Sermon – February 16, 2014
The Rev. Rebecca S. Myers, CSW
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Corbin
Sixth Sunday After Epiphany
So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Matthew 5:23-24
Please be seated.
Have you heard of the science of epigenetics? Scientists are discovering that while our genetic code or basic DNA does not change, experiences we have alter how our genetic code is expressed.
There was a study conducted with mice in 2013 and reported in the December issue of Nature magazine (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fearful-memories-passed-down/) that showed how fearful memories were passed down to future generations. The first generation of mice were given a foot shock along with the odor of acetophenone. Subsequent generations of the mice reacted negatively to the odor, even though they had never been shocked in the foot. Scientists discovered that while the foundational DNA had not changed, the subsequent generations of mice had increased sensitivity to the odor in the gene responsible for that function.
Our experiences and interactions with each other affect future generations in ways we are only beginning to understand, especially when our interactions with each other have been traumatic.
Today Jesus tells us when we’ve had a trauma with each other, we need to reconcile with each other before we bring our offerings to the altar. We need to restore our relationship. But imagine how hard that is when there are hundreds of years of trauma between us.
My father LOVED history and was the genealogist of our family. He had some flexibility with his work schedule and when he needed a break from work, he’d travel to various courthouses, historical societies and cemeteries, looking at newspapers, marriage and death records… property records – in an effort to understand more about our family. He discovered that the Myers ancestor – Nicholas – arrived from Germany in 1737, landing in Philadelphia and most likely becoming an indentured servant for 5 years. Nicholas received farmland in a grant from the Penn brothers, married Margaretha Albert, and farmed land near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He died in 1787, and his Will contains the distribution of his property, including the care for his widow Margaretha.
In my father’s research, he was startled to find that in Nicholas’ Will of 1787, Nicholas’ son William was directed to “leave his black girl with my wife as long as she lives if she remains my widow.” Here was undeniable evidence of slave holding in my family…evidence that even though Nicholas, like so many European immigrants of that time, had experienced a limited time of servitude, he had no qualms in enforcing lifelong servitude for people he perceived as black.
Our family never considered that our ancestors would have enslaved people from African descent. We were from the north after all. So this was a shock.. there in the legal documents was evidence. In light of this recent science of epigenetics, I had to ask what changes to his genetic expression were required of Nicholas to reconcile this seeming contradiction? This view of another person as property rather than as a fellow human being? What changes were required that were ultimately passed down from generation to generation? What kind of societal structure did he and others build that allowed enslavement to happen and be sanctioned by the governing authorities?
I know that our family inherited the DNA and genetic makeup of whatever behavior and justification allowed our ancestors to believe they could own another human being and to live out that belief.
How is reconciliation possible between my family and the family that was enslaved? How does reconciliation occur when there is such harm and injury? Some of you have probably seen the movie, 12 Years a Slave, which shows the brutality of slavery…the violence that was required to maintain that system. What changes in our behavior did that brutal system engender and how do we, its descendants, reconcile with “our brother and sister?”
The Episcopal Church has adopted a number of resolutions regarding racism and reconciliation. In a recent effort reported in the Episcopal News Service, telling the truth was recognized as essential to reconciliation.
“Telling the truth is a widely-held Christian value,” said Anita Parrott George and Chip Stokes, co-chairs of the Executive Council’s anti-racism committee. “Starting with us in early childhood, our church and the culture in which it resides embed in our consciousness and our conscience the importance of telling the truth; acknowledging and taking responsibility for our actions; apologizing to those we may have injured, intentionally or otherwise; making amends; and going on to sin no more.” Episcopal News Service Story
As hard and as awful as it is to remember, we must be truthful about racism in this country and its effects on all of us. In doing so, we acknowledge and take responsibility for our actions. We apologize to those who have been injured, intentionally or otherwise. We make amends and change our behavior. I have to accept the truth of what has occurred in my family. To deny this truth means I choose to be forever imprisoned by it…forever living it out and passing it on for generations to come.
So, what can we do? Knowing we are all created in God’s image…knowing we are to seek and serve Christ in all people, which implies Christ is in every single one of us…knowing Jesus’ exhortation that we be reconciled to “our brother and sister.” What do we do?
First of all, we believe that reconciliation is possible. There are stories all around us. I’m sure you have many you can tell. I’ve heard Irene talk a number of times about her family’s providing and paying for the education of African-Americans. Remember those stories and the work you do every day.
I know it’s tough in Corbin. Our history from the last century follows us – burning down the part of town where African-Americans lived and putting the people on the train to Chicago. The fight over removing the signs in town telling African-Americans (and not in that polite language) to be out of town by sundown. And even more recent murmurings if People of Color are in town too long. I’m told London and Barbourville have entirely different climates in these matters and census data bears this out.
Secondly, look at the insert in your bulletins. It is a checklist developed by and copied with the permission of Dr. John Raible, Associate Professor of Diversity and Curriculum Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Part I of the checklist are behaviors exhibited by people of all races who are allies in the work to create a society free of racism. Part II shows some behaviors that can be barriers to being an ally. Take a few minutes to look at the list, even taking out a pen or pencil to fill it in. Note what it is that you do well and try to do more of it. Note something you haven’t tried and see if you’d like to try it out.
Pause (checklist available at http://johnraible.files.wordpress.com/2007/05/revised-2009-checklist-for-allies.pdf)
Reconciliation brings freedom. Reconciliation brings newness of life…new life…new possibilities for how we live together… reconciliation restores our relationships with each other. That’s why Jesus teaches us to embrace it. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.