In junior high, I was in the musical, The King and I, the Rogers and Hammerstein musical based on the life of a half-Indian, half-British, widowed school teacher, Anna Leonowens, who is enlisted to teach the many children of Siam’s King Mongkut in 1862. One of the tragic side stories involves the recent gift from Burma’s King of the young slave, soon-to-be-wife, Tuptim, and a young scholar, Lun Tha, who accompanied her on the journey. They fall in love, but King Mongkut now owns her (I mean, has married her, becoming one of his many wives) and Lun Tha will be executed if the King discovers their love.
When Tuptim is presented to the King, he looks her over and says he is pleased with her. When she finds Lun Tha later, she tells him about the encounter and scoffs, “he is pleased with me.” And then sings, “He is pleased with me, my lord and master. Declares he’s pleased with me. What could he mean? What does he know of me, my lord and master?” Reassuring Lun Tha that the King might own her body, but does not own her heart.
I always think of this when I read the Matthew passage. Because, language is fluid, shifting, changing, imprecise; and words can indicate one thing in one situation and something entirely different – a sarcasm, metaphor – in another. And because, even though Tuptim makes light of it, there is a resonance deep within.
One of our basest, barest needs is that those whom we respect, whose gaze it matters to be subject of, are pleased with us. Not disappointed in us. Approve of us.
We do anything we can to be in their good graces – even acting as if we don’t care whether we are, perhaps even sabotaging the good graces just to get ahead of them. Show them how unworthy you are before they have the chance to declare it.
We go to great lengths to maintain some sort of control over the good – grace exchange, most of us cave in to lying – to ourselves or to those to whom we give that power. Just to be found worthy of notice.
Am I worthy of your notice? Are you pleased with me? It matters to me.
Why is it, then, that it is so easy to dismiss another person as not worthy of my trust, or attention, even, merely because of his appearance or in which part of town she lives in? When we know how much it matters to us that others are pleased to be in our company, do we withhold?
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations…
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth…
5 Thus says God, the Lord,Isaiah 42:1-9
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
6 I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
7 to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
8 I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
9 See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.
Our God, the Lord is God’s name, gives us our very breath, spirit, and calls us in righteousness! – already righteous! Hold’s our hand – and instead of declaring that God now owns us, says, “I am giving you to each other.” For what? To be a light, a beacon of God’s goodness, to open the eyes that do not yet recognize God, to release the prisoners…
God is pleased with us, and desires only that when we accept that unfathomable grace, we shine that grace onto everyone else. Everyone.
In the OT, the words justice and righteousness and nearly always together. This is so because they qualify each other. That is, justice – a system of community wherein all members have all that they need – and, righteousness – that, if things aren’t just, the community works to make things right. It is not enough to recognize injustice. We are called to righteousness – to make it right – to be active in making things right. And God holds our hand through it all.
I’ve heard the argument that some places are too dangerous for some to venture in for some people. Maybe it doesn’t mean that we are stupid and place ourselves in situations that are known to be dangerous, others have suffered physical harm in this area of town. Although, how many of them do you personally know? And why is it ok for those who actually live there to remain? But, people do stupid things.
I think of Jim Elliott who, with 4 others, went to Ecuador in the 1950s to share God’s goodness to the Huaorani people. And all five were slaughtered. Still, their wives knew eternal Love, as well, and later went back to the people and spoke of forgiveness … And the entire tribe accepted God’s loving forgiveness. How could they do this? They knew the reality of Jesus.
A couple of us are reading Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich’s account of God’s revelations to her during a near fatal illness in 1400s England. She had a profound and nearly tangible vision of Jesus on the cross, and received insight into the Love that this unfathomable act speaks to us. One aspect she explains:
…He brought Our Blessed Lady Saint Mary
to my mind.
I saw her spiritually in bodily likeness,
a simple maid and humble,
young of age and little grown beyond childhood,
in the stature that she was when she conceived with child.
Also God showed in part the wisdom and the truth of her soul
wherein I understood the reverent contemplation with which she
beheld her God and Maker,
marveling with great reverence that He wished to be born of her
who was a simple creature of His own creation.
And this wisdom and truth
knowing the greatness of her Creator
and the littleness of herself who is created)
caused her to say full humbly to Gabriel:
“Behold me here, God’s handmaiden.”Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich, Translated and ordered for daily devotional use by Fr. John-Julian, OJN.
The God who created this teenaged young woman became a couple of cells that divided and divided again inside her uterus, grew into an itty bitty of a newborn, utterly dependent on this faithful child-woman. Who grew to live a life that we live, and taught how God meant for us to do so. And was assassinated for his trouble. Went to hell and back again so that everything was covered by God’s unfathomable Love and Grace. Then remained in Spirit to, again, dwell in each of us, as we dwell in God.
“34 Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable [God is pleased with] to him. 36You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’”Acts 10
If Jesus has appeared to you – if you’ve experienced the consolations of Christ, the reality of God – you are called, actually it says “commanded” to testify to God’s forgiveness and grace, and to do so to everyone “without partiality.” How that looks – to testify of God’s goodness – will be different for each of us, as well as, in circumstance.
And so, Matthew:
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ 15But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’Matthew 3:13-17
John, the messenger of Jesus’ arrival, understood that Jesus was making all things right by accepting baptism from one of God’s creatures.
And then God said, “this is my beloved, and I am pleased with him – very pleased!” This same Jesus through whom all things were created, the “firstborn of all creation; for in him all things… were created… “ Col1.15 and “all things came into being through…”Jn1.3 You and me.
This is what we testify to: that God is well pleased with Jesus, the Beloved child – and because we are created by this God through this same Beloved child, God is well pleased with me! And not because I am a descendent of David a citizen of Israel. Not because I’m a white American and somehow cornered the market on privileged status by accident of birth.
I came into being, along with everyone else – the neighbor across the street, Duchess Meghan and Prince Harry (who are apparently no longer Duchess and Prince), the deep brown skinned young man walking on a street in an area of Rockford that makes me feel uncomfortable. ALL are created by God, through Jesus, and sustained by the Holy Spirit – and God is pleased with you. If only we believe it.
And this is the heart of the matter: when we don’t recognize God’s image in everyone, consider some people less worthy of our attention (whether out of fear or disgust or apathy), we are racist – we categorize that person as a race other than human. Because there is only human.
Drew Hart’s, Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, explains that when any of us are confronted with racism, we tend to fall into defensiveness. It is well documented that white Americans, in particular, tend to acknowledge that, yes, there is racism in our country. Still, it really isn’t an issue in our community.
He goes on to say that even in African American communities, individuals will not go out on a limb to promote change in the imbalance of power and its consequences. We’re all afraid to challenge the status quo. And we all are afraid to face our own prejudices. It is uncomfortable, in the very least, and can be devastating if never recognized in oneself until now.
We need to wake up. But we first need to understand it. And it is no simple task. So I’m begging you to follow through this series, maybe even read through one or more of these books.
The first reality to consider, to understand is that in order for people of color to “succeed” in a white, Eurocentric system and culture, it is requisite these individuals learn white culture (histories, economics, art, poetry). Conversely, you and I are not required to read African, Latin American, even Asian authors and perspectives in order to succeed. Some things are shifting – a bit.
So I challenge you to become learners. Not just of things you find interesting, or with which you are comfortable. But find authors and artists, listen to music, read histories that are produced by people of color.
It may seem like this is rather irrelevant for you here and now…
But, I believe y’all are still relevant! We can still face our prejudices here in practical ways. For one, it is easy to view those who are in the lower socioeconomic strata with negative lenses: lazy, milking the system, lacking sense, manipulative, etc. The reality is that none of us are where we are without other people and systems in place to get us here. And “white trash” is just another color.
So I propose a new mindfulness spiritual practice: Mindfulness of difference. In mindfulness, one does not ignore discomfort and distractions. First, notice. See it for what it is. Hold it and view it from different perspectives (what feelings am I having? Why such a strong reaction? What makes me fearful of it? Where is Jesus in this? etc.) And then, let it go.
With each breath out, release the discomfort – again, and again, until it becomes easier to leave it. On the intake of breath, breathe in the goodness, the Love of God who became human, through whom every person was created (in the image of this Love-God).
Breathe out thoughts of disgust or mistrust.
Breathe in the love of God for this person or peoples.
Breathe out impressions of discomfort and unease.
Breathe in Jesus sight – Jesus’ desire for us to commune, be in relationship with each other.
Breathe out lingering concerns or disregard.
Breathe in the reality of a shared baptism.
Jesus, through whom all things are created, redeemer of all things, asked a man whom many would consider eccentric, or even crazy (potato bag tunic, long unkempt hair, eats locusts and wild honey) – to baptize him.
The Apostle John continues in this vein:
“Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth. [the Spirit in you, and in me and in the one different from either of us] There are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree. If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son. Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.”1 John 5:5-15
Baptism is a testimony that we have eternal life. That is, we have this fullness of life now. All of us do. So what is preventing us from living like this is true? Are we making God out to be a liar by giving into prejudices instead of living into the testimony that God’s love and life are for all people?
This is why we remember our baptism.
Remembering our baptism:
All standing in body and/or spirit.
Sisters and brothers in Christ:
through the sacrament of baptism
God’s Spirit has been poured out upon water,
water poured over and immersing us,
water that flows freely for all who will receive it,
water from the streams of God’s saving power and justice,
water that brings hope to all who thirst for righteousness,
water that refreshes life, nurtures growth, and offers new birth.
Today we come to the waters,
to renew our commitments
in each other’s presence
to Christ who has birthed us,
the Spirit who sustains us,
and the Creator who is making all things new.
Come upon us, Holy Spirit!
Come upon us, Holy Spirit!
Come upon these waters.
Come upon these waters.
Let these waters be to us drops
of your mercy.
Let these waters remind us of your righteousness and justice.
Let these waters renew in us the resurrection power of Jesus.
Let these waters make us long for your coming reign.
We gather to bless one another.
We wrap each other about with our blessing.
Spirit of God, Guard us with watchfulness,
closely surrounding, held firmly with love.
And from the threads of the life that we share
weave for one another a covering of thoughts, love and prayer
that can grow with us and will always be there.
The God of all grace, who has called us to eternal glory in Christ, establish you and strengthen you by the power of the Holy Spirit, that you may live in grace and peace.
(Sources: UMC Discipleship; and The Celtic Daily Prayer Book, Northumbria Community)
God is just and calls us to righteousness. And God is just pleased with me, and with you. Let us take these branches as a reminder to be learners, to practice mindfulness of difference, and allow the hand of God to lead us where justice and righteousness is ready to be made.