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May 19, 2019

“Racism: The Church Responds”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Acts 1.1-9

Acts 11.1-18

May 19, 2019

Martin Luther King, Jr. was known for saying that Sundays are the most segregated days. We can look around our sanctuary and know this is true. It is easy for churches to point to the world and list the litany of problems in the world. Yet, the church has faults, as well. The church is not perfect, or immune from harming people in the world, either.

This is the third part of a sermon series on white privilege and how the church can address the issue of racism. The Sunday School class has been reading Race in a Post-Obama America, written during President Obama’s term. They discuss the scripture readings and chapters from the book, and I attempt to bring together their conversation into a sermon.

The first week we explored history and how we can retell our stories. The second week we talked about how racism is both systemic and individual, and must be addressed in both ways. This week we explore how churches have been part of the divisions and how we can help heal.

I think a little history of black churches in the United States is important. This is not, by far, a complete picture. While reading the book I learned about the history of the American Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), a history I had never heard before – perhaps some of you are familiar with it. In the eighteenth-century St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia found an unfortunate answer to church diversity. The white church members built an extension of their church – an entirely different area. This area was for black people to worship and the people were discouraged from their natural form of worship – the ways they felt most comfortable praising God. They had to worship separately. Richard Allen began his own denomination, the AME church.[1] This was not just one denomination, though. Diversity continues to be an issue in congregations. To have a truly multi-cultural church is rare, because often the worship styles are predominately white, with some diverse hymns thrown in for size.[2]

The PCUSA is not exempt from these divisions, either. While we have made great strides in race reconciliation, we have far to go. While I was at General Assembly last summer, I saw a bit of how black PCUSA churches are struggling. Kennerly David Benraty, a Youth Advisory Delegate who served on the same committee as I did, talked about how African American churches are not being supported by the denomination. Black churches do not have full time pastors, which means they do not have benefits. They do not receive the same funding. He said that this is due to the “legacy of social and economic inequality.” As I heard him speak on the floor of General Assembly, and listened to other black pastors on the committee, I heard their stories, their struggles, and their perseverance. I also heard how they had been pushed aside. From Benraty sharing his story, the General Assembly created a commission to save black churches and look into the inequalities happening at the level of Board of Pensions.

Economic inequality is one of the more overt divisions. The book we read stated that whites receive approximately $81,000 in salary per year, while black families receive approximately $8000.[3] I heard a more personal story recently that opened my eyes to this division. On Maundy Thursday a few of us celebrated with St. Stephen’s AME church, with whom we have had a relationship for quite some time. The pastor asked if he could take up an offering, because he didn’t feel right just asking another church for funds. I assured him that it was his church, his decision – it was completely ok with me. He went on to tell a story of how St. Stephen’s had attended a revival that went about three days with various churches. Each day they collected an offering, not knowing where it would go, but trusting in God. What he did know was that it wouldn’t be for St. Stephen’s. On the final day, he felt that God laid it on his heart to give the money to one of the churches attending the revival. He announced it during the service, and the members of that church were in tears because they were grateful. See, the church that was given the money had major water damage to their sanctuary and they couldn’t afford the repair. They couldn’t afford the $1000 repair. They were grateful for that amount of money.

The scripture passages for today are not only from the same testaments, but from the same book. I have been intentional about including passages from the same testaments to show that one testament is not better than another – both have harmful passages, and both have healing passages. Now, my first sermon in the series said I would choose passages that were opposite, but these are not necessarily. In fact, we might even find ways they are related since they are from the same book. How they fit together is interesting.

We first look to the first chapter of Acts. We might consider the feelings of the disciples who have witnessed Jesus’ death and resurrection. We hear that Jesus has appeared many times to them over the course of forty days. He has been teaching and preaching about the realm of God, just as he did prior to his death. Perhaps now it seems more imminent after his resurrection and more focused talk about the Holy Spirit. The hope is that the message of Christ will be spread to all ends of the earth – everywhere. Nowhere will be unaware of Christ’s message.

What does that realm look like? It appears to be vast in this scripture, covering much territory. We are to be intentional about how we live in God’s realm – not passive but choosing how we behave. I believe this is how we shape the future of racial reconciliation – through intentionality and partnerships. We cannot choose to be passive in God’s realm, but to be inclusive and loving.

Later in the book of Acts, in chapter eleven, we hear about this vision Peter, the disciple, had while he was sleeping. He saw a vision of a sheet stretched out by four corners, and God told Peter that he could eat the meat that was previously considered unclean. While we discussed this passage in class, a few people said that their translations called it a “white” sheet, which says something about the assumption of a white sheet being the savior. The Greek translation did not support this, though. Sometimes our passages are translated, retranslated, and interpreted and we are not aware.

In this passage Peter tells the Jews that they can now eat this unclean meat. Of course, the Jews are confused, because Peter is going against thousands of years of tradition. They wonder why he is eating with the “uncircumcised.” Even the name they refer to the Gentiles is important, because rather than calling them Gentiles, they refer to their genitalia. They are ostracizing a certain group because of a part of their body. Peter tells them that they can eat this meat. The Sunday School class wondered back to Acts 1 – where they were told to spread the news to every place. Was there an assumption that they were to only spread the word to Jews in every place? What did this mean to the Gentiles? This is a bit of a conundrum they are facing and must work through.

The vision is recorded in chapter ten of Acts, in between a story about a Centurion guard. Verse nineteen says, “While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him: ‘Look, three men are searching for you.;’” The Message translation says: “Peter, lost in thought, didn’t hear them, so the Spirit whispered to him.” I have a different translation of this passage sitting on a sticky note on my desk. I’m not sure where it came from, or who wrote it, but I think it’s a wonderful summary of this verse: “While Peter was brooding, the Spirit interrupted.”

There is a difference between thinking and brooding – but how quickly one becomes the other. We can sit around and think about racism and racial reconciliation, but the longer we sit and think without action, it becomes brooding. Our conversations can easily go from talking about the mistakes we’ve made in the past, to white guilt, which doesn’t lead to action, just pity. So, the Spirit interrupts. With that interruption, Peter moves. He takes this vision to others and explains it. The Spirit’s interruption is the catalyst that moves him.

We spoke a bit about catalysts in the class last Sunday. What moves us from our traditions of white privilege and prejudice to new ways of approaching people of color? We discussed how colonialism in this country happened when the English came in with the tradition of owning land, and met with the native people who had a tradition of caring for the land, but not owning it. There was a clash of traditions, and the one with the most power, money, and weaponry ended up creating the next tradition.

Our country has had a number of catalysts. The Civil War. The Civil Rights movement. Women refusing to stand on a bus. Marches. Protests. The death of Trayvon Martin. The death of Philando Castille. The removal of Confederate statues and flags. These are catalysts that have the power to change the tradition of hate in our world. White people must take the responsibility to state that we have systemically benefited from these traditions, but we will no more. We have to find a way to move forward.

Our class had a lengthy conversation about reparations, and how we can financially pay back what has been taken from our friends of color. We had many ideas, but no solid solutions. Perhaps the best we could come up with was that each person in the United States pay a $2 tax that goes to reparations. The problem was who would be in charge of how it was distributed, and who it was distributed to, which was never decided upon.

The most tangible solution we discussed was in relationships. Again, racial reconciliation must be systemic and individual. We have to be committed to joining in ministry with our friends of color. We have a partnership with St. Stephen’s AME Church, but I challenge us to do more with them. They are just down the street. We have many opportunities beyond Holy Week services to work and worship with them.

In northern India there are people who make living root bridges. These are made by manipulating trees that are rooted in the ground to cross a chasm. The trees keep growing. Eventually, the trees are strong enough that they can hold human weight and are used to transport people from one side to the other. I believe this is another metaphor we can use in our world. We have to build living bridges – bridges that can shape over time and move with the land. We have to tend to the bridges until it can hold us. Every time prejudice wins, the bridge dies a bit. So, we have to keep tending the bridge. We have to keep at it, and be persistent. Let us be a living bridge in the world. Amen.

 

[1] David Maxwell, ed., Race in a Post-Obama America. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2016), 78.

[2] Maxwell, 80.

[3] Ibid., 105-106.