Holy Trinity Episcopal Church

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    Sep 23, 2018

    18th Sunday after Pentecost

    Passage: James 3:13-4:3

    Preacher: The Rev. Sarah Carver

    Series: Year B: 2017-2018

    Category: Special Services

    Detail:

    Part of my seminary education required ten weeks of Clinic Pastoral Education, or CPE. Anyone can enroll in a CPE course, though seminarians, and those seeking holy orders have to. CPE is often carried out in hospitals and the like, but what it does is take an individual into challenging situations where someone is dealing with an illness or a loss and needs some spiritual and emotional care. It is designed to help you learn about yourself so that you can better provide appropriate pastoral care to someone who is suffering. When I began my training I a) hated hospitals, b) didn’t like cold calling strangers, c)had no idea what I was doing. On top of all this, I was commuting an hour away during the hot New York City summer and the air condition on the subway didn’t always work, and then there was that one guy who felt the need to stand over me and my friend an preach to us (loudly) in an otherwise empty car, or then there was the time the car was full of feral children who threatened to “cut me” when I told them to turn down their music. It was a long ten weeks.

                One of my rotations was actually in an Episcopal nursing home in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a crime-ridden neighborhood of Brooklyn that, unlike much of the rest of the borough, remained impoverished. One of the floors I saw was the Alzheimer’s unit and when I began, I had no idea what to do or make of folks suffering from this awful disease. It simply felt like chaos at first. The other variable my little anxious self had not anticipated was that I was the only white person on the floor, save for the retired Episcopal priest who was deep into his disease progression. Everyone else, staff and residents were black, Islanders from places like Jamaica, and Trinidad. The combination of dementia and me being in the distinct minority was eye opening for me. You see, Alzheimer’s begins by robbing people of their short term memory, and then seems to work backwards, erasing their memories of their immediate family and loved ones, and seems to take them back to their memories from many years before. And that is exactly where most of these residents were when I met with them. So when they saw me their memories were not about the good old days. Instead, they recounted experiences of discrimination and humiliation. One woman kept telling me how dirty her dark skin was, over and over and over again, another man talked with me about how we were not allowed to sit in the same care on the train in which his memories had us riding. Then there was the woman who was clearly working with a sewing machine who was pleasant and happy, but who kept differing to me, saying “yes, ma’am, yes ma’am.” Uninhibited by their disease, these folks told it like it was, or like I thought it once was but wasn’t anymore. What did this have to do with me, I wondered because I was feeling some kind of guilt. In these encounters I went from novice chaplain to the perpetrator of an evil I thought I had only read about—in my head I told myself that I had not banished them to the colored only car, or told them their skin was unworthy, yet here I was, caught up in a story that I had never claimed as my own but I was still a part of. And while it wasn’t about me per se, it was about my whiteness. Seeing me brought these kind of memories back to these residents. And as I got a glimpse of what it meant to be a person of color, I experienced being white in a new way, a way that was deeply disturbing to me. This is not what I had signed up for. I ended up having many teachers that summer, but these three I will never forget.

                So when I read Debbie Irving’s book Waking up White[1], I found myself understanding her discomfort and confusion as she explored what it means to be white and how that also means privilege. She shares how uncomfortable it was to discover what that meant for people of color who did not have the same advantages.

    But, what does she mean by privilege? Well, that could be many things; privilege can mean being able to afford collage, not having to face food insecurity, the privilege to live in a peaceful country, the privilege to grow up in a home, to not have to face bigotry or violence because of who you are, to be able to access certain benefits, such as citizenship, the privilege to walk into a store and not face immediate suspicion, the privilege to ride in any car you wish on a train, or the privilege to not hate your own skin. For Ms. Irving, privilege was having all of these things including easy access to financial resources, society, social capital, and the ability to choose her future without fear. What she writes about is her discovering that her good fortune was not as straight forward as it seemed. To summarize her point: the circumstances around her family that allowed them to thrive were the positive outcomes of related circumstances that often held back people of color. Her privilege was, in part, hers due to her being white. The reasons she names for this are numerous and go beyond mere attitude but encompass history, policy and bad science. But to read this and to hear this can make many of us who are also white, uncomfortable. We think: I didn’t hurt anyone and I worked hard to be where I am, and here’s what I do to be a good citizen….I know I certainly didn’t grow up thinking I had anything to do racism. I grew up in a Polish-Catholic community. Diversity was me being the Italian kid. Racism was something that happened elsewhere.

                But that is not how racism or any injustice works. While we may not be directly responsible for it, we still find ourselves born into societies where injustice not only exists, but thrives.  As Ms. Irving points out, where we are born often determines if we benefit from injustice or suffer from it. When we benefit, we are privileged. And while we do not have control over where we are born, we do have control over whatever privilege we do have, using it only for our own benefit, or sharing it with others.

    In the gospel reading today, Jesus is traveling along with his disciples and his followers are having an embarrassing conversation on who is the greatest.  It doesn’t even sound like they are humble-bragging, just straight up arguing about who is tops. And why not? Being great has its perks—power and privilege, not to mention adoration. But Jesus brings a child among them and reminds them that in the kingdom of heaven, being greatest means being least, it means being a servant to all, and that to welcome God is to welcome someone like that little child. Children in the ancient world had no status, no privileges or rights, they were not valued like they are today. As such, Jesus is not just talking about children, but about anyone who lacks status and who might be seen as a non-person. Today that would be: the working poor, people of color, immigrants, the mentally ill, the developmentally disabled, any group of people that has been marginalized and harmed.

    From Jesus’ example, we are to welcome those who have been left out and disenfranchised, and furthermore, identify with them and become like them—making their struggle our struggle. You see, it is not enough to not do harm, it is not even enough to be innocent; we are called to address injustice and seek righteousness, to welcome those who have been given no welcome, no place to belong, we are called to care where others and even ourselves, have either been hostile or unconcerned. As I discovered in that nursing home so long ago, I have a place in the story of systemic racial injustice, we all do, and I need to understand what that looks like and respond as God would have me. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote: … there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings…indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”[2]

    For Christians, privilege is not to be sought; it does not define us.  What does is our love for one another. Everything we do, how we are in the world, how we treat one another, comes out of our love for God. The late Peter Gomes tell us, “The love of God is not just a sentimental obligation but the incorporation of a worldview that we respond to God as God acts towards us. To be created in God’s image…is to realize that we have been made worthy by one who is worthy….To love God is to reflect on God the love that brought us into being.”[3] It is a love that serves all others, it is a love that motivates all of our action in the world. Our disciple friends were wrong to argue about who was greatest because they had missed the point: in God’s eyes, we are all worthy and beloved. From the emperor to the smallest child. So when we see our brothers and sisters struggling, it is our impetus to respond because they are made in the image of God, worthy of dignity and love.  

    Privilege is sneaky and slippery—it can be a word we are afraid to utter, let alone own, and it’s hard because privilege can be very different from one person to another. It can be hard to get on the same page around it. But it is a real thing that we should be mindful of. It is different from grace and blessing, for those things are meant for everyone. Privilege, on the other hand, often comes to us or not by pure luck, by us being born into it, or not being born into it. Unacknowledged, it can lead us to forget that our very beings are only possible by God’s love and grace. Unacknowledged it can lead us to think of ourselves as better than others, more worthy, more capable. Acknowledged, it can be a tool of healing and love. But at the end of the day, it is something we need to talk about.

    Let me close with this prayer by Walter Bruggeman that is a particularly powerful response to the question of privilege:

    We are your people, mostly privileged

                                        Competent

                                        Entitled

                                       

    Your people who make future for ourselves  

                                        Seize opportunities

                                        Get the job done

                                                    And move on.

    In our self-confidence, we expect little

                            Beyond our productivity;

                            We wait little for that which lies beyond us,

                And then settle with ourselves at the center.

     

    And you, you in the midst of our privilege, our competence, our entitlement.

     

    You utter large, deep oaths beyond our imagined futures.

    You say—fear not, I am with you.

    You say—nothing shall separate us.

    You say—something of new heaven and new earth.

    You say—you are mine. I have called you by name.

    You say—my faithfulness will show concretely and will abide.

     

    And we find our privilege eroded by your purpose,

                Our competence shaken by your future,

                Our entitlement unsettled by your other children

     

    Give us grace to hear your promises.

    Give us freedom to trust your promises.

    Give us patience to wait and humility to yield our dreamed future to your large

                                        Purpose. Amen. [4]

     

    [1] Irving, Debby. Waking up White: and Finding Myself in the Story of Race. Elephant Room Press, 2014.

    [2] Heschel, Abraham. The Prophets. Jewish Publication Society, 1962.

    [3] Gomes, Peter J. The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News? HarperCollins, 2007.

    [4] Bruggemann, Walter. Prayers For a Privileged People.