Equality: Rhetoric or Reality?

My keynote address to the Stand Against Racism rally at the Kalamazoo YWCA:

I’m racist.  It’s important that you know that.  I call myself ‘racist’ because, along with too many of my fellow Americans, I have internalized the rhetoric of equality without materializing the reality of it.

We internalize the rhetoric every year as we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, as we sing ‘We Shall Overcome’, and as we listen to a recording of the ‘I have a Dream’ speech. We internalize the rhetoric of equality because we find certain things distasteful: things like the N-word, Confederate flags, and the Ku Klux Klan. We internalize the rhetoric of equality whenever we ‘Like’ the Facebook posts of the NAACP and the YWCA. We have internalized the rhetoric of equality because we think of ourselves as “good people” who begin our sentences with the words: “I’m not racist.” We internalize the rhetoric of racism when we say, “I can’t be racist; I have friends who are black!”

But here’s the thing: we are still racist. I am racist. There is more to ending racism than simply saying “I’m not racist.” That is simply internalizing the rhetoric; the time has come for us to materialize the reality. Without that latter step, the words are nothing more than an empty hypocrisy, a farce of equality in a country where it’s okay to be racist, so long as you don’t say, “I’m racist.”

This hypocritical state of affairs reminds me of a passage from the New Testament, in the first letter of St. John, chapter 1, where the author writes: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us, but if we confess our sins the God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

In other words, it would be far better for us to put away our hypocrisy (i.e. Saying, “I’m not racist”) and step into the light with some honest confession (i.e. Saying instead, “I am racist”). Honest confession is the first step on the path to healing and wholeness, to mercy and justice. This is how we will begin to materialize the reality of equality, rather than simply internalizing the rhetoric.

For seven years, from 2006-2013, I lived a fairly insulated and isolated life in an all-white rural village in upstate New York.  I couldn’t name a single African American family in my neighborhood, but I could easily show you who proudly flew Confederate flag on shirts, hats, trucks, and houses.  The church I pastored there had one African American teenager attending for about six months before he finished high school.  The membership included one mixed-race family.  During that time, I founded an ecumenical outreach ministry in a nearby city that is currently mostly made up of white, liberal Christians in their late twenties to mid-thirties.  The clientele of my favorite café, bagel shop, and book store were… you guessed it: mostly white.

The only time during those years when I came into regular contact with people of another race is in my teaching job as a college professor, where I’ve noticed that my non-white students regularly got lower grades than my white students.  I didn’t know why that was the case.  Did I then stop everything and go to great lengths to find out what was wrong with my teaching style or my grading practices?  No.  Why?  Because I was too busy with all the other stuff going on in my life to put something so big on my plate at an institution where I was just an adjunct professor.  I chose instead keep my schedule as convenient as possible, rather than do the hard work necessary to adjust an imbalance of power that benefits people who look like me but damages long-term opportunities for others.  I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty racist to me.

Because I’m racist, I don’t have the right to order protestors to stay peaceful and nonviolent when entire communities are outraged at the verdict of a trial. I don’t have the right to slap you across the face and then tell you that it would be wrong for you to slap me back. A wiser person than myself once said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

I don’t have the right to accuse my African American sisters and brothers of “playing the race card” because, as it turns out, I have a “race card” of my own and it’s an ace that’s permanently up my sleeve: it’s called being white and it gives me a distinct, unfair advantage over others whenever I walk into a place of business/worship/government, or even when simply walking or driving down the street.

Being white comes with its own set of privileges that are automatically, subconsciously bestowed upon those of us whose skin happens to be melanin-deficient.

White privilege is what gives me the luxury of changing the channel or looking away from the suffering of my fellow human beings. White privilege is what allows me to shrug my shoulders and say, “That’s too bad, but it’s not my problem.”

In the last fifty years, our American society has internalized the rhetoric of equality: we have declared that it is no longer socially acceptable to openly espouse views of personal prejudice against other people because of the color of their skin. But the job is only half-done.

White privilege is the other side of racism, which does not depend on one’s personal feelings about people of other races. White privilege is not about personal prejudice; it is about systemic oppression, which is much harder to see with our eyes that have been so blinded by individualism. We cannot see the forest for the trees; we have become fish who cannot perceive the water in which we swim… it is all around us and within us, but we don’t even know it’s there.

And if we refuse to raise our collective consciousness to the reality of systemic oppression, if we refuse to acknowledge the existence of this water, if we continue changing the channel and looking away from these inconvenient truths, then the current of this river will continue to sweep us downstream to where the riptides become rapids and the rapids become a waterfall, where we are swept over the edge to destruction and death. But for now, we still have time: We have this moment in which we can open our eyes to see the oppression and begin swimming against the tide.

We have today, in which we can still choose to show up, shut up, and listen to one another. We can educate ourselves: cracking a book instead of just changing the channel. We can say to each other this matters because you matter; you are a person, not a statistic. And together we are one people, made of one blood, in the divine image. Whatever our religion, we are living stones: bricks in the Temple of the Spirit where the light of glory shines forever.

