Proper 24, Year B
It is so good to be back with you all — as many of you know, I have been out in the world running the first few official sessions of my teaching ministry, The Contemplative Gaze, this past few weeks. It’s good to be home and among you again.
I feel so blessed to be a part of the Ascension community and to know that I am tethered by you. One of the things I am discovering as I go to different churches is that it can be disorienting to move around so much. Thankfully, when I first dreamed up this ministry, the Holy Spirit reminded me that I would need a spiritual home as an abiding place from which to go and return. Thank you for being my anchor. Knowing you are here makes a huge difference in my ability to stay grounded because I know I will find rest and familiarity when I am with you. You are helping make this broader ministry possible, and I hope you understand that your welcome of me is your gift to the larger church. By offering me a safe home, you are making something possible that would not otherwise be possible. Your offering is one of the many forms of stewardship this congregation engages in, and I am incredibly grateful you have chosen to take it on.
Stewardship is not only about keeping the lights on, the building heated, and our programs funded. It is so much more than that. Stewardship is the tangible expression of our recognition that we find love in community — in seeing one another and every aspect of creation as inherently valuable. Those whose lives you are touching by this offering may not ever know it is you who have done this. But the joy they experience in discovering and appreciating the art they have in their sanctuaries is a tangible expression of gratitude which I can reflect back to you now. The wonder on their faces, their delight in nuances they had never noticed before — these are gifts you are giving to the church and to the world. This work renews their appreciation of the beauty and bounty of our sanctuaries. And it also renews their wonder in the creativity and vision of the One who has created all that is. While we may be unsure what church will look like 50 to 100 years from now, I promise you, providing an anchor for those of us who are exploring non-traditional ministries is a vital aspect of the future church’s formation. So from the bottom of my heart, I thank you.
I will be holding a retreat day on December 8th, the 2nd Saturday of Advent, here at Ascension, and we will use the same contemplative process to explore some of the art in this space. I do hope you will join us!
There are also two other ministries which your stewardship is helping make possible by providing me a home here at Ascension. The first is work with the Diocesan Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission. From November 5 – 7, I will be traveling as a representative of the Diocese of New York to the Parliament of World Religions in Toronto. I promise I will report back on that when I return. Though depending on how the midterm elections go, I may just say north of the border….
The second is my work with the Diocesan Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force. Last week, I spent the better part of three afternoons volunteering at their installation in Union Square — the Gift Box. I heard that Mother Liz took a contingent of you to visit the Gift Box last Sunday after the service. That’s good! Thanks to Mother Liz also for giving permission for Ascension to host a liturgy on Thursday evening January 10th as part of the annual Human Trafficking Awareness days. We will keep you updated on that as it comes together. So please mark your calendars.
I’m new to this work, so I, like you, am learning and absorbing as much as I can about it. I know from posts on Facebook that some of you read the article this past week in the New York Times titled: The Case of Jane Doe Ponytail. It is the story of a woman who was trafficked and who ended up dying by suicide right here in Queens — hard reading, but eye opening. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/10/11/nyregion/sex-workers-massage-parlor.html
If you wish an even deeper exploration of the world of trafficking, I highly recommend Rachel Lloyd’s book Girls Like Us. Lloyd writes from the perspective of someone who was trafficked herself — she later founded the non-profit GEMS (Girls Education and Mentoring Service) which helps girls and women escape trafficking. Human trafficking — not only for sex but also for labor — is one of the fastest growing and most lucrative crimes in the world today — second only to illegal drugs and tied with arms dealing. We can talk about it in more detail at another time, but I’d like to take this moment to begin to dismantle two main myths about it:
1) the people who are trafficked “choose” this as a lifestyle
2) It’s EASY to break out of being trafficked, so why don’t they just run?
Okay, so myth number one: there is no other way to say this except forcefully — no one CHOOSES to be trafficked. NO ONE.
But our culture sure does invest a lot of time and money into making us think that they do. We all are indoctrinated into this myth though a myriad of sources: music lyrics, films and TV shows that glorify prostitution, fashion photographs, advertising that uses such glamorization to sell products, and perhaps most sadly, a criminal justice system that focuses more on vilifying the victims than it does on the purchasers of the product, the johns. One of the most sobering insights Rachel Lloyd discusses in her book is that some police officers refer to nighttime runs to arrest prostitutes as “the trash run.” They are not referring to the customers as trash, they are referring to the victims as trash. The girls and boys, women and men who are trafficked are seen as trash by our society, not as human beings.
Myth number two: It’s not at all easy to break out of “the life” once you have been trafficked. Many of the people who are trafficked are brought into the life at very young ages — often because they are vulnerable due to systemic injustices and/or family situations that prevent them from growing up with adults who are able to taking care of them. Their handler is the first person in their lives who has shown them a consistent semblance of kindness or love. The hook that they are offered can be something that seems insignificant to many of us here: a meal at McDonalds and, most importantly, some attentive listening. Sometimes that’s all it takes to buy a child’s loyalty and heart. This is true, by the way, across all socio-economic groups. Kids living in poverty are not the only ones who are trafficked. When the relationship with the trafficker begins, the victim is totally unaware that being trafficked is the end goal for which they are being groomed — they truly think that their handler loves them and is their boyfriend or sweetheart. And they continue to think this. So it is understandable that they have a hard time breaking free. Stockholm syndrome is the technical psychological term for this phenomenon, but another way to express it is: coercive control. How many of us have been caught up in bad relationships where we kept on thinking, It must be my fault, I can change him or her, it will get better!
Which leads me to the Gospel text today — y’all didn’t think I was ever gonna get there did you? — because this text speaks to exactly that kind of coercive control of one human over another. And this text recognizes that coercion also happens systemically — writ large in the public sphere. The Roman imperial government was all about coercive control; yes, they were geniuses of organization and engineering, but the Pax Romana was founded on the coercive control of a repressive state. We may think the film Gladiator is entertainment, but for the people of that time, the gladiatorial arenas were a very public way in which power was displayed, punishment was meted out, and hierarchies were reinforced. Attending gladiatorial contests was not optional for many — Caesar Augustus required the attendance of those who were ruled by him. He also came up with the codification of seating arrangements that visibly established via bodily placement exactly who was where in the pecking order of power.
Mark tells us that James and John were asking Jesus where they were in the pecking order. When you are king, they were essentially saying, promise me that I get to sit next to you! That’s a direct reference to the seating in the Roman arenas.
James and John were stuck in a paradigm of how things should be that they couldn’t shake. The passage then illustrates how the desire for particular, personal coercive power, also occurs as coercive government: You know, Mark’s Jesus said, that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.
How did it work? By offering benefits as enticement (in Roman terms: Bread and Circus, in modern terms: McDonalds and attention, or judicial appointments and campaign rallies. But never forget that punitive consequences are prominently displayed, ever at the ready in case of disobedience to the status quo: mass incarceration, children in cages, sexual assault survivors being shamed, reporters murdered with impunity.
So what is the remedy that Jesus prescribes? Original Grace. Because what else is the story of the incarnation except the ultimate, tactile, embodied expression of the sanctity of our inherent worth? God chose to become one of us because God says that creation is GOOD, not inherently depraved. Jesus assures us that God recognizes the worth and dignity of every person — that we are made in God’s image. Systemic (and personal) coercion is not how God would have us join in the co-creation of order out of chaos. The God who chose to share our condition was killed just like Jane Doe Ponytail in Queens. This Jesus knows what it means to be seen as trash. This Jesus knows the depths of despair of those who are pushed to the margins. This Jesus affirms that EVERY human, every being, is created by and loved by God. That is the grace to which we can turn.
It is not a grace that is earned by works, by measuring up, by squashing others down in a race to get ahead.
This is a grace of connection and mutuality. A grace of knowing one is beloved. This original grace is given to us at birth and never leaves us.
It is not the grace of a coercive, punitive God, meted out by the thimbleful, and only if we do the next good thing.
Instead it is the Grace granted to each of us by God to sit at God’s right and at God’s left. Those are the places that God grants to every one of us, because we are beloved and thus we are ALL the ones for whom it has been prepared.
Amidst the many stories I heard about trafficking this past week, one stood out. It was the story of the four words that a neighbor used to make a connection with a young woman she suspected was being trafficked. Those four words were not an instant cure — it still took time for the young woman to break free from her handler. But they established that initial connection none the less. Those four words opened the door for trust.
Those four words were not, “Let me help you.”
They were not, “Here’s the police hotline.”
They were not, “You should run away.”
Here is what they were: It’s not your fault.
IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT.
Those four words were a sign to the young woman that her neighbor did not see her as trash. Instead, the neighbor saw her as a human being first — a person with inherent dignity and worth — a person beloved by God.
Those four words established connection and mutuality. They are about hearing the expression “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” differently. Not as it is too often egregiously used — as a shaming and blaming way to further divide us from each other based on a hierarchy of our sinfulness— an accounting of good and bad deeds. But instead — instead — to hear it as the description of an infinity loop — an infinity loop of mutuality where sometimes you are down and I hold you up and sometimes I am down and you hold me up — because we both know that there is good and bad in all of us, and we both know that God is with us and in the space between us, and we both know that we are beloved.
God created me, and you, and Jane Doe Ponytail, and God knows that we are not trash.
And God knows that no matter what horrific things might happen to us, it’s not our fault.
The Rev. Posey Krakowsky
The Church of the Ascension