Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Sermon: "Notes from Underground (Railroad), or, How Slaves Teach Us Freedom from Being Inclusive"

"Notes from Underground (Railroad), or, How Slaves Teach Us Freedom from Being Inclusive"

For South Wedge Mission
Rochester, New York
23 June 2013
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Day Text: Galatians 3.5-29

Note: The sermon came out a disaster on Sunday night.  This manuscript represents the proclamation as I intended it.  I am glad to share it more broadly in a more fully realized form.  Thanks for your patience, as always. 


-Last week, it rained in Rochester.  I know, shocking right?  

-So we decided to take the kids to the Rochester Museum and Science Center.  Now, I’ve been going to camps and field trips there to see the Mastodons and the Iroquois longhouses ever since I was five years old.  So its always pretty special to go back, not just to see my progeny following in my footsteps of discovery and wonder, but also, to get to take my own trip down Nostalgia Street.  

-And to discover new things myself.  When we made it to the third floor, I was drawn to the fantastic exhibit telling the story of Rochester’s role in the Underground Railroad.  Which, as it took me awhile to learn, was not actually a steam-engine-driven subway from the deep south to Canada, but a network of houses, churches, tunnels, hollowed out trees, and folks willing to risk the vulnerability of radical hospitality in order to help others reach a place where their humanity was no longer placed in doubt.

-And it was particularly cool to see a map charting out the various routes folks took through the area.  To find out that some of the routes that ran through my hometown of Fairport actually closely mirrored my running routes in high school.  Or that, when I often drive to Honeoye Falls to supply preach at the Episcopal Church there, I am following in the footsteps of midnight travelers on the star light express.  And, of course, there was Frederick Douglass’ house - literally two blocks from here, where School 12 now stands, right here in our own neighborhood.

-Not only does Rochester boast a rich history of radical inclusivity on many fronts - but that, just like the railroad, it’s always been there, running underground, in the roots and soil of the places of my own life.  Hidden in plain sight.  Whispering from the past, like a family of nervous pilgrims, singing softer than a breath the lyrics to “Wade in the Water” from a hollowed out tree.

-But see, if I’m honest, I think the history, this amazing story, remains hidden from me for another reason.  Because as a Yankee who’s spent extensive time in the South, I’ve had to learn the hard truth - that in so many ways, we’re no more free of slavery than 150 years ago, when on Juneteenth, the Emancipation Proclamation finally reached the entire country.  

-It’s written in the story the statistics tell about Rochester.  Only 44% of high school seniors graduate here.  We also boast the 8th highest rate of child poverty, and despite being the richest county in New York State, over 20% of our population lives in poverty.  The great way-station of the Underground Railroad is, today, one of the most segregated cities in the country.   

-And yet, we continue to applaud ourselves on our progressive history.  My chest swells with pride, not just at what I saw at the RMSC, but also every time I walk by School 12 and think of Freddy D.  We name our bridges and our streets after him, and Susan B Anthony.  And yet, just a few weeks ago, a highly qualified candidate was denied appointment as school superintendent because he was openly gay.  

-And see, it kind of exposes the seem in our so-called “inclusivity.”  Because if you’re like me, than you like to be the Includer.  The one who knows better than those close-minded conservatives and so benevolently works to welcome everyone.  I haven’t seen a church yet that does not include the word “welcoming” or “affirming” in their mission statement.  You see, we’re blind, not only to the depth of our history, but also to the dreadful reality of the present, because of how we see ourselves.  As magnanimous progressives.  As good people who mean well.  As if that erases the color line drawn in red around the southeast quadrant of the city.  As if good intentions erases the problem of our privilege.

-Which is why, I think, it’s crucial to pay attention to what St. Paul is doing in today’s reading.  Because while it might seem like all this talk about Israel, and Abraham’s seed, and being heirs to the promise, and all that messy circumcision talk, has nothing to do with us - that it’s culturally irrelevant, that we should just get to the good ethical stuff so we can keep being “good people” - it’s actually quite vital to our transformation.

