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Brother Donald

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Oct 22

Texts: Exodus 33: 12-23 and 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5, 2:1-9

I begin today with a story that I shared here once, many years ago now. The story led to something of an inside joke that involves how some of us greet each other around here. Churches especially, but all groups too, should take care when it comes to “speaking in code.” So, in the interest of opening things up, here’s the story, or back-story, if you will:
​During my senior year in college, I lived in an off-campus house with two friends who developed a special bond over the course of the year. Turns out they had both spent a substantial amount of time in Egypt. Randy, whose father worked for an international relief agency, went to high school in Cairo. He spoke Arabic fluently. He had his high school graduation keg party at the Pyramids! Rob had just returned from a long trip to Northern Africa where he picked up a bit of Arabic too. Mind you, at the time, I had yet to even cross the border into Canada. Soon after we all moved in together, these worldly roommates got into a habit of talking to each other in broken Arabic, or at least a few words of it before it inevitably devolved into English with a strong Egyptian accent. For months, every other sentence they spoke to one another began with the Egyptian term of endearment, “Habibi.”  “Habibi,” in Arabic, means “my darling.”  “Habibi, do you want to catch movie tonight?”  “Habibi, good class, yes?”  They had a little brotherhood of the Egyptian accent going on. And eventually, they started calling me habibi too. It sounds silly, but it meant something to me when they did. We had grown to care about each other deeply, and we still do. Though we’d throw the phrase around our house with foolish if not downright offensive accents, there was truth in the expression. I was their darling – their darling friend, Dan. And they were my darlings. Who needs a frat? We had established a fraternal kind of love for one another. We had even found an —albeit foreign— language to express it! To this day, Randy and I still call each other habibi. I pick up the phone and it’s the first thing he says to me. Since telling that story here in church, hardly a month of my ministry has gone by when someone doesn’t greet me with a hug or handshake and the word “habibi.”  I’m more than happy to return it. I’ve overheard it shared between some of you too. By the way, habibi is masculine, and habibti is the feminine version. I tried to look up what a gender non-binary form would be but only found reference to a Habibi Ana society in Amsterdam, which is a non-profit organization and a related bar where LGBT Arabs are welcome! The translation is “My Beloved Society!”

I was reminded of my habibi Randy this week, as well as this Egyptian term of endearment, when reading our passage from Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians. Paul is writing to the church at Thessalonica. He is trying to offer them encouragement as they persevere in their new community and way of life, against Roman imperial opposition. At the time of his writing, he’s just come through a rough stretch in Philippi where he was unjustly jailed and beaten with Silas. Rumors have been flying so the passage includes some self-defensive language against those opponents of the Gospel who would accuse him of all matter of things: heresy, immorality, trickery, you name it. The itinerant Paul was an outsider to every community, even to those early Christian churches he was helping to found and shape. He feels the need to reassert his integrity and to debunk any skepticism about his motives. But, once he reminds himself and his readers of his faith-filled and Christ centered relationship with them, his language shifts. His defensive tone softens. He writes: “But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children…so deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the Gospel but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.” Very dear, almost darlings. They were his habibis!

I find this intimate language of commitment and community striking especially given the coarseness and downright indecency we see in our public discourse these days, and I don’t just mean what we see in tweets out of the Oval office. A national survey from this past June found that “75 percent of Americans see incivility as having reached "crisis levels,” and 73 percent feel that the U.S. is “losing stature as a civil nation.” These stats are both record highs for the annual report, now in its seventh year.” The study confirmed “that Americans say they’re personally experiencing incivility just about everywhere, including on the road (56 percent), while shopping (47 percent), in the neighborhood (25 percent) and online (25 percent).” (1) Who among us isn’t guilty of some occasional road rage induced unkindness or of speaking indecently about those with whom we disagree politically? President George W. Bush called out this pattern in a speech on Friday. He said: “we have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization. Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions – forgetting the image of God we should see in each other.” Amen! President Obama said something similar this week: “Instead of our politics reflecting our values, we’ve got politics infecting our communities. Instead of looking for ways to work together and get things done in a practical way, we've got folks who are deliberately trying to make folks angry, to demonize folks who have different ideas to get the base all riled up because it provides a short-term tactical advantage.”

I think I’ve been moved by this text this week in part because Paul’s rhetoric uses these tender and gentle words not merely to address his close friends or tribe but an entire audience of people, some of whom he surely would not have known and plenty of whom would have disagreed with him. It makes me wonder where in our lives do we get beyond our concerns with self-image or self-defense when addressing people outside our inner circles of family and friends? Where do we speak with such an intimate language of love and care to our fellow human beings? For starters at least, we do it here. At church.

In our fear-filled world, we offer one another a community and also a distinctive language that gives people practice in sharing the kind of intimate and tenderhearted love that God offers and expects of each of us. Moses even pushes God on this count, asking to better know God, not just by name, but to see God’s glory for the sake of God’s people, and God abides, putting Moses in a cleft of a rock to protect him, then letting God’s very presence pass by!

When church is at its best we offer each other a space, and also the words, to be vulnerable with each other, to be real with each other, and to risk speaking a language of love and familial commitment to one another. We call each other brother and sister and sibling at the start of most services because it underscores our bond to one another, and the fact we will try to love each other, even the person next to you in the pew who cut you off on the way here. In so doing, we can be free to reach out to one another from the depths of our broken and messy lives, without self-defense, in solidarity with, in love for and needfulness of God, Christ and our neighbors.

I can fondly recall sitting in a class with Cornel West who profoundly modeled this language of love and respect. No matter how unformed or off-base a classmate’s or my questions were, the good Dr. West always responded by referring to us not merely as his students or colleagues but as his brothers and sisters. “Brother Dan raises an excellent point” (and even when it wasn’t, he would spin it into something brilliant). “Sister Mary, thank you for that pressing question” (which was far more about her than the topic at hand) before making some intellectually acrobatic pivot. I googled “Brother Trump” this week just for kicks! Guess what was the first link to appear? A Facebook post by Cornel West with a pre-election article entitled “Why I endorse Brother Bernie and Reject Brother Trump.” In critiquing Brother Trump’s positions as “unconscionable attacks on precious Mexican brothers and sisters,” he spoke graciously about Trump’s “blessed mother” being born in Scotland. I’m almost positive that Cornel West considers his use of this language a Christian practice that goes right back to Brother Paul.

These days, can we even imagine calling strangers or enemies brothers and sisters and siblings? Can we imagine our enemies saying the same of us? And how often are we intentional about trying to see the image of God in every person?

The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has a compelling theory that the reason our country is so fiercely and bitterly divided right now has to do with the underlying values that people hold which lead them to different conclusions. In an article entitled, “Why Do People Vote Republican?” (which relates to a great book he wrote a few years back called “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Disagree about Religion and Politics”), he suggests that both liberals and conservatives score high when it comes to foundational values of compassion and fairness (or justice), liberal a bit higher. But some liberals have lost or never had the “moral taste buds,” as he calls them, for in-group loyalty, respect for authority or the sanctity of tradition. Consider yourself or those you know in these parts and think about how much more skeptical many of us are when it comes to these values, as opposed to compassion and justice or fairness. He says “morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way.” (2) Yes, there is a danger of that in-group loyalty, for example, leading to tribalism and nationalism and religious extremism, for sure. But, interestingly, Haidt, who began his career staunchly atheist and opposed to organized religion found in his research that religious communities actually play a formative role for the better in society, shaping people with a wider array of moral taste buds, who are more generous and more community oriented than secular people. Think about it: language like brother, sister, sibling and even habibi inspires loyalty and commitment! Paul knew this from the start! Haidt adds: “The in-group/loyalty foundation supports virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice that can lead to dangerous nationalism” [and we see this everywhere today, do we not?] But, Haidt continues, “in moderate doses a sense that "we are all one" is a recipe for high social capital and civic well-being” as well as a shared sense of identity, which is necessary given our increasing diversity which can sometimes leave us fractured. Communities like ours can offer us just that -- a shared sense of identity across difference, a way of binding ourselves together. Faith communities at their best allow us to experience that loyalty and commitment and the authority of a higher power in whose image we are all made, to immerse ourselves in traditions that help us take the long view of human being and suffering in the vast scheme of the universe. This may all raise more questions for you than it answers. It’s provocative stuff to be sure. If you’re interested, visit www.yourmorals.org and you can take a “Moral Foundations Survey” and learn why you care about some virtues and issues more than others and more importantly why everyone else doesn’t think just like you!

Back to Paul. Ultimately, his tender language of love and family gives us a taste bud for what God has called us and of what we should be calling each other, including those outside of this community, outside of this Blue State, outside of this country. It’s here in church, in covenantal community, where we can learn and practice this counter-cultural way of speaking to one another with grace instead of cruelty, and in ways that inspire our sense of commitment to something beyond us. Our covenant binds us together, to show mutual love and respect to each other even through our disagreements. How can this give us a template for engaging those with whom we disagree, those who don’t share our sometimes “in-group” language? Try it out this week, maybe in the car or when you are listening to the news. Consider if instead of nasty names and a descent into incivility, the election season invoked a recognition of Sister Hilary, or of Brother Donald! If you think need more practice before you can go there, why not start here where we can become even more than dear to one another. We can be darlings, too. Habibis and habibtis, my darling siblings in Christ, thanks be to God for offering us a language of commitment, community and love. Amen.

1) https://www.nbcnews.com/business/consumer/incivility-u-s-so-intense-amer...
2) https://www.edge.org/conversation/jonathan_haidt-what-makes-people-vote-...

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