Preaching about Racism
2009-01-14 by Brett Younger
On the Sunday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, those of us who weren’t in Birmingham in 1956 may not feel like our stories are worth telling, but in order to help parishioners think about the prejudice in their own hearts we need to tell our stories. This story from my childhood isn’t dramatic, but it may exemplify a way to begin a sermon on racism.
The year after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated I was a third grader in Ridgeland, Mississippi. I lived in a segregated world—separate and unequal. Everybody I knew wanted things to stay the way they were. The white people in my hometown didn’t understand what Dr. King preached. We didn’t hear what he heard God say. We didn’t hear God say anything we didn’t want to hear.
I knew that there were African-Americans living nearby, but we went to different schools, stores, post offices, and saddest of all, churches. Then one Friday afternoon, Mr. Williams, our bus driver, told us to sit down and get quiet.
“Starting on Monday,” he shouted, “there will be two black girls riding on our bus.”
Several boys in the back started booing.
Mr. Williams yelled, “Get quiet! I don’t like it either, but there’s nothing we can do about it. None of you will have to sit by them. They’ll sit in this seat right behind me.”
Then he started the bus. The bad kids said that they would call the new girls names and let them know that they didn’t belong on our bus. The good kids said that wasn’t fair and that the best thing to do was say nothing at all. On Monday and on the days that followed, as far as I know, none of the bad kids ever said anything loud enough to be heard, but something no less tragic took place. The first children on the bus each morning and each afternoon sat on the back row. Every day for the rest of the year the bus filled from the back with every white child sitting as far as possible from the two children sitting in the front seat.
It’s embarrassing to confess that years passed before I realized how evil we were. It didn’t occur to me to sit on the second row, say hello or question our actions. As the good white children of good white parents we didn’t think of ourselves as bigots. We just found it easier not to challenge what was expected.Years later I became what my relatives in Mississippi consider a liberal. The liberal white children of the Deep South who left home are proud of the alienation we feel from the most embarrassing parts of our roots. We’re arrogant about our newfound sophistication, but sometimes I wonder what we would hear if we listened for God’s opinion on the subject of our prejudices.
2009-01-13 by David Howell
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The Other Texts for Sunday (and Monday's MLK Remembrance)
2009-01-13 by Brett Younger
Yesterday’s post dealt with the intersection between 1 Samuel 3:1-19 and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The other lectionary texts for Sunday may not have connections that are as obvious, but each speaks to some aspect of Dr. King’s message.
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
The Book of Common Prayer contains an echo of Psalm 139, “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid.” God knows the psalmist’s every movement, word and thought—“You hem me in, behind and before.” The reading raises the question of how worshippers feel about a God who knows us so intimately. God knows the prejudices in our heart.
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Some church members at Corinth evidently were claiming that sexual relations outside of marriage were not immoral. “All things are lawful for me” sounds like a libertine slogan. Paul argues not only that some actions are not helpful, but are by their very nature enslaving. “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit” and deserves better. Each individual we encounter deserves better than we usually recognize.
Andrew and Philip, convinced that Jesus is the Messiah promised in scripture, become the first missionaries. Andrew found Simon. Philip found Nathanael. Nathanael is portrayed as a real person—devout, cautious, and curious, but the author has also made him an ideal disciple, to whom Jesus gives the promise of final glory. God calls us to follow and live for the greater glory.
Our guest preaching blogger this week is
2009-01-12 by David Howell
The Courage to Listen, The Courage to Preach
2009-01-12 by Brett Younger
Preachers who follow the Christian year religiously face an interesting decision on the Sunday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Should we stick precisely with the lectionary texts or fudge just enough to lean toward the hopes and dreams of Dr. King? Fortunately (providentially?) the Hebrew Bible Lection for Year B makes it possible to preach a central biblical truth that is echoed in Dr. King’s life.
The hard truth is that the prophets Samuel and Martin Luther King, Jr. would have had easier lives had they not listened to God. Samuel grew up in the church, helping Eli with chores around the temple—lighting lamps, sweeping the floor, putting the hymnals back in the pew racks. He did what was expected of him. He didn’t ask questions. He never thought about listening for God. In fact no one was listening for God. The author writes: “The Word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions weren’t frequent” (1 Samuel 3:1). The people still came to worship each week. They sang the songs and prayed the prayers, but they weren’t listening.
So it’s not surprising that when twelve-year-old Samuel hears a voice while sleeping in church—he was neither the first nor the last to sleep in church—he assumes it’s Eli. Who else could it be? Three times he’s awakened by someone calling his name. Three times he goes to Eli and asks what he wants. After the third time Eli wonders if, although God hasn’t been heard from in those parts for some time, perhaps Samuel is hearing God’s voice. He tells Samuel that if he hears the voice again he should answer, “God, I’m listening.” God speaks and gives Samuel disturbing news that Samuel doesn’t want to repeat. After he hears God’s voice, Samuel’s life is never the same. It’s harder.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s father, grandfather, great-grandfather, brother and uncle were all preachers. Martin grew up in the church, but he wrote, “It was a kind of inherited religion and I had never felt an experience of God in the way that you must if you’re going to walk the lonely paths of life.”
When he became the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he still hadn’t had a firsthand experience of God. But then Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus and Martin found himself in the middle of a boycott. Although he had only been in Montgomery a year and he was only twenty-seven years old, he quickly became a leader of the movement. It wasn’t long before his family started getting threatening phone calls. He wondered if he could take it. He wanted out. Then one night, around midnight, another threatening call came: “We’re tired of you and if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.”
Dr. King described what happened next: “I prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night. And it seemed to me in that moment that I could hear a voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’ I heard the voice of Jesus saying to fight on.”
This Sunday is a great opportunity to preach about the danger of listening to God. Ask with your congregation, “What would we hear if we listened for God’s voice?” What might God tell us to do: to be honest about the prejudices that lie so deep within us that we don’t admit them even to ourselves; to repent not only of whatever hatred we feel, but also whatever apathy we hide; to let worship penetrate our hearts enough for us to say, “Speak God, for I’m listening”; to realize that if racism seems like someone else’s problem, then we are part of the problem; to stop waiting for others to take the first step and step across the lines ourselves; to speak with kindness and courage when it would be easier to say nothing; to do more than vote right, to work for economic justice for all; to do more than tolerate our differences, to honor and celebrate them; to be impatient with inequality, impatient with anything less than freedom and justice.
If we listen for God, both the preacher and the congregation will hear a dangerous voice telling us to do what’s right.
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