October 29, 2017
I want to talk about rugged communities this morning. At one of our study group sessions we talked about the rugged individual myth that pervades our culture. In my small group we rather quickly agreed that our own experiences confirm that we all need others. None of us gets anywhere on our own. Think about your own experiences of how family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, church folk, and even strangers have been there for you.
Look at Jesus. When he started his ministry, he gathered a community around him. And one of the driving metaphors for the Apostle Paul was the Body of Christ. He knew the Holy Spirit gave us gifts to bring together to build this rugged community we call the church. You can’t be a church of one. The church doesn’t need spiritual giants, but people committed to building the Body of Christ with each other. The point isn’t that individuals be Christlike though I am glad for individuals who are. What is more important is that the community be Christlike.
It is easy to build communities like the one we saw, when all those White supremacists who have been re-empowered with the election of President Trump, gathered in Charlottesville VA. He and his political allies in his Administration and Congress have been skillfully crude in dividing us from one another. Hence the unapologetic attacks on Muslims, Latin Americans, African-Americans, the disabled, women, the LGBTQ+ community, and the press. The importance Mr. Trump puts on the wall has more of a metaphorical value to him than the reality of the wall. He has understood there are people who want to be walled off from others who are different than they are, people who want the future kept out.
Do you remember the story of the Tower of Babel? I don’t like the story because it justifies the divisions between people. But maybe it was an attempt to try to explain why we are so divided; to explain why it is so hard for us to build community with those who are different from us.
That story does not go unanswered, though. Jesus told his disciples that when he went away, God would send the Holy Spirit. On the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out, Babel was undone. It didn’t matter where they came from, but everyone could understand the disciples. Right there, on the birthing day of the church, they began that work of building this rugged community. One of the hardest and necessary struggles of the early church was for Jews and Gentiles to learn how to tear down the walls that the culture had erected between them and make a church with each other. It was revolutionary, and set the tone for us to this very day.
So here we are, centuries later. We have decided that we are going to do the work of building, right here, the rugged community Jesus talked about. Indigenous Peoples Day. Working on sanctuary and refugee and immigrant issues. We refuse to back down on our commitments to the full equality, in church and society, of women and people in the LGBTQ+ community. And we are in the midst of our work on racism and whiteness.
Along the way, we have realized how important stories are in building this rugged community. One of the stories I have been telling the past couple of months is, I think, valuable enough to tell it again even though some of you have heard it already, some of you more than once. And I doubt this is the last time you will hear it. When some of us were at the Annual Meeting of the American Baptist Churches of the Rochester/Genesee Region I went to a workshop led by Rev. Clifford Matthews, Pastor of St. Luke’s Missionary Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC. He is an African-American and was leading us in a discussion on race and whiteness. One of things that really got my attention was when he told us what he as a Black person needs from those of us who are White. “What I need from you,” he said, “is to realize that this discussion on race and whiteness is not about White folk. I would like you to get over yourselves.”
Here is what he went on to say. He feels like when White folk deal with issues of race and whiteness they tend to make the issue about themselves. He said White people often talk about what I would call proving our ‘not a racist’ credibility. We talk about how we have really good friends who are African-American. We went to schools that were integrated. We just played with kids, no matter the color of their skin. We had parents who invited Black friends and acquaintances over for dinner. We were good to black kids who were being bullied in school, and support black friends at work.
Here is what Rev. Matthews said about all of that. “I will not challenge your belief that there is not a racist bone in your body. If you say you are colorblind I will accept that. I don’t understand what that is supposed to mean, but I will go along with it. It may be that all of you who are White do have best friends who are Black. Even if all of that is all true,” he said, “none of that helps when I am pulled over by a police officer.”
Do you hear what he was saying? Of course, there is internal work White folk need to be doing. That’s why we have been doing the work we have been doing here at this church since well before last year’s election. But establishing to ourselves and others that we are not racists, or going the opposite direction and professing our own guilt for not being good enough allies, ends up making his all about White people, about being good White people.
Do we realize that the goal is not simply having that mythical meeting where all the people of color finally showed up and we were sitting in that rainbow coalition down in the Community Room, or at the Library, and having a conversation that good White folk would really feel good about? All the White folk would leave feeling so good about this racial nirvana we just experienced. And the people of color would be leaving acutely aware that white supremacy is still alive and well. They would still have to worry about the police, still wonder about why they keep getting turned down for jobs, still turned away when they tried to rent an apartment, or get a loan to buy house. They would still see people cross to the other side of the street or clutch their purses when they walked past. It doesn’t mean that they weren’t glad to be sitting in that room or weren’t treasuring the relationships being built there. But there is something much deeper going on that too many White folk miss.
Rev. Matthews told another story that I won’t go into, but mention. He talked about the relationship his congregation had made when a large White congregation in Charlotte. He said they did wonderful things together for several months, but that relationship had gone dormant. Not because anybody was mad, or there was objection to keeping that relationship going. He said people in both congregations seemed to like that relationship they were establishing. He said the simple matter is that there are so many forces in our culture working to keep us divided from each other that are really hard to overcome.
I think a lot of people understand the gold standard for bridging this divide goes something like this. “How can we claim to be about the work of reconciliation if progressive Christians can’t heal the rift we have with conservative Christians? Isn’t it all hypocritical until we have bridged that gap and been able to embrace our Trump supporting coreligionists?” But look at Jesus and his relationship with the conservative religious structures of his day. I don’t get the sense his driving concern was to be reconciled with them. Jesus was not about to let their claim of racial and religious superiority get a pass for the sake of unity. Nor was he going to simply mark it up to an honest difference about their understanding of what it means to claim to be the people of God. He said they were nothing more than whitewashed tombs because they had turned the God of Life into a god of death. He didn’t wish them harm. And when he was tempted to call on all kinds of violence to oppose them, he didn’t. But he was more concerned to help those who were being hurt by them, the ones they were marginalizing, the ones they were declaring as the other, the ones they claimed God had rejected, the ones they believed they were superior to. And it turned out that the early Christian community included many of those religious leaders who had not only changed their minds about Jesus, but about the people they had rejected.
It’s only a rugged community that can do this kind of work. Jesus didn’t call rugged individuals but rugged communities that look beyond themselves, that defiantly tear down walls and build bridges to a better way of living with each other in God’s Community of Creation. It is not for the faint of heart. And it can’t be done without each other.
After the offering, we are going to sing that hymn we always do when All Saints Day approaches. We are surrounded by the cloud of witnesses who have shown us what rugged community means.