A spoken version of this sermon was originally given on Saturday, July 8th, 2017, as the closing sermon of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s “Big Tent” gathering in St. Louis.
The subject of our learning today—Racism, Reconciliation, and Reformation—does not allow us to tie things up in a neat bow. So today I want to focus on the Second R in this phrase: reconciliation.
Reconciliation is what we all hope for as we move forth from this place, what we hope for in our personal lives as well as in the life of the church beyond. But here’s the hard truth about reconciliation. The truth is that “Reconciliation” has become a dirty word. It has become weaponized.
As a church and as a people who proclaim the liberation of a life of faith, we are still too comfortable with the oppression of many in our midst. With a foot on the neck of the oppressed, we extend our hand and demand reconciliation of one another without actually doing the work of creating it together. We have forgotten, some of us, that reconciliation is hard and lifelong work. It is fruit that must first be sown.
Reconciliation can only be the by-product of a life examined, of the confession arising from that examination, and the repentance that cries out from the grief of what we confess. But too often we are not comfortable with what reconciliation requires of us—of the conditions that must be in place to make reconciliation possible—and so we pay it lip service.
Particularly in this nation, where we celebrate a White Hetero Christian normativity, we are too ready and eager read the story of the Church as a story of those who set the captives free instead of a story of those who are still in captivity, or a story of those who are holding others in captivity. We open our Bibles and read the words of Jesus…and yet we practice what Amy Jill Levine calls the “domestication” of the stories Jesus told.
We domesticate Jesus’ words to serve our own purposes, to build ourselves up as those who understand when even the disciples did not. We don’t pay attention to the discomfort the parables want to stir in us, the finger Jesus’ words point at us; the confession and repentance which Jesus’ themes try to pull from us.
Too often we are not comfortable with what reconciliation requires of us—of the conditions that must be in place to make reconciliation possible—and so we pay it lip service.
When I read this story my attention, which is usually drawn first to the soil, was instead drawn to the Sower of the Seeds—an individual who is hard at work planting seeds under what I imagine is a hot sun. Jesus in telling this story, aligns God with the sower. God is the one who scatters the seeds, who does the manual labor, and who toils under that hot sun. When I hear this scripture I think about the nature of all sowers, human and divine; I think about how how the seeds and soil need a sower to be given a chance to grow something good. I think about the sowers in our midst, our migrant workers, men, women, and children, who plant and harvest for so very little in return, and how we are connected to their toil, to what they produce. We are also connected to the systems that support their oppressions.
You see, this story is about the soil but we cannot understand the soil until we see it through the eyes of the sower: we must see people as our Creator (the Sower), sees us (the Soil). In this story, the Sower scatters the seeds seemingly at random, with no thought about where the seeds might thrive the best. They are strewn about with abandon. Every patch of land gets the opportunity to cultivate the seeds that are cast down. The Sower does not pick and choose the soil that seems the most promising and without impediment to growth. And I wonder to myself, what does it mean, that God spreads the seed even on tangled and infertile soil?
In the heart of the great Sower, there is enough love for all the soil, enough hope for what is possible if only given the opportunity.
If the Sower is God, grace the seed, and we the soil, then pay attention once more to God, the Creator and Sustainer, a farm worker in this story, who simply loves the land, who has hope for this land, hope enough to see all of its soil as being a prime place to sow. In the heart of the great Sower, there is enough love for all the soil, enough hope for what is possible if only given the opportunity.
The Sower cannot help but plant seeds, not only in the good soil but also in the rocky soil, also on the thorny soil, and also on the path. This image of soil in Jesus’ story is about us, human beings made from the dirt. It is about how we live our lives and how we respond to the grace the Sower provides and the fruit of reconciliation the Sower Creator wants to see flourish in us.
Jesus’ explanation of the parable is for us at this time. It is about the Word that has been sown in this place over the past few days. Just as seeds fall on different soil, the seeds that have been planted here, the words which we have heard, are falling on many different ears and many different lives.
Some our lives are too inwardly focused. We neglect to do the work of dismantling racism and white supremacy in our world and even in our voting districts, therefore maintaining the privileges we gain from the oppression of others. We accept concepts of social justice as long as they are just concepts, as long as justice doesn’t disrupt our personal comfort.
We have reinterpreted Jesus’ practical and real challenges to us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit those in jail as merely a call for a slight “attitude adjustment.”
I taught a Bible Study recently where we examined Jesus’ requirement of giving all that we have in order to follow, and there were many worried faces among those who were studying the text. “Jesus, can’t really mean we have to give up our comfort? Our Privilege? Our Power?” “Surely, this is a metaphor! A figure of speech!” No. We have domesticated Jesus’ forthright command to give up the things we have clutched in our hands, the real things like money, power, and platforms. We have reinterpreted Jesus’ practical and real challenges to us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit those in jail as merely a call for a slight “attitude adjustment.”
Some of our lives have never been challenged with the work of anti-racism before Big Tent, so that this is a new thing, a new reality that you are coming to understand. And you might be struggling to believe that this is your fight too.
But some of us, too, have been living under the weight of racism from the moment we opened our eyes, the moment they wrote our names down in the system. The moment we had to take on new names that sounded whiter and more acceptable than the ones given to us in our mother tongue. For some of us, our spirits have felt devastation and defeat at the hands of racism and white supremacy all our lives. We are worried for our children’s lives because of the color of their skin. We wake up to another killing, another name, another vigil…another hashtag.
Reconciliation needs to be watered by Confession.
Some of us have spent this week here at Big Tent, educating from our own pain, our own trauma, so that people might be convinced to enter the struggle too, and are just tired! Sometimes you just don’t know if you have the energy to grow anything new or good.
But here is the GOOD NEWS! No matter who we are in this moment, the Sower has indeed planted the word of reconciliation between all of us. Among all of us. However, reconciliation needs the right conditions to grow and to flourish.
Reconciliation needs to be watered by Confession. The confession that the Church is complicit in racism. That racism hurts the body of Christ. That racism gets the beloved children of God killed. That racism is the product of glorifying whiteness while being color blind to Jesus, who chose to come to us as a brown person.
Reconciliation needs to be tilled by Repentance. Both individual and corporate. A turning of the soil, of our minds and of our systems, to be so utterly changed that we never look back, never go back, to the way we were before, that we stop longing for the “good old days” because what was good for some was traumatic for many. Let us not domesticate the words of Jesus! Let’s not tame them to submit to our own desires to cover up our sins, particularly the sins of racism! Instead, ask the tough questions! Ask, “How might we grow the seeds that the Sower of Grace has scattered, no matter what kind of soil we are? Even if I am the rocky soil? If I am the thorny soil? Even if I am the path?”
What will you do with the Word you heard? Where will that Word, that seed, go in your life? God sows the seeds of hope, love, resistance and reconciliation everywhere, there is no ground, no soil, left out. All is possible with God, but the seeds of reconciliation take long to germinate, longer to cultivate, and they grow only with the utmost care and careful tending. The hands that tend reconciliation must be many. The soil that grows reconciliation must be good, so the soil must change to make it possible to make a home for it. The soil must purge its rocks and its weeds, that otherwise suffocate the seeds of reconciliation, in order to grow something beautiful.
Reconciliation cannot be demanded of people of color, it cannot be demanded of any person or group, especially by those with privilege and power. Reconciliation is a gift of grace, growing from the grace that God first showed us.
Honor the work of the Great Sower, the commitment of God’s Spirit, the Creator, to us as humankind, we who are patches of dirt. Our God, the laborer, who still sows a good work and word in us, though we may not yet be good soil.
Let anyone who has ears to hear, listen!
AUTHOR BIO: Rev. Dr. Christine J. Hong (Princeton Theological Seminary, ThM and MDiv, and Claremont School of Theology, PhD) is Assistant Professor of Education Ministries at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA. Her interests include de-colonial approaches to religious and interreligious education and the spiritual and theological formation of children and adolescents among communities of color. Prior to joining Columbia Theological Seminary’s faculty, Dr. Hong served as faculty at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and the Associate for Theology: Interfaith Relations at the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Hong is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and has spent time both as a religious educator and as a youth and young adult minister in New York and Southern California. Her book is entitled: Youth, Gender, and Identity in the Korean American Church.