Bear Fruit Worthy of Repentance with Rev. Emily Joye
...prayer of obedience...
Chapter 3 verse 8 of the Gospel according to Luke has been haunting me all month.
Bear fruits worthy of repentance.
Bear fruits worthy of repentance.
I mean. What does that even mean? Listen again.
Bear fruits worthy of repentance.
That’s not on any of your ornaments or hallmark cards huh?
It’s Advent for Christ’s sake. And we are on our way to Christmas. You know, shepherds, angels, manger, holy family and newborn baby Jesus. I mean it’s practically a week away, but here’s John, making sure to buzz kill the whole crowd before we even get to the party.
Folks are showing up to be baptized and he’s calling them snakes, telling them their inheritance means nothing, talking about an ax ready to cut down trees and fires ready to burn up bad fruit. It just takes all the dang jolly juice right out of you, right?
So what’s John up to?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that John was tired of a dynamic that many of us pastors know a bit too well. It’s when folks come knocking on the door because they got caught at something and all of sudden they want to be saved. Got caught having an affair and the guilt drives them to church. Spent the family savings gambling and now wants to step into the confessional. It’s when folks bring their babies in to get baptized because they want a feel good moment and photo op, not the rigorous discipline necessary to bring up children as disciples of Jesus. It’s the cheap grace that Bonhoeffer so eloquently coined, I’m referring to here. Cheap grace. Too quick too easy. Prompted by a yearning to quench guilt or look good. It’s missing an essential ingredient in the life of faith, which is the mind and heart that’s been fundamentally changed.
In Luke 3:8 John says “bear fruits worthy of repentance” and the greek term for repentance here, “Metanoeo,” means a changed disposition. And the first part of the statement is “bear fruit.” Live a life, he says, that’s evident of a changed mind and heart.
It’s not your inheritance, he says.
It’s not your bloodline, or that we share Abraham as an ancestor.
It’s not that you came out here to get washed.
It’s not that you’re part of a crowd fleeing the wrath.
No, he says. When I look at your life, will I see fruits worthy of being called repentant?
Does your life, does HOW YOU LIVE, reflect faithful change?
I want to juxtapose this clear, this crystal clear, soteriological map, this doctrine of salvation that John puts in front of us with what Dr. Gabriel Atchison said on the first week of Advent here at the AntiRacist Devotional.
“Until white comfort is no longer more important than black and brown lives then nothing about this whole situation is going to change.”
The whole situation Dr. Atchison is referring to is white supremacy, the racist infection at the soul of our nation. And she’s telling us that white comfort is a key ingredient in keeping white supremacy in place.
Now her sister, Rev. Dominique Atchison who curated this Advent series has asked us Anti-Racist Devotional preachers, to focus on incarnation in our sermons. And this body I happen to be in is a body that’s been racialized white in this society. And no matter how much of culturally constructed and inherently problematic that identifier may be, it’s the identifier that is my personal and communal inheritance. My incarnate reality is a white reality. I cannot preach from any other somatic reality than this one, so I find myself asking these questions in response to John the Baptist, Gabriel and Dominique...
What does white repentance from comfort look like in action?
Now I could give you a whole laundry list of ideas, but I’d rather tell a story at this point because my colleague Andy once told me: “show more and tell less.” And another colleague of mine, Cliff, said that if I’m not bringing my own vulnerability as a white person in the work of anti-racism then I’m not doing it right.
So...here we go...
I went to the white privilege conference in Grand Rapids last Spring. One of the workshops I decided to attend was about the rampant racism present in LGBTQ movements. It was co-facilitated by a black woman and white woman. I have pretty significant social anxiety so I sat in the back next to the door. The black woman facilitating asked those of us in the back to move forward. She asked us to come sit as near the front as possible. I looked around and there was a single seat near the front that was open. So I took my stuff up there and sat down. Upon sitting down I realized I’d sat a table with four other people, all white men (who would eventually identify as gay) over the age of 50. I felt annoyed by the lack of diversity at the table, particularly when it came to small group discussions, but chalked it up to having had very little seat selection available. About twenty minutes into the workshop a very young person of color stood up and said, “look, I’m just going to name the elephant in the room. We can talk all day in this session about what LGBTQ movements need to do to be less racist, but take a look around. Look at how all the white people in this room chose to sit with other white people. Until that changes, until they’re willing to get out of their comfort zones, we will always keep getting what we’ve always gotten.” The people of color in the room clapped and you could feel the white people sink in their chairs. Sure enough, I looked around and he was absolutely on point. The room was almost entirely segregated.
And then what do I do? I did what white people usually do when we get called in. I started rationalizing why I was at a table with all white people.
I was asked to sit here. I didn’t even want to sit here. Blah blah blah.
But then I caught myself, and I thought, you know what, just because I sat here originally doesn’t mean I have to stay here. I looked across the room and there was an empty chair right next to the young man of color who’d just spoken up. So I resolved to pick up my things and go over there. But when I got up to move, something inside of me froze. And all these tapes started to play in my head.
I don’t want to cause a scene.
People will think I’m just doing this to look good.
I don’t want to interrupt the facilitators.
I don’t want to distract people from the content.
And then I started beating myself up.
Look at you just sitting here like a punk.
And you call yourself an anti-racist white person.
What’s wrong with you? You can’t even get up.
I sat there for like 5 minutes while inner voices of rationalization and shame went to war. But then this other voice started to emerge. And it said “Emily Joye, get up and move. Just get up and move. Your discomfort is the point. You can do this. Get out of your comfort zone. That’s what he asked for and you know he’s right. Get up. Move.”
Finally the other voice won out and I got up and moved across the room. No one even paid attention to my movement. So much for my projections about distraction.
“Thanks for the call in,” I said, “mind if I sit here?”
A huge smile of surprised crossed his face as he pulled out a chair for me.
“At least somebody took me seriously,” he said.
The rest of that workshop was alright. But I’d learned exactly what I needed to learn in moving my white body across that room.
I don’t tell you this story to make myself look like a hero. Quite the opposite. I tell you this story because I got intensely in touch with my own participation in patterns of unconscious segregation, discomfort and white racism that day. Even after my mind and heart knew what I needed to do, my body wouldn’t cooperate. It took so much intentional self coaching for me to actually move.
It’s been my experience that most white people will not admit that we carry significant discomfort with the realities of race in our world. We won’t admit to being uncomfortable when we are in mixed spaces, won’t admit to being uncomfortable when our whiteness comes into question or isn’t being centered, won’t admit to being uncomfortable when white supremacy is being directly named and challenged. And this not admitting it seems like the very first stop on the train of repentance. Can’t change something if we can’t admit it exists.
Next stop: overriding our socialization. Those of us who are white, whether we are conscious of it or not, have been socialized by racism from before birth. And our ancestors were socialized by racism too. White supremacy is intergenerational. Our thinking, our feelings, and our literal flesh are products and consequences of white supremacy. That’s not all we are. But it’s a major part of who we are. And unless we work daily at de-biasing and sitting with discomfort, it will not change.
So to come back to John and Gabriel: the white life that is repentant is the white life that is actively engaged in transforming it’s mind and body through pursuing its own discomfort. And this is true for the collective as well as personal dimensions of white life. Our organizations and institutions and places of worship and neighborhoods can all pursue transformative discomfort for the sake of *actually* valuing black and brown lives. That looks like centering vision and mission differently. It looks like policy and personnel change. It looks like entirely shifting notions of safety and security. It looks like shifting power and building power differently. It looks like collaborating and partnering differently. Funneling resources differently.
Bearing fruits of discomfort to prioritize black and brown lives has structural, not just personal, implications.
Now before closing I want to go back to John. Because while I just went into an intentional anti-racist analysis on repentance from this text, the crowd who approached him at the Jordan actually asks him for concrete advice. And I believe there’s a connection with his response here.
Look at verse 10 of Luke Chapter 3: (read it)
When asked about the concrete steps they needed to take to bear fruits worthy of repentance, John essentially tells them to participate in wealth redistribution and the sharing of resources.
If white people or any oppressor group learned how to devalue their own comfort and value marginalized lives, would not wealth redistribution and the sharing of resources happen as an almost inevitable outcome? It is physical, emotional, and spiritual segregation--a form of horrendous compartmentalization that begins in the mind--that enables white people, and all privileged people, to live as though our power and resource hoarding is justifiable. When that compartmentalization and segregation is eclipsed, I have to believe our world will become equitable. There is no cheap grace in getting to this world. It requires a lifetime of bearing fruits worthy of repentance.
So for those of us who carry privilege, my wish for us on the way to Bethlehem this Advent, is to experience as much transformative discomfort as we need to in welcoming Christ into an equitable world, a world where no one is hungry, no one is without shelter and clothing, a world where living wages are a thing for all, where false accusations and threats are no more.
Where the black life of the baby in the manger matters most.
Benediction: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.:”
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