Interrupting Your Regularly Scheduled Service

I feel the need to interrupt the regularly scheduled service of daily practices to share my sermon from Sunday. I am convinced that we are at such a time that my tribe, white Euro American, cisgender, educated, and wealthy need to get out of the way of the progress of others. Especially with regard to the treatment of African Americans in our society. It is not okay. It just isn't. We need to address our privilege and dismantle systems of oppression to the best of our ability now. People's lives are at stake.

A sermon on Mark 4:35-41

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Notes: Prayers of the People were "The Doors of the Church Are Still Open": A Litany for Use in Worship Service on Sunday June 21,2015 developed by the AME Council of Bishops to remember the massacre at Mother Emmanuel AME in Charleston, SC. We named all the names and prayed the AME prayer. I will post this litany on Saturday.

Children’s Time is using the illustration of trying to build a structure on a table using Dominoes. I will shake the table occasionally disrupting the Domino building. Additionally, I will throw some marbles in the works to symbolize the disruption that takes place with changing laws regarding mass incarceration, civil rights, and voting rights, and lastly offering a small amount of legos with a tiny lego building board that should allow at least a little progress to happen. Image: a destabilized foundation.

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This has been one of those weeks. I planned this liturgy last Saturday with the primary news story echoing in my mind being Rachel Dolezal. Then I attended a Juneteenth celebration on detention grounds with displays of slavery artifacts that made me weep. That was the afternoon of the 18th. Then on the evening of the 18th, I heard the news about the shooting in Emmanuel AME church.

This has a tough week for African Americans in the US. Each and every event that happened seemed to be an expression of destabilizing effect. Making it more and more difficult to build a structure with a sure foundation as we saw during our children’s time.

Sometimes, life can be like that. But occasionally, we get this Lego piece and we can build something strong. Like the United Hood March that I participated in on the 19th. A beginning to something new and hopeful.

But it takes courage.

When I was a teenager, I lived in North Carolina. Not only did I live in North Carolina, I lived in the smallest incorporated city in the whole state. Mt. Pleasant. It is about an hour north of Charlotte. We moved there from the Boulder, Colorado area. So it was a little bit like whiplash. I went from the most liberal and inclusive area to a conservative and exclusive geography. I was originally from New York and I had moved around enough that I was not bothered with moving. After all, I had been able to make friends everywhere I went.  I am not exactly shy, you see! I did not expect a problem. But there was. I was the target of anti-northern or anti-Yankee sentiment. Enough so that it destabilized my foundation and my circle of friends became very small. I felt like my heart was crying out to whoever would listen, “Do you not care that I am perishing?”

Over time, I became aware that on my bus route going to school there was a very clear delineation that those who lived east of Mt. Pleasant Road were very much white and those who lived west and south were African American. Not only that, but the homes of the African Americans were within sight of leftover slave shacks in a field. And not only that, but the Chief of Police was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. And not only that, we were taught that the Civil War was a war over state’s rights issues and was properly called the War of Northern Aggression.

One day, we went to Raleigh, North Carolina, for a state-wide bowling tournament. While there, we went to the state Capitol for a quick tour. When we walked passed the Governor’s mansion, there were leaflets littering the ground. I picked one up. I was horrified to find little pamphlets of racist literature. But instead of throwing that pamphlet away, I read every word. I felt I needed to know what people were saying. It was horrible.

After that, I started reading the literature of Toni Morrison, African American author of the Bluest Eye, Beloved, and others. The movie, The Color Purple came out, and I wept.

When I was almost 19, North Carolina reinstated the death penalty after it had been struck down by the Supreme Court in 1972. North Carolina reinstated the law an 1977. And then started the killing machine back up in 1984, five days before my 19th birthday. I started collecting news clippings of people put to death in North Carolina. I probably still have the file somewhere. It would have the aged clippings of the names James Hutchins, Velma Barfield, John Rook and others.

Of course, I had no idea what to do with all of this angst that was building up. In high school, I was too fearful and too destabilized to do anything about it. But no more. I will not be afraid.

Say it with me, I will notbe afraid.  Again, I will notbe afraid. 

Actually, that’s not really correct. I am afraid sometimes. But courage is acting on your convictions in the face of fear. So I will … have courage.  Say it with me, I will … have courage.

After this, when I was 20, I moved to South Carolina for a time. I visited Charleston and saw the slave auction blocks. I went to the main cemetery. I saw the abject poverty that was the black part of town and the mansions that were on the water front. I knew something was wrong. I could see it. But I had no idea what to do about it.

Then I returned to North Carolina and there was a Klan march in the town my parents lived in. And my aunt and uncle who had moved down from New York were harassed by neighbors for being Yankees.

I did not go to church growing up and had no community to help me make sense of this. But, looking back, it seems that God was shaping me for the work that I am doing. Isn’t it funny how that works out?

