Some sage years ago urged preachers to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. This week there simply aren’t enough hands to turn all the pages that are rich in material.
There is in the Hebrew Scripture reading, David’s lament over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan–“How the mighty have fallen!”–not only a cry of the complexity of emotions and consequences of war and political rivalry, of mental illness, from which Saul is widely presumed to have suffered, and the unspeakable loss of a loved one–“Jonathan lies slain upon your high places. I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.”
The newspapers are once again full of war stories, of explosions and killings, in France, Tunisia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, of so many of the mighty and not at all mighty fallen; but at the end of the week, stories also of affirmation of the right of dignity, the dignity to receive health-care, the dignity to enter into lifelong bonds of love and commitment, no matter who you love. So much material, such rich possibilities for exploring how God is still speaking, still moving in our world, and calling us to be part of God’s ongoing re-creation of the world.
Then there are these two stories from Mark’s gospel, one nestled within the other–the outer one, the story of a leader of the synagogue begging Jesus to heal his daughter, who is dying at home, and within that story, the story of the woman, hemorrhaging for 12 years, who touches the hem of Jesus’ garment in the midst of the crowd and is healed. A woman healed and restored to life in the community, a young girl raised up from death.
It is these stories that have been weaving their way through my mind as I’ve listened to and watched the events in Charleston, SC, thinking about my 3 colleagues and 6 other brothers and sisters slain in the midst of Bible study in a church basement, by a young man who, outwardly, with white skin and blue eyes, looks more like me than they do. Yet it is in their lives of faithfulness and their manner of dying and in the response of their community that I look to as guide and inspiration for how I would like to live my life. And so those stories of healing and resurrection keep emerging as I’ve read and watched the news.
“Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.” The hemorrhaging, of course, that our nation has suffered from is the hemorrhaging of racism that has afflicted our nation since the first Africans were brought to this country as slaves back in the 1600’s, in Jamestown. A war was fought, hundreds of thousands died, not to mention the hundreds of thousands who were bought and sold, separated from loved ones, beaten, brutalized, raped, and lynched. It is still bleeding us. Ferguson, Baltimore, Miami, Staten Island, Cleveland…more than names of cities. Places where the hemorrhaging of racism has emerged into our national consciousness.
“When we deny the story,” sociologist Brene Brown wrote this week, “it defines us. When we own the story, we can write a brave new ending.” This is true in families, as well as organizations and nations. “Until we find a way to own our collective stories around racism in this country,” Brown writes, “our histories and the stories of pain will own us. We will not get away from the violence and heartbreak. Fear and scarcity will continue to run roughshod over our country. Yes, the violence in Charleston is also about access to guns and, more than likely, mental illness. But it’s also about race.” [blog, 6/18/15]
I would not even begin to presume that we can own this story as the result of one sermon, but begin to own it we must. As Brene Brown says, “This is not bigger than us. This is us.” And just as we are infinitely complex, multi-faceted human beings, so is the story of racism. Those of us with skin the color of Dylann Roof’s need to realize how many privileges come, most without our realizing it, from simply having white skin–the privilege of “fitting in” in just about every gathering place, the privilege of not having our hygiene or language patterns or awkwardness attributed to our race, the privilege of not always having our race be used to describe us, the privilege of not having to train our sons how to behave if they are stopped by the police so that they won’t be arrested or worse, the privilege to not think about race most of the time, especially here in Vermont. Peggy McIntosh’s work on “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” is a rich and challenging Must Read. There are copies of a partial list of privileges in the back.
Many of us live in Vermont because we love the mountains and forests and lakes, enjoy being out among trees and fields; but I was caught up short at the beginning of a conference Bruce and I went to many years ago down in the southern tier of New York state, in a retreat setting that could have been in Vermont. As we were introducing ourselves the first night, a minister from one of the urban areas of New York, I can’t remember now whether it was Buffalo or Rochester or New York City, introduced himself and with wide eyes that looked nervously around said, “I’ve just arrived here, and I must say, it got scarier and scarier the closer I got.” He, of course, was the only African-American in the place. I kind of dismissed that as just being a new environment, obviously so different from an urban environment, but since then I’ve learned about“strange fruit,” a poem written by Abel Meeropol and set to music, which Billie Holliday sang, first in 1939. The “strange fruit” are the lynched black bodies hanging from trees in the rural south. What if my association with trees was that strange fruit instead of maple syrup? I might be also be afraid as I drove alone into rural America.
“The free bird leaps on the back of the wind and floats downstream till the current ends,” wrote Maya Angelou, “and dips his wings in the orange sun rays and dares to claim the sky.” How many birds like that have I watched and followed and imagined floating on their wings?
“But a bird that stalks down his narrow cage can seldom see through his bars of rage, his wings are clipped and his feet are tied so he opens his throat to sing. The caged bird sings with fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still and his tune is heard on the distant hill, for the caged bird sings of freedom.”
Our President sang this week, sang “Amazing Grace” with the people of Mother Emanuel Church and the people of Charleston SC, and it’s the singing, isn’t it? that so moves us and uplifts us because, I think, it is at its heart, a song of freedom. Freedom not just to do “whatever we want,” to own whatever we want, to say or wear or think whatever we want, even if what we think we want is actually destructive, hateful, impacts other people. That is not true freedom. True freedom is the freedom to become the full human beings God created each one of us to be–“The glory of God is the human being fully alive”–that’s freedom.
That’s the freedom the woman with the hemorrhage was reaching for when she touched the hem of Jesus’ garment–freedom to be seen for who she was–a daughter of Abraham–not an unclean pariah. “Daughter,” Jesus said to her, “your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
“The free bird thinks of another breeze and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees and the fat worms waiting on the dawn-bright lawn and he names the sky his own. But a caged bird stands on a grave of dreams, his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream, his wings are clipped and his feet are tied and he opens his throat to sing. The caged bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still, and his tune is heard on the distant hill, for the caged bird sings of freedom.”
By the time Jesus arrived at the home of the synagogue leader, a crowd had already gathered outside to begin the mourning, for “Your daughter is dead,” they told Jairus. “But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’” …Then he put all the scoffers and cynics outside, “and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, talitha cum, when means, Little girl, get up! And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement.)”
I have no doubt that Jesus also entered that basement room in Mother Emanuel Church, and took Pastor Clementa Pinckney’s hand and said, “Brother Clementa, get up!” And then, Sister Ethel, get up! Sister Sharonda, get up! Brother Daniel, get up! Sister Depayne, get up! Brother Tywanza, get up! Sister Susie, get up! Sister Myra, get up! Sister Cynthia, get up!” No, they did not all then get up and walk around, this was no miraculous resuscitation, but a resurrection? Yes, that I do believe. “Victims of hate become symbols of love,” the New York Times headline ran. Just as Jesus’ crucifixion exposed the evil of the powers and empire, so the deaths of these 9 exposed the evil of the racism and hatred that is hemorrhaging our nation. And just as Jesus’ frightened, bumbling followers became filled with his resurrected spirit and so changed the world, so too might our nation be filled with that same Spirit and begin to change ourselves, if not the world. What if we tap into that “reservoir of goodness,” as President Obama spoke of the nine people slain. What if we own our collective story of racism and so together write a brave new ending?
No one is free until all are free. We are not all free. The caged bird sings of freedom, and until we all are freed from the bars of hatred and prejudice, our feet untied from the fetters of greed and privilege, until we all are free the songs of freedom will still be missing parts. We must learn the lessons of love. We must not teach our children to hate. “I know why the caged bird sings,” Maya Angelou wrote, and she did. I am trying to learn. We who would follow in the footsteps of the One who healed and raised the dead and set all manner of people free, must also learn, so that someday, we all can sing the songs of freedom. May it be so.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark