Made Well: A Sermon on Healing and White Supremacy

June 28, 2015
The Rev. Dr. Marcia Mount Shoop, Preaching

Often the lectionary seems to have providential timing—and this week is a startling example of the mysterious way God’s provisions weave their way through our lives.

If there was ever a time when we need to attend to the details and contours of Jesus’ healing touch, it is this week in America. And healing is the main item of business in the passages the lectionary directed us to today.

This week in America we’ve gotten to know The Nine martyrs of Charleston, SC.

And the stories have taken America into a new phase of soul searching around race and privilege.

We saw the State of Alabama take down the Confederate Flag from its capital building—by order of the Governor. And South Carolina has opened debate on that decision as well. A young black woman, Bree Newsome, actually scaled the SC flagpole yesterday to take it down. South Carolina lawmakers promptly put it back up, but I pray that soon it will officially be taken down.

Many of you not from the south may think taking the Confederate flag down is a no brainer, but as a child of the south myself, I can tell you it’s complicated—and it’s tangled up with the ambivalence many American citizens and institutions have long had with how to deal with the aftermath of slavery.

The Confederate Flag hasn’t always been so clearly displayed in the southern states since the Civil War ended. The flag actually came out of storage in many southern states during the Civil Rights movement when white supremacy seemed to be in decline. Its prominent display was part of a backlash, a resurgence of white supremacy thinking. The south had a ready-made symbol of white supremacy left over from the Civil War.

A history of racialized violence isn’t just a southern thing. You may be aware that one of this country’s most brutal lynchings happened in Marion, Indiana. August 7 will be the 85th anniversary of that explosion of white mob violence toward black people. Dr. James Cameron was one of the three young black men beaten and strung up on a maple tree surrounded by 1000s of white people in Marion. Jimmy Cameron was the third to be lynched, and, miraculously, he escaped after a voice in the crowd shouted that they should cut him down.

In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan thrived in Indiana—in 1925 over 30% of white males in Indiana claimed membership in the Klan.

And in 2015, just a few months ago a Purdue football player was told by his landlord that he needed to find a new place to live because the landlord felt this player had too many black friends around and he didn’t want “them” around his granddaughter.

Racism isn’t just a southern thing.

Does anyone know the only state admitted to the Union who had a formalized law that forbade black people from living, working, or owning property there? It is Oregon.

The slave trade was actually born in the northeastern parts of this country. In fact, the oldest universities in our country (Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Columbia) were a training and education pipeline for the wealthiest plantation owners, who relocated to the south fully equipped to manage plantations with slave labor. In fact, the American university system was founded, funded, landed, and formed by the slave trade in ways that are not common knowledge in this country.

The white supremacy that was born in Colonial America was not a southern phenomenon. It was, and is, an American disease. And it includes the extermination and forced removal of First Nation peoples that defines so much of the history of this area that we all now call home.

I hope some of you had the opportunity to hear President Obama’s eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney in South Carolina on Friday.

He spoke truth about these wounds.

Just take in for a moment the historic magnitude of a sitting President, and one of our youngest presidents ever to hold the office and our first black president, naming these demons at the funeral of a man who may have descended from slaves owned by Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a plantation owner in Charleston and one of the framers of the US Constitution. Rev. Clementa Pinckney was the youngest black person ever elected to the state legislature when he was elected at the age of 23 and who was assassinated by a 21 year old white supremist on the day in history that a pastor of that same church back in the 1822, Denmark Vesey, had planned a slave rebellion in Charleston. Emanuel AME Church has been under attack by white supremists for 200 years.

This snapshot of history made before our very eyes this week gives us several clues that racism is not a thing of the past, but an open wound that is crying out for healing. And it is not the racism of our grandmothers and grandfathers. It is not about laws and rights, but about hearts and souls.

President Obama named some of these character traits of today’s racism (what Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls the “new racism”)—unconscious biases, mass incarceration, poverty, dilapidated schools—signs and symptoms of systemically entrenched racialized disadvantage.

President Obama gave us a way to weep together, to speak truth about injustice, and even to sing—maybe even to turn mourning into dancing and praise. He described the decision to take down the confederate flag “a modest, but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds” and an expression of God’s grace.

And he said the “God doesn’t want us to stop here.”

This week things got real in a new way in America around the question of race and white supremacy. Taking the flag down doesn’t heal the wounds of race, but it acknowledges them in a way that matters—and in a way that invites us, especially us white people, to do more—to stop denying that we have to do the hard work of healing the wounds of race.

All of us do, not just people in the south, not just descendants of slave owners, not just self-professed white supremists, all of us have been formed by these deeply entrenched practices, mentalities, and injustices.

And white people just like you and me have some of the most stealth wounds of all—the diminishment of obliviousness, unconscious biases, and misguided colorblindness.

These wounds affect our eyesight—the way we see things.

They affect our muscle twitches, our gut reactions to people and to situations.

These wounds affect our memory and the things we believe and don’t believe.

And these wounds help to form and feed institutions and systems that retrench disadvantage for people of color. And these blind spots, this diminishment, these distortions helped to form the church, even the Presbyterian Church. One of the heroes of American Presbyterianism, John Witherspoon—one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, has a complicated history when it comes to white supremacy. In fact, he moved to this country from Scotland to become President of Princeton someone who was against slavery. Not long after moving here, however, he became a slave owner and quickly began to cater to and befriend slave merchants and slave owners who were the big donors to Princeton.[1] And so o our particular need for healing is complicated and requires a physician with skills in saving souls.

On the same day as the President’s historic eulogy, the Supreme Court ruled that no state can bar same sex marriage—that it is a constitutional right. This historic moment granted legal marriage equality to LGBTQ citizens of this country. A victory for justice; a victory for love.

At the same time the law of the land has opened up this more generous space, LGBTQ people remain some of the most vulnerable to violence and discrimination in our country. In fact, the most vulnerable demographic in America for hate crimes and to police brutality after reporting a hate crime are trans-gender women of color.

Violence and abuse of power stitch their way through who we are as a nation. How we solve our problems, how we use our power, how we use and share our resources are all reflections of our deepest afflictions and our profound need for healing.

And that’s where Jesus comes in.istock cross on rope

Today’s Gospel lesson is a double header of healing magnificence from a humble and compassionate Jesus who seeks no attention for himself, and who has the power to heal with a simple touch.

Jesus was not worried about public honor. He was not seeking attention for himself. Jesus was not an egomaniac, a control freak, or a power hoarder. He was a fountain of compassion, a free-flowing current of healing power.

When we look closely at these two healing stories here, we see that they tell us a lot about what healing is and how Jesus helps us get it.

The unnamed woman and Jairus, the respected synagogue official, are both in crisis, desperate for healing to be a living option.

The woman is ordinary, but what she does is extraordinary. She is risking a lot just being in public—not just because she has a flow of blood that makes her ritually unclean, but because she is a woman period. Historical sources of the time tell us without a doubt that women were supposed to stay at home, they were supposed to be quiet, modest, and at home. [2] And women seen in public were punished, often severely by their husbands.

But this ordinary woman comes because she’s heard about Jesus. And she is the only woman in the New Testament to seek healing from him for herself.

And Jesus reacts to her touch in an utterly unconventional way. A man of this time would be expected to reprimand this woman for being out, for touching him, even perhaps for “stealing” his healing power without formally asking for it or paying for it.

We know she had already spent all her resources on doctors who didn’t help her—in fact they made things worse. She had plenty to fear when she reached out her hand in hopes that touching Jesus would heal her.

And Jesus responds with utter gentleness, tenderness, and wisdom.

He calls her “daughter,” automatically protecting her honor (Cotter, 59). Her problem is sensitive and could be easily sexualized. He immediately names their connection as the safest one possible for her.

There is no shaming, no blaming, no scolding. Quite the opposite—Jesus gives her the honor, instead of himself, of why the cure she sought took hold. He tells her that it is her faith that has made her well.

Jesus gives a woman in crisis safety and honor. He tells her she has done the right thing. Seemingly unburdened by the masculine norms of his time, Jesus is clearly free from any need to dominate this woman.

He uses his power to heal, not to harm. He shares his power, rather than lording it over people. He seeks connection, not domination. He uses his power to breathe life into justice, not to prop up unjust laws and customs.

He then continues on with the synagogue leader, Jairus, who does not approach Jesus in the custom of his social status. He sends no envoy to summon Jesus on his behalf, he does not call in a favor from any of the people who probably asked him for favors all the time. He does not schedule a formal meeting.

Jairus comes alone and throws himself at Jesus’ feet. He, too, knew Jesus’ reputation as a healer. And as a father desperate to find anything to help his daughter, he let go of pride, he let go of his fear of what others would think and he fell to his knees. Like the unnamed woman, Jairus takes a chance when he seeks out Jesus.

When Jairus comes to Jesus, Jesus doesn’t hesitate.

Jesus doesn’t seek a public spectacle. In fact, he limits the audience. He didn’t make a big show of healing her. He simply took her hand. And he tells Jairus to believe—and when everything is said and done, he tells all the people to keep this to themselves and get the girl something to eat.

It is Jairus’ openness to what Jesus can do that gets him there. It is Jesus’ capacity to meet us where we are and give us what we need with a simple healing touch that makes him approachable and someone we can trust.

Both Jairus and the unnamed woman didn’t wait to be asked, they sought Jesus out. They took risks, they humbled themselves, they let go of the idols of social convention and social acceptance—and they said, Jesus, help me!

That’s faith. Believing that it’s worth it to seek Jesus out and tell him the truth about ourselves, seeking Jesus out and letting him see us and touch us in exactly the ways we need.

Jairus and the unnamed woman knew they needed Jesus’ help. Do we? That could be the biggest barrier for white Presbyterians in America today—we’d rather be the ones doing the helping, than the ones asking for help. We’re not comfortable with that kind of vulnerability, with that kind of exposure.

For Jesus to heal us, we have to show him our wounds. And to show him our wounds, we have to be honest with ourselves about what they are. Are we ready to look at our wounds, and to see the ways our denial and our complacency have been harmful to ourselves, but to the world.

This week, there has been a run on Confederate Flags and products that bear the stars and bars symbol. Some businesses reported a 2000% increase in sales. A New York Times reporter inquired in a tattoo parlor as to whether they had had a run on requests for Confederate Flag tattoos.

The person in the tattoo parlor told the reporter about a man who had come in earlier that day to ask if he could get his Confederate Flag tattoo removed. When asked why he wanted to do that, he said he decided to do it when he noticed the pained look on an African American woman’s face in the gym that day when she saw his tattoo.

This man has the right idea about how this healing process needs to go for white people in America—we must humble ourselves, we must seek change within ourselves—change that alters our capacity to connect, change that helps us be more at home with ourselves and with the diverse world around us.

Can we trust what we’ve heard Jesus can do to be something he could do for us? Are we willing to be take risks, to feel discomfort, to receive the disapproval of our friends, co-workers, and maybe even family? Are we desperate enough for the scourge of racism to be healed that we could find ourselves at Jesus’ feet, on our knees, open to feeling in our bodies the change that he can work in us?

His compassion, his gentleness, his wisdom and humility, his courage are the medicine we need.

Jesus can show us how to share power, how to embody compassion. Jesus can show us how to resist and release social conventions that oppress. He can teach us how it feels to be touched in a way that heals, not harms. He can heal us from our fears, our shame, our confusion, and our blindness. And he can exorcise the demons of domination—which has too often been the calling card of white-dominated cultures and institutions.

These stories of one of our foremothers in faith and one of our forefathers in faith are an invitation for us to approach Jesus with our deepest and hardest to heal wounds. He is worthy of our trust. Do not fear; only believe. He will not use his power to harm. Jesus is a healer like no other.

And just think what a relief it will be to hear him say, my child, your faith has made you well.

Thanks be to God.






[1] For extensive information about Witherspoon and the origins of the American university system see Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of American Universities (Bloomsbury Press, 2014).

[2] Wendy Cotter, CSJ, “Mark’s Hero of the Twelfth-Year Miracles: The Healing of the Woman with the Hemorrhage and the Raising of Jairus’ Daughter,” in A Feminist Companion to Mark, edited by Amy-Jill Levine, p. 59.

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