Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Wisdom to Act Courageously

sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler

Our reading from the Book of Wisdom today presents us with the middle of a long rhapsody on the works of Holy Wisdom throughout the Genesis stories. Today we hear about Wisdom at work in the lives of Jacob and then his son Joseph. Earlier in the chapter, we hear recaps of the stories of Adam, Cain, Noah, Abraham, and Lot, and it continues from here to tell the story of Moses. The point is that Holy Wisdom has continued to work through human beings ever since, including you and me, granting us the wisdom we need to be courageous in our actions.

The psalmist speaks of the kinds of actions we need to take that might require such courage: “Save the weak and orphan; defend the humble and needy; rescue the weak and poor; deliver them from the power of the wicked.” Furthermore, the psalmist expresses real urgency in God’s judgment of us when we do not act: “How long will you judge unjustly, and show favor to the wicked?”

In my experience, the Christian life should be an epic adventure. Yet we live in a time and place where many of us don’t have to be adventurous if we don’t want to be. Many of us have the option to carve out a rather easy life for ourselves and not worry about those whose situation in life won’t allow them this privilege. I think it’s a form of entropy—meaning to develop courage, but never actually doing it. It takes a lot of effort to resist such entropy.

William Lloyd Garrison
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Today we honor two people who definitely did not carve out an easy life for themselves. They were heroes of the 19th-century anti-slavery movement: a white man, William Lloyd Garrison, and a black woman, Maria Stewart. Garrison was the founder of the anti-slavery newspaper called The Liberator. Stewart was the first African-American woman to make public speeches and lectures against slavery in America.

Garrison insisted that slavery should be abolished immediately, and that former slave owners should receive absolutely no recompense for their slaves’ release. Why should we financially compensate people, he asked, for perpetuating such deplorable sin? The Liberator was an extremely popular paper; even the White House carried a subscription.

One occasional contributor to The Liberator was Maria Stewart, a free black woman who, shortly after her husband’s premature death, experienced a religious conversion and committed herself not only to the anti-slavery movement, but also to fighting systemic racism against free blacks in the north. It was not enough to abolish slavery, but also to insist on the absolute equality of all people. To relegate all free blacks to servants’ jobs was to waste the intellectual capacities of millions of Americans. Despite her eloquence and power, Stewart stressed that she was not well educated—that she, too, was a victim of American racism in her lack of opportunity. She claimed that her inspiration came not from any particular skills she had attained, but directly from God. She herself put it this way in 1832:
Methinks there are no chains so galling as the chains of ignorance—no fetters so binding as those that bind the soul, and exclude it from the vast field of useful and scientific knowledge. O, had I received the advantages of early education, my ideas would, ere now, have expanded far and wide; but, alas! I possess nothing but moral capability—no teachings but the teachings of the Holy spirit.[1]
Maria Stewart
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Maria Stewart was the first American woman to speak to a mixed audience of white and black men and women. She also worked for women’s rights. And during these years she occasionally penned essays for The Liberator. But after only three years of public speaking, she gave it up. One day in 1833, when speaking at Boston’s African Masonic Lodge, she opined that black men lacked “ambition and requisite courage.”[2] Her comment caused such an uproar of negativity that she decided to go back to teaching, a sad end to a very exciting ministry.
These days, we have laws that are meant to prevent racism from oppressing people. Those who espouse truly racist attitudes have to find more subtle ways to act on them that don’t attract quite as much notice, while deniable, unexamined racism is also a real issue. So I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine what it must have been like to fight something as ubiquitous as slavery in America 200 years ago. It’s hard to imagine now that to be against slavery was once a radical issue. And no doubt, many times, both Garrison and Stewart heard these words: “Look, we understand your good intentions, but can’t you tone it down a little? Can’t we take baby steps? Slavery is the economic backbone of the south. Do you have any idea how much damage it would do to the economy to just end it?”
To Garrison, such economic worries mattered not a whit in the face of a situation so obviously and deeply immoral. In the first issue of The Liberator, Garrison made his agenda known in no uncertain terms, as follows:
I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen;—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.[3]
Despite his strong language, Garrison rejected violence as a means of freeing slaves. Still, his critics viewed him as a dangerous inciter because he was so unyielding.
In 1963, with the work of Garrison and Stewart still going on in new ways, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote from a Birmingham jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” When criticized for causing tension, King wrote, “There is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.” And when it was suggested to King that fighting racism was merely a matter of individual people’s choices, he wrote, “Lamentably, it is a historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.”[4]
King’s words still ring true today. When I imagine myself living 200 years ago, and I try to strike from the record all of our history since then, I cannot help but wonder what I would think of Garrison and Stewart, even if I found their views compelling. Would I not stand with those who were calling for them to tone it down, to take it slowly, to be patient as God is patient? I’m ashamed to say it, but I probably would. And when I think of Maria Stewart, who had the courage to challenge those who were normally her most ardent supporters, I’m reminded that prophets are not typically welcomed in their hometown. Speaking God’s truth, especially when there are detractors on both sides, can be very costly indeed.
How does all this sit with you today? When you hear a story of Jesus healing a woman immediately—not next week, not in a few decades, but right now—what does that stir in you? When you hear that the wisdom of God dwells in you and enables you to do courageous things today—what are those courageous things? What words of wisdom is God speaking into your heart today? And what will you do about them? Amen. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

