August 23, 2020
Taking a Stand – August 23, 2020
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In this week’s cool weather, I found myself having lunch outside with a parishioner. We both arrived in masks, which we had to remove to have a drink of water, not to mention the rest of the meal. As often happens these days, it led to a conversation about wearing masks to protect people from coronavirus infection. As you know, we’re requiring that here at St. Andrew’s, not just because the city says so but because we want to protect one another. My lunch partner took the other point of view, arguing that protecting individual liberty is a higher value. It was a great discussion – about masks, and freedom, and The Episcopal Church, and dealing with the challenges of this unprecedented year. Not surprisingly, we found that we agreed on much more than what we disagreed about. Best of all – in contrast to videos you might see on social media or on the news – we managed not to yell at each other even once. I’ll grant you, that’s a pretty low bar; but apparently that’s where we are in measuring civility when apparently anything can become a political issue.
In a time like this, we find ourselves with a scarcity of forums for good-hearted people to practice the basic, loving act of coming together and talking with each other to build relationship. We know we need it, but we’re not sure how to get it. But I’ve also heard from some people, at least implicitly, the question: What difference would it make to get people together to share their perspectives on divisive issues? We’re just one congregation in a small denomination. Plus, talking about areas of disagreement is risky, and life is too crazy right now to add any challenges we don’t have to face. In a time when even an old anti-inflammatory drug can become a political issue, it’s tempting to say, “Why bother?”
So, here we are again in this summer sermon series, “What the Heck, Lord? God’s Presence in Tough Times.” Today’s story from Exodus gives us maybe the toughest of tough times – the enslavement of the people of Israel. In last week’s reading, things were looking great for Jacob and his 12 sons, literally the “children of Israel.” The brothers had reconciled; and Joseph, Pharaoh’s right-hand man, had given his family lush, new land in Egypt. So, the Israelites prospered and multiplied … so much so, today’s story says, that a later Pharaoh felt threatened by their numbers and their wealth. So, that later king enslaved them, but still they thrived. So, the ruler chose genocide, telling the midwives to kill the Israelites’ baby boys at birth.
And that’s where the story gets interesting.
It’s not often that Scripture gives us the names of incidental characters, but here we learn the names of two major heroes in minor roles: Shiphrah and Puah. These two midwives are the Harriet Tubmans of their day, breaking the law to defy unjust rulers. They trick Pharaoh and save the baby boys – which just makes the king even more ruthless. He widens the genocide, telling all his people to kill Israelite baby boys. And that opens the door for more defiance. The greatest hero of Jewish history is born – Moses, who will liberate his people and receive God’s law. But first, he needs to be saved by his nameless sister and Pharaoh’s seditious daughter, the princess. The princess comes to the river and saves a baby she finds there, refusing to follow her father’s genocidal order; and Moses’ sister catches her in the act. The sister arranges for Moses’ mother to be paid to raise him, pretending to be a wet-nurse; and Pharaoh’s daughter eventually adopts him into royal power. You wonder what would have happened to her if her father had known what she’d done.
If you’re looking for a hopeless situation, the birth of Moses was it. A nameless, enslaved woman delivers a son to face death. But because four women choose to take huge risks, against their self-interest, Moses cheats death, himself becoming the unlikely hero who’ll lead his people into new life. Sometimes, in the face of a threat, you’ve just got to do something. You’ve just got to try something to stand against the prevailing winds.
You may think I’m overstating this, and that’s fine, but: I believe that the fact we have such trouble listening to each other is nothing less than a threat to our nation. Most of us aren’t tempted to follow the lead of the videos on social media and yell at people who either do or don’t wear masks in public. But I do think we’re tempted to shut down: to move away from each other and keep silence for fear of what might happen next. As I said last Sunday, some long-time members of this parish family – leaders, in fact – have said to me, “If people knew what I really think about [fill in the blank], I’m not sure I’d be welcome here anymore.” It will not be good for us, in the long run, to follow the culture, and stick with our tribes, and pull back from others who also help comprise the Body of Christ.
Well, your Vestry has been working on a way to take a stand against this trend. The need arose in a meeting a couple of months ago, when a Vestry member proposed we fly an LGBTQ Pride flag in the churchyard. I told you about the unplanned, passionate discussion that followed, as well as my own discernment about how to lead us through this.
