Sermons and Worship Services
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From time to time...
We will highlight a sermon here that speaks clearly to and about our congregation.
We therefore offer Jim Kay's sermon below from July 25, 2021, based on the stories of the Tower of Babel and the birth of the church at Pentecost.
As part of its commitment to the Last Stop to Freedom Initiative, the Session asked me to preach this morning on the topic of race. I’ve been asking myself, “Can we talk about it?” More specifically, “Can I talk about it with you?” It’s not just that I don’t ordinarily take “topics of the day” as texts for my sermons. It’s because racial injustice and discrimination conjure up for me some painful, even shameful, memories.
Moreover, as I have learned recently, even in using the noun “race” to describe groups of people, we are actually using a term foreign to the Scriptures and foreign to much of human history. To talk about whatever “it” is, we have to use the language invented by enslavers themselves. So, I need help, and I suspect we may all need help, from “the Spirit of Truth.”
As our church Bible study group pointed out to me this week, whatever else the Pentecost story from the Book of Acts is saying, it’s about communication. It’s about speaking and listening across customary boundaries. The story offers us hope that the life-giving Spirit of God really can enable human communication where our language falls short. We need the Spirit’s promised help not only to talk up the Gospel, but to walk out with the Gospel following the way of Jesus Christ in “this world.”
The Holy Scriptures, in their original ancient languages, never speak about what we Americans have come to call “race.” That term only entered the English language in the 1500s, by way of the Italian word, razza. “Race” came into English usage in an age of European exploration, colonization, and trafficking in human cargo. It came to categorize groups of people by their physical appearance, especially the color of their skin. The translators of the King James Bible to their credit did not use this new English noun “race,” because it didn’t really fit the Hebrew and Greek words for what the King James Bible correctly translates as “peoples,” “tribes,” “nations,” or “generations.” At least in this regard, the King James translations communicate more accurately than our contemporary English ones. Even the NRSV has unwittingly and inaccurately projected into the Bible our word “race,” [see Acts 7:19; 1 Peter 2:9] as if, like us, the ancients pegged and sorted people into groups based on their pigmentation. If you were to have asked his contemporaries, “What is Jesus’ race?” they wouldn’t know what you were asking.
What the Bible does acknowledge is slavery. It’s just taken as a fact of daily life in both the Ancient Near East of the Old Testament and in the Roman Empire of Jesus’ day. For millennia, there had been slaves. The Israelites were themselves enslaved in Egypt. Later they came to have slaves of their own. In Paul’s letter to Philemon, we hear him appealing on behalf of Onesimus, a runaway slave, who, like his master, Philemon, was also a Christian. Paul simply accepts slavery as a fact of Roman life. Paul knows that Roman masters held the power of life and death over their slaves. So, he urges Philemon to treat his runaway slave with compassion as a fellow Christian. Early Christianity mitigated slavery, but it accepted it as a fact. It’s important to remember, however, that Roman slavery, unlike American slavery, was not based on “race.” It had nothing to do with the color of one’s skin. It was inconceivable in the ancient world that you would categorize or enslave human beings on the basis of their pigmentation. Roman slaves were captives from a variety conquered lands and put to forced labor in the Empire. They made up a quarter of the population, and their descendants remained in perpetual bondage until freed or sold by their masters.
It took the Church a very long time to challenge slavery since it had been present in history since the dawn of so-called civilization. Nowhere in the Bible is slavery directly condemned as such. Calvin does not discuss slavery in the final edition of his Institutes in 1559. Apparently, it was not a practice known or sanctioned in Geneva. But because the Bible acknowledged slavery as a fact of its time, some theologians argued it implicitly approved of it for all time. To its credit, in 1818, the Presbyterian General Assembly in the United States, unanimously passed a resolution condemning slavery. It was authored by Ashbel Green, the president of what later became Princeton University. Green named “the enslaving of one part of the human race by another, as a gross violation of the most precious and sacred rights of human nature; as utterly inconsistent with the law of God, which requires us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and as totally irreconcilable with the spirit and principles of the gospel of Christ, which enjoin that ‘all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.’” Green went on to note how slaves were deprived of their freedom of moral action.
