Seeing Beyond Our Vision

Seeing Beyond Our Vision
A Sermon Preached by Jess Cook
New York Avenue Presbyterian Church
Isaiah 58: 9-14; Luke 13:10-17

Last month, I had the joy and privilege of serving as the conference pastor for a week at Montreat, for a session of their Youth Conference. As a cradle Presbyterian who playfully wore it as a badge of honor that I hadn’t been to Montreat until January of 2018, when I attended the College conference in my capacity for More Light, I confess I have really grown to love it. I’ve begun to see the six hour drive from my home in Richmond to the mountains of Western North Carolina with a sense of anticipation, a time to gather myself and my thoughts as I prepare for what awaits me. There’s nothing like that time on the road when I don’t need to do a thing except be on the road. Often on these trips I’ve found the accompaniment of a podcast or book on tape – or, on my phone – can be the perfect companion. If I time it right, I can find story that will take me right to the iconic stone gate outside Montreat’s entrance.

Now, I’m not one to tout my accomplishments, but I feel like I’m pretty good at selecting audiobook companions. For me, at least, I find a sense of accomplishment in selecting a book that will kind of define the journey for me – that’ll not just pass the time, but enrich it – something that will offer some humor, or uplift me in just the ways I need to be uplifted. For this last trip, I decided to listen to the Handmaid’s Tale. As I’m sure folks who are familiar with the story can likely attest, if the desire to be uplifted is the goal, the Handmaid’s Tale isn’t really the best of options. For those who may not be familiar, or who didn’t see the adaptation of the book on Hulu, The Handmaid’s Tale is Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel about a near-distant future where, among a number of other things, people’s bodies are being rigidly regulated and used solely for reproduction of the powerful. Every atrocity committed by the controlling regime is done in the name of patriotism and faith, with some messages that hit almost eerily close to home in today’s society. What’s disturbing for so many folks is how quickly it all seems to happen. While hindsight illuminates more of the trail that led to their present nightmare, it seems that prior to the downfall of life as they’d known it, most folks were so caught up in their day-to-day lives that they didn’t look up or see the precursors to the nightmare life would become. People’s blindness became a way of living, turning their heads to minor and then major infractions against the fullness of one another’s humanity. Until, well, until it was too late.

As I moved closer and closer to Montreat, my anxiety didn’t wash away, my breaths didn’t deepen, my mind didn’t become more contemplative. Instead, almost without knowing it, my fingers tightened their clutch around the steering wheel, my shoulders hunched up, my breathing shortened. I was so caught up in the story that I jumped in my seat when my phone rang. My mom’s voice rang on the other end of the line as I plugged in my headset and found my breath.

We talked for a while, caught up on what had been going on in life, and I mentioned that I’d preached a couple of weeks prior at a More Light church in West Virginia.

Having never heard me preach, but knowing it’s a significant part of job at More Light, my mom asked if I always preach on “gay stuff.”

Chuckling a bit, I told her, no. While there may be certain circumstances when a text or an event in the world brings it to the surface, I’ll preach about things related to the LGBTQ+ community, but that more often than not, if there’s a thing I talk about or preach about with regularity, it’d be the sacraments. You may be tempted to chuckle a bit at my mom’s directness, but it’s a thing I get asked often, in a variety of ways – if I’m gonna preach about gay stuff.

Now, if I’m being honest, I’m not quite sure I could tell you with any real clarity about what the “gay stuff” is. And not because I don’t know what people mean when they ask – they want to know if I’m gonna talk about suicide among LGBTQ people, or rejection by family or church, or how often I am asked by a young person if they are going to hell. I understand for sure what people mean when they say that. What I don’t understand on a deeper level is why these conversation is relegated solely to the LGBTQ community. I mean, yes, there are definitely specific things to address when discussing the fraught relationship between the church and the LGBTQ community, and my years of work within the community has definitely shown me the power that comes with a church that is unapologetically affirming of LGBTQ people and identities, and the heartbreak that can come in the absence of such affirmation.

My confusion isn’t about any of that. My confusion is more about why the messages should be relegated to the experiences of LGBTQ people. Because while it’s especially poignant with LGBTQ folks, I believe to my bones that the fear that we are unworthy of God’s love is part of the human experience, especially if we are honest with ourselves about the ways in which we fall short of that love. I believe we all struggle to set down the mantles that hold us, the projected norms or assumptions of what it looks like to be good or bad. I believe we all struggle to find hope in the face of overwhelming uncertainty, that we all have a deep desire to be seen and known. And I believe the more we allow ourselves to see and to name that struggle, the closer we are not only to one another, but to God.

