Let go of your assumptions

You know what they say about assumptions? (If you don’t, I’ll let you look it up later. The words aren’t fit to come out of a pulpit). Today’s readings are full of assumptions. “Surely, this strong, tall, young man Eliab is the Lord’s anointed” thinks the prophet Samuel, but Samuel learns “the Lord does not see as mortals see, they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Samuel discovers the Lord has chosen the pipsqueak David. In Samuel’s defense, Goliath got it wrong too. Assumptions can get us into trouble. Assumptions keep us from seeing deeply.

Jesus’ disciples begin in today’s Gospel reading with an assumption: “Someone sinned, and this man had to be punished.” They assume a causal relationship between this man’s blindness and someone’s misstep, someone’s sin. That’s a big assumption. Jesus reframes. “This man was born blind so that God’s work might be revealed in him.” Jesus calls into question the whole relationship of sight and blindness, darkness and light, clarity and obscurity. Do you really see? Do you see? Are you sure?

Now I know, John milks every last drop out of Jesus’ metaphor today. That Gospel is long. We all had to stand up quite awhile for this one. You didn’t have to hold a big brass book while it was read. That book is heavy. The story is long. But I think there is value in hearing this spiritual truth from Jesus again and again: let go of your assumptions. When you think you see things clearly, look again. Are you sure? Do you have the vision all worked out?

Assumptions are dangerous. When we think we hold the truth, to the exclusion of facts, stories, and compassionate listening, we can cause a world of hurt to others and to ourselves. We all know this to be true. Many of us can recall a time when an assumption was made about us, or about our family. Many of us can recall a moment when we made an assumption and it served us badly.

A particular set of assumptions loom large in our country today, those assumptions are about immigrants. In the town where I grew up, the Latinx population was booming. As a teenager, honestly, there were a lot of jokes made in my circle of acquaintances about Mexican immigrants. The jokes masked a fear. The city was changing. The language was changing. Even 20 years ago there was a fear that the arriving immigrants were “taking jobs away from Americans.”

Now, the question of racism and ethnocentrism wasn’t exactly black and white (it never really is). My circle of friends included Latinos. Sometimes a racist joke would be told by someone with a last name like Ortiz. I could try to unpack the nuances, but then my sermon might be longer than the Gospel. Suffice it to say, the power of these assumed narratives was really strong, and they definitely shaped the way my friends and I saw immigration.

In college, I joined the tiny LGBT Pride organization on campus. Coming out at 19 was pretty early back then, especially on a Catholic campus. Joining Pride plays into my discussion about immigration and assumptions because the Pride group met in the United Front Multicultural Center. Every other grouping was based on race, ethnicity, or culture. Black Student Union, Asian Student Association, Filipinos, Pacific Islanders, Latino groups all had a space in the multicultural center.

One afternoon in my sophomore year, I was hanging out with a few of the other Pride Members by the little desk we had in the center, while the Association of Chicana Activists were meeting nearby on a circle of couches. (Chicano or Chicana is a term that some Mexican-Americans choose to identify themselves. The name connects to indigenous Mexican culture, and to the movement for liberation). As the Chicana group was meeting, I overheard a student relating a story through tears. She talked about how hard it was to fit in at our college, a majority white, majority wealthy school. Nothing overwhelmingly traumatic had happened, but she talked about the daily small indignities she faced, when someone mocked her accent, or asked if her parents were “illegals.”

Back then we didn’t have the term “micro-aggressions” to name this sort of thing, but I couldn’t stop myself listening in as she talked. On one level, I resonated. As an openly gay theology major, I often felt out of place at the Catholic college. I sometimes was made to feel out of place, by a professor saying something seemingly small and off-hand, or by a fellow student intentionally using homophobic language. Our experience was somewhat similar. But on another horrifying level, as she spoke I was becoming aware of all those jokes for which I’d laughed. I had said things similar to the anecdotes she shared, or at least I’d had similar thoughts. It was like the scales had fallen from my eyes, and I could see simultaneously that this young woman was my sister and that I had participated in causing her suffering.

That young woman and I later marched together on our campus as part of a student movement which created a new policy against hate crimes and bias motivated incidents on campus. We still talk every now and again on Facebook, when she has time. She graduated with honors and these days she’s a very busy organizer and activist in the Labor movement in Southern California. Many of you know that my experiences standing alongside Latinx people didn’t end in college. I continue to work against the narrative I inherited, but my working on my own interpersonal assumptions alone won’t cure our cultural blindness.

As a matter of policy, the United States government makes an assumption about migrants from Latin America. Unless they can prove otherwise, every person hoping to come to the United States from these regions are considered “economic migrants.” We assume, as a matter of policy, that they are coming to take a job. In 2014, a major wave of unaccompanied children and youth arrived at our Southern Border fleeing intensifying violence in their neighborhoods especially in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Our policy automatically considers these young people as economic migrants. Officially, we assume they are lying to get into this country for a job. We make that assumption of little kids. The fastest growing group of people being apprehended at our Southern Border are children under age 12.

Back in September in this pulpit, Noah Bullock from Cristosal, an organization in El Salvador told the stories of families fleeing death threats. Not long after Noah spoke, one of my favorite students from the year I taught English and Music with the Episcopal Church in Honduras, Charly, was killed by a gang. Charly once told me he’d like to come to the US, but he knew he’d never be able to get here legally, and he was too scared to come without documents. The gangs regularly threaten and extort migrants making their way up through Mexico. Hundreds are killed every year en route to the US. Charly feared for his safety. A group of gang members killed him and his girlfriend for his cell phone and motorcycle. Our national assumptions are wrong, and lives are at stake.

The Episcopal Church is running an Underground Railroad in response. Right now. In El Salvador the church has safe houses to get people out of harms way. Cristosal petitions for refugee and asylum statuses for those who are fleeing violence. It is clear to me that the Episcopal Church in the United States should be one of the final terminals of that railroad. We should be able to welcome those who flee violence. What isn’t clear is how we can make that happen. Politically we seem unable to shake our assumptions. In the 1980s pastors were driving across the Mexican border to pick up Salvadoran refugees without papers. A lot has changed since those days. As I said, the road through Mexico has become much more violent, and our immigration enforcement has intensified. I don’t know the solution. It’s not clear to me how we connect this railroad to safety here in the US, but I think we have to ask the questions.

As an aside, I don’t want to make you nervous about the trip we are taking to El Salvador this Spring. Sometimes assumptions can work in favor of our safety as North Americans. The gangs assume that groups coming from the United States are good for tourism, a growing industry in Latin America. The violence is directed at their neighbors. They go out of their way to ensure the safety of North American travelers. Cristosal has been hosting groups for more than a decade and has never had a more serious incident than pickpocketing occur to one of their visitors. I say this, not to help my point, but to reassure our group and their families.

Yes, El Salvador is a violent place. Holy Communion is sending a group to El Salvador, in part, because we want to ask: “teach us to see.” The way to move beyond assumptions is to listen, to look, as Samuel heard, “not at the outward appearance, but [at the] heart.” We are going to spend time with our sisters and brothers. We will break bread together. We will talk about the realities we face. We are considering this relationship with El Salvador, because as Christians we believe that we can only see the whole picture when we include diverse perspectives. When we can ask another human being: “how do you perceive this situation?” and we take the time to listen deeply, to get to the heart of matters.

Can I share with you a slightly irreverent reflection on this story? I was once talking about this section of John with a youth group, and a young woman stopped the whole group by saying, “That’s disgusting. Jesus took dirt and spit, and put it in that guy’s eyes?” It helps to slow down and listen to how a young person sees the Gospel at times. Admittedly, this story of healing, of receiving sight, is a little gross.

But somehow it strikes me, that this too may hold some wisdom. If we are to learn to see the world as Jesus sees the world, if we are to see one another as sisters and brothers, if we are to let go of our assumptions about sin, about status, about race, religion, orientation and creed. If we are going to make a real change to our nations immigration policies, to become a more welcoming nation. If we are to approach one another with a little more grace, the process is likely to be messy, like mud from spit and dirt.

God’s grace is in the mess. God’s vision, it’s for those of us who often feel stuck in the mud. In fact, according to today’s Gospel, if you have been feeling a little frustrated, a little stuck, a little blind lately, well that’s good news. You’re on the right track. We are the people who believe in the God who is with us through the valley of shadow and death.  God already sees you, and loves you, better than you can love yourself. God’s works will be revealed. Let go of your assumptions.

