Looking back in order to move forward

Looking back in order to move forward

This is the sermon the Rev. Allison Sandlin Liles preached at the diocesan worship service on Trinity Sunday, June 7, 2020.

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The Rev. Allison Sandlin Liles
Trinity Sunday, St Luke’s in the Meadow June 7, 2020

Today we celebrate Trinity Sunday, and as your preacher, I’m called to explain that our one God is also a triune God, expressed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Theological writer Tertullian first used the word “Trinity” in the early 3rd century. Certainly, there were hints before: God refers to God’s self in our Genesis reading as “us,” not I. There’s also Paul’s wonderful closing benediction in his second letter to the Christians in Corinth: “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all evermore.” And, of course, Jesus’ Great Commission in the final ending of Matthew’s Gospel: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

I think that the Trinity is an incredibly important doctrine, but its importance is not dependent on whether you can explain it. As we know, Christian faith is not about explanations, it’s instead about experiences. This is as true today as it was for the earliest followers of Jesus who found themselves walking side by side with Jesus Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit as they continued spreading the gospel in his name.

The doctrine of the Trinity is about a God who is living and active in our lives at every turn: creating and recreating, teaching and guiding, refining and empowering. The reason we observe this Sunday every year is so we can highlight the God whom this doctrine describes and how this God relates to us.

And the God the Trinity describes is a God who is deeply relational: one God constituted by three ongoing relationships. The doctrine of the Trinity is about our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. And that is what I want to pursue this morning.

Our Genesis reading today reminds us that human beings are created in the image of God and named as very good. All of us. Every single human being is created in the image of God and named as very good. From the very beginning, we are connected by our relationships with God and one another. This is a fundamental truth of our humanity and of our faith.

This is not a truth felt in the world right now. In the world, individualism dominates. Nationalism dominates. Division dominates. This is NOT the truth of our faith. The truth of our faith is that we are all connected to one another – we are connected as siblings made in in the same image of God. Through the bonds of love and affection…Relationships aren’t just something we do or something we share.

Relationships are who we are. And if these relationships are sick, strained or sinful, then these relationships require repentance, healing, and restoration.

Despite the increased numbers of white people marching in the streets this week and despite the white outrage over racist policing practices, we cannot just decide that we are ready to restore these broken relationships with our siblings of color. Before there can be reconciliation, there must be justice. Before there can justice, there must be repentance. And before there can be repentance, there must be education so that we know what it is we are repenting for in our lives. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth.”

The events in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017, woke white Americans up to the pervasiveness of white supremacist culture in this country. Young men from around the country flooded central Virginia to express their desire to establish a white nation and to denounce Jewish and black people. Their racist sentiments are nothing short of evil.

In the days following August 12th shock and anger spread through the country, not unlike the days following the presidential election the previous year. I personally could not believe that a white nationalist movement still existed in the United States. How could we have let this happen in the home of the brave and land of the free? I was so surprised, while our friends of color were not.

I realized that I had a lot of work to do. As a nice white Christian, it’s easy to think that because I don’t use racial slurs or brandish a lit tiki torch that I’m not racist. But racism is more than our spoken words and our hateful actions. Racism is being complicit in the systems and behaviors around us that continue alienating and oppressing people of color.

This week so many of us are asking the same question I asked myself in August 2017. What do I do now? How do I help fix this problem? But we can’t fix the current problem in our society until we reckon with our past as a country, as a church, and as individuals.

The first Episcopal Bishop elected to serve Texas, the Rt. Rev. Alexander Gregg, was an enslaver; a clergy person who enslaved fellow human beings created in the image of God and advocated for loyalty to the Confederacy during the Civil War. The first church in that diocese, Christ Episcopal Church in Matagorda, was built by enslaved labor.1

In the years leading up to the Civil War, the Episcopal Church remained quiet on the subject of slavery. Our church didn’t want to alienate wealthy human traffickers and enslavers who could be found on parish membership rolls, serving on vestries, among the clergy, and in the House of Bishops. Episcopal and Roman Catholic leadership saw the division happening in the United Methodist Church and in the Baptist Church over slavery, and didn’t want that to happen. So we were quiet.

This is our history. And our history affects us today.

The Episcopal Church is one of the least racially diverse denominations in the nation—90% of its members are white and only 4% are black. And this isn’t just in our church. Black pastors were forbidden from joining the evangelical movement that began in the early 20th century. Like the Episcopal Church, the reason so many evangelical churches are full of white Christians is no accident. The segregation was intentional from the beginning. The Christian church has persistently chosen comfort over full equality of people of color. Christian leaders have long chosen the path of least resistance…which continues to strengthen the grip of white supremacy of our country.

