Communion Meditation -- July 5, 2020

Communion meditation: July 5, 2020: Pardeeville

Romans 7:14-25a, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30


            I remember weeks, back in my preaching life, when I’d sit at my desk and stare at the screen, or the note pad, or the typewriter, and think, “What on earth am I going to talk about this week? I’ve got nothing!” I was always grateful for the lectionary, which at least gave me a starting point.

            This is not that kind of time. Any preacher who can’t find something to talk about these days isn’t trying. To me, the gospel is in my face and screaming, as it should be for all of us.

            You have heard Paul spill his guts. God help me, every time I turn around I’m doing something I wish I wasn’t doing. And as he gropes to find the right way to say this thing that seemingly has no words, he has, perhaps inadvertently, given many of us license to keep on behaving badly. It’s not me! It’s sin! So somehow none of this is my fault.

            But even if this text has let many of us off the hook, it didn’t exonerate him. I’m a miserable human being, he says. Who can free me from this death trap?

            Although it would be easy to get into linguistic nit picking with this, which Presbyterians would be exceptionally good at, I feel this one in my guts. I don’t mean to hurt people, but I know I do. I don’t wish to be party to injustice and oppression, but I have. I want to be a part of the solution, more than I am part of the problem, but I’m guessing that this is a battle I am losing as well.

            If that angst sits in your gut, as it has in mine, let me implore you to simply hold that. Sit it next to you, and together, through the lens of that frustration, hear about this.

            Our gospel is one of my favorite parables. This morning’s text is in two pieces, the parable, and the sermon. Please listen for sacred words to you. (Read Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30)

            So what’s so cool about this? You might be thinking. Well, the imagery is distant and strange, so let me unpack some of it.

            Imagine a grand marketplace. The mall. Center city. Farmers’ Market. County Fair. The place where all the community gathers, and does business, enjoys each other’s company, works and plays.

            Two groups of kids meet up. It’s the Saturday gang. No school today, it’s a play day.

            Most kids’ games, perhaps even today, come out of the imagination of children. And their imagination is often framed and given structure by what the grown ups around them do. This was especially true then, when there wasn’t an entire childhood industry driving the economy. They played games that mimicked their parents.

            Two games are described here. One is the wedding game, characterized by piping and dancing. The other is the funeral game, characterized by weeping and moaning. Both, you’d have to assume, were pretty fun games, and a good chance to mock grown ups while they weren’t looking.

            But they couldn’t agree on which game to play. So Jesus paints a picture of two stubborn groups of kids who waste their day in a standoff, because neither will concede anything.

            To me, the smallness of their thinking is magnified by the fact that, if these kids would just look up and see where they are, they’d realize that there was an even better game, right there! It was the whole marketplace! Think of the trouble they could get in just running around and marveling at all that was there! But no. They were stuck in their own expectations and demands. They were in gridlock, with grand opportunities for delight lost to them.

            So. You’ve got Paul’s lens in one side of your glasses, with his agony of spirit. In the other lens, you’ve got short sighted children who can’t get past their narrow view of things, to be in the world in a whole new way.

            Holding them both in place, I would like to take up a bit where Paul Francis left off last week. I want to talk about race, and racism. Actually, to be more specific, I want to invite, to initiate a conversation about race and racism.

            On May 25, George Floyd died. Probably because we got to watch it, the world went nuts. Marches have taken place everywhere in the world. Cops have been fired. Black Lives Matter has been painted on the streets of Washington DC. And everywhere, people are rising to the thought that this might be the thing that changes things.

            But I learned this week that George Floyd was only one of 506 people killed by police officers in the US this year, according the Washington Post. They weren’t all black, nor were they all avoidable, certainly not all unjustified, by someone’s reckoning.

            Minneapolis looks to be disbanding their police department and starting over. All over the nation, cops are going to back to school to learn better ways. Social workers and mental health specialists are being called out to do the work cops aren’t trained to do in the first place. Laws restricting police response choices are being hastily drafted. And it’s easy to think, “ahhh! We’re finally there! We’re finally going to turn the corner! We’re on the verge of becoming the nation we say we are every fourth of July!”

            And yet, we’ve been here before. We said that when Emmett Till died. We said that when Rosa Parks sat on the bus. We said that when they killed Medgar Evers. And Dr. King. And Malcolm X. And Michael Brown. And Eric Garner.

            We went through every major city in the U.S. and named a street Martin Luther King Drive. We even elected a black president. And yet, what has really changed?

