what if?

preaching, 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 23.1-12, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, November 5, 2017

Jesus is in Jerusalem for the final showdown with his enemies, truly, the final countdown to his death. With no time or temperament for polite speech, Jesus stands up to the religious leaders, speaking up in the face of their hypocrisy; his message, personal and polemical: “Your leaders have the power that comes with their knowledge and the authority to exercise their power to teach. Therefore, listen to what they say, but don’t do what they do. For they don’t practice what they preach. Rather than proclaiming God’s law of love and liberty, they make rules and regulations impossible to follow. They make public display of their goodness. They expect front row seats. They wear distinctive clothes and answer only to exalted titles.”[1]

This kind of talk could get Jesus killed, and we who know his story know that it did! Nevertheless, Jesus boldly confronted the religious leaders, then addressed the entire crowd: “Don’t go by honorific titles, for you all have honor. Don’t treat anyone as God, for there is only One worthy of worship and that One is not any of you. If you want to stand out, then step down, for greatness is measured in service to others.”[2]

Jesus, speaking to everyone, condemning the status quo of the hierarchy of favor for the few and subordination of the many, pointed to a radical reality; paradoxically though otherworldly intended for this sphere of time and space: the nearness of the kingdom of heaven.[3] A realm of life, a state of existence in which being created by God, therefore already approved, dignified by God removes every need for self-justification, every desire to increase self-esteem by the trappings of title, privilege, and public honor. Yes, in this world, there are titles, privileges, and publicly-bestowed honor, yet these are human inventions. In the kingdom of heaven Jesus proclaims God’s intention that all that is essential, life and dignity, is granted by God in creation and at birth.

In this revelation and my recognition of this revelation, I confess that I feel personally challenged by Jesus’ message. For, despite claiming love and justice as my values, I, sometimes, choosing to follow my preferences and prejudices, chafe under the burden of doing, being love and justice for all. And I have a vocation, by its nature, given to the public display of goodness; regardless of how I may feel. And I wear distinctive clothing. And I sit, perhaps arguably, in the best seat in this house. And I have a title in front of my name. And fearing the risk of the loss of what I have, sometimes I don’t stand up and speak up in the face of wrong.

I’m not alone. All of us, as communal creatures hardwired to be in relationship, want to be acknowledged, greeted and treated with respect. Perhaps most, if not all of us like places of honor and the best seats. And surely all of us have had moments in our lives when we thought, believed, knew something wasn’t right, yet said, did nothing; and, as we live, moments such as these again will arise and confront us.

I think of our current times; our airwaves filled with news of sexual harassment, thus bringing to light words and deeds of a long and wrong past that the purposeful silence and ignorance of many has allowed to continue unto this day.

But what if we, in this world still wedded to hierarchy and favor for few and subordination of many, with hearts, souls, and minds, embraced and embodied, preached and practiced Jesus’ message? What if we clearly beheld ourselves to be as God has created and redeemed us: earthly vessels overflowing with heavenly love? What if faithfully, truly believing that, we lived to give without reserve, served without desire for recognition, spoke and acted in the name of Jesus in the face of injustice?

If so, then the kingdom of heaven that Jesus proclaims would not only be near, it would be here.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 23.2-7, my paraphrase

[2] Matthew 23.8-11, my paraphrase

[3] Jesus inaugurated his public ministry with the following proclamation that formed and framed all he did and said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4.17).

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Charlottesville redux: part 2, stepping back from the edge of pessimism’s ledge

thinkingI’ve been struggling…

Since identifying, naming and claiming my abiding, burdening existential angst about American bigotry in my August 22 blog post, Charlottesville redux: America the beautiful?, I’ve been struggling to discern a faithful and hopeful way forward; a way out of the deep valleys and darkened alleys of my quintessential pessimism.[1] For, as I wrote previously, thinking that we, as a nation, have come to another moment in history when a conversation about our communal American identity is absolutely necessary, I believe the dynamism of our current and revivified cultural discord, expressed, in major part, in virulent anti-Semitism and racism, sadly renders such opportunities moot.

I am grateful for my bride, Pontheolla Mack Abernathy, my dear sister, Loretta Anne Woodward Veney, my newfound (though, given my sense of our spiritual simpatico, long-lived) sister, Gayle Fisher-Stewart, and my brother from another mother, Grady Hedgespeth, to a person, buoyantly optimistic souls, through whose sage and stalwart words of counsel and comfort, I have come to a new, renewed place of perceiving, of being.

To wit…

Considering it always important for me to define my terms and declare the ground on which I stand, I am a theist. I believe in God as creator of all life, who, from the formless void brought forth a divine differentiation – in other words, not some, any semblance of holy sameness – and called it all “good”.[2] I am a Christian. I believe in God as revealed through the Holy Spirit in Jesus of Nazareth, whose story is recorded in scripture and conveyed through two millennia of Christian tradition.

