Sermon for Sunday, June 13, 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, offered by NEC Treasurer Rob Burgess
The parable of the mustard seed which Mark tells in today’s gospel is one of the most memorable of Jesus’s parables. Maybe because all three of the synoptic gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke retell very similar versions of the parable. Maybe because Jesus frequently references the Kingdom of God in his teaching through parables.
Or maybe it is because of the image it provides: that the Kingdom of God on earth starts with something very small, perhaps like a rag-tag group of disciples in a backwater region of the Roman Empire and can grow into something much bigger, the Jesus movement.
At my house, we have two large trees in our front yard. They are of the locust family. Unlike my neighbors’ majestic maples or oaks, locust leaves are tiny. I am grateful for the shade they provide in the summer. At the same time their tiny leaves allow grass to grow underneath. But certain times of year, like now, the locust trees are a nuisance. They shed their seed pods daily covering the lawn. They attach to our shoes in the driveway and we track them into the house. A nuisance. I wonder is that what the Roman emperors thought of the nascent Jesus movement? That it was a nuisance?
In those first centuries, the Jesus movement may have been considered a nuisance by the Roman Emperors nonetheless like the tiny mustard seed it sprouted and grew.
As I was pondering this, I wondered how other social justice movements started out small and grew into something much bigger.
In looking for answers, I ended up looking outside the church where I found something that brought me right back to the church. I am thankful for websites like the History Channel, the NAACP, and Wikipedia for some of the details in my words this morning.
Today, is June 13. According to the Satucket calendar of Episcopal feast days, there is no one who is commemorated today. So, I Googled “Today in History”. That’s where I found a proverbial mustard seed, an inspiration for the Kingdom of God on Earth.
June 13, 1967, 54 years ago today, arguably one of the most influential jurists in the 20th Century was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Thurgood Marshall would later that fall be appointed an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Just so you know, the Episcopal Church celebrates a feast day for blessed Thurgood Marshall annually on May 17.
Marshall was an advocate for social justice and change. He once said:
“When you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on.”
Marshall also seemed to understand the mutuality of us all as he is quoted as saying:
“In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute.”
The first African American to be confirmed by the Senate to the highest court in the land. Marshall grew from simple beginnings to a powerful voice for social and legal justice.
Like a mustard seed’s inconspicuous start, Marshall had humble beginnings. His father had been a railroad porter and then a steward at a segregated, all-white country club in Baltimore. His mother was an elementary teacher in the segregated Baltimore school system. Baltimore Schools were not integrated until 1954.
It seems very appropriate that Marshall graduated from a school named after another civil rights ikon: Frederick Douglas High School. I normally think of historically Black colleges and universities being in the south, I guess it is some of my northern hubris and denial that segregation and bigotry existed and still exists today in the north. Unfortunately, the nearby metro areas of Detroit and Chicago are in the top 5 most segregated municipal areas in the country, per USA Today.
Marshall did go on to attend an historically Black college, Lincoln College in Pennsylvania. Lincoln College seems to be a place that nurtured mustard seeds to grow in to something, someone much more influential.
Marshall’s classmates at Lincoln included the great American poet Langston Hughes. Arguably, one of the greatest American poets of the 20th Century.
Hughes once wrote:
“At the feet o’ Jesus,
Sorrow like a sea.
Lordy, let yo’ mercy
Come driftin’ down on me.”
In addition to Hughes, the multi-talented jazz musician, dancer, and big band leader Cab Calloway was also a classmate at Lincoln. Calloway was decades later re-introduced to younger generations in a movie called the Blues Brothers.
I am not sure if Marshall, Hughes, and Calloway ever enrolled in the same class together at Lincoln. But I must admit, and I chuckle to myself, if there was a professor who had THAT diversity of genius in his classroom, he must have had his hands full.
In 2021, I find it challenges me greatly that a Big Ten university was a segregated institution decades ago. But as an undergraduate, the mustard seed that was planted by Thurgood Marshall was just beginning to sprout into someone bigger than the little kid who grew up in Baltimore. For law school, Marshall wanted to become a Maryland Terrapin and desired to attend that university’s law school near his home. But he was denied enrollment into Maryland which was a segregated university in those days. So, instead he enrolled in another historically Black school: Howard University. He graduated Howard first in his class.
Marshall went on to found the NAACP’s legal defense fund. In his capacity as an attorney, Marshall represented clients 32 times in front of the Supreme Court. No other attorney has argued or presented as many cases before that court. A truly gifted advocate, Marshall’s clients won their cases an astonishing 29 of those 32 times.
In my graduate school of Educational Leadership, we learned about Marshall’s most famous case. Legal scholars often suggest that it is the most important and influential Supreme Court decision of the 20th century. The church celebrates Thurgood Marshall annually on May 17 because that is the day the Supreme Court announced its unanimous decision in the case Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. In that case, a group of Black parents filed a class action suit because their children were forced to attend a segregated school.
Some 90 years earlier, the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson had ruled that segregation could be the law of the land. In Plessy vs. Ferguson, the court ruled that separate could be equal which put a stamp of legality on decades of segregation.
Marshall argued in Brown vs. the Board of Education that Separate was inherently unequal and the court agreed. Nine justices agreed in a unanimous decision. It certainly was not the end of segregation, but now civil rights leaders had the rule of law on their side. As a result, a few years later President Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock when the Little Rock Board of Education refused to allow the Little Rock 9 to attend Little Rock Central High School.
Brown vs. the Board of Education was a mustard seed that helped to sprout the civil rights movement. Obviously, a Supreme Court case by itself could not end decades, perhaps centuries, of racial bigotry and institutional racism. Certainly, images of the Little Rock 9 who were protected by federal troops as they entered Little Rock Central High School while being ringed by white students and parents screaming and spitting obscenities, proved that racial hatred runs much deeper than a single Supreme Court decision could overcome.
Marshall was also a consistent foe of the death penalty. Having voted and argued forcefully with former Chief Justice Warren to permanently abolish it.
I don’t recall Jesus ever saying: “It’s easy. Just do this and the Kingdom of God on earth will be immediate.” What Jesus did say was that the Kingdom of God was like a mustard seed which when planted becomes rooted in the soil and grows into something bigger. “Blessed are the poor for theirs is the Kingdom” and we hope on earth as it is in heaven.
There is only one Thurgood Marshall. One individual whose jurisprudence branched out in many directions and helped bend the arc of the universe toward justice. Marshall who faithfully attended services even as a Supreme Court Justice and was simply called “the Judge” by his fellow parishioners at his church, St Augustine’s Episcopal in the District of Columbia.
Marshall once said:
“A child born to a Black mother in a state like Mississippi has exactly the same rights as a white baby born to the wealthiest person in the United States. It's not true, but I challenge anyone to say it is not a goal worth working for.”
Let us always remember those words of Thurgood Marshall as we too are called to a goal of bending the arc of our universe toward racial justice, if only a little, and bring the Kingdom of God just a tad closer to THIS present reality.
February 18, 2018, St James’s Episcopal Church, Richmond, VA
Read, listen, or view this sermon using the links below: