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Always Ever Striving

Taj Smith
Sun, Jan 24

Text: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31

A lot of people don’t like Paul. He has been used in support of the worst of the worst in history. Yes, a lot of what Paul says seems pretty messed up. But I honestly have a deep appreciation for the dude. He helped incite a revolution against the Roman empire that didn’t need to lift up weapons. He established churches, urging people to live in community where they otherwise wouldn’t have. He had a vision of what it means to live a life in Christ that, for all its faults, was beautiful. Today’s reading is a taste of that vision, as Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth is an exhortation towards living that vision. He is responding to a number of disputes within the Corinthian church. Corinth was a large port city serving as a gateway to Asia. It was a cosmopolitan center, diverse in all the ways you can think of, and the church itself was a fair representation of this diversity. Jews and gentiles, women and men, slaves, freepeople, rich and poor—the Corinthian church had all of them.

If you grew up Christian, it’s likely that you’ve heard this passage before. You’ve probably sat through sermons about the “One Body of Christ” that sound more like a body of just hands or just feet. The differences are erased because all distinctions are erased in identity with Christ. I definitely heard this as a teenager. It made no sense to work for better conditions on earth because our Christian identity overrode any other identity so those contextual differences didn’t matter. Sexism, racism, ableism, and any other –ism you can think of can be swept under the rug because we are one body.

But those differences matter. As this iteration of the civil rights movement takes on institutional and systemic racism, the role of institutions in rejecting racist attitudes is of the utmost importance. I count the capital-C church in this category, but also this church. I learned of First Church’s historic claims to white supremacy in Dave Kidder’s 10 o’clock hour a few weeks back, listening to the litany of “servants” once owned by prominent members of this church. Some of the names matched street signs and buildings—Trowbridge, Brattle, Appleton—but I had never heard the names preceding. People listed only by a first name, their identities given to them by the famous name that followed. These people were not people, but shadows. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed in my time in New England, it’s the haunting echoes of slavery crying from the brick and mortar of these historic buildings. All of this history is soaked in the buying and selling of bodies. First Church is not off the hook for this. If anything, because we are church, and because we are committed to justice, we have to acknowledge this fact.

I’ll say more about that in a little bit, but first, I’d like to tell you two stories from my own life. One that happened a few years ago and one that happened a few days ago.

First story: When I moved to Santa Cruz, I was told to stay out of the mountains. I learned that the mountain towns harbored a sizeable number of white supremacists and neo-nazis. I heeded that advice, but I didn’t think about how the mountains could come to me. One day, I was walking across town to a party at a friend’s house. As I came to a corner connecting to a street that would take me downtown, a white car slowed to pass by me, rolling a window down. A woman hung her torso outside the car, spit at me, and screamed “WHITE POWER!” The car turned the corner, leaving me shocked on the sidewalk. I eventually regained my sense of composure enough to carry on, but not before checking around the corner I needed to take to get to my friend’s house—the same corner I saw the car round. I took caution, peering enough to see but not be seen. Just out of sight, I saw it waiting, as if it knew I would pass at some point. Luckily, there was a bush to my right. I hid. For twenty minutes, I sat in a bush waiting for this car to pull away. It eventually did. I thought about going home, but fear kept me from doing so. I didn’t want to risk leading anyone back to my house, where I would have been the only person home. I took my chances out in the open, going downtown to where I knew there were places I could hide if need be. I eventually made it to my friend’s house.

Second story: A few days ago, I was walking down Garden Street to pick up a couple of free, antique tennis rackets from a house on Rindge Avenue. It was about noon; the sun was bright. I was enjoying it enough to barely notice the man walking in front of me. He had apparently noticed me, though. He looked over his shoulder once like people do when they’re on the street. I do it too. I didn’t think much of it, but then he took something from his messenger bag and slowly moved it to his front pocket. He began to clutch the top handle of the bag tightly with one hand, keeping his other hand on whatever was in his pocket. He slowed his pace so that I would catch up. When I got next to him, he stopped. I stepped into the street giving him a wide berth in passing, not making eye contact or even acknowledging him. I’ve done this enough to know that eye contact could be my end. That passing too closely could leave me on the ground praying for whatever happens to happen quickly. I’ve done this before, many times. Countless times. He was ready for the confrontation that he was sure was going to happen. He was ready to defend himself and his property even if it meant my life. He would have fought for it and I would have died for it.   

I don’t share these experiences with you for pity. You can keep that. I don’t want it. I share these stories because I am tired of hearing about “progress.” Looking at the two passages we read today, one Old Testament and one New Testament—Hebrew scripture and Christian scripture— we know enough to know NOT to read a narrative of progress into these texts. Judaism is alive, well, and as complicated as any other institution in existence. Jesus did not come to replace the Law. To those many millions who practice Judaism, Christ did not come to fulfill the Law. We respect this. Reading Nehemiah with Jesus in mind is what we call “supersessionist” and erases the fact that the Hebrew scriptures exist within a tradition for themselves. These are two separate moments. Important, and separate. We read Paul with the understanding that the Corinthian community was something completely new. Nothing else like it had ever existed—Jews gentiles, women, men, slaves, freepeople all breaking bread together in one place, each contributing according to his or her ability, striving for the greater gift of love. They were doing church, and it was uncomfortable.

So friends, what is church, then? Here’s my answer: a place where people can strive together, make mistakes together, and own those mistakes together. It’s a place where we are perpetually learning to be better at loving one another. This is not a comfortable thing to do. It’s hard and it takes a lot of effort. Striving. It takes the recognition and respect of people’s full humanity, that they are worthy of anger as well as love. People have told me that they don’t see things like race. You do, and it’s the moments where you claim that you don’t that hurt people like me the most. If you want to love me, I need you to see me. All of me: my race, my gender, my struggles, strengths—everything. Saying you don’t see it denies a crucial part of who I am, while allowing for prejudice to remain some abstract transcendent thing as opposed to something we are all capable of. Let’s look at the stories I told. The first instance was one of blind hatred. That’s who we think of when we think of racism, right? White supremacists, performing easily condemnable acts. But what about the second instance? He’s probably an “everyday guy” working with what he’s knows. He might be someone you know. I can’t say. All I know is that he was more prepared than I was to fight for things that, in the grand view of life, probably don’t matter. So with this in mind, I’m going to say something that has been said from this pulpit before: black lives matter. It’s more than a slogan, it’s a movement. It exists for itself. The outcomes will not be measurable. It’s separate from the civil rights movement of the past, though not ignorant of it. Most of all, it asserts the humanity of a people who are striving to have that humanity seen and taken seriously. The key word is striving.

Everyone hold out your right in front of you with your index finger pointed to the ground. Now, do the same with your left hand. Here-on-your-right to There-on-your-left. That’s progress, right? One point to the next with some space in between. We are no longer in the place where we once were. But we forget that our arms extend and contract, and that maybe the place we want to be is beyond any of the points we can… point to. Striving recognizes the struggle while progress is usually talked of as a destination in itself. “But we’ve made progress” is a refrain I hear often as a way to deflect whatever the problem at hand is. I’ll be clear: I’m not denying the importance of past accomplishments. I’m not saying that progress has not been made. I’m saying that I’m sick of “progress” as an excuse to deny the fact that it’s everyday people perpetuating racism. We theorize and talk about race a lot. We’ve had plenty of conversations, which is progress. But we aren’t striving unless those conversations point to how our own conscious and unconscious biases show up, making us more aware of how racism has become part of who we are and what we do. Striving is ongoing. It doesn’t continue to pat itself on the back for the same achievement 50 years later. We are striving when we recognize that we are always and forever learning.

Every day, I strive. I recognize that there is always a place beyond where I am, and that it will take a considerable amount of effort to get there. When I was a young musician, I set a goal to become the best guitar player I could be. Twenty-two years later, that’s still my goal. I could rest in the amount of progress I’ve made, happy with what I can do, but I know that there is so much more for me to learn. Likewise, there is so much more for us to learn. The point of us all being one body is not to gloss over differences. We all have different strengths and weaknesses. We all are approaching these lessons from different places of experience and self-awareness. The important thing is that we all commit to learning together. To bringing those differences into the conversation to figure out how we can function as a unit in this conversation together. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it,” writes Paul. We’re so used to certain depictions of suffering that we forget to take into account our own. Others can tell when we interact with them from the places within us that hurt. Sometimes, it’s necessary to use that pain as momentum, but how long can it fuel us before it breaks down, spilling out onto those we are trying to help? How long can unacknowledged pain remain ignored? Why is it so hard to sit with discomfort? I don’t have answers, but this is church. We can figure out a way. We can make it possible. We just have to start from square one.

I’m going to close this with a piece my friend Randall wrote after an encounter he had with a man on BART going south from San Francisco. Randall is a minister in the Disciples of Christ, a soldier, and a good guy trying to undo the violent mindsets engrained in him. He is gentle, patient, and committed to justice. I look up to him a lot. And he makes a lot of mistakes. He’s honest about them. Then he picks up where he left off, always striving to learn and unlearn. Always and ever striving. These are his words:

Dear Christ-of-the-train,
I don’t like the me that you saw on the train.
I don’t like myself when I see you.
Your appearance is in a form that was not known to me, and you see me, but I cannot see you.
You shifted around the car looking at us in the reflections of windows, in the corners, slouching.
You moved closer to me, and all that was between us was my fear of you.
You moved around me, trying to get behind me. Did my eyes hurt you?
Your dark clothes, and your dark skin, help me justify shutting my eyes to who you are.
I checked on my bags, pulled them closer, my possessive drive, my possessions, were between us.
You saw me, God, darkly though sunglasses and tinted windows, sideways, never directly,
And I… I pulled my vest up, so you could see the knife I carry for you.
I wanted you to see that I am not humble, that I am not weak, not meek and vulnerable, but strong and virile.
I shifted my body forward, ready, eager.
I killed you in my mind.
You didn’t see how bigoted my personal space bubble is. On the train, I can sit next to an Asian man, I can stand above a white woman, invading their space, making them insecure, but I could not suffer you, a Christ in dark skin, standing 8 feet away.
I strapped on my possessions, keeping the possessions from you, keeping my heart from you.
Burdened by all that which owns me— half-eaten food, Books of shoddy theology, full of post it notes, dirty laundry.
My fear and vulnerability so quickly became anger and aggression.
Entitlement and privilege become violence so fast.
Who do you think you are, to make me feel such a way? In this place, in this world, your identity is subject to my whims, to my sickness, to my ideas.
You are, whoever I say you are.
I ran up the stairs at Millbrae, looking to make sure you could not follow and I put my bags down.
I recognized you, and you disappeared.

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