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The text for the sermon and resources for anti-racism work are below.
Rev. Sarah Buteux
Trinity Sunday, Year A
2 Corinthians 13:5-14
I need to begin in 1st century Corinth this morning, because I don’t know where to begin with 21st Century America right now. We’ll get there, but I’m going to need to come at all this sideways…tell the truth but tell it slant, if you will.
Instead, let me begin by telling you that what you just heard was the end of a letter, a letter written 2000 years ago. Now a letter that old might appear to be completely irrelevant to this moment we find ourselves in, but I don’t think it is. Because, friends, Paul wrote this letter to a community in crisis, a community that had fractured, a community experiencing deep division.
These divisions were caused, in large part, by the fact that this church Paul had founded in Corinth was a very diverse church in terms of class, race, and even belief. Corinth was a wealthy trade city, utterly destroyed and then re-colonized by the Romans. It was a place where they sent recently freed slaves and displaced peasants to live right alongside wealthy merchants and people of means.
And this diversity of life experience, privilege, and opportunity caused some serious tension within the church. You may remember that this is the congregation Paul chastised in his first letter for holding communion suppers where the rich brought their own food to the potluck, sat apart from the poorer members of the congregation, and then refused to share. Yeah, it wasn’t a good look. Their behavior was completely contrary to the purpose of communion, indeed to the entire way of Jesus, and Paul called them on it.
The church in Corinth was also, like every other church of that time, very young and very new. They were all still figuring out what it meant to be followers of Christ, and Paul was not the only one teaching them. Apparently there were other apostles who cycled through, apostles who were more eloquent and compelling, and they didn’t have a lot of love for Paul. They had their own ideas about Jesus, what people should believe, how people should behave. All of which led to factions and disagreements and the sort of cruelty, hurt, and alienation that can destroy a community.
And yet, in spite of all the disagreement, disappointment, and disillusionment, Paul is not ready to give up on the Corinthians. He longs to be reconciled with them and for them to be reconciled with one another. He longs for peace. (Don’t we all?) But I chose this reading out of the lectionary, because Paul understands that there can be no peace without there first being an honest reckoning.
And so he closes his letter by saying: “[E]xamine yourselves.”
Paul understand there can be no peace without us first conducting “a fearless moral inventory,” of our own souls, to borrow a phrase from AA.
So he says, “test yourselves.”
Paul understands there can be no peace without there first being an acknowledgment of where people are at and how we got here, an understanding of the pain people are in and the harm that has been done, whether people meant to cause that harm or not.
So he says, judge for yourself “whether you are living in faith.” Are you living as if Christ is in you? Are you living as Christ would have you live?
Are you loving your neighbor as yourself?
Well then, how about your enemy?
Are you loosening the bonds of injustice, breaking the yoke of oppression, lifting up the lowly, setting the captives free?
Are you seeking out those on the margins?
Healing those who hurt?
Are you good news for the poor and hope for the hungry?
Are you living as if Jesus Christ is in you, or not?
Paul calls them back to the basics, away from the high falutin theologies of his rivals and back to where the rubber of faith meets the road. And friends, I may be projecting here, but I bet the people of Corinth hated this part of his letter.
They were good church people after all. I’m sure they just wanted to do the right thing but now they’re caught between Paul and this other band of apostles and they don’t know what is right anymore. Now, because Paul insists on making an issue of it, they are going to have to choose sides; which means they’re going to hurt or disappoint someone no matter what they do.
And worst of all, some people are going to have to admit that they were wrong. They are going to have to humbly acknowledge the damage they have done to the people they didn’t agree with or understand. They’re going to need to seek forgiveness, and make amends, meaning that things are going to get a lot messier in this community, maybe even uglier, before they can get better. And I bet that put a lot of people off.
I’m sure there were members of the community who just wanted to smooth things over…get everyone to calm down and relax, let bygones be bygones, say whatever needed to be said to appease some without offending others, so they could all just get back to business as usual, because that’s so often what church people do. Really, what most people would rather do.
Most of us want everybody to get along, even if it’s just on the surface. We’d rather people be polite, even if they’re lying through their teeth. We want everything to be ok, even if it’s not, because open conflict makes us so deeply uncomfortable. Because deep soul searching is de-stabilizing, and if you love the church you’re in, or the community, the life you’re leading or the place you call home, the last thing you want to do is rock the boat. I understand why we avoid conflict.
