Missouri Pro-Life Law Anything But

Missouri State Representative Brian Seitz (R) has introduced HB 2810 which would criminalize “trafficking abortion-inducing devices or drugs” as well as any attempt to prescribe, administer, or dispense any means or substance to perform or induce an abortion. In toto, women’s healthcare and the work of physicians, pharmacists, and chemists would be criminalized. In an attempt to be pro-life, this bill is anything but.

While outlawing a woman’s choice to access medications and medically-sound treatments is bad enough, Rep. Seitz’s bill would, in part, make it a class A felony if “The abortion was performed or induced or was attempted to be performed or induced on a woman who has an ectopic pregnancy” and if “The abortion was performed or induced or was attempted to be performed or induced on a woman who is a victim of trafficking.”

Medical consensus maintains that an ectopic embryo is not viable. While the embryo may grow outside the uterus, it ultimately dies due to insufficient hormone and nutritional supply. Left to grow without the use of Rep. Seitz’s proposed-criminal medical treatments, the pregnancy will rupture, causing abdominal hemorrhaging – often fatal to the woman. Criminalizing medical treatments and medications used for aborting unviable ectopic pregnancies will lead to death. The language in this section of Rep. Seitz’s bill is not pro-life.

A girl or woman who is the victim of trafficking carries with them both visible and invisible scars. She faces physical and sexual violence, homicide, torture, psychological abuse, and the deprivation of food, water, and compassion. She carries anxiety, depression, self-injurious behavior, substance addiction, PTSD, an dissociative disorders. She suffers from neurological and gastrointestinal issues, chronic pain, STI’s, uro-genital problems, skeletal fractures and traumatic brain injuries. She has suicidal ideations, often attempting and often succeeding. She carries the fetus of the sadistic and vicious man who caused the violence, abuse, and rape. Rep. Seitz’s bill would ensure that, beyond carrying a lifetime of physical and emotional scarring, the woman would have to carry the child of the man who took her life. The language in this section of Rep. Seitz’s bill is not pro-life.

Human life is valuable and beautiful, a miraculous gift from a generous Creator, but there is nothing in Rep. Seitz’s proposed bill which is loving nor life-giving. Criminalizing medically-proven, life-saving treatments is not pro-life. Denying a girl or woman access to her own healthcare for her own body is not pro-life. Refusing care and love for the life that is so as to protect the life that may be is not pro-life. Make no mistake: Rep. Seitz’s bill is not pro-life.

Truth: Beloved

“She stretched herself up on tiptoe, and peeped over the edge of the mushroom, and her eyes immediately met those of a large blue caterpillar, that was sitting on the top with its arms folded, quietly smoking a long hookah, and taking not the smallest notice of her or of anything else.

“The caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.

“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.

“This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I-I hardly know, sir, just at present – at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”[1]

 

 

“Who are you?” A question posed by the hookah-smoking Caterpillar to Alice, a girl lost in a topsy-turvy world who struggles to find an answer to the question. Her response to the Caterpillar – that she knew who she was – demands explanation, but all she can say is, “I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir…because I’m not myself, you see.”[2]

As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the world in the late spring of 2020 I was living into my Christian vocation and working to fulfill all that I believed I was called to be in this world. In the span of three months I had graduated from seminary, married my partner, moved to a new state and started my career as the pastor of a small, rural church. I had defined the essential characteristics of what was most important to me: degree-holding, small-town-living, left-of-center husband, preacher, writer, and pastor.

Over the past year-and-a-half I’ve struggled with maintaining most of these characteristics because of the loneliness of the pandemic, because I was the new kid on the block, because I couldn’t find support, because a thriving marriage is hard work. Mostly, though, I’ve struggled with preserving these characteristics because they’re not entirely preservable: they shift and change, ebb and flow. And now, with most of these characteristics in shambles (my marriage is good, though!), I’m am standing in Alice’s shoes, finding difficulty in explaining myself because I, too, am not myself anymore.

I’ve spent the past month moving our belongings and setting up our apartment. I’ve been cooking and cleaning, tending to my partner’s needs and wants. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and reflecting on my life over the course of the pandemic, seeking to shed some burdens and tend to some wounds. I’ve been mourning the loss of all these characteristics that I have leaned on, trusted, and felt comfortable being. All these things have been parts of who I was and what I did but, as much as I trusted them to be, they were never essential to my innermost being, to the createdness of who I am. Now I, like Alice, am standing in a topsy-turvy world faced with the ‘who are you’ question and my response is absolutely similar to hers: I hardly know who I am.

Truthfully, the Caterpillar question has loomed over my head for most of my life, one that I have returned to year after year. Notebooks have been filled with my own words as I have tried to spell out who I am. Books and psychology journals have been read and digested as I’ve sought the right words to define who I am. Therapists have spent countless hours guiding me on my quest to understand who I am. In the end, though, I hardly know much more than when I started because at the end of reading all those books and writing in all those journals and attending all those therapy sessions I always come up with the same definition of who I am: beloved.

 

Beloved. It’s one of those words we know, but we don’t really know. Etymologically it’s a compound-like-verb of be+loved. Love, we know, is “a feeling of strong or constant affection for a person”[3] – here it would be like the love between a parent and child, between siblings, between close friends. The prefix be- is and Old English element meaning “about, around, on all sides”[4]; beloved means ‘to be surrounded by love and constant affection’. Encircled by love. Loved on all sides. No matter where one goes, as one who is beloved you cannot get away from the love. No matter what one does, as one who is beloved you cannot out-do the love.

My Creator’s love is a beloved-love. No matter what I do, no matter what I don’t do…no matter where I am or how I live, my Creator’s love never abandons me, never leaves me, never stops surrounding me on all sides. I am beloved by God. That’s who I am. My belovedness is the core of my existence, the reason for my living and being and doing. Without it I am not – I am nothing. Beloved is who I am and honestly, beloved is all that I am.

