Sermon: Real Talk about Racism

More or less, what follows is the sermon I gave this morning at Druid Hills UMC in Meridian, MS (Lost Gap had a different sermon because they were voting on closure today). I’m sharing this here because I believe this is a message that we all need a reminder of right now. The recent racial unrest has underscored that we have a long way to go in racial equity, much farther than we probably want to admit. I hope you will take my attempt to articulate what has been on my heart and “chew on” these words. Allow God to work on you and what your part may be in breaking the church’s silence on racism and how we can combat this sin.

If you’d like, you can watch the worship service from Druid Hills here.

LUKE 10:24-37 (NLT)
One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?”

26 Jesus replied, “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?”

27 The man answered, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”[c]

28 “Right!” Jesus told him. “Do this and you will live!”

29 The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Parable of the Good Samaritan
30 Jesus replied with a story: “A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road.

31 “By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. 32 A Temple assistant[d] walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side.

33 “Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. 34 Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. 35 The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins,[e] telling him, ‘Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this, I’ll pay you the next time I’m here.’

36 “Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked.

37 The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.”

Last week we celebrated the day that the Holy Spirit was sent to this world with a video worship service featuring clergy, laity, and children from all over our Mississippi Annual Conference connection. Did you notice the diversity that was represented? Men, women, white black, and everything in between coming together with but one two-fold goal in mind: To lead us in worship and to give glory to the Lord’s name. As I watched the video with you all last week, the sheer beauty of how wide and deep our own state is in terms of the different people we have in our midst brought tears to my eyes. In my mind, it was truly a reflection of God’s kingdom – the way the kingdom was always intended to be and will be someday when Jesus returns.

We live in a fallen world where diversity is not always celebrated and, in many cases, is discouraged and even ridiculed. The killing of George Floyd sent shockwaves through our nation, just as such an unjust and evil event ought to do. While Mr. Floyd’s death may have been an event that brought our racial tension to a head, this was hardly the first time that we have seen unjust killing of people of color. Another recent example is the shooting death of Breona Taylor, a young black EMT from Louisville, Kentucky, who was killed when police executed a raid at the wrong address – her apartment – looking for a suspect who was already in jail on another charge. I resonate with the cries of our brothers and sisters of color when I say that enough is enough and it’s time for an end to these senseless deaths. As a white man who has family members who are biracial or of another race entirely, I must stand up for my loved ones. As a Christian pastor, I know we are all children of God. The children’s song says, “red or yellow, black or white, we are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.” So why are we not doing that for each other now? We are all loved by God. And God taught us to love our neighbor, as we heard a moment ago. So, now above any other time in our existence, God is calling us to love our neighbors. We must love the most threatened among us. We should stand with our black brothers and sisters and protect them, love them, treat them as our equal… because anything less is a sin in front of our Lord and Savior.

Now I say all of this as a pastor among a white congregation. I say this, knowing that this is not the popular belief in this area, but brothers and sisters, Jesus did not preach to what was popular. He preached to what is right.

On Friday, Bishop Swanson sent out a video that was both a rebuke against the church for its long and deafening silence on racism as well as how we can begin to respond. Bishop Swanson is absolutely correct: The church has remained silent for far too long and this needs to change. The reason the church is often silent on racism is because we don’t want to seem to be preaching political topics or we don’t want to make people uncomfortable. The truth about the gospel is that the truths within it often are uncomfortable because we are forced to see ourselves for who and how we truly are. So, today, I do my part to change this trend of silence in the church. Today, I stand here and tell you that we’re going to get uncomfortable. I declare from this pulpit that racism is a sin. Racism is incompatible with Christian faith – you cannot call yourself a follower of Jesus if you are a racist. To remain silent is equally as sinful. Our baptismal vows that we make before God and His people include standing up for the oppressed and to resist evil in whatever form it takes. That starts with us acknowledging the sin of racism.

And that brings us to our scripture today: The Parable of the Good Samaritan. The legal expert who is questioning Jesus is really wanting to justify himself. While I fully admit that I’m using some conjecture here, I would speculate that the man that Jesus was talking to was one of the Jews who really hated Samaritans. Back then, Jews and Samaritans simply did not get along. Jews viewed them as inferior and as beneath them. Perhaps the justification that the man was seeking was really that which would affirm his hatred toward someone simply because that person looked different than he did. And as we see through the rest of the passage, Jesus is not having it. The fact is, a story where the Samaritan was the hero was very scandalous to the Jews who heard it.

