As requested, here’s my homily for last Sunday. Christ is our light!
The Sea of Galilee is the largest freshwater lake in Israel: 13 miles long from north to south and 8 miles wide. The average depth is about 84 feet; the deepest parts go down to 141 feet. In most places there’s a sharp drop off close to the shore, so it’s not safe for swimming. Plus the lake is prone to sudden and violent storms. The best time to fish is at night – when it’s dark, the fish cannot see the nets and are preoccupied with feeding. Why does this detail matter? Partly because it will be on the quiz, but mostly because it’s not in Scripture. It’s context and you need it to understand the parables and stories that have the Sea of Galilee in them, but it’s not in Scripture. That’s because Jesus – and Mark, Matthew, Luke and John – assumed that their audience would know and understand the social and cultural context of these stories were written. That matters, because if you don’t know the context you’re going to miss the point.
Sometimes people imagine that it’s possible to understand Scripture without knowing anything of its context. You’ll hear people say, “The words mean what they mean,” meaning that they mean what they mean today. But they don’t mean what they mean today. Of course there is meaning there for us, but the words mean what they meant when they were first spoken or written down. Take fish. Everybody knows what fish are. Except that when I was a boy I thought that fish came in the form of sticks: fish sticks, geometrically perfect, perfectly white on the inside, and perfectly breaded on the outside. Let me tell you, that was living: Sitting down to a plate of fish sticks and ketchup. Maybe some frozen peas if Mom insisted on a vegetable. Anyway, Jesus talks about good fish and bad fish: Keep the good fish, throw away the bad. But what’s a bad fish? A fish that’s been naughty? A fish that’s too small to keep? How about eels? Are they even fish? They’re kind of scary. Are they bad? Then I find out that for the Jews, good fish have fins and scales. And that eels, which have fins but not regular scales, are bad fish. As are lobsters and sharks and shrimp and clams and dolphins and swordfish. And that the whole thing is based on a set of dietary laws that are part of and a sign of the covenant between God and Israel. Context matters.
But not always in the same way. Sometimes the context hasn’t changed much. Take wealth. The desire for wealth was a problem at the time of Jesus. The desire for wealth is a problem now. Inequity was a problem then. Inequity is a problem now.
We all are learning that slavery was about economics and the desire for cheap labor. All the other stuff? The fiction of race itself? The fiction that Black people were somehow naturally inferior to white people? The fiction that the enslaved were content and even happy with their lot? The fiction that enslavers had the best interests of the enslaved at heart? The fiction that slavery was a means of civilizing and socializing Black Africans? Balderdash. A whole lot of hooey. Nonsense – pernicious and deadly nonsense. Which is to say, lies. Lies designed to make people feel better about and willingly participate in a system of economics that relied on dehumanization, violence, and cruelty: capitalism, out of control.
We’re still chasing after cheap labor, and the bottom line still governs far too much of our collective behavior. Don’t think so? Go to the next meeting of the Business Roundtable – a national organization of CEOs – and bring up the minimum wage. Or consider outsourcing, which has destroyed our nation’s manufacturing base in favor of sweatshops overseas. Consider child labor. One hundred years ago it was children working in textile mills and coal mines. Now it’s children – legally as young as 12 years of age, illegally much younger – working day after day in the fields in the hot sun alongside their parents, exposed to hazardous machinery and dangerous pesticides. Or consider the meat industry: Dark and cold slaughterhouses, filled with immigrants, legal and otherwise, exploited and underpaid, working in dangerous and dehumanizing conditions.
