Following Jesus

Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

“The Church missed its high calling to be the new thing in the world when it decided to worship Jesus instead of following him.”

Verna Dozier in The Dream of God

In one of our first conversations, Collie Agle introduced Verna Dozier as St. Mark’s prophet and spoke lovingly about her career as a  teacher, preacher, and brilliant theologian. He showed me her portrait downstairs in the library that bears her name and the clerestory window made in her honor.

This is how Fredrica Harris Thompsett introduces her in the book Confronted by God: The Essential Verna Dozier.

“Like a biblical prophet she is focused and single-minded. Like a prophet she urgently witnesses to God’s reign on earth, speaking the truth as she sees it, and commands your attention with a message that is uncomfortable at best. From first meeting her you know that this woman–small in frame, dressed in blue, and feisty in spirit–is not to be trifled with. Verna Dozier is unforgettable.”

Even though I never met her, it feels that this is a very fitting description of Verna. Through her books and from the multiple conversations I’ve had with many who knew her over the 50 years she was a member of this parish, that’s how I imagine her.

She certainly was a brilliant theologian and a self-described radical, a woman who was not afraid to speak out about uncomfortable topics.

For example, she was convinced of the need to empower the laity to assume their rightful place in the church, and also to realize that ministry is not something you do Sundays at church, but that your life, your day job, your family–all aspects of life–are your ministry, and that God and one’s relationship with God are essential elements of it.

This is how she put it: “The ground on which we stand is holy ground. God is where we are. What space could be more sacred than where God is? As long as we, intentionally or unintentionally, believe and therefore act out that we have to go somewhere special to meet God or do something special to be close to God, laypeople will see themselves as second-class citizens in the household of faith, and the work they do as a second-class activity.”

She believed that the clergy’s role was to support the laity and not to be the end-all when it came to church, as she clearly states, “The sacred space the clergy provide is to give laypeople the opportunity to celebrate together the God we have met in the sacred places of our homes and offices and communities, to confess our failures to identify what God has made sacred, to be renewed so that we know all our life is holy.”

Verna wanted us to have an ongoing relationship with God in all parts of our lives, not only in church. In The Dream of God, she shares her conviction that the biblical message is that God has called us throughout history to be God’s people. However, time and again we continue to ignore this calling. Verna thought that “people […] were escaping God’s awesome invitation to be something new in the world. I think God was always offering the possibility of living the kingdom of God in the midst of the kingdoms of this world.”

The gospel today brings a message from Jesus, which some people consider too challenging. Some wonder what Jesus really meant. Was he being literal? Maybe not; maybe this message is not addressed to us but to others. I’ve heard people say, “how can I love my enemies, how can I do good to those who hate me, bless those who curse me, pray for those who abuse me? It’s not possible. It can’t be done. I’m only human.”

But I say to you, that’s exactly what we’re being asked to do. All of us. No one said it was easy, but it’s what we’re being asked to do; following Jesus isn’t easy; being human isn’t easy–it’s not a bed of roses. It demands that we become aware of who we are. It requires a lot of work on ourselves. And it requires context.

As Howard Thurman, who was Verna’s mentor and inspiration in her years at Howard University says in his book, Jesus and the Disinherited, the injunction to love our enemies requires that we begin by understanding who our enemy is– and there are many kinds. There is first the personal level of those who hurt us or whom we have hurt; usually someone close– a friend or family member. That’s a starting point. It behooves us to seek reconciliation with that person and make peace with them. And I would add that before we can seek reconciliation with others, we first need to forgive ourselves, to be loving and compassionate with ourselves, which often is the hardest part. Sometimes we are our own worst enemy.

And then we have others in circles that gradually widen. For Jesus, in his time it was the tax collectors or the Samaritans or the Romans. Each of those was an enemy on account of what each represented for the people of Israel. Tax collectors were those who worked for the empire and took from their own people to make the rich richer. Samaritans were those who had separated from the Israelites since ancient times. Romans were the invaders and oppressors of Israel. The gospels have many examples of Jesus loving people from these three groups of enemies.

In our day, we need to look into our lives and within our context and determine who the enemies are that we are called to love. This is essential so that we can lead holy lives like Verna taught.

In February we celebrate Black History Month and honor African-American figures who have been examples of strength and courage. It’s extremely clear that they all practiced what Jesus taught. For them, today’s gospel contained not words to ponder and wonder whether they applied to them, but words to live by.

