A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 13 February 2022 by Revd Sally Hitchiner
Readings for address: Isaiah 11: 1-9, 1 Peter 5: 6-11
I have always loved African American spirituals: those hymns written by an enslaved people, and sung not only in church on Sunday, but also out in the fields and rivers, on the railroads and in the mines. These songs were for everyday life, just as faith should be. There is however a part of me that feels uncomfortable at how many of my favourites are about escaping this world to go to heaven. O Happy Day; I’ll Fly Away; Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. I worried I was investing too much in that old heresy sometimes called Gnosticism, which denigrates the physical world and yearns for a purely spiritual existence.
But of course that’s not really what’s going on here. And of course, enslaved people would sing of a world better than the one they knew all too well. And if God is just, as we insist: then there must be recompense, real reprieve, reparation, for those who have suffered as they did, these men and women and children dragged across continents and consigned to be property, treated as beasts of burden and worse. In their place, I too would sing longingly and locate myself in a home far away.
People with privilege don’t often do that. One of the striking things about the House of Lords are the huge Victorian paintings on the walls of the story of the Exodus. In fact, there’s a whole room called the Moses room. It seems strange that the people running the Victorian Empire chose to surround themselves with stories of Moses. Even people who were closer in action to the Egyptians in this story couldn’t hear a story with a hero that wasn’t about them. One of the pernicious natures of being in power is that you assume everything revolves around you.
The slaves in America had the same Bible, the same faith. And yet their sense of their place in the story – the slaves having a secure home they will one day go on to, the House of Lords as the centre of the universe – is so different.
Today is Racial Justice Sunday. Following the murder of Stephen Lawrence, a Black teenager in South London, on 22 April 1993, churches of all kinds in Britain and Ireland were invited to join in focus on this once a year. It’s a call for EVERYONE to engage in ending the evils of racism and to celebrate racial diversity throughout society and the church. On this day we are invited to take stock, not just of the sins of our fathers and mothers but of our world today. We are also invited to understand afresh the gift we have in the racial diversity in the church and wider society.
So how are we to understand our place in our racialised world, today on Racial Justice Sunday?
The Bible has three references to race, one from the past, one for the present, one for the future.
It talks about our shared origin, all people created and inspired by God and designed to be gloriously diverse. In Acts 17.26, for example, it says “God made from one man every nation in human kind.”
Every way of being human, every culture has its origin in the same spot, the same breath of God. Whether we believe this is literally one human being (let’s face it, it was more likely a woman) who first had the genetic mutation that made the first human being or not, the point is still true. We are one species. There is more that unites us than divides us.
More than this it talks about all human beings carrying the Image of God. The Imago Dei is a dignity that is given to humankind that is different to any other created thing. In forming us, in forming you, God planted on your face, in your body, something of God’s self.
I’m a fan of jigsaw puzzles and I like to think of it as if a picture of God was broken into a million tiny pieces and each person who has ever lived is given one to show the world something of God that no one else could. The most frustrating thing when doing a jigsaw puzzle is when
whole sections are missing. The odd piece is bad enough but how are you supposed to see what the picture is supposed to look like if a whole section isn’t available? If we reject a whole group of humanity, if you find yourself stripped of self confidence and the church does not hear a particular voice, awe are all going to miss a part of God’s image here on earth.
Every human being carries the Imago Dei – the image of God – but every human being can engage with this to a greater or lesser extent.
Our New Testament reading talks about the devil being a roaring lion, roaming about looking for who he may devour. While I don’t think we need to worry about a pointy tailed red devil coming to get you, what it talks about is much more scary. Evil, Peter warns, is mobile.
It’s easy to look to bring racial justice by tearing down statues and no platforming speakers. We also deify individuals and organisations we believe to be good as if they are somehow immune from evil. There is a right moment for anger (and we are possibly at that moment now) when we need to remove statues and symbols of oppression and limit access to platforms of those who refuse to change. But we should not believe that this is enough to remove the evil of racism.
