A friend of mine from college likes to tell the cautionary tale of her first video conference job interview. It was several years ago when using Skype to talk to a potential new employer was still fairly new and some of the kinks in the system or best practices in general hadn’t quite been identified. With all the technology tested once and then again, she got dressed for the interview. It only being in front of a camera she decided to take advantage of the set-up putting on her best blouse and suit jacket and her comfiest pair of flannel pajama pants. After all they would be out of sight.
Everything started out well. It took an unfortunate turn however, when she excused herself momentarily to grab a resource from across the room. Standing up in front of the camera it was only as she saw the image of her comfiest flannel pajama pants flash not-quickly-enough across the little box in the corner of her own screen that she remembered her chosen attire.
She was mortified when she heard, coming through the speakers, the compassionate snickers of the team of interviewers. Coming back to the table after retrieving the book she needed, she apologized as best she could, which was met with gracious understanding. Each of the interviewers on the other end of the call admitted to choosing the same sort of attire for their own interview, and the whole group had a nice laugh about it.
We’ve all gotten pretty adept at showing the world just the parts of ourselves that we want to be seen. Occasionally a slip up occurs, a tear slips out at a dinner party, an angry word in line at the grocery store, and we reveal our vulnerability or a temper we’d rather keep hidden. But for the most part we are good at crafting a version of ourselves that we want the world to see.
Likewise, most of us have also gotten pretty good at only looking at the parts of ourselves that we want to see – the love we share, the compassion we show, the friendliness we offer when we’re at our best. We like to view ourselves with only the best we have to show in sight. We set up our own internal camera to just the right height that we see just the part of ourselves that is pleasing, that is kind, that is good.
If someone were to ask me, ‘Are you basically a good person or a bad person?” I have to admit I want to say that I’m pretty alright. I’ve never done any of the heinous things that I’ve heard about on the news. I generally treat people with respect. I’m pretty much a good person.
Does it sound familiar? When I first started looking at this section of Paul’s letter to the Romans last week, I had a similar reaction to the text. It starts out pretty uplifting – talking about faith and peace with God though our Lord Jesus Christ. It goes on to talk about boasting in hope and sharing the glory of God, God’s love which is poured into our hearts. It’s poetically joyful and encouraging.
You know, before it takes a bit of a turn. Again it’s ultimately encouraging, but in verse six I start to shrug my shoulders, “Well, certainly this part isn’t for me.” ‘For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.’ Ungodly? Who? Me?
Well, Paul doesn’t really mince words. Paul calls it as he sees it – – saying we are all sinners, we all are enemies of God, we are all included in the ungodly.
“Whew, Pastor Stephanie. Thanks for the pick-me-up!” I’m sure you’re all saying. Don’t worry I’ve been thinking the same thing all week. I’ve been wondering if there’s a way out of this, a way around facing the reality that’s presented in this text. But usually if something is this hard for me to wrestle with, if something disturbs me as much as sitting with the idea that I’m a sinner, an enemy, ungodly, well, it usually means it’s something I need to hear. Maybe it’s something we all need to hear.
Paul goes to great lengths, I believe, to show us the difference between God and humanity. I think that’s why he starts in verse six by categorizing us as “ungodly.” It sets up everything that follows as a comparison of opposites. God is God; we are not. Maybe occasionally, sometimes under the exact right circumstances someone will die, will sacrifice themselves for a righteous person, for a good person, but in contrast to that Christ’s death came when we weren’t righteous, when we weren’t good, but instead we were actually sinners. That’s love. That’s real love. That’s God’s love.
And I think that’s part of what Paul is trying to teach us here. It’s not just about some theory of atonement, some understanding of what the cross means and how salvation is meted out. It’s also about the difference between righteous God and, well, sinful human beings. And the difference is love. Overflowing, reconciling, indiscriminate love. That is what is godly. That is what is righteous. And that is what we human beings mess up over and over again. Just about every time we get the chance. Loving without stopping to think first about what it will get us. Loving without worrying about whether we will be loved back. Loving without looking around to see if there is someone more deserving. Loving without checking first to make sure the one we love is similar to us in class, culture, creed, or color. Just about every time we get the chance, we mess up the opportunity to love as indiscriminately as God loves.
This has been showing up again and again in our society. We put qualifiers on love. We judge who deserves to be loved. We decide to love only people to whom we can relate. We choose to love and care for and protect some people and not others, and the choice is way too often based on what people look like, what ethnicity or nationality they carry, or how similar their up-bringing is to ours. No matter what reasoning we use or excuse we give to ourselves, the sin of racism is real. Personal racism, institutional racism, societal racism. However you look at it, racism is real, and it is a sin.
