Last week our Bishop sent me to North Carolina to attend a conference that happens every two years in the Episcopal Church, a gathering of clergy and lay people from all over the country who are engaged in Latino ministry, or who want to be. A fair number of the participants are first-generation Americans, with limited English, so a lot of the sermons and addresses and workshops, and almost all the songs, were in Spanish. There was simultaneous translation available, but I chose not to use it. There were two reasons for this. The first was that I saw an opportunity to practice my Spanish. There were some speakers, who, when they really got wound up, left me hopelessly in the dust, and a lot of jokes I didn’t get, but I was pleased with how much I was able to participate in Spanish, and I got better at it as the conference went on.
The second reason why I decided not to use the translation equipment was that I wanted to have an experience that is an everyday reality for many people, but almost never happens to me. What with my sex, and the color of my eyes and skin, and my native language, socio-economic status, and level of education, and my degree of physical and mental ability, I have the privilege of access almost everywhere I go. I feel like I belong. And that is nowhere more true than in the church. “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” is a slogan that I know, without question, applies to me. But sitting in the auditorium at that conference, where I was in the minority ethnic group, trying to sing a song I didn’t know, or get the gist of a speech in a language I didn’t completely understand, gave me just a little taste of what it is like to be a cultural outsider, an “other.”
At the celebration of the Holy Eucharist on Wednesday afternoon I somehow ended up in the front row of the auditorium. After the sermon it was announced that there would be laying on of hands and prayer for those with particular needs or concerns. And sure enough, eight or so of the Latino and Latina priests in albs and stoles took positions up on the stage or in the space right in front of the first row of seats, and the people started lining up. My immediate thought was that I didn’t have anything going on in my life that was serious enough to require special prayer. I thought of the other people in that audience, and I imagined what they must deal with in terms of poverty, or separation from their families, doubtful immigration status, or serious disease, and I thought that they surely needed prayer more than I did.
So I decided to sit and pray quietly to myself. And I prayed for peace in the places in the world where there are wars and political turmoil. And I prayed for people in this congregation and others that I know who are suffering or struggling in different ways. But I also had a front row seat for the action that was going on around me, and my eyes kept straying upward to watch the people with their heads bowed, and the priests holding them in their hands and leaning in with their eyes closed, whispering their prayers, and I saw the hugs that sometimes followed after the prayers were said, and the tears. After a few minutes I noticed that that, if there was some kind of expectation that you had to have really serious problems in order to go up for a prayer, people were either ignoring that requirement or else this was a group that was really hurting because the lines down the middle of the auditorium and in the side aisles were getting longer, not shorter.
Well, I began to wonder whether maybe I should reconsider my decision not to join them, but I also started to worry about the time. This Eucharist was supposed to end at 4:15 and I’d made plans to go for a run and a swim in the lake before dinner at 6:00 and some of these priests were really taking a long time with their prayers, and if I got into line, then everybody might as well do it and we’d never get out of there on time. So I straightened up in my seat and closed my eyes and returned to my private prayer, and after a while I began to pray for members of my own family, for my crazy old uncle living by himself way up on the North Coast, and another uncle with cancer, and then I thought of my brother. I started to pray for my brother who has a drug problem, and is unemployed, and has never really done much with his exceptional talents, but is just kind of stuck in a perpetual adolescence, and of all the shame and self-hatred I know he carries, and the sorrow and worry it causes my parents and I started to feel really, really sad, and I recognized that I did have something I needed prayer for.
But by then there were just a few people left in line, and the others had gone back to their seats, and the priests had started to turn and lay hands on each other, and I wasn’t sure which one to go to, and I didn’t want to be stupid and rude, like “hey, I know we’re almost finished, but I changed my mind.” And I wasn’t sure that I wouldn’t start crying if I started talking to a priest about my brother right then, and then I would have to walk back to my seat with everybody in the auditorium watching me. And the thing was, that room was filled with a spirit of kindness and compassion in that moment and I’m sure that whatever I did no one was going to judge me, and it would have been okay.
But I never did go up for a prayer, because I was afraid to be vulnerable. I was so attached to the idea of being better off than those people that I couldn’t see my own need for healing, or that those “others” were offering it to me. “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You,” is a slogan I can get behind as long as I’m the one doing the welcoming; but let me be the stranger in need of welcome, and I hesitate and am afraid, standing outside wondering if it’s safe to go in.
In today’s gospel reading Peter and Jesus have a fight, because Peter thinks that whatever it means that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, it doesn’t involve being vulnerable. But Jesus sees it differently. He knows that the world that human beings have made is one where people quite easily and almost without thinking assume that some were meant to rule and others to be ruled, some to possess and other to be dispossessed, some to enjoy the blessings of prosperity and peace, and others to live and die in misery and violence, as if all of this were quite natural, even willed by God. But Jesus sees God taking a place in this world with the poor, with those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for justice, who suffer persecution for the cause of peace and for the truth. So the Messiah will make the journey the holy city of Jerusalem as a vulnerable stranger, an outsider, one whose right to be there is in doubt, whose fate is in his enemies’ hands.
It wasn’t hard to predict what would happen to him there. He would suffer and be killed, as prophets and martyrs have suffered and been killed again and again before Jesus and ever since. What happened was business as usual, entirely ordinary except for one thing—on the third day Jesus rose from the dead, and his disciples were witnesses of it. And that one thing is what makes all the difference. It is what makes the cross not a place where God’s voice in the world is silenced once again, but where God’s truth speaks most clearly. It is where we see the world as God sees it—where God dispels the illusions of human privilege and power, and drags hypocritical religion and rationalized barbarity out of the shadows. The cross is where God lights up the whole of human life, even at its most treacherous and cruel, its most abused and degraded, with the eternal glory of the Son of Man—his compassion, his forgiveness, his wisdom and love.
The cross is where we learn to follow Christ on a journey of healing and being healed, welcoming and being welcomed, that reaches across every barrier of culture, class, language, sex and sexual orientation, race and religion, to touch God in the hand of the other, and where we learn to say “ hermano”, “hermana”-- “brother”, “sister”.