Set Us Free: A Sermon for the Celebration of the Life and Legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

What a privilege to deliver the morning message at the annual celebration of the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Randolph, Vermont. And kudos to the brave students from Randolph High School on their successful effort to raise the Black Lives Matter flag at their school. This post includes a recording and transcript of my sermon for that day.

Let us pray. Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

That prayer was the collect for today, according to the Revised Common Lectionary, and I realize that today’s service is not the usual Prayer Book service, but I like this collect because it suggests for me that the theme of this second Sunday in Black History Month might be freedom, and that’s a fitting theme on a day that we’ve set aside to celebrate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. “Set us free, O God,” and more specifically, set us free from the bondage of sin, and yet even more specifically, on this second Sunday of Black History Month, set us free from the bondage of what the Reverend Jim Wallace and what the Rev. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson call America’s original sin, that being the sin of, you guessed it, racism.

Good morning.

So, as Reverend Angie said, I am Maurice Harris. I’m the Minister of Communications for The Episcopal Church in Vermont. And yes, that is an actual full-time job. That’s a question I get every now and then. So basically, anything that you think of might be communications or marketing-related in the diocese, I have some part in. That includes The Mountain, which some of you are familiar with—that’s the bi-monthly diocesan digital news magazine—the diocesan website, the Rock Point website, any social media related to the diocese, press releases and media relations. So, there’s a lot going on in the background.

I’m part of what’s known as the Diocesan Ministry Support Team, so I’m often called upon to assist parishes around the state with their local communication and marketing efforts, as well. And outside of my day job, I am a co-convener of the Diocese’s Racial Reconciliation and Healing Network. The network’s primary focus so far—it’s a relatively new inception—but their primary focus so far has been on equipping clergy for racial healing work within their congregations. And outside of all that, I’m a musician. And last but not least, I am a student. I am literally putting the finishing touches on my doctoral dissertation in ethical and creative leadership with a specialization in Martin Luther King studies and social change. My husband and I—Might—we reside in Brattleboro, Vermont, and he joins me here today.

Now, I’ve had over a month to prepare this sermon, and I promised myself every day leading up to today, that I would not get up here and use my 15 or 20 minutes at the lectern to bemoan my own face-to-face encounters with overt racism right here in Vermont—because there have been a few—nor would I attempt to make today’s sermon “special” or somehow “different” just because this month, unlike January or March or, say, November, this Black History Month, this shortest month of the year, this month is the one month that people who probably don’t know much about me or my husband or our lived experiences, or really thought about it during any other month of the year are suddenly curious about what life is like for People of Color. I said I just wasn’t going to go there…Plus, it wouldn’t really be fair to any of you because, as all of your know, I was originally invited to speak last month. I just got snowed out.

So, as I was thinking about what to say today, the spirit of an old friend spoke to me. Well, it was the spirit of someone I’ve never really met, but [congregation laughs] I like to think of him as an old friend. The author James Baldwin. Some of you might have heard of him. And the bravest among you may have even read his books. These are some deep reads.

[Maurice holds up book.] This is one of his most famous books, The Fire Next Time, and in this book Baldwin pens a letter to his nephew. And what he said to that nephew, he might as well have said to me just a few days ago. I’ll read you this exceprt. He said:

There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. (Baldwin, 1993/1963, p. 76)

This excerpt, taken out of its original context, may sound just a bit condescending. To think that I would come into your town and into your church to rescue you, you innocent and hopeless people from your history. But having read the entire book, and several others by Baldwin—which I highly recommend—I’m pretty confident that’s not what he means. The very real point that Baldwin appears to be making here, or at least the way I interpret it, is that folks too often can’t see the forest for the trees. It often takes someone who is not mired in the details of that specific problem to see the situation as a whole.

That’s one thing I appreciate about the apostle Paul, as in our reading from Ephesians today. It reminds me that Paul wrote letters to the early churches as someone who wasn’t mired in their day to day affairs but, because of his physical distance, had more of a bird’s eye view and could offer advice and encouragement, tempered with his own lived experience, and, most importantly, could remind early believers about the best parts of their history and their spiritual strengths that they were prone to forget—especially when the world around them seemed to be latching onto every “way” except for the Way of Love that Jesus had shown them. And so, I feel a little like Paul today.

