I’m in the middle of a class right now on the life and writings of the theologian and mystic Howard Thurman. Thurman is one of the leading religious thinkers in 20th century American Christianity. He was born and raised in Daytona Beach, Florida, and was the first African-American to complete eighth grade there and go on to high school in Jacksonville. His father had died when he was a boy, and his mother had to work to support the family so his maternal grandmother helped to raise him and his two sisters. And it was this lady, his grandmother, Nancy Ambrose, who pointed Thurman to Jesus.
Ambrose was born into slavery in north Florida. She couldn’t read or write, so Thurman would read the psalms and the Gospels to her. She never wanted to hear Paul’s Letters…because white preachers on the plantation would only cite Paul’s words about slaves obeying their masters. In the hands of these preachers, the Bible became a weapon.
But Ambrose told him that…once a month…a black preacher…a fellow slave from another plantation would come preach to them. And it was that preacher who spoke the truth: he said, “You’re not slaves: you are precious in the eyes of God as God’s own children.” Thurman said when his Grandma Nancy would tell this story, her spine would straighten up as that deep profound love of God filled her body with self-worth.
It was from this preacher…Ambrose learned to distinguish for herself the difference between liberty and freedom. She taught Thurman that liberty is what someone else gives you. BUT freedom was the love of God found within yourself.
It’s too bad that Paul’s Letters left such a rotten taste in her mouth because today’s portion from his Letter to the Romans confirms that same message of what it means to be free.
We hear from Paul that there is nothing…absolutely nothing…that will separate us from the love of God. God’s love has no borders or boundaries…cannot be legislated or segregated. It is higher than mountains and lower than the seas. It is the coolest most refreshing drink to sustain us on the hottest most humid days of life.
And we can’t earn it because it just is. If we allow ourselves to feel loved that strongly, that deeply, that much…Yowse, my friends! That’s freedom! That’s power! For you, for me, for everybody.
Acknowledging and accepting that God has loved us, does love us, and will always love us wipes away fear.
Fear is what motivates those in positions of power to act in ways that hurt and devalue another person.
Fear is what paralyzes us from taking action to help somebody.
Fear is what starves us of the Love that frees us.
If God is for us…whether we are the powerful or the powerless…than who can be against us?
Nobody. Love gives us freedom from fear and puts us in right relationship with each other.
I think that’s critical to our Gospel lesson as well. As the commentators note…what Jesus is telling us about the kingdom of heaven is we can find it in things like a trash tree…or in this case…a trash bush. Seriously: farmers in the First Century who had laid out perfect rows for their crops wouldn’t have been happy to have a mustard bush growing like kudzu in their field!
And that’s Jesus’ point: The kingdom of God is about a love that is wild and free…disorderly and disruptive.
It’s the love of unwanted leaven that makes an amazing sourdough. It’s a love that gives up old habits, and former beliefs, to gain something new and greater.
It’s a free love found in little things, ordinary things, unwanted things.
And notice that when he asks, “Do you get it?” everyone tells Jesus, “Oh, yeah, we understand what you mean, man!”
But…did they really?
Do we really understand how deeply God loves that even a trash tree symbolizes the kingdom of God?
Have we grown so used to the order of the way things are that we can’t even imagine how they should be?
I think at a time of this viral pandemic…that’s a pressing question for the Episcopal Church, not just St. Thomas, but the broader Episcopal Church.
Right after the Fourth of July, three Episcopal priests…the Reverends Winnie Varghese, Stephanie Spellers, and Canon Kelly Brown Douglas…released a letter called “Speaking of Freedom.” It was an open letter to our denomination. These women, distinguished leaders and preachers…two of them Black and one of South Indian descent, placed the challenge before us as Episcopalians to address our history as the church of the powerful…and the slave-owners.
Their letter calls on us to be the baptized beloved community we say we want to be. Really fulfill the promises we make with each baptism to resist evil, return to God, and respect the dignity of EVERY human being.
The truth is we often don’t do those things.
We all fall short of living into and promoting the freedom found in the Love of God.
What would it be like for the Episcopal Church to fully show up for Jesus?
Tap into our inner freedom that knows the love of God’s kingdom is like that unwanted mustard seed growing big and wild in that otherwise ordered field.
These women of our church are challenging us: can we white Episcopalians yearn enough for Jesus and God’s message of radical inclusion to let go of the things that keep us separated from our siblings of color…and finally live fully into our baptismal covenant so that we can be free?
Good news! I’ve seen it happening.
White Episcopalians I’ve known in Tallahassee who never spoke out on any social justice issue are now posting links to anti-racism resources on Facebook.
I’ve seen videos of white friends joining in marches right here down Remington Avenue for Black Lives Matter. I call such actions praying with one’s feet.
Paul has already declared to us that God loves us beyond all human comprehension with a love that frees us in such a way that nothing can stop us. This is the love that empowers us and frees us to have the courage to look closely and critically at our church’s history. Such an examination may feel disruptive and uncomfortable. But God is for us. And like that unruly mustard seed…such a push for an honest examination will grow a healthier, more vibrant, more loving Episcopal Church.
And so we pray,
O God of peace, open our hearts, guide us in your path, and lead us as your children to live more freely and fully into your commandment to love one another as Jesus has loved us. For it is in the loving that doubt and fears give way to faith and hope. Trusting in you and your love, we are made free.
(To see the service and hear the sermon, click HERE. Make sure it's for July 26th.)