Facing Rejection With Resilience: A Sermon for Pauli Murray

By the Rev. Racquel Gill

As I familiarized myself with the life of Dr. Pauli Murray this summer I became all to familiar with the baseline of rejection that seemed to accompany those who are the victim of a world that is racist while also being sexist while also being homophobic and ageist. As a young college graduate discerning her desires for graduate school she made the bold decision to apply at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill but was frankly told “members of your race are not admitted.”

 After finishing her studies at Howard University School of Law and desiring to push forward her studies at Harvard University she was promptly told that “Harvard law school is not open to women for registration.”

And later in her life as she assumed her place in the priesthood she was hit with the reality that working full time in ministry well into her sixties would be an unlikely reality as she was denied opportunity after opportunity. All of these are public rejections that she experienced against her body but many who have studied her life are also struck by the private rejection she experienced within herself and also from those closest to her circle when her frustrations with her gender identity were often dismissed and had to be suppressed for the sake of advancement in a world that was hell-bent on her rejecting her anyway. And Dr. Murray was in good company because we who are Christ followers know that to be in love with Jesus is to be intimately acquainted with rejection. For it was Jesus who experienced fickle followers and hometown hatred as he noted that a prophet is without honor in his hometown. It was Jesus who had to tell those who were his disciples to wipe the dust off of their feet when they enter into a place and the people do not receive them there. For it was Jesus who had the crowds thrusting on to him and shouting Hosanna Hosanna, Blessed is he that comes in the name of our Lord as he entered into Jerusalem one Sunday morning and yet there was a crowd was crying out crucify him before the week was over. Which is why it would make sense that as he thinks metaphorically about who he is he would draw a comparison between his life and the life of this rejected stone.  When speaking about the trajectory of his life to the religious leaders of his day after sharing a parable about tenant farmers who rejected their owner, Jesus offered as he often did a word from the Psalter and simply asked, “Have you not heard? The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone, the very one that holds the foundation together. This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

In this text we know that the builders rejected the stone but most of us do not really know all that it took for the stone to get to the presence of the builders. You see often the journey of a stone does not start in the presence of the builder but several miles away from the site of construction, stones are cut out of a rock quarry near the river and they are measured and cut according to what will be needed for construction and then these stones are carried from the quarry to the actual construction site and it is then that the builders must use their expertise to determine which stones are fit for building and which ultimately do not fit their plan at the moment and must be cast aside. Could you imagine surviving the cutting and the pulling, making it through the tedious transition, and getting all the way to the place where you are supposed to be used and you are supposed to be put to work only to be discarded because in the eyes of someone else you didn’t seem to be a right fit. Could you imagine going through all of this only to be thrown away, cast aside, and let go without any consideration because according to somebody else’s calculation you just didn’t measure up? This friends, is why rejection can feel so painful. Oftentimes just like the stone in this text we can find ourselves putting in so much work and so much effort and risking so much of our time to get to a certain place only to get that place and realize that for whatever reason we are not enough or we are too much. When many of us consider the worst thing that can happen to us, we will often say failure. But I disagree because at least when I failed at something I was given the option to pursue it. At least when I failed at something I was allowed to try it and I was allowed to put forth my best effort. I was allowed to make a decision and I had to learn how to live with that decision when it did not work out but rejection is to fail before I even get to begin in the first place. Rejection is to fail not because of my own misdoings or miscalculations but because of someone else’s calculations of me. The Bottom line is that rejection is what it feels like to have your light dimmed out before you even get a chance to shine. Rejections hurts.

But Jesus assures us that even when rejection may hurt us, rejection should never stop us. In this metaphor pulled from the Psalter Jesus simply repeats the stone that the builders rejected HAS BECOME the chief cornerstone. We often read this text and rejoice that the stone went from being unused by the builders to now being essential to their entire building. It never hit me until musing on it that the lesson is not just that rejection is never final but it also teaches us that we must respond to rejection with resilience. The stone could not control the rejection of the builders but it did not allow their rejection to stop its BECOMING.  This stone shows us that we cannot decide or determine who rejects us.  Sometimes we cannot even control why we are rejected. We cannot force anyone to see our inherent value or to understand our inherent worth. Sometimes even with all we do to gain the necessary credentials and attend the right schools and gain the right networks we still cannot control the fact that in the eyes of some people we will never measure up but this should never be the end of our story.  Too many times we allow rejection to be the final word over our lives. We allow the world’s NO to become our NO but you cannot allow the rejection of others to stop your journey of BECOMING.  You cannot allow what they said about you YESTERDAY to determine what you will become TODAY. You must see the rejection in your life as one stop on your journey but not the end of your story.  You must choose to live beyond the narrow limits of the world’s imagination about who you are and who you have the capacity to be.  The best response to rejection is not dejection but resilience. The best response to rejection is to live into your own BECOMING. It is to choose to grow anyway. It is to choose to live anyway. It is to choose to move forward and press forward ANYWAY. When you are black or brown in a white world, woman in a man’s society, and queer in an oppressive culture your greatest act of RESISTANCE is your resilience to live.

And although rejection was the baseline in Dr. Murray’s story I am glad that I kept reading her story until the end. The rejection was heartbreaking. The rejection was discouraging. The rejection was jarring but something in me told me I needed to keep reading the story. Even as rejection was a part of her story she did not let it stop her journey of BECOMING. When Chapel Hill rejected her, she pushed her way through Howard. When Harvard Law denied her, Berkeley and Yale accepted her. When so much of her work for the welfare of women was dismissed in her day, a whole new generation of women would pick up the baton and pay homage to her name. The very house that her aunt had to rent out in Durham so that they could survive life in New York City is now labeled a NATIONAL TREASURE.  The very city where her father was institutionalized and her family was torn apart is the same city that adorned her name in headlines as the first black woman to become an Episcopal priest. Oh Dr. Murray didn’t let the rejection stop her from becoming ALL that God had called her to be. She didn’t let the rejection stop her from doing ALL that God had called her to do. She responded to rejection not with dejection but with resilience and resistance. She stayed true to herself while staying true to her journey.

And not only can we celebrate the stone choosing to continue it’s journey of BECOMING but we must also remember today those who had no choice but to take notice of the stone. Scripture says that this very stone that was thrown away and cast aside became the very stone that the builders had to turn back and use in order to complete the work that they started. The stone that the builders rejected was the very stone that held the foundation together. The builders had to turn around and pick up the same stone that they had left behind. These builders could not finish the building until they first turned back to the rejected stone. The builders had to make amends with the one they rejected. The builders got to a point in all of their striving and all of their building and all of their working where they realized that in order to complete the building they could leave NO stone unturned. And this is why services like the one we are participating in today are so important. Too many times the church has discarded and dismissed the gifts of women and those that are different. Too many times the Church has cast aside or put away those who love God and who are same gender loving. Too many times the Church dismissed those who are too old or too young to fit into our narrow minded views about who is fit to lead in God’s church and the reality that we are facing now as the Church is in decline is that in order to build up the Kingdom of God we must turn to the margins and pick up those that we have left behind. As people are no longer seeing the necessity of religious institutions we must make amends with those communities that we have dismissed and overlooked. We cannot finish building God’s kingdom if we continue to cast people aside. When we are doing God’s work EVERYBODY has a part to play. When we are doing GOD’S work everybody has something that they can contribute. When we are doing God’s work EVERYBODY has something to do! We as the builders of God’s kingdom must make amends with those who have felt rejected by US!

