Bound Together in Children’s Ministries

  • November 14, 2019

For three years running, the children of WCUC have been eager and enthusiastic participants in our church’s Congregational Giving campaign. Beginning in October, our children learned about our church’s finances – where our money comes from and where our money goes. And we talk about giving. What does Jesus say about money and possessions? How do people decide how much to give away? Why is giving such a good thing? Our children also want to participate in the financial health of our church and experience the gift of giving. So once again, the kids worked hard to create cards and crafts to sell at our third annual Congregational Giving sale, with all the proceeds being offered back to WCUC as our Children’s Ministries pledge for 2020. Because our giving theme this year was “Bind Us Together,” we decided to use yarn, twine, and lots and lots of needles to create our beautiful cards and our woven bracelets. Please enjoy the pictures, which show our crafting process and tell our giving story from sewing to sale! Thanks to ALL who came to support the children’s amazing efforts!

Money Problems

Luke 18:9-14

Image by Jesus Mafa

The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, according to our scriptures (1 Timothy 6:10). I wonder if you can remember a time when money has been the cause of evil in your life: when money has caused a problem for you.

There are so many different kinds of money problems.  There are personal money problems; we may experience a conflict between our income and our needs, or our income and our wants. There are relational money problems; differing amounts of money, differing approaches to money can cause tension with family and friends. Money can divide us politically, as we argue about how it should be taxed and spent by our government.  Our wealth also divides us socially, and is used to reinforce racial divisions, granting or denying us access to neighborhoods, to schools, to careers.  And there’s at least one other sort of money problem. According to Jesus, money can cause problems in our relationship with God.

In the parable Jesus tells today, two people go up to the Temple in Jerusalem to pray.  Both are at odds with God because of money.  One is a tax collector, a collaborator with the Roman Government. Like Zachhaeus, whose story we heard last week, this person has taken advantage of others, charging them more than what is owed. Through avarice and greed, this person has divided themselves from both God and neighbor.

The other person is a Pharisee, someone who carefully follows the guidance of Torah. This one observes righteous practices, such as fasting and giving away a tenth of their income.  Knowing this, we might assume that they are at peace with God and beloved in their community. However, the scripture story is quick to destroy that idea.  Apparently this person stands apart from everyone else, and prays what can only be called an obnoxious prayer: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people!” For this person, generosity has led to self-satisfaction and contempt for others. They are also divided  from both God and neighbor.  

Every year in this season we reflect on issues of money.  In part, that’s because we ask you to consider making a giving commitment to the church. But that’s not the whole story.  Jesus talks about money all the time – more than just about anything else. According to Jesus, money is one of the biggest barriers that we face when trying to get close to God. We have to talk about money in church, if we’re going to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus.

Everyone’s relationship with money is different, depending on our background, our experiences, and our current bank balance. But most of us struggle somehow in this area. We are plagued by pride or shame, privilege or want, jealousy, or some confusing combination of these feelings. Few of us may have reached the extremes of greed or self-satisfaction illustrated by Jesus’ parable.  Still, we may find ourselves fairly mixed-up about what a faithful way might be to spend, to save, and to share what we have.

I must confess to you that this is something I continue to struggle with.  Living in Concord, I am oddly aware of all the things that my family doesn’t have: fancy vacations; unlimited extracurricular activities, high fashion, club memberships, constantly new electronics. This environment encourages me to view my own means as quite moderate. It teaches me to protect my income for the use of myself, my children, my retirement.  On the other hand, I have only to pay closer attention to the world around me, even right here in this geographic area, to remember that my family’s means are not only sufficient, but extravagant.  Just the fact that we don’t need to worry about money (as long as we plan a little) is an extraordinary privilege.  Add to that a beautiful neighborhood, an extraordinary school system, the ability to afford daycare, access to good produce; connection to the arts… I could go on and on.

For many years now I have shared my own giving habits with you.  I am fortunate to be able to continue dedicating ten percent of my income towards this church.  It has become a habit, something that our family’s finances are structured around.  Some of you have heard the story of how this happened: how my spouse’s giving spurred me on to greater generosity. I admit to still struggling over how to prioritize my other giving: how much it should be, and where it should it go. Pray for me, as we make the transition out of daycare bills this year, as I continue to discern how God is calling us to be stewards of what comes into our hands.

No matter where we are on the spectrum of wealth, and no matter where we are in our practice of generosity towards others, our practices about money belong in our prayer life.  There are so many conflicting messages within and around us concerning money, that only with God’s help can we make some peace in our divided hearts.

But once we open ourselves to God’s help, then the Spirit really starts to move. For the amazing thing about money is that it not only causes problems and divides us from one another; it can connect us, too.  Think of what money makes possible, when it is used for good.  Money can buy food and fuel social transformation. Money can support the arts and make reparations for injustice.  Money can connect us to people right next door or around the world in common cause.  And when we give with peaceful and humble hearts, money can also connect us with God, who fills us with power and purpose and joy.

And I have to say: it is a joy for me to use the money that has come into my care to help fuel this congregation, and to witness you doing the same.  To hear the stories of those who need this place, and whose lives have changed because of their encounters here with God and with all of you, because of your generosity. In music, care, service, prayer, personal growth, deep sharing: this community binds up hearts, and reaches out to facilitate connections far beyond our walls.

Beloved, how is your relationship with money, right now? Is it a source of stress, or pride, or shame, or all of the above, or something else entirely? How do the ways that you use your money separate you from and connect you with God and your neighbor? Jesus invites us to pray on these things with humility; to seek ever greater alignment of our conscience and our practice, for our own sake, and for the sake of others.

Those two people in the parable came to the temple with their money problems; and we come here, to church; because at least some part of us longs to worship God, instead of wealth.  The good news is that God offers abundant grace to all of us: the penniless, and the over-privileged; the generous, and the grudging; the self-satisfied, and those who are ashamed.  God offers us grace, and invites us to try again, and again. Each day the next breath, the next choice, a bit more freedom, peace, and gratitude. May it be so for each of us. Amen.

Book Sale for Esperanza – Hope for the Children

  • November 8, 2019

Last weekend, WCUC hosted a book sale to support children in Honduras who need medical, financial, and educational assistance. We raised over $600.00 and had a great time doing it! To read more about Emily and Tom Collins’ non-profit organization click here.

A huge thank you to all of the volunteers from WCUC that helped to make this possible – those who donated or bought books, helped with set up, the sale itself, and clean up! The left over books were donated to More Than Words, a local non-profit book store that is managed and operated by foster care youth and young adults. A special shout out to those who helped box up all of the books after the sale ended on Sunday – a great joint effort by the Youth, Sunday Fellowship and other WCUC adults.

Invited In

Luke 19:1-10

I love this story. I hope you were listening closely. What do we know about Zachhaeus, what kind of job does he have?

Zachhaeus is a Jewish tax collector for the Roman government.  We can understand, maybe, why he isn’t wildly popular.  Most of his fellow Jewish community is not fond of the Roman Empire that is ruling over them.  Many folks don’t like taxes, either, especially taxation without representation, oppressive taxation, which is what the Jewish people have under the Romans.

But Zachhaeus doesn’t just have a job that people love to hate. He’s not just collaborating with the enemy. What else does Zachhaeus do that might make him unpopular? Zachhaeus takes advantage of his position. He charges people more than they owe, and he keeps that money for himself.

Now, if you had never heard this story, and you found out about Zachhaeus, and his job, and what he’s been up to, what would you expect to happen to him? This seems like the perfect set-up for a downfall.  Surely someone is going to catch Zachhaeus red handed, and then throw him into jail or out of town, or, at the very least, shame him publicly.

But – that’s not what happens to Zachhaeus.

Zachhaeus, we discover, is not a one-dimensional character. His whole heart and mind are not entirely taken up with greed.  There is something else inside of him, something we might call… curiosity. Zachhaeus hears that a famous rabbi named Jesus is coming through town, and Zachhaeus wants to see him.

Zachhaeus wants to see Jesus — not just a little. He really wants to catch a glimpse. So when he discovers that, being a short person, he can’t see over the crowds (Zachhaeus, I feel your pain!); when he discovers that the crowds won’t let him in; what does he do?  He runs down the street, and up into a tree, to get a glimpse. A grown man, clambering up a Sycamore tree.

It turns out that whatever curiosity, longing, loneliness drives Zachhaeus into the tree, Jesus is ready to meet it.  Jesus sees this adult man in fancy clothes, this wealthy man who has climbed up into a tree to see him, and Jesus knows: this is the person I need to have dinner with tonight. So Jesus invites himself over to Zachhaeus’ house for a meal. Jesus talks to Zacchaeus like a friend.  And as they talk, Zachhaeus confesses what he has done, and promises to change his ways.

