“Is you da one?” A Sermon for the Season of Reconciliation at The Church of the Redeemer, Morristown, NJ, the Rev’d Canon Elizabeth Kaeton firstname.lastname@example.org 02/11/01
“Wade in the water. Wade in the water, children. Wade in the water. God’s gonna trouble the water.”
A story is told in The Autobiography of Ms. Jane Pitman, that when a child was born on the plantation, the proud parents, within hours of its birth, would bundle the newborn and bring the baby to Ms. Pitman’s cabin. The parents would place the baby on her lap, and Ms. Pitman would say to the parents, “Name this child.” When the parents spoke the child’s name for the first time, she would raise the child toward heaven and speak the child’s name to God, adding the great African prayer, “Behold, the only thing greater than yourself.”
Then, Ms. Pitman would cuddle the baby, whispering into the child’s ear, “Is you da one? Is you da one, chile, who will lead our people out of the darkness of bondage into the bright new day of freedom? Is you da one?”
Although Ms. Jane Pitman was a fictitious character, the hope expressed by her character was quite real. Her lament for someone to find the road to freedom for those who are held in bondage is but an echo of an ancient cry -- one which is as old and as complex as any other in the anthology of the stories of the human enterprise. We hear a strain of it in the complicated story of Sarai and Hagar.
Is you da one, Abram – you who thrive within the patriarchal system of male dominance which places women a little above the slaves which you also claim as property? Is you da one, Sarai – a woman who understands that her lesser status is rendered even more meaningless without an heir for her husband, so she bestows her Egyptian slave-girl as first historical record of surrogate motherhood? Is you da one, Hagar – with your arrogant ways and contemptuous airs, the only defense you have left against your enslavement and the debasement of your humanity?
Ultimately, the story of Abram, Sarai and Hagar is a story which reveals the destruction to the human spirit which is inevitable when the threads of sexism, classism and racism are interwoven with oppressive systems in which the ultimate dignity of human life is reduced to being property.
Deep, deep, within the depths of the complicated maze of prejudice and bigotry is the disease known as “oppression sickness.” It’s the result of a spirit which has been broken by human degradation; a heart which has been fractured by cruelty; a mind which has been tormented by unrelenting injustice. Dana Rose, an African American gay priest in this diocese, puts it this way, “When someone has got their foot on your neck, keeping you down, there is a real human temptation to put your foot on someone else’s neck, so they don’t get any higher than you.”
Abram had his foot on the neck of Sarai, so Sarai put her foot on Hagar’s neck. And Hagar, the Egyptian slave girl did the only thing she could – she ran away.
We see evidence of oppression sickness in Luke’s gospel. There was this poor woman, the story goes, who had been crippled for 18 years – but a lifetime of being bound by her lower status as a women. She was also a Jew in a Roman-occupied land. No matter. None of these things bound her hope to despair. She came to Jesus in the synagogue seeking healing from her physical infirmity which prevented her from using what little freedom she had. But the leaders of the synagogue – male and oppressed but at least with some stature in their community – could only register a protest that the woman had been healed on the Sabbath.
Forget compassion for the woman! The rules, which provided some measure of structure to insure status and class, had to be kept – had to be maintained at all costs. There’s a foot on my neck, so I have to keep my foot on yours. Oppression sickness. It’s epidemic – even today.
Is you da one, Pauli Murray? Is you da one to lead us through the confusing maze of prejudice and bigotry? Is you da one to untangle the complicated web of sexism, racism, classism and heterosexism which ensnares us and keeps us bound in oppressive systems which kill us slowly – body, mind and spirit?
The life of the Rev’d Dr. Pauli Murray stands as an unlikely beacon in the dark night of the soul of oppression. Being one of the first to identify herself as “the original ‘uppity Black woman,’ she, no doubt, would not have scoffed at the notion that her life might provide an affirmative answer to the question posed by Ms. Jane Pitman.
