Proper 4, Year B
Church of the Ascension
June 3, 2018
I’ve been posting quite a lot about systemic racism on my facebook page lately. With so much vitriolic hate speech surfacing these days, it feels like the right time to intentionally remind ourselves why we need to work for civil rights. Systemic racism is not anything new in this country. It’s always been there, and it is remarkably adept at taking many forms — shifting into new ones every time we think we have pushed back against the old ones enough to actually make a difference. The persistence of the undercurrent that sustains it make it easy for us to give way to a sense of numbness — a sense of hopelessness that no one of us can do much against such a tide of intractable divisiveness. A tide that teaches us all, from a young age, to see those who are “not white” as lesser — less able, less talented, less deserving, and less resilient. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The very persistence of people of color in the face of overwhelming odds is ample proof of their extraordinary courage, strength, ingenuity, value.
But even such a statement doesn’t get to the most essential truth: if we believe that we are all made in God’s image, then people of color should not have to prove themselves worthy in order to gain the respect of white people. And yet in a country still centered on whiteness, they have to do so every. single. day.
Jesus teaches us, by word and example, that no one is lesser, no one is to be dismissed. Every one of us is precious in God’s eyes.
So, it’s been fascinating to see some of the responses to my posts written by white friends. While they are always careful to acknowledge that systemic racism exists, they are also very fast to jump to other subjects — searching for any other topic as a distraction from the painful truths that are being so boldly put on display every day by the actions of too many of our fellow Americans.
Here is one such post: “No other factor predicted changes in white partisanship during Obama’s presidency as powerfully and as consistently as racial attitudes,” noted John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University. 1
“No, no,” I saw posted in response, “it wasn’t really about racism. It was about income inequality. Or technology. Or the feminization of our culture. Or smartphones. Or religious conservatism. Or — fill in the blank.”
Most of the issues my friends listed as alternative factors in the 2016 election were absolutely valid. And I agree with them, many systemic problems contributed to the outcome. I also agree that we need to have the conversations about all of those things — misogyny, income inequality, and class prejudice being the three that top the list for me personally.
My chief concern is that I don’t want us to lose sight of how profoundly influential the racial aspect was while we have these other discussions.
Many people in this county are anxious, frightened, and unsettled right now. As well we should be. The rate at which things are changing across the globe is existentially frightening for all of us. The future feels far more uncertain than it did even a few years ago.
But here’s the thing — such feelings of existential dread have been the lived reality of people of color for much longer than I can even begin to process. And right now, the volume has been amped up for them by several notches. People of color are under physical attack every day under this administration. Children being separated from their parents at the border. White people calling the cops on black folks for waiting around at Starbucks or having a BBQ in the park. Black lives ended by police with limited consequences. What is it going to take before we acknowledge how deep a problem racism still is?
The good news is that the gospel text today reminds us that, even in the most dangerous and troubled times, there is always hope and the promise of change.
It reminds us that there is a way that we can follow that leads to liberation for all of us.
And it reminds us also, that as church going people, we should be leaders in showing that way — the way of life and love — the way of Jesus.
Our text today is all about liberation — about the need to re-examine our systems periodically to be sure that they emphasize wholeness and healing for the entire community.
It is a text that calls us to emphasize that which is actually life giving and life affirming, not that which is safe and self perpetuating.
It is a text which shows us what it means to live in the kingdom of God.
Jesus has an extended two part encounter with the Pharisees, some of the religious authorities of his day. Both the Sadducees and the Pharisees were, of necessity, compliant and cooperating with the Roman occupation of Judea. In his gospel, Mark uses the Pharisees as his most frequent straw man. NOT because Mark was condemning Jewish worshippers and claiming that “Christians” were better. Remember, those two categories didn’t exist then. They were all Judean people; they all worshipped the same God, they were in fact, co-religionists. Mark knew that every group that has ever existed — religious, tribal, political — falls prey to the error he wanted to illustrate. In this case, he chose the Pharisees simply because they were a group his audience would have recognized.
