A Sermon For January 19, 2014, Amos 5:24, Galatians 3:27-29, John 1:29-34
[Race Relations Sunday/Baptism of three sisters, 3, 2 and 9-months-old during the 11 am worship service]
In one of several emotionally packed scenes from the epic film 12 Years A Slave, Edwin Epps, who believes the Bible sanctions his right to abuse slaves, becomes enraged when he discovers that the young female slave Patsey left the plantation. Upon her return, Patsey, who daily picks more than 500 pounds of cotton to avoid a beating, reveals to the fuming Epps that she went to another plantation to ask for soap so that she could bathe:
Epps, unwilling to believe her story and angry over her act of defiance, forces another slave, Solomon Northrup, to whip Patsey. Eventually Epps grabs the whip from Northrup and brutally lashes her. In essence, Epps like many slave owners of the time, refuses to recognize Patsy as a beloved creation who is claimed by a loving God in the waters of baptism.
The dehumanization of Patsey is taken from the pages of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir whose film adaptation recently netted a Best Picture Golden Globe Award and nine Academy Award nominations, including best picture, best director, best actor, best supporting actress and best screenplay. 12 Years A Slave tells the true story of Northrup, an African-American musician from New York—a free man—who is kidnapped in Washington D.C. and sold into slavery in Louisiana.
12 Years A Slave has garnered much attention for its accurate portrayal of one of the darkest periods in American history. And the notice the film is receiving is timely considering that many congregations in the Presbyterian Church (USA) commemorate Race Relations Sunday in their worship today as a way of honoring the birthday and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King on Monday.
Along with other 2013 movies like Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Fruitvale Station and Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, the big screen retelling of Northrup’s life as an indentured servant has stirred up immense conversations and feelings about the occurrence of slavery and racial discrimination—both then and now.
Film critics and moviegoers have observed entire theaters sobbing throughout the entire 2 hours of 12 Years A Slave, including grown men covering their eyes or turning away during especially graphic scenes.
It’s remarkably powerful to think about how 150 years after the abolition of slavery, the history of that horrendous time can still evoke suck heartbreak and lament. Quite possibly, we mourn the sins of the past because the same hateful mindsets thrive mightily in today’s climate.
While slave plantations are non-existent in this country and the nation is half a century removed from the days of segregation, lynching, vicious police dogs and water-hoses and the cross-burning Klan, slavery and racial discrimination creeps into every part of society nowadays.
We still live in a world where people fail to honor the love of Christ in another human being—
- A report from the 2013 Global Slavery Index found that nearly 30 million people around the world are living as slaves.
- A U.S. government study reported in 2012 that more than 42,000 adults and children were found in forced prostitution, labor, slavery or armed conflict worldwide.
- Surveys conducted in 2013 by the renowned Pew Research Center showed that 46 percent of blacks and 16 percent of whites see “a lot of discrimination” toward blacks; And 70 percent of blacks and about 37 percent of whites say “blacks are treated less fairly in their dealings with the police.” 
- Statistics from the Southern Poverty Law Center which monitors hate and bigotry show that hate groups have increased dramatically in the last six years, from 149 to 1,360.
- Since January 2013, the news have been filled with stories of racial discrimination, racists attitudes and cultural assumptions:
The Trayvon Martin case;
voters protesting the Supereme Court’s decision to strike down a section of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act;
Celebrity Chef Paula Deen who testified in a lawsuit deposition that she used the “n-word” and threw Old-South plantation-themed parties; and
Phil Robertson, the star of the hit reality TV series Duck Dynasty who told a reporter that the impoverished black adults he worked alongside as a teen were always happy, happy, happy and never complained about their civil rights.
Megyn Kelly, the Fox News Anchor who insisted that everyone should accept that Jesus was a white man when he was actually a Galilean Jew born in Roman-Palestine;
African-American teen Christopher Rougier who was told by a teacher at his New Mexico high school that he couldn’t dress up as Santa because he was black;
An MSNBC segment in which host Melissa Harris-Perry (who is bi-racial) allowed a panel of guests poke fun at former Presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s adopted black grandson; and
African-American actress Tamera Mowry who told Oprah Winfrey that she had been called “a white man’s whore” because her husband is white and they have a bi-racial child.
New York-born Latino-American pop singer Marc Anthony, who traces his heritage to Puerto Rico, was widely blasted on Twitter for his rendition of God Bless America at the All-Star Game. Many felt that it was wrong for an illegal Mexican to sing an American song;
America’s Got Talent competitor, Sebastien De La Cruz, a 11-year-old who received similar criticism for singing the National Anthem in his native San Antonio during the NBA Finals between the Spurs and the Miami Heat. Several people on Twitter accused the boy of being an illegal who snuck into the country to sing the anthem;
Nina Davuluri, a native of New York who became the first contestant of Indian descent to be crowned the winner of the 2014 Miss America Pageant, was attached on social media for being an Arabic terrorist. Others ridiculed Nina for her family ties to India, labeling her “Miss 7-11”; and
Last week’s episode of the hit series How I Met Your Mother in which the all-white cast put on yellow make-up and dressed in stereotypical Asian attire to foster an ongoing gag about humorously slapping a good friend.
