Grace and peace to you on this Lord’s day. On our trip to Norway these past couple weeks, there were 34 people plus a guide who led us through the mountains, valleys, and fjords of the southern part of Norway. It was meaningful for me to see the places where my own family members had come from – to stand in the church and on the roadside where generations before me had stood, to smell the air, to feel the weight of the time that had passed. My great-grandparents who left Norway were people I never met but it was important for me to know something about those places they left. It reminds me of something the tour guide said one afternoon. She was talking about how so many come to Norway to learn more about their roots and that is important, because just as a tree dies if it is cut off from its’ roots, something inside us dies as well if we lose touch with where we come from.
Perhaps that is the only way to explain why it was so meaningful to catch a glimpse of the homeplaces of my ancestors. While I may know next to nothing about Johanna and Halvor Haugen and Jonas and Ane Hetland, now I’ve seen places they walked, felt the sunlight on my skin there, touched the baptismal font that held the spirit-filled water that was placed on my great-grandfather’s head the day he was baptized. These people and their lives are strangers to me and yet they are part of me. Our roots matter in complex ways and throughout all our lives we will find various ways to connect to our roots. That is important.
Our roots matter. That is why we take time to acknowledge roots in various ways. We celebrate anniversaries. We take time to mark birthdays. It’s why New Years Eve always has a little bit of a haunting feeling to it – because we think back over all that the last year held and the years before it, too. Where have we been? Where are we going? What is being written on the pages of the stories of our lives? How can we make the next chapter the best it can be?
Our roots as Christian people matter. If it weren’t so we wouldn’t spend time every Sunday recounting the stories from the Bible. We find our history as God’s people and our direction for how to live by studying God’s word.
And our roots as a nation matter. We remember those roots – not just the good stuff so we can pat ourselves on the back – but we remember the bad stuff, too because hopefully it can help us make better choices now. Hopefully. You would think this would be, true, but human beings seem to have short memories about certain things. That’s the only explanation I can think of for why in the news the last weeks we have been hearing about things like white supremacy and neo-Nazi gatherings. If you watched the news at all, you heard about how in Charlottesville, Virginia, a group of White Nationalists chanting, “White Lives Matter” and “We Will Not Be Replaced” met at the same time as there was another group there celebrating peace and diversity – many of our ELCA brothers and sisters were there in the group advocating for peace and diversity. I was told about how they were gathered in a church and singing and praying and the white nationalist group surrounded the church, yelling and bearing their torches and refused to let those in the church come out. Those who were there say it was terrifying and like nothing they had ever experienced before. This was just the beginning of the terror as in the days that followed there was much bloodshed and injury and even the death of one of the peaceful protestors, Heather Heyer, by a white, racist terrorist driving a vehicle through a crowd.
And my first thought when I heard about it was that, well, it was far away from our little church here in MN. However, then I saw an interview with a white supremacist in Fargo – and it is becoming clear that maybe while this is one of those things that feels like an earthquake far away, the tremors of it are much closer than we think.
I have been guilty myself of thinking that racism isn’t actually a thing anymore. I remember saying that. Because I have friends of all races, and you know segregation and all that was a long time ago and we are all supposed to be equal, right? – so why are we even still talking about this?
But then I learned that point of view is a luxury of people who enjoy privilege. Because people who are marginalized don’t ever get that luxury.
I studied for a while at a diverse little seminary in Denver. In my class, there was a variety of faiths represented – one Lutheran, one Presbyterian, a couple Unitarians, a Buddhist, a Baptist, and a United Methodist – we also had a variety of races. The summer seminar was on racism and I was deep in my thinking that this was all kind of “ho-hum” – that racism wasn’t really a thing anymore.
