Sermon delivered on 8/26/18 at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Silver Spring, MD
- Ephesians 6:10-20
- John 6:56-69
For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places…. (from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians)
Last week, Father Ted Johnson stood here and, referencing Jim Wallis, named racism as the original sin of our country, reminding us that the United States of America was, as Wallis has said, “established as a white society, founded upon the genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another.”
Whether “original sin” is a helpful metaphor for you or not, we are all of us deeply affected and influenced by the founding reality of our country. To shift to Paul’s words in today’s Epistle, the “spiritual forces of evil” of this founding racism are lurking in every one of our institutions; they are present in the way we see each other; they can be seen in who we most readily trust and who we see as dangerous. The “cosmic powers of this present darkness” are present in how we see ourselves. They are present in the presumption of innocence I have been granted throughout my life, wherever I go… and likewise in the presumption of guilt faced by my friend’s 17-year-old son, who has been followed in every store he’s entered since he started middle school and who has been stopped several times by police because he “fit the profile” of someone they were looking for.
Many of you know that I have been profoundly affected this summer by the shooting death of my neighbor Robert White on June 11 at the hands of police. (I’ll be attending his memorial this afternoon at the John Wesley A.M.E. Zion Church on 14th St. I invite you to join me if you’d like.) In a blog piece I wrote about his death just a few days later, I described my deep upset at what happened and called on my fellow white people to join me in educating ourselves about our socialized thinking and responses so that we can cause less harm.
I wrote a postscript to that piece when a friend pointed out that my assumption that Rob was homeless when we first met was very likely a manifestation of negative attribution bias—that is, I had assumed he was homeless due to pieces of information that would likely not have made me assume, say, that a white woman was homeless.
This is the same unconscious bias that made him seem suspicious to the police officer. I have watched the video from the officer’s body camera, which was made public this month. I watched through the officer’s eyes as he approaches Rob with an assumption that this is a suspicious person who needs to be stopped and questioned. From there this assumption builds into a scenario that becomes more and more dangerous until, finally, Rob is dead.
For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against …the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places….
Two moments in Father Ted’s sermon last week particularly stood out for me. The first was when he described his conditioned response of fear and anxiety when he’d be out walking in Petworth at night and he’d encounter his black neighbors—and his dis-ease and despair at finding that racism in himself.
The second was his invitation that we each sit with Jesus in prayer and ask for help in healing this rift in ourselves.
I wonder how many of us sat down and took on this prayer practice over the past week?
Sitting in prayer with the knowledge of our own imperfection and sinfulness is deeply uncomfortable. Yet, how else can we hope to see the bigger truth? How else can we hope to be healed?
Paul invites us to: Stand… and fasten the belt of truth around [our] waist and put on the breastplate of righteousness.
Let’s take a moment right here, right now, to do just that.
Find a comfortable position that is relaxed and yet alert. I’d recommend you wiggle about a little to see if you can settle into your seat more fully, and give yourself some space between yourself and the person next to you, even if you love holding hands with your spouse as much as I do!
Now, allow your eyes to close. If you’re uncomfortable with your eyes closed, you can let your gaze be soft and look down toward the floor.
In your mind’s eye, picture your belt of truth. What does it look like? What color is it? What is it made out of?
Touch it and feel its texture. Become familiar with it. Notice how heavy it is, or how light. Now, imagine putting it around your waist. How does it feel? Can you adjust it so that it offers you real support, so that it’s neither too tight nor too loose? Breathe into it. Adjust it again as needed.
Now, the breastplate of righteousness might be a little harder to picture. Perhaps it is a particular shirt that helps you feel courageous. Or a perfume. Or maybe even a great deodorant! Take a moment to find what the breastplate of righteousness could be for you, today. Being quite literal is fine, too… An actual breastplate that offers protection. Put it on.
With this breastplate of righteousness, you are courageous. Your heart can be open, but it is also protected from shocks that are too forceful or intense. You are available and you don’t need to be frightened.
Now, keep your breathing deep and slow, and allow any thoughts that are in your mind to float through without trying to hold onto them. You can bring yourself back to your belt of truth and your breastplate of righteousness if you find yourself following other thoughts. Bring yourself gently back to center.
Now, invite Jesus to be with you. Feel him looking at you with deep, deep love.
And now ask for clear sightedness. Ask for the truth. Ask to know and to be known.
Open yourself …. and see what Jesus is inviting you to see.
Who do you trust and feel comfortable with? Feel how good it feels to think of these people. Who is in your closest circle? Imagine their faces…
With that love and support around you, and Jesus’ profound love…
Who are you afraid of?
What images come up for you?
What were actually the first images that came up, before you replaced them with images you felt more comfortable with?
How does it feel to think of these people? Do they have faces?
What’s happening to your breathing? To your heart rate? Is your mouth dry?
Are you finding yourself thinking about all sorts of other things instead of this question? Has your mind gone blank?
Notice. Breathe. Feel Jesus’ love. Adjust your belt of truth and check your breastplate of righteousness.
Ask to see the truth. You are courageous and protected. You are held in love.
Does Jesus have anything to say to you? Do you have anything you want to say to Jesus?
Who do you have contempt for?
Who do you want rid of?
How does racism show up in your life?
Ask to see the truth.
Ask for help.
Ask for forgiveness.
Ask for strength.
Breathe deeply once again. Notice how your body feels, where it comes in contact with the pew, where your feet are touching the ground, how your back feels against the wood.
Wiggle your fingers and toes.
Gently open your eyes.
The disciples said to Jesus, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”… and many turned back and no longer went about with him.
Today Jesus asks us: “Do you also wish to go away?”
Let us keep putting back on that belt of truth when it has slipped off, and that breastplate of righteousness…
And let us answer Jesus in the words of Simon Peter:
Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.
We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.
May we all, individually and corporately, continue saying YES to the holy, transformative, and healing power of God.