Moreover, enslaved persons were totally dependent on their masters as to whether they could worship God, receive education, be permitted to marry, become parents, enjoy neighbors and friends, or even whether they could voluntarily retain their chastity. Green was no doubt alluding to the tearing apart of African families on the slave auction blocks, even in our nation’s capital, as children were forever taken from their parents, and spouses from each other. These enslaved human beings were regarded by the laws of the United States as if they were simply chattel, livestock to be bred and sold or traded for profit. Yet, Ashbel Green, who knew all this, and wrote the resolution condemning slavery, was himself and remained a slaveowner, just like the other first eight Presidents of Princeton University, all of whom were ministers of the Gospel.
How can these things be? The theological answer is that the church was utterly conformed to this world far more than it was obedient to the law of God, or even the Golden Rule, let alone the will and way of Jesus Christ. It was conformed to the God of Mammon because in the words of Isabel Wilkerson, “Slavery made enslavers among the richest people in the world.” In a recent report, the Episcopal Diocese of Delaware confesses that half of their parishes still in existence were funded by the extraordinary profits generated by slavery. One particularly cruel plantation in Barbados was owned by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. About a quarter of its enslaved African workers perished annually. We Presbyterians, who celebrate the planting of churches in Delmarva by the Rev. Francis Makemie (1658-1708), often called the father of American Presbyterianism, have to confess that Makemie as a merchant also trafficked in slaves. This contradiction between the Great Commandment and the slaveholding by Christians, and their churches, and their schools is the result of being conformed to a rigid hierarchical caste system based on the invention of “race.” Isabel Wilkerson’s book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, helps us to understand this contradiction.
Many of us learned from taking introductory sociology, that every society, including our own, has social stratification. It’s seemingly that inevitable sorting out of human beings into a ranked, hierarchical order of status. We are invariably on the basis of our families of origin; the money we make; the education we receive; the occupations we hold; our political and religious affiliations; the connections we make; and, our perceived sexual orientation or gender. All of these factors affect one’s standing in most any society.
What is different in America is that the basic category determining where you fit on the social scale is “race.” It places whiter-complected people on the top rung, and darker-complected people on the bottom rung. When social stratification is also embedded in a racially determined caste system then skin color becomes the most important thing about you. So even if you had otherwise achieved high status as a darker complected person, you were still relegated to the bottom caste. Enshrined in our legal codes, this binary hierarchical ranking of diverse human beings thus became: white over black. This separation of peoples into two primary groups based on skin tones arose largely in conjunction with the enslavement of Africans by lighter skinned Europeans.
As the religious rationales for racial oppression weakened, they were replaced by the bogus concepts of “eugenics,” justifying racial segregation. Eugenics which held there were distinct “races,” each with its own blood. So-called whites, on the top rungs of status, in order to stay fit to be on top had to maintain their so-called “blood purity,” or even their “Nordic stock,” by not intermixing with those of other “races,” even European ones. These ideas taken from eugenics formed the basis of our laws restricting immigration from such countries as Italy or the Slavic lands of Eastern Europe, and for laws prohibiting so-called interracial marriage between whites on the one hand and Native Americans, Asians, and especially blacks on the other.
I was born 1948 into a world shaped by racial caste assumptions and expectations. I was born in St Joseph’s Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. My birth certificate declared I was “white.” This is not a medical term. This is not a genetic term. It was a legal term assigned to me at birth to designate my caste ranking. St. Joseph’s Hospital was a “whites only” hospital, then served only by white physicians and surgeons. Immediately, I was accorded at birth certain privileges that were not granted to persons deemed to be “black.” For example, I was assigned at birth access to better medical care and better funded “whites only” schools. If I performed well academically in school, unlike black children who also performed well academically, I could at least apply to the University of Missouri. They could not. As a so-called white person, a series of Missouri state statutes prohibited me from ever diluting my blood or my privileged status by marrying what were styled, “Negroes” or “Asians.” The updated 1949 penalty for crossing that line was two years in a penitentiary or at least three months in a county jail. That Missouri law, and others like it prohibiting inter-racial marriages in 18 other states, including Delaware, was in effect until 1967. Only then, was it ruled unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court.
Eugenics, with its notion of “racial blood,” has long been debunked, more recently, and decisively, by advances in DNA testing. Such testing has revealed that there are some darker-complected people who may have more in common genetically with whiter-complected peoples, than with those of the same appearance and skin color, and hence allegedly of the same blood as eugenics argued. And there’s another thing recent genetic advances have taught us whatever our ancestry. At a conference I attended on Science and Theology, Dr. Augustin Fuentes, an anthropologist from Notre Dame told us, “There is more genetic difference between a white tail deer in North Carolina and a white tail deer in North Dakota than between any two human beings anywhere in the world.” Think of that! The tales and sagas of Genesis come to the same conclusion: All human beings are related; we’re all part of one large, very diverse, extended family. We are all cousins. All 7.8 billion of us from every tribe, and tongue, and nation, and geographical region! If we must speak of “race,” there is only one race: the human race to which we all belong.
How can we begin to talk about this racial history and ranking we share whether privileged or victimized by it? Despite the debunking of eugenics with its silly talk of “racial blood,” the caste system it sanctioned and into which we were born is still culturally and socially pervasive, even though, it has largely been, for the moment at least, legally repealed. It’s important to recognize that we in this sanctuary did not invent the American caste system. We all inherited it either as its beneficiaries or as its victims. We are not responsible for this racially rigged caste system. But we are responsible for using whatever influence we may have to dismantle it. If you have suffered as victims because you were labelled non-white or black, you should not blame yourself for the strictures imposed on your lives that sought to discourage or diminish your flourishing. And, if you have scaled some of the high walls blocking opportunities, those are grounds for real celebration. As St. Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
At Pentecost, there was also an overwhelming communication problem. It was not the problem of race. The problem at Pentecost was how could the Jewish followers of Jesus tell his story and proclaim him as a Messiah to a Jewish audience. The problem for most Jews was not that Jesus was raised from the dead. If he was the Messiah, such vindication by God was to be expected. The problem for Jews was not his resurrection, but his crucifixion as a common criminal or slave. Such a degrading death, such a life ending in total failure, did not fit the royal job description of a King of the Jews. But on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came alongside the disciples. Yes, Peter’s anointing gave his Galilean tongue rhetorical power. He told the story of Jesus wisely mostly focusing with his audience of fellow Jews on the resurrection of Jesus and citing the Scriptures to prove it. But then he did something bold and unexpected. He slipped in once more something Jews didn’t talk about in sermons on Messiahs. He concluded his message by saying, “Therefore, let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” He dared to mention the unmentionable. Who would dare say it? Who would believe it? Had God lost God’s mind. A crucified Messiah? “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’ Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” And Peter concluded the sermon by saying, “‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’ So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
What we learned at Pentecost is that if we will signify the Gospel in our particular situation, the Holy Spirit will make it significant. Our task is to “speak the truth in love.” God’s Spirit will take care of the results. We in the church never outgrow our need for a fresh hearing of this message. We never outgrow our need for the Gospel in a world like this. It’s new every morning. And we never outgrow our need for repentance; our need for each other; and, our need for the Holy Spirit to accompany us daily into this world. The promise of the Spirit at Pentecost is that we can talk about our white privileges to those who have been victimized by them. We can share what this world looks like from whatever rungs on which we find ourselves in the American caste system. In the face of God’s coming reign, that world of racial caste is passing away. And we can we begin to become what the church must be when it is not simply some religious version of a world that rides roughshod over our true humanity which is given to us by God. In the power and communion of the Holy Spirit, we are being called to become a countersign that God really is at work “to make and to keep human life human” (Paul Lehmann).