June 7, 2020 / Day of Pentecost / Richard Holmer
1st Reading Genesis 1:2-6, 1:26-2:3/ 2nd Reading 2 Corinthians 13:11-13/ Gospel Matthew 28:16-20
These past months I have come to realize that there is a lot we don't know that we need to know - a lot that we don't understand that we need to understand.
This coronavirus has proved to be both menacing and mysterious. We know that it is highly contagious - having spread across the entire world in a matter of months. We know that it is a deadly threat, having killed over 100,000 here in America and nearly 400,000 around the world. We know that at present there is neither a cure nor a vaccine that can resist and overcome this virus. What we don't know is how long COVID-19 will continue to threaten and disrupt our lives or when it might surge again. What we don't understand is all the various ways this virus can affect the human body. New and debilitating consequences continue to show up. We don't understand why it seems that 80% of the infections are spread by 20% of those who have the virus - and up to 70% of those who contract COVID-19 never pass it on to anyone else. Much more remains to be understood, yet you see what I mean about the extent of our unknowing. In order to address the threats of this pandemic, there is a lot that is unknown which needs to be much better understood.
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Recent events have also compelled me (and many others ) to recognize that there is a lot that I don't understand about what it's like to be a black person in America. As a white male, I have many opportunities and privileges which I take for granted. My life has been very good and comfortable overall. I have been spared the inequities, the discrimination, the frustration, the injustices experienced by black and brown people in our country. The recent horrific killings of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery - coming on the heels of so many other senseless and unwarranted killings of African Americans - make it impossible to ignore that for people of color in our country, life is different in ways that are painful, unjust and shameful. Many have seen the videos of the murders of Floyd and Arbery. Those are national stories that have led to distress nationwide. On a local level, last Wednesday I attended a rally right here in downtown Lake Forest. There was a variety of speakers who spoke to realities facing African Americans in our nation and in our community. A number of African Americans who spoke are longtime residents of Lake Forest; several are graduates of LFHS - one is now entering her final year at the Naval Academy at Annapolis. They shared their experiences - some awkward, some quite troubling - of living as members of a distinct minority. Rashied Davis played for the Chicago Bears for a number of years and continues to live in our community. He shared how when he is identified as a Bear, he is generally treated well. However, when he is not known to be a professional athlete, just another black man, he has been treated quite differently. Mr. Davis shared how as a young man growing up in L.A., he was frequently stopped by police as he rode his bike around town - stopped for no reason other than the color of his skin. He related how he had learned the drill: get off your bike, raise your hands over your head, and don't say or do anything that might be misunderstood. One officer said to him “Oh, you've done this before.” Davis said “Yeah, more times than I care to remember.” He went on to share how from an early age he has had to teach his children how to behave when they are confronted by police or other authorities. Another resident related how when she took her children to a local park, another mother approached her, assuming she was the nanny for the children. Such things speak to perceptions and assumptions many of us often make. What all the speakers asked of those who were gathered was, first, to take time to listen, to hear and to learn about the experiences of black people who are our neighbors, fellow citizens. Then, to make an effort to understand the daily realities that cause their lives to be very different from yours and mine. And then to commit to overcoming both the blunt and the subtle racism that pervades our society. Racism is destructive and demeaning. People are not racist because they are evil; racism is a learned attitude, a learned behavior. What is learned can also be unlearned - people can learn to think differently. We live in affluent and privileged communities that enable us to live freely - and often unaware of the challenges faced by others. At the rally I learn that Lake Forest actually has a heritage of caring about racism and those who are affected by it. One of the first mayors of Lake Forest was actively involved in supporting the Underground Railroad, which brought slaves to freedom. His house was a stop on that railroad. This is a hopeful reminder.
Discrimination is a large and longstanding problem for us to deal with. I am encouraged that right now many seem to want to find ways to address this problem. I have hope and faith that by the grace of God we can move closer to Dr. King's vision of coming to a time when persons are not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
A starting point is coming to grips with what we truly don't understand. Our ignorance of the coronavirus can be addressed through scientific research. Our ignorance of the experience of our African American neighbors – and the depth of discrimination in our land – requires us to examine our own assumptions, to listen closely to the stories of black experience and to be willing to face hard truths. May God grant us the faith and courage and wisdom to be intentional in these efforts.
By now you might be wondering: what does all of this have to do with Holy Trinity Sunday? Actually quite a bit, as it turns out. The beauty of the living word of God is how it continues to speak in fresh ways to our present circumstances. Scripture speaks to us when the spirit opens our ears to listen for guidance. I call your attention to some relevant passages in today's readings.
The story of creation in Genesis reminds us that all humans are created in the image of God: both male and female, black and white, European descent and African descent. There is no distinction. Where we may see differences that enable us to discriminate - God sees only the beautiful children he has formed in his likeness.
God gives humans a special responsibility in creation: “to have DOMINION over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” We are God’s agents, charged with caring for all that God has made. Dominion is a good word, a strong word. Dominion means executing God's authority, God's will, on behalf of every living thing. The word is not DOMINATION, but DOMINION, which implies stewardship and caregiving, not control or subjugation. Humans are not made by God to dominate other humans.
In his concluding words in Second Corinthians Paul urges his readers to “put things in order, agree with one another, live in peace.” We have all witnessed the disorder in our current situation: unjust discrimination and killing, senseless violence and destruction, widespread suspicion and antagonism, deep divisions in society. As Christians we are called to help put things in order, to find paths that lead to agreement on how to overcome differences, and to work toward living with all in peace. And Paul points us to the way to achieve these aims: Not by force or violence or threats; but by grace and love and communion: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit.
Then in today's gospel Jesus gives his followers his Great Commission. One part of that commission is to teach the nations “to obey everything I have commanded you.” Jesus issued his new and great commandment at the Last Supper: Love one another as I have loved you.
Brothers and sisters, and I mean it when I call you brothers and sisters in Christ - we have black brothers and sisters who are grieving and hurting. Their grief and pain are not new, they have a long and grim history. But just now there are new and tragic sufferings added to their burden. You and I are called to love them as Christ loves us, called to bind up the brokenhearted, called to set the captives free, called to ease the burden of the oppressed, called to be agents of justice and mercy.
How will we answer God's call? We can choose to continue in the relative comfort and security of the status quo - with our privilege and our priorities. Or we can dare to take the risk of changing our course, of seeing things through the eyes of those who are hurting, of pursuing the bold (yet vulnerable) path of actually trying to love all our neighbors.
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On this Trinity Sunday we are reminded that at the heart of God - the essence of the Holy Trinity - is perfect unity. Three in One, One in Three. God calls all people to participate in the goodness and blessedness of that Unity. God is Father to us all. Jesus claims everyone as his brothers and sisters. The Holy Spirit calls and binds all together in God's gracious embrace. Today, such unity is still a dream, a vision. Yet it is a dream worthy of all our heart, soul, mind and strength.