Matt Chandler: Good morning. It’s good to see you. My job here today is to very quickly set some things up and then introduce you to Beau Hughes. I personally believe among men and women there are few men as godly and as gracious as Beau, so I’m eager to introduce him to you, if you don’t remember him from when he was on staff here for a decade. I know we do multisite and things like that, so you might have missed it.
In 2012 or 2013, somewhere in there, we began to introduce a rhythm into the life of The Village Church. Maybe you picked up on that rhythm, maybe you didn’t, but what we tend to do at The Village is we will take a book of the Bible and preach through that book, and then we’ll take a topic and address that topic. That’s part of the annual calendar.
Then we’ve inserted in a celebration of Advent, and then what we do in the month of January is push the church toward prayerfulness and a consideration of our role in culture by and large as either a prophetic voice or the salt and light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. One of those topics we talk about every year this month is the topic of racial reconciliation.
Now a couple of things. I was probably a bit naïve six or seven years ago of just how hot-tempered people are over this issue regardless of ethnicity or race. I was probably naïve in understanding what it would take to help us have this conversation in a way that was God-honoring. The commitment has been made. As long as I’m here and you’re here, this is a topic we’re going to lean into and have a conversation about in all its awkwardness and tension.
We’re going to unapologetically say we’re the people of God, and Christ has reconciled us to himself and made a new people, and we’re going to talk about that and celebrate that and lean into the awkwardness of it so the glory of God and his gospel might be seen. I don’t think racial reconciliation is the gospel, but the gospel presses us toward it.
Here’s what I want to ask. Fourteen years we’ve been together. When I say at the end of my sermon, which I do almost every week, that I love you, that’s not just a throwaway idea for me. Fourteen years of my life I’ve spent in this place. I know so many. We have wept together. We have been at funerals together. We’ve been at weddings together. We’ve partied together, and we’ve had our hearts broken together.
You prayed for me, pled for my life when I had cancer. I’ve tried to have reciprocity toward you in your moment of darkness. I’m at the hospital. I am in this with you. You are on my mind more than you will ever know. You haunt me, and God’s call on my life to serve, love, and shepherd you well haunts me. So here’s what I want to plead with you. I want to ask you to do this for me.
What I’ve learned is that when you tackle this subject people will hear things that have not been said. That happens every time you preach, but specifically around this topic and maybe three or four other topics, you can say one thing and people will filter out what you have said and replace it with something that has not been said.
Probably where I could highlight this most was four or five years ago I was teaching on marriage and said in my sermon that a man’s responsibility to his wife was to love and serve her like Christ loved the church so that she would flourish in all of her natural, God-given giftedness. I believe that. Wholeheartedly I believe that.
One of our members, who’s a beautiful, godly, single woman, been single her whole life, wrote me a very out-of-character email. She just threw me on blast. Basically, what she accused me of saying is that if a woman didn’t have a husband she could never flourish in her gifting. She had a specific hurt in her heart, a specific story, a specific background, and it filtered out what I said and changed it.
So we had a great conversation about, “No, no, no. Oh, sister, you are already flourishing. Let’s just recount the fruit of your life. God has done a profound thing in you. You don’t need a man to draw those things out of you. That wasn’t my intent. My intent is to say if you are a husband, God has put on you, as a husband, to sacrifice and serve in such a way that your wife flourishes. That’s what I was trying to say.”
What’s going to happen… Not might. What is probably going to happen over the course of the next 30 to 50 minutes is you’re going to be tempted to not actively listen but instead get offended in ways that aren’t helpful. So here’s what I want you to do. Give us the benefit of the doubt. We have 14 years of cred with so many of you, so give us the benefit of the doubt.
As the Word of God is faithfully proclaimed (I’ve heard the message three times), if you find some anger or some “What’s he saying?” here’s what I want to ask you to do. We love you. We’re not trying to purposely offend anyone. If you have a question, I want you to just get a pen and a piece of paper out and go, “Is he saying [whatever]?” and then we want to have a conversation with you about that.
If some of you never come back to The Village Church because of what we’re saying here today, I’ll take no pride in that. I’ll take no joy in that. It’ll break my heart, because you’re who I want to have this conversation with. The church in this climate has an opportunity to be a beautiful picture of what God has done for the world in Jesus Christ, but we cannot speak prophetically to the culture until God has spoken prophetically to us.
That’s the thing that drives me crazy about me. As a Christian, it’s easy to speak prophetically to the world. I just don’t want anybody to speak prophetically to me. You can “amen” or “ouch” that, but it’s true about most of us. I’ve invited Beau Hughes, who is a dear friend of mine. I met Beau when he was a newly converted punk college kid. He played basketball in college, walked with a swagger, but Christ had saved him. That’s where we met.
I actually got to be a part of the group of guys who baptized Beau in the Gulf of Mexico, because we didn’t know better. We didn’t know what was in that water. Man, I’ve already said it. I love this man. I have more respect for this man than most other men. That’s not a slight against most other men. It’s what I’ve seen this man do with his life. He was brought on church at The Village to be a college and singles minister. He got married.
On his honeymoon we acquired the Denton Campus, and when he got back we had a new job description for him. He got back from his honeymoon, and it was like, “Hey, that singles thing? That’s going great, but you’re now what we’re going to call a ’campus pastor.’ We’re going to screw up a lot. You’re going to have to clean up all of our messes. This is a total experiment. Be gracious.” He led faithfully in that context for a long time.
A year and a half ago, as many of you know, the Denton Campus rolled off and became an autonomous church, and they have flourished as a community of saints. I’ve oftentimes said that if my kids will stay in this area, I would be nothing but ecstatic for my children to be under the leadership of this man, under the guidance of this man. He is tremendous. He has thought deeply about these issues. He’s able to frame them in ways I think are most helpful.