This, we believe, is our common destiny. And that is why we have come here today: to materialize the reality of equality, instead of just internalizing the rhetoric. We have come here to make Dr. King’s dream come true because his dream is our dream and our dream is God’s dream.

Whatever our religion, however we understand that word God, we come together today with the faith to see this thing through, to open our eyes and change our fate before it’s too late: to stand up for freedom together, to speak out for justice together, and to work together until we move beyond the internalized rhetoric of reality and begin to materialize the reality.

7 Ways to Be Sure You Are a Martin Luther King Jr. Kind of Christian (Reblog)

By New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer: DeMarsico, Dick, photographer. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Reblogged from Huffington Post

By Paul Brandeis Rauschenbusch

To understand the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. one should first look to his Christian faith, which gave him the language, spiritual strength and community to fuel and sustain his singular efforts for justice, peace and freedom.

Faith was at the center of his life.

However, as we honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. it is worthwhile to consider the kind of faith King embodied. Because there isn’t just one kind of Christian; and not all faith leaders lead towards freedom.

Click here to read the full article

Too Small A Thing

We’re having our Annual Congregational Meeting today at North Church, so I don’t have a sermon to share.  But my wife, Rev. Sarah Schmidt-Lee, is preaching at First Presbyterian Church in Decatur, MI.  Here is her sermon on Isaiah 49:1-7.

In 1954 a 25 year old pastor, fresh from seminary, started serving his first congregation in Montgomery, AL. It would have been so easy for the church to eat up all his time. To teach him everything he didn’t learn in seminary. To rely on him to keep their doors open and their bills paid. But they knew that focusing on what was going on inside that church building was too small a thing for their pastor. They supported him as he took leadership in community organizations, and within his first year as their pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr. involved with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and at 27 he helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This young pastor had such a tremendous influence beyond the scope of his own congregation that we honor him with a national holiday tomorrow. It was too small a thing for that church to demand their pastor’s energy be focused solely on them and their needs. They knew they were called, and he was called to something bigger—to be a part of God’s work of changing the world.

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

When I was in college, I had the privilege of meeting a homeless man named Bill Smith. In the course of volunteer work I did, I heard stories from Bill about how frustrated he was by churches in the area around Charlotte, NC. Many of them would send vans downtown to the rescue mission each Sunday to pick people up and bring them to church, which seems like a really great ministry. The problem was that once they got to the church building, these homeless men and women were usually ushered into the back pew, where no one would see them, and they were treated like an evangelism project. The church members seemed intent on sharing Jesus with them, despite the fact that most of them were Christians, already. As Bill put it, “Most of them would not have survived this long if it weren’t for their deep faith in Jesus. Those churches should stand those men and women up front to tell their stories, not stick them in the back and treat them like outsiders.”

One day, during my junior year of college, an excited Bill Smith shared with me how one congregation in town had partnered with the rescue mission to give Bill a part time job counseling other homeless men and speaking as an advocate for the homeless in area churches. That congregation recognized they had an opportunity to experience God in new ways, through new eyes, and sticking those homeless brothers and sisters in the back pew and treating them as outsiders to convert—it was too small a thing. They needed to hear the stories and learn about God from people who were struggling in different ways than they were.

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

A few years ago a congregation in Tulsa, OK took a big risk, and decided to give all of their undesignated plate offerings away to other organizations. Disaster response, relief work, humanitarian projects overseas—there were a number of groups they already gave to, and they would add more. They are a large congregation, and in 2003, those undesignated offerings amounted to about $20,000 that many church leaders worried they couldn’t spare. But they took the risk in faith, and in 2004, the congregation gave away $150,000 in plate offerings.

But the biggest surprise? Not only did the weekly offering increase dramatically, the money given specifically to the budget increased by 10%, too. The leaders of this church recognized that meeting their own institutional needs was too small a thing—they needed to give generously to the world. And when they took a leap of faith, they discovered that their whole congregation understood this, too. Funding their own programs was too small a thing. When they saw the opportunity to give toward a bigger purpose in the world, the congregation rose to the occasion and was more excited about supporting the institutional needs, too. They could see that the institution was serving a higher purpose.

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

In our gospel text for this morning, we see John the Baptist after he has baptized Jesus, and what is he doing? He is redirecting his own disciples to Jesus. Here is a man with a meaningful ministry, drawing people from far off cities into retreats where they confess sin and get baptized in the Jordan as a sign of cleansing and a fresh start. But when John encounters Jesus and sees what he has to offer, he realizes that his own ministry is too small. He cannot offer what these followers really need. Jesus is the one who can really give them new life.

In traditional paintings of John the Baptist, he is always pointing his finger away from himself. It’s as if he is always in that posture of redirection—I am not the Christ. I am not the one you need. Look to Jesus. Follow him. That’s the way.

