Sermon preached at All Saints Episcopal Church, Chicago
14 February 2016
The Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows
Good morning Saints! Let me begin with a number: 3275.
Actually, $3,275. That is the monthly rental price for a two bedroom, two bath 1,000 square foot apartment at the Xavier. High efficiency heating and cooling systems keep residents comfortable in an environmentally sustainable way. Indoor dog runs, expansive city views, and roof top chef’s kitchens are among the amenities offered. Conveniently located near public transportation, “good” restaurants, and for good measure, a Target, everything residents might want are just footsteps away. Xavier is located in Cabrini Green, putting residents in close proximity to Chicago’s most vibrant neighborhoods including Old Town, Lincoln Park, River North, Buck Town/Wicker Park and Goose Island.
Of course, when the high-rises that used to grace the site was simply called Cabrini Green, all of this proximity was a problem. Named after Francis Xavier Cabrini, the developers of this high rise say, "We are particularly conscious of this neighborhood's rich and long standing history, and feel the project will have positive long-term impacts on the area." In embracing the area's history, the developers hope that other developers might come to terms with and accept the Cabrini-Green name and the neighborhood's next chapter—which is looking to be dominated by high-end rental towers. And in the way that cities are nothing but layers upon layers of new built on top of the old, many of the new residents may never really know the history of the land on which they now live. Renters with money to pay do not need to know who occupied the land before they arrived. They do not need to concern themselves with who has been displaced without appropriate redress and resettlement in order to improve the neighborhood. Most will not give too much thought as to why most other people in the building look like white, upwardly-mobile professionals. Perhaps there are some people of color who choose to live there may who briefly wonder about it. Maybe. All these new residents of Cabrini-Green know is they have the choice to live anywhere and if they choose the Xavier most will applaud their good taste. These are the benefits of privilege.
Privilege is an oft-used word these days. The gathering of inter-faith leaders and academics that is the White Privilege Conference has been going on for 18 years but it is only recently that the term “white privilege” has become commonplace. Those who have been attending the White Privilege Conference—including some from our own diocese in recent years—hope that the identification and confrontation of privilege might be a critical tool in dismantling systemic racism. Privilege, as you all have been discussing here at All Saints, means not having to see, confront, or change things because they do not impact you personally. Race—particularly being identified as white—gets one a lot of privileges in our society. But so does money and social class standing. This is why Cabrini-Green now with the Xavier apartments can command glossy full-page ads in the Sunday Tribune magazine to draw residents and the largely black and brown former residents who are hoping for access to public housing endure waiting lists that are 3-5 years long.
Cabrini-Green has fascinated me for decades and this Xavier apartment building is a particular irritation. Having grown up in housing projects in New York City, I know that they can be dangerous places but also places of beauty, community, and care. However, there is something about housing—luxury housing—built atop land where the blood of the dead ran too frequently that doesn’t sit right. In another decade, will any recall the generations of black people who lived there or the Italians that preceded them before the housing projects went up some 60 years ago? Segregation compounded by race and class continue to define this city and our world. It is hard to imagine that this is what God intends.
But what does God intend? Our reading from the Hebrew scriptures this morning gives us some help but we have to dig for it. In Deuteronomy Moses recounts what the Israelites were to do upon arrival in the promised land: You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” And Moses recites the saving acts of God: their initial homelessness (“A wandering Aramean was my father”);
their migration to Egypt (“lived there as an alien”);
their suffering there (“treated us harshly and afflicted us”);
their cry to God for redemption (“we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors”);
their redemption out of enslavement (“the Lord brought us out of Egypt”);
their settling into a fertile land (“flowing with milk and honey”).
For the Israelites these remembrances bring comfort and speak of hope and promises fulfilled. The exodus story is so much like that—the calling forth of a people out of bondage and slavery into freedom and fertile, productive land that will sustain them. It’s like moving from the old Cabrini-Green to the Xavier! Kind of.
