The hoods the Klu Klux Klan wore were about fear: not for those who wore them, but to instill it in those who were confronted by them. In hiding their faces, the Klan could be everyone and anyone. The hood served not to hide the identity of the person who wore it, but to make whoever saw it question who it was who lurked underneath it. The hood sowed fear and doubt and suspicion. And now, in the absence of hoods, our unwillingness to stand up and loudly proclaim our opposition to white supremacy, to work actively against racism, to be living examples of liberation, empowers those who gather in that cause to claim our support. They claim it because our inaction and our ambivalence allow them to claim it.
Our silence is our consent. Our inaction is our complicity. Our complacency is our sin. This happens in our name, in our streets, in our world, because we are not bold enough to stand with those who are in danger. The hood of the KKK is no longer worn because our impassivity has made the hood unnecessary. Our refusal to sacrifice any of our comfort has allowed and even encouraged those who now march in our name, because we are too weak and too frightened, too preoccupied and too busy, too selfish and too self-satisfied, to say no.
When our leaders can't denounce white supremacy by name, and when our churches can't pursue racial justice through faithful action, those who practice white supremacy are empowered. They are emboldened by our silence and inaction, and take them as signs of our consent and agreement. And those who are the object of their hatred and violence are increasingly isolated and frightened, increasingly marginalized and fearful, increasingly vulnerable and unprotected. We have left them alone. We have forgotten the poor, we have neglected the oppressed, we have chosen to abandon the Gospel, to abandon Christ’s call.
I will not and cannot exclude myself from those pronouncements and indictments. How often have I been willing to sacrifice my own privilege, the benefits and blessings I have received from a legacy of racism? How often have I been willing to sacrifice an afternoon or an evening to announce my opposition to the hatred and intolerance that continues to grip our society, our politics, our culture? How often have I turned a deaf ear or remained silent in the face of a racist joke or remark, fearing that I might lose some esteem or status with the person who made it?
Too often. Too often have I placed myself at the center. Too often have I thought only of myself. Too often have my thoughts and actions been guided by what is easiest for me and best for me, when my vocation as a minister of word and sacrament, and my call as a follower of Jesus, not only ask but demand of me that I bring good news to the poor, sight to the blind, and liberation to the oppressed. We have -- I have -- neglected the very essence of Christian discipleship.
I have sinned. I have sinned against God in my selfishness and I have sinned against my kin in Christ through my preference for my own comfort over those who suffer. I have sinned, as we say in our confession, in what I have done and what I have left undone. Who has my silence made invisible? Who has my inaction injured? Who has my neglect punished?
We claim to have hope, but we give in to fear. We claim to love justice but we sanction oppression. We claim to embrace peace but we countenance violence. We claim to imitate Christ but we have neglected his call. Our theology allows us to neglect those who suffer. Our privilege allows us to ignore those who hate. But Christ does not. Christ calls us to minister to those who suffer and oppose those who would cause it. Christ calls us to take sides, and to take action, even and especially when doing so has consequences. Christ calls us to replace our fear with hope, and our doubt with faith, to believe in him and with him, not only so that we might be saved ourselves, but so that we might share his radical message of liberation and challenge injustice wherever we encounter it.
In our lesson from 2 Kings this morning, Elijah is struggling with this very idea. He has run from Israel, been chased out of Israel, by the powers of his day. He is in exile because his cries for justice and peace pose a challenge to the political and religious leadership, and he is fearful for his own life.
God comes to him and hears of Elijah’s fear. He tells God: I alone am left. Elijah feels alone, Elijah is alone, because of the violence of injustice and the sinfulness of those who feared upsetting the political and religious status quo rather than God. And so God shows Elijah how near God is to him, how close God is to him, how present God is with him. God invites Elijah to see and hear, to experience that nearness and closeness, to know that presence. And there is a great wind that smashes rocks in which Elijah expects that nearness. There is a thunderous earthquake in which Elijah expects that closeness. There is a tremendous fire in which Elijah expects that presence. But God is not in the fire and the fury.
God is in the sheer silence that follows. God is in the aftermath. God is in the still, small voice that speaks to each of us when we have run in fear, when we have turned from justice and neglected oppression, and asks us: What are you doing here? Why are you here? Why are you not there? Why do you fear others more than you have hope in me?
Peter also fears and doubts more than he believes and hopes. All night the disciples had been alone, struggling against the waves that swamped them and the winds that battered them. Alone, they had made no progress and were still far from shore. Surely even these fisherman were afraid that their vessel would be lost, and with it, they would be also.
And as Jesus comes to them, they cannot believe. They see him on the water and they think they see a ghost, and not their friend and their teacher. He tries to calm them, to reassure them, to encourage them. “Take heart,” he says, “do not be afraid.” Yet, even in the presence of Jesus walking on the water toward him, Peter sinks through his disbelief. In his fear, he cries out for Jesus to save him. And Jesus takes his hand and catches him. The wind ceases. The water calms. They get into the boat.
Jesus is with us. Jesus comes to us when we are being battered and swamped, when the waves threaten us and the wind blows against us. Jesus comes to us to allay our fears and give us strength. Jesus comes to us to give us courage and increase our faith. When we cry out to Jesus for salvation, he hears our cry and catches us. And yet, when the storms rage around us, we doubt and have little faith. We fear the storm more than we trust the power of God. We are overwhelmed and overcome. Where is our hope? Where is our faith? We say we believe in hope, that we believe in God, that we believe in justice and liberation, and yet in the storm we lose heart and we lose courage and we lose faith.
This is not the first storm in which the church has lost its hope. In the decades before the Civil War, our Congregational forebears wrote to the president of the seminary from which I recently graduated, from which Steven graduated, and George. And they asked what the church should do about slavery. And he responded that God would take care of it when God was ready. That God would dismantle it when God was ready. That God would free the enslaved when God was ready. And yet, for some, this answer was insufficient. This answer was unjust. This answer was hopeless and faithless and blasphemous. They refused to stay silent in the face of the suffering and oppression of the enslaved. They refused to allow it to continue in their name and with their consent. They heard the cries of pain and sorrow and confessed their belief on their lips and in their hearts.
And in 1934, in Germany, representatives of churches there gathered to ask themselves what was to be done about Nazism claiming for itself the mantle of Christianity, claiming to speak on behalf of the Body of Christ, claiming to act as the Body of Christ as it practiced injustice and oppression and threatened genocide and extermination to those who stood against it. They chose to confess with their lips what was written on their hearts, at great risk and great expense.
Many of its authors would be imprisoned and executed by those they rose against, but their faith and their hope allowed them no other recourse. They could have saved themselves, but to do so would be to condemn the church and Christ, to blaspheme against God, to give in to fear and deny God’s power, Christ’s call to justice and liberation. We will read from the Declaration that grew from that gathering as our Affirmation of Faith. And we will remember their courage and their sacrifice. And we will remember their tremendous faith amidst the storms that raged around them.
Paul asks us not to concern ourselves with the status of our salvation, but the state of our souls. We have conflated the two, and told ourselves that when we say we believe, we are saved. But when our words ring hollow to those who hear our proclamation of God’s justice and see our inaction in the face of injustice, what is our confession, what is our faith, what is the state of our soul?
The Lord’s table stands ready for us. The bread that we eat and the cup that we drink symbolize to us Christ’s sacrifice for us and for many for the forgiveness of sin. We remember the night on which he was betrayed, that he was handed over to Pilate and executed by the authorities, because he challenged the injustice and oppression those authorities exercised over the people. He promised good news to the poor. He promised release to the captive. He promised recovery of sight to the blind. He promised liberation to the oppressed. We believe in those promises. We confess our faith in their truth. We proclaim the justice and righteousness of God and the coming of the year of the Lord’s favor.
And we remember his resurrection, and his triumph over injustice and violence, and give thanks and praise. We remember that in our baptism, we share in Christ’s baptism, and so we share in his death and his resurrection. We believe that we participate in them, that in God’s mercy and through God’s grace, we too will be saved from sin and death. We proclaim that Christ is risen, that God’s justice and God’s love are greater than any and all earthly power.
If that is the hope in which we place our trust, then who and what are we to fear? if that is the faith that we proclaim, then why do we doubt? If that is the confession of our hearts, then where is our courage? Our silence and our complacency speak louder than our words, and they contradict them. Our sins may be forgiven by God, but we have still sinned in our giving into fear and our lack of conviction.
God has mercy, love and peace enough to share, and we are blessed by God’s abundant grace. The presence of that grace does not absolve us from the responsibility to speak God’s truth in the face of injustice and violence and hatred, but should embolden us and empower us to proclaim the Gospel, to live into our confession, to increase the hope and faith it brings. The presence of that grace gives us the strength to abandon fear and the courage to embrace justice. As Paul tells us, through Isaiah: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news?” What are you doing here? Where are you going? Go forth, and proclaim the gospel. The grace of God and the presence of Christ will be with you. Amen.
Wallace "Chip" Hurd is Acting Senior Pastor of the First Congregational Church of West Boylston, and a member of the MACUCC Racial Justice Task Team.
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