Wednesday, January 21, 2015


Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was John 1:43-51:

Today’s message is going to be very different from how I normally preach, because it’s going to be focused on four stories, and it’s also a little more personal than I normally like to be because these are also my stories.  But this message has been sort of bouncing around my mind for a while now, and I thought today was an appropriate time to say it.

The first two stories are about perceptions, or we should probably say assumptions.  When I was attending Harvard, I had to go to the cashier’s office one day and there was a long line waiting to talk with someone, and in front of me there was a very large man.  He was probably 6’4” and at least 250.  His neck was bigger than my thighs.  He was huge.  Now Harvard does not offer any athletic scholarships, nor do any of the other Ivy Leagues, although they still do quite well, including being undefeated in football this year and beating UNM in the NCAA tournament two years ago.  But that’s just bragging, but anyways this guy was huge and I instantly thought, I wonder if Harvard lowers its academic requirements in order to recruit and bring in some athletes to play for the school?  Does anyone want to make a guess as to the race of this particular student?  He was African-American.  The moment I asked myself the question I realized the outright bigotry that went into it, the assumptions that I had made, not only about him but about others like him.

Now I don’t know if Harvard lowers its standards for athletes, but I do know they lower their academic standards, sometimes dramatically so, for so called “legacy” students, or students whose parents and other family members have attended Harvard.  What race do you think they are predominantly?  Their white, and so there was probably a likelihood that someone in that office that day had been admitted without the same academic record of other students, but it was much more likely to have been one of the other white students, than it was an African-America, but I instantly made the assumption, one I am not proud of, but it is there nonetheless, that because he was an athlete, and an African-American athlete, because I don’ think I would have thought the same thing about a large white, male, athlete, and in fact know that I probably wouldn’t have, but I made the assumption that he didn’t really belong at Harvard, that he wasn’t “one of us,” that there had to be a special reason he was there, that he didn’t measure up, all based on the color of his skin.

Next story.  Many of you know that I love to read.  I’m normally in the midst of at least 2-3 books at any one time, with a stack waiting to replace them as soon as I’m done.  One of the authors that I like to read is Nevada Barr, who writes mystery novels starring Anna Pigeon who works for the US Parks Service, throughout the United States, but many of her stories take place in the south.  At the beginning of one of those novels, Anna Pigeon is attending the wedding for a deputy of her husband who is a sheriff, but then a little while later this deputy is described as being African-American, and again I had one of those moments of confusion and upset.  Why? Because I had naturally, or maybe not so naturally, made the assumption that the character was white.  I why did I do that?  Because the character was not described as anything when introduced, and therefore he must be white right?  Characters in most stories are not described as being white, they are usually only given a racial characteristic if they are something other than white.  The baseline assumption in America is that someone is white, and if they are of another ethnic group, then they will be described as such.  We assume whiteness as a start.

The next two stories took place in Boston.  Both churches where I served were in the suburbs of the city, both white congregations, and both had a sister-church relationship with an inner-city church in Boston, although the larger church had a much more active relationship.  The church, Greenwood Memorial, was originally built in a community that was home to different European immigrants as they came in, and the architecture and art of the church clearly represented that, especially with a large picture behind the chancel, which is the front of the church, of a painting of a very white, very European looking Jesus.  As happens in cities, especially cities with continuing immigrant populations, that white community eventually changed to an African-American community and then it changed into another immigrant community, which was still predominantly of African descent, but is now occupied by primarily people who have immigrated from the Caribbean, but the church and the imagery remain the same within the church.

Now in his testimony during our love feast after Christmas, Don Coates said that you haven’t seen spirituality in worship until you’ve worshipped in a black church in St. Louis, Missouri, and while I’ve never been there, I have seen that type and style of worship in black churches in Boston, and these are worship services that don’t just take one hour to complete.  And one of the pastors at Greenwood was once asked the worship services went on for so long, and we’re talking 3-4 hours, and he said that because one of the things that worship services are supposed to do is to build us up and give us the energy to go out into the world to face the week, and he said the simple truth is it took a lot more time to put his congregation back together after a week of being torn and broken down by society, of being told and shown in millions of ways that they were not worthy or equal, and so they needed more time to do that then did white congregations.  But I took one of my confirmation classes to worship at Greenwood, and as we  we’re leaving we talked about the worship experience, their thoughts and ideas, as well as what they thought of the paintings of a white Jesus, and one of the girls said, “Jesus is white isn’t he? Doesn’t everyone think that Jesus is white?” Jesus was a Jew from the Middle East, and yet we make the assumption that he looked like a white, northern, European.

My finally story also takes place at Greenwood memorial.  The weekend of President Obama’s inauguration, I preached a sermon in which I talked about Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson and their struggle to integrate major league baseball, a story  familiar to many more people now because of the movie 42.  But I said that what Robinson stepping onto the field represented a mile marker on the road, not the end of the journey.  Even if the Supreme Court did rule last year that racism no longer existed does not mean that we live in a post-racial America, and as an example I cited the story of Oscar Grant, an unarmed African-American teenager shot in the back by police in Oakland the week before Obama’s inauguration, and Grant was guilty of nothing more than being a black man in America.

That sermon was later published by the Boston Globe on their website, and I was also asked to preach it at Greenwood. Which was an honor, but what happened afterwards stunned me and made me realize how much as a white, heterosexual, male in America, who is therefore preferenced, how much I still don’t understand, how much I still don’t get, how many assumptions I still make based on how I see the world. That was because after my message, the lay leader followed-up on my message with the congregation, not by thanking me or building on my argument, but instead by reminding the members of the congregation what to do, not if they were pulled over by police, but when they were pulled over by the police. He reminded them all to be calm and respectful, to do everything that the police asked them to do, and most importantly not to antagonize the police in any way.

That was one of those moments in my life that made it so obvious to me that we have different realities about the world, and that my reality as a white person in America was very different from those of minorities, because in the churches I have served, and even those I have attended, I would never even consider having to make that statement, to remind people how to deal with police, because it’s not part of the reality for most of us as white.  It is the reality for some of us, and we also need to keep that in mind, and I certainly know others who I consider friends who are of minority groups who when they have “the talk” with their children, especially teenage boys, that it’s not about what we normally think of, but instead it is that same conversation about what to do when they are stopped by the police to make sure they come out the other side okay.  Because the simple truth it is different.

In our disciple class, one of the things we looked at was the idea of sin.  But normally when we think of sin, it’s about individual sin, but scripture very often deals with corporate or societal sin.  Sins against others and sins against God that take place because of societal structures and ideas which people are not willing to stand up against, or are not even cognizant are taking place, most often because they are on the receiving ends of the benefits of the societal sins and not thinking about how they affect others, or maybe even being aware that something is wrong because everything is working out fine for them.  We make assumptions, and we know what they say about assumptions.

I think that’s what’s happening in today’s passage, Philip gets called by Jesus and he follows, something we’ll continue next week, and then he goes and finds Nathaniel and tells him that they have found the messiah, and that he is Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth. And what is his response? It’s not “wow, that’s amazing,” or even “where is he?” Instead he says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” That is that Nathaniel instantly makes some assumptions based on everything he thinks or has been taught. If he was to have continued based only on that assumption, he would have missed out, but notice Jesus’ response. He doesn’t chastise him, or say “see how wrong you are.” Instead he says that in Nathaniel is “a person without deceit.” Nathaniel isn’t hiding who he is, but Jesus is also sort of saying, “Don’t believe everything you think.” It’s true that birds of a feather flock together, that is that we like to be surrounded by people who are like us; who look like us and talk like us and think like us. And sometimes that limits our abilities and opportunities to new ideas or new possibilities, we become stuck in our assumptions and either ignore or dismiss anything which might counteract our ideas that would open us up to those life changing experiences, and even worse we see others as “them” or “those people” and we ask “could anything good come out of Nazareth?” And in doing that we ignore our baptismal vows.

In a few moments we are going to remember those vows in which we vow to reject the evil powers of this world, which includes societal sins, we accept the power God gives us to resist injustice and oppression, and that is not just for us, but for everyone, everywhere, and we promise to serve Jesus “in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, national and races.”  That means that we are all brothers and sisters, and just as we wouldn’t ignore our own brothers and sisters who are facing injustice and oppression so to we must not ignore our brothers and sisters in the faith who face the same thing, whether it happens in our neighborhood, whether it happens at one of the pueblos or on the reservation, or whether it happens in another city, we are called to answer and most importantly to engage in conversation with everyone, not to get locked into only one side of the argument and to turn our back on the other, either literally or figuratively, but neither can we ignore it.  Of course this weekend we remember the work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was educated at a Methodist school, and the work of others in the civil rights struggle, a struggle which continues because the dream has yet to be achieved, and I hope that we will remember King’s dream and his statement that “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Or we might also say the day we live off the assumptions that we make of others.

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