What follows is the text of a sermon I preached earlier this morning at Messiah Lutheran Church in Schenectady, New York where I'm incredibly blessed to serve as pastor. It was simply my best attempt to speak to horrific act of racially fueled terrorism that took place in Charleston this past week and brings in the gospel message for this Sunday as well, Mark 4:35-41. Please, let me know what you think!
I’d like to start out today with a couple of confessions… First, while I had finished my sermon early for once this past week, all excited to talk about how Jesus shows up in positive masculinity for our first ever Father’s Day Eucharist, I knew immediately upon reading the news on Facebook late Wednesday evening about the massacre of those nine black saints at prayer and studying the Scriptures down in Charleston, that it was essential to preach something different. Yet, despite having three days to prepare, I have to confess that I still couldn’t come up with much… as I speak to you this morning my heart aches. As pastor here at Messiah, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the powerful, life-giving sessions many of us spent together learning about our Creator on Wednesday evenings this past Lent for instance, and what a horrific sin it was to so violently cut short a quite similar gathering last Wednesday at Emanuel AME Church. On top of being sad, just really sad, about what transpired, I can’t help but be infuriated either, especially at the perpetrator of that violence, who it was just found out was in fact a member of an ELCA Lutheran congregation, but also at the folks who over the last few days quite publicly stated this act of domestic terrorism had nothing to do with race, or that the perpetrator’s actions were not representative of wider issues of racial injustice, a sin, indeed America’s original sin, a storm of sorts that still rages across our entire country.
So, while I’ve tried to find some good news in all this, and I promise, we’ll definitely get there, I thought I’d first ground our conversation today in a few more personal confessions as well, stories that I imagine may prove demonstrative of the wider situation we find ourselves in regarding the current way the storm of racism rages in America. One of my first memories of thinking I could have done better regarding race was when I was about ten years old. Growing up living in a two family house owned by my great, great uncle, an amazingly compassionate and highly decorating veteran of the Second World War, after making friends with one of the black families who lived a couple blocks away and playing army in our front yard, my uncle told me, and I quote, “there was only only one colored boy in the yard at a time,” and he thought he was being generous. I mean yeah, I was only ten, but I knew my beloved uncle was wrong, and I should have done something more than simply shrugging him off as a product of his time. I think back to one night in middle school, when I use to make a few extra dollars shoveling the walk in front of the club/ bar place my father was a member of, located in the primarily African American neighborhood my family lived in. An incredibly intelligent buddy of mine from the middle school basketball team, a fellow named Byron was with a few of his friends and saw me shoveling alone from a distance. Wanting to make a point he put his hoodie up before walking towards me and once he got up close, and I could see who it was, he asked if I had been more afraid because he was a black guy. I said no of course, but still deeply taught by our society to make assumptions about folks that looked like he did, I should have probably said maybe.
In college, especially with the idea that I was just sarcastically making fun of folks who were overtly hateful or perhaps because I was a poorer kid around wealth for the first time and I wanted to attack political correctness as just this sort of uppity rich people thing, or maybe just because I was a loud, big personality trying to get attention, I definitely made more than enough stupid jokes about race, religion and ethnicity. As I’ve preached on before, it wasn’t really until the required anti-racism training I took at seminary, where the organizers aptly were able to help the white folks in the room understand racial oppression through the lens of various other types of oppression we had in fact lived through, that I truly was able to understand how thinking we could laugh about our differences was simply not taking the sin of racism seriously enough.
I confess these things, my sisters and brothers, not to throw my own guilt on you this morning or to make you feel uncomfortable, not at all, but rather to demonstrate how the storm of racism rages on today, in our own lives. I mean I had the benefit of growing up in fully integrated schools with roughly a third African-American population in the most progressive part of the country. I prided myself in getting the nickname “Brother Dus” for a bit of my senior year of high school because I was the only white kid taking the African-American History elective. A few years later, at pretty much the same exact time I was making those stupid jokes back in college, I was volunteering with the Obama campaign in four or five different state primaries, so incredibly enthusiastic about what it would mean to have an African-American president. It would have been hard for me to grow up exposed to much more diversity and cross-racial understanding, but coming from that blind place called white privilege, America’s original sin still became my own. And despite my best intentions to learn, to listen and to grow, overcoming the sin of racism is something I know I could always improve upon.
Now while your own stories and experiences may take different forms, and frankly you’re all probably much better people than I am, just because of who we are and the legacy we’ve been born into, whether it was in the 1930s or 1960s or 1990s, in a yes improving but still significant way, the storm of American racism continues to rage in all our lives. Whether it’s letting a relative’s inappropriate joke pass without comment or simply living in a society where you’re less likely to get pulled over because of the color of your skin and not doing much about it, we all have room to improve. And, my sisters and brothers, that’s where the good news starts… You see, recognizing our shortcomings isn’t about being on a guilt trip or being down on ourselves, but rather the exact opposite. Being vulnerable about our shortcomings is about being in turn completely torn open by Christ, about being shown how God is present in all the storms of our lives, working to improve us and thereby equip us to go out and serve our neighbors. Confession is simply saying what’s really going on… that we live in a country where folks are more likely to be arrested and are less likely to get jobs and can even still be murdered simply because of the color of their skin and that as predominately white folks, as people who are on the periphery of but are still negatively affected by and oftentimes passively complicit with the particularly heinous storm that is racism in America, we can always learn more from our black sisters and brothers who are in the middle of those choppy seas each and every day.
No matter though how much we have or haven’t contributed to racial injustice, the incredibly good news is that as we heard into today’s gospel message, Jesus is in the storm. Jesus is in the storm. Jesus is with us in all the storms we face, particularly as we work to grow beyond America’s original sin of racism. Jesus is in the storm, even when we mess up, misspeak or misunderstand. Jesus is in the storm of black lives as well, whether it be while they confront the institutional violence of an unjust criminal justice system or the individual violence of a racist young man shooting up a church meeting. And while most of us will never entirely know what it’s like to face the storm of racism in such a way, we can know Christ is there with our black sisters and brothers, there in the storm, calling us to listen, to learn, to accompany our fellow children of God as allies in the cause of justice, of peace, of freedom, of the highest ideals of both our country and even more importantly our faith. Jesus is in the storm. Amen.
Dustin serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, a Spirit-filled church following Jesus Christ in Rotterdam, New York. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, he spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with his fiancée Jessie, his amazing pup Willy Bear and pretending to know how to sing.