In Light of Recent Events

gay marriageThis is the text of the sermon I preached on Sunday, June 28, setting aside my summer sermon series to address a number of recent events in our nation.  I publish it here by request:

On Thursday Christy and I drove from Richmond, Virginia, to Niagara Falls, Ontario, which means that we waited in line to cross the Rainbow Bridge to the Canadian side of the border. I don’t know why. You can see the falls from the American side. But we love international travel, and it only cost $3.50 to cross the bridge, so we did it. And, besides, we had reservations at a bed and breakfast on the Canadian side. To avoid roaming charges we switched our phones to “airplane mode” and spent a blissful sixteen hours ignoring the news. When we crossed back over the next day it seemed that everything had changed. Christy sat in the passenger seat looking at her Facebook feed and telling me that the Governor of Alabama had taken down the Confederate flag. And then she told me the Supreme Court had upheld the Affordable Care Act and made gay marriage legal everywhere in America. A little later in the day she told me that President Obama had started singing “Amazing Grace” near the end of his eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney and that someone here in our own town had spray painted “Black Lives Matter” on the Jefferson Davis Monument just down the street.

Honestly, you leave the country for one day!

But now I’m back, and like most of you I’m trying to discern what these events will mean for America, for the Commonwealth of Virginia, for Metropolitan Richmond, and for First Baptist Church. It’s a complicated question, and I went for a run yesterday morning to sort things out. During that run I stopped at the Jefferson Davis Monument and looked for evidence of the words “Black Lives Matter.” I couldn’t find them anywhere. But I thought about the person whose job it was to remove those words from the monument—James Robertson, a private contractor, a white man. I had seen his picture in the paper before I went for my run. And I wondered: what was he thinking as he scrubbed those words from the stone? Because I wouldn’t be surprised if, even as he was doing it, he was thinking, “But black lives DO matter!”

Every life matters.

I preached in Dallas, Texas, on June 19, at the General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and I reminded the audience that exactly 150 years earlier Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to spread the word that slavery had been abolished. The Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect some two-and-a-half years earlier, but most Confederate states ignored it until they were forced to free their slaves by advancing Union troops. From the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa, General Gordon Granger read the contents of General Order No. 3:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor…

Former slaves in Galveston rejoiced in the streets after that announcement, but you might imagine that former slave owners did not rejoice. In a single moment they had gone from owning slaves, who worked for free, to having hired hands, who would expect to be paid.

I also reminded the audience that on June 19, 1964, exactly 51 years earlier, the Civil Rights Act had been passed, prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. On that day I’m sure there was rejoicing in the streets, but again, not everyone was rejoicing. And so it was on Friday, when the Supreme Court decided that the Constitution guarantees the right to same-sex marriage. I saw a picture of a woman holding a sign that read: “I’m not just gay; I’m ecstatic!” Everywhere on Facebook people were putting rainbow stripes over their profile pictures and celebrating this momentous day in our nation’s history, but again…not everyone.

Does it always have to come to this? Big decisions by the government that split the country into two groups: those who are rejoicing and those who are not? Does it always have to divide us as a people? Will this latest decision divide us as a church? I hope and pray that it will not, and to that end I thought it might be helpful to spend a few minutes talking about just what is at stake here.

First of all: marriage.

In the Bible, as far as I can tell, marriage is the creation of a stable social structure in which children can be born and raised. It is the logical outcome of the first commandment ever given in the Bible, Genesis 1:28, in which God says to the people he has just created, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” In the very next chapter the Bible says, “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh.” This is how humans multiply. A man and a woman “cleave” to each other. Biologists call it sexual reproduction.

This appears to be the primary purpose of marriage in the Bible, and for that reason it is necessarily between a man and a woman. But not only one woman. Early in the Bible we have the story of Jacob who married first Leah and then Rachel and then had children by their maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah. Ultimately he produced twelve sons and who knows how many daughters. He was fruitful. He multiplied. He fulfilled the first commandment. But I don’t know many people these days who argue for that kind of biblical marriage. Instead they talk about a lifetime of love and commitment and I agree. That’s a better model than pure procreation. But I’m not sure where we get that. Not from the Bible, certainly, where Jacob may be the only example of someone who wanted to get married because he was in love. Most of those marriages were arranged by parents who made the best matches they could for their children and then waited for the grandchildren to come. It wasn’t about love; it was about multiplication.

But these days we talk about love and commitment. A woman gets married because she falls in love with a man and wants to spend the rest of her life with him. A man gets married for the same reason. And while he may want a family at some point it’s hardly ever the main point. That became clear to me on the day I did a wedding for a couple in their eighties. They were so precious! And each had survived the loss of a spouse after more than fifty years of marriage. When I asked the groom, “Do you take this woman in sickness and in health?” I saw the tears come to his eyes, because he had nursed his wife through a lengthy illness. And when I asked the bride the same question she did the same thing. She had sat by her husband’s bed until he drew his last breath. These two knew what they were getting into! But they weren’t getting into it to start a family. They were lonely, and they had come to love each other, and they longed for human companionship. How could I deny them that?

So, our understanding of marriage has changed since biblical times. It’s not just about multiplication anymore. It’s about love and commitment. And our understanding of human beings has changed since biblical times. We know now that while most people are attracted to members of the opposite sex, some people are attracted to members of the same sex. What we don’t know is why. Is it genetic? Is it something determined at an early age? Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to be a choice. I can still remember the day I discovered that I was attracted to the opposite sex: it was in fourth grade, and her name was Bamma Donohue. I thought she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. But I didn’t choose to be attracted to her; it just happened. People who are attracted to members of the same sex report precisely that kind of experience.

And so the Supreme Court has decided that, since marriage is no longer strictly about multiplication, but rather a matter of love and commitment, and since people don’t seem to choose whom they are attracted to, but rather discover those attractions at an early age, then who are they to tell two adults that they can’t share their lives with each other? That they can’t have joint ownership of property and joint custody of children? The Supreme Court has decided that marriage is a civil right, and that withholding that right on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin is unconstitutional. But what about us? We are not the Supreme Court. We are, most of us, members of First Baptist Church, and when it comes to marriage the separation of church and state prevails. No one can force me to do a same-sex wedding: all they can do is ask.

And so far, no one has.

But surely, someday, someone will, and so, when same-sex marriage became legal in Virginia a few months ago, I asked our deacons where we stand on the issue of homosexuality. I passed out little slips of paper and put four points on the spectrum: 1) we condemn homosexuality and exclude homosexuals from our church, 2) we tolerate homosexuals under an unwritten “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, 3) we welcome homosexuals as members but we do not ordain or marry them, or 4) we extend to our homosexual members the same rights, privileges, and blessings as any other member. I asked the deacons to write down the number that best described First Baptist Church and the average was 2.5—somewhere between tolerance and welcome. And then I passed out more slips of paper and asked them to write down where we should be and this time the average was 3—welcome. We weren’t drafting policy. We weren’t making decisions. We were just finding out where we were on this issue and not everyone was in the same place. There was at least one 1 on those little slips of paper and a few 4’s. As I’ve said before, this church is a big tent. It has all kinds of people in it. The only common denominator is our shared faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.

Which brings me back to my first thoughts on this topic.

When I was still wondering whether I should address these recent events in today’s sermon I thought I might just say something during the welcome. I might say, “There have been a lot of changes in our country in the last few days, but as the author of Hebrews says, ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever’ (13:8). So, maybe we should spend some time sitting at his feet in the next few weeks, listening to what he has to say about all this.” But then I gave it some more thought. What does Jesus say about gay marriage? Nothing at all. What does he say about the Affordable Care Act? Nothing. What does he say about the Confederate flag? Nothing. What does he say about black lives? Nothing that I can recall. But he does say something that could be extended to all lives. He tells us to love our neighbors, and in the parable of the Good Samaritan he makes it clear that the people or groups of people we have the hardest time loving are also our neighbors. Samaritans were despised by the Jews of Jesus’ time, but the Samaritan in his story stopped and helped a Jew who had been beaten and left for dead.

“If you want to inherit eternal life,” Jesus said, “then go and do likewise.”

