Racism Is Real

August 31st, 2014

Preacher: Emily Linderman

Good morning, Epiphany!

My name is Emily Linderman. Many of you know me, but I imagine that at least some of you do not. Or maybe you’ve seen my name on the staff list of the weekly bulletins or at the end of Epiphany emails. I’ve been working here at Epiphany for a little over three years. I started here in 2011 as your administrative assistant, spent some time solely responsible for communications, and now I’m the Associate for Staff and Ministry Formation. Clearly, I like being here with you all.

I’m also a seminary student at Seattle University. I’m halfway through my Master of Divinity degree seeking ordination with the United Church of Christ, and I spent the last school year interning as a chaplain at juvenile detention.

I was planning on preaching my first Sunday morning sermon in this pulpit on the paradox of work and rest this Labor Day weekend. And I thought maybe I’d tell you a little bit about what in the world is an Associate for Staff and Ministry Formation anyway. I was planning on sharing with you why I care so much about the about the paradox of work and Sabbath and why I hope you might too. But some things are erupting all over our world and rippling through our communities and they have my attention.

In particular, Michael Brown, an unarmed, black teenager was shot 6 times and killed by a white police officer, and the resulting protests and the reinvigorated conversations about racism in journalistic and social media outlets, vigils, and organizing meetings all over our country, the world, and here in Seattle have more urgency than my job description.

I don’t know if you noticed that I’m white. I am and I know that I am. There is nothing I can do to change that. Epiphany is not an all-white congregation, but it is a mostly white congregation. I’m preaching, today and every time I preach, from my white social location to a mostly white congregation, and I want to briefly contemplate racism, specifically the denial and minimizing of the realities of racism.

Racism is a charged word. Just saying or hearing those 6 letters strung together can be anxiety-producing. That one word can cause my heart to beat faster, my temperature to rise, maybe a little shakiness in my hands and voice. I want to be able to present myself as intelligent and compassionate, and I’m afraid I’ll mess it up and look and sound clueless. Worse and more serious than that, I’m afraid I’ll come off as damning or hurt someone with my words. I want to have all the answers before I open my mouth, but I’ll never have all the answers on my own. Sometimes I think that I barely have a clue or the courage required. I’m afraid if I start the conversation I will have to commit to continuing the conversation; I will have to commit to walking my talk. Maybe some or all of these sensations are true for you too.

Racism and the denial and minimizing of the realities and effects of racism are not the easiest things to start talking about in a meaningful way, but I don’t think we can afford not to. I don’t think we can afford not to consider and commit to resulting actions. People are literally dying. From a Christian perspective, our brothers and sisters are losing their lives. As I see it the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven is at stake; the unity of the Body of Christ is at stake; our communal liberation is at stake.

And so, I’m committed to trying. I’m committed to starting, continuing, and participating in conversations and kingdom building actions as imperfect as my efforts may be.

I’d like to share with you a piece of writing that articulates an experience of living in the United States that isn’t mine, but I’ve asked for permission to share. Many of you know Pastor Darrell Goodwin. I found my way to Epiphany through him. He’s the founding pastor of Liberation United Church of Christ and my pastor and mentor. Liberation is the church that worships here at Epiphany every Sunday afternoon at 1:30 pm as we have for the past seven years. He’s preached at Epiphany several times, and a couple years ago he was the retreat leader for the annual fall men’s retreat. Pastor Darrell wrote and posted this short piece on Facebook days after Michael Brown was killed:

“It is important to note that though I am an educated university administrator, married clergy person, and a host of other socially ‘important’ identities. I live in a country where because I am a Black man I can be killed in cold blood and then blamed for my own death. My degrees will not save me, my employment will not save me, my income will not matter. The only thing that will help is that after reading this you accept this reality and no longer live in ignorance thinking that this could never happen to me because it CAN.”

Can you hear Pastor Darrell, echoing Jesus, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me!” to his thousands of Facebook friends and twitter followers?

I can.

Can you hear him trying to break through the denial of many of his church members, including me, any of the students under his authority as Dean of Students at Seattle University, any of his fellow highly educated friends and colleagues at Jesuit institutions across the country who would rebuke him?

I can.

And I wonder, if Pastor Darrell was standing here today in this pulpit, where he’s been before, would we believe him?

And I wonder when I hear the Gospel, if I were Peter, would I have rebuked and denied Jesus?

Doyt preached last week on the lectionary text just a few verses back in Matthew 16. Here’s a recap, Jesus has just been asking Peter and the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter answers with amazing divine insight, “You are the Messiah.” “Ah,” Jesus might be thinking, “We’re getting somewhere.” Jesus replies by saying, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

And then, here we are today, just 5 verses later, 5 short verses later, Jesus says to this same Messiah-acknowledging Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! You’re a stumbling block for me.”

So quickly we’ve moved from “You are Peter” to “Get behind me, Satan,” from the rock upon which Jesus will build his church to a stumbling block.

Peter to Satan,
Rock to Stumbling Block,
Divine Insight to Denial.

This exchange between Peter and Jesus feels so real to me, so familiar to me. Does it to you too? This is what I love about the gospels; this is what challenges me about the Gospels. They’re still alive. I can so relate to this exchange between Peter and Jesus. But, just because Peter doesn’t want something to be true doesn’t mean that it isn’t true.

When I read this gospel passage, when I sit with it, I imagine Jesus and Peter discussing the realities of ongoing racism today in the United States spurred on by images and reports from Ferguson, Missouri, that cause us to turn and face the realities of racism here in Seattle.

In closing, I invite you to re-imagine today’s gospel passage with me.

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that racism is real. That he and others are suffering at the hands of our country’s increasingly militarized police forces, our Prison Industrial Complex and penal system, our fear, and our apathy. Parents have to teach their children of color from a young age, “hands up, don’t shoot,” and yet it’s not enough. It will never be enough. People of color are being unjustly killed – Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, and Dante Parker.”

And Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This could never happen to you. Those were just isolated incidents. That’s down south. That’s not here in Seattle. We’re beyond racism. Those looters are making a disgraceful mess of things. They’ve blown this way out of proportion. Come on, we have a black president. Not all police officers are like that. I’m sure we don’t know the whole story.”

But Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan! You and your denial and minimizing, your explaining away are stumbling blocks for me; for you are setting your mind and eyes and ears not on divine kingdom-building things, but on human kingdom things.”

Then Jesus told the rest of us gathered, “If any want to become my followers and work together building the kingdom of God, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their lives of denial will lose them, and those who are willing to lose their lives of denial for the Body of Christ’s sake will save them.”

For what will it profit us if we gain the whole world but forfeit our souls? Or what shall we give in exchange for our souls?

“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done and what has been left undone. And then he will repay everyone for what they have done with their keys to the kingdom, what has been bound and what has been loosed.

Truly I tell you, there are some working in Ferguson, there are some working here in Seattle, and some right here in Epiphany, who have not tasted death, and yet believe that racism, in the absence of denial, can be dismantled as surely as it’s been constructed. There are some who have a clear and hopeful vision for the Body of Christ coming into the fullness of God’s kingdom.”

May it be so.