A few weeks ago our church kicked off a new Mission and Justice focus about Sacred Conversations on Race. Our first Sunday with this new theme was Epiphany Sunday. This sermon, preached at Hope UCC on January 10, 2016 attempted to use the story of the Three Wise Men as a guide for our upcoming conversations:
Today we celebrate the Epiphany, the story of the Wise Men, or Three Kings, who visit Jesus as a child and bring him gifts. They are led by a star to Jesus. They travel “from the East”. They come on a mission and are seeking a King.
Today we also are marking the beginning of a month long series we are calling “Be the Church” in which we will seek in worship, in large and small groups, as part of Expedition Hope, and in our social media footprint, to have “a sacred conversation on race”. Now you may hear that phrase and react, in a variety of ways, to the word “race”. Whether you are eager to have this conversation or not or whether you think it is needed or not, given our current social and political climate chances are it’s the word “race” that may stand out to you in that sentence.
One of the dictionary definitions of the word “epiphany” is a sudden, intuitive perception of, or insight into, the reality or essential meaning of something. Today, I want you to walk out of this church having experienced epiphany, having experienced an epiphany that I think is essential to our learning to “be the church” in this next month. And that is, that in the phrase “sacred conversations on race” the word that should stand out to us first and foremost is actually the first word, “sacred”. We are about to start sacred conversations on race. We are embarking on a journey together that is a journey of faith, a journey led by God about God’s people. A journey through holy ground. We should feel compelled this next month several times to take off our shoes, for the ground we will trod is holy ground. It is sacred.
We approach this issue as a community of Jesus followers, which makes the lens through which we see and discuss and act on issues of race and inclusion and diversity and equality and justice, different. We come to this issue not because we are trying to be trendy, though certainly it is an issue of our time, and not even because it is a good thing to do, or because we are good liberals or progressives. Those are fine motivations and can produce useful lenses and approaches, but that’s not why we are doing it here at Hope.
This is a sacred issue. We come to this issue because we fundamentally believe that all people, ALL PEOPLE, are made in the image of God. In our church covenant we proclaim a laundry list of who is welcome here – regardless of age, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, and so on. We covenant together, we promise to each other and to God, to make this welcome real. We come to this issue because Paul tells us that in Jesus Christ there are no longer categories of who is in and who is out. No longer divisions of male and female, free and slave. We are all equal and beloved in God’s sight.
Jesus came to save each and every one of us. We come to this issue with an awareness that in this time and place humanity still doesn’t get it. And so, much like Jesus did in his time in naming the groups that God favored because the rest of the world did not – Blessed are the peacemakers, Blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn. With an awareness that Jesus took time to prioritize the laying on of hands not by favoring the rich and powerful and usually first in line, but going out of his way to find and welcome the least and lost, the sick, the children. Those society said did not matter. And so it is not a political issue to claim that Black Lives Matter, or that brown lives have value. It is a sacred issue. God already knows ALL lives have value. The issue is, humanity often forgets what God has already proclaimed. Our job in this conversation, in this sacred conversation on race, is to remember.
Our best chance of making sure this conversation stays on holy ground and stays grounded in God’s love, is to center it in scripture and spiritual practice. In scripture we can find our justifications on why this issue matters and how we should respond with justice and love. We will not let others co-opt our sacred stories to justify discrimination. The only way to do that is to claim it as your own and know its power. In spiritual practice, in prayer, gratitude, abundant love and kindness, discernment, and speaking out for justice, we proclaim that we live out what we say we believe. Our practice can re-shape us over time to allow us to think and see and act more like God, and less out of fear or conditioning or privilege. This is a sacred conversation on race and we it will be successful if we center it in scripture and practice it as part of our daily spiritual disciplines.
And so I want to circle us back to Epiphany, to the story of these Wise Men who are seeking the King of the Jews. For this is one of our sacred stories that can give us insight and inspiration about how to have this conversation in the coming weeks. I am going to lift up four different aspects of this story we will want to hold on to as we seek to live into this next month, four different ways that the Wise Ones can be role models for us.
First, the Wise Men practiced discernment and actively went where God led them. They found themselves led by God on a completely unanticipated journey. They had no notion of where they were going, or how long it would take to get there yet they went anyway. In order to guide themselves they spent time discerning by consulting astrological signs and, upon getting to Jerusalem, would find themselves being led by biblical prophecy. We say they followed a star, but we might just as easily say they followed, as best they could, the Still Speaking God who through stars and prophets and later dreams, was constantly whispering to them.
In this journey we begin today it is crucial for us to, like the Wise Men, be led by and listening for, the Still Speaking God. We must spend time in discernment, to spend time with scripture, to spend time in prayer with the ideas, and truths, and revelations we will encounter. We must find “our star”, the equivalent of what led the Wise Men, and follow it, though the road be long and we may not be sure where we are going or where we will end up. If we commit to following our star, to listening for God whispering to us, telling us the way to go, then we too will find the Christ Child and experience the joy and love of the Kingdom of God.
Secondly, we must be aware that following the star can be a dangerous business and be prepared to have shadowy corners and painful truths illuminated by the overwhelming light of God. Make no mistake, for people in Jesus’ time travel was dangerous, especially long distance travel. And let’s not forget these Wise Men were carrying fairly expensive gifts to present to the new king they hoped to find. One does not carry around gold and expect easy passage anywhere. For the Wise Men the study of their star led them to Jerusalem first. But Jerusalem had ugly corners. Jerusalem held the promise of oppression and death, Roman occupation, a leader, Herod, who turned easily against his own people. Let us not forget the epilogue to this story. When the Wise Men don’t return to Herod with news, Herod orders all children in Bethlehem under 2 years of age be killed, lest one of them actually be the King spoken of in prophecies.
Similarly, this journey we undertake in the next month will not be an easy one. There is a reason the history of race in this country is so constant and so difficult. If we dig down deep, in our country, in the church at large, in this community, in our selves, and we shine a light on those shadowy corners we try to hide from public view, we will find all sorts of ugly mess. We will find ideas and attitudes, beliefs and practices, pain and anger that scare us, that disgust us, that though we don’t like them seem impossible to root out, and more. But we must not shy away. A wound that festers with infection, even if doesn’t look that infected at first glance, must be cleaned out before true healing can occur. Our racial and ethnic and religious divides are infected wounds. We must be brave in order to heal the system and ourselves. Like the Wise Men we must commit to following our star, even when it is dangerous and difficult to do so.
Third, the Wise Men were willing to listen and learn. They went to Jerusalem expecting a king and were told instead, “Oh you got it wrong, you still have to get on the road to Bethlehem in order to find what you are looking for”. They could have said, “Forget this. We don’t hold with your prophecies. We are over this trip. We cannot even. We are not going to some insignificant town. Done.” But they didn’t. They listened, even though I am sure, they did not want to hear the message to get back on the camels and go that much further.
We are looking to hold sacred conversations on race. And though I want you to remember that these conversations are sacred, I also want you to remember that they are conversations. And conversations are not lectures. Conversations require people to speak and to LISTEN. And then to process what you have heard, value it because of course this is a sacred conversation and the people around you are also God’s beloved and made in God’s image and what they say needs to matter. We need to listen to one another and learn from one another. To speak truth to one another. To be honest with one another. To say I don’t know when we don’t have answers. To say, this brings me pain but I am still trying to listen. To have a conversation, even if we don’t like what we hear. To have a conversation even when we do like what we hear. Like the Wise Men we must listen and learn.
Finally, the Wise Men were generous. They went to find the new King and showered him with gifts. They were gifts fit for a king. They were an acknowledgement of favor, awareness of celebration. They gave and expected nothing in return but to visit with this simple family. From such a visit they received great joy and peace.
In this next month, in the midst of what may be difficult conversation, it will be most important for us to be generous with one another. I don’t mean with physical gifts, although if you’re giving out gold or incense I am a big fan. But I mean generous in our time, with our love, with our spirit, and with our forgiveness and grace. Someone is going to get their feelings hurt in the next month. No doubt about it. What makes this a sacred conversation is that we will respond to hurt feelings with generosity, love, and mercy. We will be giving of ourselves and in doing so we will create an environment that allows for growth and healing and yes, epiphanies.
We embark today on a trip over holy ground, through difficult and treacherous lands, not entirely sure of our destination or what we find when we get there. We are in good company. I have every faith that God will go with us on this journey. I believe that if we commit ourselves to do this right, it will herald remarkable personal growth and awareness, a new vitality and sense of community for our church, and a desire and plan to act in ways that will see justice lived out and the Kingdom of God and the peace of the world furthered. If we are led by God and practice discernment, if we are brave even when we are afraid or hurt, if we listen to one another and learn from one another, and if we are generous towards ourselves, each other, and the world, then this will truly be a sacred conversation on race. We will Be the Church. We will encounter Christ. May it be so. May we, with God’s help, make it so. Amen.