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The Rev. Holly Lyman Antolini's sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, 8/27/2017

Proper 16 Year A 1st option 8-27-17

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Exodus 1:8-2:10, Ps. 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20


Children, don’t get weary; children, don’t get weary; children, don’t get weary till the work is done… keep your lamps trimmed and burning; keep your lamps trimmed and burning; keep your lamps trimmed and burning, O see what God has done. AMEN.


That song is attributed to Blind Willie Johnson, an African-American gospel blues singer who recorded it in 1928. Born in 1897, a sharecropper’s son near Waco Texas, Blind Willie grew up in and suffered from the systemic prejudices of the Jim Crow South, including being refused a hospital bed when he suffered from malaria in 1945, after a career of performing & recording.


The Jim Crow laws may have been undone in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, but let’s listen to the words of Damon Davis, who offered a “Brief but Spectacular” perspective just this last Thursday on the PBS Newshour. Davis is African-American filmmaker, whose new documentary “Whose Streets” chronicles – often with raw iPhone video footage shot during demonstrations – the events following Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson Missouri in 2014. “It’s time to get really uncomfortable and talk about racism,” he says. Then he details what it is to be a black citizen of the United States today: “There are things that you must think about to survive daily being black in America. The neighborhood you’re in. The clothes you got on. The way you talk to people…the weight that you carry and the darker your skin is, is so terrifying, that, like, you’re just walking on eggshells your whole life. And the level of anxiety that comes along with that, I don’t know any black person that doesn’t know what I’m talking about. I been harassed by police. I been pulled out of cars, sat on the curbs, humiliated. There’s a huge chunk of the population that this is everyday life for. And think about how privileged you must be to not be afraid, every day you walk out of your house. To not be worried about, I’m driving and one of my tail lights is out. Or I’m driving in the wrong neighborhood. This tally list you have to go through being black in America…”


Then he says, “It’s time to take some responsibility, some culpability, and really get uncomfortable. Think about the everyday role people play in racism. Whether it be locker room jokes… Thanksgiving dinner jokes… down to systematic and systemic racism in the jobs, and the roles that people play in it. You know when they talk about being an alcoholic, the first step to recovery is, acknowledging you have a problem. Well, America has a pretty big problem with doing that, you know?” [https://www.pbs.org/newshour/brief/225552/damon-davis]


Won’t you join me and give this song a try? Children, don’t get weary; children, don’t get weary; children, don’t get weary till the work is done… keep your lamps trimmed and burning; keep your lamps trimmed and burning; keep your lamps trimmed and burning, O see what God has done.


All this week, even before I heard Davis speak about living in his black body in American society in 2017; even before I re-read Ta Nehisi Coates’ reminder about the history of black bodies in the United States in his book Between the World & Me, where he reminded his teenage son that, “At the onset of the civil war, our stolen [enslaved] bodies were worth four billion dollars, more than all of American industry, all of American railroads, workshops and factories combined, and the prime product rendered by our stolen bodies – cotton – was America’s primary export. The richest men in America lived in the Mississippi River valley and they made their riches off our stolen bodies. Our bodies were held in bondage by the early presidents. The first shot of the civil war was fired in South Carolina, where our bodies constituted the majority of human bodies in the state. Here is the motive for the great war. It’s not a secret… ‘Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery, …the greatest material interest in the world’ declared Mississippi …as it left the union;’” even before all these words had reached me, I’d been thinking about bodies.


I’d been thinking about the courage of the midwives in our Exodus story, who refuse to give in to the coercion of imperial power and to participate in the genocide of their enslaved fellow Israelites, but instead secretly rescue male babies’ bodies at the risk of their own. The midwives are named Shiphrah & Puah, “names being precious, a source and locus of power in Israelite culture,” whereas the Pharaoh is never named, so that the midwives have power in the story but the oppressor, “whose cruelty displaces his individual humanity [has] his name… withheld.” Bible commentator Thomas Troeger went on with the following, written in 1999, long before our present predicaments. He said of Exodus Chapters 1 & 2, “Either the Pharoah was a frightened man or he was playing up to the jingoism of the rabid patriots, or perhaps both. He had gone on public record that the growing number of resident aliens was a political threat: ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we.’ [1:8] Completely forgotten was Joseph, a resident alien who had rescued from famine not only his own family but the Pharaoh’s ancestors and the whole nation of Egypt. The Pharaoh does not appear to be someone who studied the past to gain what wisdom it might offer him in understanding the present. When he suggested ‘They will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land,’ it was not a totally logical position if you consider the last phrase: if they escaped, they would be gone! But the Pharaoh appears to be no more attentive to logic than he is to history.” Troeger continues, “There were surely many who cheered on the chief of state for attacking the resident aliens. Any two-penny dictator knows that if you focus the frustration on the aliens you will have a lot less pressure on yourself. But what the Pharaoh could not control, what dictators can never command, is the heart that fears God. And so this nameless tyrant, playing to all the worst in his own people, was to find his pogrom derailed by Shiphrah and Puah, two courageous, faithful midwives who kept alive not only Israelite infants but also the work of God.” [New Proclamation Series A 1999] Humble, faithful bodies combatting tyrannical injustice and refusing to let prejudice win.


I’d been thinking, too, about Paul’s cry in the Epistle, written some 500 years later (and some 50 or 60 years after the crucifixion of Jesus), to the new little Christian community in Rome, “I appeal to you therefore, my beloved family, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Presenting our bodies, Paul says – and the word he uses is the word for our physical bodies, not some idealized abstraction, but our flesh itself – offering our bodies, making the living sacrifice of our bodies is the means by which our minds are transformed, renewed, removed from lock-step conformity to the “ways of the world,” and able to discern “the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Our bodies are the offering we must make if we are to become “members one of another,” to be forged into the Body of Christ. “For as in one body we have many members …so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” Moreover, Paul implies, if we truly offer our bodies, we will no longer “think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think, but … [will] think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” The Body of Christ is forged of the humility we feel when, able by the grace and mercy of God to allow ourselves to come to the full knowledge of our own gifts and shortcomings, we are then able to bring our real, whole, fallible, blessed, creative, messed-up bodies to each other, no one better than anyone else, every single member necessary.


And, in the wake of Charlottesville and with all that has been spinning – spewing – out of our “body politic” in the weeks since Heather Heyer’s body was smashed by a van driven by a man who was persuaded that his white male body was entitled to enact that destruction, entitled to be privileged over any other color or orientation of body, I have been thinking about the singular gift of our congregation of St. James’s, our little local “body of Christ,” our life brought bodily together every week in this amazing reverential space, black and white, gender-queer and cisgender, old & young, wildly differently abled, employed and unemployed, housed and unhoused, and how we are trying devotedly to realize the fullness of that gift, that INCARNATION of the many, many members of God’s grace, arriving Sunday by Sunday in our rainbow of bodies. How with our anti-oppression team and our VISIONS training and our Sanctuary Team supporting the small Ecuadoran family-of-color sequestered at University Lutheran Church in Harvard Square so they can continue their pursuit of asylum from the violence of their Ecuadoran context, with our food pantry offering food to people whose circumstances – often conditioned by racism, classism, anti-immigrant prejudice and mental illness - render them food-insecure (and that’s just to name just a few of the many things we members of Christ’s Body at St. James’s devote ourselves to), we express our willingness as a congregation, as Damon Davis says, to “get really uncomfortable and talk about racism” and the other ‘isms that divide us and pit some of us against others, competing for privilege. Week by week, we arrive here or at our various ministries, offering our bodies as a “living sacrifice” of time and presence and commitment and prayer, to try to make ourselves available to transformation, the renewing of our minds, so that we can discern the will of God for us as followers of Jesus Christ, enactors of Christ’s love, Christ’s justice and mercy, in this American democracy at this critical point in history.


Who do YOU say that I am?” Jesus asks his disciples in our Gospel passage for today. We can’t answer that question today without remembering Paul’s plea for us to offer our whole human selves to each other in humility and openness if we wish to discern God’s will, and without remembering the midwives of the Hebrew people combatting the injustice, small-mindedness, and demagogic persecution of the tyrannical Pharaoh. Our faith CALLS US in our own small, often misdirected, seemingly powerless individual bodies, to forge ourselves together, week by week, prayer by prayer, and to strengthen and renew each other for the work of making EVERY BODY WELCOME in our nation and in the family of God. So please get on your feet if you can and sing with me:


Children, don’t get weary; children, don’t get weary; children, don’t get weary till the work is done… keep your lamps trimmed and burning; keep your lamps trimmed and burning; keep your lamps trimmed and burning, O see what God has done. AMEN.