Readings for this Sunday:
2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a | Psalm 51:1-12 | Ephesians 4:25-5:2 | John 6:35, 41-51
“I am racist”. Those are the words with which began a story of hope. A story of reconciliation. A story of community. A story of God’s deep and healing work in the world.
A pastor I know was visiting with a member of her congregation when he told her: “I have had this realization…..it’s hard to say…..but I realize I am racist”. “I am racist: many of the things I say and do, many of the things I take for granted, and choose not to do come from an agreement that I made somewhere down the line. This agreement says that people who are not white are different in frightening ways from people who are white”. “I don’t question this the way I should. I am scared to admit it. I want it not to be the case, but it’s true. It’s inside of me and I am not sure what to do about it”. “Can you help me? What do I do now?”
I remember my first class on race and white privilege at Seattle University. I noticed going in that there was tangible tension on the part of the teachers. I realized after a few days that they were girding themselves for the class. You see they knew from previous experience that these classes are hard to teach because the class is overwhelmingly white and generally speaking when we are asked to look at how we have contributed and still contribute to systems that hurt people of color at best we react with sadness and guilt and paralysis. At worse we get defensive and start to bite back.
“It is not my fault,” the white man shot back. “It’s not my fault that when I go into a bank for a loan I have higher chance of it being granted than my black counterpart…..if that’s even true!”
“How am I to blame?” asks a mom, “if my white child supposedly has a better chance at getting through a first interview than her Hispanic friend. Is she meant to give up the chance she also earned?”
“What was I do when the cashier accepted my check but wouldn’t take the check of the black women behind me?”
“This is so sad and so overwhelming – and I have no idea how to be now.”
“How is it anything to do with me that our history books do not contain the historical contributions of people of color?”
“What do you want me to do?”
“I have never experienced anything like this…I’m just not sure it’s true”
Who knows how David justified his taking of Bethsheba or if he even tried to do so. He has been king for a while: the one with the power – overwhelming power. And he has experienced how easy, how normal, how expected even it really is to get what you need when you hold the power. So why not take Bethsheba – this object that he wants? It’s not hard for him to prevent her husband from doing anything about it.
It is so very hard for those who are used to getting what they need to see and accept the ways in which society’s structures benefit them and all the ways that access is denied to those of less power – those who are the wrong color, wrong sexuality, wrong economic status, wrong whatever. Some Nathan’s would help. People who can help see some of the things that position and power keep in the dark. Some trust might help: trusting that what they say is true and helpful. But if we are going to use the Nathan and David story as a guide and I think we should we also need to be very careful. Nathan goes on to condemn David. It is true that if we do not do something about these structures of blinkered power then horrible things will ensue for everyone. Consequences, natural consequences, for injustice are real. But if the story of Jesus has anything to tell us it is not true that God will do anything but accept and hold and love us as we look for better ways to move forward. The story of my pastor friend is more helpful at this point and has more to reveal about the way of Jesus than this story of David and Nathan.
“I am racist” said this beloved congregation member. Something had happened to bring him to this and he was asking his pastor, someone that he trusted: what do I do next. She didn’t judge him or imagine she was any different than he was. She didn’t tell him all the reasons he should feel guilty and what awful things would befall him. She knew that we are in this together, we each have things that we need to uncover. She knew that Jesus is about rejoicing in a deep way and loving in a real way in these moments. So she thanked him and held what he had to say with reverence and awe. She assured him he was not alone, that God was at work loving and claiming him and then told him. “There is someone I want you to meet.”
She contacted a friend, a person of color whom she knew wanted to share her experience and work towards racial reconciliation and she asked her if she would spend some time with this other. She said yes and that’s what they did. They spent time together. They are in the process of listening to each other’s stories, digging down a little bit, listening and uncovering what they did not know and what might be next for them. Just the two of them – getting to know each other in some real and vulnerable ways. Listening to the stories that made them who they were. Accepting the truth and the value of these stories for both of them and looking together for a way forward, a way that is different and healing.
It started with a realization, a willingness to speak that realization to someone who could hold it and then a willingness to meet and trust and listen to those who could shed more light and help find a way forward.
I think this is the work of God. The way of Jesus and the work of God. The work of God and the way to peace.
It’s no accident that as we come together for worship we come from confession through the word and then to the table. The church has over the ages uncovered and agreed that this is a faithful path to finding God at work. A faithful way to follow in the way of Jesus and to move towards peace.
We go to God in confession with the truth and the questions as we know them. Truth and questions of who we are, what we are a part of, what we want to be. We confess our vulnerability and our weaknesses, our inability to see, our hopes and our needs. From that place we are led through the promises that God has made to always be with us, not to condemn us but to forgive and love and teach us and then we go to the table. The table - a place of community, a place to meet God in Jesus – Jesus who connects us to the whole world and helps us remember that we belong to each other and that by wholeheartedly giving ourselves to each other we will find life. Community made real in the table and waiting for us as we are sent out of this place to listen and serve and love.
So like this one who came to my friend, we in this place go from confessing to remembering who God is to entering deep community. From confession, to unbreakable life-giving promises, to community.
Ta-nehishi Coates is a writer and a powerful commentator on the racial landscape of this country. He was recently in a conversation with Michelle Norris. Michelle has a project online called the Race Card Project. Ordinary folks are asked to put into 6 words their experience of race in our country. Here are some of the pieces submitted….
Black babies cost less to adopt.
Will they ask me or assume.
Where is the black James Bond?
I am not my daughter’s nanny.
You come off as too articulate.
I am not a guessing game.
Finding the strength to love.
All the bosses are white.
Over the phone all was normal.
Even a poor conversation beats silence.
“Racial misunderstanding and division is the sea we are swimming in” said Michelle. So what do we do?
This work, said Ta-nehishi, requires that you give yourself to something beyond your lifetime. That’s what people have done for centuries. Those who saw seismic, noticeable change - that isn’t the norm. The Kings and the Ghandi’s they were just single people in a long stream of people who did the normal thing – who gave themselves to something beyond their life time. So you may not see big sudden history making changes, but you are one of a whole stream of people who have given themselves to this. You may not fully understand your place in all of it but you give yourself to it and you draw peace from knowing you are part of something bigger – something that will get us to peace.
And so it is with this place, this way. We come to this place with our questions - questions around race, hunger, sexuality, family, relationships, loss, injustice and we state where we are at. And then we remember a God who promises to always be with us and then we are led further into community, community with Christ, community with each other, community with the world God loves. In this community we are asked to listen deeply and lovingly to those who might have something to share, that might help us dig down. In this community we will learn more about ourselves and the world and then we come back. We come back with more questions and vulnerabilities, with new and deeper desires. We come back again and again to be refreshed by the never ending waters of God, to be held by God’s promises, to be met at the table, to be fed in the way of Jesus - a way that send us out again to deep community. This is the normal work of the church, this is how we give ourselves to this thing that is bigger than us, this thing that is beyond our life time. This is the work of God, the way of Jesus and in it we will find peace.
Thanks be to God.
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