Maybe you know what it feels like to be Zachhaeus: stranded on the outside, wishing you were in.  Sometimes we’re excluded because of mistakes that we make, because of bad choices, like Zachhaeus was.  Sometimes we’re excluded because of who we are: what we look like, who we love, our history.  Sometimes we just find ourselves the odd one out, for no particular reason at all.  No matter how it happens, it doesn’t feel good, to be the one no one talks to, the one no one makes room for, the one no one invites over for dinner.

The good news is that God has a special care for those on the outside.  God’s always searching for folks who are curious, who are longing, who are lonely.  God specializes in offering unexpected invitations. Are you weighed down with guilt? God says, Come unburden yourself.  Have you been made to feel that you are not an infinitely precious child of God, just as you are?  God says, come receive my blessing.  Are you just lonely, tired, in need of a little grace?  God says, There is room at my table for you. Come, rest awhile, and have something to eat.

As followers of Jesus, as church, we have the opportunity to both receive God’s invitations, and to offer them to one another. It takes all of us, drawing the strands in and out, to make the weaving of our holy community come together.  I am so grateful that in God’s wisdom, they chose to weave each of you into the fabric of this particular cloth. I am so grateful, to be bound together with all of you, and for the binding together that you do among us, through God’s grace, week to week.

So let’s praise God, that we are not alone this morning, on the outside, wishing we were in.  God is our host here, and that means everyone is home, even if we’re still working on feeling that way.  And let’s praise God that we get to become bound together more closely in love with everyone here this morning, and with a few folks who have chosen to become members of our community today.

Saints of WCUC

On October 27, we heard Ephesians 1:15-19 and these reflections on saints of our congregation.

Emma Hefty Mitchell, remembered by her daughter, Jean Moscariello

The person I most admire is my mother, Emma Hefty Mitchell.

My mother was a very devoted Christian and very generous, helping others whenever she could.  She instilled in me good values and I have tried to be like her.

Emma was born in 1905 and was placed in the Cradle Roll of the church.  In 1991 she and George Hefty were 2 of the six Centennial Babies we celebrated at our Centennial Covenant.  She was a member of the church and attended faithfully until 1927 when she married and moved to Guilford, Connecticut.  However, when she came to live with me she once again became a member.  It meant so much to her.

I would now like to read excerpts from a letter I found that my mother wrote to give you an idea how things were a hundred years ago at Union Church:

“My association with West Concord Union Church began on My 14, 1905, when I was enrolled in the Cradle Roll at  the age of 2 months.  Mary B Lane was Superintend of the Cradle Roll at that time and for the next 3 years she sent me a birthday card on March 23 which I still have.  Mr. Campbell was pastor then. As I grew older my mother took me with her to Prayer Meeting every Wednesday night.

I well remember the huge Christmas trees which were set up in that same room.  The presents from the parents and other relatives would be brought and put on the tree and Christmas Eve Santa would be there and climb on a high step ladder to reach some of the presents and call the name of the person it was for.  I’ll never forget the night I received the biggest doll near the top of the tree which I very much longed for.  When my name was called I instead received a small baby doll from my Aunt but before the evening was over I did receive the big one which my daughter now has.

When I was in my teens I joined the Christian Endeavor Society and spent many happy hours with that group.

I became a member of the church May l, l921 when Alfred Stone was pastor.  Before that I remember attending Sunday School when Mildred Stone was my teacher and we met in the choir cloak room, some of us sitting on the steps.

When I got married in 1927 I moved to Guilford, Connecticut and attended the First Congregation Church regularly but could not bring myself to take a letter from the West Concord Union Church until 1950 when I did finally join the Congregational Church.

My memories of the years at Union Church are very dear to me and I still have connections there through my daughter, Jean Moscariello, and brother, George Hefty, and attend church whenever I come to Concord.”

I give thanks to God for the life of Emma Hefty Mitchell.

Mary Aldrich, Marilyn Cousins & Edna Wagner, remembered by Ann Schummers

I give thanks to God for 5 amazing women. They were known as the lunch bunch because they shared birthdays, holidays and fun times together.
They loved each other, they loved their families, they loved their friends and they loved this church. They are role models for all of us.

Mary Aldrich shared her beautiful voice with our church and with other places of worship, including a Synagogue. She cared for countless little children in her day care program with gentleness, kindness and love.

Marilyn Cousins sang in our choir and rang bells for many years. Her nursing background helped her care for children and her loving gentleness helped her care for all who knew her, especially her husband Norm and her family.

Edna Wagner gave us energy, enthusiasm, and an eagerness to share her love of travel. She loved Wednesday morning Bible Study and never missed a day unless she was in China, Antarctica or wherever! She showed us how powerful friendship can be and what we can give each other.

Fran Gardella is a saint and she is still with us as we worship. Her laughter, her kindness, her energy and her skills as a teacher enrich our lives on a daily basis. She has served this church as a Deacon, a Trustee, and a member of the Fellowship Committee and Helping Hand. She is a joy to us all.

Annie Holt is another saint sitting in our congregation every Sunday. Her warmth, her smile, her gentleness, her laughter warms our hearts and caresses our soles. She was a teacher for many years and she continues to teach all of us to share the love of God with all who touch our lives.

We are all blessed by the presence of these women in our lives.

Miriam Coombs, remembered by Constance Putnam

I first met Miriam Coombs when we served on one of the sub-committees of Concord’s 350th celebration.  When the chairperson asked for a volunteer to serve as secretary, no one budged—until Miriam said that she, as a former high school English teacher, could perhaps manage. When she discovered I would be driving past her house to attend those meetings, she said I could easily give her a lift to subsequent sessions of the committee.  I liked her immediately, for that directness and its correctness.

From then until the day she died, Miriam was my closest friend in town, despite the age gap.  Or maybe because of it; certainly I benefited from her Elder’s Wisdom on many occasions.  Many people—including a number here today—also were close friends;  Miriam was generous with friendship in many forms. 

I learned that only later, when Miriam—figuratively speaking—opened the door of West Concord Union Church for me, giving me a community I had not had up to that point in town.  Miriam cared deeply about this church, and she served it in many ways, too many to list here; a couple of examples will give the flavor.  She used to quietly make sure Sunday Fellowship members were well served during coffee hour and befriended Charles, who still remembers her.  For a number of years she directed the children’s choir.  Long after she gave up that connection with the children, her favorite Sunday was still Children’s Sunday.  Thus I was very surprised the year she told me not to pick her up on Children’s Sunday because she was not going to church.  When I asked why not, she said simply that the children get excited—as they should—and rush around.  She did not want to risk one of them knocking her off balance.  “Just think how terrible that child would feel if I fell?”

More dramatic and more important, because very public, was what Miriam said the day of the congregation’s vote on whether to go on record officially as an Open and Affirming community.  When someone moved to table the motion for six months to allow  additional time for discussion, Miriam pulled herself up, using the back of the pew in front of her (she was 91), and said, “I am not in favor of the motion to table—because who knows whether I will still be here in six months?  I want to be able to vote on the issue itself, and I want to vote YES!” 

The motion to table was defeated.  The vote in favor of this congregation making public its Open and Affirming stance was overwhelming.  

And an old woman led them.

Julia and John Forbes, remembered by their son, Maynard Forbes

My parents, John and Julia Forbes, were strong church people who were involved with the church as long as I can remember. John came from a Presbyterian church in Merrigomish, Nova Scotia and Julia came from a Baptist church in Greene, ME. When they married they joined the Winthrop Congregational Church where they were very active and where they made sure Carolyn and I attended church school and church regularly.

When we moved to West Concord in 1951 joining the West Concord church was one of the first priorities. Julia sang in the choir and became involved with the helping hand society. She also was also a Deaconess and stalwart member of the flower committee. A quiet presence but she was always there.  John was an usher and chaired the ushering group for many years. Because he was in business in the community he knew and met many people so when a new face came into the church he was always there to greet them, and see that they were well received.  John served on the trustees and was involved with many stewardship campaigns.  He was also involved with counting the collection after church. He dealt with money every day so this was a simple task for him.

John might do a little bookkeeping or sneak in a quiet project at the store on a Sunday, but Sunday was a day of rest from the work of the store. Even as more stores would be open on Sunday he held the line on being closed on Sunday. Sunday was church day and the two of them were very regular attendees. Together they lived strong Christian lives with a faith in God and faith in the church. Following John’s strong work ethic has helped me throughout my life. Julia’s patience and love provided a great solace as a youngster and many other times through my life.  They were great examples to follow. I thank God for the lives of John and Julia Forbes.

Bind Us Together… with love

  • October 29, 2019

We invite you to join us in giving and in celebrating on November 17th! Learn more here.

Wondering in Sunday School: what is important for worship?

  • October 23, 2019

In preparation for learning about our Congregational Giving appeal later this month, our Sunday school children heard the story of King Solomon and the construction of his great temple in Jerusalem over 3000 years ago. And what a spectacular and grand house of worship it was! The finest wood, stone, and precious jewels and metals were used in construction, prompting King Solomon to declare it a space truly worthy to worship God. But are the finest, most expensive materials necessary to worship God? We wondered this. We wondered what is really necessary to create a worship space for God – and would God care? I showed the children a slide show of 25 of the most fascinating worship spaces in the world – from an inflatable church in England to a snow church in Germany to a Hindu temple buried deep within the mountains of Nepal to a Buddhist monastery constructed so high on top of a mountain peak, no one could figure out how anyone could get in! The last picture in our slide show was of West Concord Union Church, prompting discussion about what is unique about our community and how our different spaces (the sanctuary, the Welcome Garden, North Hall, and even the parlor and the offices) make it possible to worship together. The children decided that four things are necessary for worship: a leader, people, some space, and God. Armed with those thoughts in mind, I challenged the children to create their own unique worship spaces, complete with what they felt was most important to include. The Middler class worked collaboratively, creating an incredible structure with three outdoor gardens, a stream and a waterfall! The Multiage class worked independently, using containers and a variety of materials to create their own spaces including elevators, special seating, alters, and lots of decorations. Please enjoy the pictures, and pay special attention to the level of detail our children use when creating their worship spaces. If you could create your own space, how would you design it?

Ancient Christian Songs and Canticles

The music listed in this sermon (and more!) can be found in this Spotify Playlist.

John 1:1-5

This year we’re taking one Sunday each month to explore the music we sing together.  The music we share in worship is such a central part of our life together; this is a chance to learn about its history, and consider what we wish to sing today. We started, last month, with the Hebrew psalms, a scriptural book of songs. Today we’ll move to ancient songs, canticles, and hymns from the early era of the church.

Much of the most ancient Christian music we have is part of the liturgy of the mass, music for worship services including communion.  During special music Sundays, we often get to hear a whole mass setting; we will hear another in December. In our worship here, you are more likely to hear a small piece of a mass, such as a gloria, an alleluia, or the sanctus (holy, holy, holy). Like so many ancient songs, we do not know the tunes that were originally used with these pieces of the mass, but settings abound. One familiar hymn that finds its source in a mass is Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence (NCH 345). The words, originally in Greek, are ascribed to St. James the Less, the first Bishop of Jerusalem, and were used while bread and cup were brought to the table.

Other ancient Christian music finds it source in other worship services: the liturgy of the hours, short prayer services held throughout the day.  This is where we find the canticles: songs of praise that take their text directly from the Bible, but not from the psalms.  A few of you may remember some of these canticles from the summer series on Songs of the Bible a year and a half ago, such as the victory song of Moses and Miriam in the book of Exodus. The most famous of the canticles, however, are from the birth narrative in the beginning of the gospel of Luke: Mary’s song, the Magnificat, which we sang as our opening hymn; the song of Zechariah, known as the Benedictus; and the Song of Simeon, known as the Nunc Dimittis, which we’ll sing as our closing hymn.

One canticle you may never have heard of is the Canticle of the Three Holy Children, also known by its Latin name: Benedicte omnia opera.  This canticle comes from the book of Daniel, although the passage is not included in most Protestant bibles. It’s a song of praise lifted up by Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego, after they are freed from the fiery furnace. Like all the ancient canticles, you can find many different versions of this to listen to.  I thought it might be interesting to sing it together as it might be traditionally sung in a liturgy of the hours. So, I invite you to imagine that you have just been freed from a fiery furnace and are full of gratitude to God; or that you’re sitting in a monastery, at vespers…

Our scripture reading today was from the beginning of the gospel of John. These are the words of a Greek song of praise to Jesus that precedes the recording of the scriptures. Unfortunately, we don’t know how it was originally sung, but translations and musical settings of this text abound. One of the most famous is a Latin text written by Marcus Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, a Spanish monastic, in the 5th century. Most of us know it (if we know it at all) by the title, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” When I saw that the translation in our New Century Hymnal was “Of the Parent’s Heart Begotten,” I assumed this was an attempt of the hymnal editors to be more inclusive in their imagery for God.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the original Latin is Corde natus ex parentis, born from the heart of the parent. Somehow, in the 19th century this was translated from Latin to English variously as “Of the Father sole begotten,” “Born of the Father’s bosom” “Of the Father’s will begotten” “Son eternal of the Father,” and “Yea! From the Almighty mind He sprung.” It’s a fascinating example of patriarchal bias being perhaps stronger in modern times than it was in the early church.  At any rate, our hymnal’s editors chose to commission an entirely new translation from the Latin. Let’s sing it together, Black Hymnal # 118, first and last verses.

Before we leave early Christian music, after an entirely too brief visit, I have to tell you one of the more fascinating stories I learned in my research.  As you may recall, almost all early Christian music is designed for choirs to sing, not congregations. One early exception is O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright, a Latin hymn from the 4th Century.

The story of this hymn begins with Saint Ambrose, bishop of Milan.  Ambrose was particularly passionate in defending the church against what eventually became known as the heresy of Arianism. Arianism is the idea that Jesus, while coming from God, is not as great as God, or made of the same stuff as God. If you are inclined to Arianism yourself (I know you’re out there), or if you can’t see what difference it makes either way, trust me: this was a major dispute within the church for centuries. Things got so hot in Milan between the Arians and the non-Arians that the churches led by Ambrose came under siege.  In one telling, Ambrose and his followers locked themselves inside a church for safety, and kept cheerful by writing hymns proclaiming the divinity of Christ.  Ambrose carefully crafted his songs with rhyme and meter so as to be easy for anyone to sing: a great strategy for spreading trinitarianism.

So let’s sing one of the very first congregational hymns of the church, one of the very first protest songs of the church.

I encourage you to take some time exploring Masses and Canticles and early hymns there and beyond.  Let’s give thanks, for those early Jesus-followers who knew that words were not enough, but used music to enrich our worship life together, and to inform our theology. Let’s give thanks, to the God who inspired it all. Amen.

White Fragility

  • October 15, 2019

Luke 17:5-10, Habakkuk 1:2-4, 2:1-4

I will never forget the day I visited the Voortrekker monument in South Africa.  This monument celebrates those of Dutch descent who travelled from the Cape Colony on the tip of the continent to settle further east. Like many monuments, this one is imposing: set on a hill, with a great bank of steps leading up to the door. As I entered the building, I was surrounded by yellow light, and the biggest marble frieze in the world.  It was beautiful — until I got a closer look.  The frieze was full if images of conquest. Some were gruesome in and of themselves. Others were gutting because I knew what they led to: the collapse of the Zulu empire, a nation of Apartheid, and a modern South Africa of unspeakable inequality. This monument marks the beginning of it all. Worse, it celebrates that beginning. It is constructed so that once a year, a beam of light shines directly on the center of the monument, symbolizing God’s blessing on the Voortrekkers and their achievements.

Just being in the room made me nauseous. How could anyone build such a monument? How could anyone leave it standing? I walked out into the sunshine and sat down on the great steps, full of self-righteous disgust for the white peoples of South Africa. Then, suddenly, my world turned upside down.

I thought about the pilgrims and pioneers who we so often celebrate in New England. I thought of the indigenous communities who were systematically cheated and destroyed here. I thought about the African peoples and their descendants who have endured 246 years of enslavement, followed by racial segregation, and continuing disparities in incarceration, health, wealth, and so much more. Of course, I had known about all of this history before; this was just the first time that I realized it had anything to do with me. Witnessing the price of white dominance somewhere else, I began to grasp the cost of my own racial privilege.

You may wonder, what does the bible have to say about race and racism? That’s a complicated question.  It’s important to remember that our scriptures contain passages like the one we heard today from the gospel of Luke, where Jesus equates discipleship with slavery.  By doing so, Jesus implicitly condones the institution of slavery. Now, slavery in Jesus’ time and place was not exclusively based on race.  Still, Jesus’ implicit approval is deeply problematic. Biblical passages accepting or even promoting slavery have been one brutally effective tool in the effort to legitimize slavery and other forms of racism in our country.

