Monday, September 17, 2012

Nice is Not Enough

A Meditation on Discipleship


Sometimes being nice is not enough.  Not nearly enough.  You heard the story.  On the way, on the road to compassion and peace and the kingdom of God, Jesus and Peter get into it. 

Jesus Blesses Peter by the Sea
You know what I mean: they really get into it.  Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him, tells him to lay off all the talk about suffering and dying.  There’s electricity in the air, tension on the way.  Peter rebukes Jesus.  Questions his leadership.  Takes him to task.  You can imagine the crowd moving along the country road; and Peter pulling Jesus aside.  And the whole procession stopping.  Tension spilling out.  All over the place. 

And Jesus?  Jesus turns on Peter, in front of all the rest.  In front of their friends.  Jesus turns on Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan.”  You’re missing the point.  You’re missing the whole point of this.  You know, it’s easy to get all worked up about Satan and the devil here; many of us remember Dana Carvey’s ‘church lady’ on the old Saturday Night Live.  “Satan!”  But for the ancient Hebrews Satan had more to do with temptation than evil.  Satan was for the Hebrews the personification of temptation, the one who distracts, the one who diverts, the one who suggests an easier path to the truth.  So Jesus looks at Peter, Jesus rebukes Peter.  And he says: “Get behind me, Satan.” 

Now maybe Jesus’s saying: Don’t tempt me, Satan!  Don’t tempt me with this bit about power and living forever and having all the answers.  The suffering ahead is sure to be hard—don’t tempt me with an easier way.  Maybe that’s how Satan works here.

Or maybe Jesus’s saying to Peter: Don’t you be tempted, Peter.  Don’t go for the path of least resistance.  Don’t give in to your ego’s every whim, to your desire for power and privilege and certainty.

If you want to follow me, Peter, you’re going to have to lose that ego.  You’re going to have to loosen your grip on the kingdom.  After all, this kingdom isn’t about you and your grip on it, your position of privilege in the big scheme of things.  This kingdom is about love.  Just love.  So you’re going to have to take up your cross, learn to suffer; and that’s where we’re going, Peter.  That’s where we’re going together.

Now we know this isn’t the end for Peter and Jesus.  Their friendship, their partnership, their courage in enacting a whole new world of love and grace: it goes on from here.  This moment on the way crackles with tension and rebuke.  Being nice is not enough.  For either of them.  But it’s not the end either.  It turns out that tension is part of their path.  Part of their journey.  Part of how we grow and evolve and encourage one another on the way. 

This is not the last time either.  This is not the last time Peter and Jesus get into it, not the last time there’s tension and truth-telling and disagreement between them.  But again and again, their relationship survives the unsettling spirit of difference.  Again and again, they grow through it and then beyond it.  To something new.  Something like brotherhood.

So no, being nice is not enough.  Not for Peter.  Not for Jesus.  Not for us either.


This past Tuesday evening, I found myself in a strange place, a new place.  I was invited to a meeting of COPA leaders in Castroville.  And, you know, I thought I knew Castroville.  I’d been to meetings down there, at the church, the new library downtown.  I’ve done that drive through the middle of town—where they’ve got that wonderful sign.  “Artichoke Capital of the Universe!”  But this meeting, on Tuesday night, was in a whole different part of Castroville, way out there in the fields, where the farmers grow their artichokes and the farmworkers work long days for their families.

In fact, Tuesday’s COPA meeting was hosted in a housing development built by and for farmworkers themselves.  Seemed to me like a completely different country, like a completely different time zone.  You take a left turn at the huge power plant in Moss Landing, and you just keep going.  I was disoriented even by the ride.  Farms and fields, trailers and chicken coups.  Could this be California?

And of course, it is.  It is very much California.  And, in Tuesday’s meeting, a couple of dozen COPA leaders did some thinking and planning around our life together in California, and around the last months of our “Stand Up and Take Charge” campaign.  I hope you remember the “Stand Up and Take Charge” campaign.  How we’re standing up for the rights of immigrants together with other churches and synagogues and farmworkers on the Central Coast.  How we’re standing up for affordable housing and health care and economic opportunities for all kinds of families, all kinds of people. 

So we gathered to do some strategizing around the campaign, aiming at a huge assembly with Congressman Sam Farr and all kinds of candidates in county supervisor races in Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties.  And part of that strategizing had to do with the signatures we’ve been collecting across the two counties.  We’ve been doing that right here at FCC—and in all the other institutions.

Well, early on in the campaign, we made commitments.  Each of the churches, each of the institutions made a commitment to collect a certain number of signatures.  The total—amongst all 25 institutions—was something like 22,000 signatures.  A commitment to collecting 22,000 before the November election.  That number—22,000—represented our determination to make our voices heard and build a power organization across two counties.  It was ambitious and so were we.

On Tuesday, though, we learned that, realistically, we’ll be lucky to reach 11,000.  We’ve got just 7,000 right now.  Only seven institutions (of the 25) are set to meet their commitments.  (I want to say, with great satisfaction, that we are one of those seven. FCC is one of the seven!  Thanks to Darrell Johnson, Mary Male and the rest of our COPA Core Team, we’re not only going to meet our commitment of 550 signatures, but surpass it!  And that’s great news!)

But over all, there was a certain kind of tension in the room Tuesday night.  Tension when our lead organizers read out the numbers.  Tension when we all realized how much work was yet to be done.  Tension when we sensed we’d fall far short of our commitments to one another.  It wasn’t an easy meeting.