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

This passage from Isaiah was written during a time when a large proportion of Israel was in exile in Babylon, and the nation was in ruins. The prophet spoke of a servant of God who would lead the nation back to Jerusalem and back to prosperity and health. But here, in these words of God spoken to the servant, we hear the heart of God. “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel. I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation might reach to the ends of the earth.”

God’s dream for Israel was bigger than rebuilding the temple, or returning to Jerusalem from exile. God’s dream for Israel was that it might shine out as a beacon so that the whole world would see God’s love and justice and recognize that the God of Israel was on their side, too.

Some people describe the current situation of the Mainline Protestant church in North America as a kind of season of exile. Generations ago, the Protestant church stood at the center of American culture. Attending church, or at least sending your children to Sunday School, was practically a civic duty. Nearly everyone knew the Lord’s Prayer, and Amazing Grace, and Psalm 23.

That is no longer the case, is it? Sending kids to sports programs is a much higher parental duty in today’s culture than making sure they get to Sunday School. And most Americans have far more commercial jingles than hymns memorized. Church is not anyone’s default setting, anymore.

And we feel it, don’t we? We see Sunday School classes getting smaller and smaller, and budgets getting tighter and church staff growing fewer, with fewer hours to work with. Most churches I’ve encountered spend a lot of time worrying about these changes, which are for the most part completely out of our control. We cannot change the tide of our culture any more than those Israelites who were carried off to Babylon could wish themselves back to Jerusalem. We can grieve the losses. We can remember who we have always known God to be. And we can learn to look for God in our new situation.

But it is too small a thing to focus on our own survival. As numbers shrink and budgets tighten, it is so tempting to focus our energy on keeping what we still have. Keeping the building in repair. Keeping all the same staff, but cutting their hours and benefits. Keeping all the Sunday School classes, even though we only have one or two kids in each age group. Keeping the Presbyterian Women’s program on a weekday morning even though all the younger women in the church are at work, then.

It is too small a thing to try to preserve the church, or restore it to its former glory. We need to discover the new possibilities God has in store for us. It is too small a thing to worry about our programs and budgets, when there is a whole world out there, and God is in it!

So, how are you pointing away from yourself, and toward Christ? How is your congregation and its money serving a higher purpose in the world? How are you seizing the opportunity to discover God in new places and in new people? How are you supporting your pastor and your members to be agents of change in the world?

If these questions are intimidating, or challenging, or frightening, that’s okay. You don’t need the answers today. You need only a desire to listen again to the heart of God—the God who called you to this community in the first place and marked you as a beloved child. Because God has a dream for you and for this church, and it is not a small dream. It is a big dream.

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Balm Threat


I’m calling in a balm threat this morning.

I realize that the pun is terrible.  Please, bear with me and I promise to make it make sense before the end.

What is a balm, anyway?  It’s a healing ointment, like a lotion, that soothes damaged skin or eases the pain of sore muscles.  A balm is something that takes away the pain.  We read about balm this morning in our Old Testament lesson from the book of Jeremiah. 

The prophet Jeremiah was a man who was intimately familiar with pain. Tradition calls him “the weeping prophet” because he lived in a time of such intense suffering.  God called him to be a preacher, but nobody ever listened to his sermons.  He saw that the culture around him was corrupt and destroying itself, but there was nothing he could do about it.  All he could do was keep on preaching and hope that somebody, somewhere, someday might listen.

Jeremiah talked a lot about his pain.  He said, “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick…. For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead?”  And there’s that word: balm.  The prophet is asking, “Is there nothing that can ease this pain?” And for Jeremiah, that question went unanswered…

This same question has been on the lips and in the hearts of suffering people in every place and time throughout history: “Isn’t there anything that can easy my pain?” 

Is there no balm in Gilead?”

We can hear it from the patient who has just been told that her insurance company will not cover the cost of the medication she so desperately needs: “Is there no balm in Gilead?”

We can hear it from the unemployed laborer whose temporary assistance benefits may run out before he is able to find a new job: “Is there no balm in Gilead?”

We can hear it from the pregnant teenager, faced with an impossible choice, knowing that she will receive lifelong shame and rejection from society no matter what she decides: “Is there no balm in Gilead?”

We can hear it from the young man who wants nothing more than to love and be loved, but is told by his church that his way of loving is an abomination in the eyes of God: “Is there no balm in Gilead?”

In the American story, this cry has been heard loudest and longest from our African American brothers and sisters, who have suffered under the yoke of slavery, the humiliation of Jim Crow laws, and now the ridiculous accusations of so-called “reverse racism” that tries to put one person’s bitterness on a level with centuries of systemic oppression, as if they were the same thing.  These folks too have asked the hard question, “Is there no balm in Gilead?  Is there nothing that can ease this pain?”

But the enslaved ancestors of these neighbors of ours did something else, something that had never been done before: they answered the question.  In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “They looked back across the centuries and they took Jeremiah’s question mark and straightened it into an exclamation point.  And they could sing, ‘There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.  There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.’”