At the same time, our scriptures speak strongly against violence and injustice, and champion those who are excluded or vulnerable.  The Prophet Habbakuk, who testified to God’s word in Jerusalem around 600 bce, is so overcome by the injustice of his time and place, that he offers a rare prophetic challenge to God: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you do not listen? Or cry to you “Violence” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.  The wicked surround the righteous – therefore judgement comes forth perverted.”

Today we begin discussing the book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo.  DiAngelo invites us to a new level of awareness of racism as “a far-reaching system that functions independently from the intentions or self-images of individual actors.”  Those of us who are white have been carefully taught to think of racial injustice as somebody else’s problem. It’s the problem of folks who are on the receiving end of discrimination. It’s the problem of folks who speak and act viciously, out of hate.  Yet those of us who consider ourselves both white and well-meaning are integral to this pervasive system of institutionalized bias. We are the ones who benefit from it, and we are the ones who uphold it – consciously or not. 

Put away all your excuses, Robin DiAngelo tells us. Maybe you have a great education, unique personal experiences, or family ties that persuade you that you cannot possibly be party to this vast and often subtle system of racial oppression. Do not believe it. Racism is not the sin of a few scattered extremists. Racism is not even a matter of personal intention.  Racism is a natural consequence of socialization.  None of us can escape the disease. Therefore, to deny the diagnosis, and to refuse treatment, is to doom the whole body of society to graver illness.

So what do we do?  If racism is an integral part of our history, a part of our country, a part of our scriptures, and even a part of us – what can we do?

One step is to shift our dominant historical narrative.  This season marks the 400th anniversary of chattel slavery in the United States. There has been some great journalism exploring the impact of that history. The Massachusetts Council of Churches chose to mark the event by celebrating Black Resiliency in our commonwealth. They remembered the writer Phillis Wheatley; and the first woman of African descent allowed to purchase a house in Boston, Zipporah Potter Atkins. They remembered children who rode busses to unfamiliar school districts, and youth who marched to protest police brutality. They remembered Belinda Sutton, who was enslaved in Medford, who petitioned the Massachusetts General Court again and again for her back pay. They remembered Prince Estabrook, who though enslaved, fought with the Lexington Militia in the Revolutionary war. They remembered Lucy Foster of South Church in Andover, who ran a tavern as well as a stop on the Underground Railroad. They celebrated so many folks who have lived with courage and determination through these 400 years.  Why isn’t that part of the story I learned in school, a part of the story we tell ourselves, this legacy that includes both white injustice and black strength?

Another step is to change our monuments. On the cover of your bulletin is a photograph of Kahinde Wiley’s new statue, Rumors of War. Standing 27 feet high and 16 feet wide, it was inspired by equestrian statues of Confederate generals in Richmond, VA. Instead of a Conferederate General, however, it features a young man of African descent, with dreadlocks, a hoodie, and ripped jeans.  At the unveiling, the artist described his experience of seeing the Confederate monuments: “I’m looking up at those things that give me a sense of dread and fear… Today,” he said, “we say yes to something that looks like us. We say yes to inclusivity. We say yes to broader notions of what it means to be an American.” Soon this statue will join the others in Richmond.

There is so much that we can do, so much that we need to do.  We can change our historical narrative, our monuments, our holidays.  We can challenge our scriptures and shift our policies.  All of this, though, will only be possible if we stop lying to ourselves about the pervasive, pernicious nature of white supremacy.  It will only be possible if we develop both deep curiosity and deep humility, about how white supremacy operates in our lives, and in the world around us.

The prophet Habakkuk, surrounded by wrong-doing, does finally receive word from God. She says: there is still a vision for the appointed time. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come. Until then, live by faith; put your trust in God. Later, Habakkuk writes: Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines… yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. (Habakkuk 3:17a, 18).

We may not always recognize the vision that will transform our troubled time. We may not always find fruits of righteousness in the world around us, or even in ourselves. Still, it is our duty and our joy to rejoice in the God of our salvation. For it is this God who invites us into freedom from every falsehood, and forgiveness for every error.  The One who led the Israelites up out of slavery in Egypt will not abandon us to the injustices around and within us today. Thanks be to God.