"I need you to talk to the people who look like you," Rozella Haydée White, an clergy colleague who is African American recently told me. This year, I've heard this call, or a version of it, from Black colleagues around the country. You have to talk to your people. To your context. To your congregation. Most recently and most publicly, today the call came from Rev. Emma Akpan, and elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in her article in Huffington Post.
Nine people died this week in a mass shooting carried out by a white 21 year old at a historic black church, Emanuel AME. Dylan Roof’s facebook profile picture shows him wearing two flags — one from apartheid-era South Africa, the other from white-ruled Rhodesia — that are symbols taken up by modern-day white supremacists.
This was a hate crime, committed against nine Black Christians engaged in the act of prayer, in the house of God. The horror of this crime is set against the background of the last twelve months, in which the murder of and brutality against Black people (so often children) by the police (this is not a new trend in this country, but no less horrific) have set off a season of resistance in Ferguson, New York, Baltimore. We have seen the images of Micheal Brown, left dead in the street, of Eric Garner, the life choked out of him for selling cigarettes, of Freddie Gray crying out in pain, and of Dajerria Becton, face shoved into the ground while a cop pulled a gun on her teenage friends, all for attending a pool party.
These violent events are not isolated, not unrelated incidents. Though they may not have been planned by committee or orchestrated by a task force, each violent act is rooted in the same soil, and like a grove of Quaking Aspen, in fact, all these acts share the same roots.
Racism is an illness of our country, and we are all sick with the virus. The news shared by the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) yesterday that Dylann Roof was in fact a member of an ELCA congregation only highlights the way in which we are all culpable, each one of citizens of a nation that, collectively, has failed to acknowledge the wrong we have done, repent of our sins, and work to dismantle systems that are sick with the racism that plagues each one of us, individually. Underfunded and undervalued schools, a prison and judicial system that profits off of people of color, policing that has already decided Black people are criminals…this this the illness of our nation and we, as its citizens, are all responsible.
This is why I believe it is imperative that white clergy preach to racism and privilege this Sunday, following the shootings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Because the awareness of racism, understanding of racism, the uncomfortable confronting of our own racism, and the finally, the dismantling of racist structures all begins on the local level. And in the congregation, it must start with you.
If you are a clergy person who preaches from the lectionary, you may sometimes find it is difficult to connect the lectionary readings with events that call to be preached on. You may have written your sermon well in advance and resist the idea of throwing it out and starting over. You may fear offending your congregation, setting off a firestorm, or worry that people will walk out. You may feel that, never having lived through the pain and misery of racism, you don’t have the right or the voice to speak to these issues. But you are still called to speak, with care and humility. "I need you to talk to people who look like you."
Racism is our sin, and as clergy, God calls us in no uncertain terms to name it, to call it what it is, to be a part of taking it apart. Throw out the sermon you had written for this Sunday. Start again. Search the lectionary for God’s word for your people today. And if you don’t find the word there, maybe the Holy Spirit has a different text in store for you. Face the certainty that you will offend someone. Allow the Holy Spirit to draw you in to the deep water. It won’t be comfortable, but generations upon generations of Black people in this nation have been a whole lot more than uncomfortable for far, far too long.
Though this work may begin for you today, it must not end after Sunday. You are called to build a culture in your congregation of conversation and engagement around race and racism. In order to do this, you must take part in educating yourself, returning to the canon of Black voices, historic and contemporary, as often as you return to the biblical canon. Listen to voices of those you resist hearing, or do not agree with. Ensure that you regularly listen to the perspectives of people of color, through any means you can discover. And throughout this process, invite your congregation into ongoing conversation, book readings, anti-racism trainings, and support of the work of activists of color working for racial justice locally and nationally.
For this Sunday, a colleague recommends reading James Baldwin's Essay, "The Uses of the Blues," for a of your practice of preparation. For this week and the weeks to come, the African American Intellectual History Society has released a syllabus to guide our conversations. "True to Our Native Land: an African American New Testament Commentary" may be kept close to the desk for continued reference.
It’s better to do this work together, and so I’ve included below some of my own thoughts on the lectionary texts for this Sunday. This is just a beginning, and, as someone who lives inside the illness of racism just like everyone else, my offerings will be flawed. I welcome your own reflections on these texts in the comments, and will be especially grateful to hear the experiences and perspectives of clergy colleagues of color who bear the burden of racism every day. I hope my thoughts will be a helpful starting place as you follow the movement of the Holy Spirit and preach a message of liberation for the oppressed in your own context, whatever that context may be.