I am on the outside of your forest, a forest that by its very design I cannot inhabit because I am not white. And to quote Baldwin, “there is no reason for me to try to become like white people.” But the advantage is that I can see your forest. I would argue that many People of Color can see your forest. And if you want out of that forest—and I believe you do, or we wouldn’t be taking the time to honor Dr. King this morning—then listen to the voices of People of Color, like you are doing my inviting me here today, like you’ll be doing later on today with students that will be coming in to speak. So, this morning, from my outsider’s perspective, I want to offer just three exhortations that I hope will help to speed your continuing journey toward racial reconciliation and healing in the community of Randolph and in the larger State of Vermont:

  • First, keep moving.
  • Second, look for the roads less traveled.
  • Third, imagine what life is like beyond the forest and start living that life today.

Number 1: Keep moving forward.

There’s a story I like to tell sometimes about when my husband and I visit one of our favorite hiking spots in New Hampshire. There comes a point about 20 minutes into the hike when it feels like you’re right about to reach the summit. I’m usually winded, sweaty. But you turn a corner only to realize that there’s still no end in sight. And the work of racial healing can feel that way, too. But I’ve found that the key is to keep moving forward. This may be a little easier for St. John’s, Randolph, than it is for some of ther other congregations that I’ve visited. It’s my understanding that some of you have been involved in book readings where you’ve been discussing topics like systemic racism, implicit bias, white privilege. Some of you have been taking part in activities sponsored by Focus on Racial Equality with Neil and Mickie Richardson, the Rev. Angie, and the Rev. Timothy Eberhardt. And all of you are here today, inviting racial healing into your worship and a making it a part of your own spiritual journey. So, keep moving forward. Keep looking for opportunities to expand your cultural competence because they’re all around. Not just on King’s birthday. Not just during Black History Month. But as often as you can.

Keep moving forward even when you feel like you’re not getting anywhere. You know what I’m talking about. I’m talking about those days when you turn on the news and you hear things like “Self-described white nationalist harasses Vermont’s only female black legislator who later resigns.” Or when you hear things like “Champlain Valley Union High School defaced by two incidents of racist and anti-semitic graffiti in the last ten days.” You may begin to feel that white society as a whole has gone even deeper into the forest that you yourself have been trying to get yourself and others out of.

But don’t be afraid of the deep because I’m reminded of a story in Luke chapter 5 when Simon Peter and his fisherman weren’t catching any fish, and Jesus told them to try again, but this time “put out into the deep,” is what he said—and that was when they finally made their catch. So, don’t be afraid of the deep. When you find yourself in the deep, that’s where the catch is. That is where the work most needs to be done—in this case, the work of racial healing. And only you know what that means for you. Maybe for you it means getting more active in the Forum on Racial Equality, or Vermont Interfaith Action, or Justice For All, or the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, or Migrant Justice, and the list goes on and on. Or maybe it means writing a letter to the Vermont state legislature urging our elected officials to add ethnic studies to the normal public school curriculum, or to maybe start by removing the references to slavery that are still written into the Vermont State Constitution today—I challenge you to go and read it—references that are not just vestiges of the past, but pre-texts for current and future injustices. Don’t be afraid of the deep. Especially if you have on the whole armor of God, like in our second reading today, don’t be afraid to “put out into the deep,” and to keep moving forward.

Number 2: Look for the roads less traveled.

I don’t know how many of you saw in the national news this past week about the racial reconciliation effort going on in the Diocese of Southwest Virginia. To give you a little bit of the story: Back in 2017, the vestry of R. E. Lee Memorial Church in Lexington narrowly voted to remove Robert E. Lee’s name from the church he once attended, changing it back to its previous name, which was and is now Grace Episcopal Church. And in a recent interview, a year and a half later, the interim rector talked about how they lost a lot of people when the name was changed back to Grace. The whole story reminded me of the controversy that so often follows efforts to remove confederate monuments from public spaces, or closer to home, efforts to add ethnic studies to the Vermont public school curriculum—or virtually any effort toward racial reconciliation and healing that involves our shared history as Americans. And it goes something like this: “They, people of color, are trying to erase our, white people’s, history.” But my question is this: Is white supremacy our only history? I think not. And this where we have to look for the roads less traveled, the stories that aren’t as frequently told, the signposts that may have been overgrown or forgotten, but just might lead us out of the forest.