So in this passage, the Pharisees debate with Jesus in a synagogue about what is correct and ac-ceptable behavior on the Sabbath. The Sabbath — the day of rest — is one of God’s clearest signs of the holiness of all of creation. All of creation is good, according to Genesis, and the Sabbath signifies this by declaring that rest, quiet reflective time, is not only holy, but necessary and ordained by God. In fact, it is the most holy time, because it is the time when we focus as intentionally as we may on stepping out of chronos — or linear time — into kairos — God’s — time. It is the time when we think about who we are and why we are here. It is the time when we deliberately remind ourselves that it is in God that we live and move and have our being. That our very existence is a gift from God. And that God desires us to live abundantly, seeking wholeness by becoming more and more attuned with God’s love for us and then extending that love to each other.
But on this particular Sabbath, instead of focusing on God, this group was more interested in whether or not Jesus was following the rules. Instead of asking why people were going hungry in their district, they were more interested in calling out Jesus’ disciples because they didn’t meet the work requirements to qualify for food stamps. Instead of asking why a man with a withered hand was left without healthcare, they were more interested in making sure that Jesus did not treat someone out of network.
And why were they doing that? Because focusing on following the rules is a pretty great way to avoid seeing what one doesn’t want to see. That kind of coping mechanisms is endemic to us. It is part of human nature. When we feel threatened, our default is to self protect. Because it’s often less painful in the short term to chase away reality when reality is so stark.
But sometimes groups take that tendency one step further by institutionalizing it. They deliber-ately harness this completely normal tendency as a way to hide their real agenda. An agenda that focuses on propping up short term self protecting institutions — even at the expense of many others in the community. An agenda that chooses following the rules instead of seeking solutions that affirm life for as many as possible.
Our passage minces no words when describing Jesus’ response to those who do this. It says he was angry – that he was grieved by their hardness of heart. And he shows them the way of Love by his actions in response.Jesus asks the man with the withered hand to come forward — he asks him to stretch out that hand. And when the man does so, his hand is restored.
It’s important to note the mutuality of the healing — the man is not a passive recipient. He has a choice, and he acts in response to Jesus — he retains his own agency. He is human. He is be-loved. He is seen.
We don’t know why his hand was withered. The story doesn’t tell us. Perhaps, as some commentaries suggest, he was a stone mason, and it had been smashed in an accident. But noticing that it was only one hand leads us into other possibilities. Perhaps he, too, was collaborating with the Romans, maybe as a scribe. And perhaps the things he was doing eventually gave him pause — made him remorseful for that collaboration because they were causing harm to others. This might explain why he has not been offered healing within his own community.
Jesus comes to us with love and healing. His underlying agenda is always restoration of community, not division. Jesus is angry because too often people are cling to systems that encourage divisiveness, not reconciliation, ones that further exclusion, instead of favoring inclusion. The good news for us is that God desires us to be healed, even if we don’t think we deserve that healing. Our identities are never fixed — we do not have to remain the ones with withered hands. This is as true for us as individuals, as it is for us as a church, and for us as a country.
This year, our diocese of New York is helping show a way towards the reconciliation and heal-ing of racist systems so endemic to our country. We are doing so by having the Year of Lamentation in 2018. We are acknowledging and lamenting our role in keeping unjust racist systems alive in our churches and in our communities. Next year, we will embark on a year of repentance. The year after, there will be a year of reparation. Additionally, our presiding bishop, Michael Curry, is joining other Christian elders in reclaiming Jesus – the Jesus who promises us that no one is beyond redemption when we turn towards seeking life — seeking wholeness — seeking the way of love. I urge you, if you have not already, to read the Reclaiming Jesus statement. You can find it at http://www.reclaimingjesus.org.
In the words of Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr, “We are each unique incarnations of God, bringing to visible and tangible expression God’s presence in the world. When love transforms our actions in a way that Christ is “represented”— then we become mothers, sisters and brothers of Christ. This birthing of Christ in the life of the believer is a way of conceiving, birthing, and bringing (love) to the world in such a way that the Incarnation is renewed. It is making the gospel alive.”
May we all seek to see Christ in all persons, starting with ourselves.
The Rev. Posey Krakowsky