Joyce Hollyday, writing in Sojourners magazine, tells the story of
a boy named Free Spirit [who] was only 4 years old when he was wrenched away from his family and forced into a Canadian residential school. A nun gave him a new pair of shoes, which he plunged into a sink filled with water. He was shocked by the beating he received. His Algonquin people always soaked their new moccasins and chewed on them to soften the leather.
Decades later, [Hollyday writes] during Canada’s 2011 Truth and Reconciliation hearings in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Free Spirit joined scores of witnesses who shared their stories of suffering in schools whose purpose was to annihilate their culture. Each evening, all the tissues used to capture the day’s tears were gathered and released into the Sacred Fire that burned outside. There they mingled with ashes that had been carried from previous hearings in other cities. [Sojourners, Jan. 2017, p. 8]
Such deep wounds! Such a huge breach between cultures, somehow, tentatively, beginning to be repaired with truth-telling and listening, with tissue ashes and Sacred Fire.
Hollyday goes on to tell of a “truth and reconciliation” process in the United States.
In the United States, the first large-scale truth and reconciliation process was launched in Greensboro, N C in 2005. Its focus was the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, in which members of the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party opened fire on marchers demanding economic and racial justice, killing five and wounding 10.
As the hearings opened, Gorrell Pierce, who was the Grand Dragon of the Federated Knights of the KKK in 1979, strode in with a cadre of young white men. African-American community activist and pastor Nelson Johnson, who was wounded in the attack and lost five of his closest friends that day, immediately stood. He walked across the auditorium and made his way down that row of men, shaking every hand and thanking them for coming. Nelson admitted later that it wasn’t his first impulse, but that as a Christian he knew he needed to bring his best self to that encounter and try to reach out to the best self within Pierce. [Sojourners, op cit.]
I want to be like that when I grow up. I want to be so rooted and grounded in love that I can reach across the divide of hatred and sorrow and begin to repair the breaches that, now more than ever, divide our nation. Here on the brink of the inauguration of a new president who comes into office in what is arguably one of the most divided times in our history, how are we to act and to speak in ways that honor the truth but also contribute to reconciliation?
The writer of John’s gospel was well-acquainted with breaches that tore communities apart. His community had been stung and deeply wounded by being thrown out of the synagogues, families split, loved ones betrayed to death, and bitter words used on both sides against the other. John’s language is full of polar opposites– light and dark, night and day, good and evil, ascending and descending–and his gospel, finely honed after decades of telling the story, living with the message, is carefully constructed with no throw-away lines.
So, when we read in the passage Scott read for us this morning, that “it was about four o’clock in the afternoon” when the two disciples came and saw where Jesus was staying, we would do well to pay attention. What’s up with that–”four o’clock in the afternoon”? Or the 10th hour, as the Greek says.
One commentator suggests that it’s a tribute to the impact that their meeting of Jesus had on them, like recalling where you were and what time it was when you heard about the planes flying into the Twin Towers. I was at an Interfaith Council meeting at the Baptist Church, and the Methodist minister got a call on his cell phone, which none of the others of us had, about quarter of 10. “It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon.”
Yes. Maybe that is why John included that detail. AND, think about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, particularly at this time of year. It’s still daylight, but twilight is beginning to seep in. For a man who frames his gospel in polar opposites–light vs. dark, day vs. night–4 o’clock in the afternoon is somewhere in the middle. This is when his first disciples began to see where Jesus “was staying,” where he “abided,” where he remained. That’s another way of saying, “what he was about,” “where he was rooted and grounded.” “What are you looking for?” Jesus had asked them. They said to him, “Teacher, where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.”
Where are you “staying”? Where do you “abide”? The same can be asked of our church–”Where do we abide? What do we stand for? In what are we rooted and grounded?” In times of violent “back-and-forthing,” accusations flying, it’s important to know where we “abide.”
On this past New Year’s Eve day, a Watch Night gathering took place in Washington DC’s historic Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, led by the Rev. William Barber, head of the North Carolina NAACP and the Moral Mondays movement. The gathering, under the auspices of the non-profit group called “Repairers of the Breach, ” [from Isiaiah 60] issued a call for a new Poor People’s Campaign, 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr. called for the first one. They issued a call for a moral agenda, a moral revolution of values, demanding policies that are ‘constitutionally consistent, morally defensible, and economically sane.” [Religion Dispatches, University of So. Cal., 1/3/17]
This movement is self-consciously NOT characterized as being part of the “religious left,” but rather a moral center. Taking part in the gathering were people like the Rev. Dr. James Forbes, formerly the pastor of the Riverside Church in NYC, along with the Imam from the Mosque of the Islamic Brotherhood in New York City, and other leaders of faith communities across the religious spectrum. Group members pledged to use every non-violent means possible to lift up and fight for the rights and well-being of the poor and oppressed minorities. As Rev. Forbes said, “The country can no longer afford to let poverty and bigotry be left out of the indices of success for the nation.”
In a letter to President-elect Trump, which I signed in an internet invitation to faith leaders, the group wrote, “Our success [as a nation] is measured by how we welcome the stranger, care for the sick, care for the poor, and care for the hungry in practice and in policy…. We do not believe these are left or right issues. They are right or wrong issues.”
“Teacher, where are you staying? Where do you abide?” Where do we abide?
“We live now in extreme times,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote. “The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?” The extreme of love is neither to the left or to the right. It is profoundly deep. How deep is our love for one another and for the world? How deeply are we rooted in that love? From that place of deep and abiding love, how will we live our lives? How will we practice love? It will mean interacting with and listening to people with whom we don’t agree. It will mean finding ways to act, yes, but also to speak about love in language that people who don’t “speak church” can understand, using what we might call “secular language.” “It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon,” that time of day that includes both light and darkness. What time is it now?
“‘What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?’ asked Valarie Kaur [at the Night Watch gathering in Washington DC]. ‘What if our America is not dead, but a country that is waiting to be born?’ Like a mother giving birth, she said, we must breathe, and then push. Kaur, a Sikh who said she knows that there will be moments when the ‘brown boy’ she is raising will be seen as foreign or as terrorist, said, ‘Your revolutionary love is the magic we will show our children.’” [Religion Dispatches, op cit.]
Remember that Truth and Reconciliation hearing in Halifax, Nova Scotia I told you about in the beginning? It “culminated in a birthday party for the survivors of residential schools, who as children never had their birthdays acknowledged. Laughter and tears flowed freely [Joyce Hollyday writes] as we shared a thousand cupcakes topped with candles and together sang ‘Happy Birthday’ in Mi’kmaq, Innu, Inuktitut, Tlingit, French, and English. So, [ she says] if you’re tempted to hide in a corner and give in to despair now that the election is over, I’d say throw a party instead. Celebrate the strength that is forged amid challenge and the hope that is reborn in ashes.” [Sojourners, op cit.]
Remember that both the darkness of the tomb and the darkness of the womb are oppor-tunities for God to bring new life, in ways beyond our imagination. May we abide in–remain in–be rooted in that Hope. So may we find strength, and courage, wisdom, and even joy, for the living of these days.
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark