Updated: Oct 2, 2020
Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 21st of Sixth Month, 2020
Speaker: Brian C. Young
Good morning, Friends!
Ephesians 4:25–5:2, NRSV: 25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. 28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.
29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. 1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2 and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
The last time that I spoke, we read part of Psalm 22, one of the Psalms of lament, and we considered how that voice of lament can inform us as we cry out at what we see around us, and in us, today. The Psalm we began our time with this morning is much different—Psalm 85 is a psalm of restoration, of celebration of God’s goodness to humanity and to the created order. In the restored relationship of God and the people, all the components of shalom come together: love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss. There is a deep unity, no separation between these things. And the Psalmist extends this harmony to the natural world: “Faithfulness springs forth from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven” (v11). With God, we expect this unity—there is no faithfulness without love; there is no righteousness without peace. And, while the Psalmist doesn’t mention it here, justice in the Psalms and in the prophets is so often paired with righteousness, that we have to put it in the picture as well. As is so often the case, God’s vision of shalom stands in stark contrast to the world we experience; yet that vision orients our hope and our action in this world.
The passage from Ephesians 4 & 5 provides us another glimpse of that vision, this one for the life of the church, the faithful community. On one hand, we can read this passage as a list of exhortations to faithful living that are loosely connected. They are all pointed at the unity and harmony of the Christian community in some way. But there is one juxtaposition that I think is particularly instructive: when I look at this passage, I notice how “speak the truth to your neighbor,” and “be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” are close to one another. I think the author of Ephesians may have put these two thoughts close together because he or she knew that speaking the truth is dangerous and difficult business; and sometimes anger is in the picture, either beforehand, or afterwards.
“Be angry but do not sin” could refer to the prophet whose anger leads them to speak the truth; it could also refer to the one who hears the truth being spoken. In both cases, the writer does not condemn the anger—remember, a few weeks ago when we looked at Jesus’ encountering the man with a skin disease (that is called leprosy in our translations but was probably something else); we remember that one of the ways to translate the emotion that Jesus feels when he responds by healing that man, is anger.1 So the writer (of Ephesians) does not condemn the anger, just as Mark does not condemn Jesus’ anger in Mark 1, when he has the encounter with the leper.
Clearly, anger is going to show up in this kind of discourse, where truth is spoken. The key is, “do not sin.” For the truth-speaker, this might mean, do not sin by adding to the truth you are led to speak, for that truth is hard enough to hear already, without something else being piled on top of it. For the truth-hearer, “do not sin” might mean, don’t close your ears to what you are hearing; encounter the anger, but don’t let it control your response to the truth.
The prophetic voice can be harsh, both for the speaker and for the audience. We don’t like to hear that voice, at least when it is directed at us. Hearing the truth spoken to us forces us to examine our actions, our intentions, and what is in our hearts.
This has been especially true for me in the halting work that I have done as a white person in the area of anti-racism. It’s tough when I am confronted by some dimension of the truth that I hadn’t considered before, that clearly calls me out, and I have to deal with the defensiveness that comes up as I try to deny this truth. I remember, in the first anti-racism training I participated in, which was probably fifteen years ago, that the trainers insisted that we were all, all of us as white people from North America, wrapped up in white supremacy thinking.
Now, I had read the material we had been given on white privilege, and I learned a lot from it. That new perspective was very useful; it made some things clear to me that I had only seen dim outlines of previously. It was sobering to think about how different the outcomes were that I could expect as a white person, navigating all of the usual challenges of daily life in Chicago, from those that an African-American man of my age would. And all of this came, I have to admit, after I had spent more than fifteen years as part of a majority African-American Friends church in a public housing project in the city, working and praying alongside black men and women. Even after all that time, even after all that work, my eyes needed to be opened to this reality.
And that particular part of the reality, I was okay with. BUT when the trainer took us on to that next step—white supremacy thinking—I balked. Me, engaged in white supremacy? That’s a Klan thing; that’s a Nazi thing, that’s not what I’m about! I believe that all people are equal in God’s sight! How could I be a white supremacist??? But then, when I considered all of my various cultural and personal preferences, the things that I considered most dear: Quakerism and Quaker culture; my attitudes towards money and property; what and who I considered to be beautiful; I had to admit that all these things, and more, were unavoidably connected with whiteness in my mind. And as a result, they were not just what I preferred, but what I considered to be superior to anything non-white; and their connection to whiteness was what conferred that superiority.
