Still We Rise!

June 1, 2014

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA

7th Sunday of Easter – RCL Year A
Acts 1:6-14; 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11

photo (8)“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.” This Henry David Thoreau quote confronts me each time I open the refrigerator door. It sits as a framed, limited edition work of art, created by my niece, Kayanne. The card arrived in my mailbox four years ago announcing that she would be graduating from college with a degree in Graphic Design.

Although I’ve never asked, I’d like to think that Kayanne’s connection with this quote may have been partially inspired by a time she and I spent together just four years earlier, at the time of her high school graduation. As a graduation present, I got tickets for Kayanne and me to hear Dr. Maya Angelou when she came to Houston. Angelou had been a favorite of my older sister, Kathy, Kayanne’s mom, who had died a couple of years earlier. So, sharing this experience with Kayanne was one way of bringing her mom into the celebration with us.

During the evening we were captivated by the inspiring and poignant words of Angelou. Her message was optimistic while she encouraged each of us to share our unique gifts with the world. She attributed each person’s unique strengths to their ability to rise above the struggles in life, and she assured us that “each of us has the power to change someone’s life,” saying, “Sometimes if you just speak to someone it can change their whole day.” (1)

Upon reflection, there’s some irony in those words. It’s amazing to think that a woman who is so well known for her voice – her words – spent many of her early years in self-muted silence. Yet it was her love of poetry that motivated her to share her voice again.

A woman in her town, Mrs. Flowers, began helping Maya with her reading when she was 8 years old. When Maya was about 11 and a half, Mrs. Flowers asked her, “Do you love poetry?” and Maya wrote on her tablet, ‘yes.’ But Mrs. Flowers said, “You do not love poetry. You will never love it until you speak it. Until it comes across your tongue, through your teeth, over your lips, you will never love poetry.” And Maya ran out of her house vowing to not go back, believing that Mrs. Flowers was “trying to take [her] friend.” Yet each time Mrs. Flowers saw Maya, she would say the same thing about her not loving poetry. And finally, Maya took a book and went under the house, and tried to speak. And she could! (2)

Now, this may seem harsh – but just think of what the world would have lost without the willingness of Mrs. Flowers to encourage that one young girl. By the age of eight, Angelou already knew the power of her voice, and now, coming out on the other side of the struggle, she reclaimed her voice, and became a perpetual witness of the power of one who RISES.

After learning of Angelou’s death this past Wednesday, I couldn’t help but notice the proximity to Ascension Day, which we celebrated on Thursday. This is the 40th day of Easter, when we commemorate Jesus being raised up from this earth for a final time. Along with a FB comment to that affect, I posted a YouTube video of Maya Angelou reciting her poem “Still I Rise.”

This poem conveys some of the ways we can be put down, and kept down, by other people. As a black woman, born in 1928, she lived a life filled with discrimination. She was molested as a young girl by her mother’s boyfriend, who was later killed by Angelou’s own uncles. At 16, she gave birth to her son and did all kinds of work necessary, so she could put food on the table.

Then, after finding her powerful voice, she was one among many who used that voice on behalf of the civil rights movement. How devastating it must have been to learn, on April 4th, 1968, what was Angelou’s 40th birthday, that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life had been cut short by an assassin’s bullet. And yet, through all of this, Angelou would still rise.

The poem concludes:

maya-angelouOut of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise. (3)

The dream and the hope of the slave – to be sure – and what an embodiment of Thoreau’s charge to “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams!”

And this ability to STILL RISE isn’t new.

We see in today’s reading from 1 Peter that those in the early church were going through struggles of their own. Peter says to those early Christians “do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you… as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed…”

You see, we have an example in Jesus Christ – the one who was spat upon and crucified in a shameful death, and yet, he has Risen, bringing new life to all. And so, like him, when we endure what seem to be unimaginable things, we can draw from him the strength to RISE.

