NOTE: This is a print version of Pastor Peter’s sermon from Sunday, June 14, 2020. The scripture was: Matthew 9:35-10:8. To listen please visit our sermons page.
Grace and Peace to you from God our Parent, Christ the Rebel, and the overwhelming groans of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I’m going to start out today in a place I often do, and in the well that I dip my cup most when life is chaotic and uncomfortable and uncertain:
By recalling and sharing a story about my mother, who died of cancer when I was 19.
It’s really strange and you just don’t know this as a young adult or as a child (depending on how you view 19), but I promise you that I never imagined her to be where I draw inspiration for so many of my ministry moments and learning and growth and still-influencing influences.
I honestly didn’t imagine ministry at all, much less those who were shaping me.
But that’s kinda how the great cloud of witnesses works—doesn’t it?
There is just something about mother’s too.
And crying for momma. That just never ends.
My kids do it all the time. Especially if their Dad is the one currently telling them “No.”
But in many ways, “Momma” is a cry that never stops.
Sometimes feeling like it is the only cry left.
“Momma” we heard was one of the most painful pleas for help that George Floyd cried out too.
A World in Your Toy Box
But back to my memory: When I was a struggling sophomore in High School, my mom decided to start her own business.
To my knowledge, it’s the only one she ever had.
The only idea she felt the urgency and the gap to launch.
It was a small non-profit.
During most of my childhood, my mom had pretty much been a stay-at-home-parent.
Of course she volunteered and sat on the board of the PTA, organized block parties, wrote scripts for the Christmas program, and held vast knowledge of local legislators contact information.
But that is just what Mommas do. Right?
But at some point, along the way, in working and volunteering with primarily immigrant and refugee communities in the small farm-labor canning-factory town of Owatonna Minnesota, she decided to create this unusual non-profit called “A World in Your Toy Box.”
I still have the original banner that she stitched together by hand to share her message for this “multi-national toy conglomerate.”
On it you can see:
There is like a non-western-centric globe and a bright yellow sun and some hearts of different sizes and shapes with little curious buttons which was my mom’s trademark—and this sort of three-dimensional box, with gradiently (not sure if that is a word) colored felt people-shapes swirling around and floating in it…..
From like light beige to deep chocolate brown and reddish sand.
My mom initialed the very bottom corner PMR 02.’
Pauline Marie Redmond, 2002.
You can probably imagine the kind of baffled look on my 15 year-old face when my mom hand-stitched this banner and told me that her new side gig was to be going around to school events and regional conferences and church forums….
Advocating and raising money for black and multi-racial families to find things to play with and read and share that reflected their likeness because most major department stores didn’t carry a wide enough selection. Especially in small town Minnesota.
And my mom’s business model was essentially not to make a dime and give these resources away.
Some of the dolls she even made herself.
I probably rolled my eyes pretty hard.
I didn’t realize it at the time, and I cringe at the thought of my embarrassed reaction, but what my mom was practicing with “A World in Your Toy Box” and what she was teaching me is how to be an anti-racist.
For my mom, even in the last years before she died much too soon, racism was not a tertiary issue or something that black people must solve or fix.
It was a virus that affected us all, and a particularly missed opportunity for white folks.
It was and is a fundamental misunderstanding and damaging theology of the human and God-Beloved family that we must constantly work against.
My mother knew there was no neutral when it comes to being racist or anti-racist in this empire.
You either make dolls or you don’t.
In the words of historian Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s most recent best-selling auto-biography:
“The opposite of racist isn’t ‘Not Racist.’ Which is so often the way how white folk respond:
‘I’m not Racist.’ Or ‘I am least racist person you have ever met.’
The opposite of racist is being ‘Anti-racist.’”
The difference that Dr. Kendi points out is: whether one either allows racial inequities to persevere, like the lack of color-rich dolls, or one confronts and acts on these racial inequities.
You either let a complex system of racial inequity persist, or you actively try to build one that is racially equitable.
Dr. Kendi concludes much like Yoda in the Star Wars series:
Do or do not. There is no try.
There is no in-between safe space of racist and not-racist in this empire.
There is only racist and anti-racist.
