6 PENTECOST TWO JOURNEYS The Rev. Brian Backstrand July 5, 2015
The idea of a journey as a metaphor for our lives is pretty commonplace. And it’s pretty Biblical. The Bible is filled with stories of journeys from the journey of Abraham from Haran into a distant, unseen land to the journeys of missionaries like Paul who crossed boundaries of language and culture to preach the Good News of Jesus and his redemption because they were constrained to do so: Because they were called. Journeys: Today I wish to focus upon two.
Today in our Gospel lesson we witness the sending of twelve followers of Jesus after Jesus has hit a major impasse in his own ministry—the rejection of his ministry in his hometown. In response, in the midst of healing and teaching in other villages, he calls his closest followers and sends them. He sends them out two by two and with pretty much nothing in the way of resources: No extra clothes, no bread, no bag, no money. What they do have is authority over unclean spirits and a general outline of how to proceed.
It is common in the culture of Jesus’ day for healers, teachers, wonder workers to enter villages unannounced, to be hosted during their stay by one family—usually a prominent one, and then to be tested. Do they have power? Do they speak a truth that fits the moment and that sinks into the very bones of consciousness of the villagers who hear them preach? Can they heal and do they heal with power. Are they to be trusted? Are they to be followed?
This is how John Dominic Crossan imagines Jesus’ own journey in the early days of his ministry when he comes and performs an exorcism of a man living in the graveyard:
He comes as yet unknown into a hamlet of Lower Galilee. He is watched by the cold hard eyes of peasants living long enough at subsistence level to know exactly where the line is drawn between poverty and destitution. He looks like a beggar, yet his eyes lack the proper cringe, his voice the proper whine, his walk the proper shuffle. He speaks about the rule of God, and they listen as much from curiosity as anything else. They know all about rule and power, about kingdom and empire, but they know it in terms of tax and debt, malnutrition and sickness, agrarian oppression and demonic possession. What, they really want to know, can this kingdom of God do for a lame child, a blind parent, a demented soul screaming its tortured isolation among the graves that mark the edges of the village? Jesus walks with them to the tombs and, in the silence after the exorcism, the villagers listen once more, but now with curiosity giving way to cupidity, fear, and embarrassment. He is invited, a honor demands, to the home of the village leader. Crossan, The Historical Jesus, xi.
And now the disciples’ own journey begins. With nothing in the way of the world’s goods, with fear and trembling most likely. With the sending of their leader. With a spiritual presence that they perhaps only dimly understand. We can see them heading out slowly in different directions to different villages. It is hot. Perhaps they are already thirsty, their feet already covered with dust.
We have been on such a journey. Early in my ministry here we went out two by two with no bag, no additional clothing. We carried no big proclamation of spiritual force and insight. No, just a little flyer to offer the neighbors round about—telling them of an ice cream social that we are approaching with a good deal of fear and trembling ourselves.
And we have been on other journeys. Some involve Thank you Baskets, some involve opening our church doors to others, some involve the journey into holy scripture during Bible study. There’s even the monthly journey to come to this place in the middle of the week and sit around tables in the fellowship room and dream and share and plan as a Bishop’s Committee.
But these things are pretty much small potatoes in comparison to hitting the road and feeling the dust and the oppressiveness of the sun and the anxiety of entering into strange places.
What other journeys are before us that we need to take? Our Breast Cancer Survivor Support Group has just begun and that will be a significant journey for this community of faith. And I suspect that we will be offered other journeys as well in the days ahead.
The journey of the disciples, then and now, is the first journey of which I wish to speak today.
But today is the fifth of July, placing us squarely in the middle of the Fourth of July holiday. At this time of national reflection, we think naturally of other journeys. Journeys of the pioneers across the vast prairie expanses of the American West, perhaps. The journey of Washington and his troops across the Delaware. The great marches of troops in the Civil War. To be sure, there are some grand journeys in our history as Americans. But there are difficult and tragic journeys, too. Journeys painful to contemplate. One thinks of the journey of the Cherokee and the Seminole and the Lakota peoples. The Cherokee’s trail of tears – enforced by American troops—their devastating journey to Oklahoma following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations were removed. Between 2,000 and 6,000 of these proud people perished along the way. They died of exposure, disease and starvation. Here is a journey that we need to remember so that our historical reflections are not sugar-coated.
Then there are the many ships filled with slaves—part of the triangle trade—and the sad history of our own people – people owning slaves, others ignoring the realities of slavery, and many others protecting property rights instead of human rights and so allowing the curse of slavery and of the subjugation of African peoples to continue. A sad, evil journey.
We fought a Civil War from 1860 to 1865 about the right of states of a federal union to succeed from that union. Eventually the issue of slavery was joined in the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1 1863 when President Lincoln saw that such a move was in the interests of the War. By the end of the War, 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had served on the Union side and had helped secure victory..
The union was saved in that journey and a people liberated. But slavery is more than the legal ownership of one individual by another. Slavery has a long reach. It can be economic. It can be social. It can be institutionalized. It can be housed in the hearts and minds of one people even as they look upon another and argue that they’re doing just fine, that they have just the same opportunity as everyone else. It is the people who are being subjugated, put down, who really have the right to say who is bigoted and who is not.
And so we come to another march – adding it to the list of the itinerant journey of the disciples, to the journey of Washington and his troops, to so many other journeys.
This one takes place in the South in March of 1965. This journey was called, appropriately enough, The Freedom March. If the first journey in this sermon was the journey of the disciples, put this one down as the second journey – it is the journey of Civil Rights in America. The journey of freedom marchers.
An excerpt from an account: the March to Montgomery from Selma Alabama in March of 1965.
In early 1965 civil rights activists began making attempts to register voters in Alabama. In response, there were repeated acts of violence by local officials against black people who dared to join this effort. A young black man—Jimmy Lee Jackson—was beaten and then shot to death by a State Trooper. A column of black people, who decided to march from Selma Alabama to Montgomery, the State capital, were clubbed and gassed by State troopers. A white minister from Boston, who had come to Selma to protest police brutality, was clubbed on the street in Selma and died. This sparked protests and outcries that were world-wide.
President Lyndon Johnson asked Congress for a new law that would guarantee black people the right to vote. Eventually this became the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A new march from Selma to Montgomery was organized and Johnson ordered several thousand National Guard troops and US Army troops to protect the marchers. Howard Zinn, a professor of history caught up to the marchers about 18 miles outside of Montgomery. The following descriptions are his notes from March 20-25 of 1965. This is the second journey of which I wish to speak.
They slept in a muddy field, halfway through the March from Selma, and one hundred yards off the main highway to Montgomery. There were three hundred of them, the core of the Long March, and now, because of President Lyndon Johnson’s formal insistence, the National Guard and US Army troops, numbering several thousand were safeguarding their path, following shootings, clubbing and gassing by police and state troopers. They turned into a muddy field about halfway through their march and settled down for the night. At the only entrance to the camp, two Episcopal priests with their collars turned around, were serving as gatekeepers.
In the encampment, one tent was set up for the men, one for the women and they spread tarps inside each one upon the muddy ground. The muddy ground sucked at the shoes, boots and bare feet of the marchers. The troopers guarded the perimeter and lit fires as they camped outside. Joining them there, Howard Zinn, then professor of history at Spelman College for Negro women in Atlanta recorded the scene. He had just arrived and settled down with the others for a long, wet uncomfortable night. Some were up early. In the morning, Zinn could hear Andrew Young, eventually Mayor of Atlanta, calling over the main transmitter to Montgomery: “Get us some shoes; we need forty pairs of shoes, all sizes, for women and kids who have been walking barefoot the past 24 hours.” Clusters of people slowly got up in the gray dawn, lined up for oatmeal, hard-boiled eggs, coffee. Then they gathered themselves and marched.
Writes Zinn: “An old Negro man took his place beside me for the march. He wore a shirt and tie under his overalls, also an overcoat and fedora hat, and used a walking stick to help him along. ‘I was in Marion the night Jimmy Jackson was shot by the policeman. They got bullwhips and sticks and shotguns, and they jab us with the electric poles.’”
They sing as they march, singing about freedom as an Army helicopter hovers overhead. An American flag is up front and it is seventeen miles to the edge of Montgomery. FREEDOM. FREEDOM. FREEDOM’S COMIN’ AND IT WON’T BE LONG.
The line of marchers grows by the mile, by the minute. Students pour out of a Negro high school, lining the streets as they pass, one white man on crutches marches with the rest. Recording the eventual arrival of the marchers, Zinn writes: “A jet plane zoomed close overhead and everyone stretched arms to the sky, shouting, ‘FREEDOM! FREEDOM!’” Thousands were joining the march. Eighteen miles dwindled to two, then one. And then they arrived.
Fifty years ago, people placed their very lives directly in the path of hatred and of violence. Some were singled out, accosted, taunted, clubbed, shot, beaten down—murdered. I see the cross of Jesus there, in their agony. Others continued, old and very young, mostly black and some white, marching together, singing in the face of organized violent hatred. Non-violent and armed mostly with only a shared vision of justice and harmony, singing of freedom, they moved along gripped by the fervor of what they believed and possessed by the Spirit that unleashed their own puny individual wills and made them strong—together. Recently arrived from Dublin, a red-faced Irishman in a trench coat holds the hand of a little black boy who walks beside him.
What kind of journeys are we prepared to take as Christians when our Lord and Master sends us out?
He sent them out two by two and told them to take nothing for the journey. They had something to announce, proclaim. So did these Americans – these black and white marchers marching in the hostile environment of a nation still trying to deal with racism, bigotry, hatred. They were small in numbers, weak, uneducated, poor, impoverished but at the same time filled with a sense of purpose and justice and mission that eventually overflowed. They were filled with faith. With courage and boldness. With hope.
Today and this weekend, as we reflect on our rich and positive heritage of freedom and equality and justice for all, let us not forget them. These Americans—these bold witnesses. The disciples were sent out and are still being sent forth. There are still journeys to take in the name of our liberator, our Savior, our wisdom – Jesus the anointed one of God, Jesus the Christ.