In March of 1965, I was in the 7th grade, barely a month into being 13 years old. I was painfully insecure, had a mouth full of braces, and was anxiously anticipating freshman cheerleading tryouts, which was the only junior varsity sport available to girls. I was absorbed in what I thought were the important things in life–fitting in, figuring out what table to sit at during lunch, finding my way around the huge junior high.
On March 7, 1965, 600 people gathered in Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Alabama, to pray before their march to Montgomery to demand equal rights and an end to racial segregation. On what would be known as Bloody Sunday, the marchers were met at Edmund Pettits Bridge by police and police dogs and citizens brandishing inner tubes studded with nails. Many were wounded and hospitalized. 2 days later, 1500 people began the march again, this time led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and once again met the line of police and dogs and citizens. King knelt in prayer, and the marchers returned to Brown Chapel to avoid violence. On March 21, thousands gathered in Selma. Responding to outcries from the nation, President Johnson had ordered the National Guard to accompany the marchers, though only 300 were allowed on the road to Montgomery. They walked for three days, averaging about 12 mi. a day, in unusually cold temperatures. It was below freezing some nights. They slept in farmers’ fields and local churches brought food and blankets. It rained almost every day.
On March 25, 1965, 25,000 people from around the nation, and others around the world, listened to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
They told us we wouldn’t get here.
[he said] And there were those who said we would get here only over their dead bodies, but all the world today knows that we are here and we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama saying, ‘We ain’t goin’ let nobody turn us around!’ [As one writer describes it, “King’s words brought the crowd to a mountaintop of determination as he continued:] and as we go away this afternoon, let us go away more than ever before committed to this struggle and committed to non-violence. I must admit to you that there are still some difficult days ahead. We are still in for a season of suffering in many of the black belt counties of Alabama, many areas of Mississippi, many areas of Louisiana. I must admit to you that there are still jail cells waiting for us, and dark and difficult moments. But if we will go on with the faith that non-violence and its power can transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows, we will be able to change all these conditions.” [cited by John Jewell, Lectionary Tales, 6/30/13]
And I was worried about making the cheerleading squad.
“When the days drew near for him to be taken up, Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.” The next several chapters of the gospel of Luke all take place on this march to Jerusalem. Jesus knows what confrontation will take place there–it was inevitable, as the forces of domination awaited the forces of non-violent Love. But Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” James and John apparently think it’s all about force and domination–”Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” they ask about the inhospitable Samaritan village. Jesus will have nothing of it. It’s not that kind of a march.
When others along the way want to join in, Jesus is brutally honest. To the one who said he’d follow Jesus wherever he went, Jesus said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Humanity has nowhere to lay his head.” To another person Jesus said, “Follow me.” But that one said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Seems eminently reasonable. But Jesus said to him, “let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” And another man said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” After all, honor your mother and father, right? But Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
“Life is what happens when you’ve made other plans,” they say. I’m a big planner, but I wonder, how many times has Life come to me but I had other plans? As one commentator asks, “Does Jesus make a noticeable difference in our lives? Do we try to shape our faith to fit the lives we’ve already planned?” (Michael Rogness, cited by David Lose in Working Preacher, 6/30/13)
I received a phone call Thursday noon from a member of the Bennington Homeless Coalition. It seems that the budget that our state legislature passed this past month has cut 75% of the money used for motel vouchers for homeless individuals and families. That goes into effect July 1, tomorrow. Here in Bennington, that means that upwards of 50 people, including men, women, and children, who have been living in temporary housing in area motels, will no longer have any housing. The area Director of Human Services, Sadie Fischesser, is desperately trying to find housing or alternatives for these people, and one of the options being explored is housing them in faith communities. The National Guard has offered sleeping bags.
“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Humanity has nowhere to lay his head.” I don’t know about you, but that strikes me as an ironically appropriate text for today. And, I’ll admit, it scares me. This is just the beginning, at least for us, as the effects of the federal sequester begin to reach us, as the appalling gap between the haves and have nots in our country grows wider and wider. Some of us have been frustrated that our resident homeless man, who lives in his maroon van, can’t find somewhere else to live besides our parking lot or the street out front. Imagine Mike times 50 or 100. Where will they go? Who should we send them to? To human service agencies? They’ve all been cut. What jobs are available for folks with these limited resources and skills? “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Humanity has nowhere to lay his head.”
Remember that story of the monastery whose rule included hospitality to all who came to them, and the one monk who confessed, “When I see another person coming up the walk, I say, ‘Jesus Christ, is that you again?’” I’ve reminded myself of that many times.
