I am now entering into my last year of studies at The Atlantic School of Theology. I am about to embark on a 10 week sermon series on the Parables at Fort Massey United Church in downtown Halifax, Nova Scotia and it was my intention to start this blog up again then, but the Spirit is funny. As the sermon below will share, my heart has been stirred recently. So, this morning I (nervously) presented a sermon at Crossroads United Church Pastoral Charge at St. James United Church in Goodwood and at Trinity United Church in Timberlea that I was stirred to write. I was the student supply minister here and have only preached there once before a few weeks ago. I would like to thank them for being so open to the Spirit as I shared what may have been a difficult message to hear. I hope you are also stirred by this sermon. May the Peace of Christ be with all of you.
SERMON – Faithful Discipleship
How about that scripture reading? Just a little light reading for a Sunday morning. It would be an understatement to say that today’s gospel reading is “difficult” to process. It was because it was hard that I decided to sit with it this past week, instead of choosing something else that may have been easier to write about. I have come to understand that it is these difficult readings that push me to be a better preacher and, I hope, a better human being.
This past week, I spent some time in Madison, New Jersey at Drew University for the Feminist Studies in Religion (FSR) conference titled “Making Alliances, Breaking Taboos, and Transforming Religion”. I was in the presence of some of the greatest feminist and womanist theologians and activists of our time – five generations of them we were told. Our Keynote speaker was a woman named Ruby Sales. Ms. Ruby Sales or Sister Mama Ruby Sales as she is sometimes called, is a social activist who, among many incredible acts, walked in the Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965 – marches made famous by the movie Selma about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s involvement in that demonstration. I believe that Ruby Sales is exactly the kind of person that Jesus calls us to be in this morning’s scripture – she is what I would call a faithful disciple.
In 1964, following a demonstration in Alabama where she had been arrested, she was buying a soda with her friends when threatened with a shot-gun by a man that would try to shoot her dead. A fellow marcher stepped in front of that bullet and it killed him instead. That man’s name was Jonathan Daniels. Jonathan Daniels was also a civil rights activist, but unlike so many marching in that time he was white. He was also practicing what he was learning to preach while studying to be a minister. Jonathan Daniels was literally willing to take up his cross and lay down his life in the face of violence because he fought for what he thought was right in the eyes of God.
Ruby Sales and the rest of the civil rights movement were deeply transformed by Daniels’ death. And, it is no mystery why his death mattered to the national public and politic more than the death of so many black activists that went before him –A white man had been killed because of his fervent belief and stance on the side of goodness and the problem stopped being about “black folk” not getting the vote. Daniels did something that few of us are ever willing to do even if we like to think we would: He used his power as a member of the colonizing culture to lift the voices of those who were fighting to be heard. He became a co-conspirator in the fight for civil rights instead of being a silent allied bystander. He followed Jesus Christ who stirred him from placidness and called him to be a a faithful disciple even unto death.
Ruby Sales said in an interview with Dr. Vincent Harding (best known for his writings for and about his close associate Dr. King) that, “Religion, for me, growing up in Columbus, Georgia, was the ground that I stood on that positioned us to stand against the wind.” My friends, that is the ground on which we too stand this morning. Our religion, this scripture, can help us stand against the wind that wants to keep us moving in the same direction that we have always moved. Not only does it ground us against that wind, but I hope that it will stir us in a new direction! In September of last year she did an interview for onbeing.org that addressed public theology and the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In it, she said,
“…there’s a spiritual crisis in white America. It’s a crisis of meaning <…> we talk a lot about black theologies, but I want a liberating white theology <…> I want a theology that begins to deepen people’s understanding about their capacity to live fully human lives and to touch the goodness inside of them rather than call upon the part of themselves that’s not relational. Because there’s nothing wrong with being European American. That’s not the problem. It’s how you actualize that history and how you actualize that reality. It’s almost like white people don’t believe that other white people are worthy of being redeemed. And I don’t quite understand that. It must be more sexy to deal with black folk than it is to deal with white folk if you’re a white person. So as a black person, I want a theology that gives hope and meaning to people who are struggling to have meaning in a world where they no longer are as essential to whiteness as they once were.”
