by the Rev. Sarah Schmidt-Lee Scripture: John 3:1-17 Good morning all! It’s good to be with you today.
I’ve had a friend from college visiting with me this week, and it’s been delightful to catch up with her–to find out what has been going on in her life, and share what’s been happening in mine, and also to reminisce about our college days, which were nearly 20 years ago, now.
As I’ve been preparing for this sermon, I’ve been thinking a lot about a particular experience I had in college. It was at a worship service I attended most weeks. This was a student-led service, not affiliated with any church or campus organization–just a couple kids with a guitar and a violin and a drum who started getting together to pray. It started with about 10 friends and quickly blossomed to over 100 students, so they asked to use the sanctuary of a church on campus so that this large group of students could continue to meet to worship at 10pm every Thursday night.
On this particular night I was in a sanctuary with all these fellow students singing a song called “Days of Elijah.” It’s a praise song that makes numerous references to the Hebrew Scriptures–Elijah, David, Ezekiel–and anticipates the second coming of Christ, using some of the language of the Hebrew prophets.
It’s an upbeat song, and the drummer and guitar player leading worship had people dancing in the aisles, like we were wont to for these songs of celebration. Usually I would have been dancing along with everyone else, but on this occasion I was frozen in my pew, because one line in the chorus had jumped out at me—“Lift your voice; it’s the year of Jubilee, and out of Zion’s hill salvation comes.”
Jubilee. I had just read about the year of Jubilee in Sunday School–we were studying a book called “The Biblical Jubilee and the Struggle for Life” by Russ and Gloria Kinsler, and in it I learned that the Jubilee law was about forgiveness of debts and redistribution of resources.
And right in that pew, I found myself putting together pieces of a puzzle–a puzzle I didn’t even know I had been carrying around for months or even years. I started thinking about what I had learned of Jubilee, and about a book on my parents’ shelf called “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger”–a book that makes the case that if every Evangelical Christian in North America tithed, we could resolve world hunger and still have enough money to keep our churches running smoothly. I thought about my experiences on mission trips to the Philippines in high school, and about students at my college who had just returned from a trip to Nicaragua; I thought about what I was learning about fair trade and human trafficking, and all kinds of pieces started clicking together. As I began to step back and look at all these pieces as a whole, I had an image–a vision of an African mother, bound in poverty, rejoicing at the coming of salvation because Jesus was going to spread out the wealth of the world so that she would have enough. Enough to feed her children and live life without fear.
And I was on the other side of the globe, with less so that this mother could have enough.
Now, I’m not here this morning to make a case for reinstating the biblical Jubilee–most scholars of ancient history will tell you that there is no evidence that the nation of Israel ever actually followed that law. And I’m not here to make the case that redistribution of wealth is God’s plan for the coming kingdom. What I am here to talk about is the struggle inside of myself when confronted with the reality that in a just world, I might be called to have less so that others can have enough.
That struggle which I first felt at about 10:30 pm on a Thursday night while a room full of college students danced to “Days of Elijah”–that struggle was my first experience of confronting my own privilege. I didn’t have that language, yet, but I could feel the tension.
I found myself asking, could I really sing this song authentically? Could I sing it with joy? This song was about good news for the poor. If I am not poor, but am among the wealthiest 10% of the planet is it still good news for me? If it is good news for me, can I believe that it is good news, even if it might mean changes in my life that feel like sacrifice or loss?
This is a tension I want to invite us to occupy today. It is deeply uncomfortable, but in our society more than ever, we need to ask these questions and sit with them for a time. It is too easy for us to assume that we are playing a zero-sum game. That everyone either shakes out as a winner or a loser. We see this assumption when people get defensive at the women’s movement, as if saying that women matter implies that men do not matter. We see this zero-sum assumption when people get upset at the Black Lives Matter movement as if it implies that white lives do not matter.
Can I believe in a world where I do not have an unfair advantage over my sisters and brothers of color, but in which I am not oppressed by them? Can I imagine that? Can we imagine God’s kingdom as one in which we have less privilege, but enough justice?
When I ask these questions, I find myself much like Nicodemus, coming to Jesus in the cover of night. I’ve been pondering these questions for two decades, and for most of that time I’ve been pondering in solitude–or maybe with one or two other friends over dinner, but far out of the pulpit and public eye. It is frightening to ask questions about my own privilege; it exposes my own ignorance and limitations.
And so I come to Jesus saying, “I’ve heard stories of what you do, and I believe you are amazing. I look at the problems in our world, and I know you can change everything,” but I do it in private, in secret.
And then Jesus pushes my comfort zone. “Sarah, honey, it’s not about what you know. It’s about a whole new life. Bottom to top, inside out, everything transformed as the Spirit of God births you into a new way of being in the world.” And as I stammer and stare, wondering what on earth that means, Jesus puts a hand on my shoulder. “You say you’re a pastor, huh? And you haven’t gotten this part, yet?”
And I want to get defensive because I really like being competent, but I see the love, I know the love, I trust the love in Jesus’ face, so I shrug.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that “we speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen, yet you do not receive our testimony.”
And I think of Martin Luther King Jr. sitting in a Birmingham jail, writing a letter to all the white pastors in town who are telling him to slow down and stop being so disruptive. “We speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen, yet you do not receive our testimony.”
Or the Black Lives Matter protestors who are told by white media and plenty of white pastors and Christians to stop antagonizing the police. “We speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen, yet you do not receive our testimony.”
“If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”
Does that cut your heart the way it does mine? Sisters and brothers, this is where we live. We live in this space between our impulse to get defensive when our neighbors testify about their own experiences of racism and the possibility of believing. Believing the reality of their experiences; believing the truth of our nation; believing the truth about our own hearts.
And oh, is it painful! It is heart-wrenching and soul-crushing and tears your body open, like childbirth. It is so painful to see the truth when the truth is that our nation that we love has a legacy of white supremacy that we cannot erase or ignore. It is so painful to see the truth when the truth is that the police officers we know and love, often in our own families, are caught up in systemic racism that targets African Americans and threatens their lives. It is so painful to see the truth when the truth is that the mother across the street from me raises her brown-skinned boys to be polite, not so they can make a good impression, like I do with my son, but so that they can survive to adulthood.
And it is painful to see the truth when the truth is that I only feel this pain when I choose to. Part of my privilege as a white American woman is the luxury of looking away.
But here is what I have come to believe.
I believe that seeing and naming and working to dismantle white privilege is good news. I believe it is good news for me.
I believe it is good news for me, because of John 3:17–that oft neglected verse that follows its much more famous counterpart. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Seeing and naming our privilege is not about shame. Admitting that I am racist is not about personal guilt and wallowing in remorse. Jesus has come to liberate the captives, and sisters and brothers, we are captive to racism–we are bound up in a system that we did not create or choose, but which infects our ways of seeing and thinking and speaking and behaving in the world, and we need salvation. We need to be born again.
And praise God, who did not send Jesus into the world to look at our sin and shame us or condemn us, but to liberate us from its hold.
Do we believe that this is good news?
I am coming to believe that it is, and that is why, today I am not seeking Jesus out in the cover of night, but standing before you in the light of day to proclaim: Yes. This is good news. In the just and righteous kingdom of God, we who are white will not be privileged over others. We will have less so that others can have enough, and this will be our salvation. May we proclaim the kingdom of God and work out our salvation with fear and trembling each and every day.