Sermon: “Sacred Conversation”
A 'Sermon' for Holy Trinity Sunday, Year A
Genesis 1:1 - 2:4a; Matthew 28:16-20
By The Rev. Matthew Emery
Second Congregational United Church of Christ, Rockford, Illinois
May 18, 2008
I’m guessing that you’ve noticed, as I’ve pulled out a chair to sit down here on the floor level with you all, that I’m choosing not to occupy the traditional place of preaching here this morning. Well, what I’ve set out to do here today is not a traditional ‘sermon’ as such.
The national setting of our church, the United Church of Christ, together with the folks at the National Council of Churches, which represents 35 denominations across the spectrum of mainline Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, and historically African American churches, they have invited us to use this Sunday to begin what they call a “Sacred Conversation on Race”.
This comes out of some of the controversy over the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, but really it’s larger than that. This isn’t about Dr. Wright, it isn’t about Barack Obama (or Hillary Clinton or John McCain, either). This is about realities we face in this country and conversations we too often shy away from.
I want to emphasize a couple things:
First, I said begin a sacred conversation—what I have to say today is not the end-all, be-all on the matter. I hope, as does the UCC and the National Council of Churches, that what happens today is just the beginning of us together addressing these issues of race and racism.
Second, this is supposed to be a conversation—sure, I will have plenty to say to you myself this morning, but you have voices and views too, and together we have views and voices to share in dialogue with people in other churches and in no church. We all must come to the table with what we bring.
And thirdly, this will hopefully be a sacred conversation—a conversation that is born out of mutual respect for one another; a conversation that takes seriously that all of us, with our gifts and our brokenness, were created in God’s own image; a conversation where we bring our own views, yes, but also one where we try to listen for God’s views, for the voice that God is still speaking amidst our lives; and a conversation where we seek out what our calling—our vocation, our job—might be in response to what happens.
All right—so, were does a sacred conversation on race and racism begin? Well, I’m inclined to think that such a conversation has to begin with truth-telling, authentic truth-telling, and first, authentic truth-telling about ourselves. I don’t think we can come to something like this simply by stating our views about concepts in abstract. And I really don’t think we can come with just our feelings about other people. We gotta start with ourselves, our real selves and our experiences—both the good and the bad. So that’s where I’m going to begin—I want to model the work of truth-telling about ourselves by being vulnerable and open with you about experiences.my own
To begin with this truth-telling about myself, I might start by saying that I want to be on what most people would consider the ‘good’ side of things. I want to not be racist and I want to believe that I am not racist. Going further, though, I want to be an ally to people of color, be they Black or Latino or Arab or Asian. I want a person of color to know not only that I don’t have prejudices against them and that the communities that I am a part of would welcome them, but that I want to be an advocate on their side.
But, you know, if I were to just leave you there, that wouldn’t be truth-telling. The truth is that it just ain’t that easy, folks. These things I’ve said may be what I want, but to borrow some words from the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans “For I do not do the good I want, [and] the evil I do not want is what I do.”
The truth is, no matter how much I hate racism and want to be an ally to people of color, I still catch myself thinking things and doing things that reflect the ever-so-subtle prejudices in our society. For instance, I know that I have caught myself—not all the time, but occasionally—locking my car doors when driving through a poor black neighborhood. And I can ask myself, ‘now would I have just done that if this were just as poor a neighborhood that was mostly white?’ And the answer, quite frankly, I don’t know. Maybe. Probably not.
Or, as another example, when I’m getting out of my car here at the church and I see someone walking toward me that looks a bit disheveled or poor, maybe seeming like they’re drunk or on drugs—does the question ‘are they going to ask me for money?’ come quicker to my mind if that person is Black or Latino than if they are white? I don’t know; sometimes probably yes. And I hate that—working here at the church, I of all people know that we get just as many white people in here asking for money as black or Latino—and yet I know I still every once in a while have those thoughts, and I hate that. I hate that about myself, and I hate what our society has done to me that causes that.
I want to widen my truth-telling, though, beyond these more obvious things. In some ways, those were the easy things to see. What’s a lot harder to get at is how as a white person I bring certain assumptions to things that come out of what’s called “white privilege”—the things those of us who are white can assume and count on that, for the most part, people of color just can’t take as givens. First I want to do so by way of a story of an experience I had while I was in seminary.
My second year in seminary, I was part of a program that had 15 of us seminary students working part time in one of three different UCC churches in Chicago—a fairly poor black church, a sort of economically-in-the-middle Puerto Rican church, and a fairly affluent white church. I myself was working at the Puerto Rican church. As part of this program, the 15 of us students also took half of our academic coursework together, drawing on what was going on with our work in these three churches as part of our ‘source material’ for the classes.
Oh, and I need to point out that of our group of 15 students, 4 of us were white, 1 of us was an international student from the Philippines, and the other 10 of us—fully 2/3s of the class—were black.
One of the classes we did together was called “The Bible and Economic Ethics” and early on in the semester, our professors—who were both white, I should add—had asked us to read a book titled What are they saying about Scripture and Ethics? The class day came for us to discuss the book, and for the first 45 minutes or so of the 3-hour class, we had a good discussion on what was presented in the book, but something seemed a little odd that morning, almost like there was an ‘elephant in the room’, so to speak. Really, that whole time, it had only been the professors and the 4 white students and the Philippino student talking. Finally, one of my African American classmates had the courage to speak out and name the ‘elephant in the room’, and over the remaining 2 hours of class many of us had our eyes widely opened to a new reality.