But the professor did an exercise with our class that I will never forget. She asked us to each tell what our first impression of other members of the class would be if we only saw each other on the street or had just briefly met each other. I thought it was so ridiculous and probably a waste of time. I glanced at my watch as the first person who tried this practice, Veronica, a black woman, offered to give her first impression of me. She said she assumed I was wealthy and had always been wealthy, that I probably lived in a nice suburban house, that I liked to shop, that the church I served was probably all white and in a nice part of town. I forget everything she said but I remember feeling a little like I had been punched. Even though I knew this was just an exercise for a class, I was angry that she judged me just based on the color of my skin and what she thought she knew of me – guessed that I was rich and I had never wanted for anything. How dare she think my journey had been one of ease and security when the truth was that my childhood had known its’ share of food stamps and government cheese and wearing the same pair of jeans and shoes every day because that is all I had for school. How dare she think that she really knew me…
And then I got it. I realized the exercise our professor was trying to do with us had worked perfectly – because for the first time I understood the smallest speck of what it felt like to experience racism. That thinking that something can be known about another person just by the color of their skin.
That exercise informed me of my privilege. Most of us probably don’t feel like we are super privileged, and yet most of us have more privilege than we realize. I am a good example – as a middle-aged white woman, I could probably go walking anywhere, linger in any aisle of a store, sit on a park bench for any length of time, and go relatively unnoticed. Few people would stop to question if I am up to something. This would not necessarily be true if I were a black teenager. It’s unfair but it is true – and this kind of thing is called privilege – an advantage someone carries around not because they earned it but because they were born into it. And with privilege comes responsibility, with being followers of Jesus comes responsibility, to stand up for those who do not share in that privilege. Jesus always, always, always was on the side of those who were marginalized – and so we must be as well.
White supremacist gatherings are a cancer, an infection – they need to be called out and cut out, recognized and eradicated as quickly as possible or they can slowly poison the rest of the body. While we might feel far away from racism and all of that in our own thinking and in our own family, or church, or community – we must be on guard and be vocal for the sake of others who still experience it every day. We Lutherans, have a history of wanting to be so nice and not wanting to make waves – but we have to be brave to say, “that is not okay” when we hear the racist joke or remark – because otherwise we contribute to the cancer of racism. It’s like Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “In the end we will not remember the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” Dear God, help us to not be silent when faced with racism.
One of the most chilling things about this news story for me was seeing several of the white nationalist young men wearing crosses around their necks – as they held their torches, as they shouted their hate – they wore crosses. And I thought, “Shame on us.” Shame on us – if we don’t teach our children better than that. To be a Christian is the opposite of hate like that. To be a follower of Jesus Christ is to promote love and peace and all God’s children. Dear God, help us to raise up our children in the church better than that.
And while we need to be vocal to shut down voices of hate, we need to learn to be quiet and listen when those who are oppressed are trying to speak. Everyone needs to be heard. We all need to know our stories matter – to one another and to God. There’s a great example of this in our gospel. A Canaanite woman approaches Jesus. She needs help for her daughter, yet she just doesn’t count as a real person. Nor does her daughter. Jesus’ disciples want Jesus to send her away, and Jesus seems to agree. Jesus refuses to meet her, dismissing her because she is not an Israelite, he says: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel”. She kneels before Jesus, and he calls her a dog. Jesus and his disciples deny this woman’s humanity. It’s a difficult story. It doesn’t paint our Jesus in a pretty light.
The Canaanite woman struggles to be heard. She cries out. That doesn’t work. She kneels, begs. Jesus rejects her. Finally, she says something so clever that Jesus grants her request – she is the only person who wins an argument with Jesus.
But it took Jesus a while to get there – perhaps his humanness was coming out a little more than usual that day. And it may take us a while, too.
But make no mistake – racism is still a thing.
In the twisted, tangled roots of our nation, there is a history of strife between races. Horrible injustices have happened – most at the hands of white people – but there has also been healing – a healing that is slow and was fought for by so many. We’ve seen great strides happen. But now we get to guard the healing that has begun so that it continues. We have a holy and urgent task – to make certain our children and grandchildren grow up knowing that every person – regardless of race or religion or social status or ethnicity or gender has unsurpassed worth in the eyes of God. We say it out loud again and again so that there is no mistaking whose we are – followers of Jesus Christ, a brown-skinned, middle-eastern Jew, who taught us unequivocally that God’s love is for all – and that white supremacy is sin.
In Jesus’ name we pray – Amen.