I’m going to be honest… From 7:00 Am onward I’ve been exhausted in a very real and spiritual way. It occurred to me, as I got the news this morning that there was no one shooting yesterday but today, that I, people my age, have never known a time where this is common. I was 3 when Columbine happened, I was 5 at 9/11. I’ve never known a time where I could feel secure – not at home, not at church, and now not even at Wal-Mart.
As I drove to the Churches this morning delivering the elements for communion, I thought of the Sermon I had for today. A sermon about how God can be with us at the lowest times in our life as well as the celebrations. That we can go before God if we’re angry, even if we’re angry with God. That God will accept those emotions. God asks for all of us, not just the nice parts. And I thought that’s a good sermon the Spirit can do good things with it. But that is not the Sermon for today.
It is a Sermon for a world where we can pretend that everything is ok. A sermon where we can say, “The arc of Justice is wide, but it does go to Justice.” But today we stand in the shadow of death. The Scripture tells us that not just Humanity, but all of Creation is tired of the same old story, and I think I’m tired. I’m exhausted of the emotion that goes into all of these tragedies. And while I don’t know much about what happened in Dayton accept that I know God was working something in me last night. Driving home, I had the urge to put on a Randy Newman Album, “Sail Away,” an album that tells us about a, “Splendid way to spend a day in Dayton Ohio, on a sunny Sunday afternoon.”
But as I gathered the elements for communion, I realized that while we do not know what happened in Dayton we know what happened in El Paso. And whenever we talk about tragedies, especially from the pulpit, a minister will usually tell you who you should vote for or what you should lobby your legislature for. I have opinions about that, but you don’t need to know them. I’m here to shepherd your soul, I’m here to guide you as best I can and the conclusion of how you live your life is up to you. But today we can talk about the cause of the El Paso shooting because we know it. The cause was blatant racism. The big R-word that haunts our country.
It haunts the soul of every person who ever lived here. For those of us born white in America, it haunts us because we bear the fact that we – actively or passively have participated in the system. For everyone else, they bear the actual consequences of its existence. We of the Church have a special role in preventing things like yesterday. A special role in speaking against racism wherever it may appear. And as with anything the first place we must begin is within ourselves.
It is easy to say that we are not racist. That we do not participate in White Supremacy or anything like it because we do not do so actively. Racist is, after all, an adjective – an act can be racist, a word can be racist, a thought can be racist but very rarely can the sum of a person be described with that single work – racist. Still, we shrink back whenever we think about it. When we try to apply that word to something we do or about ourselves because we find it irredeemable whether we admit it or not.
We say, “Oh I’m not that kind of person! I have higher standards for myself!” but if we are all honest racism is something that is in all our hearts. Prejudice, in its most simple form, is looking at someone and saying, “I don’t like you for some reason, and I am going to systematize my dislike of you. Because of the thing you like, the thing you do,” and in the case of racism, “because of the color of your skin. Because of the part of the globe where you or your ancestors came from.”
The weight of that big R-word crushes down on us and make us feel like we cannot come out and admit it. So let me be the first to come out and admit it: I as a child of Christ, am a recovering racist. Not because I ever entertained in my head that it was better to be white. Not because I thought that other races were inferior to me. But because growing up in the homogeny that is rural Appalachia I did not know people of color. Morgan county is about as diverse as Jefferson county. Yes, in town you might have a few people of color, but for the most part, people look like me, talk like me, act like me. Being a weird theatre kid is not a separation in that context.
It was only in moving to Morgantown, and then especially in DC, where people of different races and cultures were all around me that I realized I had some racism hiding inside me. Those subtle things of looking at a person who is just minding their own business and thinking, “What are they doing here?” Of seeing someone on the street and thinking, “Are they going to hurt me?” Of looking at other people’s actions that you would do without thought and saying, “They might have something behind it.”
Racism is something that is really only cured by exposure and mindfulness, by being aware of those inclinations which live inside our heart and say, “I don’t like that person.” Well, why don’t you? And then in admitting that it is just because they come from different places, look different, or act different. It is important to remember that those little inclinations in our hearts, can become a problem when a group of us get together. When we, because of our own little failings excuse big ones.
When we hear someone tell a racially charged joke, do we just let them get away with it? When someone tells us not to go to an area of town and we don’t say, “Why not?” Or the most dreaded comment that people like to make, “Be careful, it gets real dark there at night.”
Do we call people out in those moments? Because if not we are not living out our prophetic witness. Because those little moments of someone thinking that just because someone looks different that they deserve different treatment add up. We need to look no further than the early chapters of scripture to see what I’m talking about. Cain and Abel, a time when people had no doubt in their mind that they were the same, that they were one family, Cain looked at Abel and said, “You took what is mine.” Cain never owned God’s good pleasure, but as soon as Abel had it, Cain decided it should be his.
“You Abel have taken my position! You Abel have taken what I could have if not for you!” And it is a very short walk from, “I don’t like you there.”, “You shouldn’t be there.” To murder. There is a reason that Christ is so clear that if you hate your brother or sister you have already killed them because it is only next door to the act.
Even in a moment when the Church was doing a great deal of work to become a diverse people of diverse backgrounds, we read in Acts that the newly formed church, speaking a multitude of tongues from all over the world, worshipping together and sharing in common all the good things which God has given them… Even in this Church, chapter seven happens.
In this chapter, we read that Stephen is appointed to be a minister over the distribution to the widows, why? Because the good Hebrew Christians decided that the Greeks did not need as much food. They decided the Greeks, who they don’t know how they got there, The Greeks, “We don’t know what their background is,” The Greeks, “We don’t know if they came here legally or not,” the Hebrew Christians decided that they did not need to eat.
The Apostles could have signed off on this behavior, they could have said, “Absolutely right! You should discriminate.” But instead, they got a collection of ministers, both Hebrew and Greek together, and said, “You make sure this church stays to its mission!” and you know what those ministers got? Not one chapter later Stephen is brought before the Sanhedrin.
The claim laid against him is that he was proclaiming blasphemy. Saying that Christ was God was unacceptable, but he was not just saying Christ was God. He was saying Christ was God to Jew and Gentile. For butting against the status quo he was beaten to death with rocks. Fast forward to the twentieth century, Oscar Romero – a South American Bishop does not go as far as race but discusses poverty. He says to the Rich and the Government, “You have everything, the poor have nothing, why won’t you regard them as equal to you in dignity and give them what they need to live!” For this, he was killed while presiding over communion, just for saying that people should be equal to one another.
In the United States, a Baptist Minister, Martin Luther King Jr. Who held the whole world accountable for their complicity, especially those “Moderate White Churches,” that would not speak against their brethren. He was shot and killed on the balcony of a hotel.
Today we gather to celebrate the Eucharist. A Thanksgiving for all that Christ has done, but also what the Greeks called, αναμνεσις, a remembrance, literally to read your memory. To bring out your memory. When we look at this we should not just remember the good that God has already given us, but what that goodness cost. Because the Ransom of Life, we were told, is costly. For the Psalmist this meant that the wealthy were not willing to give up what they had to help other people. They were not willing to feed the poor, because when it came to the poor the cost was too much, but to they considered their mansions a necessity.
For those of us who live in a world where people go and kill simply because others are different, the cost to us is admitting our own wrongdoing. The cost to us is stepping aside so that others can walk alongside us. But for Christ the cost was death on the cross, and as I already said, for those who fight for equality that is the price they pay as well. Christ was crucified not primarily because he claimed to be God, but because he was a threat to the powerful. He was crucified because he said Romans, Hebrews, and Greek should get together and be one family.
When you get people together and they talk about their mutual problems, that makes people in power uncomfortable. Jesus was not primarily crucified because he was a good man, he was crucified because he threatened people. Not with weapons, not with violence, but with love. If there’s one thing the World can’t stand it is love. Love is like a fire that burns within people and motivates them to live selflessly for one another.
But Love must grow in an unhindered soul, one that has decided what it must get rid of, and sometimes that means getting rid of prejudice. A soul that is willing to admit it has hurt people. Love is not comfortable, it asks the world of us. But if we do not do this, we have not walked the walk we are called toward. The Mission Statement of these churches is to, “speak and live the Gospel.” And through, “Love and Forgiveness,” make disciples. I would add to this the Mission of the United Methodist Church, that we make these disciples, “For the transformation of the world.” Conforming it to the will of Christ which is love. Love which does not discriminate. Love that acknowledges difference but does not separate people based upon it. A Love that is willing to look hate in the eye and die to prevent its spread. That is the love we are called to.
God accepts us. All our failings. Our Hurt our Joy our Anger. The one thing which God will not accept in you is Hate. Hate which roots in the heart and manifests in the slightest comments and most basic inclinations. Today we feast on the love of God which roots out this hate.