John and His Allies

sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
The Third Sunday of Advent, December 14, 2014

In our Collect today—that is, in the prayer towards the beginning of the service that sums up our intentions for gathering in worship on this particular occasion—we heard this: “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us.”

“We are sorely hindered by our sins.” And so we ask for grace and mercy. This is our purpose in gathering on this, the third Sunday in Advent, and it is a vulnerable thing to say. Saying it in communal worship makes it easier, I suppose, but it can also distance us from the effect of the words. Let’s not do that today. Let’s lean into the discomfort of our sins a little. The challenge of the Christian life is not to never, ever fall short. Rather, it is to repent and start again.

Remember record stores?
Friends, I want to tell you today about the first time I came face to face with racism in me. Twenty years ago I was an assistant manager at a record store in Seattle’s Southcenter Mall, and I found myself eyeing black customers with more suspicion than white customers. We moved the hip hop CDs near the register to keep an eye on them. Over the course of a year, every single shoplifter we caught was black. And then it finally hit me: Whatever other shoplifters there may have been, we didn’t catch them because we weren’t looking for them.

Furthermore, I hadn’t even begun to ask the question, “Why do people shoplift?” They were the bad guys, and I was supposed to stop them. But if there's one thing Jesus has taught me, it's that the world isn’t cleanly split into good guys and bad guys. Yes, it is wrong to shoplift. But what is the larger story, and how does my place in the system guarantee that I do not immediately comprehend it? On that day, I saw clearly the racism in myself.

Theologian Karl Barth once said that he prepared his Sunday sermons by taking “the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other.” There’s lots of discomfort to be found there. And I could give you a laundry list of social ills, but that would be to spread the discomfort around and thus mitigate it too soon. Instead, on this day when we hear from John the Baptist, I want to talk very plainly about race. Because when it comes to race in America, “we are sorely hindered by our sins.”

I am not saying that we are all a bunch of racists. But sin is not just about actions that we choose to do. It is also about what we don't do, and about the systems that we are a part of. When it comes to issues of race, we Americans are still hindered by our history, by our habits, and by what we allow to happen. From the very beginning, “all men are created equal” meant no such thing. While we claim to value diversity, our schools, churches, and neighborhoods are more segregated now than they were in the 1950s. We want to see police as those who protect and serve. But in black neighborhoods, most everybody knows someone who has been treated unjustly by law enforcement. And today, all around our country, protesters are calling us to repentance.

Wait. Whom are they calling to repentance? Surely not us, right here in this room! Well, the presenting issue is police behavior. Protesters are calling our nation’s police departments to higher standards of accountability, and that’s a pretty clear-cut goal. But all of this is part of a much larger conversation that has been going on for centuries, and while I'd like to say that we cannot avoid being a part of it, that's not actually true.

Now I know that I’m talking to a room full of people who hate racism and want it gone. And most of us in this room are white. Though our ancestors may have come from a variety of countries, when I pass someone on the street who is a different color from me, that person does not see me as a mix of German and Swiss and English; such differences are not relevant in that moment. In America, we are seen as white. So whatever it means to be white, whether we like it or not, we bring this quality to all our encounters with strangers.

Chris Rock
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Biologists tell us that race is a social construct, and that's true. But our ancestors did construct it, and so we have to deal with the consequences. It’s only been a few decades since Italians, Greeks, and Jews in our country were categorized as “black.” Comedian Chris Rock recently said, “When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense ... White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.”[1] Indeed. A recent study by the FBI shows that every three or four days in the U.S., a black man is killed by a white police officer.[2] That’s not because every one of these individuals, criminal or not, deserved summary execution without judge or jury. Therefore we know that the situation for black Americans is rife with injustice.

Another case in point: if you raised kids, did you at any point have The Talk with them? I don’t mean The Talk about sex. I mean The Talk about what to say and do when the police pull you over without cause, and what concrete steps you might take to try to ensure your survival. Did you know that black American parents have to have that Talk with their sons? Until Trayvon Martin was killed, I had never heard of it. It was at that time, too, that NPR asked people to send in six-word essays about their reaction to Trayvon Martin’s death. One of them resonated so strongly that I knew I still had a lot of work to do. It read: “Angry black men are so scary.”

Friends, we need to listen to the voices of African-Americans today. Our town of Bellingham is 88% white, and our congregation of St. Paul’s is, at a glance, more than 95% white. Is this something to be ashamed of? No, but it’s crucial to be aware of it as we proceed. To be white in the Pacific Northwest means that we don’t even have to think about race if we don’t want to. This is an example of what has become known as “white privilege”—the ability to look at a situation involving race and to say, “I don’t choose to think about that today.”

Blogger Franchesca Ramsey speaks to people’s concern over the term “white privilege.” She explains, “Privilege does not mean that you are rich, that you’ve had an easy life, that everything’s been handed to you and you’ve never had to struggle or work hard. All it means is that there are some things in life that you will not experience or ever have to think about, just because of who you are.”[3] So understanding my privilege means admitting, “I have never been in your shoes, and I will not ever be. My stories are not your stories.” It’s a call to listen before speaking.

Hey! I made a meme!
John the Baptist came to preach a baptism of repentance, and to announce the coming of the anointed one. John wasn’t criticizing all Jews. He was criticizing hypocritical behavior among his fellow Jews, and many of those hypocrites came out in droves to hear him speak. In the same way, the protests around our country today are not a condemnation of all police officers, or of all white people. They are a call to open our eyes to things happening in our country today and in our very selves, so that we can be of use in efforts to chip away at the evil of racism.

Franchesca Ramsey
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Franchesca Ramsey gives five tips for being an ally in the fight against racism. First, understand your privilege. I’ve found that this is a pretty touchy subject for a lot of us white folks, so I hope we’ll continue to have conversations about it at St. Paul’s. In short, understanding white privilege is not about feeling guilty or ashamed for being the color we are. It’s about accepting that there is a whole reality that is all but invisible to us, and then choosing our actions based on this knowledge.

Ramsey’s second tip is to listen and do your homework. There are always more stories to hear. I’ve been reading a lot of opinion pieces and blog posts, and I also have books I can recommend on Christianity and race. I think the most important thing here is to accept that our good intentions will often go awry if they are not well fed with the stories of many people other than ourselves.

Third, speak up, not over. We’ve seen this step ignored quite a bit since the Ferguson decision. When the slogan “Black Lives Matter” began to emerge, white America was quick to rush in with a counter-slogan: “ALL Lives Matter.” Well, yes, that’s true, but it is implied in the first slogan, and that’s not what we were talking about anyway. This is a classic example of speaking over—saying, “Yes, I know you’re trying to say something true, but I can say something truer.” We rush to place the specific story into a larger narrative, and this comes from our discomfort at being called out. But if it’s not our own story, we need to let it be.

Step four is this: You’ll make mistakes; apologize when you do. About five years ago a friend of mine wrote something on Facebook about discrimination she had experienced. I stepped into the conversation and proceeded to make it all about me, speaking right over her. Now, I meant well. I thought I was being a good ally by saying, “I can relate to that!” But she helped me see that I was belittling her experience, so I apologized and went back to listening. That was the beginning of my education in being an ally.

Finally, writes Ramsey, saying you’re an ally is not enough. It’s not about slapping on a bumper sticker. It’s about actually putting ourselves on the line. For some of us, that may mean marching in protests. For others, it may mean speaking clearly and firmly to that one really racist relative. Being an ally takes both humility and courage—kind of like being a Christian.

John himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. John taught that justice and liberation are what God intends for God’s people. John spoke up until Jesus showed up. And then John didn’t speak over Jesus. He baptized him. But make no mistake: by hearing these words and by engaging in conversation about them, not only are we are not the Messiah, but we are not even John the Baptist. John the Baptist is protesting in Ferguson and in many other cities around our nation today, calling for greater police accountability, as John actually did at one point in Luke’s gospel (Luke 3:14). But John the Baptist is also pointing beyond himself to someone greater.

Today, I invite you to join me at the river Jordan. Let’s pay close attention to this man named John. Let’s long for release from the way our sins hinder us, that we may make room for new birth. Christ is coming to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners. When we speak about race, let us speak of the hope that God’s Kingdom will be born in us. Let’s continue that conversation together. As we examine ourselves, do our homework, and learn when to speak and when to listen, we wait and we work for that redeemed world. Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us. Amen.