A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
August 20, 2017
University Baptist Church
I was gonna preach a sermon about crossing borders. It makes sense, given the border crossing challenges faced by our sister church members sitting here and the four who suffered the indignity of being denied visas while making the US embassy richer and meaner.
I had fodder in my arsenal from my border crossing trip to Mexico last month with the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America~Bautistas por la Paz. But then the events of this past week happened. Uncovering the painful truth about racism that still is alive and well and dangerous in our country, if not in the world. Where is the word in the midst of all of this? So many have found their voices and have spoken and written powerfully.
Jean Lubke in particular wrote eloquently. Here’s part of what she wrote on behalf of the MN Equity Alliance:
In response to the ongoing and increasingly visible signs of hatred, bigotry, racism, and division in our country – most recently embodied in the displays last week in Charlottesville, VA – Equity Alliance MN restates our commitment to seek equity and justice for all people – especially those who have been marginalized by attitudes and action of white supremacy. We strongly oppose all forms of violence and seek to strengthen cultural understanding across differences through dialogue. We acknowledge the wounds of racism caused by our nation’s history and the necessity of significant systemic change and reparation. We acknowledge that while certain events elicit a strong media attention, acts of bigotry occur regularly in our schools and communities against our students, families, and staff due to racial, religious, and sexual prejudices.
Our work is not complete until we have replaced:
Fear of difference and closed minds with acceptance and appreciation for the benefits of a diverse society and open hearts.
Intense hate-filled, dehumanizing language and violence with the calm and control of peace, with affirmations of welcome and respect, and with lasting hope.
Divisiveness with courage to build unity.
The surprise that bigotry and hatred still exists in our country with action to change hearts and minds.
The continuing old patterns of injustice with justice and systemic equity for all
White supremacy with systemic racial equality.
Inaction with continual work toward racial justice and equality.
Brokenness with restitution for America’s crimes against its own people.
We need to stand together in active, peaceful solidarity against the hate that destroys.
As Jean implies, we need more than a clever sermon, or SNL skit, or even a sound bite on the news. We need to hunker down and do the work of changing hearts and minds. That’s a lot harder than saying the right things after a tragedy.
I noticed in Germany this spring the many monuments to the victims of Naziism. The country openly weeps for its past. They have seemingly put to bed the racist conscience that accompanied German nationalism. One monument in particular was in the town square of Koblenz. It was a set of iron walls and on the walls were the stories of several people who were lost not only in the concentration camps, but those who colluded with the German government. The well-maintained centrally located memorial was a living reminder that we have so much more to do to root out the thinking that leads people to do horrific things.
150 years after the US Civil War, people still fly the rebel flag and worship at the shrines of the leaders who militarily sought to maintain slavery. In Alabama, for instance, January 15th is MLK/Robert E Lee Day. The cognitive dissonance is part of our problem. We are still fighting this war and it is far from civil.
White supremacy did not start with the Civil War. It’s older than that. It’s the theology that says that one race is better than another. It’s what gave the conquistadors the power to subjugate Latin America and overthrow centuries of indigenous cultures. It’s the same supremacy that Columbus and those who followed him brought to North America, conquering Native People and opening this land for white European “settlers.” The US was built with the economic advantage on the backs of slave labor. And too many of us still believe that the color of your skin makes you superior or inferior. Racism is rightly called America’s original sin.
In the U.S., embracing some of these ideas wins elections. Of course we don’t call it racism. We call it taking our country back. We call it making America great again. We call it birtherism. We call it being tough on immigration. We call it America first. Some even appropriate religious language as they repudiate the scriptural mandate to welcome strangers in our midst.
This will not simply go away by itself. It needs to be actively opposed. It is up to us not only to call out the hatred and the violence, but to get at its roots. Planting something alongside it that can grow into powerful trees of abundance, shade, and power.
That’s the work of the church.
In his 1963 speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Martin Luther King said “(W)e are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.” Now is the time for urgent reflection and action…our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change. The large house in which we live demands that we transform the world-wide neighborhood into a world-wide brotherhood (sic). Together we must learn to live as (siblings) or together we will be forced to perish as fools.”
The only good thing that has emerged from this week is that people are more awake. But how do we use our waking hours?
We inherit the story of the Hebrew people who crossed the Red Sea to escape their brutal slavery in Egypt. Everyone thought this was a good and even noble idea. All that is except for those who benefited from their slavery. They pursued them with fire and fury, even into the water-so blind was their hatred for these people who had the audacity to declare their freedom.
