Sometime back, before DNA testing became widely available, a college classmate of mine decided to explore and document his family tree. An innocent exercise, one might think. But coming from the deep south, Patrick eventually had to draw a clear distinction between actual blood relatives and those with vague connections that fall somewhere between the social and the circumstantial but who are generously granted the honor of being referred to as family. I’m not saying one group is more or less deserving than the other. I’m saying that for the purposes of genealogical research, connections based on DNA and lawful marriage will have to take precedence.
Anyway one day, Patrick decided to quietly end his research. For a few months he had regaled us at the dinner table with strange and unusual stories about distant cousins and other long-lost relatives. Then suddenly he just stopped mentioning it and completely dismissed our questions. After some poking and prodding, he admitted he found some infamous characters in his family tree. I was not familiar with these specific individuals, but it seemed any connection with them would bring great shame and dishonor. So as any sensible person would do upon uncovering some shameful or horrific hot mess perched prettily on a branch of their family tree, Patrick just quietly set his work aside and pretended he had never set eyes on that hot mess.
Most families, cultures, and institutions will take great pride in their ancestral heritage, especially if they can trace it back several generations. But the farther back we go, the more shame and horror can come to light. We can only acknowledge them. But they do not determine who we become. That is still very much entirely up to us.
The prophet Isaiah came on the scene in the age of kings. The kingdoms of Israel in the north and Judah in the south were ruled by a string of disastrous leaders. The neighboring kingdoms of Assyria to the east and Egypt to the south were a constant threat, and infighting among them created much instability and mistrust. They had great need for strong leadership and unity, setting aside petty rivalries and focusing on the greater good. It was a time to recall the mighty deeds of God, a time to repent of their sins and recommit to the covenant. And in the midst of that chaos, Isaiah preached how compassion toward one’s neighbor reflected God’s compassion toward his people! “Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked, and do not turn your back on your own. … If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation, and malicious speech; if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; … Then light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed; … light shall shine for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday.” Isaiah was appealing to Israel’s better angels, to that noble enduring sense of right and wrong, of justice and integrity. But his message fell on deaf ears. If Isaiah preached that message today, would we hear it?
With increased divisiveness and mean-spiritedness all around us it seems, preventing any productive dialogue, it’s hard not to get dragged down. Whether it’s inflexible political posturing or the ever-evolving culture war, whether it’s racial tension or economic disparity, whether it’s the generation gap or the gender gap, whether it’s a trivial mistake or a genuine quarrel between friends or family members, we know well how the appalling lack of tolerance and magnanimity we see displayed by our leaders just compounds our discouragement and weariness. We can lash out in angry protest or seethe quietly vowing violent overthrow, or we can calmly find a way to change the tone of our discourse. But change out there must begin with change in here.
“You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world.” Each of you is a tremendous force for good in the world! Don’t be salt that loses its taste. Don’t be a light stuck under a basket. Instead, be salt that enhances and adds amazing flavor to life! Be light that dispels the gloom and darkness of sorrow and despair! Instead we just stand around like we were at a middle school dance, afraid to break free from the pack, waiting for someone else, anyone, to make the first move and lead by example. I could be respectful toward my neighbor, I could extend kindness, I could show compassion, I could grant forgiveness, but only if someone else does it first. So what happens next? Absolutely nothing. When my conviction to live my Christian faith rests on someone else choosing to live their Christian faith first, I declare my own lack of conviction.
If I want my family to be welcoming and supportive, I can’t wait for someone else to do it first, or it may never happen. Now there may be individuals in my family who are unwelcoming or unsupportive, but my choice cannot depend on them.
If I want my city or local community to be accepting of people’s differences and respectful of their freedom, I shouldn’t wait for someone else to do it first, or it may never happen. Now there may be individuals in my city or local community who are intolerant of racial and cultural differences, or disrespectful of their neighbor’s freedom, but my choice to be cannot depend on them.
If I want my parish family to be faithful and reverent and compassionate, I can’t wait for someone else to do it first, or it may never happen. Now there may be individuals in my parish family who are unfaithful or irreverent or lacking in compassion, but my choice to be cannot depend on them.
When we make a claim that we belong to our family or our local community or our parish, we have certain expectations of others in that setting, expectations we can all agree are reasonable and fair. We expect people to be decent and courteous. And we hope that they are also humble and patient, merciful and forgiving. But we shouldn’t be surprised that they have similar expectations of us, that we are decent and courteous, and that we are also humble and patient, merciful and forgiving. The challenge is being to others the very people we expect them to be to us. Our expectations often set a high bar for others. But we will make excuses for why we expect much less from ourselves.
In the coming weeks, I invite us to consider more deeply our life together as the parish family of St. John the Evangelist Church. Our expectations of one another, of the pastor and his staff, of those who serve in various different ministries, and of those who worship alongside us, may be completely reasonable and fair. But are we willing to live out our Christian convictions faithfully regardless of how other people choose to live theirs? It may seem strange to do differently from what others have done in 87 years of history of St. John the Evangelist Church. But our ancestors do not determine who we become. That is still very much up to us.
Rolo B Castillo © 2020