Despite my knowing that I am God’s beloved I struggle with accepting it. I struggle with trusting it. I struggle with living it. The books and journals and therapy sessions have all been a constant attempt to discover something more than my belovedness because it seems too simple. All of who I am is narrowed down to being beloved by God? Absurd. Preposterous. Unimaginable. Which is why I have continuously been seeking more. There has to be more, right?

In the absurdity and unimaginable is where we try to do and be so much more. We try to fill in self-perceived holes because being God’s beloved can hardly be enough. We seek money and fame, glory and prestige because to the world around us that is enough…that is who we are. We seek careers and promotions, job titles and jobs because that is enough…that is who we are. We plant our being in partnership, parenthood, friendship, and career because to the world that is who we are. To the world, being the beloved of God and resting in that belovedness is simply not enough.

But it is enough. Being God’s beloved is enough; in fact, it’s all there is. At the very core of who I am is my belovedness, is my being surrounded by the love of my Creator God. The very essence of who I am is God’s beloved. The reason for my living is because I’m God’s beloved. I love my partner and my parents, my siblings and my friends because I am God’s beloved and I express my love out of my belovedness.

And every good and pleasant and pleasing thing I do in my life is an expression of my belovedness. I seek my neighbor’s well-being – their welfare – because they, too, are God’s beloved. I care for all of creation because it, too, is God’s beloved. I seek the end of death in all forms because life is God’s beloved. I pursue mercy and justice for the oppressed and imprisoned because they are God’s beloved. I work to shelter those experiencing homelessness, to feed those experiencing foodlessness, to give drink to all who are thirsty because they are all God’s beloved. Alice and the Caterpillar, me and you and them – we are all surrounded by the love and affection of God – we are God’s beloved.

I’m living in a topsy-turvy world right now where nearly every worldly definition of who I am has been stripped away (again, marriage a-ok). I don’t know what I’m to do next, where I’m to live next, how I’m supposed to live out my vocation. I’m scared and worried, depressed and medicated. I’m looking at myself, questioning: “Who are you?”

Right now I don’t know much more than this:

Emmanuel, you love me.
I am your beloved.

And that is enough.
That is enough.
That is more than enough.

much love. sheth.

—–

[1] Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (New York: Books of Wonder, 1992), 57-60.
[2] Ibid, 60.
[3] Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, s.v. “love,” accessed February 8, 2022, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/love
[4] Online Etymology Dictionary, s.v. “beloved” accessed February 8, 2022, https://www.etymonline.com/word/beloved

Honest Patriotism: Crippled by the Manacles of Segregation and the Chains of Discrimination

Ephesians 4:1-6; 25-32 (NRSV)
“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

[This is the text of the sermon delivered to First Presbyterian Church of Aurora, MO on July 4, 2021]
—–
The author of this morning’s passage to the church in Ephesus was writing to encourage them, to bolster their faith, and most importantly, to remind them of who they are: free people in service to God, called to live in the world and live out the kingdom experience for their neighbors. The author doesn’t suggest that the church in Ephesus live a good life – he begs them to live a life worthy of the people God has chosen to be God’s own; he begs them to live as a free people in God’s service. It’s language that’s pleasant to our ears, especially this morning.

We as Americans love our freedoms, don’t we? Our entire country is founded on the idea of freedom: on this date in 1776 our country’s forefathers met in Philadelphia, declared twenty-seven grievances against King George III, and summed up the entire document by saying “these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved.”[i] With the signing of the Declaration of Independence 245 years ago, we as the United States declared our independence and freedom from the monarchy. We set aside this date to commemorate and celebrate our freedom, to reflect on the sacrifices made to be free, and to educate ourselves and those around us about our freedom.

The Presbyterians who signed the Declaration, and those of us who continue in this vein of Christianity acknowledge that our faith and civic lives are inextricably linked to one another, therefore we are committed to active civic engagement, responsible citizenship, and prophetic witness, striving diligently to ensure that all parts of our lives are good, right, and honorable. And when things aren’t good, right, and honorable, it is our duty to make them so. It is our calling as Americans to ensure that these hopeful and hope-filled words are upheld and achieved across our lands: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”[ii]

While the contents of this sentence are aspirational, they are not altogether unachievable, and our nation has made considerable strides to ensure that more and more of our citizenry is able to live out these unalienable rights. President Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the ratification of the thirteenth amendment in 1865 both freed our slaves and abolished slavery while simultaneously taking our nation a step further to ensure that each person in our nation could pursue their unalienable rights of life, liberty, and happiness.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, Lincoln’s decree “came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.”[iii] With the Emancipation Proclamation, millions of our nation’s slaves hoped that they would be able to live out the dreams of our nation’s forefathers, for – according to those forefathers – our black brothers and sisters had every right that our white brothers and sisters had: “all men are created equal.”

In the shadows of the Lincoln memorial in 1963, Dr. King reminded our nation of a brutally honest truth: “…one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free; one hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination; one hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity; one hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.”[iv]

Dr. King’s often brutal honesty – not only in this speech, but in so many others – was not an outpouring of hatred felt toward oppressors but was instead the work of his faith seeking accountability for his patriotism; Dr. King was an honest patriot, a person who loved this country enough to remember its misdeeds[v] while also working to ensure that those misdeeds were not merely swept under the rug but were brought to the nation’s collective sight to educate and correct. Today, nearly sixty years since Dr. King’s words echoed across the grounds of the National Mall, we as a nation are still in those same struggles: our black brothers and sisters are still manacled and chained by segregation and discrimination.

