Honoring Bishop Barbara C. Harris

You can watch the sermon here on the St. Barnabas’ Falmouth’s YouTube Page

At first listen our Old Testament reading sounds like something out of the Marvel comics series. The Israelites are in the wilderness and they are attacked by a mob of poisonous serpents biting their feet – the only way to survive being bitten by one of these snakes, is to stare straight at a bronze serpent made by Moses. It’s undeniably bizarre. 

Yet, as I read this story, I thought of beloved Bishop Barbara C. Harris, who we honor today.  

Yesterday was the first anniversary of the death of  Bishop Barbara. We join congregations across the Diocese of Massachusetts in remembering her life and her witness for freedom and justice. Today we celebrate that on June 12, 1930 Barbara Clementine Harris was born. And we celebrate that in 1979 she said yes to serving God’s church as an ordained minister. And, we celebrate that on February 12, 1989, this Diocese consecrated her as Bishop making her the first woman, a Black woman, in the Episcopal church, showing us that yes, the church can change! 

It could be tempting, especially in challenging times, to want to lean all the way into that celebration – but my siblings, if we do that, we will miss the snakes that are biting at our feet. 

You see, Bishop Barbara’s power lies not only in the change she initiated, but also in fact that she revealed the deep seeded flaws of the church – white supremacy, and patriarchy – the snakes biting at our feet. And, just like in the desert, the only way for us to live, to survive those snakes, is to look them straight in the face. 


Last week, when Mike was reading the 10 commandments from Numbers, I heard something for the first time in the 10th commandment,

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” 

Did you catch that? 

Now, it took me 36 years of hearing these 10 commandments to catch the amount of patriarchy and racism wrapped up into one sentence –  so I’ll break it down. This last commandment is about coveting, about being jealous of what another person owns. 

Of their house, their ox, their donkey …

Their WIFE

Their SLAVE 

Anything that belongs to your neighbor.

What does this tell me? It tells me that (1) these 10 commandments were written to men, that the assumed “neighbors” were male and free property owning people and (2) that women and enslaved people were considered property, animals 

All this, wrapped up in the final of the 10 commandments, one of the foundational texts of the institution of the church. 


When I heard that last week, I thought, “Why was anyone surprised by the reaction to Bishop Barbara’s consecration?”

Just thirty-two years ago when Bishop Barbara was consecrated, the Episcopal Church’s painful and ugly edges were in full display. Prior to the consecration, one diocesan newspaper published her photo on the front page with a black slash through it and she received hate mail and death threats.

Now, why do I say this shouldn’t be a surprise to us. Bishop Barbara was a direct challenge to the foundations of our institution. The “model” for authority in the church, derived from our Biblical texts, was someone who was, male, white, and straight. 

Before Bishop Barabara, there were 834 Bishops consecrated in the Episcopal Church, 28 of them had broken the mold by being Black men – out of these 28 only 10 Black Bishops had authority over white congregations. 

And then, in 1989, after 834 consecrations, Barbara Harris, comes along to challenge the idea that leadership should belong to men in the church. And, y’all, the earth shook.  

 On the day of her consecration opponents to the ordination protested her election and she sat with a police officer behind her to protect her during the service. In a 2009 interview she spoke about her consecration, “The Boston police department offered me a bulletproof vest to wear that day, which I declined. I thought if some idiot is going to shoot me, what better place to go than at an altar.” 

Her life embodied profound courage and hope in the possibility of the church to honor the dignity of all people – and – like the song and scripture say, she didn’t hide it  under  bushel. She preached and spoke tirelessly about injustice: 

In a sermon preached on “Women’s Day” at St. Thomas’s Church, she articulated the power found in this love, “that’s what Jesus is all about—making a difference in our lives, helping us to emerge into our full stature as children of God, not only women, but people of legacy, faith, and hope.” Her life and ministry were dedicated to honoring the full stature of all people. 

At the 2009 Episcopal Convention she concluded her sermon at the Integrity service by claiming boldly, “Indeed, God has no favorites. So to you, gay man, lesbian woman; you, bisexual person; you, transgender man or woman; you, straight person; all of us, the baptized: Let us honor the sacrament of our baptism and our baptismal covenant, the only covenant we need to remain faithful.”

Until 1989 we might have been able to tell ourselves some lies, that there just hadn’t been a qualified woman yet. That, if she had come along, the church would have been happy to consecrate her to Bishop. But +Barbara stopped those lies in the tracks. She exposed the ugly patriarchy and racism baked into the church. She didn’t let us pretend. 

She knew, that if this church wanted any chance at life, real authentic life, then we had stare the things that are killing us as a church right in the face. And today my friends, I’m here to say that the only way to honor her memory, is to continue to stare those snakes in the face. 

Thank God, thank God, since Bishop Barbara there have been more Black bishops (44 total) and more women bishops (38 total). Praise God for progress. But it would be an injustice to Bishop Harris to consider her ministry a full accomplishment and not acknowledge the ways that we are still plagued by injustice. 

In this Diocese of Massachusetts that praises (and often self-congratulates) our election of Bishop Harris, there are still churches where women clergy are not allowed to celebrate the Eucharist and a paltry 8 of 180 congregations are led by Black rectors. And there is not ONE african american woman who is a rector of a parish here right now – it is not enough to recognize people in bold ways if we can not sustain and support their ministry in ongoing ways. 


And the only way to do better, is to look straight at the things that are killing us. We have to come to grips with the ways that the pain of racism and sexism is part of our tradition – not just things that are “out there” but ills that we have perpetuated. And we must work, at every turn, to repair the harm that has been done by creating new ways of being. Ways that celebrate Black and femme leadership is in the church. 

It may not be easy to acknowledge the failings that are part of our tradition. But, if Bishop Barbara can remain courageous and hopeful about what the Church could be, then we can withstand discomfort. 

Recently, I was speaking to Bishop Gayle about the reality of being a woman leader in this church and she summoned these words from Bishop Barbara, “She said, you gotta keep your eyes on Jesus. She said, the only way to do this ministry is with your knees on the ground, hands folded in prayer, and your eyes on the cross.”

It seems to me this is the only way to look at the things that are killing us, with one eye on the pain and one eye on Jesus because it is only through his grace and his power of transofmration that we are going to find healing.

So let us, humbly, and boldly, follow in her example.  Amen.

Prayer for the Rt. Rev. Barbara C. Harris
Lectionary readings for the week. 

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