A prayer I often pray goes like this: “God, show me what you want me to see and make it obvious.” Show me and make it obvious. It’s an incredibly simple prayer. It’s also dangerous. Dangerous because once God makes something plain, I can no longer pretend the obvious is not obvious.
On January 6th, the Feast of Epiphany, the day when the western church was celebrating the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem to pay homage to the Christ Child, the day when the western church rejoiced yet again that the Light of the World has come not just for us but for all people in all places and times, God shone a light so clear and bright that I could not deny where it landed.
I don’t know about you but I don’t typically watch the news during the day. But on Wednesday, I made an exception because it was a historic day in a tumultuous time.
Shortly after lunch, I switched on PBS. A journalist was standing outside the Capital building reporting on a growing crowd of angry, addled Trump supporters. As those numbers grew, she commented on the obvious lack of law enforcement. And she remarked on this again when the crowd ascended the Capital steps and began bashing out its windows to gain entry.
In this moment, well before chaos began to reign and the unthinkable happened, God showed me something that wasn’t new but which was so clear and obvious, it’s all I could see. This crowd is almost entirely white, I noted. If these were indigenous people, if these folks were black, if they were brown, this would be a different scene entirely.
This moment is a study in privilege, I remember thinking. White privilege.
This searing truth countless Americans—and of every color and background—saw as well on Wednesday. News commentators Van Jones and Joy Reid saw and named it. Late night hosts Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert did too. Ordinary citizens by the thousands did as well, posting on social media just minutes after the Capital was breached and for hours and days later.
Many realities grieve and concern me about Wednesday’s attempted coup. But before all else, I cannot not see the parallel but grossly unequal universes of whiteness and blackness. And so this is where I begin this morning.
The differences between these two worlds have been detailed at length. They are aptly revealed in two compact comments made by the President. Responding to Black Lives Matter protests last summer, he said “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” On Wednesday, after the unthinkable, he said to those who desecrated the Capital and wrought chaos: “Go home. We love you. You’re very special. I know how you feel.”
On the day the western church celebrates the coming of the Light of the World, Epiphany’s light shone directly upon a truth people of whiteness have long sought to avoid. A truth communities of color have never had the luxury of sidestepping. A truth they have long worked to help us see. See, not to blame or shame, but so that together we might affect just, loving change.
After Wednesday, I cannot unsee what God showed me. What I see, I see as a Christian, as a minister, and as a woman born white. What I also see, among so many things, is that the time has come for me to ask more of this beloved community than I have asked in the past.
Just two days earlier, on Monday, I was happily caught up in reflecting on Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan.
I pictured Jesus bathed in a circle of light as he went down into the water and then bobbed up again. Jesus was baptized that day for all to see, plain as day, out in the open. Jesus entered the waters of creation, dove down into the fullness of the human experience, and then rose up out of the water to the Holy Spirit proclaiming his identity, his complete belovedness, his true nature—one with whom God was already well pleased.
This contemplation led me to remember that what Jesus was doing that day represented a break from tradition. In Judaism, sacred rituals were held exclusively in the Temple in Jerusalem. In Judaism, sacred rituals were performed by the authorized, the sanctioned, the priests, not by passionate godly cousins critical of the religious status quo. In Judaism, sacred rituals were not held out on the edge of the wilderness. Not like this.
When we follow in Jesus’ footsteps, when we wade out (literally or symbolically) into the waters of baptism, what we are doing is as edgy as what Jesus was doing. All the more so when we step out of the water, as Jesus did, and return to shore.
While baptism places us squarely in the center of our faith, while it celebrates our choice to be claimed by and belong to this faith, we cannot deny that baptism is an edgy sacrament because it calls us to the margins, to the perimeter, to the far reaches of the human experience.
With baptism comes what German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “the costs and joys of discipleship.”
These are frightening times. Heartbreaking days. As Americans, we watch events unfold that are at complete odds with our cherished Constitution and treasured principles of democracy. As Americans living through this time of crisis, we clutch our breasts and wipe our tears, we name our fears and voice our outrage.
