Let’s Be Fair: a Sermon from Babette Chatman

The following is a timely, challenging, wonderful sermon given by Babette Chatman at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. Babette has been an important voice in my life for around 15 years. I’m so grateful for her, for her courage, for her honesty, and leadership, especially around challenging ideas and during difficult moments. These past few weeks have been no exception. Go ahead and click “play” on the audio below, and read along.


So, it’s been a really good week compared to last week, Amen?

We’re preparing to go to the National Youth Gathering, which is in Detroit, which is exciting for me because it’s my hometown (and Kelly’s hometown) but I also have some anxiety because it is my hometown and oftentimes, things that happen in Detroit, I feel like reflect back on a Detroit-er, amen? But I was thinking back to the first youth gathering I went to with Redeemer in 2003, and we were going to Atlanta. I was thinking about that trip when I was looking at the Gospel text, because we had three young men who were all at least 6 feet tall; there was JD, William, and Jordan. And I remember there were about 30,000 kids on the trip– and that was just the children. And so I told the guys that they were “point.” They would lead us, and push through the crowd. And if I had ahold of at least one of their shirts, then we all went through. As long as I had somebody’s shirt. And when it got really, really tight, whoever’s shirt I had would reach back and grab my wrist, and they made sure that we got through the crowd. And I was thinking about that when I was thinking about [this week’s text] because the text says that the crowd was all around Jesus, and so I can imagine what [the woman from the gospel] had to get through to touch Jesus. I also thought that she said she had heard about Jesus. She heard the testimony.

But I want to talk about the Corinthians text, first. The apostle Paul said, “your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.” (2 Cor 8:14)

A fair balance.

Is America fair?

Today, we’re going to have a dialogue, it’s not going to be a monologue. We’re going to talk to each other. Because that is what we have been urged to do. Is America fair, church? Hmm…

Is it fair that someone who makes $20,000 a year would need to make $36,000 a year to afford a 2-bedroom home? Is that fair? Is it fair that if they rented a $900 a month 2-bedroom 1-bathroom condo would take 52% of their income? Is that fair?

Well, the apostle Paul tells us that the wealthy should share– to be generous. He actually is telling the people in Corinth– “as you excel in your faith, as you excel in your speech, as you excel in your knowledge, as you excel in your utmost eagerness, and even your love fellowship” (2 Cor 8:7)– and Redeemer, we’ve got love fellowship down to a science; when we share the peace, we excel in that. But as a nation, are we being fair?

So now, back to the Gospel.

Here’s this woman who’s had a hemorrhage for 12 years. For 12 years, she went to physicians. Probably some of the best. Paid them, no help. But– and Mark didn’t give her a name; she’s another what’s-her-name— she is mentioned in the Gospel because of her faith. She had enough faith to believe the testimony that if she just touched Jesus’ dirty clothes– and he probably was dirty— “if I just touch it, I’ll be healed.” That is faith, right? Jairus had faith, right? Jairus had faith that if Jesus just touched his daughter, she would be well.

So what if she didn’t believe the testimony? What if she looked at the crowds and thought, “I hate this. I hate my life, I hate that I’ve spent all this money on these doctors that didn’t make me well, I hate that I’m a woman with no name and value!” And then what if she decided to go to the synagogue where Jairus works– and Jairus probably wasn’t there, because he was busy taking care of his daughter; he probably had enough privilege to take a day off of work. And he probably even had health care, even though Jesus was the best physician… BUT we won’t talk about that. And then, what happens if she walks in that synagogue and she sees Clemente [Pinckney], and she sees Daniel [Simmons Sr.] working. And she sees Myra [Thompson] and Cynthia [Hurd], right, and Tywanza [Sanders] worshiping. And what if she was so full of hate, that she starts saying, “I’m blaming them.”

What if she had not believed the testimony?

She would have taken a different route, just like Dylann. We’ve got to talk about Dylann, church, I’ll tell you what.

Dylann was baptized in the ELCA church. Dylann is just as much a part of us as I am, and as you are, because in that baptism we are all joined together. I didn’t want to like Dylann, I wanted to blame him. […] We are a blessed church, because we talk to each other. We are a blessed church because we have committed to worshiping together, black and white. We are a blessed church because we are not afraid of difficult conversations. I am not afraid of having a racism, structural evil conversation with Jedahlia. You know why? Because Jediahlia is African-American. I am not afraid of having that conversation with Nate, with Nelly, Mike, Leon, and you know why? Because they’re African-American. I’m not afraid of having that conversation with any of you, and you know why? Because you know me, and you know that I love you enough to care enough to tell you the truth, and to go deep. Y’all with me, church?

