Broken Motives

Today’s scripture readings:
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Psalm 51:1-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Sermon audio unavailable

Last fall I attended the sixth annual Overcoming Racism conference held at Metro State University. The conference is organized by a coalition of several Twin Cities groups working to transform systems that keep people of color on the margins and to heal the divisions created by racism over many generations.

At the conference I went to a workshop called, “Positioning White Men in Anti-Racism Work.” One of the things others have helped me see in the past few years is how much privilege I have just by virtue of the fact that I was born a white man. I can speak up in meetings and trust that my voice is going to be heard. When I fail or fall short, nobody assumes it’s because of my race or gender. Whenever I’ve been hired for a job, my coworkers have assumed it’s because I was the most qualified candidate, not because I was helping my employer fill a quota. On a day-to-day basis, I rarely have to think about my race or gender. There are few external roadblocks keeping me from pursuing my goals or achieving my dreams. Our society has been set up to work really well for people like me. Others, I’ve learned, have to work a lot harder to get by.

Hence the need for a workshop on the role of white men in overcoming racism. People who look like me have an important role to play in this work, and how we “show up” with all of our power and privilege makes a difference. It’s something I know I need to be thinking about.

So there we were—two dozen white men sitting in a classroom at Metro State—and the workshop leaders began with a question: “Why do you care about overcoming racism? After all, our society’s systems and institutions are working pretty well for you. So why are you here? Why do you do this work?”

The altruistic responses came first. “I’m here because I know it’s wrong that our society gives a boost to people who look like us but keep others oppressed.” “I’m here because it’s unfair that I have all this privilege that others can’t have just because of the color of their skin.” “I’m here because my faith teaches that all of us are one in Christ Jesus regardless of race or gender or anything else that would divide us.”

One person’s response was more interesting, more honest. “I’m here because I want my friends to see that I’m here,” he said. “I want them to know that I care about this stuff.” If I’m being honest with myself, that’s one of the reasons I was there, too. I wanted my friends—particularly my friends who are people of color—to see that I was at this conference and that I am serious about tackling racism. I wanted them to see that I’m one of the good guys. And maybe I wanted a pat on the back and a little affirmation.

Of course, I was there for some of the right reasons, too. I really do believe that my faith calls me to dismantle systems of oppression. I really do want to work on overcoming racism. But that question, “Why are you here?”, revealed that my motivations were complicated. It was hard for me to parse my reasons for attending the conference. Was I there because I actually care about racial justice, or was I there because I wanted kudos for being such a great ally? At the end of the day, I think it was a little bit of both. And maybe that’s OK. If half the battle is just showing up—well, I showed up. Whatever my reasons for attending the conference, I was there. And that’s something.

On this day when we mark ashes on our foreheads, we begin the season of Lent. This is a season of repentance, fasting, and preparation for the coming of Easter. It is a time of self-examination and reflection. It’s a time when we focus on our relationship with God—some of us choosing to give something up, others taking on a new spiritual practice, still others committing to volunteer in the community or give of themselves for others.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus teaches about the proper way to observe three of the basic practices of the Christian community: giving money for the poor, prayer, and fasting. We do these things, Jesus says, not for the benefit of other people, but only for God, “who sees in secret.” We do these things not so others will see us and be impressed, but in order to deepen our relationship with the one who created us.

Sometimes I wonder why we at Gloria Dei do what we do. Is it really because our hearts are so perfectly aligned with the gospel that we make our offerings to support the mission of this congregation, or do we also like that we can write those contributions off on our taxes? Is it really because we are so clear about God’s concern for the outcast that we at Gloria Dei are so emphatic about welcoming people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, or do we also revel in challenging the voices of exclusion we hear coming from other Christian communities? Is it really because we have heard Christ’s command to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless that we take part in the various outreach ministries of this congregation, or does volunteering also help us feel less guilty about our own comfortable lives?

The truth probably lies in some complicated mix of all of those things. Our motivations aren’t always so easy to parse. Many of us, I know, really do understand ourselves to be living into our faith when we engage the ministries of the church. And yet, at the same time, I suspect our piety is “tied up, consciously or unconsciously, with a deep need to be recognized in [the] community and thought well of by others, however cleverly we manage to conceal our meanings and motives” (Hunter).

Ash Wednesday, this day that ushers in a season of reflection and renewal, is a good day to contemplate these questions. The ashes we will receive on our foreheads in a few moments are a sobering reminder of our mortality. The words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” are a gentle reminder: “It’s not about you.” We give to the poor, pray, and fast not to shine the spotlight on ourselves, but to bring ourselves into a deeper and more profound relationship with God.

I, for one, often miss the mark. I post on Facebook that I’m at the Overcoming Racism conference hoping that my friends will see it and click the “like” button. I diligently file my charitable giving statements so I can get that deduction on my taxes. I tell all my lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender friends what a welcoming congregation Gloria Dei is so they will know that we’re not like those other churches. I help coordinate our congregation’s Project Home shelter so I won’t feel so guilty driving past the panhandlers who are always standing at the intersection near my house.

And yet, God uses my efforts. The Holy Spirit can take even my selfish and broken motivations and use them for good. If half the battle is showing up, that much I can do.

Maybe this season of Lent can be a time for each of us to reflect on these questions: Why do we do what we do? What motivates our giving, our praying, our fasting? Why do we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless?

This year during Lent we are providing all sorts of opportunities to study, pray, serve, and reflect. At the ends of your pews are purple brochures describing everything that’s available to you during this season. We hope you will consider joining a book group or taking part in a Bible study, making art or serving a meal with Loaves and Fishes, reading the daily lectionary or praying regularly for those on our prayer list. Join us not because you want a medal for participation or a gold star for perfect attendance—we won’t actually be giving those out. Join us because you want to journey deeper into the heart of God, to experience life in the Spirit.

May God bless our Lenten journey. Amen.

Resources consulted:

Rodney J. Hunter, “Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).

Jeffery L. Tribble, Sr., in “Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).

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