Today’s Gospel [Luke 13:10-17] tells of Jesus’s healing of a woman who had been “bent over and quite unable to stand up straight” for eighteen years. When he sees her, Jesus calls over to her, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment." This is a healing story, but it describes healing as an act of setting-free, of liberation. As Jesus replies to those who criticize his performing a work of mercy on the Sabbath, “Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?"
For us Christians, healing and liberation are inexorably tied together. For Jesus, healing is always an act of liberation. For his followers, liberation for some involves healing for all.
In my own lifetime, the connection between liberation and healing has emerged afresh as every generation has confronted injustice: from overturning racial segregation, to expanding women’s rights, to establishing LGBT and marriage equality, America has gotten healthier as its oppressed people have become more free.
Fifty years ago next Wednesday, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. We’re all familiar with the ringing cadences that close the speech—from “I have a dream” to “Let freedom ring”—but we rarely revisit the first part of the address, the section where King describes the perilous situation faced by blacks in America. Fifty years later, of course, “Whites Only” hotels and segregated restaurants are mere memories. But as you listen again to King’s words today, you’ll note how little has changed:
There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. . . . We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. . . . We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
As we prepare to observe the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, King reminds us both of what has been achieved and of what has yet to be done. To be sure, America is a better, healthier place for all of us because of the Civil Rights movement and the ensuing legislation of the 1960s. It is not only African Americans who have benefited from those changes. White people are better off, too. As a society, we are healthier and more whole because we live in a nation that has begun to face into its contradictions.
But we are self-deluded if we think, as some seem to, that we live in a “post-racial America”. Yes, we do have an African-American president. But we also have a Supreme Court that overturned the central provision of the Voting Rights Act, and we just witnessed the less-than-zealous prosecution and acquittal of a white man for the unprovoked shooting of an African-American teenager in Florida. Certain kinds of discrimination are gone, but racial profiling is alive and well. Even black Americans like our attorney general must teach their sons the risks of “driving while black.” And while de jure school segregation is gone, de facto discrimination still obtains, certainly with regard to access to quality education. I’m sure no one here would claim that our public schools are better today than they were in 1963.
In the 1960s, my great predecessor dean, Frank Sayre, used this pulpit to advance the cause of Civil Rights. In 1963, Dean Sayre joined the Selma-to-Montgomery march. In 1968, Dean Sayre invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to preach what would be his final sermon here in this pulpit four days before his assassination. Over the decades, both the Episcopal Church and this cathedral have advocated for racial justice. I am grateful for this tradition as I seek to lead this faith community into faithful witness in the 21st century.
But let us not delude ourselves. The Episcopal Church, as a denomination, participated in both overt and tacit segregation. Today 86.7% of American Episcopalians are white. The Washington National Cathedral staff, congregation, and chapter are overwhelmingly white. We are at once the cathedral church for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and the most visible faith community in the nation’s capital. Yet we have a largely non-existent record of involvement or investment in the other three quadrants of the District of Columbia. How can we, with integrity, presume to “speak truth to power” about racial justice when we are, in fact, implicated in the very structures of injustice? How can we call others into righteousness when we are ourselves caught in a web of sin?
In today’s Old Testament reading, we heard the powerful account of the call of the prophet Jeremiah [Jeremiah 1:4-10]. God puts a hand out and touches Jeremiah’s mouth with these words:
"Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant."
As the prophetic community, we have inherited Jeremiah’s mantle: with all those who have gone before—with Dr. King, with Dean Sayre, with the countless witnesses and martyrs of the Civil Rights movement—we have been appointed to call our nation and our society into both healing and justice. But now, fifty years later, we face a new challenge. We are called not only to shine the spotlight on Congress, the courts, and state legislators. We are asked not only to examine prosecutors and juries and school boards. The time has come when we turn the spotlight around and shine it on ourselves.
As a straight white man, I am coming to understand how much of my life has been lived under the protective canopy of privileges I have not earned. As one who now has led four prestigious Episcopal Church institutions (two large parishes, a seminary, and now this cathedral) I am increasingly aware of how—from our histories to our demographics to our hiring practices and investment policies—we are enmeshed in the institutional racism that we decry so vocally when we observe it in others. It is meaningless for me to criticize the Supreme Court, the voter identification laws proposed around the country, or the decisions of mostly-white juries when I have not examined, confessed, and changed the sinful practices of the institutions I both lead and serve.
Talk, as they say, is cheap. As Jesus asked, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” [Matthew 7:3] As he goes on to advise, “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” [Matthew 7:5]
Friends, what we have here is a very big log in our eyes. Our problem is not the racism of any one individual, because racism is not only personal. It is also interpersonal, institutional, and social. This fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s speech and the march that occasioned it demands that we take an inventory of ourselves yes personally, but also interpersonally, institutionally, and socially. What does it mean to belong to an 86% white denomination when, by 2040, there will be no one majority race or ethnic group in America? What does it mean to call ourselves the “National” Cathedral when we confine our ministry to the whitest and most privileged quadrant of the District of Columbia? How can we live into the dream articulated by Dr. King when the evils we face in 2013 are so much more insidious than they were in 1963? The enemy back then looked and acted like Lester Maddox and Bull Connor. The enemy today looks and acts very much like you and me.
We here can do little to nothing about the Supreme Court, the Florida legislature, our own Congress. We can, however, together look to ourselves. On behalf of Washington National Cathedral, I pledge today to initiate a process of cathedral self-examination, renewal, and reform, seeking to explore the racism inherent in our worship, ministry, staffing, and governance. We will always suffer from the legacy of racism that infects our culture and our relationships. But we can commit ourselves to act in new ways—ways that reflect the inclusive, gathering, indiscriminate love of God in Christ.
“See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant." “Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?" The word for us today—Jesus’s word, Jeremiah’s word-- is simultaneously a word of judgment and of mercy. The word for us today is a word of liberation and a word of healing. God calls us to judge and heal our nation of the ongoing sin of racism, but we can only do that as we judge and heal ourselves. God calls us into a new and risen life and ministry in which our actions and practices will actually reflect our commitments. I ask that you help and join me in this work. There is nothing more important we have to offer our nation, our city, and our church that to put our own house in order. It is the best and most fitting way to take up the mantle of Jeremiah, to respond to the call of Jesus, and to honor Dr. Martin Luther King. Amen.