Racism Then and Now

We are living in perilous times and the sentiment of James expressed in the letter that he wrote to a congregation in the first century is spot on. And, I will get to that letter in a  moment.  But let me say, that on this day, across the country in Episcopal churches we are hearing that letter read in the context of the racial crisis that affects us all. On this day, we take note that October 6th is marked in the church’s calendar of saints, the commemoration of Alexander Crummell, priest and missionary of our Church.  Born in 1819, as an Africa American he struggled his whole life against racism but his faith in God, his perseverance in stabilizing a strong urban presence of black churches transcended the bigotry of Church.

It is probable that most of us here have never heard of Fr. Crummell so we welcome our Bishop’s urging us on this day to remember him particularly in this season of violence that rips across our country. The struggle of racism continues and we are asked “what are we going to do about it.”

We may say that police shootings of black men and boys has little to do with us  and perhaps urban, substandard housing, low wage jobs and high school dropout rates that disproportionately effect black families does not infringe on your way of life, nor does the fact that the highest percentage of inmates in jails and prisons are young black men often convicted for misdemeanors or the inability to pay bail while they await trial.

There is a line in the confession that we have recited every summer Sunday:

We confess the evil we have done and the evil done on our behalf.

I know that each time I say that a whole bunch of things run through my mind and not the least is racism. As a white person I do acknowledge that I live in a country in which racism continues to flourish. Personally, I work against it—sometimes well and sometimes not so well but I know that as a white person I benefit from racism. The schools I attended, the jobs I landed, the mortgage that wasn’t that difficult to get. In other words it is done on my behalf. That is something to give serious consideration. And, I ask, How can that change?

I would like us to give serious consideration to the encounter between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman that we hear from the Gospel according to Mark. What is going on in this encounter is more than a personal clash; it is an enactment of racism. Jesus, the Jew, one of the chosen people, is approached by a woman who is Gentile. On two counts, something is wrong with this picture.  First the woman is a woman and women in this historical context did not approach men.

But more importantly, she is a Gentile; she is an outsider to the people of Israel. Not much is recorded in this encounter but we get the point. He dismisses her; he practically calls her a dog, reduces her to an animal because she is one of them. His sense of superiority in the moment of their encounter is palpable. When he says, “Let the children be fed first,” he is not referring to her child; No, he is referring to the people of Israel. They are the people of privilege; they are the ones to whom God has sent Jesus.

In this moment of his ministry, Jesus is right smack in the middle of the human condition that includes racial bias.  But he is not stuck there. There is an important turning point initiated by the woman.  Blesed as she is, she cuts through his distain with a rational that shifts his thinking. “Yes, but even the dogs get crumbs from under the table.” The text says that Jesus commended her for her faith. That faith was in Jesus, faith that he could and would shift his thinking; widen his vision of who deserves the bread from the top of the table and who does not—faith that he would not allow the walls of partiality to seal him off from those on the other side.

This extraordinary encounter allows us to see a very human Jesus  who is growing into his potential, growing into his divinity. From this point on in Jesus’ ministry we see him open to all God’s people not just the children of Israel. From this point on, the healing of God in Jesus is available to everyone. There are no outcasts for him. His ministry has no walls of partiality as we see in the healing story that follows.

God’s expansive love is the hallmark of Jesus that culminates in his death and resurrection.  It is the hallmark of the Good News that was preached from the day of Pentecost when the disciples, now apostles, went into all the world to bring Christ to everyone, in Africa, India, the Mediterranean basin and beyond—peoples of varying colors, languages, and customs.

But human habits die hard. Now, here we come back to James. James, one of the early apostles, wrote his letter, a portion of which we heard earlier. Frankly he is appalled at what he witnesses in the congregations of newly converted Christians. Those walls of partiality that Jesus had moved through in his early ministry continued to be well established in the Christian congregations. People will be people, we say, but the Gospel trumps our inclination to play safe, to be comfortable with our own kind, to sit on the seat of privilege and hope that no notices the traces of smugness in our hearts.

James is specifically addressing partiality and how it gets enacted—how we treat those who are rich and those who are poor. But we could easily substitute those categories for: those who are immigrants and those who were born in the USA or better still those who came here in the 1600s. OR those who are physically able and those in wheel chairs OR those who eat hamburgers and those who are vegans  OR those skin is pink and those whose skin is a rich brown. You get the point.

James is pretty clear.  Partiality is a sin and so what are going to do about it.

Just before I got going in the sermon we had a bit of chancel drama.  We had a visit from Jesus and Peter. Peter was all wound up about Jesus’ technique.  How did he do all those healings? The technique Jesus says is simply love, God expansive love. There is nothing that is wounded that cannot be healed with love. I would suggest that we learn from that.

The work we are called to do begins with our confession of the evil we have done and the evil done on our behalf. But it is not intended that we get stuck there. From there we begin again in the quest to love our neighbor as God loves our neighbor We love our neighbor knowing that the essence of God resides in everyone. Our outer appearances may be distinctively different—the color of our hair, our occupations, our family trees, all these things are important but to live into our faith we seek to see in one another a companion in Christ—this is what helps us to move through the walls of partiality.   This is the work we are given to do; the work that brings our faith alive.  It was the work that Fr. Alexander Crummell was called to in his ministry, it is our as well.

15 Pentecost, Gospel according to Mark, Letter of James

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