June 7, 2020

2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Matthew 28:16-20


    Before I offer what I have to say I want to share that I’ve really struggled this week in discerning my message for you.  With racism at the forefront of our nation’s mind I do feel that I have to address it, but I’m also aware that I’m not an expert on it.  I have much to learn.  I’ve attended Racism seminars for two different denominations and both times I’ve left with new information and new questions.  

    Beyond that, it’s a difficult conversation for churches to have.  It can be very divisive, which scares me because I really believe that part of the Church’s capacity to have an impact on a broken and often dehumanizing world hinges on its ability to be an alternative community of deep love and mutual support.  When a wold that is unpeaceful and often degrading looks for peace and sacred worth I want the world to be able to find it in the church.  That means that developing real and meaningful community is an essential piece of our mission.  So, I worry about division.

    But, I also recognize that as we build our bonds we do it with a compassionate eye toward the world, and we are always called to join with Christ in the work of embracing the marginalized, lifting up the lowly, and healing the nations.  With the nation in such extreme pain over issues of racism to not start us thinking about it together is to miss the mark.  So, I hope you’ll hear me out and keep an open heart to my thoughts, which no doubt are incomplete and imperfect.  But, I offer them with love for God and with love for you all, as well as with an openness to what you might have to say too.    

    After viewing lots of news coverage here’s a dynamic that I see playing out: if you watch Fox News racism is not a systemic issue in our country.  No doubt, racism exists, but incidents of racism are not indications of a pervasive problem.  In fact, no other country in such a relatively short history has done more to overcome racial inequalities.  A much greater systemic problem is the attack on the middle class.  It continues to shrink as governmental elites happily sow seeds of discord to encourage distraction and division so that they can continue to gain wealth and power at the expense of the populace.  Meanwhile, more and more people of all colors are being added to the ranks of the poor.  

    If you watch CNN institutional racism is part of the fabric of our culture and plays itself out on a daily basis in almost every aspect of life.  Incidents of white police officers brutally treating black citizens illustrate how far we have NOT come.  They are emblematic of a national power imbalance that robs black people of both voice and opportunity while they live in fear of those who are called to serve and protect.  

    For the latter the protests are a constitutionally supported outcry for justice and a change to this imbalance.  Honestly, I’m not sure what they are for the former.  Most of the protest coverage I’ve seen on Fox is an expression of outrage over the rioting and luting.  Fox is irate over the destruction of property, the fires, the smashed windows, the robbing of businesses and the lawless violence of protesters.  (I’ve seen interviews with devastated shop owners and I can’t help but feel anger too.)  

    CNN has made an effort to show that much of the protests are peaceful and they have been willing to consider questions such as, “What would cause normally decent people to behave so destructively in the places where violence is happening?”  Maybe you’ve heard Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote about the inadequacy of condemning riots without acknowledging that riots are the language of the unheard.  (I’ve seen it a few times now.)  But, then we get back to the issue of systemic racism and the argument that conditions aren’t what they were in King’s day.

    The dichotomy between these two very different presentations of the civil unrest that’s spread across our country represents, I believe, the state of our national culture in which political perspectives and some social values have become radically polarized.  It’s easy enough to see just in the way our president is viewed.  There’s almost no middle ground with regard to our opinions about him; we either love him or hate him.  Or, spend just a little time on Facebook and you’ll see not just radical polarization but widespread contempt for the other side even among “friends.”  

    Racism is a difficult enough topic to approach without the confusion of the culture wars that we already find ourselves in.  If we are inclined to want the fuller understanding of hearing multiple perspectives – listening to others whom we love but don’t see eye to eye with – I think we’re extra challenged by the polarization.  So much of the information that we are receiving, and perhaps choosing, is filtered by particular agendas, which makes information suspect while also strengthening our biases.  In a time when more dialogue, not less, is needed this is a real problem.  

    My current thinking is that multiple things are happening at once.  It may be true that the middle class is being systematically undermined by people who use social division to their advantage.  Lately I’ve been hearing a lot about the prevalence of divisive posts on places like Facebook and Twitter – posts not made by individuals but by bots that are programmed by devious groups to make us dislike one another.  Of course, we’ve also heard about out-of-staters arriving at hot spot protest sites clearly organized and equipped to incite violence.

    But, the reality of certain forces working to divide us doesn’t preclude the reality of systems that work to subjugate people of color.  When it comes to healthcare, wealth, income, poverty, incarcerations, and coronavirus infections there are serious imbalances between blacks and whites, and that’s just naming a few.  And, just because there’s been improvement over the years doesn’t mean we are where we need to be and that categories of people aren’t disadvantaged by a combination of current systems and a history that includes slavery and Jim Crow.   

