One preacher recently suggested that the wilderness is also a place within our society. How often are the voices crying out in the wilderness, also the prophetic voices within our communities crying out for God’s vision of justice and mercy. John was an odd fellow, whose dress, manner, and message would have made the majority of people uncomfortable. Yet he was also sounding an alarm; a voice crying out, “Sleepers’ wake!” He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Who are the voices crying out in the wilderness right now?
The prophetic voices that come to my own mind are the bewildered cries from our streets, for the unnecessary deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and at least 164 other black men and women killed by police between January and September of 2020. The voices in our societal wilderness are crying out, “Sleepers’ Wake!” The question is, will we listen to their cries? It would be simpler and far easier in this busy life to simply tune out their cries, just as wary and uncomfortable listeners tuned out John the Baptist’s message in antiquity. Yet our baptism demands that we listen, that we engage, that we shift, change, and grow.
In fact, the Episcopal Church refers to the work of racial reconciliation and healing as the work of becoming beloved community, and they ground that work in our baptism. The image that they use to portray this work is a labyrinth, and they identify four quadrants of the labyrinth and connect them to the promises we make in our baptism.
To engage in the work of racial reconciliation and healing, we will travel through each of the quadrants of the labyrinth many times.
However, one of the reasons we are engaging in a parish wide read of Stamped from the Beginning is because we recognize that as a faith community we need to begin to listen to the prophetic voices in our societal wilderness. We need to begin by telling the truth about the role of racist ideas within our understanding of American history and within the Church. In his preface, Kendi buries a common misunderstanding about the history of racism. Kendi writes:
“As I carefully studied America’s racial past, I did not see a singular historical force arriving at a postracial America. I did not see a singular historical force becoming more covert and implicit over time. I did not see a singular historical force taking steps forward and backward on race. I saw two distinct historical forces. I saw a dual and dueling history of racial progress and the simultaneous progression of racism. I saw the antiracist force of equality and the racist force of inequality marching forward, progressing in rhetoric, in tactics, in policies” (x).
Neither my undergraduate studies in politics, nor my studies in seminary ever introduced the idea that racism and antiracism are dual and dueling paths. I had believed-- hook, line, and sinker-- that the work of addressing racism in America was a matter of taking two steps forward, and one step back. Ibram Kendi from the very beginning of his book, invites us to dismantle any such misconceived notions, and to look at how these two paths of racist and antiracist ideas have developed and progressed in America and in the Church.
This work is hard, humbling, and at times, demoralizing. Yet we cannot make genuine change and bring about God’s dream for this world without traveling this difficult journey.
There is no magic button. We must take the time to re-learn our history, and I cannot encourage you strongly enough to take the time to read Ibram Kendi’s book. And if you are too overwhelmed by his original work, read the youth version. It is critical for those of us who are white to relearn our history, to repent for the ways the Church has been complicit in systemic racism, and to recognize the privilege we inherently have whether we acknowledge it or not. The voices crying in our societal wilderness are crying out to us, “Sleepers Wake!”
There may be moments where we grow wary and uncomfortable with this work. I imagine those following John the Baptist, as he proclaimed of someone even greater coming any day, also grew a bit wary and uncomfortable. Yet no matter how tempted we may be to halt our work of relearning or to tune out those cries, I urge us to turn to God in prayer. Let us ask God in prayer to open the eyes of our hearts to see clearly and understand what must change in order for our world to becoming beloved community. This is the work of our baptism. Amen.
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