Scripture Lesson: Ephesians 2:11-22
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Last Labor Day I went over to Tampa to see a Lego art exhibit on its last day. Surprisingly, there was a long line; down the block and around the corner. I got in line. In front of me was a younger man and woman. They were white. Behind me was a middle aged woman, I would say in her 50’s, with a young boy about 10. They were well- dressed, the boy in khaki shorts and a polo shirt, clean and neat. The woman in a skirt and blouse with a purse over her shoulder. Her hair was combed. She, too, was clean and neat. The woman and the boy were black. We spoke briefly, about the heat, about the wait, and about Legos. Behind the woman and the boy was another white young woman and man. So, as we stood in line, someone with a clipboard came down the line, approaching each person, asking if the person was a registered voter and if they wanted to sign the petition to get voting rights for felons on the ballot. The woman with the clipboard made her way down the line, person by person, trying to get signatures. She came to me. I told her I had already signed. Then she went to the young white man and woman behind the black woman with the young boy. Then she went to the person behind them and on down the line. Yes, she went past the black woman as if she wasn’t there. As if she were invisible. Non existent. I watched and it took me a bit to take this in. Had that really happened? The black woman said to me, “I guess she doesn’t think I’m a registered voter.” I was too stunned to say much. The more I thought about it, the more horrified I was.
The woman with the clipboard hadn’t said anything. She hadn’t made an unkind gesture. She had not given a nasty look. She didn’t do anything racist and yet passing the black woman and ignoring her completely was clearly racist. I have continued to think about the woman with the clipboard. If someone showed her a video of what happened what would she have thought? Did she even know she passed the woman? Did she know that this came across as a racist act? Does she think of herself as a racist? Is she a member of a white supremacist group? Or is she just a regular person trying to be good and do the right thing?
My surmise is that the woman with the clipboard has no clue about what happened. She would have no recollection of the occurrence. And that she does not consider herself a racist. I think she would see this as just some kind of unintentional oversight. It was hot, she was tired, it was a long day. She just inadvertently missed someone. . .
For the most part, I believe people don’t want to be racist. They don’t want to perpetuate the discrimination and bias that has caused so much pain to individual people and to society as a whole. Who here wants to be racist? No one. Of course. And I think that’s the majority of people. The legacy of slavery makes us feel sick. We wince at the statistics that show the continuing disadvantage of black people in America today.
We don’t want to be racist. But we live in a racist culture and we are part of it. There are a host of reasons for that and they go back centuries. Much of the impetus for racism has been and is economic. As philosopher and social activist Cornel West tells us, racism is based on economic exploitation. If there was no economic advantage to racism, it would virtually disappear.
And racism in our culture is maintained and passed on from generation to generation in countless subtle and not so subtle ways. It’s part of the air we breathe and not only here in the south. Racism and its ill effects have been part of American identity since the Europeans came to these shores. For hundreds of years it has been ingrained in US identity. It is woven into the fabric of US culture.
TV personality Rosanne Barr was recently fired for making a racist comment. She explained it was in part due to the medication she was taking. Sanofi, the maker of Ambien, the drug Roseanne had taken, responded: “While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.”
No, racism does not come from a pill. It comes from conditioning. From subtle and not so subtle messaging received everyday in countless situations much of it unnoticed and seemingly innocuous. Like at school. One day we watched as a little black girl was taking her time getting to the school bus to go home. The driver was yelling at her in front of the other kids to hurry up, they didn’t have all day, etc. And then to a white girl, nicely asking her to hurry so they could leave. Or the Tampa Bay Times recently. On one page, a picture of all the pretty white debutantes for this season. Turn the page and there is a picture of a group of black girls huddled around a table attending remedial summer school. As Rogers and Hammerstein put it, “You’ve got to be carefully taught.” And all of us in this country are very carefully taught to accept racism as normal; so normal that often we don’t even see it, around us or within us.
Two weeks ago when I was visiting in New England, our daughter, Angela, and I spent a day sightseeing. We went to Louisa May Alcott’s house, Nathanial Hawthorne’s house, and the old North Bridge where the Revolutionary War started. This was all in Concord and Lexington, Massachusetts. Angela’s fiance is going to be working at the Unitarian Universalist church in Lexington. So while we were out there, I asked to see the church. She drove there and we parked. It was after 5:00 and the church was closed. No one was around to let us see the inside. The windows of the sanctuary were above my sight line so I looked around and found an old bench laying in a pile of debris. I pulled the bench over to the sanctuary window and got up on the bench to look in. Some of you may have seen this image as I understand Angela posted it on Facebook. I saw the inside of the sanctuary. Then I got down and put the bench back where I had found it. In reflecting on this, I wonder if I would have had this same experience if I was black. Lexington is one of the richest small towns in America and the population is 1.5% black. If I was black and I got the bench and climbed up and looked in the window would my picture have been a cute image on Facebook or a police mug shot? I don’t know. Frankly, if I was black, I probably would not have ventured on to the bench.
