February 7, 2021, the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
All Things to All People
Last week I had the honor of meeting with some very bright 7th-graders from Francis Parker Middle School. Usually at this time of year a group from Parker comes to the cathedral and we tell them a little about the Episcopal Church and Christianity, Brooks gives them a tour, and Martin demonstrates the organ. It’s part of a week in which they visit a variety of faith communities.
This year, of course, was different. The meeting was via Zoom, and the students had prepared their questions in advance. They had wonderful questions that suggested that they are deeply curious about faith, about God, about the meaning of life. For example, “How do you know if your religion is the right one?”; and “Do you believe everything happens for a reason?”; and “How do you handle it when a member of your religion discriminates against other religions?”. What made this more interesting was that I wasn’t the only faith leader on the Zoom call: there were also Imam Taha of the SDIC and Rabbi Jeremy Gimbel of Beth Israel Synagogue. Each of us got to answer each question in turn.
Here are some of the things that were swirling in my mind: I was aware of the burden of carrying the entire Christian tradition. I was aware of the privileged position of Christianity in this culture. I knew my colleagues were listening to my answers, and I didn’t want to say anything that would damage our interfaith relationships. I wanted these young people – who represented a number of different ethnicities – to be attracted to Christianity, but I didn’t want to disrespect the faiths of my brother clergy. I had no idea if the young people practiced any faith tradition themselves. I accordingly phrased my responses with great care.
The experience of witnessing to your faith in a diverse environment, especially if you are outnumbered, is salutary. It’s very easy as a person of privilege to slip into ways of speaking and acting that assume our superiority; honoring the presence of the other requires us to find ways to express our beliefs that don’t dismiss or insult the other. We are all too familiar with the toxic political discourse that demonizes anyone who doesn’t toe the speaker’s party line, even if the other person is on the same side of the aisle. The same can be said, very sadly, of Christians from different denominations. And it’s not a new problem.
In his first letter to the Christians in Corinth, Paul addresses this very issue: the Corinthians are all too prone to claim their privilege as those who know better: it’s OK, they claim, to eat meat that’s been sacrificed to idols because they know the idols are false. It’s OK, they claim, to disregard the Jewish law because their baptism in Christ has freed them from the rules. Paul goes to great lengths to point out to them that their actions affect others; that freedom in Christ doesn’t mean being free to do whatever you like.
The section of this letter that we heard last week instructed the Corinthians to consider the effect of exercising their freedom on those who were still struggling to free themselves from the pagan culture. You may be free to eat that meat, Paul says, because the pagan ritual doesn’t have any legitimacy for you; but what about your neighbor who sees you eating it and doesn’t understand your context? What does that do to your community? In today’s reading, Paul speaks of identifying with the other: he says he has become all things to all people so that he might win all people over to the Gospel of Jesus. He is willing to relinquish some of his privilege for the sake of finding common ground and becoming a single beloved community.
A whole lot of us at St. Paul’s are currently engaged in the Sacred Ground curriculum, a ten-month small-group education about the scourge of racism in the United States. Month after month we watch videos and read articles that open our eyes to the lived experience of people of color in this country, starting with the betrayal and genocide of native Americans by the early European settlers; continuing with the trafficking of black and indigenous people in slavery; the abuse of Asian immigrants in the building of the west; the struggles of Irish and Mediterranean immigrants to be allowed full citizenship; the exclusion of black GI’s from the GI Bill and the redlining of urban neighborhoods, that shut people of color out of the real estate market and the opportunity to build intergenerational wealth.
It’s hard and painful work to study this history, but not nearly as hard and painful as the living of it has been for generations of our brothers and sisters. I have the option of engaging or not; people of color have no option. Sacred Ground offers us a valuable way to witness and appreciate the experience of the other, to identify with the suffering of the oppressed, and to move from that identification to actions that will make the rough places smooth and lift up the humble and poor.
Jesus goes out to the towns and villages of Galilee to share the good news that the Kingdom of God has come near. He goes to the people and heals their suffering, casts out their demons, sets them free to live more fully. Paul travels all over his world to preach the Gospel, forming communities wherever he goes. Evidently the Corinthians are one of his problem children, as they distort the message of freedom in Christ into a demonstration of inequity and undisciplined behavior. Paul writes of the blessings of the Gospel: of taking on the yoke of Christ, of choosing a voluntary discipline where he foregoes the payment he is entitled to in order to stand in solidarity with the poor.
This example raises challenging questions for us, individually and as a congregation. How do we make room for everyone at St. Paul’s? How do we overcome the temptation to stay in our comfort zones, exercising our privilege and entitlement? What opportunities exist for us to identify with the other in our midst? You might try attending the Spanish service: be in the minority for an hour, accept that you cannot understand every word of the service, reflect on what it’s like to live somewhere that the common language is one that you’re not completely comfortable with. I have a clergy colleague, a white man, who has made a commitment to only nominate women and people of color for bishop positions; he will not accept a nomination himself even though he is an outstanding priest and would make a fine bishop. We made a decision early on in the pandemic that we wouldn’t film a small group sharing Communion in an empty church, but instead we would all share in the enforced fast from the sacrament until we could safely open the building to the congregation.
I’m currently reading a book called “I think you’re wrong, but I’m listening.” It’s written by two women, friends, who have very different political and philosophical positions. They have a podcast in which they have conversations about important and contentious topics like welfare, family planning, and public education. They practice a discipline of listening to each other and honoring what each has to say, even when they deeply disagree. They write of taking off your team jersey: letting go of the need to blindly support every position of your chosen party or faction, and instead being willing to think deeply and listen closely to the nuances of the issues. How would the world change if we gave up the privilege of being right? If we allowed ourselves to doubt the correctness of our position? If we were willing to really listen to each other, to let go of having the last word, to step into someone else’s shoes and give them the benefit of the doubt?
What if everyone felt heard and respected? Don’t you think that would change the world?
As we travel through Mark’s Gospel this year we may notice a breathless quality to the story-telling. We lose some of it in translation because our English Bibles don’t preserve the present tense that Mark employs, along with frequent use of a word that means “Immediately”. Jesus is always moving immediately from one thing to another, the healings and exorcisms piling up and the crowds constantly on his trail. This first chapter of the Gospel races from the initial announcement of the good news of Jesus Christ, to the baptism of Jesus, to his time in the wilderness, to the calling of the first four disciples, to teaching in the synagogue, to driving out an unclean spirit, to healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, to an evening of healing and cleansing for the entire village. No wonder, after all that, that Jesus slips out for a predawn time of solitary prayer. But then he is off again to bring the good news throughout Galilee. The way Mark tells it, the mission of Jesus is urgent and demanding: the Kingdom of God has come near and now is the time for Jesus to do his work, racing against time as he knows that the authorities will turn on him for subverting their power.
In the midst of all this activity we are given a glimpse of an intimate moment, when Simon Peter tracks Jesus down in the early morning and says, “Everyone is looking for you.” If we listen closely we can hear the yearning in Simon’s voice and we can relate. The world is hungry for the good news of Jesus. The work of liberation and healing is urgent work. And it’s up to us, now, to continue the work of sharing that good news, by building a beloved community, by breaking down barriers, by being all things to all people, doing it all, as Paul says, for the sake of the Gospel, so that we and all the world may share in its blessings.