Dear Friends and Family of First Christian Church of St. Paul:
Last week in the immediate aftermath of the killing of George Floyd I decided to go for a walk. We live in North Minneapolis. It was a nice sunny day, perfect day for a walk. “Be careful,” my husband Daniel said as I left.
Later that evening, I was chatting with my mother. As we finished our phone call to say goodbye, she asked me to be careful.
Be careful. This has been my reality since I was a kid. My parents were telling me to be careful ever since I was a teen. Growing up in 1980s Michigan, my parents were always concerned about me, not that I was doing something reckless, but because I was a young black man. Even now when I’m 50 years old, some loved one is always telling me to be careful. This is how African American men ( and even African American women) have to live. Black mothers worry when their sons go out with friends. They worry they will get in trouble with the police or worse.
George Floyd was seen as a threat. He had a target on his back on that Memorial Day when he met his end on a Minneapolis street. For far too long, too many African Americans have been viewed not as a fellow human being, but as a threat, worthy of being killed.
Before I go any farther I have to say the following: I believe America is a good nation. I know there are good cops that care about their communities. I know there are good white people. I know that we aren’t living in a time of segregation like my Dad did growing up in Louisiana in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. All of this is true. And yet, a middle-aged black man is dead, again because of the color of his skin.
What’s infuriating is that George Floyd was a gentle giant, a committed Christian who moved to Minneapolis a few years ago from his native Houston in search of a better life, dies at the hand of a cop who had a long history of complaints and for some reason remained on the force. He was engaged to be married and he never got the chance to walk down with his love.
But what is upsetting and frightening is that it could have been me. It could be me. Floyd is only a few years younger than I am. I pray that it never happens, but it is not out of the realm of possibility.
And then there were the riots. Coming from Michigan as I do, you learn about the Detroit riots in 1967. It’s no surprise to African Americans and other people of color that Minnesota is not an idyllic place. Racial disparities are among the highest in the nation. That said, I would have never, ever thought there were going to be riots like what I’ve seen in the past few days. To say that Minneapolis is burning is as weird as saying Lake Woebegon is burning, but it has happened.
So where do we go from here?
That’s the rub. Talking about the problem of race in America is always a challenge because you have those who want to live in denial that there is a problem (and that includes some African Americans) and those that think there are racists under every bed. But I think as Christians what it means is that we live our lives with God’s table at the center. The Restoration Movement which gave birth to the Disciples believes strongly that the Lord’s Table is for everyone. Now when Alexander and Thomas Campbell were making their argument about the communion table they were informed by the internecine battles within the Presbyterian Church. If you didn’t believe the right way, you couldn’t have communion. The Campbells believed it was God, not an interpretation of a creed, that invites us to the table. God wants to be in a relationship with us and God desires that all us be in relationship. So in light of all this, we have to live a life that welcomes everyone into a relationship with each other and God. We have to be communities where people from all walks of life are welcomed, united in Jesus Christ.
Relationship means listening. Listening means being vulnerable. Relationship is rooted in reconcililation. It means living a sacrificial life and opening yourself up to dissonance.White Americans have to be willing to listen even when what you hear goes against what you know or experience. That’s hard to do because we all come with our own experiences and biases. It’s hard to listen to something that doesn’t jive with what you believe. But I think White Americans have to do that because we can’t change until we hear the stories of African Americans that might not be the story you are used to.
But in that relationship there also needs to be grace. Far too often, having a conversation on race become stilted out of fear that something will be said that is offensive. The thing is, if we are going to have an honest talk on race we will stumble and say something that might come off as offensive. It means making mistakes, seeking forgiveness and moving on. It means African Americans should show grace to their white sisters and brothers understanding that we are all sinful and all in need of God’s grace. The racial reconciliation is messy and that’s okay. It will be messy.
As an African American man, I am honored and blessed to be the lead pastor of this congregation that doesn’t just have diversity as a value, but we live it out. We come from various racial and ethnic backgrounds and yet we are in a relationship with each other. But even here, we have to be willing to listen deeper and make space for grace. Because those unsettling stories are there just below the surface and they need to be brought forth and dealt with.
Second, we have to be involved in the work of reconciliation. Our Presbyterian sisters and brothers wrote in the Confession of 1967, that God’s reconciling love breaks down barriers, the Church is called to fight for reconciliation:
God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In his reconciling love, God overcomes the barriers between sisters and brothers and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all people98 to recieve and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore, the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize others , however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess .
I am reminded of the parable of the Good Samaritan. We’ve heard the story of the man traveling down the road who ends up beaten and left for dead by robbers. Two religious people see this injured man lying at the side of the road and pass him by. For whatever reason, they didn’t stop to offer help. Finally, another man comes by, a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans didn’t get along, but this man didn’t care about whatever animosities kept them apart. He takes the injured man and places him on his donkey to the nearest inn. He even tells the innkeeper to keep a tab that he would pay back when he swung back that way again. The Samaritan got involved. He could have said this was none of his business and moved on, but he didn’t. He got involved.
The same thing needs to happen now. I said in a sermon four years ago, in the aftermath of Philando Castile’s shooting that the only way these killings of black people by police will stop is when white Christians, white Americans step up. This is not simply a problem for African Americans but it is all of our problems. It’s an American problem and most of all it is a spiritual problem.
The past few days have left me angry and sad. As a community and as a nation, we have a lot of work to do. We need to start talking But I have hope in Christ. I have hope in the Christ that died a horrible death, suffering with humanity and freeing us from the bonds of sin. Ultimately, I have hope because, in Jesus Christ, the evils of racism will never have the last word. Let’s pull up a chair to God’s Table and start talking.
Dennis Sanders, Lead Pastor
When I was 13, I remember going to the credit union with my mother. Mom was busy talking to one of the tellers while I waited near the door. I was just kind of keeping to myself not really paying attention to what was happening around me. Most people who knew me, saw me as someone who was quiet and probably too sensitive emotionally. I wasn’t really a threat to anyone.
Little did I know, someone did think I was a threat. A security guard came up to me and asked what I was doing. I was a bit surprised and before I could answer, my mother came up and said sternly that I was with her. She learned that the security guard came up to me because another teller was basically scared of me. As we left the credit union, Mom was mad at the teller who saw me as a threat. She was also a bit upset at me for not being more aware of my surroundings.
I look back at that event and I see how naive I could be. I had grown up in the years following the civil rights movement of the 60s. Growing up in mid-Michigan in the 70s and 80s, I grew up not knowing a lot of the open racism that was so rampant in American in the decades before I was born. My father grew up in Jim Crow-era Louisiana in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. He knew about how you could be the judge because of your skin. Because that wasn’t the world I grew up in, I didn’t understand that anyone could see me as something to be feared.
Like many people, I’ve been made aware of the horrific murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25- year old man who was murdered by two white men in Georgia who thought he was a burglar. Greg McMichael and his son Travis saw Arbery running in their neighbor and believed he was fleeing from a crime scene. The reality is that Arbery was jogging. Something that the two men should have noticed, but didn’t. The McMichaels took off in their truck with guns and long story short Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed.
Now, I truly believe things are better for African Americans than they used to be. I can do things that my Dad wasn’t able to do because of segregation. I think our nation is in a better place than it was circa 1955.
But better doesn’t mean perfect. While the rampant racism that defined the American South for decades has receded, it is still present. Arbery is part of a long line of African American men that have died at the hands of white Americans in recent years. The ghost of Jim Crow still haunts America.
In the last day or so, the phrase “blood cries out” got stuck in my head. That phrase comes from Genesis 4:8-11, the story of the brothers Cain and Abel. Cain kills Abel and when God asks Cain where is Abel, Cain replies dismissively. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God responds by saying the following:
“What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.
Abel’s blood cried out from the ground. God heard the cry of the victim, Abel, and wanted Cain to face the justice of God.
In the book of Deuteronomy, a law stated that if the body of a person was found in a field and no one knew who killed the person, a group of people determined which city the body was closer to. Representatives would sacrifice an animal as an atonement to God for the sin of murder. It didn’t matter that they themselves didn’t do the crime. What mattered was that it mattered to God. Blood was crying out from the ground and it needed to be answered. Taking this crime seriously meant they cared about life. If a city refused to do this, it sent a message to God about how they viewed life.
Ahmaud Arbery’s blood cries out from the Georgia soil. The McMichaels have been charged with murder. We know that temporal justice is at least beginning. But what about the justice of God?
I don’t have an answer. What I do know is that all of us must care. To ignore this, to avert our eyes, means we don’t hold life as sacred. To ignore it is to say that the color of one’s skin determines their worth.
Arbery’s killers will face trial, but in a way, we are facing trial as well. How will we respond to the justice of God who weeps over the blood crying out?
The following was preached in 2015.
Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
September 5, 2015
First Christian Church
When I was in high school I was cross country for two years. I enjoyed running, but I wasn’t the fastest guy in the world. I was less a gazelle than I was a gazelle that was limping. Anyway, this mean that I was usually more often than not, I was in the back of the pack, a long way of saying I was dead last.
So one day after school, we went meet in Swartz Creek, a small town about 10 miles from my home town of Flint. My school was going up against Swartz Creek high. The race starts and as usual, I was last. We were running at a local park and some of the route circled back on itself. I’m running probably thinking when is this hell going to end, when I started hearing voices. Off toward the side a number of white teens, not much older than me had gathered. I realized that the voices were directed at me and they weren’t nice. I heard the word “nigger” more than once, as well as references to me liking watermelon. I was shocked by the language, but I kept on running. When I made a second pass, the voices started up again with the young men hurling racial slurs again. It was at this time, that I saw a lanky African American running towards the boys. It was Troy,a senior and the only other African American on the team. He had finished his race and must have seen me being harassed. I learned that Troy stopped at a distance and just stared at them. It did the trick, because the boys left.
As I crossed the finish line, last, of course. It was there that a number of the parents of my teammates asked if I was okay. I said yes, and I was okay. I’ve known since I was a kid that people would look at me differently because of the color of my skin. That said, I had never been called “nigger’ before. Having that hurled at you is something you don’t easily forget and I haven’t. It’s been a little over 32 years since that happened and it still feels like yesterday.
When something like that happens, it sends a message: that you aren’t welcomed in these parts. I don’t think the entire town of Swartz Creek is out to get black people. I think there were good people in that town in 1983 and even more so in 2015. But those boys had learned from someone that people who look like me were not welcomed in this town.
In this past year, we have heard a lot about an issue that we had hoped was becoming less of a concern and that the issue of race. Several high profile events have taken place between African Americans and white policemen. In June we were shaken by the deaths of nine people inside of a historic African American church, by a white man that they had welcomed to join them in a Bible Study. It seems that even though we have an African American is president, we have more African Americans in positions of power, even though all the whites only or coloreds only signs have been taken down, racism is still an issue; African Americans are still being held back.
When we started hearing about the situation in Ferguson, MO a phrase started to catch on. It started as a Twitter hashtag and then it became a phrase all on its own. That phrase is “Black Lives Matter.” Some people don’t like that phrase, thinking it excludes others. But the phrase isn’t around to say that white lives or Asian lives or Native lives are not as important. Instead it is the lifting up of an uncomfortable truth: that even with all the advances that we as a nation have made in the last 50 years when it comes to race, still doesn’t value black people as much as others. If you don’t believe me, let me share this story from earlier this summer. A pool party was taken place in McAllen, Texas a suburb of Dallas. Someone called the police and they came. Now the pool party was a mixed affair with black and white teens partying together. BUt when the cops came, they only went for the black children. There is an image that went viral where a white police officer grabbed a young African American girl in a bikini, threw her to the ground and placed a gun to her head. The officer in question was fired from the police force, but there it was in black and white, blacks lives didn’t mean much. The cop probably wasn’t consciously racist, but something in his unconscious saw this young girl in a bikini as a potential threat.
I think some of the reason for the pushback against “Black Lives Matter” is that no one wants to see themselves as a racist. We all have the image of the guy in the bedsheet or the racist southern cop. People know they aren’t like that. But they don’t want to face that they have something that all of us have regardless of race: an unconscious bias towards people like us and a distrust of people who are “other.” And right now that unconscious bias is leading towards the harassment of African Americans by people who have sworn to protect all people.
Just like it’s hard for people to confront their own biases, today’s text is a challenging one for us because it causes us to see Jesus in a different way. We have learned that Jesus never sinned. We see Jesus as someone who welcomed the outcasts. Jesus is the guy that broke barriers. Jesus is the model of what it means to be tolerant and loving towards all. The Jesus we see here, smashes every preconception about Jesus we’ve had.
Jesus was in the region of Tyre and he was trying to keep a low profile. You would think he would know that being the Son of God meant that he wasn’t able to ever be incognito. A woman from the area had heard about this Jesus and she believed he could heal her daughter who was possessed by a demon. She comes and asks Jesus to heal her daughter.
This is where the story gets interesting. Jesus refers to her as a dog. Some have said that his calling her a dog was really calling her a cute puppy, or that Jesus was testing the woman. But both of these have problems. Dogs were not the pets we see in 21st century America. In many of the cultures of the day, dogs were basically vermin. Others have said the Jesus was testing the woman, to see if she really believed. But Jesus doesn’t do that anywhere else in the Bible and that would just seem mean. “Hi, you’re daughter’s ill? Sure, I can heal her, but first let me ask you this question!” I’m pretty sure Jesus wouldn’t do that.
