Transformation – January 27, 2019
Sermon preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Patronal Feast (Observed)
Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.
Exactly six years ago, on Sunday, January 27th, 2013, the feast of the conversion of St. Paul (observed), I first passed through the large double wooden doors of St. Paul’s in the Green. Like many of you, I was led here by a friend. I had been seeking a location for the parish internship that was required as part of my divinity school degree and my ordination process, and the tenor section leader at the time told me that this was a church unlike any other, that its liturgy was beautiful and refreshing, dignified without being stuffy, that its music program was strong and vibrant, that its people were happy and pleasant and welcoming—that they actually seemed to like being at Church and to like seeing you there too.
And so I got out of bed in New Haven that Sunday morning and drove down to Norwalk. I was very confused about where to park, but once I figured it out, I made my way to the narthex where I was greeted warmly and presented with a name tag. I chose a seat on the far edge of the eagle side about two pews from the back. The Rector, a man named Nicholas Lang, preached a thoughtful sermon that was engaging and relevant to my life. I had a taste of delicious homemade bread at communion. I probably sang too loudly. After the service, a young woman named Megan who had been seated right behind me introduced herself and asked me if this was my first time at St. Paul’s and what brought me to the parish. She accompanied me down to the Parish Hall, which was teeming with people for Coffee Hour. I met Nicholas, who, I noted, was not a man of many words. When I wandered around alone reading the bulletin boards in the Undercroft, the Assistant to the Rector, a priest named Cindy, approached me to say hello.
It was just another Sunday morning for a twenty-two year old seminarian, eight months out of college. I had visited several parishes before, and would visit several parishes after, meeting dozens of people, shaking dozens of hands, exchanging ordinary tidbits of chitchat. On that Sunday morning, I had no idea that the young woman who greeted me after the service would become a close collaborator of mine on Theology on Tap sessions for Young Adults. I had no idea that I would later step into the shoes of the friendly priest who found me by the bulletin boards. I had no idea that the lovely modern liturgy I enjoyed would be one I would later help to construct. I had no idea that the Radical Welcome I experienced would be one I would later help to extend to others. I had no idea that the bread I consumed at communion that day would be the same bread I would consume on the evening of my ordination as a priest. I had no idea that the quiet, unassuming man who didn’t have much to say to me at Coffee Hour would end up serving as a hugely influential role model and support to me as I pursued the unique path of ordained ministry in the Church. On January 27th, 2013, when I passed through those large double wooden doors for the first time, I had no idea that this place would change my life.
My first summer at St. Paul’s, while I was still a seminarian, I facilitated a weeknight Adult Education series that offered participants a very brief tour of the Bible. The series proved far more popular than I initially anticipated it would, and, though I was quite busy that summer, I threw myself into preparing for the weekly sessions, peppering my lecture slides with trivia and humor to entertain the masses. Halfway through the course I planned an installment about the Gospel according to Matthew, in which I sought to highlight Matthew’s efforts to emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus—to demonstrate that Matthew believed Jesus could not be separated from his Jewish identity. I decided it would be funny to introduce this section of my argument by invoking a section of a song from the 2003 Broadway musical Avenue Q called “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” In the song, two characters—one black and one white—argue over the race of Jesus. A black character claims that Jesus was a black man, while a white character claims that Jesus was a white man. A third character interjects to point out that Jesus was Jewish. The three characters then erupt into uproarious laughter.
To the ears of a young, white, male teenager, the song had been appealingly irreverent and honest. It simply put into words the kind of things I was thinking to myself but not saying aloud. It pushed back against a PC culture that I thought had gone too far. But the song sounded entirely different to me as I summarized it to the folks gathered for my class. None of the participants had seen the musical and none of the participants seemed to get the point I was trying to make. All I received in response to the reference I had so cheerily employed were blank stares—and not just blank stares but blank stares from faces that were not entirely white. I realized almost instantaneously that there was something wrong about getting up in front of a racially diverse group and suggesting that racism wasn’t that big of a deal or at least referencing a work that, however humorously, did in fact declare that racism wasn’t that big of a deal. Who was I to tell people who had certainly suffered discrimination and pain because of racism that racism didn’t matter? Who was I to tell anyone that racism didn’t matter?
No one said anything to me that night and no one has brought up that night to me since. It’s possible that with the distance of time I have exaggerated the significance of what happened in my mind. But I remember driving back to New Haven that night feeling utterly convicted, aware in a new way of just how much my unacknowledged privilege had blinded me to the experience of others. I promised myself I would never make a mistake like that again.
Two and a half years later, shortly after the 2016 election, I organized an Advent study of Kelly Brown Douglas’ book Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. I wish I could say that I chose Douglas’ book because of the long-standing commitment to racial justice that I had forged in the wake of my error two and a half years earlier, but in truth I chose Douglas’ book simply because I wanted to plan compelling programming and I thought the timely nature of the topic would motivate people to show up. Show up they did, and over the course of four short weeks a small but formidable group of us—black and white—talked openly about the history and present state of racial injustice in our country. I’ll admit that at first I occasionally thought to myself, “I don’t know about all of this. It can’t be all that bad. Some of this stuff is a real stretch.” But like the others I stuck with the book and the dialogue we had among ourselves and slowly but surely the devastating and deep and widespread nature of the American problem with race started to seep in.
At the end of the four weeks, one of the participants—legend now differs on exactly who that participant was—asked, “when are we meeting next?” Of course, I had no plans for us to meet again. I had thought, the race issue having been addressed and settled, that the next weekday Adult Education series would focus on another intriguing topic du jour. But as soon as the question was uttered I knew that it was apropros. This discussion was no casual short-term project; nothing had been addressed and settled; our conversation was just beginning.
It has continued to this day, week in and week out for just about two years. We’ve read thousands of pages and watched movies and TV shows and welcomed guest speakers. We’ve brainstormed about ways to engage in activism and partnerships we can make with like minded organizations. We’ve told our stories and learned from one another. Later today, at the event called Let Justice Roll, you’ll have a chance to listen in to the conversation we’ve had and hear how you can be a part of it too.
I never expected Race and Social Justice to be a key aspect of my ministry here. “Everyone’s a little bit racist” wasn’t just a song I liked as a teenager; it could have characterized my whole attitude as a young person towards race in general. I certainly didn’t condone racial prejudice, but I also can’t remember thinking that racial justice was a serious problem or worthy of any special attention on my part. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was just another holiday. When my school or church would hold a program on race, I would wonder what its relevance was for me.
But the past few years—and the experience of ministering in this place—have opened my eyes. Because of the studies we have done and the stories we have shared and the events that have happened in the larger world, I now see race wherever I go. The immensity of inequality is now more apparent. I have a clearer understanding of how systematic oppression occurs. I am far more conscious of my own place in society and the privilege I have benefited from but not deserved. And I can no longer tolerate the injustices I once failed to notice. Issues of representation and voice matter to me in a way they did not before. Silence and accommodation seem far more sinister than I ever previously imagined.
My awakening to the full reality of racial injustice is certainly not the only transformation I have undergone over my time at St. Paul’s. You all and this incredibly sacred place have affected me in a multitude of significant ways, again and again. But, as powerful as those other transformations were, the transformation I have experienced in my approach to racial injustice has been my road to Damascus experience here at St. Paul’s, that experience that has been most surprising, most total, and most life-altering. Like Paul the Apostle, I was confronted with my own prejudice, with my own cold-heartedness, and with the oppression I was complicit in, and like Paul the Apostle, I was shown the divine light of truth and invited to do things differently, to choose another path.
This parish, of course, is named after Paul the Apostle, a connection that we celebrate today. And just as Paul the Apostle experienced his share of change on the road to Damascus, St. Paul’s on the Green has experienced its share of change over its 282 years—new buildings, new priests, new theologies and ways of thinking. Under the leadership of Nicholas Lang these past twenty-six years, this parish has continually done things differently—by modernizing its liturgies, by intentionally welcoming newcomers, by establishing a chorister program, and by affirming the doctrine of “Radical Welcome to All”—a doctrine that resonates closely with the inclusion so often advocated for by Paul. The Race and Social Justice Coalition here at St. Paul’s is only the latest vehicle through which this parish is renewing its commitment, first made over fifteen years ago, to affirm the inherent worth of every human being, regardless of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, immigration status, national origin, or socioeconomic circumstance.
Now, as I address you for the last time as your Assistant Rector, we stand—both you and me—on the precipice of change yet again. Who knows what lights from heaven will blind us, as we take our leave from one another? Who knows what preconceptions of ours will be overturned? Who knows what new transformations the future will bring?
I find myself wanting to tell you to be open to change, to prepare yourself for the transformations that will come. But genuine transformation, I think, is always a surprise. It can’t be planned for in advance or manufactured on demand. If someone had told me that Sunday morning six years ago that in my time here I would have to talk about race every week and to reckon seriously with the demons of my own prejudice and indifference, I wouldn’t have believed them. I might have run in the other direction.
The blessing of God’s divine light is that it shines on us in spite of ourselves, whether we want it to or not, revealing to us the truths we wouldn’t otherwise be able to acknowledge, assigning us to tasks that we couldn’t otherwise envision.
The light appears on its own, separate from our desires. We can’t summon it out of thin air and we can’t make it go away on when we’d prefer it not be there. We can only say Thank you for the gifts it brings.
Thank you: for joining us together six years ago, for allowing us to share with each other the joys and struggles of our lives, for helping us to support and cherish one another, for disarming our assumptions and broadening our horizons, for challenging and changing us each and every day, for showing us new possibilities ahead and beckoning us on to futures yet unknown.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.