My young self was like those disciples floundering out on the Sea of Galilee wondering what the heck is going on? Why wasn’t someone doing something about this? How can our leadership possibly be sleeping through all that is going wrong? Seriously!

Sometimes those days seem so long ago, then we enter into a time such as this. A time where black bodies are shot down from behind, where girls at a pool party are slammed to the ground, and where choke holds are administered unto death.

It is very disruptive. It shakes the earth and seas become relentlessly stormy. But we can get through it with courage.

I will … have courage.  I will … have courage.

Briefly summing up the scripture, we have Jesus and his disciples doing a lot of work with a lot of people. Feeding of the 5,000 then the casting out of demon and then the parables which he probably had to explain 5,000 times! Jesus is tired and wants a little break. So he proposes going to the other side across the Sea of Galilee.

So they venture out, leave the crowd behind, face the physical challenge of a windstorm and waves. The disciples accuse Jesus of not caring and Jesus replies, “Peace! Be still!” I wonder if he was really talking to the wind and sea of if he was talking to the disciples. Then Jesus turns to the disciples and asks them, “Why are you afraid? Where is your faith?”

The disciples then have a moment of awe and think, “Who is this?”

I believe that this piece of scripture perfectly illustrates what we are to do when we are confronted with the destabilizing, destructive forces of racism.

Rachel Dolezal was in the news cycle continuously until the shooting in Charleston. She is the Euro American woman who claimed an African American identity. Her story made me sad. She did amazing work and it will all be washed away because she was unable to confront her own privilege and to be an ally.

Privilege is gained from being in a community where people look a lot like you and have similar beliefs. Being “one of the crowd” gives you privilege. Privilege is an advantage you are given but that you have not earned. Such as whiteness or maleness.

Privilege is deconstructed when you purposefully seek to go and surrender your heart to the experiences of people that are not like you. When you step back and let other voices lead. It is an uncomfortable place. It is deconstructive and shakes your foundation. It is a stormy sea.

In that uncomfortable place full of fear, you leave behind your ordinary problems and enter a place of challenge. A challenge to your body of stress and fright. And a challenge of other people’s reactions. The storms of institutional oppression battering bodies and spirits.

This is where you have a choice of living in fear or stepping out in courage.

I will … have courage.  I will … have courage.

In courage, you can respond by hearing the voice of those calling for a change in the stormy system and join in by declaring to institutional powers, “Peace! Be still!”

I was greatly heartened by the United Hood March that took place on June 19th. First, June 19th is the day of celebration for African American independence. They did not receive freedom on July 4th. It is June 19th, 1865 that the message of freedom was received at the last slave stronghold in Galveston, Texas. It took two and a half years for the news to spread to every city in the nation. This celebration of independence is memorialized as Juneteenth and this year is the 150th anniversary. That is a big deal.

This proclamation was delivered:

"The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer."

The United Hood March happened on Juneteenth. The United Hood March was organized by competing gang members to declare a new time in Seattle. There was not one article about this peaceful event in the Seattle Times. Why? Could it be because there was no violence? Because it was organized by the people for the people? These are the voices of Jesus, I am convinced! Calling out “Peace, Be Still!”  Could the Seattle Times be afraid?

Shelly Secrest of the NAACP, said this during the march:  “This is more than a moment, this is a movement. As we celebrate Juneteenth, we have to reflect on the lives of those who are here. What has taken place in the last 150 years, how do we honor our grandmothers and our grandfathers, those who struggled in resistance…”

We must join ourselves in a movement to eradicate privilege and racism.

I will … have courage.  I will … have courage.

Why do you imagine that the disciples were fearful in the storm? Why the Seattle Times would be afraid of sharing the message of gang members?

I believe that they think it is dangerous. That they are in a position to be destroyed. But not only would they be destroyed, their leadership would also be destroyed. That is the very definition of acting out of privilege. Choosing to do nothing because it may threaten your leadership.

But there is incredible grace in the moment where peace and stillness are called out. Incredible grace in seeing rivals turn their swords into plowshares. Incredible grace in walking with people who have been so battered and so destabilized but still have the courage to keep moving forward. How can we do any less?

At the end of the march, we arrived at Myrtle Edwards Park and went to the beach front. I stayed at the back throughout the march and at the beach because while I am an ally and want to show up, this is not about me. It is about being in solidarity. At the park, they shared final speeches, prayer, and poetry. They said the names of all those who have been killed in recent times and linked their names to those who have been killed in the past. I was greatly moved.

At last, the march and memorial were complete and people went home. Not one person was hurt. Not one moment of violence occurred. Not that some didn’t try. Of course, the white anarchists came covered in black with black scarves, black glasses, and black hoodies, carrying black flags. They tried to instigate violence. But the organizers, the ex-gang members, stepped in and stopped the anarchists from violent acts.  And when a drunkard joined the march, shouting epithets, they helped him find his way out of the march without even touching him.

That was amazing grace.  Flanked by police in the front, the back, and all sides. Yelled at by bystanders that declared All lives matter in the face of the chant black lives matter. In opposition to horns honking because their drive home was disrupted. They maintained peace and stillness in the midst of busy overreaction. The powers calmed the angry seas.

That is courage. Calmness in the face of opposition.

I will … have courage.  I will … have courage.

When Christ calmed the seas, the disciples were filled with awe and wonder. But they were also filled with questions. The primary question being, “Who is this?”

Most of us here fall in the category of ally. The task of an ally is not to over-identify with the oppressed minority, but to walk with and to support them. Entering into this space is often destabilizing. It is like being in a boat on a stormy sea. Learning how to define yourself not in terms of the dominant culture, but in terms of Kingdom values of love, mercy, justice, and humility.

During the process of becoming an ally, you should question yourself and identify your places of privilege.

I am a white, cisgender, euro-centric American who lives a heteronormative lifestyle. I am highly educated and I hold a position of power as a clergy member.

Last year, I learned that being optimistic also gives privilege. If I can live my life with optimism and not worrying about what power is around the corner ready to interrogate me or detain me, I have privilege. That lesson starts in my whiteness, but it goes beyond it.

Learning your privilege is an unending process and it can be destabilizing. But I believe that it is the most important work that we as allies can undertake. For it is only after we have been destabilized that we are able to hear the call to be still! be peace!

But I will … have courage. 

I will … have courage to confront oppression.

I will … have courage to confront my own privilege.

I will … have courage to confront the powers and principalities that bind love, mercy, justice, and humility.

With the strength of Christ, I will … have courage. 

May Christ have mercy on us all.

Amen.

by toby at flickr.com CC (BY-NC-SA)
by toby
at flickr.com
CC (BY-NC-SA)

4 comments

  1. jrcowles said on June 23, 2015
    While I recognize the validity of everything said about privilege, I always hesitate to get into discussions of privilege, because it seems to me that those who are most UNconscious of privilege are those who ... are endowed with the privilege of ... DEFINING privilege. This insight and the consequent hesitation to engage in such discussions stems from a discussion -- "confrontation" would be a better word -- I had in Sharon Callahan's leadership class at STM. (I forget the name of the course, but it was required of all STM students.) Anyway, during part of one class, we did a "privilege walk": take one step forward if you're white; one if you're male; one if you're native-born American; ... etc. ... At the end of 6 or 8 cycles, the people who were ahead were the most privileged. During the discussion after we all sat back down, I raised my hand. I asked why those were the ONLY parameters defining privilege. I said that, all my life, I had fought a problem with my weight and body type. I was always the fat kid in school, and that, even as an adult, the people who were privileged were the people who were, not necessarily hard-core athletic, but who were at least height-weight proportional. Why was weight / body type / athletic ability not included as a defining parameter of privilege? I guess I was naive, because I did not expect the explosion that followed. "Who are you to equate being fat with having non-white skin?" Etc., etc., etc. I pointed out that I was not implying any value judgments, only that privilege is defined according to any number of criteria. Then, while all that was going on, my key insight dawned on me: that being privileged to determine the parameters / criteria of privilege is ITSELF a privilege ... of which the privilegED are no less unconscious than white, affluent folks are of the privilege that accompanies whiteness and affluence. I made the mistake of voicing that. The class dissolved into a talk-over-and-shouting contest not unlike a Bill O'Reilly debate on Fox News. When it calmed down a bit, I pointed out -- in a civil volume and tone of voice -- that the people -- including Sharon -- who objected to my point were reacting with the kind of defensive vehemence I had seen from affluent, white people whose privilege is pointed out to them for the first time. Then I left the class. Because of that and similar / analogous experiences, I have ever since viewed STM as a de facto Pharisee institution. Call that Insight Number Two.
  2. jrcowles said on June 23, 2015
    Oops! I just realized that my reply could be interpreted to mean that you are doing what Sharon did: arrogating to yourself the privilege of defining privilege. That is NOT what I meant. Your post sparked the memory of that experience, but never came across to me as another instance of it. Shudda made that clearer!
    1. Terri said on June 23, 2015
      There were definitely problems with Ministry in a Multicultural Context when it came to identifying privilege. We were lucky enough, in my class, to have the stereotypical privileged dude - white, wealthy, body normative, educated, blah, blah, blah. Since he was definitely "the dude" he used his privilege to say over and over, "I'm just a privileged white guy but...." It was totally fascinating. There were definitely people that were hurt in my class by her. She outed a friend of mine and her abrasive personality damaged a severe introvert in the class. She used her privilege and power to push people to ... I don't even know what. Sigh.
    2. Terri said on June 23, 2015
      Also why I talk about things such as personality type (I could take over the world), intelligence, and optimism.

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