Cup Bearer to Washtenaw County

Published by Trevor Bechtel on

I’m going to begin this morning with a confession. I’ve had a hard week. Most of you know that five years ago I was a successful academic with an elite position in my hometown. 2016 was a brutal year for me as I lost that work and entered what would become a 2 year sojourn of unemployment. And like the majority of this country I went into a new presidential term in November of that year holding a plate of sugar cookies I had cut and iced into versions of Hillary Clinton logo’s. Eating them, by myself over the next couple of days, was the very definition of bittersweet. I’ve fought a mostly successful battle with depression since then, but I am mostly, not entirely successful. 

I was somewhat emotionally vulnerable at the beginning of the week. I had just had a wonderful vacation that was cut a day short by a fast return to my in laws and the death and funeral of my mother-in-law. I started the week with too much to do at work, and I didn’t get as much done as I should have. 

But of course for all of us somewhat vulnerable is always layered on top of emotionally raw. The edges of my vision have been filled in regular drives between Goshen and Ann Arbor with the plurality of Trump campaign material and thin blue line flags and blue lives matter signs that you see in Michiana. The edges of my conscience that are concerned with justice have been overstimulated over the last six months of protests, recognition, the beginnings of and the refusal to change. Every week the national news is cut through with new revelations of police brutality, either current or recent, and empirically it’s not clear the police can be reformed. 

As the U of M opened this week many of these dynamics have started playing out in different ways on campus and in Zoom meetings. And the opening of school that is so full of joy for so many, has been a painful reminder for me every year for the last five years. I struggle with taking things too personally. I come by this honesty, you should have known my father, but it is too easy for me to draw a line between how I was treated in my career, the rise to power of the incompetent white power of Trump, and my own generation x inspired distrust of institutions. It’s too easy for me to feel the old pain of not having children, as everyone sends theirs to school. 

I’m a hot mess, and the ragweed has been unbearable. 

On one hand, this is not a particularly productive headspace from which to write a sermon. There are options of course; focus on the positive–we had a wonderful memorial service, I have good work and a wonderful home, a relentlessly positive, bright and caring spouse, and a cat who gives God a run for their money in terms of how much love she has to give. The August primary in Washtenaw County moved in many positive directions, the most significant being the choice of Eli Savit as our new County Prosecutor. 

Or, I could just be honest, and start with a confession, hoping that my own depression resonates with yours, and in that personal connection we can look together for a way forward, into the future. This is the last message in our series about how the church has been scattered and gathered, and I want to leave you with a vision for what it will look like when our gathering is not only virtual. I hope that this grounding in loss helps make my reaching for the future hold some authenticity.

With good reason then, despite all of his faults, I have resonated a lot with Nehemiah this week.  Or, as is always the case when we read a text as old as the bible, I find some valuable insights into myself and my community when I reflect on what I imagine about Nehemiah and his situation. 

Nehemiah had privilege. He had a high position in the Persian ruler Artaxerses’ court. He used that privilege to help restore the temple. He used his privilege to help his own people and, at the time, they probably counted as oppressed. They were living as exiles in the Persian empire, but they were also living in a tolerant empire that was willing to fund and secure the temple’s reconstruction. Nehemiah felt the burden of this middle position, he was also depressed. Artaxerses showed himself to be at least an o.k. emperor; he gives Nehemiah what he wants, and he had also granted his father’s worst enemy exile in Persia when he was exiled from Greece. But he was also emperor of the leading power in the world and was connected by power to the decision that meant that Nehemiah was exiled. I resonate with Nehemiah because I can see both my privilege and power and parts of my life also show the pain of unjust practices. Nehemiah was successful at gathering his people together and at building a future for them. Sadly, he depended on a message of purity and separation to do this. If you continue engaging his story in the chapters that follow the passage that  (Tim/Gail) read, you hear Nehemiah report on all of the leaders of other factions that hate his work on the temple, and his successful defeat of their plans. Nehemiah didn’t reach out to them and seek to create an inclusive and diverse community. The Hebrew Bible translator Robert Alter, in his introduction to the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, spends a fifth of his introduction focused on the counter example of Ruth, whose message of inclusion and connection beyond the people of Israel was a different option, before recognize that the,

“separatist view embodied in Ezra and Nehemiah is the one that seems to have prevailed in its time: no foreign wives, no Samaritans or others of uncertain ethnic or religious background were tolerated in the rebuilding of the … Temple. For better or for worse, this is the approach that gained momentum and would predominate in the many centuries that followed.”

Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible, Introduction to Ezra and Nehemiah

We are in this same space, exiled by the pandemic, and heartbroken for how we have been scattered. And we are seeking to become the community that God is calling us to be. What do we know about how we will do this?

It will be different than the set of practices describe in Acts 2. But we can find some valuable insights into ourselves and our community when we reflect on what we imagine about the Jesus followers in Acts and their situation. I’m going to spend the rest of my reflections this morning reflecting on some of what it will look like to gather again. Some of this we will need to be together in the same space to do. Some of it is thinking about how our community will change both at Shalom but also in Washtenaw County. 

We don’t all live in Washtenaw County, so we have always been a congregation of Southeast Michigan looking to Canton, Farmington Hills, Waterford and now Grass Lake, as well as Saline, Dexter, Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. But Washtenaw County is a microcosm of our country with similar demographics, segregation, and urban rural divides as the nation as a whole. It is a good local focus for us.

There is an affordable housing crisis in Washtenaw County, but thanks to the hard work of a coalition that includes Chuck Warpehoski, who spoke to us last summer, we will be able to vote on a ballot initiative in November that raises money for affordable housing and embedded social services. There is a spotlight on housing, during the pandemic, with the most recent news coming out of the CDC who banned Covid related evictions this week as a public health crisis. We are learning more and more about how stress and poverty and security are connected to our physical health. This decision supports what we know about that suddenly larger group struggling with housing security and allows us to more effectively counter the pandemic. We have the opportunity to become a county that takes a similarly forward thinking approach to housing. 

As I mentioned earlier Washtenaw County is going to change significantly when Eli Savit becomes out new County Prosecutor after he is formally elected–he is now running unopposed–in November. He is committed to a number of policies that progressive prosecutors around this country are using to reform our criminal justice system. Prosecutors are the most powerful players in the criminal justice system. In this time between his winning the primary in August and taking office, he has created a number of task forces to end cash bail, focus on racial equity, and enact restorative justice. I was appointed to the racial equity committee and other Shalomer’s are on other committees. My task force is lucky to be able to work from a significant report on discriminatory practices in our court system recently authored by  (CREW) Citizens for Racial Equity in Washtenaw.  The advocacy group that we helped found, Friends of Restorative Justice, is working on a proposal for the County Commissioners to fund a Restorative Justice Center. Both Shalom and the Friends of Restorative Justice are all of sudden poised to contribute in a significant way to reform in our County. 

One way that we can show our support for change in our punishment system now is by going next Saturday’s Car – a – van calling for freedom for prisoners at the Huron Valley Women’s Correctional Center. Look for details in your Streams and Announcement email.

On the 27th of September we will have a chance to do our own Car – a – van from Gretchen’s House to Green Wood. I’d like to take this opportunity to encourage you to start now to create banners. I’m going to have some of those no sticky car decals printed with our church logo and name on them. 

Participating in a car parade is a shift for those of us who don’t like to drive, or use gasoline. But it could also provide opportunities for those of us who aren’t able or comfortable walking in a protest to express themselves. Perhaps the car parade can be a new symbol of transformation in our post covid world. There is a value in using the trappings of late liberal capitalism to fashion the world that will follow it. 

We have been meeting in this Webex format for six months now. It’s been a good platform for us in many ways, and we are grateful to Danny Hollander for loaning it to us. 

One of the things that we have realized by using this platform is that the boundaries of our community reach not just beyond Washtenaw County but also beyond Southeast Michigan. We have regular participation from two countries and states stretching to many corners of this one. This is a a new thing that we have gained during this time, and it’s probably not one we will want to lose when we begin to gather again. We will likely continue streaming the first part of our services online when we gather, and will likely seek to include a Zoom sharing component. Happily Green Wood, our new building is ready for this. 

It’s very interesting to me to think about this technologies that we have had for awhile but that many people never needed and so never used. The shift that happens when a technology goes mainstream changes both the users and the technology. From this point forward when we gather online we will do it with the context of it being normal, because we all did it for awhile. 

For this and for other reasons we will also over the next few weeks shift our technology to Zoom from Webex. We’ll have a chance to practice this next Sunday for our congregational meeting. I’ll send out a Zoom guide to aid in the transition early next week, and we’ll start worshipping that way soon thereafter. 

One thing that we’ll be able to do with Zoom that we can’t with Webex is to use breakout rooms when we meet virtually. I’ve enjoyed our virtual Sunday meetings; and by some measures they are more successful than even meeting in person. We have about double the attendance!! But there are of course also drawbacks, and for me the most significant is that there has been only one conversation. If I’m not feeling included in the conversation pre or post worship, I can’t gracefully leave and find another conversation happening across the hallway. Online connection may be more normal now, but it will probably never have the organic stop and start quality that we get when we have a group of people in the same space. And it’s really hard when there is only one conversation to make sure that everyone is being heard, at least in some way. 

The pictures of people in the prelude has been a wonderful inclusion of new parts of our week into our worship services. Plus dragons. I imagine that some kind of pre worship sharing of images from our lives could continue once we start gathering again. But it is also also self-selecting and partial. We see more of some people who don’t choose to share a lot in in person worship, but also much less of others who don’t like sending in images. This balance of looking to include everyone is always tricky. But this is the work of the church and as we look to gathering I hope we keep it in mind. 

I’m onto page four now, which means this is getting too long. So I’ll stop and ask Javan to play the video of EMU students singing during Covid, in probably the only way it can happen, with masks and amplification and a lot of physical distance. With a bunch more wireless microphones we could do this too. Maybe we will. While you watch or sing along to this I’d like you to think about a few things that you think we will have in our vessels as we gather again, and I’d to start sharing with having people report on these. I’ll end by saying that Nehemiah was a cup bearer, a position of absolute trust and high influence. Cup bearers, valuable because they kept the emperor from being poisoned, are useless now. New roles are trusted and have influence. What will these be for us at Shalom and in Washtenaw County. I look forward to you continuing this message after the break. Javan …

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