    For me, part of what makes racism difficult is distinguishing between racist actions and systemic racism.  The people I know are good people who, as far as I can tell, do not judge the character of others by the color of their skin.  In that sense, they aren’t racist.  But, have they, I, we, participated in systems that have contributed to the fear, anger, and pain that so many of our black brothers and sisters around the country right now are expressing?  If so, how?  

    I think it is important that we be open to hearing answers to that question.  Not out of guilt, but out of love.  Out of the Apostle Paul’s sense of the body, how it takes all parts working together, how each is equally a part, and how when one part suffers the whole body suffers.  So, for me it is time to learn more, to listen more to the voices of those whose experiences I can never really know.  Angela shared with me a quote from someone on the Today Show.  “I see your anger, sadness and pain.  I cannot know what this feels like for you but it doesn’t mean I won’t try.”  So, that’s my approach to this, and I hope you’ll join me in it.

    Now, on the one hand it may seem entirely irrelevant that while matters of race are at the forefront of our world the church calendar calls for the celebration of “Holy Trinity Sunday.”  For many of us, no doubt, the Trinity is a confusing doctrine and may play little or no role in the living out of your faith.  Contributing to a sense of its irrelevance is likely the fact that the word “Trinity” appears exactly zero times in the bible.  We don’t understand how Three can be One and One can be Three, and we don’t see why we should.  

    The passages that we have today are selected not so much for the thrust of their message but for their hinting at the Christian experience of a Triune God, which in a sense undermines the normal task of a sermon, which is to reflect upon the messages of scripture.  That said, I think there may be something providential about today’s pairing of themes.  One of my preaching heroes, David Lose, explains, “Look. I won’t for a minute pretend that I understand the Trinity. (And quite frankly, I don’t believe people when they say they do. ) But I do sense that early Christians were confronted with the fact that the reality of the God revealed in Jesus and after Pentecost didn’t fit into any of their preconceived categories and so all the language usually employed to talk about God needed to be stretched. Indeed, I wonder if we would profit as a Church from focusing less on the Trinity as doctrine and more on it as metaphor for capturing the dynamic, restless, and deeply relational reality and experience of God.”

    So, what Trinity tells us is that God exists essentially in relationship.  God exists in a perfect fellowship of self-giving love.  As I see it, being “made in God’s image” means in part that relationality is essential to our make-up as well.  And more than that, our sense of salvation  is tied to sharing in this eternal exchange of love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which actively enfolds all people.  And, I think that this core aspect of what it means to be human and alive is powerfully instructive for us especially right now.  So does Lose, so I’ll quote him again.  “Here’s why I think this matters: I see no path forward if we don’t make room for – and indeed give priority to – working to create space for intentional and genuine relationships with people who are different from us. People who believe differently, people who think differently, and especially people who look different and are from different social and ethnic groups than our own. There is surely room and need for protests and statements and calls to reform… But nothing, in the end, will change if we are not drawn into genuine, concrete, actual – and all of this means exciting and challenging as well – relationships with persons from communities beyond our experience or comfort. Because just as we know and struggle to name God through our actual experience of God active in our lives, so also we can only know and appreciate and love – and be changed by – others in and through actual relationships. This is the long road to not merely social change but a vision and reality of community that more closely matches God’s dreams for us and God’s own existence as a relational being.”

    This is one of the reasons our relationship with Nourish Bridgeport is so important to me.  Nourish Bridgeport is one of the few places in my life where I have opportunities to interact with people whose histories, ethnicities, and living situations are radically different than my own.  It’s a place where I get to see the broad reach of God’s love extending well beyond the familiar.  And, it’s a place from which my feelings and views of others are more meaningfully formed.  I wonder if you might say the same.    

    The other day the news showed a man from Minnesota who owned a distillery, which rioters broke into and completely destroyed.  He was on the news because in response he cleaned out the wreckage and turned his warehouse into a pantry where community members could get essential items.  White volunteers and volunteers of color were behind him, busily sorting and stacking the donations that were coming in.  The journalist asked him if we was upset by the destruction.  He said he was, but he also said, “At the same time, I get it.”  In his place I’m not sure I could say the same.  The man was pretty remarkable, and he went on to say that he was actually feeling optimistic that instead of being a negative time this would be a turning point for our nation and it would bring people together.  My guess is that he was able to say that because he had already begun building relationships, working beside and serving people who were different from him.

    I want to echo this man’s optimism.  I hope this time in our history becomes an opportunity for us to learn, to grow, to broaden our reach and to generate opportunities for new diverse relationships that will help us live more fully into a vision of God’s kingdom here on earth.  I look forward to working with you on that.