Proper 18 – September 6, 2015
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-10,11-13, 4-17; Mark 7:24-37
Sermon preached by the Rev. Canon Linda S. Taylor
There are moments in our lives when we are knocked off our feet. The context may be expected, but we never know exactly when it’s going to happen. The context gives us some clues that it might—for instance, if you’re going to have a baby, you know that there will be things that will surprise you and shock you and will change your life. And if you go to Africa, you have a sense that things might be happening, and that’s what happened to me. I went to Africa since I last saw you. Just a few weeks ago. I’ve been back three weeks, I think. I never intended to go to Africa. It was not on my bucket list. I have a friend and colleague, the Rev. Wilma Jacobsen, who is the rector of St. Jude’s in Cupertino. She’s South African, and she loves to take people to South Africa. Back in April, she and I were sitting together at dinner, and she said, “I need one more person for this trip to Africa.” And I thought, “Well, that wouldn’t be me.” And she continues to talk about the trip and what she hopes for it—that people can get a sense of Africa, that they can see the problems that are there, the challenges that are there, the strengths that are there, how those challenges are being met by some groups and how they are not being met by other groups. And I’m sitting there listening to her, and all of a sudden I hear myself saying, “Well, what if I went?” And I’m thinking, “Where in the world did that come from?” and quickly started to back away. She was going, “Oh, that would be terrific—that would be wonderful!” because that’s the way Wilma is—kind of over the top—and I said, “Wait a minute. Let me give this some thought and prayer, and while I’m gone on my cruise, I’ll think about it and I’ll have an answer for you when I get back.”
Well, I thought surely I could talk myself out of it, but that didn’t happen. So on August 5, I found myself on a plane headed for Africa, and wondering what was going to happen. There was a group of us—there were nine of us all told—and we gathered—because people had come several ways—some had gone on safari first—all kinds of things had been happening—so we gathered in Maputo, Mozambique. One of the reasons that we were there was because they have a new bishop there, and he wants to ordain women, and he thought it would be a fine idea if they could actually see some female priests before they vote on it next month in Synod. So, that’s one of the reasons why we went there. So, Wilma and I collared up, and we looked our most priestly—or tried to anyway—and did what we did at church in Mozambique. Then we drive cross-country through Swaziland to Johannesburg. And then, after a few days in Johannesburg, we flew to Cape Town and stayed about five days there—it all kind of blurs, you know, because it was a very intense, very packed time. And there were moments—there were moments that stopped me in my tracks—and the one that I want to tell you about today happened in Johannesburg.
We were going to dinner in Soweto, which is one of the townships in Johannesburg, and as far as I knew, all we were going to do was go to dinner at this great restaurant next door to Winnie Mandela’s house and up the street from where Archbishop Tutu used to live. And we got there, and we went first to this Children’s Uprising on June 16, 1976. And the context for this uprising was apartheid, and the fact that Hendrik Verwoerd, who was the architect of apartheid, has planned the education for the black people of South Africa in way that would give them basic literacy but no more—nothing to help them grow into the people they were created to be. To that end, the educational system was in Afrikaans and English—not Bantu, the language that the people—the children and their teachers—spoke. They had asked that the lessons be in Bantu, and it hadn’t happened because Verwoerd wanted to keep them as “drawers of water and hewers of wood.” This comes straight from the Book of Joshua, and it’s a description for slavehood.
So, on June 16, 1976, and estimated 15,000 children—high schoolers, middle schoolers, and all of their little siblings, because kids go along with their big brothers and sisters—marched to the police station in Soweto, because the police station was in charge of the schools and everything else that goes on in the township. They marched with a petition. It was a peaceful demonstration—a peaceful march—and there’s a picture you can see online, and they’re really joyful because the sense is that this is going to make a difference. Maybe they’ll hear us this time, and maybe we can actually learn in our schools. They got to the police station, and they were told to disperse. Instead they began singing what is now the South African national anthem. As they sang, a shot rang out, and Hector Pieterson, a twelve-year-old boy, was dead. That day, at least 600 children were killed. Unnumbered children were injured, but at least 600 were killed. And I heard this story, and I walked along the path where the children had been, and I thought, “Where was I?” I had never heard this story before, and it stopped me in my tracks. For the rest of our journey, I kept thinking, “How does a person come to shoot a child? What calls a person to do that? And then how does a person live after that? How does a person go home to one’s own children or grandchildren? What about all the years since then—what has happened in those persons hearts and minds?” This question has stayed with me.
And then, when I came back to the United States—I hadn’t been in touch with the news very much. I wasn’t on my iPad like some of the folks were—I was dumped into this maelstrom of political rhetoric. I heard—I heard things that I had not heard before. I heard this hate mongering, this fear mongering in a way that was greater than I had ever heard from public figures before. And I thought, “That’s what it is. This is what brings us to the point that we can shoot a child.” Because the kind of anger that allows us to do that comes out of fear. It comes out of fear, and that’s what’s happening in our country today. There’s a groundswell of fear that’s being capitalized on. In the middle of this century—by the middle of this century—non-Latino whites will be in the minority in this country. That’s quite a change, and it frightens some people because they can’t imagine what it would be like to be in the minority where that white privilege doesn’t quite matter anymore—that white privilege that’s so much a part of most of us that we can’t even recognize it because it’s like the air we breathe. We’re like fish who don’t know what water is because it’s so, so in our being that we can’t recognize it. What people do know is that when white people are the minority, our lives will change, and we don’t like change. It’s scary because we don’t know what’s going to happen, but we know it’ll be different. So out of that comes the anger that ends with a shooting in Charleston—when a young man who sees his world changing, doesn’t know what to do about it and decides that if he sets off a race war, that that would be the end of it—that something will happen and things will be set back to his normal.
All of these things have been spinning in my head in these last weeks, and then I came to today’s gospel, which is one of my favorites. I love that icon that’s on the front of our bulletin. In case you have any doubt, this is an uppity woman. This is a woman who’s calling out for what her children need—what her child needs—her child with a demon—an illness that no one’s been able to help her with. She’s angry, she wants help, she is frantic and desperate, so she comes to Jesus because she’s heard that he is a healer. She comes to him without a male protector—which was impossible in that time. She comes with great courage, and she asks him to heal her child. And he, out of his context—of the tribalism that’s been part of his life—sees her as the other, and he essentially says, “No. If I heal you, there might not be enough for my people. We don’t heal the dogs.” And she says, “But even the dogs get the crumbs under the table.” And I don’t know what happens—how long the time between her response and his response, but I’ve got a feeling it was a long, long moment, because it was a moment that shook him where he was. It was a moment that opened his eyes to something he had never seen before. It was a moment when he learned that he wasn’t sent just for the people of the tribe—not just for the people who were the Jews—God’s chosen people. It was in that moment that he knew he was sent for the world. It was one of those moments that change our lives.
There were other moments that changed my life in Africa, and they were particularly at the worship services, but everywhere we went, we were generally the white people wherever we went: nine white people in a sea of black faces. In church, nine of us. In church, nine of us in the most joyous worship I have ever experienced. Three hours and fifteen minutes—Yes! Bring it! It was wonderful, it was joyous—there was singing, there was dancing, there was praying, there was preaching—I even preached in Mozambique! That was scary. It was fabulous, and overarching all of this was the welcome that we got—everywhere we went. We were welcomed, we were hugged, we were fed, and I thought to myself, “If I lived in their context, if my life had been marked by colonialism and oppression that their lives had been marked with, would I be so welcoming of this white face?” I’m afraid I wouldn’t, but they were. Over and over and over again, we had these moments of welcome that just brought us into family, and it was moment after moment that took me into a new place.
Earlier this week, the Episcopal News Service sent out a letter from our presiding bishop, the Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori and from Gay Jennings, the president of the House of Deputies. They said in this letter that the AME Church—and you know that the church in Charleston is Mother Emmanuel AME Church—the AME church—the large body of it—had proclaimed today, Sept. 6 as a day of reflection, confession and renewal against racism, and they asked us to hold that in solidarity with them. So, all over this countryside today, people from different denominations and different faith traditions are holding in solidarity this deep hope and this deep commitment to end racism in this country that we love. And I’m not sure what that looks like, but this is where we begin.
As we left Africa, on the night before we all dispersed to our different places, we were at dinner. We were with some of the leaders of the Anglican NGO who had led us on our journey. Delene was one of the leaders of Hope Africa, and we talked about our experience, and one person said to her, “So how can we help with the things we have seen. What can we do?” And she said, “Well, you can keep in contact with us, because it’s good to know that you are there and we are here, but what you need to do is go home and do what you need to do there.” Go home, and do what you need to do there. So, here we are, on this day that acknowledges that racism is alive and well in the United States—this day that lets us have an opportunity to acknowledge our collusion with it—our acts of omission and commission—and to pledge ourselves and this community to doing what we can here in this place with God’s guidance and with the strength of the Holy Spirit.
And the good news in all of this is that we don’t do it alone. As always, the good news is that God goes with us, as we set out to do this work—that the Holy Spirit is with us, strengthening us, encouraging us, inspiring us—and that the love of Jesus Christ holds us as we do our best to reach out with that love to everyone. That’s the good news.
Thanks be to God.