  • When we are devastated by the death of someone we love, still we rise.
  • When we endure bullying and ridicule at the hands of others, still we rise.
  • When our body is weakened by sickness or disease, still we rise.
  • When we become the care-giver for our aging-parent in need, still we rise.
  • When we struggle with addiction and temptation, still we rise.
  • When we are discriminated against and marginalized, still we rise.
  • When we must confront and overcome an unhealthy relationship, still we rise.
  • When we are anxious about the uncertainties of life, still we rise.

Peter’s letter reminds us that the Spirit of God is resting on us.  And just as he tells his listeners to put their anxiety on God, because God cares for them, we can hold this same message in our hearts. Being steadfast in faith, we are assured that “the God of all Grace… will restore, support, strengthen and establish” us.

It is God’s love and care for us that empowers us to STILL RISE…

And what, you may ask, does this “RISING” look like? There isn’t just one answer – it looks different for different people. But you know it when it happens.

Some days, it may simply be finding the strength to get out of bed and keep moving forward under the burden of grief or despair; to stand up to the bully; to ask others for help; to give ourselves permission to take a break from the activities of the world so our bodies and minds can rest.

What it isn’t, is standing around looking up at heaven, waiting for God to do all the work. God has given us the power to do the work, and this work is what it is to be God’s witnesses in the world.

The eternal life that John speaks of in the gospel is that “we may know God,” and in knowing God, we all may be one.

ALL people, ALL being one – I contend that THIS is what GOD imagines for the world. THIS is the dream that God hopes we will walk toward with confidence.

This ONENESS is at the heart of the commandment to love our neighbor – so we all may be one – no longer divided by race, culture, creed, poverty, and myriad other obstacles we put between ourselves and others.

Angelou provides of glimpse of what this can look like when she reflected upon which poets had influenced her writing. She spoke of Shakespeare, saying:

I was very influenced – still am -by Shakespeare. I couldn’t believe that a white man in the 16th century could so know my heart. If he could know my heart, a black woman in the 20th century, a single parent – all the things I was ere to – then obviously I could know a Chinese Mandarin’s heart and the heart of a young Jewish boy with braces on his teeth in Brooklyn. (2)

And years later, reciting her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the Presidential Inauguration in 1993 [certainly nothing she could have dreamed of in her early years], she called by name so many nationalities, tribes, clans and religions. Perhaps naming each to give them a voice, and saying in part:

2afb8358-d4ba-43e9-8780-5dcfda800c76 History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again

Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.

Give birth again
To the dream.

Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.

Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings. (4)

And so, as we come together this day, we will hear an echo of “Lift up your hearts” as we enter into the Eucharistic Prayer. Through these words, we can infuse them with the hope of a new way of being in the world. A way that hears all voices; knows one another’s hearts; and allows all people to share together in the love of God, and the feast of life!

No longer looking into the sky to try to figure out where Jesus has gone, but instead to look inside our hearts and know that he is there, with us, always. Not threatened by differences, but instead, inspired to bring about the oneness that is God’s dream for the world.

We are empowered by the Holy Spirit which is coming upon us! And just as the Holy Spirit rested upon Jesus at the time of his Baptism in the Jordan, it also rests upon each one of us. And through it, we, too, have the strength and power to RISE!

Alleluia, Christ Still Rises, and WE still rise indeed, Alleluia!

 

YouTube link:

SOURCES:

(1)  HelenE, “Maya Angelou brings message of individual power to packed crowd,” Houston Chronicle website, Posted on May 16, 2006. Online source: http://blog.chron.com/insidekaty/2006/05/maya-angelou-brings-message-of-individual-power-to-packed-crowd/, accessed: May 30, 2014.

(2) ‘Fresh Air’ Remembers Poet And Memoirist Maya Angelou, Hosted by Terry Gross. NPR, May 28, 2014.  http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=316707321, accessed: May 30, 2014.

(3) Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise,” in Poems, Bantam Books, Random House Publishing, New York. 1986.

(4) Maya Angelou, “On the Pulse of Morning,” Inaugural Poem, January 20, 1993. Text source: http://poetry.eserver.org/angelou.html, accessed May 30, 2014.

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