August 29, 2021, Splinters and Beams and the Empty Coffeepot, Mark 7:1-23 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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There are two really excellent films that have came out a few years ago, dealing with the problem of racism in our country. Both films are based on true stories. If you haven’t seen them, I highly recommend them.
Hidden Figures is about four brilliant women who worked for NASA in the 1960’s, during the “space race” between the US and Russia. The main character is a woman named Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who died about a year and a half ago, at the age of 101. Because they were women, and even more because they were black, Katherine and her friends were treated with contempt even as they were needed for their skill and knowledge.
It was the 60’s, the tail end of the Jim Crow era; segregation was still in full force. The Black women working as “computers” worked in a small, hot, crowded room with minimal equipment. A small but crushing episode in the movie was when Katherine first began working in the main room with all the white, male scientists and mathematicians. She went to get a cup of coffee at the communal coffeemaker and someone had put a cheap little electric pot – empty of course – beside the big office coffeemaker and put a sign on it that said “colored.” They wanted her to know she wasn’t welcome to contaminate the coffee by drinking out of the same pot they drank out of.
Loving is the other movie. It’s about the marriage of Richard and Mildred Loving, in 1958. By getting married they were breaking the law in their home state of Virginia, because Richard was white and Mildred was black. In one traumatic scene men break into their home in the middle of the night, and they’re dragged from their bed and put in prison for committing the terrible crime of being married to somebody who was the wrong color. The law they had broken was part of a whole series of laws called the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which was designed to prevent all interracial relationships.
The Racial Integrity Act required that a racial description of every person be recorded at birth. It divided society into only two classifications: white and colored. (which meant essentially all non-European races). It defined race by the “one-drop rule” – in other words, any amount of African or Native American blood made you “colored”. The Act also expanded the scope of Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage, criminalizing all marriages between white persons and non-white persons.
The theme of both of these movies is the evil of racial discrimination, based on the false and bizarre assumption that white people are superior to black people and that therefore white people would somehow be “contaminated” by coming in contact with black people in any way, from shared coffeemakers to the marriage bed.
“Listen and understand,” Jesus said, “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” And the disciples took Jesus aside and warned him that he was offending some important and influential people when he said that. Because he seemed to be saying – and in reality, he actually was saying – that the whole system of dietary laws and careful attention to regulations like handwashing, the system that they had followed rigorously for their whole lives, was irrelevant when it comes to purity and righteousness. Infractions of the law like eating pork or not performing ritual handwashings or going into the home of a Gentile – those external things are not – they never were – what makes a person unclean. Uncleanness, the evil that contaminates our world, doesn’t come from anything outside of you, it comes from inside – from the depths of your heart. “Out of the heart,” Jesus said, “come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
This past week a federal appeals court judge upheld the conviction and death sentence of Dylann Roof, who murdered 9 people at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charlottesville in 2015. Roof was only 21 at the time. He came to the church during a Bible study. The members welcomed him in, and invited him to join them. And as the study came to a close Roof took out a gun and began shooting, killing 9 people and wounding several others. He represented himself at his sentencing, and pleaded guilty. In a journal he wrote in jail after his arrest, he wrote, “I would like to make it crystal clear. I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry.”
Dylann Roof’s life was tragically and horribly corrupted by his racism. But he’s not an isolated case. White nationalism has been a strong and toxic presence in our nation from the very beginning, and the changing demographics of our country have intensified their fear and hatred. And at the heart of white nationalism’s hatred and violence is this belief that the “purity” of the white race in this nation is somehow being contaminated, or polluted, by all those people they consider inferior and unworthy: black and brown people, Asians, Jews, Muslims, people who are gay or transgender.
But in his unthinkable actions, the killing of a group of people who had shown him kindness, in a church, at a Bible study, the truth of Jesus’ words was plain to see: that the real contamination, the real pollution, came from the seeds of fear and hatred that had been planted and had taken root in his heart. Racism pollutes our world. Hatred pollutes our world. Fear pollutes our world. Violence pollutes our world. The Racial Integrity Act polluted our country for 43 years. Slavery and segregation and discrimination have polluted our country for as long as it’s been a country. All those things are evil, and the harm they have inflicted is incalculable. They must be denounced. And the source of all those things was the human heart.
But that’s where it gets tricky. Because as we denounce the very real evil proceeding from the heart of a young man gunning down peaceful men and women gathered for prayer and Bible study, or the ISIS-K bombing at the airport in Kabul, or any other of the many evils that surround us in this world it is so easy for us to feel a false sense of purity and self-righteousness in our denouncing. It is so very easy to take shelter in our horror and our disgust and our fear of the evil that is all around us. It is so easy to let ourselves be blind to the part we play ourselves in the pollution of God’s good world; so easy to get lost in our righteous indignation.
It is perilously easy, in the face of raw hatred and violence, to forget the truth that we are sinners too. John wrote in his first letter, “If we say we have no sin, we are fooling ourselves, and the truth is not in us….[in fact] If we say we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar, and his word is not in us.”
We are right to oppose the very real evil that we see every day, now more than ever. But the first evil we need to oppose, always, is the evil in our own hearts. Remember the really vivid parable Jesus told about the person trying to take a speck out of his brother’s eye when all the time there is a beam in his own eye? It’s only when we have confessed the hatred and violence in our own hearts that we can oppose and denounce the hatred or racism or any other evil we see in the world around us – always remembering to affirm that every human being was created in the image of God just the same as we are.
Trying to keep ourselves pure by avoiding things outside of ourselves, whether that means condemning people who are different from us or hiding out in our “virtuous” lifestyle, that’s a lost cause. That’s what Jesus was telling people. We can’t keep ourselves pure by getting rid of the people we despise. We can’t keep ourselves pure by “washing our hands” of responsibility like Pontius Pilate. We can’t keep ourselves pure or righteous at all because the evil that pollutes God’s good and perfect world comes from us, from the inside, from our own hearts.
I could be the last person alive on this planet and there would still be sin in the world because I am a sinner. We condemn the evils of racism and hatred and injustice and violence that are polluting our world, but we do so as those who acknowledge that we also have polluted God’s good world with the hateful outpouring of our own sinful hearts. We are, all of us, utterly dependent on the grace and forgiveness of God.
I want to close with a prayer written by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King:
When out of fear we are frozen into inaction,
Give us a spirit of bravery, O Lord.
When we try our best but say the wrong things,
Give us a spirit of humility, O Lord.
When the chaos of this dies down,
Give us a lasting spirit of solidarity, O Lord.
When it becomes easier to point fingers outwards,
Help us to examine our own hearts, O Lord.
God of truth, in your wisdom, Enlighten Us.
God of hope in your kindness, Heal Us.
Creator of All People, in your generosity, Guide Us.
Racism breaks your heart,
break our hearts for what breaks yours, O Lord.
Ever present God, you called us to be in relationship with one another and promised to dwell wherever two or three are gathered. In our community, we are many different people; we come from many different places, have many different cultures. Open our hearts that we may be bold in finding the riches of inclusion and the treasures of diversity among us. We pray in faith. Amen
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