Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
June 28, 2020
Exodus 2:23-25, and 3:1-16; Matthew 10:39-42
Where are we supposed to stand? How are we supposed to stand? With whom are we supposed to stand?
Standing is one of the unique characteristics of our species. It sets us apart from most other mammals. Even the kangaroo needs the support of its tail to stand still. Even among primates, we are the most erect. Our posture gave us the free use of our hands and allowed the evolution of binocular vision – forward looking. Standing allows our species to reach out to others, as well as grab and go, to hold on tightly – for good or ill, to bear another’s burden, or to bear arms. Standing reinforces the illusion that we are disconnected organisms – that somehow, we can stand alone. Standing reinforces our competitive nature, and we grant more respect and power to those who are taller – whose posture is more upright. Even our language about moral behavior reflects this. To be upright means to be just, righteous, and correct in our relationships with God and neighbor. Standing also introduces some vulnerabilities. We are quick to forget the wake we have left in our passing. We tend even to overlook the world in which we currently stand. Our eyes and thoughts often dwell on what is yet to come. If we dwell on the past, we are bound to trip. If our eyes are only on our own footsteps, we miss the grand vistas of sky and horizon. To kneel is to defer. To stand is to defy. To kneel is respect. To stand is proud.
In his encounter with I AM WHO I AM, Moses is not instructed to kneel or bow down in the divine presence. Moses is called off his path to stand – on holy ground. And as if to say, “you belong here on this holy ground,” I AM WHO I AM instructs him to remove his shoes, to plant his feet in that place, and to stand in connection with earth from whence he came. Moses came to be in the wilderness of Midian as an immigrant and a fugitive. He had witnessed cruel injustice at the hands of the Egyptian police against a Hebrew slave. In the heat of his outrage, though not so heated that he neglected to check for bystanders, Moses beat the officer to death. Did Moses know of his birth heritage? The text is unclear. What is clear is that he had time to stop and reflect on his actions. Even if he only had eight minutes and forty-six seconds, there were many moments when Moses could have chosen to stop. His secret couldn’t keep. He had to flee. Now he has been called before the divine messenger. Was it a reward for his deadly protest against injustice? Or was the mission God imposed on him a punishment for taking the life of another beloved child of God? Either way, God seems to be saying to Moses, “You don’t like the injustice you see. I don’t like it either. Let’s do something about it. Go back and stand before the emperor.”
This is the model of leadership that Moses’ descendants were longing for when they encountered Jesus. Someone who had the impulse to act. Someone who would stand up to the empire. Someone who would end the suffering of occupation. Jesus wasn’t that kind of human. Jesus did not seek to overthrow the empire intending to establish another in its image. Instead, Jesus sought to infect the system with a new virus – working with agents so small they could barely be seen. The tenth chapter of Matthew is the instruction manual for these agents about to be sent out into a hostile world – a world that seeks stability at any cost – even the cost of its very soul.
In Matthew, Jesus often calls his followers the little ones – those of short stature. He does not attempt to minimize the risks or challenges they face in doing this counter-cultural work. Matthew foreshadows the great parable of the sheep and the goats here, indicating that wherever the little ones are met with hospitality, are treated as human, even in such a simple gesture as a cup of cold water, they are standing in the right place. When strangers treat strangers with grace, grace will come to them. The culminating advice for the disciples about to set out to do what disciples do was this: “You’ll know you stand in the right place when those who greet you offer you something both simple and life giving – a stance of humility and hospitality. Go, and do likewise. You may not have all the answers – or any of them. But you have the power to heal – to make and be human. To stand – Jesus style.”
