The Rt. Rev. Frank Logue preached this sermon on June 3, 2020, for a livestream Evening Prayer liturgy from the Diocese of Georgia.
I want to speak this evening from my heart about matters I would rather not disclose in my first week as Bishop of Georgia. But with protests are raging around the country this week following the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, we all could use to let some of our own stuff surfaces and let God work on it. I want to be vulnerable with you for a few minutes and share something of my story.
I grew up saying that my family never owned slaves, so racial unrest is not my problem. I have come to see this quite differently over time. But the truth is whether you think issues of racism is your problem or not, our house is on fire and we are all going to have to work together. I share not to make anyone feel bad, but because this is the best way I know to name how Jesus can bring the reconciliation we all need.
I was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1963. It was a divided city in a fractured time and while I did not understand, that context is the one in which I came to learn about race, without even knowing I was being taught. I am old enough to recall seeing water fountains and bathrooms marked “colored” and I never wondered about why that was so. Just as I never wondered why I started school at a Methodist Church when my grandmother ran the school lunchroom at a nearby public school.
I was taught to use the word colored and never heard my parents saying racial epithets, though that was all around. But my dad did buy and play for us Reb Rebel Records, a racist record label that is best not looked up by those who haven’t heard of it. They were the sort of thing one would find at a Klan Rally and other white supremacist gatherings. I think my father thought they were funny. I don’t know. They were horrifying. They were part of my childhood. I never asked him about the records or why he played them for us. I just know that embedded in my childhood were messages of not sharing pools with colored children and I learned that there was a taint, a stain that I was to avoid. And it would take many years before I ever examined the implicit messages I received.
I came to see that the theological truth that every human is a child of God and that our differences are a gift, and no one is cursed. But by the time I considered and rejected the underlying premise that different ethnicities make some people inherently better than others, I had a lot of words, phrases, jokes, and songs implanted in my mind. The ideas of race that had been hard-wired into me were in the way if I wanted to love my neighbor as myself. They were separating me from God. And that my friends is sin. Racism was an important founding sin for this nation as we built great cities on the backs of enslaved workers and to do enslave people, the enslaver needed the enslaved to be inferior. Otherwise, how could we treat equals so cruelly?
In our reading from the Habakkuk, the Prophet cries out, “Alas for you who build a town by bloodshed, and found a city on iniquity!” That strikes home in Savannah, which was built on the rising price of and market for cotton. It is well documented that I was consecrated Bishop of Georgia in a church paid for at least in large part by money made from the slave trade and from cotton. The seal of the Diocese on my ring was the personal seal of our first bishop, whose wealth came from generations of enslaved workers. We have a constant reminder in our midst of how painfully wrong people of goodwill can be when they benefit from getting the Gospel wrong. We can also work to get it right. The actual ring was worn by Bishop Stuart as he championed integration in the 1950s and received death threats for it.
Habakkuk is one of those books of the Bible you didn’t get as a child in Sunday Schol. He is what you get when you cross a more traditional prophet like Amos or Isaiah with the not-afraid-to-complain-about-God-to-God’s-face character of Job. Like Amos or Isaiah, Habakkuk is righteously indignant about the moral decay of the world in which he lives. Habakkuk looks at the utter unfairness and sometimes downright evilness he sees all around him and he cries out to God with words that sound like they come from one of David’s Psalms of lament. The prophet says,
“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous—therefore judgment comes forth perverted.”
Habakkuk’s cry seems so very like cries rising in our own nation this week. We were reeling from the COVID-19 crisis and in the midst of that rising unrest at restrictions, three more killings added new names to the list of black and brown people who have been killed while doing things that would not put my life in danger. We should not be surprised when injustice repeats in predictable ways that cries of How long? can take some past to the breaking point.
If you were to read further in Habakkuk, you would learn of a greater vision of justice still coming. We have to wait for true justice. In the meantime, the righteous are to live by faith. But the translation faith is not completely right. If you look it up in a New International Version or New Revised Standard Version of the Bible you’ll see a text note suggesting faithfulness as another translation. Faith is an agreement to a belief. Faithfulness is the practice of being faithful. More than just head knowledge, faithfulness comes with action. God tells Habakkuk that while we await God’s justice, we are to put the love of God into action against the injustice we see. We certainly can do this with outward action, but I have to tell you that I have learned to begin with the injustice I find in my own heart.
