June 21, 2020
3rdSunday of Pentecost
Christ Church Gardiner
Today is a day set aside to celebrate fathers. Six weeks ago, we celebrated mothers. A lot has happened in those six weeks. When I preached on Mother’s Day, I spoke about Wanda Cooper-Jones who instead of celebrating motherhood, was grieving the murder of her son, Ahmaud Arbery, who had been shot while jogging. Two weeks later, we watched in shock as another black man’s murder was captured on video—this time his neck held down under the knee of a police officer who ignored his pleas that he could not breathe and his calls for his mother. And despite the summer’s heat and fears of the pandemic, people have taken to the streets in protest in our nation’s cities and even in small towns like the one where I was born, in western Kentucky. Enough is enough they are saying. We need change now.
On this Father’s Day, instead of preaching about race and justice in our country, I wish I could just tell funny stories about my dad. There are plenty, and my older brother who is the true storyteller of the family, could captivate you for hours with those stories.
But I think my dad would understand, and I hope that you do, too, the importance of staying focused on the crisis our country finds itself in.
Because our country needs more from the church these days than a few weeks of acknowledgement that we have a race problem in our country and a handful of well-meaning prayers. There’s more work to be done.
But there is one thing that I learned from my dad that I think is relevant for the national discussion that we are having about race. And that is: the importance of knowing our history. Really knowing our history. Knowing the truth: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Because we can’t move toward a better future if we don’t even know where we have been.
My dad is an avid reader of history books, and he always has been. And he retains so many more details than I ever can. When I was younger, I always lost to him when we played trivial pursuit, even after earning two expensive college degrees, I would still lose to him at trivia.
One of those things that we are learning as we explore our country’s history of race relations, is that even history has a bias. It tends to be written by the victors, and it can be manipulated to tell a certain story. Sometimes all manipulation requires is leaving things out. And too often, it’s the significant, but inconvenient, details that are left out.
What is written in those history books matters. They continue to educate us and they educate our youth—the future citizens who will vote, hold elected positions, and make policy for the future.
This past Friday was Juneteenth, the commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States. Juneteenth celebrates June 19, 1865the day that enslaved African Americans in Texas were informed that they were free. Thoseof you who remember your history, but never learned about Juneteenth in school, as I did not, may find this date confusing. Didn’t the Emancipation Proclamation declare all slaves free in 1863? As it turns out, while Lincoln may have declared slaves free in 1863, there were few Union troops in Texas to enforce it… so African-Americans in Texas and other remote areas of the republic remained enslaved for two more years. The end of slavery in our country was a complicated historical event that most of us barely understand – then or now.
Another important event in our history that is rarely taught is the Tulsa Race Massacre. In 1921, a young man of color was falsely accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. He was taken to jail and the events that followed led to an angry, armed white mob looting and burning a predominantly black neighborhood in Tulsa, setting fire to and destroying a thousand black homes and businesses and killing between 100 and 300 African Americans. The exact numbers are hard to know because the story was hidden, and it was not until 1991, that a rigorous investigation into the event documented what had actually occurred. (https://www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/tulsa-race-massacre#section_3)
Right here in Maine, we have our own shameful history of Malaga Island where in 1912 the community of mixed races that inhabited the island were forcibly removed because of fear, racism, and greed. The neighbors of Malaga saw the island as defiling the pristine, namely white, coastline of Maine. Even the gravestones and the bodies in the cemetery were removed so that there would be no trace that the community had ever existed. (https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-dark-secrets-of-this-nowempty-island-in-maine)
Learning and telling these stories is an act of truth-telling—a commitment to learning even the disturbing events of our history so that those events will not be repeated in the future.
There is something sacred about telling the truth. Some might even call it “confessing.” Since the earliest days of the church, the Confession has been an integral part of our worship. We confess our sins those things we’ve done and even those things we’ve left undone. After the worship leader says the words, “Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor, the rubric in the Prayer Book says—silence may be kept. That silence is meant for you and me to take a moment to name to God our personal sins, before we repent in a collective way. This is a time when we are invited to tell God the truth about ourselves: the good, the bad and the ugly. Because repentance and change always begin with truth-telling.
Just think about it like this. Nobody has ever gotten sober without first admitting that they have a drinking problem.
We cannot hope to create a more equitable and just society, if we do not first tell the truth about our past and our present. And then demand a better future.
Taking a stand against racial injustice is perhaps one of the greatest challenges of the church right now. In the Episcopal Church, we may have elected a black man to be our Presiding Bishop, but that does not mean that we don’t have our own ugly history of racism that needs to be brought to light.
I know we are all frustrated that we still aren’t gathering in our church building. But maybe we should think of this time as an opportunity to recognize that being the church is much more about what we do in the worldthan where and how we worship. We need to challenge ourselves to be the church that is needed in this particular time and place in history. A church that tells the truth about the past and works for a better future.
In Matthew’s Gospel this morning, Jesus warned his disciples, the future Church, that their work would be difficult and divisive. We, too, must be prepared for the path toward progress and change to be difficult, messy, long, and divisive.
But with God’s wisdom and help, we can create something better for the future. The lives of millions of people depend on us doing better. So let’s get to work being the church that Jesus calls us to be. Amen.