Our first parable poses the question for us “What are you going to do with your talent?” Big, medium, small. Our second story begins with Moses, seemingly parroting the “one talent man” asking God, ‘but who am I?”
It is a line we all use when God talks to us when our conscience speaks to us in our dreams. Bill Coffin was right when he said, “God must especially love one talent people, seeing as how He made so many of them.”
We can take no solace in that excuse, nor should we. We follow an ordinary peasant from Galilee who took the higher road and turned back to ‘save us’ from ourselves. And through that unjust trial and the brutality he endured in the crucifixion, we came to say that this way is the divine way.
I think of Harriet Tubman, born into slavery in 1822, not that far from here in Eastern Shore of Maryland. Her early life is a vivid study in the inhuman brutality and disregard of slavery that I cannot detail today, save one illustrative story.
When she was a child, she was at a store with her Master who spotted a runaway slave and a fracas ensued with the Master picking up a two pound lead weight and hurling it at the runaway slave, hoping to injure him severely. The errant shot hit Harriet in the head, dropped her immediately unconscious on the ground.
Her Master transported her back home without the slightest regard for her condition. They left her for three days unattended, without any medical attention. She revived. For the rest of her life, she suffered seizures, pain, and all the other symptoms associated with temporal lobe damage, never diagnosed.
That kind of wanton disregard for human life had to be taught, had to be practiced. You have to develop habits to overcome your natural compassion towards the suffering of others. You have to become distorted as a human being. And that is what slavery did.
When Harriet revived, she had visions for the rest of her life. She was a devout Christian. So God talked to her from time to time. You can only imagine the poignant conversations God might have with her through her sufferings as an adolescent, late at night. Not surprisingly, God told her to resist, to stand for herself.
Eventually, she had to endure her family being split up as part of a sale. There are some things that won’t just split people apart, they will split your very soul and this would be one of them. She would rather die. And when she couldn’t control the destiny of her family, despite her best efforts, presumably God told her to flee.
It is an extraordinary story of cunning, memory, good fortune, and the good will of Church folks (mostly Quakers) that helped her get to Philadelphia eventually via what later came to be known as the Underground Railroad.
She gets to Pennsylvania, crosses the state line, and now she is free. This is what she said, “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven”[i]
You can imagine. She finds domicile, finds a job, starts building a life. But, she is like Moses. She is like Jesus. She can’t forget her people. She can’t be free if they can’t be free. And she makes a turn in her life that moves her from the extraordinary to the heroic. She goes back for them.
She knows the way. She knows people that will help. She knows how to do this. And she risks her own life for theirs. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “Greater love hath no woman than that she lays down her life for those she loves.” She risked her freedom, her privilege, her life.
And she made many trips. All in all, she freed over 70 other slaves, relatives, friends. All of them made it to freedom, to their own life… I’m sure she never saw the blessing of what she really did.
But wouldn’t it be great if she could. This would be a good project for God in heaven, to collect together all the descendants of the people that she freed, let them surround her, so that she can hear from their children’s children just how blessed their lives were because of what she did risking her own freedom so that they might be free.
She might not have been quite right in the head, but our real prophets aren’t are they? They are always a little more idealistic than the rest of us. They let their heart lead their head when the Muggles let their head lead their heart.
Jump forward in time a couple generations. I think of Ida B. Wells. She was born into slavery but the Proclamation Declaration in January 1863 freed the slaves when she was still a baby. She lived in Holly Springs, Mississippi about 30 miles south of Memphis.
I used to drive right through there as a child with my Grandfather and my Uncles. Ida’s parents were insistent that their children get educated. Her father was a trustee at Rust college, the oldest private college in Mississippi. It is a reminder of how important education was to the African-American community right from the beginning of emancipation. Important enough that they pooled their very limited assets and started their own colleges.
Ida’s parents both died of a fever epidemic that also killed three of her siblings. At 16, she raised her two younger sisters with her grandmother. She graduated from Rust college, moved her family to Memphis with her Aunt and started teaching elementary school.
In 1884, she found herself subject to the emerging Jim Crow legislation that was sweeping across our nation to disenfranchise African-Americans, when she was ordered to give up her first class train seat on a crowded train. She was dragged off the train, subjected to humiliating treatment, and wrote about it for a fledgling newspaper that circulated in Memphis through the Black churches of that era.
She continued writing and won national acclaim as a journalist for her coverage of a lynching incident in Memphis, right where Blacks lived near whites. There were two groceries stores that were in competition with each other, one owned by a black family, one owned by a white family.
The sons of these two families got into a fight. The father of the white kid intervened and beat the black kid up pretty badly.
The incident became racially charged immediately as two mobs formed. Eventually, the owner of the black grocery store was arrested. On March 9th, 1892, a group of 75 men stormed the jail, took the black store owner from his cell, drove him north of town and shot him in a field.
Ida Wells wrote an editorial in which she urged her fellow African-Americans to flee Memphis for its corruption and racism. Her words were prescient, I am sad to say. She went on to write extensively about lynching in the South, in order to expose to the country the extent of the violence that was perpetrated upon African-Americans throughout the south and the Midwest. She wrote to expose the fear that it spread throughout the community.
And she explained just how it was driven by economic competition between small business owners, black versus white. She bought a small paper and became a publisher in Memphis, produced a pamphlet on lynching that won wide acclaim. In that pamphlet, she estimated that 10,000 African-Americans had been lynched since the end of the Civil War, a horrifying statistic, that would later be matched by the horrifying photographs that were taken at some of these lynching’s that depict the celebratory mood of the mobs involved.
