St. Luke’s UMC
August 9, 2020
Justice or Just-Us?
Matthew 4:17, 26:21-22 (NLT); Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 6:5
Let’s begin with a definition of the word “dissonance.” The Google definition of Dissonance goes like this: “a tension or clash resulting from the combination of two disharmonious or unsuitable elements.” Like most things I understand a concept better when I see it. So let me share with you some images of disharmonious elements…
Now, dissonance is actually a musical term. It is the combining of notes that are not in harmony with each other. Let’s listen to musical dissonance…
Have you ever noticed how easy it is to spot dissonance in other things or other people? When you see or hear dissonance, it’s like the disharmony jumps out at you, but when it appears in you, it’s much harder to recognize.
For instance, Thomas Jefferson wrote the words in the Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal,” but Jefferson himself owned at one point in his career as many as six hundred slaves. In fact, he fathered at least four children by one slave girl named Sally Hemings, who was just 16 years old when he began a sexual relationship with her. (sound)
Or go back a little further in history. The Puritans left England and came to America in the early 17th century, because King Charles I disbanded Parliament basically ignoring the equal rights of the Puritans. But when they came to America they established a hierarchy of rights that put men above women, and all white people above Africans and said that is the way God orders the world. (sound) The seeds of racism in America were planted by Christian pioneers.
But perhaps the clearest example of dissonance goes all the way back to St. Paul. How many of us don’t love Paul’s words in Galatians, “Now there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.” How many times have we heard that wonderful statement quoted in the church? Yet, in Ephesians Paul wrote, “slaves obey your masters.” (sound) Maybe Paul said it because he saw no disharmony between the two, that being a slave was an accepted status of the time, but in Christ’s eyes we are all the same. Or maybe Paul himself didn’t condone slavery, but to go against it would have created too much social upheaval which could have undermined his mission. That one’s hard to believe given the amount of upheaval Paul created in other settings. The truth is, we will never know Paul’s true thoughts about slavery other than to hope he would have regretted it today, because his words were quoted and used to support the most unjust, heinous state-sponsored crime in the history of our nation.
But, of course, dissonance, is not limited to history.
Recently I attended a wedding at a Catholic church in Carmel. As I sat with my mask on waiting for the ceremony to begin, I stared up at this magnificent, giant, modern crucifix above the altar. It is stunning. And as I was taking in the glory and awe of Christ on the cross, it suddenly dawned on me that this was the church where the priest just a few weeks before had been removed the pulpit by the archbishop because in a homily the priest compared Black Lives Matter organizers to “maggots and parasites.” As I sat there I thought, “he spoke those words under that crucifix reminding us how Jesus died for all people.” It’s one thing to acknowledge our difference with people but to call them maggots and parasites? (sound)
Now, we’re only a few minutes into this sermon and it’s getting uncomfortable because this is sounding very judgmental. Some of you may be thinking, “So, Rob, have you never shown dissonance?” Stick with me, we’ll get there. Because the truth is, yes, I have. We all have. That’s the point. Dissonance is not limited to two-faced, hypocritical people. It’s a reality we all have to contend with. As the old hymn goes,
“Though what I dream and what I do, in my weak days are always two; help me oppressed by things undone, O Thou whose deeds and dreams were one.”
If we are to deal with any significant problem in our lives, in our world, then we have to begin with the question, “What is my part in the problem.” Because we all play a part. And if we are serious about wanting to do something about racism…No let me say that differently. BECAUSE we are serious about doing something about racism--God expects us to do something about racism—therefore, we have to start by asking what part we play in the problem? In other words, becoming anti-racist begins with repentance.
That’s how Jesus began his ministry. Last week we talked about Jesus’ baptism by John. Right after that the Gospels say, “From that time on Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Now by the end of the sermon I want to give you a three-part acronym for the word Repent to help remember the key elements of repentance. But let’s start with the kingdom of God. That’s why Jesus said people need to repent. The kingdom of God refers to the reign of God. Its Jesus way of talking about life when God’s rules are in effect. It’s life under God’s rule of law.
One of the more popular of these parables is about the laborers in the vineyard. The owner goes out at different times of day to hire day laborers. Such laborers then were like now, usually folks from other cultures, people who were often treated like outcasts and had to take the lowest jobs. Jesus’ point in this parable, of course, is about the value of grace in God’s kingdom, but you can’t miss the people he places in the parable, folks who, for those listening to Jesus, would not have been considered equals.
So one common lesson in Jesus’ kingdom parables is the upside-down culture of God’s way compared to our ways. Life under Gods rules will look like a very different value system compared to this world.
To get ready to live that way, what does Jesus say? Who does he say needs to repent? “Repent, those of you wanting change?” No. “Repent, those who have a guilty conscience?” No. “Repent, those who know you are really bad people?” No. He says, “Repent.” Period. No qualifiers. Repent, Everyone. Anyone. In other words, to get ready to live God’s way, we all have to be willing to change. The systems of our world that value human beings different from that way God does is something none of us can escape. We don’t have the option of living in a world where we are free of racism, its influence, and its systems that differentiate the way people are treated.
This is why Jesus doesn’t say some need to repent and others are okay. No, we live in a warped world. You can’t live in a warped world and not be a bit warped yourself. Let me give you an example. Nearly every poll says 2/3 of Americans say racial discrimination is a problem. Some polls show that number is as high as ¾ or more. Yet, less than 1 in 8 people say they are racists. That’s what you call dissonance. Most people say racism is a problem, but only 12% identify racism in them. No you could say that’s because the vast majority of people recognize the problem in the 12%. There’s a problem they say, but it’s just in a few bad apples. Or, it means the majority of us see the problem out there, we just don’t recognize it in ourselves.
When Jesus says “Repent!” He’s talking to everyone.
So repentance begins with realization—realizing I could be part of the problem. To say I need to realize how I participate in racism is not to say I am a bad and awful person. It actually reveals spiritual sensitivity.
Remember the Last Supper when Jesus told the disciples that one of you will betray me? What did the disciples do? Each one asked, “Am I the one, Lord?” They could have started defending themselves and saying, “Lord, you know I’ve never done anything to hurt you! I would never participate in something like that.” They could have started pointing fingers and throwing each other under the bus. But they didn’t. When confronted with a betrayal, they looked inward first. That’s spiritual maturity.
A social problem gets solved the more individual members of society turn inward and ask, “Am I part of the problem, Lord?” “Could I be contributing without even knowing it?” “Could I be the recipient of benefits of a system that favors one race over another?”
Many social experts say the gamechanger in racism will not be dealing with the skinheads who have swastikas tattooed on their bodies marching and chanting, “White power.” No, the gamechanger will be engaging the mass of population who say, “I’m not a racist. I’m not one of those people.” The problem is, that doesn’t say what we are going to do or change. That’s the real deal—changing! But recognizing the need to change can be uncomfortable.
Matt Bays tells a story about being called out at a coffee shop one time. He was talking to this guy and thought he would be funny and say, “You are the whitest black guy I know.” Matt certainly didn’t mean anything demeaning by that. He was just being himself, but the person said, “Matt, you can’t say that.” Matt said “I didn’t mean anything by it. And he said It stung, but if Matt had been a less spiritually sensitive person, he would have probably sought someone out he knew would nurse his offense and said something like, “You didn’t say anything wrong, Matt. That’s the trouble with the world now. Everyone is just so sensitive. You can’t say anything any more.” And then he would have convinced himself he was right and all the problem was with this other person.
But Matt didn’t want to lose a relationship. So he didn’t do that. He considered what he said from that person’s perspective. In other words, what Matt did we would call in old fashioned religious language: penance. He let himself feel genuine remorse with a desire to be different. That’s what repentance is all about. It’s not wallowing in guilt or feeling sorry for what we’ve done. That doesn’t produce change. The word repent literally means to go in a new direction, but that begins when we acknowledge that our current direction must change!
So the last part of repentance is Take Action. Take Action to change. You see when we read and study, especially reading authors who give us a very different perspective on a topic then we become more aware and that awareness often changes our behaviors.
For example, in the reading I am doing on this topic of racism I have become aware of something I’ve been saying that I need to stop. When I have been with folks to talk about what does it mean to lead St. Luke’s in being an anti-racist church I have said that for me it always about evangelism, reaching people. I want us to be as broad and wide as possible in reaching people. God wants us to reach everyone so being anti-racist is about being as open as possible.
Now, that seems reasonable right? In fact, it sounds missionally appropriate, but as I’ve done my reading I’ve come to see this differently. Evangelism was the very message used to promote slavery, especially in the south. Pro-slavery propagandists appealed to the Christian faith of slave owners as to their Christian duty to convert their slaves. Therefore slavery serves God. By being a good Christian slave owner, you fulfill a spiritual mandate for evangelism.
So I’ll never say again when it comes to race, that it’s all about evangelism to me. That’s offensive, because it sounds like I care only about where people go in the next life and not how they are live in this one.
Often this is the key to taking action, knowing what to quit doing, what to change, realizing that when we forward emails and memes without doing our fact-checking and making sure we have things right, we contribute to racism.
The other day I got an email that was one of those forwards. The person who sent forwarded it to me included me in a long list of others, but it disturbed me greatly. It was supposedly presented as a speech given by Franklin Graham in 2012. Listen to part of it…
Now while I have not known Franklin Graham personally, I have worked with his organization, Samaritan’s Purse, quite a bit through the years. It’s headquartered in the mountains in NC. He and I would disagree on many things, as I think he and his father probably did. But I still couldn’t believe he actually said these things, so I contacted his office and shared the email.
The replied immediately saying the great majority of the email was false. It took a speech he gave at a pastor’s conference but fabricated the majority of the message. The email I received back said, “Mr Graham was calling the church to be salt and light, helping to transform society. He was challenging Christians to boldly live out their faith and to pray for our nation and its leaders. Everything else in the essay is falsely attributed to him.”
This said to me that we have to be careful when we forward things without verifying the information. Otherwise we participate in untruths that can be damaging in ways we don’t realize.
So let’s go back to that word RE-PEN-T and think of it in three parts as a way of summing up what we’ve talked about.
The first two letters stand for REalization. Repentance begins with the willingness to learn and realize things in us that need to change. This begins with learning. Here’s a simple reading list you can use to start understanding racism better. And let me just say, “If you feel that because you are in now way racist, so you have no need to read up on this topic,” that is a sign that you especially need to be reading. I felt that way. I’ve said, “Hey, my best man in my wedding was black. I was the only white kid on my basketball team one year. I have bi-racial nephews and nieces in my family. I’m the least racist person I know.” But I’m reading, and its humbling me and making me aware of how I contribute to the problem.
Then the next three letters stand for PENance. This is about confession, admission. When we see things we do, like Matt Bays’ story, we admit that, maybe to the person or people we may have wounded or made to feel awkward, and apologize. But it takes real guts to do that. It’s not easy to let ourselves admit mistakes. When I asked Matt if he minds me sharing this story about him, and I read it to him as I wrote it up, he said, “You know, even in hearing it, it hurts. I feel shame, but when you know better you do better. I love that. I told Matt, that statement sums up the message. When you know better you do better. And that’s the third part of repentance.
The T which stands for Taking Action!
See if you can see these dimensions of repentance at work in this video from CBS News…