Seeing Power: White Supremacy or Jesus
This is a transcription of a sermon given without written text. As such, it contains all the oddities of the spoken word, and the unfinished theological reflection of a sermon completely re-thought on the drive to church. “Jesus Christ, Son of David, have mercy.” We are about to be flooded, if we aren’t already, with a conversation about hate. About how the world is full of hate and we need to stand against hate. And that’s true. But I am privileged to be a facebook friend of a someone with whom I had an even shorter privilege of writing with on a blog that I periodically write for, Women in Theology. Amaryah Shaye is a doctoral student in philosophy and a theologian. She [Amaryah uses the pronouns “they”, but in my sermon, I forgot. My sincere apologies to them.] is, I think, probably one of the most brilliant up and coming people in the world, and her area is black theology. She posted this morning that the problem isn’t hate. Hate is something that an individual experiences, hate is something that I feel, and that comes out in an individual manner. But what happened in the synagogue in Pittsburgh, the Tree of Life Synagogue, was not simply the act of an individual. It may be that the man who killed eleven people felt hate in that moment. But what he said was “All Jews need to die.” What he said as he prepared for this ahead of time was, “We”, not “I”, “We need to stop the Jews, I am going to go ahead and do it, who cares about the optics.” That’s what he said. “We.” “We” is not the language of individual hate, Shaye points out, “we” is the language of shared power. “We” is the language of a group of people who together decide that another group of people is a threat, is a danger, and must be eradicated. And in the case of this man, that group of people are white supremacists. And when I say that, I am not saying that as if white supremacists somewhere else, they live in the East, or Pittsburgh, or in the South. I was raised in a state, the only state in the Union, that was welcomed in as a white supremacist homeland. The only state in the Union, because of course there was a political conflict, the North needed states and the South needed states and when Oregon came into the Union it couldn’t be a slave state but it certainly wasn’t going to be a black state. That is the history of this place. That is the history that I grew up in. That is the history that we grew up in. And my experience of that was very different that the experience of many of the people who have been raised and loved and nurtured in this church. But the language of hate is so incomplete. Because what’s happening is that the powers that be — and in the United States, the powers that be are white supremacist and anti-black — the powers that be are rising up to maintain, not to create something new, but to maintain the status quo upon which our nation has been founded. That isn’t an act of individual hate, that is an act of participation in the powers that have always formed who this nation is. I have said this before, but the fact that 80% of white evangelicals voted for Trump is not something new. Regardless of what you think about some of his policies, some of which may actually not be terrible, the fact is that the rhetoric of hate, the rhetoric or power, the rhetoric of establishing the safety of a group of particular people, white people, that is was at risk, that was what was being named, and that was what needed to be reaffirmed over and over again. And when Blind Bartimaeus sees Jesus, and I am using that word intentionally, he sees. Because he sees something that Jesus’ own disciples failed to see. Blind Bartimaeus isn’t actually the blind one in this story. He is the one who sees Jesus for who Jesus is. Remember this is one of a set of stories in which Jesus is literally circling closer and closer to Jerusalem in the hopes that his disciples understand who he is. Peter seems to understand, “you are the messiah,” and Jesus says, “yes, I am going to die,” and Peter says, “stop talking that way,” and Jesus says “get behind me Satan.” And it keeps happening again. Jesus hangs out and heals people on the sidelines and the disciples say “I want a part of your power” and Jesus says “great, you can have that, and I am going to die…” and the disciples say “oooh, I don’t know about that.” But Blind Bartimaeus sees who Jesus is, and he sees who Jesus is not simply as an individual who loves him. Blind Bartimaeus says, “Jesus Christ, Son of David.” That is a political statement. In an land where the Jews have been oppressed by the Roman government, Bling Bartimaeus looks and Jesus and he says, “you are the King. You stand in the line of David.” That is a threat. It is a threat to the powers that be. It is a threat to a government that wants to silence and keep Jews quiet. And it is a threat to those who are a part of the Jewish community, who have made themselves comfortable with the status quo. And we have to be honest, every oppressed group does this. Every oppressed group says, “some of us need to participate with the powers that be.” And there are sometimes good reasons for that. And it is important to be honest about that and to note that when Christians say that, it turns so quickly to anti-semitism. It turns so quickly to an insistence that the Jews killed Jesus. This passage that we read today is actually the passage that precedes Palm Sunday. The next thing that happens is that Jesus goes into Jerusalem and we would typically celebrate Palm Sunday after this. Christians have taken that as an opportunity to say over and over and over again, “the Jews killed Jesus, they’re bad, we need to kill them.” But Jesus is a Jew. Jesus stands in the line of the King of David. Jesus stands in the line those who the prophets that God sends repeatedly to call people to justice. Jesus stands in the line of those who repeatedly call people to faith, hope and love. That is not simply Christian virtues, those are the virtues of the people of God. God is always calling us towards those virtues. So when Baritimaeus sees Jesus and says, “Jesus Christ, Son of David, have mercy on me,” he is claiming Jesus as a power in the world. But that power is not wrong, a power that seeks the destruction of others. It is not a power that seeks to harm or to kill. It is a power that gives its life. It is a power that loves, that cares, that has compassion on individuals and people, and because of that, risks death. Because of compassion, risks suffering. Because of love, risks dying on the cross. That is the claim that is made by Bartimaeus. That is the claim causes people to silence him. Did you hear that in the text? “Shh, be quiet, stop.” The recognition that the power of God comes not through our political structures, not through the social organizations that we build up, but through an intentional, active, insistent love and compassion for those around us. And that is threatening to the world. That is dangerous. That puts us in danger. And yet that is the only kind of power which will transform the world. It is the only kind of power that gives us the kind of hope that allows to continue to move forward where Jesus really is the King of a place where we are all welcome, where we are all loved, cared for, and safe. My prayer for us and for me, is that we recognize that power. Not just of the world around us, but we recognize the power that we are complicit in, and the power that we have to be compassionate. That we recognize the ways that the world, and the way the power of the world plays itself out in our own lives and our own communities, in our own relationships. We all do it, we all form little groups against one another when we are upset at one another, we find another person and form little bits of power. We do it here, in our families, we do it in our friendships, we do it in the world. But my prayer is that what we recognize is what brings an end to the ways in which power is used destructively, is practices of compassion, practices of justice, practices of love. That we walk in the footsteps of a man who stood in a long line of Jewish prophets and who spoke the truth that God is always welcoming us, and calling us into a live of faith, of hope, and of love. Amen.