In this sermon, Bishop Gregory V. Palmer of the West Ohio Annual Conference connects our vows as members of The United Methodist Church to “resist evil, injustice and oppression” directly to our commitment to dismantling racism.
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Several years ago, I was involved in what we hoped and believed would be some transformative work for the denomination. You may recall that it was referred to as The Call to Action. I would say we had some ups and downs, some “successes” and some “defeats,” so to speak. But at the end of the day, I believe that that work seeded some of the next stages of what has gone on in the life of United Methodism since the Tampa General Conference when you all were such fabulous hosts. And also not because everything if anything was implemented by the General Conference, but because the work that we did was paid enough attention to that, it became part and parcel of the life, of the work of so many annual conferences.
Now that said, one of the things that I learned through our varying research projects was that there was great knowledge across the denomination about what the mission of The United Methodist Church is. Listen to it again, the mission of The United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
What we learned from our research consultants is that there is broad knowledge of those words. People can be awakened in the middle of the night, one arm tied behind their backs, perhaps even on some sleep helping additive that they've taken into themselves and can respond in English, Portuguese, French, Swahili, German, Tagalog, and other languages. If they are asked the question, what is the mission of the United Methodist Church? They can spit it out very quickly.
What the research showed us was that we did not, however, have universal agreement about the meaning of what it means to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Nor did we have universal agreement across The United Methodist Church about the means of going about that task.
We found ourselves, the researchers said, in agreement about the words of the mission, but highly segmented about how we should approach the mission. It fell into some of the usual suspect categories like “I'm an evangelical Christian, and so I think that the focus of doing the mission is in calling people to salvation and Jesus Christ.” I want you to know that I subscribe to that. Other people said, “I find my identity more in the transformative work of the gospel, how the church is changing or seeking to change the world to look more like God's purposes of healing, of hope, of help and of shalom.” You see what I mean, now when I say the usual suspect categories and divisions, all of which have their subsets.
You have talked about that this day in your reports, Bishop Carter in his devotions and opening introduction, that there's got to be a sense of unity to our mission. That the formation of disciples is for something. It is for the transformation of individuals and of the world. And the work of dismantling racism, for example, of becoming an anti-racist church and institution as well as individuals is for the sake of the healing of our hearts, the healing of the church, and the transformation of the world. It is not a side project that we attend to or turn to every so many years after we have some social upheaval, whether in this nation, which is where the focus is rightly so now, or in the other places around the world.
Being formed to look more like Jesus and to serve in the world like Jesus is not a side project and being a person who sees the world potentially whole, sees everyone as a child of God, and chooses to be in relationship with everyone that you encounter -- individually or in groups -- with eyes that are like Jesus, that look upon that neighbor as one who one loves and look upon, looks upon that neighbor as one that he or she has a sibling relationship with.
So you have rightly taken up anew, not because it's your first time, the work of dismantling racism, of becoming anti-racist Christians, of becoming an anti-racist institution as the United Methodist of the Florida Annual Conference. I want to thank you, I join you. All of the conferences around our connection, particularly in the United States, are making the claim that they are doing that work right now. But what will trip us up is to believe that this is episodic and intermittent work. I say to you Florida, it is ongoing work. It is the work of a lifetime. It will take all of our all in all to unburden ourself, not only of the ism of racism, but of all of our isms that bedevil us.
In the order of the liturgy for the service of baptism and reception into The United Methodist Church, at the very beginning of that liturgy, the pastor or presiding officer in that addresses a question to persons who've presented themselves or who are presenting other people. The question goes like this. You've heard it dozens, if not hundreds and thousands of times, “On behalf of the church, I ask you, do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness? Do you reject the evil powers of this world and do you repent of your sin?” The response, the appropriate response for those speaking in behalf of others or for themselves is, “I, or we do.”
The next question—and all of these precede one making the affirmation that they confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Something must be let go of before and so that we can take the love and the person of Jesus Christ into our hearts more fully. So the next question is, “Do you accept,” (By the way, that means it's a gift. God will do it for you if you'll open your heart, your hand and receive it). “Do you accept the freedom and the power that God gives you to resist evil injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”
All of us have said yes to that or as small children, if our parents were presenting us for a holy baptism, set it in our behalf and we affirmed it when we came to a time of confirmation or adult reception into the life of the church.
So the work of anti-racism is about living into the vows and the commitments that we have made in our baptism. Not only to say Jesus Christ is Lord, not only to say I'm following Jesus all the way, but that in living for him, we are choosing to reject and resist things that keep us from being more fully the children of God that we were called and are called day by day to be. And I would say to the church that keep us from being the church that God hopes for, and may I say in the society at large that keeps us from being an appropriate, helpful, transformative influence in the culture wherever we are as church that invites other people to resist evil and injustice.
For you see, living into our baptism, my friends, is about God's image stamped upon each one of us. It is about the sign of the cross that has been emblazoned upon our heads. It is understanding that not only we ourselves are made in the image of God, Imago Dei, but that we have been called to do work, i.e. Missio Dei, we have been called to engage in the mission of God.
We should not pass over this notion of image of God too quickly because it drives us and it creates capacity for our work in engaging the mission of God. One of our struggles as a human family and particularly in American culture as we've struggled and continue obviously to struggle with racism among many other isms, is that we struggle with the questions of what is normative, what is beautiful, what has value, who and what voices get heard, who's at the table? I'm fascinated by the way with your “fill the table” initiative.
So a couple of stories, if you will, about value, about beauty and about normative.
On June the ninth, I gave an Episcopal address to the West Ohio Annual conference. People knew that I was going to speak in part about race, though not exclusively in that address. A laywoman in this annual conference said, ‘Bishop, it may help us if you would tell more of your story.’ I tend away from that kind of thing not wanting my story to be the center of attention. I may have done that excessively because there is value in all of our stories. So I share this very painful story of the effects of race and racism and who in what we value and who in what we say is beautiful and normative and important. That comes out of my own family system.
On my mother's side, almost all of us have the complexion that I have some darker, not many much lighter than I am, and I consider myself deeply brown skin, if you will. My mother, though she's deceased, was one of nine siblings. Her parents had migrated from South Carolina by way of Florida, may I say, and eventually ended up in a small town in central Pennsylvania that's a part of Appalachia. It's a mill town. A number of African Americans ended up in that community because there was work to be had in the mills and on the expansion of the railroad. It was a tough place to grow up if you were black. It was a small and nurturing community in many ways, but there were clear dividing lines.
One of my mother's, older sisters was so struck by the pain of race, particularly with regard to her pigment and complexion, that she eventually drowned herself in alcohol. And as an early older adult, she burned up in an apartment fire in New York City. When she left home as a young woman, almost never to return again, she said to my grandmother, who was about my complexion, she said, “I curse you the day you bore me black into the world.” That's a quotation. It's not a tall tale, it's not folklore. And she proceeded, if one uses the language of Luke 15, to lose herself in what the King James version says is dissolute living.
She could not negotiate the separation of the races. She could not negotiate that she believed she was not seen as beautiful because the standard of beauty was whiteness or being a light skinned black person. And because her skin was so dark, even though everyone in the family said she was a gorgeous woman until she lost herself in drink, she did not believe that she was beautiful.
I say to you that Imago Dei and Missio Dei are connected. It's the mission of the church, the mission of God, to help everyone to understand that he or she is a beloved, beautiful child of God. Hard stop. Period. No exceptions. And what we have done by saying what is normative, what is beautiful, what has value being whiteness or let's go to gender, being maleness, and you go through a whole list of things has undermined the credibility of the gospel and the mission of the church.
I use this small—though it looms large for me and in my family—personal illustration, because it has been so defining for me.
I love the movie not because it makes me happy, but because it makes me cry tears of release, that came out in 1959 with Lana Turner, John Gavin, Juanita Moore, and others called The Imitation of Life. In it, Juanita Moore, who is really the maid and housekeeper for Lana Turner who is a rising actress, says in one of her moments of pain, ‘How do you tell your child? How do you explain to your child that you were born into this world to be hurt?’ Let me say that one more time: ‘How do you say to your child that you were born into this world to be hurt?’
None of us believes that about our children. Hopefully, none of us who are listening this morning heard that narrative from our parents or grandparents or the people who were responsible for our lives. I'm not suggesting that it is in God's providence that we are born in to be heard, but the structural evil, albeit The Imitation of Life is fictional in one sense. Fictional doesn't mean that it's not filled with truth and value. How do you say to some persons, some groups of persons, some demographics and some populations that given the structural nature of our life in this nation and in the world based on race or gender or sexual identity or nationality or first language, you were born into this world to be hurt? No, the mission of God is all about undermining, undoing, and dismantling the notion that God ever intended, that any of us was born in the world to be hurt. And the mission of the church has to always be answering the question. We do what we do so that, in order that… And so the church must always be attentive to the hindrances, the blockages to our mission.
What about our life as church, as the United Methodist Church, as your local church, as the Florida Conference? This is your theological and reflective homework. What about our life? What activities are we engaged in? What activities have we failed to step up to that actually discredit, and undermine the gospel of Jesus Christ and the mission of the church?
Now friends, we are in the heat of doing our long-neglected work about dismantling racism, but I want to say to you, that matters that bedevil, the church that block and hinder our mission, that discredit the gospel and the mission are not new to the church. They have been there all along. The subject matter may change, the specifics may change, but they are there all along. And I want to suggest to you that they for me, most often fall into two categories. One, the large category of exclusion.
The church is like societies are, forever struggling with the question of who's in and who's out. That's the successor question to what's beautiful, what's normative, who and what has value. Who's in and who's out. This didn't start in the 21st century. It didn't start with Derek Chauvin's knee on the neck of George Floyd. It has been there all along. It's even in the New Testament. Who's in and who's out? So this is an ongoing struggle. This is perhaps why the apostle said we don't wrestle with flesh and blood, but with principalities and with powers and spiritual wickedness and high places. But it doesn't stay in high places too long. It comes among us and it bedevils us.
The second category that undermines us or that things fall into that have undermined the church and the credibility of the mission of the church is our struggle with the relationship of the church to the culture and to the nation-state.
We have found it difficult—I'm talking about 2000 years of history—to make a decision day in and day out, year in and year out, iteration in and iteration out that we stand for Jesus Christ and the reign of God that has been unleashed in his life, his death and his resurrection, whatever we need to say to the culture and to the state.
This is not an invitation for us not to be good players. It is not an invitation to become bad actors, but it is an invitation to say that every now and again, if not every day for God, I'll live and for God I'll die. It is an invitation to respond to what Esther said, “Perhaps we have come to the kingdom for such a time as this.” And if we are not willing to leave it all on the field—to expend every bit of our lifeblood as Christians and as the church for the sake of the mission, not for our glory, but for the sake of the mission and for the glory of the risen Christ—then we may have to ask, what are we in business for?
Let me, let me go deeper with this relationship to the church and to the culture. This is not unknown to us in the United Methodist movement for example. We have struggled from the beginning of our history. Just a few snippets.
How do you start off as an anti-slavery church and then split over slavery? How do you have an explicit instruction in the rules for the societies and the bands that say you Methodists should not own slaves or trade in slaves and end up several decades later splitting over slavery. Not externally, but in the church through inheritance even among the bishops and their families. I say the struggle of that second bucket is who are we in relationship to the culture and to the nation state? And where will we draw the line that for God will live and for God will die? For the gospel will stand and for nothing else.
