August 30, 2015
14th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Javen Swanson
Like many of you, for Oby and me going to the Minnesota State Fair has become a beloved tradition. We’ve lived here and been going to the fair long enough to have landed on our own way of doing it. First of all, we bike there. I know, I know. Gloria Dei operates the friendliest and most hospitable park-and-ride in town. But trust me, biking is the way to go. Riding in the shoulder of the road, on a bike you get to fly past all the cars and buses stacked bumper-to-bumper in traffic on Snelling Avenue, and when you get to the fairgrounds, there’s a free, secure bike corral right there next to the gate. Gloria Dei members Tim Anderson and Darryl Weakley are often staffing the bike corral when we get there. It’s always nice to be greeted by some friendly faces when we arrive at the Great Minnesota Get-Together.
We’ve also learned that the best time of day to be at the fair is in the morning. It’s a no-brainer, really. Fewer crowds, cooler weather, and you get to enjoy all the breakfast foods that are only available until 10:30 or 11am. And we go in with a plan. Before we go, we read all the newspaper articles about new foods available at the fair, and we make a list of all the things we want to try. And of course the plan always includes the seed art, the Miracle of Birth Center, and the cows. Oby loves the cows.
We went to the fair yesterday morning and everything was perfect. Fifteen minutes after leaving our house, our bikes were safely locked in the corral where we’d been greeted by Tim and Darryl, and we were making our way inside. The weather was cool, as expected; if anything, I was a little chilly and wishing I’d brought another layer. Within the first hour we had eaten the breakfast Juicy Lucy, a wild rice benedict muffin, breakfast sausage corn dogs, and some cheese curds for dessert. Everything was going according to plan.
Around midday, I started noticing news helicopters hovering above the fairgrounds. “It’s the opening weekend of the fair,” I thought. “They must be trying to get some good footage of the crowds.” But a little while later, with the two helicopters still hanging in the air overhead, it occurred to me: They were covering the Black Lives Matter protest that I’d heard would be happening midday.
I’ve marched with Black Lives Matter in the past and I support what the group stands for. But yesterday, I just wanted to be at the fair. It’s a Minnesota tradition. And you shouldn’t mess with tradition.
The disciples had gathered together with Jesus, sharing a meal without having first washed their hands. The Pharisees, Jesus’ primary opponents in Mark’s gospel, observe the whole affair and are appalled. They confront Jesus with a question: “Why don’t your disciples follow our tradition of washing hands before eating?” They’re not concerned about germs. They are concerned that Jesus and his disciples are being irreverent, since the ritual of handwashing was considered and integral part of Jewish faith and identity. It was a tradition not to be messed with. Jesus’ response to the Pharisees gives us a sense of what’s really important to God: “These people honor me with their lips,” he says, “but their hearts are far from me; they act like they are worshiping me, but they’re getting it all wrong. They take their own traditions and act like they’re commands of God.” Jesus presses the Pharisees to reconsider what constitutes authentic religion. Is it strict obedience to traditions, or does doing God’s will involve something more?
Jesus’ message to the Pharisees is clear: Traditions are not inherently bad. But when we begin to worship tradition and lose sight of what’s really important, we cease to be faithful to God. What matters most is not what we do but who we are and what’s in our hearts. The Pharisees were concerned with the minutiae of ritual purity, and some of the practices that came out of this concern for tradition were healthy and life-giving. But upholding tradition can also become a substitute for real faithful living. Suddenly we begin to focus on doing the tradition right rather than working to align our hearts with God’s. Today’s gospel lesson challenges us to recognize how we, like the Pharisees, misinterpret what is important and end up failing to acknowledge the real brokenness the corrupts us from within.
Sometime in the early afternoon we decided to leave. The helicopters were still overhead, and when we got to the bike corral to pick up our bikes from Tim and Darryl the protestors were marching past the gates, which had been closed to prevent them from making their way into the fair. Oby and I watched and waited from inside. One protestor was carrying a sign that read, “Black lives matter more than corn dogs.” Not far behind was another. It said, “The Mall of America is not sacred. The State Fair is not sacred. Black lives are sacred.”
Observing the protest and hearing their message caused me to do some soul searching. What does it say about the state of my heart when I’m more annoyed that I can’t come and go from the fair as I please than I am about the institutional racism that permeates our society? Am I really more concerned about making sure I get to eat all the food on my State Fair to-do list than I am about the mass incarceration of black men and our state’s worst-in-the-nation education gap? Does my heart beat to God’s justice or am I driven by my own self-centered concerns?
I heard another preacher say this week that the gospel always meets us in our truth. The call of today’s gospel lesson to examine our hearts has me reflecting on what’s true about me.
The truth is, I’m a white, well-educated male. I’m young, able-bodied, and in good health. I’m fully employed and have good benefits. All this means I move through the world with a certain amount of privilege.
The truth is, I can go shopping alone feeling confident I won’t be followed, harassed, or treated with suspicion, as though I’m likely to steal something.
The truth is, my parents never had to give me the lecture every young man of color gets from his: “Don’t wear a hoodie. Don’t try to break up a fight. Don’t talk back. Don’t ask for help.” I can do all those things without fearing for my safety.
The truth is, I am probably privileged in more ways than I even realize. I probably take things for granted that people with less privilege recognize as a huge advantage.
The truth is, this all means I need to spend a little more time figuring out what’s going on in my heart. Do I believe in my heart that I’ve earned all the privilege I have, and that others who are less privileged did something to deserve that? Do I believe in my heart that all people were created in the image of God, but that I was created a notch or two above others who struggle to get a fair shake? What in the world is going on in my heart that makes me think my right to enjoy breakfast at the State Fair is more important than someone else’s right to a world free of racism?
It’s not exactly fun facing the truth about ourselves and the state of our hearts. It would be so much easier to follow the Pharisees, focusing solely on obedience to some external rules that grant us the appearance of righteousness, rather than looking inward to examine what’s really happening there.
But there is good news: God loves us unconditionally, eternally. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We don’t need to pretend we’re something we’re not, chasing after that which will make us appear holy and doing all we can to hide the ugliness that lives in our hearts. We are loved, period. And that means we can face the truth about ourselves courageously. We can look into our hearts with eyes wide open. And then we can go about the work of repairing our hearts—not because our salvation depends on it but because our neighbor needs us to do it.
I’m still not sure how I feel about the protest at the State Fair. Judging by many people’s reactions, I’m not sure demonstrators made many friends yesterday. But I do know that the protest pushed me to look deeply into my own heart and confront the demons lurking inside. Maybe that’s just what I needed.
Richard Goeres, “Speaking the Truth in Love,” on Day1 Weekly Radio Broadcast, http://day1.org/6781-speaking_the_truth_in_love.