There is an image I have of the work I need to do and it is one close to home for me, as it is a vine in my own backyard. My wife, Victoria, and I bought a lovely 1925 bungalow in 2014. Everything inside was perfect. The yard was another story. The family and then the couple that lived there for the forty years took less and less care of the yard as they aged.
Trees grew close to the house and the garage and vines grew everywhere. The thick thorny vines were the worst. The roots had likely grown stronger over the years as the trees and vines put more energy into root systems as the plants got cut off above ground.
In my struggle, I soon found that one can’t just cut the vine. That seems to make the plant happy, or at least no angrier than the grass when it gets cut. You have to dig up the roots. For a single vine, I usually have to dig six inches deep in an area two to four feet out. Underground I find interconnected sweet potato-like tubers. When I dig up the roots, if I don’t get all of it, the root will grow back. Like a sweet potato coming back from a smaller piece potato planted in the garden, so the vines can regenerate from a part of its root system left in the fertile soil. I spent the first several years-worth of Mondays off from work, dirty, covered with sweat, and with what looks like a bushel of sweet potatoes out by the road for the City to pick up.
When I look at those vines, I realize that stopping sinful actions without addressing the roots of the sin, won’t bring healing. For the soil within me is fertile for sin. If I just cut off the vine, without working to remove the roots, the sin remains, growing and biding its time.
If you were to ask me if I am a racist, I would swear that I don’t have a racist fiber in my being and I want to mean it. I think I have rooted this out of my being and then through my reaction to some event, I recognize my response as arising out of those messages planted deep inside. How is that still part of who I am? Once conscious of my response, I look to root out more of the messages I took in. This isn’t just about issues of race.
We see something like this in 12 Step Programs that begin with someone admitting that he or she is powerless against their addiction and then turning over the problem to a Higher Power. We know the truth of this and that the Higher Power is Jesus. Even with the Holy Trinity on our side, the struggle is one that is fought day by day, even hour by hour. The roots of the addiction grow so deep and get so entangled in our very core, that this is no easy fight.
I have been on a years-long project to rewire my thinking. Reading books has opened my eyes to see the world through others. I make sure that at least half of the books I read are by persons of color, women, and people living in very different cultures. When not in a pandemic that has made it hard to concentrate, I average a book a week. That steady diet of seeing the world through the eyes of writers like the theologian Kelly Brown Douglas or the searing words of Ta-Nehisi Coates has helped me see the world anew. Mostly, they have given me new ears through which to hear scripture and new eyes to see injustice around me.
There is so much more that could and should be said about the specific issues in the three killings that caused anger to boil over anew. We must dismantle the system that offers unequal safety and fails too often to render justice. But before I was ready to read Kelly Brown Douglas’ book Stand Your Ground and hear her reflecting on being a black mother in a world far more dangerous for her children than for my girl, I needed to start with the roots of what was implanted in me.
I don’t know what the struggle is for you. But I know each of us has roots within us that we have left below the surface. We have worked on the outer facade, yet inside the sin remains. In Christ, we have a way forward, for Jesus is the Good Gardener. This means that our connection to God can give us the safe space to do that inner work, to weed out the nasty within that we try to keep hidden. Don’t worry about what may be revealed as we look within for God already knows the content of your heart and loves you. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need to work on some more weeding.
God gave Habakkuk the answer, the righteous are to live by faithfulness. And so day by day I read the Bible and pray. Since Ahmaud Arbery’s killing, I have prayed not just for his family, but also for the father and son who killed him as well as for the man who recorded the video and his family. And Praying for them all daily has become significant to me. Prayer is what I can do. Praying for all involved is what faithfulness looks like for me as I genuinely want Jesus to take the evil done and weave together for the good.
Somehow, despite the fact that I will always need to root out sin from within, God still gives me the gift of his presence and the power in that work. Grace abounds as the work within me is the work of the Holy Spirit, not something I have to do by force of my own will. For God is both active in the world and present in our hearts. This doesn’t mean we don’t have a role to play in bringing more of the reconciliation for which all creation longs. God’s ongoing action means that the work is not ours alone, and this is Good News in a troubled and troubling week. Amen.