Evil is mobile. It can be found in good institutions and good people. If you haven’t lived with this reality, let me say racism is even found in St Martin-in-the-Fields. Racism can be found in people who are trying to be good. The experience of Whoopi Goldberg recently shows it can even be found in people who have experienced significant racism themselves. Perhaps it is especially difficult to spot in communities who are orientated around being a positive force for society like we are.
All of us, especially people in good institutions like ours, must be vigilant to this roaming lion seeking to devour. Just as every human being has the image of God, the line of right and injustice falls down every human heart.
But evil isn’t the only thing that is mobile.
The second reference in the bible to race is the Chosen Race. Every person is not just created by God but chosen for relationship, as we discover this we are welcomed into the church in baptism. In 1 Peter 2.9 “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people”. Perhaps the labels of race are in themselves racist. Who gets to say which race you are part of? Whatever race you were assigned at your birth, even if you are gentile, you are grafted into the children of Abraham, the Chosen race of God. So the House of Lords got it half right.
But look around you. God’s chosen race is quite diverse. God welcomes all sorts of people, from all corners of the world into this Chosen Race “Once you were not a people,” it goes on to say “but now you are God’s people”
We are most fundamentally the family of God. Whatever privileges or persecutions we will know due to the race you were assigned at birth (and the first century Christians knew many), Jew or Gentile, you have a new birth into a chosen race defined by Christ’s privilege and Christ’s persecutions.
1 Peter calls it being reborn into a living hope. This definition isn’t fixed it is living, it is mobile. It is growing in diversity with every new member.
Does this mean that our experiences of our cultures or the diversity of our bodies, the colour of our skin, the different shapes of our muscles, noses and hair are unimportant?
No! Just as Christ’s body is made up of different limbs, we are to meet difference with curiosity and delight. Each person is a unique mystery of character, culture and experience to be listened to not a problem to be categorised or stereotyped.
But there’s more. By celebrating our cultural differences in the church we can discover more of Christ.
I once lived with a friend who was discovering Christianity as an Iranian. It was not easy. She kept asking me questions. Why do you have a Christmas Tree? On Easter Day, why do we eat so much rather than giving some of the food to the poor? Why do you treat your older people the way you do? She wanted to work out what is Christianity and what is just Britishness.
To put it another way, I don’t know if you have ever had a partner and then met their old friends who knew them before you met them, perhaps their school friends. You think you know someone but there are always things to learn about them that another person has glimpsed. When we celebrate the cultural diversity in the church and meet it with curiosity and wonder we can discover another perspective on Christ.
The final way the Bible talks about race is about the new creation where every race will gather around the lamb upon the throne.
The Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator created a map of the world in 1569. To help sailors as they circumnavigated the globe from Europe, he stretched out the poles to create straight lines of constant bearing. But in so doing he squashed the countries in the centre of the map. It is still roughly the map most use today. In the map of the world you probably use Brazil looks the same size as Alaska but it’s four times larger. Greenland looks the same size as Africa where Africa is fourteen times larger. There is no North or South in space and yet on almost all world maps Europe and the USA are on top. The only major change has been as the USA became more powerful, they started making maps where they were in the centre not Europe.
In the new creation all nations will gather in their diversities around an external point to any of them: The Slain Lamb upon the Throne.
If you’ve experienced racism, it isn’t always easy to talk about it to those who haven’t and if you haven’t experienced racism, it can be hard to listen. But Christianity never promised to be easy. All that is promised is that we will find ourselves as or with those whose earthly lives have been marked by suffering at the hands of their fellow human beings… those whom Christ himself called blessed.
The song of racial justice is, like those African American spirituals, a song of prayer, but also a song to be sung out in everyday life. At the end of this service you will be sent out to love and serve the Lord. You will (I hope) go downstairs for coffee and share your stories and listen to experiences of racism and racial justice we have in our community.
But before that you are invited to a table.
Today is the first Sunday as we emerge from the pandemic that we are invited to kneel at the communion rail.
· If you come forward to the communion rail take a moment as you wait for your turn.
· If you go to the side isles take a moment as you get up out of your seat and walk forward.
· If you join online think as you reach out your hand to write Amen and join in the comments
· If you stay in your seat for access reasons, think as you reach out your hands
Christ comes to us in broken bread that we are all invited to move towards.