A sermon preached by The Rev’d Jered Weber-Johnson
The Feast of Pentecost (Year A)
Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Saint Paul, MN
In this scene from the movie Harriet, Cynthia Erivo playing the powerful title role, gives us a window into the horrific experience of slaves in the antebellum south, whose bodies and lives were bound to white landowners as chattel, as property. This scene shows the beginning of the famous story of Harriet Tubman who escaped slavery and would courageously return again and again to the south, risking reenslavement and her very life, to liberate literally hundreds more other slaves on what we now call the Underground Railroad. And, this clip shows as Harriet flees the plantation before being sold away from her family. She leaves abruptly and without being able to fully say goodbye, without being able to embrace her husband and loved ones, without being able to say the words that any of us would want to say at such a painful moment. Instead, she sings this “Goodbye Song”. Hidden away she chants “I’m Sorry I’m gonna leave you.” and her loved ones in the field, hearing her mournful call, respond “Farewell, O farewell!” Historians tell us that this was often the method of communication among slaves, appropriating the language of the Bible to speak in code, to circumvent the ever-watchful eyes and listening ears of their masters, they would weave subversive and important messages into the words of spirituals and gospel songs like this one.
This is the way of oppressed peoples everywhere, the ingenuity of resilient minds seeking some way, if not in body, then at least in mind and spirit, to escape the shackles and slip out from under the suffocating weight of the oppressor’s boot. The oppressed have long spoken their own language, a code to trade in hope, to subvert the oppressor, to plan and plot revolution and liberation. This is because so often oppression comes in the form of empires and nationalisms that seek to conform everything to their image. In my home village, the living elders could still recount a time when their America had forced them to unlearn their language and culture, when the old ways were not practiced for fear of punishment and reprisal. The world operates by this kind of rigid structure, demanding conformity of identity and language. Nationalism, says Dr. Willie Jennings of Yale Divinity School, “necessitates borders, cultural and racial segregation, and military force to maintain”. Such a way of seeing peoples requires us to divide, rename, and strip away the diverse identities of individuals and whole cultures. Let us not forget that we live on stolen land. That our economy thrives, on stolen labor, resources looted from generations of people, on the erasure of indigenous peoples. Let us not forget that in our own city in living memory we bulldozed black and brown communities to make way for an interstate or the redlining enforced, often by violent mobs and routinely, even to this day by paid police. It is no wonder then that we see such anger today.
We are by now familiar with the famous line from Dr. King speaking after the so-called race riots of the late 1960s, “in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.”
And, he asks, “what is it that America has failed to hear?
It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened… It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality and humanity.”
That word from almost 60 years ago feels as true today as it was then. While so-called progress seems to be made, the safety and tranquility of white society depends on the disproportionate and violent policing of black and brown bodies. We have not heard the cries for justice. We have not understood the language of the oppressed.
James Baldwin says, in a poem, “During this long travail, our ancestors spoke to us, and we listened, / and we tried to make you hear life in our song / but now it matters not at all to me / whether you know what I am talking about — or not.” For over five minutes George Floyd lay pleading on the pavement, demanding the officer on his neck move so he could breathe. “I can’t breathe!” he said. “We can’t breathe!” say our black and brown neighbors. And the words seem to fall on deaf ears. And, so, of course the language changes, the expression moves from supplication and pleading to acts of defiance, from protest to destructive anger. Are we listening?
The apostles were gathered on the day of Pentecost, Luke tells us in Acts, and there came a sound like a violent wind filling the whole house, and divided tongues as of fire, descended and rested upon each of them, and they began to speak in different languages. I don’t know about you, but I have struggled my whole life to learn new languages. I can speak garbled bits of other people’s beautiful language. And, I have learned these languages because I wanted to connect to people whose world and culture and food and poetry and song and way of being seemed beautiful and worthy of knowing. The barrier to that knowing was the words. Dr. Jennings writes that to learn a language is to fall in love, first with the words and the sounds, and then ultimately the people.
He says, “Speak a language, speak a people. God speaks people, fluently. And God, with all the urgency that is with the Holy Spirit, wants the disciples of his only begotten Son to speak people fluently too. This is the beginning of a revolution that the Spirit performs. Like an artist drawing on all her talent to express a new way to live”.
The church is given this gift, the Spirit of God descends upon us giving us the ability to speak people as God speaks people, to fall in love with a world diverse and radiant in its difference, a humanity created in the image of God in its diversity and not its conformity. We are given the Spirit and the ability to speak. And speak we must. The revolution of God’s love, must spread from person to person. In learning this new language of love, we, particularly those of us who are white, will need to unlearn the language of white supremacy and domination that insists on subjugating other peoples, identities, and languages to assuage our own fear and fill our own selfish desires. We must speak with the Spirit, follow the violent wind of God’s presence wherever it bids us go, to stand with the oppressed, to speak with the marginalized, to proclaim God’s love unequivocally. If we do not join in speaking the Spirit’s revolution of love then the revolution of anger and grief will continue unabated. If we cannot catch the fire and burn with the love of the Holy Spirit, then the world will continue to burn in anguish. If we do not learn to speak people with the fluency of the Spirit, then people in our communities will continue to struggle and suffer and perish.
In her poem, A Litany for Survival, the great Audre Lorde writes:
“For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.
And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive.”
My friends, the church must hear these words translated into love by God’s Spirit. And we must speak back to a world of hurt of hatred and anger, and by God’s Spirit, we must convey love with every word, every act, every breath we breathe. For God’s Spirit is, this day, given to us. The breath of God is within us! The fire is lit, the wind is blowing, and the Spirit is upon us. Do not be afraid any longer. Do not remain silent.