The belief back then was that touching certain people or people experiencing certain conditions would make one unclean and this certainly would have included touching a man who was beaten and bloody and left in a ditch to die. The Levite and the priest would have been considered to be ceremonially unclean had they touched him. It was because of those crazy fears that they went so far as to cross the street. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech using the story of the Good Samaritan as an example. He had this to say about it: “The first question the priest and Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me? But the Good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop and help this man, what will happen to him?’” In other words, the priest and the Levite were putting themselves first. Instead, the Samaritan chose to put the man before him and to in turn take care of him.

One thing I have seen over and over again is that children do not seem to have a racism gene. If you go to a park in most cities, you can see white children playing with children who are black, brown, and everything in between. Comedian Denis Leary says, “Racism isn’t born, folks. It’s taught. I have a two-year old son. You know what he hates—naps.” Children are not born to hate other people. Instead, this behavior is something that is learned. When children are raised in ignorance about other races, that’s how they learn to hate. And simply, this is not ok.

More than anything, racism is not a skin issue, it’s a sin issue. The problem is not the color of one’s skin or their national origin, the problem is that the person who is racist is giving in to sin. James 2:9 says, “But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law.” When the command handed down says, “Love the Lord with all you have and love your neighbor as yourself,” there are no qualifiers attached to that. There is no asterisk with a list of who our neighbors are not at the bottom of the page. Our neighbors are all people, period, full stop. There’s a meme that goes around from time to time where Jesus is telling those gathered to love their neighbors as themselves. Someone from the crowd goes, “What about my black neighbor?” Another says, “What about my Jewish neighbor?” And then Jesus says, “I’m going to start over, tell me where I lost you.” When Jesus tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, he’s telling us that we are to love all people no matter what.

So how can we neighbor those who look different than us? Well, it starts by taking a good look at the person in the mirror. We have to confront our prejudices. Let’s be honest with ourselves for a minute: We all have them. We all have those pre-conceived judgements about other people that are not based on any sound reason or experience (which is the definition of a prejudice, by the way). Some examples might be, “All rich people are snobs.” Or, “Old people are mean.” Or, “Which men can’t jump.” I could go on and on. Or maybe we say things like, “I’m not racist because I have black friends.” Well, that’s great! But do you truly see them as your equal? Are they just as much deserving of the love of Christ as you are? We have to confront those prejudices. We have to get real with ourselves.

Next, we have to see to understand others. This is another hard part because this means we will have to get even further outside of our comfort zones than we did when we took a good hard look at ourselves in the mirror. This means that we have to actually pay attention to our neighbors, take the time to get to know them, really listen to them. This is the one that is the easiest to ignore because it takes real effort on our part, but it’s so vital. We can not simply look at people different from us who are on TV or read some data about what works in one place. We have to know how to love people and help them right where we are. This is where they live as well and it’s vital that we take this seriously enough to truly listen to them in order to find out how we can best show them the love of Christ.

After we listen to them, we have to do the hardst thing of all: We have to love those who are different from us. This is not simply telling someone that we love them, it’s actually doing it. It’s putting our faith and our words into action to show them that we mean it. This is hard becasue it involves a lot of sacrifice. In 1996 in Michigan there was a rally by the Ku Klux Klan and the police in the town were doing their best to keep the Klan and the protesters separated. One of the Klansmen snuck over to the protesters side. Next thign you know, they started to beat on him with shouts of “kill the Nazi” being hurled. 18-year old African American girl named Keisha Thomas threw her body on top of the man’s to stop beating. She put herself at physical risk protect man that likely wanted to harm her.

Who does this? Committed believer. “I knew what it was like to be hurt. The many times that that happened, I wish someone would have stood up for me.”

Crossed the street—protect someone different from her.

Thomas says she tries to do something to break down racial stereotypes every day. No grand gestures. She thinks that small, regular acts of kindness are more important. “The biggest thing you can do is just be kind to another human being. It can come down to eye contact, or a smile. It doesn’t have to be a huge monumental act.”

Radical love is what she showed to that man. The best way to combat racism is with love because racism is not the presence of hate, it’s the absence of love! Paul wrote to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” God loves all people. He loves Americans. But he also loves Nigirians, Cubans, Hondurans, Mexicans, Choctaws, Jamaicans, Turks, Iranians, Russians, and all other people. He loves white people, black people, brown people, and everything in between. Heaven will be the most diverse place you will ever see. If you hate diversity, you are really going to hate Heaven. Ultimately we will all be together and it will be a beautiful sight.

We have to face the sin of racism and combat it head on. Racism is not a Christian value. It is not acceptable to God and racism should therefore not be acceptable to us. Jesus said for us to love our neighbors with no qualifiers attached to that. He told us now to neighbor those who are different than us. We simply love.

Racism and Conspiracy Theories are Incompatible with Christianity

As I scroll through social media, I’m disturbed by much of what I see. What we’re seeing is an unprecedented time in world history where information is so easily shared and, at least for the most part, this is a good thing. Unfortunately, this also means that the ease of sharing false and misleading information is also easy. Constantly, I’m seeing Christians share articles that call into question whether or not COVID-19 is real and even how the entire virus was a conspiracy by the Democrats (how this would even be plausible, I have no idea). One video even went to great lengths to try and connect Kobe Bryant’s death to COVID-19 (the mental gymnastics needed for that gave me a headache).

The sharing of racism is also easier than ever. The killing of Ahmaud Arbery has exposed a lot of racism on social media. The father and son who claim they believed he was responsible for burglaries in their neighborhood have been arrested due to a viral video clearly showing that all that occurred was the senseless killing of an unarmed man of color who was only jogging through a neighborhood. Yet, people are defending the actions of these two men, actions that amount to a lynching, which were fueled by the ugly sin of racism. Ahmaud Arbery was shot for being a black man in a white neighborhood.

I’m shocked at the number of Christians who participate in these hijinks. And, pastors: Some of you are the worst.

People are dying because of racism and the denial of medical science. There have been numerous killings of young black men in particular simply for being black and for being in the “wrong place (people like Ahmaud Arbery have just as much right to be jogging down the street as anyone else). People are believing the pseudoscience and outright lies contained in conspiracy articles and videos such as “Plandemic” and are dying because of their distrust of valid, peer reviewed scientific fact (in addition to common sense). The Christians who are sharing these articles are bearing false witness, a false witness that can literally end with someone needlessly dying.

Scripture is clear about a lot of things and speaks clearly to the larger issues surrounding racism and the spread of conspiracy theories. Moses gave this as part of the law: “You must not testify falsely against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16 NLT). Jesus further clarifies in the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 that all people are ultimately our neighbor. In other words, to quote the great philosopher Harry Potter: “One mustn’t tell lies.” When we spread conspiracy theories or partake in racism, we are telling lies about our neighbors, in addition to putting our neighbors at risk. God’s law can be boiled down like this when he was asked which commandment was the greatest: “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31 NLT)

When we hate our neighbor because of the color of their skin, we are breaking God’s law. When we share conspiracy videos that foster distrust of the medical community and are based on nothing more than a series of coincidences, quakary, and are motivated by personal gain from fame, we are breaking God’s law. We are failing to love our neighbors when we refuse to accept facts that don’t fit our wants and desires because we are putting them at risk.

Christians, we have to do better because to do otherwise is sin.

Pastors, I want to talk to you (and myself) for a moment: Our words have a lot of power. People will take what we say as gospel more often than we perhaps realize. If we use our social media to shed doubt on a racially motivated killing or to spread lies that deny established medical facts then we are leading our people astray. People could die because of your actions. Have you ever considered that? Have you considered that people could not take precautions against COVID-19 because you share a video or an article that sheds doubt on a global crisis? Have you considered that could lead them to their death? Pastors, stop spreading these articles and videos. Stop being silent in the face of racism. Doing otherwise does mean that you are neglecting your office, abusing your power, and being irresponsible with your flock. Fact check. It takes all of thirty seconds to disprove almost all of the conspiracy theories floating around by simply using Google. As for racism, scripture is pretty clear on that. If you cast doubt on racism, it’s not me you have a problem with.

Are we truly disciples? Are we truly committed to Christ? Then we must be committed to loving our neighbors regardless of the color of their skin. We must be committed to sharing the truth and encouraging people take pandemics seriously. We have to practice what we preach and claim to believe.

Racism and conspiracy theories are incompatible with Christian teaching and belief. There’s simply no way around that.

Sermon: The Apostle’s Tale – Groaning

Note: This is, more or less, my sermon from this morning’s worship service at Shiloh UMC in Stanton, Kentucky. Last week I began a series called The Apostle’s Tale which mostly is based on readings from Romans 8. This series was designed to go along with readings from the Revised Common Lectionary from a few weeks ago but I was doing another series and began this one late. It worked out perfectly, as this sermon dealt with our responsibility as disciples in light of the suffering and evil in the world. Perfect timing. I hope you receive encouragement and food for thought.

 

Romans 8:12-25 (NIV)
Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.[a] And by him we cry, “Abba,[b] Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that[c] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?

Do you accept the freedom and power that God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord in union with the church which Christ has opened to all ages, nations, and races?

Last week, we began this series with a backdrop of dystopia using examples from The Hunger Games and the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale. We also touched on the dystopia all around us, a world where there is much fear and violence, always an “us” versus “them” mentality. We talked about people being oppressed and some people having while others go without simply because of issues such as social class, race, and any number of factors. At least to some extent, dystopia is all around us and, unfortunately, is not just the stuff of books and movies.

We have been seeing some of this play out over the last few days. The North Korean government has made threats of a nuclear strike against Guam and on the mainland of the United States.Kim Jong Un claims that his government is working on specific plans and once it’s completed he will sign off on it and that will be all that’s needed to launch a strike. Allegedly a nuclear warhead can be rocketed toward Guam and be there in 14 minutes. Because of these threats, there has been much anxiety and fear in Guam and elsewhere, mainly at not knowing whether North Korea is truly capable of launching such an attack or if they would actually have the moxy to make such attempt. And, “What if they do and they do it?” Fear. Dystopia.

Yesterday we saw a little piece of dystopia play out with the racial unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia, in what I feel is a true expression of evil. Violence irrupted and a few people have even lost their lives, ultimately because of racism. Neo-nazis gathered to protest the removal of Civil War monuments and also rallied against the acceptance of other races other than white. Let me very clear: Racism is evil. Violence with racism as the root cause is evil. Racism is incompatible with Christian teaching and should not be tolerated within the church. And yet, so many of these groups claim to be Christians, they claim that they are doing work for God, and they claim that the Bible endorses the enslavement of blacks and calls them evil. Their views are contrary to scripture – scripture does not say any of that. Their actions and words, while they may have the right to hold their opinions, are evil. It’s dystopia playing out on the news.

As Christians, we often feel that we should somehow be exempt from having to experience the evils of the world. Evil is really hard to avoid but we try anyway. We hide ourselves with whatever we think will shield us and we try to pretend that it isn’t there. This really is the complete opposite of what we should do. We can lament and say, “Oh, that doesn’t apply to me because I have Jesus and therefore I don’t have to endure it.” But we see that Paul tells is that part of being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ means that we don’t look away from the suffering going on in the world. We simply can’t. We must acknowledge it and call it what it is. We must confront the sufferings head on.

So how do we do this? How do we keep our eyes on Christ and yet make sure that we see the evils which are happening in the world for what they truly are, something that simply should not being ignored? We do this by joining in God’s sorrow over the state of this world. We join in and take our place in the chorus of all of God’s creation as it groans. The groans are caused by the long pains of labor as God’s promised kingdom is birthed.

I remember a particular call when I ran when I was an EMT. I was working in Mississippi and had not yet enrolled in paramedic school. In fact, I had not been an EMT for very long at all. When the dispatcher called us she was obviously very upset when normally she was calm and professional. I won’t go into the details of the call for a lot of reasons but I will say that it was… gruesome. The patient was in terrible shape and severely disfigured. It was difficult to look at him but I had to force myself to. I had to care for him. I had to look at him and his injuries. Thankfully this was toward the end of my shift but the rest of it was spent in a daze. The sight that I had to force myself to observe was completely overwhelming. When I got home, I was physically and mentally exhausted. I simply had nothing left to give and I ended up sleeping most of the day… Well, when I couldn’t see his face in a dream. That was the price I had to pay but I had no choice. I had to force myself to take it all in and provide the best care I could for him.

Life is like that sometimes. Sometimes the reality that we simply must force ourselves to take it and to not ignore is so overwhelming that it takes all of our energy and we simply have nothing left to give.

Those of us who claim Jesus as Lord must pay attention to the goings-on in the world but we also need to make sure that we acknowledge the suffering and evil as well. We may want to ignore it and try to shield ourselves from it but we shouldn’t and, let’s be honest, we can’t. We can’t turn out backs on the suffering of our neighbors. We can’t turn our backs on heroin and opiate addicts. We can’t turn our backs on the homeless. We can’t turn our backs on the poor. We can’t turn our backs on racists and other bigots. We can’t turn away from threats from North Korea and other entities who seek to do our country harm. And we can’t turn our backs on people within our own borders who wish to do harm to our country. We must acknowledge. We must look. And we must act, even if that action is simply praying for God’s guidance and wisdom.

Paul tells us this – he tells us that we must look upon and acknowledge those places where the most pain and the most groaning by all of creation is happening. But here’s the tricky part, the part that we don’t tend to like: We must join in the suffering. We have to take the pain of others on ourselves and bear it. And even when we don’t see hope, we must never, never, never give up. When the enemy tries to drag us away and distract us from the suffering of the world, we have to dig our heels in deeper and stand our ground. We must be patient, we must remember that God is good and God is working to bring about his kingdom and that day will be here sooner than we think!

It’s natural to wonder where all of this evil and suffering comes from. A common question is “where did all of this come from? How did it start?” It seems to be counterintuitive to God’s intention for the world. And, really, that’s because it is counterintuitive to God’s original plan.

John Wesley talked about this in one of his sermons. He wrestles with the question of how it can be that God provides for all of creation and yet there is suffering.

Ultimately, he chalks it up to original sin. He begins by noting that God created human beings in God’s own image of perfect righteousness and love and gave humans dominion over all of creation, especially those lesser animals, or “brutes” as Wesley names the non-human animal kingdom. The difference between humans and brutes, for Wesley, is that humans alone were endowed with the capacity to obey their creator. Thus endowed, God’s original intent was that humans would ensure that no beasts under their care suffered: “All the blessings of God in paradise flowed through man to the inferior creatures, as man was the great channel of communication between the Creator and the whole brute creation,’ Wesley writes.

Unfortunately, as we all know, human beings messed up the transmission of those blessings in an irreversible way. This has affected not only all humans, but all the creatures under humanity’s care. Wesley laments that there is no way to know what suffering creation has endured because of original sin. All we know is that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; not only creation but we ourselves”

This is why we have evil. The downside of free will is that one is free to commit evil acts if we so choose – that is, if the enemy can fool us into thinking that we should do these things. This is why the neo-nazis and the dictators of the world are allowed to make their threats, shout their vulgar racial slurs, and to drive their cars into groups of innocent people.

Christians are not people of isolation. We simply can not and should not hide ourselves from the suffering of the world and simply remain in our bubbles. Maybe you’ve seen the movie, about the boy who was so sick that he could have absolutely no contact with the outside world? He literally had to live in the bubble. I feel that we Christians often hide ourselves in our bubbles to try and ignore the evil of the world but Paul tells us that we simply can’t do that. Christians are not bubble people! We can’t ignore evil and hope that it will go away because, at least until Christ returns, evil isn’t going anywhere. We must acknowledge it. We must name it. We must feel pain with each other and with our neighbors. We must join in the collective groaning of the world rather than ignoring it.

I want to remind us about the words that we heard last week after we confessed our sins just before having Holy Communion last week: “Hear the Good News! Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. This proves God’s love for us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!” And we celebrate that because of Christ, we have been set free from the law of sin and death.

This IS the good news of Jesus Christ! As the women would say in The Handmaid’s Tale, “Praise Be!”

But being saved from eternal suffering does not give us a pass to avoid the suffering of God’s creation. Rather, we are called to join with Christ in his suffering, just as we will also join in Christ’s glory.

I want to read the baptismal vows one more time. I want you to ponder them one more time. Are you all in and do you truly affirm these vows or are they just words?

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?

Do you accept the freedom and power that God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord in union with the church which Christ has opened to all ages, nations, and races?

If you do, say “amen.”