A Sermon for St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, MN
by The Reverend Craig Lemming, Associate Rector
Friday, November 5, 2021 at 12:15 p.m. Racial Reconciliation Holy Eucharist
Let us pray. O God, by whose gift blessed Martin de Porres persevered in imitating Christ, poor and lowly, grant us through his intercession that, faithfully walking in our own vocation, we may reach the perfection you have set before us in your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
When I was 19, Professor Calvin Louis Hicks gave me my first job when I was a freshman at New England Conservatory in Boston. I worked as Professor Hicks’ assistant during the four years I attended the conservatory, and Mr. Hicks became like an adopted father to me. Mr. Hicks was the only African American faculty member who taught in NEC’s liberal arts department and he was a renowned community organizer in Boston. A master educator, Calvin Hicks taught and led with a palpable spirit of humility, courage, joy, and gentleness. In his office were two large photographs: a portrait of Florence Price, whose exquisite composition, “Adoration” will be played by Ed Stieve during Holy Communion today, and the other was a portrait of Mary Lou Williams. My colonized freshman mind was preoccupied with white composers in the Western canon until Mr. Hicks ushered me across a multiplicity of thresholds into new galaxies of African American music, art, and culture. Before I worked for Calvin Hicks, I knew nothing about these Black women composers who were and are musical giants in the history of music. One summer, Mr. Hicks and I organized a week-long Mary Lou Williams symposium which included lectures, recitals, workshops, and seminars about her life and work. I attended one of the lecture-recitals during which a recording of her music was played that captured my imagination. Mary Lou Williams’ tonal palette is extremely colorful, full of beautiful, sophisticated harmonies that shift and glide and bring out the theological meanings of the words in her hymn to Saint Martin de Porres; lyrics her parish priest and confessor, the Rev. A.S. Woods penned in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement in 1962. Woods’ poetry evokes the humble spirit of Mary Lou Williams’ beloved Saint:
Saint Martin de Porres
His shepherd staff a dusty broom
Saint Martin de Porres
The poor made a shrine of his tomb
Saint Martin de Porres
He gentled creatures tame and wild
Saint Martin de Porres
He sheltered each unsheltered child
This man of love
Born of flesh yet of God
This humble man
Healed the sick
Raised the dead
His hand is quick
To feed beggars
The starving homeless
And the stray
Oh, Black Christ of the Andes
Come feed and cure us now, we pray.
Listen with me to a short musical excerpt to appreciate the ways Mary Lou Williams’ music colors and illuminates her priest’s mystical text:
Born in Lima, Peru in 1579 to an African-Panamanian mother named Ana who was enslaved and then freed, Martin was fathered by a noble Spanish gentleman and Knight of the Order Alcántara who rejected Martin because of his Black skin. He and his sister Juana were raised by their mother Ana in poverty and at the age of 12 Martin apprenticed as a barber, surgeon, pharmacist, and medical healer who served white colonizers, Indigenous peoples, enslaved Africans, and fellow mixed-race peoples alike. As a young adult he was called to be a lay Dominican brother. Because his mixed Black race precluded him from hierarchical privileges in the colonizer’s church, Saint Martin served Christ at the lowest rank in his Order cleaning the monastery and caring for the sick. Saint Martin’s skill in the healing arts, his deep devotion to praying with the Blessed Sacrament, and his steadfast love of the poor led him to establish an orphanage, hospital, and orchard of fruit trees for poor children, and he was renowned for his care of stray animals. We sometimes see icons of Saint Martin sharing a plate of food with a mouse, a cat, and a dog who bask in Saint Martin’s Spirit of love, joy, and gentleness.
Saint Martin’s mixedness; his in-between-ness; that scandalous both-and-ness that he embodied is a Christlike model for us to adopt as people committed to practicing the reconciling and healing love of Jesus in a world that grows increasingly divided across our many lines of difference. Both Liberation and Decolonial theologians in Central and South America have centered Christ’s radically inclusive and painful mixedness in what is called Mestizaje Christology. For “the scandal of the Incarnation” to mean anything at all, Mexican theologian Fr. Virgilio Elizondo teaches that it is essential that Jesus comes from a particular place: Nazareth in Galilee. He writes,
To be a Galilean Jew classified one as an outsider in many respects – geographically, socially, culturally, linguistically, and religiously. Galilee was a region where people of mixed origins lived; an economically marginalized region separated from the center of power in Jerusalem; a region known not only for its distinctive dialect but also associated with ignorance of the religious law and laxity in observing Jewish religious customs and ceremonies.
This mixedness, this both-and-ness of Jesus the Christ – both a Palestinian and a Jew, both a citizen and a refugee, both a rabbi and the Messiah, both fully human and fully divine, both crucified and risen – it is within this mixed multiplicity of natures that we all find belonging for ourselves and for all peoples. This is why the Apostle Paul proclaims to the Galatians that in Christ, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of us are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28). The mixed multiplicity of the Triune God in whose divine image every person is created is preached in the mellifluous, technicolor beauty of Mary Lou Williams’ hymn to Saint Martin Porres. And in today’s Epistle to the Philippians the Apostle Paul invites us into the spiritual posture for our shared work, our liturgy, of Racial Reconciliation in the Church and in the world which is still being corrupted and destroyed by the colonizer. Like Saint Paul the Apostle, like Saint Martin de Porres, like Mary Lou Williams, and like Calvin Hicks, we can heal our divisions through rejoicing, gentleness, prayer, thanksgiving, and peace-making. By setting our hearts and minds on whatever is commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy, no matter what our station in this life may be, we can discern what our particular God-given gifts are, and share those gifts in the love, care, service, and healing of our relationships with God, our neighbors, and all of Creation.
As we contemplate and imitate Saint Martin de Porres’s Christlike humility and love of those who have been dehumanized by the colonizer’s caste system, we can embody that love to which Christ calls each of us today. I close with a quote from Saint Pauli Murray’s sermon on “The Second Great Commandment.”
We are not commanded to like everyone with whom we come into contact. What is required of us is not admiration, approval, or even personal affection, but caring, empathy, seeking to understand, identifying with another’s common humanity, and being concerned for another’s well-being as if it were our own.
“Love your neighbor as yourself.” Amen.