Have you ever offended somebody? I did … once … a day … at the minimum. Not because I was trying to offend people. I really don’t get up in the morning and think, “Who can I offend today?” But one of the consequences of being ordained is that we have to preach and live an unpopular message. We are called to preach the Gospel which, while it technically means “good news,” it isn’t received as “good news” by everyone. It still challenges our comfortable world view by telling us to let go of our egos, our need to control and dominate, and our possessions. Its message is still offensive and lucky me (and every other pastor), we get to be the messengers.
We are continuing the saga of the Feeding of the 5,000 and its aftermath this week. We still have a few more weeks of this story so hang in there. It’s a challenge for preachers because how much can you say about bread and how long can you milk that? But I suppose the writers of the lectionary put it in August because they knew people would be on vacation and not likely attending every week … so the congregation won’t feel as inundated by bread as the preacher will!
Today we hear that “the Jews” are complaining, in Greek “grumbling”, among themselves about Jesus’ statement “I am the bread of life” and “I am the bread which came down from heaven.” The story is beginning to take an antagonistic turn. If you remember last week, the crowd who followed Jesus to Capernaum after the feeding episode were asking him questions: “What must we do to do the works of God?” and “What sign will you give us?” Now “the Jews” are beginning to attack the motives of the messenger – or at least his credentials. “Who does he think he is? We know he’s Joe the Carpenter’s kid!”
I want to pause here to clarify John’s usage of the term “the Jews.” Sadly, this has been construed in our Christian history to be an anti-Semitic polemic and was used to justify persecution of Jewish people. John is a product of his context and he uses two terms to refer to the people: “the crowd” and “the Jews.” Let’s be clear, “the crowd” were Jews! Who else would they be? But John here is referring to the peasant Jewish people – the working class Jews who were engaging Jesus. When John uses the term “the Jews,” he is referring to the religious leadership (the Pharisees, Sadducees, and temple priesthood) who stood in opposition to Jesus’ message. So when you hear John using these terms “the crowd” and “the Jews,” realize that he is drawing a line between Jews with religious and political power and those who don’t have that power.
So it is clear Jesus is offending the religious leadership who just cannot figure out how some ordinary guy can now claim to have come down from heaven. I mean, if you think about it, it is an audacious claim, isn’t it? Especially if you had grown up with him! You knew his family and friend. You saw him skin his knees and remember when his voice changed and got all squeaky. I mean … he’s just an ordinary guy! So the grumbling begins and they are taking offense.
It’s still hard to believe this, isn’t it? This ordinary carpenter’s kid living an ordinary life but telling us something of God that is extraordinary: simply the fact that God uses the ordinary to accomplish the extraordinary. This is still an audacious claim and we live it out every single week here at Grace. We claim and give our hearts to see ordinary bread and ordinary wine becoming the Body and Blood of Christ in our own midst. We claim the water of Baptism destroys Sin’s power over us … but it is plain old tap water from Brunswick! We even have to run the faucet to get the rust out of the pipes … that’s how ordinary it is. The Oil of Unction through which we trust the Spirit of God to bring healing and wholeness to our broken bodies and spirits … it’s Colavita olive oil … how ordinary. All of these things are ordinary, but God infuses them with the extraordinary so that we are strengthened and drawn closer to Christ. And if it is true for bread, wine, water and oil, so much more so is it true for me and for you.
We too are very ordinary: ordinary people living ordinary lives. Yet, through the sacraments and our community here, Christ is truly present. Through the ordinary elements of the sacraments, God empowers us as ordinary people to be the extraordinary presence of Christ in a hurting world who needs to experience the Gospel now more than ever. We ordinary people are infused and empowered to continue the extraordinary work of healing and reconciling in the name of Christ. It is an audacious and remarkable claim made on our lives by the Living God and if it is true for bread, wine, water and oil … how much more so is it for you and for me?
I met a man when I was living in Orange County who was raised an Orthodox Jew in Chicago. His father was a kosher butcher and during the Great Depression, he worked for his father as a delivery boy taking customers’ orders to them on bicycle. During that time in many ethnic neighborhoods, word got around about families in need and their local grocers and butchers either carried them on credit or sometimes food would just show up (my great-uncle did the same for his Italian community as a grocer in San Francisco). He shared with me about how his father planned to help a particular family in need by doing a mitzvah. The word mitzvah means “commandment” and it is generally seen as the keeping of the Law; but in particular it speaks of acts of kindness and generosity done for others. A mitzvah, at its altruistic best, is done in secret – hence Jesus’ admonition of not letting the right hand know what the left is doing when giving alms to the poor. So this man’s father would give him all the deliveries for his Friday and an extra bundle of meat to be put in the bottom of his pack. That last bundle was to be delivered to this one particular family and his cover for this was to tell them there had been a mistake on an order and that he had been given too much that day; however, since it was so close to sundown, he had no way of getting back to the butcher shop in time to put the meat away and still make it home in time for Shabbat. “It would be a blessing to me if you would take this meat, otherwise it would spoil,” he was to say. Now you know the family could see through that ruse, but it was a way to preserve dignity in a very hard time. Well, after a while the father of this household in need found gainful employment and, one day, my friend walked in on him at the butcher shop with money in hand trying to pay for the “extra bundles” and “father’s mistakes” for the time he was unemployed. My friend’s father was irate: “I will not take your money! You will take away my mitzvah!!” My friend never learned the outcome of that argument … he felt it best to leave while he had a chance.
I recalled this story as I looked at today’s readings because the giving of gift and what we do with gifts appears as a subtext in all of the stories. What is it about the receiving of gifts that is so difficult? Sure, there are specific gift giving occasions when one expects them that don’t seem to bother us much: days like Christmas, birthdays, and anniversaries. But what about unexpected gifts – how do we feel about them? If we are honest, they are a bit unsettling aren’t they? Unexpected gifts signal a shift in the dynamics of a relationship.
Unexpected gifts are often a sign of intimacy and connection between people. They can signify a deepening of a relationship and, while that can be wonderful, it does change the dynamics. Temporarily at least, when one receives an unexpected gift, they are in a vulnerable position vis a vis the giver of the gift. Gift giving creates an asymmetry in the relational dynamics and it’s hard to be the vulnerable one – and even harder to admit to feeling vulnerable. And this is where our reaction to being on the receiving end of a gift can take several turns.
One reaction is to start wondering what we have to do to reciprocate. Receiving a gift can make us feel obligated to give something back, right? Or it may make us wonder what we have to do to “deserve” it. It can feel like there are strings attached. Another reaction is to question the motives of the giver. Now we don’t always do that to their face, but the little voice in our head may be wondering about the meaning behind giving this gift. Yet another response is to accept the gift with an attitude of entitlement – of course I should get gifts, because I already deserve it. One way or another, these responses are attempts to rebalance the disquietude felt within us when we are on that vulnerable receiving end of a gracious gift given.
Our readings today speak of gifts and the reactions of those on the receiving end. Our Hebrew text from 2nd Samuel is a follow up to the terrible incident of David’s coveting Bathsheba to the point of having sexual relations with her causing her pregnancy and to cover up his sin, David arranges for the death of her husband Uriah the Hittite. Nathan the prophet is tasked with confronting David with his sin of covetousness. After giving David the analogy of the rich and poor man, Nathan speaks of how God has been so generous with David and how much he has been given. It is said in scripture that David had 300 wives and concubines … apparently he thought he needed one more! David had cultivated an attitude that he deserved what had been given and this entitled him to take whatever he wanted whenever he wanted. His response to having received so much was to take even more.
The writer of Ephesians speaks of us being given gifts for ministry to equip the saints. It is not uncommon for people to feel like they don’t have spiritual gifts. We’ve had this conversation in our Tuesday Bible study recently. But if we view all that we are and all that we have as gift, then we see that our talents and aptitudes have the capacity to build up the kingdom of God. We can often be dismissive in claiming our gifts which is another way of rebalancing the asymmetry of the relationship with God. If I can minimize or deny my gifts, I won’t be called upon to use them. In some ways, I think we fear using our gifts because we fear failure; but if we trust in God, we will often find that which looks like failure ends up being the very thing which God uses to touch others. In other words, the use of our gifts and the outcome thereof are not our works alone – it’s not all up to us!
This week’s Gospel reading is the “extended dance version” of the story of the Feeding of the 5,000 in John. This is the only miracle story which clearly is the same in all four Gospels, but John really expands the narrative. Why? John’s gospel lacks a narrative of the Last Supper insofar as the sharing of bread and wine at the meal – the institution of the Eucharist as we know it. John tells of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. I suppose we can be thankful we have more than just John’s gospel or we’d be washing feet every Sunday … talk about a gift that makes people uncomfortable! It is believed that John uses the Feeding of the 5,000 story to speak of the Eucharist rather than doing it in the context of the Last Supper. Last week you heard that Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it – the four acts of the Eucharist. Today we hear it is the next day and the crowd has figured out Jesus made his getaway to Capernaum. They follow him there and when they find him Jesus pointedly says they didn’t come because of signs but because they got a “free lunch” yesterday. He urges them to seek more than just food which perishes. Notice what their reaction is to the unexpected gift of both the free meal and his invitation – “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Or, “what do we have to do” in exchange for what you’ve offered. The crowd is disquieted by the asymmetry of their relationship to Jesus. His response is to believe in him – to give their hearts to his ministry and message. A simple request, but not so easy for them or us. The crowd still is uncomfortable with this answer and so demands a sign from him. Really? Um … yesterday 5,000 of you got fed off of five loaves and two fish … remember? Apparently, they quickly forget and now begin to question the credentials of the giver by telling him “Hey, that’s nice and all but Moses fed our ancestors with manna in the wilderness … what makes you different?” Jesus’ response is to remind them that God was the originator of that gift of manna, not Moses, and that Jesus not only gave them food in the wilderness yesterday, but he gives himself to them completely as the bread of life. He gives more than bread … he gives his very life for them and for us … and every time we gather at this table, Jesus gives himself again and again. This gift continues and is beyond any price.
That’s where it can get a bit uncomfortable for us. We cannot do anything to earn the gift of the Eucharist. Don’t get me wrong, the Eucharist does move us to action born out of our gratitude to take the gospel into the world in our words and deeds. But it isn’t something we can earn by being good little boys and girls or by any action of our own. It is not something we can control nor is it something to which we are entitled. It is free gift and grace and it will make us vulnerable and it will make us uncomfortable.
The only stance we have left is to receive this gift in complete humility. To let go of any pretense that we deserve it or earned it and place our vulnerable selves at the foot of this altar, in the presence of the living Bread which has come down from heaven to give life to us and to the whole world.
Sister Maggie and Suzy Roche collaborated on an album about 15 years ago entitled “Zero Church.” Strange name, I know, but its title comes from the address of the building where they were working. They began working on in and in the midst of their process, the attacks of 9/11 happened. The project took a different turn and, in collaboration with other artists, the music was a compilation of grieving, lament, and hope. On the album they set a Jewish poem by Zelda to a haunting tune. The poem was entitled “Each of Us Has a Name.” It speaks of the various names we carry in our lives and in our death. This poem reminds me of the Name Project – the quilt which was created in memory of those who died of AIDS, especially in the first wave of deaths in the 1980’s and early 1990’s.
I realize now we have young people gathered here today who may not even know about the Names quilt. It is exhibited in smaller panels now in various places and you can look up the panels online to see them. In the early days of the epidemic, the panels were largely for gay men but as the disease spread through the blood supply, people outside the gay community were affected – hemophiliacs, intravenous drug users, prostitutes, straight men and women who had been infected by intimate partners. The Names Project brought light to the scourge of HIV but also allowed us to see these people as something other than the single name of “AIDS death” – we saw them as more as their names were restored.
One panel is for a man who was a botanist – his specialty was bamboo and orchids. He worked in landscape design and even created an exhibit for the Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park called “The Forest in the Clouds” made up of bamboo and orchids. His name was James and yes, he was gay. He died of AIDS as did his partner in the first wave. His quilt panel, three feet by six feet (the size of a human coffin), has bamboo, orchids and clouds on it. On each cloud is hand stitched quotes from the letters his mother received upon his death. The one that choked me up was written by a 5 year old girl named Erin. “I am sorry Mr. Jim died. He was my friend even though I am a little girl.” It was written on Snoopy stationary. His quilt panel restored part of his identity to him. How do I know this? Well, I did not know James in life, but I designed that quilt square and my mother made it for his mother to add to the names. Each of us has a name.
Today’s story from the Gospel of Mark is about two women – one young and one old. One who is known only as the “daughter of Jairus” and the other named by her malady – “the woman with a hemorrhage.” Outside the immediate family of Jesus the disciples and the main characters representing the power structure (Herod, Pilate), most people are mentioned by their other names – names surrounding their roles (chief priest, scribe) or their maladies (the man with the withered hand, the paralytic on the mat, the hemorrhaging woman). Both women in this text are bound by the span of 12 years – for one the span of her life and the other the span of her social exile. The woman with the hemorrhage likely had a gynecological illness for which there really was no cure in her day. This bleeding was seen by rabbinic law as making her, and anything she touched, defiled and unclean. So by this law, she was socially dead – she was not to touch anything or anyone. She was desperate to get her life back and spent all her money on doctors who could do nothing. She had nothing to lose when she saw Jesus.
In desperation, she slips through the crowd following Jesus to the home of Jairus. She says, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But when you are desperate, you’ll do anything no matter how crazy it sounds. Immediately she was healed and in the same instance, Jesus detects something has happened. There’s been a disturbance in the “Force” – power has gone out of him. He whirls around to see what happened and who touched him – the disciples can’t believe he’s asking that question, but Jesus is undeterred. He will not go forward until he finds out.
Imagine the terror of the woman. She knows she has ritually defiled this man! She knows he could retaliate against her! She had nothing to lose but to be called out. She falls on her face in front of him in terror and blurts out “the whole truth.” Jesus does not get angry or rebuke her or humiliate her. He gives her back her name: “Daughter!” “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” She transforms in this instant from the woman with a hemorrhage to … daughter. Each of us has a name.
Too often, the names we carry are given by others and by our circumstances. Some of the names are relational – daughter, son, wife, husband, father, mother, sister, brother – but others are not. The person who suffers from illness can find themselves named by it: alcoholic, drug addict, anorexic, mentally ill. A person might be named ugly, pretty, fat, skinny based on cultural standards of attractiveness. We even name people as a “success” or a “failure” – and those are the names I can mention. Some names are meaner and more vilifying – meant to destroy the image of God in us. Each of us has a name.
Yesterday, a number of us from Grace attending Frederick Pride – the fourth such event and I’m happy to say we have been there as a church since day one. Prior to the event on Carroll Creek, there was a Pride worship service at Grace UCC. Our speaker was The Rev. Allyson Robinson. She is the first transgendered female Baptist pastor in the world. Now wrap your mind around those four names: transgendered, female, Baptist and pastor. Not names you would generally expect to find in the same sentence, let alone describing one person. She preached a message of reconciliation and peace in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to allow same-sex couples to marry in all 50 states. She spoke of this journey as a battle – for that it surely was for the LGBTQ community and straight allies. But she now called us to put down the “weapons of battle” for tools of reconciliation. She quoted, not from the majority opinion written by Justice Kennedy, but from a dissenting opinion written by Justice Alito. She asked us to hear not the anger but the fear in it. Fear is what those who once oppressed now have because human history is filled with stories of how the oppressed, when the tide of opinion turns, become oppressors themselves. She exhorted us to be peacemakers rather than succumb to being oppressors. A powerful message of reconciliation from one who has a name: Christian.
Each of us has a name – a true name and identity in God. That name is “beloved child.” Too often, the names of the hurts and the wounds can drown out that real name and we are like the woman with the hemorrhage – desperate to find healing from those other names which would steal our real identity. All of us have those wounded places, those names which have claimed us and which we find confining. Like the woman with the hemorrhage who becomes “daughter” again, all of us can reach out to touch the garments of the living Christ. What does that mean? It depends on what you need. For the alcoholic struggling in recovery, it might mean one more round of rehab. Last week, we had a speaker at our recovery Eucharist who told us he went through 12 rounds of rehab and multiple jail terms to finally break his alcohol and crack addiction. He kept grabbing for Jesus’ garments, even when he didn’t know that was what he was doing, and now has serenity and sobriety one day at a time. For the person with an illness, it may be trying a new treatment option to improve the quality of life. For someone who lost their job, it may be reaching out for gainful employment. For someone who flunked a class, it may mean reaching out to try again or find another path. Each time we reach out to touch the garments of Christ, we stretch a little more. Each time we do, something of our identity gets restored. We know we cannot save ourselves, but reaching for the garments is the faith response to the grace offered by God in Christ. The grace is there but we have to reach out in faith to connect with it. Reaching for the garments of Jesus is how we can respond to the grace – it’s how we are drawn to it. In so doing, we get back our real identity, our real name … “beloved child.” Each of us has a name.
Each of us has a name - by Zelda (Translation by Marcia Falk)
Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents
Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear
Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls
Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbors
Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing
Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love
Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work
Each of us has a name
given by the seasons
and given by our blindness
Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Those words have been echoing in my mind and heart this week – especially after the murder of nine of God’s beloved children in Charleston. Nine children of God targeted because of the color of their skin. Nine children of God whom the shooter admits almost made him not do it – because they were so nice. But he did it. Dylann Roof, a young angry white man infected with the disease of racism, gunned down nine of God’s beloved because of the color of their skin. He was blinded to the content of their character. We are in the midst of a great and terrible storm of violence and we can feel like the disciples – our boat is being swamped and the storm is just too big. We are numb and fearful at the same time – and we are frozen in this numbness and fear.
It seems to me that part of our collective problem is we have misidentified the name of this storm. We are focusing on racism because these recent outbursts of violence are coalescing around our differences in skin color. But racism is not the name of this storm. It’s the symptom of a much deeper existential disease – a much more besetting sin. Until we can properly name it, we cannot even begin to pray for deliverance.
So what is the name of the storm? What is the underlying besetting sin? It comes down to one word – privilege. Privilege is the disease and it is undergirded by the deadly sins of pride and anger. Privilege is insidious precisely because when we have it, we cannot see it. Privilege sits in our blind spot as we participate with others who share privileged class and create systems to protect that privilege. Any threat to that privilege is met with reactivity and violence – and the blood of God’s murdered children attests to this.
This morning’s message is going to make you squirm – some of you much more so than others. What I ask of you this morning is to breathe through your discomfort today. I ask that when I speak today of things that make you defensive, and make no mistake you will get defensive, take a deep breath, let go of the need to be right or defend your privilege, and step into the humility needed to grow more like Christ. I entreat you to do as St. Benedict asks – open the ear of your heart and listen deeply today. I ask you on behalf of the children of God who are dying because the protection of privilege is turning into a matter of life and death.
Privilege is the setting up of some traits and characteristics as desirable and others as less than or even undesirable. It is human nature to do this and it is instinctual – part of our primitive brains. But as humans created in God’s image, we are more than just a collection of instincts and we operate with more than a reptilian brain. If we possess these desirable traits, we don’t reflect on them or how others who do not possess these same traits might be harmed by not having them. In our blindness, we create systems which continue to uphold and reinforce the privileged status and keep those without that privilege in their place.
You’ve probably heard it said that the wealthy operate by a different set of rules. That’s a statement commenting on the privilege of a high socio-economic status. Those of a high socio-economic status have largely influenced the tax structures and laws which have been made to preserve their privileged status (and not just in our country, but in others as well). This is an example of how one “privilege card” is used to create a system to benefit those who hold the same card.
Think of privilege as a hand of cards you have been dealt. You didn’t ask for this hand of cards – it was largely determined long before you were born. Theologian Walter Brueggemann spoke to our clergy conference a few years ago and said, “If you are straight, white and male in America, good for you! You won the genetic lottery.” And he’s right. While there are many other “privilege cards” in our hands, the storm of violence we are facing is really a battle fought on three major fronts over race, gender and sexual orientation. And God’s children are dying because of people who are bent on protecting their privileged status by any means necessary.
This past April, at the University of Mary Washington, Grace Mann was strangled to death. She was a member of Feminists United who dared to speak out about the sports teams on their college campus and how the young men were perpetuating a culture of sexual harassment with jokes about rape and violence against women. This included the use of social media to harass women, physical threats, assaults and rape. Grace was a part of the Feminists United group which called out the rugby team in particular. When the rugby team was suspended for performing a sexually demeaning chant at a party, Grace was targeted for retaliation. Reports say some members of the rugby team said it was time to “put the bitch in her place.” Steven Vander Briel, a former member of the rugby team, has been charged with her murder. The protection of the privilege card of gender killed another child of God.
Sexual orientation is another major front over which the issue of privilege is playing out. Gay bashing, trans violence, harassment of LGBT youth to the point of suicide, and the fight against same sex marriage are all designed to keep “those people in their place” – it is the defense of heterosexual privilege. If two people of the same sex want to get married, this isn’t going to “ruin marriage!” For crying out loud, straight couples have been screwing up marriage all by themselves – we don’t need any instructions on that. But in all seriousness, marriage as a legally protected status is imbued with privileges! And fearful people who don’t want that privilege challenged are fighting back.
Tragically, our own sacred texts become grounds for fodder in the protection of privilege. While we don’t hear it much today, the Bible was used to justify the enslavement of blacks – all the way back to when the first slaves came through the middle passage to Jamestown in 1619. The Bible’s texts have been used to keep women “in their place” and justify male dominance and privilege. I cannot tell you how many times I have been hit with the clobber passages from 1st Corinthians and 1st Timothy which out of context tell women they are not to speak in the assembly. Proof texting used to keep me “in my place” and under the thumb of men. I have news for anyone who tries that game – my place is anywhere God calls me … get over it! Our LGBT sisters and brothers get clobbered with Biblical proof texting too … all meant to reinforce and protect privilege.
“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” We are perishing. We are shedding blood over the protection of privilege and God’s beloved children are dying. We all have a hand of cards dealt and some carry more privilege points than others. But let me ask you this – what does the word “privilege” even mean in the Kingdom of God? It’s been said that if God had a refrigerator, all of our pictures would be on it. And I would add each of those pictures would have this caption: “My dear and beloved child.” So can there be privilege in God’s eyes? I suggest the answer is no … a resounding NO! It is in the realm of human eyes where privilege exists.
Now at this point, I know those of you holding lots of high value human privilege cards are really struggling. Don’t lie and say you aren’t … this is hard stuff. I know it is. I carry the high value privilege cards of race (white), sexual orientation (straight), socio-economic status (upper-middle class), education (advanced college degree), and others. I lack the privilege card of gender – and that has made me aware of this privilege problem. Red carpets are not rolled out for me like they are for you men – especially in a vocation like this where the preference for male clergy is still dominant although denied because we want to think we are progressive. I live in a world where I have had to navigate sexual street harassment, threats of physical violence, and even sexual assault. All of that behavior comes down to the protection of male privilege.
Now I know, the reaction of those of us carrying the privilege card is “but I’m not like that!” And very likely you are not. But in carrying that particular card of privilege, you participate (often unknowingly) in a system which is doing everything it can to protect the privilege. Your participation is most often silence. And this is where Jesus’ response to the storm helps inform us about what we can do. In response to the fearful disciples, Jesus rebukes the wind and the sea – “Peace! Be still!” and the storm ceases. The storm of privilege protecting violence can be stilled … but it will take more than one word. It will take many words and deeds over time. It will take those of us who hold the high value privilege cards to engage and call out those who are actively trying to protect their privilege. So where do we start? It can seem overwhelming. Let me suggest a course of action for you to take beginning this week.
First, in your prayer time this week, ask God to help reveal to you where you hold privilege in our society. I’ve given you a head start – if you are straight, white and male, you hold three cards. But there are others I’ve mentioned. Take an honest inventory of the desirable traits our culture values – how many do you have?
Second, with your inventory, ask God in prayer for the courage to engage and listen. Ask God for the gift of humility to enter into this process. This process needs a lot of humility to counter the disquietude and discomfort you will feel. I guarantee you will feel it … but like lancing a boil, it will feel better as you begin to heal from the wounds that privilege is inflicting on you. Even if you have privilege, you are wounded by it!
Third, pick one of your privilege cards and engage someone who does not carry that privilege card. This calls for you to “check your privilege” and listen deeply with the “ear of the heart.” Do it in small doses as it is hard work and when you engage someone without the privilege card you carry, they may be wary and reticent to talk about this with you. Be patient, take your time, build relationship, bridge the divide. Straight married guys? You have it built in … talk to your wives and daughters about the gender based harassment they are facing every single day.
Fourth, with an opening of your eyes and hearts to the problem of privilege, be attentive with a new consciousness about where it is happening and, when you hear or see acts of micro-aggression, call it out! That’s right – call it out. When you hold a privilege card and another person carrying the same card makes a comment or joke which reinforces that privileged status, call it out for what it is. Whether it’s racism, sexism, homophobia – call it out! If you remain silent, you are reinforcing and participating in the protection of your privilege. Call it out. Tell the other person their comment is not funny and hurtful to others. Expect push back … it will happen and often takes the form of telling you it was “just a joke” and “where’s your sense of humor?” When I get that, I just look them in the eye and say, “Oh I have a sense of humor. But your comment was not funny. It was [fill in the blank with the appropriate ‘ism’].”
Calling it out is what Jesus did to the storm and it ceased. Privilege is not dismantled from the outside in …but from the inside out when those who have privilege stand in solidarity with those who lack it and dismantle it from within. This is revolutionary work. This is the kind of work Christ did among us. It’s work which demands the conversion of our hearts and minds. It is the mission of the church to continue Christ’s healing and reconciling work. We are called to it, by the power of the Spirit we can do it and the lives of God’s beloved children depend on us to do it.
Never judge a book by its cover. How many of us have heard that piece of advice over the years? It’s a way of warning us not to be caught up in outward appearances but to investigate what is going on inside. This week’s readings have coincided with the much publicized “coming out” of Caitlyn Jenner – formerly known as Bruce Jenner. Bruce now Caitlyn has become a very public face on the issue of transgendered people. For those of us old enough to remember Bruce as an Olympic athlete, this came as quite a surprise! But from what Caitlyn has shared publically, this sense of disconnect between the outer world of the physical body and inner world feeling totally different has been a very painful thing. My friend Annabelle and I were talking about this in our icon class this past Monday and how when the inner world and outer world do not match, there can be much so much suffering.
Today’s first testament reading from 1 Samuel is about God directing Samuel to anoint David as king. Now this is where I have a “hate” relationship with the Lectionary – because there is a whole big story that gets chopped out for the sake of brevity! Last week, we heard the people demanding a king and, if you paid close attention to the scripture citations, we skipped from the demand in chapter 8 to the anointing of Saul at Gilgal in chapter 11. That means three chapters were cut out! There’s back story here. In those three chapters, we hear that Saul has a chance meeting with Samuel on the count of losing his father’s donkeys. What is reported of Saul is he is a “mighty man of valor,” who was “handsome” and stood “head and shoulders above everyone else.” Much is made of Saul’s height in the chapters telling of how he meets Samuel. It seems that his height and outer appearance was part of what made the impression as his being fit to be a leader.
The other part of what we missed is why this week we hear God has rejected Saul. This is part of what was left out too. When Saul takes over as king, he begins to exhibit two major character flaws: pride and impatience. Saul is prideful and begins to ignore the advice of Samuel who is mediating God’s instructions. Saul is going to do things his way! Saul is also impatient and appears to give in to the anxiety of his soldiers and others in his charge. Rather than waiting on the word of the Lord, he charges ahead. Remember last week, we heard in Samuel’s warning to the people about what having a kings would mean for them this line: “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day.” Now this does not mean that God has abandoned the Israelites – it does mean he will let them live with the consequences of choosing Saul. In this week’s reading, God begins to lay the groundwork for the next king.
We hear Samuel’s fear that Saul would become enraged and kill him. Saul is beginning to show signs of mental illness and violence. Many have speculated on the exact nature of Saul’s manias but we know he attempted to kill David at one point later in the story. God gives Samuel a plan to make contact with Jesse. One by one, each of the sons passes by Samuel. The first makes an impression but God tells Samuel not to look on the outer appearance or the “height of his stature” – almost as if to say, “You fell for the tall thing with Saul – that’s not what we’re looking for here!” God reminds Samuel that he sees the heart and doesn’t fall for outward appearances. Finally, after seven sons pass by and the answer is still no, he asks Jesse, “Got any more kids?” “Sure, one more, but he’s with the sheep.” And this! This is the son – one who is just a boy. The most unlikely one but look at how he is described – “ruddy” (the outdoors type), has “beautiful eyes” and is “handsome.” The eyes are the mirror of the soul – to be seen is to be known. God sees that what is on the outside is congruent with what is on the inside – David is anointed as the next king. Now this does not mean that David is perfect. He has some serious character flaws and does some pretty terrible things, but God works through him in spite of it. Let me also say that God worked through Saul too. Even as unstable as Saul was, it was under his leadership that the Philistines are defeated and peace secured at the northern border.
Paul speaks of this seeing past outward appearances in his letter to the Church in Corinth today too. He says “we regard no one from a human point of view” even though Christ was once human. He is calling the Corinthians to see past the obvious signs of wealth, status, and honor and look to the heart – to the new creation we become in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Jesus’ parables today about seeds also speak of a hidden inner nature. We have all done the elementary school science project of sprouting the lima bean in wet paper towels, right? We know what happens when a seed is planted. But, even knowing what happens, we cannot completely explain why it happens. Why do some seeds sprout and others don’t? I can’t get parsnips to grow … carrots, yes / parsnips, no. Why one and not the other? I don’t have a clue. It is mystery. A point Jesus is making about both the seed sprouted and the mustard seed is that there is a mysterious hidden nature to the seed. When I speak of mystery in this way, I’m not talking about Scooby Doo and Shaggy solving a mystery! We are talking about the Divine Mystery which is beyond human understanding. The inner nature of things is often a mystery wrapped in an enigma.
Jesus uses some hyperbole in speaking of the mustard seed growing into a great shrub or tree. Mustard was known to the ancients and it’s the same stuff we have – a low growing leafy plant with yellow flowers. The Jewish people avoided mustard at all costs because it doesn’t play by the rules – it spreads invasively! It gets all mixed up in the crops and thus breaks the Jewish laws forbidding two kinds of crops in the same field. It messes up everything and so it is with the kingdom of God! The inner nature of the kingdom is it will show up in unexpected and seemingly innocuous ways but it will spread like a weed. The inner nature is more powerful and pervasive than what the outer nature would indicate.
We are all people with both an inner nature and an outer one. The spiritual life is about becoming more real and transparent so that the inner world and outer world are congruent – what you see is what you get. There are people with a high degree of congruence and others who seem not to possess it at all. There will be people who look good on the surface and mouth all the right words, but their actions show their inner nature is not what they portray. They can betray and hurt us deeply! There will also be people who don’t look so good on the outside but whose inner nature is kind and generous. There will be things we discover in ourselves as we grow in Christ - some will be wonderful and others disturbing. But we must make the inner journey so that God may, through grace, bring our inner and outer worlds into alignment. We need not fear this process - for just as God worked through Saul in spite of his flaws, God also works through us.
My friend Annabelle pointed something out to me when we were talking about the Caitlyn Jenner story this week. Apparently, she read that Caitlyn (while still Bruce) and the Kardashian family financed a church start up. While the Kardashians have fallen away, Caitlyn still attends this church. I found this rather remarkable in light of thinking how the kingdom might just show up through unexpected people in unlikely places. This trans woman who lived so long with an incongruent inner and outer world now has changed … but still is a person of faith. May we find the grace to see the inner nature of others, be honest and courageous to face our own inner nature, and trust that God is working in the midst of these discoveries no matter what.
You’ve probably heard the admonition, “Be careful what you ask for … you just might get it!” I think that would be a very fitting subtext to the reading from 1st Samuel today. We are beginning the “long green season” of Pentecost where our Hebrew scriptures will journey through the history of the Jewish people and our Gospel texts will focus on the actions and teachings of Jesus in his life and ministry among us. We open today with the story of the people of Israel demanding a king … be careful what you ask for indeed.
This story comes after the Israelites came out of slavery in Egypt and settled in the Promised Land. Joshua, who led them in after the death of Moses, is now long since dead. After Joshua’s death, Israel was governed by two groups of people: prophets and judges. The prophets attended to the spiritual life of the people and the judges addressed practical disputes. There’s a whole book about that period called “Judges” … admittedly, not a very original title! Probably the best way we can understand the judges was as a kind of tribal warlord but remember both men and women served in this role. But now we hear the people of Israel demanding a king from the prophet Samuel. Of course, they start by dissing Samuel’s kids … that doesn’t help things. Samuel is angry over this request but God says, “Hey, welcome to my world. It’s not about you Samuel, it really is about me.”
God does something interesting, though, in giving Israel a warning about what they are asking for. I wish God would do that for me! “Hey, Anjel, if I really give that to you, here’s what you’re in for.” It doesn’t work that way for me … but in this story, Samuel takes the dire warning about what they would be in for if they go the route of having a king. The people don’t care – they want a king and they want him now and they don’t care what they have to give up.
I think we can best understand their request in the context of their world. Geographically, the Promised Land is in a very vulnerable place. To the southwest, you have the great world power of Egypt – pyramids, the Sphinx, powerful armies with chariots, and Pharaohs with big hats! To the northeast, you have the various ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia – and they have armies, and chariots, and kings with big hats too! And what does Israel have? Judges? Yeah … you’re feeling kind of vulnerable stuck in the middle between these world powers and right on the trade route between them. Israel is kind of the Poland of the ancient near east – everybody runs over her!
This puts the request of the people into focus – they are afraid. They are surrounded by power and they want … security! The primary driving force behind this request is fear and the desire for security. It is in our human nature – we know we are squishable people and we know we are vulnerable both personally and corporately. What is the remedy? Do something to guarantee our security. We are still this way. I’ve been talking with my oldest daughter this week about how congress is revisiting the Patriot Act which was passed in the wake of the attacks of 9/11. It was a reactive response which rolled back many of the freedoms we cherish. When we are in fear, we will sell out our freedom for security every single time. This is what is happening with the Israelites – they are selling out their freedom as God’s people for the security of having an earthly king to defend them. The warning God gives is that one day they will cry out because of their king and the Lord will not answer. This sounds harsh but it is the reality that God will not save us from our choices. Choices have consequences and God will not magically swoop down and save us from them. Be careful what you ask for!
A little over a thousand years later, the people want another king – a Messiah, and anointed one, one who would restore the kingship of David. God sent … a carpenter’s kid from some jerkwater town called Nazareth. Be careful what you ask for … this king wasn’t going to look like what they expected and already he’s causing trouble. We are only in the third chapter of Mark and Jesus is really ticking people off. They think he’s gone mad! He’s possessed by Satan! What in the world could be causing all of this reactivity? What has he done? He healed a few people … on the Sabbath, ok that’s breaking the rules. He’s hanging out with tax collectors and other sinners … definitely associating with undesirable elements of society. He’s challenging the authority of the scribes. Come to think of it … he’s threatening the community’s … security! Rules are established for the purpose of security, and don’t get me wrong, some basic rules are necessary for us to function well and respect others. But rules can go overboard and begin to shun and exclude. This is what Jesus is challenging – rules which exclude those who most need the grace of God in their lives. But these challenges are a threat to their security. Security is now a “small g god” – an idol being worshiped.
We are not so different. We are squishable people too and quite aware of our vulnerability. We ache for security and struggle to place our trust in God for it. Jesus is redefining family and what it means to be community by welcoming people who don’t fit in. Now here at Grace, I think we do a pretty good job of welcoming people here and making safe space for all who come. But one tendency of groups, especially churches, is to welcome people with the understanding that joining our group means becoming “like us.” We welcome you to … become like us. But what if our call isn’t to being people in to this fellowship to become like us but rather to welcome people in to change us? I know … sounds scary at a deep level doesn’t it? A metaphor for community which I find helpful is dancing.
I am not a good dancer. I have witnesses who can attest to this. Mom enrolled me at Miss Vernetta’s Dance Studio in San Diego to help me get over my klutzy ways and I probably do remember a few tap numbers … but it’s not a pretty sight. But if you watch people who are really good dancers, you’ll find they have studied with many different groups and people to learn new moves and develop their own style. If we apply this idea to the way of following Jesus, we as a community have some moves to teach those who come here AND they have some moves to teach us. This will challenge our basic desires for security, but it makes for a more glorious dance and a more vibrant witness to the power of God among us.
Many of you who have been here a long time have prayed for Grace to grow in mission and in membership. Be careful what you ask for … because your prayers are being fulfilled. Grace is growing because the Holy Spirit wants a vibrant witness here in Brunswick. Changes come with risks, they aren’t always comfortable and change will at times feel like a threat to our security. But let’s keep dancing together and as we teach others our moves, may we be open to learning some new ones that our dance may be joyous and more fully glorify God.
I mentioned a few weeks ago how predictable the lectionary is through the Easter season. You always get the story of “Doubting Thomas” on the Sunday after Easter. Fourth Sunday of Easter is always Good Shepherd Sunday and the Seventh Sunday of Easter is always some portion of what’s known as the “high priestly prayer” of Jesus in John 17. Let’s be honest … did you find yourself a little confused with the circular referencing in that passage from John? If you did, you are not alone! The prayer in its entirety is a long and rambling prayer with lots of repetition: glory, glorify, yours/mine, mine/yours. It can be pretty overwhelming can’t it? It’s no wonder so many preachers just move the story of the Ascension, which happened last Thursday, to this Sunday … apparently preaching about Jesus flying up in the sky is easier!
But this prayer occurs here, on this Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost, for a good reason. The Ascension reminds us that we no longer have the bodily presence of Jesus in our midst to guide us. Even though Luke tells us the disciples were joyous at the Ascension, there is still a change in how they will relate to Jesus in a different way. His absence is felt. This prayer reminds us that Christ is still with us and still interceding for us to the Father. We can fall into the trap of thinking that Jesus is now gone and his time is somehow “over” and then the Holy Spirit comes and that’s what we are waiting for. That idea is the heresy of modalism condemned as heresy as early as 262 by Dionysius, Bishop of Rome, and addressed in the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople. Christ is still active and present to the Church through the sacraments and continues to pray for us – both as a community and as individuals.
While this prayer is long and rambling, there is one point which kept coming up as I prayed with this passage – “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Jesus is praying for our protection and that we may be one. The latter sounds like a pretty impossible thing, doesn’t it? How can we possibly be “one” when we don’t see eye to eye? How can we be one if we disagree?
Back in seminary, I did an independent study course which evolved into a research paper contrasting the concept of unity with uniformity. The backdrop was comparing the current controversies over sexual orientation and LGBT inclusion in the Church with the Reformation era Vestments Controversy (yes, we Anglicans actually argued about liturgical clothing … think of it as “What Not to Wear: The Reformation Edition”). I realized I bit off more than I could chew with this paper, and it really has the beginnings of a doctoral thesis, but what came out of it for me was this idea that unity and uniformity are really two different ideas which sit on a continuum. In light of our reading, I’ll share with you my ideas on this … and as Rod Serling used to say, they are “submitted for your approval” – see if they resonate for you.
On the one end of the continuum, there is unity. The way I experience this is quite mystical. It is the idea that a group of people are brought together for a common purpose and in so doing that gathering incorporates and celebrates the diversity of its members. St. Paul spoke of this in his metaphor of the Body of Christ being made up of many diverse members. The Church, as an entity, has a common purpose – our final purpose is Divine union, both individually and corporately. This kind of unity is witnessed in stories like Philip baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch that we heard a few weeks ago. This new Church made space and included people like the gender queer eunuch who had historically been excluded! Women, people with disabilities, the gender queer, Gentiles … people who otherwise would not have been brought together suddenly found themselves part of this mystical Body of Christ – finding a mystical unity which could withstand the tension of their diversity and even celebrated it as the gathering sought Divine union in Christ.
On the other end of the continuum, we find uniformity. We often confuse uniformity with unity because they share the same goal – bringing together a group of people for a common purpose. Uniformity differs from unity, though, in that uniformity does not have a high tolerance for diversity. Uniformity will sacrifice diversity for the sake of the common goal. Uniformity can be characterized by similarity of ideas and beliefs, modes of dress and behavior.
Human life is lived somewhere between these two poles, regardless of which groupings we consider. Each of the ends has its strengths and weaknesses. Unity embraces diversity but can also be very inefficient because of that diversity. Embracing unity can leave us stuck and unable to accomplish anything because we struggle to find common ground. Uniformity, on the other hand, is quite efficient but it will tend to cast out and exclude those who don’t fall in lock step with the group ideals. Every group, whether political or ecclesial, falls somewhere on this continuum.
Under stress, humans will tend to move towards uniformity to get to a resolution of whatever is causing the anxiety. We see that a lot in our political landscape – the pressure to “toe the party line” and make sure what you say conforms to the party’s “talking points.” When humans are less anxious, they will move back towards unity and an embracing of more diversity.
We see this in the various expressions of Christianity too. Some denominations land closer to the uniformity end of the spectrum and others towards the unity end. Many of you here at Grace have come from churches which lie more towards the pole of uniformity. An example of this is how the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod exclude from Holy Communion anyone who does not belong to their church. I have debated Roman Catholic priests on this topic because the official teaching from the Pope and Magisterium states that the Eucharist is a symbol of Christian “unity” and because we are “not yet one”, those outside the Roman Catholic Church may not receive Eucharist. I suggest this is an attempt to disguise a demand for uniformity as unity. I’ve posed the question that if the Last Supper is the pattern for Eucharist (with which we agree) and if the Eucharist is a symbol of “unity” (with which we agree) then why was Judas not excluded from the supper? He clearly was not at “unity,” as they define it, with Jesus in that moment. Jesus, even knowing Judas would betray him, dipped the bread in the dish and handed it to Judas! I have yet to find a Roman Catholic priest who can give me a reasonable answer to my question. I suggest it is because this is a case where “unity” and “uniformity” are being confused. If Jesus had demanded “uniformity,” Judas would have been excluded and driven out of the group. But Jesus did not demand “uniformity” – his inclusion of Judas was that mystical “unity” which could even embrace the deep pain of betrayal … and that is a truly scandalous Gospel!
There are times when people come to the Episcopal Church and get frustrated because we seem to lack hard and fast answers for their questions. This is because we land more on the end of unity on this spectrum than uniformity (although we do like to dress alike and color code our clergy shirts). It can be maddening for some when they ask about whether we believe in transubstantiation or consubstantiation and I reply, “Yes … and we even make space for those who see it as memorial only … and even for those who really don’t know what they believe but know there’s something mystical going on. We call that the ‘Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist’ … but we don’t spend a lot of time defining it.” We make space for a lot here … and that can be terribly inefficient and at times very frustrating.
Jesus prayed that we all may be one as he and the Father are one. We can do it but it will be imperfectly and our efforts will swing between these two poles of unity and uniformity throughout our earthly days. But in the end, Jesus’ command to “love one another as I have loved you” becomes the most important ethic on which to move into union – both with each other and with God.
“You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last …” Some of you have been a part of our icon writing workshop at the Brunswick Public Library these past few weeks. We are writing Christ the Teacher and in the basic drawing for this icon has the book Jesus is holding has blank pages. As you write the icon and pray, you meditate on what scripture quote should go in the book. I worked on the prototype for this when I was at Holy Cross Monastery earlier this year and when it came time to finish it with the scripture quote, I found myself reading through the Gospel of John and … this was the quote! I promise I wasn’t reading ahead in the lectionary.
“You did not choose me but I chose you.” Hear those words spoken to you … “You did not choose me but I chose you.” What goes through your mind when you hear the words “I chose you”? I confess on first blush it makes me feel special … really special. Being chosen really feels good doesn’t it? I know for me, being that I was always the last kid who was chosen for sports teams, it feels pretty good to be chosen. I was one of those kids when it came down to the wire, not only was I not picked for the team, the teams would walk away and leave me there! Yeah … P.E. was a personal hell for me throughout my school years. But being chosen … wanted … loved … yeah, that’s pretty special for anybody.
But if you just stay with this sense of being “special” because you are “chosen”, you end up pretty distorted. Being chosen can give you a pretty swelled head if you stay with just that part of it. I’ve met clergy who are stuck in how special they are in being called or chosen. I confess I get nervous around clergy who tell me they had a call to be a priest as a 12 or 13 year old and “never doubted” their call. They tend to be stuck in that special stage … which is called narcissism. The clergy I find most grounded and holy are the ones who struggled with their call and moved beyond how “special” they felt. They took in the full implication of what it means to be chosen. It comes with responsibilities and risks. It can be daunting and if we think we can do it alone, we will fail and it will be an epic failure. Only God can sustain us and give us what we need to live into the challenges and responsibilities of our being chosen to bear fruit that will last.
Being chosen can lead to some confusion too. One thing we often wrestle with is the fact that being chosen does not make us immune from being hurt and from bad things happening to us. The ancient Israelites learned this during the Babylonian exile when they had to wrestle with the question, “If we are God’s chosen people, how could God have let the Babylonians defeat us?” We may not face Babylonians literally, but we do face them figuratively and sometimes they are even in the Church.
This past week, many of us saw the Facebook posts about the gay couple in Orlando Florida who were told their adopted son could not be baptized at the Cathedral of St. Luke – and Episcopal cathedral. There was a great outcry about this online and this is where social media brought some positive pressure to bear to support this baby and his parents. No question this family suffered hurt at the hands of the Church whose leadership was trying to accommodate members of the congregation who disapprove of same sex relationships. The parents in question, Rich and Eric, met with Bishop Brewer this week and little Jack’s baptism will take place this summer. There have been those in the LGBT community who have asked Rich and Eric why they will have Jack baptized in a church “which has rejected you.” Rich responded in a grace filled post on Facebook essentially saying that he believes in the goodness of the people of St. Luke’s and wants to be a force for reconciliation and healing. What grace! These two dads are living the message of the cross. It would be easier to cut and run – leave that church and shake the dust. Instead, they have chosen to stay and bear fruit that will last – the fruit of healing and love.
This weekend was our Diocesan Convention and we were blessed to hear the Rev. Becca Stevens, founder of Thistle Farms. Thistle Farms is a community of recovery helping women escape sex trafficking and rebuild their lives. Thistle Farms makes amazing products which are centered on healing – oils, candles, lotions, and soaps. These women have much to healing to do. Not only are they victims of sexual trauma, they are often addicted to drugs and, while held in virtual slavery by their pimps, they are usually the ones arrested for prostitution and serve time – victimized by their pimps and again by the legal system. Their stories are horrific. Becca+ spoke of forgiveness and how she learned it: first from watching her mother forgive the truck driver whose negligence killed her father who was also an Episcopal priest and second how she found a way to forgive the lay leader in their church who, after the death of her father, began sexually molesting her. When you hear Becca+ speak, there is no question she is chosen and is bearing fruit in her ministry at Thistle Farms. There are, however, those who relapse and go back on the street, often with tragic outcomes. Some are brutalized and even killed by their pimps in retaliation. Becca+ spoke of identifying bodies only by their tattoos. But for those who stick with the program, there is hope, healing and recovery. Their motto is “Love heals” and we saw it in action.
“You did not choose me but I chose you.” Being chosen doesn’t mean life on easy street. It doesn’t mean we won’t be hurt. Sometimes life hands you a bucket of crap. The question is what will you do with it? Rich and Eric didn’t ask to be initially rejected in seeking baptism for their son – that was a bucket of crap! Becca+ didn’t ask to be sexually abused either. And I do not believe for one minute that God caused these things to happen! If I did, I’d be preaching about a pretty sadistic jerk of a God. No, most of the bad things that happen to us are a result of living in a broken world full of sinful people who hurt each other. But that does not change the fact that Jesus chose you and appointed you to bear fruit which will last. Now, I know a little about fruit trees … they need fertilizer don’t they? So what if you take that bucket of crap life handed you and turn it over … turn it over to the God who redeems it through Christ. Turn it over, let it go, and just see what God can do with it so that you can bear fruit … fruit that will last.
My mom started growing African violets when I was a kid. We had a number of them in her garden window in California. I now have several in a south facing window in our home in a garden tray my husband gave me for Christmas one year. They bloom constantly - even through the winter which brings color to our home in an otherwise colorless time. This little African violet came to me last December. It had been left behind by its previous owner and wasn't in the best shape. The leaves were small and discolored and there were no signs of any blooms on it at all. It would be easy to blame the condition of this violet on the prior owner’s neglect, but that would not be true. The prior owner watered and fed it and I have a “brown thumb” – I have even killed cactus! I mean, who kills cactus? Well … I do! It wasn't neglect, it was isolation. You see, these are “social” plants. They flourish when grouped together and wither when isolated from others. This week, on the same day the Baltimore riots started, this little violet bloomed. This made me I think about what this little plant and the readings this week say about Christian community.
Jesus said to his disciples, “Abide in me.” He didn't say, “Abide with me” or “Abide next to me” or “Abide somewhere over there at arm’s length.” No … he said “abide in me.” In so doing he makes it clear that to be a Christian means being incorporated into a mystical connection to him and with each other. It means being connected to people not like you and me – even people we may not like very much, people we don’t understand and people whose world view is very different from ours. It reminds us that this week’s riots on the heels of Freddie Gray’s death while in the custody of the Baltimore City Police affected us. Maybe the riots did not directly affect us but because we abide in Christ with our sisters and brothers in West Baltimore, the riots affected us. Perhaps they spurred some sense of outrage over how a man whose only apparent “crime” was to make eye contact with a police officer could end up dead. Maybe the riots made you angry at the rioters because you don’t understand why they would trash their own neighborhood. They affected me because I served a church in West Baltimore and I count the people of St. Luke’s as my friends. They were caught up in it and I was concerned for their safety. They have deep seeded problems in their neighborhood – neglected schools, drugs and addiction, crime, lack of decent paying jobs, lack of access to fresh food, and a legacy of segregation. There is a lot of frustration and it reached an explosive point this week. I cannot excuse what happened, but I can understand why it happened. As Martin Luther King once said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” These sisters and brothers who abide in Christ with us have been unheard for years … and we have been complicit in ignoring the problems. When I saw people who consider themselves good Christians posting comments on Facebook calling the rioters “thugs” and “criminals”, the words of John came roaring back to me: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” Posting things on social media which label and call names isn’t part of the solution – and I can assure you many of our sisters and brothers in West Baltimore were as angry at the rioters and looters as we are.
