This sermon, offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin is built around the Gospel reading for the Seventh Sunday after Easter in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary.
You can find that reading here.
It’s glorious when it happens. Just ask any preacher you know. The light in their eye, the energy in their response will tell you that this is what makes all of the late nights, wrestling with difficult texts, struggling to find the right words… these are the moments that make it all worthwhile… when the sermon just seems to write itself. It’s almost like you just need to get out of the way. You keep your fingers on the keyboard or the pen in your hand and the words just flow through you onto the screen or the page. What’s really interesting though is when the sermon writes itself and you don’t even realize that is what’s happening….
Now I suppose that sounds a little strange so I want to explain what I mean but in order to do that I have to share a secret with you. Don’t tell Dorie I told you this but… those of us who work here in the office with Dorie get a little extra grace when it comes to turning in our article for The Crossroads. So while the official due date was well past I was sitting on my screen porch with my laptop yesterday feverishly working to crank out five articles!
Once I was done I turned my attention back to the sermon I had been wrestling with all week and the words from today’s Gospel reading that had so hooked me, that had me so enthralled.
In today’s reading from the Gospel of John Jesus says, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” Jesus says that he has given us given us God’s word and that the world will hate us because of that word. Jesus is sending us out to proclaim the Gospel; that we are all one. And he knows that we will face resistance and push back. That the truth that we proclaim will put is in jeopardy. And so Jesus prays that God will protect us. Jesus prays that we will be on and he and the Father are one.
Jesus understands that the greatest danger in the resistance and push back we will receive is that we will forget, that we will become divided one against the other, that we will become alienated one from another, that we will lose sight of that basic truth; that we are all one.
Sitting there on my screen porch I suddenly realized that I had already written the sermon I need to offer you today in one of the articles that I had written for The Crossroads. So as we join Jesus in asking that as we live out our vocation, proclaiming the Gospel, we never lose sight of the fact that we are all one I would like to read you the sermon that wrote itself yesterday morning without my even knowing it.
Addressing the Racial Disparities in Madison and Dane County
This has been a dramatic and provocative week in Madison, Wisconsin. After a two month investigation and deliberation District Attorney Ismael Ozanne announced that he would not file charges in the March 6th death of Tony Terrell Robinson. The conversations around this incident have been difficult and divisive. The rhetoric on both sides has been heated and at times extreme.
As we approached the DA’s decision it was clear that, no matter how he decided, people would be hurt, angry, and even afraid. That is one of the reasons that an historic coalition of faith leaders gathered at the Park Street offices of Madison area Urban Ministries on the morning of May 8th.
We came together to formulate a response to the pending announcement that would allow all members of our community to give voice to their anger, fear, frustration and even their rage. That voice, the expression of grief is key to the work of reconciliation. There is no moving forward, there is no healing, there is no opportunity to work for constructive change, when the natural grief and anger that accompanies an incident like this one is squashed, repressed, or treated as unimportant or invalid.
The faith leaders gathered at MUM’s offices that Friday morning: Baptists, Jews, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Unitarians, and Episcopalians were looking for ways to encourage and facilitate the peaceful expression of these difficult emotions so that we might once again come together to address the larger underlying issues that have brought our community to this flash point of anger and frustration.
It was just two days later that the District Attorney gave forty eight hours notice that we was prepared to announce his findings.
So on Tuesday, May 12th we, the clergy and congregations of this remarkable coalition, gathered at 1125 Williamson Street, outside the house where Tony Terrell Robinson was shot, to listen to D.A. Ozanne’s 2:30 p.m. announcement.
We prayed and we stood together in solidarity, a witness to the unity that we will need to create if we are going to effectively address the systemic racism that has divided our community.
We stayed there outside the house as Tony’s family gave a press conference at the Community Justice Center up the street. We watched as teenagers, just released from school, and Tony’s friends began to assemble to express their pain, anger, and determination that Tony’s death be the catalyst for change in our community.
Then at five o’clock, when Tony’s family had finished their press conference and joined us there in the street outside the house where Tony died, we began a peaceful march through the city of Madison to the courthouse and then on to Grace Episcopal Church where we prayed, sang, and reiterated our commitment to the kinds of change that might keep us from ever finding ourselves in this place again.
We did all of this knowing that churches all over Madison, including Saint Andrew’s, were holding their doors open, creating places of sanctuary, prayer and dialog, so that members of our parishes and our neighbors in the community would have a place to go and express their own pain, grief, anger and fear.
As I participated in that march I was proud of the young people around me for their determination to demonstrate peacefully; for their commitment to justice, peace, and change; and for their willingness to raise their voices in the long standing and time honored democratic tradition of this country, demanding that they be heard, that they be recognized, and that their concerns be addressed.
I was proud of Saint Andrew’s and our brothers and sisters across the faith communities of Madison for its willingness to hold its doors open, to offer sacred space to whomever needed it, ready to extend itself no matter the decision that the DA rendered.
And I am proud to be part of an historic coalition of faith leaders and communities here in Madison that is willing to reach out across denominational, theological, and doctrinal lines to come together for justice, peace, equity and fairness. Following are some excerpts from the letter that coalition published.
“On May 8th a diverse coalition of faith leaders gathered at the Park Street offices of Madison-area Urban Ministry to formulate a unified response to District Attorney Ismael Ozanne’s pending decision regarding the investigation into the death of Tony Terrell Robinson.
While there is some internal conflict in our communities regarding the specifics of this particular incident there is broad agreement about the need to address the unjust systems laid bare in the Race to Equity Report and the Report of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.”
“At our gathering on May the 8th members of our coalition with long histories in this city marveled at our coming together; Baptists, Jews, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Unitarians, Episcopalians. No one could remember a gathering of the faith community that might rival the unity, determination and commitment that we are experiencing in this moment.”
“We also stand together as leaders of a broad coalition of faith communities demanding that we, as a community, respond in this moment to the larger issues of racial disparity that plague our community. We have come together to demand justice and we are not going to stand down until these issues have been addressed.”
“As we move forward as a community, as a city, and as a county we will continue to raise our voices for transparency, accountability and justice. An historic coalition of the faith community has emerged out of the current tragedy and crisis and we fully intend to continue to pressure our elected and appointed officials to address the underlying structural racism that has brought us to this moment.”
In the weeks ahead I hope to be announcing an opportunity for Madison’s faith leaders to participate in an intensive Anti-Racism Training offered by the YWCA. I am also looking for dates to bring one of the YWCA trained facilitators to Saint Andrew’s to walk us through the Race to Equity Toolkit so that we might better understand and interpret that data and gain a deeper sense of urgency around the need to transform our city.
I want to close with an important and potentially difficult point. The death of Tony Terrell Robinson and the response of this community has brought together an incredible coalition of faith leaders and communities, it has galvanized members of this city around the need for change and reform, it has brought the dangers of the disparities and inequities described in the Race to Equity and Annie E. Casey Foundation Reports into sharp focus for all of us.
We must and we will continue to demand clarity, fairness and justice in the shooting of Tony Terrell Robinson. We need to respond with compassion and care to Tony’s family, friends and community. They are suffering in the throes of unimaginable grief.
And we must acknowledge the failures that have brought us to this moment, the neglect, the indifference, and the racism that have resulted in this painful and terrible tragedy. But there is a danger in focusing our attention to narrowly on the events of March 6th and the protests and counter protests that have dominated the media coverage since that date.
The words of the Coalition of Faith Leaders call us to a broader focus:
“While there is some internal conflict in our communities regarding the specifics of this particular incident there is broad agreement about the need to address the unjust systems laid bare in the Race to Equity Report and the Report of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.”
The only way to redeem this tragedy, to find grace and hope in the midst of this painful sequence of events, is to find within ourselves the courage and strength to look beyond Tony’s death; to continue to call for systemic change; to work to change the attitudes, fears, and prejudices that alienate us one from another; to change the policies, procedures, and politics that have created the worse disparities between whites and people of color in the nation right here in Madison, Wisconsin. We can and we must stand together as one and do this work even as we promise never to forget…
What’s his name?