late into the movie, a character tries to convince Diana that humanity is not worth her heroism—they are savages, prone to tear one another apart, with or without Ares. They are getting what’s coming to them, the character says; leave them to their self-imposed suffering and don’t be sullied by their sins. Diana’s own mother says as much to her: “They don’t deserve you.”

Is that true? Do we deserve to be left alone in our suffering, forced to find our way without any higher sense of guidance or hope?

In my more cynical moments, and steeped in the news of the day, I can’t disagree. I look at each new atrocity we commit against one another—the erosion of kindness, our contempt for the natural creation, the -isms that stubbornly cling to us despite the fact that we should really know better by now—and I think, “Jesus died for this?!” Surely there’s some other two-bit planet in the universe that needs redeeming, and yet is slightly more worthy of the gift than we numbskull earthlings.

*          *          *

In today’s scripture, we’re told that there will be a grand sorting in the kingdom of God. Some, like sheep, will be gathered to Jesus’ right hand, having succeeded to feed the hungry and visit the stranger. Others, the goats, will be on his left hand, punished for having failed to feed, clothe and visit.

So… the question inevitably hangs in the air at this point…
Which are we? Sheep or goats?

Well, let’s find out. Should be simple enough. I’d like you to raise your hand if you’ve ever given food to a hungry person, or offered clothing to someone who had little, or if you’ve visited a stranger or someone who was sick, or given water to a thirsty person.

Impressive show of hands.

Now I’d like to ask you to raise your hand if you’ve ever failed to give food to a hungry person, or failed to offer clothing to someone who had little, or failed to visit the stranger or the sick, or not given water to a thirsty person.

So many hands! Well, this complicates things. And if I’m honest, I’ve been in the second category way more often than the first.

We don’t “deserve” saving… and yet the gift is given nonetheless.

Diana feels a sense of responsibility to protect humanity—it’s her reason for being, the pivotal moment she’s been training for her whole life. “Who would I be if I stay [on Themyscira]?” she asks her mother. For Diana, whether the world “deserves” her is irrelevant. She loves the world, and has the power to intervene on its behalf, and so she will. (Sound like someone we know?)

At a pivotal moment in the movie, Diana takes a stand against this business of deserving. She says, “It’s not about what you deserve. It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.”

*          *          *

Gerard Hughes writes a little piece about God, comparing him to a character Hughes calls Good Old Uncle George. I wonder if he is a familiar character to some of you:

Good Old Uncle George is the relative that our parents takes us to visit, who they describe as very loving and very powerful. And when we come to visit, he tells us how happy he is to see us, and then says, “Now I want you to visit me every week, and let me show you what will happen if you don’t.” And he takes us down to his basement, where we hear the most awful screams and feel the heat of his fiery furnace, and we see the torment on the people’s faces. And then we head home clutching our mother and father’s hand, and they say, “Oh, don’t you just love Uncle George with all your heart and soul, mind and strength?” And the truth is that we detest the man, but we know we can’t say that. And from a young age a strange “religious schizophrenia” sets in. We know we are supposed to love him, but in reality, we are terrified and repulsed by this man. (paraphrased from Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God by Dennis, Matthew and Sheila Linn)

If you have a view of God that looks like Good Old Uncle George, you’re going to read this text as a warning of what will happen if you stray just a little bit from the right path.

But if your view of God is different—if you believe that it’s not about what you deserve, but what you believe, and if you believe in the power of love—you’re going to read this text differently.

Maybe Jesus preaches a strong word about sheep and goats, NOT because he’s Good Old Uncle George trying to smite us the minute we slip up.

Maybe he preaches sheep and goats because he cares so much about this world that he really, really wants us to know: You are always called to be sheep. You are always called upon to feed and clothe and comfort and visit. That is never not your job. That task is going to be yours for as long as you draw breath.

*          *          *

Several years ago, I was preparing to preach for Easter, and I had two stories I wanted to tell, and couldn’t decide which one to go with. Both helped flesh out the Easter message, that new life we yearn for, the new life that’s promised in the resurrection. One story was modest and small in scope. It was an ordinary tale of kindness, neighbor to neighbor. The other story was grand and sweeping, a dramatic tale of daring sacrifice and transformation. I became curious—what do people want to hear? The relatable tale, that feels like something we can relate to, or the dramatic story that can inspire us to risk greatly? I took an informal poll, and found that—of all the luck!—people were equally divided on what kind of stories resonate with us.

