Being called to preach the Gospel is a noble and dangerous calling. As the Letter of James says, “teachers will be judged more strictly.” This is especially true on weekends like the one America just experienced. After an unplanned rally of torch wielding white nationalists marched through the bucolic campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, the whole nation seemed on edge. By early afternoon on Saturday, the simmering pot had boiled over. One woman was dead, twenty others injured as a man, now known to be a white supremacist, ran his car into a crowded street of counter-protesters.
On social media, there were many who called on preachers to immediately scrap their sermons and preach against racism. Many preachers did just that; throwing out sermons that had been prepared to talk about Peter and Jesus walking on water, in order to name the sins of racism, white supremacy, and violence. I applaud those preachers. Others took a harder look at their texts and made changes to name the power that fear has in our lives. The text explicitly invited that reading, and I applaud those preachers as well. Still others chose to do nothing. They preached the same sermon on Sunday morning that they had planned to preach when they woke up on Friday. I don’t begrudge these preachers either. These topics are weighty and with less than 24 hours to make changes without time for critical thought and fervent prayer sermons dealing with them could have easily caused more harm than good.
That pass runs out this morning, however. Sunday’s Gospel lesson and a full week to study and prayer leaves no wiggle room for the preacher to avoid the topic of racism, violent rhetoric, and hate. The challenge will come when the preacher names the sin of racism in the context of a story in which Jesus, whom Scripture and tradition tell us was without sin, makes a clearly racist statement. He calls the woman of Syrophoenican descent a dog, and there is no way around it. What are we to do? I think the task is two-fold. First, we have to talk about the reality of systemic sin. It can be true that Jesus the Christ lived without personal sin while also being true that Jesus the first century Jew lived in a culture of systemic sin. His response to the woman was perhaps as close as Jesus ever got to allowing the sinfulness of the system in which he lived to flow into personal sin. We need to say that. And then we need to be willing to say that Jesus learned something in that encounter, and that he grew beyond the closed-minded racial system of his time to see that the Kingdom of God is much wider than even his human will could have imagined.
Episcopalians will likely stop there. We are very comfortable with talking about systemic sin, but this Sunday will also require us to talk about individual sin as well. We need to talk about how we as individuals perpetuate racism in our own lives. We need to talk about how the words that come from our mouths show the sin in our hearts. We need to be clear that the way forward in our society isn’t through anger, hateful speech, or violence, but through love of neighbor. We need to be willing to say the unpopular thing, that the sin of the man who organized the “Unite the Right” rally is on par with the sin of the man who threw a punch at him on Sunday morning. The Church, if we are to have a distinctly Christ-like voice in the struggle toward a more just society, must distance itself from violence, must be willing to admit that Jesus meant it when he said that if we are angry with another we are guilty of murder, and must be able to move beyond partisan politics to offer a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus would have us help him build.
It will be a challenging week for Lectionary preachers. Moving beyond emotional immediacy toward a considered, theologically sound, sermon will not be easy, but it is our call as preachers, and the Gospel lesson demands it of us. You will be in my prayers this week. I invite you to pray for me as well.