Sermon for May 26, 2019, Easter 6C. An audio version will be here for several weeks.
Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
“You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.”
More than once this past week I have been among people who have commented on how crazy things seem to be right now. Some people have told me they try not to hear any news at all because it is all so upsetting. But it is on in the doctor’s office waiting room, it is playing in the hair salon; it is not easy to escape. Besides, escape cannot be the best option, in my opinion. Not to know, means not to be able to do anything about it. But being aware of what is going on in the world and domestically, including locally, can be upsetting — and maybe should be upsetting, to people who care about peace and justice, who take freedom and fairness, and the climate crisis seriously.
Peace is Complicated
The subject today in John’s gospel is peace. This is good timing for people like us in times like these. But peace is complicated. I believe there is right-peace and wrong-peace. So it is important to see what wisdom we can find in John’s gospel to help us understand and seek, and find, the right peace.
In John’s gospel, we hear Jesus speaking, but if you have been here for the last few weeks you have heard me say something about the way most Biblical scholars understand this gospel. Written at least six decades after Jesus walked the earth, we do not have the literal words of Jesus, but the memory of Jesus, processed through a community of faith that has been formed by the quest to follow Jesus in their context.
This is a community that has experienced Jesus’ presence spiritually, just as we do. They have come to find great peace by paying attention to Jesus’ teaching. They have experienced the presence of the Spirit with them. They call the Spirit, in this translation, the Advocate — someone who is there for you at the right time, providing exactly the help you need at that moment.
I think many of us have experienced those same things. Some of you have told me about moments you have had of sensing the presence of the Spirit in a time of need, and the peace that the Spirit brings. That is the right kind of peace. It is the sense we have, even when things are not at all what we expected or wanted, that we will get through it; it will be okay. God is with us, by the Spirit, and all will be well. You could call this kind of peace equanimity.
The Peace of Avoidance
So if that is the right kind of peace, what is the wrong kind? I think there are many wrong kinds of peace. I already mentioned the peace you might try to get by putting your head in the sand and trying not to be engaged. I think all of us agree that part of being a person of faith is that we sense that we have been addressed. We sense that at a deep level, we have been called. Our lives then are our response to that address, that call. Following the teaching of Jesus means that we feel the call to compassion, the call to forgiveness, the call to seek justice, the call to be in relationship with a beloved community that makes a difference in the world. So, the peace of ignorance and avoidance, if it were possible, is the wrong kind of peace.
The Peace of Privilege
There is another kind of peace that is the wrong kind to seek; that is the peace of the privileged. We, white people, are privileged. The only people who do not understand that are white people. Let me give you a trivial example. In the interest of not using plastic bags, have you ever turned one down at the cash register because you were just buying one or two things and you could easily carry them without a bag? I heard a black comedian who did a routine on how taking things out of a store without a bag was a white option, not a black option. It was funny, as he described it — even asking the cashier not only for a bag but also to staple it, and to staple the receipt to the outside, just to be safe. But it’s really not funny at all. They say that humor is based in pain: that routine clearly is.
It turns out that we progressively-minded, privileged people all agree that we want racial reconciliation. That’s a good thing, right? We want to get along and be nice. We want peace. But what people of color want more than reconciliation, is justice. Making nice is not usually the top priority of people in the power-down position.
In fact, the kind of reconciliation that we privileged white people usually seek is personal and individual. We are proud that we have some friends who are people of color. We are happy that we work with, and shop with, and share restaurants and entertainment with them. We wish them no ill-will. And we think that because individually, we are actually living the kind of reconciliation we seek, that everything should be okay.
In the meantime, to give just one example, the criminal justice system is producing mass incarceration with all of the implications for the entire black community. And this illustrates why privileged, individual peace, is the wrong kind of peace: racism is structural and systemic, not just personal. Only privileged white people don’t know that. So seeking individual reconciliation, without doing the hard, long work of seeking justice on a systemic and structural level, is seeking the wrong kind of peace.
Peace for the Fragile
When the subject of racism comes up, it is easy to ruffle the feathers of white people. We progressively-minded people want to think of ourselves as noble, and it hurts our feelings when someone points out that we have just done something racially offensive, or that we have been willingly complicit in racist systems. This is called white fragility. Black people who have to interact with white people attest to how much energy they spend trying not to upset fragile white people.
I have been reading Austin Channing Brown’s book, “I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness” which is eye-opening and disturbing. I wish all of us would read it. In a chapter on white fragility, she recounted an experience she had after teaching a class on race and faith. Austin, by the way, is a black woman. A white man, who had come in late and missed most of the content, saw a post-it note on the wall — part of an activity the class had done before he got there. It had Travon Martin’s name on it. He got all red-faced and started shouting at Austin all kinds of incorrect and mistaken ideas, as if he knew about black men and black neighborhoods better than she did. So, clearly, he was a pretty fragile white person.
But Austin said that as her white colleagues discussed the incident with her afterward, they started by being sympathetic to what she had gone through — clearly the man was out of line — but then the conversation shifted to all the things she could have said that would have helped him calm down. White fragility puts the responsibility on the black people in the room to make sure that the fragile white people in the room do not feel uncomfortable. The white people want peace in the room, on an individual basis, and the black people are responsible for it. That is called seeking a privileged peace. That is the wrong kind of peace.
Racism comes from fear. Fear of the loss of privilege; fear of loss of control; fear of things being different than they had been for us, fear of losing our majority and all the benefits that have come from it for so long.
But fear can be resisted, and we have been called to resistance. In this text, we hear Jesus described as saying,
“Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
Do not let fear control you. Do not let fear win. There is way too much at stake here. Resist fear.
How? Jesus said,
“the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”
So, our task is to listen. Our task is to regularly practice the kinds of spiritual practices that tune our ears to hear the voice of the Spirit teaching us and reminding us of Jesus’ words and Jesus’ way. Practices, like mindfulness meditation, silence, prayer, and what we are doing right now: meeting together to orient ourselves toward gratitude to God, which is what we call worship, these are practices that tune us in to the voice of the Spirit.
The fruit of these practices is the right kind of peace. Jesus said,
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”
That kind of peace is the kind that conquers fear. It is the sense that though what is happening may be difficult, or worse, we will be able to handle it. It is the peace that produces that counter-narrative in our heads, that tell us, it will be okay. We have not been abandoned. God is present. The Spirit of God is in us and around us. It will be alright. All will be well.
So we can face structural racism, with courage, and peacefully work to dismantle it. We can face our own fragility with courage and know that the Spirit can help us to become better versions of ourselves, as we keep listening, and learning.