Preached at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church on July 14, 2013 on Psalm 139 and Mark 6: 1-13 as part of a series on journey and transformation that is personal and lived out corporately in the life of our congregations. This sermon was written for the Sunday after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the death of the youth Trayvon Martin. I am grateful to those who helped me think through this sermon last night and this morning.
When I was in college I spent a semester working at a shelter for children in Mt. Holly, New Jersey. It was part of what my college called the “Philadelphia Semester” where students could work in an agency of their choosing and then reflect on their experiences with their academic advisors. One of the members of my home church invited me to serve with an agency she founded that served at risk and abused children and youth. My primary placement was at a halfway house on Main Street, a row house that had been converted into a home for children but mostly youth who needed temporary, emergency housing after being removed from either abusive or dangerous homes. I spent most of that semester just trying to find a way to connect, a way to get outside of my own reality and enter into the reality of the children and youth who were before me. It was a struggle to connect, I messed it up many times. I had grown up in a polar-opposite reality, and I was over my head and out of my league. And yet those children embraced me, and let me be with them. They were some of the greatest teachers I have ever had.
I learned more than semester about race, poverty, injustice and my own privilege than I have at any other time in my life. I carry the sacred learnings I received there with me today. I keep a painting that one of the youth did with me in my office to remind me of the calling to a ministry of justice that I heard most clearly as I served that semester in south Jersey. I have shared with you before that this was the semester I decided that I would go to seminary after college.
There are a number of experiences from that semester that I will always remember, but one really stands out. Some days I used to walk with some of the older teenagers, just a few years younger than I was at that time down the street to the 7-Eleven. With some of the petty cash from the shelter we’d get snacks, ice cream or candy. We’d take our time walking back and forth. It felt good to be outside in the warm, crisp, fall air. The row house was small, the ventilation was poor. We preferred to be outside as much as possible, having some open space around us, and walking to the 7-Eleven gave us just little bit of that space and openness we would crave.
One day when we were in the 7-Eleven the clerk, who was white kept watching our group from behind the counter. Eventually he started yelling out racial epithets at the kids who were with me. I do not remember what I said, but I remember that it was one of the few times in my life that I have just snapped and completely lost it. I started yelling and screaming back at him, protecting the kids I had come to love and felt the responsibility to defend. As we got out in the street the kids told me they didn’t ever think I’d “go crazy” like that. I know I cursed a number of times; it was not my best moment of communication perhaps. I was filled with rage and anger, and I didn’t even see that reaction coming in me. Until that moment I had only heard about racist words like that, they had been in textbooks and in history films I had watched in school. We never went back to that 7-Eleven. We found somewhere else to get candy and ice cream.
A few months ago I was sitting in my office here having a meeting. It was with Ravenell Williams, the Executive Director of the Plainfield YMCA that we have a partnership with. As some of you know, Ravenell and my father have been good friends for well over 30 years, they worked together early in their YMCA careers in literacy and youth leadership in Philadelphia. So before Ravenell and I got to talking about our projects together we started to talk about spring break, we had both just gotten back from trips. He wanted to hear how Sofia’s and my trip to North Carolina to see my parent’s new house that they bought for retirement went. He told me that he was also in Carolinas that week, visiting other YMCA friends who had moved there. Ravenell loves to ride his Harley Davidson motorcycle. I asked him if he rode the Harley to North Carolina. “Oh yes I did,” he replied, I could see the satisfied look on his face. “Well then you must have gone on this one highway, it cuts through southern Virginia into North Carolina, the view was spectacular as it goes through the mountains and the valleys,” I said. Ravenell looked at me. “No, but I know which road you are talking about. I’ve heard that it’s an amazing place to ride through on a motorcycle. But I didn’t want the trouble. I didn’t want the stress. I went another way.” Ravenell is African-American. I understood exactly what he was saying. And we sat there in the silence for a few minutes. Just thinking about that.
Here’s what for me is my truth. We are not post-racial. There is just no way we are in the United States. I see it in my own family. I experience it when out with friends, or when I turn on the TV and it is 100% acceptable for anyone to say anything they want and it to go unchallenged for the most part, even when it is incredibly racist or hurtful. Our Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act just a few weeks ago, suggesting that it was no longer necessary because we had somehow magically evolved as a country and the justice system now works for all people. It might feel that way for the many of us who are white and who live with that privilege; but for our sisters and brothers who do not, they tell me a different story. And I’ve seen pieces of it now play out in my life over the last 13 years of being married to an immigrant. Marrying Juan has sent me on a learning curve unlike any I ever expected. I had no idea of some of the things that would go on. Until I lived just a small handful of them.
