The following is a direct transcript of the sermon that was preached by Joel Greenwood on June 7 at SMCC’s physical services, dealing with pointing out and beginning to open the conversation about racism in our own church context.
The resource list that is mentioned in this transcript can be found at the bottom of this page.
The Can Opener
By Joel Greenwood
I wrote a sermon for today that’s different than what I’m going to share this morning. For anyone who watches our online service this morning, they’ll be hearing a continuation of last week’s sermon, going through week 3 of the life of Joseph. You can hear that one if you want after this morning. We filmed it and put the service together a few days ago, but since then, there’s been a tipping point in my heart, to finally put words to an issue for which we’ve too long been silent. It’s clear that we, that I, should have spoken up to the racial injustice around us long before now, but it is my hope that we will earnestly seek forgiveness for our past ignorance as we repent and move forward as a church committed to seeing God’s children be treated fairly, regardless of who they are.
I am not going to speak from a place of the anger or disappointment that beg me to give them public voice. I am aware that this may be one of the first or even the first time the topic of race is spoken on directly here at SMCC. I don’t know if I will do justice to the issue at hand, as I don’t have nearly enough knowledge on the issue of racism within the church as I should. But what I will do this morning is speak from my heart, and from God’s Word. If I could ask you ahead of time to do anything in particular right now, it would be to make the decision in this moment to listen with an open heart. Listen before you speak. And, if you are truly committed to bringing about the change that God wants in this world, continue listening after the service, when you have left and are headed back home.
I want to share with you a time I thought I wasn’t racist. It was 2016. I was a senior in Bible College, and I was just about to graduate with a degree in theology and in preaching. A few months prior to graduation, I made a new friend. Now, I had made a lot of friends before this particular one, but the thing that was different about this friend was that I had met him on the internet. Our entire friendship had consisted of some shared interests, but it had also been limited to only text, sending messages back and forth. It’s kind of creepy to meet someone you don’t know in real life on the internet, and then to just start sending them a ton of personal information about yourself, so neither of us did that. But I got to know him over a few months, and I greatly enjoyed having conversations with him. Over time, I started sharing information about myself. I shared that I was about to graduate college, I was working part-time for a church, and I was a Christian. He, on the other hand, wasn’t so forward with similar details about himself. It went on like this for another couple of months, that I would share more about me, and he would be relatively quiet about his personal life. Until one day, I received a message that said something along the lines of, â€œI need to share some information with you, but I’m afraid that it will forever change the way you see me, and I’m afraid it will affect our friendship.â€ I told him that nothing was wrong, that I would be his friend regardless, and I said nice things to him, but on the inside, I worried. I tried to think of what he could be talking about, when the message came in. To summarize, he basically said, â€œI want you to know that I’m a Palestinian Muslim. I am a devout Muslim at that, and that’s the exact opposite of who you are, a white, American Christian.â€ He continued and said, â€œI know that if you watch the news, or read a newspaper or get on social media, then you’ve got a lot of reasons to be angry and scared of me, and it’s possible that you hate me, even.â€ And then he said that if this was going to affect our friendship moving forward, he would understand.
Now, those messages came in at about 7pm that evening. If you had asked me at 6pm if I was racist, or even if I loved all people equally, I would have confidently told you that you were out of your mind for even asking. I would have probably been offended, and even a little angry at the question. Of course I love all people equally, and I’ve got no room for fear or hatred of anyone! However, if you would have asked me that same question at 7:15, the answer would have been much less confident. I went to bed that night with my head spinning. Everything that I knew had been flipped upside down, because here was this person, whom I knew on paper, by his identity, to be my enemy, but whom I had also spent months talking to and sharing my life with. I loved our conversations, I loved what he had to say, and I had learned to love him as a close friend. I responded that evening and told him that absolutely, that I would still love him as my friend, and that I hoped our friendship would continue as if nothing changed, but even he could sense the hesitation of discomfort in my typed words.
I was uncomfortable, and here’s why. For the first time in my life, I had to admit to my own self that I wasn’t perfect, that there was indeed something that needed changing in my belief system. I had always said that I loved all people, but I quickly learned that applying that statement was a different story. I had to admit that my love for all people wasn’t as simple as “I said it, so it’s true.” And moving forward from that evening, I had to choose whether I would listen to what the world told me about this guy, or if I would fight the message of fear and anger. The thing is, once I got to know the individual, his identity became irrelevant. This initial struggle, of getting to know him as an individual, yielded a strong friendship that continues today.
I spoke to him this weekend about the things that I felt, and how difficult it had been for me to really learn to truly love him as a fellow human being, and how it took time and learning on my end. He gave me permission to share this story, and as he did, I couldn’t help but to think of Philippians 2. In it, we see this poem of Christ entering into humanity, God taking on flesh, and it made sense. God loved us, and he loved us so much that he was willing not to see us from a distance, but to enter into the exact narrative of humans, to walk alongside us, and to be part of us. He didn’t simply tell us he loved us, and then stay at a distance and do his thing. God entered directly into the human narrative, he showed his love by living among us, by truly listening to us and getting to know us individually, one by one knocking down the barriers that had been set up by those very humans. He didn’t say he loved prostitutes; spent time with them. He didn’t say he loved the sick; he healed them. He didn’t say he loved his enemies; he washed their feet.
