Poor Slaves – Br. Mark Brown

Mark-Brown-SSJE-2010-300x299I was reminded recently of the enormous cultural shifts that have taken place in American life since the 1950’s.  I was watching a DVD of a 1958 episode of the Leonard Bernstein Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic. It’s a wonderful series and has introduced music to countless young people over the years.

Bernstein was a brilliant conductor and composer and pianist, and had a great, flashy personality—perfect for television. But in one episode of this really remarkable series, Bernstein struck me as being somewhat tone deaf and he hit a few wrong notes, figuratively speaking. It was a program about American music and what makes it “American”.  Our sense of national identity has actually undergone quite a shift since the 1950’s—and this was apparent in his otherwise very astute commentary.  He was speaking on one side of a great divide: the decade of the 1960’s that brought so much upheaval and change to our society.

Bernstein’s remarks were peppered with phrases like music of the civilized world.  There were crude caricatures of Native American music and traditional Arab music. The music of the “Negro”, as he put it, he implied was not quite American, it wasn’t “our” music.  He described American identity as a kind of melting pot of peoples.  His list included English, Irish, Scottish, German, Italian, French, Spanish, Russian, Hungarian, and his own ethnicity: Jewish.

I don’t want to be too hard on Bernstein for this Euro-centric vision of American identity—I think most people in that Carnegie Hall audience would have had similar ideas. The cameras showed an audience that was 100% white and seemingly of European extraction. Likewise the orchestra—besides being 99% male.

1958 was before the Civil Rights movement came to fruition in the legislation of the 1960’s; before the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that abolished a quota system that favored not only Europeans, but northern and western Europeans and disallowed Latin American, Asian and African immigration. Today, 55 years later, even a “high culture” event like a Philharmonic concert would include all kinds of races and ethnicities. The complexion of the American people has indeed changed. We’ve come to take pluralism and diversity for granted; we even celebrate it. Even when realize there is still some distance to go.

The roots of this social transformation are in the Bible.  The Hebrew Scriptures remind us that all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God (not just “our people”).  The Psalms call the peoples of all nations to the praise and worship of God (not just “our people”).  God’s compassionate love extends to all the peoples of the earth (not just “our people”)—that’s the message of that funny little book of the prophet Jonah.

The New Testament expands on this theme. In Christ, there is a new humanity: no longer Jew and Gentile. No longer “our people” and everyone else. In today’s gospel, this story of the healing of the centurion’s slave, we see Jesus extending the healing power of God to a gentile, that is, someone not “our people”.  The centurion says he is not worthy.  The elders of the community say he is worthy—but he is worthy because he helped build the synagogue and because he loved “our people”. The story doesn’t say whether the poor, sick slave is worthy or unworthy, but I’d like to think that Jesus healed him because he saw the slave as a child of God and, therefore, worthy.

This is a boundary-breaking moment and the healing power of God is extended to a man not of “our people”, not of our tribe, but of the human race.  There is a radical egalitarianism implied in this story. A poor, sick slave is “our people” too.

The church has often failed to live up to the ideals of the gospel it proclaims. And although the church was very active in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s, there was a lot of resistance in the church.  But the Spirit of God was at work in the world nevertheless. The Spirit has indeed worked through the church; and the Spirit has often sprung loose, working through other means. And today is a different world—and things continue to change, even audiences at Carnegie Hall.

So, we see enormous shifts in American society: what it means today to be “our people” means something very different from what it meant in 1958.  We can feel good about this progress—even if some folks would rather be back in 1958.  We can even see the work of the Spirit in and through these changes, these social transformations.

Although this transformation is most visible at the societal level, it doesn’t happen without a significant amount of personal transformation.  In Christ we are invited into a process of personal transformation.  It’s at the personal level that the rubber hits the road.  The point of contact of the Spirit of God is the individual human being.

So, what about us, what about the Spirit of God working in and through us?  It’s only natural to think in terms of “our people” and others, the outsiders.  Tribalism (in all its manifestations) may very well be a survival mechanism.  And we’ve evolved to make quick assessments of people to determine whether they are a danger or not. The antipathies that arise from these natural impulses are in our biological nature. But I think the Spirit of God is at work in and through us today to disable these impulses. Or at least to de-claw them and render them less harmful.

If we examine our consciences, we’re likely to find all sorts of antipathies at work. And these can be embarrassing. What about that person who is not as smart as you? Or the one who is smarter than you?  What about that person who is heavier than you—or thinner than you?  Prettier, less pretty.  What about those who are poorer than you—or richer than you? What about those with darker skin—or lighter skin?  Those of a different sexual orientation? A different religion?  A different political party?  Our antipathies are many and varied. And embarrassing.

We do, of course, need to discern the suitability of someone for a particular job or particular role.  Who will we marry?  Who gets the job?  Who becomes president?  Who becomes a Brother? We need discernment in choosing the right person.  But I’m talking about something else: judging others as human beings.  Who is worthy or unworthy; who is “our people”.

We’ve seen enormous shifts in our society since 1958—look who’s in the White House.  And, of course, we recognize that, as a people, we still have a growing edge.  But, for those of us who vote for the “right” candidates and advocate the “right” causes to bring about a more just society, the more challenging growing edge may be the one within ourselves, our own growing edge. The most challenging growing edge may be around those little antipathies we’d be embarrassed to admit, even to ourselves.

Our inner place of awkward embarrassment, those little antipathies we’re ashamed of, is probably where the Spirit wants to do his transformative work. It’s partly about building a more just society.  It’s also about healing our vision, our inner vision.  Christ would have us see him more clearly in one another—in all our crazy diversity.  And seeing Christ more clearly in each other brings us closer to what Paul calls the “mind of Christ”.  Christ is the healer and he would heal our vision—so that in him we may see him.  We are worthy; we are his people—even if sometimes we behave as poor sick slaves to our own petty antipathies.

Are we worthy?  He has made us so.  Only speak the word, Lord, and let your servants be healed.  That we may see you in one another, and even in ourselves.


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  1. Diane Hull on May 27, 2018 at 08:02

    My experience of people’s view of ‘the other’ began in the late 50’s. I would have been in Junior High at the time. My parents were having a ‘pot luck’ dinner with a circle of friends from church. My father was the pianist (no organ at that time) and most of the others were members of the choir. My parents had just purchased a home (just on the edge of the city) and had put the house I grew up in on the market. One of the men (my brother’s Godfather) was talking to my Dad, telling him that he couldn’t sell the house to ‘one of them’, i.e., Negro. The reason being ‘ you wouldn’t do that to your current friends and neighbors. At the time, I had met and known others of color who attended grade school and junior high – not many but some. And they were generally accepted. So, what we see today is nothing new. The smiling mask ripped off and the face of hatred ripped off. On the plus side – it’s pretty easy now to identify those who are consumed with hatred. That sounds cynical, but when I meet anyone new, I choose being friendly until proven wrong. And, I choose to support people who are beaten down to hopelessness in hopes that one day their lives will improve. Doesn’t always happen, but I still keep on hoping.

  2. Susan McLeod on June 10, 2017 at 06:55

    Thanks for reposting this thoughtful and challenging sermon! Timely in 2013, even more timely now in 2017 when the national and global divisions seem overwhelming at times.
    My husband and I plan to visit SSJE and worship in a couple of weeks. Can’t wait!

  3. Suzanne Haraburd on June 9, 2017 at 08:43

    Brother Mark, Thank you for this. I would only add, the use of “him” in referring to the Spirit disappointed me.

  4. SusanMarie on June 9, 2017 at 07:37

    Just after I wrote the above post, I read Richard Rohr’s meditation for today. It’s all right there. Click on the link and scroll down to read his meditation: Inherent Dignity.

    • Paul on June 10, 2017 at 22:56

      I read the exact same thing, and it certainly evoked what Br. Mark is saying here.

  5. SusanMarie on June 9, 2017 at 07:26

    Four years after this beautiful sermon was first posted…..our tribalism and the idea–the insistence–of “our people” and our antipathies are sorely and quite embarrassingly on high display. Not just the color of one’s skin, but also the country of origin, the increased body shaming, the deep separation of not only political parties but ideologies, the growing and outrageous as well as truly embarrassing gap between rich and poor, and so much more. I remember being stunned when I heard people say after Obama was elected President that racism was over. Somewhere deep within me I sensed that the nation’s true “colors” were going to roar in frightening form. And I’m glad it happened. We are now confronting the truth of who we are as a nation. And we’ll go through the same thing when we first elect a woman to the highest office. Yet I refuse to be afraid. It seems we can now stop pretending we are something that we clearly are not and the pumpkin needs to be cleaned out and scraped before it can be of good use. Yes, the Holy Spirit wants to do Her transformative work in all of us so that we can see with the mind of Christ. I pray we will all do the interior work that is necessary to remove and transform our antipathies with the help of the Spirit. There is no other way out of this mess.

    • Linda on June 9, 2017 at 07:56

      Thank you. Well said!

  6. Ruth West on June 4, 2013 at 13:53

    Thank you, Br. Mark, for turning the Light of Christ inward for me. This was
    a good homily.

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