The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
A reasonable facsimile of what was preached on Sunday: always a reflection on the Word, but never the final word.
The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
October 27, 2019
Proper 25, Year C
The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
Anusha was one of my high school students many years ago when I was an Episcopal School Chaplain. She was a second generation Iranian-American as her family had fled a fundamentalist Islamic regime after the fall of the Shah of Iran. Her family was highly suspicious of all religion, having seen its darkest side swallow their country, and deal harshly with any moderates or dissenters. Nevertheless, they enrolled her in an Episcopal school because they liked our academic program and inclusive atmosphere.
When she came to my first Theology class, she told me she was not religious, certainly did not need a Chaplain, but would do whatever she had to do to make a good grade. This was my favorite kind of student. Pretty soon, she was a leader in class discussion, a keen critic of theological inconsistencies, and a regular hanger outer after class. I remember Anusha being so forthright in her estimation of Christianity’s embrace of weakness, and so suspicious of any purpose or point in Jesus’ death. All the while, she began to trust me because I affirmed her doubt as honesty and did not try to convert her. And, over time, she shared some personal struggles with her family’s high expectations and her friendships that were so very high school. She would always say: “I don’t get you Rev, but I like you ok.”
In the Spring semester of that year, Anusha signed up for a school exchange trip to South Africa, mostly, she said, to spend a month somewhere far away from her parents, and to get her community service credits. Our school partnered with a struggling school in an all black township outside of Johannesburg. It was an incredibly poor sprawling community, underdeveloped through decades of Apartheid. The school provided a path out dire poverty through education and job training where unemployment was over 75 percent. The way they raised money was in forming partnerships like ours, traveling to the US to perform their own traditional songs of faith, telling their personal and inspiring stories of struggle and hope.
It is so Episcopal School for an Iranian American Atheist to go to make friends and forge connections with Christian South African blacks and see what happens.
When Anusha returned, she bounded into my office, saying, “I get it Rev.” “Get what” I asked. And in an incredible outpouring of self, she told me that she had expected to go there and help these poor people become more like us, seeking success and affluence through achievement. Then she explained that over the course of her visit, she found he counterparts to be so joyful in loving one another and working together, that she left wanting to be more like them. During the visit, Anusha and her fellow students joined in the singing and storytelling, and in that shared rhythm, found kinship and communion. What she got was that we are all connected and that when everyone thrives, we all thrive. What she got was the power of love, pure and simple.
When Jesus tells parables of God’s Kingdom, I do not think of large mega churches full of like-minded people that look like a segmented consumer focus group as much as anything. Rather, I think about my former students in South Africa singing new songs. I think of them working shoulder to shoulder, building homes with people far less advantaged but much more joyful. I think of places and opportunities where divisions among people dissipate and community is made.
Today’s Gospel comes from the Kingdom parable section of Luke’s storytelling. It is a parable of obvious tension. There is the one Pharisee who comes to the Temple to pray. By all counts, he is a good man. He follows the rules, fasting twice a week and giving a tenth of his income. It is hard to deny his commitment. The Church needs folks like him. We might even seek to be like him ourselves. But the judgment of others… not so much. And then there is the other guy: the tax collector. He is a traitor to his people and a sell out to the Romans. He doesn’t even come inside the Temple; rather, he is on the fringe, looking down, and asking God to be merciful to his sorry self. Jesus uses this example to say that the tax collector is the more honest and humble in seeking God. We need to remember that it is religious zealots that are trying to bring Jesus down, and this is a cautionary tale of misplaced piety and self-assuredness. We do not fast or tithe to be better than others, we fast or tithe because it makes us more humble.
This is not a conversion story. The tax collector does not get a new job and forsake his ways. The Pharisee does not have that “I get it” moment in seeing that he is in need of God’s mercy just like his fellow human, cowering in the shadows. This is just a portrait of two extremes to drive home to point that all of us fall short and all in need of grace: the unmerited yet abundant and ever present love of God.
Like many of you, I followed the celebrations Representative Elijah Cummings’s life and the various tributes made this past week. As the son of sharecroppers and a tireless worker for dignity and equality under the law, he was the first ever African-American lawmaker to lie in state. While there were a few bad actors, as humans are wont to be, by and large, it was a time of affirmation for the best of our communal aspirations. Even bitter political rivals praised Cummings’s integrity and humility. The reason they came together is because in the end, they knew one another as fellow humans: friends, and colleagues.
We need more mutual affection in this world. We need more humanity and less dismissive labeling. None are righteous, none are pure, and all are in need of mercy. If we seek good news in this fallen world, we saw a glimmer this week and celebrating a life well lived. This is not a political thing. This is a Jesus thing. As our Presiding Bishop says over and over: “The way of Jesus is the Way of Love. And the Way of Love can change the world.”
Anusha is still out there, finding her way as a young adult now. We saw one another at a wedding not long ago and she still struggles with faith like the rest of us. Together, we laughed and told stories and remembered her flash of kingdom love some years back. Memories are good for finding our way forward. As we seek God and a deeper life with God, we do well to find the flashes of goodness breaking in all around us. Where divisions fall away, friendships deepen, and joy abounds, God’s kingdom is at hand. Thanks to Anusha, Elijah, and so many others, sometimes, we get it. Amen.
The Rev. John Thomas is Rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood