Sermon for Sunday, February 10, 2019 || Epiphany 5C || Luke 5:1-11
Today marks the beginning of a season of racial healing, justice, and reconciliation in the life of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. This season, which will last at least two years, was initiated by the Annual Convention of our church, as delegates from over 160 parishes and worshiping communities voted together to share in this particular piece of God’s mission. Just like Jesus calls his disciples in today’s Gospel, God calls us to partner with God in working for healing, justice, and reconciliation across many systems that contribute to the broken state of this world. These systems of oppression and degradation overlap and intertwine, and they are all so big and entrenched into the machinery of the world that challenging them seems like an impossibility.
But the sense of hopeless impossibility is part of the systems, the part that keeps people from challenging them. And yet Jesus, who himself was oppressed by systems of power, Jesus taught us a prayer of challenge. You know it by heart: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” God’s kingdom, God’s reign brings healing, justice, and reconciliation. Healing is new wholeness pieced together out of old brokenness. Justice is the state in which all people receive what they need to thrive. And reconciliation brings people into right relationship with one another and all to God. I can’t think of three better frames to guide us as we join God’s mission to this broken world. But how do we do this? How do we join Jesus in the necessary work of healing, justice, and reconciliation, especially within the context of an oppressive system like racism that is so big, so subtle, so invasive?
The way Jesus has taught me is to begin in my own heart. So I started with myself. I started by reading. And very, very quickly I realized something. Oppressive systems like racism are sooo big that even noticing how my life is wrapped up in these systems has taken and continues to take dedicated time, focus, study, prayer, reflection, and action. Today I’d like to share with you three of my noticings with the hope that you may be encouraged to begin or to continue your own.
The first thing I noticed when I really gave myself a hard look was how I never thought of myself as having a racial affiliation. In my unexamined state of being, whiteness was the default and everything else was the nebulous “other.” And right here, this is where it gets tricky. Because race is a made up thing, derived from thousands of years of glorifying and demeaning people based on physical attributes and place of birth, backed up in recent centuries by some truly horrendous pseudo-science. But while race as a concept has no scientific merit, the social system of defining, exalting, and debasing people based on racial markers has infected societies the world over. This social system is called racism, which in our country grew in tandem with another system: white supremacy.
Let’s circle back to the first thing I noticed about myself. In my unexamined state of being, whiteness was the default. And so it follows, that everything else – everybody else – would be something other than the default, something other than normal. And when I realized that, I saw the seed of white supremacy lying there in the untilled soil of my heart. I saw within that tiny seed the horrible justifications that my ancestors used to enslave people and treat them as property. The rectory I lived in as a child in Rhode Island was built in 1767 using the profits from rum and slavery. I saw in that seed my predecessors’ sinful clutching at a destiny that gave them the warrant to drive native peoples from their homelands (including right here where we are standing). I saw my Founding Fathers compromising as they drafted the U.S. Constitution, codifying into law that a portion of God’s beloved children would only be counted as three-fifths of a person. These things were some of my heritage, the soil for that pernicious seed.
The second thing I noticed after discovering that seed is just how defensive I got. “I can’t help being white,” I told myself. “I didn’t enslave people. I didn’t create the Trail of Tears or intern Japanese Americans. I’m not a racist.” Growing up in Alabama, I had images of racists in my mind: men in white robes and pointed hoods burning crosses in yards; George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door declaring, “Segregation forever”; Bull Connor unleashing the dogs and turning the fire hoses on peaceful protesters in Birmingham. That wasn’t me. I’m not one of them. I’m not a racist.
In that moment I both recognized the pernicious seed and denied it at the same time. I was truly afraid to take the next step out of that comfort zone I talked about last week. I was afraid to keep digging around that seed, afraid of what I might find hidden in my own heart. What if I was a racist?
The constant refrain of Holy Scripture is God or angels or Jesus saying over and over again: “Do not be afraid.” Jesus says it in today’s Gospel in response to Peter. At first glance it seems an odd response to Peter’s statement. Peter says, “Get away from me, Lord, for I am sinful man.” Peter’s recognition of his own sin prompts Jesus to say to him, “Do not be afraid.” And Jesus said this to me too in that moment of my own fear. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus said to me. “Do not be afraid to keep delving into the truth of your place in the broken systems of this world, for only such interior honesty can liberate you to work for healing, justice, and reconciliation.”
With Jesus’ help I began acknowledging how the sins of racism and white supremacy did infect me, how I was part of a broken system that I did not choose, nor did I try to fix. And that’s when I noticed the third thing: the blatant exercises of racism that I mentioned before served only to deflect attention away from the hundred ways the pernicious system of racism benefits me through unearned advantages that have accrued to me simply for being white.
Because I’m white, the space my body occupies is never questioned, be it located at Starbucks or the State Capitol. Because I’m white, I can live anywhere I want without being accused of dropping the local property values. Because I’m white, it was presumed I would go to college instead of prison. Because I’m white, I have unearned privileges not afforded to God’s children of color who are my neighbors, colleagues, and friends.
This is the legacy this season of racial healing, justice, and reconciliation seeks to address, bringing awareness and a desire for change. The season, which our Annual Convention has called us to observe as the wider church, also gives us the invitation to begin or to continue our own inner work. I pray you feel this invitation stirring in your heart. Know that today is a beginning, a catalyst only. Over the next two years and more, we will have many opportunities at personal, local, and diocesan levels to engage in the work of racial healing. At St. Mark’s we continue our current forum series, which concludes next Sunday. This coming Wednesday, you are invited to our book group’s discussion of the book Waking Up White. We will be adding a new section to the church library with every book I’ve read since I began two years ago. We will also provide a reading list of the same and a new page on our website continuously updating with new resources.
As the season continues, we will have more chances for conversation, confession, prayer, study, reflection, and action. We will have opportunities to partner with other constituencies in our local area. As you feel called to engage in this work, I look forward to walking with you in it. Together and with God’s help we can keep at bay the hopeless impossibility that prevents people from challenging systems of oppression. This season is a place to begin. Or better yet, a place to join a movement to dismantle racism, a movement that is as old as our country itself: As old as the revolts against enslavement, as old as the abolitionists, the Underground Railroad, the Tuskegee airmen, the Harlem poets, the freedom riders, and the brave students who integrated schools. We can be part of their heritage too, as we join God in God’s mission of healing, justice, and reconciliation; as we make real the words that Jesus taught us to pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
For St. Mark’s page of resources, click here.