I know a woman.
She was walking down Shattuck Ave in downtown Berkeley the other night at about 11:30. She had just come out of the movie theatre and upon checking her smartphone for the arrival of the next bus,discovered that it wasn’t coming for 40 minutes. Rather than wait, she decided to walk the single mile to her home, southward along Shattuck.
It just happened to be the same night that the Hunger Games had its opening midnight showing, so downtown was a lot busier than usual. Groups of young folks rushing in the direction of the theatre added a lot to the usually occasional traffic. She felt safe, even if somewhat inconvenienced by the loud chatter and giggling of the teenagers imposing themselves on her quiet evening walk.
And then, at the corner of Dwight, things shifted. She looked before her at the 4 long blocks of empty buildings, deserted sidewalks, and car dealership lots. She’d walked that stretch before late at night, always feeling unsafe. She stopped at the bus stop, checking her smartphone again to see if, for some reason, the transmitted feeds gave her new information about the bus she needed to take her home. But no – no bus for another 30 minutes. So, she continued her southward walk.
There were others walking along. This comforted her and unnerved her at the same time. She checked them out. Did they pose a threat? She looked back over her shoulder several times. No one following. Good, she thought. Finally after 4 blocks of constant vigilance, she crossed over the heavy traffic of Adeline and found herself near the brightly lit Walgreen’s. She felt herself relax.
Then, straight ahead, about 50 yards away, were two men, about 5’10” dressed in black. As they approached, she kept her eyes on them, scanning them for any sign that she may need to take other action. And within 3 seconds, she felt her body relax again as she interpreted that she had no need to be afraid.
She interpreted this because these two men weren’t wearing hoodies or droopy jeans, they were wearing dark dress coats. And she also interpreted this because these two men were light-skinned.
This is woman I have just been talking about is me.
Now, does it help that I immediately realized what I had done, what I had felt, what I had thought… and felt deep shame for this racism that is somehow inscribed on my heart? Or that my checklist of fear was informed by the descriptions of perpetrators issued by police statements? Does that ease my shame or somehow exonerate my racism?
I was responding, as we all do, out of those things that have formed me. I was responding out of my conditioning – the words and actions of the community who raised me, the portrayals of criminals in movies and the media. And this is a form of systemic sin – that our conditioning determines what is written on our hearts.
And in this way, a part of me is Geraldo Rivera saying that it’s Trayvon Martin’s fault for wearing a hoodie.
And a part of me is George Zimmerman who finds dark skin to be so much more dangerous than white skin, that I am shouting, “Crucify him!” before I can stop myself.
Now, telling a personal story like this is always a risk in a sermon. It’s possible, right now, that you’re feeling bad for me or angry with me or just feeling utterly uncomfortable. But I want you to listen closely when I tell you that I’m not looking for words of comfort. Because this offering is not about me seeking closure.
This offering is about all of us and our relationship with God. Because if we are ever going to come to terms with racism and the epidemic of white privilege that we try to hide from ourselves in our country, we must begin with confession. We must begin to see the things we’d rather not see, the things we hide even from ourselves that are inscribed on our hearts by the conditioning of systemic sin.
And… a little history lesson never hurts.
The nation of Israel was a sovereign nation for 200 years under the leadership of Saul, then David, and then Solomon, who built the Temple. After Solomon’s death, infighting caused the nation to split into the north and the south. The north retained the name Israel, while the south took the name Judah. Within Judah, Solomon’s Temple stood in Jerusalem.
And as you know, the Temple was incredibly important to Israel’s worship of God. The two sister nations developed a bad sibling rivalry, always arguing over who were the true children of Israel. So, when neighboring nations rose in military power, the divided Israel were easy targets. Israel fell first, subsumed by Assyria in the year 722 BC. Judah fell 200 years later when the Babylonians captured Jerusalem, destroying Solomon’s Temple and sending the Judean leaders into exile.
Jeremiah was a prophet of Israel (in Judah) who was exiled along with other Judean leaders, one of the tactics of war, being the removal of the newly conquered nation’s leaders by sending them into exile.
For Israel, it seemed a rather hopeless situation. Their Temple was destroyed… much like the second Temple would be destroyed by the Romans approximately 600 years later after Jesus’ death. And the nation of Israel was divided, scattered and leaderless. Communion with God was gone. Community was destroyed. Their identity as the privileged nation of Israel, as God’s chosen, was hanging by a thread.
