June 4, 2017
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
Today is Pentecost. It is the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit. Whether breathed out upon the disciples as John says here in the Gospel, or the coming of tongues as of fire as Luke writes in the Acts of the Apostles. With the coming of the Holy Spirit there is speech. Good News is spoken. And it is spoken, according to Luke, in ways that everyone will understand. It is not simply in Hebrew, the language of the Prime Testament, or Aramaic, the language of Jesus, or Greek, the language of the Gospels and Paul. It isn’t in King James English. But those from all over the world heard the Good News of Jesus Christ, each in their own tongue, each in a way that they would understand.
A few weeks ago when I was on vacation, Kathie asked me what the next line of our Be the Church banner was. I said, “Reject Racism.” She said, “I’ll let you handle that one.” It is not a subject we like to talk about. It touches on deep difficulties and long histories. It means we have to look at the original sin of the United States of America.
When Thomas Jefferson penned the words, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal,” it was an unmet ideal at best, and a legal fiction, and a glossing over of the pain of our nation.
All land-owning, white, Protestant men were seen as equal at the founding of our nation. The Irish were not, for while the right skin color, they were Catholic. The Italians, Greeks and other southern Europeans were not, for they were the wrong shade of skin color. And the blacks, whether slaves or freed, were not equal, not even being counted as full people within the Constitution.
While Man, Mankind, and Men were sometimes used to mean all humanity, women could not vote, could only own property under certain conditions, and were not equal either.
Discussions of race in America cannot be split off from issues of economics, politics, housing, education, sexuality, gender-discrimination, and the systems that perpetuate different classes of citizenship.
And there is a distinction to be made between prejudice and racism. Prejudice is when we see someone and we judge them. Our first judgment of someone is often what we have been conditioned to see. Everyone is prejudiced, although perhaps about different things.
But racism, while often seen in individual prejudice, is an institutional problem.
- From slavery to miscegenation laws,
- From Jim Crow to segregation,
- From separate but equal (which tried to separate, but never was equal) to voter disenfranchisement laws,
- From redlining communities so that blacks could not buy a house in certain areas to mass lynchings well into the 20th century,
- From the war on drugs which was targeted at African Americans under President Nixon, to mass incarcerations under President Clinton,
- From increased drug convictions and sentences for people of color despite higher rates of drug use among white Americans to higher rates of death penalties for people of color for the same convictions. The institutions of this country have made life as a person of color more vulnerable, more at risk, and coming at a higher price than their white counterparts.
How many soldiers of color have fought, been wounded, been forever changed by war as they have served at the defense of our nation, only to come home and find that they are once again treated as less than their fellow citizens and fellow soldiers?
And while people of color have often been the target of society’s anxiety, some groups have broken through that barrier to become white. Catholics, originally shunned by the colonies and seen as “non-white,” have become full participants in society. Although it is also true that in order to find employment, many converted to Protestantism. Up through the 1920s, if you came to America from southern Europe, under race on your documents it would say “Italian,” or “Greek,” not white.
History is painful, so why revisit it? Whenever we hear someone say that we are past racism, it is a way of covering over our history as a nation, denying that systems and institutions have disadvantage large segments of society. What is desired is a pleasant fiction that the playing field is now level, and even, and we all start from here and move forward. Such an ahistorical view denies reality.
For the church in America, race has been a long-running problem. Church and denominations split along the lines of slavery in the 1800’s and have not come back together since. Tired of being relegated to balconies, African Americans began their own churches: the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, AME Zion Church. Sunday morning remains largely segregated.
When Jesus shows up at Pentecost in John, as at all his resurrection appearances, he does not go and sit with the comfortable, whose lives are propped up by the systems of oppression and injustice. He comes to those fleeing Jerusalem on their way to Emmaus. He greets fishermen who have all but given up on the hope that they found in Jesus. He comes not to the halls of power, but to those who have locked themselves away in a room, afraid that the dominant culture and religious authorities are coming for them next.
When Jesus gives the Holy Spirit, gifts are given to each and every one. Not just the settled and the cultured, the acceptable and the contented, not just the white and the Protestant.
To each is given the
manifestation of the Spirit
for the common good.
Rejecting racism means recognizing that we, as a society, have fallen short of the glory of God, that we have perpetuated the original sin of our nation – exclusion of some from the fullness of life in terms of political and economic life, educational and employment opportunities. We as a congregation resolved and voted in the early 1960s to reject racism in all its forms, but have since let that resolution become another historical document gathering dust.
Yes we are all prejudiced. I confess my own. But to reject racism is to take a stand against those powers and principalities, be they conservative or liberal, Christian or atheist, political or economic, that would declare anyone less than a child of God, anyone less worthy of the provision for common defense and promotion of the general welfare upon which our country was founded.
To reject racism is to do the difficult work of looking at our own prejudices, and why we hold them, and in spite of our prejudices working towards the common good, where all are seen as children of God, where the question is not what color are they, what language do they speak, but are they hungry, and how can we feed them.
This seems impossible. And maybe it is. If it were just up to us. But with God, all things are possible. Receive the Holy Spirit. Receive her gifts. And live the life to which we are called.
Thanks be to God. Amen.