Pauli Murray was the granddaughter of a slave and a great-granddaughter of a slave owner who became “the first” to break many barriers. She was rejected as a graduate student at the University of North Carolina because of her race and years later, was rejected as a law student at Harvard because of her gender. These rejections did not crush her but only fueled her feisty spirit, allowing her to focus her intelligence and energy to accomplish her tasks.
Central to Dr. Murray’s life is that she refused to be shackled by the regrets – or expectations – of the past. Rather, she seemed to live on the edge of history – at times, pulling it along with her. It is no surprise to note that not only was Dr. Murray the first African-American women to pass the California bar, she also practiced law at a major law firm and earned a renowned professorship at a major university (Yale) before blacks or women did either.
She was a civil rights activist before there was activism. In 1940, she was arrested on an interstate bus in Virginia for violation of the state’s segregation law. In 1943, almost twenty years before Dr. King initiated non-violent demonstrations, she and several women students from Howard University organized the first sit-in demonstration that successfully desegrated the Little Palace Cafeteria, a small greasy spoon in Washington, D.C.
She was a feminist when feminists could not be found. She was a personal friend and trusted advisor to Eleanor Roosevelt, who sought her council and wisdom on matters of racial and gender equality. She was one of the founding members of the National Organization of Women where she is fondly remembered as one who bridged the gap between race, gender, culture and class with passion and dedication but without bitterness.
In January, 1977, she became the first African-American woman to be ordained priest in the Episcopal Church. One month later, on Lincoln’s Birthday Sunday, in February, 1977, she conducted the service and celebrated the Holy Eucharist in the Episcopal Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, in the same chapel where, church records show, her grandmother, Cornelia Smith, “one of five servant children belonging to Miss Mary Ruffin Smith,” was baptized.
She was not without personal detractors or personal demons. For Murray, differences of culture, appearance, nationality, religion or any other human circumstance were sources of enrichment, not barriers to human relationship. She was proud of her mixed ancestry – African, Irish, American Indian, Carolina planter – and she claimed each element fully as part of her rightful heritage. In the early Black Pride Movement, this fierce pride in her heritage earned her the disdain and disapproval of her Black sisters and brothers – and forced her into painful confrontations with the Black Panther presence when she taught at Yale.
I have met African Americans who, to this day, still shake their heads at Murray’s fierce pride in the totality of her heritage. They remember well her disdain for James Brown’s revolutionary rock and roll song, “Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud” – pointing out with equal revulsion that this was followed almost immediately by his song, “This Is A Man’s World.”
“If you call me black, it’s ridiculous physiologically, isn’t it? I’m probably 5/8 white, 2/8 Negro – repeat American Negro – and 1/8 American Indian.” She says she’s traced her family back to 1809. “I began years before Alex Haley did. I’m always ahead of my time,” she said, with an inoffensive sort of egotism. “The difficulty,” she said, “is coming to terms with a mixed ancestry in a racist culture,” adding, “I don’t believe that ‘You came over in chains so how can you feel American?’ That’s poppycock. Thousands are just like me. In fact, I probably feel more American than many whites. I just want this county to live up to its billing.”
She was married once, quite briefly, when she was very young. When asked to talk about this, the normally articulate and eloquent Murray became unusually reticent. “I’m not at all sure marriage is for everyone,” she said. “My marriage probably wouldn’t have lasted, because I wasn’t going to settle for derivative status, being Mrs. So-and-So. I’ve missed companionship,” she said, “but so do many wives.”
It’s bad enough being an uppity Black. It’s quite another to be an uppity Black woman. And, the Rev’d Dr. Pauli Murray was the quintessential uppity Black woman. She forced people to look at the entire picture of the struggle for liberation in the land of oppression. She insisted that there was no hierarchy of evil when it came to oppression and prejudice. “Don’t make me choose which issue to fight for,” she once said, “I am as oppressed as a woman in a man’s world as I am a Negro in a White world.” Some people – men and women, Black and White – hated her for that. Which is, no doubt, part of the reason her light has not been able to shine as brightly as others. Why, even in ECUSA, it’s ‘easier’ to remember Absolom Jones than Pauli Murray.
She dealt with her anger at the discrimination she encountered through the spiritual discipline of writing. “Writing is my catharsis,” she said, “It saved my sanity. In my life, I have never thought, ‘Next, I want to do this.’ The only thing I’ve ever said I wanted to do was write.”
Pearl Cleage echos this notion in this morning’s contemporary lesson. “I am writing,” she says in the midst of racism, sexism and violence -- and the epidemic of oppression sickness, “to save my life.” Murray once wrote, “ But you cannot sustain anger for years and years. It will kill you.”
When I lived in Baltimore, I had the occasional privilege of being supply priest at her last church, Holy Nativity. I once came across a manuscript of one of her last sermons – how I often wish I had simply slipped those papers into my prayer book! – in which she addressed this concern. She told the story which was often re-told in slave quarters throughout the South of one plantation which began a special Christmas tradition for slaves.
The tradition began with the gift, from the plantation owner to the slaves, of a Christmas log. The gift was this: As long as the log was burning, no slave had to work. Of course, each year the slaves looked for larger and larger trees. Over the years, one special technique developed which insured a long holiday. Right after Thanksgiving, a large, old tree would be cut down and then soaked in water for a few weeks. It was then dragged out of the water and allowed to dry just enough so that it would catch fire, but not enough to dry completely. The wetter the wood, the longer the fire lasted. The longer the fire lasted, the longer the holiday from work.
“That’s how we keep on keepin’ on,” Murray wrote. “The only way to continue the struggle for the liberation of the human spirit is this: We’ve got to soak ourselves in the waters of our baptism. We’ve got to become drenched in the holy waters of our liberation in Christ. Then, we can burn as pillars of flame, on fire with God’s passion for justice and peace and become for each other, the best, longest-lasting Christmas present ever.”
Is you da one, Ms. Pauli Murray? Priest, prophet, poet, teacher. Is you da one who can lead us through the complicated web of injustice which we weave with our own hands from threads of prejudice based on gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, and ability?
Is you da one, Dr. King? Is you da one, Harriet Tubman? Is you da one, Ida B. Wells? Is you da one, Jonathan Daniels? Is you da one, Absalom Jones? The truthful answer is, “Yes.” And, so are you. And so is he. And so is she. And so am I. And so are we all who vow in our baptism to “respect the dignity of every human being.”
Each one of us takes the other a bit further down the road to freedom. Each one inspires the next to do impossible things. Dr. King might have learned a thing or two from Dr. Murray’s early attempts at non-violent protest. Pauli Murray might have learned from Harriet Tubman something about “wading in the water”to elude the bloodhounds. Ms. Tubman used to sing out the call that the Underground Railroad was coming in the code song of Wade in the Water:
See those children dressed in red? Must be the children that Moses led. Wade in the water. Wade in the water, children. Wade in the water. God’s gonna trouble the water.
In the same way, Dr. Murray calls to us to wade in the baptismal waters of our faith, that we might cleanse ourselves of “oppression sickness” and burn with the holy flame of God’s justice and liberation and be reconciled to each other and God.
Is you da one? Our baptism compels us to answer for ourselves. Yes! I am Martin Luther King. Yes! I am Harriet Tubman. Yes! The spirit of Johnathan Daniels lives in me. Yes! I am Ida B. Wells. Yes! The spirits of Abasalom Jones and Pauli Murray live on in my life.
Each life of those mentioned, and those whose names are remembered in the heart of God, stands as a beacon of light soaked in baptismal water, which burns on eternally in our own lives. These bright lights of God remind us that, each and every one of us, as God’s holy child, is called to carry on the great work of liberation.
Look over yonder, what do I see? You know the Holy Ghost is a’commin’ on thee. C’mon and wade in the water. Wade in the water, children. Wade in the water. God’s gonna trouble the water.
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