And then there are those other two seemingly reasonable explanations for hesitating in our discipleship–”Lord, first let me bury my father” and “Lord, first let me say good-by to those at home.” In Jesus’ time and culture, even more so than ours perhaps, family was everything–
status, identity, vocation, security, survival even. And Jesus said that following the path to God’s kingdom took precedence over all that. We all are your family. Seek life, not death.
Yup, this is a text we’d just as soon skip over. But you’ve got to admit, it keeps working at you. At least it does to me, here as I’m getting ready to go on vacation.
And remember that month of March 1965 when I was worried about braces and cheerleading, and others were being attacked with billie clubs and dogs? I know we’re not responsible for where we’re born and in what situation we grow up, so I’m not beating myself up for not being more aware of, let alone joining in, the march from Selma to Montgomery. But now that I am aware, not only of that monumental effort that literally cost blood, sweat and tears, even lives, but am also aware of the situation that literally millions of our brothers and sisters find themselves in today–still denied the right to vote in some parts of the country, still discriminated against because of race or religion or sexual orientation or ethnic background, still unable to find decent housing or health care or employment–then this text begins to get under my skin. Can I really just turn away? Do I have the luxury to give up and say, “Wow, that’s just such a huge problem!”
“Not everybody has that luxury to give up,” one writer reminds me. She cites ethicist Sharon Welch, who says “that the temptation to cynicism and despair when problems are seen as intransigent is a temptation that takes a particular form for the middle class. The despair of the affluent, the middle class, has a particular tone: it is a despair cushioned by privilege and grounded in privilege. It is easier to give up on long-term social change when one is comfortable in the present–when it is possible to have challenging work, excellent health care and housing, and access to the fine arts. When the good life is present or within reach, it is tempting to despair of its ever being in reach for others and resort to merely enjoying it for oneself and one’s family…Becoming so easily discouraged is the privilege of those accustomed to too much power, accustomed to having needs met without negotiation and work, accustomed to having a political and economic system that responds to their needs.” (Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk, cited by Alyce McKenzie in Edgy Exegesis, 6/30/13) Ouch. I don’t know about you, but that cuts pretty close to the bone for me. So do Jesus’ responses to the would-be followers.
This is a call to prophetic ministry. It isn’t everyone’s calling, but as Bruce Epperly writes, “Prophetic ministry is not for those who think small; it is for adventurers who ask much of themselves and more of God to achieve God’s and their greatest dreams…Everything that shrinks your world, imprisons you in the past, and ties you to habitual reactions must be jettisoned for the value of God’s realm.” (Adventurous Lectionary, 6/30 13) Talk about “re-thinking church”!
There is an old proverb that says, “When you’re at your wit’s end, remember that God lives there.” Martin Luther King, Jr., praying in his kitchen late one night, in the midst of threatening phone calls, sheer exhaustion, deep self-doubt, said that at one point, when he had laid out all his despair and fear and doubt before God, “it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world. I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me alone.” “When you’re at your wit’s end, remember that God lives there.”
What would we do if we knew that ultimately we could not fail, because God will be with us to the end of the world? What would happen if we let ourselves be used by God to usher in God’s realm in ways that stretched us and rearranged us? What if Life showed up at our doorsteps and instead of burrowing into our plans, we opened up the door? We’re none of us in this alone, you know. None of us have to do this all by ourselves. “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus said, “there am I in the midst of you.” “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering,” wrote a preacher to another group of would-be disciples, “for the One who has promised is faithful.” (Hebrews 10:23)
Finally, hear these affirmations from Margaret Wheatley’s book, So Far from Home. She calls this “A Path for Warriors”–
…–We embody values and practices that offer us meaningful lives now. We let go of needing to impact the future.
–We refrain from adding to the aggression, fear, and confusion of this time.
–We welcome every opportunity to practice our skills of compassion and insight, even very challenging ones.
–We resist seeking the illusory comfort of certainty and stability…
–We know that all problems have complex causes. We do not place blame on any one person or cause, including ourselves and colleagues.
–We are vigilant with our relationships, mindful to counteract the polarizing dynamics of this time.
–Our actions embody our confidence that humans can get through anything as long as we’re together.
–We stay present to the world as it is with open minds and hearts, knowing this cultivates our gentleness, decency, and bravery.
–We care for ourselves as tenderly as we care for others, taking time for rest, reflection, and renewal…
The One who has promised to be with us is faithful. In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark