This sermon, by the same title, was originally supposed to be about the freedom to be creation that is the first dimension of the Easter message. Instead, it turned out to be a reflection on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., in parallel with the question about how to live in the wake of the self-sacrifice of Christ. And in the middle I got into a reflection on the constraints I realized I carry as a white person, the ‘shadow side’ of white supremacy, one might say. Now, I wasn’t very confident that all of that held together well in under 15 minutes. But I had a number of compliments on this sermon.
That leaves me wondering: what made this a good sermon (for some)? Was it beginning with a dramatic, contemporary story (a device I know works well, but I rarely use)? Was it my use of personal narrative and experience? Was it perhaps the surprising reflections on whiteness that made people see their own experience in a new light? I didn’t think the humor got as many laughs as I had hoped. Since I think this sermon had some problems working against it, I’m curious why people think it was good despite all that. Please comment!
Acts 4:32-35; John 20:19-23
As Christians, we live in the wake of a martyr, one who died in our place. How do you honor someone who died for you?
A few weeks ago, a French policeman named Arnaud Beltrame, found himself summoned to a lone terrorist hostage situation. He voluntarily took the place of the woman who was held hostage. When he tried to disarm the criminal, he was shot and killed. French President Macron put what he did this way: “To accept to die so the innocent may live.” What would you do if you were that woman whose place Arnaud Beltrame took? Think about that for a minute. Would you feel burdened by a debt you could never pay back? Or would you feel that you suddenly had a new lease on life?
This week we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr. Without taking anything away from the already monumental sacrifice of Arnaud Beltrame, I think King’s sacrifice brings us a step closer to Jesus. For he did not just “accept to die so that the innocent may live,” as was said about Beltrame. Now, he was pretty sure he was going to die. By 1968, he had been receiving death threats for a decade at least. But King’s speeches in the last days of his life, one of which is captured in our bulletin cover, seem to contain a haunting premonition of his death. It’s the same haunting premonition you hear in the Bible’s stories about the Last Supper.
But also like Jesus, King didn’t die only for the innocent. He certainly died so that African Americans and others—poor people, civilians in Vietnam as well as American soldiers involved in wars that were not absolutely necessary—would be liberated from injustice. But he also died for white America, for privileged America (and that’s me, I don’t know about you), so that we would be freed from our tacit complicity with an unjust system of laws, economic benefits, housing restrictions, educational inequality, and the rest—an unfair system, and God doesn’t want us tied to an unjust system. Now there were activists who were willing to see white people as the enemy, and from where they stood I can hardly blame them; but King was a Christian man, above all a minister and theologian. And he knew that God’s plan in Jesus was for justice that includes reconciliation with one’s enemies, not revenge against them. So let’s not wrongly narrow his legacy: oh, he died for black people. No, this black man was harassed and jailed and died for white people. And so we thank God for what Martin Luther King did for them, but for me.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying: Oh us poor white people. We suffered so badly being stuck on the lonely top of Mount Segregation. Of course not; we enjoyed plenty of benefits relative to people of color, and continue to do so. Sure, white people face all kinds of real challenges and suffering. (I haven’t frankly, but many of you have—addictions, domestic violence, and just the sadness and tragedies that inevitably accompany all human beings.) But think of it this way: if you could enter a lottery to be born in America, would you buy the ticket that has you being born as black, or as white? Who would choose to be born black instead of white in America today?
Not me. I recognize that it’s easier and safer to be born white. And of course, because we are called by God to justice, we have no choice but to desire to give up unjust privileges. Just as Jesus opened up the privilege of being God’s people to the Gentiles—and that’s us—so white Christians should desire to open up our privileges to all.
Now we can try to ignore God’s call, and try to live in ignorance of what is unfair. But because God creates us, injustice eats away at our souls. Benefiting from an unjust system does harm us. Don’t think that your humanity has not been constrained and even deformed by being white. It has nothing to do with race or biology. White flesh is created as good by God as any other. But this flesh has become deformed by being on the wrong side of justice. For instance, people from various European cultures used to enjoy a sense of belonging to a people, to one of many rich and meaningful cultures. They enjoyed belonging to a shared way of life in whatever little corner of England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, Poland, whatever—where they lived. They did not think of themselves as all blandly “white;” the fact that we now do shows us how much we’ve lost. Now today we have technology, and a lot more wealth, and a good share of moral and humanistic enlightenment. But how many of us today have a people? We’ve got maybe a nuclear family, or maybe just ourselves. We’ve practically forgotten how to live in community; it can seem to us like just a burden on our busy, self-directed lives. Somewhere deep in us we still long to be a people; we diligently do genealogies to connect us to a people that has been lost in a sea of whiteness. We long to be able to loose ourselves in a festival of dancing on the streets, like you see in Brazil during carnival or Mexico on saints’ days. If we tried to do that on 202, it wouldn’t be the same. Let’s admit that St. Patrick’s Day doesn’t cut it; it’s just an excuse to booze it up. We can try to find peoplehood in our American identity, but we’re now so divided that we end up writing off half of ‘our people’ as not true Americans. Our whiteness brought us many benefits, usually at the expense of others; but it took away our ability to have a people, leaving us to be lonely self-achievers.
Growing up I longed to have a people, though I didn’t understand this longing. So I found myself suddenly attracted to Chinese culture, because it seemed to offer such a deep and ancient tradition. (Full disclosure: this all began with watching Kung Fu movies—there’s your ancient Chinese tradition.) I grew out of that, although I studied Chinese and learned to respect Chinese culture. But early on I had also found myself so attracted to churches in the African American tradition. When I finally joined 12th Street Christian Church in Washington DC at the age of 31, it was a revelation. This was a real people of God, with a distinct way of singing, of preaching, of moving, and even of sharing humor—and at the center of this tight culture was God, the God of justice, the same God that had carried this people out of slavery. That deep gratitude to God for taking our side when the world was against us—or rather, when we were against them, but they never put it that way—that gratitude to God was so palpable and powerful and liberating. My whole body felt different after church—free, and relaxed, and swinging with the pulse of God’s Spirit. I bet you never felt that way coming out of this church.
Indeed, it wasn’t until I spent a few years at 12th Street that I realized how constrained I was as a white person. (And we had a good conversation about that at an Advent Bible study.) Hugging for me always required a real effort. Crying was something that could only be done in private. A deep belly laugh felt unnatural; I preferred a brief chuckle to express my mirth, but better yet was a sly smile. Forget about dancing, o my. And in church, as for many white people, I had learned to sit quietly; you don’t move in church. You sit before God like you would before a stern teacher. We don’t know how to cry out to God, except in private. We don’t know how to ‘get to shouting’—to exclaim, “Thank you Jesus.” Some of you tell me I sing well—God bless you! but then I know a lot of you have hearing problems, so I wonder—but before 12th street my voice was tight and thin. That church freed my voice. It’s that liberating spirit that is why African American music keeps drawing us in, from blues to jazz to mo-town to soul to funk to rap and hip hop, and always gospel music and the spirituals. You know, if I had to enter a lottery to get down and party, I’d take the black ticket over the white one. (Sorry.)
We white folk sometimes have trouble breathing easy; we are constrained. We’re constrained in our celebrating. Constrained in our ability to weep and mourn together. Constrained even in our silence, during which we are often distracted or uncomfortable. Constrained in expressing love to one another. I know my parents loved me, and still do; but it was like they were embarrassed to show love. And kids growing up with this feel these many facets of constraint, and so they start to fantasize about gangs, or the glory of fame, or crime, or violence, or becoming Chinese, or wherever they imagine they might find life that’s more real. Do you know what I’m saying? See, I could ask for an Amen if I were back at 12th street.
Maybe you’ve felt white guilt, but I bet you never thought of white people as impaired. What’s wrong with us? I’ll tell you what. We are afraid to lose control. We are afraid of losing control of our personal space, of our time, of our emotions, and of our precious inner thoughts. So we white folk constrain ourselves, because losing control is the worst thing that can happen to us. And this self-constraint harms us. When we are humble enough to admit this, we can begin to see our internalized constraint as God’s reminding us that no one is free until all are free. It is God’s whisper of justice. No one wins if someone else has to lose.
Now, people at 12th Street Christian church also were hurting; they had plenty of harm to deal with. But no one was there was burdened with that fear of losing control. You see, you aren’t worried about maintaining control if your people never had control in the first place. But we white folk learned to listen to and emulate or at least fear the mostly white men in our lives who were in control—the stern, remote fathers, the business owners, the generals, the statesmen, the people bearing arms, the ministers, the colonialists, the slave owners. We learned from them to fear losing control, and we took that lesson deep into our bodies, so that even our most intimate relationships and our inner selves have been affected.
God showed me that big scale injustice has very intimate repercussions. And God also showed me the way to healing. I learned at 12th Street that there is liberation for us white folk too, just like Dr. King believed in. I felt freed from all that internalized constraint, and in my friendships there I felt genuinely part of God’s whole humanity. God can and does deliver us from our fear of losing control, because the control we had was never a good control to begin with. And many of us have learned that its good to express emotion and to embrace our feelings and our body and our children.
Easter is all about giving up control. The authorities thought they could control Jesus and his disciples with the threat of death, and the cross was designed to lift up that threat and show it off to everybody all around. The cross worked the same way that the burning cross and the lynching tree have been used in America, or people today inscribing swastikas, or internet trolls posting their death threats, or an angry white man putting a bullet into Dr. King. But God showed in Jesus that those who lose control of their lives for God’s sake will find a power of life that even death cannot constrain. And so by God’s transforming power, even that cross now signifies not a controlling threat but the power of life beyond all constraints. That cross gave birth to a people who found joy in serving and loving one another, so that control and constraint no longer reigned in them. We get an almost absurd picture of that in Acts, where the early church is depicted as so much “of one heart and soul” that they had no private possessions.
We probably won’t take things that far, but who knows? For now, we’re still trying to figure out how to live in the wake of a martyr, how to honor someone who died for us. Like Dr. King, Jesus didn’t die so we would be wracked with guilt—although guilt is something white people are good at! Jesus died so we could live, live in the fullness God intended for us; to live free—not as lonely individuals, but as a people. For true freedom is found in being in love with God and with one another. We’re aiming to get there, but we know that they way there lies through the cross, which for us will surely involve taking a good hard look at just how much the legacy of racist control is still haunting our world and our own bodies.
We’ll spend the next seven weeks of Easter marveling at and learning to live by this new life of Easter brought to us by the risen Christ. The disciples were constrained in a way that was the mirror image of white people afraid of losing control. The disciples feared those in power, those who had control. But we can all relate to the feeling of locking yourself in a room. And suddenly Jesus appeared among them and said, “Peace.” He reminded them of his martyrdom, showing his pierced hands and side. And they then realized that this was a martyrdom not constraining them by guilt and debt but liberating them for life, for Jesus would always be with them. “They rejoiced.” And then he said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He freed them from their constraints and their hiding behind locked doors, for they realized that this fear being used to control them had nothing over God. And Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on them, and they once again breathed easy, even as they faced a hostile world.
In John’s telling, only three sentences separate the appearance of the risen Christ and his gift of the Holy Spirit. In Luke and Acts, there are 50 days between these two events (Pentecost comes from Greek for 50th [day]). And we will need all of the remaining 50 days to explore this new life we have between Christ’s rising and the Spirit’s holiness.