Texts: Ephesians 2:1-2 (spirit of the air) * Matthew 9:35-10:1, 10:7-10, 16 (Jesus sends out the Twelve)
Holding ourselves to account is part of the rhythm of daily life. Am I maintaining an exercise regimen? Did I pick up groceries on my way home as I had pledged? Did I prepare a Sunday morning reflection this week? Answering these questions is easy.
But what about bigger issues? Whom can we blame if the new LRT line is not completed on time? Who is responsible for ensuring that everyone in Mill Woods has the food they need? Who should be held to account if some of Edmonton’s high school students don’t graduate with adequate literacy skills?
Answering such questions is not as straightforward. City Council has responsibility for projects like the LRT, but it shares this with Edmonton Transit and a host of construction firms. Ensuring everyone has enough food is a responsibility of all three levels of government along with civic partners like churches. The literacy of graduates is the responsibility of teachers, families, and the students themselves.
Then there are even bigger issues like racial discrimination. Five of us from Mill Woods United spent three days discussing this two weeks ago when we participated in this year’s “Expressing Wonder” conference. Organized by the Saskatoon branch of “Spiritual Seekers United in Community,” its focus was on anti-racism.
I enjoyed the Conference even though I was disappointed it could not be held in-person at St. Andrew’s College in Saskatoon. Because of the pandemic, the 100 people who participated used Zoom. Like many people, I have been grateful for Zoom over the last seven months even as I sometimes resent it because of how tiring online meetings can be.
The organizers worked to make the Conference both enjoyable and informative. There were breakout rooms in which the numbers were small enough to give everyone a voice and in which we could connect at a more personal level; and the keynote addresses were interspersed with videos, a poetry reading, and music offerings, which meant energy didn’t flag too much during the Conference.
The first speaker was a Somali refugee who works with newcomers in Saskatoon. The second was a retired police officer who, when he began his career thirty years ago, was just the third Indigenous person to be hired by the Saskatoon Police Force. I enjoyed both of them, particularly their stories of personal encounters with racism and their resilience in finding solutions to help improve the life of the community.
On Sunday morning, we joined the livestreamed worship service of SSUC here in Edmonton and then reconvened on Zoom to share some final thoughts in a small group; and one of the people in my breakout room said she felt inadequate in doing her part to fight racism.
In reply, I said I thought she had found some good ways to help. She is one of the musicians at SSUC Edmonton, who like Len, Jennifer, and Barb here today, provide music for its Sunday morning spiritual gatherings. Given that SSUC is committed to justice and equality for Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, simply by offering music on Sunday mornings, she was helping.
Not everyone in a community of faith can play a role in all its facets. Some focus on singing in the choir, others on financial administration. Some are dedicated to The Bread Run, others to the Clothing Bank. Some help to lead our work around Truth and Reconciliation, while others focus on our Affirming status and the movement for LGBTQ rights. Some of us do little more than donate money each month and come to Sunday morning gatherings.
Given the values proclaimed by Mill Woods United and the work we undertake to uphold them, supporting this community means supporting these values and actions.
This is another reason why it is necessary for the church to discern what we consider sacred. All communities of faith provide a place of belonging, a sense of purpose, and a chance to engage in charity, worship, and social engagement. But sometimes we struggle to rise above what the writer of Ephesians calls our “allegiance to the present age and the ruler of the power of air.” This passage suggests that deep-seated sins like racism and poverty can be as hard to see as the air we breathe. Paul’s antidote is to join a counter-cultural community that follows the foolish wisdom of the Way of the Cross. By continually reflecting on this Way, we give ourselves a better chance to see what had been invisible.
Of course, figuring out what needs to be made visible, what values a church should proclaim, and what actions it should undertake is never easy. But in times of great upheaval, neither should we shy away from this work.
Many of us might relate to the woman in the breakout room who felt discouraged about her ability to effect change. Indigenous people face discrimination. But what can an individual do about that? Poor people cannot always get the dental care or the prescription drugs they need, but one church can’t make up for this deficit. Climate change is threatening our futures, but no country can seem to make a dent in stopping it.
Perhaps Jesus’ first followers felt the same way when he sent them out to care for those who are suffering, to wake up those who are unconscious, and to restore the rejected. While they appreciated Jesus’ work, they may have feared they would not be able to emulate him.
Well, none of us can be like Jesus; and it is true that no one person can do it all. Happily, in moments of crisis like 2020, the very air we breathe, which often masks the powers that oppress us, loses some of its power to obscure. And when a counter-cultural spiritual community does its work, it can stand not only against individual acts that are harmful, but against a social logic that we formerly couldn’t even name.
When we do this, we can also unite with other people and churches who like us are rising up and so amplify our voices and impact.
We won’t always agree on the steps required to tackle the big issues. But just by standing against racism and other social ills, we make a contribution.
So, who is accountable for ending racism, preventing war, and halting climate disaster? I think it is you, me, and all of us. This might seem like a heavy responsibility. But assuming responsibility for the big issues in the communities in which we participate, we distribute the load and call the entire world both to account and to unity in the face of shared problems and shared values.
Proclaiming our values and acting with others will not immediately end racism, poverty, or war. But in this most amazing time of social upheaval, our words and deeds can make a difference within our own hearts. They can also help us to find fellow pilgrims with whom we can move closer to the Love that is our source, our deepest calling, and our sure destiny.
May it be so. Amen.