Sunday, July 5, 2015

Shaking the Dust

The sermon for July 5 at Holy Trinity.

Do you know that every morning last week, when I drove to our church building here on The Plaza, I never once wondered if it would still be standing when I got here? And yet, all across Charlotte there were pastors who did. In fact, there were pastors who spent the night in their churches to make sure nobody came along and set them on fire. Why wasn’t I worried for our church?

It’s just one more thing that white people don’t have to worry about because they’re white. Most of those things we take for granted. Like we assumed this building would be waiting for us today when we came to worship.

We’ve been talking a lot about race lately, and I know some people are getting tired of it. But we’ve been talking a lot about race lately because we haven’t talked enough about it in the past, and now we’re seeing where that’s gotten us. I know I hear a lot of white people say things like, “I’m colorblind. Race has nothing to do with me, I don’t ever think about it.” And the very fact that we believe that about ourselves is an example of our white privilege. We may not think about it. But I’ve been told by black people that they think about it every single day. The way we see the world is not the same.

I first realized that back when I was in college and took a black literature class. This would have been in the 70s. It was my first experience of being the only white person in the class. My classmates seemed to resent my being there, although I couldn’t understand why.

Near the end of the term, there was a lot of buzz about Nikki Giovanni coming to campus for a poetry reading and I decided to go.

It seemed that every black person on campus was there. I had never been in such company and admit that I felt a bit uncomfortable when I took my seat, looked around and saw no other white faces. I wondered if everyone in the room resented me for being there like the students in my Black Literature class seemed to.

Before Ms. Giovanni spoke, some music started playing and everyone rose to their feet. I joined them, although I had no idea what was happening.

Suddenly, I was surrounded by thousands of people who were singing a song I’d never heard before in my life. They all knew every single word, which they sang with conviction. What was this song? How did they all know it so well? Where had they learned it? And why had I never heard it before? I learned that it’s widely known as the Black National Anthem. Subsequently I’ve sung it myself. It’s in our Lutheran Hymnal—“Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

I went to class with my black classmates, but I knew nothing about their world. Until that moment, I had na├»vely assumed our worlds were basically the same. But our worlds were not the same. They already knew that, and I didn’t. Maybe that’s why they resented my presence in their class.

Race is an issue in our country. And it’s high time we deal with it.

Now, there’s another issue that has come to the forefront of our consciousness as a nation the past couple weeks, and that’s marriage equality. For those of us who’ve been fighting for marriage equality, it’s something we’ve thought about every single day, much like a person of color thinks about race every single day. But for those who wished people whining about LGBT rights would go away, there was major head-in-the-sand syndrome going on so that when the Supreme Court decision was announced they acted like they never saw it coming. It’s been a rough couple of weeks for racists and homophobes.

Within our ELCA, since 2009 we’ve agreed to live with our differences about sexual orientation, and the Supreme Court decision has brought our discomfort with those who disagree with us out into the open. It’s hard to love people who clearly don’t accept you as a person, and it’s hard to know what to do with that. I’m also hearing from a number of people of color in our denomination who are fed up with being a part of a predominantly white church that seems clueless and doesn’t seem to want to change. Of course, our ELCA is a microcosm of the world around us.

What does it mean to follow Jesus in an environment like this? In today’s lesson from Mark, we learn that not everyone chose to follow Jesus. He went to his hometown and they flatly rejected him. When his disciples went out to share the good news, there were those who received their message warmly and others whom no amount of talking could convince. And what did Jesus advise them to do when they received that kind of resistance? Shake the dust off your feet and move on.

So, I’ve been thinking about what that would look like today. Many of us find ourselves in situations where there are those who oppose what we believe it means to follow Jesus. Often those who don’t see things the way we do also claim to follow Jesus. Sometimes they’re long-time friends and family members, and it’s painful.

It would be easy to conclude that shaking the dust from our feet means that we try not to let them bother us and ignore what they’re saying. But could that be what it means? Is that what Jesus did? Did he ignore the ones he disagreed with and spend all his time preaching to the choir? We know that with all the conflict between Jesus and those who opposed him, it was impossible for him to accomplish his mission and simply ignore the haters. Confronting the haters WAS his mission. And it landed him on a cross.

How many of you have ever, in your entire lifetime, told a joke or a story about black people that is derogatory? How many of you have ever heard a joke or story like that? When was the last time you heard one? Did you come back with a similar story of your own? Or did you laugh at the joke? Maybe you remained silent. That seems to be what most of us do. We may not laugh, but we don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable, so we just let it go. And what do we communicate by our silence?

How many of us will have the courage and the conviction to say, “I’m offended by your joke and I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t tell those kind of jokes around me?” Remaining silent is not acceptable for those who are trying to follow Jesus in this world. It’s time to get serious about following Jesus and break our silence. I would add that the same thing can be said for jokes about immigrants, and gay people, jokes about people who drink too much, overweight people, mentally challenged people, and old folks—all of which seem to have become socially acceptable in our society. I can’t imagine that any of this would be acceptable to Jesus. And I certainly can’t imagine that he would ignore it.

Shaking the dust from our feet is not avoiding confrontation. So then, what does it mean for us?

I see Jesus telling his disciples to shake the dust from their feet as much about stewardship as anything else. We only have so much energy, and we have Jesus’ work to do in the world. We can’t hope to convince everyone to join us. It ain’t gonna happen. And we can’t expend all our energy on convincing them or waiting around for them to join us. That’s not why we’re here. We’re not here to convince the world that we’re right and everyone else is wrong. We’re here to follow the Jesus Way in the world. It’s the way of love, mercy, compassion and justice for all, not just people who are like us, but all, as in all. We can’t allow haters to drain us of our power. For the power we can claim is the power of God’s gracious love working in us and through us.

And so, we do our best to embody the love of God in the world around us, though our words and in our actions. We’re not perfect and sometimes we mess up. But we know what our mission is. When others don’t see things the way we do, it’s not our mission to change them. It’s our mission to let them know they’re just as loved as we are. Sometimes that love includes confrontation. And should they reject us, we shake the dust from our feet and move on. That may not mean that we physically distance ourselves from them, because that isn’t always possible. But we distance ourselves emotionally and spiritually—and we move on. We don’t allow them to weigh us down and hold us back from following the Jesus Way in the world.

As we walk through this world, every once in a while, it’s important to look down at our shoes.

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