Second Sunday after the Epiphany; Year A
January 15, 2017
In celebration of the life of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Brookline, MA
Isaiah 49:1—7; 1 1 Corinthians 1:1—9; John 1:29—42
It was the late fall of 2008, my first semester in college in Raleigh, North Carolina. I was sitting inside a warm red brick house on a side street called Hope at the Episcopal Campus Ministry. There, I was nestled on the comfy beige couch, basking in the warm glow of soft lamp lighting. Laptop warm in my lap and school papers blanketing the sofa, I was studying for final exams. The chaplain’s assistant, John stepped into the room to check on me and I was looking for any diversion from studying. Barack Obama had recently been elected president. I don’t remember the conversation leading up, but in that warm and loving space, I remember making a proclamation: “Now that Obama has been elected president, I hope that black people in America can see that race is no longer a factor… that racism died in the 60’s with Jim Crow and we are now living in a post-racial America. I really hope we can all come together and work to make our country wonderful.” John, the twenty something year old white man chaplain assistant just kinda looked at me and said, “hugh, maybe.” But I remember the energy shifting from warm and loving, to warm, loving, and awkward, which is probably why this moment stands out in my mind to this day.
At that time, I really believed that racism was a thing of the past -- that the Civil Rights movement swept through the nation and everything was basically okay. I dated a black guy in high school and knew that there were still some bigoted people who said nasty, hurtful things, but I thought that the American game was set up for all people of all races to win, if they were honest, earnest and worked hard.
And then the most miraculous thing happened. I was transformed by community. I was (and still am) loved beyond belief in this Episcopal Campus Ministry. There, I felt safe and secure, which encouraged me to take risk, to be bold and step outside of my comfort zone. The next semester in the Spring, I went to the Episcopal Migrant Farmworker Ministry for an alternative spring break trip. I went because older members of my community -- juniors and seniors in college -- encouraged me to “come and see.”
So I piled into a van and rode forty-five minutes to Newton Grove. While the drive was only forty-five minutes, it was like driving back in time. Carefully hidden from the view of the main road, we drove down a dirt road named “plantation lane” where eight run down single-wide trailers were lined up, housing migrant farm workers, mostly from South and Central America. We met a teeny tiny woman with beautiful brown skin and long black hair who carried heavy bins of clothing -- it look like she swallowed a basketball, but she was just very pregnant and stayed out of the fields for the day to do laundry in one of the three sinks that were available to the 100+ workers in the camp. Normally she was out in the fields with the rest of the workers -- mostly men -- getting paid 40-60 cents per 30 pound bin of sweet potatoes she picked. The most deadly were the tobacco farms, where tobacco plants are sprayed with toxic chemicals. The migrant farm workers often get sick from contact with both the plant as well as the chemicals. I learned that agricultural workers are explicitly exempt from certain labor laws.
This is where I began to be transformed by community. My community brought me out of my comfort zone and asked me to see my world through new eyes. I really wanted to believe what the television had taught me: that anyone can make it in America, that racism is a thing of the past… but my community gave me the love and courage to see the world through new eyes and perhaps the greatest miracle of all, I change my mind.
“By him you were called into fellowship” (1 Corinthians 1:9). In today’s Gospel reading, we hear a story of fellowship. We hear of Jesus visiting John the Baptist’s rag tag community of people. In the Gospel of John, this is the story of Jesus’ first disciples. While the wording in today’s Gospel reading is a little cryptic, it is a story of a bunch of dudes hanging out, building community. This was the birthplace of the Jesus movement: coming together in community. Eating together. Getting to know one another. Spending time together. Loving one another. Disagreeing with each other. Being transformed by relationships. At the time, they didn’t know how the story would end, but they knew they had to “come and see.” This is the birth story of the community that with prayer and peacefulness (tho not always perfectly) lead a diverse multicultural movement of love that cut through the violence of the Roman Empire.