In the beginning of our history, if you look at St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, the city of my birth and rearing. A church that understood some aspects of racial segregation because that was true in the society, but also in the church signs, if you will, of people doing some aspects of being Christian community together. I do not want to sanitize it as if that was a perfect world. But I want to say to you that when St. George's Church was renovated in those days before Richard Allen and others were pulled from their knees at the altar, everybody black and white had participated in raising money, in evangelizing and in helping to renovate that magnificent edifice near the Delaware River in the center of Philadelphia. And then all of these splits and splinters because the church could not decide that it doesn't matter who prays at the altar first, if the criteria is race. It doesn't matter that if black and white people are praying together. I mean black people had accepted, if you will, that they sat in the gallery, but the idea that they had to wait to come to the altar to pray to a shared God until all of the white people had prayed or take communion after all of the was simply unconscionable. And so Alan left Absalom Jones left and a remnant that became Mother African Zoar that stayed under the guidance of Bishop Asbury also splintered and left. We have known these struggles. This is merely illustrative.
Let me give one more illustration of how the church in our tradition has struggled. In the so-called reunification of 1939 of the branches of Methodism. And we know it was not all of the branches of Methodism. ME, ME South and MP came together, and the sacrificial lamb on the altar was race, and thus the creation of the Central Jurisdiction as a political compromise in order to gain the so-called reunification, which was never much of a reunification at all. And ultimately, we still had to do the work of dismantling that newly created structure after a third of the 20th century had gone by.
So the question is, when will we learn? The good news is this is not just us now dealing with matters of systemic, structural and systemic racism, but it does wear us out. And the point is it distracts and detracts from the gospel and from our mission.
I remember several years ago when the Council of Bishops sent me to West Africa to be a part of a team that was presiding at the West Africa Central Conference for the election of a bishop. Bishop Joseph Humper, now retired of Sierra Leone, gave the Episcopal address. He had most recently at that time been the chair of the councils of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Sierra Leone that was trying to help the country come back together following a terrible civil war.
He said in his Episcopal address to United Methodists, he says that if in the church we cannot find ways of resolving our disagreements of coming together across difference, we absolutely have nothing to offer the world. So I've talked about generalized church history, I've talked about some snippets from our own Methodist history. This matter bedevils us ecumenically. Some people look at the divisions and the denominations not as colorful variety as in a planted garden, but as the result of sometimes our willful turning aside from each other. And race, my friends, even in our ecumenical conversations, has been like a serpent beneath every table, as was said by someone more poetic than I about the serpent of slavery beneath the table of the Constitutional Convention of the United States of America.
So that matters of race and racism, our segmentation of ourselves according to race, economics and so many other things is a hindrance to our ecumenical and our denominational witness and ultimately detracts and distracts from the gospel and from the mission to which we've been called to make disciples for of Jesus Christ, for the transformation of the world.
Now, I say all of that, not because you don't know any of it, but because it needs to be said again and again, lest we get amnesia about our history and our poor behaviors until now.
Now we're in the middle of this struggle, resurged again. I said to you earlier, this cannot be episodic or to quote Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, “Just as discipleship is not intermittent work, every aspect of what forms us more after the likeness of Jesus Christ cannot be intermittent work.” It will take, for example, more than changed marquees on our buildings and yard signs in our homes and outside of our churches to dismantle racism in the church and in the society.
May I say to you again that it will get worse before it gets better. Like many bishops of the church, even though we get a lot of traffic on subjects like human sexuality, abortion, et cetera. Whenever we speak out on race, many of us seem to get more new pen pals.
Questions like, do you support Black Lives Matter? Well, are you talking about do I subscribe to an organizational manifesto or do I believe that black lives matter, and I will not choke on the words I say to you, particularly if you are not black or brown or yellow, so to speak, that it will take more than yard signs and changed marquees. It will take changed behavior in and out of the boundaries and precincts of what we call church. It will take showing up in the streets alongside those who are rightfully protesting. Though we as church can never endorse even if we understand the impulses toward violence. Some of the most vehement and violent letters I've gotten have been about race and about speaking to them. Some of them as simplistic as, Bishop Palmer, we wouldn't have a racial problem—this is in 2021, spring and summer—if you would stop talking about it.
And my response is, ‘Seriously, dude, let me know how that has worked out for us for the last 200-plus years and for 400-plus years.’ It will not get better by not talking about it. It will not change anything by a few yard signs. This is a call to radical conversion and to hard work. And as Bishop Carter has intimated to really live into our doctrine and our belief that we do intend to be made perfect in love in this life. It will be hard work that will bring scandal upon some of us. And if we are afraid of being called offensive, let me offer you this quote that some of you who've ever received an email, see that I have at the bottom of my outgoing emails. Listen to this from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power. And with its plea for the weak.” He continues, “Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power.” And he concludes, “Christians should give more offense, shock the world more, far more than they are doing now.”
What if our strategy with the culture was not to blend in, but to actually stir the pot until we made a difference? Not to offend as to hurt, but not to be fearful of disturbing the status quo. We must be rid of, if we are going to dismantle racism and build the beloved community, with the mentality that says, church, let's just go along to get along. No, we must become Bonhoeffer-esque, Jesus-like, and stop worshiping power and our position in the culture, which by the way is not what we ever thought it was, and it's not what it used to be. And we should, as Bonhoeffer says, ‘Give more offense’ by pushing against the status quo, against the norms, against the values, against the principalities in power and against the empire than we are doing in the now.
We need what I like to call an aggressive patience an aggressive patience. We understand that all change will not happen immediately. It doesn't happen that way for us. I think the Bible's word for aggressive patience is perseverance. We keep leaning in, leaning forward. We keep doing the work and we keep building up and encouraging one another. We tend, as you are tending with these wonderful grants to clergy in your conference from the preacher's aid and benefit society, to the fatigue of doing the work so that as one person or church or group takes a time out. It is not to stand on the sidelines forever, but it is to be renewed in strength and energy in order to reengage the fight one more time.
We must in every measure and in every activity, judge our effectiveness by these words. You recall, I started with the beginning of the baptismal ritual and as I come to a close, I want to end near that. At the end of the ritual of baptism and reception into the church, there is a rubric where the pastor or presiding officer says under the heading Commendation and welcome. And it says, as the pastor or presiding officer says to the congregation, “Do all in your power to increase their faith, confirm their hope, and perfect them in love.”
I always pointed to the newly baptized and the newly received as I spoke to the congregation, and I admonished them, exhorted them and encouraged them. Will you do all in your power to increase the faith of these who have come for holy baptism, to confirm their hope in the gospel and to perfect them in love?
This is the conversation about holiness. This is the conversation that reminds us we are on a journey. It is not as though we will arrive at beloved community here on terra firma and it's a destination, and there will never be a garden to be tended. No, there will always be work to do to keep the garden clear of the weeds of our isms, racism in particular today.
We are on a journey. We are going somewhere. We have a clear picture of where we need to go, and the work that you are doing and how you've organized it gives me so much hope and so much encouragement. I'm glad I tuned in today. I live by this scripture truly as I come to a close in 1 John the third chapter, the first and second verses, “See with what great love the Father have loved us, that we should be called the children of God. And beloved, it does not yet appear what we shall be.”
This text reminds me that I'm a beloved child of God. That's a settled matter, settled on the cross and with an empty tomb. I only need to hear it, receive it, affirm it, and live it, and then live into the truth that I'm called to be on a journey in belovedness toward beloved community, perfection and holiness where the measure of the standard of value and beauty is whether or not my life and the life of the church resembles anything that looks like the gospel, and like Jesus Christ.
Florida, are you ready to increase their faith, to confirm their hope and to perfect them in love? This is not easy work, but it's necessary work. And I close with the words of the hymn writer Charles Albert Tinley in verse four of his “Beams of Heaven As I Go” — verse three, excuse me, “Harder yet may be the fight, right may often yield to might, wickedness a while may reign, and Satan's cause may seem to gain. But there is a God who rules above, with a hand of power and a heart of love. And if we are right, God will fight our battle/ We shall be free. We shall get home someday.”
In the name of God, creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, Amen.