A Sermon preached by the Rev. Richard G. P. Kukowski at Grace Church, Silver Spring, Maryland on June 14, 2020; it being the Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6A).
I had a sermon prepared for today and it was a good sermon – probably not great, but a good sermon based mainly on the passage we just heard from Paul’s letter to the Romans. It fit with what we are doing today – recognizing our graduating seniors, our Sunday School teachers and staff, our acolytes, our musicians and choir members. However, given what has been happening over the past three weeks and given the nonsense I have heard from members of our present national administration and the president, not to mention he cluelessness of scheduling a political rally on Juneteenth, I threw that sermon out and started over. This sermon isn’t very polished – didn’t have time for that – but it is where I stand right now – as a senior citizen – as a white man – and as a priest in the Church of God – for all three of those are interwoven in my identity.
I grew up in Minnesota and have always taken a certain pride in that. I survived and thrived in temperatures that got as low as 20 degrees below zero and snow beginning often in October, if not September and lasting sometimes until April or even May. And I reveled in what is called “Minnesota Nice”: — Minnesotans smile and are nice to everyone offering a cup of coffee and a warm cinnamon roll to all.
And then came July 6, 2016, when Philando Chase, a 36 year old African American man was shot and killed in a Twin Cities suburb during a routine traffic stop. But, I was able to write that off as an aberration – an anomaly in my home state. Then came May 25, 2020. I – and all of us – watched in horror as a Minneapolis police officer slowly murdered George Floyd over the time period of 8 minutes and 46 seconds. And, given what we have seen since, that murder seems to have changed everything – at least, I pray that it has.
America’s founding stories go back to 1607 in Virginia – the first permanent English settlement; and to 1620 in Massachusetts – the arrival of the Puritan Pilgrims. In 1619, black people arrived on these shores – as slaves whose owners were Anglicans, sadly. In 1620, Puritans brought a rigid Christianity to these shores that in almost no way reflected the life, ministry and teaching of Jesus. And as I look at these events, it appears to me that our country started with the doctrine of manifest destiny, the doctrine of discovery and the belief that slavery was God’s will.
In other words, this country which has given me so much opportunity and education and wealth – was able to do so because of the belief that God has ordained Christian White people to claim as ours any land we “discovered”. If Native people were already here for thousands of years when Christian white people arrived, God wanted the White Christians to own the land. And this country which has given me so much was also able to do so because of the belief that God had ordained Christian White people to sail to the shores of other countries and steal black human bodies. The belief that slavery was not a sin and was not morally reprehensible was taught as a Christian idea – slave-masters quoted scripture at their slaves to prove to them (and to themselves) that the institution of slavery was the will of God.
Now, all of us were raised in homes with a variety of views on racism – in some, racism was overtly condemned – in some racism was overtly condoned – and in many, such as in the home I was raised in – racism was covertly condoned. Now, remember that I grew up in a town that had no people of color. The first time I saw a black person, I was 18 and in my first year of college – and he was an exchange student from Africa. The first time I spoke to a black person, I was 22 and came here to Catholic University for graduate school as a Roman Catholic seminarian and he turned out to be my roommate.
But in my growing up years, references were made, stories were told, examples were citied that were racist but were so much part of the fabric of society that no one ever thought of them in that way. I needn’t go into any examples; but looking back I can see how that happened.
Put more bluntly, the very air I breathed was filled with racism and white supremacy even as I was told how west-siders looked down on those of us who lived on the east side of town and how the Protestants looked down on us fish eating Catholics.
How can I say this? Let’s look at some realities in our society. African Americans and Whites use drugs at about the same rate. Yet, the incarceration rate for African Americans is 6 times that of whites. See the problem?
Not that long ago, redlining was a common practice so that African Americans could not get a loan to buy a home. That meant that someone like me was way more likely to have grandparents and parents who owned their own homes and were more likely to be able to leave an inheritance to their children and grandchildren. And I remember in the 80’s, when our white neighbors here in Silver Spring were selling their house, they came to us after it was sold to apologize to us because it had sold to a black family. And this was when I was rector of a church in that neighborhood that was highly integrated – 40% black and 60% white.
And here’s one that is close to home. When I see a police officer, I assume that he or she is there to protect and serve me – just like my parents taught me. When my black friends see a police officer, what do they assume? You know the answer to that question.
And I do not know any white parent that has had to have the “talk” with their son about how to conduct themselves if they are pulled over for any reason. But I do know black parent after black parent that has to have that talk. And I do know how much I and my wife have worried and do worry about our black kids.
So, that is the white supremacy which I have benefited from every day of my life. An, sadly, I know that white supremacy took hold in this country through the misuse of the Bible and the very religion and church that I represent every time I wear my collar.
So where does that leave me? How do I fight something that I hate but that has benefited me all of my life? I know that feeling guilty is counter-productive. Guilt simply makes me look for a way to exonerate myself. It leads to trying to figure out how to relieve guilt and that makes it all about me.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The prophet Amos wrote, “But let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” [Amos 5:24] And the prophet Micah wrote, “And what does the God require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” [Micah 6:8] I believe that Jesus wants his name and his word to be only associated with righteousness and justice and love and mercy and humbly walking with him.
I know that after years of trying to root out racism in our society and trying to call white supremacy what it is and seeking to find a way to not only reverse white supremacy but compensate those who have suffered from it; it seems like the impossible dream and the impossible task – and I am not black so I can never feel it from that side
I believe that at this time in history which is increasingly being defined by the murder of another black person, we are like the disciples in the upper room after the descent of the Spirit upon them. We know that we are changed – we know that we are called to be agents of change. We don’t know how to do it – but neither did the disciples. However, they left the safety of that upper room and began to change the world by preaching Jesus Christ – died and risen and standing with us now.
Covis-19 has pushed us out of our Upper Room – our church sanctuary. We don’t know what the Church will be like in the future. We only know that it will be different and that – just maybe – the new church will be the church of Amos and Micah and of Jesus himself. Grace Church, over the past few decades, has begun a new thing here in Silver Spring. Now, I pray, let us see it to fruition in a new society – a society of Amos, of Micah and, most of all, of Jesus and the way of love our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, speaks of. Amen.