Sermon: Big Dreamer

Sunday 13 August 2017
The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

We come here to worship today in the wake of horrific violence and hatred in Charlottesville, Virginia. It’s the number one story on ABC, CBS, and NBC. It’s the number one story on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News. It’s also the number one story on the BBC and The Guardian in Britain, on the CBC and The Globe and Mail in Canada, on the ABC in Australia, on Le Monde in France, on Der Zeit and Deutsche Welle in Germany, and even on Al-Jazeera, both the English and Arabic editions.

Earlier this year, the city of Charlottesville voted to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a park in the middle of town, a park whose name has been changed from Lee Park to Emancipation Park. Since then, Charlottesville has been the focus of white nationalist protests. The event this weekend, called “Unite the Right,” is a pro-white rally called by right-wing blogger, Jason Kessler. In an interview, he said, “This is about an anti-white climate within the Western world and the need for white people to have advocacy like other groups do.” In attendance were a mix of Confederate heritage groups, KKK members, militia groups, and alt-right activists.

On Friday night, they marched with torches through the campus of the University of Virginia, and again on Saturday morning, they marched, carrying Confederate flags, swastikas, and other racist symbols, and chanting slogans like, “White lives matter,” and “You will not erase us.” One of the protestors, former Imperial Wizard of the KKK David Duke, said, “This represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump. Because he said we’re going to take our country back, and that’s what we’re going to do.” Many activists were armed with guns, clubs, helmets, and shields. On numerous occasions, they engaged in violent clashes with counter-protesters. A state of emergency was declared, and the National Guard was called in to restore order.

Then on Saturday afternoon, a man drove his car into a crowd of non-violent counter-protesters, killing a 32-year old woman and injuring at least 19 others in what appears to be both a hate crime and an act of terrorism.

President Trump said in a press conference, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, on many sides.” He stopped short of taking a side or of condemning white nationalism.

Republican Senator Cory Gardner wrote in response, “Mr. President – we must call evil by its name. These were white supremacists and this was domestic terroristm.” Republican Senator Marco Rubio wrote, “Very important for the nation to hear @potus describe events in #Charlottesville for what they are, a terror attack by #whitesupremacists.” Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen wrote, “White supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and anti-Semites are the antithesis of our American values. There are no other “sides” to hatred and bigotry.” And Republican Senator Orin Hatch wrote, “Their tiki torches may be fueled by citronella but their ideas are fueled by hate, & have no place in civil society. We should call evil by its name. My brother didn’t give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home.”

Both liberals and conservatives, both Republicans and Democrats, both Clinton and Trump voters have condemned the hatred and violence of the so called alt-right. And we are saddened to see what many of us feared: that we have a president who will not denounce the racism, bigotry, and violence perpetrated in his name.

This is not what I planned to talk about this morning, sisters and brothers. I was going to talk about Joseph, and his fancy coat, and his dreams that he would be worshipped by his family, and his brothers who were so irritated by his special privileges that they conspired first to kill him, but then settled on selling him into slavery.

And maybe I should still say something about that. It is a story that is just as messy as our world today, a story that is tied up in the mistakes and injustices of the past. Before there was Joseph, there was Jacob, who took the birthright of his brother, Esau. And before there was Jacob, there was Isaac, whose brother, Ishmael, was forced out into the wilderness after Isaac was born. And before there was Isaac, there was Abraham, who sold his own wife to be a concubine in Pharaoh’s harem.

In the family we read about today, we have eleven brothers born to four different mothers. Jacob had wanted to marry Rachael, but he had been tricked into marrying her older sister, Leah. So he married both of them. And they promptly started competing over how many children they could give him. The sisters even got their slave women, Bithah and Zilpah, involved. And so Jacob ended up with twelve sons. Six of them were the sons of Leah, four of them were the sons of slave women, and the two youngest, Joseph and Benjamin, were the sons of Jacob’s favorite, Rachel.

There is history behind the conflict in this family. There is history behind the hatred. And the conflict will continue for generations.

In fact, one of the main points in having this story is to explain the continuing violence between the different tribes of Israel, the children of the different sons of Jacob. Even the other people in this story, the Ishmaelites and Midianiates, are both enemies and family. Ishmael was the son of Abraham by Hagar, the slave. Midian was the son of Abraham by his second wife, Keturah. This is a story of people fighting over the same land, fighting over the same birthright, fighting over the same promises. Who are the chosen people? Who gets to have the promised land? Who is God’s favorite?

We have our own history. Charlottesville was the home of Thomas Jefferson, who also founded the University of Virginia. He wrote the words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” He also owned hundreds of slaves. He freed eight of them, four of whom were his own children with his slave, Sally Hemings. In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, one of the grievances he names is that King George III had incited American slaves to rise up against their white masters.

We have our own history. We live in a country that is nominally founded on freedom and democracy, liberty and justice. And yet that same country has systematically deprived many of its people of that liberty and justice for the benefit of people like me: straight, male, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant.

For black folk, taken from their homes and land, shipped to America to be brutalized and enslaved, there were three centuries of living as property. And even after emancipation, there was not liberty and justice. There was the promise of forty acres and a mule that never materialized. There was Jim Crow, that deprived black people of the rights they supposedly now had. There was segregation, and the lie of separate but equal. There were thousands of lynchings and rapes and other crimes against African-Americans that went unpunished, a never-ending campaign of terrorism. And even after the Civil Rights Movement, there was redlining, the systemic refusal of banks and realtors to provide service to black people or in black neighborhoods. There was employment discrimination, voter suppression, and inequality in education. And all of it was justified by appealing to Christianity and the bible.

And even today, institutional racism remains. Eighteen percent of preschoolers are black, but half of the preschoolers who are suspended are black. In K-12 schools, black students are three times more likely to be suspended than white students. African Americans are more likely to be stopped by police, more likely to be arrested, more likely to be convicted, and more likely to get harsher sentences than white people. People with black-sounding names have to send out twice as many job applications to get the same number of callbacks as a person with a white-sounding name of equal qualifications. I could go on.

And of course, it’s not just black folk. Our country has systematically oppressed and disadvantaged all kinds of different people. Native American Indians have been stripped of their land and culture and restricted to undesirable reservations and in-lieu sites. Women have had the vote for less than a century and are still payed only 70% of what men make. Wave after wave of immigrants have been discriminated against, whether they be Irish, or German, or Scandinavian, or Chinese, or Japanese, or Slavic, or Mexican, or Arab, or or or… There have been campaigns of fear and violence targeting each of them. In a country founded by people who were trying to escape religious persecution, we have consistently demonized religious minorities, whether they be Catholic, or Jewish, or Muslim, or otherwise.

This is not what I was going to talk about this morning. And yet here I stand, I can do no other. I know that most white Americans do not support an ideology of racism or bigotry. Most of us don’t actively hate people who are different from us. But that does not mean that institutional racism isn’t real or that we don’t benefit from it. And as we have seen this weekend, not only is institutional racism real, but good old-fashioned torches and swastikas racism is still much more prevalent than many of us have cared to acknowledge.

And I know that life isn’t all unicorns and rainbows for all white people, either. Poor whites, particularly in rural and industrial areas, have seen their prospects diminish in recent years and decades. There is real pain there. New technologies have rendered many factory and agricultural jobs unnecessary. And that economic depression has been fertile ground for those who want to whip up outrage and grievance.

My sisters and brothers, we must not allow ourselves to be reduced to tribalism. It must not be Israelite against Ishmaelite. It must not be Joseph against Judah against Reuben against Dan. It must not be red against blue. It must not be white against black against Asian against Latino against native. We all deserve better than that. We must not succumb to the petty bigotry that tore Jacob’s family apart and eventually consigned them all to slavery. It doesn’t just hurt some of us; it hurts all of us. I am not free so long as my neighbor is not free.

The same book that tells us the tragedy of Joseph and his brothers, Genesis, also tells what our most important identity marker is. It is not Israelite or Moabite or Edomite. It is not our tribe or clan. It is not our color or ethnicity or nationality. Our most important identity marker comes in Genesis 1:27—“God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.”

Our differences are important: we are not all the same. Our diversity is not a liability; it is a strength. And yet, through that, every person is a human being, every person is made in the image and likeness of God. Every person is made in the image and likeness of God. None of us deserves to be the target of hatred, bigotry, and violence.

I’ll close with the words of preacher and R&B singer, Solomon Burke:

And there are people still in darkness,
And they just can’t see the light.
If you don’t say it’s wrong then that says it right.
We got to try to feel for each other, let our brother’s know that we care.
Got to get the message, send it out loud and clear.

None of us are free.
None of us are free.
None of us are free, if one of us is chained.
None of us are free.

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