Preached at Holy Trinity on December 7, 2014.
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…” That’s how Mark begins his gospel. For the first people who read these words, it packed a wallop. That word for good news was typically used when the Empire announced its decrees. And the label Son of God was reserved for Caesar. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” was a gutsy statement. And it told the readers of the earliest gospel in our Bible that this is the story of someone who didn’t live by the rules of the Empire. He didn’t go with the flow and fit into his culture. He lived his own way in the world, which was God’s way.
There is no story of the birth of a baby in Mark. Instead, Mark’s gospel account begins with John the Baptist. He links John to the prophet Elijah, the one whose return would be a sign that the Messiah is about to make an entrance.
John is aligned with the Old Testament prophets. So, in order to get John, we need to get Old Testament prophets. From our modern usage of the word prophet, we often think of them as fortune-tellers. But that’s actually not what prophets do in the Bible. Prophets don’t predict the future, they analyze the present for the sake of moving toward a different future. In other words, they say, Folks, this is what you’re doing. And if you keep doing it, here’s what you can expect. There are consequences for the way you’re living. If you want a different future, you need to make some adjustments to your present. So, the most important thing the prophet does is tell it like it is. Prophets are truth-tellers. Of course, that’s why prophets don’t get invited to a lot of parties. I mean, really, who wants to be around someone who’s telling you the truth all the time?
Have you heard about all the controversy that’s been going on regarding the curriculum of Advanced Placement history classes taught in high school? In these AP classes, students are encouraged to take a critical approach to US history. So there is no white-washing of the truth. Yes, our country has accomplished some amazing things and we can all be proud of that. But our forbearers were flawed. Our country’s motives haven’t always been pure. And there are those who are so offended by the very thought of it that they’re convinced exposing students to this curriculum threatens to destroy America. But isn’t it only destroying the lies about America?
This past week, the most destructive lie in our nation’s history has been smacking us in the face. And if we don’t recognize the truth about ourselves, things are only going to get worse. The fact is, we pride ourselves on being a nation where all are created equal, but we have never operated that way. Our nation was founded by an elite class that owned land. Land that produced wealth for them on the backs of slaves. All people may have been created equal by God, but they were not treated equally by other people. And that hasn’t changed. The racism that created slavery lives on, despite the fact that we would like to believe otherwise. It’s something that is always boiling beneath the surface in our country, waiting to blow.
I have a white friend who is totally baffled by all the anger over the grand jury decision in Ferguson. Her point is that the grand jury did their job. The evidence presented wasn’t enough to bring the police officer to trial. Those are the facts and it makes no sense to see how angry people have become over this. She thinks this is all about one court case. The way I see it, she just doesn’t get it. The court cases in Ferguson, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Cleveland have become flashpoints. Never mind whether the decisions in those cases were justified or not. That’s not really the point. The point is, people in this country are angry. Racism is pervasive and it’s real. It’s been with our nation from its birth and we’ve never dealt with it, so it’s not going to go away. That’s the truth.
The black people I know can tell you all about it if you ask them. (They might tell you even if you don’t.) But most of the white people I know don’t see racism as a major problem. What they see as a problem is the way black people have been acting. But racism is not a problem for them. I suspect that’s because it seems to be working for them. And now I need to stop talking about them and start talking about us, because I’m as white as they come. And with my white status come certain privileges. As a white mother with a white son, I have never worried about my son being denied any opportunity because of the color of his skin. I have never worried about my son being arrested for something he didn’t do. I have never worried about my son being shot in the street. I certainly have never worried about my son being killed by a police officer.
So, am I a racist? I’m a liberal who grew up in the 60s. I have marched with the NAACP. I pastor a church where all are welcome. I have dear friends who are black. I voted for Obama… both times. Surely, I’m not a racist!
Have you ever noticed how quick we white folk are to say, I’m not a racist? Well, I want you to know the truth about me. I am a racist. It took me a long time to realize that and then even longer to admit it, but it’s true. I grew up in the upper Midwest where racism was more subtle than it was in the South. And that’s what made it dangerous. I knew it wasn’t nice to use the N word. I was polite to the black students in my classes and liked to believe that I treated them just like everybody else. But I didn’t. They weren’t welcome at my table in the school cafeteria. I would never have considered dating one of them. They lived in a different part of town. They had their world and I had mine.
I am convinced that it’s pert near impossible for a white person growing up in this country not to be affected by racism on some level. It’s in our wiring. The only way we can deal with it is by admitting that we have a problem and then entering into the recovery process. We can never say, “I’m not a racist any more” in much the same way that an alcoholic can never say “I’m not an alcoholic anymore.” When it’s in your wiring, it’s always who you are. There are no former alcoholics, only recovering alcoholics. There are no former racists, only recovering racists. Nothing is going to change until we can be honest about the lies that we carry around inside us.
Now, this truth about lies doesn’t only apply to racism. There are a lot of other lies we use to prop ourselves up, lies that keep us from the authentic lives we were created to live. But racism has been in our face this week. And it happens to be the second week of Advent when we’re focused on the message of John the Baptist, calling us to prepare the way of the Lord through repentance. So it seems pretty clear to me that, as God’s people, on this day, we are being called to confront the truth about race for us. I hope you will spend some time doing that if you haven’t already.
“John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness…” The wilderness. A wild place. A lawless place. A place where the going is difficult, but anything is possible. “John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” It wasn’t baptism the way we practice it today in the church. It was a baptism of cleansing, of washing the old life away, so you could begin again. That’s where repentance takes us. It means to change the direction of our lives. To be headed one way and then realize, Wait a minute, I’m going the wrong way. So we turn around and begin again, headed a new way. The key to repentance is that turning point, when we realize we’re going the wrong way. That can only happen when we’re honest with ourselves. We can live a lie and continue the way we’ve always gone. But in the end, we probably aren’t going to be real happy with where that way takes us. Or we can face the truth. We can repent.
And that’s how we prepare the way of the Lord. That’s how we open ourselves to follow the Jesus Way in the world. It’s the way of one who didn’t live by the rules of the Empire. He didn’t go with the flow and fit into his culture. He didn’t prop himself up with lies, but lived authentically before God.
May the Jesus Way be our way.