By Nathan Holst, a sermon
O Spirit guide us now, O Spirit guide us now, O Spirit guide us now, in your way, guide us; Spirit guide all of us today as we listen for where you are moving. Amen.
That song by Sara Thomsen is one I used quite a bit at a gathering in Washington DC just last month where 20 white Christian men came together with Ruby Sales, a Black civil rights and freedom movement leader, to talk about a theology of redemption for white men in this time. My friend and colleague, Tommy Airey, invited me to come and be a part of the group that he and Ruby Sales had put together, and partly because Mother Ruby is one of my heroes and because I was drawn to the work, I said yes. When I shared about it with Pastor Kathy, she asked me to preach and share about my experience, so that’s what I intend to do this morning. And as I share, I want to put up a picture of Mother Ruby to honor her and bring her into this space because she was our spiritual guide in this work.
There are many ways to describe what this rich gathering was about, and I’ve been searching for ways to articulate what I experienced. Let me try a couple different ways of getting at it.
First, here’s a piece of the press release for the gathering, called “The Council on the Way.” It says:
The Council will home in on the tangible ways white supremacy deforms the spirits of white men…the Council is a…call for collaborative leadership—not for white men to shut up, but to speak from a place of redemptive love. Redemption is about liberating white men from the need to be above it all and better than everyone else. Redemption is relational. Redemption is about belonging to God, Each Other and Earth in a mutuality of mercy.
What I heard in the DC gathering is a call for a collective wrestling, an attempt to speak to our collective pain and healing, to reach out beyond the radical individuality that whiteness instills in us, and give us instead, as Mother Ruby says, “a way to harmonize the ‘we’ with the ‘I’ and the ‘I’ with the ‘we’…a vision where we believe in the possibility of others as much as we believe in the possibility of ourselves.”
Another side of this gathering was simply asking the questions that shift where we give our attention—questions like, where does it hurt and what is the source of the spiritual malformation that allows white men to commit violence in the name of Christianity? And while this is specifically focused on white men, I think the wisdom of the gathering reaches out beyond the boundaries of that identity. The gathering was in part an invitation to flip the often spoken white liberal question, “how do we help communities of color and indigenous communities” and shifted it to “how do we transform our own spirits toward collective redemption?” This question is about looking inward at how I can transform myself and my people, rather than bringing a savior complex of thinking my redemption is about saving someone else or their community. This question of spiritual transformation, of wading in the waters to see where God is healing in the turmoil, is one that Mother Ruby planted deep in my heart, and it just keeps growing and asking me to nurture it’s roots.
Another side of this gathering was about keeping the conversation going in our home communities. When I thought about what I wanted to share today, I realized I wanted to give you what Mother Ruby gave me—a deep affirmation that we are worthy of being redeemed, the courage to look at my individual and collective hurt with clear eyes, and the inspiration to wrestle into my full humanity. My hope is that we leave here today feeling more spiritually alive and yearning to go deeper.
When preparing for the DC gathering, we were invited to think about scriptures that might help us create a theology of redemption for white men. I immediately thought of the text of Jacob wrestling the angel, which we read this morning. Looking at our deeper spiritual hurts and finding a way to transform them is no small task—it is one that takes a lot of wrestling with God, one that may lead us to look deeply at our hurts and cost us pain like Jacob with his dislocated hip, but also one that comes with a blessing of transformation, a new identity, a new and fuller self.
And then there’s Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman in our gospel. I began pondering this scripture because it seemed to fit with the arrogance that so often goes along with the white male experience. It is one of the only times when Jesus shows arrogance in our scriptures, and he calls the woman a derogatory name—he calls her a dog. I know this can be a bit jarring to think about Jesus in this way; we’re used to lifting Jesus up as a leader of compassion or kindness. So what kind of scripture is this? Who is this Jesus, and are we supposed to follow him in his arrogance?
I’m so glad this story is in our gospels because I believe it’s the closest thing to a spiritual formula for transformation that we have. Jesus acts in a way that hurts the woman; she unveils his lack of empathy and vision through speaking her truth, that “even the dogs eat the crumbs from the master’s table”; and Jesus sees how he lacks compassion and empathy, and admits he’s wrong, opening a new and transformed relationship and vision of God’s love.
