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Shiphrah, Puah, Grandpa, and Me: After Charlottesville

This sermon on Exodus 1:8–2:10 was preached on August 27, 2017 at St. Bede’s Episcopal Church in Menlo Park, California.

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The author (left) and Rev. Erica Schemper (right) protesting in San Francisco.

My grandfather, Captain William Eigel, Jr., served in Patton’s Third Army during the Second World War. He landed in Normandy only a few days after D-Day and joined the long, hard push eastward towards Berlin. It was troops from Patton’s army who stumbled across Buchenwald, the first Nazi death camp liberated by the Americans.

Grandpa was not one of the liberators of that camp, but Eisenhower sent a number of American units to see it. He wanted the soldiers to know what they were fighting against. So it’s quite possible that Grandpa saw the camp, the stacks of bodies, the mass graves, the emaciated survivors. He was stationed in Germany for several months after V-E Day, trying to bring some order to the postwar chaos as evidence of Nazi crimes mounted.

Grandpa was horrified by what he witnessed in that year and a half in Germany. He saw what happens when one group of people decides they are inherently superior to everyone else. What made it worse was that he was of German heritage himself. The people who had done this were related to him. He never talked about it, but he never forgot. Twenty years later, my mom asked to go to West Germany as an exchange student, and he absolutely refused to consider it. He couldn’t stand the thought of his child going to the place that had done those horrible things, and living among the people who had done it and allowed it to happen.

We turned a corner this morning in our Old Testament readings. All summer we have been in the book of Genesis; we’ve been hearing the stories of the matriarchs and patriarchs of Israel. We ended last week with Jacob’s son Joseph making a life in Egypt, and his brothers and their families joining him there during a famine. Today we have jumped ahead four hundred years to the time of Moses in the book of Exodus. And the story of Moses begins in Egypt in the reign of Pharaoh.

In the days before Moses is born, there’s a new king in town, a new Pharaoh, who doesn’t know the Israelites or their history in Egypt. He’s nervous about having such a large, powerful group on the borders of his territory, they might ally with the enemies of Egypt, and Pharaoh’s worried about the Israelites outnumbering the Egyptians. Four hundred years the descendants of Jacob have been in Egypt, and still they are foreigners, untrustworthy, not one of us. So out of ignorance and fear, Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites. Read more

Sinking: A Sermon on Genesis 37, Matthew 14, and Charlottesville

As the children leave, I ask of you a moment of personal privilege. I am grateful for the trust you give to your pastors and for the gospel which has been entrusted to all of us as people of faith. I also want to remind you that a pastor’s role in preaching, like the shepherd’s staff, is twofold. Sometimes sermons draw you near and bring comfort. Sometimes they prod and agitate. This sermon falls in the latter category. It is intentionally provocative. It may make you uncomfortable or even angry. I’m not flippant about that; all I ask is that you hear me out, and I promise to afford you the same courtesy should you want to remain in conversation. I believe our relationship as a family of faith can hold that tension. 

Keep your eyes open and pray with me: Lord, may your light shine. Lord, may your steadfast love endure forever. Lord, may justice flow down like water, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amen.

Small historical markers track the movement of the Athabasca Glacier in Alberta, Canada.

The snout of the Athabasca Glacier in the Canadian Rocky Mountains is just a few hundred yards away from Icefields Parkway, a stunning, scenic route between Banff and Jasper National Parks in the province of Alberta. When our family stopped to see the glacier just a few weeks ago, I underestimated the reflection of the sun off the ice and sustained a wicked sunburn. So I brought back from Canada souvenir tan lines which prove my lack of good judgment. But what has stuck with me even more than the sunburn is the memory of small historical markers along the walking trail leading to the glacier’s edge. I might have missed the first one on the far side of the parking lot just off the highway, except that my four-year-old was climbing on it. No more than 2 feet high, and definitely off the beaten path, the stone marker blended into the background. It simply said, “The glacier was here in 1843.” As we hiked toward the glacier’s edge on a trail of rock and rubble left behind by the glacier itself as it has receded, I noticed more of these markers—off to the side, unobtrusive, and yet still quietly telling the sad truth that the glacier is receding at an alarming and accelerating rate.

“The glacier was here in 1908” read the marker at the foot of the path. A ways later, “The glacier was here in 1925.” Then “The glacier was here in 1935.” We walked on, sometimes slipping and stumbling on the rocks left in the glacier’s wake. “The glacier was here in 1942.” We helped the children on the steepest parts of the climb. “The glacier was here in 1982.” By the time we reached the marker showing where the glacier was in 1992, the message these markers conveyed was growing painfully clear. At the 1992 marker, we were only about halfway from the parking lot to the glacier’s current position. You’re probably already doing the math. In the last 25 years, the glacier has moved roughly the same distance it had moved in the previous 149 years.

I could go on about shrinking glaciers and the truth they tell us about the damage we are doing to the environment God has entrusted to our care, but that is a sermon for another day. Read more

I Could Not Know

This is the testimony of a white woman, written primarily for other white people.

I did not know, I could not see. I had no idea. Now, years later, I’m frustrated that my not knowing, my not seeing, was hurting people. I’m finding ways to live with discovering the harm I’m causing without reducing myself to paralyzing shame. I’m slowly in a process of unlearning defensiveness. To do this, I need to know where I’ve come from and how different parts of my life and the system interact.

The place where I was first taught that white bodies mattered the most was in church. Before I could read, all the pictures of God and Jesus were white. All of the children sitting on the laps of the deity in the painting were white. All of the children in my Children’s Bible illustrations were white. This, despite the fact that Jesus was a brown Middle Eastern Jew, as the children in his company would have been, as well as his disciples.

This is what I mean when I say that I was taught to ignore some bodies and to value others from an early age through pictures. And I had no idea. Now, I wonder how black, brown, and indigenous children walking into our churches understand their place (or lack thereof) in the kingdom of God, when everyone pictured in it is usually white.

My school books were the same way: mostly white characters, mostly male characters. Some people are the main characters in stories (white males), while others are either nonexistent or there to support the main character.

The adults in my life, without intention, taught me to have stereotypes: People who don’t speak English are stupid, “colored people’s time” is about people being late because they are lazy, people who are unemployed just don’t want to get jobs. No one admitted that they were subtly teaching these things through offhand comments while reading the paper or watching the news. People said, “We’re nice to everyone and value them equally.” I could not see that simply saying and believing we can be nice causes harm, because the world does not treat people equally. This is not only about me being nice to people of different races; I also need to understand that the world does not treat them as equal and work toward changing that.

Thanks to Brene Brown, I am aware that my shame over being a racist will only paralyze me. Thinking of myself as a terrible person, or hearing that I’m a terrible person when someone calls me a racist or tells me to behave differently to cause less harm, does not help anyone. It only gets me stuck, and only serves to protect my ability to do harm, instead of helping me learn to do less harm.

So how do we not get wrapped up in the guilt and shame of understanding that to be white is to be participating in a racist system? Read more

Strong Women and White Privilege

Gia Hayes-Martin

Gia Hayes-Martin

“You come from strong women,” my grandmother said. It was late on a Monday evening in the winter of 1991. We were up late on a school night, and my grandparents were visiting, because I had been confirmed that evening. Granny gestured to the small photographs of her parents that sat in a double frame on the desk in our guest room. My great-grandmother, whom we called Muzzy, was approaching the end of her very long life. We hadn’t known until the last minute whether my grandparents would be spending the week with us or five hundred miles away at Muzzy’s bedside. Looking at the photos, Granny said it again. “Never forget it. You come from strong women.”

I’d heard Muzzy’s story before. In 1924, her husband, my great-grandfather, was found dead in bed of “acute indigestion.” (Someday I will find out what that might have been.) Muzzy was twenty-eight years old. She had four children under the age of seven and was pregnant with her fifth. They had moved from Louisville, the city nearest their hometown in rural Kentucky, to Akron, Ohio, so my great-grandfather could find work on the new streetcar line. Now that she was a single mother, Muzzy knew she needed to be near family. She returned to Louisville, where her sisters helped care for the children and her parents sent produce from their farm to put food on the table.

It was common in the 1920s for the children of widows to be institutionalized in state orphanages. Muzzy was determined to keep her family together, and she reasoned that if she owned a home, the state would have a harder time proving that she could not care for her children. She used the money from her husband’s life insurance to buy a little shotgun house on Greenwood Street in Louisville’s West End. It became my Granny’s childhood home. Muzzy took in washing and sewing, and once her children were older, she went out to work as a seamstress. She did it: through shrewd thinking, hard work, family support, and sheer bloody-minded strength, she kept her family together.

Muzzy was a remarkable woman. Read more

Why we don’t always feel like talking about race (and what to do about it)

Picture of the author, Nicole Martin

The author, Nicole Martin.

The time is ripe for race talk. The problem is, some people don’t always feel like talking. A variety of recent events have added to a surge of desired dialogue on the black experience, but after years of talking, some black people are too tired to engage. As an African American clergywoman, I feel this tension nearly every week in some tangible way. There’s always some group seeking insight on what it means to be black, including Presidential candidates vying for the “black vote;” Christians debating on whether black lives, blue lives, or all lives matter; new research within my community on the psychological outcomes of blackness; and so much more. While this is extremely fruitful, it can also be extremely taxing, especially for those of us who are able to articulate our lives in ways that others can understand.

I sensed this for the first time growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood. Like most young children, I never had a concept of what it meant to be black until a white student pointed it out to me. “Why are your hands two different colors?” they asked while laughing on the playground. I had no idea what they were talking about. In that moment, I looked at my hands from front to back, and sure enough, the insides of my hands were lighter than the skin that covered my body. I was never good with comebacks, so I just put my hands in my pockets and walked away. This was the beginning of an intense process of discovering that my hair, lips, body, speech, food, and family would all one day be spaces of curiosity for well-meaning white people. Read more

The author’s sons, Isaac and Micah

A Prayer for My Sons

The author’s sons, Isaac and Micah

The author’s sons, Isaac and Micah

A Prayer for My Sons:

God, protect them.
Protect them from ignorance of their privilege and the advantages they will have as white men.
Protect them from entitlement.
Protect them from being indoctrinated into a system of white, male violence against women and against people of color.
Protect them from the temptation to stay silent and complicit when they witness injustice.
Protect them from the illusion that we live in a post-racial society of equality and justice.
Protect them from insular living that might threaten their empathy or release them from righteous anger when any of your children are hurt or in need. Read more

The Day Both Everything and Nothing Changed

A sign made by members of Emanuel AME invites others to join them in the work of forgiveness.

A sign made by members of Emanuel AME invites others to join them in the work of forgiveness.

Until June 17, 2015, I had the privilege of referring to Charleston, South Carolina as: the charming city in which I met my husband, the enchanting city in which shrimp ‘n’ grits and sweet tea grace most restaurant menus, the Southern city in which my sister grows summer squash. If you, my YCW sisters, were planning a trip to Charleston, I would urge you to snag a spot on a wooden swing at Waterfront Park and to stay put until the sun sets and the stars glisten over the water. I’d give you a map of cast-iron gates older than your great-grandmother, restaurants serving buttered biscuits the size of cantaloupes, and a rainbow row of Victorian houses lined up on the harbor. I’d point out the Spanish moss that hangs like Dali’s surrealist clocks from thick, gnarled tree branches. I’d encourage you to take a sabbath, to do some self-care in the form of dancing barefoot to the grace notes of a live jazz band in the town square.

But on June 17, 2015, everything changed. Read more