"We Shall Overcome"

Below is the text from Father Manny's sermon for today, and we hope that you'll take the time to read this important message. You can also view our worship livestream here.


We Shall Overcome,” cries the Negro spiritual. For me, it is an assuring cry that feels like something good can come out of Nazareth. But I can only see that good if I embrace the invitation to come and see. Jesus had invited Philip to follow him, and so he did. But then he found his friend Nathaniel and told him about the one person the law and prophets talked about. After hearing these words from Philp, Nathaniel wonders aloud, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” In Jesus' day, Nazareth was a poor little town of about four hundred people. Although residents were very religious, the town had little to offer, but Phillip isn’t settled on the idea that Nazareth had little to offer; he simply responds, "Come and See." I can hear Philip say to Nathaniel, "Don’t buy into that narrative that Nazareth has nothing to offer. Come and see."


Today is Dr. King Sunday, and one of the remarkable things I like about Dr. King was that he didn’t buy into the narrative that people were so soaked up in racist bigotry and hatred for the African American that they were unwilling to move a feet to change the narrative about the American socio-economic landscape. Dr. King always invited people to come and see - don’t buy into the idea that the human being cannot change, don’t buy into the narrative that systems built to perpetuate a certain debilitating mindset like White supremacy cannot change, and don’t buy into the idea that America has nothing to offer African Americans because of all the dehumanizing policies. No! Believe that We Shall Overcome because something good can come out of the Nazareth that has little to offer African Americans.


We Shall Overcome is a hopeful expression by those who bring good news - "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news" Isaiah says. Come and see is another expression of hope in the one man from Nazareth who can turn human fortunes, who invites you and me to prove the world wrong by following him, who invites us to be for the world what he was for Israel “As the father sent me, so I send you.” He says.


And those who follow Jesus are sent into the world as justice bringers who confront the powers that carve up the world with the good news that there is a different kind of justice which is rooted in a restored creation. A restored creation is about a creation arriving at last at the new place for which it was made in the beginning.


For Dr. King and many millions of people who had fought for the restoration of God’s creation and the dignity of the African America, We Shall Overcome meant that they did not have to look very far to acknowledge the prevalence of those invisible instruments that dehumanized African Americans. Although African Americans were free, we are only free as determined by the dominant Christian culture, and not even baptism - which, in fact, establishes the Christian’s freedom in Christ and bestows upon all people the dignity of being children of God and joint heirs with Christ could change the condition of the African American.


In Virginia, for instance, the Assembly passed an Act in 1667 which stated, “The conferring of baptisme doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or Freedome.”[1] In an attempt by some to deal with the apparent contradiction between the inherent freedom bestowed in Baptism and the problem of slavery, an Anglican clergyman in South Carolina added an oath to the baptism service for Slaves who came for baptism. Slaves had to take this oath: “that you do not ask for the Holy Baptism out of any design to free yourself from the Duty and Obedience you owe to your Master while you live’”[2] But We Shall Overcome because we know that Baptism changes everything, especially because the baptized who follow Jesus are commissioned and equipped to be new-creation people, justice people, and hope-giving people for a world where injustice still reigns.


The very fact that the Church was prepared to look the other way, and to an extent offered a tacit approval of Slavery, Jim Crow and racial discriminatory policies seems to be the conviction which formed the basis of the letter by the eight clergymen some of whom were Episcopal Church bishops to write an open letter “A Call for Unity” while Dr. King was in a Birmingham jail.


Dr. King understood that the mindset which gave birth to the indignity suffered by African Americans was not different from the mindset of the clergy who referred to him as an extremist because he dared to challenge the very structures which suffocated millions of African Americans. Their demand that Dr. King stop his demonstrations was not for altruistic purposes; it was to meant to serve the purpose of those who believed in perpetuating a kind of society that still consigned African Americans to the back of the bus. But We Shall Overcome because we know that a new kind of justice has triumphed over the old forms of justice that has let us down again and again.


We Shall Overcome because we hear a new voice calling out to us in the middle of the night. It is not like the old tired voice of Eli which was so familiar to Samuel. See, the old voice has lost its relevance because when God revealed Himself to Samuel, he heard a new voice. When Christ revealed himself to Nathaniel, he heard a new voice. When God reveals Himself to us, we hear a new voice which calls us out of the pursuit of injustice to pursue justice. The question this morning is, do you hear that new voice?


We know the old, familiar voice that believes in separate but equal; we are familiar with the old, familiar voice that believes that human nobility rests in ones superior nature, or that human nobility depends on being superior over the other. But as Ernest Hemingway reminds us: “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is in being superior to your former self.” That self which is emblematic of the old, tired voice.


We believe We Shall Overcome because if something good can come out of Nazareth, then something good can come out of the dungeons of hunger, poverty, homelessness, violence, and our drug-infested communities of color. If something good can come out of Nazareth, then something good can come out of the dungeons of meaninglessness that causes some to use politics as a tool for violence. If something good can come out of Nazareth, then something good can come from our nation’s capital. If something good can come out of Nazareth then something good can come out of the violence recently visited upon the Capitol. If something good can come out of Nazareth, then something good can come even from the darkest experiences of our lives. And so, like Philip, we should not give up on the ‘Nazareths’ of our lives.

We Shall Overcome because like Samuel we have to listen to the new voice that calls us in the morning; to respond to its invitation would mean freeing ourselves from the temptation of believing that the old, familiar voice is the only voice that counts. We Shall Overcome because listening to the new voice that calls us in the middle of the day would mean responding to an invitation that allows us to walk hand in hand with neighbor, believing that the content of a neighbor’s character matters more than their politics. We Shall Overcome because listening to the new voice that calls us in the evening would mean responding to an invitation to shed off the load of the day, with the hope that a new day will open to us a new way of being generous, compassionate and affirming.


Jesus Christ calls us to follow Him, and in following him, we must understand that all things are lawful, but not everything is beneficial. But for those things that are lawful AND beneficial, we must pursue with relentless zeal, and we must do so by turning the dungeons in our lives and in our communities into an oasis of peace, compassion, honor, dignity, prosperity, and love. "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Nathaniel asked. Yes, something good can come of out Nazareth because we refuse to give up on human dignity, we refuse to give up on justice, and we refuse to sit at the back of the bus.

As the old Negro spiritual says... We Shall Overcome Someday.


Amen.

[1] MacCulloch, Diarmad Christianity-The First Three Thousand Years p. 725 [2] ibid p. 728

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