Photo by Holly Roach /

Stay Woke

August 4, 2016

by — Posted in Politics, Spiritual Practices, Video

Here’s my sermon from Missiongathering Christian Church in Charlotte on Sunday, July 31, “Stay Woke”:

My minister colleague and friend, a great champion for social justice who will sadly be leaving the Queen City at the end of this year, Rev. Robin Tanner of the Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church wrote this lament and gave me permission to share it this morning. It goes like this:

It’s summer somewhere, the poet Danez Smith reminds us. It is summer somewhere, but not here. Not in the U.S. in 2016.

No lingering summers with sweet tea or lemonade, no running through sprinklers. Instead, we are running through the images again and again in our minds — of young men seizing in their last few moments of breathe, of a mother crying “why God” as her child says, “it’s okay mommy I’m here,” and her lover leans over the seat belt toward her, bleeding to death for a broken tail light stop.

Instead our minds are filled with a man selling CDs pinned to the ground and shot — while screaming for his life. It’s summer somewhere but not here.

No ice-cream truck cadence is lilting its way through the midday heat. No, this sound is the shock and fear of officers running toward danger and falling in the street, never to walk through the door of home again, the sound of the operator again and again reassuring them that the police – their own – we’re coming, their panic as the sound of bullets echo across the chamber of downtown Dallas. It is summer somewhere but not here.

“Summer, somewhere.” The queer Minneapolis-based poet Danez Smith tells us. Are you feeling that this morning? Do you feel that lament? That longing?

There’s a story in all four of the Gospels that, after the Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus went with them to the garden of Gethsemane, and Jesus had a longing, he wanted one thing from them. Do you remember what Jesus’s request was?

Stay awake.

I want to talk this morning about being woke – awakening to the reality of racial INjustice, to the reality that the Black Lives Matter movement exists because black lives have NOT mattered historically, and there is so much work to be done.

I believe many of us have been woken by the stories in the news, day after day of black lives shattered and black lives lost, scrolling across our social media feeds, a new story it seems every single day. We say their names – Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray. Philando Castile. Alton Sterling.

Freddie Gray, who arrived at a Baltimore hospital in a coma with a severed spine, whose death was ruled a homicide, but this week, all of the officers involved were acquitted. No one will be held accountable.

In Asheville, they are saying the name of Jerry Williams, shot by police on July 2.

Here in Charlotte, the Queen City, we say their names: Jonathan Ferrell, shot by Charlotte police in 2013. Lareko Williams, shot by Charlotte police in July 2011. Janisha Fonville, shot by Charlotte police in February 2015. Germonta Wallace, shot 26 times by Charlotte police on July 11, just a few weeks ago.

We say their names, and we are woke to the reality that this not just happening in Ferguson, Missouri, or Baltimore, or New York City. It’s happening right here in North Carolina. Right here in Charlotte.

But if you remember the story from the Gospels, Jesus began to pray and what happened?

They fell asleep.

Jesus went up to them and said, “Here I am facing my execution, and here you are asleep!”

“Stay awake!” Jesus said.
He went back to praying, and what did they do? They fell asleep.

Jesus said, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”

There are many ways to interpret this story, but I believe, as Robin preaches, that this is a story about how difficult and yet necessary it is for us as human beings to overcome the greatest sin, which is NOT the sin of hatred – it is the sin of indifference. Of numbness. Of apathy. Of throwing up our hands and saying, “What can I do? I’m just one person!” The sin of falling back to sleep. Unconscious. Uncaring. Unaware.

This story calls us – in the midst of fear and heartache and fatigue and terror and confusion and exhaustion – to stay woke. To pay attention. To engage. To act. To be accountable for our communities and to each other.

Not numb or turned away, because at this moment, despair cannot be an option. We must stay woke.

Jesus had another message in the garden of Gethsemane – unity.

John 17:20-24 (NIV)
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

This church is part of a denomination called the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) that has as its motto, “We are a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.” Wholeness. Unity. “Christian unity,” we are told, is our “North Star” as a denomination.

I want to go further than that this morning and say that, in Christ, we are already One. The challenge of our work for justice every day is to break down those illusions of separation that keep us from loving and extending grace to each other and from experiencing a deep and abiding connection with a loving God.

