Phillip and I experienced something of a “kitchen disaster” this past Christmas. We had been dealing with a pesky small leak under the sink, which seemed to keep popping up despite multiple visits from the plumber. Then, we noticed some warping of the floor, which rapidly became a major rupture as the wood floor buckled. Knowing we would have to at least replace the floor, we called our insurance company, which resulted in a quick response and an assessment that there was a major problem. The day after Christmas, a team came in to tear up the floor, revealing that a considerable amount of water has been seeping into the underflooring, causing damage to the cabinets and the possibility of mold. So out came the countertops, the cabinets, the sink and dishwasher, reducing more than half the kitchen to a holy mess!
Now, this is admittedly, as they say, a “first world problem.” It’s nothing in comparison to loosing your entire home in a fire or mudslide, not to mention not having a kitchen at all. Insurance will cover most of the cost, and in a reasonably short period of time, things will be restored to the way they were before. But I mention this story because it brought home the awareness of how even a relatively minor amount of water can do a tremendous amount of damage, particularly when it insinuates itself in hidden places and does most of the damage before becoming visible. Which leads me to the subject of racism.
I understand that the people of St. Peter’s have been well-schooled about racism—past and present—in American life. St. Peter’s has taken a strong commitment to confront the overt and covert forms of racism which burden our social good and the lives of many individuals. This is a perspective which is true for our Diocese and the Episcopal Church in most quarters. I’m sure most of you are familiar with the arc of racism which begins in years past with forms of discrimination which were legally and socially sanctioned, allowing for the preservation of slavery, then Jim Crow laws, and the restriction of certain populations from entering our country as immigrants based on skin color, country of origin or other facets of ethnic identity. In more recent years, it was possible to remain somewhat in a cocoon of liberal enlightenment which believed that overt forms of racism were all but extinct and that we were clearly on our wat to a “post-racial” society. But as I’ve learned over the years through conversations with people who were not represented by the dominant white culture, racist attitudes never went away. Prejudice continued to seep into the underflooring of our society, usually not being recognized or acknowledged by many, particularly those in positions of power and authority. Then, more recently, the floor began to warp. We started to pay more attention to the almost routine excesses in altercations between police officers and black males. The Southern Poverty Law Center, among other advocacy groups, educated us about the proliferation of hate groups around the country, and we began to witness more, and anxiety related to the role of immigrants—legal and illegal—and their effects of the “complexion” of our national culture. Then, along came Donald Trump, and the floor buckled! Suddenly a kind of polite veneer has been stripped off, exposing a good deal of rot underneath. And the nation isn’t going to be renovated any time soon.
It’s always a bit dicey to get political in the pulpit. People have different opinions and affiliations, and it’s always bad to presume that even a convivial commodious group is all of the same mind on any topic. But on the eve of the celebration of the legacy of The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and in the shadow of the latest racially tinged eruption of the President, it seems impossible not to take an unambiguous stance against the prevailing racist attitudes which have come to dominate our consciousness. Donald Trump, or course, continues to masterfully dominate the news cycle by saying and doing all sorts of things which probably exasperate a good many of us. But it is his racial attitudes which are perhaps at the top of the list of insidiousness which both defines the man and infects our social order. Writing in the New York Times this week, Nicholas Kristof focused on the heroic death of PFC Emmanuel Mensah, who recently died while attempting to rescue neighbors in his burning apartment house in the Bronx. Mensah was 28 years old, and came from the West African country of Ghana. He has joined the Army National Guard and was home briefly from training when the tragedy occurred. Kristof used this story as an example of the kind a people who are so casually maligned by stupid and mean-spirited remarks of the kind made routinely by Trump. And even if Trump didn’t say exactly what he was reported to have said, his actions speak loudest of all. He is spearheading an unprecedented purge of immigrants of all stripes and situations, from Haiti to El Salvador and beyond. He has undermined the security of the “dreamers” who had been given hope of a more secure existence in our nation. The list of sins goes on. And he is not alone among the political elite who are implicated in these problems. People have legitimate concerns about the complex issues of immigration policy and border security, but rather than address these concerns with intelligence and compassion, our government has chosen to regress to a primitive appeal to our worst instincts as human beings.
So, what would Jesus do? Well, here’s what he did. From the very beginning, the infancy narratives remind us that the divine intention on our behalf was up against any number of obstacles, in particular the opposition of those in power such as Herod who sought to have innocence destroyed. Later, it would be the established leaders of religious and political society who could not accept who Jesus was. Yet, through all of this, light confronted darkness, and God’s glory showed forth. The story of the calling of Philip and Nathanael is placed here in the Epiphany season because it represents another dimension of the revelation of God’s presence through the actions of Jesus. So, who did Jesus call to be his followers?
Well, not really the best and the brightest! With some exception, the earliest followers of Jesus were not the “movers and shakers,” not the well-established, the academics, the politically shrewd or even the most religiously literate. You might say that the first disciples were somewhat simple folk, somewhat naïve, and really had no idea what they were getting into. Yet the call of Jesus is not merely random, and in the calling of Nathanael we can see something significant. Jesus recognizes Nathanael as being “without deceit.” Another word for this might be innocent. In this context, it doesn’t mean he was without experience of the world, or even morally pure. Rather, he was an Israelite who had the capacity to be truly open to what God might be doing, not compromised by prejudice or other foregone conclusions. By recognizing this quality in Nathanael, he in turn can recognize Jesus. I believe this is a common theme in the calling of all the disciples, a kind of mutual recognition in which Jesus sees the other for being truly who they are, which in turn allows the other to truly see Jesus.
If we are feeling powerless and angry in the face of powerful ignorance and brutality, we are not only having the right feelings for the circumstances but also a taste of what those who are most vulnerable to the abuse of power feel almost all of the time. Yet we are still called to achieve a kind of innocence regarding God’s call to us. This doesn’t mean that we avoid or deny our own defenses, moments of cynicism or even complicity in sustaining the less-than-optimal forces of our dominant culture. But by striving for a continuing receptivity to God’s presence and God’s call, we might find the ways in which we can be both consoled and effective in doing what is right.
I have to keep reminding myself that kitchen projects always take longer, and cost more than you expect. So too does the project of social justice. So, we need sustenance for the work and the journey. Open and receptive hearts and minds nourished by everything we proclaim when we celebrate eucharist together. And the paradox of a kind of holy impatience along with the equanimity of the long view in which we are committed to the Gospel of hope, recognized as disciples, and pulled forward by God.