The following is a transcript of the sermon of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry at the House of Bishops of The Episcopal Church, meeting in retreat at Camp Allen, Navasota, Texas, through March 21. These remarks have been lightly edited for clarity.
In the name of our loving, liberating and life-giving God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Some of y’all remember the TV show “Welcome Back, Kotter”? Welcome back, Kotter. Welcome, bishops. Welcome back, in person. It feels like a modified exile. And in one sense, I suppose it has been. COVID, racial reckoning, an attempted overthrow of the government of the United States. And now a world that hasn’t been this close to self-destruction since the Cuban missile crisis. But welcome back anyway.
So when I saw the lessons that had been appointed—because I love lectionaries. You can love in a dialectical sort of way. When I saw the lessons that were appointed for today, I said, “Those are good lessons.” But I think I heard the Spirit, maybe. I won’t blame it on the Spirit. Something said, “I got another text for you.” And this is a welcome back text. Words of Jesus found in the 11th chapter of Matthew:
“Come unto me all ye who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for my yoke is easy.” It’ll fit, because my burden is light.
Come unto me, all ye who were bishops before this pandemic, and all ye, [inaudible] bishops who were consecrated during the pandemic. Come unto me, all ye who have been consecrated since then and all who soon will be. Come unto me, Episcopal Church. Come unto me, people who follow in my way and claim the name Christian. Come unto me whosoever will, who are weary, tired, beaten down, worn out, COVID crazy, right? Come unto me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke. Instead of the yoke that’s imposed on you from this world, take my yoke and learn from me. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is not slavery. It’s freedom.
An old spiritual said it this way, “In the morning when I rise, in the morning when I rise, in the morning when I rise, give me Jesus. When it’s time for me to die, when it’s time for me to die, when it’s time for me to die, just give me Jesus. Give me Jesus. Give me Jesus. You can have all this world. Just give me Jesus” (paraphrased). Come unto me, he said. Or as he would’ve said in south of Judah, y’all come. Come.
That spiritual, you can have all the world, give me Jesus, I’ve known it all my life. It’s kind of like the Lord’s prayer. I don’t remember when I didn’t know it. And I think I know it because it tended to get sung at family funerals, at least at the Baptist side of my family. Not at the Episcopal side. Those funerals were so short, they’re not memorable, but anyway, oops.
But in the Baptist side of my family, the Pentecostal Holiness side of my family, that was always sung. You can have all this world, give me Jesus. I suspect that’s where I heard it, but I remember at one particular funeral—this would’ve been the summer of 1969, I believe. The funeral had been at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where my Aunt Callie taught Sunday school. And she had gone on the glory, and so the whole family trucked to Birmingham for a funeral. And then we buried her out in the country and came back to Birmingham for the family repast after the funeral.
I don’t know if y’all’s families are like this. I don’t know if this is an ethnic thing or not. I have no idea. But usually the repast is the time folk tell stories, and that’s what people do at funerals anyway. They tell stories and lies, and usually critique the preacher. Because sometimes the preachers will preach folk into heaven and say, “Oh, so and so, oh, he was a saint. He was a…” And we say, “You know, we loved uncle so and so, but we knew him. He wasn’t no saint now.”
But anyway, folk would come back. And then in my family, on my father’s side, folk, they would debate politics, and sports, and the Bible. On this one occasion, this was 1968, the summer of ‘68, Dr. King had been assassinated. Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated. Medgar Evers. Viola Liuzzo. John Kennedy, a president. And one of my cousins got in a debate, a polite debate, because in those day you didn’t talk back to the elders. A polite debate with one of my uncles who was a preacher, Baptist preacher. And he said, “You know, I’m tired of hearing folks sing that song, ‘You can have all this world, just give me Jesus.’” And he said, “That’s exactly what our folk got. We’ve been singing that song. You can have all this world, and somebody else got the world and all we got was Jesus.”
And I don’t remember how the debate ended, but needless to say, my uncle was not pleased. But it was like what Desmond Tutu said about Southern Africa, he said, “When the missionaries came, they had the Bible and we had the land. Next thing we knew, we had the Bible, and they had the land.” Something was wrong with that deal. We love the Bible, but how about Bible and land?
My cousin had a point, that religion sometimes can be an opiate of the people. It can be twisted and distorted and misused to a narcotic, to keep people from rising up and claiming their God-given rights and human dignity. Although it has been used before, but I believe that old song has a deeper wisdom. “You can have all this world, just give me Jesus.” See, don’t underestimate the power of that which is authentically spiritual. Because if it is authentically of the spirit, it is of God. Don’t underestimate that. It may take its time. As the old preachers say, “It may not be on your time.” It may not happen on my time, but when God’s will is done on earth, as it is in heaven, it is always on time.
Don’t underestimate the power of hope. Dante warned us, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,” over the gates of hell. Don’t underestimate the power of faith. Don’t underestimate the power of love. Don’t underestimate the spiritual. People who believe. People got God. They will make it against all the odds. If you don’t believe me, ask the folk of Ukraine. Help me, somebody. Mary Glasspool gave this to me right before the Eucharist. It is a candle, adorned. She got it from a Ukrainian shop in New York. Don’t, Putin, oh, I’m going to get in trouble. I know I’m going to get in trouble with what I’m about to say. Putin may overrun the country, but he will not defeat the people of Ukraine. He will not. Spirit will always win over flesh. It may not be in the forecast time, but it’s real.
In 1853, Theodore Parker, an abolitionist, when it looked like slavery would never end in this country, said, and I quote, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc seems to be a long one, but from what I can see it bends toward justice.” Dr. King shortened it and said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it is bent toward justice.” Not because of some metaphysical magic, but because there is a God. And if there is a God, then there is hope. If there is a God, then there can be faith. And if there is a God, as my Bible says, who is love, then in the end, no matter what we have to go through now, in the end, love is going to win. If there’s a God, love is going to win.
Pray for Ukraine. Don’t give up on them. Do other things, send money to the refugees—Episcopal Relief & Development is working with other Christian groups in Hungary and in Eastern Europe. So get folk to send money. This is a commercial. Am I on TV somewhere here? Get the money to Episcopal Relief & Development. And there may be other things we can do, but do not abandon them without prayer. Pray. Pray for Ukraine. Pray for Russia. Pray for Putin, that unlike Pharaoh his hardened heart may be turned.
And if it doesn’t turn, pray for the leaders of the nations, that they will have moral courage, spiritual wisdom to do what is right, to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Don’t abandon prayer now. Pray for the children of Ukraine. I love, I got to tell this, I have fallen in love with the people of Ukraine. First of all, they cuss better than anybody else I have … I mean, they have invented some cussing that wasn’t there. They are incredible. I can’t say some of the words that they … There was a group of little old ladies who looked like a prayer group on CNN, and they asked them, “What do you think of Putin?” And I think it was “glossolalia,” some unknown tongue, because they got to cussing and saying all sorts of stuff.
But these are remarkable people. Their spirit, they just want to free. They just want to be free. And the truth of the matter is, Thomas Jefferson, he had his issues like the lesson that we just had from Matthew 23, where Jesus said, “Do what the scribes and pharisees say, don’t do what they do.” When it comes to Thomas Jefferson, don’t do what he did, but he was right: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men”—all people—”are created equal.” Thomas Jefferson said the God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time. And that is true for everybody. The people of Ukraine just want to be free.
I’m not going to talk long this morning, but I ain’t seen y’all in person in a long time. You don’t know. You have no idea how glad I am to see you all. You have no idea. Oh, dear Lord. I remember this would’ve been, well, probably 1960, and I went to the movie with my daddy. And we went to see “Exodus.” It was based on Leon Uris’ book, “Exodus.” And now we understand that’s a complex story, more complex than we understood in 1960. I understand all of that, so don’t go political on me right now. But it is the story of people seeking freedom.
At the end of the movie, we went out and daddy just blurted out—it was really fascinating now that I think about it—he just said, “The Lord didn’t make anybody to be under anybody’s boot. He made us all to be free.” All of us. He was right. He made the people of Ukraine to be free. Not free for licentiousness, but free to be all that God intends for us to be. But freedom, stay with me, freedom is a spiritual reality. You see where I’m going now? Don’t underestimate the power for freedom, said St. Paul. “Christ has set us free. Stand fast and do not accept the yoke of slavery again.” That’s St. Paul. That’s in the Bible. And it ain’t just talking about personal sin. It’s talking about that, but it’s talking about for freedom, Christ has set us free.
Those slaves used to sing a spiritual. It said, “Oh, freedom. Oh, freedom. Oh, freedom over me. And before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.”
Did you catch that? Somebody who is legally chattel property, somebody who by every political socioeconomic reality of this world—stay with me—is a slave, declaring, “I’m not a slave. Before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.” Oh, this spiritual thing, this business we are, this is powerful stuff. It can set the captive free, even when the world would enslave. Jesus says, “Come unto me. Come unto me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden.”
I don’t know if it’s just because I’m 69, but I’m not lying. I’m tired. But I’m feeling good this morning because I see you all. Yeah, we’re all kind of tired. And folk in church, I call it COVID crazy. Everybody’s a little bit on edge and folk acting out in ways that… Have you noticed a pattern? Yeah, I don’t know if it’s just Christian COVID crazy or if it’s human COVID crazy. And I got to go to the meeting with the primates of the Anglican communion right after this meeting . . . I don’t know what to expect in that, but I’m looking forward to a great, getting-up morning. But nonetheless, I mean the truth is everybody, there is a weariness, and you have been frontline folk even on Zoom. And our clergy have been frontline folk. And they’re tired. And the world is giving us no rest.
Jesus says, come unto me all who are weary, heaven laden and beaten down by the realities of this world. Take my yoke. Take my way of life and love. Take what I’m trying to teach you. Take my yoke upon you. Learn from me. Don’t you know? Oh, Cynthia Bourgeault is coming. You all got to know Jesus is Sophia’s child. “Learn from me for my yoke is easy.” That Greek, where it doesn’t mean it’s easy. What was that? “Ease on down, ease on down the road” (singing). This is not that. No. Easy means it fits. It was made for you. My yoke is easy. It was made to make human life human as God dreamed and intended. It fits. My yoke is easy, and my burden is light. And you will find rest. Did you catch this? Rest. God’s eternal Sabbath rest for your soul.
I read [Walter] Brueggemann’s book, “Sabbath as Resistance,” or at least most of the part I could understand. Rob Wright turned me on to Brueggemann. He understands it. Lot of times I just go, that’s deep. I don’t know what he was talking about, but it’s deep. But at one point, the one part I did understand was when Brueggemann said, “When God rested on the Sabbath, the seventh day, it is rest in one sense. But, it also means that everything,” stay with me, I’m coming at something, “is in its right relationship and proportion. It is as God intended it to be.” That’s when everything is at rest and God saw after the Sabbath was made, everything that God had made, including Sabbath rest. And God said, “Oh, that is showing off good.” Or as George Jefferson used to say, you all remember “The Jeffersons”? When George did something right, he used to pat himself on the back and say, “Good one, George.”
God kind of said, “This is a good one.” When the world is the way I intended it to be. When all things are consistent with the created order. When love is the law of the creation. When the creation is cared for. When there’s room for all of God’s children. And God rested and said, “It is good.” Oh, you can have all this world. You all see this? Is this making some sense? Just give me Jesus. Well, I’m really going to bring this home. I really am now.
