Growing in our Relationship with Others - Sermon on March 30, 2014

Preacher: Rev. Lucy Waechter Webb

Scripture: Mark 7:24-30

As Sile and Jason and Monty have already shared, we had an amazing pilgrimage south this year. We not only had the chance to see and touch history, to meet people involved in the civil rights movement of the 60’s, but we heard from people and participated in the work of that movement today, and we had opportunities to engage in that work with each other as a traveling community.

For me, the trip really jumped off into the deep end right away as we started on that first day in town attending the Sprague lectures. These are the lectures North Broadway UMC hosts each year, and this year we sat in on them before we drove out of town since Michelle Alexander, the author of the New Jim Crow, and James Logan were speaking. Both spoke about the nature of our prison system and how though the “signs” of the Jim Crow era have gone away, the practice of separate and unequal remains strong in the way we incarcerate people.

At the end of each lecture, they took questions. As the room began to watch Mr. Logan engage with the line of people asking him questions, the room got quieter and more intense, because with each person Mr. Logan seemed to get more challenging, more punchy, speaking truth into every opportunity he could, even sometimes at the expense of the person in front of him. It was an opportunity to expose the internal racism, the bias, the naiveté of the very people in the room who were there trying to combat this issue.

And eventually, a woman I know from the community, a woman pretty similar to me, sharing many of my social values and beliefs, stood up to ask him a question. And I thought, ok, she’ll be more sensitive, it’ll be interesting to see how this shakes out. She starts by thanking him for what he’s offered today, and sharing that though she’s done related work for many years, she just feels like she gets stupider about it, sharing her own consciousness has been raised again at these lectures. And then she asks her question, “So, I’m just wondering how we can find ways to engage in these tough conversations and do this work in safe spaces?”

Safe Spaces? Honey, you’re gonna have to get uncomfortable. There is no safe space, safe space is for white folk, for privileged folk. You see those struggling to survive at the margins of society don’t get safe space to work it all out.

Bam. There it is. I was seated safely in my seat, but it might as well have been me standing naked and exposed up there asking that question. Can’t we just all get along, and honor each other and walk away feeling really good from our conversations. Can’t we just find a system, a method, a process so that everyone feels safe and comfortable, so that everyone who is engaging is always protected, made better.

It was a reality check for me. Life is messier than that. And he was willing to speak to that. It might be uncomfortable, no, it will be uncomfortable, difficult, and maybe even a bit painful. Not only that, but for someone in the privileged half of the conversation, to preserve your own sense of security and safety will always mean you cling to the power associated with your status. So, I’m gonna have to get uncomfortable. This work is going to make me uneasy, because I’m going to have to face realities about the world, dare I say maybe even myself that I don’t want to see.

And so at that moment, I committed myself to at least one thing on our week-long journey, try not to run when it gets uncomfortable. Because that’s when we’re just gettin’ started!

Now I want you to hear me right. I am not saying safe space is never important. Particularly in church we have learned and committed ourselves to trying to make safe space especially for those who have been so hurt and wounded by the church. Making those spaces available is vital to helping people heal. AND, there are times where we are called to be in discomfort. The gospel demands nothing less. The gospel is not just comfortable all the way through.

Now when in doubt, it’s always helpful to look to at that gospel right, to look at Jesus? So let’s look at our scripture this morning. The story itself is set up by Mark to cue the readers that there are some racial differences between Jesus and this woman. In fact there are no less than three times Mark points out that this woman is not a Jew. Jesus has traveled to the region of Tyre, a Hellenized region, he then says, the woman was a Gentile, just in cased you missed it, she was of Syrophoenician origin. Ok, got it Mark. She’s not Jewish.

Then, there are several cues that she is crossing social boundaries. Not only is she a Gentile approaching a Jew, she is a woman approaching a man, and she has sought him out at a house, a private place where the story says Jesus has gone because he did not want anyone to know he was there.

Then the action happens. She approached Jesus with a request about her daughter being healed of a demon, and at this point in the gospel, we rather expect Jesus to say sure, yes, go your faith has made you well. Instead, Jesus says, Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Did Jesus just call her a dog? Now this is not one of those places where the meaning of dog has changed since Jesus’ time, though the story might be easier to digest if that were the case! Nope, dogs was a racial slur that Jewish folks used to describe the “unclean pagan” Gentiles. Not only are we shocked that for the first time Jesus seems to be turning someone away, but he goes farther than that by using foul language!

But this woman is strong. She says, “Sir,” using a title of respect, maintaining her own nonviolence, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Woah girl. What are you doing? You have already pushed the boundaries pretty far!

And here’s where the magic happens.  Jesus concedes the argument to her.  He doesn’t even say great is your faith – he says your words / your argument is what has made your daughter well. Jesus has been challenged! More importantly, Jesus allows his own self, his privileged status to be challenged, exposed, and even offended for the sake of truth. And dare we say, perhaps even he was transformed in that moment. You can imagine they both might be a bit uncomfortable in this moment.

Now many will say Jesus knew was he was doing all along, that he was testing her, that he said this racial slur with a wink or twinkle in his eye. We’re concerned about Jesus being right all the time. But I think Jesus did something far more important in this moment than simply upholding some status of being right all the time. Jesus was open to being challenged, open to conceding an argument, open to having someone else in relationship with him transform him. He allowed himself to be exposed and vulnerable for the sake of making something better something bigger than himself better. It is like the woman who approached Mr. Logan to ask the question, and let herself stand there exposed and vulnerable, so that not only she could be transformed, but the others in the room along with her.

The privilege of serving a church like Summit, is that I have had opportunities to be deeply transformed by so many of you. Through my relationships with you here, you have continued to shape me, to challenge me to make me a better person, a better disciple, a better leader.

So in an effort to step out again. To share with you today. To deepen my relationship with my brothers and sisters, with my community. I have a confession to make.

I am a racist.

It’s true. Don’t try to make apologies for me. I am a racist. I have thoughts and hold attitudes about other people that are affected by race. It’s something I first came to awareness about in college, but don’t often say very loud. Just like Jesus, I’m not right all the time. But I don’t like to readily admit that. I do not always see with Kin-dom eyes. Which means that sometimes, I do, make statements, hold attitudes, make assumptions that are rooted in false things, rooted in darkness, rooted in fear, rather than in the vision God has for the world.

Tim Wise was one of the first people to catch my attention about this. He came to speak at my college, and at the time had been a White activist fighting racism and white privilege for at least a decade. He traveled a lot for his job, and said he always looked into the cockpit to see who was flying and how sober they looked because there had been so many stories recently about pilots being escorted off planes too drunk to fly. And he told a story about how one time he boarded the plane and looked over into the cockpit and saw two black pilots. It was the first time he had ever seen both pilots as people of color. You might expect that he had a moment of rejoicing and jubilee as an activist in this work. Instead, for a fleeting moment, he questioned his safety. The thought left as quickly as it came, and he realized what had happened, that he too, someone fighting for this reality also faced internalized attitudes he could not control. You see, racism had become more than just shouting profanities outside a school in Little Rock or posting “No Blacks” signs over the water fountains at the bus stops in Memphis. Racism, like anything else in our world, has evolved. We try to make it binary, you are or you are not a racist. But it has become more covert, and subtle than that.

It is not that I am or am not. It is just, I am. I am somewhere on that spectrum. And it is not a reality I choose. Unlike folks who sign up to be members of groups that we identify as racist – where they explicitly say one race is more supreme than another. No, this is not something I willingly hold, and yet I am still a racist. It is a demon that is in me. It is the way sin gets rooted deep inside us personally and in us as a community, is in us as a society. It’s roots cling to our brokenness and grow in those cracks and crevices in our systems. And where do they manifest? They don’t make themselves known just on paper or on signage. They fruit and flower through the people who live in the world.  Which means that I am part of it.

This is the best way I know how to describe what a demon is. It is the thing that lives in me that possesses me that I cannot control. That I need to be exorcised. When we see stories of Jesus taking on demons in the gospels, there is usually a struggle between him and the demon to name each other. The demon will often name him, and he in turn must name the demon before it can be cast out. In Jewish culture, the power of naming was to gain control. So that then the evil could be cast out.

This is what I learned I have to do on this trip. I must name it. I must tell the truth. I must get uncomfortable about what people might think about that.

My consciousness about racism in our world and in me began in college and I have slowly come to deeper awareness about it, gratefully becoming less and less blind because of the people in my life who have challenged me. This time, I learned, it is time to talk about it more. Because without exposing that wound in me, without naming the demon that resides in me, I cannot hope to gain control over it and cast it out. And if I cannot exorcise racism from myself, how can I hold hope that we might rid our world of it?

This political Jesus we studied together for two months was not only talking about how our systems need to be transformed, he was also shedding light on how these realities get lived out between us, through us, in God’s people. And so to challenge those demons, to heal those wounds, requires nothing less than transforming our very selves.

And so to live as a disciple. To live into the vision of God’s kin-dom, to seek to live into the call that Jesus brings upon our lives, is to be personally transformed in ways that our lives exorcise the demons that not only burden us, but spread darkness in the world. And it is with each other that that work is best done.

We have shared with you today about how we learned that our community and our presence with each other can truly transform our lives and the demons of the world. But it is only one slice of the pie. Each of us face dark realities in the world, and our relationships with each other can cut through that loneliness and isolation if we let it.  We can be changed by the power of truth other people can speak into our lives when we are found blind.

The stigma’s about mental health, about families that are “broken” or not normative, the pain of physical ailment, even the stress of our jobs. When these wounds remain hidden, we remain hurt. And as one wise young person reminded me this week, hurt people hurt people.

The best offering I can bring back to this community from our pilgrimage is this invitation. To begin to imagine and practice how you might get uncomfortable. How you might allow yourself to be dislocated in some way and choose not to run.

It can be liberating! Because it means we don’t always have to be right. We don’t have to have it all figured out, the places we’re afraid to uncover we can let be seen, our shame and our brokenness can be revealed. When this happens in community, even the deepest wounds in our world can begin to be healed. This group is as much a testament and a witness to that as the Little Rock 9, as Medgar Evers, and as King himself. The movement you see, the work on the group was not just done by the leaders, it was carried out the countless nameless people who stepped out, who took risk, and got uncomfortable.

Last week Pastor April preached about how our relationship with God begins with our mindfulness and our presence with the Divine. Our relationships with each other are not different. They too begin with mindfulness and presence with each other. To dwell with each other and to not run in that moment where is starts to feel awkward, or uncertain because you don’t know what to say.

So today, I would like to challenge you, to literally be dislocated for just a few moments. Sue will play some music for us in just a minute, and I would invite everyone in the room to consider standing up, and moving to another place in this room, and to find a new seat next to people you do not know. We have done a lot of talking with each other in worship during the Political Jesus series. And today, without any assignment of engaging in conversation or dialogue, I just invite you to be present with each other. To be dislocated for just a few minutes from the seat you chose when you came in, and to carry that presence, that mindfulness that you experience with you into your week.