Now I said, “I had to admit” this, but really, it was more like a half-admission. I got about that far into it, and then I stalled. And it was quite some time before I got around to re-engaging on that score. As most of you realize, I think, another pernicious aspect of white privilege is that white people trying to confront racism can step off the train at any stop we want to, and suffer few consequences; a person of color doesn’t have a choice about being on the train, or not.
So one of the things that I’ve found—and some of you have heard me say this before, forgive me if I’m repeating myself, but—when it comes to anti-racism, it needs to be like anything related to discipleship; it needs to be a daily practice. It’s something that needs to be part of one’s day, each day, in the same way that prayer or any other spiritual discipline is. I know that some of you have already heard me use an analogy that comes from the hip-hip DJ and cultural commentator Jay Smooth, who says that that working against racism is like brushing one’s teeth. It’s not something you do once, and then, “hey, you’re anit-racist!” It’s something you need to do every day, several times a day. It’s a daily maintenance task that we need to engage in.
So for something like white supremacy thinking, I need to approach it again and again. I need to interrogate my thinking every day to see how I am embodying that, or not. And the reason for that is the pervasiveness of racism as a systemic reality for us in North America.
Jim Wallis, the founder of the Sojourners community of Washington, DC, is probably not the first to have said this, but he’s the one that I know said it: that racism is the original sin of the USA. Original sin is a doctrine that we probably don’t talk a lot about; perhaps we feel that we don’t need to. Perhaps we feel it’s old-fashioned, or unnecessary today. But I think it is instructive when we think about the pervasiveness of racism.
First, that means it’s universal—it affects everyone, whether we’re someone who benefits from it, or someone who is harmed by it. We’re not all equally aware of it, again, which relates to privilege. But it affects everyone, and part of the struggle for those who benefit from racism is becoming aware of that.
Second, racism as original sin means that it is systemic rather than personal—some theological understandings of sin put the emphasis on the individual, and what one has done or not done. None of us put systemic racism into place. It’s been with us since the beginning. But we each have a part to play in disrupting it and bringing about its end however we can.
Third—and this is not the end, but just the third thing I’ll say—I feel that, for the community of faith, grace is the primary means for us to approach the pervasiveness of racism. That does not mean that we “let each other off the hook;” but when we undertake these difficult discussions and exercises in changing our thinking and practices, and then when we try and take that to action, we need to keep grace in the picture. The passage from Ephesians speaks of “forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven [us]” (4:32); Christ’s forgiveness is not a cheap forgiveness, for we see in both his life and his death the supreme priority of bringing humanity out of oppression and brokenness and sin and into justice and righteousness and wholeness—that place where they’re all in unity—where they kiss one another. So to forgive someone in light of Christ’s forgiveness is to point the way from where we are—to acknowledge all that is broken, and oppressive, about where we are—and to point the way towards justice, and righteousness, and wholeness. And to trust that that grace will allow us to move between where we are and where God would have us to be.
Where I’d like to see any community of faith is in a place to be able to hear and heed the prophetic voice of truth when God gives it to any one of its members to speak; and to do that in a way, to hear and to heed it in a way that allows us to remain in relationship with one another. For we need one another in this journey.
And part of being able to hear and to heed the voice of truth is being willing to stop when one hears it, and to examine oneself. Some of you may know Bill Eagles, a Friend from North Carolina who is by profession a lawyer who does mediation. Bill is one of those Friends, like Friends here at West Richmond, who has lived through our recent difficult period of divisions among pastoral and Evangelical Friends. And in that process, Bill has been encouraging Friends to approach situations of interpersonal conflict with four simple words in mind: “I might be wrong.” (I can’t do Bill’s North Carolina accent, but if you know him, you can imagine him saying, “I might be wrong.”) I think this counsel also extends to trying to confront racism in ourselves. When I am confronted by the voice of truth, I need to do my best not to become defensive; to take a moment to step aside from the immediate rush of my feelings; and to say to myself, “I might be wrong.” And then if that’s true, what’s next? What do I need to learn from this? What unexamined assumption has been brought out in the open, that I now have the chance to work on?
How does our meeting find a way to hold together “speaking the truth to our neighbors”—speaking hard truth, hearing hard truth—and “being angry, but not sinning in that anger”?
I don’t have an easy answer to that; I trust that an answer will emerge for us, if we are faithful— to stay in the hard places, and to stay together in those hard places; trusting in that vision of God’s shalom where love and faithfulness, and righteousness and peace meet; that we may move forward with that vision shared among us, in our hearts, in our intentions, and in our actions.
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