Do Justice.

Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon was the second woman ordained to the order of bishops in our church, and she used to say that Episcopalians love this verse Micah 6:8. “What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” Episcopalians love this verse, she said, but too often they get it backwards.

Episcopalians tend to LOVE justice, and DO mercy.

Isn’t that true?

I was at a meeting of leaders from around The Episcopal Church in Eastern Missouri this week. The room was a mix of ordained folk lay leaders telling stories about their church’s impact on the community. The questions that prompted the discussion was simple: “What difference would it make if your church no longer existed?” Who would notice? That was the question.

The stories told were largely about feeding ministries, school supply drives, rental assistance, clothing ministries. We do a lot of mercy in The Episcopal Church. Mercy is good. Love mercy.  But I wonder how many churches, how many Episcopalians, are doing justice. I know that I am more comfortable when I am doing mercy than when I am doing justice. I’m better at mercy.

Doing justice is difficult work. It’s costly. Justice takes time, and energy. Doing justice often involves tears and loss. Doing justice often means arguing with a neighbor, maybe in your street, maybe in your pew. Doing justice can be divisive.

Dom Helder Camara, a Roman Catholic bishop in Brazil, was famous for his work among the poor. He was also famous for his observation: “When I give food to the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why the hungry have no food, they call me a Communist.”

Justice and mercy are tied together. Mercy tends to immediate symptoms. Justice digs at the roots, at causes. Justice takes time. Justice takes patience. Justice can be infuriatingly slow and imprecise.

As we hear these words from Micah about “What the Lord requires” we are gathered after our Annual Meeting as a parish, a time when we look at our values, when we take stock. In my report to the meeting I talked about the ways we are meeting goals set by the vestry in conversation with members of the parish based on our three values: welcome, diversity, and community.

In the coming weeks and years, I wonder will our goals need to shift? The change in Washington is seismic. The tone of our national conversation has shifted so quickly. The world around us is changing and fast. What does this change mean for our goals, for our purpose, for our mission as a congregation? What does the Lord require?

A couple of thoughts, based on early observations:

Now, perhaps more than ever, our values matter. Together we discerned three values for Holy Communion. We value: welcome, diversity, and community. Creatively, our mission statement describes our church as a “welcoming and diverse community.” I wonder whether those words got more political last Friday. We are a people who pray in The Episcopal Church. We are a people of a prayer book, and that prayer book invites us to pray for our country, and our leaders. How are we to pray?

I will pray for our country in these coming days, these coming years. I will pray that we learn again to be community, that we heal the wounds of division sown through a long, embattled, and at times vulgar campaign. I will pray that we will come together as a community. In the words of our prayer book, I will pray that God might “break down the walls that separate us and unite us in bonds of love.” But if we don’t come together as a nation in the coming years, here at Holy Communion, our values require that we learn to come together, that we build bridges not walls. Here at Holy Communion, our value of community, a value that challenges us to build up the body of the church and reach out into our wider neighborhood, that value of community means that we must seek to bring people with different backgrounds and viewpoints together. We will break bread together, sacramentally, and over everyday kitchen tables. We will get to know our Muslim and Jewish neighbors. We will talk with people with whom we disagree. We will come together as community.

I will also pray that our country embraces diversity. The American people was never one race, one ethnicity. Americans are a people made strong by our different genders, orientations, abilities, religions, colors. We are stronger because we have so many perspectives. I will pray that our leaders embrace the full breadth of human diversity we are blessed with in America. But if our national leaders do not live into America’s promise, Holy Communion must continue to embrace diversity. When necessary, we will learn to check privilege. We will listen for the voices being silenced in wider society. We will learn to live together and see one another as sisters, brothers, children of the same God.

And I will pray that our country welcomes all. A year ago, I was at a rally for Syrian refugees here in University City. St. Louis is a city that has profited from an influx of new citizens. There were signs that said: “Bring them here.” We know what a benefit a refugee people can become for an area. We’ve been blessed by our Bosnian neighbors in recent years. Rabbi Susan Talve, of Central Reform Congregation spoke to the rally and said: America’s welcome to refugees is our BEST story as a nation. Those words on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” That is America’s Best story. I will pray our leaders tell our greatest story, our story of Welcome. But if they don’t, well Holy Communion’s story of Welcome may have to get a little bit bigger.