Justine Sacco, a former PR executive for IAC Media Company, who made headlines by tweeting: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white;” and
Famous comedian Steve Martin who in response to a question about how to spell “lasagna” tweeted: “It depends. Are you in an African-American neighborhood or at an Italian restaurant?”
And pop legend Madonna, who on Friday (talk about sense of timing) used the n-word “as a term of endearment” in an Instagram photo of her white teenage son.
As Christena Cleveland, a researcher and social psychologist at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn, put it in a December magazine article:
There is still a long way to go. I don’t think people understand when we are separated; nothing good can come from that. All we do is misperceive each other. All we do is develop these boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ I don’t think a lot of majority-culture Christians understand how bad these issues really are.”
Judging by the racial diversity of the congregation here at Pleasant Hill, I would surmise that many actually do understand how bad racial discrimination is these days.
At the same time, I also realize it’s easy for anyone to respond to these examples of racism by saying “Oh it’s not as bad as it was 50 years ago,” or “there are a few members in my family who use the n-word but that’s just an older generation that is set in their ways” or “you can’t judge racial tensions by the dumb and ignorant things people say on social media or TV.”
Maybe those responses have a ring of truth to them. But maybe the examples of racial discrimination I just mentioned also reflect the prejudice that occurs on a daily basis in average cities and neighborhoods across the country.
In case you’re unsure, let me offer personal stories from some non-white friends I spoke with this weekend about the ways they experience racial discrimination:
As a parent, I’ve had the opportunity to get know some of the church families whose children are my 5-year-old daughter’s peers, like Ted and Abby R. and their two children.
Ted, who is black and hails from Chicago, is a new elder on Session who serves on the Christian Education Committee. Abby, who is white and grew up in Oregon, is on CE’s Preschool Board and both parents teach church school.
This past August, Ted and his daughter were out shopping when Ted noticed another shopper react oddly to him. Bewildered by the person’s actions, Ted immediately posted on Facebook: “Just had an old lady see me in Wal-Mart and clinch her purse. Shaking my head.”
One of the most valuable ministries here at the church is our partnership with Rainbow Village, which holds its After-School tutoring and mentoring program in the upstairs classrooms during the week. The success of the program is due largely to the incredible leadership of its program director SB, an African-American mother of two grown boys and a grandmother of two toddlers.
SB said to me over the phone that what she often finds most disturbing is perceptions of who she is based on the color of her skin. She told me that over the years, some whites, after meeting her, would later remark privately to her employer about how Sondra is so well spoken and articulate. “They seem to be impressed that I’m not talking ebonics,” she said. “I wonder how they thought I’d be. Wouldn’t they think that if I work at Rainbow Village, I would be professional?”
SB says that while she believes race relations have come a long way, there is still more to be done. She says she longs for the day when she doesn’t have to over-worry about perceptions or even take precautions when speaking to her sons about how they should behave in public. “I always tell them to be polite as they should but I usually have to tell them more. I tell them that if the police are talking to you, don’t move. Stand still. Give short answers. Don’t reach into your pockets, even if nothing is there. I think it’s wrong that I have to be over cautious and give such special instructions but it’s what I have to do.”
I think it’s fair to say that few, if any, whites have ever been given those type of instructions, much less have to worry that their words and actions might be greatly misconstrued by authorities.
And yet the shooting deaths of Trayvonn Martin and much more clear-cut cases—like the killing of Florida A&M student Jonathan Ferrell and 19-year-old Renisha McBride—gives every parent and guardian of a racial and bi-racial children enough reason to give precise directions about behavior, all to ensure more innocent blood isn’t spilled.
An inspiration to me in my ministry is Derrick Weston, a 34-year-old African-American and Presbyterian pastor who is director of the Pittsburgh Project, a non-profit community development in Pennsylvania.
Derrick has a passion for talking about church transformation and issues of poverty and racism. When I asked him to share his experiences with racial discrimination, he wrote me the following email:
Where I have most commonly experienced racism is in the area of other people’s expectations of me. Assumptions about how I should dress, how I should talk, what kind of music that I *must* like, assumptions about my athleticism (which were almost always wrong!)… I don’t think most people think of those things as racism, but they certainly are. When you tell people that they are not allowed out of the box that you have for them, that is oppression….I had some awful things said to me when I served a church in Springfield, Ohio. Worries that I would bring “my kind” to the church. Lucky for them, “my kind” wouldn’t go anywhere near that place.
Worries over “another kind” coming inside the Church is a statement that our denomination’s former moderator, the Rev. Bruce Reyes Chow, has also heard in his ministry along with other racially charged comments. Several months ago Bruce was sitting in a coffee shop when a white person came up to him and said in their best Asian accent: “You no rike riving here, you can rive somewhere else.”
Bruce, who is a California born Asian American with Filipino and Chinese heritage, writes in his book But I Don’t See You As Asian: Curating Conversations About Race, that we can’t afford to brush aside or ignore the racism that pervades our society:
When we choose to dismiss or avoid these difficult conversations, we reinforce and remind people of color that they are still the other. We are not expressing a willingness and yearning to embrace the wonderful complexity that is brought to the larger human family…We must keep talking about race and how we engage the conversation, because how we do these things impacts the ability for people of color to full live and achieve in society.”
How we have these conversations about race—how we engage others about their experiences and stories—also impacts the ability for the newly baptized to speak boldly and confidently of God’s love for all races and cultures.
For Christians, our starting point for having these conversations and working toward racial reconciliation is immersed in the words of the apostle Paul who wrote to the early church in Galatia:
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:27-28)
Our desire to create racial harmony and seek out the holy in another human being is attuned to the wild cries of John the Baptist who witnesses the baptism of Jesus:
Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! … I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel…I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.” (John 1:29-42)
Our purpose for carrying out the promises we just made for those three girls at baptism–to nurture people in the love and mercy of Christ–is rooted in the prophetic words of the vine grower Amos who proclaimed:
Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)
Our baptisms in Christ remind us that regardless of our cultural differences, we all belong forever to God.
Our baptisms remove the sin and injustice from our lives, washes away the hate, the discrimination and misperceptions we have toward those of another race.
Our baptisms free us to be rivers of justice and streams of righteousness and peace for people of color.
Our baptisms in Christ reveal us as beloved creations that are called to love one another, especially those who are mistreated because of their differences.
So may it be. So may it be.
Preacher’s Note I: Following the sermon, the congregation sang the Hymn #757 “Today We Are Called to Be Disciples” from The Presbyterian Hymnal: Glory to God. For the Benediction, I read stanza three: “Pray justice may come rolling down as in a mighty stream, with righteousness in field and town to cleanse us and redeem. For God is longing to restore an earth, where conflicts cease, a world that was created for a harmony of peace.”
Preacher’s Note II: As I researched the topic of race relations for this sermon, I found several articles that provided eye-opening insight into the issue, allowed me to process my thoughts and feelings, and that should be shared with others as a way of continuing the conversation:
–‘12 Years A Slave’ Inspires True Conversations About Slavery, NPR Morning Edition, Jan 16, 2014
–Seeing Opportunity In A Question: Where Are You Really From, NPR Morning Edition, November 11, 2014
–White Men, Black Female Bodies, and Renisha McBride, by Christena Cleveland, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, Nov. 19, 2013
–No Turning Away, or Back, After Seeing ’12 Years A Slave’ by Cathleen Falsani, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 28, 2013
–The American Church’s Absence of Lament, by Soong-Chan Rah, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 24, 2013
–After Racial Strife, New Pledge Commits Christians to Unity and Solidarity, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 24, 2013
–The Most Controversial Sentence I Ever Wrote, by Jim Wallis, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 24, 2013
–The ‘S’ Word, the ‘D’ Word, and ’12 Years A Slave’ by Lisa Sharon Harper, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 17, 2013
–Waiting For Another MLK by Carlos Malave, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 16, 2013
–’12 Years A Slave’: A Film Of Moral Gravity by Brian McLaren, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 15, 2013
–How Feeling Each Other’s Pain Changes Everything, by Christena Cleveland, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 15, 2013
–‘12 Years A Slave’—Could It Happen Again? by Paul Louis Metger, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 14, 2013
–Some Brief Thoughts on ‘The Butler’ by Derrick Weston, from his blog http://derricklweston.wordpress.com, August 14, 2013
 Chasing the Dream: The Year’s Best Film, 12 Years A Slave, exposes religion’s ugly history with race, by Emily McFarlane Miller, Relevant Magazine: Faith, Culture & Intentional Living, Nov/Dec. 2013
 During the 11 am worship service, I removed—in the interest of time due to having three baptisms and a Choir Anthem—the paragraph where SB talks about the instructions she gives to her sons and two paragraphs that followed, regarding how whites don’t have to worry about such things and the killings of Jonathan Ferrell and Renisha McBride. I did preach these words at the 8:30 am worship service.
 Excerpt from But I Don’t See You As Asian: Curating Conversations About Race by Bruce Reyes-Chow, p.22-24. Self-Published. 2013.