Let us be the people Jesus describes, as he sends his disciples out on Mission
Sister Emily TeKolste renewed her vows as a Sister of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods on Sunday, June 28, 2020. This was her reflection on the readings: Romans 6:3-4, 8-11 and Matthew 10:40-42. View her photo album here.
This is an unusual time to be alive – and an unusual time to be renewing vows as a Sister of Providence. A friend recently sent me a Tweet in which someone said “I always wondered what it was like to live during the times of the Civil War, Spanish Flu, Great Depression, Civil Rights Movement, Watergate and the Dust Bowl. Not all at once, mind you, but ya know … .” And as Gandalf says, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” So thank you to those here today and those joining us via our video feed. The fact that I’m preaching during my own vow renewal is also unusual. When Sister Paula asked me if I would consider it, she suggested that I draw on some of the things I wrote in my annual assessment as I prepared to request renewal. Sister Lisa convinced me to do this by pointing out that I won’t likely have this opportunity again. So here we are, and you have to listen to me. Good luck!
In our epistle, St. Paul tells us: “Don’t you know that when we were baptized, we were baptized into Christ’s death?” and “We’ve been buried with Jesus.” Though the reading goes on to talk about being “alive to God,” we can’t skip the death part.
What does it mean to be baptized into Christ’s death and buried with Christ?
Let’s start with Paul, whose words we’re repeating. Paul wrote this in his letter to the Church in Rome – the center of power in the ancient world. He told people in that center of power that they were baptized into Christ’s death, so it makes sense to follow with the question of Christ: Who was the historical Jesus, into whose death the Romans were baptized – into whose death we were baptized? The simplest answer is that Jesus was a Palestinian Jew from a backwater area of the Roman Empire who was killed by the State through crucifixion.
I propose that in today’s world, Paul is writing to white U.S. Christians – who in many ways sit at the center of power today – and telling us that we were buried with George Floyd. With Bryonna Taylor. With Sandra Bland. With Elijah McClain. With Riah Milton. With Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells.
Though we who are alive today haven’t literally been buried with them, we must listen to and feel the depth of the pain that communities of color – especially Black communities – are expressing. We must listen to and feel the depth of the pain that the LGBTQ+ community is experiencing in being exiled, especially from our local Catholic schools in this Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
We must find ways to understand more deeply what the COVID pandemic means to those communities of color who are more susceptible to both its devastating health consequences and its devastating economic consequences.
What does it mean to be buried with Christ? How are we buried with Christ – in more than just words and figures of speech? Life isn’t about saying it – it’s about doing it. So it’s important to be there. To stay there and sit with that discomfort.
We. Are buried. With Christ.
We must shed our old selves, our old societies, as we learn to dismantle oppression in all its forms. The old pieces of us must die.
And it’s also important not to get stuck there. We do not die for the sake of death, but for the sake of life. Paul also promises the Romans: “We believe that, having died with Christ, we will also live with Christ.”
What does it mean to us that death is part of that life – possibly even a necessary precursor?
I’m treading on dangerous ground here as I ask that question, especially as a white woman. Who am I to be offering the possibility that death, which I just explored through the lens of the oppression that Black and LGBTQ+ folks experience in our society, is a precursor to life?
It would be too easy to say that this is just part of the circle of life and dismiss the pain that’s there – the pain that, too often, our white privilege allows us to avoid. It’s not our death as white folks, so we have to be especially careful of falling into that trap.
It’s not our death as white folks, so it can’t be our life that it’s prefiguring. To those white folks listening, we get to choose. And if we want to choose life, we must first choose death. We must choose the death of our racist systems and the death of white supremacy. We must choose the death of the cis-hetero-patriarchy. We must commit ourselves to being actively anti-racist. Because true life in our world requires that all oppression will cease.
And though I have no words to offer people of color in this space, I do want to raise up the words I’ve learned from movement spaces led by people of color. “Black joy is resistance.” “Joy is resistance.” “Self-care is resistance.” Even in the midst of all that is wrong in our world, we – all people – are alive. And we have a duty to each other to act as if we are alive, to find moments of joy and celebration to sustain us through the long slog that is the much-needed and long-awaited social change in our world.
As a student of society and theology, I need to name all of those things. And as a Sister of Providence preparing to renew that commitment – as a person striving to live community – I also need to name the daily drudgery. Because sometimes the best relationships come only after periods of contention, as we strive to figure ourselves and each other out.
One of the most meaningful encounters in my life was when a friend asked to talk to me about something. We’d had a bit of a kerfuffle, and I thought we’d worked out what turned out to be a misunderstanding. She told me that my reaction to her words made her scared that she’d accidentally say something again that would hurt me – and this made her nervous around me. Prior me would have jumped to the explanation/defensive stance, but because of her prompting, I listened to everything she had to say. I let it settle in. And what I heard that I wouldn’t have otherwise heard had I jumped to the defensive was this: I love you. We’re in this together, for the long haul.
See, the conversation was never about blame. It was about relationship and authenticity. It was about choosing to stay in it together and to build something better moving forward.
That’s what community has come to mean to me, in all of its different forms.
Another thing that I’ve come to learn as I’ve been able to crawl a little more deeply into my own authentic self is, to quote Sister Marie McCarthy’s words to me, “Disruption is part of this life.” I’ve learned to stop shrinking myself to fit into spaces that weren’t built for me. I’ve learned to act as if what we were taught in novitiate were true: Local communities change when a new member moves in. The whole community shifts because the whole community is different with the addition or subtraction of a member. The congregation as a whole shifts when a new member enters – so long as all involved are striving mostly to be the most authentic that they can be.
And society as a whole shifts when white people with institutional power finally start listening to Black folks and other traditionally marginalized folks.
That is a shift toward life, toward being “alive to God.” We all – in whatever ways present themselves in our lives – must commit to the work of dying in order to live.
A week ago I came back from my annual retreat, where I did a lot of processing of all the change and pain in my life over the past couple of years. One thing that became clear as I was going into the retreat, something that I sat with while I was there, was the realization that I’d been equating my vision for the future with my need to keep dredging up the pain I’d experienced. Now that I’m beginning the process of freeing my vision for the future from the anchor of the past, I offer only this: We must deal with the pain of the past. And we must also live with a vision for the future. That vision isn’t necessarily tied to the pain of the past – though sometimes it is. That doesn’t make it any less valid. Let us be people of vision – people moving toward life.
So as I renew my vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience for another year, I hope we can be the people Jesus describes to his disciples as he sends them out on Mission: ‘Those who welcome you, day laborers and fishermen from a small area of occupied Judea, have welcomed me.’ May we each, Sisters of Providence, Providence Associates, other members of the Providence community, and all human beings, share this sense of hospitality in ever deeper ways as we die to who we were in order to grow into who we are becoming.
And may we celebrate along the way, because Joy is an act of resistance to an empire of death. Joy is an act of living.