I stand before you this morning a little at a loss, pipe bombs and mass shootings and antisemitism. I say I’m a little at a loss, though not completely. We’ve been here before, haven’t we? I’ve had to stand in this pulpit and in front of you now, too many times to count, following an act of terror, following the murder of innocents. Today was…is, supposed to be a day of gratitude, a day when we gather our gifts, and offer them in thanksgiving to God for the growth happening in our midst. But, to stick to the script, to preach to you a sermon full calls for thankfulness, might ring somewhat hollow with all the hatred and violence we’ve encountered just this past week. What is going on in our world?
If you blinked in the news cycle, you might have missed the local story of St. Thomas freshman, Kevyn Perkins, who woke last Friday to a racist slur scrawled on his dorm room door. If you were to read the comments section under this story in our local paper (and, yes, I know, you should NEVER EVER read the comments), you would stumble across the kind hatred and vitriol enough to make a Klan member blush. Interspersed in this more blatant racism, is embedded a subtler form of discrimination. Comment after comment “wonders” aloud if the kid made this whole scenario up? Is he just trying to get attention? After all, say the comments, we all can recall instances in recent history where this is exactly what happened. And, so, with doubt planted firmly in our minds, we can silence Kevyn’s voice, disregard his story, and go on feeling like things are just hunky dory in our world. That kind of racism just doesn’t happen that often anymore. Right?
This Wednesday I joined almost 80 other people in our gym to listen to Jaylani Hussein from the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) as he discussed hate crimes, Islamophobia, and strategies we might deploy to resist this growing hatred in our communities. Hussein’s life was recently threatened and the man who had made the threats, along with three other friends, was denied access to St. John’s and lurking just outside during Jaylani’s presentation. Is this kind of hatred a figment, something made up, a plea for attention? Even if it were, it says something about US as a culture that this is a common, and often first reaction, to wonder about the veracity of the victim’s story. To silence the victim, before she has even finished telling us her tale. Jaylani pointed us to Department of Justice statistics that show that well over half of all hate crimes go unreported.
Women will tell you the same story when it comes to sexual discrimination, harassment, assault, and, yes, even rape. Our ability to sow seeds of doubt, our discomfort with looking the hatred and evil that lurks in plain sight, manifested in the lives of leaders and bosses and the powerful, is too much for us. So we silence. We hush. We discredit.
Such is the story in part, in the gospels today. Jesus, in Mark’s account, is hurrying on his way toward Jerusalem, toward the death he has now predicted awaits him there. And, along his path a crowd gathers, no doubt pressing him for teaching and wisdom, healing and hope. Through this crowd cuts the voice of Bartimaeus, a blind beggar. “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” Mark reports that many in the crowd sternly ordered him to be quiet. This blind man, a beggar, a taker, a mooch, has the temerity, the absolute audacity, to interrupt Jesus, to disrupt the teaching of this great rabbi, to break their attentive listening, for what, for a shekel, a coin, a little bit of mercy? I wonder if he’s even blind to begin with? What’s he begging for anyway? I bet he’ll just use the money for wine! The crowd attempts to silence Bartimaeus. But, Bartimaeus will not keep quiet. He shouts all the louder, and Jesus hears him, comes to him, and asks him “What do you want me to do for you?”
I am disheartened that so many of us in the church would rather adopt the posture of the crowd, would doubt victims, would silence those in need, would ignore the needs of the desperate, rather than take the posture of Jesus, rather than BE the Body of Christ in the world, and ask “What do you want me to do for you?” Even now, this very morning, as a caravan of asylum seekers moves steadily toward our southern border, so-called good Christians, are wondering whether they should volunteer to gather their guns and ammo, to go to the border, to keep these people out, to silence the plea for help before it can even reach our ears.
It is hard to speak about, let alone think about gratitude in the midst of such a world this morning. Then I came across this delightful passage by writer and biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann. He says:
“Imagine having a sacrament named ‘thanks’! We are on the receiving end, without accomplishment, achievement, or qualification. It is a gift, and we are grateful! That moment of gift is a peaceable alternative that many who are ‘weary and heavy-laden, cumbered with a load of care’ receive gladly. The offer of free gift, faithful to Judaism, might let us learn enough to halt the dramatic anti-neighborliness to which our society is madly and uncritically committed.”
That is to say, there is profound possibility if we were to practice giving thanks, as if it were a sacrament, a holy practice. There is profound possibility for our own ability to resist and even transform from the ugliness manifested in our world, from the crowd, silencing and ignoring the victim, toward the presence of Jesus. Practicing gratitude, giving gifts thankfully in service of others, could transform us into people capable of asking “What do you want me to do for you?”
As the oft quoted (at least in this pulpit) Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “To become fully human means learning to turn my gratitude for being alive into some concrete common good. It means growing gentler toward human weakness…It means learning to forget myself on a regular basis in order to attend to the other selves in my vicinity.”
You could say, gratitude as understood in the Christian mind, is not just a sentiment. Gratitude is a discipline! We have to work at it. We have to practice it. It is a part of our resistance to the powers and principalities of this world. It is a tool in our toolkit, a weapon in our arsenal, toward creating the peaceable world, toward building the kingdom of God. Gratitude is but one way in which we resist the market’s insistence that we and our bodies and our work are all commodities. Gratitude, hard won, wrestled out of pain, makes us people capable of welcoming the stranger, makes us capable of respecting the dignity of our black and brown and rich and poor and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and, yes, trans neighbors. Gratitude can help us be the people who hear the cries for mercy.
I am brought to mind of the French Village, Le Chambon, who harbored more than 5000 Jews during the Nazi occupation of France. Their story was only told decades after, when reluctantly they began to receive praise for their work. Their response? “How could you call us ‘good’? We were doing what had to be done.” Not a single jew who happened upon the village or who came to them seeking refuge and asylum was turned away. The villager routinely sited their response as rooted deeply in their commitment to the way of Jesus, and their own shared experience of prior persecution. They were, by Christian discipline, able to hear the cry of the oppressed. The day after France surrendered to the Nazis, the village pastor preached a sermon wherein he said “The responsibility of Christians is to resist the violence that will be brought to bear on their consciences through the weapons of the spirit.”
At the end of the day, our job as Christians is not to bemoan the state of the world, or to come inside the church merely to be comforted. Nor are we called to come into this space to think holy thoughts which we can promptly set aside when we re-enter the real world. To be the church is to practice those things like gratitude that make us grow into people capable, like Bartimaeus, to get up and follow Jesus on the way, even when that way leads right into Jerusalem.