Last week I had the honor of being the guest preacher at the First Congregational Church of Eugene, in Eugene Oregon. In light of recent events, I spoke about racism, specifically in Oregon, and wanted to share the audio and the text with you here. The Scripture passage was Mark 5:21-43.
I have a relative who lives in Albany, Oregon. His church recently called a new pastor and he was part of the search committee. When I asked him about the experience, he told me that they had one very important theological question that they asked every candidate. Indeed, it is one of the most important questions I’ve heard a church ask since moving to Oregon last year. A pastor’s livelihood depends on the answer, in fact, a pastor’s eternal soul hangs in the balance in answering this question.
The all-important question is this, “Are you a Beaver or a Duck?”
I know. Mind blowing. I mean, let’s just get to the heart of the issue here in Oregon. Did you all put Pastor Jonathan through that? Since he isn’t here, we can talk about him, right? I bet he’s a Beaver fan…
Which is a dangerous thing to be here in the heart of Eugene. I mean, have you ever stopped to think about the great divide that is the rivalry between the Ducks and the Beavers? It’s called the Civil War! Apparently, the rivalry is so intense that we Oregonians had to name it after the worst conflict that the United States has ever seen.
In Washington they call their rivalry the Apple Cup. Isn’t that cute? You know, the rest of the country thinks we Oregonians are a bunch of laid back hippies. No way. We mean business. We have the Civil War.
And I will not tell you which team my family roots for because most of you might be deeply offended. But I will tell you that during worship services, my oldest son sits up in the balcony and creates a miniature art studio. During the sermon he draws pictures, usually of Beavers.
One of the interesting things about sports rivalries is that if you are a fan of one team in a rivalry, it means that you have to hate the other team. Sure, there are some luke-warm fans who root for whichever Oregon team is in the bowl game. But if you are a Duck fan, it means you hate the Beavers and if you’re a Beaver fan you hate the Ducks. There is a divide, a line drawn in the sand, barriers are erected. Either you are with us or you are against us.
My wife will tell you that my sports passions are crazy and weird. And I will tell you that she’s right. In fact, I will tell you that she is always right.
Fortunately, sports rivalries are mostly harmless. Granted, there are times when hostility and violence break out in sporting events, but it’s rare. Unfortunately, there are other divisions and rivalries that are much more harmful in our culture because they create in us an identity of hostility over and against the other side. This hostile identity creates a divide between “us and them.” It tells us who is included and who is excluded, who is good and who is evil. This hostility threatens every aspect of the United States, including our political, religious, economic, and, as we are painfully aware of during this last week, racial divides.
And this is why I love Jesus. He comes into the world and he tears down the hostile barriers that we’ve constructed that pit us against one another. And in place of that hostile identity he builds a new identity within us that he called the Kingdom of God. That identity is not based on hostility against an enemy, but rather on an all-inclusive love. Jesus, the great Jewish rabbi, took the greatest commandment in his spiritual tradition and extended it. No only shall you love your neighbor, our rabbi Jesus said. But if you plan to follow Jesus, you will love even your enemies.
Love is how Jesus tears down hostile divisions between us and them. Love is how Jesus reconstructs a whole new world, healing the world and ourselves with God’s love. The good news is that we saw one barrier brought down this last week by God’s love as the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality, breaking down barriers to marriage for our lesbian and gay sisters and brothers. And that divine love that breaks down barriers is on full display in our reading this morning.
Jesus was walking with his disciples and a crowd had gathered around him. A well respected leader of the synagogue named Jairus came to Jesus and fell at his feet. He begged Jesus to heal his sick 12 year old daughter who was near death.
Jesus agreed to help, but while he walked to Jairus’s house, the crowd grew bigger and pressed in on him. We meet a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years. This constant hemorrhaging made her a social outcast. People in her day avoided her. People in our day likely would avoid her too. To make her situation worse, she spent all of her money on doctors who promised to heal her, but they never delivered on their promise. She was on the margins of her society. A divide had been created between her and everyone else. Her society had given up on her, but she hadn’t given up on herself.
