A sermon preached by the Rev. Jered Weber-Johnson for Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Saint Paul, Minnesota
November 21, 2021 – Last Sunday after Pentecost/Christ the King, Year B, Proper 29
Whenever I mess up in front of him, which seems to happen a lot, our associate rector likes to say with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face, that St. John’s is a place of grace. We can confess our sins here and receive forgiveness. So, I need to tell the truth. In John’s gospel, Jesus says the truth will set us free. So, here goes.
Two weeks ago at our first Evensong of the year and our first since 2020, I inadvertently prayed for the Queen. I’m sure she didn’t mind. After all, we can all use a little extra prayer these days. But, we were using the form of Evening Prayers from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer in the Church of England, and it was my job as officiant to change one little word – “Queen” to “State” – and in my haste I rolled on heedless of the change and chanted “O Lord, save the Queen.” It just plopped out before I could catch it, and some of your eyebrows raised, and then we moved on. Later some of you pressed me about it. “What’s up with praying for the Queen?” you asked. After all, we Americans have an uneasy relationship with monarchy. On the one hand we’re so far-removed from it, or so we think, that we’re fascinated by it. We love to tune in to royal dramas real and fictional, weddings and ceremonies of state involving the monarchy, especially in dear old England. But, at the same time, we imagine ourselves far more advanced in our shiny democracy of the people, by the people, to have no need of monarchs, of kings and queens and princes. Truth be told, the only king many Americans will pay homage to is Elvis, the only Queen, Beyonce, and the only Prince…well, Prince.
Part of our unease with monarchy comes from the fact that for most (monarchies that is), one must attach some notion of divinity to them. If kings and queens do not descend literally from the gods themselves, most monarchies at least depend upon the notion that they are divinely created – as in the “divine right of kings”. From the monarchy, and flowing downward by stages and degrees, are the various hierarchies of humanity, all the classes and strata of people whose lives are also divinely circumscribed to their state in life. Here in our country we like to think that such things are not divinely mandated – that as Thomas Jefferson famously penned in the Declaration of Independence which stands as a founding document and ideology of our nation, “All men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…”. Yet, the fuller truth is, even here in the land of the equal, inequality has this uncomfortable way of reclaiming its stranglehold on our lives and communities and seems as yet to hold sway in our democracy.
In her disturbing and brutally honest book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, author and journalist Isabel Wilkerson details how our nation is one of three enduring examples of firmly ensconced caste systems in the world: India, Nazi Germany, and us. And nowhere is caste more clearly visible as it is here, owing to the ways in which we have linked it unequivocally to the human construction of race – that is the stratifying of human groups according to skin color. Americans have at our founding and repeatedly rejected notions of equality because we could not differentiate between the elevation of others to a place higher in the caste system. Or, put another way, as Wilkerson writes, “The elevation of others amounts to a demotion of oneself, thus equality feels like a demotion.” Writing elsewhere in her book and underscoring the origin of our racialized caste system, Wilkerson quotes American historian and Pulitzer prize winner, Taylor Branch who asks “if people were given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?” Which is to say that when confronted between the truth of who we proclaim to be and the truth of who we actually are, often we choose comfort, privilege, and status quo over liberation, equality, and freedom for our fellow human beings. What’s more, it seems to make many of us quite angry to name the complexity of our truth in this nation, that we can be both at turns committed to justice and complicit in systemic oppression. But, again, Jesus says, the Truth will set us free!
The headlines of this week read like a case study for Wilkerson’s book and reveal in stark relief the confounding and sad truth of who we are as a country – from Kyle Rittenhouse’s trial and acquittal, to the case of two white men being tried for murdering Ahmaud Arbery, a man executed for running while black in a mostly white neighborhood, even the ongoing court cases for the rioters who stormed our nation’s Capitol on January 6th underscore how unequally the law is applied to white and black, how differently we perceive the actions of some over others, based on the color of the actors skin. The truth is often ugly.
