How To Neighbor - Week 2: Racism Reconciled
Today we're going to be continuing the sermon series we started last Sunday, a sermon series entitled "How To Neighbor" As the world grows more connected, our neighbors are closer than ever. You might not share a fence, but you can still share their burdens and joys.
Each week of this four-week focuses on a different aspect of how to build relationships with our neighbors and how to do good in the context of those relationships.
Last week we talked about how we need to ask ourselves if we have the awareness, access and ability to step into mission and empower the poor.
Today we're going to be talking about how we can see racism reconciled.
First things first.
There's a question that I need to address before I say another word.
And that question is, "What authority do I have to speak on the issue of racial reconciliation? I'm a middle-aged white guy with a whole bunch of implicit bias and baggage. My hands are not clean when it comes to racial issues.
What's implicit bias, you might be asking?
This is the basic definition: We have a bias when, rather than being neutral, we have a preference for (or aversion to) a person or group of people. Thus, we use the term “implicit bias” to describe when we have attitudes towards people or associate stereotypes with them without our conscious knowledge.
In other words because of my social location, my whiteness and a whole bunch of other factors, I have an implicit bias when it comes to race that influences me whether I know it or not.
So, with all my baggage, implicit bias and lack of qualifications to speak authoritatively about racial issues, I feel compelled to speak. I'm going to fall back on the exchange that God had with the prophet Jeremiah when the prophet was reluctant to speak what God was leading him to speak.
6 “Alas, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.”7 But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord. 9 Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth.My prayer today is that the God will reach out God's hand and put God's words in my mouth today because it is only by the strength and courage given me by the Holy Spirit that I dare say what I'm about to say.
I want to show you two photos:
This is a photo of a man being attacked by a police dog--a photo taken in downtown Birmingham Alabama during a civil rights protest in 1963.
This is a photo of a car crashing into a civil rights protest where a woman was killed and dozens injured--a photo taken in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia last year.
These two photos were taken fifty four years apart.
During those fifty four years a lot has been done to secure equality and civil rights for people who were long discriminated against.
But it's obvious that we've got a long way to go.
Tomorrow we will be celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
One of Martin Luther King Jr's most famous sermons was an early sermon he preached on the Good Samaritan. We do not have a recording or a transcript of the sermon, only the recollections of witnesses who were there. I'll say a bit more about that in a moment.
But for now let's read the story from Luke chapter 10:25-37
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[a]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b]”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.
33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.
I'm going to stop there for a moment. What you need to know is that when Jesus was telling this story and he got the part where he said, "But a Samaritan..." he would have looked out and seen the Jewish audience listening to him physically recoil.
There was 700 years of hate there that Jesus was pulling back the lid to expose. Jews and Samaritans hated one another. And yet, they had a shared story, similar beliefs and worshipped Yahweh. Jewish people saw the Samaritans as pretenders, less-thans.
About a hundred years before Jesus a group of Samaritans broke into the Temple and desecrated it with bones.
The Jewish king at the time raised and army, and went into Samaria where he destroyed the Temple where the Samaritans worshipped.
The list of violence and struggle goes on and on.
34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
It would be easy to sort of end there and dwell on the obvious discomfort that the expert in the law must have felt to be cheering for someone who he was prejudiced against. And that would be a decent sermon.
But Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr wasn't satisfied with that interpretation.
This is what he said about the story:
"I admire the good Samaritan, but I don't want to be one. I don't want to spend my life picking up people by the side of the road after they have been beaten up and robbed. I want to change the Jericho road, so that everybody has an opportunity for a job, education, security, health..."
I want to change that Jericho road...
Hold on to that for a moment.
I need to say this at this point in the sermon.
There is no racist gene.
None of us are born filled with racism. Racism is taught.
Comedian Denis Leary famously said, "Racism isn't born folks, it's taught. I have a two year old son. Do you know what he hates? Naps."
So what we can say definitively is that the road to Jericho is paved with ignorance, willful blindness, lack of experience and self-interest. Because those are the things that create the brokenness that teaches racism--one generation after another.
How then do we change the Jericho road--to use Dr. King's words?
Well, it starts with us. We have to own this. We have to speak up. We have to be willing to be shaped by the transforming power of the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. We have to be willing to admit that if we are not part of the solution, then we are most definitely part of the problem.
Doing nothing doesn't cut it---not now not ever.
And there are three things we can do right now.
First, we need to recognize our implicit bias and our prejudices as sin.
Pastor Craig Groeschel once said, "Racism isn't a skin problem, it's a sin problem." And our preferences for one group of person over another, our prejudices... they are sin, pure and simple.
God is not for that.
In James 2:9 we read, "If you favor some people over others you are committing a sin." That's from Jesus' own brother. It's sin. Period. Full stop.
Second, we need to seek to understand. Especially when there are neighbors of ours who are hurting.
During the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, I had this Christian Facebook friend who filled her Facebook feed with posts that said things like "All Lives Matter To God."
I get what she was doing there. But I want to say something about the phrase "All Lives Matter." It's like saying, "All Bones Matter," and they do. All of my bones matter. But when my arm is broken--that bone matters more right then.
We need to listen more and talk less. We need to let our fears and preconceived notions fall to the floor and actually hear what our hurting neighbors are saying. We need to hear the stories of our neighbors who have been affected by racism, and then seek to understand.
Finally, we need to demonstrate love.
In 1996 violence broke out at a KKK march in Ann Arbor Michigan between white supremacists and black counter protestors.
One of the KKK marchers found himself separated from his side of the protest and was suddenly beaten to the ground. He would have probably been beaten to death if had not been for Keshia Thomas, a 17 year-old high school girl, who threw herself on top of the man.
‘When they dropped him to the ground, it felt like two angels had lifted my body up and laid me down,’ she said.
Thomas has never heard from the man, but she did have an encounter with someone close to him: Months after the gesture, a man reportedly approached her in a coffee shop and thanked her. When she asked why, he said, “That was my dad.”
Knowing the man had a son put things in even greater perspective for Thomas. “For the most part, people who hurt…they come from hurt. It is a cycle. Let’s say they had killed him or hurt him really bad. How does the son feel? Does he carry on the violence?”
So what does this look like when the road to Jericho begins to change?
I'd like to do a bit of humblebragging on our denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA)
Two years ago, for the first time in over 30 years, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) adopted a new confession of faith. The assembly overwhelmingly (94 percent) approved the addition of the Belhar Confession to our Book of Confessions. Belhar is the first confession of faith adopted by the PC(USA) with origins in the global south: South Africa, to be precise.
I was a commissioner for that General Assembly and had the privilege of casting my vote.
When the results were posted on the large monitors above us, the assembly burst into applause and cheers. The worship band on stage began to play a spiritual song (“Oh, Freedom”), a song with origins in South Africa, and we all began to clap along.
After a stirring address by Godfrey Betha, vice moderator of the Uniting Reformed Church of Southern Africa, we were given the incredible opportunity to hear from Allan Boesak, a drafter of the confession, which was adopted by the URCSC in 1986.
Boesak was visibly moved as he told the story about when the Belhar Confession was adopted in South Africa during apartheid. He said that many of the youth that were gathered in their assembly that day spontaneously began singing “We Shall Overcome.”
Almost immediately, from the back of the room, we heard the strains of the song, and soon the entire assembly was singing along, holding hands and swaying together.
As I stood there, with tears in my eyes, the import of our actions began to wash over me, and I felt the Spirit around us, in us and through us. History, as it turns out, is often made in surprising Spirit-filled moments — when our strength is waning and our hearts are weary.
The work we do together to change the road to Jericho is sometimes hard, to be sure. The challenges we face together can be daunting. The issues our communities struggle with can be overwhelming. And sometimes we are tempted to give in to the weariness.
But if we do not grow weary, we will be awake when the kingdom of God moments arrive. And we will stand, and perhaps we will also dance and sing.
Here these words from the book of Revelation--a vision of the kingdom of God fully revealed:
..There before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb...10 And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”