A sermon preached by the Rev’d Jered Weber-Johnson
For Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church (Saint Paul, MN)
The Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6, Year A)
In the critically acclaimed and award-winning documentary I Am Not Your Negro, viewers are ushered into the exquisite beauty and deep agony of what it means to be black in America. The film places the voice and writings, television interviews, and speeches of James Baldwin against images of the black experience and resilience on this continent across more than 450 years of slavery, Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration, police brutality, and systemic oppression. Baldwin’s eloquent voice has often been seen as polarizing, calling his audience to consider whether we will see with the eyes of so many in Black America, that our nation’s history is full of deep pain, that our story is ugliness and violence whitewashed over with the thinnest veneer of platitudes and half-truths about progress and freedom. Baldwin says that to be black in America is to be “in a rage almost all of the time.” It is to be in grief. It is to be exhausted.
In the script narrated by Samuel L. Jackson we hear Baldwin describe why this is,
“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story. What can we do?… You don’t need numbers. You need passion. The sad part is that most people who say they care don’t really care. What they care about is their safety and their profits.”
We need passion if we are ever to fully address the problem of racism and white supremacy in our nation, to heal the wounds of systemic injustice. Or, more precisely, I would say we need compassion, that stirring deep in our guts, that visceral, emotional, heart-wrenching connection that happens when the pain of another draws a straight line of understanding to the pain we have experienced. Only with compassion can we heal the divides between us. This morning’s gospel says that Jesus looked upon the crowds, harassed and helpless, and had compassion for them. It was with compassion, a sense of solidarity with the suffering of his people, that Jesus sent out the apostles, like sheep among wolves, to heal the sick, to raise the dead, and to liberate those in bondage to the evil powers of the world. Compassion in this sense is not fragility or weakness, it is a wide embrace, a generous capacity to bear another’s burdens, it is courage in the face of injustice – compassion here is power to change the world! The opposite of compassion, the undoing of compassion’s resolute march toward healing and reconciliation is, as Baldwin says, safety and profit.
Following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of our police, there was and has been a sustained protest in the streets. There was even rioting and looting. The rage that Baldwin speaks of, boiled over into the streets. And, everywhere I went, I could hear the fear in people’s voices, see it etched in their faces. And, for a scary moment, particularly in the white community, on message boards and in the media, the story seemed to shift, to be about white fears and white profits instead of white supremacy and institutional racism. Troops rolled into town to stand guard over largely white-owned businesses. When conversations turned to remaking our law enforcement to better reflect the ideals of justice and equality, there was much handwringing about what would become of property values, who would be there to protect us when our homes were invaded and our possessions stolen. Safety and profit will always be a roadblock to justice and reconciliation. We must overcome these instincts with compassion.
Liberationist theologian Helder Camara says, “Anyone who has become aware of the injustices caused by the unfair division of wealth, must, if he has a heart, listen to the silent or violent protests of the poor. The protests of the poor are the voice of God.”
We must have a heart. We must have compassion. Fear now will be the undoing of the very ideals we profess to be about as people of faith. Compassion will propel us into acts of solidarity. Compassion will guide us forward into a deeper understanding of how our stories as black and white intersect in ways both painful and yet redolent with possibility for change. Compassion will help those of us who are white to more fully understand how we have participated in, perpetuated, and benefited from the creation of a world that is unequal, unfair, unjust, and uncaring. Compassion will guide us to making something better.
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King said “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.”
If we are to take Baldwin’s assessment of our nation’s history as true, if we are to believe what Dr. King preached about our legacy of racism, if the streets really are speaking with the voice of God, then, we know, deep change is needed. It will require more than the weeding out of a few racist cops, the removal of a few bad apples from the barrel. It will require us to do more than banning rebel flags and tearing down Confederate monuments or providing better access to capital for black-owned businesses. Of course, none of these things is inconsequential. But, compassion will give us eyes to see the whole system, the structures of law and the enforcement of those laws, the systems of wealth and access to it, the lines drawn around our neighborhoods and the unspoken and sometimes literal covenants that keep those boundaries, the privileges only some have, all need to come tumbling down, brick by brick, dollar by dollar, street by street. These systems must be dismantled in our own lives. The lines that divide run through the center of every human heart. With the death of George Floyd, one might wonder why this time is different, why so many in the white community seem to now have eyes to see and ears to hear the injustice that has for centuries plagued the lives of Black, Indigenous, and people of color. And, it would appear that in fits and starts more and more in the white community are seeing that this injustice resides in us, that the tendrils of the evil systems of white supremacy have taken root in our own lives as much as in the halls of capitol buildings and courthouses. So we have begun the work of rooting it out.
This can be done and it must be done. As we pray in the baptismal service, we can do these things “with God’s help.” The streets ringing with the voice of God call us to find ourselves more firmly rooted in the love and compassion of God, a love which we have known in the way of Jesus. As we prayed this morning at the outset, so we hold onto the hope that God would keep us steadfast in love, so that we might proclaim God’s truth “with boldness, and minister [God’s] justice with compassion” for the sake of Jesus.
We are and must remain about the work of dismantling racism in the world and in our selves. And this work will come, must come, from a heart of compassion. We must have compassion from our brothers and sisters whose skin is not like our own. We must have compassion with ourselves. It will require us to have gentleness with one another, tenderness for the hurting, and persistence. We will not always get it right. We will not always say and do the right thing. But, for justice’s sake, for humanity’s sake, for Jesus’ sake, we must try. As the Apostle Paul reminds us this morning, inviting us to persist in the face of adversity and pain – “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.