Aug. 4/5, 2019 Dismantling Racism
Galatians 3: 23-29
This week we’re concluding our sermon series on Five Areas of Focus that can change the world. I hope you’ve been inspired by this series, and the ways in which we’ve lived it out. We’ve taken some time to think through what it means to be in ministry with the poor, to develop principled Christian leaders, to create renewal and revival, and to work toward global health. And these are all faithful ways we can live out of our faith. But we have one last area of focus that needs to be addressed, a conversation that’s as old as time, and a conversation that’s dominated the headlines over the last several years, and that’s the area of dismantling racism. (Before I read the Scripture, I invited us into a time of humility and vulnerability by showing a brief Peanuts comic strip) I invite you to read with me…
Last August I had the privilege of officiating at my cousin’s wedding. It was held in a beautiful Virginia winery in a little town known as Kilmarnock. And even though there was a threat of rain, there were no raindrops. But it was awfully muggy. The mugginess didn’t stop us from having fun though. We danced the night away, celebrated all the goodness of life and genuinely enjoyed the joining together of two people. When I was able to catch a break, I stopped to fill my cup of water and looked around, and what I saw was a beautiful sight: a diverse crowd, filled with different cultures and different races singing, dancing and celebrating together. I took out my phone and snapped a few pictures because I thought, “This is what the Kingdom of God looks like. This is how things are supposed to be.” And it filled my soul. It was not lost on me, however, that earlier that very day, just 2 ½ hours away in Charlottesville, a different kind of gathering was happening. It wasn’t one of celebration, but one of anger and hatred and fear. And at the end of the day, because of an angry man who drove his car into a group of protestors, a young woman had lost her life. In that juxtaposed moment, between the reality of what is and the promise of what will be, I knew I could no longer stand on the sidelines of this conversation about race.
Friends, this is the reality of our current culture. Whether we’re ready or not, the conversation about racism is here. It’s all over the place! And I believe Jesus has invited us to respond. Like any important conversation, talking about racism has the potential to touch our deepest nerves. For some, there are hopes of a better world, a dream of what could be. For others, there are emotions that look like fear and anger, even rage; others experience grief and confusion. I’ve watched people embrace this conversation and say, “Tell me more.” But I’ve also seen others take up a defensive posture, and refuse to acknowledge this growing tension. This is one of the reasons I’m preaching from a posture of sitting today. Sitting down is one of the way we can dismantle defensive tones and mindsets.
To be quite honest, I don’t know how you’ve respond to the issue of racism, nor do I know how you’re responding today, but I know that we as the people of God have to address it. Because if we don’t respond, we’ll be leaving the world to form their own responses. And that’s a dangerous and scary proposition. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. So if we remain silent and let the world do our thinking, then we have no one to blame but ourselves. So what I’d like to do today is share with you a little bit of my personal journey. It’s the only journey I know, and although this is deeply personal, I believe I can offer something worthwhile to the dream of dismantling racism.
Most of you know that I grew up in a small village outside of a town very much like Blairsville. Arriving in this area was a lot like coming home. Good folks. Small town feel. But very little diversity. Over 95% (this is probably too small of a percentage) of my school was white. I can count on one hand the number of students who would not have identified as white in my senior class. That’s the only world I had ever known. And so like make people, I grew up with the naïve assumption that racism wasn’t an issue for us. My argument sounded like this: Racism isn’t a problem because we don’t have any Black people or Latino people. So how could we possibly be racist? For me, racism was a city thing, a southern thing, a radical thing. Out of sight, out of mind. Racism was just a word in a larger vocabulary that meant very little to me. But then one day I had a conversation that stuck a pin in my comfortable bubble.
I was home on Christmas break, spending some time with a former employer. He would often call me when he needed a helping hand, and every year he would give me a nice Christmas bonus. He was one of the hardest-working men I had ever known. I was 25, he was 70 and he could outwork me any day. I had spent time around his kitchen table, eating home cooked meals. And they were good! He was a leader in his church. He never missed a Sunday, knew his Bible, and made sure to help out wherever was necessary. He wasn’t the warmest man around, but he was nice enough, and the more time I spent with him, the more I respected him. But on this particular day, something was different. He started to ask me my thoughts on the next presidential election (it was 2007) and we talked about the differences between a fellow by the name of John McCain and a senator from Illinois by the name of Barack Obama. After the conversation was over, I started to make my way to the car, when my friend made one last casual remark: “Brett,” he said, “Don’t worry. If that guy gets elected, there are still enough people like me around. We’ll take care of it.”
I got in my car that day, and my insides began to churn. For the first time in my life, racism had shown up at my front door. My little world was thrown into a tailspin, and whatever assumptions I had were shattered by words my friend thought would comfort me. My friend was trying to tell me that people like him would always ensure people like me would be just fine. But instead of comfort his words angered and confused me. This wasn’t a news anchor reporting on an inner city shooting. This wasn’t a drug deal gone awry. Those were the only pictures of racism I had at the time. No, this was someone I respected uncovering a reality I didn’t believe existed in my corner of the world. But here it was, right under my nose, embedded in people I knew and loved. On that day, racism became more than a word to me; it put on flesh and became real. And that’s when my journey with racism began.