The enemy of humankind, the liar and the father of lies, is the most subtle of tempters. The enemy of humankind knows that few of us would choose a course of action we knew to be evil. That’s why evil is so often disguised, carefully hidden, described as a necessary part of an otherwise beneficial system. We even have a term for it: the necessary evil. Lies, falsehoods, untruths, half-truths, get themselves worked into the very fabric of our culture and our common life and we take them for granted: Some people are just meant to be poor; people are poor because they’re happier that way; in the end, poor people just don’t want to work hard; the poor you will always have with you; light skin is more attractive than dark skin; Black Americans are less cultured, more primitive, less civilized, more prone to violence, more likely to be criminals; younger Black men are angry, dangerous, and antisocial. Black women and girls don’t mind being exploited and taken by force. For that matter, women are creatures of emotion and men are creatures of logic and reason; men understand the things of the Spirit better than women do; Women are not built for leadership. On and on. Little lies becoming big lies; big lies hardening into aspects of culture. So much a part of culture that we call it systemic. Systemic, like a disease that affects an entire body system.
How does this happen? That’s what so insidious and tricky about systems. That’s why systemic racism can exist in a nation filled with people who would not willingly describe themselves as racist. It’s how not even 100 years ago Americans who saw themselves as decent and honorable people and not lovers of violence could willingly and eagerly and with smiles on their faces – and we have the photographs to prove it – take part in the ultimate violence of a lynching. No one of us would pull the child next door out of school and send her to the fields to pick lettuce all day, and yet we’ve ended up with an economic system that tolerates the exploitation of children. And whether or not we eat the flesh of animals, no one of us would willingly raise an animal in the dark, confined to a tiny pen or packed into a filthy cage. But we’ve ended up with a society in which cruelty, inequity and dehumanization are explained away as business as usual or the cost of doing business. And we’ve ended up with an economic system that puts profit above everything else. JMJ, how did we get to this?
And yet our heroes take the path less traveled and they call us to a better way. They call us to pay attention and to discern. They remind us that we need not unknowingly or unwillingly participate in the enemy’s work; they remind us that we need not be trapped in cycles of ignorance and violence and exploitation. Like Greta Thunberg, now 17, the young Swedish woman activist and advocate on the issue of climate change. Receiving – among a flotilla of awards and medals – a prize worth more than a million dollars; she gave the money to organizations working to fight climate change. Or John Lewis, who died a week ago, called the Conscience of the Congress, a towering figure in the Civil Rights Movement. Or Ignatius of Loyola, who rejected a life of wealth, position and power for a life of patient listening and teaching others to listen; urging others to look for God in all things.
The different way; the better path; God’s world; the Kingdom of God. More precious than gold. More precious even than that which is more precious than gold. Revealing the holiness of truth. Showing the lie for the lie it is. Black lives matter. Truth matters. Making the right choices matters. Showing the lie for what it is matters. It matters that we choose and not just allow ourselves to be carried here and there with the tide. It matters.
And it’s going to be all right. It always was going to be all right, even when you didn’t think it was going to be all right. And that – “it’s going to be all right” – is something that I’ve not always been able to say. I’m not sure what happened but it did happen and I’m grateful and it’s going to be all right. I’ve learned that when you look at the state of things and say, “It’s going to be all right” people are going to look you straight in the eye and ask, “Tell me precisely how it’s going to be all right.” To which I can only say “I don’t know, but it’s going to be all right.” And there is this: Somehow, this time in America is different. There are young people in the streets, all over the world. A few of them are just mad – for which you can hardly blame them – but most of them are filled with good will. They’d like to do things differently. Did you ever think that would happen in America? That a whole bunch of white Americans would decide that it’s time to do things differently with respect to their Black American sisters and brothers? That lots and lots of Americans – young and old – would decide that it’s time to think about some of the lies we were taught to believe? It’s going to be all right. It’s going to be all right, and we “know that all things work for good for those who love God.” Which does not mean there won’t be trouble. There is trouble already, and there’s going to be more of it. Some of it will be, thanks be to God, what John Lewis called good trouble, which is another term for awakening. But there’s going to be bad trouble too, and hard times, because it’s hard to wake up. Through it all we must never forget – and we must remind one another in word and in deed – that the thing which is most essential about us cannot be harmed: We are beloved. Beloved sinners. Though we love God but imperfectly and even haltingly, we are beloved, and because of that we are called according to God’s purpose, to be conformed to the image of Christ, called, justified and out of love that cannot be measured or contained, glorified. Praise God.