So after six or seven years of hearing from me, I thought maybe he could frame it in a way we could come at it from a different angle and get maybe a little bit more clarity. Guard your hearts, brothers and sisters. Please, if you find something bubbling up in you, stop and write it out. We want to have this conversation. We can’t have the conversation if you freak out and get into fifth gear before we even have the conversation, maybe get really upset about something that didn’t get said. Will you welcome Beau Hughes as he comes up, now that everybody is anxious about our time together?
Beau Hughes: Good morning, friends. It is an overwhelming joy and privilege to be here again among you. I bring greetings from the saints, your brothers and sisters up in Denton. As Matt mentioned, by God’s grace we rolled off as a campus a year and a half ago, and we’re, in his mercy, flourishing in so many ways. We attribute much of that to your prayers, your guidance, your encouragement, not just when we were a campus but even throughout that process of transition and after the fact.
It’s a joy to be here and to greet you on behalf of your brothers and sisters there. At the same time, for me, personally, this church has been so meaningful for me. These elders and leaders here at this church, at all of the different campuses… I’ve walked with these men. I’ve cried with these men. I’ve laughed until I was doubled over with them. There have been so many significant moments in my life that have been shaped by them and, in particular, Matt.
The respect is obviously mutual. There’s not a day in my life as a Christian that I’ve known… Maybe six days. The first week I was a Christian I met him. His influence on my life as a Christian, as just a man, as a husband, as a father, is really inseparable from who I understand myself to be. I just thank God for the opportunity and the privilege of being here with you. Since we were here last… You prayed for us, if you were here a year and a half ago. My family was up here on the stage.
Since then my family has grown. I just wanted to show you that and celebrate that with you. About three weeks after we were here last, we got a phone call from our foster adoption agency that there was a little boy in a hospital in Dallas who was needing to be placed in a home, so we brought him home from the NICU, and then after a year and a half, on December 1, we adopted him into our family forever. That’s William Isaiah, who’s the newest member of our family. So my wife Kimberly, my son Haddon, my daughters CJ and Elliot, and then little Isaiah. They were here last night. I bring you greetings from them as well.
We’re going to think and talk about race today, which was kind of your pastors, wasn’t it? To bring me in to speak about and think about with you such a lighthearted topic. “Why don’t you come back after a year and a half, and let’s talk about this?” Arguably, there really isn’t a more sensitive topic in the public square or even in evangelical churches to speak and think about today. What I’m going to request of you… Matt already kind of did it. I’m going to do it as well.
What I want to request of you right up front is that you would be patient with me and gracious with me as you listen and process these things I’m going to lay before you today. I am almost certain that you will not agree with everything I’m going to say. It’s not even the point. But I am hopeful that, whether you agree with what I’m going to say or not, you will receive everything I have to say with the spirit of love and grace that I have prayed and I intend to communicate to you this morning.
I’d encourage you to remember your pastors asked me to come. I’m here by request to talk about this topic. Just remember that as well. Filter that in somewhere and keep it and later on bring it back out. Having a conversation about race is an extremely delicate thing to do. I wonder, even, when was the last time you were offended or tempted to be offended by a conversation or a statement about race. Or maybe you weren’t offended. Maybe you were just annoyed or exasperated or disheartened.
My guess is that for most of us it was fairly recently. I know it was for me. This recent election cycle, among other cultural events, and of course the ongoing systemic realities in our nation that stem all the way back before the founding of our nation reveal in headline after headline after headline just how racialized our country and its evangelical Protestant churches continue to be. Of course, on top of that, we also live in a culture that no longer knows how to have a conversation.
We’ve lost that ability in so many different ways, fueled by the divisive design of social media. The platform of social media, in so many ways, is built not neutrally but to be divisive. “My friends” and “Not my friends.” “My interests” and “Not my interests.” To divide us. Fueled by that, we have lost as a culture the ability to speak to one another, to disagree civilly, much less lovingly, about matters we hold deep convictions about.
Even in the church, even in this church, in these rooms, Christians have lost the capacity to genuinely and humbly converse with one another about each other’s difference in perspective and to truly listen, to actively listen. That’s what sociologists and others would call it. Not just to listen so you could respond but to listen so you could listen and learn. That’s called active listening. We’ve lost that. That has been eroded in our lifestyle.
The church, devastatingly, right alongside our culture, has been de-skilled at talking and listening about most topics, especially topics as sensitive as race. Every time a new headline emerges, and there will be a new one…if not today, tomorrow; if not tomorrow, this week; if not this week, next week… There will be a new headline, and there will be another headline after that headline. Every time that happens, what we see in our culture and in our churches is just how de-skilled and emptied of empathy we are.
Our impulse, our habit, our knee-jerk reaction is to be quick to speak, slow to listen, and sadly enough, quick to be angry about things, even though we understand as God’s people that the anger of man never produces the righteousness that pleases God. So all of this going on in our culture has created in our culture and in our churches what TIME magazine reported this week was the American Dialect Society’s 2016 word of the year: dumpster fire.
Our culture is a dumpster fire about these things. If that’s not a part of your vernacular, dumpster fire is a noun, and it’s an exceedingly disastrous or chaotic situation. That’s how many feel about the social environment of our culture these days, especially on the heels of such a vicious election cycle with such corrosive rhetoric around it. Of course, one of the social realities that’s most visibly on fire in the dumpster of our culture and of our churches is race, which is probably why Dictionary.com’s 2016 Word of the Year was xenophobia.