The culminating invitation to mature discipleship offered by Rolheiser in his book Sacred Fire: A Mission for a Deeper Human and Christian Maturity is this: “Stand where you are supposed to be standing, and let God provide the rest.” [i] As with his elaborations of many of the other invitations, I am not thrilled with this one. For one thing, it seems to imply that we can “stand” on our own – that it’s a matter of individual posture – that what really matters is our individual kindness to strangers and not where we stand as a society. This is in part how we fall into the trap of protesting that we have black friends, that we don’t see color, that we do not use racist language, that “all lives matter.” But, as we have seen, our society is not a friend to people of color, our vision of humanity assumes the normativity of whiteness, our habits and speech are riddled with microaggressions, and, in fact, all lives do not matter to the whole of us. Rolheiser acknowledges the fragility and vulnerability of human life. Standing in the right place cannot keep death at bay – which reminds us despite our upright posture that we remain mortal. Indeed, at times, standing in the right place leads directly to our demise. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Oscar Romero – standing with those bowed down by the weight of poverty, violence, and racism. They stood shoulder to shoulder with them, defiantly speaking truth to power. They were assassinated precisely because they stood in the right place. It’s not safe. It’s sacred. It’s holy ground.
Rolheiser also suggests that, despite its inability to protect us from mortality, standing in the right place and leaving the rest to God is enough. Well, it may be enough if a first-class ticket out of this weary world is the goal. That is an exceedingly small vision. It’s much too small to warrant the beauty, diversity, and agency that God has granted us. I say, we could each individually stand in the right place and still not stand together in the right place. We could all agree, and still be wrong. Jesus granted to those who follow him the authority to expel unclean spirits, and to heal sickness and disease of every kind. One disease, Covid-19, has helped to unmask a very deep sickness of our soul – what has been called America’s original sin – racism. It’s not a sickness that we merely happened upon – that we wandered into – though in its origins, many were distracted by the promises of manifest destiny and the illusion of sovereignty. We have been duped. We have duped ourselves. In addition to our unique ability to stand, our species has the proclivity to turn away from that which unsettles us. We want to entertain more pleasant notions of how well some masters treated their slaves – as if that is enough to heal the atrocities of the slave trade, the tyranny of lynchings, the injustice of Jim Crow laws, the outrage of redlining, the crime of poll taxes, the extraction of capital from human beings, and the continuing school to prison pipeline. Enough. We want to say enough. We want to stand as human together and declare “Enough.”
This is the last Sunday of my fourth year as pastor here. I’m among the most blessed of pastors. I’ve been granted the opportunity to stand with you for another year. As I prepared for my arrival here four years ago, I had three BHAGs – big, hairy, audacious goals. One was to help this congregation take another step toward environmental sustainability. Now, we have decided to begin raising capital to install a solar power array and a more energy efficient heating system. It’s not because of my authority that this is happening. I am merely the disciple who was greeted here with a cup of cold water. The second BHAG was to address the lack of affordable housing on the island. Well. That’s not going to happen any time soon – though I have offered our hospitality to those who work to bring more housing options to fruition. Instead of housing, it’s been adequate food and nutrition that we have stood to support and now we are inching toward standing shoulder to shoulder with the food bank to become a place of humble healing and hospitality in our community. It’s not because of my authority that this is happening. I am merely the follower of Jesus who was greeted with a cup of cold water.
As if those were not audacious enough, my third big, hairy, audacious goal was to address systemic racism in this least racially diverse zip code in our state. And here we are – having been plunged by the spirit of the times neck deep into the cold water – awakening yet again to the deep entrenchment of systemic racism. As followers of Jesus – a person of Afro-Asian descent, whose ancestors entered the land not as slaves, but as occupiers, but a land now occupied by a militaristic, class based empire – where are we supposed to stand? How are we supposed to stand? With whom are we supposed to stand? Our conversation in the divine presence and on holy ground may begin with reparations. As a congregation we might consider reparations to the descendants of slaves whose flesh was capital in constructing the global economy. We might consider real rent to the descendants of the native peoples who considered this place home when our ancestors arrived?
If we stand up to this challenge, if we address America’s original sin in a meaningful and lasting way, it won’t be because of my authority that this is happening. I am merely the follower of Jesus who was greeted with a cup of cold water. The humble, healing, human stance of the follower of Jesus is to arrive empty handed – not having all the answers, ready to accept the cup of cold water, and to stay for the conversation without predetermining its conclusion.
“Stand where you are supposed to be standing, and let God provide the rest.” [ii] This culminating invitation to mature discipleship brings us full circle. Show up. Pay attention. Cooperate with God where Spirit is moving. Release the outcome.
Stand – Jesus style.