Vanished

Categories: Sermons

Vanished

April 30, 2017

Luke 24:13-35

[Please note this sermon is on a hard subject and attempts to describe evolving terminology that can be upsetting. Please hang in through the explanation.]

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

Jesus was there and then he was not. He was there but unseen, walking along, discussing the scriptures. He was there and seen, as he broke and blessed the bread. And then, once he was recognized, he vanished from sight.

They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

They knew on some level that something was happening. They felt it in their hearts. As understanding had come to them, as their hearts burned, as the meaning unfolded. And then Jesus vanished. They walked back to the other disciples.

Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

They did not know Jesus by sight. They did not even know him through his teachings. They knew him when they broke bread together, a sharing of time and table, two cornerstones of any relationship.

Today, I will be considering one of the Seven Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Second principle. We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: Justice, equity and compassion in human relations. This Sunday I am doing so on a day recommended for another topic, one that many Unitarian churches are taking up this morning. It was something of a challenge, for as many churches as possible to consider a difficult subject. Let me explain the context.

A few weeks ago, the President of the Association resigned. You may have heard about that. Rev. Peter Morales stepped down three months before the end of his term in office. It was a surprise.

A controversy had developed over the fairness of hiring practices. Recently, a new leader was chosen for the Southern Region. One of the criterion for the job was that the candidate needed to be a resident of the region in question. The story goes that the residency requirement was waived during the process. The successful candidate did not in fact live within the region. There had been three finalists for the job, two women of color and one white male. The non-resident white male got the position.

People were upset. Complaints were submitted to the denomination. President Morales sent a message to his staff admitting that the UUA was not where it needed to be as a matter of diversity but that progress was being made. This was not a satisfying response to many.

Around this time, there was a gathering of religious educators of color in Baltimore. One of those in attendance was Aisha Hauser, who is black, who said in response to Rev. Morales’ explanation about progress, “It’s not enough to say we believe in equality. It’s not about intention but impact, and the impact is a white supremacy paradigm with zero accountability…”

Rev. Morales responded to this comment. He said, ““What bothers me is the characterization of the UUA as a ‘white supremacist’ organization…If you call us that, what do you call Aryan Nation?” Aryan Nation, for those who do not know, is a neo-Nazi group.

The phrase “white supremacy” needs to be understood as a term that has an evolving definition. It was a term of art for particular forms of active racism and, generally speaking, active racists like Neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. Over time, and as a result of more recent scholarship, white supremacy has come to mean a system that maintains the privileges and supports the rights of white members of society more so than people of color. To say something is white supremacy is not a particular judgment about one person or even necessarily a group. A larger system exists that maintains a way of life, regardless of whether one person or group is even supporting the effort. Put another way, I did not make the river we are in but it is taking me where I want to go. This is a new way of understanding the term.

I had to delve into the communications back and forth, many of them heated exchanges about race and discrimination. This term popped up and I struggled to understand how we got from here to there; from a limited group of people as white supremacists to a system of white supremacy that functions regardless of an  affirmative choice. You do not need to choose it because it is there, whether you want it or not, whether you feed it or not, whether you like it or not. There is a long list of factors to consider, like whites live longer and earn more, etc. Significantly, and relevant to the underlying situation, whites get to see themselves as “normal.”

In the specific example of the regional leader, one of the candidates who did not get the job was told that she was not the “right fit.” Her name is Christina Rivera, currently the only person of color on the UUA Board of Trustees. Here was her response to the notion of “right fit”:

“When you’re a person of color and you hear the word ‘fit,’ that is like a huge red flag…It’s coded language.

[Coded language that signals that unless you look like the person doing the hiring] “no matter how qualified you are you will not be selected for that position, whatever it is.”

In case you were wondering, the regional leaders are all white. Of the senior UUA staff, all but two people are not white, including President Morales who just resigned. Since then, three other white staffers have stepped down and the man who was chosen to become the leader of the Southern Region has stepped aside.

I mentioned that there was a challenge for today. That challenge was to discuss white supremacy. That is hard to do when you have one definition in your head, but others are using a different one. Both uses of the terms are negative. But one is focused on obvious forms of virulent racism, like the Klan. The other use of the term, a more recent usage, is about a wide system rather than a tidy group.