-Because, see, the great blow to our ego that white people in particular have gone to great lengths throughout history to avoid, is that we aren’t, and have never really been, the Includers.  Or, if we’ve been in that role, we are Includers more in the cast of Pharaoh, seeking to enslave others.  Or like Columbus, using religion and the rhetoric of progress to subjugate and subdue.  Or like the Nazis, who like us were well-intentioned Lutherans - they even founded a peace corp! - and yet, had to have a scapegoat.

-We are quick to use our self-proclaimed status as Includers to place the requirement of a certain circumcision - a mutilation of colored bodies and souls - for inclusion.  Except that inclusion is most often made in our own image.  Stacked in our favor.  A benefit to our own power and privilege.

-And, at the heart of it, is a basic forgetfulness of a Gospel truth that Israel’s story tells us.  That we are not, and never have been, the Includers.  That’s a role we give ourselves, and we are not good at it.  What Israel’s story tells us is that we are, in fact, already always the Included.  

-And here we are, back in our study of Galatians at our themes of idolatry and Gospel, of identity before action, of promises centered on the black hole of our egos, rather than pouring forth from the burning star of the cross of Christ.  Because guess what - like the Judaizers, our privilege makes us quite skilled at manipulating the promises of God to suit our own ends.  And it is always at cost to the community.

-See, the story of Israel is definitely about inclusivity.  But it’s always about being Included.  I don’t think its coincidence that here, precisely here when he is hammering his point home, Paul invokes the most fundamental family story of the descendants of Abraham.  That’s when God promises Abe that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars, and called him to become an illegal immigrant to a foreign land, all on the basis of trust in God’s promise.  And as a sign of the covenant of love between God and God’s people, circumcision was given.  Not as a requirement, but as a sign, a reflection of an Inclusion already accomplished.  A mark, like a brutal wedding ring, sealing the Chosen People as Chosen.  As Included, called to proclaim to the nations the story of the Creator as the great Includer of all nations in the blessings of the good world.  

-Incidentally, circumcision is a lot like baptism.  A sacrament, often done to us, before were even aware or able to act out of our privilege, marking in our flesh and hearts that we are claimed and loved by the Including God.  Pretty sweet, I think.  And thank God we drew the water card, rather than the moil!

-But see, Paul pulls one over on his readers.  Because he claims that in fact, the heir to the promise, the one who is to become the true Includer, is not the Judaizers, who have taken that mantle on themselves.  It’s not even the Jews, who as the Old Testament makes clear, are not unlike us in their repeated failures to include, turning inclusion into exclusion and warfare and genocide.  

-No, the true Includer is the One Jew, Jesus Christ, who on the cross, fulfills the mission of Israel in reconciling and gathering to the God of Israel all nations and peoples.  See, the basis of inclusion in Israel’s story is always the action of God.  It is always God, first through Israel, and ultimately, Incarnate in Christ Jesus, who shows us what Inclusion looks like.  It looks like becoming nothing.  Letting go of the privilege of being the Creator of the Universe.  In order to take on the form of a slave.  Dying.  Being emptied of power.  Being utterly excluded by self-proclaimed Includers.  For the sake of making the Excluders into the Included.

-And see, in both circumcision, and in the other Jewish sacrament, the Passover, the Jewish people remember themselves again and again as the Included.  Frequently in the telling of stories around the sharing of a meal that tastes of the freedom of liberation from slavery in Egypt, they remember that “a wandering Aramean was our father,” and remember God as “the one who called us out of Egypt.”  Their fundamental identities?  As former aliens and slaves whom God, and not humans, Included and blessed.

-What I’m trying to say is this: in remembering that it is in Christ that the Including God is making us the Included, we must remember, with our Jewish brothers and sisters, the hard fact that we are always already included by a power greater than ourselves.  A power and a love that makes nonsense of our delusions of progress and our myths of magnanimity.  Because Christians didn’t invent this thing.  Neither did Jews.  Through Christ, we outsiders, we gentiles, we sinners, are Included into Israel’s song - and Israel in turn has been Included in that song by God.  