Here’s what happened:

When the Europeans enslaved African people, they tried to erase all traces of their home culture in order to keep them subservient to their new masters.  The people were given new names, new clothes, a new language, and a new religion.  The slaves were given Bibles and told to read them.  The slave holders thought that a Christian slave was more likely to be obedient and passive.  But they forgot something; they overlooked a critical truth that their Jewish and Protestant ancestors had passed down to them: If you want to keep people down and depressed, the last thing on earth that you should do is give them a Bible.  Why? Because, as Flannery O’Connor said, “Jesus throws everything off-balance.”

In introducing people to the Bible, the promoters of slavery and racism unwittingly sowed the seeds of their own destruction.  As it says in the Psalms, “They fell into the trap they set.” 

Because you can’t tell people they are “made in the image and likeness of God” and then expect them to let go of their inherent human dignity. 

You can’t tell people that all men and women are brothers and sisters, children of one Father in heaven, and then expect them to believe that they are second-class citizens. 

You can’t tell people that they are members of the body of Christ and temples of Holy Spirit and then expect them to believe that they are some other person’s property.

Those enslaved African ancestors read the Bibles they were given and then, as newly baptized Christians, they reached back across two and a half millennia and straightened Jeremiah’s question mark into an exclamation point.  “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.  There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.”

They discovered, for themselves and for all of us, the secret of that balm: the balm is faith.  It is faith that has the power to heal, save, and make whole.  As Jesus told so many sick, poor, downtrodden, forgotten, and oppressed people in his day, “Your faith has made you well.”

Now, when I say faith, I don’t mean religious observance (e.g. coming to church, reading the Bible, taking communion, etc.).  Religious observance is a good thing (I would even say it’s necessary for growing in faith), but it is not faith itself.  Likewise, when I say faith, I don’t mean a subscription to a set of doctrinal beliefs.  Our systems of theology (e.g. Presbyterian, Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim, etc.) are interpretations of faith, but they are not faith itself.

So, what do I mean by faith? It begins with a heartfelt hunch that there is something: some Presence/Reality/Being/Love at the heart of everything that binds the rest of it together in big embrace, something that, in the words of the late Rev. Forrest Church, is “greater than all, yet present in each.”  Personally, I like the description given by the Jedi Master, Obi-Wan Kenobi in the movie Star Wars: He called it “the Force” and said, “It surrounds us, it penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together.”  Here in this church, we call it “God.”  And we imagine God as a loving Father (or Mother) who is working through us, with us, and in us to build the kingdom of heaven on earth: a place where people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” will live together in peace, where they will “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks,” where “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more,” a place where “the home of God [will be] among mortals”, where every tear will be wiped away, and “Death will be no more”.  Faith begins with this hunch: with the hope that these things might be true; faith comes to life in us when we commit our whole selves, body, mind, and soul, to living as if they were true; and it ends when these things do come true (and I believe they will).

Faith is the truth that turns the world upside down.  Faith has the power to move mountains… or at least make them into mole-hills.  That’s what faith does: It makes a mole-hill out of a mountain.  Faith changes the way we look at our situation in life so that the big problems don’t seem so big after all and the little we have is more than enough for God.

I read an article this week that illustrated this truth perfectly.  It borrows an image from the Bugs Bunny cartoons I used to watch as a little kid.  You remember Marvin the Martian?  Whenever he would first appear in a sketch, the first thing we would see is a huge, menacing shadow looming over Bugs Bunny.  But then he would turn around and see that the big, scary shadow was coming from a little “pipsqueak with a pop-gun.”  That’s what faith does: It changes our perspective on life, so that we can stop telling God how big our problems are and start telling our problems how big God is.

I said I was calling in a balm threat this morning, and I am: Because faith, the balm of Gilead, is a threat to every sin and sickness of body, soul, or society that would try to keep you down.  The balm of Gilead is a threat to the unenlightened self-interest of every government, corporation, and institution in this world.  The balm of Gilead is a threat to racism, sexism, classism, nationalism, denominationalism, homophobia, and every unjust pride and prejudice, every power and principality, every problem that tries to exalt itself above the glory of God and the dignity of God’s children.  Oh yes: I’m calling in a balm threat today.

Now, I realize that I’m new here.  I don’t know who you are, where you’ve been, what kinds of problems you face, or what kind of pain you carry.  But I believe this: That there is no problem so big that God cannot handle it, that there is no situation or life so messed up that God cannot bring good out of it. 


Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain,
but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.

If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul,
you can tell the love of Jesus and say, ‘He died for all.’

Don’t ever feel discouraged, for Jesus is your friend,

and if you lack for knowledge, he’ll never refuse to lend.

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. 

There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

The Most Durable Power

Another treat for the anniversary of ‘I Have A Dream’. This is one of my favorite preachers, Rev. Tamara Lebak, Associate Minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. If you only listen to one sermon today, make it Dr. King’s, but if you listen to two, make this the next one.

You Are Set Free


My final sermon at First Presbyterian Church of Boonville, NY:

I would like to say a few words this morning on the subject of freedom.  Specifically, I would like to talk about where freedom comes from and what freedom is for.

A discussion on the subject of freedom is particularly apropos this week as we prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, which he delivered on August 28, 1963.  Dr. King’s words represent a great moment in the history of freedom and I will have more to say on them in a moment.

For my biblical text this morning, I will take our reading from chapter 13 of the gospel according to Luke.  This also is a noteworthy text on the subject of freedom.  It begins with the story of a woman who attended a synagogue where Jesus was preaching.  They tell us she was afflicted by “a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.”

Let me ask you this morning: how many people do you know who are crippled in spirit?  How many are “bent over” and “quite unable to stand up straight” in our churches and on our streets? 

Let me tell you something: when I hear that women in this country still make only 81 cents for every dollar made by a man, I see people bent over and quite unable to stand up straight.  When I read that there are more African American men in jail than there are in college, I see people bent over and quite unable to stand up straight.  When I see 20% of the population controlling 80% of the resources, wallowing in luxury while millions starve, I see people bent over and quite unable to stand up straight.  When I talk to Americans with foreign-born spouses who long to return home to their country but can’t because the federal government refuses to recognize the legitimacy of a marriage between two partners of the same gender, I see people bent over and quite unable to stand up straight.

This is the reality we live in.  And it is certainly crippling to the human spirit.  Skeptics and cynics believe that there is nothing to be done, that you can’t fight city hall, and these problems are just too big to solve.  But there is another reality that we all live in.  As the apostle Paul says, there is a God in whom we “live, and move, and have our being.”  Jesus has something else to say to those who are crippled in spirit, bent over, and quite unable to stand up.

The Bible tells us what Jesus did.  First, it says that “he saw her”.  Jesus looked at this woman with all the compassion that heaven could muster; he looked at her with a love that knew her name and counted the hairs on her head.  How many times do we just let those statistics just wash over us?  How often do we look the other way or change the channel on those of God’s children who are bent over and quite unable to stand up straight?  We don’t see them, but God does.  And the Bible tells us that the first thing Jesus did for this woman was see her, really see her, as she was.

Next, the text says that he “called her over”.  Not only did he know her name, he spoke it.  He singled her out and drew her close to himself.  He took this no-account, poor, sick woman and brought her to the center of the life of the religious community, the synagogue in which he was preaching.  Jesus interrupted his own sermon to call and empower the least likely and most forgotten member of their church.  The one who sat in the back, trying not to be noticed, found herself suddenly placed at the center of what God was doing in the life of her community.  That’s how God works: taking the people in the margins and placing them in the middle.

Finally, Jesus said to her, “Ma’am, you are set free from your ailment.”  And there’s that word again: Freedom.  Isn’t Jesus’ choice of words here interesting?  He doesn’t say “You are healed of your sickness.”  No, he says, “You are set free from your ailment.”  There is something freeing, even liberating about what Jesus is doing in this person’s life.  Somehow, it’s not just about recovery from a medical condition, it’s about freedom.

There is a great deal about freedom we can learn from this passage.  In fact, I think we have to.  In this age when terms like faith, family, and freedom are tossed around as political buzzwords on the campaign trail, we owe to ourselves as voters and critical thinkers to know what these words really mean, especially the word freedom.

So first, I want to look at where it is that freedom comes from.  It seems that those who hold public office in this country would have the people believe that freedom is a commodity to be regulated and doled out by our leaders as they see fit.  They anoint themselves as champions and defenders of freedom in times of crisis.  They tell us that freedom comes from the barrel of a gun or the platform of a party.  Some would even have us believe that our rights and freedoms ultimately come from the Constitution, but this is not so.

The truth is that Americans do not revere the Constitution because it creates freedom, but we respect it because it recognizes freedom.  In point of fact, it was Thomas Jefferson who identified for us the true source of freedom in the Declaration of Independence, which he wrote.  Jefferson says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Jefferson is quite clear about the source of our rights and our freedom.  He does not say that “we are endowed by our government”; he does not say that “we are endowed by our military strength”; he does not say that “we are endowed by our Constitution”.  He says that “we are endowed by our Creator” with the unalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  That is where freedom comes from.  Freedom comes from God.  Any system of government is at its best when it recognizes said freedom and holds it in high esteem.  Any claim to the contrary amounts to a totalitarian usurpation of the throne of God, which is blasphemy.

This is the truth that emperors and despots the world over have failed to realize throughout history from Pharaoh to Caesar, from Napoleon to Nebuchadnezzar, from Stalin to Hitler, from the Confederacy to Governor George Wallace, and from Monsanto to Halliburton: that freedom is the gift of God to all the world.  We disregard it to our own peril.

Jesus distributed this gift liberally in his encounter with the bent-over woman.  When he calls her to the center of the church, he does not play 20 Questions, he does not ask her anything about her theology or her morality, he does not check her criminal record or her charitable donation history with the synagogue, he does not require her to take a literacy test or present a government-issued photo ID.  No, he simply lays his hand on her and proclaims with the authority of God alone, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”

Now, it seems that some folks in the church didn’t like that very much.  One of the leaders of the synagogue was indignant with Jesus.  That happens a lot, by the way: whenever Jesus shows up in church, the preachers and the elders get real uncomfortable (probably because they never know what he’s going to do).  So, they decided real quick that they needed to shut this thing down.  The leader stepped in, saying something about the church bylaws and biblical precedent, but Jesus wasn’t having any of it.  Jesus set him straight pretty quick.  You can’t stop the Spirit, once God gets moving; all you can do is hop on board or get out of the way.  That’s how it is with Jesus: he gives God’s free gift of freedom for all, uninhibited by the religious or social institutions of the day, because freedom comes from God and God gives freely. 

You don’t get freedom from bullets or ballots.  Freedom cannot be legislated.  Freedom is.  Those among us who are truly free know that they are free whether the government chooses to recognize their freedom or not.  That’s the strength that led Christians to continue gathering for worship in communist Russia, even though churches were outlawed and the practice of religion was forbidden.  That’s the faith that led Martin Luther King into jail where he sang hymns of praise to God like Peter and Paul in the New Testament book of Acts.  These people were all free, living in the freedom that God gives, regardless of the government’s recognition of their freedom.

So, that’s enough about where freedom comes from.

Let’s talk a little bit about what freedom is for.  We can see this in the gospel story too.  After Jesus had seen the woman, called her over, and proclaimed her God-given freedom, the text says “immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.”  So you see, she wasn’t just set free from something, she was set free for something.

This is probably the most ignored aspect of the gift of freedom in this country.  We selfish folks tend to think of ultimate freedom as the freedom to be left alone while we do whatever we want, but that’s not what God has in mind.  God’s will is not that we should be set free from tyranny and oppression in order to be left alone; God’s will is that we should be set free in order to be together.  When we are no longer weighed down by the burdens of guilt, fear, injustice, and suffering, we are finally free to love our neighbors as ourselves as we see the image of God in them and they see it in us.

We are freed for love.  Love is the inner law that binds us to one another with chains of affection.  There is no threat of punishment that keeps us in line with the law of love.  It works by persuasion, so that love’s fruit is genuine and free.

In a world so full of injustice and un-freedom, where our brothers and sisters, God’s children, are bound, bent over, and quite unable to stand up straight, we are commanded to love them and work with them until all have obtained God’s promised freedom in equal measure.  This is the gospel.  This is good news in action.  This is the freedom for which Christ has set us free.  We are free to love, free to be loved, and free to live together as God’s beloved children on God’s green earth.

I Am Racist

By John Vachon for U.S. Farm Security Administration (Library of Congress[1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’m racist.  It’s important that you know that about me.  I feel that it’s even more important for me to verbalize my racism, given my constant urge to keep up appearances.  As a white American living half a century after Dr. King, I have internalized the rhetoric of racial equality without materializing the reality of it.

I like to think of myself as a “good person” and “not racist” but the fact is that neither of those statements is true.  I’m actually a bad person and I’m racist.

I live a fairly insulated and isolated life in a just about all-white bedroom community in upstate New York.  I can’t name a single African American family in my neighborhood, but I can show you who proudly flies Confederate flag on shirts, hats, trucks, and houses.  The church I pastor previously had one African American teenager attending for about six months before he finished high school.  The membership currently includes one mixed-race family.  I founded an ecumenical outreach ministry in a nearby city that is currently mostly made up of white, liberal Christians in their late twenties to mid-thirties.  The clientele of my favorite café, bagel shop, and book store are… you guessed it: mostly white.

The only time I come into regular contact with people of another race is in my teaching job at Utica College, where I’ve noticed that my non-white students regularly (but not always) get lower grades than white students.  I don’t know why that is.  Have I gone to great lengths to find out what’s wrong with my teaching and/or grading practices?  No.  Why?  Because I’m too busy with all the other stuff going on in my life to put something so big on my plate at an institution where I’m just an adjunct lecturer.  I would rather keep my schedule as convenient as possible than work to adjust an imbalance that benefits people who look like me but potentially damages long-term opportunities for people of other races.  I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty racist to me.

I am racist because I presume that racism was a problem for previous generations, but thank God Dr. King came along and fixed it all for us with one amazing speech in 1963.  I am racist because I think having black friends makes me not-racist.  I am racist because I think racism is confined to my personal feelings about black people.

