May 18, 2008

Sermon: Thurgood Marshall (Trinity Sunday)

(Note: The Diocese of Washington is working towards adding Thurgood Marshall to the liturgical calendar and to the Book of Lesser Feasts and Fasts. You can read more about the effort by clicking here.)

St. Mary’s, Foggy Bottom, Washington, DC
May 18, 2008
Trial Feast of Thurgood Marshall
Amos 5:10-15, 21-24; Psalm 34:15-22; I Corinthians 13:1-13; Matthew 23:1-11

It is a great pleasure to be with you this morning in one of our most historic parishes. Rev. Wheeler & I go back to the months before I arrived in the Diocese of Washington, when we were both at the Episcopal Youth Event in Laramie, Wyoming in the summer of 2002. He is a good friend and I know I don’t have to tell you how lucky you are to have him as your rector. I have also had the pleasure of working with Rhoda Smith from time to time on Christian Formation practices since 2002, and if we had a Hall of Fame for dedicated Christian Formation leaders, she would surely be one of the inductees.

It’s not often that we get to observe three events on one Sunday, but we are doing that today. Rest assured, dear friends. You will only get one sermon. The Church Universal today celebrates the Trinity, arguable one of the greatest mysteries in all of the world’s religions. And throughout our Diocese and in other parts of the Episcopal Church, we pause today to celebrate the life of Thurgood Marshall. Closer to home, here at St. Mary’s, we celebrate the young people of this parish.

Without neglecting the Trinity, I will briefly relay a story told by the Rev. John Thomas during a Trinity Sunday sermon once. He was at an event with several prominent theologians. Among them was an older Greek Orthodox priest. When one of the conference participants asked the priest what Greek Orthodox Christians believe about the Trinity, the well-versed gentleman from the Old Country stepped up to the microphone and said, “Ah. The Trinity… Yes. Is Mystery.” And sat back down.

What is not a mystery is the life of Mr. Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to sit on the United States Supreme Court and a well-beloved member of St. Augustine’s Parish in Southwest DC. His widow Cissy is still a member there.

At the 2006 Diocesan Convention, The Diocese of Washington began the process for having Justice Marshall included on our liturgical calendar, and among the saints remembered in the Book of Lesser Feasts and Fasts. Lesser Feasts and Fasts is not short on men in its pages, but it is short of lay people and on people of color. We are hoping that by remembering him each year in our own Diocese, we will be able to make the case at General Convention 2009 that Justice Marshall should be remembered by all of the church. The Diocese recommended that May 17th be the day we commemorate Justice Marshall, as that is the anniversary of his landmark win before the Supreme Court in Brown vs. the Topeka Kansas Board of Education.

In order to understand the significance of Brown, we have to understand or at least know about Plessey vs. Ferguson. In 1896, The Supreme Court ruled, with only one dissenting member, that laws requiring the separation of races were not in violation of the 14th Amendment, and were indeed legal. The 14th Amendment ensures equal protection under the law. It became the foundation of the “separate but equal” standard that remained in our country until 1954.

Justice John Harlan, the lone dissenting voice, expressed his disagreement with the majority:
“Our Constitution is color-blind,” he said, “and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved.”

As Brown vs. Board of Education was working its way through the courts, an attorney named Thurgood Marshall had been chosen as lead counsel for the NAACP. This was not a job he stumbled upon. He had already won important cases regarding civil rights. His first was in 1936 at the age of 28. Mr. Marshall represented Donald Gaines Murray, a young African-American man who had been denied admission to the University of Maryland Law School because of its separate but equal policies. Mr. Murray had graduated from Amherst College and had excellent credentials. This policy required black students to accept one of three options: attend Morgan College, the Princess Anne Academy, or an out-of-state black institution. In 1935, Mr. Marshall argued the case for Mr. Murray, showing that neither of the in-state institutions offered a law school and that such schools were entirely unequal to the University of Maryland. Marshall expected to lose and had already begun preparing his appeal to the federal courts. Much to his surprise, though, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled against the state of Maryland stating "Compliance with the Constitution cannot be deferred at the will of the state. Whatever system is adopted for legal education now must furnish equality of treatment now". While it was a moral victory, the ruling had no real authority outside the state of Maryland.

It was among the first chip in the “separate but equal” armor. While Brown did not eliminate the ills of racism or the problems of bigotry, it finally removed the biggest hurdle to doing something about segregation. It struck down the laws that supported segregation. Without the Brown decision, the bold move by Rosa Parks and the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr., would not have been possible. They would have been merely rabble-rousers.

It would be fascinating to know how his faith shaped his desire to see justice and equality happen for African-Americans in this country. While Justice Marshall did not often talk about his faith, when he was sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice in 1967, his Bible was open to 1 Corinthians 13, one of our lessons this morning, a chapter describing our charge as Christians, to love above all else. If we do not have love, our life and our walk with Christ mean nothing.

Many of the opportunities young people have in our country and in our church are due to the efforts of Thurgood Marshall and those who came after him.

I found a quote from him this week that draws in his efforts with this celebration of young people here at St. Mary’s. It’s a statement for young and old alike.

Listen carefully:
“None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody – a parent, a teacher, an Ivy League crony or a few nuns – bent down and helped us pick up our boots.”

Every young person needs at least one adult to be wild-crazy about them. Our journey through this life is one that we don’t walk alone. God has put people on our path to help show us the way, and God has invited us to be on the path of our brothers and sisters, whether they are followers of Christ or not.

It is important for those of you in the under-18 crowd to remember that the adults in your life have a great deal to teach you, just as you have a great deal to teach us. We just had more birthdays and made more mistakes for you to learn from.

This generation of young people has the power to change the world. And they will. I’ve seen it. I believe it. But they won’t do it by themselves. They need the adults around them to help make it happen, to be their cheering section, to show them the best ways to pull up their boot straps, and to love them unconditionally.


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