Maintaining Justice (an excerpt from a recent sermon given at Duke Chapel)

The following is an excerpt from a sermon preached in Duke University Chapel on August 20, 2017 by Christy Lohr Sapp, Associate Dean for Religious Life. The full text can be found here.

Christ Jesus, one of the first things we learn as children is to “do the right thing.” … Lord, show me which rules I need to break in the name of your holy law. Show me which rules I need to follow in the name of your law-breaking love. Empower us to tear the whole broken system down and build it again on the foundation of your love.

This is a portion of a prayer written by former PathWays Chapel Scholar, Jamie McGee and my colleague Adam Hollowell. They have created a fabulous resource called Praying with James Baldwin that they recently published online. (The full devotional is available for download.) This prayer speaks beautifully to today’s scripture readings and to all that is swirling around in our chapel, our city, our country, and our world.

I spent 2 ½ days this past week at an orientation program for faculty who are concerned about teaching for equity. While it was challenging to be out of the office, it also felt like the right place to be as national and local events unfurled. We gathered on Monday morning after the protest-filled weekend in Charlottesville. We reflected on Tuesday after the Confederate soldier monument came down in Durham. We wrapped up on Wednesday as scrutiny was turning to the people of our portico. On Thursday I led the annual day-long retreat for Religious Life staff and arrived on campus to find General Lee’s nose cut off. Today we come into a Chapel visibly changed.

At the closing of the Teaching for Equity training, Duke Dean, Valerie Ashby, spoke to the group about how it is going to be a challenging year on this campus. For those of us who engage students, she reminded that we have the gift of working with these 18-22 year olds before they become set in stone. I sat uncomfortably with that in the moment because I was thinking about our images that are, indeed, set in stone. Some are monuments we have erected in order that they may be enduring.

Another faculty fellow in the program spoke to the group about how we are all walking stories. We have stories, our traditions have stories, and this institution has stories. Some of these stories are shared, some are held closely to our chests, others remain hidden and harder to find. As I reflected on both of these images – stones and stories – I thought of an outing that my daughter and I took last Saturday.

Sadie had been angling to make a terrarium, and I’ve become fascinated by air plants. So, we headed downtown to a local business where they have both. Rather than getting an air plant, however, Sadie gravitated toward an odd-looking succulent. This plant is native to southern Africa. It is a Lithops and is commonly referred to as a stone plant, a living stone. This plant is very slow- growing, but for those who have the patience to tend it, stubby, pudgy “leaves” grow out from the center and eventually a bright yellow pointy flower emerges. These living stones produce beauty for those who wait.

Part of our story is that we are called to be living stones. Stones can be an inspiration. They can also be an impediment. We are called patiently to tend – and maybe even remove – those stones that cause us to stumble. We stumble on stones that we have erected that make idols of ideals. We stumble on stones that we have chiseled from painful histories. We stumble on stones that we have piled as way-markers to direct our steps in the ways of injustice. How then, do we turn ourselves into life-giving, living stones – stones that are bridging rather than dividing, stones that are foundations for love?

As I was sitting down to rewrite this sermon yesterday in light of the morning’s news, my friend and colleague Abdul Waheed, Duke’s Muslim Chaplain, called. He asked how I was doing, and I said, “Oh, ok. Just trying to rewrite my sermon.” He then asked what the scripture was, and I told him about the text in which a woman asks for her child to be healed. And, Imam Waheed — bless him! — encouraged me to preach this text still saying that the Chapel’s statue coming down is symbolic of what this Canaanite woman wanted to happen. He said it plainly and frankly: “This is symbolic of the healing of the demons of racism.” For so many in our community, the removal of this statue also represents what Isaiah calls for: maintaining justice and “doing what is right.”