We might imagine that a well crafted sermon should be able to stand alone, with no further contextualization beyond the appointed scriptural readings. And yet, sometimes that simply doesn’t hold true. Sometimes there are factors and variables that must be shared, circumstances that must be considered, lest the text remain mere words on a page. This was one of those times.
I preached this sermon in the wake of considerable tension on campus. There had been a string of incidents of hostility toward various racial and ethnic identities. There were also a number of strong arm robberies occurring, some during broad daylight. The anxiety was palpable. The lectionary texts lent themselves quite well to our current state of affairs, which worked out well. I came to the end of my preparation and I felt good about how it all turned out.
Then I started to think. How could I make an impact? How could I cause this message to stand out for students, that it might take hold and take root? As a rule, I am very wedded to the pulpit when I preach. I preach from a manuscript. I have great respect for people who are able to preach from notes, or memory. But that’s not me. Then it occurred to me – what If I step out of my comfort zone? What If I do something that is unexpected? What if I rock the boat, just a bit.
The pulpit at Alice Millar Chapel is rather large, elevated above the congregation. There are steps involved. I took extra care checking the batteries in the wireless microphone. I made sure there was nothing I could potentially trip over. I negotiated with the choir director for the use of his music stand. And I prepared to step out of the pulpit to stand among the people. After delineating the four functions of clergy, with all the courage I could muster, I turned and walked out of the pulpit. I stood at the front of the sanctuary, just in front of the chancel and looked people head on.
“This is not okay…”
Primary Texts:Hebrews 10:11-25 and Mark 13:1-8
I grew up listening to a wonderful record – that’s right, record: turn table, needle, slightly scratchy sound every so often. Anyway… maybe you too are familiar with Marlo Thomas and “Free to Be… You and Me.” It’s an inspiring collection of music empowering little girls and little boys to do amazing things and to be amazing people. Songs encourage the listeners to be comfortable in their bodies, to “like what they look like,” to challenge narrow conceptions of gender roles, to claim a space in the wide world.
Several years ago, I stumbled across a CD version, which I eagerly added to my collection. It’s actually in my office here at the chapel, in case you’re ever interested. So, I bought the CD, and fought with the cellophane and the multiple sticky closures in the car, so I could listen to it right away. I have to admit, it was kind of hard to drive with tears in my eyes as I remembered how much I had taken those simple yet profound words to heart as a child. As soon as I got home, I called my mom to thank her for exposing me to this treasure at such a young age. The title track, in part, goes something like this: “There’s a land that I see / Where the children are free / And I say it ain’t far / To this land from where we are. / Take my hand, come with me / Where the children are free / Come with me – take my hand / And we’ll live / In a land / Where the river runs free / In a land / Through the green country / In a land / To a shining sea / And you and me / Are free to be / You and me.”
Unfortunately, we do not live in such a land. We live in a land where someone can take a magic marker and scrawl racial epithets on another’s door. In a land where someone can emblazon a swastika on a brick wall. In a land where someone accosts a Latino student, causing him to fear for his very life. In a land where individuals as well as groups, regardless of gender or ethnicity or any other identifying qualities, run the risk of being attacked, robbed, violated. At two o’clock in the morning. At eight o’clock in the evening. That, my friends, is a land far from free. Rather, that is a land enslaved by narrow-mindedness, held back by hatred, drowning in desperation. And we, inhabitants of a world seemingly gone mad, are far from free. Far from being able to be who we are, how we are, where we are.
I invite you to take a moment and think about where all you’ve been over the past few days, weeks, even months. I’m not necessarily talking about physical location, unless that’s where your wandering mind takes you. I’m thinking more about emotionally, where have you been? How have you been?
Perhaps you have been angry, even outraged. How could this happen?!? How could this happen here, now? Perhaps you have wanted to retaliate, to get your own magic marker and let others know exactly what you think. Perhaps you are frightened. Have you found yourself being a bit more cautious, a bit more aware? Do you walk a little faster after dark, try to be alone less?
Maybe you have felt sadness. Sadness washed over me as I walked across campus earlier last week and saw the vehicles from each of the networks lined up in a neat row, ready to pounce on a story. I was saddened by how very vulnerable we become under the bright lights. How very public our private grief becomes. Maybe you have felt embarrassed, fearing guilt by association: “Those Northwestern students…” as though the corporate body super-cedes the individual spirit. Perhaps your take is one of denial or disbelief. It couldn’t possibly have been one of us! It’s unthinkable. It’s inconceivable. It’s unbelievable. Surely it’s an outside agitator, looking for trouble. Or someone, albeit misguidedly, messing around, looking to get a rise out of folks.
Perhaps you’ve been feeling oddly invigorated, encouraged by the powerful act of people coming together. It can be intoxicating – a strong sense of community care and concern. I’ve heard folks comment that this is the first time during their tenure at Northwestern that people have really come together to take a stand. Even so, you might be feeling somewhat resigned – almost hopeless. History repeats itself yet again. Will we never learn?
You may be feeling confused – this hatred, this fear, such off-putting, upsetting, unwelcome intruders into our ostensibly stable, balanced world. How are we to take this all in? How are we to respond? Sadly, you may even be feeling indifference. Maybe you are feeling overwhelmed by the pressures of the quarter, problems with friends, problems at home. The holidays are just around the corner… It’s just too much with which to deal! Enough already!
