Year B; Lent 1; 2.21.2021
I wrote in this month’s “Messenger” newsletter that my former parish acknowledged Black History Month every year. Our festivities started with a community celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the National Holiday of his birthday in January and ended the last week in February. During sermon time at Sunday services, parishioners would share a slave narrative from the collection of slave interviews conducted in the 1930’s as part of the Federal Writers’ Project. Or we would read an excerpt from an important speech by Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth or Martin Luther King, Jr.
In my Rector’s article, I declared my wish to “give up systemic racism” for Lent. From a white person that sounds glib and insincere since Lent is only 40 days, and dismantling systemic racism is a lifelong way of living. But my sincere commitment is that my ministry and life’s work engage in dismantling systemic racism. I thank God that many of you also have made this commitment.
In May, after we all saw the video of George Floyd being brutalized and murdered by Minneapolis police, many of you emailed me to ask what St. Paul’s could do. At the time, our bishop introduced us to a 10-session film and reading-based program on race and faith called “Sacred Ground.” It was developed by the Episcopal Church as a part of the Presiding Bishop’s evangelism program called The Beloved Community.
We introduced Sacred Ground to about 10 of you in my yard in May and I offered a preview of it to the parish in a Zoom meeting. Nearly 30 of you signed up and five of you took the facilitator training course from Linda Ashe-Ford. You organized into Zoom meetings and now, most of the groups have completed the curriculum. The facilitators tell me that the content was eye-opening and transformative. Caroline Russell was so inspired by the program that she chose to designate her recent substantial contribution to St. Paul’s for expanding Sacred Ground in our parish and beyond to groups in the greater Brunswick area. We will soon be hearing more about new groups forming, as Katie Holicky leads a parish group to organize this work.
How many of us have watched the PBS documentary, “The Black Church?” Henry Louis Gates takes us through the faith of the slaves from its African influences to the current Black Church in this country. He even interviews our presiding bishop, Michael Curry who loves to talk about Jesus of Nazareth! Henry Louis Gates and Michael Curry have a conversation about how the slaves identified with Jesus, his suffering and death at the hand of the empire of Rome. Michael Curry didn’t stop there. He lit up and said, “He suffered and died, and then he rose! He got up!” Spontaneously, these two accomplished men then launched into the song, “He rose.” “He rose. He rose. He rose from the dead.”
The story of Jesus resonated with the slaves as they heard preaching about the “…sacrificial suffering of the carpenter from Nazareth…there was something liberating about the message of the suffering of Jesus…unjustly persecuted, forced to suffer at the hands of an evil empire…” They had personally experienced every bit of Jesus’ suffering and death. One of the Black theologians in the documentary said, “This was a man…forced to deal with nails and whips of ‘The Old Rugged Cross.’” Slaves knew about nails and bull whips.
Jesus not only brought a message of God’s favor, of good news to the most persecuted and oppressed. Jesus was also a courageous force for God and against religious officials and the evil empire. The Methodist Church was formed from the good news that Jesus himself claimed, “…he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives…”
Henry Louis Gates grew up in the Methodist Church and described its history as being formed against slavery and for freedom because the Christian faith and slavery were not compatible. The Methodist Church was the first in this country to include blacks and whites in worship together.
Yet, as the institution of slavery became more and more entrenched and the country became more divided, the Methodist Church divided into the Southern Methodist Church and the Northern Methodist Church. Shockingly, the most pressing question of the Southern Methodist Church convention was not, “How can we relieve suffering and minister to the hungry?” No, the most pressing question of the day was, “Can bishops own slaves?”
That this was even a question, demonstrates that the nation, and most all of the churches were in the grip of an empire that had infused the sin of slavery into every system in the country.
We just heard Mark’s version of Jesus’ baptism and his temptation in the wilderness. Slaves would have heard this passage and understood that John the Baptist and Jesus were NOT wealthy and powerful elites aligned with the empire of Rome. John ate locusts, wore camel skin and lived in the wilderness.
Mark’s writing is clear and direct. Scholars believe it was the first gospel to have been written. It has a sense of immediacy about the story of Jesus. In just a few short verses in Mark’s Gospel we know he was baptized and driven into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. He was among the wild beasts and was ministered to by angels. And he was there for 40 days before he was launched into his early ministry.
But there are two important details in that brief account that would have stood out to the troubled and persecuted hearers of this story. First, the writer of Mark included an exact detail about Jesus’ hometown. “Nazareth of Galilee,’ [would have been known to the crowd as] a third-class village in a second-class Galilee…[it] suggests the humble origins of the Messiah. “The Galilean presence is an offense among all these Judeans” who would be looking for someone more impressive. But Jesus had “street cred” to the down-trodden.
The other detail was his baptism. With the heavens torn in two, the dove coming down and the voice of God calling him “Beloved Son,” Mark’s community would have heard this as God, not empire favoring this divine man they were following. To them, “…Jesus’ Baptism is a political and economic assertion of God’s Lordship.”
Bible scholar Stanley P. Saunders writes this truth in his commentary, “When Jesus emerges from the waters of the Jordan River, Jesus is the first citizen of God’s empire, completely free of obligations to anyone or anything but God and God’s coming rule.”
The good news of following Jesus is that we are citizens of God’s empire. Our freedom is in Jesus, God’s Beloved Son, who suffered with “nails and whips” on “The Old Rugged Cross.” Our freedom is in “He rose! He GOT UP!” Our freedom is in God’s power, rather than empire’s power. Our freedom is in choosing to follow Jesus and letting him lead us to learn all we can about the sin of slavery, the sin of racism and the sin of white supremacy.
This first Sunday in Lent, I invite you to join me in giving up racism for Lent, for a lifetime and for the sake of our Black neighbors.