Sunday, February 21, 2010

Of Difference & Anxiety in Church

Sermon February 21, 2010
by Katie Mulligan

If you are troubled by this sermon, well, that's what I was hoping for.

First Scripture Reading: Isaiah 58:1-12
Second Scripture Reading: John 15:12-17

Let me share with you first that my head is full of many things this week. I have been buried in my books again this week (Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, and C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins), and I have been watching documentaries: Che Guevara: As You Have Never Seen Him Before, and The Betrayal - Nerakhoon: a movie about a family in Laos forced to emigrate to the U.S. after our government militarily trained and abandoned the Laotian people during the Vietnam War. The movie about Che Guevara was made  by a Cuban film company, and so you can imagine that the narrative of his life was told somewhat differently than it might be in many U.S. history classes.  I have been thinking about alternative narratives this week in part because today is the anniversary of the assassination of Malcom X.  And I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, Malcom X and Che Guevara were often pointed to as two of the most fearsome people on the planet. And yet, as I grow older and begin to listen to how other people tell their stories, I have come to appreciate deeply the fact that there are many ways a story can be told, and that when I was growing up, the stories I was told were skewed.  Today’s Hebrew scripture from Isaiah speaks of justice, and justice begins with truth telling, and so today I’ll simply say that we have a problem in our church we need to attend to.  As we come into Lent, let us take a hard look at our congregation and see if we might find a way to move forward in a way that honors God.

There’s a song by Jonathan Rundman that goes like this:

I go out to church now
workin' my committee for the Lord
I go every second Tuesday night
workin' my committee for the Lord
(rocking electric guitar and drums)
Rundman’s a Lutheran, but he could be a Presbyterian, what with all our committee meetings and Presbytery meetings and task forces, etc. We do things in the Presbyterian church decently and in order, and although there is a certain casualness about a tiny church like this, we do try to move along in the way of our particular tradition. I will say that some folks here, like some folks in all churches, somewhat detest committee meetings of all types, and yet this is really how we function, and meetings are an expression of our love for the church, for one another, and for God. We do things decently and in order, because the founders of our church were afraid of what people do to one another without rules and law and order laid down. And the beauty of how we do things is that there is a great deal of protection for the vulnerable and outcast, written into our Book of Order.  And yet so often our committees and rules get used to wear people down, to perpetuate injustice, to make the church a place of rigid and narrow rules about how to live a pious and holy life.

The Book of Order, the Constitution of the PC USA, is an interesting document, although at first glance there is little to recommend it. A friend of mine from another denomination once read through it and said, “Wow! The Book of Order is like poetry written like a mortgage agreement.”  I took a Polity class once that focused entirely on the Book of Order. I took the class because I had to and because I needed to pass the Polity exam in order to become a pastor. I thought the class would bore me terribly, but I was wrong! For within the Book of Order there are explosively powerful statements that call for justice as much as anything Isaiah ever wrote.  There is this paragraph under a section called The Church and Its Members (G-5.0103):
The congregation shall welcome all persons who respond in trust and obedience to God’s grace in Jesus Christ and desire to become part of the membership and ministry of his Church. No persons shall be denied membership because of race, ethnic origin, worldly condition, or any other reason not related to profession of faith. Each member must seek the grace of openness in extending the fellowship of Christ to all persons. (G-9.0104) Failure to do so constitutes a rejection of Christ himself and causes a scandal to the gospel.
I have been reflecting on that passage for two reasons this week. One is a community justice class I have been attending in Newark with my friend Darnell, who is facilitating the class for the Newark Pride Alliance.  The purpose of the class is to create safe spaces to talk about our experiences of race, gender, sexuality, class and other intersections of identity. This last week we shared about our earliest memories of difference—of those moments when we first became aware that there was something different about ourselves or someone else that set us apart somehow.  The stories were powerful and sorrowful. I can say that this is not always the most comfortable space to be in, and my own stories trouble me deeply as well.

During this class we watched a video clip of James Baldwin, interviewed by Kenneth Clark in 1963, after dogs had been set upon peaceful civil rights protestors in Birmingham.  You might expect James Baldwin to speak with rage, but instead what comes through the television screen is a raging sorrow and calm indictment. (Go watch the clip here or read the full transcript)  These words I will never forget:
          That’s part of the dilemma of being an American Negro; that one is a little bit colored and a little bit white, and not only in physical terms but in the head and in the heart, and there are days—this is one of them—when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it. How, precisely, are you going to reconcile yourself to your situation here and how you are going to communicate to the vast, heedless, unthinking, cruel, white majority, that you are here? And to be here means that you can’t be anywhere else.
          I’m terrified at the moral apathy—the death of the heart which is happening in my country. These people [white people] have deluded themselves for so long, that they really don’t think I’m human. I base this on their conduct, not on what they say, and this means that they have become, in themselves, moral monsters. It’s a terrible indictment—I mean every word I say.
The second is a series of online discussions I participated in this week through Twitter. Most days this week I found myself drawn into conversations around race, gender, sexuality, identity, and the way we name people and concepts. These conversations had a hard edge to them, although I believe we are all still talking to each other.  One woman tweeted this: “look around if no poc (people of color), pwds (persons with disabilities), or LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) folks hang out in or around ur space; ur space has issues”.  (You can and SHOULD read her blog here)

At the same time I was conversing with a woman attending a Christian conference focused on learning how to be missional (which is distinct from, although related to, Church missions, and which I will write about soon as I am deeply troubled by the Christian sense of mission). My friend said that the people at the conference were troubled by a lack of energy and creativity. I asked who was at the conference in terms of race and gender. She replied that about 85% of the conference were young, white men.  I asked if they had thought about how the lack of diversity in their conference and in church leadership might be suppressing creativity, but it seemed that most folks believed that the Holy Spirit is the author of creativity, and that race, gender, and sexuality were not openly discussed.

These two conversations prompted me to look around our space and to think carefully. We have a very nice set of rules and in our hearts a very nice set of intentions. I am positive that no matter who showed up on our church doorstep on Sunday morning, we would warmly welcome them in our house of worship. And yet the reality we have created is a fairly homogenous group. We have a few men, but not very many: we are mostly women. We have a few young people, but not very many—I’m looking at both of them right now. We are all white.  I call attention to this, because whatever our fondest wishes are for a just society, and whatever narrative we have told ourselves to explain the lack of diversity in our church, we remain largely a group of white older women. We must speak of this.

It is the beginning of Lent, and I came across this blog post by Dr. Yolanda Pierce, a professor of church history at Princeton Theological Seminary. (Go here to read the entire entry).

“Truth in the Inner Parts”: was not the ashes on my forehead, but rather a verse from Psalm 51 that stirred something deep within me in worship today: "Surely you desire truth in the inner parts." If I am truthful, my "inner parts" have been burning with anger...
[And seriously, stop here and go read her entire post and to hear and witness to Dr. Pierce's anger.]
...I am angry about the inability of my colleagues to recognize white privilege in their midst, or to acknowledge the ways in which they help to systematically perpetuate it.
I am angry about all the slights and all the indignities and all the racial microaggressions that define life as a black woman in America.
My reader may ask: does this type of anger have a place in the Lenten season? I would answer with an emphatic "yes." For some, the Lenten season is a period in which to give up candy or coffee or Facebook; but these are luxuries and the denial of them are not genuine sacrifices. If the Lenten season is to be a time of deep reflection and repentance, it begins with truth telling, even the revelation of truths that you would otherwise hide in your inner parts.
So let us speak of this truth, hidden in our inner parts. Let us lay out on the table our discomfort around race, gender, and sexuality. Let us speak of it openly, and not hide behind defensiveness or justification.  Or how about this morning I will speak of it openly and we will see where we go from here?

I went on Friday to the Social Services office in Trenton.  You know by now how easily I get lost, especially in new places, and so I wandered about for a bit, looking for the door. At first I found the employee entrance, but not having an ID card to swipe, the door remained stubbornly closed. As I walked over to a side door that looked more promising, a car passed by me. A white woman in the car threw a half can of soda out her window toward a black woman standing on the side walk. I was appalled. I was embarrassed. I picked up the can of soda, shaking my head, and glanced at the woman on the sidewalk with a sickly smile. She shook her head at me and asked, “Is that a can of beer?” And then waved me on. 

When I got to the lobby of the Social Services building, I realized that this was the most diverse space I had been in for years. It was a wonderful place to people watch, and I watched especially how people were sitting and where, how they chose their seats, their expressions and body language as they surveyed their neighbors. The children ran everywhere, tripping over everyone’s feet, regardless of who we were, but the adults sat somewhat stiffly.

A white couple came in the door and the woman called out to her partner, “Get us two seats together, facing the window.” He walked past me, past two seats together between a hispanic man and black man. Continuing down the row he realized there were no other seats that fit his partner’s wishes and so returned to the two empty seats across from me. He studied the men sitting, and then sat carefully next to the black man. He looked up, caught my eye, and curled his lip.

I was sick to my stomach at the contempt he displayed.

In the background, and I kid you not, the radio was playing the remake of “We Are the World.”

How can we sit together in church, how can we open our spaces and hearts truly, if we cannot speak of the discomfort we feel around race. So let us do it here, in church, in Bible study. Let us really look into the inner parts and find truth. Because if we do not, then our worship is an empty festival.

Jesus told his disciples at that last supper, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Today I am not necessarily speaking of laying down one’s life in terms of literally taking a bullet for another, although perhaps that is part of this too—who ARE we willing to take a bullet for, and why (or why not)?  But today, at least, I am saying this: we are called to lay down our lives for one another by acknowledging that our own lives and experiences are not normative for the whole world.  We are called to let go of our desire and obsession with absolute security and safety. We must risk, in order to know others, in order to love others. To avoid becoming moral monsters (or to return to humanity if we have already become) we must acknowledge the personhood, and the rights, and the beauty of those who are different from us (name an intersection).

In 2006, Jimmy Carter wrote a book entitled Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. He described years of his involvement in the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestininans. He was present during the 2006 Palestinian elections in which 35% of the parliamentary seats appeared to be elected from Hamas. Israel announced that this would bring a halt to peace negotiations. Carter writes:
[Olmert] made it plain that he could resume peace talks with Abbas only after all radical Palestinian groups were completely disarmed and all violent acts were prevented, empasizing the all.  I asked if a genuine good-faith effort to control violence would be sufficient, pointing out that total peace was a hopeless prospect in any society.  He shook his head, with a smile. (Carter, 2006, 180)
We too demand absolute security at the expense of people of color in the United States. We have used our fears to justify the denigration of other human beings. Over Christmas, when a man attempted to blow up an airplane, we called him a terrorist. We called him a terrorist in part because he is Muslim, in part because he is from Nigeria. We have allowed a narrative to reign that says Muslim + person of color equals terrorist.  The calls for the torture and military imprisonment of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab were chilling. And yet, when a white man flew his plane into the IRS building in Texas last week, that same narrative hastened to assure us all that this was not a terrorist. 

Somewhere in all of this is a truth in our inner parts that says this: we are afraid of people of color, and that fear manifests in our church. We are an all white church. We have, as my twitter friend said, an issue.

Henry F. Knight wrote this about Jesus:
...what was the cup jesus faced in the garden? While it might include the suffering he was anticipating and the cost of his life, those components would surely be derivative, no matter how important they were. The cup represented the gift and calling of covenant life, embodied in his own life and that of his people. The question confronting Jesus then would be, shall Jesus drink from the cup of covenant life so completely that it would bind him irrevocably to those who follow him as well as to those he sought to reach with his message? Like Jacob, Jesus faced a lifetime in one night, symbolied in the cup. What would it mean for Jesus to drink deeply from this overflowing symbol of his life and everything to which he was committed?” (“Wrestling with Two Texts: A Post-Shoah Encounter” in Post-Shoah Dialogues: Re-Thinking Our Text Together, ed. James F. Moore, 68)
What would it mean for us, as a church, to drink so deeply from the cup? As we pass through this Lenten season, let us look on ugly truths in our inner parts. Let us speak of them, and then let us drink deeply of the cup Christ passes to us. Let us drink deeply of humanity, and may we find ways to welcome others in actuality.

I hope my words have deeply troubled you.


  1. Thank you for this. Sometimes I think perhaps you are my pastor, posting sermons I need to hear. Even if what I'm preaching to the congregation I serve is also what I need to hear, you have the Word that deeper down, I need to hear. So, thank you!

  2. I'm glad it was helpful. Sometimes the words in my heart tear me apart.

  3. Thank you. This is a wonderful sermon. I'm Baptist, and have stopped going to church because (besides laziness) I feel my theology is becoming un-Christian. I'm beginning to distrust organized religion all together. I have felt for a long time that my religion has been hijacked by people with completely different values from me. Despite all that, I love my church. It is one of the only 2 Baptist churches in my town (Richmond, VA) that has a woman pastor. There's more diversity there than a lot of other churches. However, there is still all the typical (unavoidable?) group behavior of gossip and power struggles.

    It's amazing what you pick up just observing people. Your experience at Social Services was an excellent example.

    I feel better having at least read a sermon on Sunday. It is a fine one.


    (juliawb on Twitter)

  4. Rock on, Katie. This is a great sermon. Thank you.

  5. Speaking of Malcolm X, if there are any folks who have not already read his autobiography, I would highly recommend it.

    Reading about your Social Services experience, I was reminded of an experience I had while working at a to-be-unnamed university in California (in a non-academic department to remain otherwise unidentified). The woman who had been my supervisor when I started there (and I would have been wise to keep working under her) had managed to get a job in another department. She mentioned to me that it would be smart for me to take a similar action (finding a job in another department), since "neither of us are Hispanic" and that meant we were "out of favor" in the current department. I was very disheartened to hear to hear her say such a thing. At the time, I didn't believe this (aren't universities supposed to be open-minded and non-discriminatory?) Here's the kicker: she is black and I am white. She was speaking to me as a caring supervisor to a valued worker, disregarding the differences in our skin colors. Later on, I was even more disheartened to learn that she was right about what she said.

    I should have taken her advice (another thing she told me: "Hatred is an equal opportunity employer"). She is still working at the university, while I got sick of the toxic work environment in the department and quit.

    Thank you for letting me get that out.

    Imperfectly yours,
    Digital Kahuna

  6. Thanks Julie, Amy. You're always welcome to pop by here. I post a sermon most weeks, some are good, some are rotten, and that's how it goes :-)

    Sometimes the dissonance we feel in church is just too much. I always hope its the place where people can be their most honest, but folks tell me its actually the place where they feel like they have to have it all together.

  7. @DK Intersections are complex things. You are always welcome to speak of yours here.

  8. This week, in a small community close to where we live someone placed a cross in the yard of a bi-racial couple and burned it. I was quite literally shocked speechless. Then I heard something worse. The police were taking time to consider if the act should be treated as a hate crime or vandalism. How in 2010 can that still be a qustion? How can that be?

  9. @Anonymous How terrible! I hope your community has been able to gather around that couple in support. When I read old books calling for an end to racism and racist acts, I sometimes despair. We have been at this for so long now it seems like we should have fixed this by now. Keep pushing, everybody-show love wherever possible!