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Confessing Racism

The following long-read is a more plainspoken adaptation of an exercise for a seminar in Divinity School. You can find the full and footnoted version at the end of this post.

I. Nobody’s Racist, Apparently

Nobody likes to say they’re racist.

Well, I suppose that’s not necessarily true. White supremacists (sometimes called the supposedly more benign “alt-right” or “white nationalists”) will sometimes openly call themselves racists and be proud of it.

But, for most folks, they don’t want to be called racist.

We’ve effectively attached such a shame to racism that no one is willing to admit their complicity or affinity for any sort of racial prejudice. On the one hand, it’s great we think racism is so bad, right? On the other, though, we are so unwilling to recognize any sort of bad in ourselves that we try to invisiblize and hide our own tendencies toward any sort of prejudice, especially racial prejudice.

We need a way of talking about racial prejudice that’s a good deal more honest than that.

We need a way of naming our own biases and prejudices the leads us to change. As long as we continue to ignore the problems racism has created in ourselves, we will continue to perpetuate everything from racialized income inequality to police brutality to white supremacist terrorism. The stakes are high, and we need to be willing to uncomfortably name those parts of ourselves we pretend don’t exist. Continue reading “Confessing Racism”

AmosGazesOnSirens

What God Expects

I haven’t updated this blog in a while with sermons, though I’ve given plenty. I thought I’d start uploading the one’s I thought were worth reading, beginning with the one from this past Sunday. Below are the remarks from the greeting that opened the service and set the tone, as well as the sermon.

They were given at Warrenton Baptist Church in Warrenton, NC, where I am currently serving in an interim capacity.

The Christian Greetings

It says in your bulletin that I am going to deliver to you Christian greetings before we begin. The Apostle Paul when he greeted his fellow Christians did it this way – he said “Grace and peace be with you.” Mixed up in what seems to be a simple saying is a complicated reality. When the Greeks greeted each other, they would say, “Chi-ray.” When the Jewish people would meet each other they would say, “Shalom,” which is “eh-rey-nay” in Greek. When Paul greets his Christian sisters and brothers, he says “chi-reese” and “eh-rey-nay,” both the Greek and Jewish greeting, grace and peace. He was not just covering all his bases or just trying to be inclusive; no, he was making a profoundly subversive statement in a divided church. You might say that in a church where it would have been easier for Paul to say, “All Lives Matter,” he said, “Greek Lives Matter” and “Jewish Lives Matter.”

If you’ve been tuned into the news this week, you have seen some truly horrific things. Alton Sterling, a black man, was shot and killed by police while he was detained. He was shot, almost execution style, while he posed no significant threat. Alton Sterling should still be alive today. Philando Castile was shot when stopped for a broken tail light. While trying to comply with the officer’s orders, he was shot in front of his little girl and his girlfriend. Philando Castile should still be alive today. Five police officers were killed in Dallas this week, doing their job guarding a peaceful protest on behalf of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. They died and several others were wounded doing their job. They should still be alive today. It is insufficient in the wake of this week to say, “All Lives Matter.” We must, like the Apostle Paul, be specific.

When we ask for grace and peace, which is the Christian greeting, we must be specific. Racial tensions have always existed in our country because they have been a part of it since its inception. The United States of America did not have an immaculate conception or a virgin birth. This is not a new problem. Similarly, none of us were born exempt or apart from the racial crisis that plagues our country. We all have our part to play and we have all already played a part. If the Christian greeting is “grace and peace,” we need to seriously consider what that means in our day.

If “grace and peace” is a message that is distinctly Christian, we must not be afraid to be like Paul and be specific about the divisions in our society.

If “grace and peace” is the Christian greeting, as Christians, we must be able to say “Black Lives Matter” just as readily as we say “Blue Lives Matter.”

If “grace and peace” in its specificity to Jew and Gentile alike is the Christian greeting, we must know that we cannot say “All Lives Matter” when Black lives clearly don’t matter.

If “grace and peace” is a Christian greeting, we must condemn the violence in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights just as fast as we condemn the violence in Dallas.

I don’t say those things because I think I’m some sort of prophet. I don’t say those things because I think I’m self-righteous. I don’t get a high or some sort of great satisfaction talking about social issues from the pulpit. I don’t say those things because of any political persuasion. I say those things because I am a Christian. I say “Black Lives Matter” because I worship a God who said “grace and peace” to me.