I cannot claim to be an expert, but it might be helpful to imagine one as pathological while the other is sociological. I do not make that distinction to try to excuse racism, but to suggest that having the term white supremacy aimed in my direction is not necessarily a challenge to my affirmative moral behavior (depending upon me of course). It is however a challenge to my moral absence, my acquiescence to what is happening around me that is hurting others.

The Second Principle is about justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. These three qualities are not the same.

Justice is about a system. A society is formed, designed to function to bring about certain expected results. A just system is based upon laws and policies with everyone in mind, an orderly society in which laws are obeyed and polices are observed. Justice is in this sense a social machine that keeps rolling along, hopefully churning out the desired product of just results.

Now think about what would happen if the machine is not functioning the way it was intended (assuming for the moment that it was not intended). Things would become unbalanced, maybe more things down one assembly line than the other, perhaps things not the right fit when everything was meant to fit. There needs to be some recalibration, comparing what was intended with what was the result. That brings up equity.

Equity is basically fairness. Some might define it as equality. I lean toward fairness because equality at times does not adequately address the situation. Equality means that four people share in one pie and get one quarter each. Now imagine that four people are sharing one dose of penicillin. One person will die if he or she does not receive treatment. Equity would suggest that one person gets the medicine because of the needs in question. Equity is not rigid mathematics but an organic response to what is happening.

Then there is compassion. Compassion is not about a system of right and wrong, like justice. It is not the balancing of situations, like equity. Compassion arises within relationships. It is about feelings and emotions, about understanding and caring beyond any one moment of conflict.

Think back to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. They are walking along, depressed over what they should do next. Someone happens by, Jesus of all people, the very man they are mourning. Jesus can see that they are sad and he asks them what is wrong.

This might come off as a bit cruel. Why not spill the beans right away? Here I am, no need to cry anymore. And yet that would be differently cruel. Jesus could not give himself to them, not anymore. Not being able to offer himself, he offered them a different form of support, the gift of understanding.

He explained the scriptures to them, interpreting the prophets from Moses through the present time. This is how it was and this is how it will be. This is the system and this is your place with that system. This seemed helpful to the disciples, burning in their hearts as they described it. But it was not enough. They understood what Jesus was saying but they were still grieving.

You cannot explain away grief. When someone is suffering, all the logic in the world is not going to make that sense of pain suddenly vanish. Just look at this flowchart of the scriptures and I will spell out how things are getting better all the time. Isn’t that great? No, it is not great. At least it does not feel great. All the Bible study in the world was not going to make his disciples forget what they had lost.

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

In that moment at the table, breaking bread with one another, the disciples could finally see that Jesus was with them. He would always be with them. Not in the flesh, but in between. In between them, each connected to the other by the love they had shared for this dear teacher. The love that they had for one another.

Jesus vanished from their sight but never from their hearts, never from the bonds that they shared as beloved disciples and friends. Love is more than a word on a page. It is the tie that binds us together.

Compassion is like this, a way of loving one another. It stems from love, arising from that sense of connection lying in between those who have reason to care for each other. Compassion is more than the debt of friendship. It is wider than the sphere of acquaintance. Yet it is not about justice or fairness. Compassion is a function of shared humanity.

Let me tell you a story. I was in a coffee shop recently, waiting in line. A woman ahead of me ordered a sandwich. Somehow, the order came out incorrectly. The woman pointed it out, not yelling but with her voiced raised somewhat. The women behind the counter worked on fixing the order. The customer began speaking louder, snapping her fingers at the people, saying what they were doing was wrong,  unsanitary, that they always mess up her order.

I go into this coffee shop often. I am a regular. They know my order by heart so that it is often waiting for me when I am five people back in line. I have a fondness for people who take the time to get to know me, so in my mind I immediately lurched to their defense. As I was mulling this over, however, I realized something. I realized that the upset customer was right. These people that I liked, these people who were nice to me on a regular basis, were doing something improperly. Their food handling was clearly careless.

This was not how it was supposed to go. There was a system in place, a Health Code, designed to keep people from doing the wrong thing. Even a perfect system is only as good as how it runs in the real world. Good laws are meaningless with bad policies. Good policies are meaningless with bad behavior.

The customer complained. She snapped her fingers at the people working. You can look at that situation and think, what a jerk. These people are doing their best. What is the big deal?

But imagine you are the customer. Your order is messed up and it gets messed up frequently at the same shop. No one is listening to you. They never seem to be listening to you. And they then try to fix it by slapping together something carelessly right in front of you. For you, this is not one mistake, but an ongoing series of examples of someone not caring. Now imagine this is your life.

It is worth noting here that the customer was a black woman and the employees were not.

Justice hopefully is built into a good system. Equity is brought to bear when something unfair has come about from that system. Compassion describes how we should act within that system. Compassion is how we should be with one another as efforts toward equity are developed and then justly implemented. Compassion should exist within our relationships – close friends and total strangers. Should, but not always. Definitely not always.

Thinking about my coffee shop example. Everyone was in a hurry. Get my food and go. Get the next order out, fast and efficient. Compassion does not easily spring into being when everything is rushed. It does not naturally arise when people are upset or tired or feeling neglected. Compassion can be in short supply.

Think about that term, white supremacy. As a white man, I must confess that it presses my buttons. What did I do to deserve that label? I get defensive about the term at the expense of understanding that there are people who are suffering, people whose real world worries are repeatedly ignored because of how they are labelled.

When I stop listening to them and instead nurse my feelings about a turn of phrase, I miss something important. I am ignoring the woman snapping her fingers because I see her as rude without listening to what she said or realizing the underlying problem. That is my mistake.

No, no, don’t snap your fingers, don’t raise your voice. Say it this way, not that way. Don’t use a term I do not like. Do I have the right to edit her complaint? Does that woman owe me a better way of expressing her concerns?

In the example of the Association, what was reported was not fair. The system did not encourage fairness and in fact exceptions were made that suggest fairness was not even the goal. Instead, it was about having a good fit. A system and a result that looked like how everything had always fit together. This system does not look like justice. The results do not seem fair, with rules changing midstream. And there was another missing piece: compassion.

Compassion is again about relationships, relationships within a system, relationships marked by a desire for fairness. Relationships developing over time, back and forth, day after day. It may seem like a silly example, but the people at the coffee shop know me, they understand what I want because I have been there many times. We relate because we know one another.

Compassion can grow within a relationship of understanding, of listening and paying attention. What if instead I ignore what you have said, day after day? If I keep doing things my way even when it is wrong to do so, wrong for you yet convenient for me? Is it any wonder someone would be upset.

I can suggest that you might not want to snap your fingers or raise your voice. Try to avoid saying white supremacy because that term grates upon my sensibilities. Even if that were to be good political advice, even if it might be a more diplomatic way of approaching the matter, it is hard to hear. Hard to hear one person talking about table manners when the other person is starving.

Justice, equity, and compassion: compassion may seem the least of these. But in a practical sense, compassion is the element that makes everything else possible. Justice is about rules, equity is about balance.

Compassion is about paying attention.

When the disciples were walking down the road to Emmaus, they could not see Jesus standing right in front of them. They could hear what he had to say, feeling it burn in their hearts, but still they could not see him for what he was. Finally, they sat down together, not over words of wisdom or well-turned phrases. They broke bread. They ate together at a table, blessing their time together and the food they were about to receive. They shared in the simplest form of grace.

They knew something was burning in their hearts and now they had come to understand it as love and grief, compassion for one another in their loss and longing for what they had shared. They still lost Jesus in the literal sense of him no longer being there for them to see. But they found him once again, not in words but in the love that he had fostered within them.

We can build monuments to justice but never know justice. We can rally around the banner of equity, but have it vanish before our eyes. So we need to stop. We need to stop and look around at what has been built to see if it measures up to the name justice. We need to move beyond banners and slogans to see if fairness lives within us and between us. To do that, we need to perceive what is going on and to notice what is absent from the landscape.

We live in an unjust, unfair society. One in which the color of a person’s skin often matters far more than the content of that person’s character. The fact that I did not build the system does not make it go away. The fact that the unfairness was not directly by my doing does not make it vanish.

White supremacy is not about wearing bed sheets and burning crosses. It is about allowing an unjust and unfair system to continue rolling along without making an effort to change it into a better system. That is the first step toward a just and equitable society. It is a step taken out of love for others and concern for their suffering.

Love is not about being nice. Love is about being together.

Amen.

Author: Rev. Mark J.T. Caggiano

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