011622 Epiphany 2 ML King Day
There is Still Abundance when all looks like Scarcity
Isaiah 62:1-5; I Cor. 12:1-11; John 2:1-11
We talk a lot at St. Athanasius about how to bring unity and justice to this country. We’ve struggled with how to speak uncomfortable truth to friends and family whose beliefs we consider destructive. Fear of being partisan makes us shut down rather than be present. This is antithetical to a Gospel that calls us to courage and hope. We want to trust and implement our beliefs and connect with those who propose things that don’t make sense. But connections that come from lack of integrity, authenticity and justice aren’t connections at all.
Dr. King struggled with this. But he taught that the balance between unity and justice must always be slanted towards justice. Unity must never be achieved at the cost of justice. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he used “order” rather than “unity”: I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers negative peace which is the absence of tension to positive peace which is the presence of justice.
What are some challenges we face?
- The Supreme Court decision on vaccine mandates in the workplace reflects a larger disunity: What would bring unity amidst such disagreement?
- Novak Djokovic, the tennis star at the center of some of the most divisive debates of the pandemic: science vs. quackery and individual versus community.
- How to assure voting rights: Is the filibuster a vehicle of unity that should be upheld with the same devotion as voting rights as a vehicle of justice, especially racial justice?
- Families balancing forgiveness with justice, Domestic violence, hurtful secrets revealed, unfaithfulness
Today’s scriptures invite us into the both/and, offering hope and guidance to this challenge. Isaiah and the Gospel speak of hope. Isaiah offers hope to Israel, You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate… you shall be called ‘My Delight Is in Her’, and your land ‘Married’. Our land is also desolate. Poisons float in the air, toxins flow in streams and lakes, and chemicals pollute the soil. Many who live on the land are forsaken because of injustice. Isaiah tells us it doesn’t have to be that way.
The Gospel also offers hope by inviting us to believe that, even if the wine has run out, the party doesn’t have to be over. Even when it looks like scarcity is winning, there is still abundance. And it’s not just pie-in-the-sky or kumbaya. It’s genuine hope.
Some of us heard a reflection on hope last week by the Rev. Gray Temple, who said that being realistic about what we’re facing is a precondition for hope. That distinguishes hope from optimism, which doesn’t traffic well in realism. Hope does. But to be hopeful and realistic requires courage. For example, we don’t know what we’re facing with Covid. Will we get past it or will it become chronic? Some of our divisions arise from that unknowing. People respond differently to the unknown.
It takes courage to walk in the dark, face the unknowing and act when we’re not sure what we’re doing. Our conversations after Sunday services are acts of hope and courage: we face reality without knowing what to do. Courage demands that we do anyway–that we move beyond talking. Last week I attended a webinar of a group of white people talking about how they are walking in the dark but acting with hope in the pursuit of racial justice. They call themselves SURJ – Stepping Up for Racial Justice. I saw them as signs of hope.
But the Scriptures don’t just offer hope; they offer guidance.
- I Corinthians teaches that one can only proclaim that Jesus is Lord by the Holy Spirit. In the first century, those who proclaimed “Jesus is Lord” were directly affronting the Roman Emperor. It was difficult. Such a claim could lead to imprisonment and death. To say Jesus is Lord required courage. But some people didn’t just refuse to say it. By their actions they worked against it. Paul writes: No one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says, ‘Let Jesus be cursed’. Perhaps there was a counterforce in the Corinthian community, actively working against the Christian movement. Is there such a force in this country working against the Spirit of Jesus? Paul says the Spirit is about unity. If you are the cause of division, you are cursing Christ and therefore not speaking by the Spirit. Of course, each side can claim that the other side is causing the division, so we need something else too.
- That something is a criterion to discern Jesus is Lord from Jesus be cursed to distinguish false unity from true justice. Paul calls that criterion sympheron, a Greek participle translated both as “common good” and “bringing together”. “To each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for bringing together” suggests that God gives people good, diverse, gifts to carry out God’s ultimate purpose in creation: to gather up all things in heaven and things on earth.
We seem to have lost both meanings in the U.S. Are people who stand up for social and economic justice today in effect saying, “Jesus is Lord”? Do they promote the common good? Few things frustrate North Americans more than the failure of elected leaders’ to work toward the common good, especially when they won’t even debate what that common good is.
- Paul wanted the Corinthians to begin with who they were: You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. We all have other influences in our lives. The Corinthians came to Christianity from a background of religious idolatry. They must take that background into account as they discern the true Spirit of Jesus. They could do that because the beginning of their faith journey was supported, empowered, and made possible by the Spirit.
- In the story of the wedding at Cana, the first sign of Christ was missed by most—if not all—of the people who benefitted from it. They just knew there was some good wine around, not that it had been produced by a miracle. Jesus went about his purpose invisibly, without much show and need for credit.
- In using the jars for purification, Jesus turned a tool for meeting an obligation under purity law into a giftof blessing and celebration. That’s an image that reveals his entire purpose for being on earth. Where there was law and obligation amidst scarcity, Jesus transforms old ways with new wineskins.
The way the white folks I heard in the SURJ webinar were stepping up for racial justice follows what these Scriptures encourage us to do. They are balancing unity and justice as they work with their own people with understanding and compassion that only they can bring. In that way, they offered a different option than racism to people who were vulnerable to being recruited into a racist movement.
- They start with where they came from and where they are, to make sure everyone is included, and acknowledge what led them to be and do what they are and do.
- They insert themselves among those who are vulnerable to those who say Jesus be cursed. Instead of judging them, they held the pain that made them vulnerable so they could be freed to follow the path of racial justice.
- They are willing to be invisible like Jesus was in They trust black mentors like Malcolm X who told them: “Where really sincere white people have got to do the proving of themselves is not among the black victims but out on the battlelines where America’s racism really is, and that’s in their home communities.” So they went home where they are invisible, and are doing that work, because that is where they can best contribute to the common good. Being white doesn’t guarantee they will be well received. But they’re willing to take that risk.
- As Jesus used pots intended to fulfill a ritual obligation to instead give a gift, so these witnesses listen to people who look like them, but have never been listened They show them that they are gifts. Instead of telling them that they have an obligation to be like everyone else, they let them be who they are. They offer an alternative to being recruited to a racist cause by honoring their pain.
Friends, we dare not celebrate this ML King Day merely repeating his words. It’s time to do our part in fulfilling the dream. May we find the humility and courage to be faithful witnesses.