The text of the sermon, based on Luke 4.1-13 with references to Deuteronomy 26.1-11 and Romans 10.8-13, preached with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 1st Sunday in Lent, March 6, 2022.
The waiter returned; my credit card and receipt in hand. “Your name’s Abernathy.”
I nodded. “Yes.”
“Are you,” his voice lowered with a note of seriousness, “related to Ralph?”
Over many years, many times, many people have asked me whether I’m related to the Reverend Dr. Ralph Abernathy; civil rights activist, chief colleague and friend of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Many times, in reply, I’ve told this story.
Spring 1974. My senior year at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri. Dr. Abernathy had delivered a lecture, truly, a sermon on race relations. A reception followed. Given the coincidence of my surname, I was invited to attend. Dr. Abernathy asked about my family and wanted to speak with my father. It was after 10 o’clock. Long past my parents’ bedtime. My father, awakened from sleep, was not amused that some joker (although he used a more colorful term!) had called professing to be the Ralph Abernathy. Dr. Abernathy, neither perturbed nor offended, began to recount his family history. Some of the names were familiar to my father, which convinced him that it wasn’t a prank and led to their recognition that they might be related, however distantly.
Often asked about my name, I have told this story about Ralph Abernathy; who, “to prove” his identity, told his story.
We humans are creatures of story. Telling our stories is a fundamental act of remembrance. Through our stories, we reflect on our past from whence we have come. Through our stories, we recognize and realize the present where we stand. Through our stories, we reach for the future where we hope to be.
Sometimes individual stories combine to form a larger tale; a parable of a people, providing communal definition and direction.
The people Israel, liberated from Egyptian slavery, followed Moses for forty years through the wilderness. At journey’s end, Moses commands them, in thanksgiving, to offer first fruits of the harvest and to remember: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor who went down to Egypt.” In reciting the Jacob-story, their story, they, as a people, defined anew from whence they had come and where they were going.
Paul remembered; to the Christians in Rome, testifying to the nearness of “the word.” The gospel. The good news. The story of God’s redemption in Jesus Christ, which Paul had preached and which, when confessed, expressed one’s identity; who one was and to whom one belonged.
Jesus remembered. As his people, centuries before, trekked through the desert, Jesus, before embarking on his ministry, entered the wilderness for forty days of testing. Jesus confronted diabolos, the devil. The personification of all that would hinder his obedience to God. The satisfaction of physical need. The lust for power. The hunger for public acclaim. To each, to all, Jesus said, “No” and recited the words of scripture. The sacred story of his people, thus, testifying to his identity; who he was and to whom he belonged.
We have entered the wilderness of Lent. This forty-day season of soulful self-examination. This season when we, led by God’s Spirit, confront all that hinders us from following Jesus. This season when we, in that challenge, are called to remember and retell our sacred Christian story. So, at journey’s end, at Easter, we may rise renewed, remembering, re-membering who we are and whose we are.
My father, William John Abernathy, was born in 1911. He came of age during the Great Depression. Thus, he suffered a double-set of deprivations of racial and economic inequity. Striving to overcome these difficulties, he chose to forget a significant part of his story, which he believed, if known, would add a third layer, a third barrier to his attempts to access the American dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, only after a long time, well into my adulthood, did I learn that Abernathy was the name of my father’s maternal grandfather. The name of my father’s father, my paternal grandfather, a native of Santiago de Cuba, was Pedro Silva.
I don’t know, I cannot know who I’d be or what I’d be doing had I, at my beginning, known that. (At the least, I might have taken Spanish in high school, not French!)
Yet, knowing this now, I more deeply, fully understand why I’ve had a lifelong attraction to the discipline of existentialism. And why its fundamental questions constantly reverberate through my being of identity (Who am I?), destiny (Who am I becoming and where am I going?), and legacy (What will I leave after I’m gone?).
And why Lent, with its clarion call to embark on a fearsomely, nakedly honest quest for one’s truth – who am I really and to whom do I truly belong? – is the season of the church year that matters most to me!
And why relationships of fearsomely, naked honesty matter to me!
And why I love people and long to be with people at times of highest joy and deepest sorrow!
Thus, why I – not only, not merely do priestly labor, but – am a priest!
This is my story. What’s yours?
© 2022 PRA