Where do we go from here? I imagine that this question was on the lips of all 12 apostles as Jesus sent them out. To judge by the Gospels, he doesn’t seem to have detailed them to go to certain towns and villages but instead to have trusted their judgment and nous.
Where do we go from here? I expect this question is also on most of our minds as we trace the implications of the gradual, tentative steps out of lockdown in Scotland, as we try to envisage what life will be like, what work will be like, what school will be like, what church will be like in whatever the new normal is like. I also expect it comes to mind as we follow the footage of the Black Lives Matter protests in the US, the UK and elsewhere, as we reflect on the experience of the black and minority ethnic communities in our society and on how we respond as individuals and as a community of faith.
Last week, we heard Jesus’ Great Commission. The Provost spoke of it as an invitation to participate in the divine life, creating room for all people, all creation, to breathe deeply that life, to breathe in concert with the Holy Trinity, the God who is love.
This week, we once again hear of Jesus sending out his disciples. We jump back in the story to before the crucifixion and resurrection, a jump cut in the lectionary that reminds us there is a line of continuity in Jesus’ sending. Sending out isn’t something Christ keeps back for after the resurrection; it’s part of the story the whole way through, for Jesus sends out his disciples in imitation and extension of his own mission, his own sending by God the Father.
It is not enough to wait for others and welcome them into our walls, even though hospitality is a fundamental kingdom value. Like Abraham, we can and do encounter God as we welcome the stranger to our space. But we are called to break out of that space. Like the disciples, we are summoned and sent in imitation of the one who sends us, the one who is himself sent and who, through the Holy Spirit, perpetually sends himself to enable us to go just as he went.
So where do we go from here? Where are we sent to? Matthew tells us what moved Jesus to send out his disciples:
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (9:36)
They were harassed and helpless. It’s quite vivid, but I was taken aback to read in one commentary that the Greek words we translate as ‘harassed and helpless’ mean ‘oppressed and thrown to the ground’.
I was taken aback because I can’t hear ‘oppressed and thrown to the ground’ without thinking of George Floyd with the policeman’s knee on his neck. Or, indeed, without thinking of Sheku Bayoh who died in Kirkcaldy five years ago in disturbingly similar circumstances, and who shares with George Floyd his last words: ‘I can’t breathe.’
And I was taken aback because none of the other English translations I have to hand convey the violence of that image: ‘weary and helpless’, ‘bewildered and dejected’, ‘confused and aimless’, ‘bewildered and miserable’. None of them says, ‘oppressed and thrown to the ground’. William Lorimer’s Scots translation, however, comes close when it speaks of the crowds as ‘sair dung and forfachelt’ — ‘struck down and exhausted’.
Jesus sends us out to those who are ‘sair dung and forfachelt’, those who are ‘oppressed and thrown to the ground’. He sends us out to
‘proclaim the good news […] Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.’ (10:7–8)
That is, to bring wholeness, to create room for the oppressed to breathe.
To bring that wholeness, we are given authority to cast out demons. It’s the first thing Jesus gives the disciples authority to do in this passage and it’s the last thing in the list of his instructions on the essence of their task, so it brackets or bookends the way he lays out the mission.
I imagine that many of us are not the most comfortable with talk of casting out demons. Don’t worry: I’m not about to propose that we all run around commanding unclean spirits to leave unsuspecting neighbours and strangers. Instead, I invite you for the moment to think of demons as defining evils of this age, evils that shape the way we live and influence our conscious or unconscious thoughts, our attitudes and actions. And I invite you think of casting out demons as confronting those evils.
Think about the events of past few weeks in those terms and it’s clear that they have thrown the spotlight on one such demon among many — the evil of systemic racism — generating headlines dominated by attempts to confront it.
Now, I’m aware that there are dangers in the direction I’m going here, not least of which is the danger of falling into some kind of saviour complex. Here comes the church to set everything to right by confronting racism! That simply won’t do. It simply won’t wash because we, too, have been complicit in the system that perpetuates racism and have failed to confront it in our own house. For instance, I read this morning that the Church of England owned slaves. I read this week of a black ordinand down south who was rejected by one possible curacy church this year partly on the basis of his race.
If we are to cast out the demon of racism from our society, we first need to cast it out of ourselves, as individuals, as a community, as a church. Those of us who are white — the overwhelming majority of Cathedral members — need to take a good, hard, long, prayerful look at ourselves and to put ourselves under the judgment and tutelage of our black and minority ethnic brothers, sisters and neighbours in order to pinpoint the ways, the often subtle ways, in which the disease of racism has infected us. We need, in a word, to listen.
That will doubtless be hard and unsettling work, as I’m sure casting out demons was for the disciples. It is often unsettling when the Spirit is at work, not least because the insights that work produces might come from unexpected quarters and lead us in unexpected directions.
I was asked this week by a young person, ‘Why is Jesus white?’ There’s a straightforward answer to that: he wasn’t, and he isn’t shown that way in all traditions, but white European Christians made white European images of him and then imposed them in places they colonised. They made an idol of a white Jesus. But the question made me think afresh about the images of Christ in our Cathedral and it struck me that, as far as I can recall, they are all images of a white, European Jesus. Here, then, is one of those subtle ways that racism has influenced our own community. Here is that demon hanging around in our own sanctuary.
How do we go about casting it out? How do we go about toppling that idol? Awareness of the issue is the first step, but only the first. As a community, we need to reflect on what response that understanding demands of us. Perhaps there are other things in our past and our present that we will also need to uncover, own and cast out. But we should take heart, because Jesus has given us the authority to do so and it is his Spirit of freedom that will create the room to breathe.
Where do we go from here? This question faces us every day and it faces the church in every age. But wherever we go from here, we go with the Spirit and we go in Christ’s name and in his resurrection power. May we, like the apostles, be among those who bring freedom, justice, change, room to breathe.
Questions for Reflection:
In the Cathedral, we are good at welcoming people into our space. What might it mean for us to break out of that space and go to others?
How do you react to the description of the crowds as ‘oppressed and thrown to the ground’?
What we work do you/we need to do to address systemic racism and other injustices in our society?
‘It is often unsettling when the Spirit is at work.’ How has the Holy Spirit been working in you during the lockdown? Has that shifted in this period of unrest and protest?