Ten years ago today, Charles Jenkins, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana, sat alone in front of a television set at a friend’s house in Baton Rouge. His eyes were fixed on the screen, which was filled with images of exhausted, desperate evacuees, begging for help outside the Convention Center in New Orleans. A later news article puts what happened next this way: What Bishop Jenkins saw on that television “torched his soul, driving him to his knees in prayer. What he saw, he says now, was not merely suffering blooming from decades of social and economic inequality. He saw sin itself: malignant, writhing evil, freshly troweled up from the soil of his very city; social sin, which, for all of his theological sensitivity, he had only dimly sensed.” The deep poverty and the racial injustice that had plagued New Orleans for so long, and which Bishop Jenkins and the church had for the most part politely ignored, was unmasked. And out of the tears and contrition and horror that consumed him, Bishop “Jenkins…embarked on a personal re-education in which he [sought] to see [New Orleans] through the eyes of the poor. And that education…yield[ed] a new personal mission: to work for citywide racial reconciliation and [to purge] the social injustices Katrina laid bare.
Before the storm, [Jenkins says], ‘I thought Christianity and priesthood were primarily about the cult…And doing the actions correctly—holding my fingers correctly at Mass, not wearing brown shoes when celebrating the Mass. That it was getting all those [things] right. And I was missing the larger picture of the dignity of humanity and the world for whom Christ died.’”
In our collect today we prayed for God to “increase in us true religion.” And our readings today are attempts to define what exactly “true religion” is. The Pharisees are offended that Jesus’ disciples ignore the purity rituals at meals, and Jesus is offended right back; not so much that they take care to observe all the rituals, but that they too ignore what Bishop Jenkins called “the larger picture of the dignity of humanity.” You see, our gospel today is abridged. In the verses that get left out of the lectionary, Jesus explains exactly what his issue with the Pharisees is: they ignore the commandment to honor one’s father and mother; they told people that they could keep the money they should be using to support their elderly parents if they designated it as holy money offered to God. In practice, it just meant children could ignore their familial obligations. Jesus calls them out on this practice and ends with a sad, simple observation: “you do many things like this.” Jesus is trying to lead them, and us, back to true religion, back to seeing the larger picture of God’s will for human community. The Letter to James states it straight out: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
That phrase, caring for widows and orphans, is shorthand for a commitment to justice and loving service that you can trace all the way back to Deuteronomy, to the kind of social order commanded by God in the Torah. The Jewish Christians to whom James was writing implicitly understood the reference: taking care of the most vulnerable in society, setting slaves free, making sure everyone has food and clothing and shelter: that is true religion.
But the Pharisees’ mistake, the mistake Bishop Jenkins saw in his own heart, is an easy one for religious people to make. It’s easy to get focused on the details of rituals and forget our larger commitment to justice and service, because justice and service mean dealing with other people, and people are a lot harder to manage than the color of our shoes or the cleanliness of our cups and pots and pans. It’s nice to feel competent and totally in control and like you’ve accomplished something concrete; this is probably why I love washing the dishes when I’m feeling frazzled, and I know I’m not the only one. Human interaction is infinitely more complex and fluid and uncertain than doing the dishes, in wonderful and often maddening ways. Of course we gravitate towards those little tasks—they aren’t wrong for us to do, after all—and of course we tend to avoid delving into the murkier, harder work.
But there’s something else going on here; there’s a deeper reason that we get mixed up, in that the people the Torah and the Gospel tell us to serve and protect—the poor, the oppressed, the vulnerable—these are the very people that so much in our culture teaches us to avoid, to fear, to despise. We’re taught to think that people can get stained the same way shirts do: by coming into contact with something external, something foreign, something dirty. So we try to protect ourselves from contamination the way we protect a really nice outfit: we get very cautious, very careful, about where we go, who we associate with. We avoid eye contact with certain people, not to mention physical contact. There are kinds people we’d never be friends with, so we keep them at arm’s length. There are certain neighborhoods we never set foot in. This is the world’s definition of purity: keeping ourselves separate from the Other, maintaining a veneer of social respectability at all times.
But in the law of Israel and the gospel of Jesus, this is not what constitutes purity. “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile,” Jesus says, “but the things that come out are what defile.” It’s what’s inside, in the human heart, that’s what corrupts us. The purity that God demands of us turns social respectability on its head. Gospel purity means reaching out and connecting to the very people society teaches us to avoid. It means reaching out and shaking the hand of the person that scares you or unsettles you the most. It means working to make our communities more just, more humane, which we all know is hard, messy work. Paradoxically, in the kingdom of God, the way to be pure and undefiled is to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty.
Ten years ago today, at the same time that Bishop Jenkins was on his knees in prayer, a Walgreens drugstore in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans was standing under eight feet of water. The Lower Ninth Ward, because of the race and income and reputation of its residents, was one of the places that, before the storm, it was all too easy for Episcopalians in New Orleans to ignore and avoid. But after the floodwaters went down, that Walgreens became an Episcopal church, under the leadership of Bishop Jenkins. All Souls Church, or St. Walgreens, as people nicknamed it, was dedicated from its very inception to the renewal of the neighborhood around it, especially through serving the children of the Lower Nine. I got to work there for two years. And while I was there I saw all the Episcopal rituals that we rightly cherish living right alongside this larger commitment to justice and reconciliation, so that, every afternoon, volunteers would pop up tables in the nave, pull out supplies, and children would come and do their homework. As you can imagine, this made the space a little messy and loud and chaotic at times; our commitment to those kids and their parents, and to the wider community, it stretched us, exhausted us, sometimes it broke our hearts. But paradoxically, amid all the messiness, God was intensely present; one day a volunteer came up to me during tutoring. Kids were running around, there were markers on the floor, paper everywhere. The volunteer pointed at the altar frontal, which had “Holy Holy Holy” stitched into it, and she said, “I don’t think I’ve ever understood what those words meant before today.”
The amazing thing about this place, about Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, is that you have committed to having justice and service live alongside the beauty and intricacy of ritual. You open your doors to feed everyone, including people you’ve been taught to fear and ignore, at the DEO lunches and the Fricke Food Pantry. You are reaching out to refugees at the Yates Center, and to women living in the modern-day slavery of sex trafficking through Friends of Tamar. You are passionate about inviting and seeking ways to connect with your neighbors in the downtown area. You’re making space and programs for children and families. And after this beautiful liturgy, with this amazing choir, we’re going to go outside and have a party that everyone’s invited to. It’s going to get loud and rambunctious and maybe a little messy around here, and I don’t just mean this afternoon. But thanks be to God, it is also going to be Holy, Holy, Holy.
The Reverend Sarah Miller serves as Curate at Trinity Cathedral in the Diocese of Nebraska