march madness: “the madness of systemic racism and the systemic loss of hope,” april 3, 2016


Responsive Call to Worship
We, as those who follow God in the way of Jesus,
are called to incarnate a story
marked by its consistency to who God is,
and so, a story that confronts our times and culture
always illuminating assumptions, priorities,
policies, and ways of being
contrary to who God is.

We are called to deny in affirmation—
to deny what appears to be
in affirmation of what is truly.
It is, for us, this response to God’s call into our faith story,
a matter of choice and commitment.

There are others, we acknowledge, who embody a story
that confronts our times and culture
but not in response to a call—
not as a matter of choice and commitment.
They don’t have a choice.
They are committed
to an alternative narrative to the myths of our days
by the very color of their skin.
Their ethnic heritage marks them as the outsiders
within societal assumptions of identity—
within the cold harsh realities of power and domination—
conquest and exploitation.

Our culture and our country tell their narratives
long built on foundations often called into question now,
but that have nonetheless never been dismantled.
And as long as those in power
reap the benefits that remain to them,
they (we) will choose (tacitly more than explicitly)
those concrete benefits
over the dreams and ideals undermined—
until our supposed identity is nothing but hypocrisy.

We are those called to follow God in the way of Jesus—
called to live into hard truth
over every manipulated narrative
and to live abundantly
ever with passion—ever with grace and truth.

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.
Acts 10:34-48
Then Peter began to speak to them:
‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality,
but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right
is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent
to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—
he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea,
beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced:
how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth
with the Holy Spirit and with power;
how he went about doing good
and healing all who were oppressed by the devil,
for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did
both in Judea and in Jerusalem.
They put him to death by hanging him on a tree;
but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear,
not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses,
and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.
He commanded us to preach to the people
and to testify that he is the one ordained by God
as judge of the living and the dead.
All the prophets testify about him
that everyone who believes in him
receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell
upon all who heard the word.
The circumcised believers who had come with Peter
were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit
had been poured out even on the Gentiles,
for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.
Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water
for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit
just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized
in the name of Jesus Christ.
Then they invited him to stay for several days.

Witness of the Living Word, i.
So here’s what I’d like you to do today—
to reflect throughout this service
on something you’ve taken for granted that was wrong—
and that in being wrong, made God too small.
When you’ve identified that, whatever it is—
whenever you do (identify it),
I’d like you to tell someone about it—
doesn’t matter who.
And that will be the witness of the living word, i. today.

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
Today is the final weekend of March Madness,
and it’s April.
So I’d like to point out some deep truth here.

First, at one level, facts don’t matter—
in face of a popular narrative.
It really doesn’t matter that it’s April when it’s March Madness—
and the culmination of March Madness, at that.

Second, and in like manner,
facts don’t matter when it’s a true story,
and the story of Holy Week,
which culminated last week on Easter Sunday
also extends beyond its time frame.

Greg and I were talking back in mid-February
about how we weren’t going to be doing Lent this year,
but how we would be doing Lent
in terms of reflection on truth and commitment,
and how for Lent to be true at all,
it has to be true all the time.
And just so, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Palm Sunday,
Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday—
if they’re true at all, are all true all the time.

As we wrap up our March Madness worship series in April,
amidst the various madnesses we take for granted in our culture,
we acknowledge that they, too, were not resolved last week
in Easter celebration—with some kind of resurrection magic—
that the madnesses of our culture extend beyond
even the strongest of faith affirmations,
and so, today, we turn to the madness that is systemic racism.

In our Wednesday night conversations on privilege and racism last fall,
we affirmed that there are more narratives to this country
than the ones most of us know—
though I dare say most of us have grown up with the affirmations
and expectations of a familiar national story.
A story of freedom, right?—revolution leading to freedom—
a story of individual responsibility and opportunity—
the rugged individual who pulls him (usually) self up by his bootstraps
(you know I’ve always thought what was most truthful
about that metaphor was its impossibility!),
but it’s our myth.

And yet in this land of freedom and opportunity,
in which resolute men and women resisted an oppressive monarchy
and bravely explored a new land,
we ruthlessly took the land from those here before us.
The girls and I toured the National Museum of the American Indian
this past week.
We lied and we cheated and we stole and we murdered.
Our treaties became known among the indigenous people as “bad paper.”
That’s a part of our heritage, too.

Then we enslaved people—
whites and browns and blacks, initially.
But it made more sense to concentrate on colored slaves.
They were easier to distinguish when they tried to escape—
no blending in.

By “the onset of the Civil War, … stolen bodies
were worth four billion dollars,
more than all of American industry,
all of American railroads, workshops, and factories combined,
and the prime product rendered by … stolen bodies—
cotton—was America’s primary export”
(Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
[New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015] 101).

Yet from that initial investment of blood, sweat, and tears—
that initial investment from which so much prosperity continues to spring,
those who were the investment watched (and watch)
others reap the benefits.

We love the story of the great melting pot,
but did you know that “[i]n the 175 years
between the Naturalization Act of 1790
and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965,
American courts used a vague definition of skin tone
as a primary qualifier for who could and who could not
be a citizen”? (Debby Irving, Waking Up White
and Finding Myself in the Story of Race
[Cambridge: Elephant Room Press, 2014] 50)
In 1922, a Hawaiian business man petitioned for citizenship
but was denied because he was not Caucasian.
So an Asian Indian man appealed to the court,
claiming that “according to scientific classification at the time,
he qualified as a Caucasian” (Irving, 51).
So the white male justices ruled that
“whiteness would, from that point forth, be determined
using ‘the common understanding of the white man’ ….
In other words, white men would decide who was white
and who was not” (Irving, 51).

The term Caucasian, by the way, comes from—anybody know?
Back in the mid 1600s, Jean Baptiste Chardin,
a French jeweler, looking for precious stones in the Middle East
raved about the “beautiful, naked, light-skinned women he saw
in the Caucasus Mountains” (Irving, 42-43)
spanning the present day countries of Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan,
Georgia, Russia, and Iran.
Caucasus Mountains—beautiful naked women—Caucasian.
Yep. Such a proud heritage.

We’ve mentioned before
of the one million black GI’s who found in World War I,
only “4 percent were able to access
the [G.I] bill’s offer of free education” (Irving, 33).
And between “1934 and 1962 the federal government
underwrote $120 billion in new housing, less than 2 percent
of which went to people of color” … (Irving, 35)
as the FHA (Federal Housing Authority) mapped out neighborhoods
for appraisal purposes according to the skin color of residents.
In a process known as redlining, neighborhoods with residents of color
were outlined in red, with the legend identifying such neighborhoods
as hazardous investment.
Rich suburbs were outlined in green,
corresponding to best investment opportunity.
Blue represented still desirable
and yellow declining (Irving, 33-34).
Factor in blockbusting, lending policies,
highways designed to destroy black neighborhoods
it was a nightmare.
It was just a few years ago.
It’s still going on.

We’ve said it before,
when it’s the bottom of the ninth,
and you’re down by six,
and there are two outs and two strikes,
and you’re playing the New York Yankees,
can you win? Yes.
Will you? Not likely.

We’ve said it before,
anyone can win at the casino. True?
But not honestly.

It’s been said before, we are born on third base,
so proud of having hit a triple.

Many of us have also grown up with the affirmations
and expectations of a familiar faith story—
a story that speaks of no partiality amidst partiality—
a story of equality amidst inequities
a story of all created in the image of God—
loved and blessed by God.

How has our faith story put us at odds with our national story—
at odds with our own faith story as it has so often unfolded?
Because it should.

For I rather think, to Jesus’ ears,
we are the recurring nightmare of a story,
in which power, time and time again, has exploited people—
taken advantage of the indigenous peoples of this country,
the Irish, the Chinese, Japanese Americans, Jews,
hispanics, Muslim Americans, women, the poor.
We categorize—we rank—
we take advantage.
Wouldn’t our God be appalled?
Isn’t our God appalled?
And yet our faith story hasn’t, by in large,
been lived into as a counter narrative.

So do we get to claim the best of our story,
when it’s been lived too much in the worst of ways?
I don’t know.
And the question is not so much what story we tell,
as it is what stories we hear—the stories to which we listen.

Last fall, we listened to Mas and Carolyn
and his experience in an internment camp—
their experience as a biracial couple
raising mixed race children.
This given the artificial construct of racial categories.
Most of you probably know,
“there is more genetic variety within racial groups
than across racial lines” (Irving, 44), right?
Genetically, we have more in common with people
who don’t look like us than we do with those that do.
It’s lived experience though it’s not biology.
We listened to Michael and Allison,
and we wondered what life will bring Benjamin.
We listened to Bertha and Melita and Karen
and wondered about their experiences—
about their families—their children—
about Teddy and Christina and Sarah,
and William and Isabel and Henry and Helene.

For the sake of our children,
we must intentionally listen to the unfamiliar stories
and so to hear our familiar ones anew—
and to hear within them what we take for granted—
and what we take for granted as privilege.

If we don’t question our experience,
we won’t question our story.
Or maybe if we don’t question our story,
we won’t question our experience.
What’s most important is to just start questioning!

Our faith story encourages us to question ourselves—
our history—our present—and to even question it.
Former Harvard professor and minister, Peter Gomes,
suggests one could argue the chief victim of the Civil War was the Bible.
(Peter J. Gomes, The Good Book: Reading the Bible
with Mind and Heart [New York: Avon Books, 1996] 96).
“One of the chief ironies of the conflict over slavery
was the confrontation of America’s largest Protestant denominations
with the hitherto unthinkable idea that the Bible could be divided
against itself. But divided it had been
by intractable theological, political, and economic forces.
Never again would the Bible completely recover
its traditional authority in American culture”
(Gomes, 364).

But divided against itself is another way of saying
it resists from the inside—rejects lies—
resists false witness—even about itself.
It works always to clear distortion, so we can hear
and not get all defensive,
the truth that there are those who tell their children,

“White children who do drugs go to college.
Black children who do drugs go to jail.”
“Don’t wear your hoodie up.”
“Keep your hands where people can see them.”
“No matter how disrespectfully you are treated,
you must remain respectful.”
“Live carefully—live aware.”
“Don’t play hide and seek outside, it might make you look suspicious.”
“Do not take freedom and opportunity for granted.
Know that you can lose either at someone else’s whim.”
“Make sure you have the receipt for the nice bike with you,
if you take it into a nice neighborhood.”—

until we can say, it’s easier for people to be scared of someone else,
and to describe that someone else as scary,
than to admit that there are scary parts of themselves—
parts of which they’re ashamed.

For when we have mothers and fathers
telling their children,
“Freedom is not for you.”
“Opportunity is not for you.”
“Safety is not for you.”
“Your body is not yours”—
as this becomes the story of more and more people
what happens to the story told by fewer and fewer?
Eventually it can only be told defensively—
carefully isolated and protected from truth.
Facts, you see, don’t matter in face of a popular narrative—
which is the narrative of a population—
which is the narrative of those in charge.

Here’s how I see it.
There are a number of stories
draped over reality
in all its unique terriblenesses and its particular wonders—
told around kitchen tables and putting children to bed—
stories draped over reality
with the contours of their plots
supposedly corresponding to truth—to history—
to offer meaning—
an interpretation of events that makes sense—
that imposes an order—that pretends to.

We tell our stories ostensibly to reveal truth.
But they often conceal truth.

And too many of these stories,
told in the name of truth and of history,
hide truths of history—
cover what tellers of that particular story
don’t want to remember—don’t want to acknowledge.
So stories often cover blood—
more specifically the cost someone’s willing for others to pay.
And the suffering are again crucified
to forgive the debts others owe and don’t want to pay.

And so there is something of Jesus
in every loudly denounced scapegoat.
There is something of Jesus
in the silence of every covered truth—
something of Jesus to the poor, to women—
to blacks and muslims and jews—
to japanese americans and native americans—
something of Jesus in those who are rejected—
in what was done to them—
in the way they were treated—
in the way such treatment was justified—
is not remembered—
in stories that serve to offer the assurance of justification
for what cannot be justified
from which too many of us still benefit.

How do we live in the uncovering of stories
and the revealing of truth
and the retelling of new stories?

In an interview, James Baldwin said,
“If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.
Insofar as that is true, in that effort,
I become conscious of the things that I don’t see.
And I will not see without you, and vice versa,
you will not see without me.
No one wants to see more than he sees.
You have to be driven to see what you see.
The only way you can get through it
is to accept that two-way street which I call love.”
(James Baldwin, “The Black Scholar Interviews James Baldwin,”
Conversations with James Baldwin [edited by Fred L. Standley and Louis H. Pratt])

It’s April, but it’s still March Madness.
It’s 2016, but it’s so not.
And too many of the stories being told
propagate what was that shouldn’t have been
that will continue to be until enough say enough—
say stop—say we confess—say we’re sorry—
ask if forgiveness can begin the crafting of a new story—
a better richer deeper story.
Isn’t that what we’re called to be about?

It’s something we could learn from the Germans,
and their explicit and public apologies.
“On May 8, 1985, the fortieth anniversary to the day
of the end of the war, [the German president]
said in a speech of commemoration in the Plenary Room of the Bundestag,
“Remembering means recalling an occurrence honestly
and undistortedly so that it becomes a part of our very beings.
This places high demands on our truthfulness” (Gomes, 363).
It’s something we could learn from South Africans
and their Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
But we have much to learn and little desire to.
Too many of us and too many of our leaders
are so not invested in truth,
and invested, in truth, in the opposite of reconciliation.

We have such trouble admitting we can learn from others.
Somehow to admit that other countries
may be doing some things better than we are—
doing a lot of things better than we are,
calls us into question.
It’s a self-esteem issue, I get that.
But what’s going almost unnoticed—or at least untalked about—
is a systemic loss of hope—
the loss of hope for us all.

When we were breaking down after the Tenebrae service
and setting up for Easter,
we didn’t, this year, replace the crown of thorns
and the hammer and nails with white gauze.
We covered them—
and, given the material, in such a way that they could still be seen.

On January 14, 1962, in The New York Times,
James Baldwin wrote:
“Not everything that is faced can be changed,
but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

And “in 1956 Floyd Bryant, a self-confessed ‘sixty-three year old
white man, a Baptist, and a Southerner,’ wrote an article
in The Southern Baptist Review and Expositor
‘Throughout the first sixty years of my life I never questioned
but that Peter’s confession that “God is no respecter of persons”
… referred exclusively to the differences among white Christian persons….
Three years ago (1953) these views were completely transformed.
I became convinced that God makes no distinctions among people
whatever their race …. I exchanged the former views
which I had absorbed from my environment, for the latter views
which I learned from the New Testament” (Gomes, 98-99).

What happens when you discover one of your stories is false?
Well, you admit it.
You name regret and grief; you acknowledge harm done.
You try and make good.
And you let that story go.
You lean into the truth of a better story—
or a better interpretation of the truth of a story.

And there is one story—it’s as bloody as the others,
but it’s about someone willing to pay the cost of his own story.
A story we believe that uncovers truth
and reveals God.

I wish I knew what to tell you to do—
wish there were a list:
here’s how you change the world—make it better—
to undo what’s been done—and too often in the name of God.
All I know to tell you to do
is to always listen to the stories others tell.
And if you believe in the God story as Jesus told it,
to question all stories—
especially your own—
as to whether those stories dignify all persons—
whether they advocate on behalf of all—
whether they prioritize equal justice for all—
whether they include or exclude—
whether they are fearful or graceful.

And with your ears open to all the different stories—
and your eyes open to all the different circumstances—
and your heart open to God,
to open your arms to the world as it is—as it truly is—
and to love it and to love all within it—
above all else,
and to incarnate that love—
so that it is recognized as such,
and who knows what might yet be.

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
Galatians 3:23-28
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded
under the law until faith would be revealed.
Therefore the law was our disciplinarian
until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.
But now that faith has come,
we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian,
for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.
As many of you as were baptized into Christ
have clothed yourselves with Christ.
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female;
for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.


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