14a Pentecost 10 Sept 2017
Many of you grew up in small town Iowa. Idyllic? Perhaps. I would guess that most of the time you felt safe and did not lack for food, clothing, or shelter. Even is the “big city” of Des Moines I did not fear to be out on the streets of our neighborhood. We played hide and go seek all over the neighborhood until well after dark in the summer. It felt safe and secure and so did we. I guess idyllic was the word that best describes it. I did not realize at the time that others were not feeling the same way about growing up. Lynching’s were still going on in the South and a black man could be murdered for “looking” at a white woman. I was three years old when Emmett Till was kidnapped and lynched at age 14. I went to the Katz Drug stores that at one point openly prohibited black folk from coming in. But small town Iowa was not idyllic then and is not idyllic now. I was not at all surprised when I read in the paper that down in Creston, which is my mother’s home town, several young men, boys really, donned hoods, grabbed a rifle, and took pictures of themselves burning a makeshift cross. Yet these same boys, it turns out, played on the same football team as a black classmate. He was their quarterback. I wonder what they were thinking, those young men. Did they think this was something fun to do? Were they merely mimicking what they saw on the news? Are they really so called alt right, a term that tries to put legitimacy on something that is evil and completely counter to the teaching of Jesus. Are they budding skinheads? White supremacists? Do they believe that only white people should live in the United States? At least one set of parents said that their son should have been removed from the football team. I hope that means they truly believe what their son did was racist and wrong. Kylan Smallwood, the quarterback, has been deeply shocked and hurt by all of this. His mother is a white woman from Iowa, his father African American from the South. Interesting that if one parent is white and the other black, the child is labeled as black. Strange notions we have about our humanity and the need to pigeon hole someone by color. We always default to the non-European ethnicity and we base it entirely on looks. The whiter you are, the better. Thus a small town in Iowa is forced to face the racism and white supremacy lurking under the seemingly placid exterior. On the surface all is well and welcoming. There are no sundown towns in Iowa now but they once existed. There is evidence that thousands of towns were once, and some still are, “sundown towns” where either overtly or covertly the rule was “Nigger don’t let the sun set on you here.” James Loewen wrote a book called Sundown Towns which surprised even him when he found out how many thousands of such towns existed all over this country. If fact some still are sundown towns. 44 such towns are listed in Iowa and, while Creston is not on the list, Harlan is. I do not have any hard evidence in front of me, but the list was compiled based on more than hearsay. How do we answer Paul and Jesus if that is what is in our past and our present? What does Paul mean by love? He most certainly would not have understood what we mean by it!! Love has nothing to do with liking, as in I love to ride my bike or eat cheese, but love has everything to do with how we act with every person around us. The concept is so radical it has never caught on well among Christians. Why do we continue to say that we are followers of Jesus and then not love everyone in the way Jesus told us we are to love?? Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. How do we interpret what Paul said? I have come to believe that what he was saying was not a plea to be nice to those to whom it is expected, to love those who love you, but to put a whole new radical idea in the world that what Torah was all about and what Jesus was all about was that no one is outside the reach of love. Love then becomes not merely an emotion, but a zeal to see that justice and mercy prevail and that everyone, absolutely everyone, and I could argue that even the non human creatures and the entirety of creation falls under the command of what we are to love and in loving we do no wrong, we do no harm. Jesus told us to imagine a world where that was the norm and then to make it happen. We are not to sit and await the second coming of Jesus but rather to spend our lives working for such justice and mercy. If we do that, the second coming has happened. The world that God envisions and articulates through Jesus WILL be a reality. So, to those who have ever donned a white hood I would extend my love. I will not do wrong to you. But I will not remain silent when I see racism coming out in the open any more than I had illusions that all was well when it was more in the shadows. There has never been, I suspect, a time in history where that sort of radical love prevailed. We see glimpses of it, for instance when there are catastrophes like Harvey and Katrina and now Irma. People open their hearts and their wallets. Somehow it is easier to show our humanity and our love when those who need it are the victims of something not of human making (at least not directly of human making). What makes racism and nationalism any less evil in the eyes of God than a hurricane or a blazing inferno? Perhaps evil is the word more correctly applied because it stems from our very human nature. Today Jesus tells us the nature of living together in the world God wants for us. We are to be a forgiving and reconciling people. We are obligated to work to solve our differences and to point out and reconcile one who does wrong. Jesus has just finished telling the disciples that they must welcome the least of the least, the little children and that they must actively seek those who are lost. Now he tells them, and us, that we must do everything possible to reconcile someone who has committed a wrong. What strikes me is that what emphasized is not crime and punishment but recognition (repentance) and restoration (redemption) and that it is the job of each one of us as individuals, as small groups, and as the church as a whole to engage in that process. And if the process fails? Does being a pagan or a tax collector mean being an outcast? No. After all Jesus hung around with sinners and tax collectors a lot because they needed him the most. If one is unrepentant then we need to love them even more if we are to follow as Jesus led us. These are very hard teachings and I must be first to admit I fail a lot. Having said that, however, I have become increasingly convinced that we need to live by a more radical version of Christianity than I ever heard preached in my childhood or even young adulthood. I would like to sit down with those boys and ask them what they believe and why they believe it and, if they are Christian, ask them how that coincides with Christian living. I would like to ask the same of people who marched in Charlottesville. It is often said people turn to that type of hate when they have had no love in their own lives and have no sense of self-worth. I think others use hatred and fear to gain power and money, just as Rome did to so many people in the time Jesus lived. What I believe all of us need to do is look at the idea of “white privilege”. I would like to have all of us see the movie Traces of the Trade which tells the story of the DeWolfe family of Bristol, Rhode Island. They were at the epicenter of the slave trade, even after it was no longer legal, and their family and the entire community continued to benefit from the trade long after it was over. In fact I think it is safe to say that all white people benefitted from and continue to benefit from the legacy of slavery. Until we acknowledge our own sin we have no right to point out the sins of others. I would ask you to envision what the world of God would look like if we lived as God intended us to live. In a world wracked with pain there has always been a better way but it is up to us to lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.