First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
October 20, 2019
Be the Church: Reject Racism
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
Colossians 1:1-14 (The Message – adapted)
As we continue on the journey to Be the Church, we turn once again to the letters of the early church. Today, we hear from Paul’s letter to the Colossians as he greets them and commends them for their faithfulness. Let us hear from Colossians, chapter 1, verses 1 through 14.
1 1-2 I, Paul, have been sent on special assignment by Christ by God’s will. Together with my friend Timothy, I greet the Christians and stalwart followers of Christ who live in Colossae. May everything good from God be yours!
3-5 Our prayers for you are always spilling over into thanksgivings. We can’t quit thanking God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ for you! We keep getting reports on your steady faith in Christ, our Jesus, and the love you continuously extend to all Christians. The lines of purpose in your lives never grow slack, tightly tied as they are to your future in heaven, kept taut by hope.
5-8 The Message is as true among you today as when you first heard it. It doesn’t diminish or weaken over time. It’s the same all over the world. The Message bears fruit and gets larger and stronger, just as it has in you. From the very first day you heard and recognized the truth of what God is doing, you’ve been hungry for more. It’s as vigorous in you now as when you learned it from our friend and close associate Epaphras. He is one reliable worker for Christ! I could always depend on him. He’s the one who told us how thoroughly love had been worked into your lives by the Spirit.
9-12 Be assured that from the first day we heard of you, we haven’t stopped praying for you, asking God to give you wise minds and spirits attuned to God’s will, and so acquire a thorough understanding of the ways in which God works. We pray that you can live lives that are worthy of the Lord and pleasing to him in every way: by producing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God. We pray that you’ll have the strength to stick it out over the long haul—not the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the glory-strength God gives. It is strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy, thanking the God, who made it so you could take part in the inheritance, in light granted to God’s holy people. 13-14 God rescued us from dead-end alleys and dark dungeons, setting us up in the kingdom of the Son God loves so much, the Son who got us out of the pit we were in, got rid of the sins we were doomed to keep repeating.
Let us also hear Paul’s declaration of the church’s unity in Christ from Galatians 3:26-29.
Galatians 3:26-29 (NRSV)
26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
Today is the fifth Sunday in nine of our series on Be The Church – inspired by the new banner on the front wall of the church and the story behind it. We’re at the half-way point… It’s hump day in the nine-week series. Four behind us. Four in front of us. The fulcrum of the whole series is today: Reject Racism.
One of the challenges of preaching from a series of concepts created by someone else is, inevitably, some of those items will be easier and a whole lot more fun to delve into than others. I mean, who doesn’t love talking about protecting the environment… caring for all the cute animals and pretty skies? Share resources? How hard can that be? And Enjoy this life? I can’t wait for that one! But, there’s usually at least one of them that turns out to be a real bear. Guess which one it is? Reject Racism. But that’s okay. God will always give us what we need to be the Church God needs us to be, right?
As a white person in America, this is not an easy subject to approach. It’s complicated. It’s got a long, ugly, unfavorable history. It cannot be addressed with any justice in a 12-15 minute sermon. If you think that’s what is going to happen today, you’ve got a much higher regard for me than you should and, you’re going to be mightily disappointed. This is an issue that takes a lifetime to deal with. And we should be dealing with it intentionally for the rest of our lives. It is that critical.
I’m actually not crazy about the term reject racism. It’s too easily translated “ignore racism.” I get the sentiment behind it and it sounds a lot nicer and fits a lot better on the banner than “acknowledge that racism exists and work to overcome it.” Which actually leads more to what the white church needs to hear. It’s confession time. For to deal with racism as the serious issue that it is, we have to admit that it exists, that it is one of our nation’s (and the world’s) most egregious sins, and it’s our sin we have to bear.
Now, I’m looking into your loving, lovely faces and I don’t think that there’s a one of you that I could honestly say is intentionally racist. But, I’m learning that the devastating effects of racism are so deeply imbedded into our culture that we don’t even realize that we live out our racism more than we can imagine.
Here’s my story.