And here’s Jeremiah, adrift in exile – against his will – with the former leaders of Judah, these protectors of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, the very people responsible for Israel’s desolation. And God asks Jeremiah to pluck up enough courage to name the sins of Israel. God asks this reluctant prophet to risk his own life to help these obstinate, hate-filled people see how they have been clinging to their power and their privilege out of fear so that they might be able to see what they’ve written on their hearts.
Jeremiah explains, “we broke our covenant with God.” I mean, he goes to much greater lengths to tell them, employing all sorts of speeches and theatricality, but that’s the message: “We broke our covenant with God.” This covenant that God made with Abraham… a covenant in which Israel, the whole of Israel, was called to love God through loving one another, called to honor God through honoring and caring for the marginalized as articulated in the Torah, called to sustain community through a leadership of servanthood rather than a leadership of power.
In their infighting that lead to the divided nation, in their thirst for power, in their need for self-protection, in their willingness to abandon one another… Israel broke their covenant with God. And now Israel was lost, perhaps forever, in the scattering of its people. And it felt hopeless.
And then in the midst of this hopelessness, Jeremiah, the prophet of doom and judgment, who had pried open Israel’s bleeding, wounded heart so they could finally see… dares to utter God’s words of hope.
God says, I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke… [But] I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. [And they won’t have to remind themselves of me or teach one another about me because they will stop hiding from me] for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
Hope comes at the very moment when we can no longer hide from God.
And then, God moves us from fear to love. God removes from us the shame that we write on our hearts – those words of prejudice, fear, hate, and judgment and writes a Law of Love on our hearts so deeply that we cannot help but embody God’s compassion with our every movement. And no longer do we need to remind ourselves or one another of God’s hope for us, but we come to forgive ourselves so completely for our own fears and perceived inadequacies, that we know intimately the Love that IS God.
This is what Lent is about. We are called to know ourselves more deeply and know what it is that prevents us from experiencing God’s love. This is why we begin with confession during Lent – not because we are bad, but because we hide parts of ourselves, even from ourselves. Confession is a time for us to reflect on the ways in which we hide. We ask for God to help us open our eyes to these places so we can let go and forgive ourselves for our fear, our judgment, our prejudice, and our self-hate.
Because the reality is, that God already forgives us. But the question is, do we forgive ourselves? Because whatever it is that we hide from ourselves, whatever it is that we think we need to hide from God is the exact thing that God is patiently waiting for us to own so we can let go. Because it is only when we surrender it and feel the hopelessness of our loss of power, that God’s hope rushes in like the Spirit moving over watery depths to make a new creation.
And God’s hope is, that life seeks life. Regardless of the death of privilege and power we experience when things are desolate and hopeless… life always seeks life.
Despite our need to protect ourselves, our need to control, our need to be seen. We come to rest, knowing that we are seen, we are ok, we are loved.
And all this fear-mongering and power-chasing in our culture’s public discourse these days:
The blatant racism disguised as pro-America rhetoric when people attack our President.
The extreme sexism disguised as pro-life or anti-abortion legislation attempts.
The rampant egoism disguised in the belief that we must give the wealthiest people tax breaks.
And the crazed homophobia masquerading as a belief in “traditional marriage.”
This, to me, feels hopeless much of the time.
It feels as if there is this fearful, spinning energy of privilege at work… creating division, tapping into our worst fears about ourselves and each other, waiting for the chance to write new hate on our hearts and manifesting as evil incarnate when a man kills a defenseless boy because all he can see is his own racially motivated fear.
Manifesting as the whisper of Satan when a hyper-liberal, mouthy, Christian priest who believes deeply in the inherent goodness of all God’s creation (see above), will use racial profiling when she’s walking along a dark street.
This feels hopeless.
But within my hopelessness, God’s hope resides.
When we offer our hearts to be written upon by God rather than insisting it be words of our own conditioning and fear…
When we act as humble stewards of the life force that is God’s creation rather than attempt to control it and control others…
When we seek to Love rather than protect, even when all seems lost…
This is when we know and experience the Reign of God.
This is when we glimpse that eternity that is Christ, God glorified.
This is when we are made a new creation.