Racial Justice Sermon
17th Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev. Kisten H. Thompson
Dear Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Thank you to Pastor Sonja for inviting me to preach this morning as Christ the King begins a month-long Wednesday evening engagement with racial justice issues, specifically our denomination’s 2019 apology to people of African Descent for slavery.
To set the stage for the study, lets take a look at our first reading for this morning, and what the call of Moses could be saying to you as individuals but more importantly to us as a congregation, as Christ the King Lutheran Church.
Our first reading picks up partway through Moses’ life…to really understand chapter 3, we need to go back over 400 years to where Jacob and his descendants settle in Egypt to escape a famine…they grow and multiply…they gain land, people and wealth and Pharaoh begins to fear their numbers. He enslaves them, oppresses them, makes their lives bitter and even tries to kill the male babies…there is generation upon generation upon generation of suffering.
Until Moses is born to Hebrew parents, hidden and then set adrift in a basket to be found, rescued and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. He is raised to adulthood in privilege, power and favor, only to run for his life after he kills an Egyptian who was abusing an enslaved Hebrew and Pharaoh tries to kill him. Moses runs to Midian and settles there.
And so our reading begins with Moses now in this comfortable, safe, settled, calm life…married…with a son…tending sheep for his father-in-law, Jethro…life is good for Moses.
But it has NOT been and is NOT now good for the Israelites who are groaning and crying out in their enslavement and suffering.
And God hears their cries…God remembers God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and God begins the action…the action to save and deliver God’s people.
What does God do?
First God gets Moses’ attention…through a burning bush and by calling his name…not once, but twice. It’s sort of like hearing your full given name called out…Kisten Lee Henriksen…when I was younger and I heard that…I knew my mother meant business…and I’d better pay attention. And a burning bush? Well, if that doesn’t get your attention, I don’t know what would.
Then God names the mission…God tells Moses that God knows the suffering of the Israelites…God has heard their groaning, their crying out and God has compassion for them. And God is going to deliver them from slavery and bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey…the Promised Land…and God has chosen Moses to undertake and lead this great mission.
And finally, God seals the deal with both reassurance and revelation. The more that Moses stammers and stutters that he is not the one God wants for the mission, the more God says it’s really not about what you want…and God says “I will be with you”. This whole endeavor doesn’t rest on Moses shoulder’s alone…God is the one who will make it happen…God is the One who is faithful…it is God’s action that will deliver the people. That’s the reassurance.
But there is also a revelation…the revealing of a name and not just any old name. It is the name of God Almighty, God the Lord, God the Most High…I AM WHO I AM…the name that is to be revered and honored…the name of the One who causes all things to pass. This is the name that seals the deal for the relationship between Moses and God, between Moses and the Israelites, between the Israelites and God, for the generations to come…the name that acknowledges the suffering of the oppressed, the name of the one who delivers, the name of the One who is always and forever present.
I’ve been doing quite a bit of wondering about this story of Moses and his encounter with God in the burning bush and how it sent his life in a completely new and different direction. I sometimes think that I, too, had been like Moses….he had settled into a safe life, a sheltered life, free from the fear and danger that had been in Egypt. And I moved back to MN to begin seminary, leaving behind a still segregated South and lifestyle, hoping for a calmer, more equitable life…a life where I didn’t have to see the injustices I saw day in and day out in Memphis…back to MN where I could revel in my Scandinavian heritage, my Ole and Lena jokes, and finding Lutherans and like-minded people on every corner. I wanted safety, comfort, familiarity.
But I soon found that MN was not the safe haven that I thought it was, nor was it as welcoming as I had hoped. Oh, I was welcomed but it was not that way for many others. I learned that my education, my heritage, my skin color, my economic earning power gave me a head start over so many others, even though my gender wasn’t always a positive.
It was while I was pastoring in urban St. Paul that God began to get my attention…Michael Brown, Philando Castille, Freddie Gray-those men, their names, their deaths began to stir my heart and the hearts of so many…Black Lives Matter…what did that mean? Didn’t all lives matter? Why the distinction? The murder of the Mother Emmanuel Nine…Redlining, housing covenants, the history of the splitting of the Rondo neighborhood…I began to see, listen and learn. But that little congregation closed and I settled into retirement, snug and secure here in New Brighton…And still God continued to grab my attention…the rise of white supremacy groups here in the U.S., the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia where Nazi and anti-Semitic slogans were shouted…the changing demographics here in New Brighton.
And then, in the midst of a world-wide pandemic, George Floyd was murdered here in Minneapolis and the fires of reform, protest and calls for real, lasting change, for justice, equality spread not only across our state, our country but around the world. I felt called to the work of racial justice and reconciliation. And life has not been the same.
Perhaps you have experienced something similar…an awakening, a wondering what you might do to make life more just for those who have been sidelined, marginalized and oppressed for generations. Perhaps you have been wondering what systemic racism or white privilege even means? Perhaps you feel a stirring in your heart, that perhaps God is calling you into a new venture to learn how the institution of slavery built this country, now the enslavement of people of African descent was codified into law even as early as the 1600’s in the first years of settlement of this country. Perhaps you are even wondering how the Christian church either participated in the perpetuation of slavery, the Jim Crow laws, the terror of lynchings or stood by passively as others took the lead.
And maybe, just maybe, you’re secretly wondering, what’s all the fuss? Can’t we just move ahead and forget all this? And really, I just don’t see color, I see the person.
I think that God is grabbing our attention through the events of the day and calling us to leave the safety of our little comfort zones and venture into areas and ideas we may not understand but we need to. Pastor Sonja said in her sermon last week that God is calling us to be a Lukan church and when I think of that, I am reminded of the passage from Isaiah that Jesus read in the synagogue, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Just as God named the mission that Moses was to undertake, God is sending us on a mission as well, Christ the King. As we continue in this time of transition, in discovering and naming once again who we are as a faith community, we are given this opportunity to really and truly explore how we can become a courageous church, willing to have hard conversations about race, inequity, oppressive systems, to talk about confession, lament, racial reconciliation.
Perhaps in our own self-examination, study and conversation, we ourselves will be set free from our own participation and complicity in the privileged white systems that exist even when we didn’t know what they were or that we were helping to perpetuate them.
Moses was still uncertain, timid and resistant even after God got his attention, even after God revealed what God wanted him to do. God had to reassure Moses and give him God’s name…I will be with you…I AM GOES WITH YOU. That’s the reassurance and revelation that God shares with you this morning in this time of transition, in this time of beginning study and conversation.
The name of our study is Now Is the Time and truly, it is a time to trust in God’s presence, in God’s compassion, in God’s liberating deliverance and care…and that, dear friends, gives us the courage to face an uncomfortable past and walk boldly into a new future of racial justice and reconciliation and of structural change.
May we hear God’s voice saying, “I will be with you” as we gather together in courage and in hope to be about the work of proclaiming release to the captives and letting the oppressed go free.