I am constantly being re-educated.
And the news coverage of the Trayvon Martin murder trial these last few weeks has just underscored the fact that in our country, we are still divided on the issue of race; we do not understand each other, and our language and experiences are inadequate too much of the time for us to have real and truth-telling conversations. We need help.
Weeks ago I selected the scripture readings for today, not knowing what would happen or what we might have on our minds. But they seem to fit in with the things we are all thinking about. Mark’s Gospel offers us the story of Jesus coming back to his hometown and trying to start off some ministry there.
We know the story; things didn’t go well for Jesus. People thought that he was too big for his britches. That you couldn’t trust his mood swings, they were a signal of something deeply wrong with him. That he didn’t follow the rules that had been set out for generations and his new ways of interpreting the rules were the mark of a reckless youth. That he was too taken up with talking about God. Or that he spent time with the wrong sorts of people doing the wrong sorts of things. Jesus’ family and clan wanted to hold him back. The prophet in their midst speaking the truth about God and God’s justice was too much for them. They didn’t want to hear it.
A few Sundays ago we heard the story of the early church first going to the city of Antioch and while there learning and trying out new things. Some members of the church were skeptical, they were not sure about doing something different, especially going outside of their ethnic family group to not just talk with, but convert and then share community with those from somewhere new. Like the members of Jesus’ hometown, some parts of the early church were not ready for the new thing. They could not imagine it and they had trouble embracing it. One of the things I suggested a few weeks back when thinking through the Antioch-story is that Jesus offers us the teaching that sometimes we are asked to engage in the difficult task of letting go of the stories and things that have shaped us, even by our families—when up against the calling of the Gospel. Because some of these stories and learnings will hold us back from following the prophetic Gospel call of Jesus.
This is not easy to do.
But yet Jesus tells us to do this—he offers us this difficult teaching that we do not want to hear. Jesus offers us a blueprint for how to lead in the church today, even when those closest to us might not understand our desires and our ways of following him. He reminds us that our calling is to travel light, be ready for roadblocks and when they occur to shake the dust off our feet and move forward into whatever the new thing is that the Spirit is inviting us into.
Easier said than done right? I don’t know about you, but when I come up against an obstacle—there are times when I can overcome them. But then there are those other obstacles that stump me, that I struggle mightily to get over. This is usually when those who are closest to me are also the ones who have thrown the obstacle in my path. Does that happen for you too? Aren’t those the obstacles and challenges that are the hardest ones for us to manage and to find a way to address?
Over the last few weeks I’ve been working to open up some of the issues in the life of our church and our larger church family that are obstacles. Obstacles to growth, obstacles to “new things”. Changing paradigms, shifting culture. I’ve been trying to link up the point in the journey we find ourselves in today with the journey-story of some of our spiritual ancestors that we know from our biblical history.
I will submit to you today that one of the biggest if not the biggest obstacle to our congregation and hundreds and hundreds just like ours in the Presbyterian Church (USA) is to face is the obstacle of our privilege. We are so used to it we do not even notice it most of the time.
And then something like yesterday happens. An injustice is served. And I watch and listen to my many, many friends who do not have privilege in our broken society lament the decision and in the same way I watch other friends I have—people from my tribe or my clan of privilege say, “I don’t know what the big deal really is.” So you see, we have a problem. And the problem is here with us in church because as we’ve talked about so many times before we exist in a larger denomination that for the most part is full of those of us with privilege—and as of yet does not have a good mechanism for dealing prophetically with the problem of our privilege. And so our congregations dwindle. Because there are a whole lot of people out there who do not want to go and be in places where privilege is lifted up and the hard questions are not asked or talked about. Most of my friends who as I talk to them about why they don’t go to church or synagogue tell me this is the reason why they are not here. We have a problem and we need help.
I stand here before you today without good answers. I do not have something to say that will help us all feel better. I am still sitting with the news of yesterday and feeling great sadness and pain. I am remembering my time in Mt. Holly with the children and youth who taught me more than I’ve ever learned in all the classrooms I’ve ever been in. I’m thinking about a conversation with an old family friend who is now a professional colleague. And I’m remembering the story of Jesus who offers us the challenging testimony that if we really want to follow him then we have to be ready to shake a lot of dust off our feet and say goodbye to places and communities that have sustained or even raised us so that we can journey with him to the places he is calling us. And I’m wondering if I have the courage, if we can have the courage to follow that Jesus—because he is the only thing I still believe in. And I believe that Jesus is the only thing that can save us and make us free someday from all this sin and brokenness that binds us and hold us down.