Here’s the thing. It’s not up to you to do this perfectly. It’s up to you to step into the deep water, and God will take it from there. It won’t be perfect, you won’t get it exactly right. But if we know anything it’s that God works with imperfect people. Trust God to open your eyes, reveal the world as it is, and, though it will be painful and uncertain, show you the way.
1 Samuel 17:(1a,4-11,19-23)32-49
We don’t have to stretch too far this Sunday for relevance when it comes to these texts. The alternate first reading is the story of David and Goliath, the young boy who has never been to war, but spent years tending sheep, up against a trained, armored, years-of-experience professional soldier, who also happens to be a really big guy. But David has a reliance on God, cultivated through his months alone in the dessert with the sheep. He uses his own tools, not the tools of the enemy, to bring down this giant, the powerless bringing down the powerful.
This past year, we have seen young activists step forward to quite literally bring down a giant. They have staged protests against the armed vehicles of the national guard, and in doing so, have launched a national conversation on racism, and inequality that is creating change. Like David, they have used their own tools: not the tanks, guns, and riot gear of the oppressor, but art, music, video, and tweets, all tools of resistance in their hands.
The question is, how are those of us who are given power by virtue of the color of our skin, called to empower the powerless? How can we get behind David? Support him in his work, support him using his tools? Not take over or tell him how it’s done, but put down our own power as he voices his?
The opening words of the selection of this Psalm are, “The Lord will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in time of trouble.”
Immediately we see that God places those who are oppressed and marginalized first. In verse 16, “The Lord is known by his acts of justice; the wicked are trapped in the works of their own hands.”
Well. Let’s just stop there for a moment. God, we are told, is identified by acts of justice. And so, it is in our own acts of justice that we are like God. We may assume then, that we are not acting for justice, we are separated from God. Further, the wicked are trapped in our own works. Can we not see that we as a nation are trapped? Bound up by our own sinfulness? Our country was quite literally built on the backs of the oppressed, fellow humans who we bought and sold, and continue to be treated as if their lives don’t matter. These are our sins.
“The wicked shall be given over to the grave,” the Psalmist writes, and we see that this illness which plagues our country is, in fact, death dealing.
The Psalm reminds us that those who are in need will not be forgotten. What is God up to in this text? Remembering those who are forgotten by their country, excluded from its promise. And now even their refuge: the church, a place which has, for centuries, been a place where African Americans can find safety and security, has been attacked and is not safe -- the strategy of the terrorist.
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Paul writes in the middle of some painful difficulties with the community in Corinth, urging them to be reconciled to God and one another. We do not know know the context, but we know that there has been a breach: an experience of hurt and anger that has split the community and left everyone bruised and hurting.
Two lines from this passage sing their relevance after the shooting this weekend. The first, Paul’s riff on Isaiah, “now is the acceptable time.” Today is the day, Paul exhorts the Corinthians, to set aside all that has stood in the way of being, together, the family of God. There is no time other than today to speak to the painful and difficult realities of the wounds we have inflicted upon each other.
The second line that sings through the centuries is “open wide your hearts.” Open your hearts. Open your hearts to the reality of the ways, we, as a nation, have perpetuated that pain, abuse, neglect. Open your hearts, and God will teach you to act.
*Preaching With Sacred Fire: African American Sermons 1750 to the Present includes to sermons on this text: Gilbert E Patterson's, "God's Cure for Racism and Loneliness (1998)" and Otis Moss Jr.'s sermon, "A Prophetic Witness in an Anti-Prophetic Age (2004)” offer important perspectives on this passage.
“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
We could ask the same questions of predominantly white churches across the nation. Do you not care that we are perishing? Do you not care that children are dying? Do you not care that pregnant woman are being abused at the hands of police? Do you not care that men and woman are imprisoned at rates never seen before? Do you not care that church folk, at prayer, are massacred?
God cares, and as people of God, we must care. And we must see that a disproportionate number of these lives, stolen and lost, are Black lives.
In Biblical literature, the sea is where the great chaos monster resides, and going out upon the sea is to be subjected to that fear, that chaos — the closeness of everything we cannot control. For some Black Americans, life is lived out in the midst of that storm. Lived out in the knowledge that your life, the life of a friend, the life of a family member, could be taken in one interaction with a cop gone wrong. And this week, as we have seen, in the refuge of the sanctuary, in the midst of prayer, by a young white man who has made hatred and white supremacy the center of his belief system.
People of color live life in the midst of a storm that they cannot simply step away from our out of. As white people, we have the privilege of seeing the storm from the outside, stepping away when we choose.
But Jesus is in the midst of the storm. He’s standing next to those who have been weathering it for a long time. And our job, plain and simple, is to follow Jesus.