As many of you know, this past January, Dr. Charles Willie, who served at one time as the vice president of the House of Deputies in the 1970s, and who was, oh yeah, you know him well, yeah. I mean, Jennifer (Baskerville-Burrows) would know him from Syracuse, from Grace Church. But Dr. Charles Willie, who was a lifelong Episcopalian from Dallas, Texas, he died and entered life eternal in January. And that has been the case with many who have gone on to glory during the COVID pandemic; funerals are delayed. And so I got a note, an email from Byron Rushing, our current vice president of the House of Deputies, just Sunday, saying that the family’s having a memorial service for him this coming Saturday, in light of the fact that the omicron spread was happening in January.
When I got that note from Byron, I thought about Dr. Willie, and remembered that he was an African American child born and reared here in Texas a long time ago. His mama was a teacher, but not allowed to teach in the public schools because of Jim Crow. Daddy was a Pullman car porter. My granddaddy was a Pullman porter. Went with A. Philip Randolph to the march on Washington in the ‘40s. I wish I had asked him when I was a little kid, what was all that like? Dr. Willie was, Arthur Williams would know Dr. Willie, was a great person, committed Episcopalian, lifelong. He was somebody who devised these segregation plans that were used in a number of cities in this country that actually worked. He was a sociologist who challenged the prevailing notions about the inadequacies of the Black family. And he statistically verified that frankly, that the survival of the Black family was a miracle. A miracle. He was a remarkable guy, not only in his career as an academician, but in his churchmanship and his commitment to Jesus Christ and his church.
He became the vice president of the House of Deputies. And Byron Rushing, in an article, said this, “Black Episcopalians were both proud of Chuck being elected first African American to the Executive Council and vice president of the House of Deputies.” They were so proud because you cannot imagine and cannot overemphasize how racially segregated The Episcopal Church was before the 1970s. It was a stunning reality. Dr. Willie believed that God made all people equal. He believed that the “imago Dei,” the image of God that is conferred upon every human being, is a conferral of infinite value and worth of every human child of God. And that imago Dei is equally distributed upon everybody. Nobody’s got a little bit more of imago Dei than anybody else. Nobody got no more superiority of that imago Dei than anybody else. This is God’s image. This is God’s likeness. This is the God who is love, conferring his dignity and words on every human child of God. And Dr. Willie came to believe that if this was true for his African American community, this must be true for everybody.
And in 1974, he preached at the ordination of the Philadelphia 11. And when the House of Bishops spoke against him, I know I’m getting in trouble, but I’m 69 now. When the House spoke—and we respect people’s opinions, don’t misunderstand me, please—the voices and the chorus against him, and the tide turned against him. And he found himself receiving criticism from Blacks and whites alike. Black folk were upset because he could have been the first Black president of the House of Deputies. And others had their reasons.
But he believed in it, in the God who is love and who is an equal opportunity lover. And so he resigned as vice president of the House of Deputies. And this is what he said to explain this decision, and I quote, “An officer is a servant of the people who attend to the collective life and the rules and regulations developed by that community or association for its life. Either I had to enforce sexist laws, or I had to get the church to change them, or I had to resign as vice president of the House of Deputies. It was the only path of integrity.” And then listen to this: “I could not act like Pilate and do what I knew was wrong. I could not segregate, alienate, and discriminate against women simply because it was legal to do this and yet somehow claim to be acting in love. When that which is legal and that which is loving are in contention, legality must give way to love. I decided not to be Pontius Pilate.”
That, my friends, is a profile in courage. That, my friends, is someone who chose Jesus and not the way of the world. And don’t misunderstand me. Courage comes in conservative stripes as well as liberal ones. Courage comes in all colors. Courage comes in all kinds. Courage comes in all shapes.
For all who have been baptized into Christ and put on Christ, and there is no more slave or free. There is no more male or female. There is no more Jew or Greek, for all are one in Christ. And those who are in Christ, they shall wait upon the Lord. They shall mount up on wings like eagles. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and they will not faint. Come unto me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
“You can have all this world,
Give me Jesus!
In the morning when I rise,
In the morning when I rise,
In the morning when I rise,
Give me Jesus!
Give me Jesus!
Give me Jesus!
You can have all this world,
Give me Jesus!”