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Monday, February 28, 2011

Fulfilling Scripture

Anna Julia Hayward Cooper
Anna Julia Haywood Cooper 
and Elizabeth Evelyn Wright
St. John’s Chapel
Episcopal Divinity School
Cambridge, MA
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton
Proctor Scholar, Spring Semester 2011
Elizabeth Evelyn Wright

Please pray with me: O God, take my mind and think through it. Take my lips and speak through them. Take all our hearts and set them on fire with a love of your gospel. Amen.

Not too long ago, I heard Desmond Tutu, the retired archbishop of South Africa – well, the rumor is that he’s retired, but you would never know that to watch him – tell a playful story he told to some school children during Black History Month about the story of how people of different color were created.

According to Archbishop Tutu’s story, when God set out to make humankind, S/he was in the Heavenly Kitchen, mixing up great batches of mud and clay, straw and water, much the way bricks are made. And when S/he had fashioned them just so, S/he put these marvelous creations into the Heavenly Kiln to fire them.

S/he then went about making yet another batch, losing Her/himself in the enormously enjoying creative process. Suddenly, S/he became aware that something was burning. Returning to the kiln, S/he was horrified to open the kiln and find His creations burned to cinder.

God was, of course, disappointed, but God is persistent and persevered. S/he finished the next batch and, this time, hovered over the kiln to make sure S/he didn’t repeat Her mistake. S/he was very anxious to have them come out perfectly, so one might understand that, in haste, God opened the door of the kiln too soon.

And this, Tutu said, was how White people came into being.

I haven’t mustered the nerve to ask the good Archbishop if, when God made the first batch of men, S/he was just experimenting and improved on Her creation when S/he created women. Perhaps S/he realized that S/he needed to add a few more gray matter cells to the area of the cerebellum, and perhaps, add just a pinch more persistence and perseverance.

I want to talk about the qualities of persistence and perseverance this afternoon, as we honor the lives of Anna Julia Haywood Cooper and Elizabeth Evelyn Wright, two of the saints of God who are noted as proposed additions to the Liturgical Calendar of Saints, ‘Holy Women, Holy Men’.

Now, this is a homily, not a lecture or a history lesson. I am also keenly aware and deeply respectful of your time. I want to say a few words about these two women, not so that you will know everything about them, but so that you might use their lives as a lens through which to view today’s scripture – especially this pericope from Luke’s Gospel and what Jesus has to say about fulfilling the scripture – which is the preacher’s task and responsibility and joy.

I suppose Anna and Elizabeth share a place on the proposed new liturgical calendar because they are both women who shared a passion for education. They are both, as well, African American women – born 14 years apart, Anna in North Carolina and Elizabeth (whose mother was Cherokee) in Georgia – both the daughters of slavery.

Despite the formidable obstacles of being women – and women of color – who lived through the Civil War and The Emancipation in the South, Anna became the fourth African American woman to receive a PhD from the University of Paris, Sorbonne. Elizabeth graduated from Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

Those are the “facts on the ground” about these two incredible women. As you read more about their stories – and, I trust you will – I hope you will be inspired not only by their intellect and faith, but by the persistence and perseverance required to achieve their life’s work.

I can only wonder if they took for their inspiration and role models some of the women they read in Holy Scripture. I wonder if they, too, were inspired by the stories of Sarah and Poor Ole Aunt Hagar, or Rachel, Leah and Rebecca, or their respective names’ sake – Anna, the mother of Mary – who was the mother of Jesus – and Elizabeth – the mother of John the Baptist – from whom Mary sought solace when, as a young unmarried woman, found herself “full of grace” and with child after she said ‘Yes’ to God.

Perhaps these ancient holy women and Blessed Jesus were inspirations for these two women, both of whom followed God and loved Jesus and served the people of God through The Episcopal Church. I wonder if they, like me, were struck by the persistence and perseverance of Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson about what it takes to fulfill the scripture of God for your life.

To today’s gospel, then.

Jesus has just returned to his home in Galilee after he had been baptized by John and “immediately after”, scripture tells us, spent forty days and forty nights in the wilderness. He returned to Galilee “filled with the Spirit” and everyone was talking about him. On the Sabbath, he went to the Temple in Nazareth, where he had been brought up.

Someone handed him the Torah and he began to read from the writings of the prophet Isaiah about being anointed to bring good news to the poor, and proclaiming release to the captives and restoring the sight to the blind and letting the oppressed go free and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.

Now, imagine it – just let your mind picture this scene. He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. Everyone was looking at him. Then he said to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

What an incredibly bold thing to say! How absolutely audacious! “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” If you read the rest of the passage from Luke, you realize that everyone in the Temple was, at first, pleased with him – until Jesus quit preachin’ and went on to meddlin’ – because it became clear that, no, he wasn’t just being clever and articulate.

He persisted in demonstrating that he actually meant what he said when he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The people in the synagogue got so enraged that they got up, drove him out of the synagogue and out of town and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But, Luke’s gospel tells us, Jesus passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

I wonder if Anna Julia Hayward Cooper recognized in herself something of the persistence and perseverance of Jesus when she was at Saint Augustine's Normal School and Collegiate Institute, in North Carolina, and insisted that she be allowed to jump off the so-called “Lady’s Track” of education and take higher-level courses such as Greek, which were reserved for men. She won that right by demonstrating her scholastic ability. And, she passed through the midst of them and went on her way to earn her PhD in Paris.

I wonder if Elizabeth Evelyn Wright saw something in herself in the persistence and perseverance of Jesus when she started a school for the Black children and adults in South Carolina, only to see it burned down. Undaunted, she started another school until it, too, was the target of arson. So, she started another and yet another, eventually passing through the midst of them and went on her way to secure donations and grants to open the Voorhees Industrial School for male and female students at the elementary and high school levels. For years this was the only high school for Blacks in the area. The school was later affiliated with The Episcopal Church and eventually became a fully accredited four-year college.

I submit to you for your consideration the idea that it was in the midst of the dangers and temptations of the wilderness of slavery and the Civil War, while the beasts of racism and sexism roared and tried to snare them off their paths, that the scripture of the lives of these two remarkable women were fulfilled in their hearing.

It was the same call Jesus had heard and responded to in the wilderness when he was sorely tempted by the powers and principalities of the world. Somewhere out there, in the midst of the wildernesses of our lives, we of’t times find the grace to fulfill the scriptures God has for our lives.

I ask you to consider this notion because it is the scriptural link I find between the lives of Anna Julia Haywood Cooper and Elizabeth Evelyn Wright and the scripture Jesus asks us to consider today. Actually, I want to quit preachin’ and commence to meddlin’ and ask you, directly: What scripture is calling out to you to be fulfilled in your life?

I want to be so bold and audacious to ask us to consider what scripture or words of scriptural wisdom ground us in the belief that we can actually make a difference in the church – The Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, the UCC or MCC church – so that we can use the church as a vehicle of transformation and change in our lives so that we can change the places in the world we see need to be changed?

As Verna Dozier, another blessed saint of our church used to say, "Don't tell me what you believe. Tell me what difference it makes that you believe!"

What are we doing with the excellent theological education we are receiving and teaching in this amazing place which is training us to be leaders in Christian community? What will we do with what we learn and teach today – this day – to take all that we are, and all that we have been, and, by the grace of God, turn that into something that will put food into the mouths of the hungry, or clothes on the back of the naked, or bring the light of education to those held in darkness, and give hope and inspiration to those still enslaved by the shackles of racism, sexism, heterosexism, homophobia and religious prejudice and bigotry?

What will we do with the grace bestowed upon us in baptism to grow into the promise we made at Baptism and some of us renewed at Confirmation to grow into the full stature of Christ – with all the risks and challenges and sacrifices that requires?

Grace is a powerful, amazing gift. Don’t squander it.

As my old friend Canon P.D. Quirk says, “Never letteth the grace grow under thy feet.”

Okay, so your probably going to giggle and snicker when I say this, but one of my favorite modern theologians is none other than Lady Gaga. Don’t dismiss her because of the way she looks.

Underneath all that makeup and plastic outfits and (God help us) meat dresses, beats the 23 year-old heart of a good Italian Catholic girl who was educated by the nuns at Convent Sacred Heart, 91st Street, on the Upper West Side of NYC.

Her latest song ‘Born that Way’ has a powerful message. She sings,
“I'm beautiful in my way 'Cause God makes no mistakes. / I'm on the right track baby. I was born this way. / Don't be a drag, just be a queen / Whether you're broke or evergreen /You're black, white, beige, chola descent / You're lebanese, you're orient /Whether life's disabilities / Left you outcast, bullied, or teased / Rejoice and love yourself today / 'Cause baby you were born this way / No matter gay, straight, or bi, / Lesbian, transgendered life / I'm on the right track baby / I was born to survive / No matter black, white or beige/ Chola or orient made / I'm on the right track baby / I was born to be brave.”
Now, if Lady Gaga can get that message out there, so can we – in our own unique way (but perhaps not in a dress made of meat).

If Anna Julia Haywood Cooper and Elizabeth Evelyn Wright can overcome the obstacles of their lives and fulfill the scriptures written thousands of years ago by men who had no idea that these women of color would hear them much less act on them, so can we.

We were born to be brave. Our baptism gives us the sacramental grace to be bold in the name of Jesus.

Oh, people will try to tell us that we can’t because of this or that – how we were made in the Great Heavenly Kiln and we were underdone or overdone or not smart enough or strong enough or don’t have the ‘right stuff’ because our parents didn’t go to the right schools and neither, perhaps, did we.

If we’re baptized, we’ll do it anyway and make people so angry that they’ll drive us out of the church and try to throw us off the cliff. When we’re walking with Jesus, and fulfilling the scriptures, we’ll pass through the midst of them and be on our way.

I don’t know how that works. I only know from my own life, that it does.

We were born to be brave. We were baptized to be bold and audacious.

Let us be persistent and persevere so that we, too, may be raised to the full stature of Christ.

We won’t walk on water, but we’ll walk through walls.

Fulfill the scripture of your life.


Proverbs 9:1-6, Luke 4:14-21, Psalm 78:1-7


JCF said...

Heh-heh, you really DID deliver the Gospel of Gaga! *LOL*

Marie said...

That is a seriously powerful sermon! Thanks for posting it. (And of course it's all the better because of the reference to Lady Gaga.)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

JCF - It was irresistible, especially after that Tutu quote.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Marie - I think people were a bit surprised that I ended with Lady G. Which tickled me to no end. I mean, it WAS at the Chapel at EDS. I guess even we don't believe our own reputation.