All is vanity. All politics, fashion, work, social media. All is vanity.
Vanity is getting a new haircut and thinking it makes you a new person.
Vanity is trying to ask Jesus if he wouldn’t just give us the inheritance over our brother.
Vanity is a white woman getting up in this pulpit to talk to you all about race. I just want to acknowledge that that is what I came here to talk about today, and that I realize the foolishness of me being up here in my white skin and my white experience trying to say something meaningful about race. I am no expert, and it’s something that’s kind of uncomfortable for me to talk about – but I have come to understand that in this topic, my own discomfort is serving to make my silence act like complicity with the police state in this country and the abuses it has visited on Black people. The recently departed Holocaust survivor and professor Elie Wiesel said that “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” So I hope that in my own public speaking, in conjunction with all of you thinkers and activists of the social justice solidarity group here at COTA, that we can all be engaged in the work of taking the side of justice, taking the side of solidarity with our African American brothers and sisters.
And with that, let’s approach the text boldly, like this person in the crowd approached Jesus.
I just have so much sympathy with this nameless “person in the crowd,” who asks Jesus to settle a family dispute about money. Won’t you, Jesus, won’t you favor me over my no-good brother and tell him to give me a little more of his money. Jesus, I know he’s got it, and I want to hear how right I am in asking for it.
Now you all should know that one of my favorite things in the world is reading advice columns. People are always writing in about inheritances. Nothing like family and money to divide folks. It is so very human to try to get that inheritance. Everybody wants to be the one who gets taken care of, and nobody wants to find out that they really aren’t the favorite.
And let’s also position this in the long history of sibling rivalry of our tradition: We knew brothers were going to have trouble over favor and inheritance as early as the word go, when Cain killed Abel over God his father’s favor. Later on we get the most delicious sibling rivalry story of all time: Jacob and Esau. Jacob went and tricked his aged father to steal the birthright from his older twin brother, Esau, and it caused conflict for generations. So it’s no small thing, to ask Jesus to get involved in a family dispute over inheritance: it’s possible that Jesus might give an answer that speaks to the whole of the written tradition.
But Jesus isn’t here to be your advice columnist. Jesus is not here to settle the family dispute over money. In fact, Jesus not only dismisses this person in the crowd, he halts all kind of conversation about his role: I am not here to be the judge or arbiter over you.
As long as humans exist, we will have sibling fights over who can have the favor of the parents. And we have made some really ugly statements about wealth or “blessing,” being the equivalent of divine favor, about being the equivalent of love. We all know that’s a lie, but it’s a strong one.
Jesus explicitly equates this with the greed of storing up treasure on earth instead of wondering how to be rich towards God. But I don’t want to get there yet. Let’s talk about our sibling rivalries here on this earth.
Our own Marie was in a play last summer, a beautiful play called “And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi.” Marie was wonderful in it, she whispered and wailed the river and brought the story to life. But the character I really loved was Jesus. Jesus sang gospel, and lamented, and she danced all across the stage and story. She’s everything you would want Jesus to be: generous and kind hearted and heartbroken for the pain of the world. In the play, many stories interweaved together to create a tapestry that told America about ourselves. The play concerned the Civil War, when the “war between brothers” laid bare all of our faults and sins as a country. Our nation has a history of racism.
At the heart of the play were two children of the South: a little Black girl and a little white girl. The big reveal of course is that they are siblings, grown up together in the same household and the white girl is given favor over her slave-born sister. By the end of the war, and the play, they are both freed of the institution of slavery which cast them as dominant master and submissive property, and all lies have been revealed. The emancipation proclamation and the truth set the girls free. They have been the inheritors of a ruined past, a system of oppression, a family killed by the war, but also freedom, truth, and a new chance at liberty.
Now how did we do, America? How did our foremothers, the sisters who were daughters of the confederacy and the sisters who were daughters of slavery, did they make this nation into a family of peace?
No. Not yet. We are standing in 2016 and looking at our broken family system, and we are now inheritors of violence, division, and pain. For white people, the burden is light: we are lifted by our generational access to capital and jobs and polite treatment by authority figures. In short, our traumas are personal, and not connected to our racial identity.
We are going to talk about violence. I want to take a moment to point out that whether the press has acknowledged it or not, gendered violence or domestic violence has flared up lately especially in our local sphere. Now, intersectionality demands that we see the whole of the problem: that as bell hooks tells us, the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is working in and throughout our whole social system and perpetuates many kinds of oppressions. The shooting in Mukilteo this weekend wherein three young people were shot and killed at a suburban barbecue highlights that. It was a horrific scene, brought on by a combination of things we might know about and we might not know about, but we see: male entitlement to women’s bodies, access to high powered automatic weapons, intention to kill. It seems impossible that we are facing this again, again, again.
For people of color, for our brothers and sisters in this family, there is another inheritance. It has been made shockingly clear to us that Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown’s deaths were not a horrifying aberration, but an actual precedent for the violence to come. The worst came, and it turned out not to be the end. The trauma of violence against people of color – often by authority figures who should be protecting and serving – is now common.
It has been painful years of shoot first, ask questions later, and justice never as we have seen each killer walk away scot free. Just this week all charges were dropped against the officers who caused the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. And also, we are at the point where if a person of color is interacting with a police officer in any possible capacity, they do not know if the police are going to treat them fairly, or harass them unjustly, or kill them. This is unacceptable, family. Because we are all sisters and brothers, and some of us have inherited privilege that allows us to close our eyes, and some of us have inherited injustice that means you have no choice but to stay woke.
And it’s not just out in the streets where people of color are being diminished. There is white supremacy that is so sneaky, it gets into our every institution. It is that silence that I talked about that I am guilty of – silence in the face of injustice does not end in systemic change. Silence looks like hoping and praying it will go away but not doing anything to make it so.
A woman named Makiah Green wrote an article on Huffington Post last week that had some real wisdom. It was about why she had left the church over a year ago. She says: “I never imagined that I could exist outside the Church I once held so dear. But due to the routine state-sanctioned violence that is being inflicted on my people, and the inadequate response from the church, I have decided to remove myself entirely from a system that claims to value my soul, but fails to show up for my Black body.”
What a testimony. I am not the church, we are the church together- and the Body of Christ is not complete without all bodies. The Body of Christ is not fully present without Black people. For that matter, the Body of Christ is not fully present without Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, transgender, and queer people. This family is not a family without all members being here, engaging in the work of the church together.
And if the work of the church is to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God, then we all need to be engaged in that work. To first meet true criticisms of this system we are in, and to show up for Black bodies. You know, my wise friend Emily Patton said something the other week that has also struck me: she said that “the labor of justice is hard work, and that people of color have been doing this labor for many years and it is a time for white people to step up and engage in the labor.” She called me in. So thank you, Emily, for giving us a chance to work together and to meet injustice with hard work.
So I’m thinking about Jesus in the crowd at that time, Jesus who was from a big, blended, family in a multiethnic culture that was experiencing oppression and violence and bloodshed from a police state, and someone comes up and asks, Jesus, fix this problem in my family.
And Jesus isn’t there to fix the problem in that person’s family. He’s not here now to fix the problem in our family. That work is for us. But Jesus tells us how to do it. Jesus says to not be greedy, to share our labor, and to give richness to God.
One of my favorite witnesses of giving richness to God is in Bree Newsome. Bree Newsome is a woman from North Carolina, she’s one of those Moral Mondays folks that we don’t hear about enough. Bree climbed that South Carolina statehouse flagpole after the shooting in Charleston and took down that Confederate flag. She said: “In the name of Jesus, this flag has to come down. You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today.” Holy words.
How are we going to be rich towards God? God wants all of our inheritance: our smarts and our love and our cleverness to all be used abundantly on one another. God’s heart is pleased when our love spills all over this world and mends division and heals wounds. God’s smiling at us when we are resisting oppression, and using our bodies to go against those institutions that would still insult our dignity by holding up tradition over the rights of all.
But that isn’t the end. It doesn’t finish with us, and it never does. Makiah Green also said that “God’s grace is sufficient, even when my works aren’t.” I think someone else said that too. We are a church of grace alone, and this family, as hurt as we are, as well-intentioned and poorly practiced as we may be, we have the grace of God coming into our lives again and again. God’s grace shows us that any richness we give to each other and to God is poor in comparison to the gifts that God gives us. God’s grace is there in our private moments of grief, and God’s grace is there in public, windswept, terrible mourning. God’s grace covers each and every one of us, and calls us into this life of faith and work for justice together. Walk humbly with your God, because God first walked humbly with us.