Link to Service


Ruth 1.15-18

Luke 8.1-3; 13.10-17

Stain RemovAL

Sixth Sunday after Easter

Two weeks ago I was having a Coffee Hour conversation with a couple of you about the Rummage Sale the day before – and I’m so grateful to Judy Schondorf and her intrepid team of helpers – the conversation was about how difficult it was to get rid of the unsold items when the sale was over.  A lot of it went into the dumpster, because no one wanted to traipse all the stuff back up into the attic again, and I agree with that decision wholeheartedly.  Still, there is something about our latent Yankee frugality that does not like to throw perfectly good items away, and I get that.  Literally, I get that, because once I got that!  It was after a similar rummage sale at one of my previous churches that one of our workers just could not bear to throw a 16 x 20 picture of Jesus into the dumpster.  It was a painting of Jesus sitting on a rock teaching a gaggle of children, one that probably graced every Sunday School room in the country back in the 1950s and ’60s.  “Do I really want to throw an image of Jesus in the garbage?” I’m sure the volunteer asked himself.  So there I was the next morning, a Sunday, going out on the porch to enjoy my coffee and read through my sermon when I stumbled over a 16 x 20 picture of Jesus teaching the children.  “I know what I’ll do with this!”  I’m certain my parishioner thought.  “I’ll give it to the minister, I’m sure he’d love yet another kitschy picture of Jesus.”  While nobody ’fessed up to leaving it on my porch, there sure were a lot of guilty looks when I brought it to church that morning and placed it in front of the pulpit.

There was a different picture of Jesus in the news early this week, I wonder if you saw it.  St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Warren, Rhode Island, closed in 2010, and the building was purchased by a couple who are turning it into a residential building.  One of the church’s features is a very unusual stained glass window depicting Jesus and three women.  The window was commissioned in 1877 by a wealthy woman who wanted to honor two aunts who were dear to her.  All three women were members of the prestigious DeWolf family; the DeWolf name is still a prominent one in the Ocean State.  The family made their fortune as one of the nation’s foremost slave traders – the husband of one of the aunts was captain of a slave ship.  Which makes the stained glass window all the more fascinating, because all of four characters are rendered with dark skin:  Jesus and the three women, all of them black.  This is one of the earliest, if not the earliest, depiction of Jesus as a person of color.  Historians speculate that the window was commissioned partly to atone for the family’s slave-trading ways.  But no one – no western artist, anyway – had ever before portrayed Jesus with dark skin.

When you think about it though, this is kind of unusual.  Why did it not occur to anyone that a man from the middle east might actually have dark skin?  Most historians will agree that a typical man from the Jordan/Palestine region who lived in Jesus’ day most likely had brown eyes, dark hair, dark olive-brown skin and stood around five foot six.  And yet what kind of Jesus image did most of us grow up seeing?  The most ubiquitous painting of Jesus, at least in middle-class America, was drawn by Warner Salman in the 1940’s and I’m guessing you’ve all seen it; it’s the one on the left of our bulletin this morning, with the image of St Mark’s stained glass window on the right.  But look at this Jesus:  staring off into the middle distance with distinctively western facial features, unblemished white skin and long flowing chestnut hair.  We used to joke in seminary that he could be auditioning to become the next Breck girl.  Which of the two Jesuses on the bulletin looks more authentic to you?

I chose this morning’s readings in honor of Mother’s Day.  As Michele described for us from the book of Ruth, we heard about Ruth’s resolve not to abandon her mother-in-law Naomi, even though her husband, Naomi’s son, had passed away and thus severed that family connection.  Yet it was this decision to remain with Naomi that put her in the company of Boaz, whom she eventually married, and it was through this fidelity to both husband and mother-in-law that led to her becoming the grandmother of the greatest of Israel’s leaders, King David.

