Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 4, 2022 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

1 Samuel 27:1-3, 8-12+Psalm 94:1-15+(James 2:8-13)+Mark 7:14-23

I am sure that many of you have heard about the “Twinkie defense.” It’s a term coined by the press during the trial of Dan White for the murder of San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone back in 1979. White’s attorneys never claimed that he was on some kind of sugar high when he committed the crime. Their case was that symptoms of the deterioration of his mental health were evident in his unkempt appearance and poor diet. Apparently White had been something of a fitness and health food fanatic, and whereas he had always worked out and eaten in healthy ways, his nutrition now consisted of Coke and junk food. Disregarding that Twinkies were only mentioned in passing and his diet was not a huge part of the trial, that he only served five years for involuntary manslaughter rather than receiving a murder conviction led to rioting and an endless stream of late-night comedy routines focused on Twinkies.

Jesus may not be talking about Twinkies this morning, but he is talking about food, specifically Jewish kosher laws and purity rituals. Some religious leaders jumped all over Jesus and his followers for eating without washing their hands, and Jesus responds by criticizing how they ignore certain big parts of the law (like honoring one’s parents) in their insistence on following the lesser parts (like claiming that all their money is for God and not taking care of their parents).

In effect, Jesus is telling them that they are worried about the wrong thing. Consuming a little bit of dirt by not properly washing before a meal is not going to cause the kind of evil intention that come from the heart, and he gives a laundry list of those things, like fornication, theft, murder, and so on. Twinkies don’t cause those things, so let’s stick to the important stuff like taking care of each other.

But those things come from somewhere, don’t they? Earlier this week, someone scrawled a Star of David onto the door of Holy Innocents that opens into the rectory front yard. There was no hateful language, it was not a swastika, and yes, it might just have been someone making mischief, but often, Jewish symbols are used in antisemitic ways. I reported this to the police for that very reason. I reached out to my friend and colleague Rabbi Rob Scheinberg who said that this isn’t the first time he has heard of this happening, even in Hoboken, and while it could be ambiguous in meaning, usually the intent is not ambiguous at all.

It may not be the fault of Twinkies, but antisemitism and racism and homophobia come from somewhere. Yes, studies indicate that even infants can differentiate skin color,[1] but as the infamous black-white doll test conducted by Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 40s demonstrates, at some point, even Black children have a preference for the light-skinned doll. This test has been replicated more recently with similar results.[2] 

The book of Proverbs tells us to “Train children in the right way, and when old they will not stray” (22:6). More recently, Stephen Sondheim penned the words

Careful the things you say,
Children will listen.
Careful the things you do,
Children will see.
And learn.[3]

Somewhere along the way, hate is learned. Bias is learned. We are bombarded with messages and code words that might not be blatantly racist or antisemitic but still cause deep harm.

For instance, in the lectionary we are using by Prof. Wil Gafney, it isn’t just including women and avoiding exclusively male pronouns for God that she is after. She also recognizes that we speak of darkness in negative terms, as something to be feared, so she used words like “shadow” and “gloom” (see John 1) to avoid perpetuating the lie that black = bad and white = good.

Similarly, there is a lot of negative rhetoric getting tossed around about globalists and East Coast elites and George Soros. All of these are dog whistles for antisemitism, implying that rich Jews are in control of the world. It’s an antisemitic trope that has been around for hundreds of years.

And if we don’t call it out, we are complicit. If we don’t teach our children to recognize bias, they will perpetuate it. What goes in does come out somehow. Maybe it’s in anti-Jewish symbols scrawled on a church or maybe it’s white men marching down The Lawn of the University of Virginia wearing swastika armbands and shouting, “Jews will not replace us.”

I have gone a long way down this path, but I do not want to ignore the ongoing saga of David. Last week, I claimed that he and his band of followers were running a protection racket, extorting money from the wealthy in exchange for not killing all their flocks or stealing their crops. That was bad. This week is worse. You remember how the boy David killed the Philistine Goliath by hitting him in the head with a rock hurled from his slingshot? Well, this week, the adult David goes to work for the Philistines. He’s on the run from Saul who wants to kill him and figures that Saul would not be interested in attacking the Philistines and their king, Achish of Gath. And so, he does the dirty work for the Philistines, engaging in theft and wholesale slaughter of communities of people.

Where was he radicalized? Where did he learn this?

Wherever it was, God loved him. He was a flawed man for the rest of his life, as we shall see, but his establishment of the throne of Israel meant that the land and the people endured. And God loved David and blessed him.

Those who spew hate are similarly not beyond God’s mercy. It is a hard thing for us to accept, those of us who behave ourselves reasonably well. Yet, God “makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” according to Matthew (5:45). All we can do is love God, love our neighbor, and train our children to do the same. And part of loving our neighbor is to call out and confront those who would do them harm. We do not fight hate with hate. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” Paul wrote (Romans 12:21).

It’s some of the most difficult work we do as followers of Jesus. But we don’t do it alone. We are a community with the power of the Holy Spirit working in us and through us. As Moses said in his final address to the people of Israel, “Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; God will not fail you or forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6). That sounds like good news to me.


[1] https://www.bu.edu/articles/2020/if-babies-and-toddlers-can-detect-race-why-do-so-many-parents-avoid-talking-about-it/

[2] https://abc7ny.com/doll-test-harlem-kenneth-clark-mamie/11566898/

[3] https://www.lyricsondemand.com/soundtracks/i/intothewoodslyrics/finalechildrenwilllistenlyrics.html

ASEPSermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 4, 2022 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas