In my homiletics class, we have been reading various short stories to get an idea of different storytelling techniques to use in preaching. One such story was a first-person perspective monologue from Abraham, a figure who is prominent in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. All three religions can trace their origins back to Abraham, and in many ways, that makes Jews, Christians, and Muslims brothers and sisters in a very large family.
What struck me as I was reading this story was when Abraham lamented over how his family has not been a blessing for all the families of the earth, as God promised him. So, in the monologue, Abraham asked, “Where’s the blessing?”
Like any good question, this one did not simply go in one ear and out the other. It stuck, rolling around my head as I prepped and delivered sermons while finishing up the last of my summer reading for classes. Even as I alternated between the library and my own room, a lot of painful and saddening events have been going on within the United States over the past couple of weeks.
One of the first that had left me feeling uneasy was the story of the couple who wanted to be married at the Mississippi church they attended regularly. The church refused to let them marry there, where they had been attending for a long time, because of the color of their skin and because it was something that the church had never done before, and would be upsetting to some within the congregation.
When I heard this story, my heart was heavy. This particular congregation may not be within my denomination, but they are a part of my tradition, and I thought to myself, a church would do something like this? Christianity speaks of God’s grace, love, and forgiveness, and I understand the church to be a place where all are welcome. Yet this couple used the words “hurt,” “devastated,” and “crushed,” to describe their feelings over what happened to them with their church. Where was the blessing to this new family?
As the days went by, however, more news made my heart heavy. Even as London welcomed a global community who is able to come together every few years in athletic competition, a shooter entered a Sikh sacred space in Wisconsin spreading hate, violence, and death. A mosque in Joplin, Missouri was burned to the ground, and arson appears to be likely in this case. Where is the blessing in all of these events?
These events are incidents of hate, misunderstanding, and inhospitality. They display a failure to get to know not only the people within our immediate communities, but the people outside of those communities as well, people who are our neighbors in our towns, states, and countries. Stereotypes and blanket assumptions take precedence over entering into dialogue and understanding those who are different from us (whoever “us” may be). "What we have always done" can prevail over fostering new relationships and opportunities. Instead of welcoming and receiving our neighbors, we sometimes turn a cold shoulder. And in some places, misunderstanding breeds fear, hate, and violence.
These events are not one person’s problem. In the case of the Mississippi church, the blame cannot be pinned solely on the pastor, or the congregants who had the objections, or the congregants who said nothing. Each person shares the responsibility of what happened and what did not happen. And yet, what happens next is not the responsibility of one person either; it is a communal process and a communal responsibility. When such actions and events of violence, misunderstanding, and inhospitality occur, there is a greater communal responsibility to encourage and promote understanding, dialogue, and hospitality.
While an important step in this process is acknowledging and apologizing, what happens next is just as important, if not even more important. The Mississippi church issued an apology to the couple, expressing their desire to seek forgiveness and reconciliation with the family. This church read the announcement in their service and posted it online; yet the couple explains that the apology was never directly given to them, nor has the church contacted them. While an apology is an important first step, words must also be accompanied by actions.
For instance, in the wake of the Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin, there has been a tremendous outpouring of support for the community. Additionally, I have seen announcements of a variety of interfaith memorial services and events within the past week.While such an act of violence and death should not be what prompts us to learn to listen to one another and hear the struggles of our fellow brothers and sisters, as Kathryn Ray explains her post, responses of love, dialogue, and community are important in creating communities where all can be welcomed, where we can feel safe, and where we can take the time to hear and understand one another.
What we do after such events is not always easy. It may take us out of our comfort zones, and most definitely will bring us into contact with new understandings, new traditions, and new ways of life and seeing the world. It is not always easy, but it is important if we are to build understanding and peace with each other, so we can be neighbors with one another. What will work for each community is different, but it needs to happen. Leaders, citizens, members of religious communities…every person shares in this responsibility. While our communities and sacred spaces may sometimes appear to be isolated from the community or world around us, we truly are all connected in a larger community and in larger ways, even through such seemingly simple things as being human or living in the same land.
Where is the blessing? Acts of inhospitality, violence, and hate are not blessings to any person or any family. But our responses to such events, our efforts to prevent them, and our continued endeavors to engage in dialogue with our neighbors and to understand one another are something quite different. Our efforts to build greater understanding, respect, and community…that is where a blessing can be found.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.