Sermon 1/19 Let the River of Justice Flow

Date: Jan. 19, 2020, Dr. MLKing, Jr. Sunday
Scripture: Amos 5:21-24
Sermon: Let the River of Justice Flow
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Despite the mixed reviews, Frozen 2 is the highest grossing animated movie ever
made. Even the critics who gave the movie a good review did not like it as much
as the first Frozen but it made more money. Well, I loved Frozen 2, but to be
honest, I am shocked that it was a block buster. Why? The movie is subversive. It
challenges colonialism and imperialism and racism. It confronts a false narrative
about the past that is controlling the present. That’s a theme for a radical social
justice movement not a Disney animated soon-to-be classic.

To summarize the movie, two sisters, Elsa and Anna of Arundelle, find out about
an enchanted forest that has been sealed off in fog for more than 34 years. This
forest is inhabited by an indigenous tribe, the Northuldra. The sisters have been
told that their grandfather, the king at the time, had a dam built to help the
Northuldra people. Then at the celebration of the completion of the dam, the
Northuldra attacked the Arundellians. And ever since, the enchanted forest has
been sealed off by a mist.

That’s what Elsa and Anna were told. But as the movie reveals, “The past is not
what it seems.” The Ahtohallan river, interrupted by the dam, knows the truth, and
as the movie progresses, the truth comes out. The grandfather actually had the
dam built so that there would be an occasion for the two peoples to come together
so that the Arundellians could attack the Northuldra. So the whole thing was a
scheme to mask an attack. In the attack, the grandfather was killed and Elsa and
Anna’s father, King Agnarr, was wounded. His life was saved by a Northuldra
woman. She becomes his wife, Queen Iduna, and the mother of Anna and Elsa.
So, we find out that the girls have an indigenous mother and that their grandfather
used deceit to launch an attack on the Northuldra. And, yes, by now you should be
thinking about how people of European descent treated the indigenous peoples of
this land.

As Frozen 2 progresses, the grandparents and the parents are gone, and Queen Elsa
and her sister, Anna, have to face what they are going to do with the mess that has
been left to them by previous generations. That should sound familiar, too. We’ve
hear it most recently from climate advocate Greta Thunberg. And we heard it from
Dr. King over 50 years ago. What to do about the injustices of the past. In Frozen
2, Elsa and Anna are determined to heal the wounds of the past. So, the dam is
destroyed, the water flows again, Arundelle is saved from the rushing waters of the
freed river by an ice shield thanks to Elsa’s magic powers, the fog lifts from the
enchanted forest, and the Northuldra and the Arundellians make peace. They live
happily ever after. Or until the movie Frozen 3 hits the theaters. Now that sounds
like Disney!

How to go about dealing with the past. This is still a major theme in American life
today. We still don’t know our stories. We still are working from cultural
narratives that obscure the truth and the facts. And as we are told in Frozen 2,
“The truth needs to be found. Otherwise there is no future.” We need to
deconstruct the lies we have been told and accepted. We need to be seeking the
truth about our past as a country so that we can work on healing the wounds of the
past and creating a healthy, peaceful future for our country and the world.

There is much truth to be told about our history particularly the legacy of slavery
and the ripple effects that are still impacting our community and our society today.

This fall, we went to hear Tim Wise, an anti-racism activist and writer, speak at
Eckerd College. Part of his work to confront racism in the United States is to tell
the truth about our past as a country. He pointed out that we have an image that
North America was colonized by people from Europe who were the best and
brightest; people who were smart and adventurous. But Wise points out that the
people who originally came here from Europe came because they didn’t have any
prospects in Europe. They were poor and had no way to make a living. They had
done something bad and wanted to start a new life. They were deviants in some
way and were looking for an escape. As he pointed out, people in Europe didn’t leave their huge, profitable estates, complete with servants and serfs, etc. to sail off
to America where there were no estates, no buildings, no roads, no schools, no
services, no society, not much of anything, but land. If you were successful and
educated and landed and well off in Europe, you didn’t come to the “new world.”
You came if you were at the bottom and had few prospects. That’s who came to
these shores. The dregs and the deviants. Not the cream of the crop. Oh. That’s
not how I learned it in school. How about you?

I happen to be married to someone whose ancestors came to these shores on the
Mayflower. Really. When he heard what Tim Wise had to say, he admitted, he had
never thought of it that way. And Jeff saw validity in what Wise was exposing.
We have told stories that fortify and protect the power of the dominant class in
America. Even when the stories are not true or only partially true.

And we have left many stories untold. Stories of suffering. Stories of injustice.
Stories of heinous violence. Stories that tell the truth. Like the stories of the
Japanese interment camps in World War 2. And stories about how the Statue of
Liberty was originally designed to look like a woman of African descent. And
stories of what was done and continues to be done to the indigenous people of this
continent. And stories about the subjugation of women in the US. And stories
about Stonewall. And stories of slavery and family separation and voter
suppression and the terror of lynching. And stories about the policies and laws that
protect white privilege.

Yes, there was a great boom in America in the 1950’s. After World War 2, my dad
went to college on the GI bill; the first one of his family to do so since they had
come to America in the early 20th century. My parents bought a house with a
government subsidized loan. They were white. These opportunities were not
equally afforded to people of color who fought in World War 2. And the ripples of
that legacy continue to be felt today in accumulated wealth or lack thereof.
And there are still stories happening today that need to be told. I met someone at a
Florida Council of Churches training event from Sanford, FL who told me this story. A white woman who was a leader in her congregation was working on
finding a building for the church to rent to hold services. She found a place that
she liked and met with the owner. Everything was agreed to. They made
arrangements to meet and sign the papers, etc. When they got together to finish the
deal, she brought her husband. He was black. When the building owner saw him,
he made excuses and backed out of the whole thing. That was right here in
Florida, right now. The church couple was not surprised because apparently there
are lots of stories like that in Sanford, Florida.

I am part of the Community Remembrance Project here in St. Petersburg. This
group is working with Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative to install a
lynching memorial here in St. Petersburg to recognize the lynchings that have
taken place here. The mission of the group is to help our community remember the
ravages of racial terror right here in our city. This remembrance is intended to be
part of a healing process. We need to recognize the truth so that we can increase
our understanding. So that we can see the world that we have inherited. So that
we can heal the wounds inflicted in the past and stop inflicting new wounds. The
goal is healing for all.

In addition to passing on stories that are lies or that tell partial truths, we have also
inherited a cultural narrative that edits out the significant positive contributions that
people of color, minorities, and women have made to the development of our
society as we know it. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out how the
contributions of people of African descent are overlooked. He said, “The history
books, which have almost completely ignored the contribution of the Negro in
American history, have only served to intensify the Negroes’ sense of
worthlessness and to augment the anachronistic doctrine of white supremacy.”

He went on to tell this story: “Two years ago my oldest son and daughter entered
an integrated school in Atlanta. A few months later my wife and I were invited to
attend a program entitled ‘music that has made America great.’ As the evening
unfolded, we listened to the folk songs and melodies of the various immigrant
groups. We were certain that the program would end with the most original of all American music, the Negro spiritual. But we were mistaken. Instead, all the
students, including our children, ended the program by singing ‘Dixie.’

“As we rose to leave the hall, my wife and I looked at each other with a
combination of indignation and amazement. All the students, black and white, all
the parents present that night, and all the faculty members had been victimized by
just another expression of America’s penchant for ignoring the Negro, making him
invisible and making his contributions insignificant. I wept within that night. I
wept for my children and all black children who have been denied a knowledge of
their heritage; I wept for all white children, who, through daily miseducation, are
taught that the Negro is an irrelevant entity in American society; I wept for all the
white parents and teachers who are forced to overlook the fact that the wealth of
cultural and technological progress in America is a result of the commonwealth of
inpouring contributions.

“The tendency to ignore the Negro’s contribution to American life and strip him of
his personhood is as old as the earliest history books and as contemporary as the
morning’s paper.” [A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther
King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington, p. 581-582]

To build a future of liberty and justice for all in this land, we have to deal honestly
with the past: With how the indigenous people were treated and are still being
treated today. With the continued oppression of women. And with how people of
African descent have been treated and are still being treated. Sure slavery is over,
but injustice continues.

We need to be honest about who we are, how we got there, where we come from.
We need to deconstruct the untruths we have been taught. The lies. So that we can
see the truths of who we are. We need to share our stories. To listen. Learn.
Understand. This is necessary for creating a future of justice and peace. As
Frozen 2 tells us, “The past is not what it seems,” and “The truth needs to be
found. Otherwise there is no future.”

Given our current situation with the growth of white supremacist groups and the
increase in hate crimes, yes, I was shocked at the popularity of the movie Frozen 2.
The sisters are taught a story about their past which is a lie; a lie covering up
heinous deeds by the dominant culture. The sisters find out the whole truth. They
squarely face the evil that was done by their ancestors. And they dedicate
themselves to making things right, whatever it takes. The message is that the risk,
the cost, is a necessary investment for a future of peace.

This kind of commitment and all out effort is what we need in our society today to
address many of the problems that we are facing, especially racial prejudice and
inequality. We need to do what Elsa and Anna did in Frozen 2: Confront the lies.
Seek the truth. And then do whatever we can to set things right.

And the church has an important role to play. We are part of a religion that
specializes in dealing with the past. Christianity is faith of forgiveness and new
beginnings. Many people came to Jesus with their problems and issues. He never
changed the past for them. But he changed their future. Christianity is about
reconciliation and forgiveness and being transformed by that process. We see this
most powerfully in the tradition of how Jesus and his followers dealt with those
responsible for the crucifixion. All were forgiven and invited to be part of the
newly emerging faith community. A powerful example is the apostle Paul who
went from persecuting Christians to planting churches.

The church can be an important force in the healing of racism in our country today
by encouraging the truth to be told about the past. By listening to the stories we
have not heard. By revising our narratives about the past and what is taught to
children including our narratives about the church. And by advocating for policies
and laws that redress the injustices of the past. The church needs to help to create
a society that is more honest and open and equal.

In a lullaby sung at the beginning of Frozen 2, the question arises, “Can you face
what the river knows?” We have much to learn. It is not an easy process to face
the truth. But only when we face the truth of the past is a bright future possible. And here is where we may feel it’s too daunting. It’s too overwhelming. The
problems are just too big. We may feel lost about how to confront the lies that
undergird our status quo. Dr. King had something to say about the good people
who did nothing to further civil rights. He said, “We will have to repent in this
generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for
the appalling silence of the good people. In the end, we will remember not the
words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Here, again, there is inspiration in Frozen 2. The two sisters, Elsa and Anna,
commit themselves to finding the truth and then doing whatever they can to set
things right. They encourage each other using a phrase common in the recovery
movement: “Do the next right thing.”

That is our call as people of God, as followers of Jesus, as part of 21st century
American culture. We don’t have to solve the whole problem. We are not
personally responsible for eradicating racism. We cannot tell the whole truth. But
we can do the next right thing. Each one of us. We can do our part in transforming
American culture, its institutions and its narrative, which continues to inflict pain
and suffering today. Do the next right thing, Frozen 2 tells us. So that the river of
justice can run freely from sea to shining sea. Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in
this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church
of Christ.

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