Jesus Can’t Breathe


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. []

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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.

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Listen, Listen God is Calling

Today we hear from the prophet Isaiah who speaks a message of comfort and hope for the people, people who’ll live in exile from the promised land. God through the prophet says “comfort, comfort now my people.” These words become comfort and hope during the exile. The Israelites recalled the words delivered by Isaiah that they will build a royal highway for God.

As highway builders, they and we are preparing the way for the Lord. Isaiah is beautiful, powerful and memorable so it is no wonder that his prophesy would be quoted by Mark as he introduces the John, fellow highway builder, way preparer and Baptizer.

And while John is a fascinating guy, I’m drawn to the prophet and God’s word for us through Isaiah. You see it’s about roads, no not the controversial magic busway between New Britain and Hartford, or proposals by politicians to put tolls back on Connecticut highways… or is it? You see the context for Isaiah’s highway building is that during ancient times oppressed and conquered peoples would be forced  to build highways for the victors.

Not much different than the local politician who calls in a favor to get road improvements, a new bridge, or highway expansion from the higher level politician he or she helped get elected. The world we live in is not all that much different than the one Isaiah prophesy’s in. If you’re represented by the majority party, If you’re connected to the influential or powerful, you get all the perks, connections and life on easy street. If not, you live in a world riddled with pot-holes and detours of injustice.

So just as the Governor will be one of the first to take a ride on the magic bus, so did victors use the highways built by those conquered to take their own “victory lap.” The road these royal public relations and ego rides were taken on became known as the king’s highway, an image that the Israelites dreamed of and Isaiah speaks of as the promised king leads the people back to their homeland, their promised land.

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The dream of the exiled is our dream as this Advent we too prepare the royal highway for Jesus, listen to the prophet…

3Someone is shouting: “Clear a path in the desert! Make a straight road for the LORD our God. 4Fill in the valleys; flatten every hill and mountain. Level the rough and rugged ground. 5Then the glory of the LORD will appear for all to see. The LORD has promised this!”

So we are called to be road engineers preparing the way, excavators clearing the way and making way. But what shall we say about the coming of Jesus, listen to the prophet…

6Someone told me to shout, and I asked, “What should I shout?” We humans are merely grass, and we last no longer than wild flowers. 7At the LORD’s command, flowers and grass disappear, and so do we.

We are reminded of this as the fall mums wither and die and the grass turns brown. We wake to frost covering our landscape and we are reminded that winter comes into all of our lives. Much of creation goes fallow, hibernates, or dies to give room for God to do something new,  for sins to be erased, for forgiveness to sprout, for new life to come from our God of continuous comfort and everlasting love, listen to the prophet… Continue reading

Holy Slowness…

Sermon Preached at Christ the King on December 7, 2008

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8
Advent 2B

I.N.I. (In the name of Jesus)

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.

We wait this second week for the advent of our Lord, not on our time, but on the Lord’s. Time much different than our plugged-in, wireless, surround-sound, instant messenger, 24/7 world in which we live. Time unable to be measured by digital watches or atomic clocks… Time, we try to mark and measure… Time that is unfathomable, evoking our frustration, inflaming our impatience… a Holy slowness, divine, eternal, and infinite.

Last week I said that Mark’s Gospel frames Jesus as an action figure, moving quickly from encounter to encounter, the Son of Man performing miracles and telling stories, fully God and fully human. Today we find ourselves in the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Our action hero is not introduced in a familiar nativity story. Rather we meet a different sort of action figure first, John the Baptizer. We listen to John and we wait for Jesus to appear, much as the people the Gospel of Mark was written for did.

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