This sermon was preached at Not So Churchy on MLK Day, January 20, 2014.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” That’s nice. Jesus said that, you know. And this is a Jesus I can get behind. This isn’t curse the fig tree Jesus, or back-talk his momma Jesus. This is get out there in the world and make it a better place Jesus. My Jesus.
But… (and isn’t there always a but here at Not So Churchy?) in a country where people actually think arming teachers is a good idea, and in a city where I regularly walk past teenage Black boys being frisked at Jay St., and in a culture that lifts up someone who says Black people were happier under Jim Crow…
Well, Jesus kind of comes across as a 24-year-old hipster getting high on his parents’ dime.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, man.” I almost want to roll my eyes and tell him to go spend some time in the “real world.”
The disconnect between Jesus’ call and our very real world simply reveals how much working for peace feels like searching in the dark. So the next year we’ll be looking at this slippery call to make peace, and spending time with some fierce biblical women.
Tonight a woman named Esther joins us. And I have a feeling she feels comfortable here at Not So Churchy. Her book is the only one in the Bible never to mention God, nor hardly anything religious. And she was discovered by the King in a harem, so there’s that. But, let’s back up. To make sure we’re on the same page, I’m now going to verbally tweet you the novella of Esther.
Setting: Persia a super long time ago. King summons Diva Queen Vashti to a party to be checked out by his guests. Grown Woman says Nope. Sexist King’s pride is hurt, so he snatches her crown. Virgins are called to the harem. Enter Esther, Jewish orphan in diaspora being raised by cousin Mordecai, hides her ethnicity, is chosen to be queen. Esther learns of a classically anti-Semitic plot by evil prince to kill all the Jews. Brilliant Queen gathers all her power and in the perfect moment reveals her identity and petitions the King to spare her people. Evil prince meets the end he devised for the Jews. Cousin Mordecai becomes Prime Minister, gives Jews the right to defend themselves. They do and create the Jewish holiday of Purim to commemorate it. And, scene.
The fact that Queen Esther is a peacemaker is not in question, but like, how?! How does a Jewish orphan in diaspora under Persian rule, a woman given the crown of a queen booted for refusing to the King’s disgusting demand, where did Esther find the strength, courage, power, wisdom, self-worth; where did Esther find All The Things to save her people at the risk of her own life?
When Her Highness Beyoncé blessed us by dropping her surprise album last month, three words jumped out from the track list: “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,” a Nigerian thinker and writer, whose novel Americanah many of us here are reading together. Right in the middle of her song “***Flawless,” in which Beyoncé commands us to bow down, raps about being more than “his little wife,” informs us that she “woke up like this,” and recalls that her sister told her she should speak her mind, the beat fades and Adichie’s smooth, steady voice speaks to us, naming with precision the way our world teaches girls to shrink themselves.
After hearing her voice on “***Flawless,” I quickly went in search of the TED Talk by Adichie that Beyoncé had sampled. It blew me away and one wasn’t going to be enough so when I went in search for more I discovered her talk called “The Danger of a Single Story.”
The talk is about how “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story,” she says.
She begins with a personal account, demonstrating the power stories have to limit what we believe is real and imagine to be possible. She speaks of being a child-writer, growing up on a university campus in Eastern Nigeria. Having mostly read White writers, she says, “I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked about the weather: how lovely it was that the sun had come out.” She goes on, “This despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria; we didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to.”
The audience snickers. And the story does have a touch of the comical, but only in it’s ability to place such a fine point on the absurd amount of power privileged voices have to tell others about their own lives and worth. Underneath the humor is the pain of a nine-year-old, who didn’t know until she discovered Black African writers, in her own words, “That people like me, girls with skin the color of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature.”
The danger of a single story is that young Chimamamda Ngozi Adichie would have never become the powerful writer she is, if she didn’t come to know the worth of her own people, her own story, her own self.
I wonder, as Esther was growing up, what stories were told in her home? Did she hear of a courageous people who survived exile, and then, scattered across the lands, carved out new communities in diaspora? Did she hear the ancient stories of her ancestors: women like Rebecca, Hagar, Eve, and Lilith?
She would have also heard A Single Story, of course. The one reflected in laws that kept Jews and women as second-class citizens. The one reinforced by daily micro-aggressions that told her she would never amount to much, for she was a little Jewish girl, in a country she should be grateful to live in, in a world where men make the decisions.
But somewhere she learned to believe that women are powerful, that a Jewish life was worth just as much as a Persian one. Somehow she rejected The Single Story, and believed she—a Jewish woman—was called to be a leader, a peacemaker. And thank God that she believed she was ***flawless. Thank God the day she was to petition the King, she got out of bed and said “I woke up like this.” Because she knew her own worth, she saved her people.
But how many other Jewish women in Persia were called to be leaders? How many people does the Spirit call to action every day that can’t hear over The Single Story thrust upon them?
It’s not surprising that in the Lectionary—the three year reading cycle that many traditional Protestant churches use to select readings for Sundays—fierce Queen Esther shows up only once. The entire book, only once in three years.
It’s also not surprising that, for many White preachers, yesterday morning marked the one Sunday each year when they will intentionally speak about people of color in their sanctuaries.
Even if Christians gather around the same big story of Jesus, we’re awfully selective about which little stories we tell. And every time a decision is made about which stories are told, choices are also made about which stories are kept hidden. Through choices to minimize peacemakers like Queen Esther and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to relegate them to special days, A Single Story of Christianity is constructed and idolized.
I wonder how many peacemakers the White American church has failed to empower because of The Single Story it has created in it’s own image. The Single Story that conflates being a good Christian with being a pleasant, well-dressed, moderately wealthy, properly conservative, straight, White, man with a family.
But when we gather up the overlooked stories of our tradition and history, when we share the stories of biblical women leaders, when we share the stories of Christian leaders of racial justice, when we share the stories of our own lives, The Single Story of what it means to be Christian breaks open.
The stories of Queen Esther, Adichie, and Dr. King call us to work for a deeper peace beyond The Single Story. They call us to work for gender and racial justice in a country that has already forgotten Trayvon Martin and continues to threaten the rights of women and trans* people to make decisions about their own bodies.
But they also show us we can’t begin this work if we remain imprisoned by the single stories we’ve learned about ourselves.
Who are we beneath these single stories? The single story about what it means to be Christian, religious, spiritual, agnostic, or atheist. The single story about what it means to be female, genderqueer, male, or trans*. The single story about what it means to bi, queer, straight, lesbian, or gay. The single story about what it means to be an immigrant or American at birth. The single story about what it means to be Asian, biracial, Black, Latin@, or White.
In my Presbyterian-Reformed tradition, we’re pretty big on confessing our sin together, which—when done poorly—can sound and feel pretty grim. But try this on: what if sin is the ways in which we have bought into the single stories that imprison us. Confession becomes a space to name and let go of the lies the world tells us about ourselves. When we let go of something—writing it down and putting it on the tree—we are freed to see ourselves and others as the Holy Lover sees us.
Like Queen Esther and Beyoncé, at some point we will believe we’re ***flawless. We will get out of bed and say, “I woke up like this.” And from that deep sense of knowing our own worth as children of God, then we can act as agents of peace.
Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are our fierce leaders, Queen Esther and Dr. King. Blessed are we who shatter The Single Story.