Servants Know First

“Servants Know First” is the title of the first sermon I delivered this year.  (See VIDEO of it below.) The Gospel reading is from John 2:1-11, the wedding at Cana where Jesus performs his first miracle: turning the water into wine.  I start by talking about the relationships between the readings set out in the Common Lectionary used by so many churches, and on the importance of weddings and wedding imagery in the Bible, but then focus on servanthood. The servants at the wedding—not the wedding host, bride and groom, or any other special guests—were the very first to know that Jesus had performed a miracle.

Most of the time when servanthood comes up, I turn quickly to one of the most important books I ever used in my teaching career.  It’s a small booklet, actually, just 37 pages long: Robert Greenleaf’s The Servant as Leader.  It started the whole field of Servant Leadership Studies.  Greenleaf begins by talking about how he got the idea while reading Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East, which I suppose he could have.  But being a Quaker and knowing the Bible well, my students and I have almost always come to the conclusion that he begins with Hesse mainly to avoid getting Biblical on us right away.  The servant as leader is one of the major themes of Jesus’ ministry.  In Matthew 20 and Mark 9, for example, Jesus says that if you want to be great, if you want to lead, you must be a servant first.  In John 13: 12-15 is the famous scene where Jesus washes his disciples’ feet.  He’s their Rabbi, yes, he says, but if they don’t understand servanthood first—even the abject task of washing someone’s feet—then they don’t really understand who he is and what he’s come to do.

Servants must do many things, but one of the most critical is to listen, so it’s no accident that very early in The Servant as Leader Greenleaf talks about the importance and the hard discipline of truly listening.  It’s not just so we can really hear someone else in depth. Deep listening, he says, empowers others.  And this, I conclude, is one of our great hopes in God.  Because God delights in us, God listens to us, and this empowers us.  The Psalm prescribed by the Lectionary for this Sunday, the Second Sunday After Epiphany, is one of my favorites: Psalm 36.  But that the Creator is a deep listener puts me in mind of another great Psalm passage—from Psalm 8:  “O God our Ruler, how exalted is your Name in all the world! Out of the mouths of infants and children your majesty is praised above the heavens…When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have set in their courses, What is humankind that you should be mindful of them? The child of humankind that you should seek them out?”*

Everyone who preaches puts themselves in danger of being hypocritical because it’s often hard to live up to what you espouse.  Me, I’m not a great listener, let alone a deep listener, but it’s one of the major things I strive for.  It could be that someday I’ll get to be acceptable.

* This version is from The Inclusive Language Psalter.

OTHER SERMONS (most with VIDEO):  “Pentecost Means No ‘Supremacies,’” “Sacred Doing,” “It’s Not What You Know But Who You Know,” “Elijah: The Growth of a Prophet,” “Searching for Prophets,” “Three Things to Stop Saying,” “How Holy Was Jesus?” “Who Do You Stand With?” “Everything’s OK?” “The Quiet After Easter.”

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Our Abraham Moment?

The VIDEO below is of my friend Lennox Iton delivering a sermon on the last Sunday of Black History Month this year.  It also contains part of the scripture reading and part of a magnificent introduction from his pastor, Rev. Young-Mee Park, Hinsdale UMC, which Lennox parries beautifully.  I first met Lennox when we both volunteered to be on a committee of the Anti-Racism Task Force for the Northern Illinois Conference (NIC) of the United Methodist Church (UMC).  It was the Training and Curriculum Committee, which I came to chair, charged with creating a workshop on racial justice and equity that was more compact and more affordable than the ones available to the conference.  Because it is affordable and only four to five hours long, our hope is to roll it out to many, many churches in the conference—something we have already begun doing.  We call it “Becoming the Beloved Community: Talking About Race in America,” which you can read more about HERE.

The sermon below is a wonderful primer, succinct and precise, on how the Methodist church itself has been a bulwark of racism, contrary to John Wesley’s deep belief that racism contradicted Jesus’ life and teachings.  I’ve come to think of Lennox as the most serious and careful scholar of our group, though Lennox’s hook here is fairly pop cultural: the title song from Bob Dylan’s 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited.  (He notes, though, that Dylan has won a Nobel Prize for Literature!) The song’s first verse:

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where you want this killin’ done?”
God says. “Out on Highway 61.”

Lennox Iton conducting the closing ritual for the Becoming the Beloved Community workshop.

Is this our country’s Abraham moment, the time when we resolve to “kill” racism?  After the death of George Floyd, it seemed so. But it seemed so after so many other high-profile deaths, which sat upon thousands and thousands of other less public, and often so-little-noticed, deaths throughout our history.  I’ve written for decades that Americans would rather talk about anything—anything—but race.  For awhile after May 25, 2020, it seemed different, though.  It took less than a year for the backlash to set in.  Now many are trying to pass laws against talking about race and facing hard facts about American history at all. “No critical race theory” is one rallying cry, though 98% of those crying it have little to no idea what critical race theory actually is.  They dump everything about race into that pot, and one of their main excuses is that they don’t want their kids to “feel bad.”  In a world where there’s so much to feel bad about, and from which parents protect their children very little, race has once again been singled out as the one thing we must protect against.

As I listen to Lennox’s sermon I ask what’s the one thing that needs sacrificing that’s as precious as your child.  I think it is white supremacy.  This does not mean white people, please note, but the idea that whiteness is the standard and fount of all rightness and goodness.  In my talk “Theology and Race,” first given to a group of pastors wanting to engage racism more fully, I say that Christian theology itself has white supremacist leanings because of its insistence on identifying whiteness with purity and spiritual rightness and blackness with the opposites.  I come at this idea again in “How Holy Was Jesus?”  Not very.

But all analogies do break down if you push them far enough, and in the Abraham story it breaks down when you consider that as Abraham was about to bring his knife down on his son’s neck, God provided a substitute sacrifice, a ram caught up in nearby brambles.  Will there be such a “substitute” in the case of racism—more particularly white supremacy, which is the sustaining root of racism?  In the end, Abraham doesn’t really have to carry through.  I don’t think such a saving moment is in the cards for us.  And here’s the thing: if we finally carry through and deal seriously with white supremacy, we will all be freer. It will be a sacrifice well worth making.  Writing this now, just a few weeks from Easter, we think of Jesus, who really did carry through.  IF we do, there will be a resurrection, a rebirth we have needed for a long, long time.

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Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome

The five-minute VIDEO below shows Dr. Joy DeGruy explaining some of the central concepts of her idea of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS), a syndrome she locates as a species of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  You cannot heal from trauma until you recognize it, name it, and own that it’s happened to you.  This Black Americans, on the whole, have not been able to do until recently.  Consequently, many have passed down the trauma—the wounding—of slavery from generation to generation, not only through wounded behaviors, but, as we know from the science of epigenetics, through the very makeup of their DNA.  In her 2001 doctoral thesis, Joy DeGruy wrote of “sustained traumatic injury as a direct result of slavery” and the continuation of those traumatic injuries “caused by the larger society’s policies of inequality, racism, and oppression.”

When asked how she came up the idea of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, DeGruy replied, “It just started by living in this skin.” As a young woman, long before she had four degrees—three of them advanced—she was struck by the antagonism among Black people.  In particular, she noticed that to make an insult more potent Black people would begin by saying, “You Black…so and so.”  Even for Black people—especially for them—“Black” was not a word of pride but of utter insult.  She wondered why, and also noted that denigrating each other was a common way of life that went deeper than just joking around.  In fact, PTSS results in poor self-esteem, persistent feelings of anger, and the internalization of racist beliefs.  Here, briefly sketched, is my favorite example she gives of how this works in everyday life.

A white mother and son and a black mother and son are talking, and the black mother congratulates the white mother on her son’s achievements. The white mother beams and compliments her son profusely, then realizes that the black mother’s son has outachieved her son. She notes this enthusiastically, but the black mother, instead of complimenting her son with equal enthusiasm, says, “Well, he’s got this and that problem and doesn’t do this or that very well.” Where does this come from? “Why,” asks DeGruy, “can’t she simply say, ‘Thank you,’ and allow both herself and her son to enjoy the affirmation? Why the denigration? It’s a legacy passed down from slavery.  If an enslaving “master” complimented an enslaved mother on her son, what would that enslaved mother say to, hopefully, keep her son from being taken from her, even being sold away because he was such an outstanding commodity for the enslaver?

Your spouses and children are sold away, your mothers and sisters raped, your husbands and sons also tortured—you see all this, suffer the deepest traumas, but aren’t given any help to heal, maybe are even forbidden to speak of it.  “Then people say it’s our culture,” says DeGruy.  “Far be it for us to pathologize Black culture.  I think we’re a miracle.  We’ve endured and accomplished all we’ve accomplished with no help, not even the ability to have these conversations.” The distinction between pathologizing “their culture” and recognizing the results of trauma are crucial.  While Black culture has certainly been injured by untreated trauma, the extent to which it has risen above those injuries to create joy, innovation, spiritual depth, and moral character is astonishing. Black culture largely defines many of the positive aspects of American culture, especially to the world outside the U.S.  In the introduction to my book Black Writing from Chicago, I wrote, “Black culture has contributed in incredible disproportion to what makes the United States so distinctive culturally, politically, and spiritually.  It has made the United States what it is to such an extent that every American could be said to be one-third Black at the very least.” I’m speaking culturally, and the “one-third” is more provocative than precise, but the statement isn’t mere hyperbole.  And, without excusing any behaviors, it would bring the U.S. closer to living up to its own highest ideals of freedom and equality if we moved from pathologizing Black culture to recognizing and owning the injuries caused by the traumas of racism—both in the terrible past and terrible present.

This post is part of a series of articles related to ideas used in the Becoming the Beloved Community workshop. The series’ LEAD POST contains a complete list of articles.  The full video excerpted below is on YouTube.  Outside of her own fairly recently established YouTube channel, Dr. DeGruy says she herself has never posted any of the many versions of and interviews about Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome you can find on YouTube.  You may also be interested in visiting Dr. DeGruy’s website.

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