A reflection on the readings for Proper 25C: Proper 25C: Joel 2:23-32; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14
The sun, on a warm June afternoon, reflected brightly off the white van that carried a family of six to the church parking lot. Refugees from Rwanda, this family had been granted asylum in the United States. The home, arranged for them by the refugee agency the church worked with, was behind schedule in preparation, and for a few days the family had no place to live. The congregation and I had spent a week turning classrooms, empty for the summer, into bedrooms and a meeting room into a living room. Our kitchen refrigerator was filled with food and the bathrooms had been equipped with the means by which the family could bath.
A small group of us from the church and refugee resettlement agency met them in the church parking lot. We were prepared to give them a tour, explain a few things to them, such as don’t let the kids run into the street because cars will hit them. And, the rabbits, squirrels, and birds on the property are not food….and, here is how to light the gas oven in the kitchen.
A single mother with four children ranging in ages from seventeen to four and a grandmother, although it was unclear how the grandmother was related to the family. The family had been traveling for more than forty hours – from a refugee camp in the Congo to an airport in the Sudan, to Paris, and then to Chicago.
What I remember most clearly of that afternoon is the hauntingly blank look in the eyes of the mother of this brood. What I saw spoke of a life of so much pain and suffering and exhaustion that she had completely shut down. Who knew how much fear and violence she had survived or what she had to do to get her family to this place.
Recent studies are beginning to describe the phenomenon of what happens to people, children and adults, who are repeatedly exposed to trauma such as the violence of terrorism, war, or mass shootings. A singular simple episode that frightens us and stirs up our survival reflexes can be a good thing, reminding us how to protect ourselves.[i] But extreme trauma and repeated episodes of trauma cause changes in the brain that lead to depression and disassociation, such as the look I saw in the eyes of this mother. I think of her, and those lifeless eyes, every time I read or hear about violence in the world around us. I think, how can human beings be so cruel to one another?
Our scripture readings this morning call us to be attentive to how we are living as the body of Christ. As Christians we have a calling to live our lives a certain way – to live love God, love others, and love ourselves. We are called to live with gratitude for the gifts we have been given, to grow in understanding of how our lives impact others in the world, and when our actions are causing others to suffer, we are called to reconcile that reality and live with an increased sense of awareness and compassion.
This weekend our Vestry and your clergy attended the diocesan convention for the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan along with about a thousand, maybe more, Episcopalians across SE Michigan. Our SCHOOL project in Liberia had a table in the exhibit hall with a slide show of our mission work in Liberia. Many people stopped by, shared stories of their experiences in Liberia, learned about the school project, and bought a raffle ticket.
In many ways we were reminded in this convention to:
Come to know one another better.
Grow in faith.
The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefforts Schori, joined us for our Diocesan Convention. Our own Bishop Gibbs honored her well and we had an opportunity to thank her for her leadership these seven years. Among other ways she was present with us, Bishop Katharine spent part of Friday afternoon answering questions. She took the microphone and walked through an audience of several hundred Episcopalians, looked them in the eye as they asked their question and as she responded. It was an hour of story sharing – of what it has been like to be the Presiding Bishop over these last seven years, and two remaining, how she has experienced the world around us, and her sense us. She reminded us to listen, share stories, come to know one another better, grow in faith.
The primary way the Episcopal Church is organizing itself for story sharing and growing in faith is through something called, “The Five Marks of Mission.” The Five Marks of Mission were developed between 1984 and 1990 by a group called Anglican Consultative Council. The Five Marks give parishes and dioceses around the world a practical and memorable “checklist” for mission activities. Bishop Katharine noted that mission is about receiving love and then responding by going out and sharing. “It is a matter of calling the near and the far off together into the fold. It is about healing and reconciling. It is about making God’s love incarnate in our lives, in the lives of people around us, and in the lives of people on the other end of the earth.”[ii]
Essentially these Five Marks are: 1. be the love of God in the world. This means we are to be the face of Christ to one another, the incarnation. 2. We do this by extending love to others, engaging in a mutual practice of listening and story sharing, 3. tend to the broken places in the world, work to transform the unjust structures of society – not just use band-aides but working to change the infrastructure that causes global economic failure and poverty, 4. work to change the infrastructure that leads to violence, oppression, and abuse, and 5. live our lives in such a way that we contribute to a healthy environment and not a polluted one.
There is so much trauma in the world today, available instantly on television and social media – quickly and easily we can become overwhelmed and come to believe that nothing we do will make a significant difference. Bombarded with images we shut down and fail to see the pain and suffering. Overwhelmed we become desensitized to violence, we disassociate and block out the feelings the images convey.
Mounting global issues may at times leave us feeling insignificant. However I believe that we at Christ Church are working every day, whether we know it or not, on our mission, making our mark, transforming lives in the world.
Think about the work we are doing with Blessings in a Backpack, the School Project in Liberia, the money we have invested in Opportunity Resources which enables people on the margins to acquire small business and home loans, and our Holiday Market that supports local artists. Think about how we share this church building and how we share our resources. I hear stories every week from people in AA to dance students, from a wide range of people who deeply appreciate who we are and what we do. None of these stories are grandiose. Each one is a simple story of thanksgiving.
This is our mission in the world, simply told, one story at a time.
One dance class, or martial arts, or stretching, or tai chi.
One child in preschool or Sunday school.
One person visited in the hospital.
One young adult on a pilgrimage.
One piece of bread.
One sip of wine.
Our recipe for hope.
[ii] Episcopal Church Center website