Yesterday I got lost in a place I’ve been to hundreds of times. After nearly two months of taking walks in our immediate neighborhood, I took my black lab, Sally to Magnuson Park. Before the pandemic, we walked and Sally swam and chased balls and rabbits there at least 2 or 3 times a week. I thought we’d followed every trail and explored every corner of this very large park that used to be the Sand Point Naval Air Station.
It turns out we’d never been on the back side of Promontory Point. I didn’t even know there was a backside, but we turned down a trail and found ourselves winding through dense forest and undergrowth. This was an area that had never been developed. It was clearly not a well-used trail and all the rain had turned the ground muddy and slippery. When the trail started running along the top of a 50-foot drop off, I looked around for a tree branch to use as a walking stick for stabilization and to help me keep my balance.
I was suddenly unsure and anxious. What if I slipped, fell and strained or broke something? What if Sally or I accidently slid off the edge? She was off leash; what if we got separated or she went ahead and encountered something dangerous? I was creeping ever more slowly as the trail narrowed and narrowed until we finally came up against a chain link fence. Sally had already figured out that she could race down the fence line, and she was running back and forth, trying to urge me on.
But I’m no longer young, strong and supple, so I had to cling onto the fence and branches as we descended the steep bank off the hill. I was cautious, nervous, unsure of where we might be going and how to get there safely. I stopped for a moment and Sally came racing back to me. She was grinning from ear to ear as only happy dogs can. She had mud splashed up her legs and her fur was still wet from the lake. Once she made sure I was all right and coming along, she took off through the forest at high speed, leaping over downed logs, sliding around corners and having a blast.
She led me down the hill and into a meadow that was full of large white and yellow daisies. The sun came out briefly and the sight of my lively, beautiful dog in the middle of a field of wildflowers took my breath away. Fear turned to joy in that moment and I experienced a deep well of gratitude.
Lately it may seem that we’ve become lost in a familiar place. When we venture outside, most people are masked and we cannot see one another’s faces. All the places we normally go are either shut or have new procedures to protect from the spread of the virus. Being around other people can produce anxiety and concern. We’re not exactly sure where we are, what direction we are going and how long it will take to get there.
And now, the murder of George Floyd has revealed in a much clearer and more urgent manner, the ground of racism that our entire system is based on. That ground is muddy, slippery, and dangerous. Racism poses an existential threat to the life and well-being of people of color. Its perpetuation as the ground of our society privileges and keeps safe and secure the White race over and against other races and ethnicities. Racism endangers us all because it perpetuates abuse of power, the devaluing of Black, Brown and Indigenous people and the lie that some bodies are worth more than others. The rapid and enormous response to George Floyd’s murder is disorienting and it is also extremely clarifying and necessary.
We have so very far to go and the way ahead is not clear or easy. It is messy and difficult. As a church that is overwhelmingly White and older and has benefited from and profited from institutional racism, we are walking this path and joining this march, but we are slow and uncertain. The beautiful, lively, leaders who are going ahead are the ones we must follow and support.
There is a prayer, a collect, that we will pray together today at the end of the Prayers of the People. In just three short phrases it turns us towards the direction that the Spirit is propelling us and that Jesus is calling us to go. It asks God to keep the Church, which is nothing less than the presence of Christ, incarnate in the people, “to keep us in steadfast faith and love.” We are to stay the course, to keep moving forward in the name of Jesus, to persevere and persist.
Because of the love we know in Jesus, we are to endure in love, to suffer in love, to sacrifice for love’s sake and to see and love our neighbors as ourselves.
This prayer asks that with God’s grace, we the Church might “proclaim God’s truth with boldness.” Telling the truth means acknowledging and repenting of the racism that lies within individuals, our communities, particularly St. Luke’s, the larger Episcopal Church and our nation. We can learn the truth by reading, studying and listening, but God’s truth is always embodied in a person. Right now the truth is incarnate in the protesters, in the voices of people of color. It’s not just a theory, but the living, breathing, marching, crying, raging sisters and brothers, siblings who are hurting, visible, vocal and demanding change.
Finally the prayer asks that we might “minister your justice with compassion.” Compassion can be perceived as a “soft” word, like “being nice.” Yet, it literally means with passion. Jesus mentions his compassion for those who are like sheep without a shepherd. It is his deep feeling for humanity that leads to actual Passion with a capital P, his suffering, crucifixion and death. The actual meaning is to feel with another, to have a sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.
Anyone who saw the video of George Floyd’s death is conscious of the suffering he experienced and the callousness of those who caused his distress or who remained indifferent to it. And now it is time, it is past time to turn sympathy into action. As people of the Jesus movement we are called to embody his presence in our world. In the reading from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus sends out his disciples into the nearby neighborhoods, towns and villages to embody the good news of God’s Kingdom, present in Jesus, the Messiah. He gives them instructions that I think work very well for disciples in our present moment, in the neighborhoods and communities into which we are called and sent.
We begin with the compassion that Jesus feels for those who are harassed and helpless, with the crowds, composed of people from every walk of life, for all those trapped in a system of racism and oppression that prevents the full flourishing of all of God’s people.
Jesus sends us to confront the unclean spirits, the evil that underlies racism, sexism, homophobia, fear of the homeless poor and all that separates us from one another, causing hatred and suspicion. The grace and love of God in Christ is active to tell the truth, to call out the demonic spirits of our age and to fight against them with the power of the Spirit.
We are called to be healers, to be part of the cure for the disease and sicknesses that afflict so many. We are to proclaim that the value of life cannot be measured in money and that the commodification of people starting with slavery and continuing with the devaluing of others is a sickness that requires a healing intervention. We are to be those who fight the illness of despair that is killing and endangering so many. We can proclaim loudly and insistently that Black Lives Matter. We can treat with dignity and respect all our neighbors, particularly those who are demeaned and devalued.
For those of us who are White, we, like those first disciples are called to speak the truth, to cast out the demons and to address the sickness of our own White culture first. These are the ones we know and our familiar with. We bear the responsibility for our own racism and privilege. We have no moral authority with communities of color. Like those early disciples, we come empty handed. We must leave behind all the signs and symbols of our ill-gotten power and prosperity. We are to divest ourselves, to the extent that we are able, of our privilege. We are to bring nothing except our compassion, our commitment to being truthful, our humility and our willingness to share suffering. Wisdom will come only as we let go of pride and fear and learn to trust others.
And it will be hard. Jesus warned those first disciples that following the way of love under the guidance of the Spirit would bring conflict and division within their own families and communities. Some of you have already experienced this as children and parents disagree and siblings cut themselves off from one another. The way of Jesus will not guarantee an easy, peaceful existence but rather bring us face to face with conflict, persecution and hatred.
And if you’re like me, you’re not sure what to say or do. I don’t want to make things worse or reveal my ignorance or make a mistake. God knows we are often inadequate and imperfect. And so we pray for the Spirit to speak with us and through us and between us, the Spirit that is leading us all into the fullness of the dream and vision God has for this planet and the people who dwell therein.
It’s a vision we catch glimpses of here and there. In the beauty, passion and clarity of young leaders all over the county. In the creativity of the artists, mural makers and community builders in the CHAZ and other areas. In the support and generosity of sometimes unlikely people and businesses. In the incredible silence of 60,000 people walking together for a mile and a half in a show of unity and respect.
These are the brief moments, like a sun-kissed meadow of flowers that give us the hope and vision for a better future, that keep us walking the path no matter how long or difficult. Because we believe that there is a promised land, a land where all of God’s people will dwell in peace and safety, where all will be known as God’s own beloved, where all God’s sheep will find waters and pastures of peace. Amen.