These are uncomfortable words to hear. I promise they are as hard to say because I am just as convicted by them as anyone else. I have just as many good intentions lined up as anyone else. I have the camera set up on my own life so I only have to look at the well-dressed, put together, loving and inclusive version of myself. I say I can’t possibly be racist; I don’t benefit from racism. I have friends who are different from me and I love them. Besides, it’s not like I live in the most diverse area anyway. I’m not racist; I’m just street-smart and cautious in “urban” areas. I say all of these things, but ultimately I’m fooling myself.
I am ungodly because I don’t love as fully, deeply, and widely as God loves. I am a sinner because I think my good intentions are good enough. I think I can get away with not having honest conversations about race with people who are different from me because I didn’t own slaves, I didn’t prevent an African-American family from moving into my neighborhood, I didn’t refuse to be seated next to a man from a different country on an airplane.
I was in a meeting about ten days ago when the recent events in Baltimore came up in conversation. Someone at the table, a white person, said, “You know, one thing that has changed my life is learning about the power of forgiveness. Forgiving someone who has wronged me is one of the most freeing things I have ever done. Those black people need to learn that lesson. They just need to learn to forgive and move on.”
It was horrifying. It was absolutely horrifying. That any white person could even think about telling a black person what they need to do to “move on” in the discussion of race in this country, that any white person could advise a black person, and a whole race in fact, that they just need to forgive decades upon decades, centuries upon centuries of blatant mistreatment, injustice, and inhumanity is inexcusable. It is passed time for many of us in the majority to close our mouths about what “they” should do and start listening to the real experiences of people of color. It is passed time for us to come out from hiding behind our neighborhoods and our privilege to see what is really happening in other communities, to other mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. It is passed time for us to leave behind innocuous conversations about race that don’t lead what pastor and author Rachel Hackenberg called “conversions on race.”
We don’t like to think about it, we don’t like to imagine it, we definitely don’t like to admit it, but we are sinners, we are ungodly, we are enemies of God when we withhold the love that God has poured so graciously, so abundantly into our hearts because we can’t see beyond the color of someone’s skin. We are sinners, we are ungodly, we are enemies of God when we think we can ignore the racism in our country because it doesn’t seem like it touches our lives directly.
Again from the writing of Rachel Hackenberg in the midst of the unrest in Baltimore:
Two weeks ago, I led a conversation on race and faith while Jesus lay dying in Baltimore, and today I’m questioning the usefulness of talking about Jesus & talking about race in the church — specifically when the goal of those conversations is to help white folks talk about their experiences of & raise their questions about race without trespassing their threshold of defensiveness. Today I’m questioning the usefulness of talking about race & faith when those conversations don’t de-center and de-glorify whiteness.
Too much is at stake for all of us — but especially for our brothers & sisters of color — to tolerate or facilitate easy conversations on race any longer.
Too much is at stake for the Body of Christ as it is threatened, arrested, barricaded by police & by school-to-prison pipelines & by systems of poverty, killed outright or killed slowly across a lifetime, while so many of us whites are still seeing whether we can make time for and whether we can find courage for talking about race.
Too much is at stake for us whites to hide behind our best Christian words, our best liberal words without also listening to non-white words & stories. Too much is at stake for us to pray for consolation without also preaching for confession. Too much is at stake for us to avoid the conversations altogether. But most of all, too much is at stake for us to continue to treat talking about race as a luxury to be engaged or not.
Whew. I told you this was going to be uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable up here, too. Ohhhhhh, it is uncomfortable. But it’s part of the gospel. Part of the gospel is hearing that we are sinners in need of grace. Part of the gospel is looking in the full-length mirror and seeing the whole of one’s self. Part of the gospel is learning that we are not our own savior, that we are not God, and that we are desperately in need of God’s indiscriminate love that comes to us not because of what we did or didn’t do, not because of where we are from, not because of our family or our culture or the color of our skin, but because we are God’s own children. Nothing more and nothing less. We receive God’s love, we receive reconciliation to the one whom we betray with our lovelessness because God’s love knows no bounds.
This is our hope. This is our peace. This is the promise. The strength in our weakness. While we were still sinners, Christ died to show the depths of God’s love, to bring about reconciliation and peace in a world of division and violence. This is our hope; new life is possible. With love unbound, new life will come.
protest photo credit: Minneapolis march to support the people of Baltimore via photopin (license)