I saw a similar tension play out in the story of Wonder Woman. When Diana first meets Steve Trevor, he explains why he is fighting in the war: “My father told me once, he said, ‘If you see something wrong happening in the world, you can either do nothing, or you can do something.’ And I already tried nothing.”

And so for a lot of the movie. Diana is kind of tagging along, as the various characters put these little plans in place to try to do their own small part, to do something to try to help end the conflict. They come to a place along No Man’s Land in an entire town is suffering and held captive. Diana desperately wants to help this little town, but the other characters, armed with their “something,” tell her no. We need to keep going. Let’s just do our small part. Let’s stay focused on our own contribution. We can’t save everyone.

And Diana says No: I’m tired of doing Something. I’m tired of playing small. It’s time to do everything. All of the things! It’s time to give everything I have to the people who need me right here, right now.

And she steps out of that trench and steps into her own power. She becomes who she was created to be—she becomes Wonder Woman.

And later in the movie, the man who was content just to do something, ends up making a profound sacrifice. Because she gave everything she had, he was inspired to give everything he had.

And so, are we called to the small faithful gesture, or the bold sacrifice of faith? It has to be both. We live in the space, the “no man’s land,” between Something, and Everything… knowing we can only do what we can do, but knowing there will be times when we’re called to sacrifice everything we can possibly give.

Jesus sets a high bar in this text. Everyone we feed, or fail to feed, or clothe, or fail to clothe, or visit, or ignore, is Christ himself. And that is the challenge of our faith. But the one who judges us was also himself judged, found guilty, and suffered the depths of human pain. He was arrested in prison—sick from being beaten—and nobody came to visit him. He was thirsty on that cross and they didn’t give him water, they gave him sour wine. He was naked, and they did not clothe him, in fact they divided up his clothes to keep for themselves. He was a stranger to them.

But his story transcends all of that. His resurrection doesn’t just change some of the things. It changes everything. We need not fear death and darkness and deserved judgment, because they are not the whole story.

The whole story is love and life and transformation and hope.

It’s a story we know well, and one we can never fully know, but we glimpse just enough of it to feed and clothe and quench and visit and heal another day.

The story lives in the words of preacher William Sloane Coffin, who used to bless his congregations at the end of worship with these words:

May God give you grace never to sell yourself short.
Grace to risk something big for something good.
And grace to remember that the world is too dangerous for anything but truth,
And too small for anything but love.

(…Diana would approve!)

Wednesday Words: How to Be an Activist, DeRay McKesson

People ask me all the time, “What should I do?” What can they do? And there’s no simple answer to that. But one answer that’s true for everybody is to start where you are. Harriet Tubman didn’t call me and tell me what to do to make me an organizer! I had to start where I was, and that’s the story of any organizer. You probably have an idea. You probably are thinking about an issue, but you’re waiting for somebody to give you permission, you’re waiting for somebody to tell you that that’s the one issue at matters the most, and the reality is that there’s so much to deal with. So you should do the thing right now that you think is the most important, that you actually already have some of the core skills [to address].

Organizing is about mobilizing your formal or informal networks for change. Or for an action. So when you know that family member who calls all the aunts and uncles, or maybe that family member is you, to get everybody to go and do one thing, that is mobilizing an informal network for an action. And then organizing is just taking that and scaling it up for good. So, start where you are.

-DeRay McKesson, Pod Save the People, June 6, 2017

That’s the heart of improvisation, by the way. We think that improv is about the wacky unexpected action from out of left field. And sometimes it is. But more often, it’s a series of small moves that build collaboratively and organically over time.

What do YOU think is most important? And what do YOU have some of the skills to address?

Start where you are, to make the world more equitable, just, and kind.
Make an offer.
Do what’s obvious.
Do what’s interesting.
Do what’s next.

Ten for Tuesday: Concerned Citizen Edition

Last week’s Tuesday Ten was lighter than this one. Feel free to peruse it again if that’s what you need.

