Thursday, January 18, 2018

Sarah Smith on Race: Chapel Sermon

Amos 5:24 “but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

On a summer day on June 21, 1964, at a civil rights rally at Soldier Field in Chicago, beloved Holy Cross priest and University of Notre Dame President Father Hesburgh stood together with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., singing "We Shall Overcome,” the famous African spiritual.

Fr. Hesburgh was member of the US Commission of Civil Rights.  And on that day where this famous picture was taken, he addressed a crowd over 57,000 people, saying “Be proud to be a Negro, we want to strive for dignity with you.” 

As a white person, I cannot speak to the experiences of the lived reality of a black person.  I cannot know what a black person’s daily struggles are living in a white world.  All I can do today is speak from my experience as a woman and as a theologian to give MLK Day some context – some theological language, if you will, to honor one of my most beloved theologians of all time and an American Civil Rights hero.

My message today is simply this – RACE IS A GIFT FROM GOD. 

I am saying what Fr. Hesburgh said that day in 1964 but in a more theological way.  And I will keep affirming this truth throughout my sermon this morning.

Thinking about RACE AS A GIFT FROM GOD changes our perspective on our differences as humans.  We were made by God with various shades of melanin as diverse as the colors of flowers in a meadow on a mountain.  Fr. Youmans reminded me that even the entire biosphere reflects God’s creativity in diversity, God made not just one type or one color or one species of things but rather God made 100s, 1000s, millions – we see this in Genesis 1 where God “made every kind…and saw it was good.”  So we too, as humans, reflect God’s abundance and wholly diversity. 

The cool thing about being human, however, is that we were made in the likeness and image of God, the imago dei. Genesis 1:26 states, “Let us make humankind[c] in our image, according to our likeness,” and then after God had made everything God said it was very good.  Therefore, our bodies reflect something about God.  The very fact that we are so many colors says something about God.  And God said we are “good” because everything God made was “good.”  Therefore, RACE IS A GIFT FROM GOD. 

What is wonderful about being a Christian is that we can look to our sources of authority like the Biblical text and the life of Jesus (whom by the way, was a BROWN man) and the traditions of the Church to search for meaning in life.  Our theological resources give us truths and hints towards how to think about our worlds which should in turn help us discern how we ought to live in the world.

I am a strong believer that if we do not put our theologies into our ethics then our theologies are dead.  In other words, if we don’t live out what we believe to be true about God then there is no point to having faith to begin with.  Therefore, if we believe as Chrisitans that RACE IS A GIFT FROM GOD then how ought we act towards each other?

I am heartened and encouraged that several dozen Casady students volunteered at the Food Bank yesterday to honor MLK in a day of service and giving to others in need.  King’s vision was for a Beloved Community based on the philosophy and principles of non-violence.  In this community, King saw justice in relationships between fellow humans and striving for equal opportunity and mutual dignity and respect. Where people were judged by the content of their character instead of the color of their skin. 

Where all work had dignity no matter if one was a sanitation worker or a physician.  In my favorite quote from him he explains, "all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny...whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.  For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.  And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be - this is the interrelated structure of reality."  And also, “our ultimate goal is integration, which is genuine inter-group and inter-personal living. Only through nonviolence can this goal be attained, for the aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation and the creation of the Beloved Community.”

So how do we realize King’s vision for the Beloved Community as a Christians, Muslims, Jews or people of good will that want to live in harmony and peace with one another?  I think a great deal of realizing King’s vision starts with our attitude and posture towards one another.  When I see a friend or person of a different race or ethnicity I shift my thinking from “oh wow this person is different than me so I fear them” to rather, “this person has a different experience than me from living in the world with a different color of skin, that is A GIFT FROM GOD therefore I am sure I can learn something from their lived experiences.” 

This is a very technical and fancy way to say


In a weekly podcast I run, interviewing women in theology – every time I get to interview one of my friends of color I am always so thrilled to learn from them.  They see the world and understand theology in a completely new and wonderful way that I have never dreamt of.  They make my faith better because they add their unique perspective.  They give my theology breadth and depth that I could not learn on my own.

We need each other.  In all of our diversities.  I cannot be who I ought to be until you are who you ought to be.  My salvation is wrapped up in yours and yours in mine, even.  This week’s lectionary text, John 1, Nathanael said “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  If Christians profess faith in a Brown savior named Jesus from a gross town called Nazareth then I would hope we could see that image of god in our brothers and sisters of color in towns and places where we would least expect it. 

Maybe that’s where God is after all anyways. With those on the margins.  Why wouldn’t we want to learn from them and be in community with them for they are blessed.  And so are we as we work to realize the Beloved Community here on earth and not just as it is in heaven.  Amen.