What a week. Hatred unmasked in Charlottesville; the revolving door of the White House spinning ever faster; mass resignations of prominent business people and artists from presidential advisory bodies; disfunction, confusion, blame, outrage everywhere we look. It’s been a strange week to be in America.
This has been a week for looking in the mirror as a nation and not liking what we see. The ugliness of white supremacy and fascism has become visible in a new way, and those charged with maintaining the unity of the country have failed signally in their duty. Once again we turn to Scripture for insight, comfort, and inspiration.. and, as always, Scripture delivers.
Genesis offers a story of jealousy, of slavery, of deception, and ultimately of reconciliation.
Psalm 133, a response to the Genesis reconciliation of the brothers, speaks of living in community, of peaceful coexistence in God’s Shalom.
Romans gives us Paul’s reminder that no matter how privileged we might be in our own context, we can still be wrong and in need of repentance and reform.
Matthew relates the moment when Jesus is confronted with difference and learns that, as God’s chosen one, he must minister to all people, not only to those who share his ethnicity.
Jesus ventures out of his comfort zone and into hostile territory. Why does he make this trip? Is he perhaps looking to stretch his own boundaries, after teaching against the hypocritical purity laws of the Pharisees? The Canaanite woman shows great courage in confronting him. Her neighbors won’t approve of her asking a Jew for help. The disciples think she is just a nuisance. She is rude and loud. She insists on being heard. She persists. Even Jesus initially has trouble recognizing her as a child of God, before her genuine need and humility win the day.
Jesus, himself an oppressed person of color, still initially sees the Canaanite woman as less than human. In our humanity we constantly fail the test of loving all equally.
I look in the mirror and ask: am I willing to follow the example of Jesus and recognize my own racism? Can I confess without defensiveness the time a fellow parent at my son’s preschool accused me of raising my four-year-old to be racist, when he told her daughter that she was black? Have I repented my mockery of names that aren’t part of my culture, my assumption that a young black man approaching me in the street is a threat, my dismissal of movies with black leads as not relevant to my life?
The story of Joseph concludes this week, with the reunion and reconciliation of the brothers. You remember that last week we heard the beginning: how Joseph’s ten older half-brothers allowed their jealousy to spill over into homicidal intent: how they sold Joseph into slavery and he was dragged off to Egypt. A lot happens in the eight chapters between last week’s episode and today’s, set years later, with Joseph now Pharaoh’s prime minister, unrecognized by his brothers when they come from the famine-stricken Canaan to beg for food. Joseph has some fun with them before revealing who he is and calling for reconciliation, recognizing that while what happened to him was terrible, God redeemed the situation by giving him an opportunity to save his people. You know how the story continues: the family of Jacob moves to Egypt, multiplies and flourishes, until the Israelite immigrants are perceived as a threat to the power of Pharaoh. They are herded into ghettos, forced into slave labor, and finally threatened with extermination. It’s a pattern that has repeated itself in history, and as our brothers and sisters of color grow in numbers and influence in this country, we need to be vigilant that those who fear the loss of their power don’t commit the same sins again.
How might we live peacefully among our neighbors? What might we do as God’s people to heal the wounds in our community and bring about a peaceful world that learns from the mistakes of the past and becomes stronger in diversity, rather than being divided in fear?
In this country we are seeing a hardening of social boundaries. The world “out there” feels very unsafe these days. If you reveal your political, theological, or social worldview in public, you may find yourself abused, shunned, or ridiculed. So we retreat to the safest space we can find, hanging out only with the people we know and agree with, dividing the world into us and them, discounting information produced by “the other side” as fake news, and giving the people in the other groups labels instead of having relationships with them. And then we get scared that our group is under threat, and so we organize, and then we take up weapons to defend ourselves, and then one day we wake up to find that an armed mob has terrorized a quiet town and someone has driven a car into a crowd, and people have been hurt, or worse. And that makes us even more afraid, and the vicious cycle starts again.
We desperately need places where we can venture out of our safe space, where we can encounter difference, where we can experience authentic revelation, compassionate listening, and a generous, reciprocal exchange of power.
