Reconciling Faith: On Race & Racism

This is the sermon I preached on Sunday. More than usual, it felt like a Moment - an act of collaboration between preacher, people, and the Holy Spirit. The manuscript feels flat in comparison. Still, some have asked for it, so here it is.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

For years now, I have felt called to address issues of race and racism as part of my ministry. When I was in seminary studying to become a pastor, I read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. He addressed the letter to white Christian leaders who weren’t sure if they should support the Civil Rights Movement. He called for courage, not caution, in the face of injustice. Given the events of recent weeks, I confess that my courage has faltered. I questioned the wisdom of preaching about racism during a family worship service in the midst of so much tension. But I reread Dr. King’s words and realized that now is the time, more than ever, to have hard conversations with one another, and with our children, about race and racism. Now is the time, more than ever, to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly. Now is the time, more than ever, to consider how the reconciling gospel of Jesus Christ speaks to the powers and principalities of this world. This isn’t easy, friends, and I fret that my words are at once too simplistic and too complicated; too soft and too fraught. This isn’t easy, so I invite you now, more than ever, to pray with me, and for me: may the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.

My friend Alex has a son named David. Even though I’ve never met David, he’s always had a special place in my heart. Alex and her husband adopted him right around the same time Juliette was born. I remember reading the heartfelt open letter they wrote as part of the adoption process, introducing themselves to his birth parents. Thanks to Facebook, I’ve watched him grow up for the last eight years. Lately, Alex has been sharing even more photos of him - sometimes current snapshots, sometimes flashback photos from his younger years. She calls them “David of the Day” photos. Each one makes me smile; he was an adorable baby and has become a handsome little boy. And each one tugs at my heartstrings in a very particular way, because each one is captioned with two hashtags. The first is Black Lives Matter. The second: His Life Matters.

These two statements - black lives matter, his life matters - are true. Deeply true. The first, however, is controversial. It is a statement of protest spoken to a culture that has, throughout history and to this day, acted as if black lives don’t matter.

Many have argued that instead of saying “black lives matter”, we should say “all lives matter.” This statement is also true, of course. Deeply true. And yet, as I listen to people of color bear witness to the ways their lives have been shaped by the sin of racism, I understand why it is so important to affirm that black lives matter. As I look at those photos of sweet David, I understand why it is so important to affirm that his life matters.

Some of my Christian friends have compared the statement “black lives matter” to the beatitudes. After all, the blessings Jesus proclaimed were particular, specific. When Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, the people didn’t respond saying, “No, you have it wrong. Everyone is blessed, not just the poor in spirit!”

Throughout his ministry, Jesus continually reached out to people who were mistreated: lepers, women, Samaritans, children. Healing a man with leprosy didn’t mean that Jesus didn’t also love the man without leprosy; it’s just that the leper was the one in need of healing.

Alex isn’t saying that only black lives matter, or that only David’s life matters. But because she is raising her black son in a culture steeped in racism, these are the words that need to be said.
The sin of racism has had its grip on the United States of America for a very long time - since the beginning. The pastor and writer Jim Wallis claims that racism is in fact America’s “original sin”. There has never been a time in American history in which black people have not suffered the effects of racism and inequality.

African slaves were first brought to America in the year 1619. Slavery was not ended, or abolished, until 1865. That may sound like a long time ago, but the fact of the matter is that black people were enslaved in this country far longer than they have been free. Indeed, it won’t be until the futuristic-sounding year two-thousand one hundred and eleven that the era of freedom will have been as long as the era of slavery. That’s 95 years from now - a lifetime away.

Of course, the end of slavery did not mean the end of racism. Black people continued to be treated as less than fully citizen, less than fully human. Children in elementary school learn about the Civil Rights Movement, led by Martin Luther King, Jr. This movement protested unjust laws that affected every aspect of life. Black children weren’t even able to attend school with white children. It was very dangerous for people to participate in the Civil Rights Movement. Activists were threatened with violence. Many, including Reverend King, were killed.

The Civil Rights Movement also did not mean the end of racism. Many white people continue to fear and even hate people of color. And even though racial discrimination was outlawed, it continued to be commonplace.

The effects of the original sin of racism are still widespread. To this day, many black families live in poverty. Many black children attend poor schools and live in run-down housing. When they grow up, good jobs are few and far between. Such poverty and lack of opportunity leads to young people without hope or opportunity - and when people have no hope or opportunity, they are more likely to turn to drugs and crime. Even though every American is entitled by law to a fair trial and fair punishment, studies show that black Americans are often treated very differently than white Americans when they get into trouble. I’ve heard from several church members who have been reading Just Mercy, the book we will gather to discuss following worship today. They have expressed shock and horror at the stories Bryan Stevenson tells of his time working as a lawyer defending people of color.

For many white people, police officers are signs of safety and security. They are the ones we call on when we are in trouble. But for many people of color, police officers are signs of fear and danger. Many report that they have felt harassed or mistreated by the police, experiences that tarnish their trust in the system. A number of recent high-profile cases in which black men and boys were killed by police officers have left communities brokenhearted, angry, and afraid.

This is why the Black Lives Matter movement arose. It is a cry for justice born out of great sorrow. Some have seen this movement as anti-police. It hasn’t helped that some deeply disturbed individuals resorted to violence against police officers. Violence is never resolved by violence. Ever. But as one writer argued,
“....the Black Lives Matter movement, like most things in this world — including you and me — is an imperfect and complex entity consisting of both good and bad elements. But a movement that’s pursuing equality, justice, dignity, respect, and accountability should be supported, because these are virtues that the gospel of Jesus is all about.... Unfortunately, some Christians... are using the imperfect aspects of the movement as an excuse to support rhetoric that denies the existence of racism, inequality, white privilege, and works on the assumption that the cause is some sort of made-up overreaction, misunderstanding, or liberal agenda. It’s not. For Christians who deny that Black Lives Matter, the sin is failing to realize that people who are loved by God, and made in God’s image and likeness, aren’t being treated like it.”
In the midst of so much fear and tension, there are signs of hope.

A white police officer proclaiming that black lives matter. A black woman proclaiming that police lives matter. It is a visual beatitude of mutual care and compassion.

This is another sign of hope: last weekend, leaders of the Wichita, Kansas Black Lives Matter movement met with leaders of the local police force. With so many people burdened by sadness and fear, they decided to host a BBQ together, rather than proceed with a planned protest. A friend commented that this is what the Kingdom of God looks like.

Hear this testimony from the actor who played Officer Clemmons on Mr. Rogers.

There are many ways to say I love you, sings Officer Clemmons. This is true.

As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

As Christians called to love our neighbors, I believe this is a time to love boldly, a time to love creatively. This is a time to say I love you in many ways.

I believe we are called to say I love you by affirming that black lives matter, just as enthusiastically as we affirm that police lives matter.

I believe we are called to say I love you by listening to the testimony of our black sisters and brothers. Not just to hear what they have to say so we can come up with a defense, or an excuse. But to open our minds and our hearts and really listen.

I believe we are called to say I love you by considering the ways our own hearts and minds have been infected by the sins of racism, and by practicing the holy art of repentance.

I believe we are called to say I love you by having the courage to speak out against racism in all its forms. We may meet resistance, but Jesus did say, after all, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

I believe that one of the ways we are called to say I love you is to turn, with wholehearted devotion, toward God, who is the source of life and the author of love, and to recommit ourselves to following in the way of Jesus Christ: the way of compassion, forgiveness, nonviolence, reconciliation, peace, and, of course, love.

May we say I love you to all of our neighbors with our lips and with our lives. Amen.

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