In addition to hearing Ms. Ruby Sales speak, I had the honour of bearing witness to some very challenging words this last week from other powerful women. The words that touched me in the deepest (and often darkest parts of my soul) came from the mouths of Dr. Rachel Harding, Dr. Fulata Moyo, Dr. Melanie Harris, Dr. Traci West, and Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman. These women called me out! They called me out of a slumber that I first began to awake from last year when I watched a video of a black man being shot through the window of the passenger seat of his car while still wearing his seatbelt! These women called me out from the comfortable bed of white privilege in which I have been firmly and comfortably nestled my whole life. Yes – I went there. I said, “white privilege” Talk about breaking Taboo!
Let me be very clear: each and every time I hear those words they sting—but they sting for a different reason than they used to. I used to think that the term “white privilege” was “anti-white” and was meant to shame or hold all people with skin like mine responsible for the atrocities that happen to people of colour. When I would hear or read this term used by black people I would want to scream, “But, I’m not a racist!” Like many people that look like me, I would think, “isn’t it racist to talk about me and all people like me because of the colour of our skin?” But, I started to listen to what these voices were telling me, I started to learn that this is not an anti-white term or even a form of defensive racism (whatever the hell that is). These words sting now because my eyes and heart are opened to the reality that having skin this colour means that I automatically experience life in a very different way than people of colour. It also means that I have the responsibility to speak up for those whose voices others have tried to dismiss or silence because it makes them feel bad about themselves. Like Jonathan Daniels, I have a responsibility to use my power to help fight for justice in the name of all that is good and right in the eyes of the God I so believe in.
Because of the colour of my skin, I have the privilege to have the choice to make changes to systems where people with the same skin colour as me hold more political offices and positions of authority than all other skin colours combined. This is true in America and this is true in Canada. The colour of my skin does not make me better than anyone else, I have never believed that, but what it does is give me the choice to decide if I want to get involved in matters of racism. If I decide not to get involved then my life will not be affected either way. Because let me be real honest with you: I have never been denied a job because my name is associated with the community I grew up in that is constantly getting bad press. I have never had anyone make fun of the name my mother gave me because it sounds weird or because they can’t pronounce it. Clerks or security guards have never followed me around in a store. I have never been pulled over by the police except when I was actually speeding. I have never been called a name associated with the colour of my skin or ethnic group that was meant to demean or belittle me. I have never been called a terrorist or a gangster or a thug. I have never been asked what country I’m really from. I have never been asked if I am a “real” woman or to explain how I have sex. I have never been asked what colour my parents are. And, I have never had to prepare my children because any or all of these things might happen to them just because society has shown that, “that is just the way it is”. The truth is that I’m not involved unless I choose to be. That IS one of my privileges as a person that looks like me.
That is not to say that my life is perfect just because I’m white. I have problems just like other people. My whiteness does not mean that I am automatically rich or successful or part of the 1%. My whiteness doesn’t mean that I don’t have to work for what I have. My whiteness doesn’t protect me against the stigma of mental illness. My whiteness didn’t prevent me from being treated differently, and sometimes poorly, because I am female. At the end of the day though, I am a cis-gendered, white, heterosexual, educated, middle-class woman in a socio-political system that is mostly made up of people that look and sound like me. That doesn’t mean that I automatically have it easy, but studies and countless anecdotes tell me that it does mean that I have it easier than people that start from where I start, but have darker skin than mine. That is not a judgement –That’s just the way it is.
I know that this is not an easy message for you to hear because most of you also look like me. Our scripture today did not call us to make life easy for systems and powers that provoke fear, that damage souls, and destroy whole communities of people. That is the system that we inherited… right here in our province we can’t forget the reality of residential schools, the tragedy of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, or the atrocity of bulldozing Africville. No – our call this morning is to stop injustice going forward even if we can’t make passed wrongs right. It isn’t about blaming ourselves or taking responsibility for the racism of our ancestors, but about finding ways to stop making the same mistakes over and over again. It is about change – The scripture is meant to stir us from placidness and make us angry when we know something isn’t right. That might mean that our opinions and actions are not popular. I know there are people that would like me to just shut up about all this including members of my own family and community. Some of you may wish I would just get this over with already, but this past week I promised that I would stand up from now on instead of just standing by. I have heard the call to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ and fight against injustice, oppression, and fear. And so, I am trying.
This is just the beginning and I’m not even sure sometimes where to start. In my small group at the FSR conference I told them this story:
Last year I watched the video of Philando Castile (the video I alluded to earlier) being murdered by a police officer (A police officer who was acquitted on June 16 of Mr. Castile’s murder despite overwhelming evidence that proved his guilt). I had avoided watching those videos because I knew they would affect me and I wasn’t ready for that. I recognize now that even that is a product of my privilege – that I have the ability to choose whether or not I want to expose myself to such things. I watched that video though and it horrified me. I immediately wanted to talk about it. I wanted to feel better. I wanted to connect with black friends and figure out something – I don’t even know what I wanted…but I quickly realized that I didn’t have any black friends to talk to. I had a few black facebook friends, but they were not from Nova Scotia. I didn’t know right away why this was the case. I certainly don’t hate black people. I grew up in Dartmouth and remember having black friends in high school. It became painfully clear that just because I don’t hate, doesn’t mean that I made an effort to love.
I don’t have a good reason why I have not made this same effort with my black neighbours that I have made with others. This revelation told me that I don’t care enough to be intentional about being friends with people who look different than me. It told me that I might be a silent ally standing by (if I am even that), but I am certainly not a co-conspirator willing to stand up and march beside Black Nova Scotians in matters of social justice in the same way that I am willing to walk beside my LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters during Pride Week. My eyes were open and I knew I had work to do. The problem was that I didn’t know where to start and here I am a whole year later I still have no idea! How do I become a friend, an ally, a co-conspirator after all this time?
That’s what I earnestly and naively asked Dr. Traci West, a womanist activist and theologian who was in my small group of 5 women at the conference. And do you know what she told me? —-She told me that my work is not to try and interject myself into the lives of black people to make myself feel better! –Ouch. But, because Dr. West knows how to love people into change she proceeded to tell me what I DID have to to do next. She told me that my work is to stand up before people who look like me, other white people, and tell them this story. My work is to help others open their eyes to their own complacency and to the places where they could and maybe ought to choose to make a difference. My work, my responsibility from my place of white privilege, is to stand up when I see injustice and do something about it! I believe that Christ calls to us in the voices of other people. God had a voice last week and that voice spoke through Dr. West, Ms. Sales, and all those other women at the FSR conference who stirred me from placidness.
Today, I’m telling you that until black lives matter as much as white lives do, until First Nations lives matter as much as much as white lives do, until Syrian lives matter as much as white lives do, and until common actions and systems demonstrate that all lives really do matter instead of just being a pollyanna pipe dream embraced by white people like me to feel better about our place in the world, then we have work to do! The work isn’t easy and it must start inside of you. It starts by correcting people when they use racial or ethnic slurs that are so common that people don’t even know they are slurs anymore until someone like you brings it to their attention. It starts by telling someone that a joke about refugees, gay people, indigenous people, or black people isn’t funny – its no longer good enough to just not laugh. It starts by recognizing the difference between respecting and supporting other cultures and appropriating them. It starts when you start to speak up for what you know in your heart to be right and don’t let things slide because you are afraid of what others will think of you. It is possible to be angry and respectful while you do this work! –I’ve seen it and I’m trying to practice it. But, no matter how respectful or nice you try to be about it, it won’t make you popular, it won’t make you famous, and it certainly won’t make you rich. Standing up like this will go against everything our culture tells you is appropriate and right and it will even hurt sometimes because it will feel lonely. But know this: standing up will no longer cause harm to others like standing by sometimes can. In following Jesus Christ, who calls you through this scripture to take up his cross and follow him in the ways of justice and compassion, it is possible to find the kind of meaning that you may have been searching for all your life so that your life may give hope and meaning to others.
In his speech titled “Beyond Vietnam: Time to Break the Silence” drafted by Dr. Vincent Harding, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said these things,
“Now let us begin.” “Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter – but beautiful – struggle for a new world.” “Shall we say the odds are too great?” “Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard?” “The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”
Are you ready to start a journey to faithful discipleship? Don’t worry if you don’t know where to start…. Just sit with it awhile. Let it stir you, let it wake you up from your slumber. That feeling is the work beginning. It will move you if you let it…What is your heart calling you to begin today? Then, may it be so…