A sermon to white America.
For weeks now, I’ve been haunted by that phrase from Michael Eric Dyson. Rev. Dr. Dyson is professor of sociology at Georgetown University, a black Baptist preacher, and frequent television commentator on racial justice. “A sermon to white America” serves as subtitle for Dyson’s book Tears We Cannot Stop and was the subject of the keynote address I heard him give in April at Seattle University’s Mission Day. The book is organized like a Baptist worship service. From hymns of praise and invocation to benediction and offering plate -- with a two-part sermon on repenting of whiteness and being black in America in between. How about this one sentence as my take away from Dyson’s sermon to white America: “The status quo always favors neutrality, which, in fact, is never neutral at all, but supports those who stand against change” (pp. 122-123).
For weeks now, I’ve also been teaching a homiletics class at school. The
question has haunted me: What would my sermon to white America – to myself – be? And I’ve asked my preaching students – white and black and brown Americans – what would be their sermons to white America or to other folk living in white America? With those classroom conversations as encouragement, I want to try and retell this evening’s story of Saul and Jesus and Ananias from the Acts of the Apostles (9:1-20) as a first step toward my sermon to white America.
Because we’re a parish who claims St. Paul the Apostle for our patron, we hear about Saul on the road to Damascus every year. About the light from heaven. About falling to the ground and hearing that voice: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?...I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (9:4-5). But we don’t often hear the rest of the story of Paul’s conversion. In fact, this Sunday marks the one occasion in our three-year cycle of Scripture readings when we hear anything more from Acts 9 after Jesus’ words to Saul: “Get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do” (6). Maybe that’s already sermon enough. The real work of conversion – and amazing grace – come over those long, slow, earthbound days following the flash of heavenly light.
But there is more. Our story tells of appearances of the risen Jesus. Visions. Eyes unable to see. Sight restored. A story of calling and being sent to unlikely places and people. Hands and human touch. A story of baptism. A story of food and not eating and feeding, suggestive of eucharist. And because it’s a baptismal and eucharistic story, the Holy Spirit must come and fill.
Saul has been struck blind. “Though his eyes were open, he could see nothing” (8). Saul must depend on others. He can no longer see his way forward. “So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus” (8). Saul went “without sight, and neither ate nor drank,” for three days (9). A forced weaning, a fast, from threats and murder. And the three days aren’t just one more than two or one less than four. They represent the fullness of time. God’s resurrection time. Saul remains blind for as long as it takes.
The same risen Jesus who appeared to Saul on the road, now appears to
Ananias – one of the very disciples in Damascus Saul had come to bind and carry off. Jesus calls Ananias to go to Saul – just as Saul has a vision of Ananias coming to lay hands on him. Saul’s visions of Jesus and of Ananias begin to blur together. But Ananias has the best of reasons to refuse this calling. “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints” (13). Jesus persists: “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings” (15). A citizen of the Roman empire, Saul has work to do that Ananias cannot accomplish himself. Saul possesses privilege to stand before Gentile kings. But without Ananias, Saul can’t take up his divine calling. “Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus…has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit’” (17). That the other unclean, threatening and murderous spirit breathing through Saul might be cast out.
Our story ends with a cascade of happenings. “And immediately something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus and…began to proclaim Jesus” (18-19). Only after being baptized into his new calling and being fed by Ananias and Jesus for his new journey, and only when supported by new found community, does Saul begin to preach his sermon about Jesus to the people, his own people, in the synagogues.
My three days of blindness to race lasted the first forty years of my life. Oh, there were a few earlier seeds of conversion. But if something like scales have even begun to fall from my eyes, it’s because of the amazing grace of African American colleagues and students and friends over the past two decades. Michael Eric Dyson asks for three things in his sermon to white America. Be honest. Gain knowledge – by reading and thinking and talking about race. Act on what you’ve learned. I hear him preaching directly to me: Be honest about your blindness. Don’t try to move on too quickly. Be present to the blindness of your white privilege. Gain knowledge – above all by listening, listening to others. Fast from speaking first or too much. Wean yourself of any illusion of being a white savior. But be a good ally. Speak openly to your white colleagues in your specific university context around each and every classroom issue, faculty or staff hire, rank and tenure decision.
My sermon to white America must end with a thanks be to God for the sermons I heard my two African American students preach recently. Allison preached a Good Friday sermon on the second of Jesus’ seven last words: “Today, you will be with me.” She witnessed to a right now God for a right now church. In her sermon on the empty tomb and road to Emmaus, Barbara asked: What did Jesus do with his resurrected life? Her answer: He showed himself to the disappointed and he promoted the marginalized women. Thanks be to God.
I wonder what you think of my sermon to white America? What resonated? What missed the mark?
I wonder what your sermon to white America would be?
And I wonder what else or what completely different you hear in the rest of the story of Paul’s conversion or in any of our scriptures this evening?
I invite your responses.
Michael Eric Dyson, Tears We Cannot Stop (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017).