Much like Martin Luther swayed in the move back and forth from sinner to saint.
In this world, we are always both, sinner and saint, but never neutral.
And in this current climate that is unveiling much about who we are the pain that still lingers from racism. We too are never neutral.
Neutrality is an illusion of privilege.
Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew
The story we hear today from Matthew’s gospel is a strikingly chaotic scene.
There is no mistaking it, these are anxious and uncertain days for God’s people, as the life of God’s people often was under empire rule and repeated occupation.
Matthew’s Gospel describes the crowds of people surround and responding to Jesus’ ministry “as harassed and helpless.”
Like sheep without a shepherd.
Likely on the brink of despair.
Feeling stretched to survive and not knowing what to do next.
They are desperate and divided.
Fighting over scarcity on the bottom.
Bearing in their own bodies the trauma of patterns of violence and brutality.
And then we get one of the most beautiful depictions of Jesus’ leadership in all the Gospels as he joins this crowd and responds to this heavy harvest.
Jesus has compassion for them.
Jesus has concern, and care, and empathy, and he hears their cries.
Jesus listens to the harassed and helpless, not as a problem to solve or fix, but healing and transformative work to join in together.
Accompaniment in action.
There are sicknesses to heal.
Outcasts to be welcomed in.
Hearts and bodies to be mended.
Demons to be exorcised.
Banners to stitch and dolls to make.
Jesus vs. the Disciples
Now it’s one thing for Jesus to do this work and ministry alone.
To heal and raise the dead and serve the sick.
To not stand by and not be neutral.
I mean it’s Jesus after all.
The Disciples Work Too
But it’s a whole other thing for the disciples to embody this work as well.
The disciples likely felt harassed and helpless too.
Unprepared for the journey ahead.
Without a cent to their name, no bags, no extra tunics.
And here’s the even harder and a really important reminder for us.
Jesus isn’t sending them off to some unknown land or people.
To the Gentiles or even the Samaritans. That work will happen too.
But first, Jesus sends them to likely the hardest—their own ZIP code.
To their own tribe. To their own families.
To those asleep and silent, comfortable and subtly placated by a system that hasn’t hurt them quite as bad as it has hurt others.
And Matthew’s recording of this moment makes it explicitly clear that there are going to be wolves.
There are going to be detractors and push back.
There always has been.
Peace without Justice is never easy.
But Jesus says:
“Don’t let it bog you down.”
Don’t let it stop your progress.
Keep moving on, dust your feet off, let your peace fall and let it go.
What convicts me and challenges me is also what gives me hope in this passage in 2020.
Jesus is not neutral.
He is not silent.
And Jesus trusts us, he entrusts us, in this difficult work too.
That’s not to say that the disciples aren’t going to be nervous.
That they aren’t going to worry about what to say, about getting it wrong, and making mistakes. (Or even overly inarticulate sermons like this one.)
But growth for all of us is part of the movement too. Lest we forget that this revolution isn’t about us.
Because the harvest is still heavy.
There is still work for us to do.
The world has not healed from the virus and the sin of racism and white supremacy.
There are still demons dwelling in our systems that need to be exorcised and repaired and rebuilt.
That have far too long divided our ZIP codes and overly sanitized our toy boxes.
It’s not just the police or prison. It’s also our preschools and our parks and paid time leave.
It’s our churches and our housing and our hospitals.
And God is calling us to the harvest to heal, to build safer communities until we are God’s justice and our justice falls down like the waters.
I want to say in closing and in sharing this reflection that I do not speak or act from a pedestal, but am still learning and becoming more aware of my participation in racism as a white straight cis-gender male in this country.
Dr. Ibram X. Kendi notes that we move constantly back and forth between racist and anti-racist.
Between sinner and saint.
But I also share for my own accountability and to those who have been advocating and leading and resisting and championing Jesus’ reconciling and anti-racist love and moving us forward together for much longer than I have.
All I know is that as followers of Jesus, we cannot remain neutral.
We had no idea that we that we’d be in this place in 2020, fighting two deadly viruses at the same time.
But we are.
And the world is looking for us to respond. Looking to our city. To our communities.
To join God’s work in the harvest of love and equity and inclusion for all.