Preaching on Racial Reconciliation
Preaching on race is necessary if we are to preach the whole counsel of God.
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The historical narrative of racism in the city of Memphis is a pictorial tale. Head west on one of our major arteries, on a street called Poplar, and a few blocks from downtown is Nathan Bedford Forrest Park, a park in honor to a man who served as the Grand Wizard of the KKK, and was one of the largest slave owners in the midsouth. Drive a little further west and you'll run into Confederate Park, a park that commemorates the efforts of the South to maintain her way of living, a living that was built on the backs of my forefathers. Turn left on Front street headed south and you'll run into the backside of the National Civil Rights Museum, what was once the old Lorraine Motel, the place where Dr. Martin Luther King was slain. The museum ends across the street at the boarding house where James Earl Ray assassinated the Civil Rights leader. Stand in Mason Temple and you can still feel the echoes of Dr. King's last sermon, a message of hope and inspiration as he beckoned black folk to get to the mountaintop. Look out at the great Pyramid that sits on the Mississippi River and you can remember large worship services in the 1990's where thousands from two churches—one black, one white—gathered to celebrate God together. Drive down Central headed east and look to your right and there is the Liberty Bowl, a place that became a rallying point for men during the Promise Keepers movement. It was at the Liberty Bowl where tens of thousands of white and black were challenged to be racially reconciled with one another.
More than mere architecture, these images tell the story of Memphis' bout with racism. Some landmarks narrate our struggle to live divided, others a clarion call to live united. Decades since King's death, and Promise Keeper's challenge, Memphis still stands divided. Our segregation is more of the silent, indifferent variety. If you're black in Memphis the statistics say you're receiving a less than desirable education and are more likely to live below the poverty line. Venture far enough down this path and you'll end up at 201 Poplar (our local jail), if not in an early grave. If you're white in Memphis, you have a better chance to make more money, live in better neighborhoods, and send your kids to great schools. Sure the "White's Only" signs have been taken down from public restrooms and water fountains, but in 2013 you might as well hang up "White's Mainly" signs over private schools and desirable neighborhoods.
Lest you think I'm bitter or at best disenchanted, I'm not. I love Memphis, and I feel deeply that we are at the best moment in the history of our city. Not only are the opportunities for minorities to thrive in this city unprecedented, but we are on the cusp of seeing King's vision for equality and community fulfilled. How else do you explain a multi-ethnic church in Memphis, Tennessee composed of several thousand people that's sixty-five percent white, and thirty-five percent African American? I am overwhelmed that God has allowed me to be a part of what he's doing through Fellowship Memphis.
Exegete Scripture and culture.
As I stand every Sunday at Fellowship Memphis to proclaim God's Word I am reminded that the labor of preaching demands that the preacher keeps one eye on the text, and the other on the culture. I must exegete the Scripture and the culture at the same time. It is not enough to know your Hebrew or Greek, one must also know his community and people. Yes, the responsible homiletician must figure out what the text means, but we can never stop there; we must also ask what does it mean to me and my community, or in my case, the Memphian? To preach effectively one must preach to the idols of a specific locale, like Paul did on Mars Hill in Athens (Acts 17). This not only means that I have to address the issue of race in Memphis, but to preach anywhere in America where historically our great communal sin has been racism and its aftershocks, we must continue to deal with this "altar to an unknown God."
Race isn't biological; it's a social construct. It's fabricated but real, like polyester. It's manmade. The prejudices and stereotypes that we have of one another will not be dismantled until we get to know one another. So as I set out to nudge our body at Fellowship Memphis to experience community across ethnic lines with one another, I knew that I had to challenge them to do so relationally, and not just to attend another event. Like an old wound, you can't expect to pick at people's scabs of indifference, stereotypes, and subtle racism without push back. Of all the themes I preach throughout the year, I can count on a full inbox with questions and resistance whenever I talk about America's wound of racism.
Focus on the Cross.