While our country has worked to desegregate its schools, systemic racism in our education systems continue to divide our students. Black boys as young as ten are often mistaken to be much older, are more often perceived as guilty, and face police violence much more often than their white classmates.[vi] These deep-seated beliefs and misunderstandings lead to unfair treatment, more frequent suspensions and expulsions, and have fed the ‘school-to-prison’ pipeline. Our students of color are leaving schools in disproportionate numbers, and those who remain often find themselves in chronically underfunded schools and in districts with unlicensed educators.[vii] As they seek learning and education, our young brothers and sisters are still crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.

While our nation’s legislators proudly signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965, they effectively washed their hands of any further work and, over the decades the bill has been whittled down, most recently this past week with the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold two Arizona laws which restrict voting for its citizens. Systemic racism in our elections has upheld voter suppression: enacting strict voter ID requirements and government-validated residential street addresses, felony disenfranchisement, and the denial of representation for US territories.[viii] Through unjust, racist voter suppression tactics meant to target people of color, our brothers and sisters are still crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.

Our nation’s doctors take an oath to “do no harm or injustice”[ix] to their patients, yet systemic racism pervades even our medical spheres. Hospitals and clinics once designated for ethnic minorities continue to experience significant financial constraints, often under-resourced and under-staffed. Medical professionals’ implicit biases inadvertently permit black patients to receive less care and treatment compared to their white patients. In the past six months we have seen how COVID-19 treatments were quickly and effectively rolled out in white communities, while both testing and vaccines have been slow to find their way into communities of color.[x] Our brothers and sisters are sick and dying without treatment, still crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.

While our nation’s military recruits men and women from all ethnicities, commanding officers of color are less likely to be taken seriously, to be respected, or to receive promotions. The military judicial system has “no explicit category for hate crimes, making it difficult to quantify crimes motivated by prejudice,” leading to soldiers with extremist views remaining in uniform. Persons of color are less likely to receive promotions, they experience flagrant racist epithets, and are not allowed to use protective hairstyles, leading to hair loss, scalp pain, and having to find ways to have straight, European hairstyles.[xi],[xii] While voluntarily and courageously serving our nation, our black brothers and sisters in uniform are still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.

From sea to shining sea, systemic racism has pervaded our Church – not just in the deep south. Protestant denominations taught that the mark – the curse – of Cain was dark skin tone. They taught that the descendants of Ham would be cursed with dark skin and would face perpetual slavery for sin. Our own Presbyterian denomination preached that “Africans were cursed and deserved slavery for both their nature and their willful sin.”[xiii] One of the co-founders of my alma-mater in Austin – a Presbyterian Seminary – railed against radical social theories which asserted that all men are born free and equal[xiv] and pressed that “racial purity was the ultimate value, and racial segregation was essential to protect the purity of the white race.”[xv]

The White Church in America continues to ignore the racial injustices that pervade all spheres of life – even within its walls – by “responding to ‘black lives matter’ with the phrase ‘all lives matter’…by telling black people and their allies that their attempts to bring up racial concerns are ‘divisive’…that although the characters and the specifics are new, many of the same rationalizations for racism remain”[xvi] in these walls. We humbly pray that God’s kingdom come and be done here on earth as it is in heaven while we sit back and shrug our shoulders as our black brothers and sisters are still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.

“We have been a country, and we have been a church, which has paid scant attention to the voices of people of color. We have been a country, and we have been a church, which has paid scant attention to the voices of women. We have been a country, and we have been a church which has paid scant attention to the voices of LGBTQ persons.”[xvii] We have been a country, and we have been a church which has paid scant attention to the voices of our veterans. We have, in the words of Letty Russell, accepted that “the marginalization of the powerless as a given.”[xviii] The manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination placed on the arms of our black brothers and sisters are the result of our misdeeds, and we continue to let them remain.

On this Independence Day it is not my intent to make you feel uncomfortable, and if you feel that way I invite you to welcome those feelings as they come. It is my intent, however, that we become honest patriots like Dr. King who chose to love this country enough to remember its misdeeds – “those times and places where particular groups were denied equal protection under the law”[xix] Dr. King lived up to those words from Ephesians we heard earlier and lived in a way that was worthy of the people God has chosen. Always humble and gentle. Patiently putting up with each other and loving each other. Trying his best to let God’s Spirit keep hearts united. Doing all this by living at peace. Most importantly though, Dr. King knew that we were all part of the same body and he chose to tell the truth[xx] no matter how difficult it was to speak.

We must be committed to this same truth telling – even the truth make us feel uncomfortable. We must be committed to the truth because we are called to this work. We must be committed to the truth because dishonesty displays a fundamental lack of respect for other persons. We must be committed to the truth because dishonesty corrodes trust and weakens our ability to participate responsibly in the world.[xxi]

Ephesians commands us to stop lying and to start telling each other the truth. The truth, this morning, is that racism and oppression are not merely relics of the past, long since legislated away, but have an active and resounding role in every place and space in our great nation. Our lips may utter “all men are created equal” but our actions often tell a different story: racism is alive and well in the institutions and systems throughout America the Beautiful.

Owning up to this truth, claiming this truth, and living it out in the world is challenging and difficult, and in the case of Dr. King – and so many others like him – this honest patriotism led to his murder. But this work must go on. It must go on for Ahmaud Arbery, hunted down and murdered in a Georgia subdivision. It must go on for George Floyd, murdered on the streets of Minneapolis for suspicion of using a counterfeit twenty dollar bill. It must go on for Christian Cooper, a bird watcher in New York who was reported to the police because he asked a woman to put her dog on a leash. It must go on for the eight people murdered in a shooting rampage across three Asian spas in Atlanta. It must go on for French and William Godley and Eugene Carter, lynched without trial down the road in Pierce City in 1901, one of many public lynchings throughout southwest Missouri and deemed by some to be ethnic cleansing.

To find, speak, and continue speaking this truth we as honest patriots must do three things. First, we owe our nation our prayers for understanding and growth, offered to God with full belief that God hears these prayers. Second, we assume responsibility for our community, working in, with, and through the systems and institutions around us to root out all forms of racism, inequality, injustice, and misuses of power. Third, we call our nation, systems, and institutions to task when they fail in their obligations and, when necessary, we utilize the power of conscientious objection and civil disobedience.[xxii]

I know for some of us, Aurora feels far from racist as we go about our lives, hearing good talk from friends and neighbors. It’s easy to get into the cycle of thinking that racism doesn’t exist in Aurora because there’s only white people. If we’re honest patriots we should question this thought…we should question why our community is so white…we should question why the over sixty lynchings that occurred in our state continue to cast long shadows on this land. We should question why our neighbors feel comfortable flying confederate flags and using racial slurs in dinner conversations. If we’re proud to be in Aurora we should be taking some long, hard looks at our history, rooting out the spaces and places where our neighbors were denied equal protection under the law.

Friends, “if the Christian Church fails to address the complex and thorny issues of racism in our own time, we have failed our fellow believers, and our Creator.”[xxiii] Let us work on ourselves, striving to live as God’s beloved and chosen ones, maintaining unity and making peace. Let us stop lying to ourselves and each other, speaking truth, kindness, and mercy. May we stand today as honest patriots, working to shatter the manacles of segregation and dismantle the chains of discrimination so that all who are created equal may be treated equal, free to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In God’s mercy, may it be.

—–

Endnotes:
[i] Thomas Jefferson, et al, July 4, Copy of Declaration of Independence. -07-04, 1776. Manuscript/Mixed Material. https://www.loc.gov/item/mtjbib000159/.
[ii] Thomas Jefferson, et al, July 4, Copy of Declaration of Independence. -07-04, 1776.
[iii] Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream” (speech, Washington, DC, August 28, 1963), American Rhetoric, http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm.
[iv] Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream” (speech, Washington, DC, August 28, 1963).
[v] Donald W. Shriver, Jr. Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember its Misdeeds (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
[vi] Phillip Atiba Goff, PhD. and Matthew Christian Jackson, PhD., “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children” The University of California, Los Angeles. February 24, 2014. Accessed July 3, 2021. https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/psp-a0035663.pdf
[vii] Gillian B. White, “The Data Are Damning: How Race Influences School Funding” The Atlantic, September 30, 2015. Accessed July 3, 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/09/public-school-funding-and-the-role-of-race/408085/; Joy Resmovits, “American Schools Are STILL Racist, Government Report Finds”, Huffpost, March 21, 2014. Accessed July 3, 2021. www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/21/schools-discrimination_n_5002954.html
[viii] Danyelle Solomon, Connor Maxwell, and Abril Castro, “Systemic Inequality and American Democracy” Center for American Progress, August 7, 2019. Accessed July 3, 2021. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/reports/2019/08/07/473003/systematic-inequality-american-democracy/
[ix] “Greek Medicine” History of Medicine Division, Nation Library of Medicine, February 7, 2012. Accessed July 3, 2021. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/greek/greek_oath.html
[x] “Systemic Racism and Health Care, COVID & Treatment” National Institute for Health Care Management, February 11, 2021. Accessed July 3, 2021. https://nihcm.org/publications/systemic-racism-health-care-covid-treatment
[xi] Andrea M. Peters, “One Proposal for Improving Army Inclusivity for Women of Color: Update Hair Regulations” Military.com, August 21, 2020. Accessed July 3, 2021. https://www.military.com/daily-news/opinions/2020/08/21/one-proposal-improving-army-inclusivity-women-of-color-update-hair-regulations.html
[xii] Jon Niccum, “Army’s Conflicting History of Haircuts and Racial Identity Explored in New Article” The University of Kansas, December 9, 2019. Accessed July 3, 2021. https://news.ku.edu/2019/12/06/army%E2%80%99s-conflicting-history-haircuts-and-racial-identity-explored-new-article-2
[xiii] Jack Rogers, Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 19.
[xiv] Robert L. Dabney, “Anti-Biblical Theories of Rights,” Presbyterian Quarterly 2, no. 2 (July 1888): 215-42, 219.
[xv] Jack Rogers, Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality, 25.
[xvi] Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019).
[xvii] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), A Resolution on Honest Patriotism (Louisville: Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 2018), 13.
[xviii] Letty Russell, Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretation of the Church (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 35.
[xix] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), A Resolution on Honest Patriotism, 2.
[xx] Ephesians 4:1-3; 25
[xxi] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), A Resolution on Honest Patriotism, 8-10.
[xxii] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), A Resolution on Honest Patriotism, 14-15.
[xxiii] Dennis Hollinger, “Racism and the Church: How Should We Respond?” Center for Pastor Theologians, September 29, 2020. Accessed July 3, 2021. https://www.pastortheologians.com/articles/2020/9/29/racism-and-the-church-how-should-we-respond#_edn1


Truth: Black Lives Matter.

I recently saw this image on Facebook, one of but many posted by people who cry out, “All human lives matter!” or “We all bleed the same!” or “All lives matter – Jesus died for us all!”  Yes, all lives matter to God.  Yes, the ground is level at the foot of the cross.  Yes, we all bleed the same.  But now is not the time to ‘like and share’ these theological platitudes.  This is not a theological discussion – this is a social discussion.