You see, in the book we were discussing, in one of the chapters the author talked about how a field called “liberation theology” had affected the conversation around scripture and ethics. Liberation theology, which came into serious view starting in the late 1960s, is a way of talking about theology and ethics that starts from the assertion that God is on the side of the poor and marginalized and oppressed. There are different kinds of liberation theology, drawing on the experiences of different groups of poor or marginalized or oppressed people—there’s Latin American liberation theology, black liberation theology, Asian liberation theology, feminist liberation theology, and even lately gay liberation theology. Really though, the two kinds that are recognized for starting the whole liberation theology movement in the late 60s were Black liberation theology and Latin American liberation theology.
Anyway, in this chapter about liberation theology, the author mentioned these two roots—Latin American and Black—and then went on to basically dismiss Black liberation theology as not as interesting or fruitful for his exploration and pretty much never talked about it again. My black classmates couldn’t believe their eyes. In that class, they told us that for many of them, this was the first time in their lives that they were in a serious academic setting where they as African Americans were in the majority—remember, they made up fully 2/3s of our class—and yet, yet again they had been asked by white professors to study something that dismissed their experience, one of their most prominent theological traditions. The white people got to set the agenda yet again--and these are liberal, progressive, social-justice minded people at a UCC seminary, and still this kind of thing happened. And we white students just played along—we didn’t question it; we had to wait for them to bring up the issue. As I remember, one of us white students—it may have even been me—asked why someone didn’t speak up earlier. But you see, as they then pointed out, as a white person, and especially as a white male, I have been enculturated to believe that of course I should speak up, and of course I’ll be listened to when I do. Black people, women, people with disabilities don’t have that luxury. Too often, and sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly, they are told to keep quiet, and when they don’t, too often they aren’t listened to.
This whole story is just one piece, one example, of what white privilege can mean. As a white person, if I’m in a store somewhere and I get treated poorly by the clerk, I almost never have to ask myself the question of whether they treated me that way because of my race. A Black woman or a Latino man faces that gnawing question in the back of their mind every time. Sure, the clerk may have very well been a jerk who treats everyone badly. But they don’t know that. And it’s those sorts of back-of-your-mind questions that can eat away at your soul.
So, I’ve done a little bit of truth-telling about myself, but to tell the truth about myself also includes the groups and communities that I’m part of—which includes this congregation and this city of Rockford. Together, we too have some good things to say. I’ve mentioned before, but I think this congregation is to be commended for taking the risk a few years ago to build the activity center, and to invite in the kids of this neighborhood—who for the most part do not look like us.
But to tell the harder truths, we also have to admit that we can be very quick to judge when something goes a little bit wrong. Like when the window by the parking lot got broken in to. Like when we wonder why some of the parents aren’t more involved, when in reality some of them are single parents working two or three jobs just to stay afloat—and, I know, not all of them, some of them do have issues with drugs or alcohol and the like, and I’m not giving them a pass. But gosh, we can be awfully quick to judge. Like when we criticize for things maybe not being kept quite as tidy or clean as we’d like—even though our community of Rockford doesn’t exactly set any good expectations, when we let the streets and infrastructure of downtown and the West and South sides decay and crumble while we spend plenty of money building streets for subdivisions of expensive houses out on the far East side—we’re not exactly keeping their places tidy either. And even in the sentence I’ve just said, I’ve fallen into a tendency that we sometimes get caught in here, of talking about “us” and “them”. Many of us, and I’m not excluding myself here, sometimes get caught talking about how we do so much for ‘them’, the neighborhood kids, and not enough for <quote> “our” kids—forgetting that when we decided to stay downtown after the ’79 fire, we were making the decision that the ‘neighborhood kids’ are ‘our’ kids.
Ok, so I know I’ve spent quite a bit of time here talking about some of the harder truths about myself and about us together when it comes to race and racism. I guess if I can get across nothing else today, I want to say that this stuff is hard. There aren’t any easy answers. We can’t just say something that will erase 400 years of history. We can’t just imagine that ‘not being racist’ changes the inequalities that creep around the shadows of our society, like the reality of white privilege and decades of educational and economic inequalities. Myself, I’m not going to wake up tomorrow and never again occasionally have those thoughts in my mind about the disheveled guy walking up to me in the church parking lot.
Where is there hope? Where is there hope? Well I have to say, from my experiences in seminary in particular, that there may be few other things that I find myself turning to God about than this one, throwing myself on God’s throne of mercy, pleading for the Holy Spirit to come and work within me and within all of us. The story I told about that book in my seminary class, that was definitely not the only time our group had conflict that involved race that year. Voices got raised. Tears were cried. And yet somehow in the end, we still managed to be in community with one another, to care for one another. Looking back on those times, I have no explanation of how we were able to do it, other than by God’s providence and Christ’s grace and the Spirit’s power.
Really, I shouldn’t be surprised by that. When it comes right down to it, this has a whole lot to do with what the Holy Trinity is all about. I can’t explain the Trinity, and I’m not going to try, but what I do know is that by speaking of God as Trinity, we’re recognizing that community—and not just community, but community with both diversity and unity at the same time—this is inherent, central, to God’s being. And if we all are created in the image of God, as our Genesis story proclaims, then this sort of community is inherent to us too as humans. In the ‘Creator – Redeemer – Sustainer’ community, in the ‘Father – Son – Spirit’ community, in the ‘Compassionate Mother - Beloved Child - Life-giving Womb’ community, we have a glimpse of a true diversity community and we have the promise this possibility is in us, too. The creation story is all about God bringing order out of chaos, and in continuing to engage in truth-telling and join with others in sacred conversation, we join with God in bringing order and beauty into the chaos of this world. We join with God in creating the sort of community that indeed is God. And so, may almighty God, the blessed and holy Trinity, pour out power and grace and mercy upon us for the work set before us.