The Rev Addie L. Wyatt: “Spiritual Challenges for a Democratic Nation”
To the Dean of the Cathedral, the Very Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd, III; to Bishop John Chane; to other distinguished clergy and public officials assembled here; to my fellow citizens from the state of Illinois; and to all people of faith, I bring you greetings from the Land of Lincoln, the only president elected from our state, but the first in a long line of leaders from Illinois serving in our nation’s capital, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert, second in the line of succession to the presidency; Senate minority whip, Dick Durbin, and our newest Senator, Barack Obama, who serves as the only African American in the Senate, a distinction that was shared by Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun, who was the first and only African American woman senator in the nation’s history. Although politics is sometimes a bit of a sport in Illinois, we take our sports, politics, and democracy very seriously back home, and as you know, it takes much faith and dedication to be a Cubs fan.
I am privileged to celebrate the Eucharist with you on this glorious morning in so many ways. I want you to know that, God willing, two days from now on International Women’s Day, I will be 81 years old, so although I’m hopping, I’m not stopping. I’m also proud to say that I have been blessed to spend 65 of those years with my partner in life and ministry, my husband, Rev. Claude S. Wyatt, co-founder and pastor emeritus of the Vernon Park Church of God.
Although I have been named to the state of Illinois’ highest honor as a Lincoln Laureate, I must confess that I, like Lincoln, am really a transplant from another state. Lincoln, as you know was born in Kentucky, and I was born in the state of Mississippi. In 1930, when I was six years old, my parents told me that we were going to pack up and take the City of New Orleans to Chicago. Now I don’t know how Brother Lincoln left Kentucky, but my family left Mississippi in a hurry after my father had an altercation with his white boss. Since I was next to the oldest, and an obedient child most of the time, I followed my parents’ instructions very carefully and packed up my little belongings, but I had one big problem: for the life of me, I couldn’t understand how one city New Orleans, which was south of us, was going to take us to another city, Chicago, which they said was “up North.” It wasn’t until I got to the station that I realized they were talking about a train.
When I arrived in Chicago, I didn’t see any vegetable gardens—no fruit trees, no chickens, cows, or pigs, so I wondered how on earth were we going to eat? Although the answer to that question didn’t come easy, our labor bore fruit, Chicago did feed us, and today, I can stand here and bear witness to the Grace of God in this glorious National House of Prayer for All People.
What a mighty mission this Cathedral has in such a time as this: so often, I encounter people who feel that prayer is all they can turn to these days when the entire world seems to be upside down, and we don’t seem to be able to tell one season from another, but I am reminded of the words in II Chronicles 7:14 that:
If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and forgive their sin, and will heal their land.
When people ask me about my background, I always say that I came from a very rich family; we just didn’t have any money. One of the most valuable things that we had in our family was a praying grandmother—a midwife, who, along with my mother, was also known as a prayer warrior. Many times as a child, I would accompany her on her missions, while the other children were outside playing, She would put me in charge of winding up the old victrola while they sang and prayed. One of the most popular songs of the day was “What are they doing in Heaven Today?” Well, if the truth be told, I didn’t really care at the time what they were doing in heaven, I just wanted to go out and play like the other children. Little did I know that those were days of preparation for a life of ministry, inspired in part by my beloved mother’s challenge to me as a child to help make things better for others. And so, it was at an early age that I accepted the calling of Luke 4:18, 19:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.
Today, when I recall the song “What are they doing in Heaven Today?” from my perspective as an octogenarian, I see things a little differently: I think about saints like Harriet Tubman, who led more than 300 slaves to freedom in the North and Canada, with a bounty of $40,000 on her head: I can hear her now reciting the 23rd Psalm as she slipped in and out of danger, depending on God’s grace to deliver her and her passengers to safety on the Underground Railroad.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yeah, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
And goodness and mercy did follow her all the days of her long life, for she lived another fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Harriet Tubman was clearly a woman anointed by God in the service of freedom.
I Samuel reminds us that, like the popular song about “Looking for love in all the wrong places,” we can’t always expect to find the anointed in the same places that we usually look for leaders. Difficult times are extraordinary times, and in extraordinary times, God may anoint leaders who are different from the usual mold. Lincoln, for example, was the first president to be elected from the new Republican Party. Looking back, it is hard to imagine anyone else appealing to the “better angels of our nature,” during the Civil War crisis as Lincoln did; or leading the nation through World War II as Roosevelt was called to do; or stirring the conscience of the nation, like my colleague in the struggle, Martin Luther King, Jr. did during the Civil Rights Movement.