I am racist because I benefit from living in a country where the following facts are true:

  • Black youths arrested for drug possession are 48 times more likely to wind up in prison than white youths arrested for the same crime under the same circumstances.
  • Black and Latino men are three times more likely than white men to be stopped by the police and have their cars searched – even though white men are four times more likely to have weapons or drugs.
  • White men with a criminal record are more likely to be called back for a job interview than black men with no record, even when their education and experience are the same.
  • Students of color are far less likely to be put in honors courses even after you take test scores and grades into account.
  • Students of color are more than twice as likely to be suspended or expelled from school even though they are not much more likely to break school rules than whites.
  • Black college men end up just a few dollars ahead of whites who went no further than high school.
  • 45% of black children live below the poverty line, compared with 16% of white youngsters.
  • From 1939 to 1959, the earnings of black men relative to whites improved by over one third. However, from 1972 to 1992, the relative earnings of black men tapered off—and this was the period of affirmative action.
  • Black unemployment rates, for as long as records have been kept, have been at least double those experienced by whites. Today, the definition of unemployment has been sufficiently restructured (the figures no longer count people on welfare, those whose unemployment benefits have expired, those in jail or in the military) to become nearly meaningless. However, it is reasonable to claim that unemployment levels among urban youth exceed 60%.
  • Black professors hold less than 5% of faculty positions. Less than 5% of the K-12 teaching force is black. About 85% of this group is centered in urban areas.
  • Of all the doctoral degrees awarded in 1990, just 3.5% went to black men and women.
  • The attrition rate of black university students at many prestigious universities is greater than 60%.
  • Most NCAA universities refuse to release attrition rate for athletes. An NCAA study showed that nearly 75% of Division I black athletes failed to graduate.
  • While black students represent 16 % of all public school students, they make up nearly 40% of those classed as learning disabled.
  • There are more black men in jail than in college.

Note – I compiled this list from two sources:


All of these facts are true but I have made no effort to change a single one of them.  That’s why I’m racist.

Because I’m racist, I don’t have the right to accuse African American people of “playing the race card” when entire communities are outraged at the verdict of a trial.  I can’t even tell them to stay peaceful and not get violent.  That would be like me slapping you across the face and reminding you that it would be immoral for you to slap me back.  As it turns out, I have a “race card” of my own and it’s an ace that’s permanently up my sleeve: it’s called being white and it gives me a distinct, unfair advantage over others.

As a racist person, I have an ethical obligation to shut up, listen, and be ready to repent when there’s an outcry.  I don’t get to offer my two cents.  Not yet.  Not while circumstances remain the same.

Yet, here I am: still writing and speaking, still spewing out a thousand or so words that will be read by dozens, if not hundreds, of people in the next few days.  I still have this urge to say my piece in public when I should be listening.  Why is that?  Because I’m racist.


Ms. Rosa Parks with Rev. Dr. King in the background. Image is in the public domain.


Click here to listen to a recording of this sermon at fpcboonville.org

When I was in seventh grade, I used to get picked on a lot.  And I mean a lot.  It was a really hard time for me.  In fact, things eventually got so bad that the Vice Principal of my school recommended that I take Karate lessons for self-defense.  So I did just that.  And it went really well.  It was fun, I was active, and I really liked my teacher: Shihan Jessie Bowen.  Shihan Bowen was a 5th degree black belt and the founder of our school.  There was even a picture on the wall of him next to the kung-fu movie star Chuck Norris.

I, on the other hand, was an awkward twelve-year-old who was barely good enough for a beginner-level sparring class.  So, you can imagine how much trepidation I felt that night at the end of class when Shihan Bowen ordered me to stand up and fight him one-on-one in front of the rest of the class.

It was an epic five-point sparring match.  Shihan Bowen and I matched each other blow for blow with everyone watching.  In the end, I managed to land the final blow for my fifth point.  I couldn’t believe it: I had beaten Shihan Bowen, the Grand Master and the founder of the school, by one point.  For the first time in my life, I felt powerful.  That’s an amazing feeling for a lanky seventh grader who was used to getting beat up and pushed around.  I discovered pride and strength within myself.

Now, I can’t say that this one event solved all my problems at school or in my neighborhood, but I do believe that something of that experienced must have stayed with me because it wasn’t until almost fifteen years after the fact that I did the math in my head: Shihan Bowen was a 35-year-old Grand Master; I was a 12-year-old beginner.  It took me that long to realize one obvious fact: he let me win.

By the time I realized it, of course, I was a grown man.  I had long since grown out of my awkward middle school phase, but I’m grateful for what he did that night because he let me taste empowerment for the first time in my life.  For once, I was a victor, not a victim.  Something I did made an impact on the world around me.

This theme of empowerment is an important one, so we’re going to spend some time with it today.  It factors rather highly in our reading this morning from the gospel according to Luke.

The story begins with Jesus sending a group of his followers out on a mission to heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the kingdom of God.  It’s not the first time he’s done something like this.  In fact, it’s the second.  Just a chapter earlier in Luke’s gospel, Jesus sent another group of disciples out with an identical mission: heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the kingdom of God.  The first time he did it, Jesus sent 12 disciples out.  The second time, he sent 70.

Why do you think that is?  Is it just a random number?  Was that just the number of people who happened to be hanging around that day?  Well, no.  It’s not random.  Numbers had great symbolic significance for people in the ancient world.  Whenever two things or events have the same number in the Bible, you can bet that they’re connected somehow.

Let’s take the number 12, for example.  12 is the number of disciples Jesus had.  12 is also the number of tribes in the original nation of Israel.  Are these ideas connected?  You bet they are.  By sending out 12 disciples, Jesus was saying that his mission was not just for himself alone, but for the whole nation of Israel.  All of God’s chosen people had a part to play in what was happening through Jesus.