But our lesson ends here at verse 11 which is problematic. Indeed, exodus and the promised land might be all we hear. It is such a good story! But were not there people already living in that promised land flowing with milk and honey before the Israelites showed up? What of them? If we are to move beyond our comfort zone and place of privilege we would continue with the rest of the chapter
In verses 12-16 Moses continues, without skipping a beat, to update the rest of the instructions. Every three years the Israelites were to set aside a tenth of the land’s produce and deposit it locally. This was so that the powerless among them could have access to it: the resident aliens, the orphans, the widows. Commentator William Yarchin puts it this way, the point of this lesson is that the redeemed might themselves act on behalf of the powerless in the same way that God has acted, blessing them with abundance. In short, God continues to redeem the powerless, but through the agency of the people of God when they choose to be faithful.
Faithfulness looks like sharing and giving stuff away—like power and privilege. But, we who follow Jesus, are also called to do a far more radical and difficult thing. So much as we are able, we are called not to pick any more than we already have.
Let’s review the temptations of Jesus which we may know so well:
Fresh off the glorious experience of his baptism where God proclaims to all—this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I well pleased—from this joyous moment Jesus is driven into the desert wilderness. It is in the wilderness that Jesus learns about himself--about what his identity as a beloved child of God really means.
He was tempted three times: first, to turn stones into bread—the privilege of self-sufficiency;
Second: to call upon this magical God to save him—the privilege of access;
and finally, to possess all the political power of the world—the privilege of power
Jesus had a decision to make…and he turned down all three options.
He rejected them all, and over the course of his life and ministry, clear on through this death and resurrection, he still ate and fed people, he remained connected to God the creator of all and gave his friends and disciples the same access, and he continually lifted up the powerless even as he battled powers and principalities and mocked those overly invested in earthly rule. He invited his followers to do likewise. He knew that if his followers actually did these things—actually gave up the power and privilege they had in service to God, or for those who had little, stopped groping for power and privilege reaching instead for the riches of God’s reign—he knew if they did these things, they would be seen as so countercultural as to be dangerous. These acts of resistance would get them in trouble but it was the only way to true freedom.
And that’s the thing. God does not desire that you and I or the poorest among us have more privilege, more money, more power. God desires that we be truly free. Like Jesus we already have the freedom to choose to dismantle racism. We have the freedom to choose to give away privilege when it serves to lift up others or use it rightly to bring about true transformation. And this transformation looks like freedom from defacto segregation, crumbling classrooms and under-resourced teachers; freedom to walk to school safely and drink water free from contamination. Freedom from fear of deportation. Freedom from the fear that a broken tail ight may be the literal death of you.
So I want to encourage you, Saints. With this first Sunday in Lent we embark on a journey to the cross which is about preparing ourselves for resurrection. The work, introspection, bridge-building, reflection that you are doing as a community on the topic of race and racism is preparatory work—for life. And not for yours alone. While indeed you are taking this journey because you believe The blood of the dead is calling you to repent for your sins of racism. The blood of the living and those yet to come need you to be about this work for the rest of your days. You cannot not know what you now know. This is what “staying woke” is about. Like people of color in this country, you are called to live this work, to weave it into your life, your breathing, your habits, your decisions. Let it transform you.
Bonnie and others in this room, I won’t name names, like to kid me because my family and I live in the north suburbs. We spent our first years here in Wilmette and then moved to Skokie. But our son goes to school in Kenilworth. It some ways, those choices kind of “happened to us” but they also didn’t. Raising a black boy in Chicagoland means that there are no uncalculated choices. I wanted to give our son the gift of knowing he could comfortably claim and hold space wherever he wanted to be—even if he was the only person of color in the room. This is another kind of freedom and privilege that I pray will hold him in good stead and keep him alive especially when white folks think he ought to “know his place”. And in using my own privilege to give him these experiences, I’m teaching him, even at the age of five, about what it means to share privilege, that he is wondrously made and loved by God, and that that truth still holds when the rest of the world tells him at every turn that it isn’t so.
The contours of privilege are many and complex. Dismantling systems of racism and classicism, just like sexism and homophobia, is wearying and difficult. It is also holy because it is about fullness of life and God’s freedom. But understand: the devil is a ready tempter, peaking out from behind shiny new addresses and gleaming buildings. Resist him, firm in your faith.