I’m reminded of an experience that anti-racism activist Tim Wise (2011), shares in his book. The title of the book is White Like Me, and Tim tells the story of when he did some research into his own family history and was surprised to learn about an abolitionist who had been all but written out of the story. There were plenty of stories regaling the feats of his wealthy and famous forbears who successes were built almost entirely on the exploitation of racial and economic injustice—his observation not mine. But the one who tried to make a difference, Elizabeth Angel, ironically, was nearly forgotten. He writes, “Rather than hold Elizabeth up as a role model for bravery (which would have had the effect of condemning the rest of the family by comparison), the cousin who compiled the McLean biography passed over such details…” (p. 14). Look for the roads less traveled.

And I believe that Grace Episcopal Church may have gotten that message because as part of their reconciliation effort, they decided to rename their newly-renovated community room after Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a white Episcopal seminarian and civil rights activist and seminarian who was killed in Alabama in 1965 while shielding Ruby Sales, a black civil rights activist, from a shotgun blast. A road less traveled. We must all look for the roads less traveled because if there’s anything that we can learn from the examples of Johnathan Daniels, the Rev. Dr. King, Jesus Christ as illustrated in today’s Gospel reading, and from countless other stories of bravery so often understated or diluted is that true strength is a product of Love not social, economic, or racial domination. So, look for the roads less traveled.

And, finally, number 3: Imagine what life is like beyond the forest and start living that life today.

A couple of years ago, when I stepped into the role of co-convener of the Diocese’s Racial Reconciliation & Racial Healing Network, there was a great deal of debate over what we would call ourselves. A previous version of the group had named itself the Dismantling Racism Task Force, and various other dioceses around that time were hosting either “Dismantling Racism” or “Anti-racism” teams. At that time, The Episcopal Church—the national organization—had also been assembling a draft of its Anti-racism Framework. So, the ideas of “dismantling racism” and taking an “anti-racism” stance were familiar. After all, fighting against racism, resisting racism is what we were supposed to do, right? Well, right around that same time other prominent voices, like the activist Rev. Jim Wallis, author of the book America’s Original Sin, the Rev. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson who is himself outspoken, and even our own Presiding Bishop Michael Curry had begun using words like “racial healing” and “racial reconciliation.” What we discovered in our own group was that when the focus is on dismantling racism, the effort tends to be reactive. It’s a response to a racist act or racist system. But when our focus is on reconciliation and healing, our efforts tend to be more proactive. Our top priority becomes: How do we cultivate and nurture the beloved community that we wish to see? It’s about imagining what life is like beyond the forest and living that life today. Yes, we want to follow King’s example and resist oppression in the name of God’s love. But resistance was not the only example that King left us. He also left us with his dream.

When people start imagining what life is like beyond the forest, they stop asking questions like: Why should Black Lives Matter in a state that is only 1.2% African American? And they instead start asking questions like: How does a state that is 94.7% white with an aging population, negligible growth, and declining birth rate, attract the expanding diversity from other parts of the nation—and other parts of the globe—in order to revitalize itself, while at the same time becoming a place that people of color who weren’t born and raised here might want to call home? Imagine what life is like beyond the forest and start living it.

But who am I to say these things? I’m just an outsider looking at the forest.

I think I have to say these things because as my old buddy James Baldwin reminds me:

Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. (Baldwin, 1996/1963, p. 105)

And I say to you: If you feel like you’re lost in the forest this morning, like your best efforts to end this racial nightmare aren’t getting very far, just keep moving. Look for the roads less traveled. Imagine what life is like beyond the forest, and start living that life today.

In Jesus name. Amen.


References

Baldwin, J. (1993). The fire next time (Reissue edition) [Kindle version]. New York, NY: Vintage Books. (Originally published in 1963.)

Wise, T. (2011). White like me: Reflections on race from a privileged son [Kindle version]. Berkeley, CA: Soft Skull.

Featured image: By agsandrew | Licensed from Pond5.com.

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