What about 70?  This one’s a little bit trickier.  It’s not so obvious to us modern American readers, so I’ll help you out by unpacking it a little.  70 is the number of the nations of the world named in the first part of the book of Genesis.  Genesis, the first book of the Bible, tells the story of the creation of the world and the beginning of all peoples, cultures, and nations.  And the final number of nations listed in Genesis 10 is 70.  So, when Jesus sends out 70 of his followers to heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the kingdom of God, he’s taking his mission even one step further as if to say, “Hey y’all, what you see going on here isn’t just about me, it’s about our whole nation; in fact, it’s not even just about our whole nation, it’s about every nation.  The amazing things you see God doing in me and through me is meant to be shared with the whole world… everybody.”  That’s the symbolic significance of Jesus sending out the 70 disciples on a mission.

Now, let’s take a look at what that mission was.  What is it that God is doing in and through Jesus, the nation of Israel, and ultimately the whole world?  Well, we’ve heard about it already: heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the kingdom of God.  This is what Jesus and his followers are all about.  But what does that mean for us?  Should we all become faith healers, exorcists, or televangelists?  Well, probably not.  In fact, I would advise against it.

When modern Christians talk about “proclaiming the kingdom of God,” they usually mean “preaching the gospel,” and it usually sounds something like this:

“You’re a real bad sinner but God loves you anyway.  So, you should accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, become a Christian, and go to church so that your soul can go to heaven when you die.”

That’s what modern, American Christians usually mean when they talk about preaching the gospel or proclaiming the kingdom of God.  But is that what Jesus was talking about in this passage?  Is there any talk in this passage about becoming a Christian or going to heaven when you die?  No, there isn’t.

Let me say something that might surprise you: Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God has nothing to do with religion or the afterlife.  What is it then?  Well, let’s look at it. 

What is a kingdom on the most basic, fundamental level?  It’s the place where a king or queen has authority and is in charge.  A kingdom is a king’s territory. 

Based on that definition then, what is the kingdom of God?  It’s the place where God is in charge.

What does this mean?  Whenever we allow peace, justice, and love to reign in our hearts, that’s the kingdom of God.  Wherever groups of people organize themselves into communities to care for those who suffer, seek justice for the oppressed, and embody Christ-like compassion in their lives, that’s the kingdom of God.

When Jesus told his followers to go out and proclaim the kingdom of God, he was telling them to plant a flag in the ground.  He was declaring war on the way things are.  He was saying, in effect, “Hey y’all, there’s a revolution going on and we are the insurgents.”  It’s not a battle we can fight with death-dealing weaponry, but with tools that build life.  That’s why healing the sick and casting out demons were so important to Jesus: he was announcing a reversal of the cosmic powers that kept the children of God under the yoke of oppression.  The forces of sin and evil were doomed to failure.  That’s why he said, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.”  I’ll say it again: There’s a revolution going on and we are the insurgents.

There are all kinds of examples of the kingdom of God breaking through into this world.  I could talk about the falling of the Berlin Wall or the end of Apartheid in South Africa.  But the example that stands out most in my mind this week is that of a middle-aged seamstress and a young pastor (age 26) who organized an entire group of people to right a wrong in their community through the power of nonviolent direct action.  The seamstress (Rosa Parks) and the pastor (Martin Luther King, Jr.) organized the Montgomery bus Boycott of 1955.  For entire year, the African American population of Montgomery, Alabama walked to work instead of riding the bus.  Their voices were heard and they paved the way for the beginning of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. 

Their movement was one moment among many that marks the breaking through of the kingdom of God into this world.  Toward the end of the protest, someone asked one elderly woman whether she was tired out from a year of walking at her age.  She famously replied, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.” 

That, my friends, is the proclamation of the kingdom of God through the empowerment of (all) the people of God.  It is the dethroning of the powers of sin in this world, the casting out of demons, and the healing of our sick society.  It is the eternal revolution of Jesus and we (all of us) are the insurgents.

The end-result of this revolution is not mere political reform but spiritual transformation as the kingdom of God is established “on earth as it is in heaven.”  After describing the revolution to his followers, Jesus told them, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

Through this empowerment, we the followers of Jesus wake up to who we really are.  All of us are invited recover our dignity as beloved children of God and temples of the Holy Spirit.  Each of us bears the image and likeness of God.  As Jesus said, our names are written in heaven.

Brothers and sisters, this is the truth I invite you to discover and recover as you go out into the world this week.  You may not be called upon to march in the Montgomery Bus Boycott or tear down the Berlin Wall, but there is still plenty of sin and injustice left in this old world.  Go out with your mind’s eye and the ears of your heart open to where it is that the Spirit of Jesus is calling you and empowering you to plant a flag as an insurgent in heaven’s revolution.  Heal the sick, cast out demons, proclaim the kingdom of God, and rejoice that your name is written in heaven.

Be blessed and be a blessing.