Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 12, 2023 – The Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

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Isaiah 62:1-7+Psalm 146+(Revelation 12:1-6, 13-17)+Matthew 11:7-19

I don’t know if I have any podcast folks here this morning, and I am not a huge listener, but every now and then when I am out for a walk or on a long ride in the car, I listen to something that has absolutely no bearing on my ministry or educational value for me as a theologian and priest. Well, there are a couple of those that I listen to, but by and large, I listen to podcasts to be entertained rather than educated.

At least, that’s the plan.

But it seems that the ones that interest me most always seem to have some redeeming value that informs my understanding of the world around me.

Take, for instance, You Must Remember This, hosted by journalist Karina Longworth and covering the “secret or forgotten history” of Hollywood’s first century. Sounds innocuous enough, right? But the series she did on the Blacklist of the late 40’s and early 50’s was actually a glimpse into the socio-political world of the United States during the Cold War and how politics and politicians hoped to boost their positions by tearing down others. Sound familiar?

This week, I listened to another of my favorite podcasts, You’re Wrong About, which had as its guest Karina Longworth. You’re Wrong About and its host, Sarah Marshall, peels back layers of misunderstanding and accumulated misinformation around well-known events, like the O.J. Simpson trial or the Satanic Panic of the 80’s (which appears to be making a comeback at least if you’ve been following the backlash against Sam Smith’s devil costume at the Grammys). The recent episode of You’re Wrong About that I listened to this week was a study of the movie rating system. How did we get G, PG-13, R, and NC-17 ratings slapped on films by the Motion Picture Association of America? I thought I was in for some mindless listening while out for my morning walk, but I was wrong.

I would actually encourage you to listen to the whole episode, but one thing in particular struck me, and I have been looking at it through the lens of this week’s texts and Black History Month. You see, in the early days of film, there were no ratings, but social norms dictated what could and could not be shown. A dress dropping off the shoulder of a woman, anything suggestive of sex outside of a heterosexual marriage, bloody violence, that sort of thing. But one of the most popular movies of that era, 1915’s Birth of a Nation, was a box office bonanza, screened by Woodrow Wilson at the White House, and wildly popular in cities across the country. As you probably know, it glamorized the Ku Klux Klan, depicted post-Civil War African Americans as buffoons if they were politicians and thieves and rapists if they were simply trying to make their way in the Reconstruction South. It led to a resurgence of the Klan in America, when even the suggestion on film of a relationship between Blacks and whites was enough to assure that movie’s failure.

Let’s make sure we have this straight: racism and white supremacy = good. Innocent flirtation and women having fun = bad.

Birth of a Nation came out three years shy of the 100th anniversary of the death of Absalom Jones, the first African American priest in the Episcopal Church. The story of Jones and Richard Allen, founder of Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia, is inspiring, demonstrating the kind of mental, physical, and emotional fortitude it took for Black men to be valued for their intellect, faith, courage, and abilities. Richard Allen could not bear to be part of a denomination that so marginalized him, and he founded the AME Church in 1816, 99 years before Birth of a Nation. Jones, however, had found his place in the newly formed Episcopal Church and would not allow for himself to be shunted aside, even as it took seven years between his ordination as a deacon and his ordination as a priest, even as he and the Free African Society remained in Philadelphia while the white folks fled to the country to escape the typhoid epidemic that decimated the city in 1793.

Now to what shall I liken this generation? It is like girls and boys sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another saying,

We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;

We sang a lament, and you did not mourn.’

For John came neither eating nor drinking and that say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Woman came eating and drinking. And they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. (Matthew 11:16-19)

Oh, the things at which we have taken offense, all the while looking the other way as human beings are victimized and brutalized and traumatized.  Strange fruit would hang from trees, yet we worried about whether or not our movies show a man and woman sleeping in the same bed or the sound of a flushing toilet that shocked viewers of All in the Family in 1971.

It’s been 205 years (tomorrow) since Absalom Jones died, and surely progress has been made. But there are constant reminders of the injustices people continue to face because of the color of their skin. Details of the inhumanity shown to Tyre Nichols continue to seep out, including that photos were taken of his bloodied body much like the postcards that were made from lynching photos 100 years ago.

To what shall we liken this generation? Shall we continue to say we want one thing while doing everything we can to maintain a status quo? Will we be vindicated by our actions?

The great battle between the Woman of the Apocalypse in Revelation and the dragon seems an apt metaphor for a Church, beloved of God and protected in those everlasting arms, continuing to be assailed by forces that would lead us from doing what is good and right and holy because…why? Fear? Inertia? Apathy?

“Do not be afraid” we read time and time again. Nearing the conclusion of his 2nd letter to the church in Thessaloniki, Paul wrote, “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right” (3:13). These are good words to live by on this Commemoration of Absalom Jones and every day after. It is easy to fall into despair when we witness history repeating itself over and over and over again. But we are the ones who must continue to interrupt that cycle of repetition, where for every advance in equality and rights for Black Americans there is an equal and opposite backlash.

We cannot – we must not – rest until “justice roll(s) down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24)

allsaintsadminSermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 12, 2023 – The Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas