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Sermon 6.30.24 Pauli Murray: The Survivor



I have a little confession to make.

I went to a church service the other day called “Drag me to Church.”

It wasn’t called this, because the people at the church all grabbed their 20 year old children and made them come to church like they were in high school.

It was called drag me to church because the service was led by drag queens.

I don’t know how you feel about drag queens in church, but they were all singing Gospel music and it was joyful.

It was this crazy dichotomy, because the people that I know that life that kind of life don’t always feel accepted by the church, and because of that they often reject the church.

But, it was this beautiful thing, because we had these people singing gospel music in a church and for me that was beautiful…

That’s not what I am going to preach to you about today, though.

Today I am moved to preach to you; They survived so we can thrive.

A young black man named Oliver was arrested in Petersburg, Virginia while making his way back home to Durham North Carolina from New York City.

He was in the company of a female friend named Adelene McBean.

The two were on a bus, making the long trek from the North back to the South, where Oliver was born and raised.

Sitting on broken seats near the back of the bus, the couple decided to move forward to seats in better repair.

It was a long journey by bus, this trip from the Big Apple to the Tarheel state, especially in 1940…

The Reverend Pauli Murray, maybe channeling her inner Gloria Gaynor, once said, “If anyone should ask a Negro woman in America what has been her greatest achievement, her honest answer would be, ‘I survived!’”

Pauli Murray was the first African American woman to be ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church in 1977.

This was the same year that women’s ordination was officially recognized as a legitimate ordination by the church,

And three years after the Philadelphia Eleven, the first women to be ordained “irregularly” to the priesthood, had made the church live up to its stated ideal, that we believe in a priesthood of all believers.

By the way, something that I literally just learned this morning…

The Crucifer at that ordination service for the Philadelphia Eleven was none other than Barbara Clementine Harris, who would go on to become not just the first African American woman, but the first woman, elected bishop by our church.

This week, we as the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement, celebrated and remembered all of these amazing women and the boundaries that they broke wide open.

But back to Pauli Murray.

Pauli was born Anna Pauline Murray in November 1910 in Durham, North Carolina.

Opposite of our friend Oliver from the story earlier, she made the journey from Durham to New York City and began to attend Hunter College at the age of 16.

She received her law degree from Howard University as the first in her class in 1944, a class which was 100% male except for her.

She attempted to enroll for post-graduate work at Harvard University, but was denied entry because of her… and you’ll never guess…

Her gender. Surprise. See, sometimes racist institutions decide to be sexist instead.

She dubbed her snub, Jane Crow.

She went on to get a Master’s Degree in Law at the University of California Berkeley and her Doctorate at Yale.

She was listed as a co-author on a legal brief that went to the Supreme Court written by Ruth Bader Ginsberg; a.k.a. the Notorious RBG,

And she was appointed to a commission on the status of women by President John F. Kennedy from 1960-63.

She was a civil rights pioneer, for women and people of color,

Writing a book in 1950 called State’s Laws on Race and Color, which Thurgood Marshall described as the “bible” of the civil rights movment.

She became a tenured professor and introduced women’s studies and African American studies at Brandeis University.

And, after all of this success in her professional life, Pauli felt what so many people have felt across the ages,

She felt God calling her to ordained ministry.

So, she went to seminary (and my family thinks that I’ve been in school too long…).

She was 63 years old, when she first attended General Theological Seminary and then Virginia Theological Seminary (my alma mater).

The Reverend Pauli Murray died of Pancreatic Cancer in 1985 on July 1st.

Tomorrow is the day in the Episcopal Church calendar of Holy Women and Holy Men when she is remembered along with fellow Saint of the church, Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Tonight, the Church of the Redeemer will have a celebration worship service to honor Pauli Murray at 5pm, I hope you’ll join me in going over, if you can.

But this Public Service Announcement is not the whole reason that I brought up Pauli Murray.

I also bring her up, because apart from marvelling at all of the wonderful things that she did and the amazing person that she was,

I bring her up, because I think that she can give us strength for our journey when we dig a little deeper.

After hearing her story, we might be tempted to only focus on the good, the end of the story, the highlights of a life lived well and the influence of a strong black woman.

But, remember that quote from earlier?

Pauli Murray said that she considered the greatest achievement of a black woman to be surviving.

This may perplex many people to hear this coming from a woman who achieved so much, especially in a world that wants to sweep the hard things under the rug and only remember the happy things.

Of course, for us here, her statement makes sense, though I must admit wondering to myself, is this all black women can do for Pauli Murray?

That doesn’t seem very hopeful.

It is, however, very realistic to her experience of America.

But, I want to say to you today, it doesn’t always have to be that way.

Jesus’ healing of the hemorrhaging woman, shows us that God’s intention for women, and ultimately for all of us is not just surviving, but thriving.

This woman, whom we’ve talked about before, can often be overlooked, because her story is one of those fancy word stories that I told you about three years ago.

Her story is an intercalation.

Do you remember that?

It is the type of story that gets wedged into the middle of another story in order to show the passage of time between Jairus’ daughter being sick,

And Jesus getting there too late to heal her.

And often, I think the stories of black women get treated like this.

It’s the in-between story that doesn’t stand on its own, but only in relation to the story of someone that society really cares about.

Is that true? Cuts deep doesn’t it?

I want you to notice something in this story that is out in the open, that we often talk about, but I want you to see it in a new way today.

The bleeding.

Now, sociologically and medically, many interpreters of this passage have attempted to diagnose what exactly was happening to this unfortunate “woman in the middle.”

Some of those interpretations have been really powerful trauma-informed interpretations.

They recognize that this woman has been long-suffering, most probably after the loss of a child during childbirth.

I often talk about how we interpret a biblical text, what our options are, how we can defamiliarize the text to get something out of it.

The most important thing, for me, to get from a biblical text is an interpretation that does not harm, but heals.

I love how healing this interpretation of the hemorrhaging woman can be.

I want to push it a little bit though.

We don’t actually know what causes this woman’s bleeding.

As modern readers of the text, we need to recognize that this Scripture was written, however beautifully and poignantly, by a man.

Mark gives us no details about her bleeding. He doesn’t even actually call it a hemorrhage in our modern medical sense.

He simply calls it a “flow,”

Which is man speak for, I don’t know exactly what happens with women’s bodies and blood, but it’s been 12 years and I think that is significant.

Also, from a religious perspective, as has been amply noted in the interpretive tradition since the beginning,

Her “flow” of blood means that she is ritually impure and cannot be purified to take part in any part of religious life until the bleeding stops.

What I want to say to you today is that this “woman in the middle,” is surviving, but not thriving.

And yet, her story strengthens us.

Not just because she suffers, that would be a terrible thing to believe.

No, it strengthens us because she shows us the power of faith, the power of reaching out our hands and expecting to be healed by Jesus, even and maybe especially when the world doesn’t understand our story.

This is the type of faith that belongs to Pauli Murray and to all of the black women that her story represents.

The story of women who survived so that we can thrive.

In all of her success, Pauli Murray was also acquainted with suffering and surviving; that trait that she calls universal for women of her race.

She suffered set backs because of racism and sexism to name just two.

We know that she was not admitted to Harvard, because of her gender, in all probability her race didn’t help.

We don’t know, but undoubtedly given the climate of seminaries in the 1970’s, she faced racism and sexism from her classmates and professors at General and Virginia.

After reading the history book of the African American Experience at Virginia Seminary that was commissioned as part of its racial reconciliation process,

We know how black students and women were treated at the seminary after their integrations into these institutions.

Pauli Murray may not have experienced the type of hemorrhage that is associated with the “woman in the middle,”

But she knew what it was like to have the bleeding wound or racism and sexism that would not heal,

That would not make her clean in the eyes of the world or the church,

Until the saving touch of Jesus and her persistance in seeking the Lord made the church and the world recognize the power of Jesus’ touch.

She survived, so that we could thrive.

She, and countless other brave women like the Philadelphia Eleven and the Rt. Rev. Bishop Barbara C. Harris, survived and made it possible that women of all races could become ordained ministers in this church.

And for that, we should be grateful, as we are grateful for all “women in the middle,” whose stories seem like ways to pass the time, but whose power is the true power of God working in this world.

Now, I just want to add one more thing, and I promise I’ll sit down.

You know those most dangerous words of all preachers, “in conclusion.”

I want to bring us back to the story of Oliver from the beginning of this sermon.

Oliver was also a “woman in the middle.”

Okay, okay, don’t get too mad at me ruining this whole sermon by making it come to the story of a man in the end after all of that hard work…

Why are you telling us about Oliver instead of Adelene, right?

Oliver, though, was a “woman in the middle.”

In the middle of a journey for sure.

In the middle of a struggle for civil rights.

But a woman?

I say this, because Oliver is the name that Pauli Murray gave to the arresting officers, who forced her off of the bus that day with Adelene McBean.

For much of her early life, Anna Pauline Murray, would pass as a boy in the streets of Baltimore.

Later in life, she changed her name from Pauline to Pauli, because it sounded a little more androgynous.

She kept her hair short, and most of her life-long relationships were with women.

Pauli Murray was never able to publicly come out, and she probably didn’t have the words to describe how she actually felt inside.

What I want to conclude with today is that there are still people in our communities, who are stuck with their story in the middle,

Overlooked and continuing to bleed.

Looking for the healing touch of Jesus.

Pauli Murray helps us to see through her travails and survival as a black woman that the struggle is not over,

That our commitment to those who reach out in faith applies to all people who come to be healed from the hurts that the world pushes on them.

We are seeing more thriving in the life of this church, because of who Pauli Murray was and who she continues to reveal herself to be.

We are seeing more thriving in our life of faith, because we have a Lord who turned around to this “woman in the middle” - that everyone rejected - and told her, “your faith has made you well.”

Jesus will never turn back anyone, anyone who comes to him in faith.

I pray that as his church we will continue to honor Jesus and Pauli Murray by continuing in this life of healing the survivors, so that all of God’s people can be thrivers.

Amen.

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