If you need some inspiration mingled with motivation to get your butt in gear, today’s post is for you.

PBS 'EYES ON THE PRIZE'

1. Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1954-1965: I just picked up this six-part documentary about the civil rights movement and can’t wait to watch it again. My 11th-grade AP government teacher arranged a viewing of this series after school, and he felt it was so important that anyone who watched the whole thing would get two points on their entire semester grade. I showed up for the grade. I stayed because it was riveting and heartbreaking and convicting.

~

2. Four Ways to Withstand Chaos in 2017 and Beyond, via the Improvised Life website. I’ll save you a click and say they are gardening, letter-writing, conversations and music. But the post also quotes Seth Godin’s “more-less” list, which is worth checking out. Write your own!

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3. “Home” by Warsan Shire. This poem has been shared widely during the Syrian refugee crisis:

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land

Those lines are probably the most famous, but read the whole thing. Poetry, like all good art, builds empathy.

~

4. Mohsen Omrani’s tweet-thread about a woman who helped him during the incredible chaos that unfolded during last Friday’s travel ban.

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Click the link for more.

Be like Barbara.

~

5. When Muslims Got Blocked at American Airports, US Veterans Rushed to Help.

“This is not what we fought for, having been in Iraq and working with these interpreters,” Buchalter said in a phone interview Sunday. When he saw an Iraqi family emerge from detention, he presented them with something he hoped would convey America’s goodwill — a Purple Heart.

The best of who we are.

~

6. “First They Came”: The Poem of the Protests. A lovely article about the Rev. Martin Niemoller and his poem that launched a thousand protest signs. There are many versions of the poem, which speaks to its power, but this one is displayed in the Holocaust Museum here in DC:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

[The words] quickly became popular, from there, as a lyrical argument for civil rights and collective action—and, more broadly, for simple empathy. The quote was that rarest of things: a political argument grounded in religious tradition.

In 1933, Niemöller [said], he and his fellow clergy members included in the founding documents of the Pfarrernotbund the idea that any action made against a minister of Jewish heritage would be considered an action against the collective. As he put it: “That was probably the first anti-antisemitic pronouncement coming from the Protestant Church.”

7. Life Lessons You Can Learn from Improv. This isn’t related to politics at all, but improv is and will be a powerful tool for navigating an uncertain and quickly-changing landscape.

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8. A Shy Person’s Guide to Calling Representatives. Very helpful for those of us who hate the phone.

Bonus link: How to call your reps when you have social anxiety. And this one’s illustrated!

Screen Shot 2017-01-31 at 9.55.49 AM

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9. Breathe: A Poem by Unitarian Minister Lynn Unger. This poem kicked off a conference call for faith leaders I attended last week. I don’t want to excerpt it, so click and read the whole thing.

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10. 105 Oddball Holidays to Celebrate with Kids (or Anyone). Because life is still beautiful and joy is subversive:

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P.S. Our team’s fundraiser for Planned Parenthood is going strong and we’d love your support. Learn more here.

 

Monday Runday: For My Health, For Women’s Health

You may have heard that “Defund Planned Parenthood” protests are in the works for February 11. Planned Parenthood has asked supporters not to counter-protest, but to stand with them through donations and other shows of assistance.

IMG_2409I’ve gotten together with a group of friends who know one another primarily through running. We’re showing our love for Planned Parenthood by asking people to sponsor us as we run purposeful miles over the next couple of weeks. Some of us are scheduling a training run especially for this purpose. Others are doing a Valentine’s race the weekend of the protests–I’ll be doing the Love the Run You’re With 5K, and trying for a PR (because why not?).

We invite you to cheer us on with your dollars, which will support high-quality, affordable health care for women, men, and young people.

We stand with Planned Parenthood, and we run for Planned Parenthood. 

I’ll be running in honor of my friend Kelly Gregory, who has been kicking cancer’s butt for five years. She has written many times that Planned Parenthood saved her life, and that’s no exaggeration. (It doesn’t hurt that she’s a fierce dame. If I were cancer, I wouldn’t want to cross Kelly Gregory.)

Here is a link to Kelly’s public post on Facebook, in which she says, “Be pro-living. Be pro-Planned Parenthood.”