But not only must the Church make amends with those that we have rejected but our Nation must also make amends. For the past few years there has been so much talk about how to make America great again but it should be common knowledge by now that ANY greatness that America has gained has been on the backs of black bodies who were enslaved and immigrants who have come in search of a better life. Our African ancestors built a White House that they could not even occupy until 2008. Our ancestors built Duke University although they could not be educated there until 1963. Black hands have built almost every Ivy League institution while also working to uplift our own people with the sustainment of our treasured HBCUs. If it were not for the work of our immigrant brothers and sisters the innovation that we enjoy today would not be an option. There would be no telephone if not for an immigrant. There would be no electric elevator if not for an immigrant. There would be Pulitzer Prize if not for an immigrant and this Nation will not ever be great until we look to those that we have rejected and those who we have denied and those who we have refused and recognize that they are the ones who continue to hold this nation together! The very stones that we have rejected on the border are the stones that have held together the foundation and fabric of this Nation. America, you will not become all that you should be until you fully honor and celebrate the legacy and humanity of those that you have denied! The builders must turn back and pick up those that they have knocked down!

But as I push forward lest I hold you here too long on a Monday, I will close by saying that this stone has become the very stone that holds together the foundation of the building. And for many of us who have experienced rejection our journey of becoming will cause us to want to glorify ourselves. We will want to give ourselves all of the credit and give ourselves all of the glory. For many of us success after hardship gives us an air of clout and a feeling of superiority but before we begin to feed into those feelings we must always remember the next verse which simply says “This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.” The process from rejection to recognition is not in our hands but it is in God’s hands. Your journey of becoming is not so that you can prove your naysayers wrong but your journey to becoming is the promise you make to yourself to be all that GOD has called you to be. Who you are is the Lord’s doing. You are God’s handiwork. You are God’s creation. You are God’s masterpiece and you don’t have to try and make yourself great after rejection but you just keep being who you are and God will produce a marvelous work with your life. We must always remember that it is God who can turn rejected stones into cornerstones. It is God who can bring to the center those who have been cast aside. It is the Lord who helps us journey through the pain of our rejection and the pain of our disappointment and the pain of what we loss and the pain of what we could not accomplish. And it is the Lord who takes us into places that we never thought was possible for our lives. It is God who will open new doors when the world shut us out of certain rooms. It is God who will prepares us a table when others try to deny us a seat at their table. We must choose to continue on our journey of becoming but when we get to better days we must remember to give glory to our God!

And God’s work must always be marvelous in our eyes. In this age of hatred and hostility, in this era of mean spiritedness and name-calling we must learn to see people with new eyes. We must see people as the marvelous work of a marvelous God. No matter who they are or where they are. No matter what they have or what they don’t have. No matter what they did or what they didn’t do we must look at people and realize that they are the marvelous work of a marvelous God. Recently I took a day to just get away I went to Asheville, NC. It was my first time in the mountains and I loved it so much. While there I looked at some of the artwork in the Art’s District and one exhibit caught my attention. A local photographer named Walter Arnold has an exhibit titled  “The Art of Abandonment”.  Basically in 2009 he stumbled on an abandoned airplane graveyard where all of these abandoned and forgotten planes had been left in the middle of the field and he started taking pictures of the planes. It started him on a journey where he went to all of these abandoned places in the South and started snapping photos of what he saw and these photos were beautiful pictures of things that other people had deemed as worthless and left them behind. When asked about why he is so passionate about abandonment photography he simply stated that, “I have the eye of an artist. An artist will find beauty in what other people think is ruined. And I have learned that abandoned spaces give me the best light exposure.“ Isn’t that something the very places that other people have left behind are the very places where Walter has chosen to see the LIGHT.  And my prayer today is that God will give us eyes like Walter Arnold that he allows us to have eyes that find the beauty in what other people have found ruined. My prayer is that God will allow us to look at the rejected spaces of our lives and the rejected people in our world and realize that even when God does not change our rejection, God will create something beautiful out of it. God can use the disappointment. God can use the heartache. God can use the let down and God can expose God’s light in the darkest moments of our lives. God give us eyes to see your marvelous work of turning messes into miracles, of turning tragedy into triumph, of turning ashes into beauty, of turning pain into joy. God give us eyes to see your marvelous work of turning addicts into ministers, of turning ex-convicts into entrepreneurs, of turning victims into victors. God give us NEW eyes so that we can look at your creation and say, “This is the Lord’s doing and it is MARVELOUS in our eyes.”

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