(a guest sermon delivered by Jené Schoenfeld on August 31, 2014)
In the first of the lectionary readings for today (Exodus 3:1-5), Moses is tending his father-in-law’s flock and notices that a bush is burning, but is not being consumed. He decides to investigate. God calls to him, he answers, “Here I am,” and God bids him to stop and remove his sandals, because he is on holy ground. Just after this selection, God announces God’s intention to “rescue my people in Egypt” and tells Moses that he has chosen him as his emissary to Pharoah (Exodus 3:7). Moses, by the way, is not at all sure he’s the man for the job. Like many who are called, he does not really want to do the job. Who is he to turn the tide against oppression? Moses does not think he is special, but God makes him special. God empowers him to do God’s work. Like Moses, we may not feel up to the task of dismantling oppression. But like Moses, I think we are called to do so, and empowered to do so.
The heading for the Psalm we read for today (Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c) says it’s about “God’s Faithfulness to Israel” and it is, but it’s also a celebration from the perspective of Israel about how wonderful it is to be God’s chosen people. Let me read you a selection from this Psalm that wasn’t in the lectionary selection: “He brought his people out with rejoicing, his chosen ones with shouts of joy; [sounds good so far, I know] he gave them the lands of the nations, and they fell heir to what others had toiled for—that they might keep his precepts and observe his laws” (Psalm 105: 43-45). These verses echo a verse shortly after the Exodus reading we had for today. It’s Exodus 3:8, in which we learn that part of God’s promise to the people of Israel is to give them “into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites” (Exodus 3:8). In both of these passages, doing “right” by the Israelites, means not only freeing them from oppression, but disempowering others, in this case by taking away their land. (Americans like to think of the United States as a sort of Promised Land also, but we, too, typically gloss right over the fact that it was taken from its original inhabitants and developed, in large part, by coerced labor.) It appears that for God to fulfill God’s promise to the chosen, others have to be “less than,” and their wellbeing is sacrificed for the sake of the chosen.
This does not sound like the God I believe in, but it does sound a lot like the world I know well. (Perhaps this is one of those instances where the text is shaped by the men with the pens, and not just the guiding Spirit.) I see this phenomenon of inclusion/ exclusion beginning already in the tales from the elementary schoolyard, and I remember it well from my own school days. For some kids to be “in” other kids have to be “out.”
This also applies to the situation in our present moment, regarding race in the United States. Tomorrow, in my “Introduction to African Diaspora Studies” class, I’ll be teaching an article called, “America is Not for Black People.” This article is not written from the perspective of extremist whites who think that we need, somehow, to cleanse the U.S. of black people. It’s written from the perspective of blacks, who, despite our 400+-year-long presence on this continent, feel that this place is not ours. In the wake of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, my Facebook feed has been full of stories and articles that explain and expand on that sentiment.
From the cradle to the too-early grave, black life is devalued and imperiled. I remember, when I was pregnant with Anna, reading about a study that showed that black women—regardless of social class or geographic region—were statistically more likely to have premature babies.” It suggested that the simple stress of being a black woman, again, even controlling for class and living situation, negatively impacted pregnancy outcomes. (I’m happy to say that both of my girls were full term and then some.) Just yesterday, I read an article about a study that showed that breastfeeding—which can improve all kinds of health-outcomes for children—is significantly less likely to be promoted in hospitals in predominantly African American communities. The conclusion was that comparatively low rates of breastfeeding by African American women may not be solely, or even primarily the result of cultural differences, but rather the result of hospital staff failing to adopt practices that promote and support breastfeeding for African American women. Instead, hospital staff were more likely to give formula or pacifiers to newborns and their parents, both of which discourage breastfeeding.
Then there’s what is now being called the preschool-to-prison pipeline. It is becoming increasingly clear that zero-tolerance behavioral policies disproportionately affect black and brown children. One mom wrote her story for the Washington Post. Her son had been suspended from preschool five times by age 3. In conversation with the parents of white children at her kids’ school, it was clear that their children had committed infractions at least as serious, but the white children had not been suspended. There’s a relationship between this and the death of young black men like Michael Brown. People who would never think of uttering a racial epithet, simply see black and brown children as different, less than, even dangerous.
Michael Brown is only the latest in a much-too-long series of these events. Not quite two years ago, Jonathan Ferrell, a 24-year-old football player sought help from a stranger in Charlotte, North Carolina. Instead of helping, the stranger called police—not to come to his aid, but to report him as a possible burglar. The police responded, and Mr. Ferrell, apparently thinking that the officer had come to help him (as, perhaps, his mother taught him, just as I’ve begun to teach my girls), ran toward the officer. The officer shot him 10 times, killing him. Is it any wonder that many people of color don’t trust the police? Friends of mine raising brown-skinned boys, both here and elsewhere, have described to me their fear of sending their sons out into the world. They have shared some of the limitations they feel they have to impose on the behavior of their young sons—some as young as Lily—in the hope of keeping them safe. The story of Trayvon Martin, in 2012, showed us that even letting your son walk to the store for candy can put one’s life at risk. To return to the present moment, the devaluing of black life was starkly evident in an encounter between supporters of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown, and supporters of Brown. The Brown supporters showed up at a rally in support of Wilson. The Brown supporters chanted, “Hands up, Don’t Shoot!,” which has become a rallying cry connected to the Brown incident. The Wilson supporters responded by chanting, “Shoot! Shoot! Shoot!”
You may be wondering right about now, “What does this have to do with me, with this place?” You may also be wondering, “What does this have to do with Christ’s message and the work of the church?” Praying your patience, I’m coming to that.
Not quite Mount Vernon, but a bit closer to home, there’s the story of John Crawford who was shot and killed in a Walmart in a suburb of Dayton because he was holding a nonlethal air gun meant for children. The real irony of that story, is that Ohio is an open carry state, so even if Crawford had been carrying a real, loaded weapon, he would have had the legal right to do so. This occurred less than a week before the Mike Brown shooting.
I have been really fortunate. I do not fear for the life of my daughters based on their race. I’ve never felt that they were discriminated against at any of their schools. I have felt welcomed and respected in this church, at Kenyon, and in the community for the most part. But I know that while I have been both privileged and lucky, I am not immune from the effects of racism. I remember about 5 years ago, when Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a Harvard professor, and one of the nation’s most prominent scholars of African American literature and culture was arrested at his Cambridge home for becoming angry when a police officer entered his home without permission and demanded proof that he lived there, after someone called in a report of a possible “breaking and entering.” My class privilege and my accomplishments will not protect me.
Even here in Knox County, one encounters the occasional case of bias. A couple of years ago, I was walking along Chase Avenue in Gambier, when a couple of women (admittedly, apparently from out of town), pulled over to ask directions. Their first question, however, was “Do you speak English?” I only wish I had been a quick enough thinker to respond, “Actually, I teach it here at the college.” These women were not trying to be insulting or to hurt my feelings, but they saw a brown-skinned woman and while they must have hoped that I knew this place better than they did—they were, after all, asking for directions—their question also showed that on some level they assumed that I did not belong here.
In the 15-20 minutes that I have this morning, all I can do is provide the merest glimpse of why some people of color may feel like they don’t belong in their own communities, even in their own nation. Though, historically, especially during slavery, many African Americans have felt some kinship with the Jews as people who were oppressed, but who looked forward to the promise of a better day as God’s chosen people, today many African Americans do not feel like they are chosen, at least not for anything good.
You may be thinking, “But that’s not me. I would never discriminate like those people.” That may well be true, but according to a colleague of mine in the psychology department, we may not all be racist, but we are all biased in some way. Bias is very subtle, often unconscious. For example, in doing some research for this sermon, I ran across an article of a woman who noticed a pattern in her Facebook feed. While pictures of her siblings’ multiracial children were frequently “liked” and given positive comments about those children’s beauty, pictures of her own dark-skinned girl did not receive the same level of praise. Sure, that’s not really a life or death matter, but it speaks to a culture that still doesn’t appreciate brown-skinned beauty and that culture will probably impact that girl’s self-image growing up.
Let’s assume, however, for the sake of argument, that you really are, in no way, part of the problem. My question then is, “Are you part of the solution?” A few years ago, Lily used to love a show called Ni Hao Kai Lan. In the episode, “The Dinosaur Balloon,” (Season 2, Episode 2), the title character, a little girl named Kai Lan, accidentally breaks apart the dinosaur balloon. She asks her friend Stompy (an elephant) to help her fix it. He’s taller than she is, and she can’t reach to fix the top part of the balloon. Stompy’s answer is, “I didn’t break it, I don’t have to fix it.” Eventually, Kai Lan and her friends persuade Stompy to help. The message of the episode is that it doesn’t matter whether you are responsible for a problem, what matters is whether you choose to help.
What might that look like, for us, as people of faith? Surely a kids’ show is not more filled with love and compassion than our own Bible? The passage from Romans gives us some guidance, from a Biblical perspective. [Read Romans 12:9-21.] There’s still rather a lot of “us” vs. “them” going on here, but within this passage is also a message of equality, of unity: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12: 15-17). The edition I was working with at home, New International Version, says this even more clearly, I think: “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.” I like that because it is not simply about thinking, but doing, and not about what is “noble,” but about what is “right.”
Of course, “everybody” never agrees about what is “right.” I believe our church is doing some fine work in what is right in terms of advocating for the rights of and being welcoming to people of all genders and sexual orientations. (Certainly, many in Knox County and elsewhere would disagree with us about that.) I wonder, though, if we might find ways to reconnect with our roots, and become more actively involved also in the work of racial justice. Our denomination is involved in all kinds of justice work, including racial justice. On the day of Mike Brown’s funeral, they held a peaceful vigil, captured in a powerful image (that some of you may have seen on Facebook), of church members and leaders with their hands up bearing signs and bearing witness.
It’s not enough simply to do no harm and enjoy the feeling of being chosen. I believe we are called to extend that chosenness to those around us. Looking for resources for this sermon, I came across the following (on the UCC justice website) from John 15:12-17:
My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. This is my command: Love each other.– John 15:12-17
We are all God’s chosen people. What are we chosen to do? To love each other. Amen.