As we saw in our scripture reading, God had to show a somewhat reluctant Samuel how to conduct his search for leadership: he had to tell him where to go, how to go, what to take, who to talk to, and to get rid of his old ideas of what a leader ought to look like. Then Samuel had to relax the old guard by telling them that he was not out to disturb the peace, but simply to carry out the mission that God had assigned to him.
Sure enough, the elders paraded one candidate after another before Samuel, saying surely this one and that one all had “the right stuff,” to be the next leader, meaning that they fit the traditional profile of a king But Samuel rejected them all, advising them that the “LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart.” Finally, Samuel had to ask Jesse: Don’t you have some other children, and Jesse replied: well there’s my youngest son, who’s just a little shepherd boy. Immediately Samuel asked them to fetch David, the shepherd boy, and when he saw him, the Bible tells us that the Lord proclaimed: “arise, anoint him: for this is the one I have chosen…and the Spirit of the LORD came upon David from that day forward.”
Let’s bring this message closer to home. The American republic is over two hundred years old. People have come from every corner of the world from divers conditions to this land of many nations. Yet, out of all the nations and peoples represented here in these United States, somehow the profile of the American president has always been the same: white (European), male, and with only one exception, Prostestant. In a democratic nation, what is wrong with this picture?
The slave trade officially ended in 1808 by constitutional mandate, therefore most African Americans have an ancestry in this country that goes back at least that far, if not farther, while most Americans are descendants of immigrants who came to this country after the Civil War. After more than two hundred years, isn’t it time for us to consider that there may be other shepherds in the field with an anointing for leadership?
As the great poet, Langston Hughes once wrote:
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed –
I, too, am America.
People of faith must stand up for peace and freedom whether “the establishment” condones what we do or not. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King advised the clergy that we have a responsibility to a higher authority than government when we accept God’s anointing for moral leadership. If injustice is in conflict with our sense of what is just and moral, then we must obey God’s law and be willing to pay the price because he said that “unmerited suffering is redemptive.”
When Jesus went against the laws of the Pharisees and an performed a miracle on the Sabbath, by giving sight to a man that had been blind from birth, they tried to get the man to renounce Jesus. But the man replied that he believed Jesus to be a prophet, and although he couldn’t testify as to whether he was guilty of a crime or not, he said that “one thing I [do] know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.”
We live today in troubled times, and contrary to what many of us may think, 9/11 was not the inauguration of our trouble. But as people of faith, we are being called on, in the words of Ephesians 5: “to walk as children of light…in a way that is acceptable unto the Lord.” It is time for those of us who claim the anointing of Christ to wake up and spread our ministry of truth, love, compassion, and justice, for Christ has promised to show us the way.
As children of light, sometimes we see things that we don’t want to see, and wish we had not seen. The Pharisees asked Jesus in John 9: Are we blind also? And he replied by saying: “If ye were blind, ye should have no sin; but now ye say, we see, therefore, your sin remaineth.” James Baldwin put it another way when he said that we cannot witness injustice, and claim ignorance at the same time—it is our innocence that constitutes the crime.
This poem by Carol Etzler expresses the dilemma and challenges that often accompany our Christian walk:
Sometimes I wish my eyes hadn’t been opened.
Sometimes I wish I could no longer see
All of the pain and the hurt and the longing
Of my sisters, [brothers] and me, as we try to be free.
Sometimes I wish my eyes hadn’t been opened
Just for an hour, how sweet it would be
Not to be struggling, not to be striving
But just sleep securely in our slavery.
But now that I’ve seen with my eyes, I can’t close them.
Because deep inside me somewhere I’d still know
The road that my sister, [brother] and I have to travel
My heart would say yes; and my feet would say go!
Sometimes I wish my eyes hadn’t been opened,
But now that they have, I’m determined to see
That somehow my sisters, [brothers] and I will be this day
The free people we were created to be.
I wish I did not know that one out of every four African American working women, and over 20% of African American families in Illinois are living below the poverty line; or that the high school drop-out rate for African Americans in Chicago is over 50%, and that less than half of all low-income students in the state are not able to read at the national standard. I wish I didn’t know because I wish it were not so. But I do know; and now, so do you.
And so, as we partake of the Eucharist during this blessed Lenten season, let us rededicate and recommit ourselves to help uplift the quality of the spiritual and physical lives of our sisters and brothers everywhere. For John 9 reminds the community of faith that we must carry out our mission while we have time, and believe me it is later than we think.
Amen, and God bless you.