In today’s passage from Isaiah, we heard how Isaiah found himself in the presence of the almighty, all-powerful, all consuming God and beholding God became achingly aware of his own woeful inadequacy to do the work of God. And then there was that amazing description of a God who sends a seraph with a live coal—imagine, a red or white hot coal—to touch the prophet’s mouth and then wonders who will go, who can God send to do the work that must be done. Think about how Isaiah answered. It was through burned and blistered lips that he said,
“Here am I; send me!”
Unfortunately, today’s lesson stops a little too soon—it helps to hear what comes next in this beautiful, poetic passage.
And God said,
‘Go and say to this people: “
Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
Keep looking, but do not understand.”
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.’
Then I said, ‘How long, O Lord?’
That’s the question, today, isn’t it Mallowman? How long, O Lord? How long…
Twenty-five years ago, on May 13th, 1986, five days before Sherod’s ordination to the priesthood, Sherod’s daddy, Earl Mallow, died. It was not an easy death and it was a hard, hard time in Sherod’s life. He’d just been through a really tough divorce, and was learning how to be single dad to one child and long-distance dad to another. He was managing the profound disappointment that many felt –he’d been a bright and shiny star in the Diocese of Alabama and now since the divorce he wasn’t, nor was his mama real thrilled with him either, Sherod knew something of blistering pain and burning fear.
I was just beginning to get to know him and mainly, what I saw was a person who would not quit. Who had launched himself against a lot of odds on what seemed like an impossible journey with honor, and determination, and passion, who said over and over again, “you don’t quit.”
In the next couple of years he and I dated and then began to build a life together. We were an unlikely pair. When we got married, we moved into a small apartment in Huntsville, Alabama. He didn’t bring much with him, but one thing he brought was a beat-up, half-rusted, standup freezer he was determined to have up and running because deer huntin’ season was coming and where would he put his deer meat? He suggested it take a place of honor in the dining room in our apartment. I can still hear the stunned silence on the other end of the phone when I called my mom in tears to ask for advice. Like all couples who are destined for a long life of marital bliss (or something like that), we compromised. He found some folks from his church in Huntsville to keep it running in their garage and I agreed to wake up each morning and look at the wall across our bed where Sherod had hung a print of a black Lab with a very dead and bloody duck draped in it’s mouth.
I have had the profound, the extraordinarily humbling joy, of watching his life and ministry unfold in ways that have surprised and sometimes stunned me. This good ole boy from Selma—and as handsome as he was, as much as he swept me off my feet with that dimple and sparkling blue eyes—he really was a good ole boy. It is by God’s irony, sense of the absurd and wonder that he has landed in some really wild and wooly places to do ministry.
In Huntsville, he was priest-in-charge of one of the few racially integrated parishes in the Diocese of Alabama at that time, then he went on to be rector at St. Elisabeth’s in Memphis, in a neighborhood in transition, and finally, here in Southeast Florida. In each place, there were crazy situations where it had been so easy neither to see nor hear what there was to hear.
In Huntsville, Sherod gathered all the dignitaries of the city on Martin Luther King Day at Holy Cross-St Christopher’s for a service and to read the Letter from Birmingham Jail out loud. I can still see the white mayor wincing as he read a section where the N word was used 3 times in rapid succession. We were reminded that evening of those dark corners of our hearts that need to be enlightened by the light of the Gospel. In the early 1990’s, AIDS was still decimating a large part of the gay community in this country. A gifted artist, Julian Bateman, came home to die in his parents’ home in Memphis. Sherod would go over and carry Julian up and downstairs so his aging parents could spend as much time as possible with him. And he was implacable against the murmuring voices that militated against allowing Julian to come to communion the few Sundays he had the strength to join his parents for Sunday worship. A family of color from Guyana, steeped in the Anglican tradition, joined the parish and again, the voices began to mutter and murmur. Sherod stood in the pulpit and made it clear that he would not allow that kind of racism to stand where he was priest. For Sherod, it was very simple: there is a place at the Lord’s table for everyone. Everyone.
Who All Saints is today, and the ministry we are doing, is only possible because of Sherod’s tenacity and determination that we should be open, honest and transparent and we should love mercy and do justice. When the first openly gay man ran for the vestry and a nasty campaign to undermine that person came to Sherod’s attention, he stood at this pulpit and quite literally thundered “not on his watch” would that be allowed and told folks that the door that had let them in could just as easily let them out. It was hard and harsh and essential to move into the future. We are all God’s children. Everyone is welcome.
A couple of weeks ago, Fr. Mark Sims and I were talking about Maria and about the fact that we would be placing her in BARC Housing because we are no longer able to give her the level of care she needs for her own safety and ours. Mark said something that touched me deeply. He said, “this has to be unspeakably hard for Sherod. It’s not just that his experience in the military ingrained in him “leave no one behind”. It’s that he is the guy that has always gone back to pick up the people that did get left behind.”
It is deeply moving to me that Mark sees Sherod in that light. It also seems to me that this is one of the best definitions of ministry I’ve heard in a long time. The prophet Isaiah is one of many voices that “get it” about the ways in which we don’t listen, we don’t see, we don’t understand. Isaiah “gets it” that it is way too easy to leave people behind. The call is not sent out to just a few, carefully chosen paragons of virtue and righteousness. We are tempted to think that it’s enough that a profoundly faithful person like the prophet Isaiah, or a wild and crazy man like Sherod, will do that work. We are mistaken. It is God’s call to every single one of us. There are so many who’ve been left behind. We cannot say we are people of faith without being willing to go back for them. All of us. Each of us.
When people began to talk about honoring Sherod on this occasion, it was I who suggested that we consider what became the 25 in 25 fundraiser. This wasn’t about yet another way for All Saints to try to get at your money. It was another way of saying the same thing—all of us must help through treasure, along with time and talent, to ensure that those that have been forgotten or overlooked or dismissed find hope and joy and new beginnings with us. This ministry is not Sherod’s. It belongs to all of us.
There is a fierce and strangely grace-filled symmetry this morning, as we celebrate this occasion. Like that day 25 years ago, there is deep grief and loss in our family. On Tuesday of this week, we had to Baker Act Maria and she is at Ft Lauderdale Hospital today. When she is released, probably on Tuesday, she will go directly to BARC, to her new home. Sherod must begin the next chapter of his ministry amidst blistering pain and burning fear for our girl, wondering as he did 25 years ago, how he will find the strength to do this work. His story is no different than anybody else’s—this is how we all do the work of God. And the only reason our work is possible is because God goes ahead of us showing the way, and we go forward as a community, together, all of us determined that we will go back and gather up those who got left behind. Together we hear the call, “who will go, who will we send” and together we answer, through burned and blistered lips, “Here am I Lord. Send me.”