St. Paul's Episcopal Church | Louisburg, NC | October 15, 2017
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.
For your reference, there are copies of my remarks available. Please know that these are my individual thoughts and do not speak in any manner to a collective voice of the St. Paul’s community.
Imagine you’re a guest at that ancient Wedding Feast over 2000 years ago; listen to the breath of those flutes and the thumping of those drums. Smell it, feel it, wrap yourself in it.
(Some nice chanting here from me.)
Jesus was a gifted storyteller. He understood the conversational nature of reality. He taught that the tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs or explosions. And at times our weapons are simply our thoughts and our attitudes. Over the years of our lives, our prejudices can kill and our suspicions can destroy. His manner of inviting us in to this story of the Wedding feast in Matthew is grounded in his ability to wait for us to grow into our reality. We are complicated folks, but for a few moments, consider your life as a gift, and you are living it as a celebration which you did not pay for. How will you show your appreciation? Personally, I’m starting to ask some difficult questions of myself as a 60 year old Southern white man.
Back to Matthew. He was a Jewish tax collector who was speaking to a Jewish audience, about a Rabbi Jesus, who lived his entire life as a Jew. But folks, I believe the story is meant for us gathered this morning. Many paths of faith have formed us into our community today, but, I wonder if our small church and our small town may be coming to terms with an issue which is facing other small historical Episcopal churches and many small towns just like ours.
I find that the great mistake which many of us make is to act out the drama of our life’s decisions as if we are alone. We are not alone. And like all good storytellers, Jesus takes us on a journey, ripe with metaphors and a grab bag full of opportunities for personal reflection. Stories move in circles. They do not move in straight lines. So it helps to listen in circles. There are stories inside stories and stories between stories, and finding your way through them is as easy and as hard as finding your way home. And part of the finding is getting lost. And when we get lost, it takes some humility to admit it, but that‘s when we start to look around, cry out, and really start to listen.
Let’s look back at these verses in the 22nd Chapter of Matthew. Jesus is going to unsettle us, rather than reassure us. The Kingdom of Heaven is portrayed as a Wedding Feast. Just as a partnership in life is joined, so will our souls one day be joined in an eternal relationship with God. Personally, I find this both intimidating and reassuring.
The King sends out his invitations to the usual list of Wedding guests, but they offer various reasons why they can’t make the event. In order to shame them, the King then sends out his servants to invite a crowd of strangers, as many as they can find. The King’s attitude seems to be, we’re gonna have this celebration, with or without you.
Are you with the metaphorical reference so far? The first group of invited guests say they do not need what the King is offering. The crowd of strangers who finally are gathered symbolize those who are extended an invitation, and follow this Jesus, his Apostles, and their teachings of patience, humility, and acceptance.
If the story stopped here it would be a solid message, yet a fairly thin broth. Jesus has way too much faith in our imagination to stop there. He makes us take a breath. It is like he is making vegetable soup, and he is adding cinnamon and a sprinkling of sugar and you don’t realize it makes the tomatoes brighter until a moment after you have swallowed a spoonful.
He searches us and knows to push us beyond our comfort. He demands we consider an uncomfortable option and we should not shy away from accepting this invitation.
The King looks over the gathering of strangers from the road and notices that one of them does not have on their Wedding garment. You can take this to mean that the fellow does not have a clean white shirt on if you’d like. I find it more the case of the guest being unappreciative and not honoring the gift of this present moment. For me, it seems more like the actor Strother Martin, in Cool Hand Luke, when he looks at Paul Newman who is digging a grave size hole in the earth, only to have to fill it in, and dig it out again, and says, “Luke, you got to get your mind right.”
Now friends we have a cadre of daily decisions which we need to get our “mind right” about. And for most of us it is our oldest core beliefs which hold the most power over us. Our parable this morning closes with the King having the man bound head to foot and having him thrown into the darkness and proclaiming, “For many are called, but few are chosen.” Let me break it to you. I think I might be that man.