And it is in Luke’s gospel that we find a possible model for St Mark’s stained glass window.  It is not just the color of Jesus’ skin that is noteworthy in the artwork.  First, Jesus is teaching three women – nearly as much of a scandal in the nineteenth century as it was in the first.  Education in both centuries was largely limited to society’s men.  But even more important is that Jesus and the women – and by the way, I keep mentioning three women and in the bulletin illustration there are only two; the third is on a separate but adjacent stained glass window – the three women are on the same visual level as Jesus; this is to say, he was teaching them as equals.  Of course, we see this again and again in Luke’s gospel, and even though we don’t know who the women in the window are meant to be, it isn’t difficult to imagine them as Mary, Joanna and Susanna as they appear in Luke 8.  Down through the years the church has forgotten the centrality of women to Jesus’ ministry as conveniently as it has forgotten that Jesus was a middle-eastern Palestinian.  Which is to say, the church has effectively airbrushed the women and whitewashed Jesus into people the Bible would no longer recognize.

Homecoming was a big deal at my college.  The week featured multiple competitions among the four classes, with the highlight being Saturday’s homecoming parade.  Each class competed in the parade by creating floats, and one year the sophomore class designed a float called “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”  The float featured two giant hands, holding a sphere made with bands of lath so you could see through it, and a life-size statue of Jesus in the center of the sphere.  The night before the parade the sophomore who was in charge of procuring Jesus, a mannikin donated by a local clothing shop, dropped Jesus off at the construction point and drove away.  But not before she had taken the liberty of painting the mannikin with dark brown skin.  In 1977, this caused more than a little consternation among those lily-white evangelicals, who undertook the worst possible solution:  they repainted Jesus so he was white and placed him on the float.  The campus exploded with anger:  the white community was outraged at the suggestion that Jesus could be black, and the black community was outraged that he had been whitewashed for the parade.  And the class president that year – yours truly, who was making airport runs while this whole fiasco unfolded – was left to put the pieces back together.  But when I look around both the church and society in our own day nearly fifty years later, and see how whiteness and nationalism and Christianity have been in some circles bound into a politically divisive dynamic, I think this is a useful and cautionary metaphor.  When Dr. King spoke about judging a person by the content of their character and not the color of their skin, one would think that in Jesus’ case this would go without saying.  Unfortunately, among some circles, and in more than a few churches, one would be wrong.

The DeWolf family hoped to rid itself of the stain of slave trafficking by commissioning a depiction of Jesus and his followers as people of color, although his was probably a lighter skin that what the stained – or in this case, stain removing – glass window suggests.  My classmate hoped to feature a Jesus image with the stain of whiteness removed.  And while I do know the ruckus caused by the latter, we don’t have a record of what the good people of St Mark’s Episcopal Church though of their new window in the late nineteenth century.  In a way I am tempted to take the middle ground and say that the color of Jesus’ skin doesn’t matter, or at least that it shouldn’t matter.  When we were looking at the Jesus of Mark’s gospel back in Lent we talked about how it was important to see ourselves and one another in the face of Jesus, the better to see the Jesus in us.  And this is still true – and it is true for people of every race and ethnicity.   And it is also necessary to know Jesus’ roots – Jesus was a Jewish carpenter from the middle east who was executed as a criminal - in order to know who he is for our own day and age.  If we don’t know Jesus was Jewish, it’s a lot more difficult to understand him.  If we don’t know he was a common laborer, it may be more difficult to understand why he understands us.  And if we don’t know he was a first century middle eastern, as evidenced by his familiarity with common things like camels and figs and lepers and denarii, then we miss some of his teaching and example.

At the end of the day, it is true that skin color is not nearly as important as how we treat other people.  The depiction of a dark skinned first century middle eastern Jesus treating dark skinned first century middle eastern women as equals had to speak volumes to those nineteenth century slave-trading Rhode Islanders, probably more than words could ever say.  The question I’ll leave you with this morning is, what do the images in this stained-glass window say about Jesus to you?


Uniter 2

 community 2

Current Events Button

 donate 2

Join Us!

Sunday worship

is at 10 a.m.

In-person &

online on our





Handicapped Accessible 



United Church of Chester, 29 West Main Street, Chester, CT 06412. (860) 526-2697


From the North: Take CT Route 9 South to Exit 8 (old exit 6) (CT 148). Turn left; we are 1 mile on the right.


From the South: Take CT Route 9 North to Exit 8 (old exit 6) (CT 148). Turn Right; we are .8 miles on the right.

Office Hours

Church Office:

Tuesday - Friday 9-1


Minister's Hours:

Wednesday  - Friday



Mailing Address:  

Post Office Box 383, Chester, CT 06412


Physical Address:  

29 West Main Street, Chester, CT 06412





Email Address: