This is the sermon I preached August 13th, less than 24 hours after the riots & a deadly act of domestic terrorism on the streets of Charlottesville. It’s also my goodbye sermon to St. John’s Georgetown. The text is Matthew 14: 22-33.
This is a fairly interesting and complicated week for me as a preacher. It’s interesting because this is the first time I can look back over a sermon I preached on this same lectionary weekend. I did look back at what I wrote 3 years ago, and I have to tell you, I’m a much better preacher now!
This is a complicated week for me as a preacher because this is most likely my last time preaching at St. John’s. I’m reluctant to say it’s my last Sunday with you all, but it will certainly be my last Sunday for a long time.
It’s further complicated because by now you all know me. And you know that I don’t like to ignore pressing world events. But this week, this week I really wanted to avoid having a serious sermon. I wanted to preach a sermon that was calm, loving, insightful but not at all controversial.
But unfortunately, I’m not one to shy away from a challenge. I don’t like to stay in the boat, even as the storm rages, much like Peter in this Gospel. And this week, in this world, the storm is raging.
I have been inspired by the people I’ve come to know here at St. John’s, because you all are people who have a history of finding yourselves on the right side of history, and working hard to make sure that history tilts towards justice. That has seeped into the very DNA of St. John’s, and it has seeped into me as you all nurtured me into the priest I now stand before you as.
So this week, instead of preaching a sermon on the importance between the difference in a robe with long sleeves verses a robe of many colors, I’m going to wade into the waters of the raging storm, fully aware that on my own, I am incapable of walking on water.
But I’d like to approach this in what I hope is an unexpected way.
There is a difference between shame and guilt (unexpected transition, right?). I’ve spent a fair amount of time with the works of Brene’ Brown. She explains that shame keeps us locked into old patterns, making justifications and excuses; refusing to change, refusing to take the risk to get out of the boat, even as an opportunity as incredible as walking on water presents itself. Guilt, on the other hand, motivates you to do and be different.
I think when it comes to race relations in America, we use the world guilt a lot, when we really mean shame. Shame, when left unchecked and un-dealt with, becomes fear, and rage. It leads thousands of white men to protest and riot in Charlottesville in order to “protect their way of life.” It lead to the justification of slavery, and to utterly abuse other human beings, in order to protect a way of life, and prevent having to change a worldview.
I have spent an incredible amount of time and effort attempting to understand myself, my privilege, and the systems in place that perpetuate the racial divisions in this country. I did and do so out of my understanding of the word repent. To repent means more than to say I’m sorry. In Hebrew it means “to turn, or return.” It is a physical action. Actual effort and change is necessary. Repentance is visceral.
Part of this process for me is learning, studying, and talking to people. I’m trying to understand how it is that we as a nation got to this point.
What I’m finding is an absolutely raging storm. One with waves that are threatening to destroy the comfortable boat in which I have always lived my life. Actually, I take that back. By wading into this storm, I discovered that I wasn’t actually in a real boat. It was an illusion, created by hundreds of years of intentional actions by people wishing to create and preserve their own power.
Race, and racism, is a cultural construct. It’s a way of dividing, managing, and suppressing people. It is not natural. Racism is not inspired by God. Racism is not created by God. Racism is not Divinely ordained.
God created us to live together, to respect one another, to live in peace. God did not create us to carry torches and threaten one another with them. God did not create us to walk in streets shouting things like “you will not replace us.”
God created us to love and respect one another. God created us to love and respect even those who are perpetuating this hate. Unlike those in Charlottesville, I take this command very seriously. Standing here today is an act of my love. It is my love of God and of humanity.
My love calls me to repentance, to be and do different. To take an honest look at my life and see that so much of what society taught me to believe is based on a created illusion. I have only begun to scratch the surface of what there is to uncover, and have found myself often gasping “oh my God!”
My personal repentance has lead me to stand here and say there is a problem. There is a problem, I did not create this problem, but I can do something about it. What I can do is what I encourage all of us to do, often. Talk to people.
Often, I have said that we need to talk to people who are different than we are. But today, I call us to something far, far more difficult. Something that requires us to be incredibly vulnerable. Something that calls us to be like Peter in this Gospel. We must get out of our comfort zones, and walk directly into the storm.
We must talk to other white people about race.
The conversation is so important, and all too often, just isn’t happening.
Here are some talking points:
The Episcopal Church, then the Church of England, was at best complicit, and more than likely implicitly involved in the creation of modern racism. Missionaries came to be priests in the new world, and finding it difficult to bring religion to most of the early settlers, instead focused on Native Americans and slaves. This religion of love and the availability of that love to all, regardless of socioeconomic status, this religion of a God who is with the oppressed and the least of these, Christianity found welcome in the ears of slaves. People who were treated and taught to believe they were the least of these.
But as slaves converted to Christianity, a problem emerged. Because Christians could make arguments that they should be free. But this just couldn’t be the case. The entire economic system of what would become this nation was based on the free labor that came from owning other humans. And so the church either sat back and let the government make it so that Christianity was no longer a justification to be free, or, the church was involved in that process. I don’t know which it was, but it was one of them.
That is a mouthful though. Here are some easier talking points:
-did you know that the modern American police were created out of gangs of armed white men who patrolled plantations to keep slaves in, and find those who had escaped;
did you know that whites and people of color commit crimes in almost equal numbers, but people of color make up the vast majority of those in prison;
did you know that the greatest single factor in determining educational success is if a child has a single teacher of their own race growing up, but the vast majority of teachers are white?
These are out of the boat conversations. It’s socially acceptable to stay in the boat. To act like there isn’t a problem. Certainly, the social expectation is to not talk about things as controversial and complicated as modern race relations. But we have absolutely got to.
We work so hard to avoid being uncomfortable. But true growth comes out of being uncomfortable. From what happens as the waves batter us, and we go forward anyway. Growth comes when we get out of the boat, and walk to where Christ wants us to be. Trusting that God will catch us if we get overwhelmed by the storm.
In this Gospel story, this storm is intense. The Disciples were made up of a lot of fishermen. They knew the water and how to navigate a storm. They were scared. Peter got out of the boat anyway.
And we all must as well.
The storm is raging. It has been raging for a long time. But we were comfortable in our boat. Until people started pointing out the holes in our boat, that the water is getting in. We can’t ignore the damage to our boat anymore, if we do, we will sink.
We will sink further into the hate and fear that lead white men to riot in Charlottesville.
Peter got scared when he got out of the boat, and he could see what he was walking towards. This isn’t easy. I’m often scared. I’m scared right now. But I’m going anyway. I’m having these conversations and learning the history for myself.
As I leave St. John’s, I wish to leave you all with words of courage that being part of this community inspired in me. You all inspired me to be outside the boat. You inspired me to realize that I don’t need a boat.
And I offer that in return to you today.
The storm rages around us today. The storm is intense, and dark. And we have every right to be afraid.
And we must walk in love anyway. We must walk in love as Christ loved us. We must continue walking towards Christ. Even as the storm rages. When we get scared and lost, we can trust that God will catch us. We won’t drown. We might get battered around a bit, but we won’t drown.
We are called to be more than our history. We are called to be more than our political affiliation. We are called to be Christians. To walk with Christ. On land and water.
I love you. I will miss you. May God always bless and be with you. In the midst of the storm, and in the calm of the night.