Pastor Note #98: Hearing Our Neighbors’ Cry of Distress: A White Pastor Talks to his White Congregation about Race


A Sermon Preached on June 7, 2020

Woodlawn Cemetery, Elmira, NY
Woodlawn Cemetery, Elmira, NY

These are very challenging times for our society.  We all like church to be a place of comfort, peace, and ease.  But sometimes it just can’t be like that.  Sometimes we have to wrestle with hard and uncomfortable things.  And that’s what we’re going to do today.

If you’ve listened to me preach very often, you know that occasionally I sort of open the cover and show you the gears and levers and tell you why the sermon is put together the way it is.  There are a couple of points today when I’m going to do that.

And here’s the first one.  One of the fundamental rules of preaching for me is this:  Preach to the people who are here.  Do not preach to people who are not here.  And here’s how that works out for today’s sermon.  I’m going to say very little about looting and rioting this morning.  That’s not because I think looting and rioting are okay.  Rather, it’s because I don’t believe anyone who is listening to me right now is involved in looting and rioting or is even tempted to be involved with looting and rioting.  Looters and rioters are not here.  So, I’m not going to preach about the sins of looting and rioting.

One of the classic spiritual dodges in the life of faith is to focus intensely on the sins of other people, so that you don’t have to look at your own.  When a preacher does that, everyone involved is happy.  The preacher is happy because he’s condemned sin.  The listeners are happy because he hasn’t condemned their sins or challenged them to do anything.  Sin has been condemned, but it was someone else’s sin, so the sermon doesn’t make any of the listeners uncomfortable.

Looting and rioting are evil.  They hurt people.  Looting and rioting are sin, and those who are doing that should stop.  Looting and rioting will never accomplish justice.  But I’m not going to say any more about that because I love you too much to waste your time talking to you about somebody else’s sin.  I don’t want to tempt you or me to dodge God.  We need instead to look at our own hearts.  I believe God has something he wants to deal with us about, and that’s what we should be paying attention to now.

The ideals on which our nation was founded are the heart and soul of American greatness.  Our greatness as a nation is not found in wealth or military power.  Nations can be rich and powerful without being great.  And we could no doubt make a list of such nations.  No, American greatness is not in our wealth or power.  The greatness we have is found in our ideals, the ideals our nation was founded on, the ideals of freedom and equality, justice and respect for the human dignity of all.  It is in aspiring to those ideals that we aspire to greatness.

IMG_7839But in order to achieve that greatness, we also have to acknowledge that we as a nation have sometimes fallen far short of the ideals we aspire to.  It is a fact of our history that for hundreds of years—beginning even before our nation was founded as a nation—the white inhabitants of America relegated millions of human beings to slavery, simply and solely because of the pigmentation of their skin, a slavery that attempted to deny the very humanity of those people, people who bore the image of God.  I believe that most everyone listening to me now agrees that the enslavement of African people was a great evil and represents a blot on our nation’s history.  But much as we would like it to be otherwise, the truth is the consequences of that evil are still with us.

Sadly, the legal and formal oppression of African Americans continued long after the end of slavery in America.  It continued down into the lifetime of many listening now.  I, for example, remember as a child seeing signs indicating that some facilities available for my use were forbidden by law to others solely and simply because of the color of their skin.  And we all know that there were many other indignities worse than that.  This too I know all of you agree was a great evil and a blot on our history as a nation.  And yet, the consequences of that evil continue with us today.

That last statement about the consequences of our racial injustices being with us still today can be hard for white folks like me and most of you to really understand or even believe.  But we need to be very careful here.  Our spiritual well-being is at stake in this.  The fact that those of us who are white have not ever really experience anything like that racial oppression that has been part of our nation’s history can be a trap for us.  We can be tempted to make our own experience the measure of all things.  To do that is a form of spiritual arrogance.  When I do that, I define the standards of truth by me and my experience.  I make myself into my own God.

If my faith is to be alive, then truth has to be defined for me by God and not by my own experience.  My own experience is not a safe measure of what is true.  Only God is safe for that.  The mere fact that I have not experienced racial injustice does not mean that racial injustice isn’t a reality in America.  My experience of life is not the infallible measure of what is true.

