The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Christopher Ashley

Christopher Ashley

Christopher Ashley

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost: October 19, 10

Exodus 33:12-2| Psalm 99 | 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 | Matthew 22:15-22

Preacher: Christopher Ashley, St. Michael’s Parishioner and PhD Candidate at Union Theological Seminary

So what does empire want from you today?

On the Boston Common, there’s a Greek Revival pile of marble set back from the sidewalk by broad white steps. It’s the Episcopal Cathedral of St Paul, although you wouldn’t think it was a church to look at it. You’d think it was maybe a bank, or a courthouse.

But, on Thursday evenings at six, my church—an emergent Episcopal congregation called The Crossing—would gather there to share spiritual practice and make God’s table happen. So most Thursday afternoons, I’d stand out on the sidewalk and let folks know that we weren’t there to judge you or take your money. We weren’t a bank or a courthouse. We were a church, and we wanted you there. So I’d stand outside, with a boom box playing uplifting tunes over the street noise. I’d stand outside, smelling the street meat or the musk of impending rain.

I stood outside in the New England gray with a handful of business cards, passing them out to whoever I could. My usual line was “Welcome to the cathedral!” I’d say that dozens of times in the half hour before the service. “Welcome to the cathedral!”, and a smile—not too big a smile, this is still Boston—and offer a card. People’s responses ran the gamut. Most passerby would say “no thank you” and move on. Or, they might simply ignore me. A few would say “Sorry, I’m Jewish”; very rarely, someone would say “religion is BS,” or on the other hand want to denounce our church for supporting marriage equality. But it was worth it for the few people who looked up, and really heard what we had to say. A few people even came inside, that Thursday or some future week. And even the folks who never came in our door had maybe heard a reminder that God loved them and God’s people wanted to make them welcome.

On the church steps, we couldn’t really control what might happen. The best we could do was try and set an atmosphere, affect the vibe. That’s what the music was for: If you have ten seconds to brighten somebody’s day, Bill Withers or Earth Wind & Fire will go a long way. What I tried to practice and project, spiritually, was a non-anxious presence, like a chaplain’s. I had nothing to fear from rejection, or hostility, or even just being ignored: This was God’s space, even on the sidewalk, and we could all be in it together for the ten seconds it took to cross the property.

One Thursday, out of dozens, sticks in my mind. A young Black man—a teenager—had taken a seat on the church steps. I seem to recall, he had on a big white t-shirt and a red baseball cap. He didn’t sit there long: As I considered leaving the sidewalk to greet him, a police officer came off the sidewalk with purpose in his walk. In seconds, the feeling on the sidewalk had changed. The young man was now spreadeagled facedown on the church steps, where the officer was frisking him. I didn’t know what was going on, but the welcoming vibe was gone. I wanted it back, even if it was a bit awkward getting there.

I approached the officer, who was starting to put the young man in cuffs. “What’s going on here?” I asked. “He wasn’t bothering anyone.”

“You can leave,” the officer said. “People like you interfering with cops is how cops get hurt.”

And I backed away, stammering apologies. The officer waited for a car, his charge cuffed facedown, while Michael Jackson on the boom box invited his listeners to leave their nine-to-fives up on the shelf and just enjoy they self. And I felt really useless. In a matter of seconds, my church, and the work we did to project our good news into the public square, was no different from any other marble pile.

The fact is, I was out of my depth in that situation. There’s no shame in that, but it calls for reflection. I’d expected my gospel work on the sidewalk to address indifference or mild hostility, and so prepared myself with serenity to accept God’s presence in the face of what I couldn’t change. In years of that work, I’d never faced a sudden, violent injustice on the church’s own steps, so I hadn’t developed the courage to challenge it, or the belief that I could have changed that situation for the better.

Backing down from an escalating confrontation was the best I could do by myself. To do anything else, I’d have needed to know my church was behind me. We were a pretty well-organized church around some issues where we’d decided to take action. I knew where we stood on welcome and respect for homeless folks; I knew where we stood on transgender rights; but we’d never talked as a church about stop and frisk, let alone what to do if a stop and frisk happened on our steps ten minutes before worship. We weren’t organized for that. We knew a lot about welcome, and something about lobbying, but very little about policing.

Maybe the police officer was right to pick up that young man; or maybe not. But empire needed me not even to ask that question. That’s what empire wanted from me in that moment: Empire wanted serenity without courage. Empire wanted welcome without organization. Empire wanted peace without justice.

So. What does empire want from you today?

A different story, a bit less heavy. When I moved to New York, I decided to adopt a New York sports team. I’d long enjoyed watching the World Cup in soccer, largely through my parents’ adopted Dutch heritage. In recent years, the US men’s national team was starting to do pretty well in the tournament—and we were a fun team to watch, full of fight and heart even when overmatched. It was a perfect underdog story. I was on board for more of that. So I decided that, when I moved to New York, I’d start supporting our local soccer team. That would be, in Major League Soccer, the New York Red Bulls.

For me, sports fandom boils down to two things. First, there’s the pleasure in the play itself. A baseball game is a series of tiny tension-and-release moments, little psychic interactions between the pitcher and batter, that iterate and build on each other. A well-organized soccer team, working as a unit, becomes a platform for individual brilliance that could break out at any moment. In both, there’s something of God’s own creativity at work.

