Saturday, September 12, 2015

Jesus asks, Who do YOU say I am?....

It’s never been easy, or simple, for me to answer the question that Jesus asks the disciples,
“Who do YOU say I am?”

I’ve often wondered, “Who is Jesus to me?”

Messiah. Savior. Redeemer. Jesus. 

These words are heavy baggage in my lexicon. 

As a child I was taught about “right” and “wrong” and that God was counting every infraction. What I heard was, being a person of faith was all about “following THE rules.” The rules were not necessarily the ten commandments, and I didn’t even hear about the greatest commandment to love God, love self, and love neighbor, until I was an adult. What I learned was God was counting my sins and holding every one of them against me. So I better follow the rules or else.

My response to the idea that God was counting my sins and keeping track of every one of them, even the one’s that stayed in my head and were never said out loud or acted upon, was to try and be absolutely perfect.

As if perfection is possible.

The effort to follow the rules in order to be perfect meant that I was unable to have a full understanding of myself. Life is much more nuanced and gray than black and white, and no matter how simple and small and risk free one tries to live there is no way to live without every making a mistake or a bad decision or treating other’s poorly for time to time. 

The church of my childhood taught me that Jesus was the perfect example of someone who lived by rules and never sinned. Jesus was perfect. 

It’s no wonder I had a complicated relationship with Jesus. I became my own worst critic, nitpicking and anxious over the slightest infraction, or denying that I ever did anything wrong -  because  I was trying to keep score, I was trying to get to Terri, 100% perfect, God, 100% pleased.

The end result is that I was keenly aware of, ashamed of, and disappointed in my self and my inability to be perfect. I was insecure and felt unworthy. Not that I could talk to anyone about this. It was easier, so I thought, to go on pretending. Ultimately this kind of thinking was not good for my faith life, nor was it good for my relationships. As I matured I began to realize that the stereotypical Christian messages popularized in the media, some of which I had learned as a child, did not mesh with the way I experienced God. As a child God felt very present to me. God felt loving and kind, accepting me in all of who I was good, bad, whole, broken. It was Jesus who was the problem, at least the Jesus I was taught about. Mr. Perfection himself. I kept my distance from him, from that Jesus. 

I was in my thirties when I began to hear the human side of Jesus coming through the Gospel texts. I was astonished. Maybe, just maybe I could follow that Jesus? 

In the reading from Mark today we hear this same struggle, the disciples, especially Peter, struggling to understand the human and the divine natures of Jesus. Peter thinks of Jesus as the Messiah, meaning, from the human perspective, Jesus is going to have power and authority, he’s going to over throw the Roman government with a grassroots movement that will change the world. Soon the disciples will all be wealthy government officials serving a wealthy emperor king named Jesus! 

But Jesus defines both his humanity and his divinity differently. Being human is not about perfection nor is about a narrow and rigid obedience of rules. Being human and living as Jesus teaches us is about love and compassion. It’s about understanding that suffering happens, we all suffer. Living from that place of love and compassion, we walk together into the abyss of despair. Jesus’ death is not about redeeming a sinful people because God is keeping score. Jesus death redeems sinful humanity because through Jesus God enters into our brokenness and suffers as we do. Jesus suffers with us. 

There are so many places in the world today where God is pleading with people, begging humanity to reveal God’s presence in the world through acts of love and compassion. At our worst we humans reject the broken people and a young refugee baby drowns, his photograph reminding people every where of the cost of selfishness. At our best, when we push Satan aside, push aside that which pulls us from God, and instead stand with signs and welcome refugees, the poor, and the marginalized, into our churches and communities, giving them clothing and shelter and food. When did I see you hungry, naked, and I gave you clothes and food? When did I see you, Jesus? 

Jesus reminds us that we are to follow him, take up our cross, deny ourselves. Taken literally these words have been used to justify suffering. Women in abusive relationships - it’s their cross to bear. People who are poor and suffering - it’s their cross to bear. Justified suffering minimizes what people have to do in response. We don’t have to wonder how our life style has contributed to the corporate greed that impacts the global economy, the world’s political state, or the environment. 

For those whose selves have already been denied by systems of oppression and violence, is “self-denial” really good news? 

What is the life that needs to be lost in order to be saved?
Consider what it would mean if people were no longer greedy or selfish and the impact that would have on the world.  Consider what it would mean if we none of us ever had to experience feelings of being unworthy and unloveable. 

