Archive for the ‘Ethnic’ Category

Rejection, Rejected, Respond, and Responsibility: Pauli Murray sermon
given by Simone Monique Barnes
at St. James’ Episcopal Church, Austin TX, USA
Sunday, September 22, 2019
during the 8am, 10:15am, and 5:30pm services


By the rivers of Babylon
Where he sat down
And there he wept
When he remembered Zion
But the wicked carried us away in captivity
Required from us a song
How can we sing King Alpha song in a strange land?
So let the words of our mouth
And the meditation of our heart
Be acceptable in Thy sight, oh Far I
So let the words of our mouth
And the meditation of our heart
Be acceptable in Thy sight, oh Far I
By the rivers of Babylon
Where he sat down
And there he wept
When he remembered Zion

Please be seated.

Born Anna Pauline Murray in 1910, “Pauli,” p-a-u-l-i, intentionally used a chosen name that reflected a self identified, quote,“he/she” personality. In today’s language and societal norms, Rev. Murray may have identified with labels such as queer, non-binary, transgender, or two-spirit. I certainly wrestled with how to honor the full spectrum of color of who Pauli Murray was, and I struggled with how not to revise nor conform the memory and history of Pauli Murray to someone I, you, they, or we want Pauli Murray to be or to have been.

Biographer Rosalind Rosenberg wrote about pronoun usage in her book Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray. She says: “While I was writing this, I struggled with pronoun usage, and especially for the chapters of the 1930’s and 1940’s when Pauli Murray was desperately seeking medical help and especially testosterone to make her outer body conform more closely to her inner sense of self. It seemed to me that male pronoun would be most appropriate…but in the end I realized that I was transporting into the past my own sense of what the pronouns should be. They weren’t pronouns that she asked for, although she went as far as she could…But to use male pronouns at a time when that was not an available choice for her ultimately struck me as ahistorical, and similarly for gender neutral pronouns, there still wasn’t, at least as of this writing, the support for that broadly in the culture, and again, it wasn’t available to Pauli Murray at that time. So, I used the pronouns in use when she lived, in part to make clear what she was up against.”

With the count of violence against transgender people climbing every day I feel that we’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the complexity of Rev. Pauli Murray’s gender identity. Too often we only choose to shine a light on the parts of a story that feels comfortable from our own perspectives. I don’t have the answers on how to do right by and honor the fullness of Pauli Murray. But I think it’s important that I/we begin to ask the questions and continue the conversation of how to better honor and love one another in the way that we each need and asked to be loved. It is with hesitation, yet with the intention of respect that I will use the pronoun her for the duration of this sermon.


If you haven’t already read up on or viewed documentary footage, interviews, and discussions of or about Rev. Pauli Murray, consider this your invitation to be encouraged to do so, as the complex story of a child whose mother died when she was 4 years old, whose father was beaten to death in a hospital when she was 13, whose entire young adulthood occurred during the Great Depression; who was brilliant yet turned away from schools and jobs because of racism and sexism, yet pushed back and changed the world, certainly resonates with the collective story of St. James’ Epicopal Church in Austin, Texas, a church founded and continued by members and a community of people, who also know a thing or two about rejection, pushing back, and changing the world.

This sermon is a mere teaser, if you will, of the life and legacy of Rev. Pauli Murray, whose legacy has long been undervalued by our denomination and our nation. And yet the we that exists today is greatly because of the complex and impactful life of the full human being who we celebrate and lift up on this day.

A poet, writer, activist, labor organizer, and legal theorist who counted Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Betty Friedan, as friends and colleagues. A poet, writer, activist, labor organizer, and legal theorist whose legal work was instrumental in the arguments that won Brown vs. the Dept of Education in 1954, whose work was the basis for Ruth Bader Ginsberg winning the 1971 Supreme Court case that extended the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause to women. A poet, writer, activist, labor organizer, and legal theorist who was the first African American woman ordained an Episcopal priest in 1977 at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

If I read through every moment of rejection in Pauli Murray’s life, we’d probably be here for several days.


As I get more and more acquainted with the struggles and hardships that Rev. Murray faced, today’s reading from the book of Jeremiah evokes those feelings of rejection and hurt. You can almost feel the pain of the original author and that of Rev. Murray’s pain. Verse 8:18 “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick…” or verse 8:21 “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.”

And yet, while dismay may have taken hold, rather than be silent and without action, Pauli Murray chose to respond.


“Collect for Poplarville” which we read a few minutes ago, is an example that the warrior and poet Pauli Murray left for us on how to speak up and respond to the pain of the world.

It is a poem, adapted to the rhythm of a evening prayer, a collect in The Book of Common Prayer, that Murray penned after the lynching of a Black man, Mack Charles Parker, in Poplarville, Mississippi, which made national news in 1959. No indictments or arrests were made, even though the perpetrators–a group of white men–had admitted what they had done. Despite the cries of the people that justice isn’t blind when it comes to the issue of race, the President of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower, responded that he would not call for stronger civil rights legislation.

Even our heroes have breaking points. Twenty one years later, when Rev. Murray reflected on that season of her life and US history, she remarked, “Each of us reaches a point where we can’t take it anymore. I reached it with Poplarville.”

There is another R word that most go hand in hand when we respond to injustice. And that word is respite. Murray went to Ghana in 1960 and began teaching classes on constitutional law for a while before returning to the United States.

Whether you are a poet, writer, activist, labor organizer, legal theorist, or a priest, you will need time for rest and respite.


In 1977, one month after becoming the first African American woman on record ordained by the Episcopal Church, the very first Eucharist Rev. Murray celebrated was in the Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. This was the same church where her grandmother, Cordelia Smith, was baptized as a slave 123 years earlier. I need you to process that. I need you to digest that of all the places that Rev. Murray could have asked to celebrate this important first moment of ministry and witness, she chose the place where her grandmother was baptised as a child, her grandmother who was born out of violence–the daughter a slave and a slave master, her grandmother who was “one of the five servant children belonging to [a slave master’s sister aka her biological aunt,] Miss Mary Ruffin Smith” as noted on the parish register, her grandmother who had to sit in the balcony because she wasn’t permitted to sit in the pews on the main floor of the church. The magnitude of that multigenerational rejection. And the magnitude of Pauli Murray’s response.

Reverend Murray reflected on the enormity of the event, “All the strands in my life had come together. Descendant of slave and of slave owner, I had already been called poet, lawyer, teacher, and friend. Now I was empowered to minister the sacrament of One in whom there is no north or south, no black or white, no male or female—only the spirit of love and reconciliation drawing us all toward the goal of human wholeness.”

Beloved ones, this work isn’t easy. It is emotional; it is tiring.

We have a responsibility.

We have a responsibility to radical hospitality. Because it is a part of the DNA of this church, this St. James’, to know rejection and the pain of feeling rejected. We have a moral obligation to respond, to speak up, to bear witness, and to change the circumstances that are causing pain. It is our responsibility to welcome the stranger, the friend, the neighbor, the family, and as Rev. Murray has shown us, even the perceived or very real foe.

But we have to do so honestly. We can’t pretend that there has been no pain, or act like there had been no wound.

Would you please join me in reading Pauli Murray’s poem “Words”, which is printed in your bulletin. We will read it responsively.

We are spendthrifts with words,
We squander them,
Toss them like pennies in the air–
Arrogant words,
Angry words,
Cruel words,
Comradely words,
Shy words tiptoeing from mouth to ear.

But the slowly wrought words of love
and the thunderous words of heartbreak–
Those we hoard.

The slowly wrought words of love. Slowly wrought words. Slowly hammered, shaped words of love. The slowly worked over time words of love.

And the thunderous, loud, rumbling, intense words of distress, sorrow, and unhappiness.

Let us share in each others growth and change, in our struggles,and pain, joys, passions, and histories, and let our love for one another be honest and real.

Lord we thank you for the beautiful soul Pauli Murray, who was a “rebel, instigator, and survivor, at times a nettle in the body politic, an opener-of-doors, and always a devout child of God and friend of [hu]mankind” who reminds us that “hope is a song in a weary throat.”

So let the words of my mouth
And the meditation of my heart
Be acceptable in Thy sight, oh Lord
By the rivers of Babylon
Where he sat down
And there he wept
When he remembered Zion



Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
my heart is sick.

Hark, the cry of my poor people
from far and wide in the land:

“Is the Lord not in Zion?
Is her King not in her?”

(“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images,
with their foreign idols?”)

“The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.”

For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.

Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?

Why then has the health of my poor people
not been restored?

O that my head were a spring of water,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,

so that I might weep day and night
for the slain of my poor people!

Collect for Poplarville

Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; Teach us no longer to dread
hounds yelping in the distance,
the footfall at the door,
the rifle butt on the window pane.

And by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night;
Give us fearlessness to face the bomb thrown from the darkness,
the gloved hand on the pistol,
the savage intention.
Give us courage to stand firm against
our tormentors without rancor—
Teach us that most difficult of tasks—
to pray for them,
to follow, not burn, thy cross!

New York, May 1959
Dark Testament


Essay and Books

Selected Books, and Letter, by Pauli Murray



References included in the sermon

  1. The Melodians. “Rivers of Babylon.” Trojan Records, 1970. Vinyl. Notes: The lyrics are adapted from the texts of Psalms 19 and 137 in the Hebrew Bible.
  2. “Identities: between male and female,” Imp, Crusader, Dude, Priest: An exhibit about the life and legacy of 20th Century human rights champion Pauli Murray, Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute, Durham, North Carolina. https://sites.fhi.duke.edu/paulimurrayproject/identity-map/
  3. “Pauli Murray and gender pronouns” Oxford Academic, June 20, 2017. https://oupacademic.tumblr.com/post/162352190740/pauli-murray-and-gender-pronouns
  4. Schulz, Kathryn. “The Many Lives of Pauli Murray: She was an architect of the civil-rights struggle—and the women’s movement. Why haven’t you heard of her?” The New Yorker, April 10, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/04/17/the-many-lives-of-pauli-murray.
  5. “Timeline.” Pauli Murray Project. https://paulimurrayproject.org/pauli-murray/timeline/
  6.  Murray, Pauli. “Collect for Poplarville.” Dark Testament and Other Poems. Liveright Publishing Corporation: a Division of W.W. Norton Company, 1970, pp. 32.
  7. Murray, Pauli. “Conflict.” Dark Testament and Other Poems. Liveright Publishing Corporation: a Division of W.W. Norton Company, 1970, pp. 65.
  8. Azaransky, Sarah. “Descendants of Hagar (1950s).” The Dream Is Freedom: Pauli Murray and American Democratic Faith. Oxford University Press, 2011, pp.52.
  9. “Pauli Murray From TV Series “On The Road”, 1985,” The Church Awakens: African Americans and the Struggle for Justice, accessed September 21, 2019, https://www.episcopalarchives.org/church-awakens/items/show/57.
  10. Wise, Jim. “Forgotten monument spurs historian’s quest.” The News and Observer, Raleigh, NC, March 13, 2015, accessed September 21, 2019, https://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/community/chapel-hill-news/article13467845.html
  11. Jones, H.G. and David Southern. “Saintly Daughter.” Miss Mary’s Money: Fortune and Misfortune in a North Carolina Plantation Family, 1760-1924, p.101-108.
  12. Murray, Pauli. Song in a Weary Throat: Memoir of an American Pilgrimage. Liveright Publishing, W.W. Norton & Company, pp.569.
  13. Murray, Pauli. “Words.” Poetry Foundation, accessed September 21, 2019, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/147937/words-5ba11eeee6316.
  14. Bell-Scott. “Introduction.” Song in a Weary Throat: Memoir of an American Pilgrimage, by Pauli Murray. Liveright Publishing. May 8, 2018, pp. xiv.
  15. Murray, Pauli. “Dark Testament.” Dark Testament and Other Poems. Liveright Publishing Corporation: a Division of W.W. Norton Company, 1970, pp. 13.

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“Who is Calling Your Name?”

Reflection and sermon by Simone Monique Barnes

celebrating the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

8am and 10:15am worship services

St James Episcopal Church, Austin TX

Hush. Hush. Somebody’s callin’ my name.
Oh, Hush. Hush. Somebody’s callin’ my name.
Hush. Hush. Somebody’s callin’ my name.
Oh, my Lord, Oh, my Lord, what shall I do?
what shall I do?

To you, for you, with you, through you, and in your name we pray. Amen. (Please be seated.)

Before I begin my sermon, I would like to take a moment to thank all of you who prayed with me and for me this past year and a half. My last two check ups found no evidence of breast cancer. I will continue to check in with my doctors very regularly to monitor my health in the coming months and years.

I also want to explain and give warning about a breach of etiquette on my part. I will not be shaking everyone’s hands during the peace and after service. A simple cross your heart blessing, a hug, or even a smile will more than honor the intention for connection between us. While chemo and radiation killed my cancer, it also damaged my nerves and tendons, which can make handshakes uncomfortable for me. I thank you in advance for the compassionate understanding.

I also want to remind you that this sermon is going to be an interactive experience. We will be honoring Coretta Scott King’s Freedom Concert tradition, i.e. you will be singing. And this is a congregational experience honoring one of the greatest Baptist preachers of all time. The chosen will not be frozen today. Amen? Amen.

Martin Luther King Jr Day. It’s been 33 years that we have been celebrating this national holiday here in the United States of America, first observed on January 20, 1986. A three-day weekend named in honor of a Black man, in America. We are our ancestors wildest dreams.

One January, not so many years ago, I had a white colleague casually say to me during a coffee break, “Oh isn’t it funny how we have these three day weekends and we don’t even remember what they are for?” I paused. “I hear you,” I responded. “We’ve gotten into a bad habit of celebrating the sales, and the vacations, and the barbecues that occur during three day weekends. But, I’m Black. We don’t forget Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I’m Black. Our families and our community won’t let us forget. They remind us that it’s important that we mark the day in some way. In my community we’re reminded that it is too important to forget. For us, it’s a day on, not a day off.”

It was that day that I realized how easy it can be for some people to see a world without color. To move through a world without having a 3D experience. A limited palate of tastes, and smells, and textures. I felt as if I was walking through a parallel universe.

I explained:

In some cities, there are MLK breakfasts held by colleges or organizations like the Urban League or the NAACP. In other regions there are parades, with marching bands, and elected officials. In other cities, we have a march, to commemorate the spirit of the many marches for civil rights. All year long, at every birthday party, we sing Stevie Wonder’s song “Happy Birthday [to ya],” which was penned to celebrate the King Holiday. There are fraternity and sorority and community led service projects. Churches offer special programs to remind us that ministry, music, and social justice walk hand and hand. And Black radio stations nationwide disrupt their regular programming to play recordings of his sermons and speeches all day. And in every city and town, there is a oratory competition, with the littlest members of our community, children, often dressed in their finest clothing—bow ties, sweater vests, starched dresses, bows in hair, fresh haircuts and new braids—reciting from memory, inflections and all, the words of Dr King’s speeches. We’ve been celebrating his birthday long before our country finally decided to observe it as a holiday.

Hush. Hush. Somebody’s callin’ my name.
Oh, Hush. Hush. Somebody’s callin’ my name.
Hush. Hush. Somebody’s callin’ my name.
Oh, my Lord, Oh, my Lord, what shall I do?
what shall I do?

Sounds like thunder. Somebody’s callin’ my name,
Oh, Sounds like thunder. Somebody’s callin’ my name,
Sounds like thunder. Somebody’s callin’ my name,
Oh, my Lord, Oh, my Lord, what shall I do?
what shall I do?

On this occasion, I call out the names of Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair, four little Black girls who died in a church basement while adjusting sashes on their dresses, reading their bibles, and changing into their church choir robes just before Sunday morning worship when the Klu Klux Klan bombed 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 15, 1963.

The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing marked a turning point in the United States during the civil rights movement. The incident helped garner support to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 less than ten months later.

The excerpt we read this morning was taken from the eulogy that Dr King gave at the girls’ funeral.

When speaking of the girls he tells us that “In a real sense they have something to say to each of us in their death…They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.

And so my friends, they did not die in vain.”

When children are killed, we’re really clear, or at least we should be really clear that it is not their fault, and more often than not, it is the “the system, the way of life, [and a] philosophy” which produced their deaths.

Too often we forget to extend that courtesy to teenagers. I think that’s why we often refer to the 16th Street Baptist Church victims as Four Little Black Girls, who were ages 11 to 14. It helps us to remember that were just kids.

When children die, there is sorrow, there is anger, there is a sense of injustice. When a child is killed or pushed into a situation where they feel there is no recourse, we as adults feel like we should have fixed it.

Mourning children is hard.

There have been so many names of children killed in the U.S. since that 1963 bombing.

The names in the news, coupled with the names in our neighborhood, and in our families can feel endless. We feel powerless. Do our efforts for change even make a difference?

Well, it’s like the allegory about a young girl walking along the beach with her dad. They look up and see thousands of starfish washed onto the sand. If fish stay out of the water too long, they will die. The girl frantically begins to throw starfish back into the ocean, one by one. Her father is concerned. “Honey, stop, there are too many. It won’t make a difference.” The little girl continues with her task. She pauses, looking at the starfish in her hand and says to her dad, “It’ll make a difference to this one.”

Pay attention to the stories that shake you to your core.

Who is the thunder calling out your name? It could be someone you were close to. It could be a name you heard of in the news. Whose name reminds you that there is still work to be done, work on the system, the philosophy, the way of life that produced their killers?

Make a difference to this one.

Sounds like Jesus. Somebody’s callin’ my name,
Oh, Sounds like Jesus. Somebody’s callin’ my name,
Sounds like Jesus. Somebody’s callin’ my name,
Oh, my Lord, Oh, my Lord, what shall I do?
what shall I do?

What can I do? Is God calling your name? Whose death will cause you to act to dismantle “the system, the way of life, the philosophy that produced their murderers,” so that they did not die in vain?

Gary Clark Jr has this new song that I love, with simple, powerful lyrics: “Feed the Babies, teach them how to love.”

This work isn’t easy.

We have to love our neighbors. I struggled for a long time with this whole, “Love your neighbor” thing. I remember arguing with my friends one day about a hard situation that I was in. (Sidenote: You know, when you hang out with church folks, they will call you on your stuff.) “Simone, the Bible says love your neighbor!” And I said, “I do love my neighbors. I’m a great neighbor. I’m also a linguist, a wordsmith; the Bible didn’t say anything about me loving my coworkers or my boss!” I think you can substitute whatever your circumstance is, for who is NOT your neighbor.

It’s interesting how we can pick and choose what verses to take literally and which to take symbolically when it suits us.

A verse in Luke asks us, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?”


We want to be like Jesus, but we feel like we fall short. We’re taught that Jesus was and is perfection. But I think we misinterpret perfection. We say to ourselves, “God is never angry.” Ha! A light skim reading of the Old Testament tells us otherwise. The wrath of God. And Jesus, there are times when He shows his attitude and frustration. “Oh ye of little faith.” Jesus is also known to check someone from time to time.

Loving your neighbor is hard. However, the Bible says we are to be slow to anger, it doesn’t say we’re not allowed to have feelings.

Loving your neighbor is not about thinking that they are right, but it is about figuring out how this situation came to be.

Loving your neighbor can be changing a law, or making sure that their basic needs are met. Or praying for them.

There’s a reason why Jesus walked amongst us. There’s a reason why Dr King and other civil rights leaders marched with the people. Empathy. There’s something magical that happens when we are shoulder to shoulder, side by side with one another.

When a child dies, it should make us want to change the things that factored into their deaths. It should make us want to make sure that access to healthcare, quality food, and wellness are without barriers. It should make us want to make sure that mental health resources are available. It should make us want to make sure than guns and bullets are never in the wrong hands. It should make us push for well rounded, truthful, compassionate, and equitable education. It should make us check our own behavior.

We are too quick to point out the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye while ignoring the giant wooden plank in our own. On social media, I watch us be devastated as we witness an indigenous elder be berated by young people who clearly were not being taught how to love. And then I watch us berate and belittle a young person who identifies as transgender, as if that child can’t feel or read or be harmed by any of those harsh criticisms. I watch our tears as we add houses of worship, and backyards, and front lawns, and coffee shops, and malls, and teacher’s lounges, and classrooms to the laundry list of places our children aren’t safe. And I watch us need a three day documentary to believe that 13, 14, and 15 year old girls, are girls and not grown women. I watch myself, noticing when I choose to speak up and when I choose to be silent. The ability to hate and the ability to love is in all of us.

So what will you do?

Like Jesus, we can be human. We can be tired. We can be hurt.

But we must do something to change the system, the way of life, and the philosophy that produced the suffering and the deaths of children.

My advice: Close your eyes for just a moment. Quiet yourself. Hush the noise. Be still. Someone is calling your name. Hush. Hush. Feel the thunder within your body, your mind. Who is calling your name? Hush. Hush.

Allow the names of those who have died to be your muse, moving you to the work:


Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr

Emmett Till

Addie Mae Collins

Cynthia Wesley

Carole Robertson

Carol Denise McNair

Timothy Anderson

Trayvon Martin

Tamir Rice

Laquan Mcdonald

Blake Brockington

Ana Márquez-Greene

Devonte Hart

Draylen Mason

Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin

McKenzie Adams

Jazmine Barnes

Someone is calling your name.

Answer the call, so that they did not die in vain.

Hush. Hush. Somebody’s callin’ my name.
Oh, Hush. Hush. Somebody’s callin’ my name.
Hush. Hush. Somebody’s callin’ my name.
Oh, my Lord, Oh, my Lord, what shall I do?
what shall I do?


What follows below are readings from the Sunday, January 20, 2019, 8am church service at St James Episcopal Church in Austin TX, included here for context of the sermon above.

The First Reading

Genesis 37:17b-20

Reader   A reading from the book of Genesis.

Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”ReaderThe Word of the Lord.

The Psalm

Psalm 77:11-20

 I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord;
   I will remember your wonders of old. 

I will meditate on all your work,
   and muse on your mighty deeds. 

Your way, O God, is holy.  What god is so great as our God? 

You are the God who works wonders; you have 

displayed your might among the peoples. 

With your strong arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.

16 When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled. 

17 The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered;
   your arrows flashed on every side. 

18 The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
   your lightnings lit up the world;
   the earth trembled and shook. 

19 Your way was through the sea,
   your path, through the mighty waters;
   yet your footprints were unseen. 

20 You led your people like a flock
   by the hand of Moses and Aaron.


The Second Reading                           

An excerpt: from “Eulogy for the Martyred Children

These children—unoffending, innocent, and beautiful—were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.

And yet they died nobly. They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity. And so this afternoon in a real sense they have something to say to each of us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. They have something to say to a federal government that has compromised with the undemocratic practices of southern Dixiecrats and the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing northern Republicans. They have something to say to every Negro who has passively accepted the evil system of segregation and who has stood on the sidelines in a mighty struggle for justice. They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.

And so my friends, they did not die in vain. 

The Gospel

Luke 6:27-36

Jesus said, “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

Prayers of the People

Intercessor: In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, we will  have special prayers of  the people which are included in your readings. 

Celebrant: Fulfill your dream of liberty for all people, Almighty One, as we come to you in hope, praying: Let your justice roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Intercessor: You have called your Church out of bondage into the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, O Holy One: Grant us courage to confront injustice with your disarming grace and to follow your commandment to love our enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Let your justice roll down like water,

People: and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Intercessor: We know that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere: Inspire the leaders of the world to heed the call of the suffering and to resist the oppression and exploitation of all taskmasters, O Mighty God, that we may all work together to make equality and justice a reality for all God’s children. Let your justice roll down like water,

People: and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Intercessor: Look upon your children who live with poverty, racism, violence, or abuse and comfort them with champions of mercy, O Compassionate One, that all humanity may be inspired to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let your justice roll down like water,

People: and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Intercessor Fill this community with your love, O Gracious One, that we may walk in the light of creative altruism and not in the darkness of destructive selfishness, sitting together with our neighbors at the table of brotherhood. Let your justice roll down like water,

People: and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Intercessor: We pray for all who need the comfort of your divine protection and healing presence, especially those we now name, either silently or aloud.

(Pause for people to offer prayers)

We give you thanks for the goodness and blessing of life.

We remember those who have died in the struggle for freedom, and all others whom we commend to your eternal arms.

Let your justice roll down like water,

People: and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Celebrant: We give you thanks, our God, for the witness of your servant Martin Luther King, Jr., and we commit ourselves to the continuation of the struggle to resist oppression in the name of your love, until all of your people may be free at last, living together in your promised land of freedom `and peace, through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

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I love Kwanzaa. Yesterday, I got to spend time with a group of friends who have become like family at our 5th annual Kwanzaa karamu. It’s a potluck dinner filled with kids, and adults, and elders, and lighting candles and good food…and spontaneous moments of drumming, and singing, and chanting, and remembering our ancestors. It reminds me so much of my own childhood, which was filled with poets, and musicians, and non-profit folks, and community leaders; people who would get together once a year to just be, and celebrate, and remember. As a teen, we jokingly called it the Annual Tofufest, because, you know, Black conscious folk always care about eating right. And now this teen has grown up, and it is such an honor to carry on the tradition today to a new group of children who will one day carry on the tradition in their community.

So, I’m feeling full this weekend. But let’s get to why we’re here: the sermon.

You know that I always include the lyrics of a song in my writing and sermons. Usually, they are the lyrics of a Negro Spiritual, but today I decided to do something a little different. We’re going meditate on song that came much later, still being born out of that spiritual tradition. As always, this is an interactive experience and not a performance. When I was younger I was told that singing is such an important part of the African American church tradition because singing is an African means of prayer, that songs are a way to let our prayers and thoughts find their way up to God, and we know that God had heard and answered our prayers when our bodies begin to move, and dance. So it’d be wrong of me to stop you from communicating with God. So, sing with me. Join in on the chorus or the verse, hum or ooh if you don’t know the words. And definitely, clap and tap along.

Grandma’s hands
Clapped in church on Sunday morning
Grandma’s hands
Played a tambourine so well
Grandma’s hands
Used to issue out a warning
She’d say, “Billy don’t you run so fast
Might fall on a piece of glass
“Might be snakes there in that grass”
Grandma’s hands

Today is December 31. It’s a special day. On our church calendar, it’s the First Sunday after Christmas. On our American calendar, it’s the last day of our calendar year, New Year’s Eve. On our family and community calendar, it’s the sixth day of Kwanzaa, Kuumba, the day of creativity. On our faith calendar, our Black Church calendar, it’s the morning of a very special night: Watch Night.

This is really rich and potent and powerful day. It’s filled with so many traditions. There are people right now scrubbing every inch of their homes to make sure no old dirt comes into the new year. There are pots of greens being prepped to bring good luck. There are candles being lit and libations being poured. And tonight, we tell stories of men, women, and children praying unceasingly on their knees while a night watchman stood over them woke and awake, eyes carefully peeled as they waited for midnight to come calling in the new year and new law; the Emancipation Proclamation which legally ended slavery on paper. And brought in a new era in our ancestors’ right and fight for freedom.

Today’s Gospel reading John 1:1-18 focuses on the light of the world that John came to testify about.

Verses 6 through 8 say, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

When I first read the verses, I thought “Am I hallucinating? We just had this sermon. Didn’t Rev Janice just give a sermon on John being witness to the light from this same book?” A quick skim through the Episcopal Church’s lectionary calendar allayed my fears. Yes, we had read about John bearing witness to the light on Dec 17, the third Sunday in Advent. We read John 1:6-8, 19-28.

So now I’m confused. I’m wondering why we retell this story?

Then I remembered my then 80 year old sociology professor Chuck Willie. Professor Willie was born in Dallas in 1927, was a classmate of Martin Luther King Jr during their Morehouse days, is an extremely active and noted lay member of the Episcopal Church, a scholar, an author, and a longtime fighter for civil rights and desegregation. Every week at Harvard, Professor Willie told the same stories over and over again in class. This fact annoyed many graduate students. Me, at first I found them charming. I love storytellers. Then it dawned on me that Professor Willie wasn’t forgetful or senile or whatever attributes people like to assign to octogenarians. He was repetitive for a reason: he wanted us to remember the stories.

His favorite story is the Noah story. He’d say something like “You know the story of Noah? It is one of the Bible’s creation stories. God called Noah to build an arc to prepare for a mighty flood. Noah brought his wife and children, and 2 of every animal onboard, then the rains came. Noah and all the inhabitants of the boat were the only survivors of that 40 day storm. They in turn, repopulated the earth.” Professor Willie often asked us to take stock of who was on the boat. We’d say “Noah, his wife, his children, and the animals. We know this story.” “Exactly,” he’d say. And then he’d end his classroom homily with this, “The world can start over without the best and the brightest.”

I heard him tell that story a lot of times. And like anytime you hear a story again and again, you may hear something different. That story kept us humble. (The world started over without the best and the brightest.) It also kept encouraged.(The world can start over without the best and the brightest.)

This time of year is filled with moments when we try to remember the story.

We grab our chins with folded arms and focused eyes staring off into space trying to recall exactly how to make that sweet potato pie crust the way our late grandmother did.

We listen with glazed eyes and burning ears to countless living room sofa lectures, I mean conversations, that start with the phrase, “Did I ever tell you about the time…” and we listen.

We scour bookshelves, attics, and closets to find that book from childhood as we nestle our favorite littles and retell our treasured stories to new ears and eyes.

Grandma’s hands
Soothed a local unwed mother
Grandma’s hands
Used to ache sometimes and swell
Grandma’s hands
Used to lift her face and tell her,
She’d say “Baby, Grandma understands
That you really love that man
Put yourself in Jesus hands”
Grandma’s hands

We tell the stories in the Bible within a cultural context of what was happening at the time. It’s why so much of the story surrounding Jesus’s birth is about the men. The shepherds. John. The wise men. These are the stories that were important at the time to put on paper. We argue about what’s missing from the story. Sometimes we’re ready to throw the story out. I’m no different. With the stories of Mary and Jesus, I wonder who taught Mary how to nurse her baby; where were the shepherds wives who showed up to feed her, change her and her baby then slip away, unspoken. What else was stashed for the baby and the mom in the travel packs of the wise men? But, as this story of John reminds us, the details are important; a fully colored story is amazing, but John also reminds us that the heart of the story–the main point is most important. Let’s refocus on the light.

That brings me to today, the context of celebrating Kwanzaa at St James Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas.

Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by activist and then UCLA doctoral student Dr Maulana Karenga.

Reflecting on the holiday’s 50th Anniversary, Time magazine’s Olivia Waxman writes, “The fact that Kwanzaa was conceived in 1966 is no coincidence. The festival of lights, which is rich with symbolism, was conceived during one of darkest periods in Los Angeles’ history, during a key moment in the civil rights movement.

A key event that sparked the idea began in August of 1965, after the Watts riots, a series of clashes between police and African-Americans in the L.A. neighborhood, which left 34 dead, 1,000 injured, and $40 million worth of property damaged.”

It was a time when Los Angeles was dealing with high levels of unemployment and segregation, cuts to federal anti-poverty programs, and a lack of affordable housing. Tensions were high.

It was a time when our nation was dealing with 4 Little Black Girls killed at a church in Birmingham, the Civil RIghts Act of 1964, the Selma to Montgomery March, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

This idea of openly celebrating Black pride after generations of having every attempt of exhibiting and celebrating pride in Africaness was stripped away. Hundreds of years of enslavement and Jim Crow laws had taken away the tribal diversity of our cousins across the water in West Africa, who speak different languages, argue over whose Joloff rice is better, and know by a glance or a name if someone is, say, Igbo or Yoruba, and instead, in the US, fused us into one tribe: Negro. Black.

The foundations of Kwanzaa were an attempt to get some of that back and also to recognize what still was there. Like our food traditions, our ways of worshiping, our music, the rhythm of our language, our childhood games, even some of our words, like “Mmm, hmm, uh-huh, and okay,” are examples of Africanness that is still here.

The 7 principles of Kwanzaa were recognized and born:
Collective Work and Responsibility.
Cooperative Economics.

To make a connection to our diverse African ancestry, the 7 principles were named in Swahili: Umoja, Kujichagulia. Ujima. Ujamaa. Nia. Kuumba. Imani. (As a people who were descendants of slaves who lost many languages, they decided to reclaim at least one, Swahili.)

Kwanzaa is a good time to dust off our stories. This is the season to get more details surrounding the light. Stories of 1941 when our founders couldn’t join the Episcopal Church in Austin because they were Black. Stories like the one Joan Khabele told in an episode of KLRU’s Austin Revealed, when she shares about not being allowed to swim in Barton Springs. This is the season to ask about the faces on the walls of St James, like Father Hugh, who’d tell stories about how he went being a privileged white son of the south to what he’d like to call himself, “a recovering racist,” who gave many years of service to this historical Black church. Now is our booster shot, to inoculate us with stories that will sustain us and keep us healthy for years to come, and our reminder that we need to make the time to sit and listen and remember.

Grandma’s hands
Used to hand me piece of candy
Grandma’s hands
Picked me up each time I fell
Grandma’s hands
Boy, they really came in handy
She’d say, “Matty don’ you whip that boy
What you want to spank him for?
He didn’t drop no apple core”
But I don’t have Grandma anymore

If I get to heaven I’ll look for
Grandma’s hands

So what are we called to do during this time of year? John 1:16-17 reads as follows, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

Each generation is open to experience both new and old things. It’s important that we keep traditions, knowing that we are not bound by them.

We know Jesus was more likely to have been born in the spring closer to when the census was taken, yet we celebrate every year in December because it fit in better in our cultural context of celebrations around this time of year. We can choose to argue about the history and semantics of the date, and trees, and Santa. Or we can focus on the light. A child was born during extreme adversity, and grew up to be someone who forever changed the world as we knew it. And there are those who to told the story.

Focus on the light.

We can argue about what tradition looks like, for example, whether or not we should put salt or sugar in grits–the correct answer is salt.

We put ham hocks in the pot to season our greens. Or we change it to smoked turkey wings. Or evolve to a generation that keeps things meat free. What’s important is telling the story of our ancestors who turned limited, throwaway rations like ham bones with little meat into a culinary feat that fed many. What’s important, is that during Kwanzaa we are encouraged to reach further back and make the connection that greens and black eye peas are a foodways that we began eating on the other side of the Atlantic well before the Middle Passage.

Focus on the light.

Kwanzaa may or may not be a part of our individual context. We are a diverse congregation, in ethnicity, race, and places of origin. And lest we forget, that while some in the world, due to so many years of trying erase details, may see one color as they look in: Black, we, who are looking out into the world, see a myriad of shades of brown and black, and tones and experiences rich and diverse. What I mean is our Blackness is celebrated and lived in many different ways. We don’t all celebrate Kwanzaa.

And yes, there are some painful stories that go along with the beautiful ones that make up the legacy of Dr Karenga, the founder of Kwanzaa.

But whether we formally light the candles symbolizing the Nguzo Saba, or attend a public ceremony, or eschew the practice altogether, the seven principles of Kwanzaa stand on their own and are things that we should strive to live (repeat after me):

Collective Work and Responsibility.
Cooperative Economics.

Focus on the light.

We may chose to change our church or church traditions. With music. Without. Contemporary. Traditional. But Bill Withers‘ song reminds us of the beauty of old hands that “played the tambourine so well,” and we picture the pew and sound and the joy and passion and heartache and prayers that went into every hit, and strike, and shake, and we recall this is why we came to church. It is for that feeling and light that fills us.

Focus on the light.

One day soon soon, we will walk into the narthex of St James and see pieces of artwork, hand carved, and hand stamped by our own Arleen Polite; artwork that will embody the seven principles of Kwanzaa. They will be hung adjacent to the photos of our founders of St James. But donating money for the artwork to be installed, or being here to celebrate it is not the end of your to do list. Your job is to be able to tell the stories behind those images.

Tell the stories of this church. Tell the stories of East Austin. Tell the stories of the Civil Rights Movement. Tell the stories of your family. Tell the stories of your neighbor.

Tell those stories, seek those stories, read those stories, and listen to those stories, again and again.

And when we ask ourselves “why are we reading or listening to this story again?” we will remember that some things bear repeating.



Simone Monique Barnes
St James Episcopal Church, Austin TX
Sunday, December 31, 2017, 11am

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