A Sermon by Deacon Geof Smith
In 1871 a Unitarian minister named Theodore Parker, spoke out with words that have echoed to this day. He spoke in opposition to the rising calls for segregation in the post-war South. Parker said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but that same Christ arose and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name.”
Powerful words, Mr. Parker! But why must this arc be so long?
There are many heroes along that arc, including the late Howard Thurman, a Baptist pastor and theologian. He may be one of the lesser known heroes of the movement for civil rights in this country, but he too carried the trajectory forward.
Born in 1899, Thurman was raised in a racially segregated Daytona, Florida by his mother and grandmother. And while white privilege and power divided our world with apartheid and segregation, these very same institutions created a dividing line, because somebody had to live along the border.
And that’s what the Thurmans did.
Thurman tells the story that on one side of their home they had black neighbors, and on the other side, white. The white neighbor deeply resented the fact that she lived next door to the Thurman’s. And so nearly every day she would clean out her chicken coop and throw the droppings over the fence into the Thurman’s back yard.
This went on for years, and even though the droppings were a smelly health hazard, Thurman’s grandmother, never said a word.
Years later, when both women were old, the white neighbor fell sick, and was confined to bed. Thurman’s grandmother made some chicken soup, and picked some roses from her garden, to take next door. When she knocked on the door, Mrs. Thurman’s neighbor was surprised and taken aback, but she let her in. They went back to the bedroom where the white neighbor got back in bed and let her black neighbor feed her the chicken soup.
There was not much conversation – so Mrs. Thurman kept feeding her.
After a while she found a vase and put the roses in to brighten the room.
Her white neighbor said, “Oh thank you. Those are beautiful. Where did you get those beautiful roses?”
Mrs Thurman told her, “Well, you had a little something to do with that. You know that you’ve been throwing your chicken droppings into my back yard for years. Well I took those droppings and used them as manure for my garden. And these roses and the vegetables in the soup come from my garden.”
And with that, there was the silence of two women sitting through a painful history.
And she continued to feed her the soup.
Jesus says to “love your enemies . . . do good . . . expecting nothing in return.” Howard Thurman’s grandmother lived by these words. But it’s sobering to think, isn’t it, that those words – indeed every word of Jesus – would have died on his lips were it not for twelve disciples who shared the Good News. Those twelve taught a generation, and generations taught generations, who taught Mrs. Thurman this way of love. She shared this love with her grandson, who in 1949, wrote, Jesus and the Disinherited, a book that is a roadmap to the life-giving and liberating power of love to transform, and it’s that book that made its way into the pocket of a young Martin Luther King, Jr. He carried it with him in 1955 into Montgomery, Alabama, where together with Rosa Parks they began a year-long bus boycott to break the policy of racial segregation.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. took up the struggle for civil and human rights, rightly seeing it is not merely a political, social, or humanitarian struggle. It was that and more: it is a struggle to save the soul of a nation.
For as Paul says to us in today’s New Testament, we struggle “not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil.”
And what was true then is true to this day. Paul never said the battle would be over quickly, and that is particularly true for those who commit their lives to living the way of Jesus of Nazareth.
We who have accepted baptism have made a commitment. Not simply to go to church, but to be a movement. A movement of folk committed to the way of Jesus in our lives and in the life of our society. We are, as Presiding Bishop Curry reminds us, the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement.
And so today, as we honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, we are reminded that racism is antithetical to the teachings of Jesus; that part of being the kingdom of God means knowing our own truth of racism, and proclaiming the dream of reconciliation, justice and healing
It won’t be easy. Many of us who grew up white are steeped in racial prejudice, and we don’t even know it. As white children, we learned racial prejudice in childhood games, in rhymes, and what we watched on television. “Eenie, meenie, minnie, mo; Catch (what’s that we said?!) by his toe…” We played cowboys and Indians, knowing the Indians were the bad guys and had to die. Saturday mornings, my generation got to watch “Bugs Bunny” outwit evil Japanese villains left behind on Pacific islands after World War II.
That’s how racism works. Oh sure, it can be in our face, like it was in Charlottesville, Virginia; but white privilege is also in subliminal messaging that says the other person doesn’t matter. Just ask yourself: do you have to think twice before wearing a hooded sweatshirt at night into a convenience store? Did your parents have to teach you to keep both your hands on the wheel if stopped by the police? Or to keep your wallet in the sun visor so you would not be caught reaching into a pocket?
It’s systemic racism when our well-paid white lawyer can get us off for a “youthful indiscretion,” while a person of color is sentenced to five years in jail. The Civil Rights Movement was not over in the 1960’s.
For with each step forward, the old mechanisms of privilege adjust, and new ones are created to take us back. When slavery was outlawed, Jim Crow laws arose, Jim Crow morphed into the ghettoization of our cities, and then into the racialization of law and order.
Oh, the arc will be long, but now is not the time for us to give up.
The Good News this morning is that we are part of the long arc of the moral universe bending toward justice. Because we are living witnesses to the stories told by twelve people who listened to Jesus Christ and followed him. The stories taught to Mrs. Thurman, and Howard Thurman and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are the same stories we must now tell. It is for us to proclaim the Kingdom of God is near; that as imperfect as we all may be, when we see the evil sin of racism being reestablished in our presence, we’re called to act.
So, put on the whole armor of God my friends, because someday, someday, we shall overcome.
Thanks be to God.