We see it in Howard Thurman who co-founded the first Interfaith and interracial church in 1944. The Church for the Fellowship of all Peoples in San Francisco continues to this day offering a forum for social and spiritual transformation.

We see it in Martin Luther King, Jr. who made his life’s mission to preach non-violence, forgiveness, and love.

We see it in Fannie Lou Hamer, who dedicated her life to getting Black people in Mississippi to become full citizens by exercising their right to vote. When Mrs. Hamer was not being a civil rights activist, she was working on an ingenious project, the Freedom Farm Cooperative, aimed at feeding the starving black and white folks in her Sunflower County. Her life, which we read in centering prayer, is proof that living the gospel is a reality for some. In a memorable speech, she said, “We are fighting to save these people from their hate… We want them to see the right way. Every night of my life that I lay down before I go to sleep, I pray for these people that despitefully use me. […] How can we say we love God and hate our brothers and sisters? ”

And we see it in Verna Dozier. Verna, the first Black person to come to St. Mark’s, didn’t suffer the kind of ignominy that Fannie Lou Hamer suffered at the hands of white people. Her world was radically different from Mrs. Hamer’s. She had stability throughout her life; a strong mother of faith and a supportive and agnostic father who was her fellow seeker, joining her at Howard University’s chapel where they would listen and drink up all of the inspiring theology coming out of Howard Thurman’s lips.

However, Verna was no stranger to racism. She grew up in a segregated Washington. She attended Black schools, went to Howard, a Historically Black University, and after receiving her Master’s degree she went to work in the Washington public school system, which at the time was still segregated.

As Jan Hoffman, Verna’s lifelong friend told me not long ago, back in the day, Verna used to come over to visit her and her friend Vera Price. At one point their landlord warned them that he would evict them if they continued to allow “that woman to visit them.” Undeterred, the friends continued to receive Verna in their home until they were evicted!

There’s the story of how Verna came to St. Mark’s: “Bill Baxter was the rector of St. Mark’s and St. Mark’s was a dying church. [One] night we were going to teach a course on the New Testament [and] we were lined up outside the door at All Saints’ Chevy Chase. I was the only woman, the only layperson, and the only black.

“So that’s how I met Bill Baxter. He said to me, ‘Verna, I’m making some great changes at St. Mark’s. I think we are now ready for a Black, and I would like you to come.’ Well, it didn’t make any difference to me, but Bill, with his creative response to reality, had not presented the situation accurately. St. Mark’s was not ready for a Black!

“When I first came, they really thought that I was a spy for the NAACP because those people at St. Mark’s had such a terrific fear of black people. They also had the very exalted idea that blacks would be trying to infiltrate any white church.”  The year was 1955.

Those are a few examples of what Verna Dozier had to put up with. Yet she was undeterred. Her love for the Episcopal church’s ethos, what she called its liberty, drew her to become an Episcopalian despite her initial reservations about its people. She liked how the Episcopal Church focused on the biblical story, plus she loved the liturgy. And over time she became essential to St. Mark’s. She preached and taught and worked on all kinds of projects. She was elected senior warden and led the parish through a similar time as we’re living now when Jim Adams left on sabbatical.

Verna learned to love her enemies–people who looked down on her, those who didn’t initially trust her because she was Black and a woman.

Teaching the Bible, she used to ask, “What does it have to do with my life?” When we hear, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you… Do to others as you would have them do to you,” I ask, what does this have to do with our lives?

It has everything to do with them if we want to live just and holy lives. Jesus asks us to follow his example, and it all starts with knowing ourselves. We can start with small steps. We cannot do everything at once, and we must remember the context and be patient with ourselves as we struggle.

Here’s Verna’s voice one last time from The Dream of God,

“[Jesus] asked for a total and general sharing of all possessions. The kingdom of God will be a society in which there will be no prestige and no status, no division of people into inferior and superior. Everybody will be loved and respected, not because of education or wealth or ancestry or authority or rank or virtue or achievements, but because each human being is created by God and loved by God. Jesus understood love as solidarity. Love your enemies, and call them enemies no more. Faith is a straightforward decision for the kingdom of God. To believe in God is to believe that goodness is more powerful than evil and truth is stronger than falsehood. To believe in God is to believe that in the end goodness and truth will triumph over evil and falsehood.”