Last weekend, in the face of violence and hatred, clergy and lay people of the Diocese of Virginia and other faiths stood peacefully arm-in-arm in the streets of Charlottesville, praying and singing of God’s love and the light of Christ. I was both fearful and proud to see old friends among them. On Friday morning a group of faith leaders, black, white, Latina, Catholic, Episcopal, Muslim, Unitarian, Jewish, Baptist, gathered in our own Queen’s Courtyard to tell San Diego that we stand united against bigotry, hatred, white supremacy, and racism. This afternoon we will join in a rally for justice at the Hillcrest Pride Flag. These events tell the world what we believe, and they are important. But our actions here at St Paul’s must also reflect our commitment to embrace difference and dismantle unjust power structures.
Here’s what the World War 2 martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer had to say about Christians and power:
“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christians should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.”
(Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a Sermon on II Corinthians 12:9)
Bonhoeffer’s words hold true for us today.
I see a threefold effort for us here, based on our mission statement of “Love Christ, Serve Others, Welcome All”, building on the strengths and energy now evident and using many of the ideas and objectives that came to light in the Vision for Mission strategic plan: create strong community structures within the congregation, reach beyond ourselves to serve the people outside our doors, and continue to offer transcendent worship and music to the glory of God.
We need to create strong community structures, to support one another and to build relationships among lonely people. In response to this need, we are introducing a culture of intentional small groups. David’s and Jeff’s class with potential group facilitators last Wednesday began with a discussion of community boundaries. How do we keep people in or out of our communities? Where do we feel safe? Where do we feel vulnerable? We talked about how boundaries can be too rigid, starving a community to death, and they can be too loose, allowing toxic behavior to infect and compromise the community’s health. And we talked about the place in between, the “grace margin” as Eric Law names it*, which allows movement across boundaries, which allows people who don’t know each other or who may have little in common to come together in conversation, to listen to and learn from each other, without any expectation of changing the other, but with confidence in a mutually agreed covenant that protects each one’s integrity and honors the dignity of all involved. Jesus shows us the way in his conversation with the Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel.
A congregation that fails to reach beyond itself is not living the Gospel. We must love and serve our neighbors. I am grateful that we have recently expanded our showers ministry and have started to open our doors regularly to homeless young adults in need of a safe place to spend the night. It seems clear that God is calling us to care for those who sleep outside, and we are constantly expanding opportunities to serve those in need on our doorstep, people without shelter, many of whom live in Balboa Park. The many volunteers who show up for Showers of Blessing offer community, conversation, and a safe place to rest for a couple of hours, and the Sixth Avenue courtyard more closely resembles the Kingdom of God on second Saturday mornings than any other part of our campus ever does.
Supporting and undergirding all we do is our magnificent worship and music, dedicated to the glory of God, a constant reminder of why we do what we do for each other and for the world. Our weekly choral evensong offers a gift to, among others, the ecumenical community of San Diego clergy, many of whom find their way to St Paul’s at the end of a long day to be fed by our expression of the beauty of holiness. And in the current climate of division and contempt, we all need the beauty of holiness in our lives.
Remember the song in “South Pacific”? “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, you’ve got to be taught from year to year. It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear, you’ve got to be carefully taught.” (Richard Rodgers, “South Pacific”, 1949).
Human beings are not born with prejudice or privilege, but we do learn them well, and we’ve got to be taught to repudiate them. Privilege often shows up without conscious effort. Can we help each other to be more aware? When we assume that we will be welcome everywhere, when we jump into a group conversation as if we own the topic, when we fail to notice the person in the room who hasn’t spoken, can we trust one another to help us learn a better way? That’s my hope for the grace margin in our small groups. If Jesus could learn to look past difference and see the shared humanity in one asking for healing, so can we. If Jesus could stop and listen to the voice of one who had been denied a voice, so can we. And if Jesus could step out of his own neighborhood and bring the love of God to people he didn’t know, so can we. “O God, you have given your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace … to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life.” … no matter where he leads us. Amen.
August 20, 2017
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges
*Eric Law, Inclusion: Making Room for Grace (Chalice Press, 2000)