Here’s the first part of that discernment: I could preserve the status quo, and honor our parish tradition, and say, “We don’t take stands on potentially divisive issues here.” But we also follow a Savior who said, first and foremost, love God and neighbor; and we promise in the Baptismal Covenant to strive for justice and peace, and to respect the dignity of everyone. And meeting those commitments will sometimes require us to take a stand about something and work for it. OK, here’s the second part of my discernment: I could live into the rector-as-king model of parish leadership, and pray that I channel the wisdom of Solomon, rather than channeling the ego of Pharaoh, and just make whatever decision I like on questions like this. But our parish leadership culture is all about collaboration, and it seems out of character (not to mention dangerous) to choose the path of royal fiat, especially when the stakes are high. So, I wanted to create a collaborative way to discern what to do when people propose that we advocate for something publicly – a way to love our neighbors and strive for justice and peace, while also honoring our Big Tent and letting us disagree even as we love one another.
What the Vestry has endorsed is a process for discerning when and how to advocate on public issues. Here it is, in a nutshell: We’ll have a standing Advocacy Discernment Committee made up of the rector, the wardens, a couple of other Vestry members, and four other parishioners. When someone proposes that we take a stand on some issue, we’ll hold a forum and ask people to speak for or against the proposal, using very specific guidelines. People can also make written comments to the committee before the forum takes place. Based on parishioner input, the Advocacy Discernment Committee will recommend some action to the Vestry (or recommend no action), and the Vestry will vote on the committee’s recommendation. Then I’ll decide whether to implement the Vestry’s resolution. The buck still stops with the rector. But that buck will gain much more value through the input of our parishioners and the discernment of our lay leaders.
I know this process won’t magically solve all our challenges in navigating conflict. But at least it gives us a practical answer to the question, “How do we decide whether to do something like fly a Pride flag in the churchyard?” And even more important than that, it will help form us as kingdom people – people whose primary identity is that we are members of the Body of Christ revealing the reign and rule of God among us. It’s a way to discern how to practice justice and peace without tearing ourselves apart. It’s a way to build the skill of listening to people who believe differently than we do and still love them enough to worship with them the next Sunday. It’s a way to tame the elephants in our living room. And it’s a way to model what it can look like, on the ground, to stand against the forces that want to drive us apart.
Now, this experiment will entail risk. It will be risky for those who step up to speak, and it will be risky in the sense that we aren’t guaranteed the effort will succeed. I may come back up here in a few months and say, “Well, that didn’t work, but here’s what we learned….” I’m OK with trying. In challenging times, I think we have to be OK with trying. That was true for the heroic women in today’s Exodus reading. In times when our world is changing and we face real threats to our well-being, we have to take a few risks.
And when we take a risk, it also gives us the chance to offer a witness. Now, honestly, that may not be something we feel comfortable hearing. Do you think of yourself as a witness for the kingdom of God? Well, go back to the Gospel reading we heard this morning, and remember what Jesus’ movement was like at that point in the story. Here’s a motley band of fishermen, tax collectors, revolutionaries, small-business people, and other men and women united by a vision of life transformed by love. Jesus asks them who they think he is, and Peter blurts out the right answer, though without really getting the implications: Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed king, the Son of the living God. That king will walk the way of sorrow, enduring torture and execution, but then he’ll break free from the grave and rise into new life. And then, Jesus says, Peter and the rest of these unlikely heroes will lead the king’s movement. They’ll bear God’s own authority to expand the circle, to teach, to forgive, and to cast out the demons that stand in their way – and not even the gates of Hades will prevail against them, Jesus says (Matthew 16:18).
That’s the reality to which God asks you and me to witness. As the Body of Christ in the world right here, right now, we bear the greatest power there is, and that’s love – the only power that can equip us to continue the work Jesus came to do, which is to save the world. And, you know, our gravest temptation might be doubting that power we bear. When we find ourselves confronted by other powers that divide, powers that lead us away from one another, powers that convince us we can’t do anything about it – in the face of those powers, practice love instead. Resolve to show up, listen, and stand alongside those you disagree with as we discern how to act as Christ’s body in the world. That’s love strong enough to take on Pharaoh – and win.