Tuesday, November 20, 2012

What can we expect? How can we prepare?

I had the privilege of being in Knoxville, Tennessee, last week to conduct an Anti-Racism Training, a Train the Trainers workshop, and a conversation with the Diocese of East Tennessee's Anti-Racism Commission. Fellow trainer Pamela Kandt from Casper, Wyoming, joined me. We were blessed by wonderful Southern hospitality from the people of East Tennessee and glorious fall weather. Below is the sermon that I preached on Sunday morning at the Episcopal Church of the Good Samaritan. Of special note was the Alternative Gift Market presented by many volunteers of Good Sam to encourage their fellow church members to give Christmas gifts that also bless numerous charitable and relief organizations throughout the world. If you're interested in learning more about the highly interactive and very current Anti-Racism workshops that we conduct, email me at lelandalee@gmail.com. 

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Mark 13:1-8

As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" Then Jesus began to say to them, "Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, `I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs."

            Thank you for welcoming me to Good Sam this morning, to share with you a message of difficult times, new beginnings, and hope. I have been here since Wednesday night and had the opportunity to spend Thursday evening, Friday, and Saturday with a group of diocesan leaders who are working on addressing racism, racial justice, and transforming unjust structures in society. We were blessed to be hosted here at Good Sam for our Anti-Racism Training and Train the Trainer workshops. Thank you for sharing your wonderful facility with us.

            Let the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable to you, O Lord, redeemer and light of the world. Amen.

            Once again, in today’s Gospel, Jesus’ disciples, Peter, James, John, and Andrew have a private conversation with Jesus, and in their typical, anxious way, they want to know, “What can we expect? What will happen? Tell us.” Jesus is foretelling the destruction of the temple, but not just the physical building of the temple where not one stone will remain upon another stone, where all will be thrown down. He is also foretelling, again, the soon-to-come testing and persecution of his followers and his own impending Passion.

            I imagine, if I were a follower of Jesus, who knew him personally like the disciples did, that I would be anxious, too, to learn of the good news that Jesus is promising. What is the silver lining among the brooding storm clouds, if all I’m hearing are stories of the impending disaster and destruction of the things that are beloved of many, like the temple in Jerusalem, or closer to home, like the shoreline communities in Staten Island, Long Island, and Atlantic City, being wiped away and the familiar neighborhood landscape being changed forever.

            In the verses that follow where we leave off in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says to the disciples even more alarming and frightening things:  “‘As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, . . .’” That’s sort of like the news of a week and a half ago, when the East Coast learned that another storm, this time, a snowstorm, was on its way, and through the national media, we saw photographs of already decimated, not yet cleaned up shore areas covered in white snow, and we knew that most of those areas still were without power, which meant no heat, no hot water and no hot food, and in some cases, no clean, potable water.

            Jesus warns his disciples that they must beware of the promises of false messiahs and false prophets. Don’t fall for messages from those who will lead you astray, that will make you think there is an easy or cheap answer to the hard work and suffering that must follow. It is in this chapter of the Gospel of Mark that Jesus admonishes his disciples to “Keep alert” to the traps of shortcuts and false hopes, because only God the Father knows when and how things will turn out.

            I think that keeping alert and staying awake are about being prepared, not just physically prepared with all your disaster supplies wrapped in plastic and stored in high places against the possibility of flooding and lack of power, but also prepared by being spiritually grounded in Jesus and being relationally grounded in his Body. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the disciples abandoned one another and Jesus, falling asleep and leaving the few who remained in the garden alone to face the soldiers who came to question them and to take Jesus away.

            I think that we, generations after the disciples’ time, are called to be relationally grounded in our portion of the Body of Christ, to be present and alert to one another within our contexts, both local and global, to help one another weather the war and conflict, the natural disasters, and the human-created ones, that are our life on earth together, until we are brought to the realization of the reign of God. Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross was followed by his resurrection, which we celebrate each Sunday with Holy Communion. Jesus’ promise is that he will come again in glory, which we remember in the words of the Creeds.