The problem with this image I saw on Facebook is that it blatantly ignores the voices that are crying out to be heard right now.  Look closely – this image doesn’t mention black lives.  It mentions Indian lives.  And White lives.  And Blue lives.  But Black lives?  Apparently they can be ignored.  Sharing this image perpetuates the idea that black lives don’t matter in a time when they are desperately calling out.  If you’ve shared this image (or something similar), your racism stands out more than you ever thought possible.  If you can’t share an image that only says black lives matter – if you can’t share an image that even includes that line – then you don’t believe that all lives matter.  Sharing an image like this says that you believe all lives matter except black lives.

Now, you might say something like: “Black lives are included in the ‘Minority lives matter’ line in the image!”  But that still doesn’t make things better.  You’re saying that you want to say black lives matter, but you don’t want to upset your friends or family or whoever else might see it.  And yet you want them to think that you’re a good, full-spectrum-loving person, so you settled on this image.  But it’s a feeble middle-ground to land on – you’re trying to save face with family and friends when an entire race of people is struggling to breathe.

Sharing this image – and others like it – is done with good intentions (and there are roads paved with good intentions), but these images ignore the reality of the situation.  Yes, all lives matter.  But right now, all lives are not being treated well.  All lives are not being treated equally.  While some of us are able to sit on mountains of power and privilege as we post simple images to make ourselves feel good, there are black lives that continue to be abused and murdered in the valleys of oppression.  A black man was murdered in front of us all and we watched, shrugged our shoulders, and hit ‘share’ on a damned meme.

Look, I’m guilty, too.  While I haven’t shared an ‘All lives matter’ image, neither have I shared a ‘black lives matter’ image.  I haven’t been vocal in making it known that I believe that black lives matter – I have been silent, and my silence makes me just as guilty as those who share these images.  I am complicit in not using my voice to make my feelings known because I, too, have feared retribution from family and friends.  But at this point, it no longer matters: I must stand with the oppressed and face the retribution from family and friends.

Black lives matter.
I say it because I am called to speak and stand with the oppressed. 

Black lives matter.
I say it because I am called to stand against injustice.

Black lives matter.
I say it because I am called to correct error.

Black lives matter.
I say it because I believe it.
May it be so.  Dear God, may it be so.

much love. sheth.

The Harvest

In the early morning hours of May thirteenth I was on my morning walk, listening to NPR as I headed south from the seminary campus.  I passed the only people in public these days: the men and women experiencing homelessness, sleeping peacefully tucked away in the entrance ways to buildings.  The morning was quiet, the sun, warm.

I turned east onto Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard as the news reporter continued in my ear: “The killing of a black man in Georgia received little attention in February.  Later, a video circulated.  And it’s a big part of the news now.  The shooting of a black woman in Louisville, Kentucky, received little attention in mid-March.  Now that has become part of our national conversation.”[1]  That morning I learned about both Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, two souls taken from this world, one for jogging while black, the other for sleeping while black.  As I moved down the boulevard named for the slain civil rights leader, my heart sank as the story of stolen, innocent lives unfolded before me.

The news cycle continued past these two names and I found myself, two weeks later, scrolling through Facebook where I came across the now-infamous photo of a white police officer, his hands casually in his pockets as he knelt on the neck of a black man.[2]  I had no context for the photo at the time – I didn’t know why George Floyd was face-down on the pavement, and as I looked at that picture, it really did not matter.  Deep in my body there was an immediate gut-wrenching…as I unknowingly witnessed the murder of a black man.  If you have seen the photo, you have witnessed the murder of a black man.  And we have all seen it.  We have all witnessed the murder of a black man.

*****

Matthew 9:35-10:8 (NRSV)

“Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.”

*****

The Jesus we see in Matthew is a busy Jesus: having been baptized and tempted, Jesus has returned to Galilee where he begins to proclaim that “the kingdom of heaven has come near” (4:17).  His proclamation on the mountainside is recorded in chapters five through seven, and afterward, Jesus goes full-speed through the region performing all sorts of miracles: he heals the lame, he casts out demons, he calms the seas, and he raises the dead.  Only briefly does Jesus slow down to call Matthew into service and have a conversation with both the pharisees and John’s disciples.  Our Lord then gets back to work and, to make up for lost time, performs four more miracles within ten verses! 

And we finally land in today’s passage, where it summarizes the busy-ness of  Jesus: he’s seen the sick, the wounded, the blind, the lame, the diseased.  He’s cared for the abused, the weak, the poor – and the rich.  It feels like he’s worked non-stop since he left that mountain: Jesus is still at work proclaiming the good news, curing disease and sickness, bringing dead to life.

Within all this furious movement, it is here that the biblical text seems to stop.  And it focuses on this moment, saying: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them.”  Jesus stops long enough to see the crowds of people around him.  He witnesses their diseases, their wounded-ness, their dejection. 

The text says Jesus felt compassion for them.  The Greek word for compassion that is used here is ἐσπλαγχνίσθη (esplanchnisthē) – it is a feeling in the inner-most parts of the body, where one’s heart-feelings reside.  Jesus’ compassion as he saw the crowd was a gut-feeling – a deep, heartfelt, emotional compassion.  The verse could read: “Jesus, seeing the crowds was a gut-wrenching moment and he felt nothing but compassion for them…”  He felt punched in the gut because when he looked – when he honestly looked – he saw people who were harassed and helpless…people who were wounded and tired…people who were like lost sheep without a shepherd in sight.

As overwhelming as it may seem to us to see a crowd of needy people, for our Lord it was a catalyst toward action as he moves into action, responding to the needs of the people.  His compassion moves him into action.  His compassion moves him forward.  His compassion moves him to recruit helpers. 

In the name of compassion, Jesus speaks to his disciples, telling them to see as he sees: the harvest is plentiful, but the workers few.  He tells his disciples to change their vision so they can see the needs staring them in the face.

In the name of compassion, Jesus tells them to pray for God to send workers, and quickly they become the answer to their own prayers – the disciples become the apostles, the laborers in the Lord’s harvest. 

In the name of compassion, Jesus summons the twelve and gives them authority to do just as he himself has been doing: casting out unclean spirits, healing socially-devaluing illnesses, curing every bodily sickness. 

In the name of compassion, Jesus calls them by their name: from Peter – the rock upon whom Jesus will build his church – all the way to Simon the Zealot and Judas the betrayer.  Jesus calls this imperfect group and commissions them to do the compassionate service needed in the world.  These men didn’t meet the needs of the people: God meets the needs of the people through them. 

In the name of compassion, Jesus gives them a specific and timely mission: go not to the Gentiles, nor to the Samaritans, but go instead to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  And as they go they should spread compassion by not only proclaiming the good news, but by curing the sick, cleansing the lepers, casting out demons, raising the dead. 

In the name of compassion, Jesus makes these disciples his apostles and sends them out to the lost sheep.

Ahmaud Arbery.  Breonna Taylor.  George Floyd.  Three persons of color murdered in the land of the free.  Three Americans slaughtered for being non-white – three of but thousands upon thousands of now-saints who have been harassed, mocked, stalked, targeted, arrested, beaten, murdered and assassinated.  We are witnesses to these crimes. 

The crowds are crying with exhaustion…do you see?
The virus continues to ravage the weak and elderly…do you see?
Our leaders continue to remain hidden in their ivory houses…do you see?
We cast one another down with our hands and our voices…do you see?

God’s beloved children – just like you and me – are cowering like helpless animals, wondering where our leaders are…wondering where hope is…wondering if times like these are too difficult, even for the Lord.

Look.  The children need diapers and formula and shelter.
Look.  The men and women need jobs and financial assistance.
Look.  The schools need funding, and buildings, and teachers.
Look.  The hospitals need masks, and gloves, and workers.

The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers, are few. 

We have gathered as disciples under the teachings of Jesus long enough.  Open our eyes.  Look at the crowds.  Jesus is summoning us even now, and is gifting us with the authority to do as he does.  Jesus is calling each of us by name.  Jesus is calling us to be apostles, to be sent out.

The kingdom of heaven draws near! 

With gut-wrenching compassion, let us proclaim the good news of the royal reign of God! 
With gut-wrenching compassion, let us drive out unclean spirits!
With gut-wrenching compassion, let us heal every socially-devaluing illness and every bodily sickness to which we bear witness.

Return life to the dead…make clean the unclean…drive out evil.

You saw his face pressed against the hot asphalt… 
You saw the violent response to peaceful protests…
You saw the homeless man on the corner this week…
You saw news of an elderly person’s death from the coronavirus…

My God, the harvest is plentiful!

__________

[1] “Shooting of Unarmed Black Woman In Kentucky Gets National Attention” NPR: Morning Edition, May 13, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/05/13/855096212/shooting-of-unarmed-black-woman-in-kentucky-gets-national-attention

[2] “Killing of George Floyd” Wikipedia, last modified June 10, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killing_of_George_Floyd

*****

[This is the text of the sermon I preached for the Committee on the Preparation for Ministry for the Presbytery of Pueblo – one of the required steps in the ordination process for the PC(USA)]

Truth: Hospitality.

I first met Kallie during our seminary’s orientation – with both southern accent and charm she handed me her calling card as she introduced herself, and I was excited because she was the kind of southerner I’d hoped to meet in Texas.  As our first semester moved along, I quickly came to understand that she was more than my simple pre-conceived notions.  She’s a people-person, she’s outside-the-box brilliant, she’s grossly generous and, most importantly, she embodies Christian hospitality.  That last one is what I admire so much about her: with open arms and heart she welcomes strangers into her life without complaint.  She seeks to entertain angels and she prepares tables with bountiful feasts of love.

I heard the song “Crowded Table” by The Highwomen the other day and I immediately thought of my friend.  The song’s chorus rings out: “I want a house with a crowded table / And a place by the fire for everyone / Let us take on the world while we’re young and able / And bring us back together when the day is done.”  For me, this is Kallie, and this is her hope for the Church.  She wants the table in God’s house to be crowded with people who love and care for one another, and she is doing her best to bring Heaven to earth in the here and now at her table.  She has friends and acquaintances and strangers over for dinner.  She brings people together who would never find reason to speak.  She gives herself to those around her.  Kallie gives me hope.

She gives me hope that there are ways for us to come together in spite of our differences.  She gives me hope that we can take on the wrongs of this world and make them right.  She gives me hope that a little hard work can produce great, life-giving benefits.  And Kallie gives me hope for the Church.  She – and others like her – are so desperately necessary.  In spite of the hatred and divisiveness in this world, she has shown me – and continues to show me – that it is possible to love the stranger, to invite others in, to be Christ in this world.  She reminds me that there are others just like her who are exceptionally giving, who extend goodwill, who unconditionally entertain guests, visitors, and strangers. 

The world needs more hospitality…the world needs more Kallies: people who work to make their tables crowded…people who make space by their fires…people who do the work needed to bring Heaven to earth.  Thank you, Kallie, for feeding the hungry, for giving drink to the thirsty, for welcoming the stranger.  I pray that we can all be a little more (or a lot more) like you, seeking out ways to serve Christ in the here and now.

much love. sheth.

Truth: Heart, Pt. 2.

A while back I had to have a few tests done for my heart (I wrote about my heart stuff here).  The first test was a treadmill stress test which showed an ‘abnormality’ and necessitated a second, more complete test (which should have been the starting place, but the healthcare system is broken and out to make money blah blah blah). 