We’re good at welcoming strangers to our church. Visitors often tell me how people made sure they knew where to sit, where the coffee was. They were invited to Theology on Tap, or to the next Guild meeting. We are a welcoming congregation. But our welcome may need to get bigger.

I’ve spent most of this sermon on one verse from the prophet Micah. The Gospel is also one of the Bible’s greatest hits. The Beatitudes, Jesus’ surprising list: “Blessed are the poor of heart. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the peacemakers.” His list is so surprising. What we miss this morning in this well known list is the setting for Jesus’ sermon. Just two verses before Jesus sits down on the mountain with his disciples, the Gospel tells us: “So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them…When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down.”

Jesus’ words this morning, perhaps Jesus’ most famous teaching, the beatitudes are taught in response to his encounter with suffering Syrians. The irony is strong today, as our new president has declared Syrians are ineligible for entry to these United States. So I stand in this pulpit today, with the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, and leaders in every denomination I can count to say, this ban on refugees is unChristian. What does it mean to be a people who follow Jesus today? What does it mean to be a Christian who believes in “Welcome” today? I wonder if our church is being challenged to inhabit that value more fully.

Just this week, two of our parishioners started work on the house our congregation owns just behind the church on Gannon street. While we are in early stages of demolition, and planning, we are dreaming about whether that house might one day house a refugee family. What if “welcome” doesn’t just mean making sure a visitor to worship knows where to find a bulletin?

Maybe we won’t be able to partner with an organization to welcome a refugee family. That may be impossible in the coming years. Maybe our house will welcome an undocumented immigrant who has received a deportation order. Maybe welcome will mean coming with them to immigration court. Maybe we will welcome a mother who has escaped domestic violence. Maybe we will do justice when members of this congregation show up as character witnesses to help her keep her kids.

I will pray for our country in these coming years, and yes, part of that prayer includes praying for our elected leaders. The prayers we use here at Holy Communion have the form of praying for OUR President and OUR Governor by name. We pray for “Donald our President and Eric our governor” just as we prayed a few short weeks ago for “Barack our President and Jay our Governor.” We don’t shift the wording because the office holders have changed. Let me say one thing about why. I think the word “our” is important in our prayers.

As I said to you the Sunday after the elections: “Possessive pronouns are important in a democratic system. Possessive pronouns remind us to whom our government officials are accountable. The presidency does not belong to “him” it belongs to “us.” The Whitehouse is public housing. Our president, our governor, our elected representatives hold our government in trust, and they are accountable to us. We have a right to speak. We have a duty to dissent. We have a responsibility to hold our elected officials accountable.” The word “our” reminds us of our responsibilities around these office holders. Doing justice may find us in the streets and in the courts in the years to come, as we demand that our leaders, the leaders we pray for, hear our voices, take us into account.

I don’t know all of what will be required of us in the years ahead as we seek to do justice. I do know that members of this congregation are already asking important questions. I was amazed by the number of folks who showed up at the Women’s March, here in St. Louis and even in Washington DC. I was thankful for the group that gathered in our lounge last Sunday to talk about the “next steps.” We will continue to gather, and to welcome those from beyond our congregation who want to ask with us, “how can we LOVE mercy and DO justice?” I know that sometimes, you may need to push me as your priest. I am really comfortable doing mercy. But I get a sense that doing justice requires more.

I will say, by way of conclusion, that at least at Holy Communion, I fully expect that the years ahead will also include a healthy dose of of laughter, and of fun. You can’t go far at Holy Communion without hearing someone laughing. Whether it is the Guild giggling together over a funny observation someone made about the Bible or one of the books they are reading, or the youth playing flashlight tag and running through the hallways in the dark, there is a sense of fun in this church. I pray that the laughter continues as long as I serve as your rector. I have a sense it will.

As I typed up this sermon, I was wearing a bright pink hat with pointy ears, knit for me to wear in last weekend’s march by a member of our congregation. I look ridiculous wearing it, but it is warm. Even as we do justice, may we never forget to be playful. If our church disappeared, I hope part of what our neighbors would miss would be the laughter, the joy. I don’t just say that offhand. The last requirement from Micah is to “walk humbly.’ Laughing is key to humility I think. If you can’t laugh at yourself, can you really be humble?

As we seek to be a welcoming and diverse community, may we always be playful learners. May we continue to learn to do what the Lord requires: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.

Liturgy for Lent: Eucharist, an Introduction

Mike: We first met as we prayed at the fence on the US/Mexico border in Friendship Park. We were there for the Border Posadas in Advent 2006, holding hands with fellow worshipers across border and hearing “there is no room at the inn.” This was figuratively true for some families, torn apart by our immigration courts. I remember the night well, partly because of the long walk back. The border patrol had shut down the parking area nearest the fence that day. Your kids were really small at the time and we had hike about two miles across beach sand and scrub brush to get back to our cars. I was impressed that you would bring your little kids down to the border to pray for immigration reform, and with the people caught up in our broken system.

I bring up the fence as we talk about Eucharist because there I saw an image of Communion that has redefined what liturgy means for me. Even as we prayed the Posadas, the US government was planning to “enhance” the fence, to build a giant “triple layer” concrete wall complex. Everything about this plan felt wrong, especially when you had prayed with families separated by the fence. We joined a small group with The Rev. John Fanestil, a Methodist minister celebrating Communion through the fence. I will never forget the night we went. Passing the bread and wine to the other side was illegal (you can’t import food without a proper form), but the liturgy made our broken systems fade away. We stood in witness to a spiritual truth that felt deeper facing such a visible human boundary: We are one body. I’ve never been able to celebrate The Eucharist in the same way since.

Over the next posts we’ll talk about the liturgy of Holy Communion, also known as “The Lord’s Supper” or “Eucharist.” We’ll talk about some of the historic controversies, and we’ll talk about some “hacks” that have helped Eucharist come alive for us. But I couldn’t start talking about the Eucharist with Jason Evans anywhere but at the border. There are a lot of historic theological arguments about how Jesus is present to us when we celebrate Communion. None of those mattered in Friendship Park. When we passed that bread and wine to one another, through the fence, Christ was there, praying with us for healing between nations.

Jason: I’ve spent most of my adult life around young adults disenchanted with the Church. Many have experienced deep wounds from Christian communities. While these friends will go to great lengths to avoid almost anything remotely Christian, the Lord’s Table is a practice that I’ve seen many come back to.

Sorry to say it preachers but I think this has more to do with the actions of this practice than the words recited.

Each time we participate in the Eucharist, we re-enact the last meal Jesus had with his best friends. All of them, those that were faithful to Jesus and those that would betray him, shared in the same meal. No one was more or less deserving. When Mike and I first met, I watched bread passed through–and chalices pressed up against–a rusty fence. We all shared in the same meal. No one was more or less deserving. Through this sacrament, the same dignity was extended to two groups of people which our culture had stratified. Through this simple, routine act the beauty and scandal of the Gospel is exposed.

A few years later, I worked at a church in downtown San Diego that had a wonderful ministry to the urban poor. When we celebrated communion, women with beautiful big hats and men in expensive suits would approach the Table next to women and men wreaking of their own urine and vomit. They were welcomed equally to Christ’s table. Jesus makes no distinction. They each received the same treatment at the Table. They received the same bread and wine. It is a tactile example of the kind of life we are invited into as followers of Jesus. We’re reminded of our need to be filled with a kind of life that we cannot fabricate on our own. We’re reminded that we are no more deserving of that life than anyone else. We’re invited to this life, not as individuals but as a community. I’m fond of how The Message version of 1 Corinthians 10 speaks of the Lord’s Table:

“When we drink the cup of blessing, aren’t we taking into ourselves the blood, the very life, of Christ? And isn’t it the same with the loaf of bread we break and eat? Don’t we take into ourselves the body, the very life, of Christ? Because there is one loaf, our many-ness becomes one-ness—Christ doesn’t become fragmented in us. Rather, we become unified in him.”  (emphasis mine)

Mike: You can tell from both our stories, participating in Communion has had a big effect on our faith. I think it’s important to start with our experiences, rather than with abstract ideas. I’ll admit, since Friendship Park, Communion tends to make me nervous. It’s not safe. Invoking Christ, remembering his last meal, participating in his Body and Blood tends to get you into trouble. I pray that continues to be true.