What Comes Next
Good morning! My name is Rob Lentz, and I am honored to be here with you all… in my bedroom. This is my last Sunday as your vestry co-warden, and it is my privilege to deliver this morning’s sermon. What a week to be preaching! (And I’m not referring to the Annual Meeting.)
If you’re new to All Saints’ and/or the Episcopal Church, I should probably explain a few things: in the Episcopal Church, the vestry is the parish’s governing council, much like a board of directors, and 2 wardens serve as their leader. (At All Saints’, my co-warden is the inestimable Scottie Caldwell, who will be taking over as I retire to the mansions of rest.) Each year congregations hold an Annual Meeting to review the mind-numbing business of the church, elect vestry members, and vote on the budget.
But here at All Saints’ we take the annual meeting to an entirely different level—like 11. Our yearly cavalcade of Episcopalian revelry has this year been formatted to fit your screens, but I can assure you it will be filled with the familiar outlandish costumes, inside jokes, Star Wars references, and everything else we could think of to bring our dreary church business to life. The only thing missing is the mid-morning chili and beer, but I’m confident that you all are managing your own craft services at home.
In my four years on the All Saints’ vestry, I have seen some amazing things: after completing the restoration of our historic church, the purchase of a house on the south end of our campus; the hiring of an outstanding Associate Rector; the election of our longtime Rector as Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan; the hiring of an exceptional Interim Rector and beginning a comprehensive search for the congregation’s next leader; a global pandemic; an economic recession; the turmoil brought on by the murder of George Floyd; an unprecedented fundraising effort, the Greenlining campaign, to address the legacy of racist housing policies on the west side of Chicago; an awesome new web site; plans to restore our long-neglected rectory; and most importantly, the incredible collective effort to hold together and lift up this congregation through unimaginably hard times. The storming of our nation’s Capitol was only the latest in a long line of stomach-churning displays of division and white supremacy.
But this week, for the first time in years, many of us dared to experience an unaccustomed yet familiar sensation: hope. If the inauguration of Joe Biden marks the dawn of a new age of hope, then it is certainly true that the darkest hour is just before dawn. How many of us, traumatized by the fresh memory of the capitol insurrection, dreaded Wednesday and the possibility of more violence, more division, more crazy? As Anne Applebaum writes in The Atlantic, “In December, 34 percent of Americans said they did not trust the outcome of the 2020 election. More recently, 21 percent said that they either strongly support or somewhat support the storming of the Capitol building. As of this week, 32 percent were still telling pollsters that Biden was not the legitimate winner.” With fears of white supremacists and seditionists embedded in the National Guard and law enforcement, the days leading up to inauguration were unbearably tense.
But on the appointed day, it was bright and clear, and in spite of the masks and social distancing, the whole thing felt—normal. Orderly. And like the appearance of a green light sabre in a gloved hand, that old time feeling of hope returned, with patriotic songs and a hand upon the Bible, a giant artifact that has been in Biden’s family since 1893. The transfer of power happened, though it can’t be called peaceful this time, and it felt like the cursed year 2020, stretching into its 13th month, had finally ended. Could it be, then, that our long national nightmare, that endless Zoom meeting, is drawing to a close? That glitchy, lagging, un-muted year that could have been an email? I’m going to call January 20th the first day of 2021.
King George III, another outgoing tyrant in an earlier age, had a small query for our new nation:
What comes next?
You’ve been freed.
Do you know how hard it is to lead?”
It’s tempting to want to run out into the streets and sing “Ding-dong, the witch is dead.” To breathe that deep, 4-year sigh of relief and declare our sea of troubles ended. In response to the violence in Charlottesville during the “summer of hate” in 2017, President Biden framed his campaign as a “battle for the soul of the nation.” In his inaugural address, he pleaded for unity and healing, for treating our fellow citizens with dignity and respect.
