Colossians 3:9-17, Genesis 1:26-27
Racism and People of Faith: Clothed with Christ
I grew up, as many of you know, in Rome, NY. Rome, at the time, was home to Griffiss Air Force Base, and so the community as a whole was a little more racially and ethnically diverse than it might have been otherwise. But my own personal childhood experiences didn’t really reflect this. Though I went to Rome schools, I actually lived in Westernville, a tiny two-street town, surrounded by farms. Population about 500. Westernville was not a racially or ethnically diverse community. And Rome had lots of elementary schools - eleven at the time - and so the small group of us from Westernville were bused to Rome to a school that encompassed students from a small sliver of Rome that was home mostly to wealthy, white families. In my whole elementary school, I remember there being one African-American family - the family of the pastor of the Pentecostal church in Rome. But when I was in fifth grade, my school hired a new gym teacher: Coach Washington. Everyone loved Coach Washington. He was young and cool and funny. He was also black. I loved him, even if he did call me “Beth Swift” or “Beth Slow” depending on his mood and my performance in gym on a given day. But when I described him to my mom, this new teacher, I told her everything about him except that he was black, which, in my very white school, was certainly his most distinguishing physical feature. I’d learned though, not explicitly but in practice, that commenting on someone’s race, their skin color, was rude. I had a vague sense of what racism was, and I believed that it was wrong to treat people differently because of their skin color, and I didn’t want to do that, and so my best strategy was just to pretend that the difference didn’t exist. We might talk, affirmatively, about being “colorblind.” I didn’t see color, just people, I would like to think. But that wasn’t quite true. I saw the differences between me and Coach Washington just as easily as I could see the difference between me and people with blond hair. I just thought that mentioning our difference was bad. Unfortunately, the subtext of that impulse is the hidden belief that being different is bad. Often, when we don’t want to talk about things it is because we think of them as bad, shameful, or embarrassing. We don’t talk about things when they make us uncomfortable. We hide things that we don’t want to see the light of day. And in the shadows, then, the things that we hide away can become hurtful and destructive.
This summer, in Rome, fliers encouraging folks to join the KKK appeared around town. I am thankful that the pastor at my childhood church, Rev. Brian Lothridge, has been leading the congregation in a strong response against racism, encouraging the church and community to speak out boldly against racism - overt and covert racism, individual and systemic racism. It is not easy, if we’ve been used to avoiding conversations about race and racism, to confront hatred. But I believe it is necessary - as good neighbors, as followers of Jesus, as children of God.
Today we’re beginning a new sermon series called Racism and People of Faith. It was back during my annual worship planning retreat in January that I schedule this series for this summer, and lots of things happening in the world led me to feel we needed to be talking about race and racism, from the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally that took place in Charlottesville last summer, to reactions to NFL members kneeling during the National Anthem, to the Black Lives Matter movement responding to the shooting of unarmed black men. We have things we need to talk about. But in the way that God is often at work, the timing made even more sense than I realized. This year, our Annual Conference has begun to address racism in more specific and concrete ways through the Imagine No Racism initiative. The initiative is a response to action taken by our jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church, the body that encompasses United Methodist Churches from Maine to West Virginia. At the quadrennial meeting in 2016, delegates adopted a statement that included this call to action:
“The people of faith called United Methodist have not mobilized nor been proactive enough [in responding to racism]. While there have been pronouncements, calls to prayer, moments of silence and candlelight vigils, we have not moved from rhetoric to action. Racism, white privilege and white supremacy which are inconsistent with the kingdom of God, are still the order of the day ... Therefore, in an effort to address, confront and otherwise demand systemic, fundamental and institutional change both within the church and the world we strongly encourage that … each annual conference do the following:
- … Confront y/our racism, and affirm that, while all lives matter in God's eyes, and the current cultural and social context of this country, Black lives and all lives of color really do matter.
- … Collectively and as individuals commit to lead the church in healing the wounds caused by unchecked racism, white privilege and internalized oppression...
4. … Initiate ongoing internal and external conversations on white privilege, white supremacy, racism and oppression, including internalized oppression... [r]ealizing that viewing each other through the eyes of Christ and remaining at the table during the hard difficult discussion is the only way/path to new genuine relationships and partnerships.” (http://www.unyumc.org/images/uploads/NEJ_Call_to_Action_2016.pdf)
Our Annual Conference responded to this call with the Imagine No Racism initiative. All clergy and interested lay folks have begun meeting in small groups this summer, using a curriculum designed to help white people confront their own racism, and to help work toward reconciliation and change. I am proud to share that our own Cadie Hockenbary is our District Advocate, one of the folks responsible for coordinating groups around our region, offering support and guidance, and helping us stay on task. I can tell you already that the conversations we are having are not easy. I’ve told you before that I’m a conflict avoider at heart. I want everyone to get along, and I want everyone to like me. But one of my goals, my commitments to God and myself as we do this work is to not let my desire to avoid conflict result in being silent in the face of racism. My being uncomfortable is not a good excuse to let racism go unchecked. If you’re a conflict-avoider like me, maybe we can make the commitment to speaking up together. The Bishop has asked us all to sign a Covenant that reads, “Before God and with my family in Christ, I vow, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to oppose and work to eliminate the influence of racism from systems, institutions, relationships, and my own life.” At the end of this sermon series, I plan to offer you all an opportunity to sign this covenant as well, and I hope you will prayerfully and thoughtfully consider your response.
