A sermon on Matthew 10.24-39 for part of our series on worship, Becoming Fully Human.
I recently discovered the setting on my phone that tracks the amount of screen time I’m using every day with various apps. There’s nothing quite like your phone telling you, “hey, you need to chill out a little bit.” I think I clocked seven hours on Twitter back over the last weekend of May. Accordingly, these same settings also allow me to set limits with myself so that I can put my phone down if I’m spending too much time scrolling down the ever-running stream of Tweets and Facebook posts and YouTube videos that companies have engineered to be as addictive as possible.
I of course don’t need to tell you that we live in a society where our constant digital companions, our phones, or as I like to call them, our “nightmare rectangles,” are bringing up-to-the-minute reports of the world’s joys and woes to the palm of our hands at every moment of every day, waiting for us to look at them again. I don’t need to tell you about the addictive patterns that app designers have engineered into their products to play on human psychology, such as the sense of gratification we get when folks acknowledge something we say or do by “liking” our social media post.
But I am not about to preach the sermon on disconnecting that you think I’m about to preach. No indeed.
Because it is through the gift of hand-held supercomputers that we as a country are finally being forced to look at what has been happening under our noses for four hundred years and then some. On an episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2016, actor Will Smith made this observation: “We are talking about race in this country more clearly and openly than we have almost ever in the history of this country,” said Smith. “Racism is not getting worse, it’s getting filmed.”
Which is why several weeks ago many of us watched a nine minute and forty eight second video of a former police officer murdering George Floyd by pressing a knee into Floyd’s neck until he died. Which is why many of us now know the name Breonna Taylor, why many of us now know the name of Ahmaud Arbery, and the names of countless others who have been murdered by scared men huddled under the unimpeachable aegis of a silver shield pinned to their shirt.
Before I continue: this is a sermon for fellow white folks.
Racist violence and police brutality shock us white folks. And rightly so: it is shocking. But it is not a surprise to those African-American and indigenous people who have been on the receiving end of state-sponsored violence for four centuries and change.
But what do we do when we encounter these troubling events? It’s exhausting, and we can only take so much. Before you email me, let me affirm that it’s okay to take a break from news and to put our phone down to rally ourselves; that’s not what I mean when I say “don’t look away.”
But it is not okay to look away and continue as though you had never seen it to begin with. It is not okay to ignore. It is not okay to forget. And it is not okay to excuse ourselves from the ways in which we, as white people, have been complicit in white supremacy’s imperial reign of terror, least of all us white people who gather under the shadow of a Roman cross and who proclaim the nonviolent revolution of the heart sparked by mighty acts of God in history, the crucifixion and resurrection of a homeless Afro-Semitic Jewish teacher with dark skin and curly black hair.
Indeed: the ability to look away is the height of privilege. Friends: don’t look away.
Hear again what Jesus says to his hearers in the passage from Matthew’s gospel: “…nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.”
Remember again Matthew’s audience: ethnically Jewish Jesus-followers, folks who were most likely to fall into the cracks in society that opened up following Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem. Enemies of the state, enemies of the religious authorities as well. These were people who were shaking with fear of what was to come next in the midst of titanic changes that had disconnected them from their ancestry, their land, and their people. Everywhere they looked, reminders of Roman imperial might and the violence necessary to maintain Rome’s iron grip over the Mediterranean basin reminded them that they were nobody.
And on the roadside, strange crops of fruit hung from felled trees: crucified bodies hung from crosses as a public service announcement from Roman overlords. “Don’t look away from this, lest you forget what Rome will do to you if you fall out of line.”
Yet Jesus’ message to his followers, to those nobodies over whom he sang his tremendous blessings—blessed are the poor in spirit! Blessed are the meek! Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness!—those are the very same people whom Jesus calls to take up their crosses and follow him. These are the very same people whom Jesus urges not to fear those who can only kill the body, but to fear losing both body and soul, losing one’s entire identity, by losing their view of who they are in spite of who Rome called them.
Don’t look away.
