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United Church of Christ

533 Route 28, Harwich Port, MA 02646 | Phone: 508-432-1668

What Lies Between Us

Acts 8:28-36

What Lies Between Us

Sunday January 15, 2017

Rev. Dr. Susan Cartmell

Pilgrim Church Harwich Port


The theme for this series of sermons is Justice. We established the list of themes for this month in the summertime, but none of us knew then how timely this topic would be. On the front page of the New York Times this morning the central article above the fold discussed President Obama’s ambivalence about talking about racism. As the first Black man to be president of this country after 243 years he wanted to be the president for all the people. But as his term progressed he found the topic of racism unavoidable. Racism is our country’s original sin. Founded in an era when slavery was considered normal for some people, we accommodated this evil and rationalized it until our history is enmeshed in questions of racial justice.

 What does it mean to create a country where all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights? What are these rights? DO they apply to all men, native people, people of every color and racial background? Do they apply to women to slaves, to immigrants? Questions of justice have riddled and challenged us from the time those first patriots debated taxes and threw tea into the harbor to the north.

We have come a long way in defining justice, ensuring justice, expanding notions of justice. Yet the questions of fairness, equity, equal opportunity perplex us. We debate them in the opinion pages of the nation’s newspapers, and at the highest court in the land. Every year in mid January we turn our thought toward the life and death of a modern martyr, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We listen to his words consider how he lived and how his loss leaves us all in charge of his legacy. Thought about racial justice come to mind. This year we celebrate his birthday at a hinge moment in history. At the end of the presidential term of our nation’s first Black president, we remember our feelings eight years ago when we congratulated ourselves for belonging to a color-blind society where anyone might rise to the highest nation in the land.  We watched as thousands of millennials registered to vote and responded to the hope embodied in his presidency. In eloquent speeches about the nation’s bright future the President painted a picture of a land which had risen above its segregated past. But as inspiring as these visions were, the Congress remained confused and gridlocked. As proud as we were to elect him, this country had trouble getting behind him. Many analysts point to lingering racism to explain why people refused to follow a leader that inspired so many voters. Time will tell.

But if we thought we had put racism behind us we were all stunned to witness a spate of murders of unarmed Black men and police officers, and ministers in a prayer group that all raised questions of racial justice. Starting in August of 2014 when Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson through the summer months some of this violence has come almost weekly with horrifying regularity. Maybe racial injustice has been going on for decades but now with cell phone videos that go viral now we cannot ignore it any more. As hard as it is to see this modern racism, when we look to the bible we see that the question of racism is as old as time.

From the time of Abraham 4000 years ago people of faith have been debating this.  Here in today’s story we see one of the first disciples, Philip, confronting his own prejudice. Philip was on a road from Jerusalem to Gaza when he was drawn to the chariot of a rich man from Ethiopia. What happened that day tells us a lot about God’s view of all these questions. It also had a lot to teach us about racial justice today.



In the first place racial justice depends on empathy.  Empathy is not sympathy. IT is not pity or a benevolent form of entitlement. It is the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes.

Now Philip was going on this desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza when he met the Ethiopian. But before that moment he had no contact with Africans. He might have seen people at a distance in the markets or squares of the city but there is no record the disciples conversed with people from Africa. When Philip approached his chariot the Ethiopian invited him to join him. When Philip sat with him he began to see the world through the eyes of an Ethiopian. He had been studying Hebrew scripture for some time and wanted help understanding the book of Isaiah. He has been drawn to a portion of scripture where Isaiah described someone who had been humiliated and rejected, someone treated unjustly. Philip told the man that Isaiah’s prophesy was referring to Jesus, but I imagine that it was not lost on Philip that this man could relate. The Ehiopian knew what it was to be scorned and shunned. He knew from his own experience. He came to Jerusalem to find a rabbi and having searched in vain he was headed home, when he met Philip. Hearing the story of Jesus, he was ready to be baptized.

In the book To Kill a Mockingbird the children shunned a man who was slower than most. He was kind but they ostracized him. One day on a dare the little girl Scout runs up to his house and stands on his porch. In that moment she turns around and sees the world through this man’s eyes. She sees the world from vantage of someone who was ostracized. When she talked about the experience with her father Atticus Finch, he says, “You don’t really know someone until you walk around in their shoes for a while.”

According to Pew Research Group in a report in March (2016) the trends in the US clearly show that we are becoming a more racially and ethnically diverse nation, so much so that by 2055 there will be no single racial or ethnic majority. This trend is based largely on the fact that we have welcomed 59 million immigrants over the last 50 years. They have arrived to work, study, start families, and settle into small cities all across this land from Portland to Pasadena. No matter how different these trends may make us, it is accomplished. There is no going back. Our task as people of faith is to bring some Biblical perspective to modern contemporary life. The Bible tells us to practice empathy; you need to walk around in each other’s shoes.

One of the unexpected benefits of the Obama presidency is that it has given our nation’s white people a new perspective. For the last eight years we’ve had the chance to look at the world through the eyes of an African American first family. Watching a Black man step into the shoes of the leader of the free world and navigate from a position of power and authority has pushed the comfort level unconsciously for many in this society.  It has forced us to walk in his shoes and see the world.

In the second place, we white people need to  get out of our own way. We need to be aware of our prejudice. This bible story reveals the depth of Philip’s awkwardness with the Ethiopian Eunuch.  It never occurred to Philip or to any of the disciples for that matter that black people would be part of the church of Jesus Christ. Those apostles assumed that they would be recruiting more fishermen like them. In that chariot Philip had to confront his own prejudice. He had to recognize that this man whom he had written off was interested in scripture, a man of prayer, a fellow believer.

            In November Laila Lalami wrote an article in the New York Times Magazine about the Politics of Racial identity. One of the things she said was that white people in this country don’t think of white as a race. It is the default. Race is a minority status, and people of color have a racial identity but whiteness is the norm. one month of the years is devoted to Black history in schools while the rest of the year is focused on history. One of the issues raised in this recent election is that the President Elect won the votes of the majority of white people through a campaign that appealed to white identity and anxiety. He found a sweet spot playing to the unconscious fears from the knowledge that within one generation white people will no longer be in the majority in this land.

            The challenges ahead are indeed formidable. But our denomination has assumed a leadership role in confronting racism. At the national level the UCC hired Traci Blackmun, a minister from Ferguson MO who became a community leader following the shooting of Michael Brown an unarmed black teen by police officer, Darren Wilson. Rev. Blackmun has has worked to develop a curriculum for churches that helps people examine our white privilege. In our own church in two weeks we will have as our preacher and presenter after worship TJ Harper, the Associate for Racial Justice Ministries at the Massachusetts Conference.

            Our faith teaches us that the road to racial justice begins when we become aware of our own prejudice.

Finally, God’s vision will stretch us and change us and strengthen us. Philip discovered that God’s vision for the church was much bigger than any of the disciples would imagine. That Ethiopian Eunuch was ready to be baptized, and his faith was strong. So when he returned to Africa he started the church of Jesus on that continent, a witness to the gospel that is still strong today.   

            Who knows what God’s vision might be for these confusing times? Who knows what unlikely disciple God might put in our path? Who knows how God may need us to strengthen our faith or strength the church? Martin Luther King used to say that the Sunday morning hour was the most segregated time all week long. But it does not have to be that way.

As we face into the future I believe our country will need its churches more than ever to be safe places where people can navigate these changes; places where people can build strong friendships across all that divides us, places where people can confront their own narrow mindedness, places where we can walk around in one another’s shoes, risking anger and practicing forgiveness. Who know but that God needs you and me for just such a time as this?




Posted: Sunday January 15, 2017