Isaiah 6:1-8 only; Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15:1-1; Luke 5:1-11
Today, in whatever small way, we begin nudging forward in our attempt to explore challenging issues of race, including how we all have been ensnared in the insidious, sometimes subtle, racial divide and construct in our country which has existed since our founding. But I must tell you I have no interest in engaging in these difficult yet liberating conversations without it coming from a place of Gospel – a location of the genuine good news of what God has done, is doing, and can do in our community; it is a message that has little power outside the grace of God in Christ. Luke reminds us that we are called – not because we are broken and sinful but in spite of our challenges. Peter, today, has the most fleeting sense of who Jesus is and says, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Peter is living in the fear that he is not good enough, strong enough, or holy enough to follow Jesus. But Jesus is at His gentlest and most hopeful as He says, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”
You see, it is largely from our fear that we stay stuck in place, paralyzed into accepting the status quo, when it comes to our historical and current challenge in the US around issues of race and racism. But Jesus, in all holiness and earnestness, calls us to live into the good news of His coming, which is for all people. God cries out, “Who will go for me?” And we, with some sense of newfound courage, soaked in the love of Jesus, impulsively and defiantly raise our hands to say, “Here I am Lord. See me. Please, send me!” We are a sent people, sent out into the world - acknowledging our tendency to stray from God and our fear of listening to God – as messengers that all of God’s people need to be equally considered worthy of the good news of God in Christ, and all that implies. Jesus’ very life and sacrifice calls us to be free ourselves, aware and blessed solely by the grace of God in Christ.
So, now is the time the Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA) and ECCT has chosen for us to more fully live into our Baptismal promise to respect the dignity of every human being. And respect is more than tolerating someone, it is seeing every person as fellow a human, imprinted with the image of God. Race, as you may have already discovered, is a social construct that has no real meaning, other than the power we, in our fear, may give to it. People are black, white, and brown yet God never intended that these hues of His creation would imply that one was better or closer to God than the other. Yet, we hold onto the construct, because to refuse to makes many tremble with fear that they may lose something: prestige, position, power, privilege; or maybe just the simple fear of change. Letting go of race as a defining way of separateness takes courage, practice, patience, awareness and conversation.
I was recently rereading MLK, Jr.’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail. And, as I recall, King’s letter was actually a response to an open letter to him and other people engaged in a “direct action” as Dr. King calls it in his letter – action of civil disobedience. Eight white clergymen, who claimed to be sympathetic toward the Civil Rights Movement in principal, felt that the nonviolent protesters in Birmingham were going about it in the wrong way. They felt that Dr. King and his fellow protesters should be patient, and let the legal system sort the situation out. It is from that place, while being held in the Birmingham Jail, that Dr. King responded. Here is some of what he had to say.
“As the weeks and months unfolded, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. The signs remained. As in so many experiences of the past, we were confronted with blasted hopes, and the dark shadow of a deep disappointment settled upon us. So, we had no alternative except that of preparing for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community.”
Dr. King goes on: “I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.”
Now, this was written fifty-five years ago. And it is easy to say that we have come a long way since the days of segregation, Klan violence, etc. And I would agree with that assessment. At the same time, we must understand that the American experience still seems out of reach for many people of color, particularly folks who live in poverty. Statistics consistently bear out that hiring practices, housing practices like “red-lining” and basic attitudes still bend very much away from people of color. So much of what we do and how we do it, in relation to people of color these days, is subtle, unconscious even, but that is why having honest conversation is so important. The grace of God calls us to be one body, one spirit, and none are completely free until all are. We cannot know what it means to be black, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American in this country if we are not black, Hispanic, Asian or Native American; but we can listen and perhaps see the irony that I am still using race as a way to define people. There must be another way?
Perhaps the most important thing for us to remember is that we are a called people, a sent people, just as we are. God never waits for us to be perfect and whole before we can function and live and love in His name. Peter and Isaiah today both openly acknowledge their sinfulness, their challenges to be the people they think they should be. But Christ comforts us, not shaming or blaming, not rejecting or upbraiding, but saying, “Don’t be afraid. You are meant for a new call; to be a fisherman or woman of people.” We are meant for more than the status quo; we are intended for the beautiful wholeness of challenging love, a love that has no divide, no barriers, no walls, no limits. Our difference is, I believe, intended by God. Our oneness is also God’s intent, for us to transcend difference while holding its beauty, at the same time.
Sometimes our road to wisdom, repentance, and love is fiery. The angel touched Isaiah’s lips with the live, burning coal of purification. Sometimes our road to oneness with God requires confession, to acknowledge that we can be people of unclean lips and actions which fly in the face of God’s holiness. Our confession evokes honest dialogue with God and each other and allows the grace of God to truly seep into all life and, maybe one day, blast away the darkness of racism, bias, bitterness and fear. We need not be perfect but we must be willing to name what challenges us and confess where we have struggled, harmed, or held someone (even ourselves) back; even been part of a system that held someone in less than high regard because of their race and shut them out as a result.
Yet, there is no real risk in our confession. Certainly, we can always be rejected by others but we will never be rejected by God in Christ. Paul reminds us today that we are, no matter what, held up by the grace of God through the mercy extended to us in Christ. Paul acknowledged a past when he had persecuted the Church, while understanding that he was now blessed by the grace of Jesus who had given him a new call, a new life. So, we prepare ourselves for conversation with God and one another, during the season of Lent, trusting that God’s grace will not only hold us but purify, save, and renew us. So, we are going to ask one another to engage in sacred dialogue around race: not simply personal attitudes but institutional ones. I don’t pretend – far from it – to have any real answers. Really, all we need is a willingness to fall into God’s grace and trust that He has the answers, if we are willing listen.