Two millennia later, far removed from Emperor Vespasian’s reign of terror, we white Christians wear the cross as jewelry, we tattoo it on ourselves as a sort of tribal affiliation, we decorate our house with it, we gather around it in our houses of worship, having all but forgotten that the central symbol of our faith is a state-sponsored lynching tree. Under the shadow of the cross, our European ancestors crucified Christ all over again in the treatment of African and indigenous peoples during the age of imperialism.
We also cannot forget the many and manifold ways that White Protestantism in the United States became a safe haven for not just the overt wickedness of the Klan, but so often it fertilized the insipid apathy of good-hearted people like you and me who for generations have viewed white supremacy and racism as either a “them” problem, or worse, a non-existent problem.
Exempting ourselves by looking away from white supremacy in the Church is the pinnacle of willful ignorance and irresponsibility. It is nothing more than gleefully perpetuating a culture of white supremacy from a position of privileged innocence, a position of privilege that those suffering under the boot of systemic racism do not have. Talk about sacrilege.
Don’t look away.
Lutheran theologian Dr. Karoline Lewis writes, “Jesus in Matthew knows that human nature is wont to remain comfortable in our denial so as to avoid exposure. And that we are also quite adept at dodging disclosure, making up excuses for sidestepping the truth. What is getting exposed, of course, is not just racism, but our complicity. Not just how deeply systemic racism is, but how the church as an institution expertly harbors racism. Not just how the church has relied on white privilege, but how it has kept silent in preaching the truth of the Gospel.”
Before the message of the Cross of Christ becomes good news for those of us in need of liberation, it first stands as bad news. It stands as an indictment of any system that wields terror and perverts death into means of conformity and control. It stands as an indictment of the complicity of religious and state leadership in creating a culture that trains us to watch the life drain out of those whose voice in defense of the powerless might incite resistance or a riot. It stands as an indictment of the inability of “law and order” to “protect and serve” anyone except the interests of those at the top of the pyramid scheme. And the cross of Christ sure as heck stands as bad news for any kind of status quo that we’ve constructed on a shaky foundation of comfort and denial.
Think about that the next time you see someone make the sign of the cross or get squirmy when you see one in public.
African-American writer Ibram X. Kendi argues that the very heartbeat of racism is denial, whereas the heartbeat of anti-racism is confession. Being an antiracist, says Kendi, requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.
It requires that those of us in Church who have long enjoyed the fruits of privilege be able to look at our reality through the lens of the cross so that what has been covered up may be uncovered. It means that those of us who make up this community of First Congregational Church have to keep our eyes open. It means we have to keep looking through that cross-shaped lens, even though we have been doing so much to come to terms with, and make amends for, the ways we have been complicit in or benefitted from white supremacy.
I mean, gosh, what might it say about our congregation that we’ve moved away from regularly including the gifts of confession and absolution in our worshipping life? What might it say about our congregation that our choices in how we gather, when we gather, what we gather around, and what kind of worshipping expressions we prioritize don’t speak the vernacular of the people right here in our neighborhood? What might it mean if we start to come to worship only in order to take our minds off of things sometimes, and we start to believe that’s all worship is supposed to be about?
Don’t look away.
Y’all, I get that these questions are hard and they are deeply, deeply uncomfortable for us to deal with. I mentioned this to the book study group on Wednesday night this past week, but this work is not unlike trying to pull honeysuckle or morning glories out of a shrubbery: you can pull and pull and pull but if you miss even one piece, that’s enough for it to start growing back. Such is the nature of racism and white supremacy. That’s why we need a critical eye, the kind of searching judgment that the cross of Christ proclaims.
To wit, we need the good news that only the cross can reveal.
For the cross of Christ proclaims that God is finally, absolutely, undeniably on the side of the oppressed. The cross of Christ proclaims that neither cross nor lynching tree can separate God from God’s beloved ones. The cross of Christ proclaims that no tyrant, no emperor, no president, no politician, no police union, no power in heaven or earth or under the earth can prevent God from raising up those who have been cast down, or prevent the captive from being set free, or prevent the dead from living again. The cross of Christ proclaims that nothing finite can destroy the Infinite.
And for us white folks, for those of us whose roots run down the side of the oppressor rather than the oppressed, that same cross of Christ proclaims that you and I get to tell a different story, that we can be set free from our ancestors’ sins, and that we can be made Fully Human again.
“What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” Don’t look away! Amen.