SERMON: Liberating Ourselves From Racism
All Saints Episcopal Church in Brookline, MA 3/10/19
First Sunday in Lent
– Deborah Jacoby-Twigg
Luke 4:1-13 (Jesus in the desert, tempted by Satan)
Good morning! Greetings from Church of Our Redeemer in Lexington. It’s a pleasure to be with you here at All Saints in Brookline. Thank you to Richard and Jonas and all who have welcomed me this morning.
A few years ago, before my wife and I moved our family from New York to Lexington, the Suffragan Bishop came to visit our church in the Hudson Valley. It was right around now on the church calendar. Before the adult sermon was to be given, there was a children’s time and our two boys were among the group of kids gathered around this man in front of the sanctuary. Standing there, in the splendor of colorful, shimmering bishop regalia, addressing a pretty full church with a heightened level of hushed anticipation, he asked, “Can anyone tell me what Lent is?” Our son Noah, who was 10 at the time, replied very audibly, “Isn’t that the stuff your Mom takes out of the dryer?”
No, that’s not what Lent is. But Lent does have something do with cleaning house. Not the casual, quick clean. The deep clean that goes beyond the surfaces and into the cracks, underneath the furniture, into the closets. We’re getting extra ready for Easter, and just before that, the cross and sacrifice that give Easter its meaning. Like Jesus in the desert, we spend 40 days confronting and, with God’s help, removing those obstacles that come between us and God. Maybe we abstain from things we find particularly enticing like chocolate or Facebook.
But enticement isn’t quite what’s going on in our Gospel. The Greek word for “temptation” in this story—“Piradzo”—means to test more than it means to entice or seduce or talk someone into doing something wrong. Piradzo is about ascertaining the quality or strength of a thing, like in industrial settings, metal must be tested to ensure it can tolerate extremely high degrees of stress and strain before it can be put to actual use, to be sure it’s up to whatever task it’s called upon to perform.
This story takes place right after Jesus’ baptism and before his ministry begins. So Jesus’ “metal,” if you will, was being tested with a view to the work and the sacrifice that lay ahead of him.
If sinning is what Jesus might have done if he failed the test, what is sin and what does it matter? Our Prayer Book Catechism defines sin as “the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation” and that “sin has power over us because we lose our liberty when our relationship with God is distorted.”
About 6 months after we moved to Lexington, during Lent last year, my wife and I attended the adult learning series entitled Liberating Ourselves From Racism. Imagine that. Liberty from racism which has been called America’s Original Sin.
Four weekday evenings were a lot to give up and it felt like a risk to dive deep into a sensitive subject with people we were just starting to know. But I had been feeling for a long time that I should be doing something about racism and not knowing what to do or how to go about it. Given the state of things in our country, I had reached a place of “if not now, when?” So I felt relieved to have this opportunity handed to me. Also, suspecting this might be more than your everyday learning experience, I asked my wife if she would do this with me so we could be “in sync” as we went through it together. She agreed and luckily, our kids are old enough, now, that we can leave them home alone for a while.
What was it like? Well, first of all, it was safe. The facilitators—one a person of color and one who is white—established believable confidentiality and trust and safety from the get-go. Second, it was real. The facilitators encouraged us to take risks, understanding that we’re all in different places concerning racism but if we listen to each other in a non-judgmental and non-shaming way, break-through’s can happen. Finally, it engaged both my head and my heart. More than a mere transfer of knowledge, it was transformational. Many of my fellow participants voiced that this was true for them as well. This was interesting to hear because Redeemer people are generally very highly educated, progressive and evolved. I wondered what the facilitators could teach this crowd that they didn’t already know. But, as we realized, we don’t know what we don’t know, both in our heads and our hearts. This course seemed to stretch and challenge everyone in in some way or other.
At points, to be honest, it was uncomfortable. My main take-away—and many said this was their main take-away too—was learning to sit in discomfort. Just take stuff in that was hard to hear and not succumb to the temptation–the piradzo testing of our mettle–to get defensive or deflect. To not be fragile, to hang in there under duress. Because, I realized, the only way to be up to this work, is to be able to handle that strain.
For participants who are people of color, there was an understanding established so they could process anything they needed to process with the facilitator of color from time to time, as needed, apart from white participants. This was necessary and did occur to some extent.
Overall, though, the course was very gentle and gently paced. If you participate, I would encourage you to just be open-minded and open-hearted, go with the flow and let it happen.
As the series came to a close, there was that where-do-we-go from-here moment. We decided to start a book group and an action group. I joined both. Two books that have especially affected me are Waking Up White by Debbie Irving and White Fragility by Robin Di’Angelo.
The action group, which I co-lead together with another parishioner who is an amazing human being, has taken me out into Lexington in many directions, sometimes with other members of the group, sometimes representing Redeemer by myself. A few examples:
• Attending a school board meeting and other meetings to keep pressure on our public school system to fix its racial inequities.
• Attending and facilitating community conversations about race on Martin Luther King Day.
• Partnering with another parish to develop curriculum for and lead a program that take those community conversations further.
Meanwhile, at home, my wife and I have also begun to talk with our children about racism. They get it. Kids always do, so quickly, when we give them the opportunity.
I could cite many more examples of what our action group is doing but we don’t have time. Suffice to say, I’ve met and talked with so many people whom I would never have met otherwise and this has deepened and enlarged my understanding and my sense of urgency regarding those promises in our Baptismal Covenant to
• seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving my neighbor as myself, and
• to strive for justice and peace among all people and respecting the dignity of every human being.
I want to share with you how I came to co-lead our action group because, although it happened after the learning series, it was a continuation of the transformation begun in the series. Playing a leadership role was not part of my plan and I did not feel qualified or ready. But, when asked, I decided to be open to the idea because: what if this was God’s will? I prayed about it for a period of time and asked God to make it clear what I should do. For a while, no answer came. Fortunately, summer was coming, that season when everything slows down in church. So I had time.
While I was discerning this, our family went on vacation, spending several days in Los Angeles. It was the last week of June when the US Supreme Court upheld the anti-Muslim travel ban and Justice Kennedy announced his retirement. The 4th of July was right around the corner and I wasn’t feeling it. The Sunday before the 4th, my family attended worship at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena and I heard one of the most moving and powerful sermons I’ve ever heard in my life. If you want to view it on YouTube, the words to search for are “Land Of The Free (Some Conditions Apply).” In that sermon, the Rev. Mike Kinman made a strong case for all of us to get actively involved in the struggle against racism. Here are his words that really got me:
“We are at a moment in history where those of us who have been comfortable must decide that our commitment to this struggle is more important than our comfort, where those of us who have been (“)respectable(“) must decide that our commitment to this struggle is more important than our (“)respectability(“), where those of us who have been safe must decide that our commitment to this struggle is more important than our safety. Because so many among us are not comfortable, are not (“)respectable(“), are not safe… Transformation never happens without sacrifice because the path we claim in Christ is one that leads to the cross and that cross is our greatest glory.”
He had me at “comfort,” the place on the fence where I’d been sitting so long because the whole set up was designed to keep me there. Was I willing to give up my comfort? Stretch out of that zone? That was my test question, my piradzo. Like a thunderbolt, I felt it so strongly. So, quietly, inside my head, I said to God, “Ok. I’ll do it.”
Now here’s the thing I really didn’t expect. A couple of times, in following all the leads in all the directions this has been taking me, even as I have moved forward and backward in all kinds of fits and starts, making mistakes all over the place, and getting up and moving forward again, I have felt a feeling that is completely new.
Something that has felt almost sublime.
Fleeting. Only a couple of times in the course of many months.
But real just the same.
A feeling of a new kind of freedom. Liberty. Liberation.
I didn’t even know I needed it until I felt it.
Maybe it has something to do with being in conversations with people of color about what’s really going on instead of dancing around it. Maybe it has something to do with talking with other white people about racism instead of letting stuff go by or changing the subject. Maybe it’s some weird kind of flip side of Fanny Lou Hamer’s words “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free” that I never heard hidden in those words before. Maybe it has something to do with getting my will more in line with God’s will. Maybe it’s all those things and more. I don’t know. But I’ve felt it and that feeling has caught me up short.
I still have a lot to learn but the bubble of whiteness I didn’t even realize I had been walking around inside of my whole life–including situations in which I’ve been a racial minority—has been getting thinner, becoming less of a barrier than before. And, as the walls of my white bubble have slowly, gradually gotten thinner, my skin has been getting thicker. I am slowly, gradually getting less fragile.
As we continue forward into our Lenten sojourns, I wonder if we might consider:
• Where do our houses need cleaning and our mettle need testing?
• Where do we have gaps between God’s will and our wills?
• In what ways might we need to be liberated?
God has good things in mind for all of us. Maybe the Liberating Ourselves From Racism series is one of the good things that God has in mind for you. Maybe it’s something else. Talk to God and ask. Listen. Respond. God is waiting. Brookline is waiting. The world is waiting. For our wills and God’s will to be the same thing and for all of us to gain the liberation we might not even know we’re missing.
Have a good Lent.