What a powerful story to help frame a path for redemption for the collective arrogance that seems to be at the heart of what is deforming the spirits of us white men. I know this is something that I’m often wrestling with inside, trying to engage the part of my shadow self that too often thinks I’m right, that knows I can do it better than others, that needs to be in control—this is where it hurts for me, where I can’t seem to find myself, find my grounding. What keeps me from following the transformed example of Jesus, from more freely admitting I might be wrong, and from opening myself up to be vulnerable and show humility? How do I get underneath the surface, and see what’s beneath?
As I continued to ponder this story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, I kept coming back to other stories that seemed similar, that seemed to have undercurrents connecting them. I thought about the story of the rich man and poor Lazarus, which highlights the great chasm between rich and poor, and begs the question of what leads to the kind of spiritual poverty that allows for such disconnect in relationship to occur. I thought of Jesus and Zacchaeus, about the exploitative tax collector who sees his own spiritual malformation and is transformed by the experience of Jesus and his vision of compassion and connection. And all of this led me into sanctified imagination, that wonder space around what might have happened in those spaces scripture doesn’t finish the story, to see what might happen if I allowed my imagination to follow the spirit further along past where the story stops with Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman.
So I want to invite you to close your eyes, if you feel comfortable, and imagine with me for a moment. I imagine Jesus, just transformed by his interaction with the woman, looking at her, and she looking back. And then Jesus, in another moment of revealing, lifts his hand up and takes off a mask, and underneath he reveals he is Zacchaeus, the tax collector. And likewise, the woman reaches up and takes off her mask to reveal that she is Jesus. And they ponder at each other, and they decide to go one step further. They both lift up their hands once again to take off another mask—Zacchaeus reveals himself to be the rich man and Jesus reveals himself to be Lazarus, the poor man. But this time, instead of a great chasm between them, they start to imagine and perhaps even see a bridge forming between them. Feeling both fear and excitement at the depth of their knowing, they both reach up again to see if they can go deeper, and Lazarus takes off a mask to reveal he is a Black woman. And the rich man takes off his mask and he is a white man. This time both the Black woman and the white man both know that they can’t take off another mask. But somehow underneath, somewhere they sense that below the surface they both hold brokenness and belovedness, and they know that somehow they need each other, that they are bound together in their liberation, their salvation, and their resurrection. Here ends the reading of holy imagination and story. Here begins the conversation that Mother Ruby started and that we are invited into.
Sometimes recently when I’ve shared about my experience in DC and tried to open up where it hurts in white men, there is initially either an apathy or a defensiveness that pushes back. What do you mean we have a malformation of our spirit? That’s not my experience.
Let me first say that like Mother Ruby, I want to lift up one hand and speak a word of affirmation. I want to affirm that we are all essential, we are all worthy, and beloved. As Ruby says, if anyone ever tells you your perspective is not important or that it it’s not welcome, just get up and walk right out the door. We must speak belovedness into our communities, especially our communities that are hurting and angry. We must cast a vision of affirmation inspired by Black Folk Religion, which as Ruby describes, carries a “strong sense of agape, that even was able, as Martin Luther King would say, was able to find the humanity in people who were slave owners.” This is the kind of affirmation that offers redemption for everyone and asks all of us to rise to the best parts of ourselves.
With the other hand, let me bring in how Mother Ruby helped us touch where it hurt. In our gathering, at one point she read some accounts of lynching in our country, and asked what we felt in hearing them. After some of us spoke our responses, she replied that she did not hear remorse from us. In fact, when we spoke about our ancestors, some of who were directly connected to enslavement, she said she heard pride. We couldn’t seem to even take off that first mask to move toward being able to see where it hurt, which is part of what keeps our spirit impoverished—we sometimes can’t even see when we are hurting. As Mother Ruby reminded us, “if you can’t touch your own pain, how can you ever touch mine?” But we don’t have to look very far in our country to see the kind of pain that leads so many white men to terrorize others through gun violence. We know there are huge levels of depression and addiction in our country that speaks to the lack of love, community, and support our men feel. We can see the pain in the way we demonize others, blame our hurt on anyone else, rather than wrestling the angel of transformation to become more fully human.
So it is with this context that I want to continually ask myself and my community, “where does it hurt?” I know we need to pull off our masks to see our brokenness and our belovedness, and how our hurts may be connected to our belovedness. What are our masks that we wear that get in the way of us knowing ourselves and each other? How do we take a step toward seeing our truth and finding our voice? How do we create a theology of redemption for white men, for all our communities, that will carry us in this next century toward full humanity for all people?