What we need is to disabuse ourselves of the notion that we are somehow separate.

The contemplatives and the mystics call this idea “dualism.” And what contemplative spirituality invites us to seek to experience is what’s called unitive consciousness.

What Father Richard Rohr talks about when he talks about non-dualistic thinking, seeing that all things are connected, that we are all connected.

I think we see this in Romans 8:38-39:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

There is nothing separating us from the love of God …

The Bible says that when Jesus took his last breathe on the cross, it says the sky became dark, the earth shook, and the curtain in the Temple was torn from top to bottom. The curtain that had separated the unwashed masses, you and I, from the “holy of holies” where God’s Spirit dwelled – that curtain was torn in two. Nothing separates us from the love of God.

It’s interesting that Father Rohr says that what the mystics call unitive consciousness is ultimately “love.”

Why am I talking about this in a message on racial justice? Because it is the logic of whiteness that tells us we are separate, that white people are the default, the standard, “normal” and that “they,” anyone different from us are “the other,” less than, frightening or exotic …

And it is precisely this separation that Jesus was praying against in the garden of Gethsemane. Or rather, Jesus was praying for us to experience that connection with the Creator, with God, that dissolves all illusions of separation.

But we live in “the real world,” which is actually very dualistic and not inclined to remind us on a daily basis of the true reality of our connection with each other and with God. We have work to do to remind ourselves of that truth and … to stay woke to THAT reality.

And this work can be painful. As faith-rooted organizer and sacred activist Alexia Salvatierra says: “The poison of white supremacy is in each of us, and we need to do dialysis in order to pull the poison out.”

The poison that tells us we are separate, that we are not connected, that your reality has no bearing on my reality.

My reminder to us all this morning is this: I’m not free if you’re not free.

My freedom is bound up in your freedom, and our freedom is bound up in their freedom. (Whoever the THEY is that we are talking about.)

Do you know the word for “righteousness” in the Bible actually means JUSTICE, because there is always a communal meaning to the word when it is used in Scripture. God is about making things right, not just for us individually but for the whole planet and for the entire cosmos.

And yet, there is a specificity.

You may have seen this on social media:

Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Samaritan lives matter.”
Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Children’s lives matter.”
Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Gentile lives matter.”
Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Jewish lives matter.”
Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Women’s lives matter.”
Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Lepers’ lives matter.”

There is a reason we have a Black Lives Matter movement in our country right now, and that’s because historically black lives HAVE NOT mattered as much as white lives. And yes, all lives matter, which is precisely why Black Lives Matter. Or, to put it another way, UNTIL Black Lives Matter, truly matter, then All Lives Will NOT Have Mattered.

So What Can We Do? What Should We Do?

We have an exciting opportunity to be part of a pilot project being organized by the national organization Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), which is a national network of groups and individuals organizing White people for racial justice.

Why White people? “That sounds racist!”

Well, let’s face it, we are a predominately white congregation. And for Christian churches that are predominately white, we have particular work that we need to do to join the fight for racial justice! Which is why SURJ exists, to help folks like us get engaged and stay engaged in this work.

Because it would be easy to go back to sleep, wouldn’t it?

So I just want to invite you, if you’ve been wondering, as you see these images and videos and articles and stories come across your social media feeds, “What can I do about racism? What SHOULD I do, as a white person? What is mine to do?” I want to invite you explore the resources that SURJ offers, to stand up and show up and say, “I want to do something. I’m tired of being asleep. I’m woke now, I want to stay woke. I want to take action for racial justice.”

We are going to be organizing a small group that will begin meeting soon in Charlotte. Dates and times are yet to be determined. But we will be taking steps to come together as a community to learn more and to ultimately discern what action we should take together to fight for racial justice here in Charlotte.

My partner Holly Roach is a national faith organizer with SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice). She will be working with us in the weeks and months ahead as we wrestle together with our next steps and what this looks like. But I hope you can agree with me that we cannot afford to do nothing!

We cannot go back to sleep. Our liberation is bound up in their liberation. We are all connected. There is now no separation between us, with each other, and with God.


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