But there’s a problem. And the people of Charlottesville, interviewed in the New York Times following Biden’s inauguration, have some thoughts about it. The Rev. Phil Woodson, associate pastor of First Methodist United Church, was quoted as saying, “Unity is not uniformity, and unity is not without accountability. It’s really hard to be unified with people if you don’t have a common understanding of truth and a common understanding of justice. Otherwise, we’re speaking completely different languages.”
Do you have a clue what happens now?
Speaking of the Capitol rioters and those who have supported or abetted them, Anne Applebaum of The Atlantic further explains, “They declared that they want to live in a different America from the one the rest of us inhabit, ruled over by a different president chosen according to a different rule book. And yet they cannot be wished away, or sent away, or somehow locked up…. We have no choice but to coexist.”
How do we coexist with such fundamental differences? Based on the experiences of other nations that have navigated the process of truth and reconciliation following prolonged internal conflict, the columnist offers a radical idea: change the subject. Do something constructive that makes people work alongside people they hate. She cites the examples of Northern Ireland, Liberia, South Africa—“countries where political opponents have seen each other not as just wrong, but evil; countries where people are genuinely frightened when the other side takes power; countries where not all arguments can be solved and not all differences can be bridged.” In the “peacebuilding” projects of Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants didn’t debate politics; they built community centers, repaired infrastructure, and focused on job training for young people. I’m not convinced that relatively small actions such as these will repair what’s really broken, but it’s shocking to consider that we’re at a point where we need to take cues from Northern Ireland to reconcile the fractures in our own country.
On Thursday, the day after inauguration, I attended the last session of Pathways to Reconciliation, a six-week examination of systemic racism and white supremacy that specifically addresses the Episcopal Church. Like many of the anti-racist trainings that All Saints’ has undertaken in the last several years, the work here is internal—it requires an unflinching analysis of our own behavior, as individuals and as a denomination. It is difficult and uncomfortable work, to confront both the distant past that we’ve inherited and our individual shortcomings as white people: our entitlement, our willful blindness to injustice, and the ways we have perpetuated oppression—seen and unseen, things done and left undone.
One of the crucial texts that we examined is “Speaking of Freedom: A Letter to the Church on Breaking Free of White Supremacy” by Kelly Brown Douglas, Stephanie Speller, and Winnie Varghese. The authors ask,
Can a denomination steeped in White supremacy turn and dedicate its life to dismantling the very structures of death that it blessed and built? Can it become Beloved Community, where the flourishing of every person and all creation is the hope of each, where the oppressed are liberated from oppression, and oppressors are at last free of the sin that oppresses?”
We can do more than hope—it’s on us to make the choice of silence, or do the hard work of transformative truth telling.
Oceans rise, empires fall.
It’s much harder when it’s all your call.
I don’t know what comes next for the nation—I can only carry forward the hope that I felt on Wednesday, the hope that our new leaders will embrace justice as a path towards unity, and not prefer “the false peace of decorum to the true progress of democracy.” I hope that for once we’ll listen to Senator Bernie Sanders. Bernie said, in his sensible parka and teacher-made mittens: “What we need to do now is, in very bold and clear ways, make people understand government is directly improving their lives.” (He would also ask once again that you renew your pledge to All Saints’.)
I know what comes next for me (besides a lot fewer Zoom meetings). Having seen a pathway to reconciliation, I can’t un-see it. The patterns and practice of white supremacy are everywhere, if you care to look. Years ago I remember being shown the FedEx logo as an exercise in visibility. Turns out there is an arrow between the “e” and the “x” that I had never noticed, because it’s negative space—it’s white. As a graphic design nerd I couldn’t believe I’d never seen it. Someone else had to point it out for me. I know that my journey on this pathway to reconciliation is just starting, but I’m indescribably grateful to have this congregation to walk the way with me.
As for All Saints’, what comes next is an Annual Meeting, and new leadership, and a continuation of the pathway towards Becoming Beloved Community.
Thank you all very, very much.