September 6, 2015
+ A week from tomorrow, I will be commemorating a hard anniversary. It will be the fifth anniversary of my father’s death. Five years. It’s been a long, hard five years. Many of you have traveled with me on this journey. I thank you for your patience.
Now, some of you might remember my father. And the last thing anyone who knew my father would have guessed about him was that he could get angry at times. Not angry in the conventional sense. Not anger like I preached about last week when I talked about how angry I get when I drive a car. He got angry in the way that I called last week “righteous anger.” He would get angry at things he saw as wrong.
One of the first times I ever heard of this anger in my father was one time, many times years ago, when I was headed to the South. My father was not a fan of “The South.” He lived there at a time when things were a bit crazy there. In the early 1960s, when my father was working for the Air Force, he was stationed in two places in the South—Tampa, Florida and Greensboro, North Carolina.
I could never understand why. I LOVE Tampa. And every visit I’ve ever made it to North Carolina has been wonderful. But of course I wasn’t visiting them in 1961 either.
When I pressed my father about why he disliked these places, he told me of the prejudice and racism he saw firsthand those places. He shared the story of how, as he and a group of friends were walking along the street, in Greensboro, one of the guys in his group made a pair of black men walk in the gutter while they passed. My father was shocked by this. But he said, “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to say. I had never seen anything like that in my life and didn’t know how to react.” But it stuck with him and he soon found himself resenting the “friend” who did it and refused to do anything with him again.
Also, while in Greensboro, he saw the lunch counter sit-ins, and saw white people pouring sugar on the protesters’ heads. Again, he said, he didn’t know what to do.
In Tampa, he and a group of friends attempted to enter a bar. Because one of his friends was Native American, the bar tender refused to serve him and told him to get out. This time, my father got so angry, he raised a huff, and was himself thrown out of the bar.
He was then stationed in Texas and as he was driving from Tampa to Dallas, he passed through New Orleans, where he witnessed another lunch counter sit-in with unpleasant results.
To his dying day, those incidents haunted my father. When he would see those events reenacted in movies (I remember going to see Mississippi Burning with him), he would tense up and become very uncomfortable.
And he would to say: “I should’ve done more.”
This past week, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, issued a letter. In it she called on Episcopal congregations to participate in “Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to end Racism Sunday.” Which is today.
Now I think such a Sunday is an important Sunday. And I’m disappointed that we were not given more time prepare and build up such an important Sunday. But the intention is right.
As followers of Jesus, this is what we should be doing in response to the racism we find in the world. Hopefully, one day, we will not feel like my father. Hopefully we not come to a point in our lives when we realize we should’ve done more to stop racism. And yes, it is noble and wonderful to have a Sunday wherein we all get together, admit to the terrible things people have done and to promise to end it.
But…ultimate we must actually be doing something in our own lives. We ourselves, as individuals, must be actively trying to make changes. And unless we do, one such Sunday on occasion is not going to ultimately do much. This is not an issue we do on one Sunday of the year. This is not something we only do when there is a tragedy like the massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. If it is, then we’re really not doing much. If that is all we’re doing, then, let me tell you, there will be a day when it will happen again and we will say to ourselves and our loved ones, “I should’ve done more.”
For us, as followers of Jesus, as people who are striving to live out the promises of the Baptismal Covenant, we don’t get to make that excuse. For us, we ARE doing this—all the time.
For us, we are like the deaf man in our gospel reading for today. Racism and our response to it is like being that deaf man. The easier thing to do is to allow our ears to be plugged when we experience such inequality in our lives. It is so much easier to walk around not really hearing. Because when we really hear, we must look around and see. When we really hear, we must react. When we really hear, we can no longer be complacent. When we no longer have a speech impediment, we must actually speak out.
Well, Jesus is touching our ears and our tongues. As followers of Jesus, we don’t get to be deaf and have speech impediments when it comes to issues like racism. We, as followers of Jesus, as people who strive to live out the Baptismal Covenant, we can’t be like deaf people, but we must be like people whose hearing has been restored.
The Presiding Bishop, in her letter, cites a resolution made at our General Convention:
“The Church understands and affirms that the call to pray and act for racial reconciliation is integral to our witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to our living into the demands of our Baptismal Covenant,”
It IS integral to our witness of the Gospel and our living out of the Baptismal Covenant. Our Baptismal Covenant, which you can find beginning on Page 304 of the Book of Common Prayer, is clear and emphatic about issues like this. On page 305, the last question asked of us is,
“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the worth and dignity of every human person.”
To which we respond, “I will, with God’s help.”
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people? Justice. Righteousness. Just treatment. Among all people. Will you respect the worth and dignity of every human person? The WORTH and DIGNITY of every one. Not just the nice ones. Not just the ones who are easy to like.
But everyone. The person who bugs us. The person who irritates us. The person who we innately just don’t like. Your priest….
And we respond with, “I will, with God’s help.”
We can’t do these things without God’s help. But with God’s help, we are able. That means that we must strive to do these things ALL the time, not just on one particular Sunday of the year. That means living it out in our daily lives, in our minute to minute, hour to hour lives. That means we don’t just get to have our hearing and speech restored to us on one occasion, but then we get to go back and be deaf and speechless the rest of the time. It means respecting the worth and dignity of all people, all the time. It means actively working and proclaiming and speaking out for peace and justice for all people all the time.
And for us who do this, we know what it feels like when we fail to do this, or when we see others blatantly deny people of justice and dignity.
When we do, we ask forgiveness of our God, of those we have wronged and we speak out when we see others doing it. This is a daily, moment to moment issue in our lives as Christians.
So, let us allow Jesus to touch our ears so we can truly hear. Let us allow Jesus to touch our tongue so we can truly speak out. Let us be a follower of Jesus with all our senses of justice and peace. Let us work hard, not just here in church, not just now on this particular Sunday, but all the time, for the worth and dignity of all human beings. When we do that, that is truly when the Kingdom of God comes in our midst and is uniquely present.
Let us pray.
Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart and especially the hearts of the people of this land, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.