Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Fear of faith

Psalm 19  

Later this morning we are going to gather in the parish hall for our “Homecoming” lunch, to mark that summer vacations are over and our whole community is coming together again in this, our spiritual home.  And after lunch we are going to have a sort of fair in celebration of the work that we are coming together again to do.  Leaders and representatives of the many working groups that are active in the congregation will be there so we can recognize each other and share information and generally rev our engines for another year of worship and learning and service.  It should be a lot of fun and the thing that is most exciting about it for me, personally, is not just that it gives us a chance to see how many different kinds of ministry are being done, with how many different leaders, but that all of us together form one ministry.
I was thinking about that this week as I was reading today’s lesson from the Gospel of Mark, and it struck me that this story gives us a way to describe what that one ministry is, the ministry of St. John’s Petaluma, and of the church in general.  It gives us one idea, to sum it up, which is “discipleship.”  Whatever formal shape our different ministries take, in the parish organization or outreach programs in the community, or simply attending worship and saying our prayers and putting something in the offering plate, all of us are called to be disciples of Jesus.  This story is, in some ways, the essential passage in all the gospels about what discipleship means, and Jesus begins his instruction on the subject with two questions: first he asks his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" and then, after they have answered, “But who do you say that I am?”
Taken together, these questions imply that his disciples must know Jesus in a way other people don’t.  There are lots of opinions out there on the street about who he is, and that’s as true today as it ever was, but that’s different from the true knowledge that comes from intimate acquaintance.  So one way of understanding discipleship, and the ministry of the church, is that it is about telling the world something about Jesus that it doesn’t know.  That’s the approach that Peter takes, and he’s not the only one.  There are still a lot of people for whom discipleship means saying as loudly as possible that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, Our Lord and Savior, and so on, in hopes of getting everyone to agree.  But as far as Jesus is concerned, what we say about him is not that important.  In fact, he sternly orders his disciples not to say anything.  What does matter is to trust him enough to do what he does, and to follow him on the way of life that is really worth living. 
And that means making a journey.  We have to go through something.  And the thing we have to go through, says Jesus, is the cross.  Now in this passage he talks about the cross in two different ways.  First, as a fact that is going to happen to him.  In this way he makes clear that whatever else we think we mean when we say that he is the Messiah, it has to include that he suffered, and was rejected by the people who were supposed to know about God, and was killed, and on the third day was raised.  And all that’s true, but if we only think of the cross in these terms it can become just another opinion about Jesus. 
So he also talks about the cross symbolically, and the thing about symbols is that, unlike facts, you have to do something with them.  You have to dialogue with them and make your own decisions about what they mean for you.  When Jesus talks about the cross this way it is no longer a fact we can consider from a distance.  If we want to be his disciples, we have to pick it up, and put it on our shoulders and start walking. 
I’ll be honest with you—as many times as I’ve heard this saying, it still makes me afraid.  It makes it sound like being a disciple of Jesus means signing up for pain.  And I’m afraid of pain.  One of my earliest memories is of screaming and crying at the doctor’s office when my mother took me in for my shots, not from the pain of the injections, but from fear of them before they ever happened.   But what if this teaching is not about gritting our teeth and psyching ourselves up for an extra big helping of pain, so that we might gain some reward from it later?  What if it is about transforming our relationship to our pain that is already here?   What if it is about accepting it, and really looking deeply into it, rather than trying to push it away or blame it on others?  What if it is about taking up the suffering we already have, simply because we are human, and carrying it to God?  
That makes me afraid, too, but with a different kind of fear—not the fear of pain per se, but the fear that the Hebrew wisdom tradition calls the fear of the Lord: the fear of laying aside my conventional assumptions about the purpose of life, and what makes for happiness; the fear of losing the image of myself that I have constructed with such great care so as to be accepted and admired by the people around me; the fear of losing the things I’ve acquired with that image—possessions, position, and esteem. It is the fear of looking squarely at the face I try to hide from others, the vulnerable, aging, needy, sometimes deeply sad, often conflicted and confused face of the person that I also am.  And it’s the fear of knowing all that and still having to make the decision that no one can make for me, the decision I have to make again every day, sometimes under the pressure of great doubt—the decision to have faith.
Jesus invites us to become his disciples, and to make that decision, as he has, and to choose a life centered on God.   But with that choice the illusions of the false self are sacrificed, the attachment to the un-life is broken.  The promise of Jesus is that this is not only a process of dying; it is also rebirth.  From acceptance of our own suffering we become sensitive to the suffering of others.  We also become aware of how much of it, theirs and ours, is needless.  There is that which is the inevitable consequence of life in a mortal body in a world of continual change.  But there is also the great mass of suffering that is due to the misuse of human freedom.  There are the self-inflicted wounds of self-destructive vice, of fruitless anxiety, of revolt against that which cannot be changed, and of clinging to what cannot remain the same.  And there is the suffering we inflict on each other, in personal acts of cruelty, coldness, and abuse, and in systems of collective violence, exploitation, and injustice.
The knowledge of needless suffering inflicts its own kind of pain.  Perhaps the sharpest wound it gives is the vision of liberation.  Because to see how much suffering is needless is to see how much better everything could be.  It is to awaken the deep yearning for a better world, the burning desire to do better, to be better than we have before.  And that is also a cross to bear.  To act on that desire requires effort, against our natural inclination to drift with the tide of time.  It brings us into conflict with powerful enemies, the inner demons and the outer tyrants who are fearful and resistant to healing and change.     
And it means living with failure, with constant reminders that our capacities are limited, that even with heroic sacrifice we will always accomplish less than we imagine we could and less than the world so badly needs.  But Jesus, the crucified and risen, has a message for his disciples, a message for them to administer to everyone.  It is that failure of this kind is nothing to be ashamed of.  This desire is for something better for the world is not na├»ve, this effort to realize it is not wasted, this suffering for its sake is not futile, because God is faithful in ways we cannot be.  And in Christ, God shares the desire, shares in the effort, even shares the suffering. 

Repenting of racism

Last Tuesday I walked from my office to the market to pick up some food for lunch.  I already had a few things in the refrigerator, and it wasn’t all that hot, so I decided to get soup.  When I got to the soup bar, I saw that they had a pot of my favorite, “Italian Wedding.”  
 I also saw there was a line.  There was a person ahead of me waiting on a young lady who seemed to be struggling to make up her mind.  She opened the lids on one and then another of the pots and lifted the ladles to get a better look at their contents.  Finally, she settled on the chicken noodle, and filled her paper cup with some difficulty, leaving a fair amount on the counter. 
Now, I felt a mild sense of impatience about all this, and maybe just a hint of annoyance.   That in itself is something I’m not particularly proud of.  But the really troubling thing was the subtle move my mind made next.  I could have attributed that young woman’s behavior to circumstances, like maybe she hadn’t been to that market before, or didn’t usually get the soup, and wasn’t familiar with the offerings, or with the job of getting hot soup into that little cup with that big ladle.  But instead I caught myself interpreting my irritation as due to something essential about her.  Just by looking at her I could tell she was the kind of person who doesn’t know how to handle her business at the soup bar, and wastes other people’s time.  And what kind of person is that?  Well, there’s no way to sugar-coat this: she was black.
I am not a racist, in the sense that I do not openly espouse a racist ideology.  I do not use the “n-word,” or other derogatory slurs, to refer to people of color.  I do not believe or promote the idea that there is such a thing as the “white race,” which must be kept pure and defended against those are trying to destroy my kind and take what is ours.  I do not believe or teach that people of color are culturally inferior and have made no significant contribution to the advancement of civilization, or that they are by nature lazy and undisciplined, prone to promiscuity and criminality, and only want to live parasitically on the hard-work of “the American Taxpayer,” which means “white people.”  No I am not a racist, in this narrow sense, and, neither, I imagine, are you.

But I recognize these ideas.  They have been around me my entire life, and I know them by heart.  Like misogyny, homophobia, and other forms of prejudice, racism has a purchase on me, because I, like you, am not immune to hate.  I am not immune to taking the pain of my relations with other people, from mild irritation or embarrassment, to full-blown fear, shame, and powerlessness, and turning that pain into blame.  I am not immune to shoring up the broken places in my own sense of worth by denigrating someone else.  And I have been schooled by my culture to know which people are the right kind to hate. 
Thankfully, that’s not the only kind of teaching most of us receive.  The history of American culture is infused with the theory and practice of white supremacy, but almost from its very beginning there were also men and women who resisted with the theory and practice of racial justice and reconciliation.  So the other day in the grocery store I could see that what I was thinking was wrong.  I could confess it to myself, and repent of it.  I even had a chance to make a kind of amends, since I ended up at the checkout at the same time as that young lady from the soup bar, and could give her a kind thought and a friendly smile. 
We can be grateful that in the last fifty years or so overt racist hate has become less acceptable in America.  But that alone is not enough to heal the evil of racism.  And we have largely been in denial about this.  We have been lulled by the wishful thinking that the problem is solved, that fifty years of uneven and hard-won progress has undone 500 of dehumanization, exploitation, and abuse.  We have been prone to the kindler, gentler racism of wanting black and brown people to shut up all ready, and stop demanding justice, because everyone has problems and we’re tired of hearing about theirs. 
I don’t take any particular pleasure in saying this.  I don’t want you to think that I’m putting myself above anyone else by talking about these things, or saying that some of you are wrong, and some of us are right.  I know I risk sending you to your political bunkers to grab your ideological weaponry, and I’d hate for that to happen, and for us to miss the chance to reflect truthfully on the impact of race and racism in our own lives. 
But I’m taking that risk, because the struggle for human liberation is not the struggle of one party for power over another; it is the struggle to transform systems of oppression that hold the oppressor captive along with the oppressed.  Racial justice has a political dimension, but at its heart it is a religious matter.  It is about the debasement of the image of God in human beings, about the refusal of God’s will for us.  It is also about the hope of reconciliation, not just with one another, but with God.
And you know, I’m not preaching about this today on my own authority.  I got a letter on Monday from the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church asking me to do it.  They, in turn, were passing on a request from Bishop Reginald Jackson of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was formed in 1816 by African-Americans tired of being treated as second-class citizens in the Methodist Church in Philadelphia.  It’s also the denomination of Zion Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where a young white supremacist shot and killed the pastor and eight parishioners in June. 

 “Racism will not end with the passage of legislation alone;” the letter quoted Bishop Jackson as saying, “it will also require a change of heart and thinking.  This is an effort in which the faith community must lead, and be the conscience of the nation. We call upon every church, temple, mosque and faith communion to make their worship service this weekend a time to confess and repent for the sin and evil of racism, which includes ignoring, tolerating and accepting racism, and to make a commitment to end racism by the example of our lives and actions.”

I guess I feel that if the African Methodist Episcopal Church is saying we still have work to do on this issue, who am I to say that I don’t?   I figure they know a little more about it than I do.  If they are asking us to join them in confessing and repenting for racism, it’s not really my place to say “no.” 
In making that request to us, the AME Church is a little like the woman in today’s Gospel story.  She comes to Jesus for healing for her little girl.  And good, kind, gentle Jesus doesn’t want to do it, because she is not a Jew.  She’s from a different ethnic and religious background, and Jesus calls her a dog, not fit to eat at the table of the children of God.  But she doesn’t take offense; she doesn’t contradict; she takes what Jesus says and turns it around on him: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."  You may not give me a place at your table, she says, but it is God’s table, and it has room under it for me.  You may not want to feed me with God’s grace and favor, but it is so abundant that some is bound to fall to the floor, and it is so good that even the crumbs can satisfy.
Having a sermon and saying some prayers one Sunday won’t do much to heal racial injustice in our land.  It amounts to nothing more than crumbs.  But who knows what God will do with these crumbs.  They might be just the food we need.  If we let the AME Church get through to us, it could be like how that woman got through to Jesus.  He heard her, and saw that she had a bigger vision than he did of what his ministry was all about.  He admitted that he had been wrong, and he’d shut people out of the family of God that God wanted in.  So he changed his mind, and the woman went home and her child was there, and the demon was gone.     

About Me

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Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.