Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Sermon: "Learning to Be Racists: Charleston, Confession and the 12-Steps"

"Learning to Be Racists: Charleston, Confession and the 12-Steps"

Based on Notes from an Extemporaneous Sermon preached at
South Wedge Mission
Rochester, NY
21 June 2015

Day Texts: 2 Corinthians 6.1-13
Mark 4.35-41


NOTE: Preaching this Sunday was an emotional event for all involved; given that I usually re-construct my manuscript from my notes and memory after I preach, I thought, this week, it might be more helpful to consider what was said in the form of short meditations.  I pray it will help you, as it helped me.


1.We often begin our liturgy with the rite of confession, which uses the words of St. John: “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us; but if we confess our sin, God who is faithful and just, will forgive our sin and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.” Likewise, St. Paul writes: “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us; this proves God’s love for us.”  

2.Any response to the martyrdom of nine black brothers and sisters in Christ in Charleston, South Carolina must begin with confession; only a forgiven sinner can proclaim the Gospel.  

3.Our community, the South Wedge Mission, has discerned that its next task is “learning to be allies.”  We might likewise say that this will involve us first “learning to be racists.”

4.In the Gospel story, it is tempting for the to see ourselves as standing with Jesus, protecting the disciples by commanding the waves “peace, be still!”  We sincerely want to stand up for our black brothers and sisters in the boat of the Body of Christ against the crashing waves and howling winds of racism and white supremacy.  As people of good will, when we witness a problem, we want to help fix it.

5.An important rule for reading the Gospels: we are never Jesus in the story.  More often, we are those that most need something from Jesus - a healing, a lesson, a confrontation, a deliverance.

6.Jesus’ command, “peace, be still!” is a rebuke and an exorcism of the demon-possessed waters that threaten His church.  We, the White American church, are not Jesus, or the disciples in the boat.   We are the demon-possessed waters.  Our every effort to “speak up on behalf” of our black brothers and sisters only adds to the noise of the winds; our every attempt to “stand up and fix things” for our brothers and sisters adds to the force of the crashing waves.  

7.One name for the demon possessing us is denial.  As participants in the story called “America,” we are taught from an early age to be in active denial of the pervasiveness of racism in our society, and of its role in maintaining our privileges of safety, comfort and prosperity - at the cost of freedom, dignity and opportunity to our black brothers and sisters.

8.We practice denial even when we believe we are doing our best not to be racist.  We do so especially when we try to absolve ourselves by shifting the blame for specific acts of racism onto causes other than ourselves.

9.When we label the murder of Christians in Charleston a “hate crime,” we practice a subtle form of self-absolution, claiming a subtle sense of superiority over the supposedly “isolated individual” who pulled the trigger.  This is the equivalent of claiming not to be an alcoholic simply because of having never killed someone while driving drunk.

10.We practice denial when we emphatically call for the removal of the Confederate Battle Flag from the statehouse in South Carolina, while living in a city named after Col. Nathaniel Rochester, a life-long slave owner; in a nation whose capital city is named after a life-long slave owner, George Washington; while worshipping in a church that celebrates the legacy of Frederick Douglass while just a few blocks away, a school named for a white man stands on the former grounds of Douglass’ homestead - which was burned down several times by his white fellow residents.  

11.We practice denial when we point to the powerful witness of lament, forgiveness and hope of our black brothers and sisters at Emanuel AME and Baber AME here in Rochester, and somehow believe that this witness somehow mitigates our own responsibility, within the white church, to begin difficult conversations and confessions regarding our continued contribution and participation to the system which necessitated such a witness in the first place. 

12.We practice denial if we think that the lives of nine brothers and sisters in Christ is an acceptable price to pay for our continued enjoyment of comfort and privilege.  We practice denial if we think that even one life of any brother and sister is an acceptable price to pay.

13.The first step in a 12-step program of recovery from addiction is the relinquishment of denial and the confession of helplessness: “Admitted we were (alcoholics) - that our lives had become unmanageable.”

14.Nine brothers and sisters in Christ were murdered by another brother in Christ - our life as an American Church has become unmanageable.  

15.Too often, even with the best of intentions, we who are still possessed by our addiction and dependence on privilege and racism try to jump ahead in the steps of recovery:
-to step 12, trying to help other racists become less racist
-to step 9, trying to make full amends for our own racism
-to step 7, trying to fully surrender the defect of our racism
-to step 4, trying to fully understand and confess the depths of our racism

16.While well-intentioned, such leaps ahead in step work ignore the fact that the disease of our dependence and addiction to racism is ultimately a spiritual problem.  We cannot begin to even understand our racism - let alone recover from it or help others recover from it - before we take the first steps ourselves.  The language of demonic possession is in many ways far more fitting even than “systemic sin” or choice.

17.When Jesus rebukes us with the command, “peace, be still!” we are being called to stop trying to solve the problem of racism with the very paradigm that caused it in the first place - self-will, which always stacks the deck in its own favor, usually through denial or blame or dishonesty.

18.Self-will cannot fix a problem caused by self-will.  Any effort we make to fix the spiritual maladies of racism and privilege from within the system of racism and privilege will ultimately contribute to the system and strengthen it.  

19.Being a participant in the system does not mean we walk around uttering racist remarks or actively hating black people.  Rather, by virtue of being white Americans, we benefit from, profit by, and hence depend on and participate in the system.  Like the Matrix in the film of that name, privilege and oppression are a 400 year old system that makes possible the good life we take for granted at the expense of the suffering and ongoing exclusion of an entire group of people.    

20.Like the city of Ninevah in the book of Jonah, the White American Church stands under the judgement of the God who raised up the people of Israel from the slaves of Egypt.  We are called to repent with sackcloth and ashes; to ask for help from a power greater than ourselves, a power that promises not only justice, but vengeance, for the oppressed.

21.In order to save us from the wrath of the God who avenges the oppressed and defeats the proud, Jesus speaks the words to us, “peace be still!”  However, such peace is not peace as we know it.  Elsewhere Jesus says he comes to bring, “not peace but a sword.”  Jesus comes with a sword of Truth to cut away the stone from our hearts so that we might have new hearts - hearts of flesh.  In order for us to be freed from our own possession by the demons of privilege and racism, Jesus must rebuke and exorcise us.  In order to be capable of truly good works, we first must be given a new heart, a heart of flesh, that is capable of truth and love.  

22.We as a church are being called to make a kind of “First Step Prayer.”  Such a prayer usually follows the form, “I admit that I am powerless over my addiction.  I admit that my life is unmanageable when I try to control it.  Help me this day to understand the true meaning of powerlessness.  Remove from me all denial of my addiction.”

23.Taking the First Step of confession does not mean we have to know what the next steps will look like.  We may not know the shape the repentance and the amends that God will call us to.  And in many ways it does not matter.  What matters is that we are admitting our powerlessness, and seeking the help of the One who has the power to show us the way.

24.Making the First Step prayer is the equivalent of crying out, with the church in the boat, “Lord, do you not care that we are perishing?”  Only a forgiven sinner can proclaim the Gospel.  Only someone who acknowledges their utter need for grace can truly receive it.

25.When we admit our powerlessness, deny our denial, and throw ourselves upon the mercy of God, like the waters of the lake, we will be commanded to be silent.  We become calm and still.  We stop trying to fix the problem; we cease trying to “be a prophetic voice” or trying to change or control others.  We seek to clear our surface of our own voice and waves.  So that our surface may become a mirror that reflects only the grace and the calling of Jesus.

26.Just as the waters calmed by Jesus reflect His image once more, and so are suitable for carrying the ship of the church to safety, so too must we be made calm by Jesus, so that we may be of service in helping to bear the burden of the injustices that have been committed against our black brothers and sisters in this country.  

27.Jesus rebukes the white church, not because Jesus hates us, but because “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”  Jesus heals and sanctifies us, not so we can resume our roles as more benevolent versions of our white privileged selves - but so that we may realize our true humanity as members of the Body of Christ, receiving the gift of the glory of our black brothers and sisters; we are called to become holy, not to be better than others - but to become better for others.  

28.Steps two and three read: “came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity” and “turned our lives over to a higher power.”  We surrender our self-will, and our denial.  

29.When we confess, we become calm.  We allow the waters of our soul to reflect and amplify the voices of our black brothers and sisters without seeking credit for doing so; we begin to make their concerns our concerns; we become actively engaged in their struggle, first, by becoming actively engaged in our own work of recovery, and, whenever possible, being of humble service, assuming the posture of learning rather than of teaching.

30.In short, the task with which the white church has been charged is simple: we are called to “learn to be racists.”  Only then can we discover what it means to live as “forgiven racists.”  Only then can we begin to be of service to our fellow racists - and to be allies to those who have been hurt by our racism.

31.Following the sermon, worshippers of SWM were invited to receive the mark of a cross on their forehead using ashes left over from Ash Wednesday.  This was meant as a symbol of our intention to practice the First Step throughout the week ahead - to admit our powerlessness and confess our need for exorcism and healing.  After receiving the cross, their hands were anointed with healing oil as a symbol of our intention to actively engage in the work of recovery and of service.

32.The First Step is not an ending, but a beginning.  These demons have haunted the waters of the White Church for centuries.  And yet, it is out of the chaos of the waters that God first created the world, and called it “good.”  We are called to confess our sin; even more so are we called to confess the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which promises us: “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us; but if we confess our sin, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sin and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.”  We confess our desire to be free - and so commit ourselves to living into the promises of Jesus Christ, who alone can save us from ourselves, and save us for service to others.  

33.Lord, have mercy.  Christ, have mercy.  Lord, have mercy. 

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