A sermon preached by the Rev’d Jered Weber-Johnson
Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Saint Paul, MN
I was reminded recently of an Ash Wednesday, during my time in seminary working at Trinity Wall Street. Between services, volunteers of the church, lay and ordained, would stand for hours in the nave, administering ashes to any as wanted to receive. Busboys on break would hustle down the long aisle to receive ashes. Daytraders with their funny vests would slope toward the altar to receive reminders of their mortality. Young and old, Catholic, Protestant, and Hindu, believers and doubters, would come. I remember one woman in particular, a mother who came forward, infant in arms. The baby must have been no more than a week old, face still wrinkled and flushed like a newborn, swaddled in his blanket and held to his mother’s chest. After receiving ashes and that poetic if stark reminder of her mortality, she paused. “Will you mark my baby too?”, she asked. They didn’t cover this in liturgics class, and I remember wondering, are ashes safe for babies? “I’ll mark the blanket.” I said. And I did. And right there, only days from his birth, I told that child and his mother, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The words caught in my throat. The mother left back down the aisle, and I grappled with that hard truth. Surely children are expected to come to terms with the mortality of their parents, but, it seems brutal that a parent should have to contend with the mortality of their children.
Yet, as reports come in from Ukraine of the bombing of a maternity hospital, of mothers and their children gunned down while fleeing to safety, as story after story is told year after year of black and brown mothers burying their children in this country, victims of untimely and unneccessary deaths to police brutality and racist violence, we know that this particularly excruciating pain of motherhood is still a much too prevalent reality in our world.
One of the songs that spoke to me of this truth and which almost made my selection of two songs for our Lenten playlist during forum is Marvin Gaye’s critically acclaimed “What’s Going On” where he laments,
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
This Ash Wednesday, in my sermon, I recounted a piece of a story from Willie Jennings’ masterpiece, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, and upon reading today’s gospel lesson, I was drawn back to it again. Jennings tells of being in the garden with his mother, a space of spiritual meaning, of story and deep connection, a sanctuary from the world where his mother wove together her wisdom of agricultural and ancestral roots, teaching young Willie about the wider world he would one day need to navigate, teaching him about Jesus. He tells how one day while in the garden, two white missionaries entered their sacred space by walking up the long driveway. Jennings confesses that he did not hear them approaching that day. He writes of turning to see two white men approaching, of wanting to warn his mother who was on the farthest end of the garden.
“But that was unnecessary”, he says “I don’t know how she knew or how she moved so quickly, but as I turned to find her with my eyes she was already positioning her body in front of mine. Her actions were ancient and modern – a mother moving her body in front of her child in the presence of strangers, a black woman placing her body between the body of her tender young son and the bodies of white men.”
I confess that even now as I tell this story again, I cannot repeat it without getting chills. His use of this story to illuminate the unique struggles of parenting while black in America, of the particular fears and pain born by black and brown mothers, nevertheless strikes a universal chord. Who among us has not seen their own mothers assume a similar posture in the face of dangers both real and imagined, placing her body between her child and that which would threaten its safety?
In today’s gospel, Jesus draws us to this same image of a mother protecting her children, saying, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
In 1986 Barbara Brown Taylor wrote what is, for me, the most poignant reflection on this morning’s gospel that I have yet to read. She says,
“If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world –wings spread, breast exposed — but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand”
Brown Taylor’s retelling reminds me of the image that shook the world in the protests and uprising following the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille, of a black woman in Baton Rouge, standing erect, head held high, chest out, face emotionless, her thin dress blowing in the wind all that stands between her and two onrushing police officers in full riot gear, as she is arrested. We would learn later that this was Ieshia Evans, mother and nurse, who went to the protest, as she says, for her son, so that he can live in a world where he need not fear for his life. There she was, putting her body between her son and a world that often seems intent to kill him. As she was interviewed following her arrest, she thanked people for their affirmations and well-wishes, but was quick to say “this is the work of God.” Indeed, as Brown Taylor describes, this vulnerable posture is how you stand when you love another. If God is love, this must speak to us of who God is and how God stands with us.
This is an image we need to hang onto. So much of our theology of who God is, is shaped and formed by a patriarchal culture that has defined so much of the world both in and outside the church. The stories we tell, the figures we celebrate, even the words we use were conditioned and selected for centuries by men like me. It is no accident then that we have so few images of God that reflect the feminine. Yet, perhaps this is just the imagery we need in this moment.
With gratitude to our Circle of the Beloved fellow, Kat Lewis, who turned me on to the writing of Womanist theologian Jacquelyn Grant, who writes in Black Theology: A Documentary History, building on James Cone’s revolutionary idea that Jesus, whose context was Jewish and thus subject to the oppression of Rome, means that for us today, Jesus was Black. She goes even further, arguing that we must find Christ in the experience and communities of Black women. Grant utilizes the work of William Eichelberger who writes:
“I am constrained to believe that God in our times has updated His form of revelation to western society… that God is now manifesting… and has been for over 450 years, in the form of the Black American Woman as mother…as nourisher, sustainer…the Suffering Servant…”
This is the image of the Divine we need, a mother hen, sheltering her young under her wings, the Black woman whose particular pain has been that of Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, or Lesley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown. It is the prayer on the lips of George Floyd as he was murdered, “Momma! Momma!”, an invocation of the greatest power some will ever know, a call to be seen, to be saved.
And, if this is the image of God, relevant for this moment, we must ask, as a church shaped by and for whiteness, how will we follow Jesus, the mother, Jesus, the protector hen? What does vulnerability and love look like now, today, in the church? Could it be a willingness to divest ourselves of money and power which colludes with violence? Could it mean changing the way we sing and pray, so that our lives might more fully reflect the image of God given to us in this moment? How can we place our lives and our bodies, between what Jesus calls “the least of these” and a death-dealing world? Following Jesus may look like losing our lives, might mean the church loses its so-called relevance, that it might even die. Are we willing to be that vulnerable, that we can give up control and follow Jesus on the way of love? As Barbara Brown Taylor writes, Jesus gives us this image,
“which is about as far from a fox as you can get. That way the options become very clear: you can live by licking your chops or you can die protecting the chicks…Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen, who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first…wings spread, breast exposed…If you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.”