A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 25, 2021 (Easter 4 Year B)
On the very day this past week that the much-anticipated verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial was handed down, I was struck by another headline that crossed my newsfeed. Given the events of the day, it didn’t garner a whole lot of attention. But the home where Harriet Tubman likely grew up was discovered by archaeologists on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. After years of searching, they found the remains of the place where Harriet lived as an enslaved child with her parents. The place, surrounded by woods, where the woman known as the Conductor on the Underground Railroad first learned to navigate and survive. The place where she came to the crushing realization that freedom in America was not extended to people who looked like her. And perhaps the place where the passionate drive for deliverance was kindled deep within her soul.
The juxtaposition of these two stories resonated with me, but it wasn’t until our post-Morning Prayer discussion the next day that the real significance of this connection became clear. Those of us who gathered on Zoom spoke of the swirl of emotions surrounding the verdict, from relief to sorrow, from frustration to joy. But Holly Carter related the varied emotions we were feeling in the aftermath of the verdict, back to Harriet Tubman’s experience on the Underground Railroad. For as much joy as there may have been in leading someone from slavery to freedom, in successfully navigating that hard road from bondage to liberty, it was tempered by the fact that there were always others who remained in chains. There were always more slaves to lead into freedom; there was always more work to be done.
And even as one police officer was held accountable in the killing of one unarmed black man, there is always more work to be done. The injustice continues. Blood continues to be spilled. The deep wailing of grief continues to pierce our hearts. True equality for people of color in this country remains elusive. We proclaim “liberty and justice for all,” even as all are not experiencing liberty and justice. And that is a failure. A failure of humanity, a failure of lofty rhetoric, a failure of faith.
Because, and I’m speaking to my fellow white people here, we cannot remain silent while our black and brown siblings are crying out for justice. We cannot stand idly by or walk on by while our fellow children of God are living in fear and crying out in pain and wailing in grief. Not if we want to fully and truly follow Jesus Christ. As we heard in John’s first letter this morning, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” For this is his commandment: that we love one another.
I’d like to take a moment on this Good Shepherd Sunday to talk about the subtle racism that pervades even our everyday language. Now, it doesn’t take a farmer to see why the Fourth Sunday of Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. The readings and music are crawling with the pastoral imagery that is so prevalent in Scripture. In today’s gospel, Jesus proclaims “I am the Good Shepherd;” we get Psalm 23 which begins,“The Lord is my shepherd;” Matt beautifully sang that solo Little Lamb, Who Made Thee. There are sheep references all over this service. And these are beloved metaphors for the relationship between God and God’s people.
But it’s hard to think about sheep without thinking of the expression, “the black sheep of the family.” You know the one. The brother or the cousin who hasn’t lived up to the expectations of the rest of the family. The black sheep is the worthless one who’s been nothing but a disappointment and will never amount to anything. And then there’s the white sheep. The white sheep is the innocent little lamb Mary leads around, the one whose fleece is white as snow. Mary’s little lamb is fluffy and pure and, above all, white. Which stands in stark contrast to the black sheep.
Now, you might think this is a silly example or that I’m just playing word gymnastics to make a broader point. But it’s not just sheep. If you don’t act a certain way, the proper way, you get blacklisted or blackballed. If you misbehave, you get a black mark. If you sell something illegally you’re doing so on the black market. And as anyone who’s ever watched a Western knows, the heroes wear the white hats, the villains the black ones.
The point is, language matters — it’s the air we breathe and it imperceptibly forms our attitudes. Taken together, the message is clear: to be black is to be disreputable, impure, immoral, evil. To be white is to be innocent, pure, unimpeachable, and good. Think about how that lands for someone with black skin.
And you start to see that when we talk about systemic racism, it’s deeply, if sometimes subtly, embedded in the language we use, the institutions we support, the communities we live in, the churches we attend. And while black and brown people have been living with this their entire lives, sometimes for white people, seeing this for the first time feels like the culmination of St. Paul’s conversion on the Road to Damascus when the scales finally fall from his eyes and he’s able to see the truth. Once you see something you can’t unsee it. And that’s what we’re all working towards when it comes to the work of anti-racism. Helping to pull the scales from each others’ eyes so that we can behold God’s vision for a just, equitable, and multi-colored society, one that reflects the fullness of God’s kingdom, where we treat one another not as threats, but as fellow children of God.
But please don’t think that the sin of racism is something that exclusively affects people of color. It is destructive first and foremost to our black and brown siblings, yes. It rips away dignity through discrimination, it bruises emotionally and physically, it tears down economically and socially. But the sin of racism also eats away at white people. It prevents us from fully living into the fullness of God’s kingdom here on earth. Our complicity shuts us off from being the people of love, grace, and compassion that Jesus calls us to be. It distances us from God. And that grieves the Holy Spirit.
This week has reminded all of us that, as with Harriet Tubman — the woman known as the Moses of her People — there is always more work to be done. Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said in a sermon on the night of the Chauvin verdict, “We must continue until no human child of God is treated as less than a child of God; until everybody is treated as God’s somebody; until this world and our communities are beloved communities, where there’s plenty good room for all of God’s children. This is our work. This is our task. This is our struggle.”
There is always more work to be done. But we owe God’s kingdom nothing less than to roll up our sleeves and continue on.