There is an OUTWARD CALLING throughout the story. We all hear the Call to do what is right, but at times we simply ignore it. We got plans, you feel me? Jesus felt this was how some were playing him who should have known better. But those in need, or sorrow, or want, they get the CALL. They understand the adage of treating folks like we want to be treated. Yet sometimes our fear, our taking things for granted, our nonchalance, binds us up and shuts us down from speaking up and being grateful for the gifts which God has offered us.
The INWARD part of the story is realizing we are CHOSEN. When you are guided by this inward voice you are guided by a compassion which is sadly infrequent in our lives. I believe Jesus wants us to understand this simple truth:
“It is no good to just say the right thing, when we do not act on it.”
The Gospel has led me on a path back to an uncomfortable issue right here in my hometown.
ONCE UPON A TIME… my grandmother Camilla was born in Louisburg in 1900 and married in this very church in 1920, and was a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Her daughter, my mother Eleanor was born in 1923 and continued the tradition of being a proud Southern woman of a historic family by becoming a member of The Colonial Dames of America. I am a branch of this Anglo Saxon tree which journeyed from England, stood on the shore of the Atlantic in Jamestown in 1600 and grew and prospered for the past 400+ years. I have been raised with the many gifts of culture and confidence which absolutely derive from being emotionally, financially, and psychologically “one up” as a white man.
I suppose these two immediate ancestors of mine who I love and cherish clung to their pride and heritage for the same reasons that most folks do. I do not know where their pride in their ancestors ran into racial segregation and fear. But individuals hold on, in fact most Southern white folks hold on to their judgment so stubbornly because they sense that once this judgment is gone, they will be forced to deal with their hurt, their fear, and the pain they have caused themselves and others.
This morning, I invite us to consider the fact that during the Civil War the congregation of St. Paul’s Episcopal prayed for the success of the President of the Confederacy, not for the success of President Lincoln of the Union. In 1861, the supply Priest at St. Paul’s resigned his post in the Dioceses to become a Chaplain in the Confederacy. Our Vestry minutes from 1861 state, “On the breaking out of war, which the injustice and fanaticism of the North have forced upon us, the Rev. Frederick Fitzgerald has resigned his charge.”
Fast forward 50 years, and dollars have been raised and our Civil War Monument was ordered from a catalogue and installed on the top of College Hill on North Main Street. This monument stands in much the same posture, and plays much the same role for our Town of Louisburg as the Jesus does in our stained glass window. (Stop and point to window above altar.) This is my trouble, this is my sadness. Jesus is in the right location as the focal point of our worship community, standing in his post at the top of the Main Street of our Sanctuary. The monument “to our Confederate Dead” should not serve in this capacity for our town. It unsettles me, this shadow it casts and the focused place of power it occupies in 2017.
This Confederate monument was funded, created, and dedicated half a century after the end of the Civil War. It marks a profoundly troubling time in our nation. Federal funding had dried up to support the educational and social growth of freed slaves. The Supreme Court ruling of Plessy vs. Ferguson had formalized the illusion of separate but equal in 1896. This segregation of our black and white lives would stifle the growth of our American culture in terms of the Jim Crow South for the entire 20th century. Here is a catchy tune from Vaudeville acts of the early 1900s. It is not as catchy when these lyrics are added.
Weel about, and turn about, and jump jus so every time I weel about I jump Jim Crow.
Jim Crow, slang for negro…Sit yourself down, and watch a white man in black face make fun of an entire race for your entertainment pleasure. Thank God that these songs are no longer on our tongues a century later. But the stereotypes of Uncle Ben’s Rice and Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix and Mrs. Butterworth’s maple syrup and “Noboby doesn’t like Sara Lee” are still in our lexicon. While the fact is “Nobody knows who Mae Jamison is.” (Show image of five African –American women astronauts. What stereotypes guide your aspirational thoughts?
Brown vs. the Little Rock Arkansas Board of Education spoke some truth to this separation in 1954, but my NC schools were not integrated until 1970. Where black folk went to school, ate in restaurants, where they stayed in motels, and where they worshiped, or even where they got their cars repaired would remain separate yet very unequal. This anger did not stop, but continued into the Civil Rights conflicts of the 1960s. Not until 1963 were the WHITE and COLORED signs removed from the two interior water fountains of the Franklin County Courthouse. Not until following the 1968 assassinations of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy were the same two words of segregation, COLORED and WHITE, chiseled off the Confederate Flag Memorial Fountain in front of the same building. Our Town remains disjointed by race and economics to this day and we are weaker because of it. All we can muster up is the strength to blame our division on a river.
You see, I am the heir of an intellectual and literary movement in the South which describes the heroic battles of the Civil War as the “Lost Cause.” I was raised with the expectation that if anyone can do a task, that I could. This confidence had been invested in me before I was born. It had crossed the Atlantic, suffered through Colonial America, fought in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the World Wars which were to follow. Yet there was no component in this badge of duty that let me see my people’s domination of the Native Americans, nor the oppression of Slavery of Africans during the first 300 years of our American experiment. I now realize my pride has blinded me from the reality that too often I have only begrudging doled out what I have to offer to those less fortunate than I. I need to be a better listener.
This inward and still small voice of being CHOSEN is what the Gospel reading of Matthew is about today. I have been pondering this quite a bit the last couple of months that for over 100 years the people of Louisburg have been driving their horses and buggies and cars and trucks around this issue of our Monument, but not really seeing it through the eyes of all our brothers and sisters. If our lives today can be symbolized as a Wedding Feast here is what I would do if I were King for a little while, you know, “King for a Day.”
This is what a restorative and compassionate justice looks like to me.
I would ask my Mayor and Town Council to contract with a structural engineer and moving company to give the Town, who owns our statue, a budget for carefully taking down the bronze soldier and each of the carved stone pillars, and the stepped base. I would contract to have a site constructed in a suitably reflective, and meditative location in the historic Oakwood cemetery. There the Monument would be reinstalled. It could then rest among other Civil War soldiers who are buried there.
The 1st point of interest here is that St. Paul’s vestry member and Confederate Captain Richard Fenner Yarborough gave this 3 ½ acres of his farmland north of town on the Warrenton Road to our St. Paul’s community to be used for a cemetery in 1864. St. Paul’s would deed Oakwood Cemetery to the Town of Louisburg in 1932. The 2nd point of interest is that this Captain Yarborough was my Great-Great Grandfather.
This move of our monument would be accomplished without anger or resentment, but with a proper collective humility. This move of our Monument to Oakwood Cemetery would neither change nor erase history. It would simply enable it to be seen in a place of solemn reflection and take it away from the front and center of the civic lives of all the residents of Louisburg today. It has cast a shadow on our community for long enough now. Forgive us our pride. I wonder what the cost to our community has been.
In its place I would move the flagpole which now stands just 30 feet east of the monument to the center of the oval in the middle of our Main Street. This one act of repentance has the potential of moving our increasingly separate community to being united, with a flag for all Americans.
But that doesn’t happen that often, those in power volunteering to give up symbols of their power, does it? But that is what I would do if I was King for a day. I wonder what you would do to connect today’s Gospel to our lives as citizens of Louisburg if you wore the King’s crown for a day. Sincerely, what I have offered in this sermon is what I believe the Holy Spirit has shown me as I have wrestled with today’s Gospel text in the context of my own life. And I hope that after today’s service, and in the days and weeks ahead, more of us might feel moved to share with one another what we see when we think about the call of Jesus in our lives as members of our community.
Take up your cross, the Savior said, if you would my Disciple be; Take up your cross with a willing heart, and humbly follow me.