So where do I start? My head is spinning.
In our gospel:
Jesus says, “Do not be afraid” (three times!)
Jesus says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”
Jesus says, “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you heard whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” Jesus says, “even the hairs of your head are counted.”
Jesus says, “whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
AND meanwhile, from our Old Testament lesson, Hagar and Ishmael are out in the wilderness, hungry, dying of thirst, abandoned (having been thrown out by Abraham because Sarah was worried about her child Isaac).
Here is what I hear today.
To follow Jesus is to enter onto a dangerous path. For it is a path that is grounded in justice, shalom (the true meaning of peace). Jesus would have been right along with protestors shouting “No justice, no peace.” And we as church people, we as the “church,” can’t detour off the path because it is dangerous, because it is difficult, because it is wearying. That’s why Jesus says, “take up your cross”—because we can’t think that following Jesus, following in the way of God, is ever easy. Different people have different crosses; in different times the cross looks differently; but, make no mistake about it, doing justice isn’t easy, following Jesus isn’t easy; peace/shalom doesn’t come easily.
For some of us, the cross of this time, is being willing to be vulnerable. Those things that have been talked about just in safe circles, need to be talked about out loud. Those things that have been whispered need to be heard by those who have ears to hear—and even those who don’t. The time has come for speech.
For others of us, the cross of this time, is recognizing that we have, unwittingly or not, been a part of the system. We have been willing to give some people the benefit of the doubt, and not others. We have been blind and deaf to the shouts of our brothers and sisters, to the death after death after death of our brothers and sisters. We have tried bandaids, we have patted ourselves on the back because we don’t act like that, we don’t talk like that, we don’t think like that.
And I listen to the story of Hagar and Ishmael out in the wilderness, crying out to God, and even though Sarah, the chosen one, is the aggressor, and even though Abraham, the blessed one, goes along with the plan, God hears the cries of Hagar, the cries of Ishmael, and God provides water and life. And I hear Jesus saying “for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.”
Why is Jesus saying these things? Why give the “give me justice or give me death” pep talk? Because Jesus has just commissioned the twelve to go out into world on his behalf. They have all been traveling around in a pack—listening to Jesus teach about what is “blessed,” watching Jesus heal: lepers, a centurion’s servant, the Gadarene Demoniacs, a paralytic, raising a little girl, and healing a woman who touched his garment, healing two blind men, and one who is mute. But now, Jesus is sending the twelve out, with very little other than their faith and God’s grace. Sending them out as sheep into the midst of wolves—so, Jesus says, be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
Jesus says “Do not be afraid,” because there is much to fear. Whenever you are doing the work of justice, there is much to fear. For the powers and principalities created the status quo, they like the status quo, and they are willing to protect the status quo. But do not be afraid. Because God hears the cries that come not just from the deserts of the Middle East, but from the streets of our very own country. God sees into every heart. God knows the private images that float through our minds. If you are afraid of Big Brother, then watch out for God! Because God counts the hairs on your head—God knows what’s what. And what does God REQUIRE? Justice, mercy, walking alongside the Lord.
Now is not the time to stay behind our closed doors, or shelter in place in our religious enclaves. And I’m not talking about being stupid in the midst of a pandemic. I’m talking about opening our eyes, opening our ears, opening our mouths, opening our hands, opening our lives—to hear and see and touch and taste and feel what work God has for us to do.
There is more than enough work for everyone. There seems to be a movement, dare we call it a Spirit, abroad in our land. It isn’t just about the police; it isn’t just about the names of schools and army bases; it isn’t just about the continuing devaluation of black and brown lives, black and brown education, black and brown housing, black and brown pay for “essential” jobs.
The groundswell of justice does seem to be raising all boats. Because we have had this week: the recognition that gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender folk shouldn’t be able to be fired for a choice about who they love. We have had this week: the insistence from our highest court that the “dreamers” be supported in their quest for some sort of immigration reform from our Congress. We have had this week police chiefs and towns deciding to take a look how police forces are operating, and how we want them to be operating. But these are small droplets from a vast ocean of need.
I know that when Essex County came to West Orange this week, to hand out 1000 boxes of food (which they do at a different site every single week)—the lines of cars snaked down Main St. and down Washington St. and ½ hour after the “appointed” time, all 1000 boxes were gone.
I know as I drive around Bloomfield, and Montclair, and West Orange, there is building—of luxury apartments, do you notice? I understand that people who build need to make a living too—but where are the people going who used to live in the neighborhoods that are being demolished to put up these new luxury apartments?
I know that as much as we would like to think that we can “open up” and “go back” to the way things were just a few months ago, I worry about those who have not been seeing a paycheck, those who might not have jobs to go back to, those who are trying to figure out what to do now.
So how do we “take up our cross”? How do we figure out what we are called to do—in this place, at this time? I wish I had a 10 point plan that would make it easy, that would assuage the dis-ease (or anger) we may be feeling. Well, actually, I don’t. Dis-ease is the correct response to actually sensing injustice. Dis-ease is the correct response to knowing that things have to change (and that change needs to start with our own thoughts and actions). Dis-ease isn’t intended to be prayed over, or confessed, and quickly dispatched.
I think the “cross” that Jesus is offering us, is the journey towards being a better “beloved community.” The disciples were sent out as emissaries of Jesus himself. And maybe they were sent out because there is nothing like having to do it yourself to learn and deepen and grow.
This problem of seeing one another clearly; of respecting each and every child of God; of being willing to let go of some of our privilege; of being willing to take responsibility for moving in the right direction; for prayerfully, thoughtfully, intelligently, and honestly starting to talk, and act, and live into the new world that we may be glimpsing being born.
Do not be afraid, says Jesus.
For even as God counts the hairs on your head, also God cares for you as God cares for each sparrow. As the wonderful gospel hymn says, “Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come, Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heav’n and home, When Jesus is my portion? My constant Friend is he: His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me; His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me. I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free. For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.”
May we keep on singing, keep on marching, keep on working until we all are free, until we can put down the heavy weight of injustice and truly proclaim peace, Shalom has come.
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.