This second test was called a CTA scan – a technicians injected me with dye and then they took very detailed pictures of my heart as it was functioning and working.  After the test I was discharged from the hospital and sent home to wait for the results, which came back a few weeks ago.  It turns out that I have a ‘grossly normal’ heart, meaning there couldn’t possibly be anything wrong with it at all – it’s ‘right as rain’ as they say.  I’m fine!

And honestly, I was slightly disappointed.
Disappointed that there were no abnormalities…
Disappointed that there was nothing wrong with my heart…
Disappointed that the only explanation for my chest pain is high blood pressure…
…and that I did this to myself.

It’s because of my poor choices that I am in this situation and I can’t blame anyone else, which makes it hard to not beat up on myself.  I don’t know where else to put the blame, the anger, the sadness that this is what my life has become – it’s solely my fault.  I am to blame, and it’s hard to not be mad and disappointed at me.

 

But somehow I thank God for that.  I thank God that as I go through this process of medications and walking and dietary changes, I know that I got myself into this mess and I can get myself out of it.  I know that I have the power to make poor choices and I have the power to make good choices.  I know that God is there with me through it all – disappointed in my choices but never in me – and will give me what I need when I need it.  I just have to listen to God’s still, small voice – or the really loud one that I definitely hear!  It’s not easy to make lifestyle changes…nor is it easy to make internal dialogue changes…but it can be done with time, patience, and persistence.

And grace – lots of grace.

much love. sheth. 

Truth: Grackles.

I stepped out into the quiet of the early morning, the sun hidden behind a dense fog that had settled low and covered the tops of the buildings around me.  The temperature was cool – but not too cool – just right for a peaceful walk through the University of Texas’ campus on that Sunday morning.  And, within three seconds, that peace was immediately shattered by the cries of the grackles in the oak tree that stretched out above me.

These birds are loud and annoying, they congregate in large flocks, and they poop so much!  Dubbed the ‘unofficial bird’ of Austin, they even have their own Yelp reviews (“…grackles suck and they’re a bunch of noisy, messy bullies” or “great in theory, but in practice…are more problematic that other trash birds”).  People either think they’re fun and adorable in their own way, or people want them eliminated from the face of the earth.  I fall into the latter group and think the world would be better without these loud and annoying flocks.

Photo: Brad Lewis/Audubon Photography Awards https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/great-tailed-grackle#photo1

I walked under that broad-branched oak tree that morning, drips landing on my shirt and, as I wondered whether it was rain or bird poop, I longed for the small, quiet birds: hummingbirds, robins, chickadees, finches, sparrows.  Those birds that sing beautiful songs, or quiet songs, or that don’t sing at all but eat the annoying mosquitoes and gnats.  Those birds that build amazing nests and show off their fantastic plumage and break the monotony of the landscape.  I prefer those birds that I enjoy most and bring me happiness.

As I went about my walk that morning with the grackles shattering the peace and quiet I had hoped for, my mind drifted to that passage in Matthew 10, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?  Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  And even the hairs on your head are all counted.  So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows” (v 29-31, NRSV).

With a cry from the grackle above me (seriously – they make so much noise), I somehow hoped that Jesus intentionally chose to use a sparrow in this allegory for a reason.  I hoped that Jesus was saying “God loves the quiet, peaceful, beautiful and beautifully-singing birds.”  I also hoped that, in Jesus supposedly saying this, he was also saying, “God doesn’t love the loud, the brash, the bully, the annoying – like the grackle.  God actually forgets about them!”  Honestly, I’d rest peacefully knowing that my time in eternity would be spent with the sparrows that I enjoy, and not with the grackles in my life – both bird and human.

The loud grackles who shout their deceptive and misinformed opinions from the branches.
The annoying grackles who ruin the good things in life (and poop on everything…metaphorically).
The grackles who flock together – never welcoming outsiders – because it’s safer and easier.
The grackles that bully others and steal from the vulnerable.

As much as I wish that Jesus would say the things that would make me comfortable, he doesn’t.  Because God values both the sparrows and the grackles (and the peacocks and the raptors and the ostriches…and…and…) equally.  While I often hope that God would look on with contempt at the people who annoy me, or are rude to me, or seem to ruin all the good things in life, I know better.  I know that God looks on…and loves…and cares for them just as much as God looks on, loves, and cares for me. 

For God, the sparrows and the grackles are the same – both beloved creations, both tended with grace, mercy, and love, both adored and sought after.  And that’s good news, because honestly, we are each a grackle to someone’s sparrow!  There will always be grackles in our lives: people we don’t like…people we find messy…people we disagree with…but God loves us all.  And we should do our best to do the same.

much love. sheth.

This Life.

We’d planned to have dinner together, Chelsea May and I, but because I was on-call at the hospital, she was to meet me there and we would get something from the cafeteria (classy, I know).  The moment she messaged me that she was leaving her apartment and heading over, I received a page to call the hospital operator.  I returned the page and they patched me through to a frantic sounding NICU nurse: “Um, hi.  Can you come to the NICU right now?  Like, NOW, right now?”  She hung up the phone.  I called and told Chelsea May that I was going to run upstairs, see what was going on, and I’d let her know what the plans were going to be.

The NICU in this moment was different than I had experienced before.  Now, the medical team was trying to maintain calm and peace as they diligently and methodically worked on a 22-week-old body that rested on his mother’s chest.  She sat, her shirt stained with his blood and her pants stained with her own; her husband stood behind them, arms wrapped around her.  Doctors, nurses, translators, and me – we all danced around this family, our collective voices a hushed drone comprised of calls for medication and instruments, chart updates, medical jargon, Spanish and English prayers, questions and answers.

As I approached, the translator leaned over and told me the family’s names, then translated the words of the woman’s prayers: Thank you, God, for this life.  She repeated it over and over, a chant raised to the heavens.  In the minutes that followed, as the medical team took the body to the table to administer one last attempt, her prayers continued, and I somehow fell into the rhythm with her: Thank you, God, for this life.  Thank you, God, for this life.  Thank you, God…

 

This life could not take any more.

 

 

The medical staff apologized through tears
(though there was nothing to apologize for – they did their jobs and they did them well)…
they wept with one another, with the family, with themselves…
they wept as they removed tubes and lines from the body…
they wept as they returned the small body to the family. 

And she carried on: Thank you, God, for this life.  Thank you, God, for this life.  Thank you, God…

 

It’s been a little over two months since I was in that space, praying those words with that family, and it’s a prayer that I continue to this day.  I give thanks for this life which brought me to that space where I could pray with others.  I give thanks for this life which helped me understand myself and my vulnerabilities a little more.  I give thanks for this life which allowed me to be present with others.  I give thanks for this life which will be with me all of my days. 

Thank you, God, for this life.

much love. sheth.

Truth: Not Advocating.

Earlier this week, Chelsea May and I waited patiently in a building’s lobby as a morning game show played on the TV; we were there for an introduction and potential interview at a small, rural hospital for her future work as a chaplain.  Neither one of us were quite sure what to expect, but she hoped to have some general questions answered and perhaps we’d receive a bit of hope that this location could hold a potential position in her future.  She had been my cheerleader in other things that weekend, but this was my time to stand with her and cheer her on as she explored her calling.

With substantial coffee breath, the man we were to meet with arrived and apologized for his tardiness, then introduced himself to us, “I’m _____.  You must be…Sheth?”  Then, turning to Chelsea May, “And you must be [mumbled/jumbled name]?”  She corrected him, “I’m Chelsea May.  It’s nice to meet you.”  Before she could get that little line out, though, this man had turned to face me and began the conversation: “So you all are hoping to volunteer here as a couple when you move to town?”

Obviously there was a communication breakdown somewhere.  I looked at Chelsea May and she clearly said that she was hoping to do a CPE residency in the nearby large city and she was looking to do her clinical experience remotely, either at this particular hospital or at one nearby.  She wanted to know how she could do this residency without having to drive long distances every day, a valid question with a (hopefully) simple answer.

I’ve heard about women being ignored in conversations.  I’ve heard about women being treated as ‘less than’.  I’ve heard about men ‘keeping women in their place’.  I’ve heard about blatant misogyny but had never seen it in action…

Within the first five minutes I felt a horrible pain in my soul as Chelsea May was ignored again, and again, and again as this man conversed with me – not her.  He remembered and used my name – not hers.  He asked me questions about her and wanted me to speak for her.  He acknowledged that she was present, but not-so-subtly indicated that she should remain silent.  He inferred that she was my partner, that she would follow my ministry, that she would do and say what I would tell her to do and say.  His ignorance said that she shouldn’t/couldn’t work and indicated where he thought her place should be: at home making babies.

I was stunned as the minutes ticked by and this man talked with me about chaplaincy, a vocation that was definitely not mine but is hers – the woman who was walking with us.  She is the one called to this ministry.  She is the one who wants to work in hospitals.  She is the one who wants to care for the sick and walk them to health or to death.  She is the one who wants to care for people and their stories.  This was supposed to be for her and her calling, not me.

 

 

We endured the conversation through the hospital and steered it to an end because we had to catch a flight.  As the conversation closed, he told me he looked forward to talking with me in the future and was glad to meet me; he barely acknowledged Chelsea May and offered her a cursory handshake.  She and I exited the building and I immediately apologized for I-don’t-know-what…

…for wasting her time…
…for this man treating her as less-than…
…for not uplifting her vocation…
…for this man being a jackass…
…for all men who have treated her in this same manner…
…to all women who have had to experience this attitude and treatment day after day after day.

I apologized for not saying something more direct at the beginning
for not standing up for her and her right to be there
for her and her right to be in ministry
for her and her right to be a chaplain
for her and her right to be an equal.

Chelsea May, I’m sorry.  I’m sorry that this man assumed you would be who you are not and denied who you truly are.  I’m sorry that this man ignored you and deferred to me.  I’m sorry that this man refused your presence, your call, your vocation.  I’m sorry that this man was the epitome of a hypocritical Christian, who “acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle.”[1]

I’m sorry that this wasn’t the first time you’ve experienced this, but is just one of many moments that you’ll undoubtedly forget because it’s such a frequent occurrence.  I’m sorry that men have treated you this way in the past and that you have had to struggle and work and push so much harder than I ever imagined just to have your voice heard.  I’m sorry that we are not – and probably never will be – treated as equals.  I’m sorry that this happens again, and again, and again.

I’m sorry that I didn’t say something at the outset when we both recognized that this man viewed women as submissive beings for men’s enjoyment.  I’m sorry that I didn’t correct him and his thinking…I’m sorry that I didn’t steer the conversation to you… I’m sorry that I didn’t make room for you to stand up for yourself.  I’m sorry that I didn’t end the conversation but instead played the game to protect some future interest, when the higher priority should have been to protect you and your interests.  I’m sorry that I failed you in that moment.

Chelsea May, I hope that I will be better and do better.  I pray that I will heed the Sprit’s voice calling me to advocate for you – and all women – in all situations.  I pray that I will rely on God to empower me to use my influence and privilege for the benefit of others and not myself.  I pray that I will be a true partner with you – lifting up and encouraging you equally in all things in all moments.  I pray that you can live out your calling to serve God in chaplaincy and can face these misogynistic attitudes with strength, boldness, and resilience.  And may we both call out the jackasses when we see them.

much love. sheth.

 

[1] Brennan Manning