The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Gracious God, help us always to seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will. Amen.
This morning, I invite you to join me in exploring hope in the midst of reality. Now, in the gospel you just heard, you might have noticed the language toward the end—of the fiery furnace, the weeping and gnashing of teeth, and Jesus saying, “Listen, let anyone with ears, listen.” You might logically ask where exactly do you see hope in that message? That would be a fair question but stay with me because I do see hope in that gospel lesson. I see hope even in our current reality. You see, if we look for hope, we will find it. Even more importantly, we have an opportunity if we come together and work together to bring hope to others.
That 13th chapter of Matthew, from which our gospel lesson came, marks a turning point in Jesus’ mode of teaching. Earlier in the gospel, we hear the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is very clear and precise about his teaching. He calls us to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Then, in this 13th chapter, he turns to parables and the disciples ask him, “Why are you teaching and telling us parables?” Apparently, Jesus’ teaching was too clear and too hard because people were starting to turn away from him. He said, those who see don’t perceive; those who hear don’t listen and they don’t understand. He repeatedly says, “Let anyone with ears, listen.” That’s for you and for me, as well.
Parables were designed to engage the imagination and to challenge the conventional wisdom. Amy-Jill Levine says that parables are challenging because they call us to look into the hidden aspects of our own values—our own lives. They bring to the surface unasked questions and they reveal the answers to the questions that we’ve always known but have refused to acknowledge. The parable that you heard in the gospel lesson today is about the wheat and the weeds. The good news and hope in that lesson that I take away is that Jesus makes it clear that at the end of the age, it’s not up to us to judge the wheat from the weeds. That’s God’s job—the same God we know to be steadfast, faithful, grace-filled, full of mercy and abounding in steadfast love. I don’t know about you, but I’d much prefer my judgment coming from God, then—no offense—from you or from me. That’s the good news and the hope in that gospel lesson. Jesus also goes on to say that it is not our responsibility to seek to weed someone else’s garden.
Jesus says earlier in the Sermon on the Mount that we need to take care of the log in our own eye before addressing the speck in someone else’s. We are called to deeply reflect and wrestle with our own spiritual garden, the mix of wheat and weed. As we look across the landscape in our country and across the globe, we know that there are weeds that are infecting, poisoning and killing the good in our country and across the globe. Over the course of the last four months, we’ve heard some powerful sermons that have challenged us and also inspired us coming from this cathedral.
On Pentecost, our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry talked about the two pandemics: of course, the pandemic of COVID-19 where so many lives have been lost; but in that process it has also laid bare the underbelly of social injustice and inequities. We cannot fail to see the disproportionate number of infections and deaths that have come to persons of color. We can’t unsee that, and we must not ever unsee that. Bishop Curry also spoke to the pandemic of the sin of our spiritual homes—the sin of racism, which has also been laid bare in these times. He preached a few short days after the shocking and brutal murder of George Floyd that sent shockwaves and people to the streets all across this country and across the globe. In that moment and in this movement, I see hope because people everywhere are saying “no more.” We cannot unsee what we have seen. We must not ever unsee what we have seen.
Bishop Curry offered words of hope as he always does when he preaches. He reminded us that we are not victims of fate, that we are people of faith. As such, we follow Jesus who taught us that love will make a way, even when there doesn’t seem to be a way. We have work to do, you and me.
From this very pulpit 52 years ago, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached what would be his last Sunday sermon. Sadly, so much of what he said that day is still true and even more urgent. One of the things he said is that “Human progress has never rolled in on wheels of inevitability.” It only comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work by people of goodwill who sign on to be co-workers with God. That is what this moment, that is what this movement, calls you and me to do.
Our Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde referred to this time as a crucible moment in Kairos time: that all of us are called to come together and to continue this struggle, to continue this work, even when the cameras are gone. We will. We must. This cathedral is committed to the two pandemics that we have seen, and we continue to see with the coronavirus and the sin of racism.
Our Dean Randy Hollerith preached from this pulpit that those of us who are white have “white soul work” to do. It no longer works, it’s no longer enough, for people of goodwill to stand silent, to not stand up, to not act, to not be heard. John Lewis taught us that when we see something that is not right, not fair, not just we have a moral obligation to do something about it.
One of the signs of hope that I see in this reality is the Black Lives Matter movement is continuing to this day. According to a Washington Post reporter, about 140 times each and every day, people are taking to the streets, joining in the struggle for justice and reconciliation. That’s our call and our work too.
In all of this, my own “white soul work:” I felt led to share with you some of my own work. Not because I’m some great exemplar, but because perhaps in my example, you might see something of yourselves. I felt led to do it. I’m reminded of my friend and colleague our Canon Theologian Kelly Brown Douglas preaching on Mother’s Day, five years ago, after the brutal murder of Freddie Gray. She asked the question, what are we teaching our children? And she turned it to the imperative: what must we teach our children?
So, I knew for me, the next chapter of my work needed to be to go back to my childhood. What did I learn at home? What did I learn from my community? What was the combination of the wheat and the weeds in my own life? I began that journey talking to my older brother Kenneth—four years older than I—who is generous and loving and wise and most importantly, has the best memory of anyone I know, period. I asked him to reflect with me: what were we taught? He confirmed for me that our parents taught us that every person is worthy of our respect and our dignity, no exceptions; and that racial slurs and any sort of discrimination would not have been tolerated in our home. Were my parents perfect? No, none of us are, but they did their best to plant good seed in us.
My mother taught us something else. I confess to you that I learned that lesson a little too well. She taught us that it wasn’t polite to ask people personal questions, like how much something cost. I’m afraid that over time, I inculcated that to the point where I just didn’t ask many questions. There were times when I should have asked a lot more than I have. And in a prayer of confession, I have learned that it’s not so much the things that I’ve done: it’s the things that I have left undone; the things that I have not said; the places I have not showed up. To try and get a better understanding of what I learned in my community, I had to go back there too.
This is my reality. I grew up in a little town in South Texas named Refugio, which at its peak population had about 5,000 people. There was a main drag that ran through the center of town named Alamo, of course. On one side of Alamo, that’s where most of the white people lived. On the other side of Alamo, that’s where the black and the brown people lived. There were three schools, three sort of school entities that existed when I was growing up. There was the Refugio independent School District that went from first grade through 12. There was the parochial school, Our Lady of Refuge, that went from first grade to eighth grade. And then there was the black school Barefield that was literally across the railroad tracks.
Now you might ask why, when Brown vs the Board of Education passed before I was even born, it wasn’t until I was in the fifth or sixth grade that black students came to my school. I remember some about that, but I couldn’t trust my memory. So, I screwed up my courage and made the decision to reach out to one of my black classmates I knew best: Mayola Shaw. I decided I would ask her to share her memories with me. Thanks to Google, I got her number. I called. I wasn’t sure after 40 years that she’d even remember me or that she’d be willing to talk to me. To my great relief and delight, she called me back. And I said, “Mayola, I seem to remember that in the fifth or sixth grade, you and Beverly Kay were in my classes.” She said, “That’s right, but that’s not the full story.”
She went on to tell me that we were fully integrated by about the sixth grade. All the students—and there weren’t that many—came over from Barefield. She reminded me that there were tracks in our school system: the college bound, the maybe college bound, and the non-college bound. All the students from Barefield were put in the non-college bound track. I guess they might’ve done some testing and it was only then that Mayola and Beverly joined my class. My white bubble had somehow skipped over the full reality of that experience.
As part of my “white soul work,” I’d also pulled out all of my high school yearbooks and looked at them with a different lens. My memory was that by high school things were really pretty well integrated and that turned out to be the case. But there was one thing I hadn’t remembered and didn’t notice: that in my high school, there was only one black teacher—one—Mr. Marshall. I asked Mayola, “Did you notice, or did you remember there was only one black teacher in our school?” She laughed. Of course, she knew that! Of course she remembered that vividly! She told me that for some reason, black teachers had a hard time getting hired in our little town. They were hired in surrounding towns, but not ours.
Fast forward to 2020 and a sign of hope even in that reality. The mayor of my little hometown today is an alum of the Barefield School. Today, what remains of the Barefield School has been turned into a learning center so people will know the history of segregation in our little town. I’m also pleased to report that in my little town in early June, hundreds, hundreds of white, brown, and black people took to the streets. In my little hometown, Black Lives Matter. Friends, wheat and weeds exist.
It is our work to do. James Baldwin said, “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” It is time for us to wake up, listen up, join together in this urgent work—this Holy work we have to do. It is our turn. It is our time. It is our opportunity to make what’s only been a dream, a reality. In the words of Jesus, “Let anyone with ears, listen!” Let’s go friends! We have work to do! Amen.