Sermon for Sunday, April 18, 2021 || Easter 3B || Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1-7
One of the challenges of growing as human beings is expecting perfection when we try something new simply because we are pretty good at something else. I thought I could pick up the violin because I’m a fairly good guitarist. Not so much. We humans do not like doing things we are bad at because our egos get in the way. The older we get, the more solidified becomes the subset of activities that we think we are good enough to engage in. Does that resonate with you? I can still play soccer because I’ve been playing it since I was a kid. But don’t expect me to pick up lacrosse any time soon. I don’t want to feel foolish when the ball stubbornly fails to stay in the little net for the hundredth time.
All right. So why am I talking about this? The innocuous music and sports examples are one thing. But we need to grow in so many ways so we don’t become static and stagnant – ways that we naturally resist because growth takes energy and focus. We need to keep growing in kindness and compassion so we outgrow selfishness and callousness. We need to keep growing in the desire to be of service to others while also understanding our own healthy boundaries and limits. We need to keep growing in all facets of our identity – as spouses, family members, friends, neighbors, citizens, and followers of Jesus.
The problem is that growth only happens when we acknowledge that we need to grow; when we steadfastly refuse to slink back to an earlier, more comfortable level of consciousness; and when we accept the reality that growth will include growing pains, mistakes, and moments when we feel foolish or confused. In our second reading today, the writer says, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” In other words, we are not static, stagnant beings, no matter how much we resist change and growth. God propels us forward into newness even as God is making all things new in the power of God’s reconciling love.
Many of you know that for the last four years or so, I have been studying, reflecting, praying, writing, and acting in consciously antiracist ways. The inward and outward movements of antiracism have become an incredibly important spiritual discipline for me. I believe God has placed a call on my heart to address the world from a posture of antiracism so that I can promote the beloved community that Dr. King spoke of.
Then, last week, I was walking from the parking lot towards a nearby inn where I was officiating a celebration of life. I walked past a young Black man, and before I could register a conscious thought about him, my mind had already leapt to the assumption that he was a vendor at the funeral – a waiter or deliveryman. Turns out he was a guest at the event, the significant other of one of the deceased’s granddaughters.
I have been sitting with this utterly clear example of my racist bias since the event. At the time it happened, I was reading the book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, which perfectly describes the societal forces at play in my snap assumption. In Caste, Isabel Wilkerson says, “By adulthood, researchers have found, most Americans have been exposed to a culture with enough negative messages about Alfrican-Americans and other marginalized groups that as much as 80 percent of white Americans hold unconscious bias against black Americans, bias so automatic that it kicks in before a person can process it” (p. 186).
So what do I do with such a crystallizing moment that shows how infected I am by the societal disease of racism, especially given that I am consciously trying to grow into an antiracist identity? The most important thing to do is recognize the snap assumption for what it was and not to deny it. The assumption was a result of racial programming that I have been socialized with, programming that assumes Black people work in menial jobs because of the white supremacist reaction to the end of enslavement, which violently pressed freedmen and their progeny into working only as sharecroppers and domestic laborers. If I were to deny that I had the racist thought pop into my head, then I would never be able to locate myself within the racist system that creates ideas like that in the first place. And if I can’t locate myself within the racist system, I will never be able to help dismantle the system around where I’m located.
Dr. Ibram X. Kendi says, “Denial is the heartbeat of racism.” I can so easily see why I would want to deny the thought I had walking into the funeral. At first blush it seems to invalidate all the antiracist work I’ve put in these last four years. I’ve read all those books, done all that praying, all that action to understand and grow, and for what! For the same stubborn unconscious racial bias to rear its ugly head?!
The problem with this line of thinking is that it’s all about my bruised ego, my failure to grow, instead of being about how my unconscious bias contributes to the collective societal inequity and oppression that visits violence on people of color. Because when you get right down to it, my unconscious bias is one tiny cog in the same, overarching system that permitted the police to kill yet another young Black man, 20-year-old Daunte Wright, outside of Minneapolis last week. My snap thinking the guest was a waiter and the quick escalation of force by police are part of the same oppressive system.
When I start to recognize how my – how our – growth into antiracist identity is not about me, is not centered around my own enlightenment, then I can let go of the very thing that holds people back when they are trying to learn something new. I can let go of the need to be perfect or even good at a new discipline. I can let go of the bruised ego that always tries to center me around my own experience. And instead I can find better reasons for growing in understanding and disrupting societal sins like racism. I can make my reasons for growth the fact that I will more readily respect the dignity of all people, honor the essential humanity of those who don’t look like me, and even help save lives.
And those reasons sound an awful lot like our baptismal covenant, a covenant we assent to always and only “with God’s help.” As I said before, God propels us, God’s children, forward into newness, into the kingdom of God that we pray everyday to be made more present here on earth. We pray for God’s will to be done, here on earth as it is in heaven, God’s will that we believe encompasses the liberation of people from all the sinful systems that distort relationships we have with one another individually and as a society collectively.
So when I think about my moment of unconscious bias last week, I realize it was only unconscious for a split second. Then it became conscious, and I could see it and wrestle with what it meant for me to carry it. James Baldwin once said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Perhaps now, with God’s help, I’ll be more effective at disrupting such bias in my own life and at helping other people uncover their racial biases.
I wonder how God is prodding you to grow into newness. In what way is God inviting you to embrace your baptismal promises to seek and serve Christ in all persons and to respect the dignity of every human being? And how has the very human need to be good at something you’re just starting out stymied your answer to God’s call? Remember, such stymieing is the fault of our bruised egos. But the work before us to strive for justice and peace among all people isn’t about feeling good about ourselves. The work before us is about remaking our world into one that is safe and just and equitable for everyone, no matter what – in other words, “Thy kingdom come…”
In today’s psalm, the psalmist cries out,
Many are saying, “Oh, that we might see better times!”
Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O Lord.
As we pray for better times, we also look for the light of God’s countenance – God’s face – shining brightly forth from the faces of everyone we meet. And this light of God helps us to see, challenge, and dismantle all the ways that keep us from embracing each other as children of God.
This article by Ijeoma Oluo helped guide this sermon. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/28/confronting-racism-is-not-about-the-needs-and-feelings-of-white-people