In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
One of my favorite southern writers is Rick Bragg. So often he takes me back to a time and place, a time present where I can remember with purpose. Listen to how he describes this reflection.
“They say we Southerners live in the past. That, they say, is our problem; the past is dead, Faulkner or no Faulkner.
“I guess I could try to explain, to tell them that for us memory is not an inventory, not a catalog of events, but a time machine. It lifts us off the dull treadmill of grown-up responsibilities to a time of adventure and wonder. The past is not dead, and so the dead are never really gone. We resurrect them, daily, for one more story, one more buck dance or ball game, or one more cast into the cool water.”
As I read these words, sure enough, my mind traveled to a place and time where innocence was true for me. My mind traveled back to a moment when driving with my parents to visit my mother’s parents, my grandparents, in Sumner, Mississippi. Sumner is a delta town half way between Greenwood and Clarksdale, on Highway 49. Right before you turn off Highway 49, half way between Greenwood and Clarksdale, there was a large billboard with a picture of a boy and the caption read, “Sumner, A Wonderful Place to Raise a Boy.” I can remember seeing it and feeling excited about what lay ahead. My grandparents would be waiting, excited to see me. Their house faced Cassidy Bayou and behind the house was my grandfather’s construction company filled with backhoes, trucks and all kinds of equipment. Behind that, was a railroad track that carried long trains several times a day. If we couldn’t find snakes and turtles to throw rocks at on the bayou, then we would go and put pennies on the railroad tracks, hoping to flip the train as it slowly rolled by. Sumner truly was a wonderful place to raise a boy. That is, until 30 years later when my innocence was disrupted.
I participated in the Clergy Leadership Project in Memphis, Tennessee. Thirty Episcopal clergy from all over the United States gathered in Memphis for ten days to learn the skills of leadership, Artificial Intelligence, and fractals. Some rectors, some associates, some Black, some white, some gay and some straight, and some women and some men. It was an honest image of the Episcopal Church. On the first day we were given the week’s schedule. We were told we would have the opportunity for a private tour of the Civil Rights museum, which was located in the Lorain Motel, the site where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered in 1968. When the day arrived thirty of us drove to the museum, received our tickets and entered the building. As I rounded the corner to begin the self-guided tour, to my great surprise was the billboard that welcomed me to Sumner. Sumner, a Wonderful Place to Raise a Boy. I stopped dead in my tracks. It was like I was frozen and couldn’t move. I remember the other participants walking by, entering the trail of civil rights history, but I could not take my eyes off the sign, Sumner, a wonderful place to raise a boy. Why was it here in this place? Slowly my eyes began to look around and then I saw another sign: Emit Till.
I knew very little about Emit Till, other than he was murdered in a grotesque manner and thrown into the Tallahatchie River. That was about it. He died a few months before I was born. It wasn’t until that moment that I began to read the whole story. Towards the end of the historical display, I began to read about the trial, held in Sumner, Mississippi, my grandparents town, the town where it was a wonderful place to raise a boy, the town that I knew to be a safe and fun place to throw rocks into the bayou and place pennies on the railroad tracks. And then it dawned on me. Sumner was a wonderful place to raise a boy… if you were white. The sign had betrayed me. Bragg is right, the past is not dead and so the dead are never really gone.
The theme of this convention is “The Moral Voice of the Church.” This topic was selected before the Pandemic was in full swing and yet it gave credence to the unraveling of social relationships. Sequestered in homes, the political tensions were ripe for misinformation and even antagonistic discord. With nerves already raw, the killing of Black men and women by white policemen stretched the very fabric of our country’s souls. The tension that lay underneath the surface boiled up and over the landscape of America. The pressure pitted neighbor against neighbor and Facebook friend against Facebook friend. As the spinning of anger swirled around us the question of God’s presence was silently whispered. Where is God in the midst of all the anger, loneliness, sickness, and death? We questioned whom to believe. Political leaders were and continue to be pitted against scientists. So, what does the church have to say about racism, environmental neglect, speaking for those whose voice is drowned out by the caste system of America? Whose work is it to speak to injustices that leave our brother or sister hopeless? What is the role of the church in such times?
I want to begin with a basic premise: to truly know God, one first must be lost, and then found. This is the story of Adam and Eve, Moses, the Apostle Paul. It is my story too. The stories of lost and found are woven throughout the teachings of Jesus. To know the grace of God one must first understand he/she is lost and by God goodness, found redeemable and in fact redeemed. To know we have been redeemed sends us on a journey of grace and wonder. This journey is one in which we look for the goodness of God, and in all things of God. This is a journey of seeking ways to lift up that which is redeemable.
Many of you have heard that in Chinese culture the word for crisis is represented in two characters. These characters are danger and opportunity. Upon further investigation linguist Benjamin Zimmer notes that these characters are actually, danger and change point.
Not doubt we have and are experiencing danger in this season of COVID. To not acknowledge this would be to put our heads in the sand. However, we are at a point where change is needed if we desire to live faithfully under the Mercy of God. What do I mean by change? First we need to remember who we are. The baptismal covenant can help us. The first question asked of us in recalling our own baptism is: Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? That is, will you do your best to recall through the reading of scriptures, prayers, and in the act of community worship that God created all things and then entrusted them to us, his beloved? This is a call to active participation in Christian living. We learn through private and community relationships to be for the other, rather than being against the other. We have forgotten in some ways to see our brothers and sisters as we see ourselves. We seem to have developed an opinion that if the other doesn’t belong to the same political party, vote like me, have the same views as me, or look like me, then they are not important. The Good Book says the opposite. Zechariah writes; “These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oaths; for all these are things that I hate, says the Lord.”
Like the people of Israel we have lost our way, but God is calling us back into the presence of holiness. We should not be offended when we hear the call, Black Lives Matter. Think about that phrase. Do we want to say Black lives do not matter? Of course we don’t. But a deeper listening tells a sad story. For too long, people like Emit Till didn’t matter. For hundreds of years people like Emit Till didn’t matter and now others are lining the bloody streets and the sad commentary is that some of us want to turn away as if it is true, that Black lives don’t matter. The Presiding Bishop acknowledge to the House of Bishops the other day that the community is tired of all the anger, dishonest rhetoric, and violence. But then he said something that shook me awake. He said, “ I am too. I’ve been black for 67 years, and I’m tired too!”
I think of Mr. Brooks, a parishioner at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church here in New Orleans. At 111 years old, he is the oldest living WWII veteran. He served his country gallantly, but was not allowed the GI Bill when he returned home, simply because the color of his skin was not like mine. For 111 years he has been Black, dealing with racism and hatred but he has never faulted his faith in mankind, or his faith in God. This is what a faithful servant looks like.
When I think of serving the underserved I think of the people who have entered our country to find a better way of life: a home, good schools, and good jobs. New Orleans and Baton Rouge have more Latinos than any other cities in our state. Many of them do not have a church. Nine years ago we tried to find a Spanish-speaking priest to come to the diocese and help us grow this ministry but were unsuccessful, mostly due to finances. Since the sale of the Canal Street property and the relief we received from the PPP loan, we now have funds to help build this ministry. Our goal for 2021 is to have a priest who will begin our Hispanic ministry. With assistance from St. Augustine’s Church in Metairie we will begin in June. I am grateful to Fr. A.J. Heine for his leadership with this endeavor.
Many of you know that Canon John Kellogg has moved from our diocese to the diocese of Washington, DC. In fact, he is now the rector of Christ Church Washington DC, on Capital Hill. Part of Canon Kellogg’s duties was Congregational Development. He was in charge of creating educational opportunities for young and old. This was and is an integral part of our diocese. With the help of a steering committee the focus on Congregational Development will continue until the graduation of Allison Reid from the University of the South, School of Theology. One of Allison’s responsibilities will be to take up the mantle of Christian Formation.
Formation, teaching the canons of the church, leading groups in discussions across all topics is what we should be doing. I want to encourage all parishes to work on formation within your congregation. Teach the young and old the story of God, and how it all began with the breathing of the Spirit. Teach them to love creation and the life within. If we aren’t teaching what the scriptures have to say about loving our neighbor, caring for the poor and the earth, and then doing it, what in the world are we about? The church’s mission is to teach the love of God, teach how to live the love of God, and then prayerfully find ways to become what we know to be true. If we are not doing this, then we are failing in our mission.
In the gospel reading for today Jesus is walking through the market when a blind man begins to call Jesus. Even though those around the man tell him to be quiet, he continues to yell, Son of David, have mercy on me. Finally Jesus approaches the man and asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” The man replies, “I want to see again”. Jesus does in fact restore the man’s sight. I am reminded that Jesus never heals anyone who doesn’t get in his way. Are you in his way? Do you need to be healed or are you doing just fine?
Wendell Berry in his book Given, a collection of his poems writes:
those who have learned
to love one another
have made their way
to the lasting world
and will not leave,
“Those who have learned to love one another…” What a beautiful image of the Kingdom of God. For in the Kingdom of God, love is a never-ending gift. It will be, and it is. Those who choose to love will long to love and give, for that is what Love does when we receive it, when we are lost and then found.
Which brings me back to where I began, Sumner, a wonderful place to raise a boy. When Love comes down, Sumner will be a wonderful place to raise a boy… a black boy and a black girl, a white boy and a white girl, a gay boy and a gay girl. For in the Kingdom of God, everyone is welcome.