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Advent 3: O Lord, Deliver Us

December 13, 2015

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A, Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2015

Psalm 140:1-3, 6-8, 12-13         Mark 13:24-37

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On Wednesday, a friend of mine from seminary shared the following story on her Facebook page.

Last night I was walking my dogs in the park, and passed a young Muslim couple – she was wearing a hijab – both bundled against the evening chill. I greeted them as I passed, then stopped and turned around. “I just want you to know that Donald Trump doesn’t speak for most of us,” I said. After a moment to process words he probably doesn’t hear in whatever lab where he is (most likely) a postdoc, he smiled. “That man,” he started, and his voice faded. “I know,” I said. “I am ashamed. But if anyone at all gives you a hard time, speak up, and the rest of us will help.” He smiled broadly, and looked at his wife. “I wish she could speak English to hear you.” “You tell her, that we are here for her.”

My friend continues, “I sincerely hope that neither of them have any reason to learn whether or not my confidence in the majority of us is well-placed.
As-salamu alaykum.”

But even as I added an Amen to my friend’s prayer for this young couple, CNN reported that threats, harassment, vandalism and arson at mosques has reached an all time high, making 2015 the most anti-Muslim year on record in America.[1] Places of worship have been targeted for attack 63 times this year, up 300 percent from last year, with gunshots fired into a mosque in Connecticut, armed men protesting outside Islamic Centers in Texas, and death threats called in to mosques in Florida, Maryland and Virginia. But since anti-Muslim bigotry is more often directed at people rather than property, this is just the tip of an iceberg. Since the Nov. 13th terrorist attacks in Paris, and the December 2nd shooting in San Bernardino, the Council on American Islamic Relations is reporting daily incidents in which our American-Islamic sisters and brothers are being threatened in public, bullied at school, spat upon while driving, and shot at.

For example,

  • A pigs head left outside a mosque in Philadelphia, (especially offensive because many Muslims do not eat pork for religious reasons);
  • a girl harassed at a school in New York by a crowd taunting her and trying to tear off her hijab;
  • hate mail sent to a New Jersey mosque, calling Muslims “evil” and telling them to “go back to the desert”;
  • the windows of a family home in Texas have been repeatedly smashed by rocks;
  • Sarker Haque, the owner of Fatima Food Mart in Astoria attacked by a customer who said, “I’ll kill Muslims”;
  • A 38-year-old Moroccan immigrant taxi driver in Pittsburgh shot by a passenger who had asked him about Islamic State.[2]

It is with these events in mind, that I want to read [present tense] our Psalm for today. I do not often preach on the Psalms of Deliverance, because they indulge the language of evil and evildoers, imagine schemes and plots and persecution, and call upon God for vengeance. These words can be dangerous. In our contemporary culture of fear, this kind of violent language is easily enlisted to project our fears onto innocent others, as has been done all too often in our history. But I want to read Psalm 140 this morning and ask you to imagine these words are being uttered by the unidentified Muslim woman who was shot at as she left her Mosque in Tampa, Florida on Friday.

Deliver me, O Lord, from evildoers;

   protect me from those who are violent,

who plan evil things in their minds

   and stir up wars continually.

They make their tongue sharp as a snake’s,

   and under their lips is the venom of vipers.

I say to the Lord, ‘You are my God;

   give ear, O Lord, to the voice of my supplications.’

O Lord, my Lord, my strong deliverer,

   you have covered my head in the day of battle.

Do not grant, O Lord, the desires of the wicked;

   do not further their evil plot.

I know that the Lord maintains the cause of the needy,

   and executes justice for the poor.

Surely the righteous shall give thanks to your name;

   the upright shall live in your presence.

God maintains the cause of the needy and executes justice for the poor. Do we, as God’s people, do the same?

As I prayed this week for the young couple that my friend met in the park, I realized that the majority of us that my friend would like to have confidence in need to step up our visible and public support for our Muslim neighbors RIGHT NOW and say that to be anti-Muslim is anti-American. And we must condemn those who carry out acts of violence against Muslims, immigrants, and women’s health care providers in the name of so-called Christian values as dangerous radicals whose actions are far from God and God’s reign among us. Their actions have nothing to do with the good news of God’s love for this world that we have seen in the child born in Bethlehem, who announced good news to the poor, and who suffered and died rather than take up the sword, whose way, truth and life among us brings peace within, and peace without. As Carmen Gray said a few weeks ago, during a coffee break in the Thrift Shop sorting room, “I don’t think they are reading the same Bible we are.”

American Muslim Day Parade Winds Through New York City

Earlier this week, the White Plains Religious Leaders wrote a Letter to the Editor that will appear later this week. It said, in part,

“We deplore all those who would inflame one group of hard working Americans against another. We condemn any remote possibility that our nation would expel, round up, harass, and intimidate other groups of citizens, exiles, and refuse to welcome refugees… Our interfaith work here is important for our communities, and for the world. It is precisely because different religions coexist peacefully in this country that the United States can be a beacon of light for the world. Not because of its military might, but because individuals of all different faiths, ethnicities, and dreams can work for the prosperity of all.”

Your pastors also signed the national-wide open letter that is printed in your bulletin this morning in an attempt to redirect our national discourse in this election season.[3] Because language can be dangerous, and words can kill. Just ask my history professor, Sara Lipton, of Stony Brook University.

13lipton-master675

On Friday, she published a brilliant article in the NYTimes called “The Words that Killed Medieval Jews.” “DO harsh words lead to violent acts?” she asks. “At a moment when hate speech seems to be proliferating, it’s a question worth asking.”[4]

“No historian” she writes, “can claim to have insight into the motives of living individuals,”

But history does show that a heightening of rhetoric against a certain group can incite violence against that group, even when no violence is called for. When a group is labeled hostile and brutal, its members are more likely to be treated with hostility and brutality.

Though this might seem obvious, she illustrates her case with a close look at changing faith communities in the High Middle Ages. Christian theology about Jewish “others” had not changed much over the previous 1000 years; Jews were considered legally and theologically inferior, but this did not lead to generalized violence, and the communities lived and worked side by side for centuries. However, sometime around the year 1100, relations between Christians, Jews and now Muslims took a noticeable turn for the worse. A change in Christian art beginning Italy shifted religious devotion from the risen Christ, judge of all creation, to the wounded and suffering Christ, despised and rejected. And then,

Partly out of identification with this newly vulnerable Christ, partly in response to recent Turkish military successes, and partly because an internal reform movement was questioning fundamentals of faith, Christians began to see themselves as threatened, too.

All of a sudden, Christians began to project their anxieties onto others in the form of Jews and Muslims, with increasingly harsh rhetoric appearing in sermons and speeches by priests and popes, and innocent others were suddenly transformed into enemies. Though leaders attempted to foster and direct the people’s hostility into foreign wars against Muslims, what became the crusades, unsurprisingly, “Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Jews were massacred in towns [across Europe] where they had peacefully resided for generations,” as Christians turned to targets nearer at hand. Hostile rhetoric begat violence.

Taking up the oft spoken idea that those who commit violence are crazy, she writes

Some [of these medieval killers] may well have been insane. But sane or deranged, they did not pick their victims in a vacuum. It was repeated and dehumanizing excoriation that led those medieval Christians to attack people who had long been their neighbors.

Prof. Lipton draws out the lesson: “Today,” she concludes,

purveyors of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, … and anti-abortion rhetoric and imagery may not for a moment intend to provoke violence against Muslims, immigrants, and health care providers. But in the light of history, they should not be shocked when that violence comes to pass.”

And we pray

Deliver us, O Lord, from evildoers;

   protect us from those who are violent,

who plan evil things in their minds

   and stir up wars continually.

They make their tongue sharp as a snake’s,

   and under their lips is the venom of vipers.

O Lord, Deliver us.

This is the third Sunday of Advent. As we pray for Christ’s coming in glory and in power, we acknowledge that our lives and our world are not in harmony with God’s realm. And we commit ourselves to the work of justice, love and peace, within and without, so that we may be not be found wanting when it comes.

In the coming weeks and months, every one of us – if we are paying attention – will have an opportunity to speak up for or stand with the American Muslim Community, or to counter hateful speech when we hear it. It might be in conversation at home or at work, at the coffee shop or on a subway; it might mean writing a letter to our community or congress, or attending a prayer vigil. I urge you to make this a part of the Advent discipline, your Christmas practice, a test of your faith in a God who delivers.

In our gospel reading today, Jesus calls upon his community to “Be alert,” to “keep watch,” and “stay awake.” In his final metaphor, Jesus describes a “homeowner” who grants “authority” to his “slaves” to carry out their “tasks”, so as not to be discovered asleep when the owner returns. This work is not just the proclaiming the good news of God’s love for all people, but the ongoing struggle for justice, peace, and God’s reign of love on earth. As Howard Thurman, the great black social gospel preacher, always insisted, attention to God’s coming kingdom should not orient us toward some far-off future or imminent Day of Judgment, but it should immerse us in living faithfully the challenges of our day.[5]

May it be so. As-salamu alaykum.

 

 

[1] http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/10/living/mosques-attack-study-2015/index.html

[2] http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-muslim-attacks-20151208-story.html

[3] The letter was signed by more than 3500 religious leaders in 24 hours. The text was printed in our Sunday bulletin, and can be read here. https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1k1Uyv1wIcN4fSLY8MDTaoLaVrNqLs8HwBTUrjHaTrpc/viewform?c=0&w=1

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/13/opinion/the-words-that-killed-medieval-jews.html?smid=nytcore-iphone-share&smprod=nytcore-iphone&_r=1

[5] Howard Thurman said “Anticipation of the awesome vision should order a life for right living.” This last paragraph is adapted from Emerson B. Powery’s commentary on the Gospel of Mark in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, edited by Brian K. Blount, et. al.

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