Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Courage to Love

The #NoJusticeNoDeal Campaign calls for police reform in San Francisco

For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.   – 2 Timothy 1:7

Last January, the annual meeting of our congregation voted unanimously to become a member congregation of Faith in Action Bay Area (FIA).  FIA is a network of more than 100 congregations and community based organizations working together to promote justice and human dignity in communities across San Francisco and San Mateo Counties.   This decision followed the recommendation of a team of St. James members who have been exploring a partnership with FIA since 2014.

Often, when we talk about faith based community organizing, we talk about what we do (work on particular issues or campaigns) and how we do it (educational forums, voter engagement, meeting with public officials, press conferences, protests), but we rarely talk about why we do it.  We fail to address the heart of the matter.  Different people may explain why they do this work in various ways, but for me it boils down to this:  I want to love more courageously. 

The summer of 2013 was a turning point for me.  In July, a Florida jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of the murder of Trayvon Martin.  I had paid attention to the case, because it touched on my own fears for the safety of my son, then 15 years-old, who could easily have been Trayvon: a black kid living in a neighborhood where many people might have thought he didn’t belong. 

I was appalled that an unarmed 17 year-old could be stalked and shot dead with impunity.  When the NAACP in San Francisco called for a rally outside of City Hall to protest the verdict, my husband and I attended.  It was a pitiful rally in terms of turnout; less than 100 people.  Few of the participants where white, and I was the only white clergy person I could see.  I knew black folks who had showed up for immigrant rights.  I knew black folks who had showed up for marriage equality.  Who was showing up for them?  That was when I knew that I had to start showing up.

I showed up because I love my son.  All organizing work for justice is rooted in love.  Who or what do you love enough to fight for?  I realized I had to have the courage to stand up against racism if my love for my son was to have any meaning.  I needed folks who could help me to find that courage and express it in ways consistent with the energy of love.  That is how I found my way to Faith in Action Bay Area, organizing for justice and human dignity.  Justice is what love looks like in public.

After Ferguson, Missouri was disrupted by the murder of Michael Brown, I traveled there with other clergy from FIA and heard the stories of people in that community.  I began to make connections.  What began as an impulse of love launched me into a web of relationships I could not have otherwise anticipated or imagined.  Coming home, I began to hear stories of people in San Francisco directly affected by the racism of the criminal justice system. 

As I listen to the stories of people living in contexts different from my own, I begin to see them.  Their stories changed my perception of the world.  The first revolution is internal; a softening of the heart that allows us to absorb more of reality. I was disrupted by their pain and struggle, and by the acknowledgement of my own privilege; together, we began to imagine the possibility of a world without racism. 

This is what faith-based organizing work is fundamentally about: building relationships, building the beloved community across the usual divides of religion, race, class and gender.  My internal conversation about who I love developed into conversations with other concerned parents of children of color; which grew into a team of people building trust to fight against racism in the criminal justice system; which expanded into a base of people, a movement working to change laws and implement police reforms.  Finally, it had to include elected officials who have the power to make change.  We had to talk with them to learn how to leverage our collective power to make the changes we needed to protect our kids. 

This is basically what Jesus did his entire ministry.  He got clear about God’s will for him and the work he was called to do in the world.  He traveled all around the Galilee listening to people’s stories, coming close to the pain in their communities.  He gathered a team to make change, to teach, and to heal; to turn despair, isolation, and fear into a powerful community.  He engaged the religious and political leaders of his day in often difficult and even confrontational conversations.  In solidarity with those he loved, he was executed by the state for resisting evil.  And from his sacrifice, he gave life to a movement that is still setting the world on fire with God’s love.

Faith based community organizing is about finding the courage to love.  It isn’t about this or that issue.  It isn’t even about winning.  It is about building relationships so that we can claim our power as the people of God, who has not given us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power, and of love, and of self-discipline.  We can become the people we need to be, so that we can realize God’s dream for the world; if we have the courage to love.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

An Unexpected Anointing

The baptism of Sarah Fedaie, St. James Episcopal Church, San Francisco

The author of the Gospel According to Mark ends with the story of an unexpected anointing.  Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome come to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ dead body.  Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome – say their names with me – Mary Magdalene, Mary and Salome – they are the only women disciples of Jesus who are named in Mark’s Gospel.  This means we need to pay attention to them.

They were part of the group of women who had accompanied Jesus throughout his ministry in Galilee.  They supported the movement he was organizing, and followed him along with the crowd who had marched with him triumphantly into Jerusalem just a short week ago.  Jesus had chosen the Passover Festival, the annual celebration of the Jewish people’s liberation from oppression in Egypt, as the time to occupy the Temple and shut it down.   It was to be his final confrontation with the authorities to protest the sacrificial violence of the Roman Empire and in support of the alternative to empire:  what Jesus called the Kingdom of God.

Then, it all went wrong.  Jesus was arrested, tried on trumped up charges, and executed by the state with the full-throated support of a mob carefully cultivated by the authorities. Jesus died outside the gates of the city, crucified between two insurrectionists, a punishment reserved for the crime of sedition.  Jesus’ support for the victims of the regime’s greed and violence, his nonviolent advocacy for a new form of community based on justice and dignity, was perceived to be too great a threat to go unaddressed.  Jesus had to die because he resisted empire. 

