February 19, 2017
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Many Races, One Spirit
(fifth in the series Many and One)
The lawyer was cut to the quick and he never even saw it coming. The whole reason he decided to show up in the first place was so he could put this teacher to the test. He did not expect things to turn out the way they did. The plan was to ask a question to which he already knew the answer: “So tell me, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus replied, “What does it say in the law?” Easy. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, with all your mind. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” “Well, there you go,” says the Lord. And that should have been that.
Jesus turned to move on, the lawyer started to sit down, then he couldn’t. The Bible says he wanted to justify himself. I think something might have moved in his spirit or shimmered in his conscience. “Just a follow up question, please,” the lawyer heard himself insist, “So who is my neighbor?”
This time, Jesus did not turn it back on him like he usually did; he did not say, “Who do you think your neighbor is?” This time, Jesus looked right at the lawyer and started in on the story:
“Imagine this happened to you,” he says. “Here you are coming back from Jerusalem when you’re attacked by highway robbers. It happens so fast you can’t even fight. You’re on the ground, they’re taking your stuff, they begin assaulting you, and leave you passed out on the road.”
(Now I’m pretty sure the lawyer sat down.) But Jesus doesn’t stop. “Just as you’re beginning to come to, you notice a priest coming toward you. Finally some help! But he crosses the street and keeps walking by. Next you see a Levite, and you try to call out, but it’s no use. He also walks on by. Then when things couldn’t get worse, you look up and see a Samaritan is heading right towards you! What is he going to do? The robbers already took everything. That’s when you realize, he is touching your face. A Samaritan is touching your face. He bandages your wounds, helps you onto his donkey, and pays for your stay at the inn.”
“So tell me,” Jesus says to the lawyer, “who is your neighbor?”
It says the lawyer answered, “the one who showed mercy,” but I don’t know how he managed to speak. Something happened to the lawyer while Jesus was telling him this story. I’m thinking it cut him to the quick. Instead of giving a legal answer to a legal question, Jesus went right to the place of our deep shame and our deep power, the place where something shimmers in your conscience.
Today we’re continuing our sermon series on diversity and unity. In these past few weeks, we’ve explored what it means to be different ages, to have a variety of abilities and disabilities, to struggle against economic inequality, to understand gender as more than two choices. Today we’re considering what it means to live in a nation which acknowledges that people are different races and that regardless of race, people should be treated equally.
Because it is one thing to go along with this idea. It is another thing to consider whether we’re achieving this dream of equality. For many of us white folks, we are most comfortable talking about race and racism when we can consider these things intellectually. If only it were the case that racism could be solved by bringing America’s best thinking to the table. If only it could be solved by passing more civil rights legislation or through rulings from the courts. If only we could deploy the best problem-solvers to take on racism, and figure it out, and publish the article that explains it away. I would sign up for that project!
But if you’ve ever had a conversation about racism, then you know. It’s a problem that is less about finding the right answer and a much more about what can happen to black and brown people’s bodies. Things turn physical very quickly.
In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander illustrates that our nation has not gotten over slavery, especially the part where white people engage in violence to punish black people. When slavery became illegal, this behavior didn’t just disappear; it was channeled into other institutions. In the first part of the twentieth century, you can see it in the Jim Crow laws and in the accepted practice of lynching. Now in the first part of the twenty-first century, you see this behavior in the criminal justice system.
I am not saying the U.S. criminal justice system is the same as slavery. But at the institutional level, it is chillingly close. We still use chains, and “reasonable” force, and unpaid labor, and execution. Maybe this sounds like an extreme example, but is it really…
Talking about race means talking about our bodies. It’s about safety and violence and who gets clean water, and who gets a Lifetime movie made if their daughter goes missing, and who gets pulled out of the car, and who gets seen —actually seen— and spoken to. Who’s going to make you lie down on the pavement in front of your children? Who’s going to touch your face?
It’s one thing to struggle against racism intellectually. It’s another thing when the conversation invokes our physical experience, then it doesn’t stop there. I have come to believe, we white folks struggle to talk about racism because there’s no way to do this without facing and feeling our own shame. To really overcome racism is to get cut to the quick, deeper than thoughtful analysis, deeper than our defensiveness, deep where the Spirit stirs and shimmers in our conscience.
Not the president, not the media, but it’s me O LORD,
Standin’ in the need of prayer.
Not the refugees, not the police officers, but it’s me O LORD with sin to confess.
You see why it is threatening to work toward overcoming racism.
If resisting racism just challenged our thinking, that would be one thing.
If overcoming racism threatened our physical safety, that would be one thing.
If overcoming racism cost us money in giving up economic privilege, that would be something. But it’s even more than this.
Even with all the structures that must change, ending racism is work that demands our willingness to encounter our deep shame and our deep power. Of course that is terrifying. This is the work that will cut us to the quick. And that’s what happens in the Gospel.
Imagine a sister telling her friends the story about what her brother did. “I would never have done what he did! Come on, you have to be street smart,” is what she tells them. Then she launches into a classic cautionary tale —don’t do what my brother did!
“He was heading down on his way to Jerusalem, when he sees a Jewish man lying by the side of the road. Who knows how long he’s been there. Come to find out, a priest walked by and didn’t stop. A Levite walked by and didn’t stop. So my genius brother decides, oh okay I’m sure I should be the one to stop. Surely that would be the smart and sensible thing to do.”
You can hear her friends, “Oh no!” they murmur. What happened? Is he okay?”
“So get this. He goes over and touches the man. He started treating his injuries, then he took him to the inn, and paid for him to stay! Can you imagine if he had gotten stopped by the police? How’s he going to explain why there’s a wounded Jewish man in his back seat? You guys gotta be smarter than this. Get home safely. Don’t be like my brother!” is what this sister hears herself telling her friends. And yet, there’s something in her that doesn’t quite believe her own admonition.
Surely the Samaritan man was afraid. Why did he stop and help? One possibility is right there in the Bible; it says he was moved with pity or compassion (Luke 10:33). Another translation says he was literally gut-wrenched. Something cut him to the quick and shimmered in his conscience. Now his common sense was no match for the impulse of grace he felt and followed.
What we have to come to terms with, is that we have this same impulse; it lives in our deep shame and our deep power. This impulse does not end racism, but I really believe it’s where the ending of racism begins.
Of course, there are so many reasons to ignore this impulse and override it with good common sense. On the one side, it is too dangerous. On the other side, there are those who will tell you it’s lacking in efficacy and measurable accountability. I mean, there are rallies to organize, and congresspeople to call, and petitions to sign, and you’re going to bother with compassion? Seriously?! Do we even have time for that…
Yes. We have all the time.
I will tell you, I do not always act on this impulse of compassion; I wish I did this more. But more and more, I am paying attention to its stirring in my spirit; first you feel it, then you follow it. As the anxiety of our national rhetoric is heightening, this impulse of compassion is a power I am unwilling to relinquish. It is all I have that’s worth anything.
Now when it happens to you, when you are moved in the depths of your being to act with compassion, when you are cut to the quick and confronted by a threat, you don’t have to worry about the story your sister will tell her friends, and you don’t have to face this alone. I will go with you. We will go with you. We can look right at fear and choose compassion instead.
This is what it is to be alive; this is eternal life. This is what it is to love the LORD our God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, to love our neighbor and to love ourselves. Amen.
 Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press: New York, 2011. See pages 30-31.