Friday, September 4, 2015

"Ephphatha! Be Opened!" :a sermon in Response to the Call for a "Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday"

“Ephphatha! Be Opened!”
Proper 18, September 6, 2015
St. Thomas’ Episcopal, Richmond, VA
Text: Mark 7:24-37

There are times and places we need to have our eyes and our ears opened. As Jesus was fond of saying, “For those who have eyes to see, let them see. For those who have ears to hear, let them hear.”

We need to be opened. All of us. And if we are open, we need to opened even more. All of us. This week we struggle with the call of the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies for the Episcopal Church for us to “Confess, Repent, and Commit to the End of Racism.” It is a call to prayer, and pray we will. We are Episcopalians; that is what we do. It is a call to act. And act, I pray we will.

For the last several years I have been working with a project on the very issue which we discuss today. I have been deeply involved with Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School, a privately funded middle school for children in the East End of the city, mostly coming from the housing projects on Church Hill. In my 5 years there, only one student was not African-American. Children came from varying levels of need, but all with the same hope, a better future.

When I stopped teaching full-time, I was asked to write a reflection on what working full-time at AJC taught me.  Here were my thoughts, then. I forced myself not to think about what I was going to say till I sat down to write it out.  This is what came out...

What I Have Learned at AJC

I have been in the doubly burdensome role of being a teacher and a preacher to the students and staff at Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School.  Both come with their own hesitancies and intimidations.  I will have no way of knowing how long any of my lessons will last with any of those who have heard me teach or preach, but I do know that the lessons that I learned will stay with me for a lifetime.

Probably the first lesson I learned during my first year was how to pray.  I have been blessed in my life that even though times have been tight, my family has never been in the position of deep need or want.  Even more, we have never been in position of being unsafe or in fear.  My first year, I remember during prayer requests some of the kids thanked God for waking them up that morning.  Having heard their stories of shootings and other situations around their homes, what had often been a cliche when I had heard it before became an honest and sincere prayer of thanks that the student had been given another day of life.  This touched me in a profound and soul-altering way.   I will never pray the same, and some of my white middle-class privileged assumptions have been pushed to the wayside.  For that I will always be thankful.

Second, you never hold back on love.  Sometimes, though, the most loving actions are to say, "No."  Sometimes, the most loving act is to hold people accountable.  Being a strict, but fair, teacher of high standards gives a gift that too often these students have not had.  Would it be easier to be the nice teacher that had an easy class?  Of course.  Would that help anybody in the short or long term?  No.  And the kids would not respect my teaching or my preaching either one.  Grace comes with grade book sometimes, and to love the kids the best that I can, I had to create a rigorous environment that drove them to be the best that they could be.  My love came out in hard books, and clear, consistent, and hard work.

Lastly, I would have to say that the troublesome issue of race is still something this country and the Church need to continue to work.  I had homeroom with the same group of students for three years, and in the third year of our time together my group of guys (from 6th through 8th grades) and I were able to laugh and joke about stereotypes and differences.  They could ask me about being white, and I could learn from them about being African-American.  They asked me about why white people all looked alike, and why we have funny names.  But it took three years to build trust and the benefit of the doubt so that we could get to a point of honest and mutually-respectful dialogue.  I learned how far we have come and how far we need to go when I was reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with my 7th grade boys and after about 50 pages one of the students asked who was on the front cover.  The front cover showed Huck and Jim, an escaped slave.  I responded to the question, "Huck and Jim."  The student asked, "Huck is the black guy, so who is the white kid?  Did they have white slaves?"   I said, "No, our slavery was based on racism.  The white kid is Huck, and the black man is Jim."  But then to keep learning, I asked, "So what made you think that Huck was black?"  The student said, "Because he says the N-word all the time.  I have never heard a white person say the N-word."  Wow.  Our society has gotten better, obviously, but that things had been turned on their head to that extent, that this classic novel written to fight racism was now confusing because the white people that this student had had interactions with did not use that word.  I learned a lot that day.

Prayer, love without limits but very clear boundaries, and continuing dialogues on race are all things that I will carry with me, both as a man and a priest.  This time has shaped me, deepened my spirituality and my prayer life, and drawn me closer to God and my neighbor.  "Who is my neighbor?" was asked of Christ.  Anna Julia Cooper School could be a modern answer to that ancient question.  We are all each others' neighbors.

I wrote that before Ferguson, and before Black Lives Matter. I probably would have been a bit more lovingly confrontational with my white readers if I were to write it again today. The conversations I have heard or been invited into too often ignore the privileges that too many of us take for granted.  Peggy McIntosh, in her 1988 essay, White Privilege, Male Privilege confronts her readers after some introductory remarks with some statements that one of the privileged never needs to consider because of the unspoken assumptions inherent in our society. Here are just a few assumptions unspoken with White Privilege.

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.

2. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.

3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.

4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.

5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.

7. When I am told about our national heritage or about "civilization," I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.

8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.

9. I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.

These are just 9, of the 50 she lists.  They cover many things, from traffic stops to band-aids. None of them are easy, nor should they be. They make me see a side of myself I do not want to admit to being there.

I do not want to remember hearing my father and grandmother using racial slurs. I want to pretend that never happened.

I do not want to admit that I got stopped by the police leaving school late one night after an event, and being asked what I was doing up on Church Hill that only ended quickly when the officer saw my collar and the color of my skin.

I do not want to admit, that this city is still reeling of the stigma of slavery 150 years after its end, and we are having to fight to keep the evidence of our crimes against humanity from being obliterated to put up a baseball stadium.  Many would wish any vestiges to be gone forever.  

One of the actions we will be taking this fall is a new offering, Wednesdays at noon we will be having a Lunch Bunch.  Folks can bring their brown bags, and I will be teaching our way through the Reverend Ben Campbell’s book, Richmond’s Unhealed History.  Ben was the pastoral director of Richmond Hill ecumenical retreat center since its inception 26 years ago. A Rhodes Scholar, Ben’s book gives a detailed account of the past 400+ years that white privilege and power have influenced and shaped this city so many of us love. “Knowing is half the battle,” as G.I. Joe used to say, and if you want to start thinking about what you can do to make a difference and be the difference you wish to see, I hope you will come out for our lunch hour lessons and discussions. The details are on the bookmark in your bulletin.

Even Jesus needed to see with new eyes at times, in the passage today the Syrophoenician woman, we would call her Palestinian today most likely, begged Jesus for a healing for her daughter. She invited Jesus to see her with new eyes. Ephphatha, be opened. And when he was, she received her healing that she so wanted and needed. And she invited Jesus to see her differently. He did; may we be the same.

When Jesus wants our eyes, ears and hearts to be opened, may we respond like the deaf man with the impediment to his speech, also from today’s reading.

Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened." And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.

Let me speak plainly. As a city and as individual people, we need to be opened to what God dreams for this city and for each of us. The world can be bigger, better, more like the Kingdom, and you and I are called to make it so.   Remember as we pray, “Your will be done, On earth, as it is in heaven.” Amen.

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Blessings, Rock