[Sermon preached at Good Samaritan Episcopal Church on 8/13/2017 in San Diego, CA]
My usual sermon preparation work begins two weeks before a sermon, when I look at the readings. I was struck by two things: first, our passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans asks the question, “How will people know about Jesus unless someone tells them?” And second, the words “truly” and “truth” occur several times in the snippet from Psalm 85.
By Friday morning, despite my usual preparation and prayer, I knew only that I was supposed to preach about truth.
And then Friday night happened at the University of Virginia. And then Saturday happened near Emancipation Park in Charlottesville.
I occasionally hear from a few church members that they prefer sermons about the Bible to sermons that discuss social issues. I find this comment confusing since the Bible is full of God’s response to social issues. If I preach about a Bible passage without mentioning a social issue, I am thanked for preaching about the Bible or for speaking of “spiritual” matters. If I discuss a Bible passage and relate it to issues in the world, I am told that this is not preaching about the Bible.
I am going to preach today about the racism and anti-Semitism and hatred and violence in Charlottesville. Before I do that, I want to explain why I consider this a Biblical sermon, a spiritual sermon, and a proclamation of the Gospel.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes that we don’t look for the Word (that is Christ, the Truth, the Law of God) in heaven, or in the depths of hell, or across the sea. He quotes Deuteronomy chapter 30 when he writes, “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” The entire truth of God is accessible to us here on Earth. On our lips. In our hearts. It is not some lofty, inaccessible truth found only by the most spiritual of people. It is inside those of us who truly embrace the Word of love and grace in our hearts.
And that Word came to us as a man, born of a woman, into a tempestuous time in the history of the Jewish people as they lived under the yoke of the Roman empire. Jesus engaged peacefully but provocatively with that empire and the religious authorities who colluded with the Romans. He challenged hatred, violence, and bigotry, such as the religious bigotry and hatred toward Samaritans. And when he preached from a specific Bible passage, he interpreted it for his time and place.
He converted a few of his enemies this way. Others came with torches and clubs at night to arrest him and kill him.
To proclaim our faith in Christ and the Gospel cannot mean simply to say, “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, God Incarnate, and that he saves me.” Anyone can say that. Neo-Nazis and other white nationalists say that while proclaiming their hatred for others. But the true spirit of Christ proclaims AND DEMONSTRATES love for all God’s creatures.
The truth springs up from the earth, as the Psalmist says today, and that truth engenders mercy, righteousness and peace.
There was nothing like mercy, righteousness and peace in the planned protests by the alt-right, white nationalists, the Ku Klux Klan, and neo-Nazi marchers on Friday night and Saturday in Charlottesville. Make no mistake: they came with messages of hatred, bigotry, terrorism, and violence. On Friday night, they carried torches and baseball bats and marched across a university campus yelling, “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us.” They carried Nazi flags with swastikas, Confederate flags, and flags with crosses on them. One young man captured on film said the following when asked why he was marching. He said, “We’re here to rescue our white identity, which is under attack; the free market; and killing Jews.”
David Duke, a former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan was there. He said, “We’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump” to “take our country back.” Many of the white nationalist protesters carried Trump campaign signs.
When David Duke says “Our country,” he means the country of white supremacy. More particularly, it is the country of white Christian supremacy. European Christians came to this country and herded up and killed or moved Native Americans from their lands in an ever-growing expansion to the west. White supremacists claimed that God had ordained that they, Christian pilgrims, should tame the land and get rid of the savages. Then white Christians dragged African slaves across the world and forced them to work for free to enrich white people. And those white people claimed that the Bible justified slavery. But Jesus never would have supported the brutality and injustice of slavery.
The truth of Christ was not in the slogans or actions or violence of the white nationalist marchers. One of them drove his car at high speed into a crowd of peaceful counter protesters. One woman is dead now, and nineteen are injured, some of them critically. If that driver had been a Muslim, he would have been denounced as a terrorist.
Two state police officers died yesterday when their helicopter crashed as they were helping to deal with the unrest in Charlottesville.
Among the counter protesters were many clergy friends of mine from all over the country. While there were scuffles between some white nationalist marchers and some counter protesters, the vast majority of counter protesters were nonviolent and peaceful. They held prayer meetings before their counter protests. And here is what they have to say to those of us who were not there:
What are we going to do to combat white supremacy?
I think the question is actually this: How are we going to combat white Christian supremacy? One white nationalist said, “We’re marching because they’re throwing our heritage in the trash. Our Southern heritage. Our white heritage. Our Christian heritage.”
Their stance is not Christian. It is not evangelism. It is evil and demonic. And the only way to proclaim the Gospel here is to contradict false Gospels and to reflect the actions of the true Christ. As Paul writes, “How are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” He’s encouraging his readers to share the love of Christ, the good news of Christ.
Imagine how people watching the news feel about Christians when they see these supposed Christians yelling racist and anti-Semitic messages. They equate Christianity with exclusive, racist, and bigoted hatred.
Now imagine what they think when they see white Christians urging peace and calm but doing nothing to transform the racism and bigotry caused by other white people who claim to be Christian. They equate Christianity with blind white privilege, despite the racial diversity of the church in the United States.
We cannot possibly be seen as emissaries of Christ if we ignore the racism and religious bigotry in our midst. In an editorial in The Washington Post yesterday, black scholar Jemar Tisby asked, “White pastors, will you now work to end white supremacy?” He reminded us of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In that letter, Martin Luther King Jr. lamented the lack of support from white ministers, priests and rabbis from the South. King had thought they would be strong allies. Instead, he wrote, “Some few have been outright opponents…. All too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”
Jemar Tisby expresses frustration with white Christians who will ask, “But what do we do?” He says, “This question perpetuates the problem. People of color did not create white supremacy; white people did.” In other words, figure it out.
He’s particularly frustrated with white Christians who consider racism a “social” issue rather than a “Gospel” issue. If the Gospel is about mercy and truth, if it is about peace and righteousness kissing each other, then the safety and freedom and well-being of people of color are Gospel issues.
Here’s what we can do to start. We can acknowledge the white supremacy at the foundations of American Christianity and its sinfulness. Unless we acknowledge it and repent of it, we can’t fix it. We also can acknowledge the racism that led to white flight to Christian schools when court-ordered desegregation occurred in the US. We can acknowledge the racial divisions in the Church across this land and work to eradicate them. And now, at this time in our history, we can respond to these white supremacist protests as my colleagues did in Charlottesville: with peace, prayer, and determined resistance.
If we don’t reflect the true words and actions of Jesus Christ out in the world, we have failed to preach the Gospel as Jesus preached it. The Truth springs up from the earth and all that occurs on Earth. The Truth cannot hide behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows. We cannot hide behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.
As Christians, we must help deconstruct the white supremacy that the Church helped to create. It will require educating ourselves, equipping ourselves, and organizing ourselves to meet white supremacy head on, just as our brothers and sisters did in Charlottesville. At times, that may feel as impossible as walking on water. But our Bible readings today tell us that God reaches out and saves those who trust God. In the words of the Psalmist,
“I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, *
for he is speaking peace to his faithful people
and to those who turn their hearts to him.
Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, *
that his glory may dwell in our land.”
It is time to acknowledge the false security of white privilege and to step out into the storm, where Jesus surely is waiting to help us.