There was a time when I looked up to my mentors in the ministry and thought to myself, “Why on earth do they not take all of their continuing education leave? When I’m a minister I will take every single one of the twenty one days allotted!” This January I found myself 15 years into the ministry and without a single day of continuing education taken—and in July those days would disappear. So I set out to find a conference that would renew my mind and spirit. So it was that on June 5 and 6 of this year I attended the Justice Conference in Chicago, Illinios. I knew that there would be a good many evangelical church leaders at that conference but I had hope that the subject matter would tame the usual evangelical enthusiasm for Jesus. I was wrong. We sang umpteen praise choruses about Jesus, about how he had saved us by his sacrifice on the cross, about how he is our Lord and Saviour (with a capital L and S).
But what was truly amazing was that as I listened to the words of the speakers at the conference there was none of the stereotypical arrogance that we hear from the most loudmouthed self appointed church leaders in the States. Rather there was a genuine seeking of relationship with those who were on the margins of society—not for the sake of self satisfaction but because it is the only way in which we can honour Jesus—the One in whom love and justice were united. There were enthusiastic explorations of the racism gripping the United States—including racism and oppression of the First Nations. There were calls to drop the constant vocal opposition to abortion and same sex marriage and to pick up a constant call against poverty and for reconciliation. I had some doubts before attending that conference but it turned out to be a wonderful way to recharge my faith and my understanding of justice.
And perhaps the most wonderful thing about it was that the seeking of justice, the stance of humility taken by the people there was done in perfect harmony with an emphasis on Jesus and who he was and is in our lives. The first keynote speaker was Dr. Cornel West from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, a black theologian who was arrested in the protests in Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting of Michael Brown. He was talking about the white supremacist society of America and the need for us to reconcile the race divide. But he surprised me when he said that the white churches did not need to come alongside the black churches as allies. I had a textbook in seminary called, “Becoming an Ally” and it was influential in my thoughts and behaviours around justice. Dr. West continued however, “We don’t need allies, we want you to come as followers of Jesus.” It then struck me that indeed, we in the church don’t need to learn how to be allies—well maybe there are some things we can learn. But the source of our energy, our humility, our gentleness and our boldness comes from the person of Jesus Christ. And we omit Jesus from the centre of our church at our peril.
In today’s reading from the gospel of Mark Jesus goes to preach in his hometown synagogue. And his neighbours are, shall we say, less than impressed. They thoughts are recorded, “Hey isn’t this the carpenter who used to live in town? His brothers and sisters all live here but he abandoned his poor mother. What is he some kind of big shot now?” This is not exactly what is recorded in the bible but I could imagine it happening. When they first started the CBC television show “The Smartest Canadian” much was made about the fact that no one from Saskatchewan was registered for the show. My personal opinion is that didn’t indicate a lack of intelligent Saskatchewanians but rather no one from Saskatchewan wanted to admit that they were that smart because everyone in Saskatchewan has a grandmother, grandfather, great uncle or aunt who will remind them that they aren’t so smart and I changed your diapers when you were a baby! We don’t want anyone getting too big for their britches! Jesus is surprised at this lack of support but he does his best to try to heal the people there who are willing to accept his help but it is difficult without his hometown believing that he is special.
I wonder if the United Church has given up on Jesus. Like Nazareth, we who have been Christ’s hometown in this modern world don’t provide our faith in the name of Jesus. We are embarrassed of him because of what has been done in his name the tragedy of the residential schools coming most to mind. How can we proclaim the name of Jesus when so many indigenous children were taken away from their families, ripped from their culture and even abused and neglected until death—in his name? Honestly even as a minister I have been at time ashamed of the name of Jesus and have done linguistic backflips to try to talk about God’s redeeming love without talking about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But seeing at the Justice Conference the love of people for Jesus, combined with the hunger and thirst for justice in this world, gave me a new perspective. Even though it was only days after the presentation of the Truth and Reconciliation report I could see that there was value in the gospel and in the person of Jesus. After all, it was the failure of the church that those children were abused in the name of Christ. Jesus the first century Jew would never have agreed with an empire occupying populated lands and seeking to eliminate the indigenous culture there. That is exactly what the Roman Empire tried to do with Judea in Jesus’ time! When the children were being buried at the residential schools Jesus was not with the priests and nuns at the Mass or with the lay people from the United Church but Jesus was with those children who were crying silent tears. Jesus, who let the children come to him, was plotting with the residential school students how to escape back to the reserve. Jesus was with them trying to spark their memories into remembering and learning some Cree or whatever language was their own. For Jesus did not die on the cross for white people—Jesus died for the sake of the world so that all of us might know God’s great and ever abiding love for us. And indeed Jesus was already present on Turtle Island if the settlers had only eyes to see. In the resurrection power of the frozen land from winter’s grip, in the wise legends of Raven who was able to turn his opponent’s words against him, like Jesus. That is not to say that we need to label Native spirituality as a type of Christianity. It is to say that the spirit of the divine was already in this land long before most of our ancestors. And the story of Jesus is not a story of coming and conquering, the story of Jesus is a story of eating together and listening.
If we are to be the people of God in this strange and uncertain time we have to rely on Jesus and put him at the centre of our church. Without Jesus there is the temptation to think that we can fix the problems of the world by ourselves which we surely cannot. Without Jesus there is the temptation to ignore the spiritual part of the world’s unjust structures of economy and war. Without Jesus who regarded status as nothing, who ate with tax collectors who would have been above him in status and prostitutes below him and Pharisees somewhere in the middle—without Jesus we would be tempted to think of ourselves as above or below in status. As it is we are all sisters and brothers in Christ, giving to each as there is need—not an equal share but what is needed by each.
And ultimately we need Jesus because of his self sacrificing love. Whether you believe Jesus was the atoning sacrifice for our sins on the cross or whether you believe that his death was the consequence of his actions in Jerusalem on Holy Week, Jesus’ death was the result of his love for humanity. Jesus refused to deny the link between love and justice and for that refusal he was crucified. But Jesus was vindicated because he was raised from the dead and the power of God’s love was revealed and the weakness of violence and domination was exposed. We need Jesus because he showed how this self sacrificing love is the cornerstone of living a life of integrity and peace. Jesus showed us this.
So do not be afraid to call yourself a follower of Jesus! There is nothing in Jesus to be ashamed about. Do not let the loudest and crassest voices in this world have the final say in who Jesus is! He is love, he is mercy, he is giving and he is life and life in its fullest. We are not members of the United Church here—we are not members of St. Martin’s or Grace-Westminster. We are followers of Jesus—wherever he leads us. Amen.