“Go….proclaim the good news: The Kingdom of heaven has come near.”
A done deal---the Kingdom is near, God’s Kingdom, right here and right now—not some far away place or time----not after we are dead and buried----but here, Beloved, now. This might be hard to believe during a pandemic, during this time when the ugly reality of the divisive and prejudiced nature of our nation is being revealed, but it is still true, still Gospel, still the Good News: The Kingdom of heaven has come near.”
What does that Kingdom look like? How will we know Kingdom Living when we see it? Friends, there’s no mystery here; the Christ tells us: “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”
Cure the sick: Wear masks, wash your hands regularly, maintain safe physical distance. We do these things to keep others healthy and safe, particularly the vulnerable. Such simple things to do, especially after 430,000 deaths in the world; over 117,000 dead in the United States and rising toward 1,000 in our state of Wisconsin. In a matter of months. Surely, these simple tasks: keeping a safe distance, washing hands, and wearing masks in public are things we can collectively do to slow the rise of these death rates. Right now, in this pandemic, this is how we can cure the sick.
Beloved, by eradicating poverty, demanding a living minimum wage for all, ensuring food security, ending homelessness, companioning those with addiction and mental health issues, protecting our immigrant and refugee siblings who live oppressed lives in the shadows---even while they are working to provide for our food and economic structure--- when we free our siblings from poverty, from hunger and homelessness, from fear and inadequate or non-existent healthcare---we raise the dead.
Cleanse the lepers, Jesus tells us. While we may no longer fear leprosy as we once did, we still treat too many people as the outcast and the marginalized. But, I don’t think those who are outcast and marginalized are the ones with the disease; I think those of us who have status and privilege and who don’t work toward justice for all are the ones who are sick, unhealthy, and diseased. Just this week our trans-siblings have had their healthcare protections in our nation eroded. When we use our voice and our political influence to pushback whenever those who have not been fully protected and welcomed in our society are threatened, we cleanse ourselves of our human tendency to marginalize and ostracize those with whom we are uncomfortable. And Beloved, there’s still a lot of cleansing to do.
We are feeling and seeing the need for cleansing with every protest, every cry from another black mother or father who has lost a child to racism. With every new lynching of a person of color, every blind eye turned to the poverty and lack of clean water for our indigenous and native siblings, every time we allow women to be subjugated and be stripped of her right to make decisions about her own body, every time we allow racism, prejudice, bigotry, hatred and fear to speak---we have demons among us. And these demons are given life by us: by our mindsets, our privilege, our indifference, our laws, our mores and customs, by our systems and our governing rules. And we, those of us with status and privilege, authority and power---we are the ones who must cast these demons out---once and for all.
Today God tells Moses to tell us---we who are bound and tied through the waters of baptism to those first Israelites wandering in the wildernss of Sinai---God tells us: “You shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” And our ancestors said: Everything you tell us, God, we will do.”
Beloved, we know how that turned out. Now, they probably meant everything they said, just as we do when we say the Creed, or renew our baptismal vows, or pray the Lord’s Prayer. We know our ancestors got lost, just as we get lost, that they promised just what we also promise, but then go and do another thing. Why is it so hard, this Kingdom living? Sometimes it is just so very hard to do the right thing, the God thing.
So, right now, Beloved, I want you to close your eyes. Close your eyes and hear God’s Kingdom call to us again: Cure the sick…..raise the dead…..cleanse the lepers…..cast out the demons…..
Take a deep breath. Look within your own heart. What is keeping you from fully living out that Kingdom call? What keeps you from living and giving the love of God in these life-restoring ways, these means of salvation and redemption?
Is it busyness? Blindness? Discomfort? Do you doubt your ability? Have a lack of desire? Is there a misunderstanding? Apathy? Lack of resources? Are you self-centered and inwardly curved? Beloved, where does the sin of racism, the poison of seeing another as less valuable or less worthy live within you, within your heart?
(open your eyes now). Beloved, whatever it is---the obstacle, the barrier, the weed to be rooted out---I invite you to turn that over to God. Now, if you’re like me, there is more than one---so start with just one. One at a time---put that broken piece, that hindrance---right at the center of your prayer life. Ask God to remove it, to mend it. Maybe you need to start by asking for the desire for it to be removed, cleansed, transformed. But, Beloved, this is our work to do---and God is with us in this work, God is for us in this work. And as our hearts, minds, and beings are reformed, we can walk deeper into the Kingdom that has drawn near; we can see and hear and taste it more clearly. And then share it with others---widening the Beloved Community, relationship by relationship. Living together as the holy nation, a kingdom of priests. God’s Kingdom come near.
