Politics will not be enough to confront this 2016 election. We will also need a spiritual message. There are gospel issues at stake here, particularly on the issues of race, with America’s original sin now being sold as a political strategy to angry white people. Racism is being incited and condoned, and now violence is being incited and condoned. So we will need to bring what Archbishop Desmond Tutu once called “a spirituality of transformation.” I remember when he preached that message from the pulpit of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. I had the blessing of preaching from that same pulpit this past Sunday, and I wanted to share the sermon I preached with you. Polls won’t be enough anymore for this election. We are going to need sermons. Here’s one.
What does the Word of God mean in our lives and our times? That is always the question for us as the people of God. How does the narrative of the Word of God change our narrative?
My wife, Joy Carroll was one of the first women ordained in the Church of England — she is a Brit! And in the U.K., she is well known as the Real Vicar of Dibley (after the hit television show in which she was the script consultant).
One summer we went to the Greenbelt Festival, where we had first met, with our 4-year-old son, Luke. Joy was up on the stage celebrating the Eucharist for 25,000 British young people. My young son, sitting on my lap, was watching his mom lead the service. She would speak and people would respond, “The Lord be with you … and also with you. She would ask them to do things and they would. After watching this for a while, Luke looked up at me and asked. “Dad, can men do that too?” Women in ministry are changing the narrative in the church, the society, and in our families.
I’m sure many of us here today are finding the narrative in our country very troubling.
What does the Word mean? How does it ‘touch down,’ ’hit the streets’ in the face of what we are now seeing in the world — in the angry racial rhetoric of a presidential election campaign, and even in the violence at political rallies this very week?
And as a Christian, my doctrine of the incarnation is that in Jesus, God hits the streets. What does that mean for the church right now — for the body of Christ — to help lead by also for getting its own house in order?
What is behind all the angry talk, alarming conflict — and where are we going? Can and how will the people of God help make a way, a path in the sea, and find sustaining streams in the desert?
I was reflecting on Isaiah 43:16-21 in light of what we are seeing and many of us are feeling in our country right now.
16 Thus says the Lord,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
18 Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
19 I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
I believe the great political and historical reality behind all the rhetoric and conflict we now see and feel in our country is this: In just a few decades, America will no longer be a white majority nation; we will instead be a majority of minorities. And some of our citizens, especially many older white Americans, are having deep fears and resentments about that — the potential loss of the historic white supremacy and privilege, which all of us have become accustomed to and which, I believe, was America’s original sin.
That sin must now be clearly relegated to the “former things” and dramatically put away as the “things of old,” as Isaiah says. Our original sin was at the very foundation of our country — the decision to justify our slavery by claiming that black lives matter much less than white lives. Because the sin is so deep in our American DNA, it won’t be overcome easily. The lame claims of “I am not a racist,” fall mute in the face of parables like Flint, Mich., which are teaching us that racism is literally in the air we breathe and the water we drink.
For Christians, and both Jews and Muslims, repentance doesn’t just mean saying that you are sorry, it means turning and moving in a new direction. And some good news (yes, there is some) is that we are beginning to see both blacks and whites, along with members of other racial communities — especially a new generation — asking in new and fresh ways how we can turn around so that black lives do matter, so that all lives finally can — and that the first is necessary for the last.
Many working class white people in America are angry for understandable economic reasons: losing incomes, jobs, homes, families, children in war, and the attention of the both Wall Street and Washington. But such anger is now in great danger of being manipulated and used for self-aggrandizing political purposes — to aggressively divide rather than to crucially unite America.
So what’s happening in our nation now, even in the last several days, is both frightening and dangerous. As the people of God, we need to ask ourselves how we will help heal our country.
Our text from Isaiah says God can help us inspire that mission:
… for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
21 the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.
The good news is that I see that new conversation — with a commitment to action — taking place around the country.
I have just come home from a book tour of “town meetings” in 15 cities across the country where there was a real hunger for multiracial truth-telling, fighting for justice, and praying for healing. These meetings were large, multiracial and multicultural, women and men, and very intergenerational. Seeing so many young people coming and trusting the environment enough to speak their hearts and minds was especially exciting to me. The meetings were also interfaith, and included people with no religious faith at all, but with strong moral commitments to racial, economic, and criminal justice.
Over the last few years, the public revelations of so many tragic killings of young men and women of color, and the rise of a new generation of activists, are awakening many. I even hear more and more white Christians agreeing with us when we say that if we acted more Christian than white, black parents might have less fear for their children. It’s sparking deep conversions about “whiteness” as an idol and not just an ideology.
But amid all of this while we were experiencing these powerful, very diverse, and hopeful town meetings — from the East Coast to the Midwest, to the West Coast, and even in the South — the media kept only focusing on the state of the political horse race.
While what I saw Americans discussing was the more difficult but much deeper discussion of the state of race in America — underneath the narrow media and political discussions which still mostly leave “race” out of our public discourse. But beneath that narrow mainstream focus on polls and politics, the deeper conversation is now occurring, which is just what our nation most needs right now.
Perhaps now, with the escalating racial rhetoric and violence of the presidential campaign, the media can bring the crucial issues of race, division, and unity to the center of our public discussion. I hope and pray so.
Over the past few months, I have seen black, Hispanic, Asian, indigenous, and white voices together embracing America’s growing diversity and asking how we can build that bridge to a new America. And that’s a discussion I almost never hear about in the mainstream media — right to left.
However, this cannot just be a political movement and neither political party has yet to adequately embrace the requirements of racial justice and healing. It will be only a spiritual movement that can help change politics. As Desmond Tutu often reminded us, and did so from this very pulpit, we need the “spirituality of transformation.” That is indeed what we now most need for a new American future. And as Pope Francis has clearly and recently told us, building bridges rather than walls is the Christian vocation.
On the tour, we visited cities that have also become “parables,” stories from which we can learn important lessons about America, like Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Atlanta. We went to very diverse cities, like Los Angeles and New York, to still very white cities, like in the Pacific Northwest. But everywhere we found people who believe that the emerging American diversity is a gift and a blessing — and not a danger and a threat! Can I get an Amen to that?
But that will take a battle, a moral battle, a struggle for the integrity of our faith — and one that people of faith and moral values will have to make.
Throughout my travels, one of our Christian Scriptures came up again and again: Galatians 3:28.
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Given what is happening on our country now, it is time to shout out that text!
This Galatians text was a baptismal text and liturgical formula in the early church. Baptism is where new converts made their faith public and the new Christian community was clearly saying this: The three oppressive things that divide humanity are these Galatians factors — race, class, and gender. All three separate us form one another. At their baptisms the new church was making this very public — that what they were about as the community of following after Jesus, the body of Christ — was to undermine, overcome, and take down those barriers, and begin to create a new and united community. They were, in effect, saying if you don’t want to be a part of that — a community bringing down the divisive forces of race, class, and gender — you don’t want to come here because that is what we are about! Unity, instead of division, is part of our vocation as ministers of Christ’s gospel of reconciliation.
Imagine if that was the primary message to a divided America right now — from those who name the name of Jesus. So let us get that message out — even now in the face of this alarming and dangerous racial rhetoric, which included fear and hatred, and even violence, which racism has done since the beginning of America.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said 50 years ago that the most segregated hour in America is 11 a.m., the hour we are together today! But I have been in churches where a new generation is transforming themselves into multicultural communities, and one I preached in had an average age of 28.
Here’s a local story from the John Eaton Elementary School, just blocks from here and where the kids see this Cathedral every day. All my kids went there as the most diverse elementary school in Washington, D.C. When I spoke to my son Jack’s 5th grade class about immigration, which they were studying, I told them about the 11 million immigrants who, because they are undocumented, can’t get the medical care or police protection they need, and how their families were being separated and destroyed by 1,000 deportations per day. The kids were immediately and deeply concerned, and asked me, “Why doesn’t Congress fix that? Have you talked to them? What do they say?”
I told them I had talked to them, and they told me their constituents were afraid. “Afraid of what?” the students asked. I looked at their class, all the worried faces staring at me, and then it hit me. There they were, a Washington, D.C., 5th grade public school class — African American, Hispanic, Asian American, Native American, white, Somali, Maltese, and other international students — “They’re afraid of you,” I said. The kids were astonished. “Afraid of us? Why?” I told them, “Because you look like what America is becoming … You’re the new America.”
Now perplexed, the students said, “But why are they afraid of that?”
A very good question. “Because they don’t think it’s going to work,” I told them. “Tell me, is it working?”
The kids looked at each other, then at me and several said, “Yeah … it’s working great! It’s really cool.”
I told them our job was to show America that this new more multiracial and multicultural nation really will work, will make us even better and yes, “is really cool.”
Now that is also the job of the faith community, central to our vocation: to show that this will really work, that this was God’s design and dream from the beginning of creation described in Genesis. Instead of our becoming an illusory post-racial society, the book of Revelation ends with the worship of God by countless numbers of people — in their own diverse languages, tribes, and ethnicities. Our job right now in this country is not only to call out the racism we see, but also to lead by example — by getting our own houses of worship in order and using the power of our multiracial relationships to change public spaces and public policy.
We have to change the narrative of race in America, where privilege and punishment are the outcomes of skin color — that just cannot be accepted by people of faith.
My wife Joy has helped change the narrative for her children and many others about what women can or cannot do. What would it mean for the people of God in America to change our nation’s narrative on race, to repent of our original sin of the racist valuing of other lives less, to help to build a bridge over our present turbulent waters, and find a path though our current political wilderness — all to an emerging new America? I believe our nation is waiting for that.
This Psalm has a pastoral word to those who suffer such pain and anguish from our original sin of racism but still press on toward the goal of justice, equality, and unity.
5 May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
6 Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.