Our team has set a goal of $1500, and my personal goal is $250. I reserve the right to raise my goal as you guys respond, and I know you will, because you’ve come through to support my running before!

Go to our page to learn more about our fundraiser, read some stats about Planned Parenthood’s work, and show your support today. Thank you.

A Warrior Against Fear: Patty Wetterling

Screen Shot 2017-01-26 at 11.46.27 AM

I’ve been riveted to the podcast In the Dark by American Public Media. It’s a nine-episode series exploring the 1989 kidnapping of Jacob Wetterling, an eleven-year-old Minnesota boy. The case remained unsolved for 27 years for a variety of complicated and unfortunate reasons.

If you only listen to one episode, make it episode 6, Stranger Danger, which zooms out from the Wetterling case and looks at sex offender registries. Such registries didn’t even exist before Jacob was abducted; in fact, his case helped spur them:

A handful of states had offender registries already, but there was no national registry. Nor was there a requirement that all states build and keep registries. The 1994 Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act created just such a requirement. But that was only the beginning. Over the years, the notion of keeping track of sex offenders has grown into something much larger and harsher. The Wetterling Act opened the door to a nationwide crackdown.

In 1996, a new law mandated that the police go beyond tracking offenders and notify communities of their presence. In 2006, yet another law expanded the list of crimes that could land a person on a registry and required the most serious offenders to remain registered for life.

On the surface, such registries seem like a no-brainer. Parents should know who their neighbors are and whether they could be out to harm their children. But there is very little evidence that these registries actually keep children safe, and the burden on the offender can be enormous. Producer Madeleine Baran interviewed a Miami man who’d served his prison time for soliciting underage girls for sex–a crime I certainly find deplorable–but who is now forced to sleep in his car because of the restrictions on where he can live.

Again, it’s not like I have a lot of sympathy for these guys. Maybe such restrictions and labeling would seem justified if the registries did what they purported to do–keep kids safe–but they do not. In fact, such a registry would not have helped in the case of Wetterling’s son, who was abducted, assaulted and killed by Danny Heinrich–a man who was not listed on any sex offender registry.

I consider Patty Wetterling an everyday hero, simply by virtue of putting one foot in front of the other for 27 years. But I admire her for a more specific reason. Given everything she’s experienced–the most horrific nightmare a parent can endure, I’d say–nobody would blame her a bit for digging in, doubling down, and throwing her full support behind laws that are as punitive as possible for sex offenders. But even with grief as a constant companion, she is able to step back, examine her assumptions, and change her mind.

She says:

Right now we’re stuck. It’s a trap, We want people to be angry about sexual assault, and then when they’re angry about it they want to toughen it up for these people, these “bad boys” who do this, and if we can set aside the emotions, what we really want is no more victims. So how can we get there? Labeling them and not allowing them community support doesn’t work. So I’ve turned 180 from where I was.

And here’s producer Madeleine Baran:

Patty wanted her legacy to be a world that was better for kids. A safer, happier world. But she said she worries that what all those laws have actually done is made people reject that idea, and instead view the world as fundamentally violent, dark and suspicious, with danger lurking behind every corner. 

Wetterling concludes:

Fear is really harmful. You’re more likely to get struck by lightning than get kidnapped. But the fear of sexual abuse is huge. And [parents] think that making their kids scared is going to keep them safer and that’s absolutely not true. It’s probably the opposite.

Fear is really harmful.

George Orwell wrote, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” I admire Patty Wetterling for interrogating the evidence and her own heart. I’m not sure I could do it.

But we’d better all learn how.

I’m thinking about Patty constantly this week. This week, with all its talk of border walls, and slamming our doors to refugees, and “American carnage.” I don’t have any illusions that the world is all rainbows and light. But I’m inspired by Patty Wetterling, and people who’ve been through fearful experiences, and yet refuse to be consumed by fear. 

Madeleine Baran again:

Even when Patty learned all the awful things that Danny Heinrich had done to her son, she didn’t ask people to be more vigilant, or pass tougher laws. Instead, she asked people to play with their children, to eat ice cream, to laugh, and to help their neighbors. She asked people to celebrate living in the kind of world where Jacob lived before he was kidnapped…

A world where people weren’t so scared of each other. 

And that’s what I intend to do.