I’ll be the first to tell you that I don’t know how to tackle such an important conversation in 20 minutes. But yet I feel I must say something. I know I don’t have the answers to dismantling systems and mindsets that have been around longer than any of us have been alive. But I know I can do my part. That’s all any of us can do. And if we take the time to do our part, then unjust systems will eventually come crashing down. That’s what I see Jesus do in Scripture. One by one, person by person, Jesus helps people understand how they can play his or her part and in doing so, they bring forth the Kingdom of God. And so if you are interested in dismantling racism, I’d like to offer you three steps I’ve made in my life, which I hope they’ll be beneficial to you. To help us navigate these three steps, I’d to like to invite you to picture yourself entering a new home for the very first time.
*At this point, I began to show three pictures to help frame the conversation ( a door, a hallway with a mirror and a kitchen table).
The first step any of us can take is to enter the front door. In other words, we have to decide to enter the conversation. For me, that was the first step. When I got back into my car after visiting with my friend, I had to make a decision. Would I ignore what I had just heard and pretend it didn’t happen? Or would I engage it? Would I walk away and convince myself that his thoughts weren’t reality, or would I allow my heart to wrestle with a shocking discovery? That’s a big question to ask and big conversation to consider. But it’s an absolutely necessary step. Healing doesn’t happen unless we enter the fray. Struggles cannot be overcome without meeting the struggle firsthand. I watched people make their way to an altar at church camp last week and find healing in Christ because they were finally ready to take a step and enter a larger spiritual conversation. And the same is true with racism. Racism cannot be dismantled if we are not willing to open the door and say, “I’m willing to talk.”
Once we’re in the door, we’re ready for our next step. Once we’ve agreed to have the conversation, we’ve essentially said, “Open my eyes, that I may see.” Now we don’t have to look to hard to find ways in which racism permeates our world, but what’s frightening is discovering the ways we might’ve played a role in it. When I was first learning about the term racism, I was deeply offended. To me, a racist was someone who intentionally harmed others, someone prone to act in evil ways toward different racial groups, and I never wanted to associate with those words. I understand I’m not perfect, but I also wouldn’t characterize myself as evil. I had never used derogatory words or purposely shunned others or participated in white nationalist rallies, but over time I began to learn that racism isn’t always explicit; in more ways than I realized, it can be implicit. This is what we see when we walk through the door. We see how racism can be hidden in mindsets and embedded in systems.
I began to learn about things like bias and power, authority and opportunities, and I started to notice the awkward ways I behaved when I was around people who are different than I. And I didn’t like what I found about myself. I would walk a little faster around certain people. I would stiffen up in certain classes and walk out of the room shaking my head, denying everything my professor was trying to teach me. I would have conversations after class with people who thought like me, ready to take on any opinion that even remotely suggested I was somehow part of someone else’s problem. But the truth is, I was, and I am. And coming to that conclusion was a big step for me. I believe healthy discipleship involves the willingness to look deep inside of the soul, to pull back the veneer and see hidden realities. It’s self-awareness. And when I’ve examined myself, I’ve found mindsets and characteristics and traits that I didn’t know existed. And they needed to be brought to Jesus. Are you willing to look inside yourself? Are you willing to ask those tough questions and maybe discover some answer you won’t like? That’s part of dismantling systems like racism, but the good news is that Jesus can take those traits and crucify them, and give us new ways to live and see the world… if we’d like.
Finally, once we’re ready to have that internal conversation, we’re ready to take one of the most important steps we will ever take: sitting down at the kitchen table and listening. I’ve had to repent of the idea that what is true of me is true of others. It’s not. My experience cannot be grafted on to somebody else’s life, nor can I expect to fully understand somebody else’s reality. That’s why, for me, the table is a place of holy work. Along with the cross, the dove and the empty tomb, I think the table is one of our forgotten spiritual symbols. Jesus does so much redemptive and restorative work around tables. The table is a place where we truly get to know someone else. It’s a place where we listen and share, where walls are brought down and bridges are built, and it’s a place where news reporters cannot distort reality. Great things happen around tables. Relationships are formed and truth is explored. And I believe it’s the place where you and I can begin to dismantle racism one at a time. It’s been around tables where I’ve learned to see what I could not see, to hear the stories others needed for me to hear, and to open my heart to the pains and dreams of others.
So, that’s my dismantling racism journey. On this journey, I’ve made some great friends, I’ve grown in faith, and I’ve experienced God in new and fresh ways. But this journey is not over. Not for me, not for you. We’ve got work to do. Until there is no more suffering, no more injustice and no more inequality, we’ve got work to do. May God give us eyes to see, ears to hear and hearts that are full of courage and unconditional love. Amen.