A sermon in honor of Maria W. Stewart by Keith Davis, guest preacher
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Saint Paul, MN
Loving God, Open our minds to receive your word, open our mouths to praise your name, open our hearts to share your love this day and always, AMEN
This past October marked the end of my 23rd and the beginning of my 24th year as an Episcopalian and as a member of St John The Evangelist Episcopal Church. During my first few months here, I was invited to participate in something called The Gifts Course. As I recall, The Gifts Course was an 8-week exploration of various events in the Christian story, as well as examining how our individual skills, talents, and gifts can be used to further Christ’s mission here on earth. I completed the course with these questions in mind: How will I serve Christ? What will my contribution to the Christian narrative be?
A few years later, I was asked to participate in an Advent project to tell the Nativity story through the eyes of a character, either real or imagined, at the Nativity. I created the story of Atticus The Black Sheep. Atticus was part of a flock of white sheep. As “the other,” Atticus was often ostracized, made to feel ashamed and inferior because of his black wool, and hidden away when company visited. On the night of the Nativity, Atticus makes his way to the manger scene and discovers that his coarse black wool can be useful. He finds his worth and no longer defines himself by others. In the end, he becomes a valued participant in the Nativity story.
Today we honor and reflect on Maria W. Stewart, a woman whose strength, courage, and devotion to God fueled her passion to boldly speak out for equality, justice, and dignity for all human beings. She did so at a time when women, particularly Black women, were often seen but rarely heard. Her contributions to the Christian story helped pave the way for she-roes like Sojourner Truth, Harriett Tubman, and Mamie Till-Mobley.
In the preface of her Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart, first published by William Lloyd Garrison, a fellow rabblerouser and prophetic witness honored along with Maria Stewart, she describes herself this way:
I was born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1803; was left an orphan at five years of age; was bound out in a clergyman’s family; had the seeds of piety and virtue early sown in my mind, but was deprived of the advantages of education, though my soul thirsted for knowledge. Left them at fifteen years of age; attended Sabbath schools until I was twenty; in 1826 was married to James W. Stewart; was left a widow in 1829; was, as I humbly hope and trust, brought to the knowledge of the truth, as it is in Jesus, in 1830; in 1831 made a public profession of my faith in Christ.
Her devotion to the word of God was steadfast. As she later states in her meditations:
From the moment I experienced the change I felt a strong desire, with the help and assistance of God, to devote the remainder of my days to piety and virtue, and now possess that spirit of independence that, were I called upon, I would willingly sacrifice my life for the cause of God and my brethren.
She makes history 1832-1834 by becoming the: First known American woman to speak to a mixed audience of men and women, black and white; the first African-American woman to give lectures; and is believed to be the first to lecture about women’s rights, particularly Black women’s rights. This undereducated, widowed, poor Black woman caused quite the stir by calling out the ills of slavery, segregation, and tyranny to a crowd unaccustomed to being taken to task, particularly by a person of her stature. Mrs. Stewart, confident in her convictions, fearlessly spoke truth to power. She also took aim at free Black men who she thought could and should better themselves. To quote her:
And shall Africa’s sons be silent any longer? Far be it from me to recommend to you either to kill, burn, or destroy. But I would strongly recommend to you to improve your talents; let not one lie buried in the earth. Show forth your powers of mind, Prove to the world that
Though black your skins as
shades of night,
Your hearts are pure, your
souls are white.
Her boldness seemed to embody the words credited to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich a century later: WELL BEHAVED WOMEN SELDOM MAKE HISTORY. So disturbing to the status quo was her discourse that she was effectively silenced for nearly 40 years. It was then her companion in the struggle for human dignity, William Lloyd Garrison, published her works.
I mentioned she was poor. At the time of his death, her husband James W. Stewart, a veteran of The War of 1812, had left a will making her the beneficiary of his property and treasure. Executors of the will, however, cheated Mrs. Stewart out of all she was owed. Because of missing documents, she could not receive her late husband’s military pension. Undaunted, undeterred, Maria Stewart became a teacher, abolitionist, writer, activist, and retired as Head Matron (nurse) of Freedman’s Hospital and Asylum in Washington DC. By the way, because of her dogged determination and with the help of influential friends made over the years, Maria Stewart finally received her late husband’s military pension in 1879, 49 years after his death, and the same year as her own.
Maria Stewart never let being told NO keep her from getting to YES. CAN’T did not seem a part of her vocabulary. She knew she was a servant of the Lord with a story to tell, with a contribution to make, and would allow nothing to stand in her way. Imagine the physical, emotional, and mental toll she endured during those dark and lonely times. I wonder how the stress manifested in her body and mind. I’m sure prayer was her constant companion. Her faith in God helped her persevere just as it did for Mamie Till-Mobley.
Mamie Till-Mobley is the mother of Emmitt Till, the 14-year-old African American young man who was savagely beaten, tortured, and lynched in 1955 Mississippi. Mamie Till-Mobley spoke truth to power by having an open casket at Emmitt’s funeral and showing the world hate personified in her swollen, maimed, disfigured son’s lifeless body. There was a story to tell, a part of the Christian story that shows the consequences of tyranny, hatred, and the absence of agape love. Though she did not live to see it, because of her bravery and persistence in pursuing truth and justice for her son, The Emmitt Till Anti-Lynching Act became law March 29, 2022, nearly 67 years after Emmitt’s death.
Beloved in Christ, where are you in the story? Where are you, where do you want to be, how will you get there? Let’s sit with these questions for a moment… What is God calling you, calling us to do, especially regarding the issues of racial justice and equality for all? These questions may not be answered today or tomorrow but they must be addressed, the sooner the better.
Political pundits often label the United States Congress as the “Do Nothing” Congress when little substantive legislative work is accomplished. Or, as the old saying goes, “When all is said and done, more gets said than done.” We cannot afford to be Do Nothing Christians. We should not, must not allow negativity, ignorance, and fear to hinder us. The darkness around us must not keep us from walking in the light.
As it says in Galatians 6: 8-10: So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.
Thank You, Maria Stewart, for daring to speak truth to power. Thank You to all the she-roes and heroes in the great cloud of witnesses who worked for racial justice and equality for all. May your wisdom continue to inspire our contributions to a more just and equitable world.
May Christ, who is the way, keep us in the way; above us to watch, beneath us to hold, behind us to guard, ahead to lead, within us to light our path.