A Prophet’s Fate

Jeremiah didn’t feel up to the task of prophesying. He was one of only two prophets in the Hebrew Bible who told God to pass him over for this honor— the other one being Moses. Jeremiah felt he was too young and wouldn’t be able to speak. Also, he was not from Judah, the southern kingdom. He was from Benjamin, a part of the Northern kingdom which had separated from the south many years before. Jeremiah was a foreigner, and that may have been part of the reason why the king and people of Judah wouldn’t listen to him. Yet God commanded him to go and tell them things they didn’t want to hear. The people of Judah didn’t want to recognize or change the error of their ways, so Jeremiah had a big challenge ahead. Despite his initial refusal, Jeremiah went on to prophesy for 40 years, through the reign of three kings, and until after the people had been taken into exile in Babylon.

Before we go any further, let me dwell a bit on what it means to be a prophet. The word for prophet in Hebrew is navi, which means to be called. Therefore, a prophet is not someone who sees or tells the future. This specific meaning came to be used in Christian times, when the Church fathers wanted to connect the old prophets’ statements with Jesus’ status as the Messiah….   But that is a topic for another sermon.

A prophet is someone who speaks on behalf of God or of a higher Truth to the people in his or her life, in their context and about their current situation.

A prophet’s life is not easy. From the moment he was called by God, and to the end of his career as a prophet, Jeremiah was vituperated, railed against for being unfaithful and even traitorous to the king. He was thrown in jail, and sadly, eventually and, despite it all, proven right!

So, are there any prophets left? Yes, indeed! There are many kinds of prophets amongst us: those who advocate for gun control; those who fight for the rights of the immigrants who are being mistreated in our southern border; those who protest actively against all kinds of oppression; and also those who quietly or vocally stand up to a violent husband, an abusive boss, or an unruly child.

The fact is that we are all called to be prophets—to use our prophetic voice, as they use to tell us in seminary. We are called to use our prophetic voice to unveil injustice and oppression wherever they may be found.

Our world is rife with sadness: so many horrible things happen on a daily basis! I’m sure that, like me, you also cringe when opening the newspaper every morning or upon receiving the first notifications on your smartphones. Stories of mass shootings, suicide bombers, mistreatment of immigrants have become our daily bread. Meanwhile at the highest level of government, instead of equanimity and hope, we increasingly hear hateful words and racist speech, all of which continue to foster divisiveness in our country.

I feel for poor Jeremiah–warning people, telling them that awful things would befall them if they didn’t change their ways and their hearts. And when Judah was defeated and conquered and its people taken into exile, he then grievously lamented and begged God for mercy. I think that Jeremiah would have fit right in with the Zeitgeist!

In that vein, I’ve been thinking long and hard about last week’s sermon. In it, Scott referred to the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the first African persons who were brought to this country to be sold as slaves. It was a hard sermon to hear because it revealed to us part of an awful truth that the Episcopal Church has to live with, a truth that has been kept buried and hidden from the average churchgoer. I’m talking about the racism and segregationism that were deeply ingrained in the Episcopal Church until well past the first half of the 20th century.

The Episcopal Church kept segregation in its churches until 1956 and only started eliminating it in response to the Supreme Court’s  historic 1954 decision of Brown vs. the Board of Education. Up until then the very few African American priests that were ordained were not allowed to serve in white churches—only in black congregations. Absalom Jones was indeed the first black man ordained in the Episcopal Church in 1802 and is remembered as a saint in the Episcopal calendar. And yet, his all-black congregation, St. Thomas Philadelphia, was never admitted into the Diocese of Pennsylvania.

Then I read an article in The Washington Post describing the march organized by Virginia Theological Seminary and the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia to commemorate the Slave Trail of Tears. The march sought to keep the memory alive of all the families broken, the lives lost, and the suffering inflicted on the tens of thousands of people sold into slavery and taken on foot from a slave pen in Alexandria to the deep south for over 55 years.

I have been in agony learning about all these atrocities. Shellshocked! As the Post article claims, many of these painful stories were until recently known only to scholars.

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I became an Episcopalian in Carmel, California and went to seminary in Berkeley, California. Never in all my years of learning about Anglicanism, about the Episcopal Church and about the craft of being a priest, did I ever hear anything about the dark secret that the Episcopal Church was hiding. The West Coast is a very different world, I guess!

My experience of the Episcopal Church was very local, and it included like-minded, forward-thinking people who embraced me and adopted me into their fold. Yes, I was Hispanic, but that never came up, except as a brief side note, a curiosity that made me charming.

When I went to seminary, I learned quite a bit about preaching and the Bible and a host of other stuff. However, one thing I didn’t learn anything about was the racist past of the Episcopal Church. So, I was living in blissful ignorance about the denomination that I had adopted and which had adopted me so warmly without knowing the depth of the secret it kept from me and from so many!

Yet, at times, I would detect a hint of veiled racism in the way I was treated. Some people couldn’t understand how I could be Hispanic and yet have a lighter complexion than they did or how I could be so much taller than all the Hispanic men they had ever met. In seminary, I first became aware that I was a BROWN person! Up to that point in my life I had considered myself a white woman who happened to be from Colombia.

 

Another memory from those years is the ordination party they held at the parish where I was ordained to the transitional deaconate. The organizers were delighted to learn that I was Colombian, so they decided they had to honor my heritage… by throwing me and the other ordinand, who wasn’t Latina, a Cinco de Mayo party!

The desire to pigeonhole me grew as my ordination to the priesthood drew near. The interim bishop in my diocese, a Belize-born man, was dead set on sending me to one of the struggling Hispanic missions in Central California. He assumed that because I was Colombian, this meant that I must serve a Hispanic congregation with which I had nothing in common except perhaps the language.

You have to understand that those Hispanic missions were segregated. They had to be because of the language barrier, but also because of the chasm in income level and in the people’s understanding of Anglicanism. The Hispanic missions were tenants of the Anglo congregations that housed them, and they struggled because they didn’t have enough pledges and because, for the most part, the Hispanic priests who led them were not all that familiar with the Episcopal ethos.

I felt terrible for the Hispanic congregations and their plight but, as a new priest, that was not where I wanted or needed to be. I was sure the way the missions were set up was a recipe for failure and, alas, a few years later, I was proven right.

In all these instances, I was called to use my prophetic voice; I tried to explain, to educate, but I felt helpless–someone who needed to be patronized or who had to explain herself and her choices or, worse yet, be explained who she really was in the eyes of the dominant culture.

For the first time in my life I felt what it was like to be treated like a downtrodden minority and I didn’t like it. Incidents like these made me question what the Episcopal Church was really about. On the one hand they talked about reaching out to everyone, being loving and open, but on the other, they also said and did things that were hurtful and came from a place of ignorance or fear.

With my newly acquired, if profoundly sad, knowledge of the Church’s racist past, I can better understand all the white guilt, the good will, the openness to diversity. However, since the secret isn’t shared more often and talked about widely, it festers and sometimes it rears its ugly head when you least expect it.

Now, I cannot indict the Episcopal Church and stand here before you and say that I am blameless. I may have not known or participated in the things I have recently learned, but in my life I have been guilty of racism, classism, and many other “isms” countless times. It was in revisiting those moments when I was viewed as a “brown person” that I realized how racist and classist I was. I used to think that as a white woman in Colombia and here in the USA, I was different from the “true brown people” whom I had looked down upon many times. It is ingrained in the Latin American culture. That’s how we were raised as little kids: to divide people by the color of their skin and decide that the lighter colored ones are the better ones and the ones who should be in charge. So I am guilty too, and I consciously work not to make automatic assumptions about people—every single day of my life. We all have to work at it constantly. Awareness is power. Learning about racism, disenfranchisement, human rights violations and other such things increases our awareness, reveals our hypocrisy and brings us closer to becoming the full human beings we are meant to be.

* * * * *

And now the gospel: Today, again, we find Jesus teaching in a synagogue and, as was his wont, he incurred the wrath of the leader because he healed a woman on the sabbath day. Jesus, like Jeremiah, was a prophet called by God to speak truth to the people, to point out their hypocrisy and the error of their ways. Jesus excelled at using his prophetic voice to say what needed to be said and to follow through with actions.

So today, with a heavy and contrite heart, with the burden of having looked at our collective racism in the eye, I invite us to listen to the truth that is inside of us—that still, small voice that guides us to speak up and speak out when we see injustice, oppression and harm being done… and to act. We cannot change our past but we can do something about the present.

As my parting words, I encourage you all to find a cause, big or small (many of you already have one or more, I know) and pursue it: talk about it, march for it, sit for it, just do it. Be like Jeremiah, be like Jesus. Prophesy!