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Sunday, April 06, 2008

On the Road to Emmaus: Racism, Religion and Politics

“Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; ”
Luke 24:13-35
Easter 111 – April 6, 2008 – The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

If you’ve been paying attention, there are some slight variations in the conversations the gospel writers are having with us about what happened, exactly, on that first day of the week after the crucifixion and death of Jesus. No matter about the details. That’s not the point.

All four evangelists are very keen to have us know and believe that Jesus has resurrected, as promised, fully. Not a ghost. In the flesh. In his body. While all four vary the details, they are very clear on this point.

It’s a very important point for the early church. It’s all about making certain that everyone understands that this man, this Jesus of Nazareth, IS, in fact, the Messiah. He is not to be confused with others who, at the time, were also claiming that title. It’s an important point of contention, even today.

Was Jesus resurrected in the body? The conversation has moved out of lofty schools of theological thought and has become a litmus test, of sorts, for “true believers” – read “authentic Christians.”

There’s another conversation going round these days about the resurrection that you might find interesting. The story is told that an eminent theologian was lecturing about the resurrection to a group of preachers. At the end of his presentation, he concluded unequivocally that Jesus could not possibly have resurrected in his body.

One frail, elderly African-American preacher with snowy white hair reportedly pulled himself up, with no small amount of difficulty, and asked this learned man of God if he might make a small query. Permission was granted for the man to continue with a polite, if not curious nod of the head.

The old man opened his lunch sack and started to eat an apple. “I’m just a poor old preacher,” he began, (Chomp, Chomp, Swallow), “who hasn’t the education (Chomp. Chomp. Swallow) as you, sir, but (Chomp. Chomp. Swallow), I have a question for you.”

The old man held up the core of his apple and said, “Was this apple sweet or sour?” The scholar seemed befuddled and said, “Why, how could I know that? I’ve never tasted your apple.” The old man put the apple core into his lunch sack, folded it neatly, then looked that man dead in the eye and said, “That’s right.” said the old man, “And you don’t know my Jesus, either.” And then, he sat down.

Here’s an interesting thing about that story. Guess who tells it? It is credited to another preacher who happened to be in the room at the time. That preacher would be none other than the Rev’d Dr. Jeremiah Wright. Yes. THAT Jeremiah Wright. You know. The one everybody is talking about. Senator Barack Obama’s pastor.

Now, I want to be very, very clear here: this sermon may, out of necessity, make some references to some things political, but it is not an endorsement of any kind of Mr. Obama or, for that matter, any of the other contenders for the Presidency. So, if anyone is here from the IRS, you will kindly not revoke our tax-exempt status. Thank you.

What this is, however, is the beginning of what my friend Ed Bacon calls, a “courageous conversation”. It’s a conversation we may have been thrust into by the fiery rhetoric of Jeremiah Wright, but it’s one that has been too long delayed. And, like the justice spoken of by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., too long delayed is too long denied.

It’s a conversation as important as what we believe about the resurrection. Indeed, I think it is, ultimately, a conversation about resurrection. It’s a conversation we’re having on the Road to Emmaus where we have reached the dangerous intersection of Race, Religion and Politics.

I have placed copies of Senator Obama’s speech on racism on the table in the Narthex. I encourage you to read it – or goole it and read or listen to it. I believe it is one of the most important speeches of our generation – one that will, no doubt, be read and studied by generations of students of political and social science and the law. I think we, as Christians, would be remiss – indeed, spiritually impoverished – if we did not spend some dedicated time in study and conversation about it, as well.

I will be working with the Education Committee to hold a series of conversations about this sometime the beginning of May. I am pleased to tell you that Bishop Barbara Harris, the first woman to be elected bishop in the church and an African American, will be with us on September 7th. She will preach and preside and then join us for an Adult Forum with other Black leaders who will join us and help us to continue the conversation.

There is much to say about Race, Religion and Politics that cannot be contained in this sermon. Let me begin by saying this: As your pastor, I know there are as many opinions about these three topics as there are about the resurrection. We have many deeply felt and fiercely held opinions about them all. We will not agree on everything, but each and every position is important to be heard As significant as each one is, none of them is ‘the Truth’.

Here is what I know to be true about the mystery of our faith: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. These are not just words to me, repeated with empty repetition at the Eucharistic Prayer. I believe them with every fiber of my being.

I know that my Redeemer lives. I know that Christ is alive because Christ lives in you and in me. That is as much evidence as I need to have. If there are Evangelicals and Fundamentalists who want to declare my Christian credentials counterfeit, so be it. It still doesn’t make it so. Clearly, you don’t know my Jesus.

Here’s what I know to be true about Race, Religion and Politics: If we, as Christians, do not take responsibility for these courageous conversations, then we are not worthy of the Christ who lives in us. And, make no mistake, both are true: the resurrected Christ lives in us AND it will take great courage to have these conversations.

I believe Jesus weeps to know that 92% of the inmates on Riker’s Island, just across the Hudson River, is black or Hispanic, and that the city spends $58,000 per year on each adult inmate - $70,000 on each juvenile – nearly ten times what it spends on a child in its public schools. At least, that’s the figure I have from Jonathan Kozol’s book, Amazing Grace, which was written in 1994. I have no doubt those figures have skyrocketed and the gap is wider.

The national statistics parallel those of New York State in most of these respects. Forty years after Dr. King was killed at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, 70% of children of color are born out of wedlock. Nationally, one third of all children of color do not graduate from high school.

In 1992, The Harvard study created a new word: ‘hypersegregation’, which was meant to describe the deplorable situation that 2/3 of America’s black children know few, if any, white people. Dr. Gary Orfield, one of the authors of the Harvard Study says, “The civil rights momentum of the 1960’s is dead in the water and the ship is floating backward.”

And, we wonder why there is anger in the black community? We wonder why Dr. Wright and other black pastors and preachers rail against the forces of oppression from the pulpit? Is their anger justified? I have no doubt. Is it healthy? It can’t possibly be – for them or for anyone in this country – black, white, Hispanic, Asian, or First People.

It is significant to remember that we live in a country which was founded on a Declaration of Independence which begins with these lofty words: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

You may believe that the responsibility for the current and future state of people of color lies solely within their own communities. And, I would challenge you on that assumption. That may fly for the ‘rugged individualism’ of the secular humanist, but it is not so for those who call ourselves Christians.

It is not so for those who were given a new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.” It is not so for those of us who promise in our Baptismal covenant to “respect the dignity of every human being.”

I further believe that whatever claim you make about the resurrection is seriously challenged and deeply impoverished if you do not believe that Christ lives in me and Christ lives in you and Christ lives in every single human being, regardless of the country of their origin or the color of their skin.

The only counterfeit faith is one that does not lay claim to the forgiving, reconciling, empowering and all-inclusive love of God who set all of creation free by the gift of Holy Spirit, which is God’s gift to us in Christ’s resurrection.

My sisters and brothers, we are disciplines on the Road to Emmaus. We have come to a very important juncture on our journey in faith. I believe we are being called to have courageous conversations with the Christ who lives in us and each other. I believe we are being called to listen to the interpretation of the Gospel with new ears. I believe we are being called to open our eyes to see Jesus in our midst.

This is the critically important point about the resurrection. Everything else is just details. And, if you don’t know that, you don’t know my Jesus. Amen

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