Today’s text from Luke offers a potent example of the power that comes from seeing and being seen. The woman has been weighed down not only by a crippling burden, but by a broken spirit. Unable to stand up straight, she cannot look anyone in the eyes. She appears in the synagogue, bent over, hopeless. The Greek word used, sunkupto, to be bent over, is unique here because it’s the only place it appears in the New Testament. Anakupto, to be straightened up, is the word used to describe her response to Jesus’ pronouncement of her healing. The only other time this word appears in Luke is when Jesus is speaking about the coming of the Son of Man in Luke 21, “Now when these things begin to take place,” he says, “stand up, and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

The woman’s story isn’t just about her healing, or even her healing and the immediate praise she offers as a response to it. It’s a story about being seen. Jesus not only sees her, but he calls out to her – he proclaims her healing and then he touches her – a woman seen as unclean, who’d likely been coming to the synagogue for every one of those 18 years she’d been doubled over in despair, invisible among the crowd. Jesus sees her and he calls to her, proclaiming not only her healing but modeling a new way of being for the community.

And yet, not everyone in the synagogue shares the woman’s joy at her healing. The leaders of the synagogue, frustrated by Jesus’s continued lack of regard for the proper observation of Sabbath laws, call him out. It’s likely they could’ve used caution from Isaiah about trampling the sabbath as justification for their anger. They see Jesus as trampling the sabbath, pursuing his interests by healing this woman. He’s breaking the rules, the time-honored practices the community had been given by God to observe. They’d seen enough in their history to know that deviating from the law led to trouble, to exile, to a loss of identity and suffering for their people. We have a set of rules, they declared, and we will follow them.

Jesus, though, is not having it. “You hypocrites,” he says, “you’ve given more attention to your animals today that you’ve given this child of God.” With his proclamation, Jesus shows the leaders of the synagogue that they are the ones who’ve trampled on the Sabbath. Jesus shows them that their religious practices are empty if they end in themselves. Our worship should be about healing, about connection, about seeing one another and being seen so that we may become the people and the community God created us to be, or it shouldn’t be done at all.

This weekend marks the 400th anniversary of the first ship carrying people from Africa to Virginia with the purpose of enslaving them. For the centuries that followed, millions of people were shuttled across the Atlantic and sold as property, as chattel. Though there was dissent among abolitionists, the practice of buying and selling human beings was largely accepted by white folks as a way of life and supported by the church. Robert Dabney, the former professor of theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary, my seminary alma mater, who later wrote the theological justification for slavery, argued that while all people are created equal, this equality of nature shouldn’t translate to civil equality. The church became a bulwark for the atrocities of chattel slavery.

While many of us have longed to see the world as a more just place than it was when those first people were put on ships 400 years ago, looking around today, it’s hard to argue that we’ve done anything to be the repairers of the breach Isaiah talks about. We want to fix it, to clean up the mess of injustices around us, to calm the collective anxiety or guilt we may hold about the sins of our ancestors. We see racism as an invasive plant, and seek to pull it from the soil anytime a new sprout appears. Yet, in our desire to separate ourselves from the sins of racism, we remain willfully blind to our complicity in supporting a system that has relegated People of Color to the margins of society. We miss that racism isn’t an invasive weed; it’s the soil we are all growing in, cracked and drying out, suffocating us all.

How do we look at all of the brokenness around us? How do we remain faithful in seeing such atrocities so harmful that any attempt to describe them fails because they’re beyond words? Even more, how do we hold ourselves and one another accountable to our collective healing?

There was once a town in the midst of a severe drought. Every day, a group of well-intentioned church folk would walk up and down the steep road to the church in the center of town and pray for rain. And every day they would pass by the house of an old woman in town who, though she lived only fifty feet or so from the church, never went inside. Each day, as the church folk would walk by, she would pause whatever she was doing, look up at the group, shake her head, and return to her activity. This went on for several weeks, while the ground remained dry and cracked. After some time, one of the well-meaning church folk, fed up and frustrated by this woman’s judgment and the lack of rain, stopped in front of her porch, hollering up to her: “Who are you to judge us? At least we are doing something to try and bring rain. If you have better suggestions, please do let us know.”

The woman paused her sweeping and turned to the group:  “I’ve seen you all walk up and down this hill for weeks now, each day you hold your head high, saying you are going to pray for rain, that you are sure God will answer. And yet, never once have I seen anyone carrying an umbrella.”

