“My hope is always when people take their faith and put into action”. This Black History Month challenges us to ask, how we get to that place of hope where our faith is put into action in service to racial justice? Last week we began to talk about the anti-racism journey as one that is never finished, a lifelong journey of stumbling and getting up again. We began to talk about the tools of Christian faith that help us in this work. We invoked the need for confession to bring about the necessary humility that helps us admit mistakes and learn from them. That’s the stumbling bit. This week we’re going to talk about grace, the tool that allows us to get up and continue on the path toward justice.
To me there is no better exemplar of the faith journey as a series of stumbles and the reaching for grace as Peter. I’ve always loved Peter. I love the way his humanity is on full display. I love his boldness and his vulnerability. I love Peter because gives me hope. It’s Peter, the screw-up that Jesus holds close. It’s Peter whom Jesus commissions to be the rock, the foundation for what comes after Jesus. Jesus wasn’t interested in perfection from his followers. Perfection is a stumbling block to the life of faith. Who needs God if you’ve read the manual and have got it all figured out?
Jesus loved Peter for his combination of boldness, humility and utter reliance on grace. I don’t know if Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism had Peter in mind when he said it, but Peter is the personification of one of Luther’s more famous maxims, “…sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly…” In other words, dare to take risks in the name of love knowing that God has got your back. If the essence of faith is love in action then we are called to take risks, to go where God is leading which is often into new territory or old territory in new ways. In doing so it is inevitable that we will mess up. We will hurt people and say ignorant things even with the best of intentions.
When I was in Parry Sound at St. James United, the church celebrated it’s 150th anniversary. We had a special service with a guest speaker and a meal afterwards. We invited local dignitaries to attend. We thought as part of our conscious effort to be inclusive and our dedication to right relations that we would invite a representative from the local Wasauksing First Nation. Well, we never heard anything back. I was a bit irked by this as were some of the congregational leaders. In the meantime, St. James continued it’s work toward reconciliation. We participated in Idle No More protests; I was asked to say a prayer at a meal afterward at the Friendship Centre. The church provided several volunteers when the national tour of the Moccasin project art exhibit in honour of murdered and missing Indigenous women came to Parry Sound. We did community education including a number of movie nights. We provided partial funding to an Ojibway language camp for Wasauksing kids. One of my prouder moments for the church in this work came when a local Indigenous arts group organized a storytelling festival. As part of the festival the organizers ran an education event around treaties for local leaders from government and social agencies. St. James was the only church invited. During one activity I was paired with the elected chief of the Wasauksing Band Council, Ron, I can’t remember his last name now. During a break Ron began telling me that he received our invitation and is his practice he always runs such things by the elders of the community. He told me that the elders expressed to him how the pain of what the church had done to them was still too fresh, that it would not be right at that point for the First Nation to be involved in a celebration of something that had caused such hurt to their people. Of course! How had I and the leadership not realized that? I was embarrassed by my and the church’s blindness and utter ignorance at how this invitation might be received. Ron was gracious and kind with me and the church. I was deeply grateful for his honesty. It allowed us to continue our work a little humbler, a little wiser. We stumbled but we continued, for faith told us that the judgement of God is not a pointed finger meant to keep us on the ground when we stumble but an outstretched hand inviting us to continue on the journey together, partners in healing the world.
That’s what Peter clings to every time he messes up. It’s why Jesus picks him as the rock, the foundation for a new relationship with God. Peter dares to risk in the name of love, he stumbles, but he doesn’t stay there, he keeps getting up for he knows he is no good to God or the world on the ground. He knows God doesn’t demand perfection but humble and willing hearts. Jesus picks Peter because he is the most spiritually competent of his followers.
Many of us I think have been raised on a religion of perfection. Grace, the unconditional love of God was something others needed, reserved for the screw-ups and the maladjusted. Religion was one of those endeavors in life at which one could excel through regular church attendances, impeccable morals and a good work ethic. There’s nothing wrong with those things, except when they push God out of the way. Except when we feel we’ve climbed the religious mountain and have achieved all we can, earned the adult version of the religion badge from Scouting/Guiding days. When the achievement or performance of outward manifestations of religiosity supplant a living relationship with the sacred.
When this happens, we fight to defend our self-image when it gets pointed out to us that racism lurks in us, our church, our society at large. If we do eventually accept the reality of racism and the reality of our stumbling, we stay on the ground a long time feeling too unworthy or ashamed to get up again. The irony of course being that we got this faith thing all wrong. To be religiously/spiritually competent from a Christian perspective is to shun perfectionism and accept both our human frailty and the grace and power of God to use us in making real God’s Kindom of love in our time and place. In other words, sin boldly but love God even more boldly.
We’ve started taking some steps on the anti-racism journey as a church. We’ve been talking about racism and white privilege in worship for a few years now, Inclusive Ministries has started anti-racism pop-up conversations, we’ve put support for Black Lives Matter on our road sign, Council adopted a statement of solidarity with Black Lives Matter. As we move deeper into this work of anti-racism, as we ask the “what next” question as a church let us do so with the knowledge that we will stumble, that blind spots will be exposed, that mistakes will be made but let us also do so with boldness knowing that the judgement of God is not a pointed of finger but rather an outstretched hand, reaching out to us to help us get up again, inviting us to continue on the path toward right relations, toward full communion with all creation. May it be so.