Where Are You Staying?

race-relations-montage

(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

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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.

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#lazaruslivesmatter

(Sermon 9/25/16)

eugene-carson-blake-arrested-07-04-1963

Rev. Eugene Carson Blake, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church, being arrested during a Civil Rights protest, July 4 1963. Click image above to view video.

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”  – Luke 16:19-31 (NRSV)

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He was living the good life. There wasn’t any question that he’d worked hard in his life, and his hard work had paid off. Now, here he was, at the peak of his life. He had a nice home, good food. He was able to travel, see different and interesting places from time to time. He could afford to wear stylish, up to date clothes, and to get new ones whenever the fashion gurus changed their minds about what was the hot new color or the right width for a necktie. He certainly didn’t consider himself rich; he was just comfortable, even though he knew others considered him rich. Of course, he knew there were plenty of others who didn’t have it nearly as good as he did, but in most cases, he thought to himself, if they’d have just worked as hard as he had, and applied themselves, they’d be doing well, too. After all, our laws set up a level playing field, didn’t they; with all the opportunity out there, if they weren’t successful it was their own fault. And yes, there were some who weren’t physically or mentally able to succeed in life, but that’s what charities are for. Most of the time the unsuccessful ones, the have-nots, were just lazy. They had a poor work ethic; they wouldn’t accept responsibility for their own lives. And what’s worse, they were constantly getting into trouble with the police. If they’d just abide by the law, like good, decent people, half of their problems would disappear overnight. It really is a shame, he thought, as he reached for a second helping of potatoes in what he didn’t realize would be the last meal he’d ever eat, but there’s really nothing I can do about it. That’s just the way life is – always has been, always will be, for all eternity.

Or maybe not, according to Jesus. His story, this parable we heard this morning, was meant as a warning to the people in this world like the rich man in the parable – people who have relative peace, and security, and justice in their lives. Jesus’ warning was that for them to enjoy those things while depriving them to others is clearly not God’s will, and it that was their way, then they needed to change those ways. That was certainly true any time the comfortable were directly harming the have-nots, but it was also true when the harm was indirect, passive, through simple neglect or obliviousness, as was the case in this parable – the comfortable man never did anything directly to Lazarus to hurt him; he just ignored him.  Jesus was saying to his listeners through this story that, to borrow some language from our own time, Lazarus Lives Matter. That any of us who identify more with the comfortable man in the story than we do with poor, sick, homeless Lazarus, have an expectation – a charge – from God to use our money, our minds, our voices, our hearts and hands and feet, to enable all the Lazaruses of our lives to enjoy the same peace, stability, and justice that we do.

The problem of the rich man and Lazarus, the problem of the haves and have-nots is still a big problem; you certainly don’t need me to tell you that. And right now in our country, we’re seeing that problem playing out in terms of haves and have-nots, where the haves are those who have peace, and security, and justice in their lives, and the have-nots, who don’t. And due to the particular history of our country, for us, it’s a problem that’s deeply intertwined with issues of race. Race. The issue that from an actual biological, genetic standpoint means nothing – less than nothing. Really; if you analyzed my DNA, it could very well have more similarities with the DNA of Desmond Tutu than, say, (white male parishioner). Race is not biology; it’s a social construct based solely on a person’s physical appearance. It’s nothing. And yet, in our society, it seems to mean practically everything. Race determines in large part where we’ll live, how we’ll live; where we’ll worship and how we’ll worship. It will determine the quality of the education, and healthcare, and public services we’ll receive. Cutting to the chase, it determines whether we’ll be treated as full and equal citizens, receiving the same Constitutional rights and equal protection under the law that other citizens receive. From a purely secular standpoint, the unfair, unjust, and unequal treatment of members of our society based on race – based merely on their physical appearance – is  unconstitutional . By way of this parable, Jesus tells us it’s unchristian. From a logical standpoint, it’s institutionalized lunacy.

And yet, it goes on and on, day after day, year after year. Our hearts break, yours and mine alike, when we turn on the television or look at the news feed on our phones and we’re subjected to the latest dashcam and youTube videos of yet another police shooting of yet another black man; and CNN plays the video in a continuous, 24/7 loop of violence porn. And we see more city streets filled, day after day, night after night, with protestors crying out for justice – and not just justice regarding the particular incident, the tragedy du jour, but for *real* justice, and peace, and security in all aspects of their lives. Protestors crying out, in essence, “How long, Lord?”, and demanding that we recognize that their lives matter just as much as everyone else’s.

