Year B; Proper 14; August 12, 2018 The Rev. Carolyn H. Eklund, St. Paul’s, Brunswick, Maine
Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35-51
From the Letter to the Ephesians, “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.”
In the year 1972 Bill Weston moved his young family to Plainfield, New Jersey. Bill had grown up in Harlem, married a woman from Barbados and had worked as an interior designer in Manhattan. He talked about his clients, some of whom lived on the upper west side, across the street from Central Park. He spoke of regularly being ushered to the freight elevator by the doormen of these lavish apartments because he was mistaken for the “help.”
Bill took no prisoners when he encountered racism. He complained bitterly about how the doormen treated him and he said he’d argue with them until he was let up the front elevators. He was assertive, intelligent and never let me forget that the early faith of Christianity began in Africa. “Carolyn” he would say, “One of the first communities of Christianity was Alexandria. That’s Egypt. That’s Africa. Then it went to Ethiopia. You know the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch? Well, he was an African.”
Bill was a member of Grace Church, Plainfield. He founded Black History Month at Grace Church. For years our parish made it a tradition to invite the Plainfield community to celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. with us. Bill facilitated a racial reconciliation small group discussion with a friend of his who had worked with Nelson Mandela in South Africa. Bill introduced me to the Slave Narratives, a Library of Congress project from the Federal Writers’ Project from the years 1936-1938 that recorded the first-person accounts from slaves who were still alive at that time.
Every year, I would select two or three slave narratives and recruit readers from the congregation to read them during worship. They were moving. And they were educating. I had never known what life was like REALLY on a plantation until I heard in first person the words of an elderly former slave telling her story, or describing his emancipation and the struggles that followed.
One day after their move to Plainfield, Bill brought his family to Grace Church. The rector was a very elderly man of German descent named Dr. Knickle. In those days, Grace was the affluent white church in town, and several decades before, had “proudly” founded the mission church for black people, St. Mark’s just down the street. The truth was that Grace Church helped found the “mission to the black church” so they didn’t have to integrate Grace. That Sunday, though, Bill wanted to be part of the music program at Grace and he wanted his kids to be part of the Sunday school.
As his family walked up to the grand entrance of the church, Dr. Knickle was standing at the doorway. He was a stern-looking man, not exactly a welcoming presence for anyone who entered, but particularly not for greeting people of Bill’s “kind.” Bill tells the story simply that Dr. Knickle looked at his family and said, “Good morning. I think you would be happier at St. Mark’s down the street.”
Dr. Knickle was perpetuating the belief in some Christian churches that black and white people don’t mix in worship. Martin Luther King, Jr. is famous for saying that 11 am on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in our country. This segregation is based on the belief that blacks are inferior and are not to mix with the superior white race. Religious leaders, particularly in the South reinforced this belief and distorted scripture to scapegoat people of color.
The “Curse of Ham” is one such distortion. In the story of Noah after the food, one of Noah’s sons named Ham, was cursed by Noah to be a slave to his brothers all because he saw his father Noah drunk and naked and told his brothers about it. The shame of Noah was transferred to his son Ham and Ham had to pay the price.
Who was the one drunk and naked? Not Ham! It was his dad! The shame clearly was Noah’s.
But white preachers during slavery in this country saw an opportunity to use this story from Genesis to link Ham to slavery and slavery to black skin color.
The same thing has happened over the centuries to scapegoat “The Jews.” In the late first century, when John’s gospel was written, it was true that there was controversy and division between traditional Jews in the synagogues and the followers of Jesus. Jesus and his followers were also Jews and sought to affiliate with the synagogues. But their belief in Jesus who called himself the Bread of Heaven and who claimed, “The Father and I are one,” caused such a controversy that his followers were no longer welcome in the synagogues. They were expelled.
We read in today’s gospel the sentence, “Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, I have come down from heaven?’” “This guy is someone we know. We know his parents. How can he say he comes from heaven?” They weren’t at all ready to grasp this new teaching. You could say that “The Jews” in John’s gospel are the ones who clutch to tradition and don’t tolerate new ideas of faith.
And yet, over the centuries as Christianity became the religion of the empire, statements like this from John’s gospel were distorted to create the belief that “the Jews” were solely responsible for Jesus’ death. The hate grew and Jews became the scapegoat for social problems, famine and even the European depression in the 1930s. Entire nations would not only expel Jews, but oppression and even extermination were the results.
Today, is the one-year anniversary of the Neo-Nazi riot in Charlottesville, Virginia. I’ve been thinking about how followers of Jesus in this country and in these modern times respond to the continued distortions of our Christian faith that fuel hate against blacks and Jews and Muslims. What is our responsibility as followers of Jesus to stand against hate and stand for God’s love?
I am not afraid for our future because many Christians are taking a very public stand against “the resurgence of white nationalism and racism in our nation.” (Reclaiming Jesus, Introduction) I am encouraged that Christians are joining together to reject “xenophobic or ethnic nationalism that places one nation over others as a political goal.” (Reclaiming Jesus, Introduction)
Our presiding bishop, Michael Curry has joined with leaders of Christian faiths across the country to create a document called, “Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis.” Our deacon Mary Lee preached about it during Lent. Our deacon Chick has taken it to the Brunswick ecumenical community and is organizing a study of it with our Christian friends. I commend this document to us all as a way to become refreshed in the teachings of Jesus and become clear in our rejection of the distortions that are being made in his name.
We are living in an exhausting time of division encouraged by some of our highest elected officials. And yet I’m not discouraged because there are leaders of the faith pushing back. They are calling the rest of us to follow suit and they leave us with this invitation,
“It is time to be followers of Jesus before anything else – nationality, political party, race, ethnicity, gender, geography – our identity in Christ precedes every other identity. We pray that our nation will see Jesus’ words in us from John’s gospel, ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples. If you have love for one another.’” John 13:35