The question for us today is how do we, as the people of God… How does a church, especially churches like this one that have hopes to grow in racial intelligence and racial empathy, if not diversity itself, racially speaking, among its members… How does a church like this become reskilled in thinking, listening, and speaking with one another about race in light of the gospel? Not just reskilled in thinking and talking about it. What are actually practical ways that we, as the people of God, can walk in a manner worthy of the gospel in pursuit of racial harmony and justice amid the dumpster fires of our culture?
That is obviously a massive topic and one we will not be able to answer in full today…or ever, I suspect, on this side of new creation, but I simply want to help. I want to enter into this conversation that this church has been having for years, and I want to maybe add to it and add some layers and add some nuance and even add some categories.
I want to just offer one practical, simple suggestion that our churches can begin and continue to grow in being skilled at walking in a manner worthy of the gospel in regard to racial justice and harmony by cultivating a habit and lifestyle where we consider one another more important than ourselves. We’re going to talk about how to do that.
If you have a Bible, turn to Philippians, chapter 1. I trust that those of you who are Christians are aware that Jesus, as he inaugurated and established his kingdom during his earthly ministry, taught things that were deeply subversive to the prevailing worldview of the day and of our day. It’s easy to overlook that as a Christian, if you’ve heard Jesus and read about his life and heard his teaching.
It’s easy to overlook and forget how deeply subversive what he was teaching was against the culture of his day and how utterly countercultural it was to be citizens of his kingdom. What his kingdom was about and what it meant to be citizens was so utterly countercultural. Jesus said things like this. He said once to his disciples, “You know, those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over their subjects, and the great ones of the Gentiles exercise authority over their subjects in a domineering sort of way.”
Then he turns to his disciples and says, “But it shall not be among you. That’s not the way it’s going to be in God’s kingdom.” He says, “Whoever would be great among you… Do you want to be great? We’re all after greatness. Do you want to be great in the kingdom of God? The one who’s great among you must be your servant. That’s greatness. And whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”
He says, “For even the Son of Man,” speaking of himself, taking that title from Daniel, chapter 7, and applying it to his own ministry himself. He says, “Even I came not to be served but to serve, not to get but to give my life as a ransom for many.” That is utterly countercultural. Another time, Jesus said to the same disciples, “Listen. No greater love has a man than this: that he would lay down his life, that he would serve to the point of death for his friends. That is love.”
Of course, even in his Upper Room Discourse, the last thing Jesus was teaching his disciples and modeling for them was this kind of love, where he said, “In the same way that I have loved you, you love one another. That’s my command that I leave with you.” So sacrificial love for one’s neighbor out of a love for God was the narrow path (and still is) that Jesus taught, and then also, through his own living and dying, it’s the narrow path that Jesus blazed through his modeling and called his disciples to follow him down.
“This is the path in God’s kingdom. This is what I’m calling you to do. This is what it means to pick up the cross and follow me. It means that you live a life of godward, outward, unmerited, steadfast, suffering love toward your neighbors.” From its earliest days, the Christian church has understood this. Early Christians understood this kind of love to be the preeminent way of life, the chief virtue of the church.
The earliest Christians really did believe that everything God wanted of them could be summarized and summed up in one command: to love your neighbor as yourself. The apostle Peter says it. James says it. Paul says it over and over. Again and again in the New Testament Epistles, what you’ll find is these men taking these things from the mouth of Jesus and reminding the early church of them, that this is what God wants of us.
One of the most beautiful examples of leaders in the early church doing this is what Paul writes to the church in Philippi. Let’s look at this letter. If you remember, God used Paul to establish the church in Philippi, but then very quickly Paul had to get out of Philippi because of opposition and persecution.
The church from its beginnings was a diverse church, where Lydia came to Christ, and then another slave girl believed in the Lord, and then the jailer. So from its beginnings it was a young, growing, vibrant, diverse church, but then Paul left, and after he left, those same forces of opposition, both inside the church and from outside of it, posed a threat to this young, diverse congregation’s unity.
Paul, hearing of this while he was in prison himself for preaching the gospel, writes back to the church in Philippi and admonishes them toward this love and unity that is fundamental and central to the life of God’s people. In verse 27 of chapter 1 he says this. He has just gotten through saying, “To live is Christ; to die is gain. I don’t know if I’m going to live or die. I’m in prison. But here’s why I’m writing you.” Verse 27:
“Only let your manner of life [your conduct] be worthy of [in step with] the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you [because I get out of jail] or am absent [because I stay in jail], I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents.”
These few verses are the heart of this entire letter. This is the primary hope and exhortation that Paul has on his mind for this church when he writes. He wants them, in light of the pressure of the fragmenting culture around them that’s tempting them away from their unity, to walk in a manner worthy of the gospel by standing and striving together in unity and love around Christ amid this culture that is constantly opposing them and tempting them away from such love and unity. That’s what he wants, and he tells them.
“This is a clear sign to them [the opponents] of their destruction, but [also a clear sign] of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you [as a grace gift] that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict [opposition] that you saw I had [when I was with you] and now hear that I still have.” Which, of course, is why he’s in prison.
Then in verse 1 of chapter 2 he says, “So…” Here’s the heart of it. “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy…” In other words, he’s basically saying, “Since those things are true, if you’ve been united to Christ by the Spirit and united to one another, encouragement, comfort, participation, affection, and sympathy are already yours in Christ. That’s what it means to be a church.”
He says, “[Since those things are true] complete my joy…” How? “…by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” He uses four different expressions to repeat his burden for the church that he’s calling them to in the midst of the fragmentation and opposition, and it’s a burden of unity. He says it four different ways. Then he shares a particular habit and lifestyle he wants them to cultivate that he knows and trusts will promote the love and unity he’s calling them to. Look at verse 3.
“Do nothing from selfish ambition [a party spirit] or conceit, but in humility count [consider] others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” The word only there is not in the Greek language, which makes it a little bit more radical in some regards.
Paul is saying, “This is on the ground, day to day, in our families, our Home Groups, our churches, our workplaces, and our classrooms what it means to walk in a manner worthy of the gospel in terms of your love for each other. This is love,” Paul says. “This is the mind I want you to have among yourselves.” Look at verse 5.
“Have this mind [this attitude, this lifestyle] among yourselves, which is yours…” It arises out of your new life in Christ Jesus. Then he puts forth Christ as the example of this life. “…in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Therefore God has highly exalted him [Jesus, as the world’s true Lord] and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord…” Not Caesar or anybody else. “…to the glory of God the Father.”
This is one of the earliest, most beautiful pieces of Christian doctrine that we have about Christ and his identity. This is actually, many think, a hymn that Paul takes and utilizes in this letter. If you’re not a Christian, those five verses are the very heart of what we would want you to take from this gathering today: who Jesus is. If you’re not a Christian and you’re here, I’m so thankful you’re here. I don’t know if you came by yourself or a friend or a neighbor brought you, but I’m so glad you’re here.
Among everything else you’ll hear today, this is what I would want you to hear the most: this is who Jesus is. Jesus is the world’s true Lord. That’s what we believe. That’s the good news of Christianity: that Jesus, who is God, became a man without ceasing to be God and lived a perfect life and laid down his life on the cross. The Son of God received the punishment of an enemy of God so that you and I, who are enemies of God, could become sons and daughters of God through faith in him.
After he laid down his life, God raised it up again. Then Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father where he sat down, and right now he rules and reigns as Lord of the eternal universe, and he will one day come back and make that a visible reality for us. If you’re not a Christian, that’s the most significant thing you could ever know and that we want you to know from today.
Church, this hymn really is one of the most marvelous pieces of doctrine in all of the New Testament, and yet what’s interesting is that Paul didn’t put it here in this letter so we could simply marvel at the doctrine. He put it here in this letter, right in the midst of his exhortation toward unity, so he would put before them Christ as the supreme example of the lifestyle he’s wanting to motivate them toward.
He lays down this part of this hymn. After admonishing them toward love, he holds Jesus up and says, “Like this. He’s the supreme example of it. Jesus is the one who showed us what this is like.” Then Paul returns to admonishing them toward the very same lifestyle he was admonishing them before the hymn. Look at verse 12.
“Therefore…” “Here’s why I put the hymn there. See that about Jesus. Know that about what he did and how he lived his life and laid it down.” “Therefore [because you are in Christ], my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
Isn’t it amazing and interesting to read those verses in context? What’s he talking about? Working out your salvation in fear and trembling, God being at work. What’s he saying there? Well, particularly he’s saying (verse 14), “Do all things without grumbling or disputing…” That’s what it means to work out your salvation in fear and trembling: to love each other, to lay your lives down. Not in the exact same way as Christ did, because his was unique, but in a way following after that pattern.
He says do this (verse 15) “…that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of [all the dumpster fires of this generation]…” That’s what he says. This crooked, twisted, and chaotic generation. “Live this way, a life of sacrificial love toward God and your neighbor, so that you would shine as lights in this world, as you hold fast to the word of life, and do it so that in the day of Christ,” Paul says, “when I get to Christ, I will know I didn’t labor in vain. I didn’t go to jail in vain, that you held firm and you stood strong in loving each other and considering each other more important than you did yourselves.” This is what Paul says.
Think about this and apply it here. Amid the pressures and temptations for this young, diverse church that they had to keep in step with and fall into the surrounding world and culture’s spirit of fragmentation, Paul says, “Yeah, don’t keep in step with that spirit of division. Don’t keep in step with that party spirit. Instead, keep in step with the Spirit of Jesus and follow after the pattern of Jesus’ love, a love that does nothing from selfishness but in humility, rather, considers others and their interests more important than its own.”
He says, “In doing this, what you’re going to do is make the Savior’s love visible. You make the Word flesh through your loving lives together among all of the dumpster fires of the kingdoms of this world. They can still see the loving-kindness of God.” This is what it means to be a church. This is the way of life, at its heart, that we’re called to as the people of God.
Generally, that’s what it means, and particularly, considering our topic of race today, I want to suggest that this is also the way of life a church must strive to walk in if it hopes to follow Jesus and keep in step with his Spirit and not the world’s spirit in matters of racial reconciliation and justice. I’m turning the corner here. We’re going to now move to talk specifically about race. I want you to feel it, and I want you to take Philippians 1-2, what we’ve just read about, what it means to be a part of a church, and bring it into this turn with you.
I just want you to know, as we think about race, in my experience of shepherding a church that is increasingly multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural, for the last 10 years in a neighborhood that is unbelievably multiethnic, multiracial, and multicultural, if we, as a people of God in a multiethnic church, are going to pursue a lifestyle of considering one another more important than ourselves, it is impossible to do that without considering our racial identity and heritage.
I really don’t think it’s possible for us to grow… Even if it’s not a diverse church, necessarily, but a church that just wants to grow in their racial IQ or racial empathy, I do not think it’s possible to do that in a way where you’re considering others who do not share your racial identity or heritage better than yourself… You can’t do what Paul says in Philippians 1-2 without considering, as a part of that lifestyle, your own racial identity and heritage.
For a church that’s wanting to pursue and keep in step with the gospel around matters of race and justice, that requires a member of such a church to consider their own racial heritage. So in the next 30 minutes this morning, I just want to provide you a few categories that, again, I hope will help deepen and nuance this conversation about race and the gospel that you’ve been having as a church.
I’m going to provide these categories in particular hopes that it would help those of us who are white, which is the large majority of us in these rooms, to consider our own racial identity and heritage, that it would help us consider our whiteness so we can continue to grow in considering those who do not share the same racial identity and heritage that we have, that we could consider them more important than ourselves.
What that means is that if you’re not white, for the remainder of my sermon I’m not going to be primarily directing my address toward you. I hope that knowing that doesn’t make you feel any more alienated or highlighted than you might already feel, being a racial minority in this room this morning. I know many of you have been here as members for years and years, so I trust you know, as you’ve been here, this church’s love for you.
Others of you have walked in this morning to this gathering or these gatherings at the other campuses for the first time, and I hope and trust that what you’ve already been made aware of is this church’s love for one another, that you were welcomed warmly as you came in, that you were greeted. I hope that me taking a moment to speak directly to you, to address you, communicates what we trust the members who have been here who are non-white have understood for a number of years now, that here, even though you’re a racial minority in these rooms, you are not invisible.
I know it can feel like you are invisible, and I know to come into this room week after week can be exhausting. I just want you to know that doesn’t go unnoticed. We see that. We’re aware of that, even where we don’t communicate that well. The isolation you may have felt or may feel being a racial minority here, among that isolation, among that exhaustion, even, of what it’s like every Sunday when you come in to lay aside your preferences and to come…
You’re doing Philippians 1-2, and that can be exhausting, especially when you don’t feel like anybody notices that’s what you’re doing. If you’re brown or black, by you being a member of this church you have done that, and you do that every single week, I’m assuming. That’s a good thing. So even though I’m not going to be speaking directly to you, you are not invisible. Thank God that you’re here. Yet I’m going to primarily be communicating from here on out directly with those of us who are white.
What I want to do for you white brothers and sisters who are white like me… I want to give us a few sociological categories that I think will help us consider our racial heritage and identity so we can consider others in our church body and in our culture, more generally, more important than we do ourselves that don’t share that racial identity and heritage. These categories are not sinful. They’re sociological, and they apply to any majority culture person.
We’re living in a culture that’s majority white in terms of race, so we’re going to talk about them in terms of that filter and that prism, but the categories are transparency, normativity, and structural advantage. In terms of race in the United States, as the majority, we’re going to talk about white transparency, white normativity, and white structural advantage.
Maybe some of you, just a few moments ago when I laid down the thesis of this sermon, which is if we’re really going to grow in living a life of considering others more important than ourselves in a multiethnic church or a church that’s striving to keep in step with the gospel around race… I said if we’re going to do that, it requires that we consider seriously our own racial heritage and identity. Maybe many of you were like, “Why?”
That’s the thesis of what I’m going to say from here on out. Why is it so important to consider our racial heritage and identity? Well, it’s important because our racial heritage has shaped our perspective and preferences more than we could possibly imagine. Our race is obviously not the only part of our heritage that has shaped and continues to shape our perspective and preferences. Our gender shapes it. Our ethnicity shapes it.
Ethnicity is different than race. I want to highlight that. Race is a socially constructed idea based on color of skin that we use to justify our racial hierarchy. Ethnicity has more to do with shared language and culture. They’re different, which is why there’s not a monolithic group of white people or a monolithic group of black people or a monolithic group of brown people. That’s why you can’t talk about it that easily.
It’s far more nuanced, because underneath white or black or brown is male or female or whatever ethnicity, or you even get into class or geography or generation, whether you’re a Millennial or a Baby Boomer. All of that shapes our perspectives and our preferences, and yet in deep, transformative, inevitable ways, our racial heritage and racial identity is a foundationally shaping influence in our worldview. Our racial heritage, for all of us, has colored (pun very much intended) everything about the way we view and live our lives.
This can be, for white people in a majority white context, a difficult reality for us to wrap our minds and hearts around, because the overwhelming majority of us who are white (not all of us, but maybe the overwhelming majority of us) who grew up in the United States… We’re in the United States, which has been and is (at least for a little bit longer) majority white, and then beyond that, if we’re white in this room, most of us grew up in families and neighborhoods and schools and other social settings that were also majority, if not exclusively, white.
By the way, I just want to say this right up front. If that’s you, you don’t need to feel guilty about that. That’s part of what I came to proclaim as good news to you. You don’t need to feel guilty about being white. For you to feel guilty or be made to feel guilty about being born white into a white family in a white mainstream culture is every bit as much an affront against God and sin against the creator God than if you were feeling superior to being born white.
Racial inferiority, just like racial superiority… They’re both sinful. They’re both dishonoring to the creator God, and white guilt will never motivate you and me to live loving lives like Philippians 1-2 talks about. It can’t do it. That’s why we sing about shame and guilt being gone, because what motivates us is the love of Christ. That’s what compels us, not guilt, not shame about our skin color or anything else.
I just want you to know, if you’re white, you must reject any misplaced guilt about your heritage of whiteness, but you have to recognize it, and you have to recognize how shaping it is for you and how it has shaped your perspectives and your preferences in ways that maybe you’re not even aware of. Again, someone who is born white and grows up into a white mainstream culture like the US and then has subcultures you’re a part of your whole life that are majority, if not exclusively white…
If that’s your story, one of the things that almost guarantees for you is that you will have never been compelled or provoked or outright forced to think seriously about your racial heritage or identity, at least compared to our brothers and sisters who have a different color skin. If that’s your story as a white person, I’m just guessing you’ve not been compelled to think about your whiteness like our black brothers and sisters have been compelled to think about their blackness or our brown brothers and sisters have been compelled to think about their brownness.
For the overwhelming majority of white people, our whiteness is simply not a part of our identity that we feel deeply connected to. It’s not on the front burner. It’s not salient to us. It’s not relevant to us…unless, of course, we get bussed to a certain school where we’re the minority or we get lost in the wrong neighborhood or we go on a mission trip. Then it becomes really relevant and really noticeable, and we feel it in a way that we typically don’t feel it in the mainstream culture or subculture that day by day we’re a part of.
If you live in America and have grown up in this mainstream culture and subcultures, then, as a white person, you can live your entire life and never really have to think about being white. You don’t need to feel necessarily guilty about that, but you do need to recognize that’s a unique advantage you have as a white person and an advantage that sociologists actually have a name for. That’s called white transparency.
Korie Edwards, who’s a sociologist at the Ohio State University, wrote a wonderful book our elders are reading right now called The Elusive Dream about the power of race in multiracial churches, and she uses this definition of white transparency. She says, “Finally, white transparency is ’the tendency of whites not to think…about norms, behaviors, experiences, or perspectives that are white-specific.’ [In other words, white transparency] is a lack of racial consciousness.”
Again, only the members of a majority racial group, which in the United States is white… In India it’s a different group, in Japan it’s a different group, but here it’s white. Only the members of a majority racial group of any given culture have the advantage of walking in such transparency where you’re not really conscious of or uniquely or significantly identifying with the color of your skin.
In fact, I remember I served at a multiethnic church for a number of years outside of Portland, Oregon, and Deborah Greenidge, who was the music minister of that church, who’s an African-American woman, would ask in her gentle, loving manner, “Do you know what it feels like to be white? Do you know what it means to be white?” Like if somebody asked you, “What does it mean to be white in this country?” most of us wouldn’t have a cogent answer, simply because we’ve not thought in those terms.
I even wonder, if you’re white in this room this morning, when was the last time you noticed you were white? Or maybe more generally, when was the last time you thought about your skin and its color at all? Our church staff, all of us, recently went to a multiethnic church conference in Keller just right down the road, and one of the speakers at the conference was a sociologist named Dr. Michael Emerson. He, along with another sociologist, coauthored a watershed book about racial division in evangelical churches called Divided by Faith.
In his talk at the conference, Dr. Emerson mentioned an assignment he used to give to his undergraduate students. He was a professor at Rice University. In one of his classes, in order to help the predominately white classes have their transparency around their race revealed, he would assign them over a weekend, I think it was…
He said, “Over the next few days, every time you’re speaking about someone who is white in your life, in your conversations, I want you to use the adjective white. You know, your white roommate, your white teacher, your white attendant at the gas station, your white mama, whoever. If you’re talking about someone who’s white, use that adjective.”
He said, honestly, the majority of the white students couldn’t make it through 24 hours. It was too awkward. Some of you are saying, “Yeah.” It was too exhausting to do that. If you’re a racial minority in this room, that’s maybe exactly what you’re feeling this morning: that same sort of exhaustion. But for us to not see it as white people… We have to see it.
We don’t need to feel guilty about it, but we have to see it if we’re going to love others and consider them more important than ourselves. It’s a good thing for us to become, as white people, more in tune with the color of our skin. It’s a good thing for us to be less color-blind, especially when we look in the mirror.
Again, bring Philippians 2 in here. Can you imagine the corrosive effect of white transparency or of color blindness in a multiethnic church? Can you see how unhelpful that would be? Or even just in a white church that’s desiring to walk in a manner worthy of the gospel around their racial IQ or their racial empathy. Can you sense how white transparency would actively work against considering not only your own interests but others?
If you’ve never considered and acknowledged and maybe celebrated your racial identity and heritage, then you don’t know the specific perspectives and preferences that have been shaped by it, that have arisen out of it, which then limits significantly your ability to lay aside those preferences and perspectives on behalf of loving other people. You can’t do it if you don’t see it.
Beloved, color blindness is an enemy, not a friend of hospitality and love. White transparency is a cancer, and I don’t use that word lightly. It’s a cancer in a multiethnic church or in a church that’s wanting to walk in the Spirit of God along matters of racial justice and harmony. Again, we don’t need to feel guilty about it, but we have to see and ask God to help us see what right now maybe we just can’t see.
White transparency, then, feeds into the next little category that sociologists call white normativity. Again, I’m going to quote from Edwards. She says, “White normativity reinforces the normalization of whites’ cultural practices…such that how whites do things…” Again, we understand that not to be monolithic, but generally speaking. “…their understandings about life, society, and the world…are accepted as ’just how things are.’”
In other words, when we’re the majority, our practices, preferences, and perspectives don’t feel to us as uniquely anything, whether it be uniquely white or uniquely middle class or uniquely Baby Boomer or uniquely United States. If you’re the majority and are walking in transparency, it doesn’t feel like a unique way to look at things or do things. It’s just the way everybody looks at things or does things.
In other words, in our minds, it’s a universal norm or, more dangerously, a Christian norm. Then anything out of that universal norm is alien or different or other or, in worst case, sometimes non-Christian in our minds. That’s normativity. Of course, you see the problem with this. The problem comes when what we consider to be a universal, if not a Christian, norm is actually a white norm or a middle-class norm or an American norm, not a universal or Christian norm.
At that point, then, what we’ve done, in many cases, because of our white transparency is essentially made what is white or any other sort of transparent part of our heritage… We’ve made that normative and everything that is not white alien or different or other. I have a friend in Denton. He’s a member of our church, a brother named Daniel. He shared recently an illustration. He’s a left-hander. How many of you are left-handers? The minority right here. Appreciate you people.
He shared the parallel in terms of white normativity of left-handed scissors. Have you ever heard of left-handed scissors? If you’re right-handed, maybe, maybe not. If you’re left-handed, yeah. That’s what you call scissors. Those are just your scissors. We call them “left-handed scissors,” but left-handed scissors are just scissors. It’s mind-blowing for some of you. It’s like we’ve walked through Philippians 2. This blew your mind, though. It’s like, “How have I never known that there were other scissors besides scissors for left-handed people?”
Why do we call them “left-handed scissors” but don’t call right-handed scissors “right-handed scissors”? Well, because being right-handed is the assumed norm in our culture. Can I get an “amen,” lefty? I’m right-handed, but that’s an assumed norm. Why? Because right-handers are the overwhelming majority in our culture, so we live in a world of right-handed normativity simply based on the fact that right-handers are the majority.
In the same way, beloved, the majority white US culture, including the additional subcultures most of us in this room inhabit…our workplaces, our churches, our suburban neighborhoods, including its restaurants and grocery stores and schools… It is a world of white normativity. If you don’t believe me, which I don’t know why you wouldn’t, but if you’re struggling with that, just pop on down to the Barnes & Noble in your neighborhood later today and try to find me…
Go to the children’s section and try to find me a book that has a dark-skinned princess with a 4C curl pattern in her hair. If you find it, send it to me, because I’ve been looking for one. I’ve been looking for a book that has a princess that looks like one of my princesses to read to her. If you don’t think this normativity gets internalized from an early age in both the majority and the minority culture, I just would say humbly I think you’re wrong. I think it does. It shapes us.
Again, you don’t need to feel sinfully guilty about being born white into a culture of white normativity, any more than you should feel guilty for being born right-handed in a culture of right-handed normativity, but you have to recognize it. If you want to consider others more important than yourself, especially others who don’t share your racial identity or heritage, you have to see it.
You have to admit it. You have to humble yourself. Let me tell you why. If you don’t see it and admit it on a bad day or maybe even just a normal day for most of us, anything that is different than our norm is not only different in our minds but is actually less than…less beautiful, less intelligent, less compelling, worse, gross, foolish, immature, naïve, evil.
Isn’t this what we see in our churches? Isn’t this what we see in our Twitter wars? Isn’t this what we’ve seen through the political cycle? Not that we just have different philosophies about things and ways of looking at things. It’s evil. It’s not just different; it’s evil. It’s worse. It’s bad. It’s unchristian. This is what we see.
I have often wondered in these days just how grieved God has been by our blindness to the glorious differences he has created in one another. Not just our blindness, but our inability to celebrate those differences he created and to be properly shaped by them because we’re blind or because we’re insecure or because we’re more committed to being right than we are to loving each other and considering each other more important than ourselves.
To keep in step with the Spirit, a church must be ruled by a normativity that is distinctively Christian, not distinctively white or anything else; a normativity that is ruled by Christ and his Spirit. For that to happen, we have to recognize places in our lives and in our churches where a different sort of normativity that may not be distinctively Christian (it may not be anti-Christian, but it may not be distinctively Christian) is too central in our thoughts, perspectives, and preferences and lay those aside for the good of others.
The last category is structural advantage. I’ll just define it as the various unearned advantages that effortlessly come to people due to the fact that they are part of the majority. Again, it could be any majority. Because you’re in the majority, you’re in the position of dominant power, just even numerically, and thus your norms are the ones that get institutionalized. Again, right-handed normativity and right-handed transparency create a host of right-handed structural advantages. If you’re left-handed, you know this.
From the way we write on paper from left to right… I used to sit by a guy in class who had to do the hook with his hand. Have you ever seen a left-hander doing the hook? That’s so you don’t get the pencil on your hand. To the desk that’s a right-handed desk he’s sitting at, to the silverware that’s placed for a right-handed person, to the mouse he was using that was made for a right-handed person… All of those are gifts to right-handed people that we didn’t earn. We’re born into a right-handed normative culture, so there are advantages for us right-handers that we may not be aware of but left-handers are certainly aware of.
Brothers and sisters, from the beginning of our nation’s history, white people have established and held the location of dominance in our country’s racial hierarchy. What this has meant, among other things, is that they’ve also, just numerically speaking, held political dominance and economic dominance, and whites have disproportionately controlled or influenced political parties, the legal system, government agencies, industry, and business. Again, I’m not saying you need to feel guilty about that. It’s what it is. It’s inarguable historically.
This has gifted white people in this country, generally and comparatively speaking, certain structural advantages that have not been afforded, generally and comparatively speaking, to racial minorities in this country. These structural advantages are expressed all over the place if you have eyes to see it. It’s what drives our white transparency and our white normativity, and it’s what has been institutionalized in innumerable ways throughout the history of this nation.
You even think about just the ability to have the power to decide who is and who is not a part of your racial group. There’s only one racial group that had that power historically to not only say, “You’re going to be not just three-fifths of a person but five-fifths of a person,” but then to actually say, “Well, even though you have the same color of skin…you’re light-skinned, you’re white-skinned…because your great-great-great-granddaddy came from Africa and you have a drop of his blood in you, you cannot be a part of our racial group.”
There’s only one group that got to decide that, because they were the majority and had power. In the same way, there’s one group that had the capacity throughout the nation’s history to pass housing laws that favored their racial group. I’m reading a fascinating book right now called Ghetto. It’s by an esteemed professor at Princeton. It goes into the various housing laws. He traces the idea of the ghetto. He’s trying to reclaim that word and redeem it.
He traces the ghetto from its beginnings in Italy under the Catholic Church and how they put the Jewish people in a ghetto, all throughout the history of the Jewish people and then into Nazi Germany, and then how that began to be used around inner cities through different laws that were created by realtors nationally, their organizations, and then even institutions to say, “Nope, if you’re this color, you can live between this block and this block and no farther.”
There’s only one group that had enough power to do that historically. Again, that’s a structural advantage. Or even being able to develop educational curriculum that emphasizes your racial group’s history and norms. Isn’t it interesting? We have Black History Month, which I’m thankful for, but there’s no “White History Month.” You have to ask, “Why not?” Not to say that there should be or shouldn’t be. I’m just saying to think about that.
Here’s a ground level where most of us live. You go into SuperTarget next time. If you’re in SuperTarget, especially you ladies, you sisters, you’ll notice in the hair-care section you have two or three rows, and then there’s about half of a half of a half of a half of a half of a row for ethnic hair-care products. Again, I don’t think Target is racist. That’s a structural advantage. You can go into Target and there’s a lot bigger selection for hair-care products for your hair. That is a structural advantage based on the fact that you’re the majority.
Or just having Band-Aids or superheroes or flesh-colored crayons that actually match the color of your flesh. That’s a structural advantage. Come on, man. Get KG a Band-Aid that matches his skin color. They do make those now. You think about the superheroes. It’s like with the princesses. When the Hulk turns from green, he goes back to white. They’re all white.
Can you imagine being in the brainstorming meeting of what we’re going to call that color? “Flesh.” I’m just guessing there wasn’t a person who had a different color of flesh in that meeting deciding that’s what we’re going to call it. Again, I’m not assuming you were in there. If you were, I’d love to hear about that meeting. These are just gifts to us as the majority that those in the minority don’t have. You don’t need to feel guilty, but we have to see it.
We’d do well to consider the advice from Nick Carraway’s dad. I don’t know if you remember Nick Carraway. He’s the narrator in The Great Gatsby. I read that book over the holidays. In the opening paragraph of The Great Gatsby, Carraway says, “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ’Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ’just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’” I think it’s wonderfully helpful advice, specifically in regard to race in our country and culture.
Besides merely acknowledging and recognizing our advantages, what else, as those in the majority, can we do to steward those gifts we’ve received in service of others? Well, I think it’s actually at the heart of this conversation about race that the elders of this church have led you into in recent years, and specific and nuanced answers to that question are not mine to give to you. That’s not what I’m here to do. That is a conversation for you and your elders to continue to walk through and think through together, not just on MLK Day but as a lifestyle of love.
I do want to say this in closing. To my black or brown brothers and sisters, I just want to encourage you. Do not grow weary of doing well. Keep sowing to the Spirit. Keep knowing and believing, even when you feel invisible and exhausted here as a minority, that the Lord sees you and is pleased with you and you are leading the way in this church in so many different regards to living out this lifestyle of love.
You’re modeling this. As you follow Jesus, as you lay aside your preferences and your perspective, as you consider others in this church more important than yourself, you’re leading us. So keep leading in humility and in faith.
My white brothers and sisters, again, all I’ve wanted to do for you is to help in your pursuit, as a church, of living a lifestyle of love and considering others more important than yourselves. Consider your racial heritage and identity. That’s all I would encourage you. Consider your whiteness so that you can understand it and, where appropriate, so you can identify with it or celebrate it or eschew it. I’d love for you to know, outside of just being white, are you Anglo-Saxon or are you not? When somebody calls you a WASP, how do you respond?
There are riches there in terms of your self-understanding and the history and the larger story God has brought you out of and into his marvelous light. That’s wonderful for you to understand. Then I would say understand your racial identity and heritage so you can recognize the advantages you have been given as a majority person in this culture we live in as a gift and so you can think through how to put those perspectives and preferences that have been shaped by your advantage into service for those who are not as advantaged as you.
Continue to think about that as you consider personally, as just a person in this church, and then also as a large, predominately white church how you, together, might continue to humbly and lovingly steward those advantages, as you challenge your perspectives and continue to lay aside your preferences in pursuit of a lifestyle where you’re living in a manner worthy of the gospel, generally but then specifically around racial harmony and justice.
Of course, all of this so that God’s love would be made visible. Isn’t that the point Paul talked about? He said in keeping in step with the Spirit of our Lord by laying down your lives, you’re shining like lights in the world. That’s what Matt said. You’re making God’s love visible. You’re showing our neighbors and each other, however dim, a glimpse of that coming day when Jesus, the one who uniquely laid down his life for his church, will be worshiped as Lord by that church that he laid it down to ransom, a church that is made up of every tribe and tongue and language.
That is the gospel. That is the hope our minds are set on, and that’s what motivates us forward into this lifestyle of love, particularly around the topic of race. It’s because Jesus is the one who has gone before us. “…Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself [of all of the advantages that were perfectly, uniquely, and righteously his]…” He emptied himself in a unique way. In human form he humbled himself.
“…by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself [even further] by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Amen.
Father, we thank you for our Lord. You’re a good, good Father who sent your loving, perfect Son, and, Jesus, you are a good elder Brother, and we love you, we worship you as Lord, and we pray now, even by your Spirit, would you teach us and help us to keep in step with your Spirit and to follow after the pattern you have set for us.
Teach us how to love one another. Teach us how to consider each other, especially those who are different than us, more important than ourselves. We don’t know how to do that well, we just confess. So even as we come now and remember and proclaim your death and resurrection to the Lord’s Supper, we pray you would, by your Spirit, be working on us to that end. We ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.