John 15:1-8; I John 4:7-12
The primary rule of any polite conversation is, “Don’t talk about race, politics, sex or religion.” Many folks think the same applies to sermons and they are probably right. Anything said either goes too far in the eyes of most or not far enough in the eyes of a few. While most walk away unsatisfied, sometimes, during what seems to be misguided ramblings, a heart might be stirred or a soul inspired.
Nelle Lee grew up under the shadow of a powerful father who ran the town of Monroeville, Alabama. He was a lawyer, owned the local newspaper, and had tremendous authority over much of the town. While Mr. Lee was considered a progressive on social issues, he helped have a minister removed from his church when, in Mr. Lee’s words, a sermon strayed from the Bible and into the area of integration. But then it was the late 1940’s. Overall Mr. Lee was trusted by the citizens of Monroeville to wield his power in a manner that was beneficial to the average resident.
Nelle and her father did not see eye to eye. He used his influence to enroll her in the University of Alabama School of Law. After a semester, she used her independence to leave, move to New York City, and become a writer. The father disowned the daughter and the daughter became known by her middle name. Harper Lee responded to the perils of mixing power and fear by writing To Kill a Mockingbird.
I do not expect anyone to flee from the sanctuary after this morning’s service and write the next great American novel. But the more I read this morning’s text and the more I listened to our local and national news, the more I thought perhaps we might have a conversation on how this morning’s scripture responds to the issues of sex and race.
Both of our scriptures radically challenge the modern notion of individual sovereignty. We are quick to embrace an attitude of “Don’t Tread on Me”, while forgetting or perhaps never knowing the roots of that commonly used phrase. The creation of that idiom was intended for the unification of a community over the very real threat of tyranny. I fear today our desire for individual sovereignty excludes what might be best for the communities in which we reside.
I am going to rant for a moment so this might be a good time to turn off your hearing aids or go to that “happy place” easily visited while listening to a sermon.
Sexuality is a gift from God. Rape has nothing to do with sexuality. Rape is a brutal act instigated by one or more people exerting their POWER over another person. Regardless how badly Rolling Stone Magazine botched their reporting, none of us are naïve enough to believe rape is not an epidemic on our college campuses. If I had an 18 year old daughter, I would fear for her safety.
Diversity is a gift from God. Racism has little to do with prejudice and everything to do with one or more people brutally instigating POWER over others. Many of us sat in disbelief, in frustration, and in anger, as we watched a portion of the city of Baltimore explode. Where does one begin in understanding this and the other tragedies we have witnessed in the streets of our major cities? Too often the conversation never moves beyond folks pointing a finger at someone else. Last week was a tragic example of this.
It is irresponsible to assume our inner cities are primarily drug infested breeding grounds for gang violence, where children have no fathers and mothers become pregnant in order to receive welfare checks. Far too many people are stereotyped by this inaccurate categorization.
It is equally irresponsible to suggest that our police departments are filled with violent men and women who have little or no respect for the communities they are sworn to protect. This inaccuracy demonizes honorable professionals who constantly place their lives in harm’s way.
This deceit is created by folks who never experienced the inner city and by folks who have never taken the time to witness the dedication and the integrity which abounds in our Law Enforcement agencies. These gross inaccuracies, fostered by loud voices and irresponsible journalism trigger heated debates which will never lead to anything other than continued confrontations weighted and ignited by decades of hate and distrust. In the meantime, we push aside far more important issues such as the gentrification of our major cities creating dangerous ghettos of poverty and racial divide. We fail to address the sustainment of a welfare system which has severely divided the powerful from the powerless. We fail to recognize the hazard of city planners driven by economics or government officials chosen by special interest groups. We fail to offer an alternative to an education system in our inner cities which has failed both the educators and those desiring to be educated.
The ugly truth we fail to confront is that systemic racism still lives in this country and is successfully dismantling the hopes and dreams of our next generation.
Those are broadly scripted accusations which by their very nature are inflammatory and simplistic. Furthermore many of us came to this beautiful and serene valley to escape those problems. But the truth is, while we live in Nelson County we also live in Baltimore, and East St. Louis, and North Charleston, and New York City and Portsmouth. We are brothers and sisters with each resident and each public servant in those communities, not just because we are Americans, but because we are all children of God. Jesus said, “I am the vine and you are the branches. The branch cannot bear fruit unless you abide in me.” I would humbly suggest in the last few months we aren’t bearing much fruit. Perhaps too many folks have forgotten that the “Word of the Lord” applies on Monday through Saturday as well as Sunday and the primary word of God is, “Love everyone because love is from God.”
These are dangerous words because they’re spoken far too casually. What have I ever done to show the community of Baltimore that I love them. Likewise, how far would I get if I volunteered to teach restraint to Baltimore’s finest. I cannot begin to imagine the stress the police face. So, before I start flashing peace signs and singing Kum Bah Ya, the first thing I must do is to take a hard look at myself and examine what it means to love God, and what love means to the one we dare call God. The answer we receive is neither easy nor simplistic.
God’s love is sacrificial.
God’s love shows little interest in power or prosperity.
God’s love is inclusive.
Here is the hardest one. God’s love is transformational or in other words, God seeks out the worst in us in order that something new might emerge.
God’s love and God’s grace are radical concepts which call me to reexamine and redefine my own life. As a white male, the first thing I must do, should I have any interest in the problems of Baltimore, is to acknowledge that my kin have had an obsession with racism every since my ancestors landed on these shores. Racism has always been the primary obstacle standing in the way of my family empowering others. Being from the Deep South, we have allowed ourselves to believe the poster child of racism is an uneducated red neck sitting on the back of his pickup with a bumper adorned with the words, “The South will rise again.” That image has conveniently camouflaged the continued mindset which has caused us to be more concerned with burning property than human life. We have created distorted opinions about particular cultures which are based on half truths, lies and myths. Furthermore, any discussion about race has failed to raise this one critical question, “Who has the power?” Ironically the one racial group that traditionally controls the power wants to pretend racism doesn’t exist.
I cannot change how a black man in Baltimore feels toward me. His perception or perhaps his misperception is built on his narrative.
I cannot place myself in the shoes of a policemen operating from his or her narrative in which fear and anger often override civil behavior.
But I can examine who is sovereign in my life. I can challenge myself to be open to sacrificing myself rather than sacrificing the dignity of others. I can try to be motivated by more than power and prosperity. I can expand my community to be more inclusive by listening to the stories and narratives of folks different than me. And if I can accomplish the first three, then I can begin the difficult task of becoming an agent of transformation, seeking to enter into a relationship of trust with folks I have previously ignored.
God loves us by empowering us with the love of God. We exhibit that love by empowering others. As God abides in us, let us abide with those who God intentionally made to be radically and racially different than us. By hearing each other’s narrative, perhaps we might take the first giant step toward bringing about God’s peaceable kingdom.