Today, I think our culture can encourage us to be isolated, especially if we are not feeling happy or joyful. In the coming weeks, there are a lot of time and spaces to come together -- book group, scripture group, knitting group, 20/30’s conversation about politics, Boston Women’s march, Capital Campaign celebration… there are so many opportunities to come together to do this ancient work of building community. And in my experience, feeling loved and secure is directly correlated with my willingness to take risk -- risk doing something uncomfortable, like going to my first protest when I was in college, or visiting the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry. Risk changing my mind, which is not an encouraged value in our culture. Risk to be more loving, to turn the other cheek. Risk to be joyful, tho I have considered all the facts…
I am feeling so lucky to be alive as our own church has elected our first ever African American presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Bishop Michael Curry. Our Episcopal Church! Our Episcopal Church, where church members in the South were the largest owners of slaves among the Christian denominations. The Episcopal Church where many of our churches, North and South, were built by slave labor. Our Episcopal Church where many of our Northern families became rich off the the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Together as a church, we have done some healing work to get where we are today. We got more work to do, but oh Lawd have we come a long way! I am so lucky to be alive as we as a church community are stepping outside of our comfort zone of white folks being in power and are living into a more beloved community.
December 4th, as we sang Hallelujah during our annual Messiah Sing, the US Army Corps of engineers halted construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline -- a pipeline that is set to cross the Missouri River, a body of water that is sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux, and their only access to clean drinking water on the reservation. The water protectors gathered prayerfully and peacefully for months, doing prayer rituals and ceremonies.
Our history, as recently as 1973, when First Nations people gathering to stand up for their rights as human beings -- the US government has responded by killing them. The fact that the US government, even if for only a moment, backed down when First Nations gathered in prayer, is a huge paradigm shift. And even if the Dakota Access Pipeline gets built under the Missouri River, that moment will not be unwritten, and for the the first time in a long time, if ever since settlers arrived, First Nations people are being respected as people with political power.
And I got to bare witness to this because this community made it possible for me to go -- the staff here pulled the extra weight while I was gone, parishioners Madeline Taylor, Mark Teiwes, and Sam Scott all had my back in case I got stuck in jail and couldn’t fulfill my Sunday duties… and Jeff even wrote me a 100 dollar check to help pay my plane ticket. This community provided the love, encouragement and resources for me to travel waaaayyyy beyond my comfort zone. There I stood - we stood - St. Paul’s stood - with over 500 clergy, with the prayerful and peaceful First Nations people gathered. St. Paul’s got to be a part of the paradigm shift of how settlers and First Nations people interact. The gathered prayerful and peaceful community at Standing Rock, not unlike Jesus and his followers, are a community of people who through their commitment to prayerfulness and peacefulness are writing a new story of how the United States government and large corporations treat First Nations people.
For me, my personal story of awakening to the continued racial dysfunction of our country, is a story of how individuals are transformed by community. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s election is a story of how communities are transformed by relationships. The prayerful and peaceful story of the Standing Rock Sioux is a story of how small communities can transform the world. These are stories that are as old and ancient as scripture. Individuals are transformed by communities, communities are transformed by relationships, and communities, in turn, transform the world.
On Tuesday night after Scripture Group, I found myself in the parking lot of Trader Joe’s. The pitter patter of soft rain, the wet pavement glistening from the reflection of headlights, my love and I sat in the red glow of the TJ’s sign. Radio on and engine running, we watched people trickle in and out of the store as workers prepared for closing. Here, in this mundane moment of a Tuesday night in Brookline, we listened to President Obama’s final address as president.
Through all of my conflicting feelings, the one that bubbled up most strongly was gratitude. Gratitude that I’ve had the extraordinary privilege of living during the leadership of our first ever black president. Gratitude for the abolitionist communities who have been preaching and organizing against slavery since the birth of our nation. Gratitude for the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King, Rosa Parks, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee… These communities of people, communities of people who probably gathered over food, talked to each other, shared stories of deep joy and great sorrow and ever present fear, just like Jesus and the disciples.
I wonder what Dr. King would think, how he would feel if he were alive to see this moment today. I wonder what Jesus would think, how he would feel if he were alive right now. I pray that just like the first disciples, we can continue tapping into that ancient and holy practice of coming together in love, where we are emboldened to take risks, to experience transformation in community and in turn, that our community may continue the long journey of the Jesus movement to transform our violent world into the loving kindom of God.