Jesus Can’t Breathe

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In Colonial America some pews were set aside as general seating for special groups. Details varied according to town, location, date and circumstances but they included reserving seats for adolescents, Native Americans, the poor, widows, the hard-of-hearing, prisoners, and black people, whether enslaved or free. In most churches, even here in New England, the last pews were commonly called Negro Pews and often labelled “free” or “Negro.”

New Hampshire was no exception to this custom. Negro Pews were features of the old North Meetinghouse, which stood on Market Square Portsmouth from 1711 to 1854. The Negro pews there were high above the front door in the upper balcony, as far as possible from the pulpit. And slave owners had to purchase pew space for their slaves just as they had to for themselves. Negro pews were found in other churches and continued in 1807 when St. John’s Church was built. The pews in a church that is the oldest today in our Episcopal Church of New Hampshire were properly identified with brass labels engraved “Negro Pews.”

You see our ancestral Episcopalians in New Hampshire followed a hierarchical system which expressed “dignity” in terms of proximity to the pulpit. The placement of Negro Pews against the back wall of the balcony declared black people’s status as the lowest order of a hierarchical white society. I bet it was hard to breathe up there after climbing all those stairs.

There were a few New England churches that placed Negro Pews in the side balconies, a highly-visible location usually reserved for adolescents and unmarried young adults. Placing blacks here gave physical expression to the white perception of black people as childlike, untrustworthy, or given to inappropriate behavior. This attitude became an enduring fixture of white culture. It was expressed as recently as the mid-20th-century when the term “boy” was used to exclude grown black, gay or Jewish men from mainstream culture or to imply their place at the bottom of society among children.

Black people left Portsmouth Churches in the 1890’s when the first black church was established. But this was just a different, out of sight, out of mind form of segregation, you’ve heard the term “separate but equal.” Some churches gradually left behind segregation practices but the brass “Negro” labels remained in St. John’s until long after the practice of separate seating had long lapsed. Their disappearance reflected our societies growing white embarrassment about past sins. [http://www.seacoastnh.com/blackhistory/slaves3.html#1]

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But Pastor Bill, what does this have to do with All Saints’ or our texts? Well repentance about past segregation we didn’t participate in, doesn’t mean that racism wrongs have been righted, or that you and I are not called to reflect and repent for those thoughts and actions known and unknown, things we have done and things we have failed to do around power, privilege and prejudice, the sin that perpetuates oppression based on race. Repentance is what John calls us to this day. John called people to repent, to clean-up the practices of our lives and to completely reorder our thoughts so that nothing will get in the way of the Lord’s coming. The reading from Isaiah gives the context for this radical call:

  • the assurance of forgiveness that encourages us to repent; and
  • the promise that the coming one will be gentle with all His people, especially those who suffer and are oppressed.

The call to be heralds with John, to lift up our voices fearlessly and say… “See, your God is coming!” We are called this December to say it with our very lives in a broken and racially profiling world that desperately needs, and is loudly crying out for justice and the peace that comes from knowing and experiencing that their lives, no matter the color of their skin, matter.

A seminary friend, who is a scholar and not a preacher (although he is married to one), made this observation this morning:

The more I watch the response of this country to the events of Ferguson, NYC, and other cities I am convinced we live in two Americas. The first of whites who live in their apathy and ignorance; and the second America where nonwhites are killed on the streets with no recourse. I need no further proof than the so-called church where white congregations live like nothing happened and sing songs to their little white baby Jesus and everyone else is living through a very real experience of Lamentations. [Facebook post, Sunday, December 7, 2014]

From Colonial New Hampshire to last spring here in Wolfeboro, to this day in Ferguson and Staten Island, there is something in the way of the Lord’s coming. It is the sin and brokenness of racism that is systematic and so embedded in our society that you and I benefit from it whether we recognize, admit or deny it. In our prayer of confession, we are reminded that: “we repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done and the evil done on our behalf.”

We like those who flocked to the wilderness to see John, hunger when we are truthful with ourselves for the forgiveness, restoration and strength from God to overcome the evil that enslaves us all. Some of us may be in so much denial, that you’ve tuned me out. Others may be incensed, angry even that I would imply that any of the saints gathered here might be explicitly, or implicitly racist. Perhaps that simmer rising inside might even be taking your breath away.

Breath, or Ruach in Hebrew, breath, wind and spirit, the very thing that gives voice to the grand and poetic words of the prophet Isaiah announcing that the end of exile and enslavement. For God’s people in Babylon, in colonial and plantation America, in mid-century segregated America, and in post-millennial out of sight, out of minds systematized, institutionalized racist America, the cumulative actions of a racially oppressive culture, has taken away the collective breath of people of all colors.

Isaiah cries out and we just sang: Comfort, comfort now my people. Tell of peace so says our God. Comfort those who sit in darkness mourning under sorrows load. God through the prophet, says that the lives of Israel and black lives that matter in America will be cared for as a shepherd cares for his sheep. God’s word through Isaiah can be trusted, but God entrust the work to you and me. To God’s people now proclaim that God’s pardon awaits for them! Tell them that the war is over; God will reign in peace forever.

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The Gospel of Mark doesn’t begin with a story of Jesus’ birth, but with the voice echoing Isaiah and crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord! Comfort comes from a heralds voice crying far and near, calling us to true repentance, since the reign of God is here. John the Baptist goes on not a crazed wild man, but like the prophets of old, as the mouthpiece of God. It is by connecting John with Elijah, Isaiah, and Malachi, the prophets of old, that Mark introduces Jesus as the culmination of Jewish tradition. The Christ who came, the Christ who comes, and the Christ who will come, again breathes the very Spirit of God in and through us.

Mark tells us that John’s message to the people seeking repentance and peace was to prepare the way. Make straight what long was crooked, make the rougher places plain; let your hearts be true and humble, as befits God’s holy reign. For the glory of the Lord now on earth is shed abroad, and all flesh shall see the token that God’s word is never broken.

Later in Mark, we hear that the very flesh of Jesus, whose own body of color mattered, couldn’t breathe at the end. In a loud cry our Lord and Savior breathed his last. . . . .  The work of dismantling racism and reversing its evil is the public and private, individual and corporate repentance we are called to this Advent as we prepare the way of the Lord and offer comfort to all people. So says our God!

Mark 15.39

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