Summary: Autobiographical account of memories of race relations. Christ gives us the power to overcome backgrounds that might overwhelm us.
If you find yourself facing a monstrous evil, there are really only two choices: either to run or to fight. Either to run or to fight. Now most of us will try a third choice; we will try to ignore the problem. But that won’t work. That won’t work. Massive, monstrous evil demands a response: flee it or fight it, but denying it won’t work. Pretending that it’s not there won’t work.
Those who have developed today’s worship have encouraged me to tell something of my own story, how I have lived through some of the history of our times, how I have encountered the issues of racism in my own life. I do so this morning, on the one hand, with fear and trembling. The task of the preacher is never to preach himself, but Christ crucified. I do not need to be the subject of the sermon. Not at all. More than that, I also understand that when I get into this matter of race, there are some who feel that because I am not black, I am out of place. I acknowledge those problems. And yet, as I have taken counsel on this point, two other things have also become clear: first, that as the pastor of the church, I have a responsibility always to declare the whole counsel of God, to bring to everything a Biblical and spiritual perspective; and, second, that my own experiences do communicate powerfully to you. And so this morning I have consented to say just a few things about my own experiences with the history that has been lived out in my lifetime, trusting that you will hear me a Biblical point of view, and trusting also that you do not for one moment doubt my love for you and my dedication to what this congregation is all about.
Paul says in this Roman letter, “... take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all... never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God .... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” I say again that you can either be overwhelmed by evil or you can overcome it, but you cannot forever stand off to the side and ignore it, pretending that you are only trying to live peaceably. Whether you are overwhelmed or overcoming depends on you and how you are shaped.
I was born in and grew up in a segregated city, Louisville, Kentucky. I lived in a neighborhood that was almost all white, with the single exception of two little streets named Harvard and Yale, where some very visionary individual had, many years before, used the idea of restrictive real estate covenants to require that those houses be sold to no one other than black citizens. Since those two little streets were close to a shopping center where my great-uncle ran a store, I can remember us driving down one or the other, with my parents commenting on who lived there and saying, “Why, to look at the houses, you would never know!” They thought that was a compliment! Essentially, however, I grew up in a one-color world, and nobody did anything to challenge that.
In my segregated city and its almost segregated neighborhood, I attended segregated schools. Black children did not appear in the classrooms I knew. But I cannot pretend that this was an issue in my young mind. Oh, I was concerned about school segregation, all right, but of a different kind. My big worry was that the city of Louisville had just ended its pattern of separation by sexes in the high schools, and I had to go to a high school which had been a girls-only high school. What a humiliation! But, you see, if something doesn’t touch you directly, it’s easy to shrug it off, to ignore it, tell yourself it’s not your fight, and pretend you are just living peaceably. Nothing challenged the segregated way of life for me.
When Brown vs. Board of Education came down in 1954, I was sixteen years old, working on getting my driver’s license, absorbed with hobbies and my first job and my first love and all that good stuff, and had only one more year of high school anyway. So the court’s decision didn’t affect me; I could ignore it and pretend to live peaceably with all. Even if quite a few of the “all” were not even in my world. No challenge to the racist way of life.
But, quietly, unrecognized at the time, some other things had been happening in my life as well. And it’s interesting that I can remember these things. As a small child, I went downtown one day with my grandmother to shop on Fourth Street. We rode the old trolley streetcars; I saw a line drawn somewhere toward the back that separated different kinds of folks, and I remember asking about it, as a six-year-old might, very loudly, to my grandmother’s embarrassment. I felt, vaguely, that this was unfair. Something new was being born in me.