Preaching on race is necessary if we are to preach the whole counsel of God. As I've pleaded with young church planters who aspire to lead multi-ethnic ministries, race must never be the epicenter of your preaching, instead it is to be the gospel. I am not a sociologist. I am a preacher of the Word of God. What saves people isn't becoming more racially inclusive or sensitive; it's the cross of Christ. Preacher, whenever you become louder on matters of race than the gospel you have just crafted an idol, and have blunted the force and effectiveness of the cross. Preach Christ. But when we preach about the Great Reconciler we cannot help but talk about race from time to time.
Over the last ten years of preaching at Fellowship Memphis I have learned four lessons that have served me well when addressing the subject of race. One is that the preacher who dares to talk about race needs to be courageous. The wound of racism is incredibly sensitive and will incite deep emotions among everyone involved. People will resist and even leave. Feelings will be hurt no matter how gently you try to say things. Preaching is not a popularity contest, and you must go to war with your desire to be liked, affirmed and applauded. God's Word to Joshua is a needed reminder to all preachers, and especially those who dare to talk about race: "Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go" (Josh.1:9).
Paul told the Ephesians that he had preached the whole counsel of God. His preaching ministry covered it all. If it's in the Word our responsibility as preachers is to proclaim it, even if we or our people may not like it. How can one preach Christ without infringing on matters of race? Did not Christ sit with the Samaritan woman and engage the Canaanite woman? Did not Christ die for the world? And did not Jesus Christ command that we are to make disciples of all nations? How can I preach the book of Acts without addressing Paul's intentional movements to engage both Jew and Gentile in places like the local synagogue and Mars Hill? Can I really say I'm a preacher of the whole counsel of God and never deal with the Abrahamic Covenant that promises blessings on the whole world, or Ephesians 2 which talks clearly about Christ dismantling the dividing wall of hostility so that Jew and Gentile can worship together? These examples provide just a sampling of the many times in the Scriptures where race is talked about. So when a frustrated member asks me why I talk about race, my answer is always the same: Because God does.
John said that when he saw Jesus, he saw a man full of grace and truth (John 1:14). Every preacher has their natural bent. Some tend to be so gracious that they tend to compromise the truth, while others are full of condemnation that they tell the truth with no grace. The task of preaching is to lean on the Spirit of God and hold grace and truth in tension. As a result, people we will become people like Jesus—full of grace and truth (John 1:18). We need this grace-truth balance in all of our sermons, but we especially need it when we talk about race.
Racism in America was in the works before our country even existed, so one sermon won't dismantle it. When Moses caught a glimpse of God's essential character in Exodus 34, God proclaimed that he was "merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness" (Ex. 34:6). This description of the merciful and gracious God would be repeated numerous times throughout the Old Testament. God wanted his people to know that he would remain patient even when they were stiff-necked and rebellious children. God is a patient God. Should not our preaching be marked with patience as well? My own journey with God demands patience on my part with others, for he has been nothing short of patient with me. I have a hunch that God's been the same with you. Be patient, preacher. Be patient.
So we plod along here in Memphis, comprehensively, courageously, graciously and patiently nudging people through the proclamation of the Word of God to dismantle the idols of racism in our hearts and city, idols we literally see as we travel around town. There's one more architectural venue that we have to add to Memphis' narrative for our journey into reconciliation to be complete—the home. Until we can sit across the table and get to know the other over great food and drink; until our conversations are filled with laughter and transparency, truth and grace, pain and joy; until we are willing to come to the table in forgiveness and truth- telling, Memphis will not "get to the mountaintop,"
This is why I preached a recent series on race at our church that we simply entitled, "One Hundred Homes." Like Jesus in the gospels, the home and the dinner table must become a major venue in experiencing the kingdom here on earth. So I labored and pleaded with the people to move from places like the Pyramid and Liberty Bowl that held great but short-lived reconciliation events, to their own dinner tables that have the power to experience the kingdom here on earth. It's at the dinner tables where we experience the coming together of blacks and whites, Asians and Latino's and a host of others in a multi-ethnic community of faith that foreshadows our coming eternal reality. I pray our people take our challenge, and that a new narrative in Memphis will be written.
Bryan Loritts is the Lead Pastor of Abundant Life Church in Silicon Valley, California and the editor of Letters to a Birmingham Jail (Moody Publishers, April 2014) .