Just as important—if not more so—is getting to indulge my inner primate. I’ll have a drink or two. I’ll yell at the TV; I’ll yell at the umpire. In a crowd, I’ll high-five strangers and join in chants and cheers. Maybe even a little booing. All that’s a natural outgrowth of the pleasure of watching, but you get to share that pleasure, full-bore, with everyone around you. That’s why the local angle matters: Half the fun is that everyone is on the same page and hoping for the same outcomes. And God can be present to our animal spirits, the same as to our aesthetic enjoyment of play.

And, yes, there’s a dark side to the inner primate. Projecting my ego onto the stage of a sports contest brings the benefits of an intensely shared experience, but it also means putting some portion of my self-worth at risk in that experience, too. And in that risk, there’s something empire is glad to use. When your self-worth is at risk, you become vulnerable to temptation and deceit. If you don’t believe me, watch the commercials on any football game. They’re almost entirely about reinforcing and exploiting men’s insecurities.

For me, the great danger of sports comes when I try to protect my investment of self by controlling the narrative. If my team is winning, it’s because we play the game the right way. If we’re losing, it’s because the other guys are the evil empire, the corporate sellout team. Or, subtler: I can learn so much about advanced baseball statistics, and the history of soccer formations, that I can fit every chance event on the field into a narrative that supports my self-image. No matter what happens, I get to be the expert, the superior fan, the one who truly understands the game.

I wasn’t wrong to pick the Red Bulls as my New York team of choice. They’ve given me plenty of joy these last four years. I’ll be at the match later this afternoon, and I believe God takes pleasure in any well-played game and in the joy we take in watching it. But there’s a real sense in which empire wants me there, too: as a consumer. The games are just so much content; the players are interchangeable parts; and if the owners lock out the referees, as the NFL did last year, the season can still go on. Empire wants me obsessed with sports, but on its own terms.

So what does empire want from you today?

One last story. My college friends and I were some of the earliest adopters of Facebook. It wasn’t the first online social network I was part of, but it was the first that almost everyone I knew wanted to join.

Facebook quickly became an essential way of keeping me in touch with my social peer group, and eventually with more distant family and friends as well.

But, in the summer of 2010, I deleted my account. Some of my reasons were simply practical. I was starting a doctoral program, where I’d be a teacher as well as a student, and I didn’t like how Facebook eroded the boundaries between teachers and students. I knew I’d be on the job market in due time, and I didn’t want any forgotten indiscretions to come back to haunt me. And honestly, too much drama happens on Facebook. Nobody’s got time for that.

But some of my reasons were closer to matters of principle. I didn’t trust Facebook to protect my privacy from advertisers or hackers. Mark Zuckerberg’s belief that everyone should have a single digital identity under their legal name is downright dangerous. The demand that I be always confessing, always curating my public identity through my witty posts and cute pictures and eloquent news items, has a creepy undertone. And for Pete’s sake: They made “friend” a verb!

I stayed off Facebook for about seven months. Then I came back. The costs of staying away were more than I was actually prepared to bear. Somebody about my age, with my level of education and social privilege, is just assumed to be on Facebook. I missed all kinds of important news: Changes of career, marriages, births. People couldn’t invite me to their parties and concerts. I tried to keep distant relationships up over phone and email, but I lost out on some relationships altogether. The habit of lightweight, easy in-touchness through social media is not easy to break.

There’s nothing particularly evil about Facebook. It’s more like a public utility, Con Ed or Time Warner Cable: Everyone has to use it, it’s got terrible customer service, but what else are you going to do? And it’s in that moment—the sense that I don’t really have a choice—that empire shows up.

Don’t get me wrong. I like seeing my friends’ funny and informative and prayerful postings, and knowing who’s having children or praying for a sick relative. God is present in those events. Anything that lets us rejoice with those who rejoice, or mourn with those who mourn, is an occasion for the very praise of God.
It’s not that empire is against that, exactly. It’s glad to see my praise of God as one aspect of my identity. God is one of the things I like—a “religious preference”, to go with my excellent taste in television and my perfectly righteous politics. Empire doesn’t mind me praying on Facebook, and is thrilled to see me doing church politics there. It wants me practicing my piety before others—if not in public, then at least for my friends.

So what does empire want from you today?

I tell these stories to model a kind of reflection I think we all need to engage in, especially as we approach the table. I would love to tell you that simply coming to God’s table is an act of resistance. I would love to tell you that, by gathering with God’s people to receive strength and renewal in the body and blood of Christ, you were making empire quake in its boots. I would love to tell you that, in this sacrament, we are unmaking a world grown old and preparing for the new world to come. I would love to tell you all that—because it’s true, and I believe it!

But let’s not run too quickly from the Word to the Table this morning. Let Jesus’ saying do some work on you first. Use the prayers of the people, or a moment of silence, to listen for God’s voice alongside the voice of empire. Look for where you need to say No to empire, and bring that No to the confession. And look for where you might say Yes to God, and bring that Yes to the table. And receive, there, from the God in whom all things are Yes.