Sermon for Sunday, 21 June 2020
By Brother Anthony Purvis SSM
Bible readings : Jeremiah 20: 7–10 and Matthew 21: 24–39
Good morning, everyone. It’s good to be with you and to share time in prayer and worship and thanksgiving for our lives, and in prayer and thanksgiving for the many who have suffered in the recent weeks and months. We continue to pray for and discern the way forward as we stand with each other, always in the hope of a better future. It’s the better future imagined by Jeremiah and the Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel that I offer some reflections this morning.
One day, back in 1964, a man called John Howard Griffin is on the side of a road in Mississippi with a flat tyre. He’s a journalist and a writer from Texas. He sees a group of men approaching him and he’s thinking they are on their way to give him some help. In fact, they grab him by his arms, drag him and beat him, and use chains to inflict serious injuries over his whole body. John is five months in recovery from the serious attack he sustained.
This was no random attack. In fact, at the heart of this brutality and violence are words. John Howard Griffin was being punished for being a writer, for having written a book, for having used words, for being creative in how words might be used. The book is called Black Like Me and it had been published in November 1961, three years before the attack. When the book was published, its words generated quite a storm, so that Griffin found himself hated as much as venerated.
At the end of the 1950s and into 1960, Griffin had gone to a dermatologist and skin specialist. He is given a medication that causes white spots and pigmentation to disappear from the skin, and he spends considerable time under a sun lamp. His hair is then shaved, and he stains his skin and head to generate brown–black colouration. He then travelled six weeks across the viciously segregated southern states of America. Throughout, he keeps a detailed journal which becomes the book.
He had first known these cities as a white man. Now he is revisiting them as a ‘black man’. The opening page asks the central question which informed his journey:
‘What is it like to experience discrimination based on skin colour, something over which one has no control?’ No white man could, he reasoned, truly understand what it was like to be black, because black people would never tell the truth to outsiders. ‘The only way I could see to bridge the gap between us was to become a Negro,’ Griffin writes. ‘I decided I would do this.’
It is such a moving account of one man’s journey to try and understand the land of his birth, but through the eyes of the oppressed. His story is bigger than one based in skin colour. His is a story about what we do with our eyes and ears, what we do with our words, and the fact that we never really fully see the truth.
Really his story is concerned with grounds of love and hate, with peace and violence, with words that wound, and with words that bring love, with words of vengeance, and with words that bring life. Like the Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, so he looks at the divisions which separate, which bring hurt and the desire for revenge. Jeremiah and Jesus use words to challenge our blindness, and so John Howard Griffin uses words to invite new hopes and healings.
The book could and does speak for many European states at this time. It’s not simply or solely about the United States. Nor is it a simple attack. It’s a bit deeper and a bit bigger. It’s not simply about skin colour. It is an account which speaks of resentment and anger in all of us, of family against family on a bigger field, of communities in conflict, of a nation seduced by racial and colour discrimination.
Griffin describes the shock of seeing his new self in the mirror for the first time. ‘In the flood of light against white tile, the face and shoulders of a stranger,’ he writes, ‘I had expected to see myself disguised, but this was something else. I was imprisoned in the flesh of an utter stranger, an unsympathetic one with whom I had no kinship … I looked into the mirror and saw reflected nothing of the white John Griffin’s past. No, the reflections led back to Africa, back to the shanty and the ghetto, back to the fruitless struggles against the mark of blackness.’
But for Griffin the question is not solely about skin colour. It’s about how we use words to talk about each other, about the fact we don’t always see each other in terms of need and compassion, of mercy and forgiveness. Words help us see things differently or they keep us trapped. What will we choose? Will we choose to think and see differently – imagine other words for each other and ourselves?
Jeremiah is startled by how he does not see himself. He had forgotten that, in order to bring about peace and justice, he can’t ignore the bitterness and resentment which lies in his heart. How can Jeremiah expect others to see differently if he himself has forgotten how to use his eyes and ears in the search of the conversion of his heart? Jeremiah cries because he had forgotten to look and listen. Then in a beautiful line he says: ‘Lord, you have persuaded me. Lord I have been seduced.’ In some translation, the word is ‘seduced’: Lord, you have seduced me. The division between the inner and outer, between my will and God’s will, has been erased. Jeremiah, albeit briefly, understands that God sees not division but oneness and communion, God sees not the surface but the deeper reality which is in creation itself.
Something of this desire for a new field of vision is present in John Howard Griffin’s story. He is shocked by how little of himself he recognises. But he also doesn’t recognise ‘his’ America. The coffee bar he usually visits is now closed to him; the diner where he takes food isn’t open to non-whites; and he has to work out how, on long journeys, he can use the bathroom or drink from water fountains.
Griffin describes ‘the hate stare’. ‘Nothing can describe the withering horror of this,’ he writes, ‘you feel lost, sick at heart before such unmasked hatred, not so much because it threatens you as because it shows humans in such an inhuman light. You see a kind of insanity, something so obscene the very obscenity of it terrifies you. I felt like saying, “What in God’s name are you doing to yourself?”’ Being exposed to the hate stare, witnessing racism from the other side, leaves Griffin sad and angry; he grieves at how ‘my own [white] people could give the hate stare, could shrivel men’s souls, could deprive humans of rights they unhesitatingly accord their livestock.’
But John Griffin knows that while there has to be social and political change, he also follows the words of Jesus. In Matthew, Jesus highlights just how far the problem of injustice lies in the heart of each and every person. It is not simply social, not simply racial, not simply the problem of someone else. The capacity for pride, anger, aggressivity and hatred is not hidden in someone else, but lies at the heart of each one of us.
Griffin sees this. He allows himself to be seduced by a desire to understand what lies at the heart of all our fears. Like Jeremiah, he seeks to learn the truth of the human heart and in so doing, make for a better world, no matter how small. His outrage at social and racial injustice is firmly rooted in his own life. At the start of World War Two he was studying in France and very soon joined the French resistance. He risked his own life when he helped Jewish children escape to Britain. He saw too the consequences of ‘racism’ against religious groups, and was not slow in seeing the links with suffering on a bigger scale. Then something happens. Griffin is blinded after being blasted with shrapnel during the war. The blindness lasted over two years.
In moving from blindness to insight, from darkness to daylight, so he embarks on the journey he described in Black Like Me. ‘The blind,’ he would later write, ‘can only see the heart and intelligence of a man, and nothing in these things indicates in the slightest whether a [person] is white or black.’
Jeremiah invites us to open our hearts and minds and to think of how we might see what is happening around us, to see what lies at the heart and not on the surface. He invites us to surrender, to change heart, to be seduced by the God of love. So too Jesus. Of course this does not mean the end of our problems. Jeremiah and Jesus are insulted by words, mocked, vilified, persecuted. Griffin, too, and his family go into exile in Mexico.
John Howard Griffin’s work has stood the test of time. It is not without some further questions. It is of its time. It invites further criticism. But without Griffin’s record, and without the words of Jeremiah or Jesus in today’s readings, so our choice of words is diminished. We become less than who we really are. We learn to limit the words we use to talk about ourselves. Yet it is with words, from the past and present, that we shape new words, new horizons. With their words, so we see more clearly, and realise more dearly, our individual and collective hopes. What are these hopes? Surely for a better future, where in the words of Jeremiah, it is God who persuades us. Of what are we persuaded? Of this (Matthew: 10: 39): ‘Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.’
May God bless us all – our families, friends and loved ones, and the bigger world in which we all live.