We are so quick to say we don’t have any issues with race, that of course we love all people easily. And I can’t speak for you, but I can speak for myself when I say that it’s a whole lot easier to simply say that statement than it is to act on it, and to truly do something about it. Things change when we spend our lives saying we love everyone equally, but we turn on our tv and see protests in Minneapolis, Washington, New York, and L.A., and suddenly hate fills our hearts. We meet with someone before or after church and talk about how much we love our families, and in the same conversation we bring up the news, and share our opinions of how evil “those people,” are. We immediately forget the individual, and we focus our hate to whatever upsets us. We do the opposite of what Christ did. The truth is that, as some of us begin opening the conversation about race for the first time in our church lives, that the devil is hard at work. Satan is begging you right now, to take your finger, to point it away from yourself, and onto the next issue of blame that scrolls down your social media feed or across the news screen. He’s begging you to hear the stories of the countless black men and women whose lives were lost to the authority that should protect them, and to respond with blind anger and to instantly judge them without knowing their full stories. He’s begging you to agree that all democrats, all rioters, all Muslims, all Mexicans, and yes, even all black people, are against you. He’s begging you to believe this because he knows that this is what will do it. If he can get you to stay angry and to refuse to listen, if he can convince you that you’ve never for a moment had an issue with race or have been unloving toward anyone, if he can convince you that this is all someone else’s problem and there’s nothing for you to do and that we would do best if we just move on and pretend the problem doesn’t exist, then he will succeed in tearing down the church. Right now, the scoreboard is in his favor.
And do you want to know who has the power to change that score? It’s not you. It’s the Holy Spirit within you. The Holy Spirit that is pointing to injustice and racism and division and saying, ”This can’t go on any longer, and only through God’s presence within you can you bring about change and make things right.” Only with the Holy Spirit within us can we truly come to a place of repentance, to a place of listening, and to a place of unified love. Our black brothers and sisters in America are currently crying out for justice. Meanwhile, we claim to serve a God who, according to Micah 6, requires that we seek justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with him. If we’re going to claim to serve that God, then the absolute least we can do in response to the racial injustice around is is to approach it with the repentance, and listening, and the unified love God gives us through his Spirit.
The good news is that a lot of Christians are, for the first time, asking what we can do to make a change. It may be difficult to see things immediately around us that need changing. So today, I would ask you to consider making the choice to do something. Here are some things that we can do, here in Sevier County: First, there is a resource guide that you can find on your way out this morning that contains a list of books and movies that will help us in listening. They will help us in a lesson that Christ taught us directly, how imperative it is to listen, to learn to love the individual, and to see injustice from the perspective of another. Most of the movies are available to stream on Netflix, and all of the books are available on Amazon. If, because of current circumstances, you may not have the extra money to drop on a book or a movie rental, send me a message or talk to me directly, and we will get you covered. Second, we can financially support communities who are doing good things. I don’t have a comprehensive list to share yet, and I value your input if you have some to share, but I want to point out one in particular this morning. Chris Battle is a church planter in Knoxville, who planted the Underground Collective; it is a sister church of ours in downtown Knoxville. But he also plants literal plants, too. He runs a mission on the side called Battlefield Farm & Gardens that fights food insecurity in East Knoxville and provides affordable fresh food to families downtown, a large majority of whom are black and can’t afford fresh food from the grocery store. While sharing physical food, the farm also shares spiritual food in the form of spreading the gospel, too. They are currently in the process of expanding and need financial support. If you would like, you can designate giving this morning to be given to Battlefield Farms, or simply to the farm, and we will make sure it gets there. You can find instructions on how to donate on the resource paper, as well. And THIRD, and this is just as important as the other two, do not let the ending of the sermon this morning be the stopping point in the talk about race. This morning’s message is like a can opener. It’s not producing the finished meal in any capacity; it’s simply opening the lid and allowing the process to begin. This is uncomfortable for many of us here today, but until we are willing as a church to keep the finger pointed at ourselves a little longer, questioning what part we can play in the fight against racism, and how we can truly step alongside our black brothers and sisters in America, then we’re continuing to stay silent and allowing sin and injustice to take place.
We have a calling to love better in regards to race, and to begin learning how to specifically better love our black brothers, sisters, and neighbors. Let’s not forget that after this morning.
Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart, By Christena Cleveland
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, By Robin J. DiAngelo
Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, By Christian Smith and Michael O. Emerson
Slavery’s Long Shadow: Race and Reconciliation in American Christianity, By James L. Gorman, Jeff W. Childers, and Mark W. Hamilton
The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, By Jemar Tisby
Anxious to Talk About It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully about Racism, By Carolyn Helsel
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, By Michelle Alexander
American Son (Netflix)
When They See Us (Netflix)
Just Mercy (currently free on Amazon Prime, Google Play)
Battlefield Farm & Gardens:
Learn more at:
Donate on gofundme:
Search ‘BattleField Farm Relocation’ on GoFundMe.