It has been relatively safe for us to sit back and observe the riots and violence done to our sisters and brothers in Baltimore from a distance and it is hard to approach the enormity of the problems they face … it can lead us to be paralyzed where we are and do nothing. I confess I am overwhelmed by it. I asked some friends on Facebook message what we can do besides pray. They told me they don’t even know yet, but prayer is a good place to start. I think also we can take a hint from today’s story of Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Here is a story of Phillip encountering someone vastly different from himself. Think about it … we are talking about a story of the baptism of a gender queer African! He’s different from Phillip on at least three points: he’s African not Jewish, he’s a eunuch, and he’s in a different socio-economic status as a high court official. Phillip is led by the Spirit to go down to Gaza from Jerusalem when he is guided to approach the chariot. The Ethiopian eunuch is apparently headed the same direction. He may share the Jewish faith as he is reading from the prophet Isaiah and while we don’t know for certain, he may have been at the temple while in Jerusalem. Phillip is guided to approach the chariot and, before he engages the eunuch, he hears him reading. This is crucial because he now has a visual confirmation this person is different and, upon hearing his voice, Phillip would have known he was gender queer – a grown man with a high pitched voice would have pegged him as a eunuch immediately. But this didn’t stop Phillip from reaching across what obviously divided them to engage the eunuch. He accepts the invitation to get into the chariot and takes the opportunity to begin a relationship with this man by first listening to him! They discuss the Isaiah passage and Phillip shares his faith that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophetic text. When they come upon some water, the eunuch asks the million dollar question: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” It’s a profound question because of his gender queer status. You see, as a eunuch, even if he were a devout Jew, he would have been only allowed into the outermost Court of the Gentiles in the temple compound. He would have known exclusion based on his gender queer status. While it brought him the privilege of working in the queen’s court, it also came with a burden. Phillip doesn’t let any of that get in the way – they go down into the water together. The answer to his question isn’t, “well, baptism is for everyone except …” This answer is “Nothing … absolutely nothing prevents you from being baptized.” Nothing prevents you or anyone else from abiding in Christ … and he came up out of the water rejoicing!
Phillip followed the Spirit’s call to reach across the divide of race, gender identity, and socio-economic strata to engage someone very different from him. Engaging is listening … not apologizing or defending your view, but listening first and remembering you abide in Christ with these sisters and brothers whose lives are very different – you are part of their community and we are part of theirs. Like this little African violet, we flourish when we are in community – and not just with people who look like us and live in our same zip code. We are called into deeper communion with Christ and each other when we enter into deep and meaningful connection with others who are different and who challenge us.
This morning, we have been asked to step outside our houses of worship for a moment of silence and prayer for our sisters and brothers in Baltimore. As things progress over the next few days, weeks and months, other opportunities to engage will emerge – but today we can begin with prayer … and we can begin to be like Phillip and reach across that which divides us to be a community who more fully abides in Christ.
Theologian Karl Barth once said that in order understand the scriptures one must have the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. He strongly believed the scriptures to be speaking to our time and I couldn’t agree more. But I think if he had lived long enough, he’d now say you need the Bible in one hand and a smartphone in the other. Isn’t that where most of us get our information these days? Sometimes it may even be the Bible in one hand and Facebook on your smartphone in the other! That happened this week for me as I was contemplating why these first two readings in the Easter season seem so fixated on wounds. I received a message from a colleague in the Chicago area – a fellow RevGalBlogPal who serves a community church there. She asked my prayers in a private Facebook message for a clergy friend who had died by suicide this past week. We often believe clergy are immune to things like suicide – after all, we have the Gospel of Jesus Christ, right? Well, no … it’s not like that at all. We can fall into despair just like anyone else and we are not immune to any of the sufferings that others have. My colleague was mourning and shaken. Later this same colleague sent me a link that some of you may have seen on Facebook – a piece of news that I otherwise might not have seen since it happened outside our geographic area. It was the story of a third grade teacher who did an exercise with her class called “I wish my teacher knew …” She had her class fill in the blank of what they wished their teacher knew and the results were startling. The answers were raw and honest: “I wish my teacher knew that nobody plays with me at recess.” Ouch! “I wish my teacher knew I haven’t seen my daddy since I was three because he was deported.” Wow! These are third graders! We somehow view childhood through rosy glasses and forget that all of us – no matter how old we are – are carrying wounds … serious wounds.
This week’s gospel reading from Luke appears to be a repeat of last week’s reading from John. Last week we heard of Jesus showing his wounds to the disciples and especially to Thomas who refused to believe unless he saw and touched them. This week we hear of Jesus showing up with the same words, “Peace be with you” and once again showing his wounds with the words “Touch me and see.” Then in true Luke fashion, Jesus asks for something to eat … this is the gospel where he’s accused of being a drunk and a glutton! But all of this talk of wounds and showing wounds isn’t something we generally like to talk about, is it? We would rather avoid wounds all together, right? Wounds frighten us – we are afraid of our wounds, our own and those in others. But I think Jesus’ invitation to “Touch me and see” is an invitation to us to touch our wounds because in them is the hope for healing and resurrection.
The fear we have over wounds comes from our culture. We tend towards a social Darwinism touting “survival of the fittest” and that kind of thinking doesn’t make room for anyone to be hurt, does it? My experience tells me wounds are not easy for anyone, but they are especially hard for men in our culture. It’s OK for women to be wounded … we expect women to be “weaker” don’t we? But we really don’t make it OK for men to experience weakness and wounds. This is where Jesus defies the culture! He gets real and shows his wounds and by them, the disciples are healed. Even in the midst of their “disbelief” as Luke tells us – and seriously, who wouldn’t be confused and disbelieving? – the disciples begin to be healed precisely because Jesus is willing to show his wounds.
Franciscan spiritual leader and author Richard Rohr speaks of our troubled relationship with our wounds. He says that we can basically do two things with our pain. The first is to allow it to transform us – allow ourselves to experience our wounds and pain, work through the suffering, and allow the experience to transform (resurrect) us. The second option is to transmit our pain onto others. Sadly, most people take the second route because the first is scary and hard. Most people are pain transmitters because they have never done the deeper work of letting their wounds be a path to deeper transformation and healing – they are frightened of their wounds and pain. But letting it transform us allows us to become what Henri Nouwen called “wounded healers” – he actually wrote a book called The Wounded Healer. If we stop trying to run from and deny our wounds and instead let them be what they are and transform us, we can become wounded healers instead of “wounded wound-ers” (that’s what we are when we transmit our pain onto others). Being transformed, resurrected if you will, into wounded healers who offer hope to others who are suffering is part of our call as Christians.
I saw this happen last night. Last night, we held our first 12 Step Eucharist for Recovering People at Grace Church. We kept the publicity for this very low key to respect the 12th Tradition of anonymity in recovery. We put it on our Facebook page, I invited some folks I know in the recovery community to spread the word, and we handed out some flyers. Fourteen people showed up and we had an awesome speaker in Eric who likened recovery to his learning to fly a plane. What I seen in the rooms and what I saw in our gathering last night is the fact that people in recovery are brutally honest about their wounds. They know what addiction has done to them and their loved ones. Those committed to sobriety, from whatever addiction they are addressing, show their wounds to each other in the meetings and here last night. In their stories lies hope for recovery for others who are also wounded.
You see, Jesus was resurrected not as the “new and improved” version of himself but rather resurrected as one still bearing his wounds – one whose wounds have been transformed for the sake of all of us. This is also what can be true for us too. When we get real about the wounds in our lives, experience the pain of them, pray for the risen Christ to heal them, and are willing to share our resurrection experience to offer strength, hope and healing to others, these wounds become agents of grace and mercy to a hurting world.
So as we continue celebrating the hope of the resurrection this Eastertide, I invite you to examine your own wounds. Start with ones which have been healed well – those are the easier ones to address. Where might those healed wounds offer hope and encouragement to another? Where might you be hearing the invitation to show them to someone who needs the hope of resurrection in a tangible way? Now take a look at the wounds which may be more raw – the ones that may still be really hard to face because they are so fresh. You may not be ready to share those because they are not yet transformed and sharing them would make you a “wounded wound-er.” Take those to Christ in prayer. Ask for healing of those wounds and offer them to Christ as a gift. Yeah, I know that may sound weird and not the kind of gift we would normally give … but do it anyway. These wounds, offered in prayer and humility, can be transformed if you allow them to be so. And one day, you may very well be able to say to another person who is hurting, “Touch me and see … resurrection is real!"