Sermon: Standing in the River

Slide2 copy“Standing in the River”

(September 27, 2015) In a message inspired by and based upon the Bible studies of Rev. Grace Imathiu at RMN/MFSA’s Convocation “Gather at the River,” we remember and commit to the need to hold space for one another. We will stand in the river and wait with love, until all people can enter into the promise of Beloved Community. (Joshua 3:9-17)

“Beloved Community: How the People of God Create Community” is an original sermon series. The topics are:

Sermon: All Means All

Slide2 copy“All Means All”

(September 13, 2015) We begin a sermon series on the Beloved Community, examining the marking of the people of God, being formed into community. The first aspect of this community is that all of us are welcome. That means all of us– every person, and also all of us– our whole selves. (Galatians 3:23-29)

“Beloved Community: How the People of God Create Community” is an original sermon series. The topics are:

Sermon: What’s to Stop Me?

wall broken“What’s to Stop Me?”

(May 3, 2015) While we tend to see so many labels and categories, fragmenting humanity into different boxes, Jesus and his early followers broke down these barriers and eliminated the separations between people in creating a new beloved community. As Phillip and the traveler on the road to Gaza discover, there is nothing that can prevent someone from coming into the presence of God. (Acts 8:26-40)

wherein a certain Ethiopian eunuch is discussed in ways that have nothing to do with sexual orientation or gender identity…

The White Echo-Chamber

I’m offering these reflections honestly, as part of my own thinking and growing, and to share what I see. I’m claiming no special awareness or insight, and I really don’t want to compare how enlightened I am to anyone else. Spoiler: not very. You probably have more non-white friends than I do, and that’s cool. My self-reflection is about what I can learn about myself, and how I can do better.  

hands children black whiteAs part of my preparation for the Board of Ordained Ministry meeting next week, I read this article, which in turn references this study, and states “in a network of 100 friends, a white person, on average, has one black friend.”

This made me curious. I used my Facebook friends list, which inflates my friends in both number and diversity, by including people who would otherwise be separated by geography. Still, it’s a sample set I could easily identify. I know it’s not a perfect or scientific exercise, but it’s a place to start.

I have about 840 friends (excluding duplicate accounts, people’s pets, and group pages)
35 people– 4%– are people who are black. An additional 41 people are non-white members of other ethnicities (5%). In total, 76 of my Facebook friends (9%) are not white.

As I reflect on this, several things come to mind.

1. My shelter and privilege– and loss– as someone who has lived primarily in 95%+ white communities. I grew up in a town of less than 1000 people. In seminary, I looked back at some demographic information from the 2000 census in the larger town nearby, the place where I went to high school. There were listed on that census “African American: 6.” Six people. In the whole town. I knew the names of all six. I don’t think that’s a good thing; homogeneous communities don’t help individuals learn about much beyond their own experiences. And while I did learn a little from the experiences of at least three of those six people– black men as close as family– nothing can undo the whiteness of my childhood. It’s not bad, per se. It just is. Compared to my friends who have lived in more populated and diverse areas, I start farther back on the line when it comes to seeing, owning, and dismantling my privilege and racism inherent in homogeneity. 

2. The tremendous gift of friends who have shared their experiences with me so I can see beyond the blinders of my social location. I’m embarrassed, looking back, by the ignorance of my questions and lack of understanding when I did venture into the wider world. In college and then again in seminary in the Boston area– my first and only daily contact with an actual city– I was a well-intentioned but largely naive white girl. I know that no one was under any obligation to be patient or loving with me as I blundered my way through that early awareness. And yet, time and time again, I’ve been met with people from a variety of racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds who have been patient, kind, long-suffering, and honest, people who have let me make mistakes and called me out gently but clearly. That’s not the responsibility of people of color, to educate and pull along their friends and classmates and peers. Each time, it is a vulnerable, unmerited gift. Thank you.

3. Where I see color, and where I don’t, and what that might mean. This is not something I’m proud of by any means, but it’s something I observed. Fascinatingly, as I was going through my friend list, person by person, looking at profile pictures and calling to mind friends by name, I noticed that there are some people whose ethnicity I instantly think of, while others I only was able to identify as non-white after thinking intentionally about it. Family members topped the list, followed by friends who are bi/multi-racial, and then followed by Facebook friends who I know in a particular role or function. What does this say about the times I “forget” the ethnicity of persons in my circle? That the role of family or of function is the primary category for my brain while skin color is secondary? That bi/multi-ethnic persons suffer the same erasure in my consciousness that these friends have also reported in their lived world experience? No conclusions here, but a hard thing to look at for me.

4. The choices I have made and can still make about where and how I make and keep friendships that shatter my echo chamber. Living outside Boston in a duplex instead of as a single person in an apartment downtown, trying to make friends “as a couple” with my first spouse, being immersed in the dominant cultures of the towns in which I’ve lived: these have increased the number of friends I have who look (and think and act) like me. Intentionally staying in touch with people I’ve met on travels, getting out on my own, looking for the people on the margins of my communities with whom I might actually have more in common: these are choices that have increased the diversity of my friendships in every way when and where I’ve made them. And the good news is, I get to pick how I approach the world, so I can continue to do the latter.

But number five is the beauty. 

5. The church is the place where I have broken out of my echo chamber. I realize that for some, the church is a homogenous, white, straight, middle class institution. Certainly for some, the church is less diverse than the rest of their lives. But for me, the church, The United Methodist Church, is a place where I have come in contact with and relationship with more people unlike me in every way, including ethnicity. When I look at those 76 people who are not white, nearly all of them are people I know through church— mission trips, the worldwide UMC connection, local connections and friendships that bring me into places and into the lives of people where I might not otherwise go. The church has made my life richer and fuller, given me colleagues and friends that I would not otherwise I have met, and opened to me a world of connection and grace that would never have been possible for me without it.

For all its faults, the church has given me the extraordinary gift of a life that is broader than my own context. It’s incomplete, but that’s a beautiful kin-dom.


washington light on hillThis week, I am heading for Washington, D.C., to the United Methodist Building. Did you know that The United Methodist Church owns a building next door to the Supreme Court? We do, and it’s pretty amazing. It’s the home of The UMC’s General Board of Church and Society, and there I will be receiving some training for my role as the Chairperson of the Annual (regional) Conference version of that same body, and then attending a Consultation on the Social Principles.

It’s that latter part of the trip that has me very excited.

The UMC’s Social Principles are not church law, but rather the denomination’s statements of reflection and position on issues of social justice or concern in the world. The United Methodist Church, a global denomination, struggles to agree upon and live out such important statements in a widely diverse and multi-cultural global context. Recognizing this, the 2012 General Conference entrusted the Board of Church and Society to develop a process and a set of recommendations for reimagining the Social Principles in a 21st-century, global context. These consultations, held all over the world, are bringing together members of The UMC to pray, discern, reflect, and dialogue together about how we might live into that calling in this time.

I’m excited and honored to be a part of this conversation. I think it is a hopeful and necessary step in our denomination’s role as a vital and relevant denomination today. If we are to continue as a church, we must be connected to the justice concerns of our time, in a way that is sustainable, contextually relevant, and grounded in our heritage and theology as United Methodists.

But it’s more than that. I believe that conversations along these lines hold some of the answers to the debates within the denomination. My experience at the 2012 General Conference on the reproductive rights subcommittee taught me something amazing: when people of diverse opinions gather, hear one another, share deeply, and then turn their hearts to what they can agree upon on a very controversial issue, God’s work is done. We found, every time we tried to proscribe local, contextual action about abortion, that we were unable to agree. But every time we articulated what we values and believed about human life, parents, babies, families, and so on, we could agree. Around the world, across the political divides, we were united in our convictions and principles, but divided on how those played out. And if our polity (church governance) structure allowed us to live in this way, I believe we could be both more united as a body, and more contextually nimble and relevant to carry out ministry in all times and places.

This week, I am praying for vision for The United Methodist Church, and for new hope and connection as we gather and dream and discuss and discern. In invite you to join in that prayer.


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