James S. French, 1800-1881

Also, love, true love, Christian love requires me to step outside of my own experience and enter into someone else’s experience.  In order to love someone else, in order to care about them, I need to try to step into their world and see life as they see it.  That’s what Jesus has done by becoming flesh and dwelling among us.  In order to love others, we need to do for them what Jesus has done for us all.  Love requires that I make every effort to enter into and understand the life experience of another.  In our reading from Romans 12:15, the apostle Paul calls us to do just that: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.”  In order to weep with those who weep, we need to step out of our experience and into theirs.

This entering into another person’s experience, especially in terms of race, is hard.  Our church is located in a municipality that is 97% white.  Only 1.6% of the population here is Black.  Now, this has implications for the way I experience life.  I am white, living in a community that is almost entirely white.  And as I go about my life in this community, I never, ever think about the fact that I am white.  Race is never a factor in how I think about my life or in how I interact with the world, because I am a white man living in a community that is overwhelmingly white.  That is how I experience life, and I will venture to guess, that is how most all white people experience life in America.

Now let me just ask you to open yourselves to the possibility—a possibility that is certainly a fact—that Black Americans experience race very differently than we white Americans do.  I can’t exactly explain how Black Americans experience race in America, and I should not try.  But I want you to be open to recognizing the fact that Black Americans experience race in America differently than we white Americans do.  And so, I want to warn us white Americans back from the error of assuming that our experience of race is the same as that of Black Americans.

Let me share with you a mental exercise that I have gone through this past week that has helped me.  I hope it’s helpful.  I hope it’s not offensive.  Think about our local suburban community, as I mentioned earlier 97% white, 1.6% Black.  Now, I want you to imagine a Black teenager, a boy, running up one of the streets in one of the new developments or other neighborhoods in our community.  Remember, this is just a sort of mental exercise, what C. S. Lewis used to call a “supposal.”  So, in this mental exercise of an African American teenage boy is running through a neighborhood around here, would it be inconceivable to you that someone living in that neighborhood, seeing him, not knowing him, knowing only that he was Black, might call the police and report a suspicious youth running through the neighborhood?  Would that be inconceivable?  I’m not suggesting that it has ever happened here.  I have no idea.  I’m not even suggesting that it will ever happen.  I’m only asking if it is conceivable to you.  I have to say for myself that if I were to hear that something like this had happened in our community, I would not be shocked.  I know it’s the sort of thing that could happen here, because it’s the sort of thing that has happened in other places like this.

Okay, now, take one more mental step in this exercise.  I want you to put yourselves in the shoes of that teenager’s mom and dad.  Let’s say the dad is a mid-level manager at one of the local tech firms, and let’s say that the mom is a nurse at one of the local hospitals.  They’re looking for a place to buy a home to raise their family.  That African American mom and dad have to take into account the fact that in many neighborhoods, people who do not know him will consider their son to be suspicious simply because of the color of his skin.

IMG_5648I’ve moved my family four times in my adult life.  Never once did I have to worry about whether people in my community would find my son suspicious because of the color of his skin.  My African American neighbors are experiencing race differently than I am.  And that’s just a fact.

Friends, we are hearing today a cry of distress from our African American neighbors.  We white Americans may not be able to really comprehend their distress.  It is outside our experience.  But it is a genuine cry of distress.  It is a cry of distress that has been going up for generations.  This week has been a week of soul-searching for me.  I like to think of myself as being quite enlightened on matters of race.  And yet year after year I have heard the cries of distress.  I have seen the news stories of abuse and mistreatment of my African American neighbors.  I may say, “Oh, how awful!”  But then I just go on about my life.

This cry of distress has been ringing out since before America was a nation.  God expects his people to hear that cry.  The words of the prophet:

9 This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. 10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’

11 But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears. 12 They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. So the Lord Almighty was very angry.  Zechariah 7:9-12 [NIV]

The cry of distress is going up from our African American neighbors.  It has been going up for generations upon generations.  We have to listen.  We have to listen.

Well, I told you that I was going to lift the cover and show you some of the gears and lever of how sermons are made.  Here it is again.  When I was in seminary about 104 years ago, one of my preaching professors used to torment us after we’d preach a sermon for class by often asking us this question, “Yeah, that was all very interesting, but so what?”  He insisted that our sermons failed if they didn’t provide some answer to the question, “So what?  So, what am I to do with what you’ve just preached?”

I have to confess that I don’t really know quite how to end this sermon with an answer to the question, “So what now?”  And I’m embarrassed about that.  I really am not sure what to do.  But I do know this.  Our black neighbors are weeping, and we white Americans should be weeping with them.  I know this.  Our Black neighbors are crying out in distress.  We have to listen.

© 2020 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.

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