Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 14B
Bishops' Best, by Pastor Kinsey
When Bishop Wayne Miller joined the Moral Monday IL movement three weeks ago, he came downtown, dressed to the 9’s, to make the most of his office and calling. He wore his rabat vest and Pontiff-three collar with his large gold neckless cross, underneath his best bishop’s black suit. But rain was in the forecast so he brought his umbrella, not the new mini-compact-spring-loaded kind, but one of those large, long umbrellas, that golfers use! And for good measure, he also carried a rain coat.
The bishop planned to join the other clergy and faith leaders who were willing to risk arrest by joining in holy Civil Disobedience. It was his first time, and talking about it made him smile, more than any other expression. He was proud to do it! He told us that he was wanting to make this witness for a long time, and he was glad for Moral Mondays, that this was the perfect opportunity.
The theme on that day was, Camel through the Eye of a Needle, based on the gospel story of the Rich Young Ruler – the one who comes asking Jesus for his blessing as a candidate for the Kingdom of God. A nice guy, but all he can think about is securing his privilege. ‘Follow the 10 Commandments’ Jesus told him, just like everybody else. But still, he was unsure, so “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he went away grieving, Jesus told the crowds, “it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter into the kingdom of God.”
As the storm clouds gathered, the bishop was ready. When his turn came to address the crowds at the Moral Monday rally, he said, “Under the best of circumstances it is not easy to get a camel through the eye of a needle. But I can tell you for sure you’re never going to get it through, if you’re not aiming in the right place…if you’re off the mark! The primary and only purpose of good government,” the Bishop said, “is to defend the life and well-being of the most vulnerable in our society.” And this Budget is off the mark!
The gospel of Mark reading today takes a revealing turn, for Jesus and his followers. Jesus shows his hand, in his hometown, and is rejected for it. Why? Because he is forming a new family and community, not based on his biological, family, and clan, and religious hierarchy, but on inclusive house-churches of radical hospitality. It includes the poor and oppressed as equals, not just as tokens, but as the basis of the realm of God, the empire of the faithful here and now, as a choice, an alternative to the empires who continued to use privilege, to keep the poor, the meek, the merciful, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, down, oppressed and excluded.
After Jesus is rejected in Nazareth, he left his hometown and his family – and to some extent his religion, for this is the last time in Mark’s gospel that he goes to the synagogue. Jesus sends his disciples – his new family, clan and religion – out to begin the mission of forming new house-churches and communities of faith.
Bringing together the poor and the privileged in the church, is no easy task. Even when the privileged try to their best to ‘walk the talk,’ we have been known to miss the mark.
Bishop Miller did not know – when he put on his bishops’ best that morning – that his civil disobedience, if it resulted in arrest, meant he would have to give up all his possessions. He had not been able to attend the training meeting with the others, and this was his first time. When Kim and I described what would happen, he decided he might as well give his umbrella to Kim, because, looking like a weapon of a sort, it would be the first to go. The rain coat he wanted to hold on to, however. Not just for the threatening rain clouds, but he planned to use it, to sit on. The pavement was already damp from an earlier shower, and he needed something to protect the trousers of his expensive suit. But the Bishop was determined. Whatever privilege he had to give up after they put him in cuffs, he was ready for it. And as he sat on Randolf Street in protest with the others, the rains came pouring down.
The Apostle Paul wrestles with this, giving-up of his privilege, when writing to the Corinthians in the 2nd Reading. He is able to boast of having much, he says. As an Israelite and Pharisee, he was at the top of his profession and religion. As a follower of Jesus, he was called by the Spirit of Jesus himself, and he had had visions of the third heaven, of Paradise, given to him, that would prove his higher status. But he gives it all up for Christ, who told him, “’My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me…;” says Paul, “for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
Even if many of us cannot identify with Paul’s strengths, still we can get the point he is making. The grace of God, and the vision of Paradise, can only be given to us as a gift. We cannot earn it or steal it away. Yet even in our weakness, we are loved and desired by God. As Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber said at the last ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans 3 years ago, “This God [of ours] will use all of you. And not just your strengths, but your failures, and your failings, and your brokenness. …God's strength is perfected in human weakness. So your brokenness is fertile ground for a forgiving God to make something new and to make something beautiful. So don't ever think that, all you have to offer is your gifts."
Last Monday was my time to participate with six other clergy and lay leaders, in a Moral Monday civil disobedience, including Pastor Emily, Rabbi Rosen, and Epworth United Pastor Carol Hill. It took prayer and preparation with them, and yes, a willingness to sacrifice my privilege. It is not just that I stand with the poor and ask the rich to pay their fair share that motivates me to risk arrest. But that Jesus asks us to build the realm of God, to go out and heal and anoint the sick, to let the oppressed go free, and exorcise the evil spirits that are at the root of all that works against the kingdom of God.
The communities of faith that Jesus sent us out to build, are radical safe-houses, and churches, that are in some ways like other counter-cultural movements, using what we used to call, guerilla tactics, for instance. But what makes us different, and nothing like them, is our radical hospitality and openness. We are not covert, but welcoming to all. We are not forceful, but non-violent. We are not dogmatic, but open to a wide variety of beliefs. “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you,” said Jesus, “as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” We are completely vulnerable and dependent on the hospitality of strangers. It doesn’t mean we don’t have an agenda, and clear values, of course, or that we shouldn’t be pro-active in our mission.
When I was arrested – maybe not as smiley as the bishop was – I used some of my solitary jail-time in prayer. One thing I prayed about was for the opportunity to use my privilege for good, and for change, being intensely aware of friends like Ralph, who don’t have such privilege. At CD training, Ralph asked for a time-out to thank us for what we were doing, because he would love to be there with us. Only he couldn’t, due to his prior arrests. Ralph, a former gang leader, and now a Cease-Fire worker, a family man and church goer, spent years in jail. He would not be accorded the same privilege of being released from jail, after a just a few hours, like myself, and the others with me were, and he couldn’t risk that because of his wife and 2 little boys. My favorite Marshall at our Moral Monday actions is Ralph, and one of the best at helping to keep everyone safe. I prayed my sacrifice might be one small step of solidarity between us, and our communities, and a sign of hope for Ralph, that we can bring the realm of God just a little closer.
I thanked God for our bishop and his first step of CD, that it might be a large witness, because of the office and his greater risk of privilege, and even for Kim for so graciously offering to hold his golf umbrella. I gave thanks for the hundreds of others who joined in the protest, including 3 more from Unity. And I prayed for all of you, for Unity Lutheran Church, that we may be the community of Christ in mission for our neighborhood. And I prayed for our governor and legislators, that they may be moved by the radical hospitality of our movement that I believe is founded on the one who risked all his privilege – family, clan and religion – and gave up his very life, that our neighborhood, and community, and world may know the realm and empire of God, and renounce the greed and neglect of an immoral budget.
Jesus is calling us to risk our privilege as a church, and to build a community of believers that includes everyone in our neighborhood. How do you hold together those of privilege, with those who have too often been oppressed and exploited? What has to give? What has to be protected? Who is welcome, and how do we do it? Who do we need to stand up to and shake their dust off of our feet? Why is it important to always continue inviting?
Jesus trusted his followers to build this community, the church, and gave us authority to do it. Why not us? Why not now?!