Whether we like it or not, this caste system, this differential application of law and societal norms, is based both in the worldview of monarchical power and in the theologies of western Christianity. This is perhaps nowhere better described than in Willie James Jennings’ powerful masterpiece, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race where he details the historical account of Prince Henry the Navigator, 15th century royalty, son of King John I of Portugal, patron of Portuguese exploration and perhaps lesser known, one of the earliest instigators of the horror we now call the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Jennings gives the account of one of the first ships to bring African slaves to Europe, met by Prince Henry and his retinue, and described in great detail by court historian and royal chronicler Gomes Eanedes Azurara, or simply Zurara, who captured this moment, clearly staged for history, in terms both historical and deeply theological. Zurara tells how as the slaves were brought ashore, he was moved to tears, and then as if to explain his tears, recounts for us a prayer he offered at the occasion.
“O, Thou heavenly Father…I pray Thee that my tears may not wrong my conscience; for it is not their religion but their humanity that maketh mine to weep in pity for their sufferings. And if the brute animals, with their bestial feelings, by a natural instinct understand the suffering of their own kind, what wouldst Thou have my human nature to do on seeing before my eyes that miserable company, and remembering that they too are of the generations of the sons of Adam?”
Before slaves were reduced to property, to chattel, Zurara is able still to locate their humanity, a shared origin with him and with all others, as sons of Adam. In so doing, he locates these African men, women, and children, within a theological worldview, and is moved to tears at the image before him of human suffering. Though the truth is condemning, that he and the court he represents, are about to place in bondage fellow humans, he can’t help but confess it. Later he will go on to give an account of the slaves appearance, describing the shades of their skin from light to black, and an assessment of their beauty as both fair to ugly. We have these accounts, stemming from the royal court of Portugal, which will later be referenced again and again throughout the west by political leaders, slave traders, pastors and theologians both Catholic and Protestant, as part of the divinely inspired ordering of the universe, the reified state of castes, which places black African slaves as the pitiable but rightly lowest rung on the human ladder. Zurara can only tell the truth in part – he cannot accept it in full. So he casts about in his prayer for some kind of relief. As Jennings writes,
“One should not, however, read moral disgust into his words. Zurara asks God in his prayer to grant him access to the divine design to help him interpret this clear sign of God-ordained Portuguese preeminence over black flesh. He seeks …[an] interpretation that would ease his conscience and make the event unfolding in front of him more morally palatable.”
He is searching for evidence that his untruth is true. Even though he is deeply formed in a Christian worldview, one which places his humanity as equal next to people of all races, a truth which causes him distress at the sight of human suffering, still he seems unable or unwilling to tell the whole truth, that the world cannot and should not be ordered and stratified as it is, with him standing apart and insulated from the suffering of others, that this is not the world as God would have it. He is not unlike Pilate, who in the verse omitted from this morning’s gospel, upon hearing Jesus resist the title of King, Jesus who proclaims a world set free from slavery and bondage, whose ministry inaugurated God’s truth of people reconciled across all the boundaries of difference, and Pilate asks “What is truth?” Like Zurara, like the powerful in every generation, truth, God’s liberating and life-giving truth which is love in the flesh, must be dodged, demeaned, or diminished at every turn!
Still, truth will come out. This morning is Christ the King Sunday, a strange designation instigated and established in 1925 by Pope Pius XI to resist the rise in his day of totalitarianism, the terrifying prospect of dictators and fascists, and the dehumanizing ordering of the world that their ideologies represented. Nearly a century later the designation of the day, Christ the King, sounds strange to our modern ears. But, the call to follow Jesus and the kingdom he proclaimed and established from the cross, is as relevant today as it was then or 2000 years ago. The truth is found in a person, in a way, in a calling to live as reconciled and reconciling. The forces at play in Europe in 1925, in 15th century Portugal, in Kenosha, Wisconsin or Brunswick, Georgia last year, are the same forces of evil that would establish a kingdom of division and hierarchies of humanity, that would discard or disregard truth, that would have us praying “my will be done” and which would have us pledging allegiance to false gods and lesser kings. As those who profess to follow Jesus as Lord, we are called to enact a kingdom of Justice regardless of the laws of the land, to resist oppression, to choose, not democracy over whiteness, but solidarity with suffering over personal comfort and privilege, to lose our life for the sake of the kingdom of God, for the truth of God’s love. We are called to tell the truth, a truth who is Jesus. As Jesus says elsewhere in John’s gospel, to follow in his way, to be disciples of his kingdom, is to know the truth, and “the truth shall set you free.”
So it is we pray this morning:
Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.