Jesus, Ahmaud, race, and grace

(This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, May 17, 2020.  The sermon was in response to the Gospel reading – John 14:15-21.  You can find the full service at this link – https://youtu.be/rxrf0IjSViI)

I have never worried about going on a run.  Ever.  I’ve run 11 marathons and 16 halves and numerous other races of various lengths.  It’s not the races that I’m talking about though.  It’s the multitude of months of training runs – hundreds, if not thousands of runs over my lifetime.  I’ve run alone more times than I can count in all sorts of settings – in the neighborhood around my house, in parks, on trails.  I’ve run in small rural areas like the Cumberland Valley rail to trail.  I’ve run in small urban areas like the greenloop in and around Harrisburg.  I’ve run in large metropolitan cities – like NYC, Washington, DC, and Minneapolis.

I’ve had my share of difficult runs that felt like I wouldn’t survive them – mostly because of how I was feeling during the run.  But I’ve never worried about being chased.  Or shot.  But Ahmaud Arbery wasn’t so lucky.  We was a black man who decided to go out for a run, minding his own business.  He didn’t survive a 2.23 mile run he did in February.

By now you’ve heard the story about how he was chased by two white men who took the law into their own hands and ended up shooting and killing Arbery because they thought he was a suspect in a crime.

Let’s acknowledge something off the bat – talking about race is dangerous, especially in a primarily white congregation, in one of the most white denominations in the country.  It’s like going on a run through a field of landmines – careful where you step, or I might blow myself up.

The mere mention of the word race, like I’ve done, causes a multitude of reactions. And that’s not even saying anything about race – it’s just saying the word.  That should tell us something about our relationship with race.  For some reason we have no problem proclaiming that Jesus can break through the barriers of the tomb and overcome death, but we have trouble believing that Jesus can be a part of the conversion on a difficult topic like race?  Really, race is more difficult for Jesus than overcoming death?  We have no problem declaring that a brown skinned jewish rabbi is the Son of God, but we have trouble thinking that Jesus can be a part of the conversation and has grace to offer?  Does the Good News have a boundary that stops at the doors of race?

For some talking about race may cause them to stop listening.  For others, it may cause you to listen more intently.  Still others it may have some to jump to assumptions – assumptions like that I’m automatically labeling anyone who is white as a racist.  I’m not.  Others may assume that I’m going to lay some kind of guilt trip.  That doesn’t help.  Some may be relieved that we are talking about this at all – something that rarely happens in predominately white settings – as if race isn’t a thing and that it can be ignored.

Others will find this extremely uncomfortable – you may never have had to talk about or even think about race intentionally before.  You may not have any idea of what to say or think.  You may not see the point in talking about it or thinking about it.  You may fall back to a culture which has an underlying belief that we just don’t talk about things like this.  I don’t know.  And I don’t know the answer either.  And I don’t expect you to either.  And that’s ok.  We’re not going to solve anything here today.

It’s not about having the answers.  It’s about facing reality intentionally instead of pretending that it doesn’t exist.  Pretending that black people are being killed for no other reason than they are black isn’t working.  And talking about it doesn’t imply guilt or blame.  The problem isn’t going away.  Not talking about it hasn’t made it go away, nor will it.  All you have to do it list off the names of numerous black Americans who have died in recent years – many just minding their own business – going for a walk, driving in their car, sleeping in their home, pulling out a cell phone, and doing any number of just day to day things not breaking any laws.  Can we just acknowledge that something isn’t right about this?

Talking about race doesn’t make you a racist.  It makes you care about people who suffer injustice.  It makes you human.

We can look to our Gospel reading for some guidance on this.  No, it doesn’t specifically talk about race.  Mostly because the concept of race as we think about it today wasn’t invented until the 1600’s.  Today’s Gospel is part of what has come to be known as the farewell discourse.  It’s Jesus long goodbye message.   He knows what going to happen to him.  And he talks about it.  He’s going to be killed.  He doesn’t avoid it.  He doesn’t pretend it’s not going to happen.  He addresses it squarely.

By doing so he’s able to talk about the painful parts, but also the hopeful parts – a vision of the future.  The parts of promise.  You can’t get Good News by avoiding difficult topics.  You can’t get the hope of the future until you acknowledge the pain of the present.  The proclamation of the Gospel works this way – it highlights our brokenness to the point that we feel hopeless – that we can’t escape our fate on our own effort.  That’s true, we can’t.

We can’t be good enough to earn God’s love, or salvation.  We are incapable of doing that.  It is only in embracing who we truly are – broken, sinful – that we can fully appreciate the Good News and how truly good it is.  That’s what grace is all about.

Grace is different from Karma.  Christianity rejects the idea of karma.  Karma is getting what you deserve.  The problem with karma is that it is reliant on you and what you do.  It depends on how good you are.  We reject karma.  Instead, we proclaim grace and mercy.  Grace is getting what you don’t deserve and mercy is not getting what you do deserve.

Too often, when there is a discussion about race, it is based on karma.  It’s focused on blame and scapegoating.  It’s full of labeling and finding fault.  It’s hopeless.  No wonder we don’t want to talk about race.  Why would anyone?  But what if we approached race from a Christ-like standpoint?  What if we approached the unjust shooting of a black man through the lens of Christ?  What if we said, this isn’t right.  What can we do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

You see, we can’t receive hope by avoiding talking about death.  You can’t fully be encountered and embraced by God unless we deal with crisis head on.  The same goes for injustice and fear.  Jesus faces these and brings the disciples along for the ride.

Today we hear the promise.  The promise of the Spirit of Truth.  And we hear of the reality – that the world cannot accept the Spirit.  Why?  Because the world refuses to see or know the Spirit.  The world puts its head in the sand, avoiding the truth.  It refuses to see the image of God.  It refuses to participate in what God has been doing all along – moving creation towards shalom – towards wholeness, completeness.  That doesn’t happen through karma.

It happens through grace and mercy.  It happens when we acknowledge reality.  Ignoring the reality of death doesn’t ease the pain.  Ignoring division doesn’t heal it.  Ignoring injustice doesn’t make it go away.  Ignoring the issues around race doesn’t move us forward as a society and a people.  It holds us back. It keeps us slaves to sin.  It keeps us in karma.  It just continues to cause harm and wounds for everyone – including those who ignore and pretend there isn’t a problem.

This is a passage of scripture that shows how broken we are.  And that’s Good News.  Because that means we can’t do this on our own.  We can’t follow Jesus’ commandments on our own like he calls us to.  They are too difficult to do on our own.  We can’t love our enemies on our own – one of the hardest commands Jesus ever gives.  History shows how terrible humanity is at the love your enemy command – even and especially within the church.  It’s too hard.  We can’t pick up our cross and follow Jesus on our own – the weight of the cross is too much for any of us.  We can’t love God on our own – we can’t even conceive of what that fully means.  We aren’t capable.  It’s not about how good we are.  It’s about how broken we are.  It’s about how good God is in spite of our brokenness.  It is only in repentance – radical reorientation towards God – that we can really appreciate what God does and who God is – God does it all.  And we benefit.

Not just individually, but as a community, as a people.  Because remember, God’s message is about shalom – wholeness.  We are not complete and whole by ourselves, individually.  We are only whole when we are connected.  And that goes beyond just the people we know.  It branches out to those we don’t know.  It embraces those that are our enemies.  It connects us to those we usually don’t even think about.  It connects us to people of other races, religions, cultures.  The Good News isn’t about our own personal relationship with God.

It’s about the restoration of all of creation, and we are a part of that.  And so is Ahmaud Arbury.  And every unarmed black man, woman, and child who has been killed unjustly.  Our salvation and survival is intimately linked with those who don’t look like us.  We are called to see the image of God in others.  We are called to see ourselves in people like Ahmaud Arbery.  Can we do that?

It allows us to get a glimpse of Shalom – the kingdom of God.  The word race may scare us.  And that’s ok.  Because we are not alone.  Jesus sends us the Spirit of Truth.  The world cannot receive the Spirit because it neither knows nor sees the Spirit.  But we do.  And that Spirit shows us the truth – that we are no different than Ahmaud Arbery in the eyes of God.  Because both Ahmaud and you and I all have the image of God within us.

And the Spirit shows us the truth that the world isn’t interested in us seeing the image of God in someone like Ahmaud – not even to acknowledge that what happened to him was wrong.  Don’t we owe it to the community, to the members of our own congregation whose skin color either matches or is close to matching Ahmaud Arbery?  Should we let them know that what happened was wrong and that we would do what we can to make sure they don’t become the next name on the list?  That they matter?

The world would prefer we ignore this and every future killing.  To believe that it doesn’t impact us.  To remain silent.  The world would prefer to pretend that black people aren’t being unjustly killed for no reason other than they are black.  But the world doesn’t get the final say.  God does.

Even in the midst of death, God still speaks.  God comes to us and promises to be with us – to send God’s Spirit of Truth.  And God promises to declare the truth – regardless of how inconvenient and uncomfortable it may be.  Because that’s what shalom is about – the whole truth.  That we are broken.  And that in spite of our brokenness, God loves us anyway and does what needs to be done – because God cares and loves us that much.  God loves us so much that God is willing to die for us, you, for me, for Ahmaud Arbery, for the whole of creation.

God does what needs to be done for us and for the families of the men and women who died a senseless and unjust death.  Jesus gives us the Spirit of Truth to abide with us.  Give us eyes Lord to see that Spirit and be moved to live out the faith that God has given us.  To speak up for those who suffer injustice.  To do what we can to prevent future injustices.  To acknowledge the truth.  To love.  To see the image of God in ourselves and others – especially those that are different from us. Amen.

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