We gather this morning as Americans, and yet first and foremost we gather as Christians, as people who endeavor to follow in the way of Jesus, as people whose baptisms call us into the same waters of life Jesus gave himself over to out there on the edge.
And so I ask, in light of this, to what are we Christians now being called? And more specifically, to what is our church being called in a time such as this?
On Wednesday night, our denomination held an online vigil. UCC President and General Minister Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer spoke briefly and eloquently about what the whole world saw taking place in Washington, D.C., just hours before.
John’s heart was heavy, he said, and yet he was also hopeful. He went on to remind us that although we may find ourselves in places of despair, our baptismal vows call us to name and renounce evil.
As Rev. Dorhauer continued, something my friend and colleague Rev. David Bahr had offered hours earlier came to mind. In his capacity as the pastor of Park Hill UCC, our sister church in Denver, David had this to say: “The evil acts of men exposed to the light of day is necessary for change. Today is disturbing and hopeful.”
To name and renounce evil is no small thing. To name and renounce evil requires courage and clarity. It requires a heart full of God. Naming and renouncing evil is what makes it possible for love to win, for justice to come. To name and renounce evil is what is required for love to win and for justice to come.
On Christmas Eve Day, our church went into the community to distribute bumper stickers bearing the ultimate Christian claim: Love Wins. It’s a message grounded in Easter and as such, ends not with a question mark but a period. Love Wins, period.
If you and I mean what we say when we proclaim this, then along with the joy it brings to share this great good news, we need also to acknowledge the cost. And that cost is our discomfort. That cost is our honesty born of earnest introspection. That cost is our humble confession that we have not always helped love win. Not always have we been willing or able to take our places on the margins, as Jesus did, to shine a light on what is evil and to help humanity step in the direction of God’s love and justice.
When George Floyd was murdered in May, I felt it was my pastoral duty to point us toward progressive churches being led by black pastors. We needed their voices. I chose six of the finest pastors I know and then posted their websites so that we could join their online worship services. Please let these black pastors educate, move, challenge, and compel us, I urged then.
What I did not do then was invite us to share what we were learning about the differences between being white and being black in this country. And why those differences exist. What I did not do was fold back into our common life the insights and convictions that were arising from our private explorations and contemplations.
This inaction reflects my privilege as a white woman. This inaction suggests that all this was optional, rather than central to our lives as Christians.
After Wednesday, after God made the obvious more than obvious to me, also plain was that as a church we can no longer be casual about the responsibility we bear as white Christians. We can no longer postpone the sacred work of engaging in self-reflection and conversation about white privilege, our own and that of this nation.
And so with this in mind, I invite you to gather with me on Wednesday nights during Lent, which begins February 17th, to take part in an unhurried study of a slender but compelling book entitled “Dear Church: A love letter from a black preacher to the whitest denomination in the U.S.” That denomination happens to be the Evangelical Lutheran Church but the United Church of Christ is close behind.
Lent calls us into contemplation of our mortality as well as our human brokenness and sin. Although we may be reluctant to look closely at white privilege—our country’s and our own—to do so is our holy responsibility. Taking God’s hand as we go, our destination will not be guilt and shame, but the freedom that Jesus promises arises out of truth.
Our baptismal vows call us to renounce evil. And certainly there has been much this week to renounce. But we would be remiss if we did not also ask God to help us see ourselves, to consider how evil is served by those things around which we are unconscious. Love is unable to win when we are unseeing and unaware.
We have been traumatized by what we saw unfolding on Wednesday. I do not wish in any way to dismiss our pain, our terror, our fears about what might take place next. And yet if we are traumatized, then doubly, triply traumatized are those in communities of color for whom Wednesday’s events are but one more painful reminder of the profound disparities and injustices at work for generations.
By our baptisms, we are assured we are beloved. By our baptisms, we are named and claimed. By our baptisms we are called into and then out of the water, just as Jesus was. The shore awaits. And there, with Jesus, we find the many joys of discipleship, as well as the costs.
Love will win. Love does win. May that love win us over entirely, so that we join Jesus in his ongoing work of love, justice, and peace.
Let us pray:
Use us, O God, in this time of uncertainty. Use us, that we might join together with you in the work that benefits the common good. Amen.