Year AFB; Proper 9, 7.9.2023, The Rev. Carolyn H. Eklund, Rector
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
I first met Toni at The General Theological Seminary when I was inquiring about seminaries. She was The General Seminary registrar and I met her when I visited the seminary in New York one day after meeting with our pharmaceutical advertising agency. I traveled across town and entered the broad seminary entrance hall. I asked to speak to someone about attending General Seminary. I was led to Toni’s office just off the entrance.
She was about my age, had a beautiful smile and a stylish short, angled Afro haircut. Her skin was dark and pretty and smooth. She stood up to greet me and I could see that she walked awkwardly with braces on her legs. I immediately realized that it was HER battery-powered cart parked outside her office.
Over the years at seminary, Toni, my late John and I became friends. We learned her story when she told it in a sermon during one family Eucharist in the chapel. She told us why she wore braces on her legs. She was a toddler in Alabama when she fell ill with a high fever. The fever persisted and her parents worried that she might have contracted the poliovirus. They took her to the hospital in town. This was in the segregated South and even a black toddler with a high fever was not permitted in that hospital. It was for whites only. Her parents were given the name of the hospital for black people with black doctors which was hours away. Toni tells the story of that harrowing drive her parents had to make with their sick child.
Toni’s story brought home to us that evening how her parents suffered from the added uncertainty and stress to get her help so far away when there was a hospital that could have treated her in her own town. It’s a story of the sin of segregation, the sin of racism and the collapse of the ethical commitment doctors have to NOT withhold treatment.
Toni told her story which included that her permanently damaged physical body is a reminder of the destructive inequality of healthcare where she grew up. Still, Toni smiled. She spoke of justice. She spoke of her strength of faith and the openness she has for all God’s people. She is indeed a committed Episcopalian! She spoke of loving Jesus and following Jesus. In my imagination, I could see her; a sweet, smiling, intelligent child growing up with braces on her legs and moving around in a wheelchair, a constant reminder of the inequality.
I thought of Toni as a precious child of God when I studied the gospel for today. In the gospel of Matthew this morning as Jesus describes the “children in the marketplace” playing the flute and no one danced, I see Toni playing her flute joyfully, gleefully. And I see no one dancing in the Alabama of her childhood. I thought of Toni and her parents playing the flute of hope and compassion, expecting the doctors at the white hospital to dance with them. Come! Treat my child.
And “NO ONE DANCED.”
Jesus said, “To what do I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplace calling out to others, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance…” Even worse, “We wailed a dirge and you did not mourn.”
Jesus is reminding his followers that even as they come nearer to living a godly and righteous life, those around them will be compromised and paralyzed by their own inaction, inertia, or worse, their lack of empathy and awareness of “sins done on their behalf.” Jesus reminds his followers that those in the “marketplace” will be unable or unwilling to dance in joy with the children making music. They will be unable to join in the wailing of the suffering. Jesus speaks these words for the persecuted and socially injured, the oppressed in Matthew’s faith community. And they translate to us today. Is our culture not able to feel?
It’s hard enough to imagine a darling, smiling, intelligent black baby in the 50s being ignored by doctors at her hometown hospital. But this kind of injustice persists today. I recently watched an interview with National Book Award author Clint Smith. It was an inspiring conversation that introduced his new book of poetry called, “Above Ground.” Clint Smith is an author and scholar, and most importantly, a black dad.
In the interview, Clint Smith described the deep desire he and his wife had to start a family. But after many, many tests, his wife was given a 1% chance of conceiving. However, eventually she did conceive. And that pregnancy was a treasured miracle. Late in the pregnancy, though, she had an episode of unexplained heat increasing in her legs. Worried sick they drove to the Emergency Room of the hospital. The doctor met her briefly and told the nurse to send her home.
Later, the heat turned into a blaze throughout her legs and Clint Smith’s wife knew something was wrong. Smith said, “My wife wasn’t having it,” being dismissed like that. And so, they went back to the hospital. I want to read to you the excerpt of the poem Clint Smith wrote of that experience. Blessedly, his son is four years old now. And the poem is him speaking to his son. It’s called, “By Chance.”
He [the doctor] walked out of the room and told the nurse to send us home.
But the next day the heat in your mother’s legs grew into a blaze. We drove to the hospital and asked to see a different doctor. The nurse said that wouldn’t be possible.
Your mother’s restraint fractured. She has never allowed someone to tell her the ground isn’t there when she feels the soil beneath her feet. She leaned over the desk. I am not asking. I am telling you. I need to see a different doctor. The nurse, now anxious, disappeared into the hall.
We were called to see the different doctor and that doctor ran the test that your mother asked for. What they found occurs in 1 out of 1000 pregnancies. The nurse told us that you needed to be delivered early, that waiting too long might mean you extinguish in a womb of poison blood.
I keep thinking of what could have happened, of what almost did.
Clint Smith describes how it feels to play the flute and no one dances. He describes how it feels to wail and no one mourns. He describes how it feels to be dismissed and know that your life and your baby’s life are on the line.
My friend Toni describes how it feels to drive hours carrying a child burning with fever in the segregated South because doctors – YES DOCTORS refused to treat your black baby.
Many of us have been following women’s health in this country. If you have, you know that maternal mortality rates of women are on the rise. And you know that the maternal mortality rates of black women have always been high and they are rising even higher in the year 2023! There is a minority in this country who have taken their power to make detrimental changes in the care of women’s health, particularly black women. Will we wail and no one mourns?
Followers of Jesus, you and me, know that “God always stands unconditionally and passionately on this side of justice against the lofty, and on behalf of the lowly; against those who already enjoy rights and privilege, and on behalf of those who are denied of it.”
Followers of Jesus, you and me, stand with him when Jesus extends his invitation to these very people. “Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart. And you will find rest for your souls.” We can feel our blood pressure lower just hearing these words.
How are we called to dance and to mourn with those who are dismissed by our nation even today? How are we called to take on the gentle and humble heart of Jesus to seek righteous justice for all?