Now, it’s easy to come up with enough objections and counter-points that we can safely ignore these deaths and move on as if nothing had happened.

It’s easy to say that Alton or Philando could have done something differently, come up with some excuse to avoid the horrifying nature of their deaths.

It’s easy to dismiss the concerns of protestors as naïve young people or ungrateful citizens, come up with some excuse to ignore their message.

It’s easy to tune into the news sources that tell us what we already want to hear, come up with some excuse to interrogate our fallen world.

It’s far more difficult, but far more Christian, to say “grace and peace.”

Hear these Christian greetings from the Apostle Paul:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”

Welcome to worship. Continue reading “What God Expects”

An Epiphany Story

 

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Le Breton, Jacques ; Gaudin, Jean. Adoration of the Kings, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=29420 [retrieved January 6, 2016].

This was my sermon on Epiphany Sunday 2016, a fictional story of the magi.

Centuries ago, many say after the return from exile in Babylon, Jewish teachers and rabbis developed a method of teaching and preaching Scripture called midrash. Midrash attempts to find the holes in the text, the little parts that don’t get as much attention, and see what we can learn from them. Midrash aggadah focused on the stories of the Scriptures and tried to see what we can glean from everything from a throw-away detail to an unnamed or underappreciated character.

Christians, too, centuries later developed traditions around the Bible to fill the gaps in the stories. These traditions gave us the names of the Gospels and their authors, they helped flesh out the fate of the apostles, and even name and number the magi we honor today. These stories don’t fall so neatly into the categories of fact and fiction – or fact and falsehood – that we typically rely on today. Instead, the stories of midrash aggadah and Christian tradition seek to find a truth in the story and then run with it. The stories, then, are not necessarily factual but they communicate core truths of the Scripture – they tell us what the Bible wants to tell us but in a new way. Plus, they make wonderful stories like many of the traditions we associate with Christmas and Easter.

So, instead of a traditional sermon, I thought we could just settle in together tonight and listen to a story – if only we had some hot chocolate and a warm fire. This is a story, a midrash, of the magi. We’ll call them Mel, Casper, and Bell. This is a story of how they met Jesus. It’s a tale of suspense and mystery, of struggle and temptation, and hopefully of a little bit of truth.

***

A long time ago, in a land far, far away, there was a small group of star-gazers who looked up at the night sky with all the wonder, fear, and curiosity that it deserves. Mel, Casper, and Bell were university students in Babylon who had all been drawn there by the stars.

Mel was from Babylon, a Persian, and he had never dreamed of traveling very far. He was too interested in the unreachable and unattainable heights of the stars to be bothered with earthly travel. Mel was enamored with the movements of the stars, how they seemed to predict changes in season or come before important events. Unsurprisingly, Mel dedicated his studies to the stars in astronomy.

Casper had come to study from much further away. He hailed from Pushkar, in distant India. Fascinated by all that he had seen under the stars, Casper had decided to study history. He hoped that by studying history, he would be able to help break the continual cycles of violence he had seen all over the world. Peace under the stars, he thought, was only possible if we learned our history.

Bell came from a closer, but still fairly distant, place called Sana’a in Arabia. Bell had lost her family and sought a new one in Babylon. She had known many people in her time and she had noticed that all seemed isolated from one another, a truth that bothered her deeply. She also longed for a family, a name, to call her own. When Bell looked at the stars, she noticed that everyone lived under the same points of light, so there must be something that connected them all. With such mystical questions, Bell chose to study the worlds’ religions.

Despite their different interests, Mel, Casper, and Bell became fast friends when they arrived at the university in Babylon. They ate their meals together, they went on weekend trips, and they studied together almost every night. They poured over the seemingly endless supply of books on the top floor of the university’s library, quite literally burning the midnight oil. Each night, they finished their day with the same ritual. As the oil for the lamps began to run out, they frantically shelved all their books and put away their work so that they didn’t leave behind a mess. Then, they shut the doors behind them and went out on the balcony of the top floor of the library. They had set out pillows and chairs, and every night they would sit together and look up at the stars.
Continue reading “An Epiphany Story”