The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
July 26, 2020
Exodus 10:21-29; Matthew 10:34-39
I want to give you a few names of famous people and I want to see if you can find the common thread between them. Marsha P Johnson, Pablo Picasso, Temple Grandin, Coco Chanel, John Lewis (read them again). Did you find the link? Stonewall, painter, the link is that these are all people who thought the world could be a better place and they devoted their lives to making their vision become a reality. Marsha saw a world where people could safely live their truth and be who they are. Picasso saw a world where art was not restrained by rules. Temple Grandin saw a world where even the animals we eat were treated fairly. Coco Chanel saw a world where what we wear said something about who we are. John Lewis saw a world where every human being could live with dignity and respect. Before each one of these people made their innovation, the lens through which they saw the world was not respected or widely held. Many more people wanted to keep the world as it was. It was not until these people devoted their lives to their vision of their world that the world changed for the better. Their understanding of who they were and what they were called to do made us all realize we can be better.
You can bet for every single one of them there were those who said their world view was off. It’s against the law to dress that way, Marsha. No one will like your chaotic painting, Pablo. You have autism, Temple, no one will listen. Women will never buy a dress that isn’t corseted, Coco. Don’t rock the boat, John, just get over it and let it go. These naysayers were probably everywhere, even in their own home. In the face of those who wanted things to stay the same, these trailblazers mustered the strength to stay on course and help make our world become what it is today.
They set their vision of the world above any earthly relationship. Their priorities are what helped them not lose focus and gave them the power to get through the tough times. Priorities is what Jesus is teaching in Matthew today as well. Jesus says, set God as your highest priority. If you do that you will find yourself on opposite sides as your loved ones, and those disagreements will feel like you are carrying a cross to your own death. It will be like dying, but keeping God as your guide will ultimately lead to gaining a better life.
These verses from Matthew can be hard to hear. Any time Jesus is honest it is hard to hear. We like to sit and listen to the calm Jesus calling the children to his side. We like to ponder the beautiful parables and envision a world where peace prevails. It is harder to watch as Jesus flips tables and sends people away for having small faith or says his way will require swords. Yet here we are with that Jesus today. A Jesus that does not hold any punches but tells the whole truth.
It is recorded here that the path Jesus leads us down will turn family members against one another. Enemies will arise within our own household. Sons against father, daughter against mother-in-law. We hear about families set against one another today and it sounds harsh, but we also know it is not a farfetched scene. When Jesus’ followers heard this, they also were not shocked by the idea that families would be split.
It was common knowledge among the Jewish community that when the day of the Lord comes families would be divided in how they react. They expected this. Prophets, like Micah and Isaiah, had warned them this is how it would play out. They understood that God would need to be the priority in one’s life, set higher than family ties, to make it out of the battle on the winning side. Not that these fights happen in our families…no, we have all seen it and been a part of it. It’s what families do. This does not mean there is love lost between us though. Jesus is not asking us to neglect anyone, simply to set our priorities correctly. God above anyone else. We can still love our family deeply even through great disagreement. These prophecies about families being split on the Lord’s Day is what Jesus is affirming in this message. The way to keep our bearing through the battle is to have a strong relationship with God, stronger than any other relationship. Knowing what God asks of us and what God requires will help us when the people around us think our way of seeing the world is off. People will disagree with the vison, but if we can stop to ask, “Is this the path God is leading us on?” then we will always find the right way forward.
Jesus says he has brought a sword for this battle. When Paul tells us to put on the armor of God the sword is the word of God. It is the word that helps us have the top-notch relationship with God. It helps us get to know what God’s vision for the world is. It helps us see the vision we are supposed to devote our lives to making a reality. With the word in hand, we can check what we are fighting for against scripture. Does this path seek justice? Does this path love mercy? Does this path allow me to walk humbly? Does this path love “love” and hate “hate?”
The answers we get from the Word are the ones we are to follow, regardless of family dissent.
This is not a small task, for sure. Jesus is saying we need to know God better than we know our spouses, children, and parents. To stay true to what God calls us to requires swords, it requires sacrifice, it requires trust, it requires extensive discomfort to the point of carrying our own cross, to the point of losing the life others run after to gain our life in the kingdom. No wonder Jesus has to make this point about priorities. It is so much easier to follow the people around us than it is to follow God, because it is easier to build relationships with people and easier to go with their view of the world. We need to be reminded who we serve, reminded who we have committed our lives to follow. One might ask at this point, what happened to honoring our father and mother? Again, Jesus is not asking us to cut ties with anyone. There is, however, a difference between honoring someone and agreeing with them. I think Moses does this very well in our first lesson.
Moses has debated with Pharaoh. He has gone back multiple times to argue for the people. Every time Pharaoh has sharpened his argument and demanded more proof, and every time God helps Moses meet those demands. In the exchange we read today, Moses has done all he can to get through to Pharaoh and has endured enough. He has to set a strong boundary to keep God’s vision alive and to keep himself on the path forward. He does this by engaging good boundaries and clearly knowing the difference between rude behavior, mean behavior, and bullying behavior.
When Moses goes to Pharaoh this time, the leader of Egypt starts by agreeing to let the people go out into the wilderness to worship their God, but their livestock need to stay behind. This is rude behavior. It is offensive to Moses because it denies a true worship experience for the people. Moses stays calm and explains to Pharaoh that they will need to sacrifice some of the livestock, and they won’t know which ones or how many until God reveals the sacrifice to them during the time of worship. Moses gives Pharaoh the benefit of the doubt and offers a correction for the rude behavior. Instead of learning and understanding, Pharaoh revokes his good will and lashes out at Moses. This is mean behavior. Pharaoh knows better but refuses to change the offer. He intentionally offends Moses and refuses to change his rude behavior once educated. In fact, because this behavior is in line with a pattern of repeated aggressiveness towards Moses we have crossed into bullying territory.
This is it for Moses. He sets a firm boundary. He will not be back to talk to Pharaoh, he will not see his face again. He will not be treated like this anymore. Moses was willing to correct rude behavior and forgive someone willing to change their ways. Moses was willing to endure the mean attacks, but the minute Moses connected the dots and saw the pattern of aggression, he was out. He would not endure a bully.
Knowing the difference between rude, mean, and bullying behavior will help us set boundaries. Knowing what we are willing to put up with to move God’s vision forward with help us navigate disagreement and conflict in a loving and honorable way.
Now most of our arguments will come over a difference of opinion. This comic shows what a difference of opinion is. Neither person is wrong. They just have a different perspective. A good conversation will ask questions of each other and maybe even get a chance to change places and see from the other person’s view. They may think differently in the end or they may not, but at least they tried to see the world a different way.
Now if I had said, “That’s wrong, how could you think that way?” that would have been rude of me. If I had gone on social media and told the world the Cindy doesn’t know her numbers, that would be mean. And if I repeatedly brought up the conversation in a mocking way or aggressively called Cindy names that would be bullying.
Rude, mean, and bullying are important distinctions for us to make when we engage in a conversation over a difference of opinion.
Rude is when someone accidentally says something that hurts our feelings. The statement or action is not made with intention to hurt. It often comes from a place of simply not knowing how the words or actions will be felt. When someone is rude it usually only takes an honest response to correct the behavior. For example, I use the word crazy a lot. But recently a friend told me that word holds a lot of pain because she had been called crazy because of a mental illness she has. I apologized and asked her if she wanted to share her story with me. And now I’m working to be better. I still slip up a lot, but I now can hear myself when I say it and correct myself with a more descriptive word.
Mean is when someone intentionally says or does something to hurt another. There is active aggression when someone is mean. Depending on the level of meanness, we may be able to help the other person become kinder or we may need to set up a boundary to protect ourselves. We can say I am willing to be called this or that and offer an honest response about how that hurts me…twice. After that I am going to leave the conversation because it is clear the person is not ready to hear my feelings. Or we can set a boundary of I’m willing to withstand verbal attacks to help someone see the world another way, but if it turns physically violent, I will leave.
Setting boundaries like this before we get into a discussion helps us know our limits when we get to them. We don’t have to process in the moment and can leave the minute we want to. Bullying is a repeated aggressive and intentional attack on someone. Patterns of meanness is bullying behavior. Bullying sometimes will happen even when we have left the situation. When someone is bullied, they often hide because they feel like they did something to deserve the repeated attacks. Let’s just make the boundary now as a community that we will not tolerate our people suffering the attack of a bully alone. The best way to defend against a bully is to gather people around the victim. When I went through bystander training, they gave us the example of someone being yelled at on a subway for wearing a hijab. They taught us to simply go and sit with the person in the hijab. No need to talk to them or engage the bully. Simply putting our bodies closer to the victim can shift the dynamic enough for someone to stop.
Understanding these three words, rude, mean and bullying can help us set boundaries around the disagreements we may have with loved ones. If someone violates a boundary, that is rude. We need to calmly inform them of our boundaries so they know better, like Moses did when he taught Pharaoh about the sacrifice situation during worship. If someone knows our boundary and still violates it, that is mean. Once Pharaoh learned the rules, he still ignored the needs of the people. If someone repeatedly violates the boundaries, like Pharaoh had throughout his discussions with Moses, that is bullying. That is when Moses set a boundary to not converse with the bully any longer. I would say it is a good boundary for us all to set. Bullies aren’t ready to listen anyway. There can be any number of boundaries we can set for ourselves. We can even sit down with family and discuss what the house rules will be. We can say we only talk about a controversial topic for 30 minutes then we change the subject. Or no politics on Christmas, bring it all on the fourth of July. Boundaries help us clear out the extra anxiety too. We don’t have to worry if a conversation will go too far, so we can be calmer in the moment, keeping our voices and body language more peaceful.
If we have a different world view than loved ones, there are going to be arguments. We can’t avoid a topic completely. Boundaries help us have these conversations in a loving and respectful way.
I wish Jesus had said it would be cupcakes and rainbows, but we got a sword. We also got a promise, that if we keep our relationship with God strong, we will change the world. Our relationship with God gives us what those trailblazing world changers did. It tells us who we are. They understood their purpose deeply, they were connected to the image of God within them. That thing, that Spirit, that God had placed in them, is what they were always faithful to. They knew who they were and what they stood for, and no matter what anyone said around them they stayed true to their calling. God is calling us too. Begging us to know God better than we know anyone else and promising when we do this, we will gain a life worth living.
Let us pray for this to become our reality.
July 19, 2020
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
Exodus 6:1-9; Matthew 10:26-33
We had won the city championship and now we were headed to regionals. I was fifteen years old and was on top of the world. Our boys fast-pitch softball team…yes boys fast pitch softball…had won the Houston city sixteen and under championship. The only problem was that there was nothing beyond that for boys our age. It was then that the league asked if we wanted to jump up to the eighteen and under league and go into their regional tournament. Why not, we said, we were a great team and besides, as the team’s pitcher, I knew I could handle any batter I faced. The first game of the regionals went as I had predicted. Though it was close we eked out a win. The next day was the regional championship where we were to face the Houston city eighteen and under champions. The first three and a half innings went well. We were tied 4 to 4. Then something happened. It was as if we were suddenly playing t-ball with me setting the ball on a tee for our opponents to hit. Before we could get a single out, the game was called because of the mercy rule…the rule being that if after four innings another team is up by more than twenty runs, the game is over. I have to say that I was never so glad to have a game called in my life. I knew we were beaten and it was time to give up, give in, pack up and go home.
I have been thinking about that game much of this week, and the reality that there are moments when we know that we have lost and it is better to just give up, rather than to keep fighting against the tide of defeat. I have been thinking about this because this is where I believe that Moses and the disciples found themselves at the end of last week’s passages. They found themselves in a hole, facing an unbeatable enemy and they should have hoped for the mercy rule. They should have seen that it was time to pack it in, give up and get on with life. Let’s begin with Moses. He had come proclaiming that this God of the burning bush was going to set the people of Israel free. All he had to do was have a conversation with Pharaoh and all would be fine. Yet his conversation not only did not free the people, but it made their lives worse. It only increased their workload and drove them deeper into despair. It only made the crushing burden of slavery even more painful. Maybe it was time for the mercy rule to be declared and Moses could go home.
The disciples of Jesus were facing a similar situation. Their mission was two fold. First it was to proclaim in word and deed that the long awaited Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of heaven was becoming a reality in the world in and through the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth. Second, they were to heal God’s own people so that the Jews of Galilee and Judaea would become teammates in this endeavor. As we have discussed over the past several weeks, this Kingdom was not going to look like the Kingdom of Rome and its oppressive rule over the Jews, but a kingdom of justice, mercy and peace. Ultimately this kingdom would be a kingdom that turned the world up-side-down. While God’s Kingdom might sound wonderful to his followers, he reminds them that they would be hauled before both secular and religious rulers, beaten, hated and killed. If these predictions were true it might be better not to start the game, rather than wait for the mercy rule to kick in after the disciples suffered and died. Maybe it was time to give up and go back to fishing.
So why weren’t these moments the end of the story? Why didn’t Moses give in to the power of Pharaoh and see that the game was over and go home? Why didn’t the disciples see the handwriting on the wall, and go back home and go fishing. Why didn’t they? They didn’t give up because they got the support they needed to persevere. Both Moses and the disciples got support from the living God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the support that gave them the courage to continue. Listen to God speaking to Moses. “I have heard the groaning of the Israelites whom the Egyptians are holding as slaves. And I have remembered my covenant. Say therefore to the Israelites, I am the Lord, and I will free you from the bondage of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the that I swore to give to Abraham, Issac and Jacob.” Listen to Jesus speaking to his disciples. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the souls…are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs on your head are counted. So do not be afraid, you are of more value than many sparrows.” They did not give up because God was with them.
The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Isaiah, Jesus, Peter, Paul and the disciples is a God who doesn’t believe in giving up on bringing in God’s Kingdom. There is no mercy rule as far as God is concerned. This God whom we worship doesn’t give up on people even when their spirits are broken. Instead God sends men and women like Moses and the disciples to proclaim this kingdom in the face of great odds; odds that would scare an ordinary person. And so we might assume then that when there are men, women and children created in the image of God, who are in need to freedom and justice, that the people who have been called by God’s Spirit would stand up for them, refuse to give in and work to make this Kingdom come on earth even as it is in heaven. Unfortunately this has not always been so. In fact the church, the called people of God, the followers of this kingdom bringing Jesus, are often the ones who oppress rather than liberate. It was the church that blessed the theory that white skin was superior to black skin and endorsed the enslavement of Africans and their descendants on this continent, resisting any and all calls for freedom. It has been and continues to be the church that refuses to allow women an equal place at pulpit and table, and argues against equal rights for women, saying men should rule and women should obey. It has been and continues to be the church that works to deny members of the LGBTQ community full inclusion in the church and in society, saying only heterosexual people should have full rights. It was and is the church that fought to insure the church would be the only organization that would be allowed to ignore the Americans with Disabilities act so that they would not have to make their facilities fully accessible to people with disabilities. No, the church, rather than being of support to those who are oppressed for the color of their skin, their gender, whom they love, and how they bodies and minds operate chose to ignore the call to justice and never even got in the game. But this is not who we are.
We are different. I say we are different because we have committed ourselves to being a different kind of church. We have committed ourselves to being Everybody’s Church. We have committed ourselves to being a church in which we strive to be a faithful, open and inclusive community. We welcome the full participation of all people of any ability, gender identity, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other life circumstance. And by committing ourselves to that inclusion it means that we are committed to being a church of justice, that sees everyone as a child of God, treats everyone as a child of God and supports all of God’s children in their striving to fully access the benefits of this society. This means we are a church of justice not only for people inside these walls but for the world; out where you all are right now. For the church is the called out people of God, not the walled in people of God.
I realize that the task of being the hands, feet and voice of God for freedom and justice in this world can seem overwhelming. We may want to give up and go home to our comfortable lives, seeing our faith as merely a spiritual exercise. But when we feel discouraged, I hope that not only will we realize that God is with us, calling us and supporting us in this endeavor, but that there are others who have come before us who can show us the way. And so this morning I want us to listen to the words of John Lewis, one of the two great leaders of the Civil Rights movement who died this week, the other being C.T.Vivian. I want to offer you three quotes from Mr. Lewis. He said, “We need someone who will stand up and speak out for the people who need help, for people who are being discriminated against. And it doesn’t matter whether they are black or white, Latino, Asian or Native American, whether they are straight or gay, Muslim, Christian or Jews” and “Nothing can stop the power of a committed and determined people to make a difference in our society. Why? Because human beings are the most dynamic link to the divine on this planet” and finally “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year. It is the struggle of a lifetime. Never ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary, trouble.” This is our mission and that is my challenge for you this morning, to ask how can I get in the game to be God’s voice and hands and feet to support those for whom God’s justice has been denied.
July 12, 2020
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
Exodus 5:1-9; Matthew 10:16-25
My former church had begun a program of teaching people about how to share their faith. We believed it was important for everyone to be able to articulate what they believed and why they believed it. As we went searching for resources, one of our members said that he had a long time friend who had his own evangelism ministry. The friend had spent most of his adult life traveling the world speaking at churches, sharing his faith and helping others learn how to do the same. The session thought it would be wonderful to have someone with this kind of experience teach us how to do the same. The evangelist, as I will call him, was with us for a weekend. He told many great stories of helping people around the world know who Jesus was. But the bottom line of all that he was saying was that, our only task was to help people say, “Jesus is my Lord and Savior.” Our task was not to help people understand what they meant. It was merely to get them to say the words so they could go to heaven. At the end of his last teaching time, I went up to him and asked, “But shouldn’t we tell these people what it means to follow? Or that following can be difficult and for some of them, even dangerous?” His reply was instantaneous. “No,” he replied, “Because if we do they might not want to follow Jesus.” The evangelist did have a point, which begs the question this morning, why did Jesus tell his followers that their mission was going to be dangerous. This doesn’t seem to be a great way to recruit followers.
Jesus is nothing if not blunt in this moment when he is first sending his followers out into the world to tell people about the incoming Kingdom of Heaven. He tells them that they will be handed over to secular governments and be flogged by religious leaders. They will be dragged before political leaders. They will be betrayed. Families will be torn apart. They might be put to death. And they will be hated because of their message of peace and justice for the world and for God’s people. Jesus is pulling no punches with his disciples. He is very clear that there is a cost to the mission of telling the world that they ought to see every human being as a child of God; that they ought to treat every human being as a child of God and that every child of God ought to have equal access to the goods and benefits of society. These are the heart of Biblical justice and is the heart of the Kingdom of Heaven. This was, by the way, a mission that the early church would embody in its life and work. Why would Jesus not put a more positive spin on things? Why was he so honest about the cost of discipleship? The answer is two fold.
First, Jesus tells them the truth because it will let his followers know that this mission in which they are engaged is the real deal. It is the in-breaking of the Kingdom of Heaven. This is so because in the time of Jesus and his disciples there were numerous religious books in circulation that spoke of the coming of the Kingdom, as arriving in and through dangerous and difficult times, in which the people of God would pay a price for their faithfulness. These books, such as Second Esdras, Jubilees, Enoch and the Apocalypse of Baruch did not paint a picture of an easy, angelic intervention in which everything was suddenly OK. They painted a picture of danger and even death. They echoed the lives of the earlier prophets such as Elijah who had to run for his life and Jeremiah who was threatened with execution and thrown into a well to die; Both for advocating justice in the face of injustice. By being brutally honest with his followers, Jesus was tapping into these traditions and pointing to their mission as one that is in-line with both scripture and tradition. This is a dangerous mission.
Second, Jesus tells them the truth because it was the truth. What he describes would be their future. Jesus understood the world and the way it worked. His disciples understood the world and the way it worked. They understood that those in power never wanted to freely give up their power and invite others into the benefits of society. They understood that those who had political power believed that they were better than others and therefore were allowed to lie, cheat, steal and abuse. They understood that those in power believed that they had the right to oppress those who lived under their reign and to force the governed into unwilling obedience. They understood that this was the way of both secular and religious leaders. They understood that seeking justice would not make them popular with the powers that be. They also understood that by proclaiming God’s Kingdom, it would divide their families and possibly even get them killed. And as we all know, this would be the fate of Jesus himself, thought by his family to have lost his mind, hated by the religious leaders because they questioned their authority and executed by the Romans because even a heavenly kingdom of peace and justice was not acceptable if it threatened Roman rule. This is a dangerous mission.
If we want to see this in more modern terms all we have to do is look at the struggle for justice for Africans who were brought here to this country as slaves. Though there are far too many stories to tell of the danger of working for peace and justice I want to simply offer two. The first took place on September 4, 1957. On that day Elizabeth Eckford arrived at her new school, Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas. She was to be one of the first black students to attend the school after they had won a federal suit, following Brown vs. the Board of Education. What she did not realize was that not only had the governor called out the National Guard to prevent her and her friends from entering the school, but that there would be hundreds of white men and women present to yell at her, spit on her and threaten her. Only after President Eisenhower ordered the National Guard back to their barracks and brought in the 101st Airborne, were the nine black students allowed into the school…but even then they faced the barrage of hate and intimidation each day they attended. The second story comes from this past week. Vauxx Booker had gone to a local lake outside of Bloomington Indiana on the 4th of July to watch fireworks. As he walked to the lake, several white men told him he was trespassing on their land. Not knowing he was actually on park property, he apologized and continued to the lake. Later that evening, the same group of white men blocked off the public beach front and were refusing to allow black men and women to walk on public property. Vauxx went over to try and straighten things out. Tempers flared and soon the white men attacked Vauxx. They first pinned him to the ground, kicked him and then pinned him against a tree. One of the men told the others to go and bring a noose. Vauxx says the only reason he is not a hash-tag is because people came up, videoed the incident and yelled at the white men to stop. One would want to believe that working for peace and justice in our time would be easy, but it is not. This is a dangerous mission.
Jesus was brutally honest because he understood the way the world worked. This is why he told his followers that they were being sent out as sheep among wolves; so they were to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. They were to be wise as servants, understanding the way the world worked; where the powerful did not desire justice, only control. But they were also supposed to be as innocent as doves, meaning their task was not taking revenge or seeking power so they could be as oppressive as those who oppressed them. They were to be citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, bringing justice for all. But the question this morning is, what about us? I ask that because there are two kinds of people in this world, spectators and participants. I say this in light of what happened to Booker. There were bystanders who just watched as his life was threatened and there were those who spoke up, the participants. My sense is that most of us, including yours truly are more comfortable with being bystanders. It is far more comfortable to look on from the outside and bemoan the problems of racial injustice. I can say that is true for me. I grew up in a comfortable, middle class, white home, trained at great schools and a wonderful seminary. I was trained to be a Biblical interpreter, spiritual counselor and hospital visitor. Those tasks are comfortable for me, but inviting people to uncomfortable and dangerous missions was not on the syllabus. Yet there are those moments when scripture simply refuses to allow me to be comfortable.
The first was in my previous church in San Antonio, when the San Antonio city council “outlawed” homelessness. They made it a crime to sleep on the streets or in parks. If you did you could be arrested, fined and jailed. I worked with church members, other pastors and churches to lobby city hall not just to change the law but to create an alternative housing program for the homeless…one that has become a model for other cities.
The second, is now, with the Black Lives Matter movement. I believe this movement is a cry for Biblical justice for black Americans. It is a moment when we are called to become more than bystanders looking on and saying, “Isn’t racial injustice a shame,” and instead become participants who work to make a difference in world; first by examining our own prejudices and beliefs about race and racism and then work for change as members of Everybody’s Church.
My challenge for you for this week then is this, that you pray how you can move from bystander to participant and work for God’s Kingdom justice in the world around you.
July 5, 2020
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
Exodus 4:1-9; Matthew 10:5-15
What are we supposed to do with this Jesus? I ask because I don’t particularly like this Jesus. I don’t like him because he is exclusive rather than inclusive. “Do not go among the Gentiles, or enter any town of the Samaritans,” he says, “Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.” This is not the Jesus I want. I want a Jesus who welcomes all in the name of the living God. I don’t like this Jesus because he wants us to go out and do Moses-like miracles. “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.” No offense, but this seems to be a bit above my pay grade. Sure it would be nice, maybe to heal those hit by the Coronavirus, but it seems to say we are not up to being followers if we can’t do miracles. Next, he tells us that we are not to be financially responsible and prepared for our work. “Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts; no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff.” Finally he seems too judgmental. “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home and shake the dust off your feet. Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.” I don’t like this Jesus. I want my everybody’s Jesus back.
What then are we to do with this Jesus? The answer I believe can be found in the one of the most often used monologues of the 21st century; the words we all hear when we board an aircraft. It begins with a welcome aboard, then a note about how to use your seat belts and a reminder of the location of the emergency exits. Then comes this portion of the talk. “This cabin is pressurized. In the event of a loss of cabin pressure an oxygen mask will automatically drop from the overhead compartment. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you; Place it firmly over your nose and mouth, securing the elastic headband behind your head and breath normally. Although the bag does not inflate, oxygen is flowing to the mask. If you are traveling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask first and then assist the other person.” The last sentence is the important part. “If you are traveling with someone needing assistance, secure your own masks first and then assist the other person.” In other words, we need to be healed and safe before we can help anyone else be healed and safe. Let me explain.
Jesus came to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven, or, if you will, the Kingdom of God. In this portion of his discipleship instructions he tells his disciples that “The Kingdom of Heaven is near.” Jesus believed that in his life and his teachings the kingdom of Heaven, that presence and power of God to remake the world was at hand, moving like a powerful wave across the earth bringing peace and justice. Yet Jesus knew that bringing this kingdom was supposed to be a team effort and his partners were to be not only the disciples but the people of God; the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This understanding is at the heart of the Abrahamic covenant, where God tells Abram that if Abram and Sarai will get up and go on a journey with God, that God will not only bless them but will bless all the nations. That through their descendants all the world will find peace and justice. The only problem was that the people of God were not ready. They were ill. They were angry. They were oppressed. They were, in Jesus’ own words “the lost sheep of Israel.” They were the ones sitting on the plane who could not secure their own masks but needed someone to help them. And those someones were to be the disciples. The disciples were to teach them about God’s in-breaking love. The disciples were to heal them as a sign that the kingdom of heaven was arriving. In other words, if the people of God were to fulfill their calling to help bring peace and justice to God’s creation, they had to put the mask on themselves first before they could put it on others and help the world. They had to be healed before they could heal anyone else.
I believe that the same is true for us, that if we are to help bring peace and justice, especially racial justice, then we need to begin by putting the masks on ourselves first before we try to put it on society around us. One of the easiest things to do is to point to the faults of others. Chances are most of us have done this in some way this past week. I know I have. I have said things like, “If only they would do “x” then there would be peace and justice.” The problem with only looking out there though, is that it ignores what is in here, in our own minds and our own hearts. It ignores our own culpability in this lack of peace and justice. Bryan Stevenson, whom I mentioned two weeks ago, speaks of the process of bringing about peace and justice. He says that what we as white Christians often say is that all we need is reconciliation. If everyone would just get a coke and teach the world to sing in harmony then we could call it a day. But he says that won’t work until several other things happen, the first of which is to discover and tell the truth about our own selves; the truth about our privilege as white people, our own hidden biases and prejudices and our own often unacknowledged and unrealized perceptions about race; meaning we have to put the masks on ourselves first before we can help others establish peace and justice.
This morning then the diversity and justice committee here at Everybody’s Church is inviting people to begin this process of putting our masks on ourselves by participating in small groups that will be reading and discussing the book White Picket Fences, by Amy Julia Becker. This book is an easy first step in examining our own perceptions about race and privilege. We are also looking for people who will be willing to lead a discussion of the book…discussion guides will be provided. All you have to do is go to the webpage and there will be a link to a new page about the book, the groups and a place to sign up. I hope that you will prayerfully consider joining us in order to take the first step in our own healing so that we might heal the world. My challenge for all of us then is to prayerfully consider taking this first step, even if it makes us feel uncomfortable in order to open our eyes and allow us to help bring in God’s Kingdom.