From this stance, I summon myself and all people of good will to repent, to turn away from, verily, to step over and beyond the barriers and boundaries of my and our phobias and prejudices, my and our numbing fears and negative judgments of “the other.”

If your, my phobia or prejudice is about or against a person who is:

  • African American
  • agnostic or atheist
  • anti-Semitic
  • Democrat
  • gay or lesbian
  • Hispanic
  • Islamophobic
  • Jewish
  • Muslim
  • Native American
  • racist
  • Republican
  • white
  • white supremacist
  • (or any other categorization of humankind),

then, I bid that you and I seek out and engage in conscious conversation, and with honesty and humility, one who is:

  • African American
  • agnostic or atheist
  • anti-Semitic
  • Democrat
  • gay or lesbian
  • Hispanic
  • Islamophobic
  • Jewish
  • Muslim
  • Native American
  • racist
  • Republican
  • white
  • white supremacist
  • (or any other categorization of humankind).

And I boldly predict that you and I will discover that that wholly different human being is utterly similar to you and me in possessing a personal history and a set of memories, thoughts and feelings, desires and needs, hopes and dreams, fears and failings, phobias and prejudices, struggles and successes and, in these unmistakable, irreducible similarities, that we all have more in common than we may have dared to dream.

My point is this. You and I can think and feel, hope and pray for a better world of comity and concord. But if you and I daily do not do something, anything different than remain secure, self-imprisoned in the towers of our ideological and existential sanctuary from “the other”, then you and I silently are complicit in maintaining the status quo. And given what we all beheld in Charlottesville, that doesn’t look at all good to me.

How about you?

 

Footnotes:

[1] For reasons tracing back to my formative years (the root, I believe, of most of our personal characteristics and ways of being and doing, both good and bad), I tend to assume and await the worst.

[2] See Genesis 1.1-2.3

a lesson learned

Epiphany 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 15.10-28, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, August 20, 2017

I am a man. Though, as an African American intimately, painfully familiar with the societal deprivations experienced by people of color, both in human chronicles and in my own history, I, however sensitive and sympathetic I may and can be, cannot know firsthand the strivings and sufferings of our sisters of our human family who, from time immemorial unto this day, have had their dreams deferred and denied.

For women, in every arena or field of endeavor – athletics and the sciences, politics and the military, commerce and the church, medicine and the law, the entertainment and service industries – patriarchal hegemonies remain; pay equity still an ideal and glass ceilings still firmly in place, some hardly clear, but rather cloudy, opaque, leaving the women below unable to behold as possibilities the riches of opportunities long relished as realities by the men above.

This comes to my mind and heart, my soul and spirit as I reflect on the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman.

Christ and the Canaanite Woman, Ludovico Carracci (1555-1619)

Jesus enters the district of Tyre and Sidon. Her territory. And she, with the urgency of gravest necessity, greets him with a shout, “Lord, Son of David!”

Incredible!

This non-Jewish woman recognizes who Jesus is, demonstrating a greater awareness of his messianic identity than his disciples have shown so far…

Even more, she, for the sake of her love for her daughter, captive in the thrall of demonic-possession, dares beg the mercy of this Jewish messiah; her very request expressing her belief that he can do something and hoping he will

Still more, she, as a non-Jew and a woman, in the audacity of her appeal has stepped over, kicked over the even then ancient barriers of race and gender, status and authority that bar her from receiving any help.

Jesus, a Jewish man and rabbi, observing those time-honored boundaries, says nothing, need say nothing. His disciples, men, no matter their societal stations – most as fishermen, one a hated tax collector, another a religious zealot – surely standing higher than she, beg Jesus to “send her away.” Jesus answers, and it’s not clear he is speaking to her, sharing only his ultra-exclusionary understanding that his mission and ministry are intended only for Israel.

She persists, adding to her words of respect, “Lord” and “Son of David” a universally understood deed of deference, kneeling at Jesus’ feet; again asking, begging, “Lord, help me.”

Jesus responds with a demeaning word of cultural difference and distance, likening the woman and her daughter to dogs hungering underfoot at the table.

She persists, voicing her belief, her confidence that even a crumb of the mercy of Jesus can conquer the demon laying claim to her daughter’s soul.

Jesus, praising her faith, finally grants her desire.

This encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman is a bold witness to the persistent power of faith, especially in response to the rejections of silence and dismissal of the status quo.

I also see that even Jesus, who taught that what is internal, not external, bears the fruit of wickedness, had to be shown how not to fall prey to his perspectives, his prejudices about the outward features of culture and class, race and gender. Bless you, Jesus, for having the humility to listen and learn.

May all who follow Jesus, in every arena and field of endeavor, athletics and the sciences, politics and the military, commerce and the church, medicine and the law, the entertainment and service industries, no longer look on “the other” as “other” and, thus, no longer offer crumbs of mercy, if even that, but rather invite all to have a chosen seat at the table.

 

Illustration: Christ and the Canaanite Woman, Ludovico Carracci (1555-1619)