A sermon preached at Grinnell College
for the Interdenominational Christian Worship Service at Reunion 2018.
Sermon preached on June 3, 2018.
Good morning, dear friends.
It is a terrifying honor to be with you this morning.
The honor part should be self-explanatory:
I’ve always felt fortunate to be in this line of work,
And I’m grateful that it has led me to this opportunity
to lead worship today, here at the close of Reunion.
A college reunion gives us a unique opportunity to reflect on where we are
this very moment,
our past, and our future
So good to see you again! What is it you do these days?
Are those your kids? Wow.
How is life treating you?
Can you believe that the dorms are exactly the same as they used to be?
What are you hoping to do in the next ten years of your life?
A liminal moment in anyone’s life, going back to college,
The threshold between past and future.
For my part, this reunion has reminded me
Of how young I really was when I first stepped on campus
And how old I feel now, twenty years later
And how much Grinnell has shaped me.
Grinnell: with its twin pillars of academic excellence and social witness
The responsibility to apply our learning to the common good
Fits quite nicely in the daily work of Christian ministry.
I’m so glad to be back.
And it’s a terrifying honor, also, to be sure.
The single most important word of advice you hear in seminary
When you’re learning how to preach
Is to get to know and love your congregation.
You preach with the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, they tell you,
Asking the questions your congregation asks,
Speaking a Word the congregation might need to hear.
So how do you create a pop-up worship service and do that?
In this room we have people who follow God on the way of Jesus
Through all sorts of styles, convictions, and conventions.
High church, low church, video screens or contemplative prayers
In your pew every single Sunday, or long walks in God’s majestic creation
Most Sunday’s instead.
And there are others who maybe aren’t on that path but who are interested
In what word might be spoken,
Or, lets face it, probably there are some of us
Who want to hear the incredible Alumni Choir one more time
Before heading out to a final Grinnell lunch.
So this is a bit like turning in your first paper for your first-year tutorial,
If I’m honest with you.
Where most students, religious or not, might just mutter a little prayer
Hopeful that the seeds land on good soil, take root, and grow.
It is a bit of a leap of faith. But lets try, anyway, shall we?
Whether this fits your style, with robes and hymns and printed words for prayer
Or if this is all just novel to you, lets turn toward what the word for the day might be
As we reflect on it, together, Grinnellians from all over the place.
The gospel assigned for the day
Is from the Gospel according to Mark
I invite you to open your heart and your mind to this reading from the Scriptures:
One Sabbath Jesus was going through the cornfields;
and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain.
The Pharisees said to him,
‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’
And Jesus said to them,
‘Have you never read what David did
when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food?
David entered the house of God,
when Abiathar was high priest,
and ate the bread of the Presence,
which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat,
and David gave some to his companions.’
Then Jesus said to them,
‘The Sabbath was made for humankind,
and not humankind for the Sabbath;
so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.’
Again Jesus entered the synagogue,
and a man was there who had a withered hand.
They watched Jesus
to see whether he would cure him on the Sabbath,
so that they might accuse him.
And Jesus said to the man who had the withered hand,
Then Jesus said to them,
‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath,
to save life or to kill?’
But they were silent.
He looked around at them with anger;
he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man,
‘Stretch out your hand.’
He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.
The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired
with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
And may God bless to us
and our understanding
And our applying of this word, to how we live our lives. Amen.
I want to share with you a story.
You may have heard about it.
Late last year, the New York Times reported
About an extraordinary moment of kindness.[i]
The story was about Abraham Davis, of Fort Smith, Arkansas
Who was convicted last year of vandalizing
Fort Smith’s Al Salam Mosque.
Abraham, just shy of his 21st birthday,
borrowed his mother’s white minivan,
shared a bottle of Kentucky Deluxe Whiskey with a friend
and the two of them went and painted obscenities,
symbols of hatred, and bigotry,
on the Mosque’s windows and doors.
He was caught, on a nearby surveillance camera,
and they arrested him a few months later.
He faced up to six years in prison.
A guard, those days when Abraham was in jail, waiting for his trial,
Brought him some writing paper and a few stamped envelopes.
The first letter was to his mother.
He had barely spoken with her since his arrest
And he had a lot of explaining to do.
His other letter was to the mosque.
He wanted to tell the people there how sorry he was for what he had done.
He sat there, on the floor of Cell 3 in the western Arkansas prison
Drafting his letter.
He didn’t even know the mosque name.
So he copied it, a letter at a time, from his arrest paperwork.
“Dear Masjid Al Salam Mosque…”
You might remember
October/November 2016 was a particularly potent flashpoint in this nation
And particularly so for Muslims and people of color.
That’s when this particular incident happened: October 22, 2016.
These sorts of desecrations happened in Kansas City, too, where I’m from–
desecrations, and worse.
Over the past few years we’ve had the shooting deaths of three people
who were participating at events at the local Jewish Community Center.
They happened to be Christians, but the shooter didn’t know that.[ii]
And last year two people from India, mistaken for Iranians
Were shot at a sports bar in neighboring Olathe. One of them died.[iii]
It’s a tense and dangerous time to be a person of color
or an adherent of a non-Christian religion in America.
All of this prompted our church to send our own letters to local mosques
We wanted to share encouragement and support
As well as regret for all the anti-Islamic hate speech and vile rhetoric
That was being expressed by some political leaders and Christian voices…
The very sort of tripe that gives cover and sanction to those
Who graffiti places of worship and cemeteries, or worse.
Even though the data are unreliable, because of inconsistent reporting and collection
The trends for both anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim hate crimes
Show a noticeable rise since 2014.
Abraham Davis, of Fort Smith, Arkansas, was just one example.
Davis’ family is poor, and they couldn’t make the $1500 needed for the bail bond
So there he was, in Cell 3, taking stock of how he got there.
I was just so tired of doing the wrong thing, he said.
So he wrote them:
“Dear Masjid Al Salam Mosque,
“I know you guys probably don’t want to hear from me at all
but I really want to get this to y’all.
I’m so sorry about having a hand in vandalizing your mosque.
It was wrong and y’all did not deserve to have that done to you.
I hurt y’all and I am haunted by it.
And even after all this you still forgave me.
You are much better people than I.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen to me,
and that is honestly really scary.
But I just wouldn’t want to keep going on without trying to make amends.
I wish I could undo the pain I helped to cause.
I used to walk by your mosque a lot and ask myself why I would do that.
I don’t even hate Muslims.
Or anyone for that matter.
“All in all,” he concluded, “I just want to say I’m sorry.”
Well…there’s a longer story behind all of this,
But suffice to say: things moved rather quickly afterward.
The president of the Mosque, Dr. Louay Nassri,
Called a meeting of the senior members.
No one had expected to hear from the vandals. Certainly not like this.
Their weekly sermon had just stressed the Islamic duty of forgiveness.
One of the leaders said
“If one of my kids did something stupid like that
I would want them to be forgiven.”
And just like that, it was agreed. Dr. Nassri drove to the prosecutor’s office
And made it clear that the mosque did not want to press charges.
“We did not want to destroy his life.” He remembers.
But here’s the thing:
According to Arkansas law
Abraham either pled guilty to a felony, or he would have to face trial.
He could avoid prison, if he kept good behavior for three years.
And the best thing he could hope for is to get a judge to seal his records, after eight.
But the law was clear: If the vandalism cost the mosque more than $1000 to repair
The case was a felony. It was clear as day.
Dr. Nassri submitted paperwork on behalf of the mosque,
showing only $500 on cleanup
But the prosecutor sought his own estimate from a local restoration company: $1800.
Abraham was in a tough spot.
He and his family thought about it.
They went to court, asked for leniency, and pled guilty to felony vandalism charges.
He was free, and with hard work, and if he kept his nose clean
He might eventually be able to put it behind him.
But here’s the thing: Abraham wasn’t done.
Despite the efforts of the Mosque, Abraham ended up with a felony
And he was saddled now with fines of more than $3200.
It was one of his life’s daily stresses: if he stopped making monthly payments
He would be arrested again and put in jail for the full six years.
And here’s where we might make note of the extraordinary moment of kindness.
See, the Jay Pritzker foundation gave a donation to the Al Salam mosque.
It was a surprise. No one there ever heard of the foundation.
They thought it was a rip-off scheme, actually
One of those send-me-your-bank-account-number-and-we’ll-send-you-a-million-dollars ruses,
but turns out it was legit.
And now they wanted to spread the good will.
So the treasurer of the mosque walked the very next day
Over to the Sebastian County Courthouse
With a cashiers check, made out for the outstanding fines owed by Abraham Davis.
The treasurer said “He is part of our story.”
[We are] now linked. [We] could not leave him behind.
“It’s a great weight being lifted off of my shoulders,”
Abraham said later, looking at the floor.
“And I don’t deserve it, but this act of kindness, it’s just, wow.”
We would do well not to be too hard on those Pharisees
Who were upset at Jesus on that Sabbath day long ago.
There were two controversies that Mark tells us about,
Both surrounding Jesus and the law.
What is lawful when someone is hungry?
If it is the Sabbath, is it ok to do the work necessary to feed the hungry?
That’s the first controversy.
The other one might be stated: What is lawful when someone suffers?
Here is a man with a gruesome injury to his hand,
And Jesus has the remedy. He’s there. Its no big deal.
Is it ok to heal him on the Sabbath, or not?
Its far too simple to say that the Pharisees were simply zealous about the law
And they looked at Jesus as a law-breaker who threatened their whole system.
I’ve heard a preacher or two say that, even though Jesus doesn’t.
The problem isn’t the gathering of the grain, the walking through the cornfields
Fields that weren’t theirs. That’s not the problem. The law permits that, actually.
The problem isn’t the healing of the man’s hand. That’d be great too.
The problem is the Sabbath, the day of rest,
One of the BIG-TEN commandments: remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy.
Why? Well, its not just because
God is said to have made the heavens and the earth in six days
And God rested the seventh: so God decreed it.
No, its so much more than that: its because rest is good for people
All people. People like you and me. Rest is good for us.
And particularly so for laborers, and servants, and those on the margins
The Sabbath is for them, too.
The law about the Sabbath was a big ten law
In part so that no store owner, no landlord, no religious leader
Could tell their staff, their workers that, sorry,
this Sabbath is a particularly important day for my business.
No break for you this time. Here’s a broom. Chop chop.
There’s good reason to remember the Sabbath, and to keep it holy.
The importance of rest, in a hustle-and-bustle world
Where we can too easily lose our days and our nights with all the work we have to do
When people work two or three shifts just to scrape by enough
To put bread on their table
To buy medicine for their families
To pay down their debts, even court imposed fines
There’s good reason to remember the Sabbath, and to keep it holy.
But make note: Jesus doesn’t critique the idea of Sabbath.
Its just that sometimes we make “law” an end unto itself.
We forget what its there for, how it’s meant to help shape our lives
And order our societies
And help people of such different passions and commitments
and attitudes and beliefs LIVE together
How its heart is justice and its aim is the common good, the good of all
And not just for those with the most power or wealth or prestige.
The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humans for the Sabbath.
And with that, Jesus fed the hungry, and healed the hurting on the Holy day of Rest.
The heart of the Christian Gospel is the claim
That God has come to serve, not to be served
And that as those who follow God on the way of Jesus
Our service is meant to love as Jesus loves
To heal as Jesus heals
To care as Jesus cares
To find our whole lives bound by the possibilities that that sort of life opens for us
A kind of balm against cynicism and a tonic against despair
The affirmation that death is not the last word
Hate is not the last word
Hunger is not the last word
Despair is not the last word
No: the last word is love. Love wins.
Love wins because there are people who believe it
Who are willing to serve others because of it.
People just like you and me.
What is it that prompts people to sacrifice for someone else
To take a risk, for the sake of another?
That’s not an abstract, ephemeral question.
Why did the Al Salam Mosque go pay Abraham’s debt?
They didn’t have to.
Abraham hurt THEM, didn’t he?
THEY forgave him, which was an act of grace in itself.
But they went further, and paid his debt.
Who does that?
Or did you hear about Superman this week.[iv]
I don’t mean our favorite Grinnellian Superhero.
I wish Matt Atherton had been able to join us this year. I really do.
Matt was known for crawling all over Grinnell
in his Spidey costume the years I attended here.
He’s sort of our very own Superman.
But no, I mean Mamoudou Gassama, the undocumented migrant from Mali in Paris.
Last week, Gassama, when he saw a toddler dangling
over the railing of an apartment balcony
he scaled up the outside of the building, up four stories, pulling the kid to safety
An act of breathtaking courage.
Who does that?
These examples might seem like huge, impossible-to-imitate acts of kindness
I can’t climb up the outside of a wall! Look at me. Its not happening.
That’s not the point.
There are so many others ways we do this, every day:
–Tutors in your local elementary school
–Neighbors who make casseroles for the mother who is dying of a brain tumor
–People who attend rallies to stand up against gun violence
–Those who canvas for candidates who wont decimate the social safety net
–Everyone who seeks out in humility and openness
those of different cultures and beliefs and faith traditions
–People who take a moment to listen
Like when you ask “how are you” to the bagger at the grocery store
And, unexpectedly, he answers you, honestly,
How this really isn’t the best week. Five minutes about why.
I saw someone do just that very thing this week
As I was rushing through the store to buy a dozen eggs and a gallon of milk
There she was, listening, compassionately, to the bagger’s lament.
Who does that?
You can do that.
Because the God who made you, fearfully and wonderfully,
Helps you see the possibilities of love, the opportunities of compassion
A commitment to acts of generosity that may just be big enough
to get into the New York Times,
or, more likely, will be small enough to only be known by you.
But each one matters.
Each one affirms the amazing, radical, prodigal love of God.
C.S. Lewis once defined Integrity as doing the right thing when no one is watching.
While the word doesn’t appear in the New Testament
I think about this kind of life we’re talking about as the life of integrity
When our values and our commitments and our acts all line up.
Its what drives you to do the right thing, just because its right,
Just because you know God tells you to love your neighbor
And not because its easy or you’ll get something from it.
Integrity seems endangered these days.
Does it feel that way to you?
When political expediency allows people to turn the other way
As our civic structures get upended
And pessimism seems to reign.
My encouragement for you, this Lord’s Day
Is not to let that pessimism happen to YOU.
To find inspiration in stories that are out there, every day
Of people doing the right thing
Caring for their neighbors
Standing up for the marginalized
Working to feed the hungry, heal the hurting,
Protecting children, loving all people: acts big and small.
Because, who knows,
You might be the inspiration for someone else
And them the inspiration for another
And with that, the entire fabric of our communities can be knit back together.
Its not quite true, but Mother Teresa was credited once
With offering words of encouragement on the wall of her home for children in Calcutta.[v]
They may not truly be her words, but
These are my words of encouragement to you this Alumni weekend
As we go off on our own separate ways,
Our own commission to serve fresh in our minds.
Here’s what those words credited to Mother Teresa said:
People are often unreasonable, illogical and self centered;
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends
and some true enemies;
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and your God;
It was never between you and them anyway.
This sort of life is the life of integrity.
It is a gift, both for those who live that way, and for the world.
It can upend the powerful and uplift the lowly.
It can surprise you
with the possibility of joy that it can bring
And it can surprise others
with the kind of care and concern
That this world so desperately needs.
May we, as we travel forth
Remind ourselves of these possibilities
And claim for ourselves the work that God gives us
To love neighbor and self just as God has loved us.
May it be so. My friends.
For you, and for me, and for all the world.
[i] There are two articles to highlight here. The first story, “The Two Americas,” is found at https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/08/26/us/fort-smith-arkansas-mosque-vandalism-and-forgiveness.html?_r=0 (accessed June 2, 2018). The follow up story, “The Vandal and the Mosque: A New Chapter of Forgiveness” is found at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/28/reader-center/mosque-vandal-arkansas.html (accessed June 2, 2018).
[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overland_Park_Jewish_Community_Center_shooting (accessed June 2, 2018)
[iii] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2017_Olathe,_Kansas_shooting (accessed June 2, 2018)
[v] This widely quoted set of aphorisms attributed to Mother Teresa is most likely the work of Kent Keith. See https://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/05/18/do-good-anyway/ (accessed June 2, 2018)