Our first scripture reading today from Genesis is a short excerpt from near the end of the hymn of creation in the very first chapter of the Bible. We read in verse 27, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” I think this is one of the most powerful, most important verses of scripture in the whole Bible. It tells us, right from the start, that we - human beings - we are created in God’s very image. We, God’s creation, are reflections of God’s very being. Not just some of us. But all of us. We bear God’s image in our identities. More than that: God’s image is reflected both in maleness and femaleness. Written in the context of a patriarchal culture, that’s a pretty bold and important statement. Both maleness and femaleness reflect God’s very image. A couple verses later, repeating the pattern of God’s reaction to creation, we read, “God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.” Femaleness and maleness reflect God’s image and it is indeed very good. I think, then, that we can extrapolate. The whole diversity of human creation - from red hair and brown hair, older people and younger people, taller and shorter people, people with white skin or beige skin or brown skin or black skin - we all reflect the image of God. God is so much, so big, so beyond our containing that no one gender or race or hair or eye color or size or shape can on its own reflect God’s image. So we all do. Every iteration of human creation is a part of the image of God. Every one of us.
Our second reading is from the letter to the Colossians. Colossae was a city in what is now the southwestern part of Turkey. Most Christians there in the early church were Gentiles, which means that they were not Jewish and did not convert to Judaism as part of their journey to become followers of Jesus. As our passage begins, the author uses language that might sound familiar to us - it is similar to what Paul says in both Corinthians and Galatians, and some biblical scholars think this language was part of the earliest baptismal liturgies in the church. We read, “You have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” We’re called to clothe ourselves with compassion, humility, kindness, and love which binds everything together in perfect harmony. We’re reminded that we are called into one body. And we’re to do everything in the name of Jesus, giving thanks to God. In Galatians, Paul speaks similarly about there being no male or female, Greek or Jew, slave or free in Christ. Instead, we are clothed in Christ. We “put on” Jesus. In 2 Corinthians, Paul says that if anyone is in Christ, they are new creations, and the old has gone away.
I think we can read these words in Colossians or Galatians or 2 Corinthians and think that we’re meant, in Christ, to sort of cover up or erase the differences between us. No male or female, no slave or free, no circumcised or uncircumcised, no different nationalities or races. But I don’t think that’s what it means. After all, followers of Christ in the early church did not, in fact, live as if there were no differences between people. What changes, in Christ, is the status assigned to those differences. In society, women had an inferior status to men. Slaves had no power and their masters had all the control. Some Jewish Christians looked down on Gentile Christians. Some nations and races were hated and despised. But in Christ, we have true equal status, because Christ is all and in all. The differences between us are not erased, but we are brought side by side in Christ. Any power differences, and elevated status we give to one group over another is false and a failure to reflect God’s intention in the way we order our world. As Paul says in Corinthians, as we say in communion, as we sing in our hymns, “we, though many, are one.” We are not one because we are the same. We are one because we belong to Christ, made in God’s image. Beautifully diverse, and yet one in Christ, with equal standing before God.
In his last Sunday sermon before he was assassinated, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached a message titled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC on March 31st, 1968. In his message, King said,
“No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone, and anyone who feels that he can live alone is sleeping through a revolution. The world in which we live is geographically one. The challenge that we face today is to make it one in terms of brotherhood.
“.... [Our] world is a neighborhood … We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured…
“[We] are challenged to eradicate the last vestiges of racial injustice from our nation. I must say this morning that racial injustice is still the black man’s burden and the white man’s shame. It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle—the disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic. And I can see nothing more urgent than for America to work passionately and unrelentingly—to get rid of the disease of racism. Something positive must be done.” (https://stanford.io/1ABRiXS)
Friends, it is 50 years later, and this work is still urgent. The disease of racism has no place in the body of Christ. We cannot live into God’s vision for our world when we have not confronted and eliminated racism. We cannot truly embrace the reality of our mutual creation in the image of God, nor the hope of newness in Christ if we cannot affirm that indeed Christ is all and in all. Please, engage with me in the weeks ahead in this work. Search your hearts. And work with me to clothe ourselves with Christ, to clothe ourselves with love, which binds us together. Let the word of Christ dwell in us deeply, as we remember, again and again, that we are many, and yet all created in God’s image, and yet equal before God, and yet one in Christ Jesus. Thanks be to God. Amen.