            Jesus is the silver lining in the clouds, the hope that we seek, and we, through our baptisms, are His proxies to one another. The Anti-Racism curriculum, which I have designed and keep continuously updated, is grounded in our baptismal vow “to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” In our Anti-Racism Trainings, our goal is to help open the doors and windows of our souls so that we can learn some practical tools for living into “respecting the dignity of every human being.” That is our preparation to respond to the Gospel call that is Mission Mark 4 of the Anglican Communion’s Five Marks of Mission, which were adopted by our General Convention in 2009 and which form the basis for how we approached our budgeting for the churchwide organization at this past July’s General Convention, and which calls us “to seek to transform unjust structures of society.”

            As a member of the church’s Executive Council, which is the governing body between the triennial General Conventions, I have the privilege of chairing the Joint Standing Committee on Advocacy and Networking for Mission. Our standing committee has been charged with the responsibility for overseeing the work that the church will engage to seek to transform unjust structures of society as they relate to the alleviation of domestic poverty, relying upon the strong network of Jubilee Ministries and other peace and justice initiatives throughout the church.

            One of the key truths we know about unjust structures in society is that many of them are premised on the false notion that some people deserve privilege and power over other people because of the color of their skin or the country of their families’ origin or the myriad of other “isms” like homophobism, sexism, ageism, ableism, classism, etc. Through our baptisms, as members of the Body of Christ, we promise to be Jesus’ hands and feet to interrupt and to dismantle unjust structures in society. We are called to pray, study, and act together wherever we encounter injustice. Our preparation for the work of racial justice comes from doing the study, having the difficult, awkward, and sometimes pain-filled conversations, and doing the soul-baring self-reflection, that are found in Anti-Racism workshops, in community with our fellow church members.

            A critical issue in the unjust structures of the U.S.A. is what is called the “New Jim Crow.” Author Michelle Alexander, a civil rights attorney, wrote a book bringing light and attention to this critical topic in early 2011, called The New Jim Cross: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

            Did you know:
·      That there are more African Americans under correction control today – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began?
·      That the United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid?
·      That in Washington, D.C., three out of four young black men (and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison?

            The causes of this are structural, institutionalized into the legal system and rules and regulations of daily life – into the structures that organize how we live together as a society. Here is a brief list of the leading causes of the structural, institutionalized racism in our U.S. criminal justice system:
·      Zero tolerance policies in schools that rely on policing authorities to handle student discipline where we used to have in-school authority and intervention;
·      Minimum mandatory sentences and three strike rules versus judicial sentences;
·      The fact that 90% of criminal cases are plea-bargained, which leads many innocent people who are the poorest to plead guilty when they’re not, because they can’t afford adequate legal representation and they can’t afford the risk of threatened long-term incarceration versus plea-bargained shorter sentences;
·      Unfairness in sentencing, with the sentencing for pure cocaine versus crack cocaine exemplifying the disparate sentencing for those in higher economic circumstances than those in lower economic circumstances;
·      Private prisons run by for-profit corporations that negotiate occupancy quotas into their contracts with states;
·      Employment barriers that involve check-box discrimination for those convicted of non-violent misdemeanor offenses;
·      And high parole fees, fines and non-dischargeable restitution judgments.

            Jesus warned his disciples to beware of false messiahs and false prophets. He told his disciples to “Keep alert.” I think those two admonitions of Jesus to his disciples in the Gospel of Mark have particular resonance for us, as I reflect on what the Anti-Racism workshop participants learned and reflected upon this weekend here at Good Sam. I invite you as followers of our merciful and forgiving Lord, Jesus Christ, to beware of the false promises of safe communities wrought out of the institutionalized, structural racism of a broken criminal justice system that is badly in need of reform and that is built upon the crushed hopes and dreams of everyone associated with that system, both the perpetrators and the victims of crime.

            Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked Jesus in today’s Gospel, “What can we expect?” and “How do we prepare?” I think we must follow the advice that Jesus gives in His New Commandment in John 13:34-35, which tells us to love one another as Jesus loves us, because by this, we will be known as Jesus’ disciples. That is the standard to which we must aspire and attempt to live into. In the Old Testament, in Micah 6:8, the instruction is to “Love Justice, Do Mercy, and Walk Humbly with Our Lord,” and surely, no one has ever lived up to that instruction as fully and completely as Jesus in his compassion for sinners, his healing of the sick and the sick-at-heart, and in his obedience to God the Father even unto death. If we profess to follow Jesus, we can do no less than to also “Love Justice, Do Mercy, and Walk Humbly with Our Lord.” Amen.

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