Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn
This morning’s Gospel takes me back to an experience I had when looking for my first job as a priest. It was an uncertain time for me and my family. But I got into a conversation with an old, well-established church in New Bern, North Carolina. They were interested in me, I was interested in them; things were looking good. Then I asked, in an off-handed way, what it would be like for my multi-hued family to live in New Bern. The response was what I expected, “Just fine; no problem.”
But the next day I got a call from a person I had never spoken to. He said he was on the vestry and told me how his family had been at Christ Church for generations. He was a doctor, trained at John Hopkins, and we talked for a long time. I thought he was offering the job, frankly, until, in a way that almost seemed helpful, he told me that,“New Bern wouldn’t be a good fit for the Conn family.” And he hung up. I was confused. I wasn’t sure what I had done. The church seemed like a good fit. It was a place I could imagine myself being. I liked the Rector. I needed a job, then it was gone, and I couldn’t figure out why, and I was a little ashamed.
Finally, I talked to my wife, Kristin, about it. We replayed the conversations, and as we did I got angrier and angrier. It became clear to me and others that I had been discrimated against. I called the Bishop of Eastern North Carolina. I told the Dean of the Seminary. I called my Bishop. I made a big deal about it, because I can, because I am empowered, well connected, and believe the system works for me, because it always has in the past. And you know what happened… nothing, really. I stirred up the dust, then it settled and there was still dust. And the issue faded with my anger, as I took a job in Beverly Hills. That was my expereince. The difference between my experience and the average African American is that my experiece is allowed to fade away.
My daughter’s experience is different. She is constantly battling racism by way of stereotype. Let me give you some examples she has told me about. People at her school assume she is on scholarship because she has brown skin. They assume she is good at basketball. They compliment her for being articulate. Of course she is articulate! They come up to her and touch her hair. When is the last time you had someone come up and touch your hair? They make comments if she eats fried chicken or drinks grape juice. I’m not kidding. They are surprised that she can swim.
Now here is the thing about the list I just gave. I can tease my daughter about fried chicken. She loves it. So do I. Who doesn’t, really? I can give her a hard time about her basketball skills, or lack there of. I can rumple her hair. I can even wish she had a scholarship at Seattle Prep. I love her and I know her. She knows me, and she knows I love her. And she knows our relationship has nothing to do with her skin color, because that would just be weird.
But too often the weirdness of skin color does inhibit relationships. I’ve seen it before. A whiter person meets a darker person and I can just see the rules running through the white persons mind… It’s very Old Testament. Don’t mention chicken. Don’t touch the hair. Don’t talk about swimming. Don’t offer grape juice. And pretty soon they’re wondering if it is worth the effort at all. And it just gets all tense and weird.
I was talking to a friend of mine about this sermon yesterday. We were talking about race, Michael Brown, and Ferguson, Missouri. And he said, “I don’t’ know how anyone can get along without Jesus. It’s so damn confusing!” He is right.
Today I want to talk about race because it is so “right here, right now.” It is such a part of our current cultural conversation, and I don’t know how else to do it, except in the context of Jesus. But before I get into this I want to say something. To talk about race is not necessarily to talk about politics. I am not making a democratic statement or a republican statement. If thoughts like, “Doyt’s getting political” are running through you’re head, I’d like to invite you to turn off that tape and hear mebecause I love you. I’m your priest. We’ve been together for a while. Racism is real, and it has no place in the kingdom of God. We are all about the kingdom of God here at Epiphany. At Epiphany relationship is primary, and racism inhibits relationship.
As of today, I’ve been here six years. Advent One is my anniversary, and I am glad to be here. But I don’t think I have ever preached a sermon on racism, and I probably should have. I am sorry about that. And I’ve been wondering why I haven’t, maybe because I was afraid you wouldn’t accept me, like at New Bern. Maybe I thought you’d leave the church. Maybe I didn’t want you to feel uncomfortable, or for me to be uncomfortable, and feel vulnerable in front of you. But for whatever reason my insecurity speaks to the complexity of the situation. Which is why we set it in the context of Jesus.
When we lived in Beverly Hills I was pulled over for traffic violations five times or so; but never got a ticket. My wife was pulled over twice and got two tickets. Was that racism? Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri; you know the context. Was that racism? Black men are 21 times as likely to be shot by a police officer as white men. Is that racism? Maybe blacks just choose to live in more dangerous parts of town. Does that have anything to do with race? And the answer to these questions is an honest and uncomfortable “yes!”
Sure we could pick apart the particulars, and make a case for it being something else, but racism is real and it perverts the kingdom of God, which makes it one of the reasons Jesus came. So we talk about it. It is uncomfortable, even for me, and still we talk about it, because this is a perfectly safe place to be.
It was this sense of perfect safety that gave Martin Luther King, Jr. and Desmond Tutu the courage to step out in vulnerability. Just like it gave my friend who is involved in the Epiphany “Racism is Real” group the courage to step out in vulnerability.
Let me tell you the story. The “Racism is Real” group has been meeting for a few months, and its object is to talk about issues of race. At the first meeting people were going around the room telling of their experiences of race and racism. They got to my friend, a white guy, an older white guy, I might add, and he said, “I don’t understand all of this racism and anger. I mean, if folks were kind to one another, it would go away.” And in saying this he made himself vulnerable. He exposed the soft underbelly of privilege. Then he said, “but clearly there is something I don’t understand here. There is something I’m missing.” In saying this he made himself vulnerable, admitting he didn’t know. Finally he said, “So teach me, that is why I’m here.” And in saying this he made himself vulnerable, he asked for help.
Jesus made himself vulnerable when he showed up in the vineyard. If he hadn’t there would be no cross, and there would be no resurrection. It is knowing the resurrection that allows us to know we are perfectly safe. This safety is not about physical safety, or emotional safety, or a life without risk. It is about the safety of knowing we live in the embrace of a God that loves us and is with us. That is perfect safety.
When Jesus arrived the vineyard was a mess. God had built it, placed tenants in it, and then left them to their own devices. At the harvest time God sent people to collect God’s share. The tenants beat them and threw them out. Now the story doesn’t say that the tenants threw them out so they could keep a bountiful harvest. There is no evidence that the vineyard was running well at all. In fact, I imagine the vineyard was trashed, a pile of broken stones, and a smashed wine press. I doubt there was anything to turn over to God. But instead of apologizing, asking for help, and being vulnerable, they killed the servants and the Son. That is the world that Jesus choose to enter. He came as the cornerstone upon which all relationships can be built, based on trust, and based on the safety of the resurrection. He came to liberate us from right rules and rights words, by softening our heart, and saving our souls.
I wish I didn’t have to preach about racism, not only because I don’t want it around, but also because I know I’m doing an incomplete job. I also know I’m triggering internal conversations with some of you that may be distracting from the point. And the point is this… Jesus is the cornerstone, and with him we are perfectly safe, and utterly capable of bridging any chasm created by the false distinction of race. We know it is a false distinction. We all know this, and yet it is still real, because it is a sin that has real impact on peoples lives.
Epiphany is a perfectly save place to have this real, uncomfortable conversation. It doesn’t mean that it won’t make us feel nervous or judged. It doesn’t mean that people won’t say the wrong thing. They might. They might even do so intentionally (I hope not) but most likely they’ll do it accidentally. If you are African American you may be just as vulnerable here to micro-aggression as you are in other venues of your life, and for that I apologize. I pray it gets better.
But when I say Epiphany is a safe place what I mean is that we are all children of God, and all brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesus is here for all of us, and loves us all equally, and we do our best to do the same. So, we take risks. We take risks in telling our story. We invite people to critique our language and actions and intentions. And I know, for us white guys, at least, it may feel like we are absorbing all the blame. This may seem like a conversation that has come out of nowhere. But I would say it only feels that way because, at least for me, I’m new to the conversation. And that’s OK. In fact it’s better than OK; it’s Good News. It is Good News because we need Jesus to navigate it, which is actually true for all of us. And anything that draws us into deeper relationship with Jesus is good news.
So step with me beyond what is comfortable. Be vulnerable. Enter the conversation. Take risks. It is good for our souls, and it gives us eyes to see the really real world of the kingdom of God.