-And we are made the Included for the sake, not merely of including others, but of witnessing to the story of the God who has always already included others.  That’s one reason why, in the Mission’s inclusivity statement, we tried to put the emphasis on God’s action: God’s family already includes people of all races, genders, sexualities, ethnicities, classes, ages, etc.  We’re just trying to catch up.  Because the emphasis in our witness is never on what we do or how good we think we are.  It’s on the objective and indisputable goodness of who God is and what GOD has done.  

-And see, when Paul writes that beautiful declaration of freedom - that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, for all are one in Christ Jesus” - it is not an option.  It’s not a choice.  Not something dependent on our slave-making other-excluding privileged inclusivity.  It is not arbitrary, and people’s identities are not up for a vote or tied to our level of enlightenment.  They are hidden in Christ.  No election, referendum, court decision or prejudice can change this truth.  

-We are free because, like the Hebrew slaves led out of Egypt and like Father Abraham, an alien called home, God has acted for us.  We are children of God.  That is who we are.  And nothing, nothing in all of creation can altar that fact.  It is a promise and a covenant from the Creator of the Universe, signed with the mark of a cross in the blood of Jesus.  We are all named as the Included.  Or Christ died for nothing.

-Which, I think, means a very different stance on the very practical issue of inclusivity.  Because I wonder what the church would look like that writes in its mission statement: “we are the Included, and so are you,” rather than “we are inclusive and welcoming,” when we aren’t.  What it would look like to declare, not the beauty of our own inclusivity or the generosity of our own benevolence, but rather, to proclaim, again and again without apology, the Gospel of God’s grace, love and God’s claiming of God’s children, through God’s own Exclusion from us.  If the focus was, in other words, on the promises and the actions of God, rather than on our own promises and failures.

-It might look a lot like having way fewer words and ideals and phrases.  It might change where we live, who our friends are, and who befriends us.  It might upset us and our pride.  It might reduce us to fear and awe.  It might just lead us to get in trouble with the powers as we testify to the basic humanity of ourselves and others.  Because in affirming this truth in them, we must also affirm it in ourselves.  

-But it also does this: because the story of Israel is our story, hidden underneath our well-trodden paths of Christianity and social gospel and good intentions, just as the Underground Railroad was hidden from me at home.  It’s always been there.  And I’d wager that those who risked their lives as conductors on that railroad, I like to think that while they welcomed the stranger and the slave with radical hospitality, that they were also blessed.  Blessed by the songs that the slaves sang, of Abraham, and of Moses, and of the Exodus, and of freedom.  

-And I like to think that, it wasn’t so much Includers saving the outcasts.  Maybe it was more like a people who, freshly aware of the freedom of being Included by a God of Justice and Love, sharing this Good News in spirituals and in their very bodies, a reminder to the privileged that they too were Included.  They too could remember the stories of Israel.  Their story.  They too were slaves who were freed.  They were being liberated by the Gospel witness of colored bodies they had once tried to hide.  That on the Underground Railroad, freedom worked both ways.  Because, bound by chains of privilege and ego, we were slaves too.  

-And I wonder if, letting go of the idols of our own need to feel inclusive, might allow the church in Rochester to reclaim both histories.  To become Gentiles included into the story of the freed slaves of Israel.  And so, to allow our communities to become Underground Railroad stations once more, on the Gospel line of grace, guided by the North Star of the Magi towards a new freedom and a new happiness.  Where we seek, not to be Includers, but simply allow ourselves to be, as Included.  Singing the songs of the slaves, from Israel to the United States.  Running an underground movement of joy and liberation ready to share with others the path to a new creation.  And, in welcoming them, to be reminded of this path ourselves.  

-There’s a freedom train a-comin’.  Get on board, get on board.  That’s underground.  That’s radical.  That’s the promise of God in Christ to us.  Let’s sing it.   


1 comment:

  1. This is a powerful sermon. It is hard to imagine how it was a disaster. Preaching the truth isn't comfortable. Hearing the truth may be less so. I wish more pastors were brave enough to tell it like it is. Keep up the good work. Thanks for sharing.