What would he say to us in these days when some people have been shot because their skin was black and others have been allowed to marry even though they are gay? I’m fairly sure he would say, “Love your neighbor.” And I think he might add (although I don’t want to put words in his mouth) that the commandment to love applies to everyone with no exceptions, that those of us who follow Jesus must love our black neighbors, our white neighbors, our gay neighbors, our straight neighbors, our Christian neighbors, our Muslim neighbors, and even the neighbors who borrow our tools and forget to return them. Leave the work of judgment up to God and the Supreme Court. Our job is not to judge; it is to love. And it is to love everyone.

Because every life matters.

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What I Want for Richmond

black-and-white-hands-e12810219397001I am not a regular reader of the newspaper. I am not a regular watcher of television news. Even so, I have heard plenty about Ferguson, MO, Staten Island, NY, and Cleveland, OH in the last few weeks. I know that there is racial unrest in our nation that is registering on the Richter Scale.

I haven’t preached about it. Although Karl Barth famously urged preachers to step into the pulpit with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other I tend to leave the Times behind. I preach from the Bible, and I’m amazed at how often its timeless truths seem as fresh and relevant as the morning newspaper. Anyone who is listening to its pleas for justice, mercy, and humble walking with God will hear the names of “Ferguson,” “Cleveland,” and “New York.”

But I’m not thinking about them this morning; I’m thinking about Richmond.

What I want for Richmond is a different kind of reality. I don’t want us to be the next Ferguson. I want us to be a place where God’s kingdom has come and God’s will is done on earth as it is in Heaven. And I can’t imagine that it is God’s will for there to be enmity among his children, and especially not because of color or class.

So, what if, in Richmond:

  • We went out of our way to be kind to each other?
  • We greeted each other warmly, sincerely, with the sign of the open palm, proving that we meant each other no harm?
  • We visited each other’s churches, celebrating the truth that we have the same Heavenly Father, which makes us all sisters and brothers?
  • We took the time to call or listen to those who may feel especially vulnerable in this time of unrest, those who are thinking, “That could have been my son,” or, “That could have been me”?
  • We tried to be patient with those who learned prejudice from their parents or grandparents or other trusted elders as they struggle to learn a better way?
  • We prayed for police officers, who regularly risk their lives in the line of duty, and who live with more fear than they would ever want us to see?
  • We tried hard to see in the face of every other human being the face of Christ, and tried to love one another as he has loved us?

That’s what I want for Richmond. I know it’s a lot to ask, and I know it seems to leave out those who are not part of my tradition, and who may not be willing to look for “the face of Christ” in others. But can we at least see the face of a neighbor in the other, and recognize that this is our city, together? That it rises or falls on the basis of how we treat each other?  And can we make a silent promise, right now, to treat each other with love and respect?

My friend Ben Campbell has said he wants “the former Capital of the Confederacy to become the Capital of Racial Reconciliation.”  That’s a good and worthy goal and I embrace it, but I realize I want even more than that:

I want it to become Heaven on Earth.

Racism: Blame it on Linnaeus

LinnaeusIn my last post I mentioned that human beings are 99.9 percent the same, genetically. So where did we get the idea that the .01 percent that makes us different also makes us better, or worse, than our fellow humans?

In a paper called “‘Scientific Racism’ in Enlightened Europe,” Shah Aashna Hossain claims that “the concept of racism did not always exist.” He writes:

In General System of Nature, published in 1735, [Swedish biologist Carl] Linnaeus stated that variations within the Genus Homo sapiens existed as a result of varying cultures and climates. The four main categories of the Genus that he proposed were the following:

1. Americanus. Native American males were supposedly red; had black hair and sparse beards; were stubborn; prone to anger; “free”; and governed by traditions. Thus, this form of Homo sapiens was definitely inferior and uncivilized.

2. Asiaticus. The male Asian was said to be “yellowish, melancholy, endowed with black hair and brown eyes…severe, conceited, and stingy. He puts on loose clothing. He is governed by opinion.” Thus, like the aforementioned type of Homo sapiens, the Asiaticus could only be a mediocre prototype.

