So, we're in the midst of a sermon series titled, “A Critical Conversation: Exploring the Church’s Harsh Reviews.” And the topic today has sort of a “ripped from the headlines” feel to it, given the events of this week. Today’s critique is this: “Churches are either too political or too quiet about real issues.” In some churches, you end up feeling like you’re hearing a baptized version of a political speech. In other churches, everyone’s trying so hard not to offend that the proclamation gets watered down to Rodney King’s lament, “Can’t we all just get along?” From my perspective, neither extreme is helpful – and especially not in a week like this one, when frightening, heartbreaking violence in Baltimore cries out for healing Good News.
You know the story – from this week, but also from too many weeks before. A young black man dies at the hands of police. Days of protest ensue. After the funeral, angry people gather in the streets. Peaceful exercise of the freedom to assemble for a redress of grievances turns into violence, burning, and looting. Police officers are injured; people on the streets are arrested; businesses go up in flames in the neighborhoods that can least afford the devastation. On these facts, probably most people can agree.
Now, let’s hit the “pause” button and step outside this sermon for a moment. I can almost hear the voice of the color commentator from the booth, reporting on the action here at St. Andrew’s this morning. “So, Jim, which direction will Fr. John go? Will he turn this sermon political, or will he go for, ‘Can’t we all just get along?’”
We’ve watched enough news to know there are a couple of competing narratives for incidents like this. On one side are the commentators who see Freddie Gray’s death as the most recent in a series of events showing that, in this culture, black lives don’t matter. This side will describe police treatment of African Americans as the voting rights of this decade, the next great arena in the struggle for freedom that’s been waged for 400 years now. For this side, the narrative extends to the deepest issues of poor communities – failing schools, deadly violence, absent opportunity. That’s how one side sees it. On the other side are the commentators who see Freddie Gray’s death as another in a series of tragic but unrelated events being used by political agitators looking for a fight, as well as “thugs” looking for an excuse to loot and burn drug stores. For this side, at least part of the narrative is honest confusion: “What do these protestors want, anyway? We can’t know what happened to Freddie Gray until an investigation takes place. You can’t just burn buildings and throw bricks at police because of one awful, isolated incident.”
So, which side is Fr. John going to take? Who’s he going to alienate this morning?
Well, let me share a little of my own story with you. I’m old enough to have begun my career at a time just before a couple of big changes took place in arenas I cared about deeply. As a young man, I believed American democracy, aided by a free press, represented our society’s best hope. I came out of college intending to be a journalist, and I worked briefly as a copy editor. But I got the opportunity to get into government, working as a speech writer for John Ashcroft when he was governor of Missouri. I could have seen myself as one of those young staffers on The West Wing, fast-walking through the halls of power to improve people’s lives. But through my own experience in the governor’s office, and having watched the institutions of journalism and politics change drastically over the last few decades, I see little remaining of what I once believed in. If there ever was a grand narrative of objectivity in journalism, or a grand narrative of the common good in politics, they’re gone, at least for now. And frankly, I don’t see them coming back anytime soon.
So, since I don’t really trust either journalism or politics much, I’m hesitant to claim the narrative of “one side or the other,” which is the narrative those institutions want to sell us. And as Fr. Marcus pointed out in a blog post earlier this week, I’m skeptical of religious folks who want to take their particular side in our racial conflict and baptize it with Gospel sound bites. That’s especially unhelpful when the language they use undermines the one thing about which we can be certain when it comes to the Church – that church is about drawing together, not driving apart. Church is about healing. Church is about reconciling. So when the proclamation of religious people divides us – whether it’s about race and violence, or about economics, or about marriage equality, or about any public policy – then church people have to ask whether we’re speaking for Christ or speaking for ourselves. Now, I want to be careful to say that speaking about these issues can absolutely be speaking for Christ, if it aligns with the narrative of Jesus and if we approach it with humility. Where I think we may mistranslate our risen Lord is when we presume that our particular take on the question must be his take on the question. In my limited experience, I seem to find that just when I think I know what’s “right” in God’s eyes, God tends to sneak around and speak from the other “side,” too.
So, I’m not going to tell you what to think about Freddie Gray’s death, or the violence in Baltimore, or the travesty of Kansas City’s public schools, or the disproportionate rates of incarceration of young black men, or the occurrences of black men dying at the hands of police. The Holy Spirit will do that work. What I am asking you to do is to take the risk to enter the conversation and engage with people who are different from you. I’m asking us to put some skin in the game.
Why? Because skin in the game is God’s M.O. Remember what we heard from the First Letter of John: “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. … Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. … [I]f we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (4:9-12) Christianity is the religion of the Incarnation; and remember, that word, incarnation, shares the same root as “carnivore.” Ours is the faith of flesh and bones. Jesus didn’t just talk about God. He didn’t just urge people to behave better. He got into the mess of our world, into relationships with real, broken human beings who were different from him. He had deep theological conversations with Samaritans, who were out of bounds for Jews. He hung out with perpetrators of violence and oppression, tax collectors and other criminals. And he gave himself up to die in order to defeat sin and death – for them. In Christ, God was love itself, sent to give itself away for those who clearly didn’t deserve it any more than you and I do. In Christ, God put skin in the game.
“Since God loved us so much,” says First John, “we also ought to love one another” the same way (4:11). We, too, are sent. We are sent to put our own skin in the game of reconciliation, healing divisions we see right here in our community. To accomplish that, I don’t have a program to sell you. I don’t have a particular piece of legislation I want you to support. I want you to listen to the Holy Spirit leading your head and your heart and your hands to love someone on the other side of some divide. And I want you to let that experience change you. Maybe it’s getting to know a mom from Operation Breakthrough as part of Sister Berta’s Friendship Circles. Maybe it’s volunteering at Southwest High School, refusing to give up on the kids of this city whose only choice is public school. Maybe it’s having lunch with homeless and working poor people at the Free Store at Christmastime, hearing their stories and telling them yours. Maybe it’s volunteering at Gordon Parks School or Benjamin Banneker School. Maybe it’s not just serving lunch at the Kansas City Community Kitchen but talking and praying with people there. Maybe it’s hearing local African American leaders speak in our undercroft about The New Jim Crow of incarceration. Maybe it’s working with our social entrepreneur, Natasha Kirsch, as she builds a new venture to break generational poverty among real, suffering moms and kids in our city. Here’s an idea: Maybe it’s starting a business on the east side of Troost – how about opening a decent grocery store in a food desert? Maybe it’s simply coming to United Missionary Baptist Church with Dr. Tom and the choir and Mtr. Anne and me this Wednesday night to worship and celebrate the unity they and we share in Christ.
My point is this: The deepest healing will come to the divisions in our city and our nation, not through the eloquence of preachers or the arguments of talking heads or the blaming of every side for its failures and sins. Our deepest healing will come when our hearts are transformed by being sent to love, being sent to be God’s love in the flesh.
All this is not just a good idea; it’s the promise we make every time we renew our baptismal covenant. The presider asks, “Will you strive for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of every human being?” And we each look God in the eye and say, “I will, with God’s help.” I don’t know about you, but I find that a very difficult promise to keep. Because if I’m going to keep it, I have to see injustice. And I have to be willing to “strive” – actually to do something about racism, for example, rather than throw up my hands and lament the divisions that have been with us ever since people started enslaving other people on these shores.
I will admit to you that crossing boundaries and being sent to love someone you perceive to be different – that can be scary. Years ago, when I first heard God’s call to serve people in need, I found a time to work at the local food pantry when I could be there by all by myself, stocking shelves, never seeing a client. It was scary when I went to the Kansas City Community Kitchen to serve lunch for the first time. It was scary going to Haiti for the first time. It was scary walking through the metal detectors and into Southwest High School for the first time. It’s going to be scary preaching on Wednesday at a black Baptist church for the first time. And you know what? God sends us anyway, because we bear God’s love, and “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). Not my love, which is absolutely not perfect, but the love of God. Agapé. The love that takes flesh and dwells among us and invests itself fearlessly.
I’ll conclude with a truism: All politics is local. That quote is usually attributed to Tip O’Neill, former speaker of the House; but I’ll bet you anything that Jesus Christ said it first. Because to Jesus, the point isn’t which side shouts the loudest. To Jesus, the point isn’t winning the argument about who’s to blame. To Jesus, the point is to love the person in front of you. To Jesus, the point is stepping into the messiness and the beauty of that person’s world, precisely because it’s different from yours. To Jesus, the point is having skin in the game God’s given you to play. Because that deep investment of one faithful heart – your faithful heart – will bring more change than a hundred sermons ever could.