Yossi could have been speaking of Ferguson and the national wound that has been ripped open by it. And that has led me to believe our primary gift as the Church in this moment is indeed to be theologians. To provide a theological framework and language for us to engage this work as followers of Jesus Christ.
As Episcopalians, our theology is intensely sacramental. The sacraments and sacramental rites of the church are not just ritual, they are a pattern for our entire lives. And so we engage what is happening in Ferguson the way we engage everything -- sacramentally. Specifically, through Eucharist and reconciliation.
The first act of the Eucharist is gathering. We gather around the presence of Christ and focus our attention on it. We drink Christ's presence in with our eyes and ears. So what is the presence of Christ? The presence of Christ is where divinity meets humanity. It is when human beings allow themselves to be vulnerable enough to speak their deep truth. It is anything from the height of joy to the depths of agony. It is often raw, it is usually messy, and it is always, always real.
For us in this moment, the presence of Christ is the cries that are coming from Ferguson. As I preached on Sunday, it is the cries of mothers, children and everyone else who has been treated as less than full images of God because of their race. They are the cries of frustration from the police, cries of loss from business owners and cries of exasperation and sorrow from teachers who are being prevented from teaching their children. They are the better angels of all of our human natures when our efforts to guard one another's dignity and participate in human thriving are thwarted. They are voices not of a "them" but of part of the "we."
So our first task in Ferguson is simply to pay attention. To look at the faces and listen to the voices. To do so with "inquiring and discerning hearts," asking God to reveal the presence of Christ in these voices crying out in our midst.
The second act of the Eucharist is offering, and what we offer is our whole selves. One of our offertory sentences is a portion of this passage from Romans 12:
In the Eucharist after we gather around the presence of Christ, we offer ourselves to it. We lay our lives -- our whole selves, holding nothing back -- on the table with Christ's life. It is not just listening to the voices of Christ, but letting those voices become part of us. Letting them interact with us. Letting God change us through them.
When we lay ourselves on the table in the Eucharist, the offering of our lives becomes intermingled with the life and presence of Christ, and something new is created that is both each of us and Christ. It is this new life that happens when we all meet in that place where divinity touches humanity. Where our vulnerability touches each other's vulnerability in the model of the cross and together we become something we never could become on our own.
And that is the moment of blessing. That is the moment, as we offer all this life to God, that we ask God to say "this is good." All our vulnerability. All our joy. All our pain. All coming together into a whole that has the highest integrity.
For us in Ferguson, that means listening deeply to those voices, listening for the presence of Christ in them, letting them into the everydayness of our lives and our own stories and letting them change us. It means striving for honest conversation -- conversation whose goal is conversion. It means guarding against defensiveness and shame, which shut us down to the converting power of the other. And it means continually asking God to bless, continually trusting that God takes our efforts, honest and fallible, and says "this is good," continually believing that God means us for one another and that our destiny is to be reconciled to God and one another in Christ (2 Cor. 5).
And then we receive. In the words of St. Augustine, we take this new life that has occurred in all our self-offerings on the table and "be what we see, receive who we are." We become a healed and reconciled people because what we receive is a little peace of each of us and a lot of Jesus. Whereas we came to the table as individuals, we leave as one.
And we do leave ... or, more accurately, we are sent. We are sent out into the world "to love and serve God with gladness and singleness of heart." We are sent because in the words of my good friend the Rev. Dahn Gandell, "transformation not shared is wasted." We are sent because like Jesus, our life is not to be lived for ourselves but given for the love of the whole world.
In Ferguson living Eucharistically means our role as Christians is continually to be asking questions:
*Where is the presence of Christ? Who are those voices that are Christ's voice?
*How is God calling us to lay our lives on the table with that presence of Christ?
*How can we be open to the new life that emerges -- a new life that removes all the "us's and them's" and creates a new and glorious "we."
*How can we let this new life become our new identity -- who Jesus says that WE are?
*How can we, as a new people in Christ, be sent into the world to love and serve with gladness and singleness of heart?
Like the Eucharist ,this does not happen all at once. We come back to the table time and time and time again. We do it because we do this so imperfectly (thankfully God is even more graceful than we are imperfect!). We do it because it is so difficult but it is also so rewarding. It is not a one-time ritual but the gathering-offering-blessing-receiving-sending, wash-rinse-repeat motion of our lives.
Reconciliation is also a process, and like Eucharist, it is repeatable ... over and over and over again. It is the process of identifying where we have fallen short of living the way God dreams for us, where we have broken relationship with God, one another and creation. It is not about shame -- exactly the opposite. It is the liberating process of realizing that God's dream for us is like Eden ... that we be naked and unashamed ... and that because of the grace of God, even the worst sins and mistakes -- like those of the Prodigal Son -- can be amended and forgiven.
Reconciliation begins with self-examination. In the liturgy, this happens before the Eucharist, but really it's a much messier, more dynamic process. Often the very act of gathering around the presence of Christ and hearing those voices and gazing on that life leads us into self-examination.
The questions of self-examination are intense and unfailingly honest. Where have we fallen short of God's dream for us? Where have we injured or offended others or God's creation? Where have we contributed to the oppression of ourselves or others, and where have we not contributed as we might have to the thriving of every human being.
And then we confess. In Matthew, when John the Baptist is calling people to confession, he uses . the word ἐξομολογέω (ex-om-ol-og-eh'-o), which means “together, acknowledging openly and joyfully.” This is loud, communal, joyful confession. Confession is not a shame-filled dirge, but a liberation because we are freeing ourselves from a burden.
Then we repent. We literally pledge to turn our lives around. We pledge to repair the damage the best we can and, with God's help not to sin anymore.
And then God forgives. That is absolution. And it literally erases what is past. But we still have a covenant promise to keep, and that is the final step. Because finally we have amendment of life -- that's the actual living of it all. Recognizing that repentance is not just lip service, that we actually have to ... and more important, we GET to ... live as new, redeemed people in the world.
What does this look like in Ferguson. Well, like Eucharist, it's all about the questions.
*Self-examination -- where have I/we contributed to the pain that is being expressed in Ferguson? Where do we need to own responsibility for our sins of things done and left undone?
*Confession -- What do we need to stand up and take responsibility for? Not with our head low and mumbling, but standing tall with our heads held high. Knowing that naming it and taking responsibility for it means we are free from being "found out" and defensiveness. Free to receive the love of God.
*Repentance -- Now that we have confessed, what actions do we need to commit to so this is not just an empty apology? How do we work to rebuild trust, rebuild relationship, tear down structures that oppress and build up structures that nurture human thriving?
*Forgiveness -- How can we receive God's love and trust it will never leave? How can we not be burdened by the sins of racism and classism, power and privilege? How can we be open to receiving the healing power of God in Christ that is so much more powerful than any power we have and so necessary to the healing of the world?
*Amendment of life -- How can we go out and live differently? What does effective change look like? How can we live -- together with one another -- as people of a new creation, forgiven, loved and free?
We engage reconciliation both as individuals and as the communion of saints, local, national, global and cosmic. And as with the Eucharist, our call as followers of Christ is not only to live Eucharistically and as ambassadors of Christ given the ministry of reconciliation, but to lead the world into that life as well.
To help train the eyes of the world on the presence of Christ and invite them to lay their lives on the table with it.
To lead the process of all of us becoming something new and life-giving together.
To lead in taking responsibility for our part in the sin and brokenness of the world, not as a shamed, self-flagellating act, but as bold leaders of joyful reconciliation.
To proclaim that, as Becca Stevens says, love is the most powerful force for social change in the universe.
And love looks like gathering around the presence of Christ and laying our lives on the table with it.
Love looks like owning where we have broken relationship and pledging to our sisters and brothers to try not to do it again.
And love also means, in the words of the marriage prayer, to have the grace, when we hurt each other again anyway, to ask for each other's forgiveness and God's.
As we watch the events from Ferguson either from across town, across the country or around the world, we are called to consider what it means to encounter them theologically. Encounter them as Eucharistic people and ambassadors of Christ given the ministry of reconciliation. It is an incredibly imperfect and messy process. Not a single act but a pattern of life lived in community that will be repeated over and over and over again. We will have to hold each other in love and grace because more often than not, we will not get it right. But it is in the holding of one another in love and grace that the power of Christ is set loose.
I am convinced this is the gift we as the church bring to Ferguson ... and to the gaping wound of our nation's original sin of race as a whole. It is for us not first to be social scientists or aid workers, community organizers or even crusaders for reform. It is for us first to be theologians, offering the life-giving gifts that, if not offered by us, may not be offered at all.
The gift of Eucharist and reconciliation.
The gift of the sure and certain hope of the resurrection that does not detour around the agony of the cross.
The gift of a Christ who gave himself for the whole world -- no exceptions -- and promises that, as we do the same, he will be with us always, even to the end of the age.