Archive for July, 2017

Hidden figures; hidden stories4th Sunday after Pentecost

July 2, 2017

For Mayflower Congregational Church and Beloved Community Mennonite Church

Vernon K. Rempel, 2017
Bible reading:

Psalm 40:9, 10

I have told the glad news of deliverance

   in the great congregation;

see, I have not restrained my lips,

   as you know, O God.

I have not hidden your saving help within my heart,

   I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;

I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness

   from the great congregation. 

Hidden Figures

This sermon is inspired by the movie “Hidden Figures.”

 There are no complete spoilers in it, if you haven’t seen the movie.

  And there should be something for you in this reflection,

   even if you haven’t seen it. But go see it!
“Hidden Figures” is a movie about three women who worked

 in the U.S. space program, initially in the years leading up to

  and including Project Mercury.
These are the years covered in the movie, 

 1957, when the Soviets launched the first orbiting satellite,

  through the successful launch, orbit, and recovery

   of John Glenn and his Mercury capsule in 1962.
The movie tells the story of three brilliant

 female, African-American mathematicians.

  They worked for NACA, which became NASA

   in October of 1958.

Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who calculated flight trajectories, played by Taraji P. Henson

Dorothy Vaughan, a NASA supervisor, played by Octavia Spencer

Mary Jackson, a NASA engineer, played by Janelle Monáe
These women did it not only backwards and in heels, 

 like Ginger Rogers, 

  but all that and with the radiation of constant prejudice 

   and the structures of segregation 

    beating your body and mind all day long.
The movie, as with several movies featuring

 African-American stories,

  has particular resonance in our society,

   as Black Lives Matter and other advocates,

    have marked out for us how people of color

     continue to suffer degradation and even death

      in a culture of white privilege.
This reality is hauntingly, and tautly marked

 as the movie begins with the three women

  driving their car to NASA,

   and it breaks down.
Dorothy Vaughan gets under the car to work on it,

 but soon a white officer shows up.

  They know this is a dangerous moment.

   We know it is a dangerous moment.


We’re thinking of people like

 Aiyana Stanley-Jones in Detroit,

 Eric Garner in Staten Island,

 Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Vaughan, watching the officer role up, warns the other two women,

  “No crime in a broken down car.”

  Jackson retorts “No crime in being negro neither.”

   Vaughen tells her to button it up.

    “Nobody wants to go to jail behind your mouth.”

We’re thinking how quickly guns would be pulled

 in situations very much like this one.

  The officer in this case has his billy club in hand

   and a gun on the belt.
They cleverly diffuse the situation,

 point out that they work for NASA,

  and he gives them an escort.
All this is played for a bit of humor in the end,

 but wow does the moment echo into our moment,

  and the pain underline the pain

   that’s going on now.
So it is a deeply resonant story.

 It was also a deeply hidden story until 2016

  when the book Hidden Figures was published,

   and the movie was immediately made.
I grew up in love with NASA. I was 11 when we landed on the moon in 1969,

 and I mean “we” landed on the moon.

  I was completely with them, watched in rapt awe,

   loved it all.
I was the perfect age to follow everything in detail.

 By then, I had built detailed models of the

  Gemini capsule and the Apollo rocket,

   the successors to the Mercury Project

    reflected in the movie.
And I knew nothing about this story.

 Of course, I knew little about anybody involved

  except the astronauts themselves.
But what an important, lovely, and hidden story!

 Even hidden from a kid in love with NASA in its details.

  My 4th grade teacher would have made my day,

   if she had told us this story.

    I think she would have loved it too,

     but probably didn’t know the story either.

White supremacy lies like a silencing blanket over the whole scenario.

 It’s true that I didn’t know about anybody but the star-powered astronauts.

  But that I didn’t know anything about any of this for 

   more than 45 years is something to note.
And of course the women’s story is hidden

 in their own time as well.

  The female “computers” as they were called,

   were sequestered in some no-name distant room.
Vaughan could not get herself named supervisor.

 Jackson couldn’t go to engineering school.

  Johnson couldn’t sign her own work,

   having to credit her gratitude-less supervisor

    for her own work.
And there’s all the beauty of the movie.

 Watching everybody dance and drink

  at a house party.
Seeing the worship service and picnic that follows,

 and the fraught romance for Katherine Johnson – 

  In the movie she gets to be in love with Mahershala Ali,

   something a lot of folks might sign up for.

    It’s a sweet story. Her daughters make it even sweeter.

I have told

Our Psalm that we read today says things like this:
I have told the glad news of deliverance

I have not hidden your saving help…

I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;

I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness
Why would anybody conceal that, or not tell it?

One reading of this is that the Psalm singer 

 is pious and likes to talk about God’s good deeds.

  Fair enough.
But there’s another reading suggested by our story.

 That is that many times, the works of God

  are works that culture doesn’t necessarily want to hear,

   works that speak of liberation of those on the margins.
When Johnson is running across the NASA campus

 to use the segregated bathroom,

  we feel her need for liberation.

   It is appalling in its indignity.
And yet the story was not well-told for decades.

 We need to hear of her indignity and her liberation.
So for the Psalm singer to sing about the dignity

 of the ones on the margins, 

  that’s saying something.
I’m not saying that’s how we have to read that text.

 But it could be read that way.


So for example, there is the story of Miriam

 which found its way into the Bible,

  but its one I’ve little known,

   and least not in the way she ended up.
The Psalm singer may have sung her story.
Miriam is Moses’ sister.

 She famously acted out with courage

  and civic disobedience

   in saving her infant brother

    from Pharaoh’s killing edict.
She famously sings the song of victory,

 when the slaves escape from Egypt

  across the Red Sea

“Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them:

‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;

horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’

(Exodus 15)
Less famously, she becomes critical

 of Moses’ leadership, possibly not only critical

  but jealous, along with Aaron.
She is then struck with leprosy,

 and turned out of the settlement for a week.

  Moses intercedes for her,

   and she is healed

    and allowed to return.
But she, like Moses, never enters the Promised Land.

 They die in the wilderness.
It’s not an easy story, but it’s a full story.

 It’s a story that is more like our true stories

  in our lives, full of some joy, some success,

   some failure, some disaster,

    maybe some liberation but no promised land.
It’s a blues story, as I like to say,

 living at the intersection of suffering and joy.

  But it is a great story, and little known.
Usually it’s all about Moses.

 The Psalmist could sing Miriam’s song too…

  He doesn’t. It’s just Moses and Aaron in the Psalms.


Only the radical prophet Micah

 includes Miriam’s name in the liberation story.

  Hidden figures; hidden stories.

Yours and mine

One pathway for us to become open to hidden stories

 is to let some of our hidden stories be told.

Especially when we tell those stories 

 simply as representations of our authenticity.

  Not as levers to work on anyone

   or to score points or to play a power game.

    But to let the deep authenticity live

     in us and therefore in the world.
We don’t have to do it, and we certainly 

 should not do it if it feels harmful or dangerous,

  but when we tell a bit of our whole stories,

   when we accept that vulnerability and discomfort,

    then it can help to weave the world.


It can help to make the world a place

 where the hidden stories, often loaded with the 

  liberating work of God, can be told and 

   we can find strength in truth and wholeness.
We need each other’s whole stories

 just like we do better with Miriam’s whole story,

  not just the shiny victory bits but let us say

   the “whole bread” of the her whole life.
That’s one way of understanding why

 Drew I. Hart tells the stories of police and other killings

  of so many black people in the modern era.

   Dr. King’s story is great and important.


So are the stories that don’t end well,

 that reflect what Hart is talking about when he says:

“Blackness is a visible marker that justifies suspicion, brutality, and confinement by white society.” p15
We need to know this, or we’re living with partial information,

 we’re living with half of a loaf of the bread of life.

Hart tells his own scary story of being stopped

 at gun point, all because he had an expired

  registration sticker on his car.

   Two officers, with guns drawn!
We need these stories, so that we can make 

 the deep peace that the world needs.

  We need to know how the world is.
We need to know how it is with us.

 What are the stories we hide even from ourselves?

  What traumas, embarrassments, shame?
We all tend to want to shine. 

 White supremacy likes to pretend that everything’s okay.

  Those who tend to be in power are doing it right.

   But this is simply false, a half truth, a half loaf.
But when we tell our whole stories

 for the sake of wholeness,

  something powerful happens.
We begin to find our way to each other

 on the ground of God’s genuine love,

  not the pretenses and denials and distortions,

   but the points where we needed liberation,

    where we need liberation,

     where liberation may yet come.
This creates a whole different character

 of community, a community of authentic

  love, hope, joy, born in confession and truth-telling.
You can feel the blues playing in Hidden Figures.

 In fact, Miles Davis’ So What is in the sound track.

  And it feels so right.


Because the story is a blues story, a whole story,

 a story that is the whole loaf of bread for us.
Let’s hear a bit of So What….
A comparative story:

The Hello Girls, by Elizabeth Cobbs (Harvard). This engaging history crackles with admiration for the women who served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during the First World War, becoming the country’s first female soldiers. Operating switchboards in France, they juggled constantly shifting lists of codes and connections, worked fast amid artillery blasts, and mastered the “genteel diplomacy” needed to communicate with officials in French as well as English. Their technical skill was matched by what one woman called the “great, unquenchable, patriotic desire to do my bit.” Cobbs intercuts front-line activities with political battles on the home front: the women returned from victory to an America that did not yet grant them the right to vote.

The New Yorker 7-3-17


Tracing her true line
The air was so clear that the boy in the green goggles could divine in the snow the dense network of ski tracks, straight and oblique, of abrasions, mounds, holes, and pole marks, and it seemed to him that there, in the shapeless jumble of life, was hidden a secret line, a harmony, traceable only to the sky-blue girl, and this was the miracle of her: that at every instant in the chaos of innumerable possible movements she chose the only one that was right and clear and light and necessary, the only gesture that, among an infinity of wasted gestures, counted

(Translated, from the Italian, by Ann Goldstein.)

The New Yorker 7-3-17


The Bible is a male-dominant story.

But part of its charge is that it has stories that might have remained hidden, but for turns of divine events
A slave people in Egypt

Rahab prostitute, Tamar daughter-in-law widow, Ruth of Moab, Bathsheba the girl next door, Mary the peasant (of color – but this is only relevant to our white supremacy culture – everyone in the Bible stories was “of color” – a term that only exists as a pathway out of racism) – the 5 women in the genealogy of Jesus; four of them pivotal figures in the Hebrew story.
barren women – Hannah, Elizabeth, ?? – see Women of the Bible
another hidden story – woman who left her husband and daughter – The New Yorker 5-22-17


More scattered movie notes:
Colored restrooms

Colored computers!
Even though they were desperate to beat the Soviets in the space race, it was nip and tuck which would win, racial prejudice or collaboration, to get the math and science right.

Two women in restroom – like a woman and a man in a restroom today.

The feelings ran just about as high, I think.
And then with all the movement, all the goodness that finally happens because of brilliant, forceful, soulful persistence on the part of these woman, there is still the fundamental power and principality of the cold war.
The willingness to place entire populations in the path of nuclear weapons. The fire bombings of London, Dresden, Hamburg, Tokyo were all must foreshadowing for the nuclear bombings which in turn foreshadowed the turn to total war against populations which is now in practice constantly, but in action, by terrorism and in threat, by nuclear weapons. No one is coming close to fighting only on behalf of a just war anymore. We’ll target children, as needed, with our bombs. And of course the slow wars that take place under the nuclear umbrella of weapons sales to dictators who are allies, and the willingness to let economic disparities persist, which is in fact a choice. Economic disparity is not the weather, although it feels like it. Economic disparity is a collective choice, a principality and a power that casts its shadow over humanity.

Read Full Post »