Homily for Proper 9, Year A
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
(Virtual Worship during a Time of Pandemic)
This summer, I’ve been reading How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X Kendi. One of the things I love most about this book is that Kendi uses the power of language to move his readers…notably, people like me who desire not to be racists…progressively into deeper and more challenging topics by pairing contrasting definitions, which he then illustrates through poignant, personal reflections. Here’s his starting place:
“The opposite of racist isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘anti-racist.’ What’s the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an anti-racist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist.”
He goes on to state: there is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’ After this declaration, he proceeds to share a vulnerable story revealing a time when his own internalized racism was proudly put on public display. In retelling that narrative, Kendi displays what he learned and lays out his own life as a parable of the struggle for racial equity in a world filled with structural injustice, so insidious that it seeps into even those directly impacted by the forces of oppression.
I can’t help thinking about Kendi’s book when I consider today’s Epistle; St. Paul is also asserting that there is no neutral position between “sin” and “God.” Even our best efforts to do what is right and good take us to places where we find ourselves doing the very things we hate. In fact, I think that if the Apostle Paul were writing an Epistle to the Church of the United States of America rather than an Epistle to the Romans, he might very well use a similar cadence to deliver us some challenging exhortations that mighty be particularly pertinent to ponder on this Sunday of the Independence Day holiday weekend, in the midst of our renewed awareness of the ongoing struggle for racial justice. Maybe we could imagine that Epistle something like this:
To the Church in the United States of America, a nation founded under God with “liberty and justice for all” who 244 years after its founding is still struggling under the burdens of racism and white supremacy: How is it that we do not understand our own actions? How is it that time and time again, we do not do the things that we want to do by our baptismal vows: to love each other as Christ loved us, to seek and serve Christ in all people, to love our neighbor as ourselves. But instead, we do the very things we hate: we fall back into patterns that reinforce the way things always have been; or avoid directly confronting racism when we hear it or see it. We want to do what is right and good, but we get pulled into patterns of silence, or indifference. We distance ourselves from a painful history of racism and its present day consequences: economic and social inequality; persistent health disparities; poverty; underfunded school systems and racialized school suspensions, mass incarceration, racial profiling and police violence. We don’t strive to align ourselves with these things. But even when we try with our best human efforts, we become entangled in the sin of racism that still defines the context of this nation in which we live. Who will rescue the Body of Christ from this body of death?
The Epistle answers that question, and we will get there, too. But, I’ve learned from Kendi’s style that one way to invite deeper learning is to pause the lesson and engage in vulnerable self-reflection. So today I am pausing mid-homily to offer a parable of sorts from my own life about this place where there is no neutral: the vulnerable intersection of sin and grace.
The year was 1990, and I was about to start my junior year as a social work major at Buffalo State College. That summer, I started a part-time job as an activities assistant at a skilled nursing facility, the Episcopal Church Home. I wasn’t an Episcopalian then, incidentally, but that’s a story for another time. My job was to plan activities both inside and beyond the facility walls to enhance the quality of life of our residents. In addition to bingo and crafts, I had to learn to drive the facility’s wheelchair van…a big, boxy, vehicle…nothing like my own little car. My driving instructor was the Director of Facilities, whose name was Eugene, Gene for short. Gene was a quiet, dry-humored man several decades older and almost two feet taller than I was. He would shake his head and chuckle when I had to slide the seat way up to reach the pedals and adjust all the mirrors to my height for our lessons. The bus was brand new, and I was one of the first people he was training to drive it. Gene was a long-time employee…and the only Black manager in that predominantly white facility. He had stories and advice he dispensed to me from his years coming up through the ranks, and our driving lessons taught me a whole lot, from an entirely different vantage point than my own.
The first time I took the bus out on my own, I was incredibly nervous. Things were going well until we arrived at the destination, and I realized that I was going to have to back the bus into the one remaining space. Gene had taught me well, and I managed to maneuver the big bus into the tiny space. Unbeknownst to me, there was a metal gate adjacent to that parking space which was closed when I backed in but was part-way open when it was time to leave. I pulled out of the spot to head home and immediately heard the horrifying sound of metal scraping metal. The bumper had gotten caught on the edge of the gate and pulled away from the bus.
Panic overtook me. New bus, new driver, young and inexperienced. I got everyone back home safely and put the bus in the parking lot. We didn’t have cell phones, so I wrote a note to my supervisor and filled out an incident report. I knew I wouldn’t be in the next day, so in that letter I begged my boss’ help: “Please calm the savages until I’m back on Tuesday to defend myself!” were the words that I wrote.
Monday came and went…no news felt like good news…and on Tuesday I went into work. On my desk, I saw the incident report returned to me with a note on it that said, “Come and see me when you get in. Gene.” My heart was pounding all the way to his office. I knocked on the door and he looked up from his desk. His demeanor was serious. He motioned me in and invited me to sit, then got up and closed the door behind us. I immediately started in on my nervous explanation about the bus, and the gate, and how it was a total accident. He shook his head: “I don’t care about the bus” he said. I stopped my excuse-filled chattering. He went on: “The reason why I asked to see you was because I read your report, and the note along with it. And what I want to ask you is this: what have I ever done to make you think of me as a ‘savage’?”
My face flushed, and I could feel myself suddenly confronted by my insulting, racist assumptions and language that I had paid no attention to, whatsoever. After some silence, Gene continued:
“Sarah, I know you well enough to know that you probably didn’t think about what you wrote, but I wanted to talk to you, so you and I could have a conversation about what it feels like to be a Black man who gets called a “savage” by a young, white woman.”
Sitting in that chair, I felt the weight of racism that was all around me, and within me. I couldn’t escape it. I apologized. I told him it wasn’t true, of course, and that I hadn’t meant it that way. But I knew that he already knew that. And I knew that wasn’t the point of the conversation.
Gene gave me an incredible gift that day. He didn’t let me off the hook. He saw me caught up in racism beyond my conscious awareness. He invited me into conversation based on relationship, not power. Gene taught me much more than how to drive a bus. He taught me how to be an anti-racist, to recognize power lines of difference, and to confront injustice directly, with respect. I hadn’t respected him with my assumptions or my thoughtless slur, but he respected me as a friend and colleague who had the capacity to learn and grow. It took me a while to really learn that lesson, I’ll be honest. My embarrassment, my worry, and my self-consciousness were still in the way for quite some time. But I did learn. And I am still learning. Eventually, I was able to thank Gene for the gift of relationship and the opportunity to learn that he gave me that day, for which I’m still grateful.
In this time and place in which we find ourselves, I have not one doubt that each and every one of us wants to align with God’s goodness and desires to be on the side of love and beloved community, rather than sin and racism. That’s why reading today’s Epistle is hard, just like sitting with the pain I’d caused Gene was hard, and just like reading Ibram Kendi’s book is hard, because it means we have to confront the fact that we do not always do what we strive to do. Intentionally or not…we fall into patterns that perpetuate the sin of racism over and over again. White supremacy is the reality on which our country was founded every bit as much as the well-intentioned ideals of liberty and justice for all. We know full well that all didn’t really apply to all people….just all white, land-owning men. Our founding fathers fell short. And when we fall short, we may find ourselves getting defensive, making excuses, drifting into the not-really-existent neutral ground of good intention, quickly jumping in to assert that “I’m not a racist” or “I’m not a sinner.” There comes a time when we have to recognize that we get caught up in structures of sin, like racism, that are larger than we are. There is no neutral. But we can choose the gift of grace that God has freely given us even as we sit in our awareness and our discomfort: Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.
That is the deeper learning.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus offers us a way to move forward. Jesus is not giving us an easy pass, a free ride, or an excuse to rely on the labor of others. Jesus is giving us a yoke that is attached to a Gospel message where the poor, the meek, the hungry, the grieving, and the persecuted are given the blessings of resurrection. Jesus is inviting us to be yoked onto the team, doing the work together to till the soil, learn the way and together plant the seeds of hope which bring forth the realm of God: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.”
That’s right: learn from me.
Jesus isn’t talking about resting in what Dietrich Bonhoffer called cheap grace, being forgiven and let off the hook for any consequences. Jesus’ life was lived in costly grace, the ushering in of the reign of Christ in which we are invited to learn how to participate, yoked to the One who gave up life and living that we might know grace and salvation. Jesus invites us to be yoked to transforming love, to understand what it means to be gentle and humble in the way in which the pattern of the life of Christ teaches us to be. The ease that we find in striding along with Jesus our savior is the experience of grace. It is, in fact, that which takes us from the limp neutrality of being temporarily pardoned “non-sinners” and into daily work which is anti-sin, anti-racist and therefore truly and rightly, of God.
Now, at last, we are able to hear the deep truth of this Gospel lesson. The work and the learning are ours to do, but the Grace is God’s to give.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Photo taken in Marcus-David Peters Circle, reclaimed community sacred space around the Robert E. Lee Monument in Richmond, VA