I understand why we avoid the hard conversations. I understand the great lengths we will go to in order to keep up appearances – not just the appearance of calm, but how we appear to others and even how we appear to ourselves, because I do it too.
But I also understand why Paul will have none of it. He’s up against these other teachers. The community is either going to choose to follow them or choose to follow him. If they choose to follow the other apostles he’s going to look like a fool, and he says, you know what, I don’t care. I don’t care how I look and neither should you.
All I care about is that you do the right thing. “We pray to God,” he says, “that you may not do anything wrong—not that we may appear to have met the test, but that you may do what is right,” even if it seems like we failed. Even if it makes us look weak or foolish. Just do the right thing.
Put yourselves to the test.
Ask yourself: are you living like Christ?
But that is so hard, my friends, especially in times like these. It is so hard because when we do that we invariably realize that the answer is no. Not quite. Not yet. We may appear to all the world like really good people. Indeed we want to appear to all the world like really good people and we put a lot of energy into that appearance, so much energy that we have none left over for the really deep work we need to do if we truly want to become more like Jesus.
Ironically, our desire to be perceived as good, by ourselves and others, is often what gets in the way of us truly becoming good, because it blinds us to the places where we need to change. It blinds us to the places where we are wrong and complicit in systems of abuse and oppression because that larger truth doesn’t fit into the story we want to believe about ourselves.
And no where do I see this more glaringly right now in myself, my life, my society, my institutions, my white friends and my family, even parts of my church, then in our conversations about racial injustice and white privilege. And from here on out I’m going to ask the people of color in our congregation to bear with me as I speak primarily to the white people who I pray are still listening.
By now, if you are a white person who wants to be part of the solution, I trust you’ve picked up on the message that you have to do the hard work of educating yourself to be actively anti-racist. But I find that for a lot of us, the work of educating ourselves is especially hard because we already want to be right.
We want to be on the right side. We don’t want to offend anyone or say the wrong thing or make things worse. We don’t want to be perceived, by ourselves or anyone else, as part of the problem. We don’t want to be racist. We don’t want anyone to think we are racist. And that desire to appear right can stop us from doing the real work, the hard work we need to do, because once you start, you will realize that you aren’t in the right because there is nothing right about this place where we find ourselves.
“The problem,” according to Scott Woods, “is that white people see racism as conscious hate, when racism is bigger than that. Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people’s expense, whether whites know it or like it or not. Racism is an insidious cultural disease.
It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you. Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another. And so on. So while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe.
It’s not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It’s a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world. It is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it. I know it’s hard work,” he says, “but it’s the price you pay for owning everything.”
Being anti-racist is hard work for white people, because as we examine ourselves, test ourselves, push ourselves to learn more, we don’t like what we see. We don’t like how we appear to ourselves or others. I don’t care how liberal or loving, educated or woke you think you are, once you start doing the work there will be moments when you will realize just how woefully ignorant and out of touch, cruel and insensitive you have been.
You will say the wrong things. Your unconscious bias will be revealed. You’ll come face to face with the racism that exists within you, like a stain upon your heart, because your heart has been steeped in this system your whole life.
Friends, if you start doing this work you’re going to realize that even if you never meant to harm anyone and would never want to harm anyone, that your whiteness is harmful. In a country built upon white supremacy and designed to maintain white supremacy, my whiteness is harmful. I am part of the problem, whether I want to be or not. My privilege, unearned and unasked for, causes others to be kept down and it will continue to do so until I can learn to use that privilege, leverage that privilege, to dismantle the very system I benefit from.
Which means I’m going to need to rock the boat until it changes course. I’m going to need to rock the boat until it is has righted itself enough to hold everyone else as well as it holds me.
Dear ones, I know how much we want peace in our streets, our country, our hearts right now. I know how much we want to see reconciliation and healing in our communities. I know how deeply we long for a country where everyone can breathe. I know we want it for our people as much as Paul wanted it for the people of Corinth, but peace will not come without an honest examining of ourselves and that will not happen if we care more about appearing right than learning to do what is right.
Doing the work will not be pretty. Owning up to our faults and our weaknesses, our blind spots and the damage we’ve done or been complicit in will be humbling. It will be hard. It will hurt. It will disrupt our lives and destabilize our communities. But there can be no peace around us until we’ve made peace within us through confession and an honest assessment of who we are and what we can yet do to make a difference. May we live as if Christ in us. Amen.
Resources and Opportunities for Combatting Systemic Racism.
PRAYER FOR THOSE IN SOLIDARITY WITH PROTESTS
from the Episcopal Diocese of Washington
Loving God, in Jesus you were bullied, beaten, and killed. You are always on the side of those whose souls and bodies are mistreated. While I cannot be present with my body at the protests right now, I stand with all those who stand up for justice. Uphold them. Keep them safe. Grant us the courage to stand beside all who are harmed by the violence of racism with our bodies and in our prayers. Give us the words to speak out for those whose breath has been taken. Enkindle in our hearts the fire of your love, that together we might end the scourge of racism that has influenced our nation. Amen.
Join us for vespers tomorrow night. In solidarity with The Poor People’s Campaign you are invited to fast tomorrow, Monday June 8th, two weeks after George Floyd’s death, which will culminate at 5:00pm. We will use our vespers time to then join the PPC for 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence in honor of the time George Floyd had the literal knee of the state on his neck.
Take the pledge to participate in a National Moment of Silence in Honor of George Floyd and other victims of police brutality on Monday at 5pm EST. We will conclude our time with prayer.
Sharable Anti-Racism Resource Guide:
Lenny Duncan, “Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US”
Ibram X. Kendi, “How to Be an Anti-Racist”
Reni Eddo-Lodge, “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race”
Layla F. Saad, “Me and White Supremacy”
Ijeoma Oluo, “So You want to Talk About Race”
Robin DiAngelo and Michael Eric Dyson “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism”
James Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time”
Michelle Alexander, “The New Jim Crow”
“Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” Beverley Daniel Tatum
Read with Kids
‘The Hate U Give’
“If Beal Street Could Talk”
“12 years a Slave”
Who to Follow on Social Media:
This list was compiled (and is being shared with permission) by Sarah Bessey.
- Austin Channing Brown – subscribe to her newsletter The Roll Call right now as she has daily “homework” for her readers. Her book “I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness” is glorious and necessary.
- Osheta Moore – Osheta is doing bold, peace-making work right now with her series Dear White Peacemakers available to everyone on social media for free. She is wading directly into discipling white people in peacemaking and it is a GIFT. She also wrote “Shalom Sistas: Living Wholeheartedly in a Brokenhearted World.” (I wrote the Foreword for this book.)
- Be the Bridge with Latasha Morrison. This discipleship group is doing incredible work in churches and communities towards racial healing and reconciliation. Latasha is such a phenomenal leader and her organization has developed excellent resources. If you’re not sure about white supremacy, start with their four-lesson whiteness intensive plan to understand the basic tenets in order to better engage with good conversations. If you are in any form of spiritual community, this would an excellent resource for your church leadership.
- Lisa Sharon Harper – We’ve hired Lisa and her Freedom Road organization to consult with us at Evolving Faith about diversity and inclusion and justice within our organization. If you want to bring someone in to train and lead your staff or organization, I’d highly recommend her. Also we’ll be reading Lisa’s book “The Very Good Gospel” as part of our Book Club at the end of the year, too.
- Black Coffee with White Friends is an Instagram account that is doing deep work on that platform that is hopeful and strong. So grateful for Marcie’s voice and faithfulness.
- Rozella Haydée White is a spiritual life and transformational leadership coach and creator. She’d be a wonderful woman to hire. Check out her video here to get an idea for why I love her.
- Alicia T. Crosby – Alicia has been working with us in a chaplaincy role at Evolving Faith to create spiritual formation and care opportunities for people of colour. Her leadership has been phenomenal. I am so grateful for her work and witness. She is engaged in local activism and you can follow her on Twitter to find opportunities to support her work.
- Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes is also someone who has been part of the Evolving Faith community and I cannot tell you how much her book “I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision for Racial Reconciliation” meant to me. I languished too long in white-centred feminism and this book – along with Dr. Wil Gafney’s work – deeply transformed me. I could listen to her preach all day long and would always sit at her feet.