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As we begin today, I’d like to reread two verses from Galatians.
Verse 1, “The freedom of Christ has set us free. Stand firm and do not take on a yoke of slavery.” And then, in verse 13 we hear, “For you were called to freedom, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but become slaves to one another.”
First, there’s an obvious contradiction in these verses: simultaneously we are told we are freed from slavery and then in the next breath, we are called to be slaves to one another. And that sorta irks the author in me. But, that’s probably my own literary hang-up.
What really makes me squirm is how casually and insensitively the word ‘slave’ is tossed about. I’m uncomfortable with Paul’s language here. Mostly because I’m becoming more aware of how I have unintentionally participated in structural racism: societal systems which have oppressed, chained, and enslaved many of my siblings in Christ.
I’m ashamed that the call to be slaves to one another has never bothered me before.
[I’m also a bit embarrassed by how often I stand up here and admit my failings and shortcomings to you all, but that’s a different sermon.]
But, what I’ve always heard, as a lily white woman, in these verses is the call to freedom: to grow fully into who I am as a unique child of God. I’ve heard it as gift and promise: that God desires a generous, full, and free life for all. And, honestly, my life has known a lot of freedom, a lot of opportunity, a lot of fullness. I am thankful for that.
Because of my life experiences, the way my mind has always translated ‘become slaves to one another’ is: Help one another out and give of yourself. As an afterthought, maybe I would also recognize that in Christ I am bound inextricably to every other person on the planet, but…. my whiteness softened the weightiness of ‘become a slave.’ I never really considered how as a person of privilege I am called to sacrifice more than others: that equality isn’t enough, but rather equity.
And, I didn’t pause and reflect upon how my Black and Latino and Jewish and Asian and Native American siblings might hear ‘become a slave.’ That even if Jesus himself was saying it, the last thing they would want to do would be slaves again. I mean, honestly. Nor had I considered that their lives might not be generous, full, and free. I mean, the Civil Rights Movement had already occurred.
Until recent years, it never even crossed my mind…
Again, I am dumbfounded by my ignorance.
And, grateful the Holy Spirit convicts me and loves me too much to leave me bound in my chains of supremacy.
Or as Paul would more eloquently encourage, “Let us be guided by the Spirit.”
Because let’s face it, for eons any child of God who is not Caucasian has heard the call to be enslaved to another differently than I do. My guess is – admitting that I cannot fully speak for someone else’s experience – those who do know something about slavery feel the full weight of what’s being asked by Paul: Bind yourself to this person for your eternal life, be willing sacrifice out of love every ounce of your being for them, and forgo your needs for theirs.
I don’t know if I really want to do that…
But, sometimes it’s not really about what I want, but rather about what Jesus wants.
So, today I’d like talk about slavery and white privilege and Jesus.
About now some of you may be thinking, specifically those of us who are white, “Do we have to talk about white privilege again?! Can’t I opt out of this sermon?”
Yeah. We do need to talk about it. And no, I pray you won’t opt out.
Because racism still has its subversive tentacles entwined within our society.
And just recently these ugly tentacles were found tangled up in our Vacation Bible School curriculum.
And no, we didn’t know it was going to have racist undertones to it.
Of course, we didn’t.
Group didn’t realize their grave mistakes either. But that’s sort-of the point. We often unintentionally enslave people by our misguided, even sometimes well-intentioned, actions and words. We strip away the freedom that Jesus has promised them.
I mean, can we just pause there…
We steal what Jesus, our Lord and Savior, has promised them.
That is appalling.
But painfully, that’s what masters of slaves do.
I know… this is an uncomfortable sermon. Lord, have mercy though, the good news of Jesus Christ isn’t about being comfortable. It’s about being resurrected into a new being, who thinks, and acts, and loves as Jesus does. As far as Jesus is concerned giving up because something is uncomfortable isn’t an option.
Ok. So, maybe you’re wondering what was so egregious in the curriculum…
First, there’s an activity that has children pretending to be slaves. Not slaves like Jesus would have us be, but actual slaves: making bricks under the direction of the Pharaoh, pretending to grunt and groan.
It’s hard to grasp the magnitude of what we’re asking children to do here, so let me phrase it another way… Would you ever ask children to pretend like they’re in a concentration camp?
I mean… no. Right? No question, we would NEVER do that.
But somehow, we’ve softened our history of slavery and whitewashed out the torture, dying, and suffering that IS slavery.
It’s STUNNING, right?
The curriculum also asks children to make up their own ‘click’ language, which may seem innocuous, until we begin to realize what we’re subversively teaching children to do is mock other types of speech. When we could teach them to honor other languages and cultures; we could teach them actual words so that our differences don’t continue to separate and divide us.
Now, before I go on, I should note that we have altered the curriculum. The children who walk through these doors will be taking the issues of race seriously.
Because, if we want to stop this cycle of racism then slavery cannot be a game, it cannot be fun, it cannot be excused.
But, we have to want it. And by ‘we’ I mean, those of us in positions of privilege – either because of race, gender, or economic status – have to be willing to be enslaved to those who have been slaves.
I am a participant and a benefactor in the systems that have held others in bondage. My parents were never denied a home loan because of their race. My grandparents were never told which water fountain they were allowed to drink out of. My great-grandparents were never held as property. My ancestors were not carried across an ocean in chains. Every part of my life and my heritage has benefitted on account of the color of my skin, and that is sinful.
I am realizing how society has enslaved me to its ways becasue the color of my skin.
None of us can control what family we are born into. None of us can choose the color of our skin. But we can control how we live in our skin. It is not my goal to demonize any skin color, but racism is not a Black problem, or a Latino problem, or a Jewish problem, or an Asian problem, or a Native American problem.
It’s a White problem.
Paul’s argument for true freedom presents those of us who are in positions of power with a choice:
Do we maintain white supremacy or work to break it down?
There is no neutral position here. Either we believe all people are created in the image of God, equal in dignity and freedom, and deserving love, or we don’t.
We either love our neighbor as ourselves, or we don’t.
Either we live by the Spirit, or we don’t.
And to take this just one hard step further, this issue of how we’ve enslaved others applies to the children at the border too. This is simply antithetical to the ways of Jesus.
Lord, in heaven, I wish we didn’t have children in bonds. And, I wish it wasn’t my duty to speak out about these things, but it is. I have to. I’d rather people be angry with me and disagree with me, than be unfaithful to Jesus.
I can only tell you the truth: the Holy Spirit doesn’t discriminate on the basis of color or race or ethnicity or gender or citizenship on who deserves freedom. She just doesn’t.
We cannot be okay with people being discriminated against; we cannot be ok with children starving, we cannot be ok with the commonplace of violence in this world. We cannot be ok with it because I don’t believe God is okay with it.
Paul’s caution against biting and devouring one another seems, unfortunately, so apropos. So often have we consumed whole cultures and races for our own benefit. And so, making progress on race and equity will require us to confess our own biases and work to change societal structures.
This is hard work. And it won’t happen overnight. But, as far as Jesus is concerned, giving up isn’t an option. We hold fast to the hope that God is freeing us from the shackles of master and slave, and the bonds of death and destruction. We are called to lavishly share love and peace and joy and kindness – to pour the Spirit of God upon all those who are dying in the bonds of slavery.
Sometimes I wonder if what I say up here matters at all… I think that’s a normal concern for pastors.
I wonder if anything will change by holding this harsh mirror to our faces.
I wonder if the Holy Spirit really does still beat her wings.
I wonder if society can really change.
Because honestly, enslaving people is always going to be easier and more convenient than freeing and loving them. Freeing them means seeing them fully, hearing them, stepping into their skin as best we can, and finding something worth celebrating.
I wonder if we can do that.
I wonder if I can.
But, I have to believe we can, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can.
Finally, the last thing I want to say is this: Sometimes it feels like the Truth might crush us – the weight of what is being asked of us it too much to bear. And, maybe that’s right. Maybe the Truth DOES crush us, however the instant it crushes us, the Spirit is simultaneously putting us back together into something that is more honest and true.
I think this is a resurrection of sorts – what being freed in Christ is all about. Because, you and me: we belong together.