A sermon as part of “Remaining Awake” A Week Celebrating Racial Reconciliation and Justice
We’ve just listened to maybe the most loved of the Easter stories. Two disciples are on the road from Jerusalem to a village called Emmaus on Easter afternoon, and they are talking about everything that has happened. What an upsetting, confusing time they had been through. Their leader had lifted their hopes that a new world was possible, but in a matter of a few months it had all come apart, and now he was gone.
They had been devastated, and probably filled with guilt, too—because by the end all Jesus’ disciples had deserted him. But they had heard reports that their Lord’s tomb was empty, even that he was alive again, and didn’t know what to think. Could things ever really be better again?
And then a mysterious person joins them and asks what they are talking about. “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that have happened?” they ask. And they tell him the whole story.
Those disciples knew plenty about injustice, hatred, fear, and loss. They had stared at a brutal cross and a sealed tomb. That always seems to be where Easter begins—with closed tombs, dead ends, and the cruelty of our world. But could there be hope, even in that dark time?
For the past week we in this Cathedral have been on the road to Emmaus together. You could call us a company of disciples remembering an event that will always honor and haunt this Cathedral—Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last Sunday sermon, preached here four days before he was killed in Memphis. This commemoration, falling in the days just after Easter, has asked us to look back 40 years, and to take stock of where we are as a nation in the work of racial justice and reconciliation, and to ask what it means for us as Christians.
It has been quite a week. Last Sunday we heard Congressman John Lewis, one of the heroes of the Civil Rights movement. And the week’s reflections have included a lecture, a documentary film on the slave trade, a weeklong conference on preaching in the tradition of Dr. King, and sermons twice each day grappling with the legacy of that great leader.
Two weeks ago, Easter morning declared that Christ is raised from the dead, bringing hope and new life. But like those disciples trudging along, we have been searching for a hope that has often seemed hard to find.
And in the public arena, the fortieth anniversary of Dr. King’s death has brought in recent days a great deal of discussion of race in America. Last week Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice declared that America still must grapple with what she called our “national birth defect” that denied black Americans the opportunities given to whites at the country’s founding. That echoes the declaration of many that slavery is America’s “original sin,” and we still haven’t fully faced into the consequences of that tragic flaw.
Newspapers and programs have been offering a report card on race after these 40 years. They point to important successes—the impact of civil rights legislation passed in the 1960s, the growth of a vital black middle class, the emergence of important black leaders—two black governors, many black legislators and corporate executives, now a black presidential candidate.
But the debit side of the ledger is deeply troubling. New statistics came out recently declaring that one in every nine black men between 20 and 34 is behind bars. One-third of African American men in their 30s have a prison record. Colbert King in yesterday’s Washington Post wrote that Dr. King “would be saddened by the extent of instability in black families [noting that 70% of black babies are born to single mothers] and by the self-destructiveness of young black men four decades after his death.” This reflects what African American scholar Cornel West described several years ago as a “nihilism” that grips significant parts of the black community—what he calls “the experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness.”
And maybe just as troubling is the fact that 40 years after Dr. King’s death, white and black Americans in many ways still live in separate worlds. As the Cathedral’s Canon Pastor Eugene Sutton put it, when “black Americans read American history, what jumps out at us is a history and legacy of slavery, wiping out of indigenous peoples, continued repression (sometimes psychological, sometimes physical), and violence exported around the globe. Most white citizens do not think of ‘America’ in the same way that we do.”
Over the past week I have come to imagine not just two disciples on the road to Emmaus, but two types of disciples, some black, some white. Each has a different story to tell of their hopes and fears, as they are walking into the future, looking for Easter.
I have just finished a memoir called Grace Matters, in which a young white man from Vermont decides to join an interracial Christian community in Jackson, Mississippi. Chris Rice, the author, left college to move there and stayed for seventeen years, a time of hard work and personal struggle as whites and blacks attempted to bridge the chasm between their stories.
Chris Rice became the close friend and partner in ministry of the charismatic African American leader Spencer Perkins, and their candid exchanges probed the hidden corners of race relations. Chris saw that his immigrant ancestors came to America by choice, Spencer’s had come in chains on a slave ship. Chris’s relatives had passed down from one generation to the next financial capital, networks of friends, stable family life, and solid places in society. Spencer’s ancestors had no money and almost no possessions, their families were torn apart generation after generation in the slave trade, and even after slavery, they had no vote and almost no chance of getting out of indebtedness to white landowners. His grandmother had died of malnutrition in a sharecropper’s shack, and his father, the Christian leader John Perkins, had been beaten nearly to death by a white policeman.
“Part of my privilege,” Chris Rice declares, “was that for me dealing with race was optional—I could take it or leave it. I could cross town…into a white world…and for the rest of my life I probably wouldn’t have to deal with race again. Unless I chose to.” He saw that no white person has to do anything to continue to enjoy the privilege of being white. But his friend Spencer, he said, “had to deal with the everyday struggles of race whether [he] wanted to or not”—producing 2 IDs to cash a check, worrying about being pulled over by the police for nothing, knowing simply walking down the street could frighten a woman walking alone.
Chris and Spencer and the rest of their small community lived daily with their different stories. They worked, prayed, and shared a house together for years. They discovered how differently they understood what each other said, and how hard it was to hear harsh truth being spoken.
They were disciples, black and white, on the road to Emmaus, seeking a new Easter where people of both races could share each other’s lives and even love each other.
That, of course, was Dr. King’s vision. For him the gap between white and black was vast. He spoke in his sermon in 1968 of the myth of the “boot-strap philosophy”—which declared, as he put if, “that if the Negro is to rise out of poverty, he must do it all by himself, by his own bootstraps.” But people forget, he said, that no other ethnic group began as slaves on American soil, and when they were emancipated in 1863 they were given no land, no help. He said it was “like keeping a person in prison for a number of years and suddenly discovering the person is not guilty” and just saying to him, “‘Now you are free,’ but you don’t give him any bus fare to get to town. You don’t give him any money to get on his feet.” Meanwhile, he said, Congress was giving away millions of acres to white arrivals from Europe, building land-grand colleges, offering low interest rates, and giving away millions of dollars in subsidies not to farm. “It is a cruel jest,” Dr. King said, “to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
I have to say that I have been receiving affirmative action all my life—from the stable family I started with, to the far better public education I received than my black neighbors, to the friends and connections that smoothed my way in school and work, to the ease I have as a white man applying for a job. Affirmative action for African Americans has been controversial over the last forty years, but why should only whites receive affirmative action?
We Americans have work to do to close the gap between black and white in America. But in the story of those disciples on the road to Emmaus they discovered that they didn’t travel alone. A stranger walked with them whom they would realize was the Risen Lord himself. And as he listened to them tell their stories he used the Scriptures to tell them of a God who hung on cross to heal the wounds and conflicts of their lives, to forgive them, and to give the human race a chance to begin again.
He told them, as St. Paul would later put it, that on the cross God had broken down the dividing walls between all human beings, and had called a new, forgiven people to be healers and peacemakers themselves. That is the Easter Lord who brought us here today, and this Lord is calling us as American Christians to be reconcilers between black and white.
What would it mean if we really embraced the fact that Christ crucified and risen has broken down the dividing walls between black and white, rich and poor, Anacostia and Northwest Washington?
Now, 40 years on, it is time to begin again. Let me offer some simple steps for starters. First, we need to build relationships across color lines. My guess is that few whites have genuinely close relationships with African Americans—the kind where they have dinner together, know each other’s children, share in celebrations together. Building those relationships takes time and a willingness to risk opening ourselves to new discoveries. And we need to create those relationships across lines of race and class in the church, too. Here at this Cathedral we are in the early stages of developing a partnership with Covenant Baptist Church in Anacostia, and already this new friendship is enriching our lives.
Second, whites need to be as curious and eager to learn about black culture as blacks have had to be with white culture. Do we know the literature of Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Ernest Gaines, August Wilson, and Ralph Ellison? Do we experience the power of the spirituals of the African American tradition, as well as the great jazz and popular music?
Third, we can commit ourselves to helping the places where we live and work to be more racially diverse and inclusive. That doesn’t happen accidentally. It takes focus, diligence, and often courage.
Fourth, as Christians we are called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and work to build a more just society for everyone. That means pressing vigorously for better public schools, for affordable housing, for health care for everyone. In no American city are these more urgent than here in Washington.
And finally, we need to wrestle with something seemingly symbolic, but potentially very powerful. We need to be willing as a church and a nation to look back at the dreadful legacy of slavery in America and to say simply, “We are sorry.” What powerful, healing words those could be. “We apologize and we want to work to make things better.” Next fall the leaders of our entire Episcopal Church will gather here at this Cathedral for just such a service, and we as a Church will finally say, “We’re sorry, we’re sorry, for all the ways our nation has supported slavery, and for the easy peace it has made with the terrible consequences of that slavery that continue to this day.”
We Christians have urgent work to do. I was greatly moved by some words from Chris Rice’s memoir:
What if America looked at this agonizing race problem and said, ‘But you know, there is a people among us who live differently, who haven’t given in to the normal ways we operate as races. They go out of their way for the sake of the other—even when it’s uncomfortable, costly, and inconvenient.
If Christians were to become those kind of people, the world would have to take notice.
Those disciples on the road to Emmaus arrive in the village in the late afternoon, and they invite the mysterious stranger to stay with them. And at the table he breaks bread, and shares wine, and the disciples’ eyes open, and they realize that it had been Christ with them all along the road, listening, teaching, drawing them closer to each other and to God. And now they rush back to tell their friends that they have actually seen the Risen Lord.
Easter happens when tombs open, old divisions heal, when people learn to forgive, to understand each other, when a society becomes more hopeful and just for everyone.
My prayer is that all of us, black and white, can stay on this road to Emmaus, trudging toward resurrection, trusting that Christ himself will lead us into the grace and forgiveness to which we are called.
It is time to begin again. May the Spirit of the Risen Christ, and the brave, prophetic spirit of Dr. King himself, keep us steady on the road ahead.