Which leaves us with the last explanation standing: that Jesus really did mean to call her a dog and didn’t want to heal this woman’s daughter. Now that’s hard to hear. We are told Jesus never sinned and well, here it is. Why was Jesus being so prejudiced?
The thing is, we won’t ever totally know why. Some think Jesus didn’t yet understand that this message of salvation is for all. But what was interesting here is not just what Jesus said, but what the woman said in response. She believed that Jesus could heal her daughter. She had heard the stories and believed that Jesus could expel the demon and she wasn’t going to let Jesus stand in her way. She believed in Christ even when it seemed Christ didn’t believe in her.
“Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” she said. “ Even if you don’t think much of us, Lord, we still want some healing from you and we believe you will do it. I matter. My daughter matters.”
It was this woman’s faith that healed her daughter. Jesus was astounded by the woman’s faith and tells her that her daughter is healed and when the woman got home, she saw that the demon had left her daughter.
Most of us don’t like to think that we have a bias. White people don’t want to think they have biases against black people; straight people don’t want to think they have a bias against gay people; Americans don’t want to think they have biases against foreigners. We don’t want to think we only like certain people and are suspicious against others, even though that has been an issue since time began. We want to believe that all of our problems with race or diversity or gender were settled a long time ago. We want to believe we would welcome anyone into our homes or churches, when in reality we can be hestitant to welcome others not like us.
Which is why it’s a challenge for Christians to read this passage. We want to see Jesus in a perfect light and if Jesus isn’t perfect, then it stands that we have some problems as well.
But Jesus who is both fully human and fully divine reminds us that we are not that innocent. If Jesus, the Son of God has a bias, then so do we. We are not more perfect than Jesus.
I was reading a story last night about how some of the most politically progressive cities, places like Madison, Austin, Portland, San Francisco and our own Minneapolis are places where people of color live segregated lives apart from their white neighbors. Many of these places have folks who are on the “right” side of issues and think that race is a problem for conservatives or those folk in the South. There is no problem here. I’ve lived here for nearly 20 years and I can tell you: y’all have a problem. Lots of African Americans are locked out of the thriving economy here and they face harsh treatment from the cops. Their children face more suspension and expulsion than their white counterparts for similar offenses. But in the same way we don’t want to talk about a faulty and prejudiced Jesus, we don’t want to talk about the ways we can unconsciously make life for persons of color harsh in so-called progressive cities.
The amazing thing about the Syrophoenician woman was her faith. She believed that her daughter was going to be healed in spite of Jesus words. Maybe she heard the stories of how God defeated Pharaoh or something. She just knew God would heal her daughter.
And so it is with us. We believe in a God that can heal us of our biases. We believe in a God that does smash barriers and we believe in a God that will smash the barriers in our hearts so that we can work for God’s reconciliation in the world.
I don’t know why Jesus tried to ignore this woman anymore than I understand why those kids taunted me all those years ago. What I do know is that God shows up to bring healing, sometimes in a woman who believes Jesus can heal her daughter, or in a lanky runner coming to the aid of a fellow runner. God is a God that works towards healing. Are we ready to join God? Thanks be to God. Amen.
Tenth Sunday After Pentecost
August 13, 2017
First Christian Church
Good science fiction should be able to talk about a present issue dressed in futuristic garb. Star Trek has been able to do that for most of its 50 years of existence. There is an episode in the sixth season of Star Trek: the Next Generation, where the captain of the Enterprise, Jean-Luc Picard is captured by the Cardassians, a humanoid race that had uneasy relations with the Federation.
He is taken to an interrogator named Madred. Madred is adpet in the uses or torture and manipulation and it is used to its bone chilling intent in this episode. He uses physical torture, but Madred also used tricks of the mind to get a prisioner to break and that is what he wanted to do to Picard, to break his will. Early in the episode, Picard meets with Madred and the interrogator calmly asks him to look up to the lights in the celing. “Tell me, Picard,” Madred says. “How many lights are there?”
Picard is confused, because it was quite obvious that there were four lights. So, he answered that there were four lights. It was the wrong answer. There were five lights. Madred sends him back for more torture. This wicked game happens again and again. Towards the end of the episode, he is asked one more time how many lights there are. Picard by this time was beaten and battered and it looked like he was going to comply with Madred and tell him there are five lights, to admit that he had been broken by Madred. But just as Picard is going to say something, the session is interuppted; the base where Picard was had recieved word that he was free to go. Picard stands up ready to be head out of the room and away from his captor. Then he stops and turns around. He looks at Madred with fury and states in a loud voice, “THERE ARE FOUR LIGHTS!” and then leaves.
Later when Picard is aboard the Enterprise, he confides in Deanna Troi, the ship’s counselor that he was so beaten and broken that to make the pain stop, he was willing to say there were five lights.
Today we are going to talk about baptism and we will be doing it this week and next. We will focus on the story of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came down and set upon the heads of Jesus’ disciples.
When people around them started to question them, Peter tells the crowd about Jesus. He tells them about how Jesus was put to death and is now raised from the dead. The people knew about Jesus, but they saw him as someone the Romans put to death. It was another troublemaker that was stamped out by the Romans. But Peter tells them that this was not the whole story. He starts by sharing a passage from the prophet Joel and links that to Jesus. Peter tells them God’s redemption story and that leads the people to ask what needs to be done.
They had one view of things, but now there was a different view. Where they might have seen themselves as if nothing was wrong, now see they are in need of help. Peter tells them to change their ways and be baptized as a sign of their repentance and God’s forgiveness of sins or salvation of creation.
We think of baptism as an act that takes place with a little or a lot of water and it is that. But in many ways, baptism is a break from the reality we knew into something very different. Those first converts had a certain view of life that they grew up with. They thought they knew who Jesus was, but Peter shares with them a radically different view, one that actually pricked their hearts. Peter had shared with them something different and baptism was the sign that something had changed, someone had changed them.
But the thing is, those first converts all the way up until today, are sometimes charmed by other voices. Those voices tell us that 2 and 2 isn’t four, but five or they tell us that there are five lights instead of four. There are always people who lure us away from God’s truth who are able to alter reality into something else that seeks to separate from God. As 1 Peter 5:8 states, “ Be clearheaded. Keep alert. Your accuser, the devil, is on the prowl like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”
As I was reading social media and the news sites yesterday regarding the goings on in Charlottesville, it’s easy to see how we can believe a lie. For whatever reason, the people waving those torches this weekend were decieved into believing that there are acceptable people based on skin color and race. Yes, the distrubing pictures of angry white faces are people who have given into evil, but they are also faces of those that have been tricked into thinking that their belief system will bring them salvation, when all it will give them is damnation.
Baptism isn’t something that we do to get on God’s good side. It is something that happens because of what God has done. God chose to love humanity despite the many ways we broke God’s heart. God became human in Jesus in and in Jesus lived and suffered and died seeking to do God’s will in the world.
While baptism is something we do for God, it is something that should change us. Peter called for his listeners to repent, to turn around from their ways of doing things and live into the new reality that they have been introduced into. Knowing Jesus from a different standpoint meant seeing life, our life from a different standpoint. Repentance and baptism meant that these new Christ followers spent their days in the temple worshipping, sharing with each, especially when one had need. Later they were the ones that cared for people who were ill, at time when others would leave people to die. Repentance changed a slaveowner named John Newton to give up his old life and end up writing one of the most well known hymns, “Amazing Grace.”
How has baptism changed us? How do we see life differently?
In most baptismal liturgies, there is the following phrase that takes place as the child or adult is being baptized. It is part of that person’s baptismal vows. This is one example that is used in Disciple congregations and it goes like this:
Do you renounce evil, repent of your sins, and turn to Christ?
Do you confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and
do you accept and proclaim him to be Lord and Savior of the world?
The Methodists are bit more verbose on this and I want to share it as well:
On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you:
Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
reject the evil powers of this world,
and repent of your sin?
Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you
to resist evil, injustice, and oppression
in whatever forms they present themselves?
Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior,
put your whole trust in his grace,
and promise to serve him as your Lord,
in union with the Church which Christ has opened
to people of all ages, nations, and races?
At this time in our nation’s history and in light of this weekend’s actions, I don’t have answers into how we should respond. I’m not here to give a firery sermon. But I am here to remind you of our baptismal vows. Let us learn to renounce evil, or as some versions state, the wiles of the devil. Let us be focused on living for Jesus, to living life in a different way and guard ourselves against the sirens that seek to lure us away as it has those white protestors in Virginia. And let us live our vows that call us to resist evil, and battle injustice and oppression. Let us confess who we are and whose we are. May we be a living witness of God’s love and share that love with others.
How many lights do you see? Don’t let the devil trick you. See the reality around you and live it out in a world that so needs to see it. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Crime is increasing
Trigger happy policing
Panic is spreading
God know where we’re heading
Oh, make me wanna holler
They don’t understand
-Inner City Blues, Marvin Gaye
For the second time in two days we have heard of another police shooting of an African American. Tuesday saw the killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, LA and last night Philando Castile in the St. Paul suburb of Falcon Heights. While all of these kind of shootings have bothered me, the Falcon Heights shooting hit closer to home and not just because it was only a few miles from me.
What makes this one more real to me is that Mr. Castile could have been me.
What has been unnerving and infuriating is that as far as we can tell, this was a regular guy. He worked in the lunchroom at a St. Paul Montessori school. When he was pulled over for a busted tail light, he told the officer that he had a permit to carry a concealed weapon. He seemed to be doing the right thing.
And he still got shot.
From what we know, he did all the right things one should do as a concealed carry holder and as an African American and he still ended up dead.
My husband wrote an anguished Facebook post about the shooting and her fears that I could be pulled over and killed for no reason by someone this supposed to keep the peace. The thing is, I can’t tell him not to worry. I can’t tell him that as long as I am careful that nothing will happen.
The thing is, having Aspergers, I tend to miss social cues. What if I miss a social cue and the officer draws a gun? Can I trust the police to do the right thing? What will happen the next time I’m pulled over?
I never used to be scared of the police. I can remember sitting in elementary school in Flint, MI back in the 70s and being taught that the police were there to help. I’ve believed that since then, but the steady drumbeat of police shootings has eroded my child-like trust and replaced it with fear, and the police should not be the people I fear.
The sad thing is, these killings will continue. Too much of white America doesn’t see this as a problem. Many mistakenly believe that the shooting victim deserved it. None of this means it can’t change, but until people can see the injustice happening, until it tugs at their own sense of fairness and justice, the values that we as Americans believe in, a lot of whites in America will remain unmoved to act.
Lord Have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Second Sunday of Christmas
January 3, 2016
First Christian Church
When I was about 13 or so, I went with Mom to the credit union near her place of work, the old AC Sparkplug factory on the eastside of Flint. This was back in the day when people went to an actual bank to cash their checks. Mom waited in line to be served and I stood near the back of the lobby off in my own world. Some time passed when I heard a voice. It was gentleman (a security guard) and I can’t remember if he asked what I was doing here or if I needed help. Before I could answer, my mother, who had finished her business came up and said I was with her. As we left the credit union, Mom chastised me for not standing still. I didn’t understand then why Mom was so upset. It’s only been with age that I came to understand what had went on. It didn’t really matter what the gentleman with the bank said, the underlying message was basically what was I doing there? What my mother understood and I did not, was that I was being watched…watched as a threat. Now, I was rather tall for my age, but that wasn’t the reason I was being watched. As you can now probably guess, I was being watched because I was black. I’ve always thought it funny that people might see me as a threat, because if someone knew me, they would see I’m not that scary, especially my 13 year-old self. But what my parents knew and what I would come to realize is that no matter how gentle I might be, some people might see me as a threat, a danger.
This all came to mind this week after hearing the news of a grand jury deciding to not indict two members of the Cleveland Police after they shot 12 year-old Tamir Rice in November 2014. Tamir was in a park playing with a toy gun. The video of the shooting is rather chilling. A police car roars up near the gazebo where Tamir is playing. The car stops and out jump two policemen who immediately shoot the 12 year-old. As far as the surveillance video shows us, there was no talking to the child, no asking questions, no assessment of the context. It was just race to the gazebo and take out a supposed threat.
In our text today, we start a journey through the book of Mark. It is the shortest gospel and it dispenses with the birth story of Jesus and goes straight to his ministry. Jesus is busy. He casts out demons and heals the sick.
And then we come to verse 40. Jesus encounters a man with leprosy. He was considered unclean according to the religious custom and forced to be on the margins of society. The man encounters Jesus and asks, if Jesus is willing to make him clean.
Notice the man didn’t say, please heal me. Instead he pleads that if Jesus isn’t too busy or is able to squeeze him into his calendar to heal him. Maybe this is a sign that of how outside of the community he felt, he felt so much like a nothing that he couldn’t ask Jesus boldly to be healed.
This is where the passage gets interesting. In verse 41, we have a few different meanings of Jesus’ response. Some sources say that Jesus was moved with pity or compassion. That would make sense. We see this in other parts of the gospels where Jesus cares for the people and tries to heal them of their illnesses. But other sources say Jesus was angry or as it says in today’s reading, “incensed.” That view is harder to square. Why was Jesus angry? Who was Jesus angry at?
The text doesn’t reveal any clues. I think it goes without saying that Jesus would have compassion on the leper. Would Jesus be angry as well?