            The average black family in America is worth one tenth of what the average white family is worth. We still fund public education with local property taxes, ensuring that poor neighborhoods will have underfunded schools, and we will have a permanent underclass. The list of realities goes on and on, and we know a lot of them already.

            You and I want to do something. We want to respond.

            I’m a person who learns big lessons from small encounters. They stick with me, and have an impact on me. These lessons I learned about my urge to live inclusively, to live in diversity, have come to me from Native America.

            They came when we were brand new in Rice Lake. The year was 1986, the year judge Barbara Crabb declared that the tribes in Wisconsin, by treaty, maintained hunting and gathering rights in the ceded territories of Wisconsin, which is roughly the northern third of the state.

            One came when I was asked to moderate the session of the Stone Lake Presbyterian Church on the Lac Couderay reservation. I got to my first session meeting, and after some introductions, I thought I was being sensitive and liberal and inclusive by asking what some of the issues were that faced the tribe. One of the elders, who was also a tribal elder, looked at me impatiently and said, “Read a book! We don’t have time to educate you! We’ve got to figure out what to do about our food pantry!”

            The second was a class I took on White Privilege at our Synod School a couple of years ago. It was led by the woman who has been our Synod executive, Elona Street Stewart, who along with Gregory Bentley has been elected co-moderator of our General Assembly at their virtual meeting last month.

            The room was full of white folks in the same kind of pain I have been in for nearly 50 years over all of this. And Ms. Street-Stewart, who is Native American, had no time for any of it. She spent the whole week saying, “I want you to read this, and I want you to read this, and I want you to read this…”

            I have concluded a couple of things from this, rightly or wrongly. One is that people of color are tired of educating us about who they are and what our people have done to them. The other is that, while our urge might be to run into Madison or someplace to find a bunch of people of color to make friends with, (which incidentally we’re probably all a little too frightened to do), they are saying to me, to us, you’re the problem. You need to deal with your own stuff before we meet you in the marketplace and find some way to play together.

            The “white” rebuttal, if one can call it that, has at times been, “I didn’t kill any Indians. I didn’t own slaves. This isn’t my fault, so get over it.”

            In her amazing book, Dear White Christians, professor Jennifer Harvey speaks to this by inviting a simple test. She says, “imagine asking a Protestant congregation to identify five unique and positive characteristics they associate with their racial identity.” She says that answers that celebrate unjust privilege or dominance would be ruled out.

            She thinks most white folks would have trouble with this. I do.

            She also says that people of color have no trouble with this exercise. They are able to celebrate their racial identity with ease.

            That’s the difference between hearing someone yelling Black Power and someone yelling White Power.

            Obviously, there is way too much to say about this, and I could go on and on. In fact, I have, and I’m sorry.

            But all this is to say two brief things. One is, that I don’t know where this goes. God leads, and shows me a step or two in front of me, and I hope this is God’s leading to all of us.

            The other thing is this. I would like to invite a congregational conversation. I would like us to start talking about race, and racism, what our experience of it has been, how we have learned what we know. As overwhelmingly white as my life has been, I find I have lots of stories that fill my head when I think about such things. I need to wrestle with them and understand where my prejudices lie before I can move forward.

            I don’t know what that might look like, particularly in a covid setting. But if you are interested in trying to wrestle with the question of racism and white privilege, let me know.

            Finally, and this has already been too long, but I had too much time to think about it, you might be asking yourself, “what’s the point? There are no significant populations of color around me? What would me wrestling with this stuff do?”

            I don’t know the answer to that, except this. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book called The Tipping Point, where he wrestled with the question, how does something just happen? A product catches on, a trend develops, seemingly out of nowhere. How does violent crime in New York City plummet? How do we elect a George Bush, then a Barack Obama, then a Donald Trump? And he talks about the quiet work that happens to put such things in place.

            On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 that every state legalize gay marriage.

            I didn’t see that coming. I recall working in a mental health center in 1974, when homosexuality was in the diagnostic manual. It was considered a mental illness. I recall people losing their ordinations for performing gay marriages. How did we get from here to there?

            Well, you were a part of that journey. Your work in this place, starting way back in 1989, wrestling with issues that you thought were decided long ago, but the facts on the ground had changed, was a part of that change.

            I don’t know if we will make a difference in the world by wrestling with the question of race, the way you have wrestled with the issue of sexuality, but I know this. We won’t make a difference if we don’t, and we may just stay part of the problem. I look forward to hearing from you about this. God, guide us. Amen.

  August 2021  
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