For her involvement in publishing, she was fired as a teacher, forcing her to eventually move to Chicago, Illinois, where she continued to publish on lynching and won even wider acclaim as a speaker. She married a lawyer in Chicago and they raised their family as two career people of relatively equal status, something not done in many families black or white, at the time.
She became involved in the Women’s suffrage movement. As hard as it is to believe, women did not have the right to vote until the 19th amendment was ratified in 1920.
She toured England, Scotland, and Wales speaking on the “Southern Horrors”, replete with photos of lynching. And these tours brought international light and shame upon the violence that was perpetrated in the night. She exposed the actual violence of Jim Crow that underscored the hypocrisy of the mannerly genteel South that was routinely depicted by White Americans in movies like “Gone with the Wind” which came out as late as 1940.
She got out of the South, but she could not forget the sighs and sufferings of her people. And she made considerable sacrifices, put herself in real danger, but continued in the greatest tradition of American journalism by fearlessly publishing the truth of lynching as she uncovered it.
It is also important to remember that those lynching’s continued in our country past the end of World War 2. In some ways, it is hard to believe. But it is important to remember. The trauma that African-Americans have endured from overt violence is not a far distant memory.
Indeed, that accounts for the pathos in the voice of the younger generation that we have heard in the past several years in the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Those incidents of police brutality trigger a response that comes from this longer, deeper history of racial violence in our country.
I wonder if somewhere in heaven, Ida B. Wells didn’t radiate pride at the number of young activists that creatively called for an end to the use of excessive force using social media to spread the message more broadly and more effectively than she could have imagined in her day.
And today, we are steadily transcending the overt oppression of Jim Crow and becoming more genuinely multicultural. The opportunity around us to live towards our fuller potential is so much more promising and hopeful. We are a living experiment of celebrating our diversity and seeing in that a richer, fuller way of being in community.
I would pay homage to one other woman for what she did to lead us to this day in our little neck of the woods here in Summit, New Jersey, Capitola Dickerson, who died a couple years ago now, at 97 years of age.
Mrs. Dickerson, a life long resident of Summit, was personally subject to a fair number of incidents of prejudice when she was younger. She was denied admission to a school to study music because she was black. She was discriminated against in employment, in restaurants, the same indignities that African-Americans regularly endured at mid-century here in New Jersey.
But Cappie was a Christian. She knew she was a child of God. She interiorized that message of love, of personal self-worth, and quietly led with the force that spiritual people have, the gravitas that genuinely spiritual people have.
She was one of the pioneers in our area and became on of the first women of color at Bell Labs. But she was mainly known about town for teaching piano and she had students every background that were formed not only by her skill as a teacher but also the attitude of respect that she cultivated and infused in her every relationship.
I was always on my best behavior with Mrs. Dickerson and everyone that had contact with her reported about this quality that she possessed. She walked the walk of Christian Charity and made you want to walk that walk when you were with her. She had a dignity, a genuine interest in others that made you want to be a better person.
Cappie started making a difference in the place where she was most likely to make a difference, in the church. In the 60’s and 70’s, she was part of a women’s movement in Summit that put together a group called the Church Women United. We had representatives from every house of worship.
Isabelle Deveny, Helen Sims, from our church and quite a few others. It was a very popular movement in its time and it was critical because it brought our black churches and our white churches together in a common cause of ecumenical outreach. It brought the whole community together a few times a year.
And from that developed friendships that grew and grew over the years. And I would also say that the ladies of that generation had a surprising influence. They had a way of telling the pastors of the churches, all men in that era, what it is that they would be focusing on. They were very persuasive as anyone knows whoever had Isabelle Deveny call you on the phone and tell you about making lunches for Bridges, only to end the conversation with “And how many lunches should I sign you up to make for us?” Zero was not an answer you could give to Mrs. Deveny.
Cappie was a force. She led the black churches to be involved with the white churches. She was very effective at networking people. She was a constant voice for affordable housing in Summit. A lot of people don’t know that our town made more strides in developing affordable housing in Summit in that era than most of our suburban towns. And Cappie was one of the people that were not only persistent, but she also had so many friends and acquaintances that she could get the right people together that could actually make a difference. She was a leader.
A few years ago, when we had a Habitat for Humanity build right off Morris Avenue, I was very pleased to be able to report to her that the Summit Interfaith Council had successfully gotten the project passed the Zoning board. It made her smile and you wanted to see her smile near the end of her life…
If Cappie and her generation hadn’t been so successful in bringing people together in different churches in her era, we wouldn’t be here today bringing different people together in the same church in our era. She responded to prejudice with love, dignity, and respect so that we might cultivate a richer diversity and live so that our children can develop life long friendships with people not like them at all.
She transformed the negativity and transcended racial segregation and the winner was the humanity in all of us, the community that we all share. It is a better way to be, a richer, fuller way of being when we can break bread together and cultivate neighborly compassion with each other.
And you? How will you give back? How will you pass it forward?
Who Am I? asked Moses begging off from God. I close with the response of Marianne Williamson in her wonderful poem “Our Deepest Fear”
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness
That most frightens us.
We ask ourselves
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small
Does not serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking
So that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine,
As children do.
We were born to make manifest
The glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us;
It’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we’re liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.
[i] There are good books on her story. For this sermon, I just use what you can find in Wikipidea.