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Telling the Truth, Addressing the Myth

from Rev. Maria Swearingen, co-pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, DC

In light of the recent terrorist attack in Charlottesville, I’ll invite you to invite the Spirit into this space through your body and your breathing. If you would take a deep breath and imagine the Spirit of the living God flowing through you and through this space.

Welcome to Calvary Baptist Church, a community of people who have chosen to shape their lives around the liberating story of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And this gospel tells about an early community of people, some Greek, some Jew, some male, some female, some free, some slave, who began to break bread together, and in the mystical breaking of that bread, discovered their truest, deepest selves. And in discovering their truest, deepest selves, they also discovered how deep the lies that originally defined them were. That “slaveowner” and “slave,” that “Roman citizen” and “immigrant” had so warped their self-understanding that they’d lost their deepest humanity. And the gospel of Jesus meant to help them find it again, together.

So, as I welcome you, let me implore us all. The myth and evil of our empire in America is white supremacy. The lie that keeps many of us in this room from our deepest salvation is the one that tells us that we are safer, more successful, more secure, and more valuable because of our proximity or access to whiteness. This lie is the very lie the gospel means to destroy and transform within us. And make no mistake about it. You cannot be saved by Jesus and be saved by your white identity. This is a narrow road. You don’t get to take both with you.

All day Saturday, Pastor Sally and I churned about whether we should scratch the whole service and build an entirely new one around yesterday’s terrorist acts in Charlottesville, in solidarity with clergy and religious leaders and marchers who are trying to save the very heart of this country, if there’s any redeemable shred left.

And we realized something. That this entire Unplugged Series is our resistance to what took place yesterday. Together, we are privileging stories that have not been given space in churches like this one. The first week, we heard Pastor Elijah’s story as a toddler refugee fleeing a country once ravaged by the story of Western slavery, the second week, we heard Anabel’s story of journey to this country from Mexico and her commitment to building a diverse America even if it wasn’t built for her, the third week Lauren shared her story of what it means to speak truth to power as a black woman in this country, and this week, our deacon José shares his story of struggle and lamentation. All that to say, this whole series is a direct act of resistance to everything that white supremacists and Neo-Nazis waved their heinous, stupid flags for.

But let me continue to be clear as we press in. As a historically white church, we don’t get to sit on our laurels today and celebrate how progressive and beyond white supremacy we are. Salvation in Jesus Christ isn’t earned by self-congratulations. It a gift graced to us over and over again, and one we must respond to with our most persistent and perpetual efforts at wholeness and transformation. Another way of putting that is, we still got a lot of work to do. And the work we haven’t done, our apathy around it, our lack of interest in it, make no mistake about it, people of color have borne the brunt of those failures.

Last Sunday, we sat with the story of Job, one who finds everything taken from him: family, homeland, property, love, intimacy, his own self-worth. I invite you to imagine Job as a person of color, as an immigrant in this country, a person whose shear existence is perpetually hounded by the myth of white supremacy. Everything taken, everything at risk of being taken. And we hear Job ask the whirlwind, “Where are you? Why me?”

To members and friends in this room who are people of color, the fact that you would even show up in a mostly white space this morning is a testament to your humanity, to your belief that liberation toward each other is always possible should we choose it. May those of us in the room who are white or whose melanin means we are read as white in the world be worthy of your presence here today, in our attentiveness, and our continued repentance. White folks in the room, if you think what I’m saying is about shame or guilt, please listen more deeply. Ask God for new ears to hear and new eyes to see.

How can you be a justice and peace builder? If you find yourself at a loss, one example is to take part in a special bystander training we are hosting Sunday, September 10 after worship as our first Calvary Conversation on Social Justice this fall. Contact John Appiah-Duffell for more info.

And when we pass the peace, you better believe that’s not just some passing thought in the liturgy. That is one of our deepest expressions of how we understand salvation. When we offer each other peace, when we offer peace to people that the world has told us we are supposed to make war with, we are being saved.

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