We can talk to each other.

I’ve heard people say that you can’t have a political conversation in the sanctuary, but Jesus did it. And if it’s good enough for Jesus to challenge the oppressor, and if it’s good enough for Jesus to talk about structural evil, then that’s what’s up. And I’m not talking about bigotry, and I’m not talking about prejudice. I’m talking about the structure of evil that says that somebody is better based on the color of their skin. That’s not true, and it was never true.

I was having a conversation with a friend from high school, and he told me that he never went fishing on the Detroit River, because he didn’t know that a black person could stand at the shores. Where’d he learn that from? He said he didn’t know that black people could go into wealthy, suburban areas. And in that conversation, I said that I never felt that way… but I’m a Lutheran. Most of my congregation members lived in those same suburbs that he didn’t think he could go to! So, his reality was not my reality, right? I’m a Lutheran, so my baptism connects me to Dylann. My baptism connects me to those two pastors who were trained in the ELCA church, y’all with me here??

Church, this is a good time to be a Lutheran, because we get to have the conversation. We get to try to be forerunners once again to start the revolution. Because at some point, Jesus is going to hold us all accountable. At some point, we’re going to be forced to talk with the woman I was sitting across from at the nail shop, and I did not want to engage in a conversation. I did not want to have a conversation. In my mind, I was having a conversation that went like this [pointing vertically to God] while she was having a conversation like this [pointing horizontally between she and the other woman]. I did not want to expose myself; I didn’t want to have to say “I’m a Lutheran, and this is our theology.”

But as Lutherans, we do have a theology. And it’s based on grace.

What Paul’s talking about: generosity, fairness? That’s grace. Grace ain’t fair, right? Grace. Ain’t. Fair. And why isn’t grace fair? Because grace says it doesn’t matter how much I dislike you– I can’t say that Jesus isn’t going to bless you, right? Grace ain’t fair. It’s radical. God is radical. God is generous. God made up his mind a long time ago that he’s going to love you despite your self; God said he’s going to love me.

And if you think God doesn’t love Dylann, then you’d better go look in the mirror! Search yourself!

I think somebody dropped the ball for Dylann. I think somebody manipulated Dylann. And there are other Dylanns. Dylann has 4 million dollars waiting for his legal defense [Editor’s note: this, it turns out, was an online hoax. But the point remains valid]. 4 million dollars. Somebody put their money where their mouth is. But where are their mouths? And what are they saying? If you’re willing to put 4 million dollars together to defend this young man’s actions, it’s okay– it’s okay if this young man has 4 million dollars; all I’m saying is that he’s not alone.

There are other people out there who think like he do. And that’s why God created you, and that’s why God created me. Because sometimes, all it takes is one conversation. And if it don’t, it don’t mean we stop talking, right? Cuz grace ain’t fair. We are all baptized Lutherans, and that means that we are all joined to each other in our baptisms.  Jesus died for us all, and that’s one of the most generous sacrifices you can make, right? So that we can have love, and so that we can have authentic conversations and we can be real about the structural evil– and I’m not talking about whether or not you like blacks or whites– I’m talking about that little myth that makes it seem like this is right based on the color of your skin.

But we can have conversations about race. And if you disagree with me, that’s fine; it doesn’t change anything because I’m under the same grace that you are. I’m figuring this out every day, just like Dylann should have been figuring it out. So I’m hoping that everybody is willing to go deeper in their relationships to have an authentic conversation about race. We have to have it. And we have to have it with love. And we have to trust each other. You really have to trust that I love you enough to go deeper so that we, too, can reach in there and touch the hem of Jesus’ garment.

I wanna share this, because the bishop of our denomination basically asked us to. So in obedience to our bishop, Bishop Eaton, she said that she urges that each of us, and all of us need to examine our church, our community, and ourselves. We need to be honest about the reality of racism within us and around us. We need to talk, and we need to listen, but we also need to act. No stereotype or racial slur is justified. Speak up about and against iniquity. Look with newly opened eyes at the many subtle and overt ways that we and our communities see people of color as being of less worth. And above all– pray for insight, for forgiveness, and for courage.

And quoting President Obama, the president of these United States, “God doesn’t want us to stop there.”

Amen.

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