But here’s something I learned Tuesday night.  Something about COPA.  Something about who we are together.  Of the 7,000 signatures COPA’s already collected in the campaign, 3,500 have been collected by the Center for Community Advocacy in Salinas.  And you need to know that CCA is an organization of farmworkers, farmworker families, immigrants and Latinos in Salinas.  I don’t have to tell you what farmworkers are going through these days.  The challenges of making ends meet and feeding their families and fending off all the xenophobia around immigration in America.  But just the same, they’ve collected, these farmworkers in Salinas, together, fully half of all the signatures COPA’s gathered in four months of working on this.  3,500 of them.

So we’re all experiencing tension, a little uneasy about the goal we’re short of making.  And then, just then, CCA’s director, a quiet, hardworking organizer whose name is Juan Aranga; at one point, Juan is asked why.  Why has his CCA succeeded in gathering thousands of signatures?  Why has CCA invested so much of its leaders’ time and energy in our COPA efforts?  And Juan thinks about it for a minute.  It looks like he’s had a long day.  And he says: “You know, I’ve been organizing Latinos in Salinas for thirty years.  My people have been at it for thirty years down there.  And we’ve done some good things, very good things.  But I’ve reached a point, we’ve reached a point where we can’t do it alone.  We need Anglo churches and Jewish synagogues on our side.  We need Central Coast labor on our side.  We need other immigrant organizations on our side.  We can’t do this work alone.” 

And then Juan Aranga looks around the room, at lay leaders and ministers, at rabbis and teachers.    And we’re all on edge, just a little.  It’s been a long night, a little tense.  And Juan says: “I need you, friends.  My people need you.  We need you to show up for us.  We need you to care about COPA the way we care about COPA.  I’ll show up for you, but you’ve gotta show up for me.” 

So tension.  Just like there’s a place for tension on the road, tension between Jesus and Peter, tension that clarifies what’s at stake and where they’re going.  Just like that tension, there’s a place for tension in our work together, in our life together.  And we can not only survive it, but thrive in the midst of it.  It can focus our mission, define our purpose and energize our loving and caring in the world.


When we met, as a congregation, last spring, in our annual meeting, there was some of this tension around our participation in COPA, around the time and energies we commit to COPA.  There’s tension around how we prioritize mission, and how we prioritize our advocacy for justice issues and peace around the planet.  And you know, the more I thought about this (and I did think about it over the summer), the more I thought about it, the more grateful I was for the passion, for the differences of perspective and opinion, for the tension among us.  We care PASSIONATELY, as a congregation, about affordable housing and health care access and immigrant rights.  And we care PASSIONATELY, as a congregation, about GAY RIGHTS and full inclusion in the church and its sacraments and ministries.  We care PASSIONATELY about marriage equality.  And we care PASSIONATELY about the homeless poor in our own city and the needs of women and men in jail and what happens when they get out.  We care PASSIONATELY about so many people and so much of the world’s needs.

And all that PASSION, when we mix it up together, when we worship together and pray together and budget together, all that PASSION gets stirred up.  Each of us has a different take on how to prioritize, how to proceed.  Each of us embodies urgency in a different kind of way.  But that’s GOOD.  That’s so, so good.  The tension’s good and creative and a sign of our faith and hope and determination to make a difference in a world that GOD STILL LOVES, in a community that GOD IS DETERMINED TO BLESS. 
I want to be part of a church that care for all of it, that commits to all of it.  I want my children to grow up in a church that is every bit as committed to peace in Salinas as it is peace in Palestine.  I want your children to grow up in a church that is every bit as committed to Dinah and Gail’s marriage (or Tom and Jim’s) marriage as it is to Kate’s and mine.  I want to worship with a community that is willing to go the distance to show Juan Aranga and CCA that yes, we will show up.  Yes, we will respond.   Yes, we will work in partnership and brotherhood and sisterhood with those hard-working farmworkers in the Salinas Valley.


Now, I’m too young to have participated in the Civil Rights Movement of the early ‘60s.  But I’ve heard many of you tell stories from that era, from that movement.  And I’ve heard older clergy friends describe the feeling they had when Martin Luther King called for clergy all across the country to come to the South and sit with black clergy, march with black activists, organize with black families.  Martin Luther King said, in effect, we need you.  We need our Christian brothers and sisters to be Christian brothers and sisters, to walk the talk, to make the journey of conscience and distance.  My older friends tell me it was hard sometimes, to make the decision, to tell Northern churches why, to take the time off to make the trip.  There was tension around King’s call, around the moral imperative he laid on the hearts of his Christian colleagues.

But every one of those folks, every one of them says it was worth it.  And maybe the most important moral moment in their lives, spiritual moment in their lives.

I felt something like that Tuesday night.  Listening to Juan Aranga.  Feeling his passion.  Feeling the tension in the room.  He needs me.  He needs you.  Farmworkers and immigrants, Jews and Catholics, poor families and working families: we need each other.  So I want you to know that I will continue to push hard for our partnership with COPA, just as I’ll continue to do everything I can to be sure this church is a loud and dynamic voice for full inclusion, for gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights around the world.  I love the tension that’s generated when all this energy, all these commitments come together.  I'll even go so far as to suggest: it's the tension we must live with in the kingdom of God.

And if Jesus and Peter can survive it, and thrive, so can we.