Salvific Servanthood

Homily for Proper 24, Year B

October 17, 2021

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

Lectionary Readings Referenced:

Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:35-45

For several weeks now, I have made a little note to myself to set aside time to watch the documentary My Name is Pauli Murray. My own knowledge of and appreciation for this contemporary saint among our Great Cloud of Witnesses came about several years ago. In seminary, we were learning about the commemorations of saints, and I pulled up the newest additions to the Episcopal Church’s calendar. In doing so, I read the General Convention 2015 additions which included this person named Pauli Murray whom I had never heard of before. I was instantly drawn into the narrative. For those of you who may not be familiar with this American Civil Rights activist, Pauli Murray was born in November 1910 and is noted historically to be the first black woman ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church. That was in 1977, at the age of 67. I need to insert here that Pauli journaled about the struggle with and rejection of a solely female identification, and even while professing love for a long-time companion they were never able to socially acknowledge sexual orientation or gender identity in an affirming way. I’m deliberate in choosing my pronouns today for that reason, out of respect. Pauli was first a writer and poet, then when direct encounters with discrimination became too much to bear, a civil rights lawyer and eventually organizational leader and professor of law. Pauli was a co-founder of the National Organization for Women and then held academic positions at the Ghana School of Law, Benedict College, and finally a tenured professorship at Brandeis University. And then, in 1973, Pauli left academia to attend seminary, following the call to become an Episcopal priest. I suppose that if you know me, you can imagine why I was intrigued!

So, I was excited to carve out time in the midst of a busy weekend to watch this newly released documentary of Pauli Murray’s life. I was grateful that this saint so worthy of commemoration was finally getting some public air time. I didn’t think of it as a spiritual practice. The Holy Spirit had other plans for my experience, as often happens, even with movie watching it would seem!

Early in the film, Pauli’s niece receives a call during their final days of life. She remembers Pauli saying, “You’ve got things here you’re going to need to do for me.”  What follows in the film is the unfolding of Pauli’s life….some of which I just related…but all of which is filled with the poignancy and gut-wrenching realities of what it was like for Pauli to be Black, to be socially identified and marginalized as a woman, to experience a lifetime of misgendering, to confront the depths of one’s own understanding of gender and relationship in a world unprepared with the language or openness to honor and bless diversity and complexity. Pauli’s whole life was a yearning to be seen, known, heard, and respected, woven together with intellect, compassion, wisdom and vision for a different world. What I realized watching that film (spoiler alert…but I still want you all to watch it!) is that it was all of those built up layers of wrestling with oppression, discrimination, denial of access, disenfranchisement and misidentified assumptions and othering: it was all of that marginalization that gave Pauli a doorway to serve all of humanity as a priest in God’s church. I have an indelible image in my mind from that film of a Holy Eucharist in which I watch Pauli Murray transformed into the very image of Christ’s presence.

Pauli Murray would later say of their call to priesthood: “Whatever future ministry I might have as a priest, it was given to me that day to be a symbol of healing. All the strands of 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 while, no male or female—only the spirit of love and reconciliation drawing us all toward the goal of human wholeness.”[i] 

Pauli Murray: civil rights activist, lawyer, teacher, priest. One of our great cloud of witnesses.

Today’s Epistle also speaks to us of priesthood…and of Jesus Christ, our great high priest. And today’s Gospel invites us into a beautiful and challenging reversal of what all that means for us in our lives of faith in relation to each other. Our great, high priest tells us: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”  Jesus, throughout his life and ministry, serves from the margins of this world, ministering to those whom society has set to one side and discarded. God’s entry into our humanness was through powerlessness: the entire story of Christ’s birth is about being turned away, rejected, sidelined. Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing happens on seashores and mountain sides, healing those whose ailments have left them unclean or socially sanctioned. Even in the two encounters leading up to today’s Gospel, which we’ve heard over the last two Sundays: Jesus invites us into the kingdom of God as children who hold no social power; and dissolves the presumed relationship between wealth and worth by inviting the rich, young man to sell all his possessions and only then, to come and follow as a disciple.

In our Gospel lesson, James and John fall into a common trap where our human grasping for wealth and power gets in the way of truly seeing God’s plan for us. They approach Jesus for a favor, because they want a guarantee, on the world’s terms, that their discipleship will have a payoff. Jesus sees this for what it is: their fear, their confusion, their collusion with temporal greatness. And let’s be honest: Jesus sees and knows our fear, our confusion, and our quest for greatness, too. But Jesus keeps pushing for the teachable moment. Jesus keeps opening their hearts further to understand God’s will for God’s people in the very actions of his own life and ministry:  Jesus didn’t come into the world to die and create a future pathway for salvation. Jesus, incarnate son of God, has come into the world to BE salvation.

Service…discipleship…this is not something we do now in order to earn a reward later. To live as Jesus teaches us, to be a disciple, is to be a servant to others. To be a servant to others is experience God’s presence: right here and right now. That is the true gift of discipleship.

There is a whole different image of God’s reign on earth, as is it in heaven, coming into focus when we stand in the life and perspective of Jesus. Power doesn’t belong to the rulers or the oppressors. Power belongs to those who are humble, who have been marginalized, who are raised up through the life giving actions of Jesus. True power is sourced in God, and that power fills us when we are emptied of the world’s relentless quest for “success.”

And so I go back to Pauli Murray:

As I watched Pauli’s life unfolding in the footage, I couldn’t help but notice that so many people marveled at why their achievements, accomplishments, and accolades hadn’t made more news. Pauli’s story isn’t the story of someone wronged by the world who gets vindicated at the end by fame and fortune. No, quite the opposite. In the end, Pauli hears the still, small voice of the Spirit speaking at the darkest time of life and says yes to God. Pauli chooses discipleship and service as the greater path.

The film offers this description, coming from Pauli’s own lips: “It seemed to me, as I looked back on my life, that all of these problems of human rights in which I had been involved were moral and spiritual problems. And I saw that the profession to which I had devoted my life–law–could not give us the answers. And I asked myself, ‘what do you want to do with the time you have left?’ I was being pointed in the direction of priesthood, or service to the church.” 

Everyone in the world around Pauli was stunned…colleagues, family, friends. The interviews in the film depict a total bewilderment about this aspect of vocation and identity.  To some, it was almost embarassing. But I think if we are reading today’s Gospel with an open heart, we shouldn’t be shocked at all.

Pauli reflects, after ordination followed by a historic celebration of Holy Eucharist in the Chapel of the Cross in Durham where Pauli’s own grandmother had been baptized as a slave:

“What I was trying to communicate as I administered the bread was a lovingness for each individual. I think reconciliation is taking place between individuals groping out, reaching toward one another. It was not I as an individual, it was that historic moment in time when I represented a symbol of the past, of the suffering, of the conflict, reaching out my hand symbolically and all of those behind me, and they were responding.”

I hope some of you will watch the movie. And I hope it will be your spiritual gift, too.

Whatever it takes for each one of us to hear the still, small voice of God speaking to us through the cacophony of our days: that voice is speaking and will keep on speaking. The Holy Spirit is persistent, and there is work for us to do. We don’t all have the same call, or the same gifts, or the same doors through which we will be invited to walk. The specific path that we follow isn’t the issue, really. It’s the steps we take as the servants of God through the example provided by Jesus, our great high priest and humble servant. In emptying ourselves, we are filled with God. And that, my friends, is the greatest gift.

[i] Pauli Murray. Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage, reprinted as The Autobiography of a Black Activist, Feminist, Lawyer, Priest, and Poet. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987, p. 435.

Mural of Pauli Murray, Durham NC

About harasprice

Professor of Social Work and Priest in The Episcopal Church, parent, teacher, learner, writer, advocate, and grateful traveller along this journey through life
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