A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 29, 2018
Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey
Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
Our lesson today from the book of the Acts of the Apostles tells the story of the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch. In America, the thing that most people notice first is that the eunuch is black, coming as he is from sub-Saharan Africa. Of course, that’s not referenced in the text—the description is of a powerful court official of a faraway kingdom, outside of the Roman Empire; a person scholarly and devout, asking hard questions of the scriptural text of the prophet Isaiah.
The issue of race is an American issue, a modern issue, emerging from a concept that arose in European writing in the seventeenth century. I will be away when the vestry has anti-racism training at the end of May – for a happy reason, I want to add – my middle daughter is getting married. But because I won’t be with you then, I want to share with you in this sermon some of my experiences and reflections on race and racism.
Most Episcopal churches have a predominantly white membership. I have spent most of my ministry in parishes, which, though they often sincerely expressed a desire to be more diverse and inclusive, were slightly more white in membership than the surrounding community. A few years ago, I was asked to be the regular supply priest at a congregation in the south Bronx. We felt very welcomed and included in that congregation. Almost everyone’s family originally had come from the Caribbean. Everyone, except me and Paula, was black. I learned a lot in my two years with them.
Racism … is actually difficult to recognize when you are its beneficiary. As I grew up, everyone expected me to do well in school and to be successful in a career. I learned that we all had rights and, that in a free country, we could exercise those rights without fear. I became used to being respected and trusted, given the opportunity to speak my mind, and the benefit of the doubt if I didn’t get things quite right. I was aware that was not the experience of everyone, in particular persons of color, but it was a little hard to grasp: didn’t everyone get a fair and equal chance? About four years ago, a group of us quietly spoke the truth about some serious concerns, fully expecting to be taken seriously and brought into a conversation to solve the problems. I won’t go into the specifics, but I suddenly experienced not being trusted, having my motives and interpretations of facts dismissed, and being cast out from all influence and receiving no respect. This was happening at the same time that our country’s attention was focused on the much more important, literally life-and-death events in Ferguson, Missouri. I realized that what I experienced in being not respected or trusted, in a really limited and temporary way, was analogous to the lifelong experience of millions in our country: chronically not trusted, nor given respect as a matter of course, experiencing one sort of demeaning treatment or other, and having the benefit of the doubt given to those who demeaned them. It was one job and a couple of years for my colleagues and myself, but for millions, that is their everyday life.
It is easy enough to see violence, and bad words, and over-the-top racist nastiness. For Episcopalians, that generally happens far away and outside of our social group. We can safely be outraged, condemn bad language and bad actions, even pass resolutions or send money, then pat ourselves on the back, go back to business as usual, and everything stays the same. But what is difficult, is to really see racism; the underlying and not-often-thought-about presumption that what is nice, safe and normal is what is white; therefore, what is not white is suspect, unsafe and probably not quite as worthwhile.
What’s problematic about that is the behavior that results: not taking people seriously; expecting less from them; patronizing… Women sometimes experience this sort of thing from men… or so I’ve been told. Everyone at my church in the Bronx had experienced it, including the wealthiest, best educated and most conservative.
To be fair, most people’s lives are a struggle. Comparing miseries doesn’t help, most people experience their own difficulty and that is bad enough. They have a hard time imagining how they would get by and be able to properly take care of their children, or get to the point that they could have children, if anything of significance was taken away from them. And most people try to be good and try to find a way to see themselves and their families and friends as fundamentally good – that’s how people survive.
The problem, put simply, is that the legacy of chattel slavery is indigestible for white Americans. I’m convinced that the concept of race as we have inherited it really developed from the need to rationalize and make morally okay, the practice of keeping people of African ancestry in permanent bondage. That had evolved into a perception of economic necessity, so the rationale became that these people were enslaved because their race made it appropriate or even necessary for them to be slaves. Slavery itself was legally abolished more than 150 years ago, but its legacy in racism continues.
It is difficult to see how an ordinary guy whose family never owned a plantation or who doesn’t have a family fortune going back to the slave trade profits from racism. Believe me, it’s hard for this guy, meaning me. But the benefit of unacknowledged privilege, of easier access to pathways to success, to safety and education that can be taken for granted—that is real. The problem is, that even with those benefits things are not always easy and when you think about change. … Change is good, change the bad things, but the problem is, well… change. Change knocks our security free from its anchor, it might endanger things that are important to us, we might lose what we don’t want to give up, and if you press this too far, the story of how we are good people might need to be changed.
So the problem with race and the Episcopal Church is that on the one hand we can’t afford to treat one category of people differently than another—as the Epistle of James says, “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord, Jesus Christ?” Yet it will require much change, not just in a few rules, but in our relationships and expectations of one another.
What I want is for those of us who are privileged to listen to what people who suffer from racism have to say. It will be only through careful listening and working hard to change our attitudes and our behavior that we ever have a hope of ending the evil that is racism. It’s a long process; perhaps our grandchildren will be able to explain to their grandchildren how hard the process was. And, let us pray that those babies will have a hard time understanding that.
Racism is a process of denial. Denial makes everything slippery, everything is hard to change—you just get yessed to death and nothing changes. The Episcopal Church extends denial beyond questions of race into most corners of its life. Perhaps if we can be forthright in speaking with one another on issues related to race, we can also be forthright about priorities about mission, about providing ministry for our churches, about the responsibility of laity, and about how the ministry of all baptized people can be effective in this world. The Gospel challenges us all to change, to be more welcoming, to live in the overwhelming grace of God, and to not keep it to ourselves. The Gospel challenges Calvary Church as well as every congregation to change, and that can be frightening—yet no more frightening than the alternative—to become rigid and blind, and cease to be.
Hear again from the First Letter of John:
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; … We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.