Boating With Jesus: Facing Racism

Sermon Preached at Christ Church on June 21, 2015

Today is Father’s Day. I loved my dad as I’m sure that most of you did or do as well. But Father’s Day is not part of our liturgical calendar, and today we’ve other fish to fry. So . . . we’ll remember Fathers in the prayers (good fathers and bad, and we’ll ask God to bless them and help them.)

We would be totally remiss to ignore the thing that is upper most in many of our minds, the carnage at Emmanuel AME Zion Church in Charleston, South Carolina this week. Once again, Black people dead. A White shooter.

As a White Man I cannot begin to fathom the depth and extent of Black fear, rage, and pain. Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, Beavercreek, South Charleston and on and on and on. Just the mention of any of these cities triggers a whole new wave of emotion. And, of course, these are deeply connected to the horrible legacy of the Middle Passage, slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings. Racism was built into the founding of this country and into our foundational texts. It is what Jim Wallis called, “America’s Original Sin.”

But because I’m not Black I cannot speak with any authority about what it’s like to be Black in America today. What I can speak about is my Whiteness, my power and privilege, which go largely unnoticed by many with my shade of skin.

Racism is alive and well in America, and one reason for that is because we Whites are the norm. We can go blithely about our business without a thought to our race. . . thinking that race belongs to others—to Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asians. If there’s a race problem in America it’s their problem—not ours. And that’s one of the biggest lies going! It’s called denial.

Our friends in AA know all about denial. “If I’ve got a drinking problem, then perhaps I’ll just ignore it and maybe it’ll go away. If I don’t acknowledge it, perhaps no one else will notice and it’ll disappear.” It’s like having an elephant in the living room and everyone in the family just goes about their business pretending that the elephant isn’t there. Denying an alcohol problem doesn’t mean that it isn’t real. It just makes it next to impossible to deal with it and the damage it causes to everyone in the family and the community.

Until we White folk can stand up and tell the truth, stop denying our power and privilege that whiteness buys us in this society, then we can’t solve the problem. We’ll just keep tip-toeing around the elephant.

You’ve got to have a proper and true diagnosis to treat a disease. Two aspirin and a good night’s sleep won’t fix cancer. Putting a stitch in your cheek can’t repair a broken bone. And pretending that it doesn’t exist or that it’s somebody else’s problem can’t cure racism.

We Episcopalians have something to contribute here. In many our liturgies we have confession: daily office, Eucharist, compline etc. Confession is another name for truth-telling, letting go of denial, and accepting responsibility. Truth-telling. No forgiveness without owning up to what I am and what I’ve done and what my society does. Desmond Tutu called the process for moving beyond Apartheid “Truth and Reconciliation.” That’s because he’s an Anglican and he knows how it works. You first make your confession, tell the truth, and only then can we talk about repair, forgiveness, and absolution.

So we Whites have some truth to start telling: truth about our history, truth about power and privilege, truth about our national symbols and icons. To hear some people talk about the Civil War, it was an unpleasantness about “states’ rights” and not about ending slavery.

We just had Memorial Day and soon we’ll celebrate the 4th of July, but we don’t talk much about Juneteenth. It wasn’t until the middle of June, 1865, (June 19th to be precise, nearly two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the end of the Civil War) that a Union ship pulled into the port at Galveston, Texas, with the news that the slaves were free. Juneteenth is the annual celebration of the end of slavery in America, and White America is largely oblivious.

We hear a lot about the Constitution but not much about Blacks counting as only 3/5ths of a human being. We hear all about the “flag that was still there” in a battle with the British, but not about how the bluecoated, U.S. Calvary rode behind that same flag massacring every man, woman, and child in a number of Native American villages. There are different stories and different experiences in this land depending on who we were and where we were. We need to hear those stories!

We have to start talking seriously about denial: denial about racism, denial about global climate change, denial about our militarism, denial of the downside of capitalism—all of which damage and destroy the poor, the non-White, and the weak to a far greater extent than they do the White folk on this planet. Thank God that Pope Francis refused to keep silent any longer about climate change, and took up the truth-telling this week in his latest encyclical.

One very astute television commentator said the other evening:

I have one job and it’s a pretty simple job. I come in in the morning and we look at the news and we write jokes about it…But I didn’t do my job today, so I apologize. I’ve got nothing for you in terms of jokes and sounds…I honestly have nothing other than just sadness, once again, that we have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other and the nexus of a just gaping racial wound that will not heal, yet we pretend doesn’t exist. –Jon Stewart

Racism is structural. That is, it’s built not only into our history but our institutions: education, legal system, economics, prison system, gerrymandered electoral districts, the placement of polling stations and hours of operation, our politics, and even in our churches where, as some have observed, the most segregated hour of every week is on Sunday morning.

About the boat. The old question goes, “What’s the difference between a leaky fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee and the Titanic?” The answer: “It depends on who you’ve got in the boat with you.”

Is Jesus in our boat? I don’t mean that in some simplistic way that He will calm all the storms of life and that no one will drown or be shot to death. I mean it in the profound sense that when Jesus is among us we are in the presence of the eternal.

We’re all in this boat together: this “fragile earth, our island home:” Black and White, male and female, young and old, gay and straight. We are in it together. Our Lord wants us to resolve the things that divide us, that damage our souls and destroy our neighborhoods.

I call upon this congregation, partner congregations, and the wider community of which we’re a part to stop denying issues that matter and keeping our silence because they’re hard or controversial. We have to start talking about them. I commit myself to provide opportunities for those conversations. This is the work of the church. And in some ways the church and communities of faith may be the only places where we can have those conversations. Let it begin with us.

So come, let’s go boating with Jesus. Let’s set out on this grand expedition in the name of The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.