Sermon for Sunday, November 12, 2017 || Proper 27A
For people of my age and background, a certain horrific event in our country’s history shapes us. We’re too young to remember the Kennedy assassination or even the loss of the Challenger space shuttle. And yes, September 11, 2001 was a seminal event for us as it was for everyone. But that’s not the event that shaped people who, like me, were in high school in the late 1990s. The horrific event that shaped us happened on April 20, 1999 when a pair of students armed with assault weapons and explosives attacked their own high school in Columbine, Colorado.
You may or may not remember it, but if you grew up like me, I guarantee you do. That was the day we were confronted with the stark reality that nothing and nowhere is truly safe, that whatever bubbles we lived in could burst at any moment. And yet, what always happens after horrific events, happened after the Columbine massacre. I knew the bubble was there. I knew it could burst. But I still lived inside the bubble, content to exist adjacent to horror, knowing that my odds of personal victimhood were microscopically small.
And so I blithely lived my life, expressing thoughts and prayers whenever another horrific event involving assault weapons happened: Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas – and those are just some of the big ones I could come up with off the top of my head. Mass shootings happen with horrific frequency in the United States. One happened last Sunday at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. During a church service: 26 dead, about half of whom were children.
I’ll tell you, that bubble around me is tenuously thin right now, especially as I stand before you preaching, exposed. And while I certainly have no wish for the bubble to burst due to personal tragedy, the prayer that God has put on my heart this week is for the bubble to burst of my own accord. Such bursting will not allow me to retreat into the comfort of existing adjacent to horror. Such bursting will cause me to confront within my own person the suffering of people I will never meet. Their lives will never be the same, and neither should mine. Such bursting will not be pleasant. But it will be necessary.
You may not realize it, but we pray for such bursting of our own comfortable bubbles every Sunday when we join together in the Confession of Sin. While the prayer allows room for confession of personal sins, the thrust of the prayer is collective. It is composed in the plural on purpose, “We confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”
When we pray these words, we confess our complicity in the fallen state of this world, in all the ways we contribute to the delay of the God’s kingdom instead of the kingdom’s coming. And for people like you and me, people who don’t actively destroy lives with assault weapons or knowingly dump pollutants into drinking water or – you get the picture – our complicity happens most often in what we have left undone. Our silence, our bubble mentality, should be the main thing we bring to God in confession.
About a year ago one of my other bubbles burst, and ever since I have been trying to understand that bubble’s construction. The 2016 presidential election caused me to confront the many aspects of privilege that I own because I am a white man. After even a cursory dip into unknown waters, I felt so ashamed at my blindness to the lived experience of people who look different from me. Of course, I started to sink into self-pity: how could I have known? Why didn’t anyone ever tell me? Then I learned at anti-racism training that it is not the job of the oppressed to teach the privileged about their oppression. It was my job to get curious. So I did.
I started reading books by black authors, and I realized that my experience after Columbine, which I thought universal to my age group, was not. April 20, 1999 was the day white suburban youth confronted the stark reality that nothing and nowhere was truly safe. My black brothers and sisters living in the inner city already knew that all too well. Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me opened my mind to the experience of young black men, and again I realized my penchant for living adjacent to horror.
I also read a couple fantasy novels by a black author named N.K. Jemisin, and once again I was floored by the realization that whenever I read a novel, I assume the characters are white unless specifically stated otherwise. That’s my bubble. It may have burst with the 2016 election, but bubbles have a way of growing back. So I decided to do something, and I’ll admit it was a fairly safe experiment. I had just begun work on my own newest fantasy novel and a piece of the plot necessitated that most of the characters in the book needed to have brown skin. I wrote the whole book, and when I was done, I patted myself on the back for the “influx of diversity into my own fantasy world.”
But while I was editing the book, the reality of the bubble hit me again. I thought it was burst and it wasn’t. I needed some more words to describe hair, which sent me to Google, and I wound up at an incredible website called “Writing with Color,” which helps authors describe people of all races and ethnic backgrounds. And I was floored by the persistence of my privilege, for I had patted myself on the back all the while describing people of color in an unintended, demeaning way. I could have begun the project with such research, but no: I had assumed I knew what I was doing, and that “caramel” and “molasses” were wonderfully descriptive words for skin tones. What I didn’t know was that food metaphors perpetuate the legacy of what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls the continued white ownership of the black body. And I learned that if an author wants to describe brown skin, you can just use the word “brown.”
I continue to struggle against this bubble, against all the bubbles that hem me in, that keep me from seeing the world from another person’s point of view. I’m sure you struggle against such bubbles too. And that’s why we need the Confession of Sin. When we send our prayers into the night after a mass shooting or other horrific event, it is the Confession of Sin that we should be praying, because the confession, when taken seriously, does not allow us to exist adjacent to horror. We confess all that we have left undone, all those bubbles that shield us from the brokenness around us. We confess that we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. And that’s why we continue the prayer: “We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.” For repentance is a call to action, a change of our hearts and our lives, a stepping free from our blinding bubbles.
Jesus invites us to this repentance and models it in his own life, death, and resurrection. He shared in the lives of people who differed from him, in order that they might discover their unity and celebrate their diversity. He stood against the horrific machinations of empire that oppressed people as a matter of policy. He died a criminal’s death in order to redeem all our crimes, those done and those left undone. And he rose again to show us that nothing in all creation can separate us – can separate anyone – from the eternal love of God. Make no mistake, Jesus was a bubble burster. And the good news is this: Jesus is here in the power of the Holy Spirit, pushing on our bubbles, helping us pierce them. And he’s out there on the other side, yearning for us to burst through and join him.