3. Africanus. The male of this subset, according to Linnaeus, could be recognized by his skin tone, face structure, and curly hair. This kind was apparently cunning, passive, and inattentive, and ruled by impulse. The female of this kind was also apparently shameless, because “they lactate profusely.”

4. Europeaus. The males of this subset were supposedly “changeable, clever, and inventive. He puts on tight clothing. He is governed by laws.”

In addition to these categories, Linnaeus also suggested there were some more miscellaneous ones that occurred: “‘wild men,’ dwarfs, troglodytes [cave dwellers], and ‘lazy Patagonians’ [South American hunter-gatherers].” Therefore, being the most civilized of the Homo sapiens, the Europeaus was obviously the most superior type in Charles Linnaeus’s view.

Before Linnaeus proposed the ideas mentioned above, “race” had been used to distinguish between different nationalities. But after he proposed the system above, Europeans began to identify themselves with a larger group: “white” people.

And so, because of the “scientific” classification proposed by Linnaeus, “white” people began to think of themselves as “superior.”

Have you ever wondered how things might have been different if an African, or Native American, or Asian scientist had proposed the system of classification?  Is it any surprise that we often end up believing that the “best” people are the ones who are most like us? (take a second look at Linnaeus’ portrait above).  And is there any way we can rid ourselves of more than 250 years of discrimination based on the .01 percent of the genetic code that makes us different from each other?

Hossain says the concept of racism did not always exist.  What would it take to get to the place where it no longer does?

A famous Virginian once wrote that “all men are created equal”–not the same, but equal.  And the Creator himself–after looking on humankind in all its diversity–said that it was good, “very good.”

Today, let’s try looking on all of humankind through His eyes.

KOH2RVA: Day 70

I’ve been thinking about prejudice and Greek.

Back when I was in seminary everybody told me I was going to hate Greek. They told me that if I wasn’t good at Math I wouldn’t be good at Greek, and I wasn’t good at Math, not at all. But in those days you had to take Greek, like it or not, so I decided I was going to take it and like it. In fact, I decided I was going to love it.

And I did.

I ended up taking five semesters of Greek, and one semester I translated the entire Book of Revelation. But I’m almost sure that wouldn’t have happened if I had approached the class in fear and trembling, certain that I was going to hate Greek.

So, what if I do the same thing with people?

What if, instead of avoiding people who are different from me, I seek them out? What if I realize how much I could learn from someone who has grown up in a different country or culture, someone who speaks a foreign language or looks at things in the opposite way? In other words, instead of hating people who are different from me, what if I made up my mind to love them, just as I made up my mind to love Greek? Would that help to bring heaven to earth in Richmond or anywhere else?

I’m still thinking about the lecture I heard on Thursday night, where Ben Campbell speculated that many of the problems we face in Richmond today are a direct result of racism, that instead of loving and respecting people whose skin is a different color we have tended to avoid them or, worse, hate them and hurt them. How much of that is a state of mind? And how much of that did we get from someone who told us, “You’re going to hate those people”? What if we said, “No, we’re not,” and simply made up our minds to love people who are different from us, no matter what?

Try this simple exercise: next time you see someone who is different from you–and I mean in any way: race, class, gender, orientation, political party–think, “I love those people,” and see what happens.  No, seriously: try it.  Make up your mind and see if your heart will follow.  I’ve tried it myself and I have felt the difference.  I’ve felt the learned fear and suspicion turn into warmth and acceptance.  It’s as if someone flipped a switch.

You may say that’s simplistic, impossible, idealistic, but I say this:

I got an “A” in Greek.

Leaving Alabama

book121-aLast week, during the Lenten Luncheon series at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, I told the story of how my family left Alabama.  Some of you have asked that I post it here.  This version is a little longer, with a few more details.  I hope it will inspire your thinking on race relations and make you wonder how your own experience has shaped your views on that issue.  Enjoy.

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I was born on March 14, 1959, in Selma, Alabama (for those of you who are still doing the math I am hanging on to my forties by my fingernails).  My mother tells me I was the most difficult of all her babies to deliver, and that while she was waiting for me to make up my mind about being born she walked the hallways of that hospital saying the 23rd Psalm over and over: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  My father was the new pastor of the Presbyterian church in Hayneville, Alabama, 35 miles away, and recently he told me the story of his own labor, there, and of his eventual delivery.

 

He said that when he was considering a call to that church he asked the committee chairman what the civil rights situation was in Hayneville.  Since the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, resistance to integration had been strong in the South, and sometimes violent.  The chairman said, “Well, you’re a good old South Carolina boy, aren’t you?  You know what it’s like.”  And it’s true.  My father had grown up in South Carolina.  He probably knew exactly what it was like.  But he came anyway.  He hadn’t been there very long when a member of the church invited him to say the opening prayer at the next meeting of the White Citizens’ Council.  “What is the White Citizens’ Council for, exactly?” my father asked.  “Could I look over a copy of the Constitution and Bylaws before I give you my answer?”  And the man looked at my dad as if he were crazy, or maybe a communist, and said, “Well you know what it’s for: it’s to keep niggers in their place!” 

 

Although I don’t think the Constitution and Bylaws read that way, that is what the White Citizens’ Council was for.  According to one of my better sources the WCC was an American white supremacist organization which flourished between the mid-fifties and the mid-seventies.  With about 15,000 members, mostly in the South, the group was well known for its opposition to racial integration in the South.  Headed by Gordon Lee Baum, a St. Louis attorney, its issues involved the so-called “protection” of “European-American” heritage from those of other ethnicities.[1]  If my dad had only had Wikipedia he would have known all that.  But in answer to the man’s reply Dad said he didn’t think that was his role in the community.  He said he thought his role was to share the gospel with anyone who would receive it, black or white, and to make no distinction between the two.  “And that,” my father said, “was when he looked at me as if he really did have a rattlesnake loose in his house.”

 

It was not long after I was born that the leaders of Dad’s church sat down with him to discuss the policies of racial integration being promoted by the denomination.  According to some Presbyterians, at least, black people ought to be welcome in the church just like white people.  The elders of the church in Hayneville talked about that for a long time and finally decided that black people—“negroes” as they called them in polite company—were welcome to visit the church but not welcome to join it.  And then they looked at my dad to see what he thought.  He must have been about thirty years old at the time, a young man, sitting in that room with all his elders, trying to be respectful.  But finally he said, “This church doesn’t belong to us.  It belongs to Jesus Christ.  And I don’t think he would keep anyone from joining because of their skin color.”  And the man who had chaired the search committee looked at my dad and said, “Son, I don’t know what kind of religion they taught you in seminary, but we’ve only got one kind of religion here, and it’s that good old Southern religion.”

 

Soon word began to get around that the new pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Hayneville was a “nigger lovin’” preacher.  Church attendance began to fall off.  Women would stare at my mother in the grocery store.  And then one morning while she was fixing breakfast she noticed a string of cars passing by the house, slowing down at the front yard and then speeding up again.  One of our neighbors called to ask if we were all right and Mom said, “Yes, why wouldn’t we be?”  “Didn’t you know?” said the woman.  “Why, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in front of your house last night!”

 

Mom hung up the phone and got my father out of bed.  He put on his bathrobe and slippers and walked across the front lawn to a patch of burned grass.  My mother watched him poke a pile of ashes with the toe of one slipper and when he came back in she said, “Well?”  And he answered, almost disappointed: “Sure was a little one.”  But after that the threats began to get more serious until my father finally decided he needed to get his family out of there.  So, he loaded up his wife and three little boys in a 1953 Ford Fairlane, strapped a dog house on top with our dog “Lady” and her five puppies inside, nailed a piece of plywood over the opening, and then, under cover of darkness, pulled out of the parsonage driveway and headed up the road toward Southwestern Virginia, where he would try to continue his ministry under happier, friendlier circumstances.

 

Things were happier there, and friendlier, too.  But even though I was just a toddler when we left Alabama those stories, and my father’s courageous example, have shaped my views on race relations ever since.  How about you?  Who shaped your views on this issue?


[1] From Wikipedia, “White Citizens’ Council”