Why Race Matters to God
God, Jesus, Race, Politics, and You - Sermon #04 - Why Race Matters to God
Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor • October 2, 2016 • Rev. Donnell T. Wyche, Senior Pastor
We are continuing in our sermon series: “God, Jesus, Race, Politics, and You.” We are engaging in this series because we are kingdom people, we are image bearers of the One True God and we have a mandate to be the people of God in every facet of our lives, whether at church, in the marketplace, on the job, on the street, or at home.
Regardless of what politics might mean today and regardless of how it’s practiced today, politics’ most basic concern is about the ordering of relationships. It’s about the way we live together and how we get along. It’s about people. And relationship, love, and getting along are also central to the practice of Christianity. As the people of God, we believe that God has something to say us about how we live and the way we relate to one another.
The Politics of Race
Here are three kids. What’s the first thing that came to your mind? Gender? Age? Hair style & texture? Race? Whether race was first or fourth, how would you describe their race?
These three kids are my kids, here’s our entire family, including me and my wife, Maria.
Does knowing that they are the kids of a white women and a black man change your racial identification of my kids? Now, are they white, Black, or multiracial? Still reluctant to label them?
We are talking about the politics of race because race affects us all. Race race is deeply ingrained in our culture and our cultural identity as a country. You may even say that we have been conditioned to see first what other people “look” like before we are ever able to consider who they are. This assigns certain rights, privileges, and benefits to some while denying those same rights, privileges, and benefits to others. This is the social-political construct of race.
Take for instance, this study from the Pew Research Center. If you just take Blacks and whites and ask them the same question about whether “our country has made the changes needed to give blacks equal rights with whites,” you will get very different responses. 38% of whites who were polled, say, “Yes,” while only 8% of Blacks agree. Change the question and ask whether “our country will not make the changes needed to give blacks equal rights with whites” 43% of polled Blacks agree while only 11% of whites. Of course this only looks at the Black/white divide in our country and doesn’t address the issues of other people of color like Hispanics, Asians, and indigenous people. I bring up this difference to highlight the reality that among just these two groups they see and experience the country very differently. This is important.
I was at a planning session for the Washtenaw Faith Leaders Forum on Monday night where we planned an upcoming prayer rally for justice for Sunday, October 9 at 2pm at Washtenaw County Courthouse. This is our second interfaith rally for justice. As we were discussing the need for another opportunity to gather, pray, and act, one of the pastors said this,
“It’s not that we don’t love America, of course we love America, it’s our home. We are just tired of there being two Americas!”
So we all come to this conversation with different types of baggage when it comes to race and I want to acknowledge that. How ever we come to this conversation, I think we can agree that the politics of race have done us a disservice, the politics of race have divided us and maybe that was and is its intent – to keep the people of God separated because as Jesus said, a house divided cannot stand.
25Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. (Matthew 12:25)
There was a time when we were encouraged to be color-bind, falsely assuming that God was color-blind, but color blindness is not a sign of health. Our ethnic, cultural, and linguistic differences are important, they are so important to God that they survive this experience of life and continue into the next, remember John’s vision of heaven in Revelations 7:9:
9After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” (Revelations 7:9-10)
Did you notice that the scripture says that John saw every nation (ethnos), every tribe, people, and language? How could this be unless there was a way that nation, tribe, and language were visually identifiable characteristics? The image that John gives us is that of a reconciled community, not of a community whose differences have been erased or ignored.
And at the core of all of us is a simple desire, a desire to belong. See, the best reflection of the kingdom of God at work is found in a community that is diverse, in person, in tradition, in experience, and in expectation. It’s a community of individuals who are willing to put aside their assumptions about “the other” and extend their arms in welcome, instead of rejection or judgement. In fact, it’s a community created in and marked by love. “To be known is to be loved, and to be loved is to be known.”
We are also talking about race because we are already a multiethnic church, our congregation is 35% people of color and 65% white. This diverse community is a gift from God and we want to be good stewards of this community that God has established and continues to support. Let me be clear on this point, we aren’t talking about race because there’s some hidden agenda to make the church into something it isn’t.
Our church’s efforts to be a reconciling community is our witness in a world filled with racism. It’s the way we resist the Empire. How we live together well. How we serve and witness together. How we follow Jesus as the people of God together. This is our task as a church and a community. I think we are up to the task.
Friends, we have a shared responsibility to each other. I believe this starts by creating space for those in pain and sorrow to be heard. Now in this sermon, I’m not attempting to cover every area of pain, division, and sorrow. Right now in our country we are witnessing what I might call a new civil rights movement. African Americans or Blacks, I prefer Blacks, are highlighting the continuing impact of the politics of race in our country. Each of these events could be considered by many as isolated incidents happening out there, however, for Blacks in America “each new tragedy contributes to and reawakens the collective trauma of black communities, which have been subjected to state-sanctioned assaults — from slave whippings and lynching campaigns to Jim Crow enforcement and mass incarceration” — each new event contributes to the continuation of an on-going narrative of injustice. And here’s the thing, the early church also had to deal with the issues of discrimination, mistreatment, and exclusion.
Let’s get started in Acts 6:1-7, I going to play the audio of the text now.
1In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” 5This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. 6They presented them to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. 7So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:1–7)
As we approach the text, I’d like to make an observation that the church was in a period of expansion. The issues of discrimination, mistreatment, and exclusion were issues that, if ignored by the early church, would prevent the church from fulfilling it’s mission to announce Good News to those who needed it.
As the church grew, conflicts emerged and the one highlighted in Acts 6:1-7 struck me as a way forward as we consider the issues of race and ethnicity in our own country. As we read in the text, there were ethnic differences among the Jews in the early church. On one side, there were the Hebraic Jews just like St. Paul and others who maintained their allegiance to the Law as they converted to Christianity. On the other side were the Hellenistic Jews. These were Jews who also followed the customs, traditions, and spoke the language of the Greeks. They were identifiable as different, which I think is important as we make our way. This is the whole in-group vs. the out-group mentality. Maybe you love Ohio State, but you live here in Ann Arbor, so you can’t mention your passion. Or maybe you buy some ice-hockey equipment and store it in your garage to show your new neighbors that you’re cool. Or maybe you give up bacon because you’re in love with vegan. None of us want to be in the out-group, we don’t want to be left out, or left behind, often we are willing to do whatever we can so that we belong or fit in, even if that means that we deny who we are fundamentally.
In this story, the Hellenistic Jews were the out-group. While we can observe the diversity present in the early church having both Hebrews and Hellenists in the same body, we shouldn’t assume that it was also ethnically reconciled. This is an important distinction to bear in mind. This is at the core of the challenge of what it means to be a multiethnic church, whether the church is just numerically diverse, but that diversity hasn’t created a new multiethnic culture, a new reconciled community of faith.
Jarvis Williams, the associate professor of New Testament Interpretation at Southern Seminary gives us insight about the difference:
Many Christians equate racial diversity with racial reconciliation, so they conclude if racial diversity is present, then racial reconciliation must be present as well…. The church must not be content with racial diversity; the church must push forward to a biblically distinctive, Christ-centred and Spirit-led embrace of one another in love.
We must not assume that ethnic diversity necessarily equates to ethnic reconciliation.
What’s the conflict?
the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. (Acts 6:1)
The conflict at work in the church was the mistreatment of some of its members. If we continue to read further in Acts, we discover that the church community shared a common purse, meaning everyone contributed their wealth to a common pot, and used this common purse for the needs of the community. However, the Hellenistic Jewish widows weren’t receiving their daily distribution. They were being “neglected.” They were being excluded.
The word translated “neglect” means “to overlook” or “to disregard.” At the core of this conflict was the privilege of the in-group. While those in the out-group were being slighted and marginalized. You could very easily view this story through the lens of a majority versus the minority mindset. Those handling the distribution may not have intentionally overlooked the Hellenists, but their exclusion of the Hellenistic widows was offensive nonetheless.
The result was “a complaint.” There was an appearance of Hebrew privilege, and so there was a protest: #GreekWidowsMatter.
How do the apostles respond?
What’s striking to me is the response of the apostles. Notice that they didn’t start by interrogating the Greek widows. Are you sure you’re being mistreated? Did you arrive in line at the right? Did you complete the right forms? Did you complete them in the right language? They didn’t just ignore the complaint as those “Greeks” just being overly sensitive. Instead, they created space for the Hellenistic Jews to share their pain and sorrow. They created space to listen. (What you might call a safe space.) After listening, they then gathered the community together to discuss the issue and worked together to come up with a solution to the problem. As they did this they had to acknowledge the concerns of the Hellenistic Jews as valid. There had to be an acknowledgement that there was favoritism and partiality at work, which threatened the unity, health, and therefore the expansion of the church. Friends, this was a Gospel issue. The Gospel was threatened because of discrimination, mistreatment, and exclusion.
It’s striking to me that the apostles use their privilege, power, and authority, not to insulate themselves from the complaint, pain, sorrow, and suffering, instead they use their privilege, power, and authority for the benefit of others. It’s what I said a couple weeks ago, what if our power and wealth are given for us to be blessing to others. That we are called to use the resources we have to serve others. At the core o the Christian identity is a call to be compassionate, to be empathetic, to be servants. This is how we answer the question, “Where does it hurt?”
Let’s keep going:
3Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:3-4)
While the apostles knew that their priority was centered in preaching the Gospel they also saw how important resolving this conflict within the community was. It was important enough that they didn’t offer any half-hearted suggestions or attempt to demean the concerns. They realized that issue needed the undivided attention of Spirit-filled people.
Being committed to and dedicated to the Gospel doesn’t mean that we don’t have time for “politics.” For the Gospel preaching, Jesus-centered church, it is not a matter of either/or, but of both/and. It’s what James, the brother of Jesus says, if you claim faith, then show it with your deeds.
Racial reconciliation matters to God and I believe it should matter to us as well. Remember God’s purpose in creation was to release us as his image-bearers in his good creation, calling to join him in the work of reconciliation.
“His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.(Ephesians 2:15b-16)
Paul alerts us to the power of reconciliation in the cross of Christ. It was on the cross that he nailed our hate, contempt, and hostility for one another paving a way forward for reconciliation. It was on the cross that Christ that defeated and destroyed the evil that would divide and separate our communities. Because of the cross, in Christ, we can surrender our anger, our contempt, our preference, and our assumptions about “the other.” In Christ, we can rid ourselves of all the malice and animosity that we harbor. In Christ we can become the new humanity, a new creation. Christ is calling us to be his ambassadors of reconciliation, his agents of change and it’s up to us take up that call and challenge.
So, I have a practical tip for you:
1.) Stay engaged. Please don’t disengage. Or as Dr. Brené Brown says, “Reclaim the ability to hold space for pain and discomfort.” As we make our way together as a church, we need to recover a lost skill, which is sitting in pain and discomfort with each other. I know we often give the friends of Job a hard time, but do you know that one of the first things they did for Job was to come and sit with him in his pain and sorrow. When we are confronted with difficulties, we have a tendency to do something that comes naturally, which is to try to avoid our differences. When this happens this just forces us further within our own narratives. There’s something power just sitting in pain and discomfort with each other.
1When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. 12When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. 13Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was. (Job 2:11–13)