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“Guidelines for a constructive church”: Bishop Shannon’s Black History Month Sermon

Bishop Shannon preached the following sermon at the Anglican Diocese of Montréal’s Christ Church Cathedral for its Black History Month Celebration. Video of the sermon is available on YouTube.

As Black History month comes to a close, I have to tell you, I always feel slighted that the history of my people is relegated to a single month, let alone the shortest month of the year. There is so much to tell, so much to celebrate.

Black history is filled with the stories of accomplishments and adversity of people from many continents and countries. I love celebrating Black history month.I’m inspired by the resiliency, creativity, and determination of people who have faced insurmountable odds, with faith, courage, and integrity.

Since there isn’t much time, I want to tell you a little about my history.

I come from Detroit, Michigan, by way of the great migration of southern Blacks, who hailed from Macon Georgia. My DNA says I come from Nigeria, Cameroon, Mali, England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Benin, Togo, Ghana, Senegal — in order by percent.

I come from indigenous people whose lands were taken, but I don’t know which tribe. Most likely, my indigenous heritage comes from relationships formed with the maroons — blacks who escaped slavery and found refuge amongst the tribes who lived in the Great Dismal Swamps of NC.

Some escaped to freedom in Buxton Ontario, but those whom I’m most familiar with relocated to Detroit, Michigan, during the great migration. By the way, the success of the Underground Railroad depended on Canada as a place of freedom for African Americans who escaped slavery.

I come from nurses, carpenters, educators, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, preachers and priests.

I also come from slave owners and militiamen who used weapons and violence to keep black people enslaved and living in fear. The ones that I know of are on my mother’s side of the family, from both her parents.

Every Black History Month, I am filled with pride, anger, and sadness as I continue to learn more about the history of my people.

As an Episcopalian, a member of the Anglican Communion, there is no escaping our complicated and unresolved past filled with contradictory stances of doing the right thing or being on the side of evil.

Our complicated history of stealing land, colonialism, racism, or people who aided escaping slaves, our repentance for the church’s past sins, and those who actively worked/working to include and celebrate the presence and contributions of the diversity of people who make up our church.

There is something about the human condition that craves freedom, but we don’t really know what it means. To some, the idea of freedom means the ability to do whatever one wants to benefit themselves – to use lands and people and put them to their use without regard for the beauty and gift of God’s creation, both people and nature.

All we are like caged birds, oppressed and oppressors.

The oppressed — either unaware of what it means to be free and yet dreaming of freedom, even while we are held back. Or the oppressors — living a life of no integrity or ignorance — claiming Christianity, yet all the while, not participating in acts of justice and liberation of others – voices silent for fear of reprisal or loss of privilege when one speaks up for and sees the marginalized or somewhere in between.

We don’t really know what freedom is — God’s freedom is always tethered to justice. God’s freedom is bound in love. God’s Divine freedom weaves our hearts together so that we feel the concerns, pains, and desires of any who long to be seen and known as the child of God that they are.

So on this day when we gather to celebrate Black History, instead of recalling a list of accomplishments, because there are far too many to recount in the time that we have together, I can’t help but note our complicated history and turn our thoughts to the future of the church.

It is painful to claim and remember the past.

But we must, lest we forget and repeat the mistakes of the past. In recollecting our painful memories, we also honor the faithful work that has brought us to this day, giving us fuel and hope for tomorrow.

When will we as a church find integrity around our complicated history with oppressed peoples, colonization and empire? When will the church unabashedly own its place and responsibility around its call to be the bearers of love and the prophets of freedom? I dream of a time when people will look back at our complicated history and can’t imagine going back.

I also come from people of faith. I come from a savior who taught me to proclaim freedom even when it seems like a dream or a song whose lyrics one can’t quite remember, but whose melody is haunting and lasting. Because the song of freedom is always in the heart of one who follows Jesus.

Jesus’ history is complicated too.

His genealogy describes him coming from assorted great and flawed characters; David the adulterer, Abraham whose flaws are a whole different sermon and whom we share with our Jewish and Muslim siblings, Rahab who used her prostitution to save her people, and a mother who dared to name God as the one who sees the lowly and casts down the mighty.

Jesus went into the synagogue as he was in the habit of doing. Standing, he selected the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, unrolled it, claimed his anointing, and gave his mission statement. He gave the best news ever. Every eye was on him. Every ear under the sound of his voice was impressed by the words that came from his mouth. He said, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Such good news! So good that people were astounded by it and his teaching. I imagine he, too, thought about the complicated history of his people. A people living in exile. Hoping for freedom.

While we’re talking about complicated histories, I want to tell you about an artifact I brought from my diocese. This is the crozier of the first bishop of Vermont, John Henry Hopkins. He was also the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church as the Civil War was ending. He worked hard to keep those who supported slavery in the church. He wrote a pamphlet — the Bible case for slavery, he claimed that slavery was not a sin. He viewed it as problematic because it put white people at risk as a result of the growing numbers of slaves. He feared inevitable rebellions, and continued conflict between free and slave states. His solution was to buy slaves and send them to Africa if the slave owners agreed.

He defended corporal punishment of enslaved people and refuted the supposition of the US Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”, claiming that it went against the teachings of Jesus. He claimed a slave would not know how to use freedom. He wrote, “The slavery of the Negro race, as maintained in the Southern States, appears to me fully authorized in the Old and New Testament…slavery, in my humble judgment, has raised the Negro incomparably higher in the scale of humanity, and seems, in fact, to be the only instrumentality through which the heathen posterity of Canaan have been raised at all.”

So it turns out, in the line of bishops who shepherded my beloved Diocese of Vermont, I inherited the legacy of a racist man.

On numerous occasions, I taught and preached about my disappointment that the leaders of the church did not have enough integrity to take a stand against slavery. There were some bishops, priests and laity in that day who advocated for us to split as other denominations had. I didn’t know that it was Hopkins who conjured up this unholy alliance until I was living in the house where he once lived. I recently learned that he and Absalom Jones, the first Black priest in the Episcopal church, were ordained by the same bishop (William White). 

This is part of the complicated history of my life and diocese. My diocese unwittingly decided reparations for the sins of our diocesan household legacy would begin to be reconciled through my election and consecration. The DNA of love and justice was determined to be brought forward, recognized and embodied through our ministry together. You never know how God will use you.

My dad, Canon Ron Spann, preached the consecration sermon. After telling about the first bishop of Vermont’s history, he said, “apostolic succession doesn’t always succeed…” But God has everything under control and led my dad to add, “And then in walks number 11.” The Episcopal Church in Vermont made history by electing me their 11th Bishop. I am the 1st Black person/person of color to be bishop of Vermont, and the 1st Black woman diocesan bishop of the New England dioceses. I am the 5th Black woman diocesan bishop in the Episcopal Church.

So this humble wooden staff has been passed 10 times from the hands of Bishop Hopkins to my hands. Throughout the last 188 years, God has been working tirelessly in the Episcopal Church in Vermont. My predecessor, Bishop Tom Ely, who handed me this crozier, made it a significant focus of his ministry to bring about full inclusion and marriage equality for the LGBTQ community.

So today, as we celebrate Black History, I return to my previous desire. I dream of a time when people look back at our complicated history and can’t imagine going back. I pray for the church to be people of freedom and love, and to embody reconciliation. Despite our complicated history and uncanny knack for perverting God’s intentions for us, our Gospel passage holds the key to followers of Jesus finally being able to be all that we were created to be.

 As Jesus began his ministry, he clearly gave in his mission statement, a way of life for all who claim to follow him. Today’s passage in Luke is where we can all converge to find understanding about how to seek the common good. If we fiercely stick to his mission, we will be faithful to our call as his disciples. All the ways that human imperfection has thwarted God’s dream will no longer keep us in bondage to our lesser selves.

As followers of Jesus, by our baptism, we are anointed by the Spirit of the Lord God for a reason, and that reason is to preach the good news of freedom, reconciliation, restoration, and liberation right now.

Emmanuel, God with us, noticed our complicated condition and saw that the only way for us to be truly free, was to show us the way. Up close and personal. So much of our spiritual work has to do with being physically present. The work of reconciliation requires both physical and spiritual engagement and relationships with people.

When considering the direction of the church, I return to today’s Gospel over and over again, for direction and clarity. Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called Isaiah 61, which is what Jesus quoted, “guidelines for a constructive church.”

I call it an examen for freedom and justice. This passage calls followers of Jesus to examine ourselves, individually and corporately;

What holds you captive?

What needs restoration in me/in us?

How is the Holy Spirit trying to give you sight?

What have you/the church been doing with your anointing?

Then try on this measure:

The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me to _________

Fill in your daily activities and interactions with people and God’s creation.

How would our forefathers stand against this measure?

How does the church stand against this measure today?

The good news is — with all the complicated history one can imagine, then comes us, God sends us — to pick up the family legacy of Daughters and Sons of God, carrying forward the work of people anointed by the Holy Spirit.

God’s grace comes to us regardless of whether we deserve it or not. In fact, God’s grace comes perhaps mostly because we need it now.

The year of the Lord’s favor is when we examine ourselves, strengths and gifts, flaws and weaknesses, and offer all that we are to God to be healed, to be loved, to be used.

This is the time to proclaim God’s intention of reconciliation of all creation. My prayer for Black history month is that the church would embody Jesus’ mission of love and reconciliation.

The ability to live Jesus’ mission requires that we, like Jesus, are steeped in the scripture that so defines our life in Christ. At the very least, if you ever commit any scripture to memory, let it be Jesus’ mission statement

Song:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon us.

Because he has anointed us.

To preach good news to the poor.

God has sent us to proclaim release to the captive,

and recovery of sight to the blind.

To set at liberty those who are oppressed

To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.

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