Beloved St. John’s community,
Have you ever noticed that people tend to live up to your expectations – whatever they are? Have you ever noticed that your own words, behavior and even demeanor can subtly change based on whom you are with how you perceive them to see you? The gospels tell us that Jesus himself, whenever he went to his hometown, could “not do many deeds of power there because of their unbelief.” (Matthew 13:58). Indeed even science has determined an “observer effect” – that the act of observing impacts the phenomenon observed.
Some religious traditions focus a great deal on purifying one’s perception, for this very reason. Buddhists speak of enlightenment; yogis talk about purification of the heart, so that it as an organ of perception can see clearly. Are we seeing clearly? Surely today’s world shows us that how we perceive things matters very greatly. Jesus, in his famous Sermon on the Mount, said this:
The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! (Matthew 6:22-23).
Our tradition on the whole has not focused much on these words, yet they seem to me a critical teaching for followers of Jesus’ Way of Love in our time. Many times in scripture there is a litany of what our God does… to bring good news to the poor, to let the oppressed go free, to heal the brokenhearted, to give sight to the blind… This capacity of God to open our eyes to what we had previously not seen is a repeated theme in scripture.
And this seems to me essential in two regards. First, to recognize the whole truth of who we are and have been. Our nation, and the church as a whole, has not recognized the depth of wrong that has been committed, and the church’s complicity in it. Why is this important? Is it just time to get over our past and move on? To answer this, think about times in your own life when you have been most wronged against, most hurt or betrayed. It is painful to remember those times, I know. Was there healing or closure? What is your relationship today with the person who committed the wrong? Did that person fully see and own what they had done? What difference did that make, or could that have made, in your life?
The second way in which I believe God seeks to open our eyes, is to the possibility that things can be different than they are. In today’s daily office lectionary reading from Galatians, Paul says this: “Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by believing what you heard?” (Galatians 3:2). In the early church, there was a categorical difference in followers of Jesus after they received the Holy Spirit. Even the disciples of Jesus, while they were in his physical presence, seemed to be ordinary folks who were trying hard to “get it” and mostly falling short. But when they had all “received the Spirit”—become empowered by the same Spirit that created the universe and who resurrected the dead—things dramatically changed in them. Although they certainly had to make effort (following Jesus is never a spectator sport), they needed a power greater than themselves to see any real change.
And in particular, “receiving the Spirit” seems to be linked to “believing what they heard.” I submit to you that this “believing” is about daring to hope that what Jesus teaches can become reality. Surely, in some mysterious way, there is a link between what we can imagine and what can be. Can we dream with God of Beloved Community that is beyond anything we’ve ever seen, because of the presence of God who creates all things? Can we imagine, looking at our city, that God’s Spirit can work through us to begin to dismantle the sin of domination that underlies all racism, sexual abuse, fear of those who are different? Can we imagine a world in which love truly is the way? This is not a weak mild sentimental love, but the love Jesus shows us: a fierce, powerful, relentlessly life-affirming love that refuses to hate or endorse violence, untruth, and selfishness. Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, in his new book Love is the Way: Holding On to Hope in Troubling Times, says that his forbears, African Americans descended from slaves, quoted Booker T. Washington over and over to him, saying: “Never let anyone drag you so low as to make you hate them.”1 Imagine a world in which this has become reality in your life, in our lives, in our city. What would be different?
So having our vision healed is about seeing and telling the truth—both the whole truth about what has happened in our nation and in our city and at our church, and also seeing and believing in the hope of what God promises, Jesus shows and the Spirit empowers.
When we humbly ask God’s help to see others and ourselves truly, many things begin to change. For example, we can no longer simply categorically demonize folks who believe differently than us, nor can we categorically feel good about the totality of our own actions and history. But we can jointly tell the specific truths about our church in Minnesota.2 In twelve step programs, after people “come to believe that a Power Greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity,” they “make a searching and fearless moral inventory of [them]selves,” and then “admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of [their] wrongs.” This is very similar to the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions that occurred in South Africa as apartheid was being dismantled. And it is similar to what is beginning to happen in our nation, in our state, and in our church.
Where does this leave us today?
I’d invite us all to sincerely ask God for the loving humility to see clearly today. Not to see clearly in anything huge or big picture, but in the small things of today. What are you being invited to see and tell the whole truth about? If you could have courage to imagine that God, with you, could heal anything you could admit, then what would you admit? And, what, in your wildest dreams of imagining, could healing look like?
Now, to the One who by the power at work within us can do infinitely more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be the glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus, to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.3
Faithfully, in Christ’s love,
1 Michael Curry, Love is the Way: Holding onto Hope in Troubling Times (Avery, 2020) at 4.
2 For example, here is part of the liturgy with which we opened the 2019 Episcopal Church in Minnesota Convention, written by the Rev. Robert Two Bulls, a Lakota priest:
Presider: We gather this evening on land that is part of the 1851 Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, land that belonged to the Dakota. This treaty was violated by both the settlers and agents of the federal government of the United States and led to great suffering for the Dakota. Eventually, this dishonoring of the Treaty led to the Dakota War of 1862 and the subsequent mass execution of 38 Dakota men in December of that year. The forced removal of the Dakota and our national legacy of white supremacy continues to cause harm to Indigenous communities and other communities of color to this day.
People We acknowledge with humility the historical and contemporary trauma faced by the Dakota and other Indigenous people and ask God to make us reconcilers, healers, and repairers of the breach.
3 Ephesians 3:20-21