Monday, August 7, 2017

Turning Back is Our Only Option
A Sermon on Genesis 32:22-31
By Griff Martin
For the People of First Austin: A Baptist Community of Faith
On the Seventh Sunday Following Pentecost
August 6, 2017

Incarnate God, we ask that you once again take the Word and transform it into a living and breathing Resurrected reality we can all together experience. Be present here in this space and in these words God for if you are present here then nothing else will matter, but if you are not present here then nothing else will matter. In the name of the Creator, the Risen Christ and the Comforter.  Amen.

Imagine being on the run and knowing that your past is surely going to catch up sooner than later. We all know this moment (or at least we did before the world of social media where our lives are broadcast out all the time), it’s that moment when something that we have done or something that we have said and then tried to distance ourselves from and suddenly it’s there again and it’s the moment of reckoning.

It’s that moment when suddenly you know that you have two choices: you can try to run again but you are starting to understand how tiring running is and the truth that you can’t outrun this or you can finally turn and face it and face everything that it brings with it.

Our ancestor Jacob knows this moment all too well. His life has been one largely spent running. He runs from Esau after he steals a blessing and a birthright. He runs from his dad after he lies to him. He runs from his mom whose life he has left in disarray. He has run from his family of origin.

At this point in the narrative it’s twenty years of running. A journey that takes Jacob from Canaan to Syria. He settles for a bit but things turn sour with his uncle Laban and so off to running once again. But this time it won’t be so easy because his brother has almost caught up with him. So Jacob has two choices: take off running once again but in an entirely new direction (away from Esau and Leban) or he can finally turn and face his past.

And we need to give Jacob some credit, in 20 years he has really grown and changed. He is a better man at this point. And finally Jacob reaches what I think is the pivotal moment in his narrative, his moment of reckoning, when he stops running and he decides that now is time to turn around and face his Esau. It’s his Gospel moment.

And by Gospel, I mean the literal words of our Jesus Christ: “and you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”

Although I do believe that this Gospel phrase has been slightly improved upon by one of my favorite writers David Foster Wallace who says “the truth will set you free but not until it is finished with you.”

I think Jacob understood this, the truth was going to set him free but not until it has had it’s way with him. This might be why before facing Esau Jacob sends his children and wives away, to protect them. This might be why before facing Esau Jacob sends ahead gifts to try and win him over. This may be why the night before they encounter one another, Jacob can’t sleep and is left alone to wrestle all night long.

As I have sat with this text this week, I kept coming back to this moment of reckoning, this moment when Jacob finally decided that the only way to move forward was to face his past. Maybe it was the line from Carrie’s sermon last week: sometimes the only way to fix today is to deal with the sins of the past. And sitting amidst all that, I wondered what Jacob has to teach us this day.

Because I think as a people we are at one of those moments, a moment where our past has finally caught us and we have to decide what we are going to do and I pray to God that we choose to finally turn around and face the past and not to take off running in another new direction. Because I think we all know that our country is broken and that our political system and both parties are broken and that perhaps we are at a reckoning moment, and I believe with everything in me that nothing can be fixed until we deal with our past.

And our past is not named Esau, our past has a much darker name. Our past, the thing we are running from is more evil than just a brother we have stolen from (although surely that is part of this narrative as well), our past is turning around and facing the racism that is the backbone of our country, it is our original sin.

Now I know the first though that most of us have to that word- we are not racist, we don’t make racist jokes, we don’t use those terms, we might even go so far as to think that we don’t see color or that we are finally living in a post racial world and that racism is no longer a thing, which our black siblings would quickly tell us is the new racism- the new racism is denying racism.

And maybe we need to start there, most of us in this room participate and take advantages of systems of inequality, structures that are racist and we might not even know it.

At assembly this year Brian McLaren delivered a keynote about the future of the church, McLaren pointed out that most Americans know that in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue but we don’t continue on with that story and we don’t know that “in 1495 Columbus shipped 1600 slaves to this new country alive.” In fact some will go so far as to claim Columbus himself opened the Atlantic slave trade.

And that slave trade made America possible.

Which means that we need to face the fact that our country was indeed as TaNehisi Coates claims in his incredible book Between The World and Me, this world was built on the bodies of black men and women.

His words: “Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose minds is as active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own, who prefers the way light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoy fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, who excels at dressmaking, and knows inside herself that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone. Slavery is this same woman born in a world that loudly proclaims its love of freedom and inscribes this love in its essential texts, a world in which the same professors hold this woman a slave, hold her mother a slave, her daughter a slave, and when this woman peers back into the generations all she sees is the enslaved. She can hope for more. She can imagine some future for her grandchildren. But when she dies, the world- which is really the only one she can ever know- ends. For this woman, enslavement is not a parable. It is damnation. It is the never ending-night. And the length of that night is most of our history. Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been born free. Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains- whole generations followed by more generations that knew nothing but chains.”

Every structure that we know has this common foundation, built on freedom for white men. Even the very words that bind us a people: “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal, that all are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights-life, liberty and pursuit of happiness..” We should have stated “We hold these truths to be self evident as white men….”

It’s why Jim Wallis wrote the following sentence in 1987: “The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the new genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another.”

And we can’t do anything until we own that truth.

The truth will set us free. But not until it’s had it’s way with us.

Until we sit with the fact that for 250 years we allowed folks to own human beings simply because their skin color did not match ours. That for 250 years human beings were bought and sold as property. That for 250 years our country accepted slavery and most white churches not only tolerated it, but taught it, preached it, practiced it and benefited from it.

Until we sit with the fact that the only question that has ever almost divided our country and torn us apart was do we have the right to own black bodies. And as those who live in the south we have to sit with the fact that our very geography put us on the wrong side of that question.  And not just the wrong side, the evil side.

Until we sit with the fact that once we were forced to see slavery as sinful, we found other ways to enslave those who did not look like us. That once slavery ended, immediately began the history of Jim Crow Laws, Separate But Equal, Civil Rights and the horrible history there…. Until we can be honest about the fact that the Civil Rights came and went and the church largely fell on the wrong side of the issue.

Until we can be honest that even today we have found ways to continue to enslave those who don’t look like us.

In fact today still if I took you to a nursery and put a white baby next to a black baby and knowing nothing but their skin color, you would have a really good guess as to which baby was going to live longer, what baby would receive better education, which baby would receive better healthcare, which baby would have a better life.

Just listen…. Recent median household incomes for white families is $61, 175 compared to $40,007 for Latino families and $39,760 for black families. The median net worth that same year for white households was $141,900 and $13,700 for Latino families and $11,000 for black families (maybe it makes more sense like this: the median white family is thirteen times wealthier than the median black family).

The rate of infant mortality for black babies is more than twice that of white babies.

That African Americans make up only 13 percent of our population, yet make up 40% of the incarcerated population. … A world where black drivers are 31% more likely to be pulled over and then twice as likely to be searched….. A world where blacks are three times more likely to be arrested than whites. A world where black offenders are given sentences 10% longer than white offenders. A world where black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men.

A world where we don’t even know what it means to be white….If I asked you what it meant to be white, what would you say? I have participated in this exercise in graduate school in a seminar on diversity and we started off by sitting and writing down what it meant to be white/ black. I quickly observed how immediately my non-white classmates started writing and I noticed the frustration of my white classmates in not knowing what to write, until it boiled over and one of my friends said “I don’t know what it means, it’s just normal.” Sit with that for a minute.

Or just listen to the names: Treyvon Martin, Freddie Grey, Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner, Tamar Rice…. We need to know those names.

And we need to know the names of Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Depayne Middleton- Doctor, Clementa Pinckney, Tywanze Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson…. The Charleston 9, The Emmanuel 9. May we never again enter our worship space and not think about those nine names.

We are exactly where Jacob was…. There is a truth that has caught up and we have the option to turn and run in another direction until that truth once again catches us and when we run out of ways to turn and run… or we can be brave and we can turn and face it.

The truth is simple…there is an issue of race in our country and it is destroying us. It started when this country started and when for 250 years we allowed legal slavery of the black body. It continued with 100 years of Jim Crow. And it continues today with economic injustice, education and housing systems and criminal justice enslavement. The truth is simple, race and racism is our original sin.

Now for most of those years the church has been on the wrong side of the issue. Fighting for slavery, on the wrong side of Civil Rights, turning a blind eye to systems of injustice.

But we are at a moment, truly a pivotal moment, a tipping point and maybe we can finally be on the right side of this issue. In an age in which the church is often looked at as a dying institution, as a place that no longer matters…. Perhaps the church can matter if we are willing to take the lead, to be the Jacob’s who finally turn around and say “Let us wrestle with this, let us surrender our whiteness, we want to listen and we want to work together to make right what has so long been wrong.”

And what does that look like?

It’s more than just saying we are sorry, although that is a starting place. You can’t be sorry- you can’t repent until you are willing to change your ways. You can’t be sorry until you are willing to surrender and fight the systems that continue to enslave. Repentance is transformation, bring a whole new Kingdom to earth… the Kingdom of Jesus Christ where all people, all people, all people are equal.

It involves listening to the stories and witnesses of our non-white friends. And maybe that means you need to start by getting some non-white friends, and that is probably most of us because studies show that 75% of white people have no significant relationship with a person of color. Think about your social circle, does everyone who you truly trust have the same skin color that you do? Because if that is true, start there. Friendship and listening.

As Michael Dyson writes: “The more black folk you know, the less likely you are to stereotype us. The less you stereotype us, the less likely you are to fear us. The less you fear us, the less likely you are to want to hurt us, or to accept our hurts as the price of your safekeeping. The safer you feel, the safe we will be.”

It involves learning about our whiteness and the privileges that come from that… and this is where the truth is going to have its way with you. Start with the reading list provided in the worship guide today.  And then it’s talking with those around you about what you learn, teaching others these hard truths.

It’s going to be radical honesty that black bodies built the world that we enjoy today and that we are part of that system and we continue to benefit from that system. And how do we make reparations? It might be focusing on homeless crisis, it might be education. It’s going to be missional and it’s going to involve equality.

It is going to be trying to see the issues that face our world with eyes that are not our own. It is standing up for all children and their right to good quality education. It is thinking through making sure all people are fairly and equally represented. It is churches coming together for more than just a simple combined worship service, but creating community together.

And community is ultimately what this is all about. That is what Jacob found when he turned and finally faced his Esau. And it is what we will find when we finally turn and face ours as well.

Dr. King’s last work asked the question where do we go from here and he said we had two options: chaos or beloved community. We have chosen chaos for too long and it’s time for beloved community. It’s time to be brave like Jacob and to realize that turning back is our only option.

Turning back is salvation for the world and it’s salvation for us.

So may we turn aback and trust the words of our Jesus: You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free….

Amen and Amen.

This morning as we prepare to receive communion we are going to be led to the table with the hymn “For Everyone Born…” The hymn lists all the false binaries and divisions we have created that get in the way of true unity, this morning as you come to the table I am asking you to bring with you your idea of what you are going to do to create that unity in our world. Because First Austin if we can do this, we can bring about the very Kingdom of God.

* This sermon is greatly influenced by the following books:

America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America, Jim Wallis

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, Michael Eric Dyson

Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race, Debby Irving

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, Beverly Tatum

The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander

The End of White Christian America, Robert Jones

*artwork: Diversity Hands, by Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamin,


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