I was recently introduced to an old Patsy Cline song entitled “Dear God.” It starts something like:
I go to church on a Sunday.
The vows that I make I break them on Monday.
The rest of the week I do as I please.
Then come Sunday morning I pray on my knees.
It’s a wonderful little ditty and a catchy tune. I’ve been humming it (and practicing it) for days.
The reason that I bring it up is that I also recently heard that no one ever leaves church humming a good sermon.
And that’s okay. I don’t need to take it personally. But this is Racial Justice Sunday (as well as Abraham Lincoln’s birthday), and what I have to say I want to stick with you. I want you to leave here with a to-do list and I don’t want you to forget it.
I am not the first person to have referred our great state as being “lily white,” but it is not. It probably never has been. Just in Cumberland, between our last two censuses of the year 2000 and the year 2010, our black population increased 240%. Our Hispanic and Asian populations each grew 83%. By comparison, our white population decreased. These trends are duplicated in Portland.
The truth is that there are more than 15,000 black people living in Maine. There are more than 13,000 people of Asian origin and more than 16,000 Hispanic or Latino people here too.
If you’re not noticing them, you might ask yourself why not. Could it be that we move in different circles? And if so, why is that?
The first reading this morning, from 2 Kings, was the story of Namaan, described as “commander of the army,… a great man and in high favor with his master,” the king of Aram, an area in what we would know as central Syria.
The Bible says that Namaan,”though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy.” This is interesting for a couple of reasons. For one, the Bible doesn’t call him a leper. It just says that he “suffered from leprosy.” He wasn’t tagged as an outcast.
And obviously, despite his leprosy, he was a highly accomplished and highly valued leader. Being described as a “mighty warrior,” it is apparent that his leprosy did not disable him. He excelled beyond most men.
Still, it was worth silver, gold, clothing and chariots to his king for him to be cleansed, to look like other people.
In the past, I thought of leprosy as that disease that eats flesh and disfigures people, making them outcasts from their communities, but that was not always the case. That kind of leprosy is what is known today as Hansen’s disease. It is a nasty affliction that damages nerve endings but it is not the only condition called leprosy in the Bible.
Leprosy in the Bible also refers to other noticeable skin conditions, like eczema and psoriasis. It could be any skin condition that was abnormal and made a person look like they weren’t like everybody else. They looked different, regardless of who they were inside.
It’s humbling to consider how many of us might have been considered lepers because we ever had dry, scaly or sensitive akin. For that matter, would poison ivy make us lepers?
Biblical people who were different were forced to live on the fringes of their communities, not unlike today. It was the responsibility of the priests to maintain the integrity of their flocks. And so, if for some reason, an affliction went away, then it was up to the priests to make sure that their people were cleansed before rejoining the community. This was ritual purification. It removed the “outcast” status. It marked them as being good enough for God’s community.
We heard about leprosy again in the Mark reading. In that case, the man was labeled a leper. He did not ask Jesus to cure him, but rather to make him clean. Jesus’ willingness to honor that man & his wish removed his unclean status, making him fit to be part of the community again.
What do leprosy stories have to do with racial justice? It’s a matter of who’s in and who’s out. It’s about how we internalize who is “us” and who is “them.” Who’s like us and who’s different? Who’s got the power and who has to find a way live on the margins?
Now, the truth is that we here in Maine do live in communities that are predominantly white. I want to believe that each of us intends to treat people of color with the same dignity and respect that we would accord our white neighbors.
The racial justice challenge that I see is institutional. Injustices are built into the laws that we make and the policies that we pass. There were slavery laws. The Homestead Act of 1862 gave property to whites, but not to blacks. Jim Crow laws took away the rights and dignity of blacks. The GI Bill favored whites.
It remains true in this country that you’re likely to make more money and live in better conditions if you’re white than if you’re black.
Black men are six times more likely to end up in prison than are white men. Blacks are far more likely to be stopped for DWB (driving while black). These are just the facts.
Take a look at this Christmas card we got from the Root Cellar. I know you can’t see the details but it was hanging in the connector for a while. The kids receiving services at the low end of our economic scale represent the opposite of ME’s general population. They are predominantly black.
Now, let me put a twist to this.
The concept of “race” was devised during slave-trading days. Skin color easily distinguished between “us” and “them.” Doesn’t that sound like the leprosy we were just talking about?
Nowadays, we need to think more in terms of minority groups. For example, people may be white, but are they disadvantaged if they’re Jewish? Or if they’re homosexual? Or living in a developing country?
We all know that huge numbers of American jobs have been outsourced overseas. Why? Because it’s cheaper, and it provides American consumers with cheaper goods. It’s called “the race to the bottom”: do whatever it takes to provide low-cost goods. Cut corners.
Picture an American company opening a factory in Mexico. Health warnings are posted in English so Spanish-speaking workers don’t realize the health hazards to which they’re being exposed for our benefit.
Or consider child slave labor producing cacao in Africa to be blended with government-subsidized sugar from Brazil or the U.S. for our pleasure.
I have a bottle of apple juice here that says it contains concentrate from the U.S., Argentina, Austria, Chile, China, Germany and Turkey. How can it be cheaper to bring concentrate thousands of miles from six countries than to get it from Sweetser’s? Under what conditions are those agricultural workers working? What kinds of safeguards are not being paid for?
Justice is not just about economics or race, or leprosy. It is not charity or a bandaid. It’s not just about us and them. It’s about all of us. It is about right relationship with God, with God’s creation, and with each other.
Justice lends dignity to humanity. It brings in the marginalized for the full respect, dignity and safeguards that humanity can afford.
Now, we won’t all work for justice in the same way. We are each charged to act according to our own gifts.
I understand that Valton Morse, former pastor of this congregation, participated in the March on Washington in 1963. That was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help change discriminatory laws.
For the rest of us, I would like to offer a modest to-do list for what we each can do about racial justice here in Cumberland where it remains 95% white. This is the to-do list I want you to remember.
1. Stay informed. When you read about proposed cuts to programs for the poor, at any level of government, think about who they are likely to impact. What color are they likely to be? What would Jesus cut?
2. Don’t blame the politicians. Call them. Write to them. Sign petitions. And always vote. Vote with your feet and your dollars too. Be selective about what you buy. Live your priorities.
3. Read labels and say prayers for the workers whose names you don’t see there. On foods, on clothing, on office supplies. “Imported” does not mean exotic anymore. It’s far more likely to mean exploited. Buy Fair Trade products when you can.
Haven’t we all felt a little leprous at some time?
When we could have really used a hug but we were engulfed in gut-wrenching isolation?
Or when the winners were on the inside and we were on the outside?
That’s the message and that’s your to-do list: stay informed, vote, read labels and pray.
If you need to hum a little tune to remember it, just tag your tune to “racial justice.”
Because this work is important. It is important that we do Cumberland justice. Amen
Candidate for MA, Theological Studies