More often than not, the world feels as dry as the cracked and hardened ground of a land too long in drought. We may pray for rain, look for that magic fix or perfect model that will bring things back to life. In the church we are especially prone to this – we see a problem and we want to fix it. We have structures and models, committees and boards. We often feel like we’ve got stuff pretty figured out, so we do things the way we’ve always done, until at times we may forget why we were doing them in the first place. To say we forget our proverbial umbrellas is an understatement; it’s more like we forget what it has ever felt like to have rain.

Over the last couple of years, we at More Light have been on the journey to uncover our own entanglement with the dominant norms of whiteness. We recognize the ways in which we’ve all been held captive to debilitating ideas about ourselves and others. And it is hard. Many of us were taught that it’s best to avoid potentially divisive topics, and while racism may not have been explicitly named as one of these formidable topics, it was definitely best to avoid. The potential conflict that could arise from such conversations would fracture relationships and families. It was best to just keep the peace.

Only, we’ve found that, keeping the peace doesn’t avoid conflict as much as it gives us license to avoid seeing one another. Bent over in our own guilt or shame, we avoid contact with others, begin to lose the image of God in one another when our brothers, sisters, and siblings in Christ are reduced to issues or talking points. Contrary to what many of us have heard, talking about difficult subjects, even when they bring conflict, gives us the freedom to see and be seen by one another in the fullness of who we are. 

Talking about racism is hard. Talking about white supremacy is even harder. For white folks, it pushes buttons many of us didn’t realize were there. Acknowledging the ways in which we have been complicit in systems that prioritized our whiteness and caused undue and unyielding harm on People of Color is difficult. To deflect from this pain we can incorrectly think “those were the sins of our ancestors, perhaps, but we are different.”

Yet, as we’ve stuck with it, we’ve started to find that, rather than feeling a deeper level of conflict with one another, each of us  feels more connected and seen. The People of Color in the room feel more seen and heard when they share the pain of living in a world that devalues their identity; the white folks feel more equipped to examine their complicity in that world. This conflict doesn’t bring more division, it brings deeper trust. There is a real freedom in being able to look at one’s actions and intentions, in hearing the ways in which we’ve been harmed and caused harm, and to hold one another in love as we make this journey together. 

It’s a radical thing in its own way, talking about the stuff we were taught not to discuss. Yet, in the process, we’ve found that we are able to see one another in ways previously unimagined. The white folks especially have found the ways in which our mindset has been held in a rigid understanding informed by assumptions of what is good, or normal even, despite them causing harm or death to People of Color. Like the woman in Luke’s story, we are all collectively straightened up, lifted by the Spirit that tells us we are healed from the yoke of our willful ignorance, of our blindness, of the lie that puts a hierarchy on human lives.

At some point in seminary I came across the idea of remembering my baptism every time I interacted with water. When we baptize infants in the Presbyterian Church, we do so in part to show that God’s grace is offered to us even when we do not have the capacity to ask for it, so over the years it’s roughly translated to the acknowledgement that I am loved, even when I cannot ask for it. This idea has held so strongly through years of practice that it now comes without thought – rain starts falling and every drop that falls on my head, ever plink I hear on the gutter reminds me that I am loved, even when I do not have the capacity to ask for it. Tear ducts become wellsprings within me, sometimes gushing open at the most unexpected moments. The rain on my back, each tear a reminder of the Holy Spirit within me, grounding me in who I am and connecting me to everything around me. It rains and I am loved. I cry and I am loved. I wash my hands, and I am loved. Hard as I may try sometimes, I have realized that I cannot outrun my belovedness. None of us can.

It is easy to look around scarcity, which is scary. The world is a mess, we are at wits end. We want to clamp down own what we know, on models we have seen work in the past, and we try the same formula again and again. We pray for abundance but then push against learning anything new. We avoid one another, we avoid discomfort. Yet, this scarcity creeps into the rest of our lives, too. It creeps into our homes, into our worship. We begin to draw lines around what it looks like to be a person of God, to be good. And slowly we begin to cordon ourselves off, our practices become walls between us and each other. We begin to assert that this is how God works, that this is what the community of God looks like.

At this point in my life I know enough about God to know I don’t know much about God. I don’t know why particular things happen, or how things fall or don’t fall in place. I don’t know what happens when we die. But I do know that the Spirit seldom moves in a way that fits within the Church’s expectations. Our job is to remember who we are and to trust that God will continue to be God.

And we – we are baptismal people, called to remember our belovedness and God’s unending grace. And as baptismal people, we should always be ready for rain. Amen.

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