by the Rev. James B. Craven III
In the name of God – Father Son & Holy Spirit. Amen.
I miss all of you. I am tired of an entire year without church, at least without church as we knew it and will again. I worry I will be unable to recognize some of St. Luke’s best assets, the children; they will have grown so much. I miss having a child at the communion rail exclaim loudly “Mommy, Jim has a Hello Kitty bandaid on!” I miss the glorious music from Kaye and our magnificent choir. I miss the welcoming and therapeutic hugs. I miss the gathered community that is the Body of Christ. Now, that community is still there, it’s just different and requires much more use of technology and imagination, both of which I suppose are aspects of faith.
At Easter a year ago I said “The light of Christ, thanks be to God” and “Christ is risen, the Lord is risen indeed,” but there was the echo of my own voice, just as there was on Ash Wednesday this year, with “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This year of all years we should understand that reality, with the pandemic death toll above a half million and climbing. We need to experience Lent and Easter, last year and this year, and Christmas, last year and this year, in community. We are adaptable, and I loved as a child hearing coming out of the past the thundering hoof beats of the great horse Silver, but ours is not a Lone Ranger faith, except when we have little choice. But, make no mistake about it, the glass is half full and the barometer rising, soon nearly everyone will have been vaccinated, the days are getting longer, the sun is brightening, and we will get there.
Polarization is something we have to deal with alongside the pandemic – polarization as a nation, as a church, and even in our own lives. There are many in this country who have no health insurance. Medicaid is there, and expanded in 38 states so that every man, woman, and child is covered with health insurance and medical care. I of course don’t know for sure how Jesus would regard Medicaid coverage, not that Jesus ever thought of it, anymore than he thought about social media. There is no record in Scripture though that Jesus asked the lepers seeking healing, “Can you pay the copay today?” or “When can you take care of that balance?” There has always been tension between prophets and false prophets.
Can you be pro-life, as I am, only when it comes to abortion? Can you be pro-life and support separating children from parents at the Mexican border? Can you be pro-life and an enthusiastic supporter of the death penalty? The federal government in the 90 days prior to January 20 executed 13 people in your name and mine. Most Christian faiths, the Episcopal Church and the Roman Catholic Church among them, have long been unambiguously and totally opposed to the death penalty, opposed to the Government tying malefactors down and killing them, again in my name and yours. Michael Curry, our Presiding Bishop, and Francis, the Bishop of Rome, have been outspoken about it. Virginia abolished the death penalty two weeks ago. Margie Holm, an old friend and a priest, was a death row chaplain in Virginia years ago, and she saw eight or so men die in the electric chair. She learned to wear grubby old clothes with her collar and stole, because she simply had to throw her clothes in the trash. The smell of the electrocution would not wash out. Another pro-life stance many opt out of is the issue of allowing gay couples and single folks to adopt hard to place children. There are those here at St. Luke’s who can tell you that foster care as a social goal is overrated. And just in the past few weeks, the argument in Washington that businesses should be able to fire folks for being gay was only barely defeated. I’m envious of those who have so much free time that they are free to worry about other peoples’ sex lives.
Polarization as we know it today is not confined to church and state. Racial polarization involves every single one of us, and I wish it weren’t so. As a child in the North Carolina mountains, we had a never ending debate. What side would you have been on in the Civil War? Among my friends I was always in a minority, a minority of one, in frankly saying the North, the Yankees, or what my grandmother called the American side. There was a great Civil War hero in my family, a Union soldier from Burke County, but I can rest on my family’s laurels no longer. A couple of years ago I picked up the Duke Alumni magazine, only to learn that my great great grandfather, Braxton Craven, the first President of Trinity College which became Duke University, owned two other human beings, bought and paid for. I had never given it a lot of thought, but considering that my family had been in the South since, at least the 18th century, I guess I would have been surprised had there not been slavery in the family. The point is, I never knew, and could relax in the bliss of ignorance until the Duke archivist unearthed the fact that my great great grandfather owned two house servants. But wait, it gets worse. Apparently he tried to buy two more, young children, but the price was too high. This Methodist minister, a disciple of John Wesley and a Confederate officer, was apparently frugal too. Or, put another way, one who knows the value of a dollar, and of a child. This has been a hard historical reality for me to deal with. I have often stood by Braxton Craven’s grave at Old Trinity, in Randolph County, because my grandparents and my father are buried right there with him.
My children think I remember the Maine and the Alamo, but that’s not so. What I do remember vividly though are two men I knew growing up in Burke County. One was Albert Lytle, and yes everyone, black or white, called him Uncle Albert. Probably his family too. My point in mentioning him now though, in the year 2021, was that he was born a slave. He was born the chattel property of a white person. Even as a small child he could have been bought or sold, taken away from his family, mortgaged, just as we might take out a loan with a car title as collateral, or be bequeathed to somebody by will. And that was true in eleven states in this country until 1865. I may well have known others who were born enslaved before 1865, but Albert Lytle is the only one I remember that I am positive of.
The other old man I remember from my childhood was John Pearson, our next door neighbor. He had fought under Lee in the Army of Northern Virginia, and walked all the way home from Appomattox in 1865. His daughter taught both my mother and me. John Pearson, Cousin Johnny, was bedridden when I knew him, but stacked up in his bedroom was every issue of Life Magazine from 1936 on. It was from those Life Magazines that I learned to read, as I listened to his endless stories about the war, and how they stacked their arms when Lee surrendered to Grant. He told me every time how when the North Carolina troops marched away, Lee said “God bless those Tar Heel boys.”
So I feel as though I have lived through history, having known both a Confederate soldier and a man who was enslaved. And both were lovely people who very much respected each other. You Tube has some wonderful old film of reunions of the Blue and the Grey. My favorite, of the 75th reunion at Gettysburg in 1938, shows the old men embracing each other, and the old Confederates embracing the old black Union soldiers. I tell you, this business of tearing down statutes is complicated. What wasn’t complicated was what Isaiah taught us, “Woe unto those who legislate evil and rob the poor of their right and make women and children their prey.”
In the first sermon Jesus preached, he said “The spirit of the Lord is upon me to give good news to the poor,” but the Greek word Luke uses for poor meant, at that time, not just those who were broke and homeless, but rather those who have been made poor because of exploitation. There are a number of Greek words for poor, but it’s interesting that Luke, the most educated of the four evangelists, chose that one. Those who have been made poor because of exploitation. We know who that would have meant in this country before the Civil War, during Reconstruction, and for a long time afterward. And now, Christ might suggest, with the addition of children at the border and millions in refugee camps around the world, as both Pope Francis and our president have said so often. The Syrian refugee camps and those of the Rohinga in Burma are closer to Andersonville and Auschwitz than to the 21st century. We have work to do, but what else is new? I need, maybe you do too, to be reminded from time to time that our task is to be the hands and feet of Christ, now, in the time of this mortal life, and to add a line from Lincoln , to do so with malice toward none and with charity to all.
James Baldwin told us 60 years ago, after Bloody Sunday on the bridge at Selma, that our failure to confront honestly our history “hideously menaces this country.” He also reminded us, powerfully, that “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” And Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, spoke of making all see “what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, “and we might add elsewhere too.
We cannot of course do this alone, though we can begin it ourselves. It will have to be done together, in that community of the faithful to which we will return, as this pandemic continues to lessen. There will be an Easter after this long Lent, as we remember that God so loved the world, loved us that he gave forth our Christ, God’s son. We will face all the horribles that need to be faced, and then Easter will come in the lives of all our brothers and sisters. And as one of our modern prophets put it, with his guitar, we will be no longer stuck, but happily on the road again.