August 11, 2019
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Javen Swanson
Today’s scripture readings: Genesis 15:1-6; Psalm 33:12-22; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40
Last weekend I was in Milwaukee for the annual gathering of the Proclaim community, which is a network of Lutheran pastors, deacons, and seminarians who publicly identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer. Since our denomination changed its policy 10 years ago to allow for ministers in same-sex relationships, this community has grown exponentially, from just 18 members in 2009 to upwards of 350 today. The 2009 policy change opened the floodgates to LGBTQ people who feel called to ministry but had previously been barred from pursuing that call.
One of the things our community has realized as we’ve found greater acceptance within the ELCA and in society more broadly is how important it is for us to stand in solidarity with other communities that continue to experience marginalization and exclusion. We recognize how shameful it would be if those of us who have found a welcome now turned our backs on those who still endure discrimination and feel cast aside. So while we were gathered in Milwaukee last weekend, we devoted an entire day to anti-racism training that would help us get clear about how white supremacy functions in our society and how we are complicit in perpetuating it.
That night we took a couple of buses downtown to meet up with another group that was meeting in Milwaukee at the same time, the African Descent Lutheran Association. ADLA, as it is called, advocates for the full inclusion of people of African descent in every aspect of the life of our church. This meeting was both the culmination of many months of conversation between our LGBTQ Lutheran community and this African-American advocacy group, and, we hope, just the beginning of a collaborative and mutually supportive relationship between these two organizations.
We made the trip into downtown Milwaukee to meet up with ADLA because they had invited us to join them for worship that evening. For those of you with some experience with worship in the black church, it was pretty much exactly what you would expect. Even though we were running a little late arriving for worship, nobody seemed in a hurry to get started. But the music director was already at the piano leading some gathering songs. Here’s the thing: They were mostly songs I didn’t know. There weren’t any words for the songs printed or projected anywhere. Even though the pianist was cueing us with the lyrics, I couldn’t really make any sense of it because the sound was all distorted. And on top of all that, the songs were all set in a key that was impossible for me to sing; I had to choose between a range that was way too high or sing everything down an octave in a key that was way too low. I tried so hard to embrace the lessons I had learned earlier in the day during anti-racism training: “Come on, Javen, lean into discomfort. Learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Remember that our entire society has been constructed to make people like you feel at ease and here, in this gathering, it’s not all about you. Come on, Javen, you can do this.” I tried. And after almost a half hour of gathering songs I was failing miserably. I was frustrated and mad.
I’ve been reflecting on that experience. What was going on inside me while I was sitting there mad during those opening moments of worship? It’s true that we all like doing things the way we’re used to doing them and don’t like being forced to try doing things differently. Is that what was going on? Was I just missing the style of music I’ve come to expect here at Gloria Dei and feeling annoyed to be asked to try something different? Or was there more to it? I got to thinking about one of the things we learned at the anti-racism training earlier that day, that whenever people who have been marginalized claim their voices and step boldly into the arena, those in the center assert their authority and put those others back in their place. And underneath that impulse is fear—fear that those in the center might lose their power and privilege and be forced to relinquish their authority to call all the shots. I wonder whether that was the source of my sour attitude that evening at the beginning of worship—fear that my cherished ways of worship were being threatened, fear that people who look like me and share my values and preferences might be losing their stranglehold on the liturgy, fear that people who think like me might be displaced by those who have different ideas altogether. Fear.
“Have no fear,” Jesus says, “for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Jesus seems to understand that our determination to grasp tightly the things we hold dear causes us to live in a state of fear and suspicion, always looking over our shoulder to see who might be coming to steal what is ours, ready to pounce on anyone who gets too close. The only antidote to a life of fear is to give up what we’ve got—just to give it all away. The antidote to fear is letting go of everything and trusting that God’s deepest desire is to provide for us and give us all that we need. When we let go of what we’ve been protecting for so long we’re also set free from fear and suspicion and mistrust, which bring us no joy and actually keep us divided against one another.
Fear that divides us from one another is a topic that has been in the news lately in the wake of a succession of mass shootings—most recently in Dayton and El Paso, but also just a week earlier in Gilroy, California, and a month before that in Virginia Beach, and not long before that at the synagogue in southern California. Some have pointed out that at least four mass shooters in the past year have been adherents of a so-called “Great Replacement” theory, according to which we are all witnesses to a “white genocide.” It’s this idea that the “white race” is being wiped out, mostly by non-white immigrants making their way into this country.
Think about the white men marching with torches in Charlottesville chanting, “You will not replace us.” Or think about elected officials describing immigration patterns as an “invasion,” language that was replicated in the El Paso shooter’s manifesto. The man who opened fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue last fall said he was punishing Jews for bringing about the death of whiteness by orchestrating immigration, and six months later the mass shooter at a synagogue in Poway, California said he blamed Jews for “funding politicians and organizations who use mass immigration to displace the European race.”
Underneath this “Great Replacement” theory is fear. It’s fear that those who have been kept in their place on the margins are becoming a threat to those at the center who might be losing their stranglehold on power. It’s frightening to me to consider that the fear at the root of my frustration at that worship service last Friday evening could be the same fear that emboldens white supremacists and inspires mass shooters. As uncomfortable as it might be to admit, I suspect each of us harbors the capacity for white supremacy.
But I also think we can develop a capacity to overcome it. Jesus really was on to something when he told his disciples to let go of the things they cling to so tightly and trust that it is God’s good pleasure to give us what we need.
In his new book, The Universal Christ, Franciscan priest Richard Rohr suggests that what he calls the “Christ Mystery” infuses each one of us, each living thing, and all of creation. He says that “everything visible, without exception, is the outpouring of God,” and that this realization has made an enormous difference in how he interacts with the people he encounters in the course of each day. When we view the world through this lens, recognizing that Christ dwells in all things, then the notion of clinging tightly to what is “ours” or defending what’s so important to us against an “invasion” or “replacement” all starts to sound a little silly. We would do better to let it all go—give it all up—and welcome whatever God provides, recognizing that every person that comes into our life, every language we hear spoken, every song that is sung, every liturgy we are invited to—everything and everyone—are infused with the goodness of God.
By the time we were done sharing the peace, my attitude had changed completely. I may have come into the room that evening feeling hard-hearted and ill-prepared to see the “Christ Mystery” dwelling inside each of the people around me, but judging from the number of people who welcomed me and my LGBTQ colleagues with tears in their eyes and pulled me in close for a hug as we spent 10 minutes or so sharing the peace, it’s clear that somehow they were able to see the divine Christ dwelling in me. Suddenly my frustration about those songs at the beginning of the service felt so ridiculously petty and it wasn’t so hard for me to let it go, to give it away, simply to receive what God was providing and bask in the goodness of the divine, which really is in all things.
Talia Lavin, “The Boundaries of Whiteness Are Protected With Blood and Bullets,” in The Nation, August 5, 2019, http://www.thenation.com/article/replacement-theory-racism-white-supremacy/.
Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe (New York: Convergent, 2019).