God gave the Egyptian armies every opportunity to turn back and yet they are determined to pursue and subdue the Israelites. One would think that after ten plagues they would see how futile such a pursuit would be. And yet with dogged determination, the pressed on, blinded by their need for revenge. We know what happens to them.
Ultimately, evil will implode. But it doesn’t happen by itself. It happens because people get fed up. People get tired of hearing the most fear-driven speak for them. People get tired of seeing their neighbors feel the brunt of the heat. People get fed up of thinking there is nothing that can be done. And people begin to rise up. People begin to find their voices. They start writing letters. They start inviting people to dinner. They try to speak in different languages. They start to try walking in another’s shoes. They may even rediscover their Bibles. They dust off the old book and in it find the stories of a people’s liberation from slavery. They find people surviving even though they had been sent into exile. They find a slew of prophets named Deborah and Isaiah and Jeremiah Amos, and Hosea and Ezekiel, and Malachi. And all of them point to a better way of organizing the world. All of them point to a God who is on the side of the oppressed.
They call us on our collusion with institutions that we mistake for God. They remind us that we were put here to create a beloved community committed to dignity and liberation. We cannot trade in racism, sexism, homoprejudice and classism. We must make justice, mercy, compassion and peace our currency in God’s economy. We must welcome those who dare to cross borders and must cross the borders of comfort to make this world a better place.
For at the end of the list of Biblical prophets is Jesus Christ. Born an outcast, sent to Egypt as a refugee he returned to help people rediscover their truest selves. He welcomed sinners and outcasts into his inner circle and declared not that the meanest and the richest will always be in control, but one day the first shall be last and the last shall be first. He was killed for such revolutionary language, but then he rose from the dead and embodied the community he founded with even more power. That’s the power we have at our fingertips. That’s the Gospel message.
This week, as we welcome Isabel, Napoleon and Anielka, we look forward to hearing of their lives. We will learn of each others’ lives that can only happen when we are face to face, hand to hand, heart to heart.
We will cross the borders of race, of language, of economic status, of cultural comfort. And we will see a part of the face of God. We can’t avoid it.
Today’s scripture reading tells of a triumphant leaving, but it took them another 40 years to reach a new home. So it is with people who cross borders. There is initial joy, but it’s tempered by real-life struggle for survival. Some never reach the Promised Land. Maybe we are still on that 40-year journey. We have not made it to the Promised Land yet, but we are bound to get there if we hold fast to the Gospel message. We will get there if we pay attention to those we meet along the way. They will show us something of God. They will hold up a mirror. And they will help us embrace the better parts of our God-given nature.
While racism and injustice exists, it is the church’s work to cross borders of comfort to welcome the stranger. It is the church’s work to embrace dignity. It is the church’s work to not only expose injustice, but to shine a light on the path toward peace. It’s the church’s work to keep that path well-lit and to pave over the potholes that injure those on the way. It’s the church’s work to cross the chasms of disillusionment with bridges of understanding. It’s the church’s role to be a shining light of hope in the midst of this despair. And when we live into this calling, that’s where we find God. We find our voices. We find new sisters and brothers on the journey and together we live the good news.
I was moved by a poem by Sherman Alexie which showed up on line this week. In it are some words that sound like Gospel to me.
…My friends, I'm not quite sure what I should do.
I'm as angry and afraid and disillusioned as you.
But I do know this: I will resist hate. I will resist.
I will stand and sing my love. I will use my fist
To drum and drum my love. I will write and read poems
That offer the warmth and shelter of any good home.
I will sing for people who might not sing for me.
I will sing for people who are not my family.
I will sing honor songs for the unfamilar and new.
I will visit a different church and pray in a different pew.
I will silently sit and carefully listen to new stories
About other people’s tragedies and glories.
I will not assume my pain and joy are better.
I will not claim my people invented gravity or weather.
And, oh, I know I will still feel my rage and rage and rage
But I won’t act like I’m the only person onstage.
I am one more citizen marching against hatred.
Alone, we are defenseless. Collected, we are sacred.
We will march by the millions. We will tremble and grieve.
We will praise and weep and laugh. We will believe.
We will be courageous with our love. We will risk danger
As we sing and sing and sing to welcome strangers.
©2017, Sherman Alexie