Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for January, 2016

Black and Christian: An MLK Day Sermon

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Let us pray:

God who dreams in flesh and blood, teach us to respond to the cries of your people with justice, compassion and unfailing hope. Amen.

God told Moses to say: I have heard the cry of the Israelites and I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them, press them, squeeze them. Exodus 3:9

We all have multiple identities at the same time, aspects of which may be more dominant from time to time but which are not separable from other aspects. For example, when I hear that women make 77 cents for every dollar men make, I correct that to white women make 77 cents for every dollar men make. Black women make 69 cents for every dollar black men make. And, Latinas make 58 cents for every dollar Latino men make according to the 2012 census. I am a black woman. There are things I hold in common with women of all races and things I do not, things I hold in common with black men and things I do not. That is true for all of us.

We have multiple identities, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in conflict. Sometimes we elevate one identity above others. As Christians we are called to live out of our Christian identity which is not separate from but co-exists with our other identities. Dr. King’s Christianity looked different than the Christianity of the white clergy who wrote an open letter telling the black folk in their community not to demonstrate with King, who they called an outsider and to wait for the local political leadership in Alabama to work on segregation themselves. How long might that have taken? How much longer did the good white folk think that black folk should wait for the full dignity of human and civil rights? The clergymen – and they were all men – called the demonstrations “unwise” and “untimely.” It was too soon to talk about voting rights for black folk, even if they were serving in the military like my father. They accused Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement of inciting “hatred and violence.”

The undersigned included:

The Rt. Rev. Charles Colcock Jones Carpenter, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, The Rt. Rev. Joseph A. Durick, Auxiliary Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Mobile, Rabbi Hilton L. Grafman, Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham, Bishop Paul Hardin of the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the Methodist Church, Bishop Nolan B. Harmon of the North Alabama Conference of the Methodist Church, The Rt. Rev. George M. Murray, Bishop Coadjutor of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, Edward V. Ramage, Moderator of the Synod of Alabama in the Presbyterian Church in the United States, and Pastor Earl Stallings of the First Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama.

They penned this letter 12 April, 1968, more than a decade after the speech from which we heard a portion of as our Epistle reading. They were leaders of church and synagogue, interpreters of scripture, they prayed – many of them – the same prayers we pray, many sang same the same songs we sing and they were fundamentally on the wrong side of God’s love. To be fair, none of them were saying black folk shouldn’t have the same rights, at least not in that letter. They were saying it wasn’t the right time, and Dr. King wasn’t the right man and he wasn’t using the right methods. Folk are saying the same things today about the Black Lives Matter movement and its leaders.

This wasn’t the first time the church has been wrong. The very first slave ship to reach the American continent was named Jesus, a British ship, given to its captain by the head of the Church of England, Queen Elizabeth. She gave him two ships so he could make her more money in the slave trade. It would be a long time before the church, Anglican and otherwise determined to live up to and into what is now in our baptismal covenant, to respect the dignity of every human person. Sometimes we still fail at that. As church and as individuals. Sometimes we get it right.

We in the Episcopal Church have decided that all of the sacraments are for all of the people. We do not restrict the sacrament of ordination to male people and we do not restrict the sacrament of holy matrimony to heterosexual people. And again some of those who read the same scriptures we do and pray the same prayers we do and sing the same songs as we do and perhaps live in the same houses as we do say our actions are “unwise” and “untimely.” In fact, the Anglican Communion has given us a time out.

And Dr. King is still saying: We have not learned the simple art of loving our neighbors, and respecting the dignity and worth of all human personality…

Dr. King preached a strong word to the Conference on Christian Faith and Human Relations in Nashville back in 1957. A word that is still uncomfortably and maddeningly relevant. I would like to think that Dr. King would marvel at the progress we have made, not just the success of extraordinary individual figures in politics, sports and entertainment but the fundamental integration of our society at many levels and the real and meaningful relationships people have with folk who are different from them at work and church and school and in our neighborhoods, sometimes in our own families. So much in our world is different. And yet so much remains unchanged. There is still deep and abiding racial animus; the old race hatred lingers on and other biases have come out of their closets, biases against Muslims and Arabs – who aren’t all Muslim though it shouldn’t matter, biases against Spanish speaking folk, particularly Mexicans which is interesting in Texas where Mexicans pre-date Texans in many places and now, biases against those who have been driven from their homes with nothing but their children in their arms fleeing from war, even though some of those wars have our nation’s fingerprints on them.

Our lesson from Exodus gives us another reason to cast our lot on the side of the oppressed. God is watching. And more than that, God is there. God told Moses to say: I have heard the cry of the Israelites and I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them, press them, squeeze them. Do not be deceived by the fact that God has not and will not wipe all violence and oppression from the earth. God sends us and accompanies us. Will we go? We might be afraid like Moses that we aren’t up to the task. God knows and offers us companions along the way. Moses did not go alone. He had his sister, the prophet Miriam. He had his brother Aaron. He had his wife Zipporah – and then after a messy divorce, another wife. He had his father-in-law. Moses was a great and humanly flawed leader. And God used him and sent him some help.

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Dr. King was a great man. And he was a flawed man. And God used him. But he wasn’t out there alone. Dr. King was surrounded by Dorothy Height, Diane Nash, Amelia Boynton, Fannie Lou Hamer and more the way Moses was surrounded by Yocheved, Shifra, Puah, Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter. Dr. King also had the sage counsel of his friend Bayard Rustin, an openly gay black man.

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We in this Episcopal Church and in our larger global church are talking seriously about race and reconciliation. That requires us to have some uncomfortable conversations; we have begun that work. It will mean having more, especially when we get to the point that folk are saying enough already, it’s too much. We also have to look deeply and honestly at our own past, in our nation, in our church and in our families. We have to tell the whole truth, the hard truth, for we know that confession is a reconciling sacrament. Confession is liberating and healing and makes room for repentance. Too many folk are trying to be reconciled without confession or repentance, even in the church and we know better.

We have these multiple identities as women and men, gay, straight, bi and trans, black and white, Caribbean and Latino, American and Episcopalian, members of Trinity and the five o’clock gang. And in all of these things we are God’s children and we are Christian. Sometimes some of us look more like the Egyptians doing the oppressing and sometimes some of us look more like the Israelites being oppressed. And God is watching all of us, listening for the cry of the broken-hearted, raising up deliverers from among us to do the work of justice.

God is watching. God is listening. God is with us. Amen.