A Brand New Shibboleth

Sunday, August 20, 2017

 A sermon preached by guest preacher Rev. Michelle Ledder on Sunday, August 20 as part of the Outstanding Preacher series at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington DC.

Text: Judges 12:1-7


Good Morning Foundry United Methodist Church. I am humbled and honored to be among you this morning and am excited to experience what God will do with us and among us. Thank you for your deep hospitality and welcome.


I bring you greetings from my home church, Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church right around the corner here in Washington, DC – where the Rev. William Lamar IV is pastor.


Please allow me a moment to thank, the senior pastor of this house, the Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, and the Executive Pastor, the Rev. Dawn Hand. I am grateful for their trust in the Spirit to work in and through me this morning and I hold seriously that responsibility.


I’d like to thank my beloved Scott for coming out with me today. He supports me with the patience and grace of a saint – and I could never do all that I do if it wasn’t for him and – for that – I can never be grateful enough.


Most of all – I’d like to thank God for plucking me out of the muck and the mire and starting me on my way. To God I give all the glory and the honor and the praise for doing what I could not do for myself – giving me the gift of salvation into eternity – even right now.


Would you pray with me?

            You know we’re down here LORD –

Waiting on You, waiting on You, waiting on You;

            You know we’re down here LORD

Waiting on You… And we can’t do nothin’ ‘till You come.


God of silent tears and weary years who holds our hands and our hearts even when unborn hope dies – O God – we offer you our grief and our anxieties – our joys and our dreams – and because of Your faithful character and demands for justice – we feel safe and secure giving You our whole selves to be made whole selves by Your sanctifying grace. Open our hearts and our minds and our souls this morning that our spirits may commune with Your Spirit without hindrance of the preacher, sin, or enemies of the good. May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable, holy, worthy, and worth it in Your sight – O God – our strength and our redeemer. AMEN.






In an episode of the West Wing, entitled, “Shibboleth,” President Bartlett must decide whether or not a group of Chinese Evangelical Christians qualify for sanctuary after traveling in a shipping container to escape religious persecution. The Deputy Chief of Staff tells him that he has heard concerns that sometimes – people feign faith in order to qualify for religious asylum and are coached in what to say. He asks the President, “How will you know the difference?”


President Bartlett goes on to tell the show’s short interpretation of our text this morning. That Shibboleth is used as a password for the army to determine “the legitimate” from “the imposter.” When the President meets with a representative from the group of refugees he asks him a set of questions, “How did you become a Christian?” “How do you practice?” “Who’s the head of your church?” “Can you name any of Jesus’ apostles?” After answering all of his questions, Mr. Jhin Wei says, “Mr. President, Christianity is not demonstrated through a recitation of facts. You’re seeking evidence of faith – a wholehearted acceptance of God’s promise of a better world.”


At this point – the music has begun to swell – and I’m still trying to figure out whether I could have answered the President’s questions to his satisfaction – when the man offers his final response during the crescendo: “Faith is the true… (then wrestling to find the right word, says) Shibboleth. Faith… is the true Shibboleth.” At this point we don’t know how President Bartlett is going to get it done but we know things are going to be alright because he responds, “Yes it is. And you sir, just said the magic word, in more ways than one.”


And in the world of 1990’s political dramas with sexist, ethnocentric, and racist problems of their own – it seems like it is settled. Faith is the true Shibboleth. But what the TV show never asks is this: “Who determines how we define faith?”


The title of this morning’s sermon is: “A Brand New Shibboleth” “A Brand New Shibboleth”


I was in Charlottesville last weekend. I had answered the clergy call from Congregate Charlottesville to stand in counter-protest against the Unite the Right rally being staged in Emancipation Park. Local organizers had invited the Rev. Sekou – an experienced master activist – to provide training in what Martin Luther King called, “militant, non-violent, direct action.” We were told in our training that Friday – it was likely that white supremacists and police would get up in our face and attempt to dictate both our verbal and physical responses. We were trained in strategy and tactics with simulations, we were



led in centering meditation, and we engaged in resistance-focused worship that steeled our resolve and prepared our hearts for the likelihood of arrest or injury the next day. On Saturday after a sunrise worship service, we were called into a final strategy meeting. It was then we determined our best courses of action based on a lower than expected number of clergy and an even higher expectation of arrest or injury – even including the possibility of death.


As we silently marched toward the park, first two-by-two, then eventually linked arm-in-arm about 10 clergy wide and about 6 rows deep – none of us knew what to expect. Many of you have seen the violent attacks white supremacists perpetrated against counter-protesters – and many have seen the pictures of the clergy lined up at the edge of the park singing “This Little Light of Mine” while faux militia with assault rifles kept close watch over us with a tight precision that demonstrated intense training and forethought.


What you probably didn’t see, were the times when, in response to our direct action, the Ku Klux Klan, American-Nazi’s, and white nationalists left the police-barricaded park to perform impromptu marches along the sidewalk between the armed militia and our clergy line.


With hate-filled flags and speech, and with helmets and shields, they shouted ideological bile aimed at our humanity based on race, sexuality, and religion. But we expected all that. We had been trained not to respond verbally or physically but to “hold the line” and to stay disciplined.


What I never expected were the number of domestic terrorists holding what looked like Bibles shouting at us, “Nice costumes – where did you go to seminary?” “How many books in the Bible?” This all followed by quick fire questions for us to name or explain certain biblical texts and their connection with our counter-protest.


I had expected the intimidation with slurs and other hate speech – I had been committed to – even as I could never really be ready for - the possibility of physical harm. But I never could have imagined my deep impulse to answer their questions when they began to demand of me their version of a Shibboleth.


While I managed to remain silent – I recognized my instinct was to defend my own Shibboleth. Theirs was verbal – mine remained in my head – but what I was witnessing was dueling Shibboleths.


In our text for this morning, the Judge Jephthah is ruling over and working to protect Israel. This time not from an external enemy – sometimes those are easier to fight – but from an internal one – the fellow tribe of Ephraim. As we enter the story – the Ephraimites challenge Jephthah for not inviting them to help fight the Ammonites. Commentaries describe Ephraim as a dominant and important Northern tribe throughout much of Israel’s history. That being so, I imagine them being unaccustomed to not being in charge, not coming up with and being the heroes of the solution, and certainly not being contradicted in their telling of the facts.


Perhaps they had always been in a place of privilege – able to create law and policies that were folded into history as if they were objective and equitable but in reality served only to protect and benefit themselves and those who looked like them. Perhaps they had seen how the way Jephthah ruled allowed for a shift in access to resources, benefits, and opportunities and now – to Ephraim – “equity felt like oppression” (HuffPost article title can be found here).


After being confronted, Jephthah challenges Ephraim’s account – saying he did in fact call upon them for help – but receiving none – fought the battle without them and won. The Ephraimites cannot handle this – they call the people of Gilead fugitives and renegades – in today’s language – race traitors who have abandoned their own home tribe. The Ephraimites’ prior threat to bring fire down on their heads becomes real as the two sides go to war. And this is where Shibboleth comes back into our work today.


In the midst of battle, the warriors of Gilead defeat Ephraim except for a few folks who escape and try to return home. When they get to the entry points at the Jordon River, however, the Gilead soldiers stand their ground asking, “Are you an Ephraimite?” “Prove it!” “Say, Shibboleth!” But when they tried it came out differently so they responded, “Sibboleth” and were killed on the spot. Altogether, 42,000 Ephraimites were murdered in war that day.


This is a tough text to deal with – it’s clear the lectionary compilers don’t want to deal with it – I mean they didn’t include Judges 12 in any of its readings. In the whole 3 year cycle, there is not one time a lectionary preacher would preach on this text or a congregation who listens to them hear a sermon on this text. None of them will have to struggle with what it means to fight with one’s own people. None of them will have to figure out where the Good News of the Gospel is in a story with so many casualties. None of them will have to figure out what it means to define “legitimate” and “imposter” as it relates to faith – especially to those of us who believe in inclusion.


But there are times when we have to deal with things we wish we didn’t have to deal with and wishing won’t make it so. The U.S. Church is in a Shibboleth moment. People who have been blessed with greater amounts of melanin have been telling those of us who are racialized as white this for a long, long, long, long time. For God’s sake folks – we have been in a Shibboleth moment since Christianity was used as a weapon of physical and cultural genocide against America’s indigenous peoples; since it was deputized to enslave Africans and their descendants, and now since it was hidden behind to legalize and po-li-ti-fy racism.


Now, I’m a theologian so I get to make up words: po-li-ti-fy is the act of pretending something is polite when it’s actually not.


For some of us – Charlottesville has become a time of awakening. For some of us – Charlottesville has become the tipping point of waiting no longer. For others still – Charlottesville is just another example – another expression of what has been here all along simmering but now bubbling over a more public and publicized surface.


For all of us – Charlottesville should be a call for the Church to step up and declare – once and for all – in one voice – our own Shibboleth: that to be a person of faith and a follower of Jesus the Christ – white supremacy will no longer be ignored nor denied – no longer tolerated nor rewarded. We are in the midst of a crisis. It is a crisis of conscience. A crisis of morality. A crisis of faith. The time for waiting is over. Our sisters and brothers of color are dying. The humanity of those of us who are white is dying. We cannot wait. God will not wait.


Saying “Jesus is Lord” while at the same time refusing to stand up and speak out against the legalized and racialized reign of terror upon Black and Brown people in this country is blasphemy. The Jesus who overturned money-changing tables IN THE SANCTUARY is waiting for us to overturn all systems of government, justice, policing, schools, communities, AND church that will not value nor protect Black and Brown bodies in equal measure to white bodies. And all systems that will not protect the rights of Jews and Muslims, of Baha’i and Hindu, and the wide cacophony of religious people in equal measure to Christians. And all systems that will not protect the humanity of all LGBTQI people in equal measure to cis-gendered heterosexual people.


Proclaiming “Jesus is Lord” means something radical. It means we stand for righteousness, fight against evil, and resist sin always, in every place, and at all times. For U.S. Christians this means we must announce – in word, sign, and deed – that white supremacy will no longer be tolerated or rewarded in any form, in any form, in any form. In. Any. Form.


To choose “Jesus is Lord” is to recognize radical racial justice and equity is a holy sacrament, divinely orchestrated to miraculously transfigure our systems of racial hatred into systems of healing and wholeness.


For U.S. white Christians, to proclaim “Jesus is Lord” in 2017 is to embrace without reserve our moral obligation to incontrovertibly break the stranglehold white supremacy has on this country and on our souls.


This is a clarion call for us as people of faith who follow Jesus as Christ and Lord to declare this day – It’s Time for a Brand New Shibboleth.


A Shibboleth that no longer relies on difference of accent to include or exclude people from safety and survival – rather a Brand New Shibboleth that extracts every last drop of white supremacy from our schools, from our economy, from our communities, from our churches, and from every inch of our government.


A Shibboleth that refuses to allow white supremacists to terrorize Charlottesville with torches and teargas while simultaneously refusing to allow white supremacy to reign in our business, academic, or church meetings through microaggressions and whitesplaining.


It’s Time for a Brand New Shibboleth.


A Shibboleth that fights for all symbols of the Confederacy – including but not limited to flags and statues – to be taken down once and for all while simultaneously refusing the temptation to protect the laws which keep them in place over and above the people who utilize civil disobedience to get them down.


It’s Time for a Brand New Shibboleth.


A Shibboleth that empowers people to gather in the thousands to stand with the people of Boston against hate speech while simultaneously emboldening Christians by the thousands to transfer all of our personal and ecclesial money into Black owned banks and shift at least 50% of our spending into businesses of color.


It’s Time for a Brand New Shibboleth.


A Shibboleth that will dare not shout unity when what we really mean is that white people will feel comfortable.


A Shibboleth that will not pray peace when what we really mean is that white people will be the only ones who determine what order looks like.


A Shibboleth that shall not hide behind weak, ineffectual, and unfaithful definitions of love that only serve to protect the already protected from our responsibility to get involved in tangible and meaningful ways.


It’s Time for a Brand New Shibboleth.


A Shibboleth that believes like the West Wing writers that “freedom is the glory of God” and like Saint Fannie Lou Hamer that “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”


A Shibboleth that makes us ruthless – ruthless in our unwavering commitment and execution of disrupting, dismantling, and destroying white supremacy and racism in all of its forms.


A Shibboleth that dares not shake its finger at society “out there” before it endures a deep critique and radical transformation of the church structures “in here.”


A Shibboleth that examines its own leadership structure and membership; its own decision making and decision makers; and its own temptations to hoard power for some at the expense of the rest.


It’s Time for a Brand New Shibboleth.


And our tears will not stop us and our shame will not stop us and our guilt will not stop us NOR will we ignore or deny them… because we belong to a family of faith that believes in the kind of courageous grace that allow us to stare deeply into our own sins of racism, repent tangibly and meaningfully, and being the healing into wholeness.


And our fear will not stop us and our internalized oppression will not stop us and our anger will not stop us NOR will we ignore them or deny them… because we belong to a family of faith that believes in the kind of costly grace that was spent by the Son of God’s own self in order that those among us who are targeted and most directly affected by the wounds of white supremacy’s sins would be free and made whole from the inside out.


It’s Time for a Brand New Shibboleth.


Now for us to do this – we’re going to have to wholeheartedly embrace a differential ethic. A differential ethic runs counter to what many of us have been taught – let’s all make a plan – let’s split up the work evenly – then let’s execute the plan. Rather – a differential ethic rightly places the greatest amount of responsibility and risk upon those of us who are white and benefit from the privileges of white supremacy and racism in all of its forms.


This is the kind of Shibboleth that requires that those of us who are white “go get our cousins” – and while we’re at it – go get our bosses, and our grandmothers, and our spouses, and our neighbors, and all the other white folks who will only listen to us – not because what we say is more true or more powerful that when said by Black and Brown folks – but rather because that is the way white supremacy works.


A Shibboleth that refuses to water down the work that is ahead of us – but will no longer hoist it onto the backs of people of color because those of us who are white refuse to do our work.


It’s Time for a Brand New Shibboleth.


Friends, It’s Time.


Just like this is not an easy text – this is not easy work. What we are embarking on is a Shibboleth of Anti-Racism. Transforming our thinking and doing, our ideologies and actions, our policies and our practices all toward the goal of creating, sustaining, and protecting systems of racial justice and equity.


Each of us will be required to risk something different – for some of us who are white – we will risk our privileges, our protection, or our stories of, “I marched with King” (in my case, Charlottesville) in exchange for, “this is what I’m doing right now.” For some people of color, you will risk being vulnerable to hurt or harm, being scapegoated for bringing the injustice to the forefront, or being misinterpreted that you are selling out.


Shibboleth is scary work especially for those of us who believe that tolerance of different ideas and respect for all human beings is sacred. Declaring our Shibboleth defines who we are and inevitably excludes some folks because it creates a line in the sand over which one cannot cross. For those of us who are worried about or have experienced the harm that comes from being excluded by the church this is especially terrifying ground. But declaring a Shibboleth of Anti-Racism simply means that we are intolerant of intolerance.


In 1945, what is called, “The Paradox of Tolerance” was written down for the first time publically and attributed to Karl Popper. Popper stated that while it may seem counterintuitive for tolerance to be intolerant of anything it is simply a paradox. This is because the first thing intolerance does is to eradicate tolerance. Thus, tolerance cannot exist if it tolerates intolerance.


I’m going to say that one more time – While it may seem counterintuitive, for tolerance to survive – it must be intolerant of intolerance. This is because the first thing intolerance does is to eradicate tolerance. Thus, tolerance cannot exist if it tolerates intolerance.


Intolerance isn’t simply another philosophy or ideology – it is the inability to allow for any other philosophy or ideology to survive in its midst or in its wake. This is exactly why white supremacy or racism in any of its forms cannot be reduced to just another option, or idea, or preference. All forms of intolerance will use hatred, fear, and violence to indoctrinate followers and eradicate the rest.


What if the only intolerance Christians were known for was the intolerance of intolerance?


I’m gonna say one last thing and then I’m gonna take my seat. You may have read in some of the articles about Charlottesville that the clergy line chanted, “Love Has. Love Has. Love Has Already Won.” Out of context, it sounds like we are blindly believing the whitewashed version of Martin Luther King’s quote that “hate cannot drive out hate only love can do that.” This version makes it seem as if Dr. King is talking about the Hallmark version of love – full of feelings but devoid of commitment – full of dreams but devoid of reality. But in context it reveals something else.


Rev. Sekou led us in this chant when we were surrounded by the taunts and chants of the Klan, American Nazi’s, and white nationalists. As they marched in front AND BEHIND US…. and as our hearts began a double time drum beat within our chests – we were instructed to declare that LOVE HAS. LOVE HAS. LOVE HAS ALREADY WON.


When the first scrap ups began between domestic terrorists and antifa at one end of our line – we were locked arm-in-arm chanting LOVE HAS. LOVE HAS. LOVE HAS ALREADY WON as our only defense.


The fluffy bunny, pie in the sky, Hallmark kind of love doesn’t cut it here. This is James Baldwin’s love that says that if I love you I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see. This is Dr. Cornell West’s love that says Justice is what love looks like in public.


This is Jesus’ love that says you may be looking at Good Friday – or sitting in the deep despair of Holy Saturday – but there is a Resurrection coming that you can’t yet imagine and you can’t create on your own without me.


We weren’t singing Love Has Already Won because it had – we were singing it because we believe in a God whose love has conquered even death. The kind of love that stares in the face of structural sin as 1000s of Klansmen – and women – American Nazi’s and white nationalists scream “blood and soil” and “you will not replace us.” It allows us to sing songs of freedom while held hostage in a church by torch wielding domestic terrorists who cannot stand the idea that God intends for power to be shared and for justice to reign.


We don’t declare a Brand New Shibboleth because it’s already here – we declare a Brand New Shibboleth because LOVE HAS. LOVE HAS. LOVE HAS ALREADY WON…. (continue with hand clap)….