At the same time of this evangelical movement, slavery evolved into peonage laws and debtor prisons2, redlining3, and public lynchings on Sunday afternoons so Christians could attend after worship. Photos were taken and distributed as souvenir postcards, one more way to terrorize black people into submission while again giving white people the feeling of presumed superiority.

This is our past and it shapes who we are today. Racism didn’t just disappear.

Slavery didn’t just disappear. It evolved into segregation of our cities, the mass incarceration of black men, and the racist practices of police officers. And racism continues evolving because we as nice white Christians allow it to do so by remaining silent. But complacency is not an option any more…and I think we get that.

We want to get involved and we want to support our friends of color. We can’t jump right into restoration and reconciliation, we must reckon, not merely with the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, but with the course of our nation’s history and the role we’ve played in it.

After the Diocese of Texas examined their racist history, they discerned the best way to address it was by dedicating $13 million to help heal the communities most injured. Last year bishops in other dioceses used their education to testify before Congress in favor of reparations for slavery. Many of us heard Bishop Eugene Sutton of the Diocese of Maryland address this very issue at our Diocesan Convention last fall.4

There is a growing body of literature/blogs/articles/documentaries available to help us learn about the traumas of our national past and the unjust effects played out in the present. You don’t need to ask your friends of color to help you, just google it or look at your public library’s list of suggested racial justice titles. Tomorrow I plan to begin the 28-Day challenge laid out in Layla Saad’s book, Me and White Supremacy5 to better understand my own privilege and participation in white supremacy. I invite you to join me.

As we educate ourselves, we can begin educating the people around us. Call people out for racist comments. And if you are called out, listen without defensiveness and without offering explanations. If people call you on microaggressions, don’t argue— listen. If you knew a word or phrase was offensive, you probably wouldn’t have said it.

And as we continue this education, we will learn that white people continue benefitting from institutionalized racism, no matter how anti-racist we become. White people cannot disconnect ourselves completely from the privilege we receive.

This isn’t to make you feel bad. This isn’t to reopen old wounds. Because feeling bad or feeling guilty isn’t going to get us anywhere. This is to move us as church communities toward God’s justice and God’s blessing on us.

And we have a model of doing so. Confronting the barriers of race, class, culture, and gender was the source of most of the drama in the early church. Saint Paul understood overcoming these divisions as a primary test of spiritual authenticity.

Reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus spends his first public teaching in the temple to describe God’s peaceable kingdom, a society of justice and peace. He describes what God yearns for all creation to experience…that all relationships are restored to right relationship. This vision is our icon as Christians. It should be our vocation.

And the way we understand this vision is by going back to the very beginning.

The fundamental truth that all people are made in the image of God. It is in our diversity that we discover the fullness of that image. Of course all lives matter, because all lives are made in the image of God. However, right now we must all speak the truth that Black Lives Matter. We must speak this truth because black lives are the lives that are being taken away.

In our tradition we are reminded that Jesus goes in search of the one sheep that needed help, leaving the 99 behind. It’s not that the 99 sheep didn’t matter, it’s that all 100 sheep matter to the Lord, and so he goes to help the one in need. We followers of Jesus are called to do the same. Proclaiming that Black Lives Matter by our words and actions does not take anything away from everyone else… It simply affirms what we as a Church and we as a Nation have for too long denied. We are all created in the image of a loving God for relationship with God and with each other.

Racism is a sin that violates the good gifts of God, both in the creation described in Genesis, and in the reality of God incarnate in Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. And we need to look back before we can look forward.

 

1 https://www.epicenter.org/article/the-episcopal-diocese-of-texas-announces-commitment-of-13- million-to-fund-racial-justice-projects-to-repair-and-commence-racial-healing/

2 For more on debtor prisons in the years following the Civil War, I cannot recommend the book Slavery by Another Name highly enough. https://www.amazon.com/Slavery-Another-Name-Re-Enslavement-Americans/dp/0385722702

3 For more on redlining, Color of Law is the go to book. https://www.amazon.com/Color-Law-Forgotten-Government-Segregated- ebook/dp/B01M8IWJT2

4 https://episcopaldiocesefortworth.org/bishop-eugene-sutton-on-racial-reconcilation-and-reparations/

5 https://www.meandwhitesupremacybook.com/