The disciples – the twelve men in Jesus’ inner circle – betrayed, denied, or abandoned him.  The previously supportive crowd turned against him and became a lynch mob.  Perhaps Jesus had failed to meet their expectations of a violent revolution.  At any rate, it was only the women who persisted, witnessing his crucifixion, death, and now burial.  Their coming to the tomb was in its own way an act of resistance.  It was forbidden to provide victims of crucifixion the normal burial rites to honor and remember the dead.  Unjust regimes are in the business of making bodies disappear and obliterating memory.  But the women refused to forget, despite the pain and the risk.  They defied the authorities one last time and brought spices to the tomb to anoint his body. 

In this very act, we see the seeds of an alternative memory of Jesus that contradicts the official record.  The minority report that would become the Gospel According to Mark was born in this refusal to accept business as usual.  But in that moment, I suspect that Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome were just trying to find some closure, some relief from the trauma they had suffered.  They came to anoint Jesus. 

Imagine their shock upon discovering that the stone was rolled away and the tomb was empty.  There was no body to anoint.  Even the dignity of burial, the usual rituals of grieving, was denied them.  This was when the crack in their world really came apart.  There was nothing left to hold on to.  They had finally hit the wall.  And in that moment, rather than anointing Jesus, it was they who received an anointing. 

It was an unexpected anointing, and not particularly welcome.  It would have been so much easier if the body had been there.  Then they could have grieved, and raged, and lamented – let all out and let it all go.  They could have moved on, holding their pain and their resentment inside like a tight little ball, said, “Well, at least we tried,” admitted defeat and called it a day.  Sometimes, it seems so much easier to just give up.

But instead of leaving behind a body, Jesus left behind a messenger who said, “Don’t be afraid.  Jesus has been raised; he is not here.  He has gone ahead of you back to Galilee; just as he told you.  Tell the other disciples to meet him there.”  When someone tells you not to be afraid, you probably have good reason to be afraid!  Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome were terrified – and amazed – scared into silence. 

They came for a funeral and received an anointing; commissioned to share the good news that Jesus has been raised and has gone ahead of us.  He isn’t an inspiring memory, a painful loss in the past, but rather the one who opens a way to the future.  But to get there, Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome must go back to Galilee, to the place where it all started.   They must go back to the beginning, pick up the pieces, and renew the movement for justice and dignity that Jesus continues to empower through his Resurrection life.  The thought of starting over terrified these women – at first.  They got over it, else we wouldn’t be telling this story.  Scared silent at first, just as the empire hoped, they eventually found their voices.

The Gospel According to Mark refuses to make Resurrection easy.  It isn’t all rainbows and unicorns or Easter bunnies.  It isn’t about skipping down streets of gold hand in hand with Jesus after we die.  It is about being willing to choose life when it would be easier to give up.  Resurrection is about being vulnerable enough to allow who and what we love, and the love of Jesus for us and for all, to empower us to keep on keeping on. 

Mary Magdalene and Mary and Salome came close to the pain in their community, the pain in their own hearts, and it brought them to their knees.  But they got up again because the tomb is empty.  There is no future there.  Jesus has gone ahead of us and is calling us to catch up. The Risen Jesus is the triumph of sacrificial love over sacrificial violence, but we aren’t done yet.  There is so much more life and so much more love left to share. 

You would do well to be a little afraid to discover the tomb is empty.  Meeting the risen Jesus is not a get out of jail free card.  It is an anointing to continue the work of love and justice that Jesus was just getting started.  It is more likely to be a go directly to jail card.  I imagine Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome could identify with a story that Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber tells.

Nadia is the founding pastor of the House of All Sinners and Saints, a new expression of church in Denver.  She is not your usual pastor – unafraid to sport really cool tattoos and speak, shall we say, in the vernacular.  Content warning for the next part of this sermon!  Anyway, she recalls Andi, a radical young queer woman, raised Unitarian, who started hanging out at All Sinners and Saints.  

One morning Andi called up Nadia and said, “Hey Rev, I need some pastoral care.”  “Sure,” said Nadia, “what’s up?” “I think I’m having a crisis of faith.”  Nadia thought to herself, “Huh, I wonder what a crisis of faith looks like for a Unitarian,” but set a date to meet for coffee.  When they sat down together, Andi said, “I think I’m starting to believe in Jesus.”  Nadia just shook her head, “I am so sorry.  You’re, like, really screwed now.  Sometimes Jesus just hunts your ass down and there is nothing you can do about it.”

That is what encountering the Risen Jesus is like.  It can turn your world upside down.  Just when you thought you were comfortable, or at least willing to accommodate your discomfort; just when you thought you’d arrived, or decided to give up; Jesus hunts your ass down and you have to go back to Galilee and start all over again.  The difference is that held in the loving gaze of the Risen One we know we have everything we need.  No matter how challenging it may be, God’s anointing is sufficient.  God isn’t done with you – or us – yet.  The movement Jesus inaugurated is still in need of recruits.  The work for justice, human dignity, and now care for the planet still goes on.   That is the church’s work, the work of the movement Jesus continues to empower. 

The Resurrection of Jesus from the dead is not the end of the story, all tied up in a nice bow.  It is just the beginning.  Mary Magdalene, Mary and Salome persisted to the end – and beyond – to a new beginning.  They persisted and so must we.  That is what it means to share in the Resurrection life of Jesus.  Amen.