Race and our humanity– not even close

I am not searching for myself.  I certainly will not find her in a crayon box.  I did not wait my entire life to discover that I am a color.  The creation narrative recorded in Genesis is much more meaningful, spiritual and tells me that God breathed into the first human being and he became a living soul (Genesis 2.7; First Corinthians 15.45, emphasis added).  Besides that, the gospel says Jesus came to save sinners, to save souls– not my skin.

So, if you and I are still talking about our skin and its social coloring, then we have quite literally only scratched at the surface of what it means to be a human being.  Johannes Baptist Metz is a great teacher of human being.  He writes of the work of becoming one in Poverty of Spirit.  Metz says,

“Becoming a human being involves more than conception and birth.  It is a mandate and a mission, a command and a decision.  We each have an open- ended relationship to ourselves.  We do not possess our being unchallenged; we cannot take our being for granted as God does.  … Being is entrusted to us as a summons, which we are each to accept and consciously acknowledge.”

Consequently, when we talk about our humanity racially, I wonder what we are really talking about.  Do we even know what we are saying?  Not fully understanding the real task as outlined by Metz, we instead engage in this busy work of the flesh.  It comes to nothing and in the end, we will not be graded on our skin.

The words of race are useless, empty, adding nothing to our humanity.  It is not the test for true humanity, the answer to our lingering questions on identity or the way to becoming human.  Instead,  we must look to Christ’s teachings, his journey and hands for that.  Hands on a cross, we have to pick up our own and deny ourself in order to follow him(Matthew 16.24-26).   Talking about race does not even get us remotely close to him or our selves.

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Howard Thurman’s When the Song of the Angels is Stilled

When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flocks,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among the people,

To make music in the heart.

First and foremost

It’s about priorities, about who has the right to take precedence, about what is more important, about the most pressing matter.  It’s about who will hold our attention and what will hold our tongues.  It’s about who will hold us back and what we will hold back no longer.  It’s about speaking up, giving voice to the lofty purposes.  It’s about stepping up, which will require us to a take a step back to see what is required.

W.E.B. DuBois prayed,

Give us the grace, O God, to dare to do the deed which we well know cries to be done.  Let us not hesitate because of ease, or the words of men’s mouths, or our own lives.  Mighty causes are calling us—the freeing of women, the training of children, the putting down of hate and murder and poverty—all these and more.  But they call with voices that mean work and sacrifice and death. …”[I]

To be sure, it’s about life and death, what will live on or through us and what we will eulogize, who we will let go of and what we will hold on to.  It’s about no longer feeling our way through life, hitting a brick wall or being backed into a corner.  Instead, it’s about turning the corner.  It’s about moving on so that purpose can move over, so that the Spirit can scoot closer.

It’s about open and closed doors.  It’s about the ones we walk through and the ones that are slammed in our faces.  It’s about the God who whispers through the cracks and who has a knack for tight spaces, who wiggles into a womb just to make room for us.  It’s about taking up space and claiming our rightful place in life, about trying and trying and trying again.  It’s about resilience and perseverance, strength and the endurance to keep going.  One foot in front of the other, it’s about first and last steps, going in circles and coming full circle.

It’s about time.  Time’s up for excuses, for sentences that include should of, would of and could of.  It’s about getting it done and getting over it, about cutting our losses and cutting the cord.

It’s about coming home to ourselves, about stopping the search to find ourselves, about no longer looking for love in the wrong faces but seeing love in the mirror.  This year is not like any other night and yet it is exactly the same as the one before.  Because it is another opportunity to change, to change course and to do a new thing, to break with tradition, to break generational curses, to be freed of the snares of sin, to not keep doing the same thing over and over again.

It’s about me and you and us and them.  It’s about everything we have every dreamed of and the nightmares we hope to never see again.  It’s about living with our eyes wide open and being fully aware, fully present, fully invested in this moment in time.

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[i] W.E.B Du Bois, Prayers for Dark People, (Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1980), 21.

Say it again

I have ordered nearly forty new books for the new year.  Half are on race and the other half focus on the spiritual life and Christian community.  Along with you, they are my conversation partners.  I feel that no one wants to talk about race as much as I do, at least not in the way that I do.  I want to talk us out of it.  I want to talk about race until it is discredited, waved off as a distraction from our true human being, until race is stereotyped as a lazy interpretation of people groups, a liar, not to be trusted with our fellowship.

And I want to say it again and again, year after year and in every ear.

William Willimon has mine tonight.  He is saying everything that I need to hear in his book Who Lynched Willie Earle? Preaching to Confront Racism.  Head nodding, I am in agreement with him and in his Amen corner.  I turn another page because I need him to say more, to say something different and to repeat the truth again:

“Race is a socially constructed, psychologically rooted attempt to name humanity through human designations.  Christians defiantly believe that our identity and our human significance are bestowed upon us not by our culture, family, or skin color but rather given us in baptism.”

We know this to be true but it bears repeating so I will say it again tonight and for the rest of my life.  Baptized with Jesus Christ, his gospel is raceless.

The First Noel

This is not a tradition.  We are not handing down his manger, recycling hay.  This is not something to be passed around like an old fur or grandma’s pearls.  While a part of history, it is also part mystery.  God in flesh, this is not what we would expect.

This is not a habit to be categorized as good or bad, expendable or necessary.  This is not a custom of time passed that we must simply become accustomed to.  This is more than a festival or a celebration.  We are not merely hanging up and taking down decorations.

This is not the stuff of gossip.  This is not a rumor for it comes from God’s lips to our ears.  From tormented priests, raging prophets to the crisp pages we hold now, this is a message unlike one we’ve ever heard: God is coming in Christ Jesus.  There is a young girl who claims to carry him.  At the time, she is waved off. “Kids these days!”

God doesn’t talk to young people.  No, the work of God is for adults only.  Besides, what is Mary going to do with a baby?  Why would God put the salvation of the world in the arms of a girl?

Because it would be the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.  How long does God have to say it?  A thousand years have passed but Mary is not ready, and neither are we.  “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage.”  But our baby plans are not God’s baby plans.

Nevertheless, she has agreed: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”[i]  It is the servant’s surrender.  Mary empties her will to be filled with God’s own.  It doesn’t matter what she and Joseph talked about.  What matters now is what God has said to her.  This is not up for debate or discussion.

This is his story, the beginning of Christ with us.  We begin with him— not in the year of our birth but in the year of our Lord: “In those days, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered” (2.1.).  We are counted with him.  Following in his footsteps, he starts with Mary’s.  So, we start with Mary.

And hers are weighted down.  Belly heavy, she is on foot and expecting her first child.  They are on the road but not due to the holiday rush or to pick up last minutes gifts.  She and her fiancé Joseph are on their way to his hometown.  Unwed and pregnant, she may be wondering what his family will think of her.  Maybe she and Joseph have practiced ways to avoid awkward conversations.  What will they put on the wedding invitations?

Their families are thinking, “What a mess!”  Mary is shamed for our salvation.  She is looked down upon so that we can look up to God.  She carries Christ and in turn, we don’t have to carry the burden of sin.  Jesus is just like his mother.

Poet John Donne says this of her:

“… Lo, faithful virgin, yields Himself to lie

In prison, in thy womb, and though He there

Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He will wear,

Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try.

Ere by the spheres times was created, thou

Wast in His mind, who is Thy Son and Brother,

Whom thou conceivst, conceived, yea thou art now

Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother; …”

This is not a reboot of an old television show, a remake of a childhood favorite.  This is a declaration, the annunciation: God is with us.

And of course, it is business as usual.  Emperor Augustus is building his Roman Empire, but he is too late. God’s kingdom is already here.  Augustus is expanding roadways and God is offering the path to salvation.  Augustus is making savvy deals and God has shaken hands with Mary.

And Mary may be squeezing the hand of Joseph.  She was feeling some pressure but now it feels more like sharp pains.  She thinks that the baby is coming.  She cannot hold him in.  It’s time.

She has to push.  She doesn’t want to breathe.  She cannot just think about something else.  They have got to stop and find a place for her to deliver.  It may be “the most wonderful time of the year now” but Mary is not feeling so hot in the moment.

Oh, we can sing all we want.  It was not a “silent night.”  Two teenage first- time parents with no birth plan, no doctor, no midwife, no birth plan and no epidural are going door to door, hoping someone will take them in.  Two and one on the away, again and again they are turned away.

“Maybe the neighbor next door or down the road can help you.  We would help you if we could.  We really would like to.We don’t have a spare bedroom or a nursery.  We wish that we could help but now is not a good time.  We just used the last of our rooms for a walk- in closet.  We just extended our master bedroom.  We simply do not have any more room.

We don’t have a room for this type of work.  No, we’ve got ballrooms and great rooms but no delivery room.  We do not have a place for God’s kingdom to come.  Besides, it would make such a mess.  And I know you say that you have a word from the Lord and you are just carrying God’s message but not tonight.  Maybe you could come back some other time.”

But Mary doesn’t have any more time.  There is no more room in her body.  She has carried him for as long and as far as she can.  Walking to Bethlehem only encouraged her labor.  And whether you want him or not, invited or not, here Jesus comes.

God created the earth and we can’t find a square foot to receive the Christ- child.  We crack our door and whisper through it.  We won’t budge an inch.  No vacancies.  No room for God.  This is the story though we dress it up now with lights, ornaments and wreaths.

Mary gives birth in the stable at the inn, in the backyard, in the parking lot of a hotel.  Jesus is not welcomed by doting grandparents but by the smells and sounds of the animals.  God in Christ is tucked away in a manger.  God is not in cahoots with capitalism, not dressed in designer duds, not found at a cocktail party in a gated community.  God in Christ is in the manger.

The holy God is not opulent, not draped in diamonds, robed in fields of grass, flanked by mountains, protected by volcanoes.  The presence of God is not massive, but salvation comes in pounds and ounces.  Deliverance is tied to an umbilical cord.  God is with us in a dependent, naked, vulnerable child.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “God is in the manger.”  God is where we would least expect the divine to be.  God is in the manger, in a place we wouldn’t visit, with a person we wouldn’t expect to carry much at all and teenage and unwed, for whom we don’t care much about.  She’s just a child.  We have shoes older than her.

Still, the Word is made flesh in her.  The Creator- God who has and is the word for every living thing coos.  God holds back, holds the divine tongue and Jesus cries out for her instead.  The God who supplies our needs reaches for Mary.  This is the first noel.

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[i] Luke 1.38, NRSV