We can’t know for sure, but it is a possibility. Jesus has shown anger before, so it doesn’t come from nowhere. Jesus might have been angry at how this man was being treated. Maybe Jesus was angry at how religious law kept this man on the outside of his community. We don’t know, but this view makes us think about the use of anger in the life of the church.
If we are aware of the world around us and we are aware of what God means for God’s creation, we will probably be angry at how the world is. We will want to work to be agents of God’s love, justice and grace.
If we go back to the news of the past week, people are upset because a 12 year-old who was doing what 12 year-olds like to do was gunned down as a threat, most likely because of the color of his skin. In spite of all the progress that this nation has made in race relations, it should disturb us that this still happens some 50 years after the civil rights movement.
But the church isn’t called to just be angry. It is also called to be healers. We might not be able to remove leprosy from people, but we can with God’s help try to bring healing where the world is fractured. The church is called to be where there is hurt and bring healing, just as Jesus did. The ultimate symbol of identifying with hurt is when Jesus is on the cross, suffering and dying in our stead for the healing of all creation.
Jesus walking among us meant a reveal of the kingdom of God. It is a place where lepers are healed and welcomed back into community. It’s a place where the sick are healed and the poor are fed. And if we are paying attention, it is a place where young black men aren’t immediately seen as dangerous.
The coming of Christ forever changed the world in ways we can’t imagine. Peter Wehner, a political writer who served in the last three Republican administrations wrote in the New York Times on Christmas Day how Christianity changed how we look at the poor. He writes:
In his book “A Brief History of Thought,” the secular humanist and French philosopher Luc Ferry writes that in contrast with the Greek understanding of humanity, “Christianity was to introduce the notion that humanity was fundamentally identical, that men were equal in dignity — an unprecedented idea at the time, and one to which our world owes its entire democratic inheritance.”
Indeed, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (blessed are the poor in spirit and the pure in heart, the meek and the merciful), his touching of lepers, and his association with outcasts and sinners were fundamentally at odds with the way the Greek and Roman worlds viewed life, where social status was everything.
“Christianity placed charity at the center of its spiritual life as no pagan cult ever had,” according to the theologian David Bentley Hart, “and raised the care of widows, orphans, the sick, the imprisoned, and the poor to the level of the highest of religious obligations.” Christianity played a key role in ending slavery and segregation. Today Christians are taking the lead against human trafficking and on behalf of unborn life. They maintain countless hospitals, hospices and orphanages around the world.
We moderns assume that compassion for the poor and marginalized is natural and universal. But actually we think in this humanistic manner in large measure because of Christianity. What Christianity did, my friend the Rev. Karel Coppock once told me, is to “transform our way of thinking about the poor and sick and create an entirely different cultural given.”
In 1986, an odd song made it to the top of Billboard’s Top 100 charts. It’s odd because it was a piano-driven song in a time of synthesizers and big guitars. The song is “The Way It Is” by Bruce Hornsby and the Range. The song talked about poverty and racism in 1980s America. The chorus starts by saying “That’s just the way it is, somethings will never change.” We get the impression that some problems are so complex that nothing will ever really change. But, the closing of the chorus tells us not to give into despair by answering “But don’t you believe them.”
I am not asking you to join a protest march. But I do hope in this new year that we who believe in a God who came to earth to be like us and to bring healing, will be a little angry at the state of the world and in the name of Jesus seek to be agents of healing. That we can someday be a world where a 12 year-old kid in Ohio, or a 13 year-old kid in Michigan won’t be judge a threat by the color of his skin.
That’s just the way it is? In Jesus Christ we say, “But don’t you believe them.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Dixon is a Methodist and decided to share he thoughts about the whole Paula Deen affair and decided to take Progressive Christians to task for their selective grace:
When it comes to discussing race, progressives have little tolerance for intolerance–past or present. We throw labels around as easily as the Pharisees threw stones at adulterous women. How dare someone not have OUR enlightened view on the world! How dare they not have been born with the innate view of justice, righteousness, and soul that we have!
So when Paula Deen’s transcript was leaked to the press last week, the script was already in place. The media would report that she used the “N” word–everybody would gasp–then the outrage would begin. She would be crucified by the New York Times, Facebook pundits, and of course, her fellow chefs. She would be tried by the court of public opinion who would judge her entire life’s work and character by the use of the “N” word in a private conversation. RACIST! we would yell. She would cry. Her business would be destroyed and progressives would declare victory.
Yet, here is the reality: Deen told the truth about her past. Knowing everything: her empire, her contracts, and sponsorships were at stake–she told the truth. She was more honest under oath than at least 3 US Presidents, several dozen Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, and Non-Denominational preachers and countless business leaders. Unlike the Pope, Joe Paterno, or Donald Trump, she acknowledged she hadn’t always gotten it right but that she and her company was committed to doing it better and were doing better.
Dixon isn’t done yet:
Progressives Christians love to talk about grace except when they have to extend it to someone who has offended their political reality. The grace that we proclaim that washes us clean and entitled us to a new life is for everybody as long as they have not offended our politics. A cursory look at the progressive schizophrenic (and hypocritical) view of who deserves grace bears this out. Anthony Weiner shows his weiner to someone other than his wife–Grace abounds. My beloved Bill Clinton gets a handy j in the oval office–Grace abounds. Barney Frank shacks up with a male prostitute–Grace Abounds. President Obama–doesn’t close Gitmo; listens to our conversations; and uses drones to kill civilians–Grace Abounds. A woman uses the N word AND admits it knowing that a great portion of her clientele is African American (I’d say Paula probably has used it more than that)–our verdict: Off with her head, her show, and her ham.
What really angers me is the fact that most of the people really tripping about Deen’s past are from the North. That’s not to say that Southern African Americans are passive about the use of racial slurs but we are also aware of the reality that mindsets don’t all change at the same pace and that if we judged every white southerner over the age of 50 by what they said in the past, we could never buy a car; house, or eat in a Waffle House ever again. Perhaps the reason that much of the civil rights establishment, the men and women who got their heads beat in on the regular, have not condemned Paula Deen is because they know the complexity of the human heart on matters of race. Moreover, they are also aware that someone’s past doesn’t predict their present. Perhaps they remembered that the same George Wallace that stood in the door at the University of Alabama saying that Blacks would never be welcomed, returned in 1985 to the campus to crown and kiss that year’s Black Homecoming Queen, my sorority sister Deidra Chestang at a time when our campus was threatening to boil over in racial turmoil. That kiss silenced the bigots that day and his words begged all of us to embrace a new South. Though we lost that game to Vanderbilt, that kiss symbolized the magnificent change that God’s grace can make in a man’s heart. Many African Americans are standing by Deen, especially those that through the years she has launched into business because they are judging her actions as well as her words.
When I first heard about this, my thoughts were: and this is shocking because….
Like Dixon, I don’t condone the use of the N-word or any racially insenstive word for that matter. But I don’t expect a nearly 70 year old woman from Georgia, who grew up in a very different South where the N-word was used a lot to somehow be a paragon of virtue. She told the truth of a past slip-up. PAST.
Having relatives and friends in various states in the South, I know it’s an odd place to a Northerner. People from South, can be friendly and caring to a fault to a person of a different color and yet still harbor some racial amimosity. To outsiders, it makes no sense. But the South is a place of contradictions and they don’t have a problem living with those oddities.
I remember Mrs. Martin a well-to-do white woman whose husband owned the local paper mill in Pineville, Louisiana. My dad and uncles did a number of jobs for her and whenever we went South, we would visit her. I remember one time she gave us a gift- a figurine of a black kid eating a watermelon and sitting on a bale of cotton. The porcalain figurine had a square hole that contained and acutal piece of cotton.
Now, this gift was offensive. I mean total racist. But she gave it to us, not out of spite, but out of love. So, while it was horrible, I understood the intent. So did my Dad.
The other thing to remember about Deen; she told the truth when asked. So, this is how we treat people who do the right thing? What this is telling people is that when it comes to having a “conversation on race,” it’s best to lie or just say nothing at all. When it comes to race, we expect perfection. Anything short of that makes you nothing more than a Grand Dragon.
Part of the condemnation of Deen has to do with the South. It’s always surprised me how many folks up north really, really hate the South. They see it as a backwards region, filled with stupid racist bumpkins and in their minds, Deen is the exhibit A.
What we seem to forget is that racism didn’t stop at the Mason Dixon line. Here in my adopted state of Minnesota, I learned shortly after I moved here that back in the 1920s, three black men were lynched in Duluth. Mind you, I said Duluth, Minnesota NOT Duluth, Georgia.
If we really care about racial reconciliation, then we have to have some grace for old Southern white women and men who may sometimes say the wrong thing. Not all of them are part of the Klan. Some of them are trying their level best.
Paula Deen said a horrible word a long time ago. I’m dissapointed by that, but I’m not going to judge her. And neither should the court of public opinion if they looked into their own hearts.