Who knows what all else you might have on your mind or in your heart. So many thoughts, so many feelings, bubbling from the depths of our souls, boiling over in their intensity. Effecting our action and inaction alike. Influencing how we think, what we think, what we say, what we don’t say.
Speaking of what we say, what we don’t say… Audre Lorde shared the following as a part of a panel at the Modern Language Association meeting in Chicago in 1977: “What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself – a black woman warrior poet doing my work – come to ask you, are you doing yours?”
We’ll return to that last question in just a bit, but for now I invite you to consider this: Who are you? Really, in a most literal sense, who do you think you are? Ms. Lorde identifies herself as a “black woman warrior poet,” among other things, one might assume. Each item, a component of her character she readily claims, or as the case may be, perhaps finds herself claimed by. What nouns do you claim? What adjectives claim you?
Now, imagine, if you will, being forced to suppress one, two, or three – maybe more – aspects of all that makes you you. Imagine, out of apprehension or anxiety or a very primal fear, feeling strongly compelled to hide or downplay portions of your very being. Some of us might not even be able to imagine such a fate. Some of us might not have to imagine, for we know all too well the ache of such a betrayal. If we truly aspire to live in a land where we are free to be you and me, we have to be able to embrace all of who we are. Not only to embrace it, but to celebrate it!
But, how are we to celebrate in the face of such fear? Are we to turn a blind eye? A deaf ear? A cold shoulder? We can’t close our eyes, for we are afraid of the dark. We can’t cover our ears, for our very silence screams out. We can’t turn away, for everywhere we look, we are surrounded. And so, we continue to stumble along.
Somewhere along the line, over the course of my education, I was told there are four basic functions of the clergy, four roles we are to fulfill, if you will: prophet, pastor, poet, and priest. We are of course called to each task in some measure, though we may certainly feel more comfortable with one than another. These functions were in my mind as I struggled – and I do mean struggled – with how to approach this morning’s message. What to say, what not to say. The prophet in me would like to call us to action. To come forth with a challenge to startle us off dead center. To remind us that we are better than this – as a society, as a community, as individuals. To push the envelope a bit, offering words which echo with passion, with purpose, with possibility.
The pastor in me would like to open my arms and draw each and every one of you into an embrace. To offer gentle words of comfort, of compassion, of healing, of hope. To wipe away a tear, to still a trembling spirit. To offer up this space as a true sanctuary, safe from the horrors of what we sometimes do to one another.
The poet in me would seek to give voice to what we are feeling, what can hardly be spoken. To put into words that which defies explanation. To craft sentences which roll off the tongue and resonate with waiting hearts and minds. To cast a bit of beauty into a situation rife with ugliness.
The priest in me would perhaps retreat – hoping beyond hope that the familiarity of our time together, the rhythm of our liturgy, the sincerity of our prayer, the honesty of our praise might somehow be enough. And perhaps, in some ways, for some, it is.
After considerable wrestling and waiting, I realized… I do not stand before you as prophet or pastor or poet or priest. Rather I stand before you, I stand among you, as a person. I stand as one of a community shaken, a community scared, a community scarred. I stand as one appalled. I stand as one amazed, and ashamed. I stand as one confused. I stand as one committed. I stand as one who will not sit down and shut up! There is nothing right about any of what was gone on. There is nothing okay about hiding behind a magic marker, seeking protection in anonymity. There is nothing okay about violating another – physically or emotionally. There is nothing okay about pulling a gun or a knife. There is nothing okay about being afraid all of the time.
Our scripture text from Hebrews encourages us, “…let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together…” The events of recent days have certainly been provoking, but… how are we to turn it around? How are we to “be the change,” as so many chanted at the Rock earlier last week? We must meet together – all of us. We must invite others to the table and talk, together. Even if you don’t agree with what is being said. We cannot be so naïve as to suggest we will always be of one mind as a university community. Yet, we should never become so jaded as to write off instances of hatred as inevitable. Our gospel reading warns, “…nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom… this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” The transformation from this world to the next will likely be quite an act of labor, our very beings contracting as “as it was in the beginning” slides not so effortlessly into “is now and ever shall be.” Nothing this important is easy. We must stick with it, holding on for all we’re worth, holding out hope for others who may be losing their grip.
I promised a return to Audre Lorde. Once again, she wrote, “Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself – a black woman warrior poet doing my work – come to ask you, are you doing yours?” Dear friends, what work is yours to do during these troubling days? Are you doing your work? How can we help one another, so we all might be free – free from hatred, free from fear, free to be all God intends us to be?
Responses to my words ran the gamut. There were students with tears in their eyes upon hearing the lesbian in a sermon, spoken in positive manner. There were students with furrowed brows, who I hope went on to tease out their thoughts further during conversations in the cafeteria or the residence halls. There were faculty and staff members, exhausted from the pace this potentially hostile situation necessitated. And of course there were those who heard only what they wanted to hear. And the things they chose to hear are rather interesting. The “alternative” school newspaper, staunchly conservative, quoted me quoting Audre Lorde, but they failed to recognize that it was in fact a quote. Apparently I startled one or the choir members, who claimed I “stormed the congregation.” She was also worried that I was going to ‘come out’ right then and there. I was not named in the article, so for a few days many people asked my colleague and I which one of us was the African American lesbian. Sometimes there are no words. Sometimes you sob inconsolably. Sometimes you laugh when you are done crying. Sometimes you immerse yourself in the work you were called to do. Are you doing your work? Of course you are; I have no doubt.