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As the Christmas season draws to a close, I am reminded of the star that directed the three wise men away from their homeland and into the foreign but welcome presence of baby Jesus. Perhaps this reminds us all that the Divine is constantly moving us into new territory, as stars of all sorts continue to illuminate our path and reset our orientation. The New Year is a wonderful time to search the skies again and see where God is leading us – to check the progress of Church, society, and self, and also see when a new course needs charting. Such a pause allows us to live in our prophetic selves.
As you plan this year – and especially the month of February – remember that the role of a prophet is to, when necessary, provide faithful interruptions or disturbances to the fragile balance of our complex (and often incomplete) frameworks. (That is ONE role of the prophet, anyway). At any given point in the history of civilization we find each of our systems broken – by definition – because humans and not gods have created them.
And while these machinations and paradigms were created to solve society’s most pressing problems and questions, they often serve as coping mechanisms, “band-aids,” and gas canisters that fuel us only to our next checkpoint. You can think of many of these unfulfilled solutions, none of them mutually exclusive: they plague all the sectors of our common life.
The month of February sheds light on one in particular. In the quest for racial justice, we have reached not the finish line but a checkpoint, and we need more prophets.
The perceived stability of the times suggests differently: we live in a country where voting rights belong to all citizens of age; the images of fire hoses pointed into crowds of black folks are now a painful reminder of our past. We even have a month to intentionally reflect on Black History as a nation, and a national holiday for our greatest champion of civil rights. At face value race relations in this country seem to be at a point of relative homeostasis. In November 2008, the election of President Barack Obama would have suggested to some that we have arrived. As a people. As a nation.
But then a scuffle between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman happens. Or voting laws are tightened in particular communities. Or other moments with distinct racial overtones become apparent to us both nationally and locally, reminding us that we have not arrived. We have become too comfortable at the checkpoint, and we need a prophet to remind us of the star yet in the distance.
February is your opportunity to assume such a posture. The celebrations of black life are mandatory but also a bit mundane. The renditions of King speeches are necessary and sometimes perfunctory, and if we are not careful to reinterpret tradition it will lose its meaning in the new commons. What else can you do to affirm racial harmony and deeper understanding?
(Notice that I didn’t say “instead of” these things, but what else?)
After hearing a portion of the speech containing King’s “dream,” how might you preach on what the dream may mean today? If you were given the chutzpah to reinterpret the Dream, what does your community need to hear?
Racism persists, as does racial indifference and ambivalence towards others named “Other,” and the radical elections of 2008 and 2012 (among many others) have in part given us the permission to exhale. But these realities of suffering because of one’s race persist, and our country needs your pulpit.
We need to hear that we have not arrived. At this checkpoint, we need to hear the new questions that our current realities are lifting to the surface. Congregations need to ponder their indifference and we must repent of our ignorance in answering the most important question: Where do we go from here?
We are all too willing to turn the channel when yet another black boy is shot, and we need an interruption. We need to pause faithfully and ask if we are doing all we can to ensure equality and rights for all. Every congregation needs to ask if its doors are truly open to all of God’s children, and African-American communities need to do some soul-searching and ask if the Latino cause could use some assistance from a people who know the way? Nothing is black and white nowadays, except our race relations.
Now is the ripe moment to plan word and liturgy and sacrament that challenge our comfort zones and push us into deeper community. The fact is: we are far from racial justice, and we’ve gotten too comfortable with where we are now. Too many are still left behind. What can your community do to think differently about race in this country, or even to address an injustice in your community? February has always been about back then, but what about now?
Christmas offers us a word of hope, and Epiphany a word of focus and orientation: now is time for a word of challenge. We need a prophet — because we can and must do better in many things, especially in the increasingly perplexing conundrum of race relations. And congregations of every color and welcoming attitude need to hear that.
The star is leading us into new territory. So lead us this month. Lead us to better days.
Julian DeShazier has served as the Senior Minister of University Church in Chicago. A native of the city, he graduated from Morehouse College and the University of Chicago Divinity School. Prior to his current position, Julian served as Teen Pastor at Covenant United Church of Christ, and has also worked with the Coca-Cola Leadership Program and Fund for Theological Education. He is also an award-winning musician and songwriter, known to many as “J.Kwest.”