She heard that a healer named Jesus was in town and fought her way through the crowd towards him. She thought, “If I only touch his robe I will be healed.” Indeed, she touched his robe and her bleeding stopped. Jesus sensed that healing power had gone forth from his body. He turned around and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” The story tells us that the woman came to Jesus “in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.” Jesus responded to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease.”
In the meantime, as Jesus was delayed from Jairus’s daughter by the elderly woman, some people from Jairus’s house came and told him that his daughter had died. In the midst of this horrible news, Jesus looked Jairus in the eyes and said, “Do not fear. Only believe …. The child is not dead, but sleeping.” After Jesus said that, the crowd laughed at him in disbelief. But Jesus paid no attention to the crowd. He knew his mission was to give life to those who were dead.
Now I don’t know if Jesus literally brought the dead girl back to life. I don’t know if Jesus literally healed a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years. But I do know that Jesus did something that was just as miraculous as a literal healing. Jesus does provide healing by deconstructing our rivalries and hostilities against one another. He deconstructs the ways that we marginalize people. Rivalry, hostility, exclusion, and marginalization are the ways of death. And Jesus brings an alternative way of life through God’s all-inclusive love.
How many of us here today need to hear those healing words of Jesus? How many of us are like the elderly woman who was bleeding and suffering for 12 years as a social outcast on the margins of society? How many of us are like the leader of the synagogue who’s loved one was on the verge of death and in desperation throws himself at Jesus’s feet? How many of us need to hear the healing words Jesus spoke to the woman who was bleeding, “You are my daughter” or “You are my son.” “You are a loved and valued member of this community.” How many of us need to hear the healing words Jesus gave to Jairus’s daughter, “Beloved little girl. It’s okay. It’s time to get up.”
On an individual level, I know that I need to hear those words of healing and maybe you do too. But I also know that on a national level, the United States needs hear those healing words.
Because on the same day that we celebrated the Supreme Court decision in favor of marriage equality, we also witnessed the funeral of Reverend Clementa Pinckney. It was an important reminder that in the midst of celebrating the justice of marriage equality, we have so much work to do to heal the divide of racism that continues to infect the US.
The United States is like Jairus’s daughter. We are sick and near death. And we need someone to wake up and name our sickness.
The United States is like the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years and needed healing. I’m struck by the fact that the woman came to Jesus, in fear and trembling, and quote “told him the whole truth” and that’s when Jesus said she was made well and healed of her disease.If the United States is going to heal from racism then we need to be like the bleeding woman and tell the whole truth so that we might be healed of our disease.
I, as a white man, need to tell the whole truth so that I can be healed of racism.
Because, you see, the blood that the United States has been hemorrhaging since before our nation’s birth has largely been African and Native American blood.
The black blood that was spilled in Charleston was spilled in Baltimore was spilled in Ferguson was spilled in Chicago was spilled in Cleveland and has been spilled in virtually every city in America since its founding.
And thank God that the Confederate flag is coming down throughout the south. You may have heard that yesterday Bree Newsome courageously stepped out of the crowd and risked climbing that flag pole in South Carolina. She brought down the flag that’s been hemorrhaging hatred for over a hundred years.
But I wish I could tell you that racism is a problem that only exists somewhere else. I wish that I could tell you that we here in the north, that we here in Oregon, are innocent. But we’re not. We need healing too. And to get that healing, we need to tell the whole truth.
The good news is that we are having a more truthful conversations about racism in our culture. The General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ recently stated that “Racism remains a wound at the heart of our nation that cannot be wished away or treated carelessly. We are theologically and spiritually compelled to seek the elimination of racism within ourselves, in the church, and in society.” And the way we do that is to be honest about racism within ourselves.
For example, did you know that when our beloved Oregon became a state in 1859, it was the only state admitted to the union whose constitution made it illegal for black people to live, work, or own property in the state? For the first 70 years of our state it was illegal to be black in Oregon. The seeds of racism were planted in our very constitution. I never learned Oregon’s racist history when I was in middle school, high school, or even when I attended college in Oregon. I only learned it during the last few weeks. It’s been swept under the rug.
Of course, we don’t live in 1859 anymore. It’s 2015, but because we’ve swept Oregon’s explicit racist past under the rug, I’m afraid we’ve also swept our implicit racist present under the rug. Oregon’s racist past is evident in our present by the fact that Oregon has one of the lowest African American populations in the country, about 3%.
I’m friends on Facebook with one of my seminary professors who is an African American. He wrote a post to his white friends on Facebook that cut to the heart of the racial divide for me as a white man living in the US. He said, “To all my white friends, if you live in your neighborhood, if you go to church, if you go shopping, and if you go to work and rarely see any black people, then you live in a white world that is constructed by the sin of racism and white privilege. You may think that white world is normal, but it isn’t. It’s sinful because of the sin of exclusion.”
I don’t know about you, but those prophetic words hit hard because for me, they are true of my experience of white privilege in Oregon. Your life may be different, and I hope it is, so let me own this. I grew up in a white world in a suburb of Portland and by in large I live in a white world here in Eugene. Like the southern Confederate flag of oppression, my white world is a sign of the racism and white privilege that infects me. And sometimes that truth is hard to hear. Like the bleeding woman, there was a certain fear and trembling when I realized the truth behind the words of my seminary professor. But then I read the passage from today and I realized that what Jesus says to Jairus he also says to us, “Do not fear.”
Why shouldn’t we fear? Because white fear and white guilt aren’t helpful. The truth about our past and present is helpful so that we can change our future. And the truth is that white America has benefited from systemic racism throughout our history that includes slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow segregation, racist economic and housing policies, and the modern Jim Crow of the prison industrial complex.
What are white people to do in the face of American racism that continues to divide our nation? There is hope because there are things we can do. One of the worst things we can do is try to be the white savior. Frankly, we’re not good at being saviors, and besides, we already have one. But one of best things we can do is to seek friendships with African Americans as we share our lives together and walk hand in hand as we seek justice. We can listen to their stories without becoming defensive when we hear their truth about racism in America. We can read African American authors, particularly James Cone’s book “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” and Michelle Alexander’s all-important book “The New Jim Crow.” We can stop racist jokes and comments when we hear them. We can keep talking about how racism infects our culture. We can confront gentrification that benefits white people and pushes black people further to the margins. We can participate in political campaigns and vote in ways that confront racist policies of our past and of our present. We can claim that black lives matter because for too much of our history we’ve claimed that black lives don’t matter.
And we can go online to watch African American pastors preach. When you go home, I’d encourage you to look up Reverend Otis Moss III, the pastor at the historically African American Trinity UCC in Chicago, the largest UCC church in the US. Last Sunday he preached on the Charleston tragedy. He talked about Chris Mathews, a white reporter for MSNBC. On his show, Matthews said he couldn’t believe that after such a horrific tragedy those families could forgive the man who killed their loved ones. In his sermon, Otis Moss replied that Chris Matthews couldn’t believe that kind of forgiveness because Matthews has never been to a black church.
I tell you what, there’s a lot that we can learn from that radical forgiveness. I’m still trying to understand such grace. Like the crowd that laughed at Jesus in total disbelief when he told Jairus his daughter wasn’t dead but only sleeping, many are in disbelief about the forgiveness of those families. Many claim that it’s cheap forgiveness. But there’s nothing cheap about that forgiveness. What’s cheap is a response to that forgiveness that is judgmental.
As President Obama suggested in his eulogy on Friday, if that radical forgiveness doesn’t change us, if that forgiveness doesn’t break our hearts so that they can grow bigger and more loving and more forgiving so that we seek greater justice and healing in the world, then our response is a refutation of that forgiveness. Do not refute that forgiveness, that amazing grace, instead, let us participate in it.
And in all of these things that we can do, let us work together to follow in the spirit of Christ that breaks down the hostile barriers that divide us against one another. And let us heal that divide with the bridge of love that is called the Kingdom of God.
So may you go forth with the faith that God is healing the divisions in our world.
May you go forth with the courage to face the truth about racism that infects our nation and our lives.
And may you go forth with the love and forgiveness of God that breaks down every barrier of hostility and heals the divide with God’s all-embracing love. Amen.
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