We watch it all, and it makes us wonder what in the world is going on, Why are all these tragedies happening? It’s like the wheels are falling off of our society; why? In Jesus’ parable, the rich man’s life was so far removed from the realities of Lazarus’ existence that he just didn’t, couldn’t, fully understand. He couldn’t see that he and Lazarus were living within a system of two completely different sets of realities and possibilities – rules and realities that made it possible for the rich man to enjoy life’s goodness, and that simultaneously made it extremely difficult if not impossible for the Lazaruses of his world to do the same. In this parable, where the rich man doesn’t learn the reality of things, and what God’s desires are, until after he dies, Jesus is telling us that this kind of situation is absolutely unacceptable for us as his followers, as people of the Kingdom of God. It is absolutely unacceptable.

One of the great moral voices of our time, the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, has said that we’ve experienced two Reconstructions in our history. These were times when large numbers of people from different races, religions, and other classifications, recognized the problem of the Lazaruses in our society – particularly, the Lazaruses based on race – and they understood that they needed to work together to achieve greater justice and equity for them; to get the nation to live more truly and genuinely into the words and promises of its own founding documents. The first Reconstruction was in the decade or so immediately following the Civil War. The second, Dr. Barber says, ran from 1954, the start of the Civil Rights Movement, until about 1980. In each of these Reconstructions, we, the Church, played a major role in achieving the progress that was made, specifically because we understood Jesus’ meaning in this parable. And now, Dr. Barber suggests that we’re in the midst of a Third Reconstruction, where once again a broad and diverse group of people are coming together to advance justice and equity in our society once again. That’s what we’re witnessing being born, that’s what we’re witnessing unfolding on the television news. And, because we do understand this parable, we, the Church, needs to be a part of this Reconstruction, too, just as we were in the past.

But how do we do that? How do we get our hands around an issue that can seem too big and complex to solve? And, being completely honest, how do we come to terms with the conflicted feelings that all of us, you and me alike, sometimes have when we think about issues of race?

Here at Springdale, we’ve already done some important work. We’ve studied our Confession of 1967 and the Belhar Confession, these incredible historical confessions, part of our denominational Constitution, both of which expand on the message of this parable and make it clear that the work of racial equality and reconciliation is work that God calls us to and expects from us. It isn’t an option for us to ignore it. Next, our upcoming Issues Class is going to have a guest speaker who will tackle this same issue. Then also next month, the Presbytery is sponsoring a workshop on racial reconciliation. It will be held on Saturday, October 22, at Fourth Presbyterian Church. There’s a flyer out in the Gathering Space about the event. I’ll be there, and I hope to see many of you there, too. And in addition to those things, a couple of us are beginning to work on a multiple-part educational offering that will dig deeper into the issue of race in our society; there will be more information about that in the near future.

Those are all good starts, and we should all be a part of them. But one thing that we can’t do is just get together in a big room full of only comfortable white people to sit around and try totalk about the issues of race in our society. I couldn’t imagine a bigger waste of time. I wouldn’t attend another meeting like that myself. We can’t understand the problems faced by other people if we don’t sit and talk with them, truly listening to them, in open, candid, and loving conversations in a mixed, multi-racial setting.

Another thing that we can’t do is leave our work at just the level of talk. Conversation is important, but it’s a means to an end; it isn’t the actual end itself. We need to find ways to turn our talk into positive, constructive action. And I don’t know specifically what that looks like; it may look like something different for each of us. It might be working together with existing community groups working for social justice in our community and society. Most of these groups include a large number of people of faith already; people who understand the meaning of this parable. For some of us, dare I suggest that it might be taking part in non-violent but loud protests calling for social justice improvements, just as we’ve done in the past. .

Whatever we do, it won’t be easy. But there’s a bit of good news here for us because, unlike the rich man in the parable, we know we’re supposed to be doing it. And also unlike him, we actually do have the benefit of someone having been raised from the dead to remind us of this reality, this expectation – and not just to remind us of it, but who remains with us, emboldening and empowering and strengthening us to actually do it.

Thanks be to God.