This situation in our country has evolved over many centuries and we all suffer for it. We all pay the price. We are all victims of the ill effects of prejudice and discrimination; each one of us individually and our society as a whole. Some people think it lifts them up to not be at the bottom, to have someone under them. But actually that only brings everybody down and it brings no one up. The ill effects of racism make us less than we can be, less than we should be, less than we want to be. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We are all under threat from racism. It is having ill effects, social and economic, on all of us and on our culture as a whole. And it is depriving our society of the full contribution of people of color.
Is there any hope of overcoming this ill which plagues our life? There is a word for us from Ephesians. To this new community of faith, the writer has a word that speaks to us today. The newly emerging church is gathered around Jesus as the embodiment of the universal love of God. Jesus has captured hearts and minds with his love for all people. No exceptions. That is the foundation of community life for these new communities of Jesus followers. So, they have gathered; drawn by this message. And they are in a situation of deep division. They are in a setting characterized by entrenched polarization. There are deep seated religious and ethnic tensions. Between Jews and Gentiles. Jews and non-Jews. The circumcised and the uncircumcised. We don’t tend to think in these categories today, so the depth of the hostility and rancor between the two groups may not come across to us. But we heard the words: aliens, strangers, no hope, far off, hostility. The writer of Ephesians doesn’t have to go into a long explanation of the situation. Just reference the division and everyone at the time knew about it. It’s like saying Hutu and Tutsi, or Palestinian and Israeli, or, before last week, Russia and America. Jew and Gentile. Sure some Jews and Gentiles got along but there was a deep-seated division between the groups. But the writer of this letter emphasizes that the faith community gathered around the witness of Jesus is not subject to this division. This new community is fully open to both groups with no favoritism or status difference. In fact, the writer tells us that the point of this faith expression is to be part of forming a new creation. In this new reality, there are no longer Jews and Gentiles; people from separate antagonistic groups who perhaps tolerate each other. No. The people gathered around the Jesus way are part of a new creation, a community where whoever you are, you are brother and sister, family to one another. Commitment to Jesus takes down the walls that separate, divide, and define. There are no longer two or more hostile factions. There is one community overcoming social, religious, and cultural conditioning meant to reinforce bias and prejudice. This new community is about religious conditioning reinforcing that all are one. There is one human family. All are brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins. And the Jesus community has the power to create this new reality.
The writer of Ephesians uses building imagery. The household of God. Built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets. With Christ Jesus as cornerstone. The whole structure joined together grows into a holy temple. Built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. This building imagery reminds us that such an endeavor takes time. It is a process. It takes skill, intention, and resources. People must choose to create this structure. This new creation. This new reality. Of reconciliation and peace. It is not something that is easy or fast. It doesn’t happen overnight. Like racism, this alternative has to be carefully taught and conditioned.
This past week, we saw the marking of the fifth anniversary of the Black Lives Matter movement. We saw the celebration of Nelson Mandela’s hundredth anniversary and a soaring speech by former President Obama; all of these things reminding us of the building that is still in progress, the work that still needs to be done. While we may be tempted to to see homogenization under the dominant culture as a cessation of hostility, these visionary movements remind us that we are about a new creation. Not just no violence, but a new creation built on reconciliation, and community, and mutual service.
The building of a new creation, a new reality, that is free of racism, is consuming work. Remember how pervasive racism is in our culture. It has been ingrained into most of what we know. Therefore, we must be thorough in our efforts to confront racism in ourselves and in the world around us. We can think of statuary, language, political tactics, educational strategies and materials, and yes, police training. Building this new creation, this truly free society, involves examination, repentance, reflection, listening, understanding, and engagement. Continuously. Courageously. It won’t happen by taking a pill. Remember how Ephesians mentions that we are the temple, we are the vessel, the dwelling place for the universal love of God. That is how we can do this work. It is not our work alone. It is the power of love working in us. And it is a big building project! It’s not like these high rises that pop up downtown every time you turn around. No. Think medieval European cathedral. Buildings that took centuries to construct and are under constant renovation.
But we are made for this. We are animals, part of the biological realm. And we know that biological adaptation happens slowly, gradually. As we intricately examine our lives, communities, economy, institutions, and culture, we will root out racism, ethnocentrism and prejudice. We will dismantle the walls that divide and separate us and prevent us from being one human family. And we will build a culture that celebrates diversity, respects all life, welcomes difference, and affirms our common humanity as part of the web of creation. Our future depends on it.
We know how to do this work. It is part of our heritage. It is in our DNA, though it appears to be recessive! The Christian church started out as a sect within Judaism. The first Jesus followers were Jewish. It was a huge transformation to expand the community to include Gentiles, non Jews. There was a wall that had to come down, of separation, of division, of hostility. So, let me ask you, How many of you, here in the church today, are of Jewish heritage? How many are of non Jewish heritage? See? The wall came down. The reconciling work was done. We are the evidence of the new creation that is possible. Let us take up our tools, whatever they may be, and recommit to continuing to build one household of love; a dwelling for all people. Amen.
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