(river) A lot has happened in the last five months. The pandemic continues to rage, with 5.7 million cases and 177,000 deaths in our country thus far. George Floyd was killed. Protests against our country’s original sin of racism have erupted. Our own Asheville City Council passed a resolution on reparations to the Black community.
In the midst of what’s been happening this summer, we’ve wrestled with a question: What it will take to re-birth the church? As we wrestle, Jacob will be a good guide for us.
Jacob–which some translate as “trickster”– tricked his twin brother Esau out of his birthright. When Esau learned of the betrayal–after Jacob already had received the inheritance– he was enraged and pledged to kill his brother. Jacob fled.
When Jacob arrives at the Jabbok River in today’s Scripture story, he’s at a crossroads. After his long sojourn, he’s returning home…with his wives, children, and possessions. When the company arrives at the river, he sends everyone else across. He stays on the near-side to prepare himself for seeing his brother again after their long separation.
We, too, are at a crossroads. It’s clear, after the pandemic and the call for a reckoning for racism, that who we’ve been as a church to this point, is past. We know we have to cross the river, but, man. It’s scary, isn’t it? Can you imagine Jacob’s fear as he prepared to meet the brother who had threatened to kill him?
Looking to the far side of this river we must cross…it’s daunting. What is church going to look like after so many months of not meeting together? And, while dismantling structural racism sounds like a great thing to add to our to-do list, it’s hard to imagine how to do the work. Any action we might take seems so small.
(Art gallery.) Despite how daunting the work seems, we have in recent months begun taking tentative steps in the work of dismantling systemic racism outside our church’s walls…beginning within these glass walls of the Oak Street Gallery.
Many signs during the protests after George Floyd’s death asked us to “Say their names.” Artists from our church and the Mountain Scribes calligrapher’s created artwork on paper bags to do just that. This month’s exhibit continues the racial justice theme.
On the one hand, it feels important that we are breaking out of our insular discussions of racial justice within our walls and are taking our advocacy work outside them. On the other hand, putting ourselves and our artwork out in public is teaching those of us who hold white privilege to learn just how much we have to learn about dismantling systemic racism.
The initial plan for artwork on the paper bags in last month’s exhibit was to hang them in trees in front of the church. Weathergrams are the idea of artist Lloyd J. Reynolds. The intent is for the artwork to be transformed by exposure to the weather.
When the weathergrams were hung in the trees with the names of Black people who had died in their encounters with law enforcement, the pointed question came. How could we install a display that looked so much like lynching? Realizing the pain and trauma we were causing by the display, we took it down immediately.
We’ve also gotten some hard questions from Black visitors to the YMI gallery. Why weren’t Black leaders invited into the process of the exhibit? Why are no Black artists represented in either of our exhibits?
These stories aren’t easy to share. It’s hard to admit when actions we mean for good, in truth, cause significant harm. It’s hard to acknowledge that white privilege blinds us to the experiences of our fellow humans whose skin is brown or Black. We’re good people! We want to do what we can to heal the sin of racism! But we keep making so many missteps.
In conversation with Mandy Kjellstrom, director for both art projects, here’s what I’ve learned–when people who hold white privilege try to engage in the work of dismantling systemic racism, we’re going to make missteps. In fact, the vast majority of our steps likely will be misses.
And yet? Every misstep is an opportunity to learn. Every misstep helps us to see things from someone else’s perspective. Every misstep actually is a step in the right direction of transforming ourselves into anti-racists…if we are able to learn from those missteps.
But the struggle is hard. The wrestling continues. Jacob ultimately prevails in his struggle. He limps from the encounter, but he leaves it transformed and ready to encounter his estranged brother.
(river) In the middle of the pandemic, engaging more deeply in the work of racial justice, I suspect we’re still struggling on this near-side of the river. We’re still wrestling.
In Nikos Kazantzakis’ memoir, Zorba the Greek, he tells of the time he discovers “a cocoon in the bark of a tree, just as the butterfly is making a hole…and preparing to come out.” Eager to see the butterfly and growing impatient with its slow emergence, Nikos breathes on the cocoon, warming it. In no time, the butterfly begins to emerge!
But something’s wrong. The butterfly moves slowly, its wings “folded back and crumpled.” Belatedly, Nikos realizes that “it needed to be hatched out patiently and the unfolding of the wings should be a gradual process in the sun.” Pierced by guilt, Nikos confesses that “My breath had forced the butterfly to appear, all crumpled, before its time. It struggled desperately, and, a few seconds later, died in the palm of my hand.”
We are in the struggle. We continue to wrestle–with ourselves, with God, with our country’s sin of racism. Jacob’s example for us at this point in our journey is to stay with it, as he did. Our call is to wrestle as long as we need to. If we stop the wrestling too early, if we abort the process too soon, if we try to rush it, we will not attain the deep transformation we need, the deep transformation our church needs to do the important work of creating a just and loving world for everyone, especially our brothers and sisters with Black and brown skin.
It’d be nice on the last day of this series on “Rebirthing the Church” to show you a picture of a precious newborn. It’d be nice to know that the labor is finished, the new has emerged, and it’s time to get on with naming and raising this baby.
But, as the sermon series ends, we know, the labor continues. We’re still wrestling. We’re still struggling. But if we allow whatever is being created to emerge in its own time, if we continue to wrestle–even if it takes all night–we too will emerge from our cocoon, wings fully formed and beautiful, ready to take flight.
May it be so.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan (c)2020