When I used the N-word and was shown Grace

The first time I talked about slavery, racism, monuments, and the church at the church I currently serve was my second Sunday in the pulit, July 7, 2019. Here’s the sermon I preached that day.

You know, one thing that you may have noticed about me is I’m a little young. I heard that when Pastor Rudy first showed my picture as the incoming pastor for Grace Church he pointed to my youthful visage and reminded you that he once looked just like this when he first came to Grace.

I more than anyone am aware that having someone as young as me come to serve as senior pastor here is a bit of a risk. It got me wondering if I’m the youngest pastor you’ve ever had here. As it turns out, I am not. You once had a pastor who was only 25 years old. You also had pastors who weren’t yet ordained when they arrived. Your first pastor, back in 1867, George W. Lightner was a probationary pastor. He was a rookie!

He also, interestingly enough, was one of the early pastors ordained to the Methodist Episcopal Church South. You may have noticed among the amazing historical artifacts around the church, there is one piece outside, with the bell. It’s a cornerstone from the first Grace church building with the words “Grace M. E. Church South.” What is now Grace UMC started in a different denomination, the Methodist Episcopal Church South. This was a breakaway denomination around the time of the Civil War. It was the result of a split in the church over the issue of slavery, specifically whether or not the General Conference could demand pastors and bishops free their slaves.

The Methodist Episcopal Church South was, as you might have surmised, in favor of maintaining the institution of slavery, and the segregation of churches, maintaining a wall between races. You… We… were one of those churches, led by one of those pastors.

Grace is the oldest congregation I’ve ever been a part of. It is also the only ME South church I’ve been a part of. The denomination and this congregation have moved on since their founding. In fact Grace church has literally moved, repeatedly since then, and now it rests on this gorgeous farm land given through the generosity of a family in our congregation with the stipulation that the church preserve the family cemetery, and the stone cabin, the former slave’s quarters. I applaud the church and the Johnson family for preserving such significant if difficult parts of their history as that cornerstone and this cabin: daily reminders of the harm and hurt in our history as a country and as a church.

There’s a chance some of you didn’t realize all of this and there’s a chance it may make you feel uncomfortable. That’s okay. But, in our region it’s all more common than we may realize or openly acknowledge. There’s no such thing as a church free from sin, nor a church or person in the south untouched by our history of slavery and racism. I mean look, I grew up in Richmond, the capital of the confederacy, where streets are lined with Confederate monuments. I am a product of the past as much as any other southerner. Interestingly enough, though, I had the blessing of a relatively rare southern experience. I went to a Middle School and High School that were predominantly Black schools. Most of my classmates were African Americans.

I was mostly unaware of the significance then, of the fact that I, a descendant of slave owners, was classmates, teammates, and friends with descendants of slaves. Actually, I wasn’t just unaware, I was just plain ignorant. Here’s your proof.

Every teenager wants to fit in, right? I was no different. So I wanted to fit in with my Black classmates. Back then, one of the styles was to wear your pants low: “bust a sag.” So, naturally, I wanted to bust a sag too. The only problem was that my white mom shopped the clearance rack at Kohl’s which means all I had to sag with were pleated khaki shorts held up by a brown braided leather belt. Not exactly “hood.”

Nonetheless, I wanted to fit in so when I got on the bus every day I would tug on my shorts until they were low enough. The problem was they weren’t actually loose shorts so the pleats and the braided belt would just squeeze me tight right around my butt… excuse me… bottom… until I had as much butt spilling over to top of my belt as I did tucked under it. It looked like I had two butts. But I didn’t care. I wanted to fit in. I wanted to be one of them

Some of my High School classmates

I even changed the way I talked. I wanted to talk like the majority of the cool kids at my school; so, one day, playing basketball in gym class, I wanted to compliment a teammate, a young African-American woman. In my ignorance, I wanted to compliment her with words I had heard others use, so I said “nice shot… n-word.”

In today’s text from Ephesians, Paul continues to remind the church about just what has happened in Christ’s death and resurrection, just how massive and universal this transformation is which God has wrought in Christ: the immeasurable riches of the gospel of grace. Paul reminds them of a time when they, Gentile Christians were part of a world where there were two kinds of people. Us, and them, which is to say Jews and Gentiles.

Paul says, remember when you were them, and not one of us. You were outside of the blessing of God. You were sinners, and apart from Christ you were dead in your sins. You were alone and so far outside the covenant that you might as well have had two butts. All jokes aside, you had no hope. You were a hopeless ignorant fool.

But now, in Christ Jesus, you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. Now, He, Christ, He is our Peace across the borderlines between us and them. In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall which was the hostility between us. Forgiving sins, and hurts. Uniting both “sides” into one.

The room went silent, except for the sound of the ball bouncing to a stop on the floor.

Then the woman I had misnamed spoke, “What did you say?” I froze. Then someone else spoke up. His name was Ricky. He spoke up on my behalf and said, “He didn’t say anything… Your ball.” And we went back to our game. By grace I was saved. My sin was blotted out. As if it never happened. The commandment I had broken was abolished, and the debt forgiven. The hostility in the room was replaced with peace which I had not earned or deserved.

Ricky was a Christian. And Christ was in him saving my butts that day. Being a student at that High School, being the one white boy in the Gospel Choir, it was a means of grace to me. It was a way in which God brought me

close to what my ancestors had kept divided. This grace showed me my ignorance, my inherited racism, and welcomed me in spite of it. It was an experience of peace where there could have been a wall, where there had been a war. The peace which Christ brings to all places of strife and sin. For he is our Peace.

For whatever reason, through each chapter of my life, I happen to have had a large number of experiences of grace and peace like this one, Grace and peace across the walls of cultural boundaries which Christ has broken down. Today’s scripture reveals that every time I or anyone discovers this Peace a-cross boundaries, it is a direct result of Christ’s work on the cross. The Cross is the thing that brought me to those experiences of grace in my life, at my school, and later  on international mission trips, and then in churches of unspeakable wealth, and then with Alexandria’s poorest poor. In my life, for whatever reason, Grace and Peace have brought me close and united me both with the most liberal of liberals and the most conservative conservatives I’ve ever known… who have loved me and whom I have come to love in return…

In every case, we met at the place where you might expect to find a wall. Instead, I can see now, we were meeting at a broken down wall, at the foot of the cross, where the ground’s been leveled. In each case where there was profound difference, plenty of awkwardness, and even at times hostility and hurt, the Cross is the thing we had in common, which made us one. As Paul writes, ironically, the Cross which was used for violence, is now, in Christ, our only abiding Peace.

The cross-shaped ceiling over the communion table at Grace UMC, Manassas

I don’t know how much reflection y’all do or have done about the church’s history with racial division and slavery. It could be mostly out of mind, and there’s probably some good in that. But, I could see on my first visit, that you’ve allowed the truth of the past to remain public. To me, that’s just amazing. I applaud that choice, Because honestly, as Christians, the only reason to hide our histories, or pretend we weren’t or aren’t racist, the only reason to pretend we’re not sinners, is if we don’t believe in grace. Instead, believing in grace, keeping this story public… To me it’s as if you are willing to admit publicly what Pastor Rudy said to me about you and what the historical marker outside says too, this church is not the kingdom of God, that’s the truth, but with God’s help we try to live up to our name. It’s to identify without fear or qualification as a church made of sinners in constant need of God’s Grace.

It is the behavior of those who actually believe in salvation, that they’ve been saved, and are freed now to face the truth, accept this grace, and then to begin to love the neighbors we once enslaved, and to welcome them and be welcomed by them… By grace we are saved and freed to love our former enemies, the ones on the other side of the wall, or the other side of the world, or the other side of the border, or the other side of the tracks, or the other side of the issue, or the other side of the aisle, or the other side of the pew. That choice to preserve your history and effectively confess your sins openly, it’s a sign of your faith in this God who has broken down the dividing wall between every version of us and them, who has born our offenses, born our dis-ease, forgiven our sin, and made us one. That preservation of the past, by grace through faith, transforms what might have been hidden artifacts in the shadows of the past into present, public monuments of grace.

And that might as well be the definition of the word church: a monument of grace. Not a fortress for the good guys; but a monument of grace marking where a battle was fought to save the lost, and free the captives, and forgive their captors, and give us a hope and a future we don’t even deserve. This church is a monument of grace where weekly the good news is proclaimed to sin-sick souls on sin-sick soil in a sin-sick world. A monument of grace which is convinced of its need for more grace. So convinced of this grace that it has preserved its story, trusting that it is Christ and his cross alone which are our true cornerstone, the cross alone which makes us one… One in ways we are still discovering today!

Today, the light of this Grace still shines. And when its light is cast on our present divisions, it reveals that the walls that divide us today by race, age, class, gender, sexuality, and politics are best understood not as divides we have yet to bridge, or work we have left to do, but as idols we have yet to cast down and smash at the foot of the altar to instead take up the cross of Christ as the one banner of peace over us all, and to plant it once again as monument of the Grace by which we are saved.

Hear the good news: Christ has already broken down the dividing wall between us. Gentile and Jew, Black and Brown and White, Slave and Free, Woman and Man, Gay and Straight, faithful and doubtful, Right and Left, Right and Wrong, victims and perpetrators, sinners and saints, all… so now, all of you, all of us, even if we still feel like enemies, let us come to the table together.

By his Grace, in his own flesh, Christ here makes us one new humanity, one in our need of the grace he offers us here… for free. The grace that has broken down the walls has even, now hear this, the grace that has even broken down the dividing wall between us has done so by breaking down the wall between us and him. Lay down your burdens and take up the body and blood of Christ broken for you.

For when all of us meet at this table, under this cross, we are together made into a monument of Grace. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

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