(sermon 1/15/17 – Race Relations Sunday)
The next day [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”
The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter). – John 1:29-42
There’s a lot going on in this gospel text, but let’s pick up the story in this gospel text in the middle – these disciples of John the Baptist are intrigued by Jesus. They want to know more about him and follow him, so they ask him, Rabbi, where are you staying? And Jesus gives them one of those great Jesus non-answer answers, Come and see. And for some reason that can only be attributed to the leading of God’s Spirit, without really knowing where he was staying, or where he’d be going next, they did.
That was really indicative of all of Jesus’ ministry, proclaiming God’s good news for all people – first to the Jews, then outward to the despised half-breed Samaritans, then the Romans who were occupying the land and bleeding it dry with their taxes going back to Rome. Jesus and his message just wouldn’t stay put with just one particular racial or ethnic group. And the Church did the same – moving outward to all nations, all races. In fact, we Christians from so-called “white” origins came pretty late to the party. By the time the Christian faith was taking root in Western Europe, there were already well-established Christian churches and communities in places like Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, China, and countless other places that had been going strong for hundreds of years. It’s only because God’s Spirit refused to establish permanent residency with any one particular racial or ethnic group any more than Jesus did, or to establish any one race as superior or more favored over any other, that we’re even a part of the whole global Christian movement at all.
It’s because of that that we can indeed see Christ alive, and vibrant, in people everywhere. We can see the face of God in races and faces of every color and appearance. We can see this Great Truth – that all of those different looking faces, in all of their wonderful, beautiful diversity, are fully and equally created in the image of God. All of them are fully and equally deserving of equal human rights, equal opportunity, human dignity, and true justice. And if we dishonor any of them, then we dishonor the God who created them. This is the Great Truth.
But somehow, in too much of our history and theology, we lost sight of that Great Truth. Somehow, we allowed ourselves to buy into theologies and cultural norms and standards that replaced the Great Truth with the Big Lie – that “race” is actually a significant biological difference, that some races have inherent flaws in them and are inferior to others, and that among all of them, the white race was the superior one, the most God-blessed one. And because of that, they were justified in exploiting the other races for their own benefit. We believed the Big Lie directly and openly, justified by twisted scriptural interpretations from equally twisted spiritual leaders, for centuries, causing terrible, devastating, intergenerational harm to millions of people.
We used the Big Lie to justify the scandalous thought that we had a God-ordained right to actually own other people as property, because they were racially inferior to “us.” We reaped the benefits of free and near-free labor from African-Americans, enriching us at their expense. And set up social systems designed to keep them in poverty, designed to make it all but impossible for them to ever advance socially, educationally, economically – and then we had the nerve to look down on them, saying that apparently their race was inherently less intelligent, less ambitious, less able to succeed, to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps – they were morally and socially inferior to “us.”
We confiscated the property of Japanese-Americans and sent them to internment camps during World War II, even including many native-born American citizens, ignorantly thinking that they couldn’t be trustworthy, loyal Americans. They were considered morally and culturally inferior to “us.” Even after many of them served heroically in the war, many of them still weren’t eligible for citizenship, because the Naturalization Act of 1790 limited naturalized citizenship exclusively to free whites; and except for slaves who became citizens by Constitutional Amendment, that whites-only policy was in force until 1952.
We considered the Latino people of Central and South America to be an uncivilized, childlike race, which we used to justify exploiting them. Our corporations moved into their countries, buying up the land and means of production with the help of our government. We set up puppet governments in many of those countries which protected those financial interests. The corporations siphoned off the wealth of those nations to themselves, and indirectly, to us – turning the native population into a near slave-state that couldn’t earn enough money to survive. And when many of them, just trying simply to not starve to death, began to emigrate to the U.S., we limited how many of them could legally emigrate to ridiculously low levels, because we saw them as morally and culturally inferior to “us.” Then, when out of desperation many of them crossed the border illegally, and often at risk to their own lives, we were indignant, asking why they didn’t just go through proper legal channels, like our own grandparents had. We used the fact that they’d entered our country illegally as proof that they were all lawless undesirables who had to be feared.
Those are all hard truths to hear. But they are truths nonetheless. If they made you uncomfortable, or upset, or angry to hear them, I promise you that wasn’t my intent, except maybe to be angry that they ever occurred to begin with. They’re all the result of us losing sight of Jesus’ example, and buying into the Big Lie. I only mention them to help explain how we got to where we are today in this country with regard to race. To be clear, I don’t believe for a minute that anyone here today believes those tired, old, twisted, discredited beliefs about people of color. But all of us live in a world where we’re living with the ongoing results of those former things. We’re living in a world where social systems are still in place that perpetuate some of those past evils. We’re living as Christ’s Church in a way that’s probably the most segregated of any aspect of our weekly living, brought about largely by cultural differences and distrust that came about as a result of those old beliefs. And all of us – each one of us, without exception – carries some degree of racial prejudice and racial misunderstanding that are a lasting legacy of the Big Lie.
That would leave us in a very bleak place, if that were the end of the story. There would be little hope for us in our diverse, multi-racial society. There wouldn’t be much hope for any meaningful lasting kind of racial justice and reconciliation, if that were the end of the story. But because of Christ, we know that all of this misguided history isn’t the end of the story. We know that the Big Lie is just that – a lie, and the Great Truth is God’s truth of equality for all, and that there is really only one race – the human race. And because of that, we can work for racial justice and reconciliation.
The disciples in the gospel text didn’t know what to expect, but God’s Spirit led them into that unknown – and we can be assured that God’s Spirit will do the same for us, as we struggle with how to work for justice and reconciliation. God will enable us to see the face of Christ, the image of God, in all races and faces, and will lead us to work together to achieve racial reconciliation. When those disciples asked Jesus where he was staying, and where he was going, Jesus said Come and see. If we do the same, and we engage in community with people of color, if we hear their stories and are open to them telling us their reality, and being open to them telling us what needs to be fixed, then together, we’ll be able to put the Big Lie to bed once and for all.
Yesterday, I was at the Men of Peace Presbyterian Church’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. I didn’t have a reservation, and when I arrived, the person at the door said, “That’s OK; we have two tables set aside for people without reservations; they’re over there.” And when I looked at where he was pointing, don’t you know that one full table of the two was filled with people from Springdale Presbyterian Church. Honestly, it looked a little funny – it looked like someone had put up a sign that said “Old White Guys Sit Here.” And it was true; I think we were the only all-white table in the entire hall. But as funny as it might have looked, the great thing was that they were all there. They were all willing to show up, to get out of our all-white bubble, and be part of it – almost saying, “We aren’t really sure what all we can do, but at least we’re here – we’ve come to see – and we want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.” The truth is, I couldn’t have been any more proud of Springdale Church, and those guys, as I was yesterday.
Tomorrow, we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King. As we do, let’s honor his memory by finding ways that we can engage in the work of racial reconciliation, and advancing human dignity and justice for all of God’s people. Maybe it will lead us into new territory; maybe even into conversations and considerations that we make us uncomfortable. Maybe it will be a little scary. But that’s OK – because when those disciples asked Jesus where he was staying, the real answer was “nowhere,” and at the same time, “everywhere.” Jesus has already been where we’re heading. He’s out ahead of us, telling us “Come on; Come and see!” – and if Jesus is already there, then what do we have to be afraid of?
Thanks be to God.