Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Parable of the Mustard Seed and Racial Justice

This is a sermon that I preached at Trinity Cathedral on Sunday, July 24, 2011, following two days of conducting Anti-Racism Training and Train the Trainers hosted by the Diocese of Northern California's Commission on Intercultural Ministries. You may also watch a podcast of the sermon at

* * * * * * * * * * 

            The words of the Gospel passages of this week and the last two weeks resound in my heart and mind. As Jesus said repeatedly in Matthew 13 when he sat in a boat and told parables to the crowd standing on the beach, “let anyone with ears listen!”

         Me Ke Aloha Pumehana. Aloha Kakou. Mahalo E Ke Akua No Keia La. Amen’e ~ I greet you with the warmth of my love. May there be love between us. Thanks be to God for this day. Amen.

         We are fortunate, indeed, to be seated in this beautiful cathedral on this warm California summer day, basking in the delight of fellowship and shared worship.

         I come from the Diocese of Colorado where I serve on the Standing Committee. I also serve as the Province VI Lay Representative to Executive Council where I am the team leader for the ongoing Racial Justice formation work Council is doing among its own members. I also serve as an Anti-Racism Trainer in The Episcopal Church.

         I have been richly blessed and truly humbled to have spent the past two days here at Trinity Cathedral conducting an Anti-Racism Training for almost 70 of the leaders from four California dioceses hosted by your Diocese of Northern California as well a Train the Trainers workshop for 8 of the members of your Commission for Intercultural Ministry.

         I applaud Trinity Cathedral and the Diocese of Northern California for your exemplary commitment to hospitality, invitation and welcome, and the work you have seriously undertaken of dismantling racism wherever you encounter it, and your encouragement and advocacy of anti-racism training for your lay and clergy leaders as well as your generous sharing of that work with three of your neighboring dioceses – California, El Camino Real and San Joaquin. Your leadership is to be commended.

         I am passionate about doing the work of deconstructing racism, breaking racism down through analysis, reflection and conversation, in order that we, the church and its members, can more fully live into what it means to be members of the Body of Christ together, and equal, mutually respected and mutually accountable Beloved Children of God. Anti-Racism Training is very much about the work of equipping the Beloved Community to do Gospel work, work that we covenant to do when we are baptized into Christ’s holy Body, work that we reaffirm doing when we recovenant each time we worship in an Easter, Confirmation or Baptism service.

         Today and on the two Sundays prior to today, we have heard much of Chapter 13 in the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus tells many parables about sowers and seeds, and the kingdom of heaven and what it is like.

         The parables of sowers and seeds are a lot like the work of racial justice and reconciliation. In biblical days, one had to sow, to scatter seed and tend its growth, in order to eat. Today, we go to the supermarket to buy what we eat, and most of us are greatly distanced from the work of obtaining our food from the actual fields where it is grown and harvested. It might be the case for you, as Californians, living in a state where much of the produce of the U.S. is grown, that you are somewhat less distanced from the sources of your food than the rest of us.

         Regrettably, we church members are also largely distanced from paying attention to and doing the work to interrupt racial injustice – that’s what the word “anti-racism” means: to interrupt racism - wherever we encounter it, and showing our love for our neighbors whose skin color is different than our own in the way that Jesus commanded us to do, when he gave us his new commandment in John 13:34-35: “Love one another as I have loved you. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.” This is a higher calling to discipleship and accountability than that given in the summary of the law which we hear every Sunday in Rite I of the Holy Eucharist, “Love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

         The reason that I am passionate about conducting Anti-Racism Trainings and empowering laity and clergy to interrupt and dismantle racism (and all the other “isms” such as sexism, ageism, ableism, heterosexism, nationalism, etc.) is because I believe that Jesus has called each of us personally through our baptisms to be his disciples and to be mutually accountable to one another as members of his Body. Among the five Marks of Mission recognized by the churches in the fellowship of the Anglican Communion is the one that says, “To seek to transform unjust structures of society.”

         Unjust structures of society include all the instances of institutional racism found in these United States where predatory lending in lower economic neighborhoods has caused losses of homes, scattering of families and loss of hope; where racial profiling has subjected people of color, especially Blacks and Hispanics, to excessive surveillance and unequal protection of the law; and where White flight to the suburbs, tax base erosion and standardized testing have contributed to educational backwaters in inner cities and poor neighborhoods.

         Perhaps you have heard of Michelle Alexander and her book, The New Jim Crow, published earlier this year. In it, she lays out the story of “Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”:

·      Where there are more African Americans under correctional control today – in prison or in jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began;
·      Where the United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid; and
·      Where, in Washington, D.C., three out of four young black men (and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison.

         The Episcopal Church has been paying attention to racism and the work that is needed, that is fundamental to our faith as followers of Jesus, to become educated about racism and its cost to people of color and indigenous people as well as to Whites, to become conversant with how to interrupt racism whenever and wherever we encounter it, to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being.

         The House of Bishops, in Pastoral Letters of March, 1994, and March 2006, and a recent September, 2010, Pastoral Letter and Theology Resource on Migration and Immigration, has said that:

·      Racism wounds the Body of Christ;
·      We must name the sin of racism and repent; and
·      We are grounded in our Baptismal Covenant

         Since 1991, General Convention, the governing body of The Episcopal Church, which will gather again in 2012 in its triennial meeting in Indianapolis, has recognized the need for the church to address Institutional Racism, and since 2000, General Convention has required Anti-Racism Training for Lay and Ordained Leaders. That was a large part of the impetus for your Commission for Intercultural Ministry to host the Anti-Racism Training yesterday.

         You may be interested to know that among General Convention’s resolutions are those asking the church through its dioceses to research, own and repent its complicity in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, to extend its focus on racism to all ethnicities and nations of origin, and to study and report on Holy Orders recruitment and deployment of persons of color.

         The parable of the mustard seed is often explained as the story of how something very tiny can grow up into something large and significant and good – a tree that becomes home to birds of the air. The importance of the parable is often described along the lines of “the little engine that could” or what Daniel G. Deffenbaugh, Associate Professor of Religion at Hastings College in Nebraska, calls “a kind of "camp song theology" – as in, "it only takes a spark to get a fire going."

         Listen carefully to the passage of the parable again: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown, it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.

         The mustard herb is a plant that doesn’t require a lot of cultivation. It grows much like a weed does, taking hold and spreading wherever its seed is spread. That a Hebrew farmer in the days when Jesus walked and taught among the people would do something like purposely sowing a seed that would quickly overtake his other crops in the way that a weed can overtake a garden is significant. What does it mean? Is Jesus suggesting that planting weeds is like the kingdom of heaven? And how is sowing the mustard seed like the work of racial justice, the work of being an anti-racist, one who interrupts racism?

         I think that there actually is a great likeness between that tiny mustard seed and those of us who decide to respond to the call of doing the work of interrupting racism. We begin as small in number. We are tiny in comparison to the racial injustice and systemic, institutional racism that pervades our organizations, including, yes, even The Episcopal Church.

         And yet, if we approach one another as members of the Beloved Community seeking to converse with other members of the Beloved Community . . . if the holy in me seeks to greet and meet and engage in dialogue the holy in you . . . "How would conversation be different when it starts with belovedness?"

         One of the important things that we learn in Anti-Racism Training, which is actually a small thing that has huge consequences, is that we must converse with one another, even when the conversations are about hard subjects like racism, asking the image of the beloved in each other, "what can this image of God teach you?" and “what can the image of God in you teach me?” We begin by listening, seeking to see the image of God in the other. That begins as a very small thing, and yet, like the mustard seed, has the potential to grow into a tree that is large enough to shelter the birds of the air.

         As Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has often pointed out, "You need to listen with the expectation that you will learn something." My prayer for you and your diocese is that your work in conducting Anti-Racism Training and raising awareness of the structures of racism and how to dismantle institutional racism will grow mightily, that from the small seed of beginning to do the work of interrupting racism, your work will grow into the large tree of friendship, community and love for your neighbors that is like the kingdom of heaven right here in Northern California.

No comments: