Sunday, February 7, 2021

New Beginnings

By Bill Moseley

Note: The following reflection was delivered during the virtual service of St Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, Minneapolis, MN, January 24, 2021.

First Reading: Jonah 3: 1-5, 10
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 25
Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 7: 29-31
Gospel: Mark 1: 14-20

Good morning everyone. My name is Bill Moseley and it is my privilege to reflect with you on today’s readings, a reflection I have entitled ‘New Beginnings.’

Two and a half weeks ago an angry mob, egged on by a deranged president, stormed our nation’scapital, intent on disrupting 230 years of multiparty elections and peaceful transitions of power. As I watched the scene unfold from my office computer screen, I could not focus on my work. That article I had been writing, that class I had been preparing, just didn’t seem to matter as I witnessed this unimaginable – yet perhaps not entirely unexpected – scene. Indeed, as Paul writes in today’s reading from 1st Corinthians, “the world in its present form [was] passing away.” That day Americans experienced the end of something. Perhaps it was an end to a belief in so-called American exceptionalism, or the dawning recognition that our society could easily slip into chaos. While our supposedly strong institutions held that day, it was clear that they might not have held had our luck gone the other way. Attempted coups d’├ętats, insurrections, police brutality, racial violence and tribalism are not the stuff of far off, distant places, but we arethe epicenter of such problems, we are the unruly edges of the world.

In the passages that precede today’s gospel reading from Mark, Jesus’s spiritual mentor John the Baptist has been arrested, and Jesus had spent 40 trying days in the wilderness. The area where Jesus retreats to after John’s arrest, to the western shores of the Sea of Galilee, had been hit hard by the extractive practices of the Roman Empire. Farmers were losing their lands and becoming sharecroppers who were barely able to survive. People living in communities on the shores of the Sea of Galilee were losing their rights to fishing. This was a somber and deeply unjust situation, and a very inauspicious time for a new beginning.

To paraphrase the late Fred Rogers, in all endings there are new beginnings. But Lord, how do we move forward and make a new beginning at this particular moment? We cannot put things back together as they were before. Former president Trump, for all his evil acts, has laid bare the racist underpinnings of our country and the vulnerability of our system to demagogues and ignorant mobs. But the problems seem so deep and so intractable. I can live with differences of opinion. But how do you engage with the other side if they have an entirely different set of facts?A distant cousin of mine insists that undocumented immigrants regularly benefit from the largessof the government when I know this not to be true. Old high school friends of the right leaning variety rage at me on Facebook about the fraudulent election when we know it was fair, inclusiveand the most secure in our history. The memories of the words of a racist relative continue to echo in my head, words my parents quietly told me to ignore and forget as a young child.

Part of me just wants to cut them all off. I am different I insist. I have never held these beliefs. I am not responsible. I am like Jonah, a timid, hapless and temperamental prophet. I just want to run away, but the whale spits me up and I must go to Nineveh to work for the common good. These are my people, the white tribe of America. I really hate such labels, such groupings, but I cannot deny that I have benefited from the privilege of the color of my skin, my gender, my sexual orientation and my nationality. And therefore I am part of the problem and I have a responsibility to make it right. And making it right, while so seemingly impossible, will only happen if lots of us engage in the long slow work of healing the rift and building a multiracial, socially just and democratic society.

Last August, in his speech at the Democratic National Convention, former President Obama said “[O]ur Constitution… wasn’t a perfect document. It allowed for the inhumanity of slavery and failed to guarantee women — and even men who didn’t own property — the right to participate in the political process. But embedded in this document was a North Star that would guide futuregenerations; a system of representative government — a democracy — through which we could better realize our highest ideals. Through civil war and bitter struggles, we improved this Constitution to include the voices of those who’d once been left out. And gradually, we made this country more just, more equal, and more free.”

That day, as Jesus walked along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he set about recruiting his disciples. Against the backdrop of the demise of John the Baptist and the brutal exploitation of the Roman Empire, something new was beginning, a new way of thinking about the world, a new way of building community, a new way of interacting and caring for one another. And it started with one man, an illiterate Jewish carpenter, taking one step at a time along that beach, humbly calling people to join his nascent community. Against all odds, over the next 2000 years this new way of thinking would grow to become a major world religion. While a lot of harm has been perpetrated in the name of the church, the threads of social justice teaching that date back to Jesus have been forces for good in the world.

Despite my despair and consternation over our predicament and the deep divisions in this country, I am oddly optimistic. I do feel like we turned a page last Wednesday. Our new president, like us, is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. He was not the preferred candidate for many on the political left. He has made mistakes in his life and he has experienced great personal tragedy. And while he does not wear his faith on his shirt sleeve, or march across the Washington Mall to pose with a bible in hand, I have been struck that he is a person steeped in the social justice teachings of the church. He’s an unlikely person to bring about reconciliationand help us more forward. He’s an old white man who really should be retired and at home with his grandchildren, but he might just be the right person. He’s someone who empathizes with others, had the wisdom to partner with a female vice president of color, and has the experience toknow how to make the machinery of government work for the common good.

And while leaders are important, and bad ones can do great damage, we the people are the ones who will make the difference in our own small, but myriad ways. That parallel universe, that fiction of a stolen election, alternate facts and racist ideology will not disappear if its believers are marginalized and cut off from mainstream society. We need to find a way to make our fractured society whole, approaching everyone with compassion. Of course those who committed crimes must be held accountable, but most did not in any direct way. So we must respectfully and lovingly engage across the divide.

As such, I will talk to that cousin the next time I see him, connecting with him as a human being and respectfully disagreeing when needed. I will not unfriend my right wing high school friends of yesteryear on social media, but do the hard work of sharing the facts I know to be true. I will confront racism and colonialism wherever I see it, be it from the mouths of relatives or in the scholarship in my discipline. And, in my own occupation as a college professor, I will continue to engage in the long, slow hard work of developing critical thinking skills among my students, skills that are the backbone of this democracy. Yes, I am but one person, but there are hundreds in this congregation, thousands in this community, millions in this country, and billions in this world. Together, slowly walking along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, calling people to join in the quest for a just world, we can make a difference.

In her poem to the country last Wednesday, National youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman beautifully said:

The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light.
If only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.

Note: Thanks to the Cabrini Word Team for helping me think through the issues in this text. Any mistakes or errors are my own.

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