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"Disciples of Hope" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - February 10, 2019

posted Feb 11, 2019, 12:32 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

Years ago, one of my friends bought his first house, a small place in the suburbs, the perfect place for him and his wife to raise the child she would soon give birth to.  The house seemed a steal to them, but others would note the rundown character, the result of long neglect by the cankerous previous owner. They knew his reputation – the suburban sidewalk didn’t run down his side of the street because he had made such a ruckus in the New England town meetings, libertarian rants about stopping government encroachment on his land.  With the curmudgeon gone, neighbors welcomed my friends with great excitement, a burden lifted on the street.

Soon my friend started fixing up the house.  The baby’s room had very dated wallpaper, eighties floral, probably even tacky then but especially so now.  So dated, my friend started stripping it all off; the laborious task of peeling and scraping decades old paper.  He worked close to the wall, putty knife slowly revealing the plaster underneath. Which meant he didn’t notice the pattern painted on the wall, until his wife came in with an exclamation.  As he stepped back, he saw it too, a gigantic swastika. The old man was more than a curmudgeon.

Recently I found myself thinking about my friend’s experience with his first house: that shock, that surprise, that angst – “where are we bringing up our baby?”  I think of it because we do similar work in the church. Not literally peeling back wallpaper, but through our anti-racism work, we peel back all the ways our society tried to paper over hatred, oppression, and inequity.  It can be hard to see what gets revealed; we gasp as floral stories dissolve to reveal something ugly hidden underneath.

My friend thought preparing the baby’s room would be a long Saturday project; it became more, as he scrapped plaster of a hateful symbol and repaired it.  Dust and grit and sweat, all part of healing the house. He worked so that his child could grow up in a different kind of space. And I know the work for racial equity can be demanding and hard – dust, grit, sweat, and more – but we do it so that our children and grandchildren grow up in a better America.  And so, we peel back all that papers over racism in our society - and our own hearts; revealing what had remained hidden; exposing, challenging, healing.


My friend worked to prepare a room for his baby as an act of hope.  Like all expecting parents, hope caused him to work and sweat late into the night.  Hope fueled all his efforts; hope for a child he did not yet know. In just the same way - and I want to make this clear - in just the same way we work for racial equity, emotional sweat and struggle, as an act of hope, a faith in the future, an expectation of the beloved community to come.  In my bones I know: the most hopeful people in America are those working for racial equity.


The character of this hope can be seen in the story of Jesus and his earliest disciples, for they too joined a movement for justice, a hope in beloved community.  We read this story nearly every year and I think you know the broad outlines: a crowd gathered to hear Jesus preach; he taught them from a boat moored close to shore; afterwards he asked the boat captain, Peter, to set out again, to fish in the heat of day; Peter, having failed in his early morning run, demurred; “why try again;” and yet he did, and hauled in so many fish that the net nearly broke; Peter gave up his career and became a disciple that moment.


Now, with this familiar story, I want to call attention to two particular moments.  First, the failure of Peter before he became a disciple. He’d spent the early morning trying to catch fish.  He depended on a catch. And yet, he failed. In the face of his failure, Jesus’ proposal seemed ridiculous. “Why try again?”  And yet Peter didn’t stop at failure. That’s part of hope.


It makes me wonder what would have happened if Jesus had stepped into the boat of a successful fisherman, one intent on counting his fish.  Would a successful person have gone out again? No. When it comes to hope, desperate failure often shapes our most abiding hopes.


Our commitment to racial equity doesn’t come because of success, doesn’t come because America achieved some state of racial harmony.  No, we come to this work from an urgency born of disappointment, a discipleship shaped by shock. We hope in things not seen.


I know for me the turning point in my work for racial equity came when Tamir Rice died in Cleveland.  Before, I knew America must work on issues of racism. I knew it mattered. I knew we had work to do. But then Tamir Rice died.  A boy, twelve years old, about the same age as my kids, shot dead in a park because he played with a toy gun. Someone called the cops on Tamir and they arrived, firing on him even before he could respond to their words; two seconds between cops arriving and Tamir dying.  That injustice broke a part of my heart. That failure of our nation moved me from thinking anti-racism work important to making anti-racism central to what it means for me to be a Christian.


I find hope in this discipleship.  W.E.B. DuBois expressed this hope when he wrote back in 1920 - after a World War that saw African-American soldiers lynched when they returned from defending Europe.  Despite all that broke his heart, he hoped; writing, “I stare into the night that looms beneath the cloud-swept stars. Eastward and westward storms are breaking - great, ugly whirlwinds of hatred and blood and cruelty.  I will not believe them inevitable. I will not believe that all that was must be, that all the shameful drama of the past must be done again today before the sunlight sweeps the silver seas.” That’s discipleship: to know the worst of the storms, and still to hope.


Second, Peter’s reaction to his first flush of success with Jesus intrigues me.  We often overlook it. When Peter hauled in the catch of a lifetime, he fell down before Jesus.  And what did he say? “Get away from me, Lord.” Not, “thank you Jesus.” Not, “Alleluia.” But, “get away from me.”  Peter feared where Jesus would lead him, feared where miraculous hope might take him.


And I understand that fear.  For Jesus invited Peter to go into an uncertain future, a future without a roadmap, a future with no guarantees.  Peter knew how to set his lines and haul in fish. But fish for women and men? What did that mean?


Hope takes us into a future we do not yet know.  DuBois, writing a hundred years ago, spoke of the “religion of whiteness.”  He meant by that the spiritual fervor undergirding and justifying white supremacy.  But also, and unmistakably, he meant it as a critique of white churches. Our work for racial equity seeks to untangle the church from the religion of whiteness.  What will we look like after whiteness? Who will we be if not privileged by whiteness? Like Peter, we begin our discipleship, join the movement for racial equity, not sure where this hope will take us.  We hope in a future we have not seen.


We may not know the future, but we can measure the cost of not following the hope for racial equity.  DuBois ended an essay on “the Souls of White Folks” with an image of the white soul as Prometheus, the Greek god who stole fire from heaven and brought it to humanity.  As punishment, the other gods bound Prometheus to a rock where an eagle ate his liver by day; each night it grew back to be consumed again the next day, an unending terror.  Evoking this Greek myth, DuBois said, “why will this Soul of White Folk — this modern Prometheus — hang bound by his own binding, tethered by a fable of the past? I hear his mighty cry reverberating through the world, 'I am white!' Well and good, O Prometheus, divine thief! Is not the world wide enough for two colors, for many little shinings of the sun? Why, then, devour your own vitals if I answer even as proudly, 'I am black!'”


A hundred years later, we see how white supremacy makes people devour their own vitals.  We saw it this week in Virginia, where Democratic Governor Northam devoured any remaining credibility in his efforts to not admit wrong and to not take seriously the pain, experience, and counsel of African-Americans.  First, he said the graduate school yearbook picture on his page of a man in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan outfit was him, but we shouldn’t think him racist. Then, he backtracked - or should I say moonwalked - that claim; saying he got confused and that he wore blackface on another occasion (as if that made it okay).  As for why the photo was on his page or why an undergraduate yearbook included a racialized nickname for him, he claimed no knowledge. Instead he tried to wallpaper over his symbols of racism; “I want Virginians to remember all I’ve done since.”


So, Governor Northam clings to power, refusing to resign.  He says, “I will not be forced from office.” But I hear the real message, “I will not be ashamed.”  And so, like DuBois’ Prometheus, Governor Northam devours his own vital credibility, gripping ever more tightly to the power of his office while losing all touch with any moral leadership; elected by the hopes of black Virginians with a promise to face the state’s Confederate legacy, he now refuses to grapple seriously or even consistently with his own past.


If Governor Northam reminds us of the moral peril of forsaking the work of racial equity, the children of other Southern white political families speak to the promise of what following hope can mean.


Lauren Stennis grew up in Mississippi, the granddaughter of a politician committed to a white supremacist agenda.  And there in Mississippi, alone among American states, still flies a version of the Conference battle flag, the infamous Southern Cross.  Ashamed of that hateful symbol, and mindful of her own family history, Stennis designed a new flag, one freed from the symbol of white supremacy.


The new flag prominently features a blue star on a field of white, surrounded by 19 other stars and side panels of red.  When Mississippi first seceded from the Union, the state used a “Bonnie Blue Flag” of a white star on a blue field. Stennis intentionally inverted that symbol; as she explains, “because I don’t celebrate that dark moment in our history, but it has to be acknowledged.”


The daughter of Alabama Governor George Wallace also squarely faced her family’s history.  Governor Wallace famously stood on the steps of the University of Alabama to personally keep out African-American students.  Now his daughter works for racial equity. “It can be hard to take all this on,” she recently said.  “I did it because I wanted my children to have a different legacy than the one that was left to me.”


These two women - raised in the political center of white supremacy - now work for racial equity, following hope into the future.  Just as my friend sweated into the night preparing a room for his baby - peeling back and revealing and then removing a symbol of hatred - these women do the hard work of facing square on the legacy of white supremacy that shaped their lives.  Can we be like them? Disciples of Jesus wanting our children to have a different legacy than the one left to us?


Les Ingram, whose death we mourned last month, came to a Council meeting a few nights before he passed away.  He’d just spent the night watching his new granddaughter, Promise. Watching the baby exhausted him; and I realize now that some of the exhaustion surely was a sign of his heart trouble.  But something else troubled him too. That evening he reflected on how much work remained to be done in America. What kind of world would Promise grow up in?


On this Racial Equity Sunday, I want us to rededicate ourselves to this work, so that black grandfathers like Les don’t think they work alone; together we can make the world for Promise a beloved community; and make real the promise of beloved community for all our children and grandchildren.  This is the discipleship of hope, hope in a world we haven’t seen yet, hope in an uncertain future, hope that we can leave a different legacy than the one left to us.


May this hope fill your hearts, give you courage in the struggle for justice, and sustain you always.  Alleluia and Amen.



Sources:

  • DuBois, W.E.B., “The Souls of White Folk.”

  • Ford, Matt, “Ralph Northam’s Trumpian Lack of Shame,” The New Republic, Feb. 4, 2019.

  • Hendrix, Steve, “A new Mississippi flag has a surprising champion: A segregationist’s grandchild,” Washington Post, Jan. 20, 2019.

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