Denying one’s self is not about accepting suffering. We are to deny that part of ourselves that we think is unloveable, that part of ourselves that world tells us deserves the suffering we are experiencing. 

Living as I was when I was trying to be perfect, when I could only see myself as good or bad, that too is a self that Jesus is asking us to deny. 

These are all false selves, built on artificial concepts and values that deny what it means to be a human being, so loved by God that God took on human flesh to be like us.

 Living a full life, one that embraces one’s whole self, means that we look at our failures and our successes, at what makes us good and the ways we are not good, and accept that together these make us whole. When we see ourselves fully, when we have compassion for ourselves, when we embrace the brokenness inside, we can begin to have compassion for others. To take up one’s cross, to suffer with another as Jesus suffered with humanity, is to put one’s self in another’s shoes, to walk their journey, and to feel their pain, and to help in anyway we can, because we acknowledge that we live this same broken life. This is life that Jesus is calling us too because he lived it too. Jesus knows us to our core. 

Who are you Jesus? 

You are me. You are you…and, you…and you…

(a reflection on Mark 8:27-38 for Proper 19B)

Saturday, September 05, 2015

The Syrophenician Woman: Pondering Racism and Reconciliation

This week our Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and our diocesan Bishop Wendell Gibbs invited all Episcopal Churches to participate in an ecumenical movement to work toward ending racism. We were asked to dedicate this day to pondering the sin of racism and how we can work for reconciliation.

Many years ago when I was in seminary the students and faculty had to participate in an anti-racism workshop. At the time anti-racism training was a new concept. One common refrain from a number of seminarians was, “I am not racist.” We all wanted to believe that and to believe that we really wanted equality and justice. The thing is, blatant racism is easily recognized and usually met with outrage, but more often racism appears in subtle ways, so systemic to our institutions, culture, faith, and politics that we fail to recognize it.

For example Christians often speak of the “dark night of the soul.” It’s meant to describe a desolate time when God feels distant and life feels particularly difficult. How we use the word “dark” has a way of reinforcing the idea that dark is bad, anything dark is bad and that influences how we perceive dark skinned people. Conversely it is also true that darkness is where life begins, darkness is where God often appears, darkness is transformative.

Here's another example. Years ago Dan and I were looking to buy a house. While house hunting I had the impression that one house, based on the lingering odor of cooking spices,  was owned by an Eastern Indian or Pakistani family. I remember having a visceral response, like the house was “dirty” and then thinking, that’s a racist response - I would not have had that response if the odor had been cinnamon and apples for example.

Have you ever thought about the messages we receive that perpetuate the subtle forms of racism? For example, have you ever noticed that the “bad guys” on television or in movies are almost always the person of color while the white people are heroes?

Now, all these years later I find myself pondering, again, the phrase, “I am not racist.” I don’t remember, but I think in seminary I was one of the people who raised my hand to this statement. Now I’d never say that, I’ve learned more about racism and the subtle ways it rears its head in me. 

The Bible offers us a few examples of God and of Jesus being changed by the human condition. Both Abraham and Moses argue with God and eventually change God’s mind. In our reading from Mark, Jesus encounters a Syrophenician woman, she is dark skinned, of a race that the Hebrew people of the day perceived to be outcasts and dirty. Jesus brushes her off and tries to ignore her plea. But she won’t be ignored, she speaks up, and ultimately changes Jesus’ heart and mind. The story of the deaf mute which follows shows us what happens when one is opened up, when we begin to see and hear, when we recognize how we are blind and deaf to the prejudice that lives within us. Most of us do not want to be racist, but we need to be open to the reality that we are, its part of the human condition, and we need to be willing to become aware, grow, change and move beyond our prejudices in all the ways they manifest. 

To that end Bishop Gibbs has invited us to participate in a task force on Race Relations and Diversity. In response we are hosting a meeting here at Christ Church on Saturday, Sept. 12 from 10am until noon.

Of this initiative Bishop Gibbs writes: “My hope for the Race Relations and Diversity Task Force is that it will lead the diocese in our corporate ministry to respond to the disease of hate that continues to infect our country through all the “isms” and “phobias” – racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc. and move us toward an ethic of respect and gratitude for the incredible beauty of God’s full and diverse creation…”

I hope all of you will make an effort to attend this event on Saturday and learn how you, how we, can take an active role in this diocese to help heal the brokenness in our world, and therefore how we can be the hands and heart of Christ in the world. 

Reflecting on the readings for Proper 18B

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