Not a Matter of White, Liberal Guilt: On Discipleship, Leadership, and the Role of the Church

As a part-time pastor–18 hours–I always have to prioritize my time. The church has hired me to perform the duties of a pastor, but certain aspects of the job have had to be put on the back-burner. From the outset, I was told that good, solid preaching was a priority. Some weeks I’ve delivered, so weeks I have not; but the sermon has always been at the forefront of my ministry.

Over the past couple of months, though, I’ve started to fear that I’m slipping into an identity that I do not want: a person who talks the talk, but claims that I don’t have the time to walk the walk. To be sure, I am always pastoring, and people know that I will be present in their lives. But central to my ordination vows was the promise to seek justice, to champion equality, to speak truth to power, and to live in a prophetic manner.

I am a cisgender, white man in a heterosexual marriage; my privilege is legion.  But I am a follower of Jesus Christ, so my responsibility is even larger. I cannot and will not stand by any longer, merely pointing out what is wrong and leaving it to others to do something.

At today’s service, I committed myself to community action. I committed myself to being a leader, a servant, a voice that will not be silenced, a person who will make calls, attend meetings, will not let up until there is a change. Today, I promised my church that I will be the pastor they deserve, that I will be someone to whom they can point and say, “This is our shepherd. This is the person we trust to lead us, to serve us, to love us, to protect us, to guide us.”

It is not a matter of words, it is one of action. It is not a matter of liberal white guilt, it is a matter of discipleship. It is not a matter of ego, but a matter of leadership.

You can read my sermon on Matthew 16:13-20 below:

“Don’t shoot.”kairos time

 My parents never had to teach those words to me as a child. Outside of water gun fights or situations in which someone is donning a camera and I don’t want my picture taken, I’ve never had to say, “Don’t shoot.”

 But when I talk to my friends who raise African-American, Hispanic, or bi-racial children, they tell me that the “Don’t shoot” conversation is pretty common. It generally coincides with conversations about what to do if you are pulled over or questioned by the police; what to do if you are the only person of color at a party getting shut down or busted; what to do if you are detained for walking while not-White.

 By choice, I have long hair, earrings, and visible tattoos. At times, people judge me for this, but it is nothing compared to the assumption that I am a threat or a thug because of the color of my skin. When I was a kid, I shoplifted. I was caught by my parents and forced to return the items to the local store. It was chalked up to my “being a kid,” and I know that my parents never feared that I would be shot if I entered the store again; I can’t imagine that, if images of my stealing a cap gun from UDF had been put on TV, people would have said that an officer, who had no idea that I had shoplifted, was justified in shooting me 6 times, twice in the face. This has never been my reality. But it was the reality for Michael Brown, who was shot and left in the street for four hours before his body was removed.

How does this happen? How do we become, at best, indifferent, at worst, antipathetic, to the lives of people based upon race and social class? There are many different reasons to which we can point: the legacy of slavery; deeply entrenched racism that still thrives in most parts of the country; a sense that talking about racism means that one is “anti-white.” Today’s passage of scripture points us toward another possibility, though: the assumptions we make when we try to identify someone else.

I often wonder about Jesus’ motivations for asking the question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Is he worried about this reputation? Feeling a little self-conscious about whether he is getting the message across clearly enough? Curious about the scuttlebutt? Probably not. The gospels are filled with pericopes—units of Scripture—that concern identity. Throughout Mark and Matthew, especially, Jesus is often confused with John the Baptizer, Elijah, or one of the prophets. I think that this is revealing; we human beings are meaning-making machines. We try to connect new experiences with those we’ve had before; familiarity may breed contempt, but it also breeds certainty and comfortableness. How often have you heard—or even said—“You remind me of someone I already know…”

So here, people are saying that Jesus’ words and actions are somewhat familiar; he’s a bit like John the Baptizer; he reminds people of Elijah; he acts like one of the prophets; but yet, he’s more. People try to fit him into a box because that way they can make sense of him, frame him up, feel more comfortable with his radical message and revolutionary way of life.

 Assumptions and stereotypes are easy; it takes courage to get to know someone. But we are a society that operates on stereotypes. Norman Stamper, who was Chief of Police in Seattle, Washington during the so-called “Battle for Seattle” riots in 1999, recently said in an NPR interview that white police officers are trained to see black men as threats and thugs.

But the answer is not to stereotype all white police officers as trigger-happy racists. While the fear that many persons of color feel when confronted by police officers is real and earned through experience, police officers also are attacked, shot, and targeted. Well-meaning public servants are regarded with disdain and mistrust, which makes it increasingly difficult to provide protection and service to the public. Far too many people look at police officers and automatically assume that they are corrupted and violent.

 So what is the answer? Jesus asks the disciples what they say about him. Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The Greek word here is christos, which comes from the Hebrew mashiah; both the words, from which we derive Christ and Messiah, respectively, mean “anointed one.” There are many “anointed ones” in the Judeo-Christian traditions: priests, prophets, and royalty all were anointed by God for a specific purpose. Indeed, a central Christian confession is that all of us have fruits of the Spirit, a purpose for which we have been anointed by God. Peter sees it in Jesus and declares Jesus’ identity, the Son of the living God.

Jesus responds by giving Peter the keys to the kingdom, linking whatever is done by him on earth to the will of heaven. Catholics, of course, interpret this to be evidence of Petrine supremacy, that is, the supremacy of Peter and proof for the office of the Pope. I do not wish to wade into that controversy, but this passage is significant.

 We often forget that Peter’s real name is Simon; the Greek word petra means “rock,” so the name Peter is a nickname; in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, the name is Cephas. So we can certainly point to this passage as indicating Peter’s central role in establishing the Church, but we can also read it in a broader manner: Peter is a disciple just like we are disciples. We are called to act like the kingdom of heaven is a present reality. We are to advance justice, mercy, and compassion; and we are only able to do that we when identify people correctly.

 I want to share something you. On Friday, Mr. Kennedy came into my office, saying that he wants to “put me to work.” He is concerned about how many young people are dying, how they are shooting each other and being shot by police. The pain on his face was palpable, and he wants to see our church do something about it. I felt God’s presence in that room, as I had been engaged in numerous conversations about just this issue, and now, here was Mr. Kennedy, a member of this church for over 60 years, asking his pastor to act.

 I grew up here. When I was a kid, all the police officers knew me. Not because I was in trouble, but because that was our culture. I knew the owners of the businesses, I knew the librarians, I knew the Village workers, the school janitors, the people who ran the pool. When I was acting up, someone would say something and I listened because I understand that these adults ultimately cared about me.

 I don’t feel that same culture in YS anymore. And I am not alone. In the past 48 hours, since Mr. Kennedy contacted me, I have set up an appointment to meet with the Village Manager; I am talking to the Boy Scouts tomorrow night; I am attending a meeting on September 4 in which the police chief will be present; I have other meetings set up with community leaders who want to be part of a mentoring program in which we make solid, meaningful connections between the youth and adults. Connections that will allow us to identify ourselves correctly, to see God in one another, to realize that it takes a Village, that we are that village, and that we are our brother and sister’s keeper.

 Will you join me? Will you help commit your time and talent to this program? Let’s talk. In the coming weeks and months, I will be collaborating with community members to vision how we can make 2015 the year that we transform our culture back to one in which we communicate, feel connected, and understand what it means to be Yellow Springs. A culture in which no child ever has to say, “Don’t shoot.”

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