American Philosopher Dallas Willard puts it this way: “We don’t believe something by merely saying we believe it or even when we believe that we believe it. We believe something when we act as if it were true.”
Beloved: it has been a hard week. On Wednesday we learned that America now has more than 100,000 deaths due to Covid19. And the death count is still rising.
This past Thursday, I was reading an article in the Milwaukee Journal, reporting on America’s ghastly record of 100,000 deaths due to coronavirus. In the article, the daughter of a man who died from the virus in Connecticut said : "For people whose lives haven't been threatened or where the virus hasn't been as rampant through a community, I just think numbers or not, it's still so abstract to so many people. It doesn't matter if it's 200,000, 100,000 or 10. It doesn't mean anything until you're personally affected by it."
It is all too easy to think: “Well, the virus is not too bad here, so we don’t have to be as cautious as New York City.” Or to think: “I am in relatively good health or younger, so I don’t have to worry.” But, Beloved, we know that this virus is made more dangerous because a person can have the virus without having any symptoms. This is why wearing masks is what love looks like right now because the statistics show that if there are two people together, and one is a Covid19 carrier and one is not, there is a very high rate of transmission to the nonCovid person. If only the non-Covid person wears a mask, the possiblity of transmission drops to 70%. If only the Covid19 Carrier wears a mask, the possibilty drops to 5%. And, Beloved, if they both wear a mask, the possibility drops to 1.5%. Why wouldn’t we wear masks in public?
Consider Hong Kong and Singapore, The Wall Street Journal reports that these two cities reported their first cases of the virus in January. “Four months later the densely packed Asian metropolises, with a combined population of about 13 million, have seen 27 fatalities between them.” Only 27 fatalities. Let me put it to you this way: 27 of 13 million is .000002%. America’s death toll, if we had the same percentage of deaths from the Coronavirus as Hong Kong and Singapore ( .000002%) America’s death toll would be 656 deaths. 656. Not over 100,000.
What’s the difference between us and Hong Kong and Singapore? One big difference is that in the Asian culture, people wear masks in public whenever they think they may be sick out of respect for other people. This cultural mindset of the other’s wellness being prioritized over my comfort or convenience or preference has saved thousands of lives. Because prioritizing the wellness of the other, prioritizing the wellness of our siblings at the forefront is how we live salvation. But if our mindset is: “Well, I don’t think it’s going to affect me, so I am just going to keep on doing what I do and living how I live”.......then we reach over 100,000. If our mindset is “I don’t think it’s going to happen here or it isn’t affecting people I know and love---it is happening over there”......then the death rate keeps growing and growing and growing..
A hard week, indeed. And, Beloved, in Minneapolis on Monday, George Floyd was pinned down to the ground, a white police officer’s knee on his neck. George asked for the knee to be removed saying: I can’t breathe. It hurts. It hurts all over. He called for his mother. He repeated that he couldn’t breathe. The knee remained on George’s neck for almost nine minutes; for the last three of those nine minutes, George was unresponsive. George died on Monday. Riots, looting, and protests erupted in Minneapolis and around the country as another black man has needlessly died in the hands of those we trust to keep us safe.
Now hear me, Beloved, hear me: there are many, many good and wonderful police officers; the vast majority of police officers are people who keep us safe, who lay their lives down on the line every day. But we have a sin that is woven into the fabric of American society, a sin that grows from the same root of indifference to others that we are seeing in the spread of the virus in America. This sin can infect even those who have sworn to serve and protect all citizens. And it is the sin of racism.
Beloved, it is hard to come to grips with this sin that we have woven into our ways of being on every level: laws and principles, education, the workforce, entertainment, the Church, housing opportunities, socioeconomic realities----all of it. The truth is: White people—we have authority and status in this country simply because we are white. Our white privilege doesn’t mean we haven’t suffered or struggled. It means our suffering and struggling isn’t due to our skin color.
Even the poorest white person in this country has more opportunity, more safeguards, more protections than most people of color. We Americans do not live out our Constitution that all people are created equally. And we Christians are not living out our baptismal vows to seek and serve Christ in every person, to respect the dignity of every human being. Most of us probably think: “Well, I’m not racist. I don’t have a problem with black people or brown people, with indigenous peoples or Asian people. I’m not racist.”
Beloved, I want to invite us to consider that if we are not actively working against racism in America, then we are racist. If we are not actively learning the truth of how racism works in our legal systems, our justice systems, our housing, our education, our financial and social structures, then we are turning a blind eye because as a white person---it doesn’t affect us. Allowing racism to continue to exist without actively fighting against it is racism.
Racism is born from our indifference to one another and it erodes our connectedness, our unity, our oneness. The very thing the Christ came to earth to show us in Jesus: We are one: with each other and with God. This is the Gospel Truth that is meant to be at the center of everything we do, we sing, we pray, we preach, we live. The wellness and wholeness of my sibling—whether in China or in New York or in Plover or in my house; whether the color of my sibling’s skin is black or brown or white or any shade under the sun; whether my sibling’s name is Ahmaud Arbery or George Flynn---the wellness and wholeness of my sibling is to be my priority. Our priority. If my sibling says: I can’t breathe. There is no peace
Beloved, indifference and racism kill. According to Medpage Today, “Predominantly black U.S. counties are experiencing a three-fold higher infection rate and a six-fold higher death rate than predominantly white counties. Camara Phyllis Jones, MD, PhD, former president of the American Public Health Association said, “There is nothing different biologically about race. It is the conditions of our lives. We have to acknowledge that now and always."
More black Americans are dying of Covid19 because since our country began, we, white people, have looked away from the rampant racism that riddles our country. Our racism has led to people of color having less access than white people: less access to affordable housing, good education, well-paying jobs and advancements, adequate healthcare. We white people have allowed humans to be treated inhumanely, to live as if they are less valuable than ourselves------not because we are monsters, not because we don’t have hearts: But because it didn’t touch OUR lives. It didn’t affect our house.
Beloved, the Christ shows us and tells us that all of Creation is our household. God’s kingdom is our house. Our lives are inextricably and irrevocably connected to all lives. As people who follow Jesus, we are called to set a new normal, a new standard, a new human behavior toward suffering and pain. Like Jesus, we are to put ourselves in the suffering person’s shoes. Because the suffering person---whether she is suffering from Covid19 or his suffering comes from a knee on his neck---the suffering person is our brother, our sister, our beloved.
On this day of Pentecost, I want us as the church to remember that Rain School from our children’s message. The school in that story isn’t the building. The building serves a purpose---to form and build up a community of children, who then form the community of people. And next year, after the storm, that building will look a bit different. And there may even be some new faces and some other faces may no longer be there when they return. But the growing and the forming and the learning will continue---as long as the people who make up the school and who attend the school and who provide for the school remember what they are about.
Same goes for us. Right now, we are feeling the mighty wind of the Holy Spirit—moving in and around us as the storm of the Coronavirus threatens to completely dismantle what has been built. And friends, like the school, America needs a good storm to blow through. We need a storm of justice to blow through us--and dismantle the racism we have built with our own hands. Like Jesus, we are to live as if black lives matter. Because here’s the thing: all lives can’t matter until black lives matter. So, my white friends, we must no longer remain indifferent. We can no longer turn our heads or our hearts away from the ugliness that is ours to dismantle----we have created it, and now we must eradicate it. Starting tomorrow, on our website, there will be a page called: Eradicate Racism. The page will contain things we can do as individuals, and as the Beloved Community, to put an end to this sin of ours, including a new 10 week class/conversation called Sacred Ground that will begin the third week of June.
So, come wind of the Holy Spirit---blow down the barriers we have built in our hearts between us and others. Pour down the rain of God’s love and drown our self-centeredness, our greed, our indifference. Let the walls of what has been be washed away so we can rebuild and start anew. Let us breathe life into our virus-riddled nation by prioritizing our sibling’s health and let us work to put to death the systemic racism that is destroying us from within.
Beloved, the Word tells us that when we are baptized, we take on more than a new name, a new family. We take on a new body. We are clothed with Christ’s body. Beloved, if we are going to call ourselves Christian, if we are going to be the Church, then it is time to put our Jesus on.
Jane Johnson is the pastor and priest of the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran.