Third Sunday of Lent 2019 – Pastor Goede
I’ve been planning for quite a while to start a Lenten preaching series today about whiteness. It would seem that, coincidentally, the timing is amazing given what happened this week in New Zealand. But no, I could have started just about any time, and something would have happened that week that would be about whiteness. That’s because white supremacy is on the rise all over the world right now, and when I say on the rise, I mean out in the open everywhere, all the time, with more people paying attention and being drawn to it. Right now, white people can use social media at any time and see lots of other white people everywhere openly expressing hatred for people of any racial or ethnic category you could imagine. There have always been white supremacists, but they’ve rarely been this visible or accessible. White supremacists like the Christchurch killer can now broadcast murders and manifestoes in real time, knowing that they’ll go viral and infect at least some other people.
I don’t think people’s values and attitudes have suddenly changed. What’s changed is that people who quietly believe that white is best can suddenly easily find people just like them to chat to, complain to, be inspired by. They’ve found a group to belong to that reflects them. They’re emboldened. They feel they’ve been given permission to feel the way they want to feel because now they can join with other like-minded people. It mushrooms from there, until someone like the Christchurch killer emerges.
In today’s gospel, Jesus speaks words of prophecy and says how often God desires to gather Israel together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. That’s a nice image, gathering us to protect us and keep us safe and warm when we’re vulnerable. Being gathered by our mother is an image that makes us feel like we belong, that we’re part of a family. It would seem like something anyone would want, for themselves and others, and by comparison, it’s hard to imagine that anyone finds anything comparable in gathering with people driven to destroy others. But as Jesus says, so often we’re not willing to be gathered by God, even as we’re very willing to be gathered, and used and abused, by people who directly oppose God. Sin isn’t always rational.
I learned a lot about people’s complicated relationships with white supremacy while I served a congregation in the southwest suburbs. The crucial part of the story of Mt. Zion and Oak Lawn really started, though, almost a century earlier with my friends’ parents and grandparents who lived in the city. Many of the older members of the church had grown up close to the old Mt. Zion, which had been built in 1914 at 81st and May.
Lutheran missionaries had started the congregation as a mission to white residents who were fleeing the city. In 1914, 81st and May was open land, the perfect place to build a far suburb. Lots of new home buyers wanted to escape their city neighborhoods where new, strange, darker immigrants were moving in. So they moved to the far suburbs, and the new Lutheran mission was there to welcome that early wave of white flight.
The old Mt. Zion was right across the street from Calumet High School. The high school was the true point of shared experience for many of the older members of Mt. Zion. They had grown up in the neighborhood and gone to Calumet High. Only a couple of them, however, had gone to Mt. Zion as children or teenagers. When Mt. Zion built a new church in Oak Lawn in 1957 at the height of white flight, the congregation was ripped apart. A few members moved with the church, but most people scattered throughout the south and west suburbs.
When the older members moved from Auburn to Oak Lawn as young married couples in the early 1960s, they joined the new church because they found some of their Calumet High School classmates there. They felt they were living in a new and strange land in suburbia, and they were anxious to find other refugees from the old neighborhood. They were not unlike young high school grads off to college and away from home for the first time. It was exciting but scary to be away from home and family for the first time, exciting and overwhelming to meet so many new people, and such a relief to find some people they already knew.
One afternoon I spent with some of the older women was memorable. I had driven several of them to the seminary for a Guild meeting, and on the way back to Oak Lawn, I proposed we stop at the old church. All of the women were in shock. It was as if I had suggested we stop at a strip club. It was then that I learned that none of them had ever been back to the old neighborhood in the fifty years since they moved, not once, even though they had only moved seven miles away. It hadn’t occurred to me that white flight would be one way only, no turning back.
The old Mt. Zion sanctuary was the new home of the Victory Orthodox Apostolic Faith Church, and the pastor was in. He led us on a tour through the whole building, stopping to let the women reminisce in the kitchen, in the worship space. He passed around a plate of cookies and invited us to come again as we left.
Back in the car, the women loosened up a bit and agreed that they would like to drive by their old houses. They talked about what had happened. The pastor had been nice. They couldn’t believe he had let us in.
They agreed the new congregation kept the church in nice shape. They couldn’t believe what the blacks had done to the neighborhood, though, look at this, it’s a mess, what a shame.
Driving by their old childhood homes, the women were quieter, more emotional. They asked if we could drive around some more. We drove by grandparents’ houses, old elementary schools, penny candy stores, the landscapes of their early lives, as they reminisced nonstop. It struck me that to be separated from their roots so completely for forty and fifty years was such a painful loss. But their lives were arranged to enforce separation. They couldn’t drive themselves back because none of them drove; it was a way in which their husbands kept them on a short leash. Some of them learned when they were widows. They had spent their adult lives surrounded by people who accepted them on the condition that they join them in turning their backs on the city and unite with them in keeping black people out of the village. In exchange for acceptance, they had endured decades of deprivation, decades of longing to just go back once.
What we do in the church, here at Augustana and in the Church with a capital “C” is that we gather people, as God has gathered us. We gather people so that they can experience God’s protection, love, acceptance and mercy, just as we’ve experienced them. Being gathered under God’s wing frees us. Life is harsh under the rules of white supremacy, even when people rationalize that they’re just benign social norms of suburban life that aren’t hurting anyone.
To counter this reality that is only a few miles from us, and all over the globe, we have to be intentional about our gathering together and speaking together and asking others to gather with us. Christian formation isn’t passive, because evil isn’t sitting still. There are a lot of people working hard in defiance of God, gathering a lot of rootless, scared little chicks to follow. We need to be equally bold in forming our church community into a place where people know the love of God. At the beginning of Lent, we said that in this season, we intensify our struggle against sin. In light of what happened this week in New Zealand, this seems more important than ever.