Baptismal identity and privilege | 18 January 2015 | MLK weekend

Texts: 1 Samuel 3:1-10; John 1:43-51

The image behind me, also printed on your bulletins, is a stained glass window in 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.  It was a gift from the people of Wales, after that church was bombed in September, 1963, less than three weeks after the March on Washington and King’s “I have a dream” speech.  Four black girls died in that bombing.

Much transpired between the giving of that iconic speech and the words King delivered at Stanford University in April, 1967. Less than a year after that he was killed at the age of 39.  King still expresses hope in the words we have been hearing this morning from that speech, but they are tempered by the continued resistance and outright violence and hatred directed against blacks and the civil rights movement.  The new movie Selma, which I hope all of us have a chance to see sometime, is set in 1965, and is one of those events that happened after the hopeful and beautiful dream of 1963 spoken in Washington DC, and before the more solemn and urgent plea of 1967, spoken at Stanford.  Because we are listening to some of that speech today, my words will be brief.

Last week Joseph Sprague spoke to the racial inequalities in our prisons and criminal justice systems.  The recent police shootings of black males and grand jury trials have highlighted continuing racial disparities both in attitudes and in systemic injustice.  And here we are, on the weekend our nation has set aside to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

It’s important for us to hear together these challenging words from the King of 1967.  “What I’m trying to get across is that our nation has constantly taken a positive step forward on the question of racial justice and racial equality. But over and over again at the same time, it made certain backward steps… And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again… And so we must help time, and we must realize that the time is always right to do right.”

These words join with the lectionary scripture readings for the morning of God’s call to the young Samuel, reminding us that it’s never too early to begin God’s work, and that since the old and experienced Eli was also in the temple but was not hearing the same call, that each new generation must hear for itself what is the call of its time.  In John Jesus calls Phillip and Nathaneal into a journey of discipleship that will lead them away from the familiar and perhaps comfortable world of Galilee toward Jerusalem, a journey that, for Jesus, will result in what is pictured in this stained glass window.

I invite you to look again at this image and to ponder it.  One of its signature characteristics is how the artist portrays the hands of Jesus.  The right hand, you may notice, is turned, in a pose of opposition.  If you are or have ever been a parent of a teenager, you may recognize this gesture as closely resembling “talk to the hand.”  If you are a teenager, or have ever been a teenager, perhaps you have struck this pose yourself once or twice.  While not always a great conversation tactic among family, it is an essential aspect of our relationship with injustice.  It is an expression of active resistance.  Jesus does not go passively to the cross, but accepts this fate as an act of resistance against all that is evil and all that defies and threatens the power of life.  On the cross, Jesus exposes and overcomes the powers of violence, making a public display of them, as the writer of Colossians says in 2:15.  This image asks us to meditate on the question of how we actively resist that which belittles and harms life.

On the other hand…the left hand is open.  It’s in a position of vulnerability.  It’s an offering of oneself.  It’s a gesture of forgiveness grounded in the ultimate hope of healing and reconciliation.  If you have ever seen the artwork displaying early Christians in prayer, you’ll note that their hands are not folded in the way we associate with prayer, but are up, and open, in a posture of surrender, and openness to God.  “Your will be done.”  We receive the grace and goodness of God through an openness that is both strong and vulnerable.  This is what prayer looks like.

Last Sunday I was out of town and missed the chance to preach on what the lectionary has designated as a day to remember the Baptism of Jesus, the first Sunday every year after Epiphany.  I invite us to consider this image of Christ as a wonderful example of what our baptismal identity means.  Our baptismal identity, our heeding of the call of God which came to Samuel, and Mary, and Phillip and Nathaniel, and also to us, looks like these two hands of Christ – both actively resisting injustice and being open and vulnerable to the work of the Spirit, relating to our enemies in such a way that transforms the landscape, refusing to treat them as a permanent enemy.  “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

And I want to approach this image from one other angle.  As we become more aware of the ways that racism persists, we become more aware of what has been appropriately called White Privilege.  White privilege, to be rather concrete about it, speaks to the social fact that I could go into a local Wal-Mart and take a bb gun off the shelf that is for sale and not have someone in the store who sees me with that gun suspect me of being a threat, call the police, and have the police come into the store and shoot and kill me without asking questions – something that happened last August about an hour’s drive from here, to John Crawford III, in Beavercreek, Ohio.  John wasn’t white.  John was black.  White privilege means the systems work for me, assume the best of me, give me second chances and the benefit of the doubt, doesn’t target my neighborhood for extra patrol.  White privilege means I can decide whether or not I want to care about any of this.  It means I have the privilege of not having to think about race every day.

White privilege is not a cause for debilitating guilt, but the more we become aware of it, it is a cause for responsibility and another way of heeding that Divine call which comes our way.  It’s cause for recognizing that our baptismal identity happens within these bodies we have been given.  These bodies which carry other identities – of race and gender, and mental and physical ability, sexual orientation, national citizenship and immigration status.  Our baptismal identity informs how we live with all these other identities.

And so as a parting thought, looking at this image one more time, we can notice that this portrays a black Christ.  There is a sense in which we identify with this Christ, with the two hands of resistance and forgiveness.  But there’s another way, if we are in the position of privilege in any of these categories, that we should not pretend that we’re the ones on the cross, not the ones having injustice directed at our very being.  And so our baptismal identity takes us to a different place.  A place of listening.  A place of honoring and learning from the experience of others, and allowing that to transform us.  From a position of privilege, we are not in this image, but we are witnesses of it.  We honor and accompany the way others resist and the way others keep their hands and hearts open to those who harm them.  Our baptismal identity reminds us that even though we could ignore this image, we have chosen to live with it, to be haunted and troubled by it.  Ultimately, to be redeemed by a Christ who gave his live for the whole world, no exceptions, and continues to extend the hand of grace to those ready to respond in the same way as Samuel: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”