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
image from
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
image from
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.


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