I’m not sure where to begin. Today is Father’s Day and while it is not included in the church calendar, many will be honoring the fathers they love today. As we consider the role of fathers in our lives, there will be the mixed emotions of love and loss; gratitude and anger; celebration and confusion; honor and trauma. While fatherhood is an important and distinct identity for some, the role can be linked with dominance and power over others. Many have put human, fatherly projections upon God in unhealthy and damaging ways. Father’s Day, like Mother’s Day brings up complex thoughts, memories and emotions.
And it’s Juneteenth. We memorialize the end of slavery in the final state where it had been practiced up until 2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. This is the second year it has been a federal holiday. It’s Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Emancipation Day, Black Independence Day. The celebration of Juneteenth has been happening since 1865. In fact the first official celebration in Washington State took place in Kent, WA in 1890. That’s right, 1890.
Most White people in the Pacific Northwest weren’t even aware of this commemoration until less than 10 years ago. This celebration of freedom has been complicated by Jim Crow laws, continued segregation, racism and a failure to engage with the legacy and history of slavery. Juneteenth is part of the reckoning with a past that still determines our present and future.
This necessary truth telling must be accompanied by action that acknowledges harm and works towards repairing the injustices of racism. If I as a White American simply appropriate the trimmings of Juneteenth by holding a party with a traditional Juneteenth menu or putting a banner on my Facebook page without doing the real work of engaging injustice, then I devalue the lives and contributions of African Americans. I’ve listened to some great sermons by African American preachers about marking Juneteenth, but I’m not in a position to deliver one. I’ve got more work to do in study, reflection and action for change.
We can add Pride Month into the mix as well. The work towards dignity and respect for all continues and expands as we learn more about the complexity of human sexual identity. Here we are led and guided by the LGBTQIA+ folks in our midst and the stories and experiences they are willing to share. Again, as a cisgender, heterosexual, married woman, I’ve got more work to do, more listening, more advocacy and more understanding.
At this point my gender, race and sexual identity put me in the position, not of leading any of these celebrations and commemorations, but rather of humbly seeking to understand, love and support those who identify with the events and working alongside them to change the underlying systems which oppress and devalue them.
Preachers often quote the beautiful words from Galatians 3, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Too often these words have been used to diminish the identity of those who are considered “other.” We have often confused unity with unanimity and made comments like, “I don’t see anyone’s skin color; everyone is the same to me.”
And yet, the Apostle Paul never meant to negate a person’s unique identity, even when they converted. In fact, this quote is part of his larger argument as to why Gentiles do NOT need to follow all the Jewish laws and be circumcised in order to be part of the Body of Christ. Paul is reminding the Gentiles that God’s love and the death and resurrection of Jesus are for all people. There is nothing more they need to do than to accept the grace of God and to walk in the way of Christ. Just as the Jewish people are not required to reject their Jewish identity in order to affirm faith in Jesus.
Christian unity, being part of One Body, one Spirit, one hope in God’s call to us, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism; one God and Father (Mother) of all, doesn’t entail the loss of our identity and distinctiveness. To be united with God in Christ is to reject dominance, not distinction. (Brad Braxton, paraphrased). We can acknowledge our differences without using them to set up prejudice and inequality. As part of the Body of Christ, we reject anything that devalues our other members, who are our brothers & sisters, siblings in faith.
We know that when one part of the Body is rejoicing, the whole Body rejoices, so with all the fathers, our LGBTQIA+ families, friends and neighbors and with the entire African American community we celebrate Father’s Day, Pride and Juneteenth. We honor the rich history and survival of these groups and the many contributions they make to the beauty and diversity of the whole human race.
Likewise, when any part of the Body is in sorrow, we weep with them. So it is, this week that we mourn with the community of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia, Alabama, where 3 of their members were murdered. And we remember with deep sadness the nine Mother Emmanuel martyrs in Charleston, South Carolina, who died in 2015. The 12 who died and the ripple effects of this violence on thousands of others are the result of gun accessibility, coupled with mental illness and other factors that we may or may not be able to grasp.
This is not the first time we have come together for Sunday worship just days or hours after another horrific, mass shooting. It’s not the first time the violence has touched a Christian church or other house of worship. But it is the first time in my memory that the congregation has been an Episcopalian and one where I know some of those involved personally. Hearing and reading the first-hand accounts from those who are part of this congregation has been heartbreaking.
As a pastor it terrifies me. It’s fair to say that one of the greatest concerns of a father is the safety of his children. I know that people of color have good reason to be concerned for their safety and health in a nation where they suffer far greater consequences from nearly every societal ill. LGBTQIA folks are never sure if they will be fully loved and accepted for who they are and safe to be themselves.
For me, as the priest of this congregation, what keeps me up at night is the fear that someone will be injured or killed at church. My response to the recent shooting is visceral. I can literally imagine what it would be like to be at a church potluck or bible study, when someone we have welcomed becomes violent. St. Luke’s is no stranger to situations where there is an unsettled person whose behavior is threatening. And while we take every precaution, including locking the doors, stationing shepherds to screen and handle situations, providing background checks and training to all staff and volunteers, and having safety equipment on hand, still we are always going to be vulnerable.
Maybe that’s what brings all this together: Father’s Day, Juneteenth, Pride, Elijah in his cave on the mountain, Gentile converts wondering if they fit in and a village plagued by a man with violent and uncontrollable behavior. They’re all vulnerable. We’re all vulnerable.
To love another is to be vulnerable. To be Black in America is to be vulnerable. To be open and out in your sexual identity is to be vulnerable. To speak the prophetic message of God in a hostile situation is to be vulnerable. To love and follow Jesus and not be certain if you will be fully welcomed and accepted is to be vulnerable. And to be mentally ill, unhoused, isolated and in shackles is to be so vulnerable that death and desolation are close companions.
It is these most vulnerable humans in the most difficult situations that God shows up for. God visits Elijah on the mountain in a sound of sheer silence and a still, small voice. God reassures Gentile converts through the Apostle Paul that they do not have to remake themselves into the image of someone else in order to be fully accepted as part of the resurrected Body of Christ.
And then there’s Jesus. He crosses a lake, enters foreign territory, and goes to the outskirts of the village in order to find the one who is most forgotten, despised and suffering – the Gerasene demoniac. Jesus himself becomes vulnerable, willing to share the fate of the outcast and to risk death himself in the face of a demoniac legion.
Jesus brings calm into this man’s chaos. He brings deliverance and freedom to the one who had been possessed by destructive forces. He restores and heals the man and then commissions him as an emissary of God’s love, peace and forgiveness. It was a risky task. Jesus may have been more at risk from the local villagers who were afraid of him and distrusted him than he was from the demoniac, but this didn’t stop him. He was clear in his mission and faithful to the love of God.
Following Jesus does not mean that our safety and security are guaranteed. Loving all our neighbors, including those who are often rejected and despised by others, puts us at risk. We become vulnerable alongside the most vulnerable. We open ourselves to rejection and even violence by welcoming and caring for all. It makes me terribly afraid and anxious at times and yet, by God’s grace we remain true to Christ’s call to love our neighbors as ourselves and to feed people in body, mind and spirit.
As Brene Brown writes:
“Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.” “People who wade into discomfort and vulnerability and tell the truth about their stories are the real badasses.”
This week we join with the vulnerable who are disenfranchised, with those celebrating their survival, with those doing the difficult work of parenthood and with all who are living on life’s margins. We know that we will encounter the living, dying and risen Christ when we join with them. Amen.