Common responsibilities

Proper 9A

In the name of the God of all generations and lands.  Amen.

When Roman Catholics worship in the Episcopal Church, one of the first things that they often comment on is that we “don’t confess”.  And what they mean when they say that is that it isn’t required in our tradition to make a private confession to a priest before one is able to fully participate in the Rite of Holy Eucharist.

But in the Episcopal Church we do, actually confess.  When you’re around a Book of Common Prayer sometime, turn to page 447.  There, you’ll see a couple of different ways that we offer forms of private confession.  Though I wasn’t raised Roman Catholic, and never had that experience, I’m told that these rites are pretty similar to what one would expect in that tradition.  And I have been called on a few times through the years to hear private confessions.  It isn’t something that’s been all that common for me, but I have heard confessions from time to time – usually from younger Roman Catholics who were struggling with guilt, and needed reassurances that they were okay.

But in our tradition, the bigger focus is on corporate confession – not private confession.  It doesn’t deny any individual’s role and responsibility, but it recognizes that very often, the bigger sins are those societal sins that plague us – the ways that we all participate in systems of injustice.  And the confession we make most Sundays – acknowledging things “done and left undone” – are said together in our common voices; reminding us that we are stronger when we are together – both for good and for ill.

These days, during our partial return to in-person worship services, we’re skipping that formal prayer of confession as one of the ways we’re trying to shorten our worship services to help ensure everyone’s safety.  But that focus on our shared life – and the good that can come of it when we’re at our best, and the shortcomings that can result from living in ways that are less attuned to the common good – that focus is still an integral part of our worship, whether we are together in the same room, or together online.

In the Gospel reading that we shared today, this is what Jesus is talking about: the failings not just of individuals who impacted him personally, but of the tone-deafness of society that was impacting us all.

“We played the flute, and you did not dance; we wailed and you did not mourn,” he quoted.

That turn of phrase may strike us as peculiar, but the point of it is that society was unsatisfied and missing the point.  The flute signaled dancing, but those around us didn’t join in.  Out wailing signaled mourning, but they didn’t join us.  The stimulus was clear, but their response didn’t make sense.

We can face the same challenges.  We’re in the midst of a pandemic.  The stimulus is clear, but the response doesn’t always make sense.  One of the best things we can do to protect each other – even more than ourselves, but to protect each other – is to simply wear a mask until the medical science tells us it’s no longer necessary.  But even in this region where we’re handling the pandemic better than most of the rest of our country, I still find people not wearing masks, or wearing them in ways that render them useless every time I leave the house.  Caring for others is so easy, but so many of us are choosing our own immediate comfort over the greater good of the world.

Huge swaths of our community are suffering from systemic racism.  The stimulus is clear, but the response doesn’t always make sense.  People of color are constantly sharing their experiences with those of us who are of the racial majority, but we keep resisting change.  We keep insisting that their experience isn’t valid, or isn’t real because it doesn’t match ours.  And when we do submit to changes, they are so incremental and small that they almost invariably fail to address the bigger systems of injustice.  We only need to listen to experiences that are different from ours and to honor them as valid to begin to find a reasonable way forward, but we can’t seem to bring ourselves to do it.

The individual circumstances I describe may, or may not apply to any one of us and our behaviors, specifically – but the individual isn’t the main point.  Our common life is the point.

This is part of why I’m so glad that at least some us are back together in the same room.  Worshiping remotely wasn’t any less real than this is, but it was harder to remember that we weren’t alone.  It was harder to remind ourselves that our actions impact others – in small and also in systemic ways.  We need each other to be strong.

The message of Jesus isn’t just a conviction about our failings, though.  The message is still a message of hope: “Come unto me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

In Christ we are not alone.  In Christ, we work together for greater good.  And the work is easier and stronger when we’re together.  It’s easier and stronger when we remember that our lives and our impacts extend beyond just ourselves.  In Christ, all things are possible.  Even justice.  Even peace.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.