Even though I grew up in lily white northern Utah, I thought I was pretty race savvy. I’d grown up in the sixty’s. The civil rights movement was all around me… on television, anyway. I delved into the writings of Richard Wright when I was in high school. I celebrated with others when, in 1978, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) changed their stance and allowed people of African descent to be ordained into their lay priesthood. I had this race discrimination thing conquered, even though I didn’t even know a single person of color…. Until I went to seminary… at age 30.
One of Eden Seminary’s hallmarks is their field education program. Along with our 10 hours of actual field education in a local church setting, we were required to meet in a ministry seminar twice a month as a group of students and faculty to reflect theologically on our experiences. It was in this group that I had my first encounter with my own naïve racism and privilege. One of my classmates, I’ll call her Yvonne, was sharing an experience that she had as a student in her field ed setting. Yvonne, is African-American and her field ed assignment was in a predominately white church. As she was reflecting on a particularly difficult experience she had, she kept referring to “my experience as a black woman.” But she never went into any detail about what that was. So I simply (or what I thought was simply) stated, “I don’t know what it’s like to be a black woman. Could you tell me what you mean by your experience as a black woman?”
It didn’t go over well. Tears and anger were involved as Yvonne proclaimed, “If I have to tell one more white woman what my experience is……” and she got up and left the room. I had no idea what I had done. It was years later, and I mean years later, that I learned of my arrogance and the racism that was underneath it. Without any sort of depth of relationship, I, a white person, a person of privilege and social power, was putting the burden of my education about race, on a person of color. Even though my intention was to gain a better understanding and be better able to support my classmate, I was carrying the assumption that it was her responsibility as a person of color to educate me, without me even considering that that assumption carries a painful burden. I was expecting her to provide a service to me so that I could better myself. And, I was expecting her to do so in front of others. Although my intentions were good, the impact was devastating. When it comes to racism, impact always trumps intention.
Racism is a convoluted and complicated sin. It’s not clear cut. It is politically volatile. It is socially, culturally, economically devastating. It is not up to the minorities to teach us about our racism. That is our burden and responsibility to bear. And we must bear it, even if we think we are not responsible for it. As white Americans, we benefit from centuries of racism put into action. If racism and its effects are to end, it’s our responsibility to take on that burden. But hold on. Learning about racism is one of the most painful things we can do as a church. But it’s part of our call as followers of Jesus.
It is and will be hard. We will have to read and reflect and recognize our complicity in the system of racism and privilege that has been attained and maintained because of it. We will have to dig deeply into our interactions and listen, confess, apologize, learn from those who are willing to teach us and not expect it of everyone. The pain and scars are just too deep. And when we think we’ve got it, that there’s nothing more to learn, we’ll have to keep learning for it will be a life-long endeavor for us.
Hard things have never really stood in the way of God working things out for good. Think of the liberation of the Hebrew people and the giving of the ways to live as people in covenant. Think of people who encountered Jesus along his way through and around Galilee, the people who risked their lives to be in his presence, people who risked being ostracized to hear him preach. Think of the resurrection that revealed the power of God’s love and grace to overcome even death and the power of a mighty empire. Think of the early church overcoming religious and cultural norms and standing up against accusations of heresy. Think of our pilgrim forebears taking the treacherous journey across the Atlantic to settle in a place where they could exercise their faith, free from tyranny. Think of the sins that the church has faced, confessed to and risen anew as the body of Christ for a new day.
So, we turn to the powerful words of the opening of Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae. Even though they were written for a specific church at a particular time, facing their own particular cultural challenges, I hope the words carry some encouragement for us: We pray that you’ll stick it out over the long haul – not the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the glory-strength God give. It is strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy, thanking the God, who made it so you could take part in the inheritance, in light granted to God’s holy people. 13-14 God rescued us from dead-end alleys and dark dungeons, setting us up in the kingdom of the Son God loves so much, the Son who got us out of the pit we were in, got rid of the sins we were doomed to keep repeating.
Let us pray: God of all people and all races, you create us all in your image, see each of us with the love of a great creator and call us all good. Would that we would take that quality into our being more deeply. Instead, we tend to look at some of your children as different, exotic, frightening, foreign, less-than, other. Give us the courage and the grace to recognize the sin of racism in our world, in our culture, in our language, in our expectations, in our souls. And grant us the grace to confess our sin and go another way… a way of understanding, deep respect and honor, a way where truly, all people live truly equally as you have created us. Amen.