Sunday, November 13, 2016

"You will be given the opportunity to testify"

Before I preach anything else today, there are two things I want to say: “I love you,” and even more importantly, “God loves you.”

We have in the scriptures today two passages about response to national trauma. In Isaiah, we have an incredibly beautiful vision of the new heaven and new earth, written after the people of Israel had been conquered and sent into exile in Babylon and returned about 70 years later. The arc of Isaiah is clear: suffering comes to people, but if you wait with faith, restoration will come. It will be OK.

And then in Luke, we have a passage written for a people in the midst of national trauma. The temple has been destroyed. Violence is reigning. No one feels safe. And people don’t know what to do. Life has not been made right, things are not OK, when Luke is writing his Gospel. You notice how the Good News is different for people when they are in the midst of trauma vs. when they have come out on the other side of it?

So Luke’s Jesus preaches that the temple—the central institution of the people of Israel and the focus of their worship—despite all its size and wealth and history, is going to come crashing down. And there is going to be war and violence, and false prophets, and fractured families, and the people who call on the name of Jesus will be arrested and brought before civil authorities. Life is going to be awful.

This is intended as good news, because the people who are hearing it recognize themselves in Jesus’ words. And it has some comfort: “Do not be terrified…” Jesus says, because by the time it all comes to pass, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

But the verse that has haunted me in this passage all week is: “…you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify.”

Where are you willing to go for the sake of Jesus’ name? And what will your testimony be?

Last week in his convention address, Bishop Dietsche outlined a series of apolitical Christian values that we uphold in the Episcopal Church as followers of Jesus. When Bishop Dietsche is on, he’s on, so I will read them word for word:

“The equality and dignity of all persons of every race and gender and sexual orientation, for we are every one of us made in the image of God and redeemed by the One who took our flesh upon himself and dwelt among us. Who said, "I came that all may be one, as the Father and I are one."

The welcome of the stranger at the gate, remembering that once you were strangers in Egypt. And more recently, immigrants on the American shore. Christians claim solidarity with the oppressed, the vulnerable, the refugee and the outcast who stand at the gate and knock.

Compassion and relief for the poor, and economic justice for those who are shut out of the human possibility of the abundant life, all in the name of the One who said, "When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Because they cannot repay you."

A commitment to non-violence, and to peace, and to the sacrifice of self-interest for the sake of that peace. Render to no one evil for evil. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

And the gracious stewardship of creation and all that God has given into our hands.”

Those are truths to which we are Christians are called to testify. No matter who you voted for on Tuesday, every time you see a woman, a queer person, a person of color being harassed, that is an opportunity to testify. That is Jesus reaching out to you and asking, “Are you with me?” Every time you hear someone advocating violence, that is an opportunity for you to testify. Every time you hear someone denigrating the full humanity of our Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters, that is an opportunity for you to testify.

And testifying comes at a cost. I know I’m going to have some tough conversations with family members over the next few months—I already had one. I have spent the last year trying to find the courage to speak up more often, but I am recommitting myself, out of my faith in Jesus, to risk those relationships, with people I love, because I dare not stand by silent. Jesus says today, “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends” and he knows whereof he speaks—remember what happened when Jesus himself went and preached in his home synagogue? They tried to throw him off a cliff.

And I know there are probably some people here who believe those concerns are overblown—but hear me as your priest: friends and friends of friends have been harassed this past week in ways that are emboldened from the week before. A threatening and vulgar note on the windshield of a gay priest; a head of an Episcopal School at a conference I just attended who had to go contact parents after an incident of white students at his school harassing students of color; Asian friends of friends having people come up to them on the street and say “go home.”

Which is not to say that this is in any way new—I was reminded this week that it was only in 2000 that the state of Alabama amended its constitution to allow for interracial marriage. And do you know how many Alabama votes voted against that amendment? 40% . Sixteen years ago, 40% of Alabama voters believed that marriage between a black man and a white woman should not be legal. So this is not new. But it is emboldened. Harassment of students of color in schools is real. Painting swastikas on buildings is real—just last night here in NYC at the New School. Someone driving down the Deegan in the Bronx flying a Confederate flag on the back of their truck earlier this week is real.

What would Jesus do in this reality? He wouldn’t deny it, and he wouldn’t be silent. And he would stand with those who are harassed and oppressed and violated, as he did while he was on earth. These are all opportunities for every one of us to testify.

And I don’t know—yet—how we can find the places to have the learning and conversation that so clearly needs to transpire between urban and rural people in our nation. I don’t know how we can gather people in a space that is sufficiently safe for everyone to listen to each other. As a woman, I struggle with having to have the same conversations over and over about why I am fully able to be a priest; I’ve gotten to a point after all these years of just avoiding the situations in which I need to have the same conversation for the millionth time. And if some guy grabs my ass in a bar, I do not attempt to have some sort of constructive “learning conversations” with him. I get away. But somehow, Jesus wants us to find ways of having those conversations, and maybe the church is one of the few places where we can find space to have them. I hope so. I hope we can figure out how to do that. If I didn’t believe in Jesus, I don’t know that I could believe in the conversion of hearts. But I follow Jesus, and that’s what he did over and over again—he called the people you wouldn’t necessarily want around and changed them. So I keep my faith.

Per the New Consecration Sunday guidelines, I was supposed to be giving a stewardship sermon today, and talking about giving as a spiritual practice. The Good News today demands something different. But I will point out that this Gospel passage describing the destruction of the temple immediately follows the story of the Widow’s mite. It when Jesus calls attention to the generosity of the poorest of the poor that people start to talk instead about how beautiful the building is and Jesus breaks the bad news: the building is coming down. But that widow’s generosity is not in vain, even if the building does come down. Because that widow gave because of her relationship with God, and no building can get in the way of that.

The last few days, wearing a safety pin has been one way of identifying yourself as someone who will be a safe companion to people who are afraid right now. I have some ambivalence about whether this is just a way for white people to feel better about themselves. If you wear a safety pin but you don’t testify, you’re missing the point. But if you need to wear one not just as a witness to other people but as a reminder to yourself of your charge to testify to your faith, then please… wear it.

Jesus speaks a lot in the Gospel of John about “abiding” with his disciples. He is with them, dwelling in them and through them. That concept of abiding with people is so important, and that’s what those safety pins mean. Here’s a full testimony from someone who has been advocating for them:

If you wear a hijab, I'll sit with you on the train.
If you're trans, I'll go to the bathroom with you.
If you're a person of color, I'll stand with you if the cops stop you.
If you're a person with disabilities, I'll hand you my megaphone.
If you're an immigrant, I'll help you find resources.
If you're a survivor, I'll believe you.
If you're a refugee, I'll make sure you're welcome.
If you're a veteran, I'll take up your fight.
If you're a LGBTQ, I won't let anybody tell you you're broken.
If you're a woman, I'll make sure you get home ok.
If you're tired, me too. 

If you need a hug, I've got an infinite supply.
If you need me, I'll be with you. All I ask is that you be with me, too.

We have work to do. A lot of work. But we will do it together. And by our endurance, we will gain our souls.