I’d been trying to crack this sermon all week. After the events of Wednesday, and another non-decision from a grand jury, I knew what I wanted to talk about–about corporate sin, and systemic racism, and how the Kingdom lay on the other side of us facing truthfully our own complicity in a really broken and unjust system.
(None of this makes for a really joyful pre-Christmas sermon, if you can’t already tell.)
I had about 2/3rds of a draft finished on Saturday afternoon, when I got home from the Advent Clergy lunch and realized it wasn’t working at all.
The opening was a short discourse on the Essenes. It was fine, but it was fairly unemotional, and it ran into a wall pretty quickly. (I get fired up about 1st cen religious sects. Me and maybe 10 other people. We’re not a demographic you want to rely on for numbers.)
Instead, what had been going through my head since Wednesday was this runner about the Prayer of Humble Access. I hadn’t put it in initially because I figured that the sermon was already messing with a few Principles of Good and Decent Preaching (1. Don’t get political. 2. Don’t get angry 3. Don’t be thoroughly depressing, etc) Generally speaking, I try to restrict myself to knocking over one or two of those at a time, but not all of them, not all at once. Throwing in the crowd-pleaser known as Israeli-Palestinian politics was probably just going to heap fuel on the fire.
But I tried it. I sat down, and within 45 minutes, I had a complete second draft.
Here’s what it said.
December 7-8, 2014
So let’s be unEpiscopalian today and let’s talk about sin a little bit.
I didn’t really used to believe in sin. Or, rather, I did, but not as a major, concept in the singular. Sin, I thought, as a thing wasn’t something to be too concerned about—sins in the plural, now—those were those mistakes you made as a person each day in the course of normal daily events. You told a white lie, someone cut you off in traffic so you swore at them, you hold onto that grudge against someone when you really should have forgiven them.
These, I thought, were sins. They weren’t GOOD, but they could be dealt with. I could fix them. Just, y’know—I should not do that thing any more. Don’t lie. Don’t cheat. Don’t swear (where kids can hear you.)
What I couldn’t quite understand was why our liturgy occasionally exulted in confession, especially the Prayer of Humble Access—do you know that one? We don’t really say it anymore. It’s in Rite 1, used to be said right before Communion. “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.”
That, I thought, was complete and total overkill. Sins weren’t good, but I didn’t see how my telling someone off in rush hour traffic equated to crumb collection.
Then I went to Palestine.
In the diocese of Jerusalem, at St. George’s cathedral, the Prayer of Humble Access starts the service off. It’s the first thing you say. “We do not presume to come to this thy table, oh merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness.”
I didn’t like it. I gritted my teeth and I got through it, but barely.
But then something happened. Then, I spent week after week volunteering and living in occupied East Jerusalem. Week after week listening to stories from my Palestinian coworkers. Week after week listening and watching the unequal treatment they received at the hands of the Israeli soldiers who patrolled the streets, who were barely older than my baby brother. Week after week of lying to Israeli cabdrivers about where I worked and lived, so that I could get back home, and they wouldn’t refuse to take my fare because they thought I was “one of them.” Week after week of walking through checkpoints unmolested, because I flashed my magic blue American passport, while my coworkers waited in lines in the sun hours long. Week after week of hearing and seeing hatred, violence, and the day-to-day illogical grind of oppression.
By week three, I welcomed Sunday morning, and for the first time, it made emotional sense to me to proclaim that humanity was in absolutely no way worthy to come to any table of God’s. Not with our current track record. Not with what I was seeing.
Because here was sin. But sin in a new way—Sin singular. A sin so great, and so massive, so systemic, that no one person could undo it, yet all of us living there were caught up in it. We were all living in a total system that entirely and utterly held the children of God as worthless, as something less than human—on both sides of the conflict—Palestinian and Israeli.
All too often we assume sin is that plural category that I once did—those easy, personal, sins to identify and absolve. Those sins we can list and quantify, then cross off the list as taken care of.
Yet, take a look at what John the Baptist is yelling about in the gospel today. He’s preaching a gospel of repentance, for the kingdom of God has come near. The way John is positioned in the desert here, scholars suspect he might be an Essene. The Essenes were one of several separatist groups of devout Jews who thought the whole temple system, and all of Jerusalem was corrupt, so they left and went to the desert to form their own communal society.
So John isn’t just talking about personal sins—John’s talking about sin, singular, too. The big sin in the system that we can’t escape from on our own. The corruption in the system. For them, in their time, it was the funneling of money through the temple to support the lavish lifestyle of the priests, and King Herod, and the Roman occupation. all the while neglecting the poor.
Big systemic corporate sin. Can’t be solved by one person alone.
But these singular sins are the hardest ones to face. Precisely because they’re so big, so awful they become hard to see, it’s like trying to discern the color of the air you’re breathing. It’s all around you at once and it’s all you’ve known, so how would you know any different—right up until something shifts, and suddenly it’s all you can see.
Fr. Stan and I have stood here and talked about the events in Ferguson several times since the death of Michael Brown back in August. But what has been made clear in the weeks and months since then, and what was again thrown into sharp relief this week, is that this isn’t just about this one case in one small community in Missouri. Instead, it’s about case after case after case after case, as black people are killed in disproportionate numbers by police, time and again, and time and again, it seems that accountability is slow in coming.
So there is protest after protest, and wave after wave of hurt, and frustration, and sorrow and pain flooding the streets right now from many in the Black community, because Michael Brown’s case, Eric Garner’s case, Tamir Rice’s case, John Crawford’s case—all contribute to a situation that’s been in place for a while, and has finally boiled over, finally shifted into sharp relief.
It’s that systemic sin. Singular sin. The ghost in the machine. This problem of racism in policing in the justice system is bigger than any one person—this problem, and that’s what makes it so hard, and so inexorable. We are not where we are because the police chief in Ferguson has an outsized collection of white sheets, or because grand juries are universally bad at their jobs. If that were the case then this would be so easy to fix!
But we’re here because because the institutions of this country were founded on a bone-deep distrust of anyone who doesn’t look like me, and I mean that quite literally.
And until we call out that ghost in the system, until we repent of that big, systemic, unspeakable sin we’re all entrapped by, we aren’t ever going to be able to move past this. We aren’t ever going to be free to step fully into the Kingdom of God.
But we have to listen. We have to listen to the stories of those who are hurting, of those who are upset of those who are angry. Even when, and especially when, those stories make us angry and defensive. We need to push past our own defensiveness, our own need to be right, and to be comfortable, and we need to listen to the people who are being hurt by this sin we’re caught in.
Then we need to name it. We need to name it when we see it. We need to have the courage to call it out—because God does not intend for God’s children to live in a world where some lives matter, and some lives don’t. God does not intend for us to live in a world where some lives seen as criminals waiting to happen. God created us so that if white lives matter, then black lives matter too.
And lastly, we need to remember that as broken, as corrupted as this world may be, we belong to a God whose property is always to have mercy. And no matter what, God will empower us with courage, and enliven us with compassion, once we take that first step out of the city, into the desert of repentance where new life and a new Kingdom await.
That’s where John calls us. That’s where God calls us. Just listen.