Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Making a Way, Or What Peace Really Looks Like: Mark 1:1-8
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
"I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night.... I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night." This phrase was probably the most lovely phrase that I read all week. It is lovely for a few reasons. First, the central metaphor is very sweet and homey. In these cold nights in our old farm house, I am well-acquainted with the wonderful nature of a good quilt. When I think of a cozy evening at home, I often imagine being wrapped up in a quilt with a fire in the woodstove and a funny movie on the TV. When I think about quilts on cold nights, I am comforted. I feel peaceful. Perhaps I took notice of the phrase, because we are in the second week in Advent, the week we speak of Peace that Christ has and will bring us. Warm quilts on cold nights seem peaceful.
But, remember the sentence. It didn't say "I felt a sense of peace cover my body." It said, "I felt a determination cover my body." When I hear about warm quilts and cold nights, I expect to hear about peace. Instead, I hear about determination. What a pleasant surprise. I am always fond of a turn of phrase that surprises me. The unexpectedness of this image helped to encourage me to read more. Given what I was reading, though, maybe I should have expected to see something about determination. After all, I was reading about Rosa Parks, the patron saint of the Montgomery bus boycott. December 1st was the 59th anniversary of her arrest. In this season of Advent, one so deeply shaped, at least for me, by deep sadness and anger over the on-going power of racism in our national consciousness, I hoped that reading some about Mrs. Parks' story would help bring me a good word, an inspiring word, to share with you today. And, the first thing that really caught my attention was this sentence, "I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night."
Some of you may have heard, like I often have, that Mrs. Parks refused to move from her seat in the segregated city bus simply because she was too tired to get up. The story in popular culture often goes something like this. Poor Rosa Parks has been at a long day's work as a seamstress. She is sitting towards the middle of the bus where she has nearly collapsed at the end of her day. The front, whites-only portion of the bus has filled up, and the driver comes back to tell her to move to the very back of the bus so that some white customers can sit in her seat. And, poor, tired Rosa Parks was too tired to move. To exhausted to pick up her purse and change seats. So, the driver had her arrested.
In her autobiography, Mrs. Parks described her motivation quite differently. She wrote, "People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in." The only tired I was, was tired of giving in. Mrs. Parks had a history of community activism. She, along with her husband, was a very active member of the NAACP, participating in voter registration drives. She, like a young minister named Martin Luther King, Jr., had attended interracial leadership training at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. Just a few days before she was arrested, she attended a mass meeting where people mourned and planned actions in response to the brutal murder of teenager Emmett Till. At that meeting, the people gathered discussed ways that Black people could fight for their rights.
It is, perhaps, no wonder, then, that as she left work on a Thursday night, headed home to prepare to send out notices to NAACP members and work on a workshop that she was leading for teenagers that weekend, when the driver, a driver with whom she had had a run-in many years before, came back to order her to move, she said no. She hadn't been planning to take a stand on that bus. But, in the moment, she knew she had to. She later described the moment in this way: ""When that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night." And, she did not move. She was not the first woman arrested for refusing to move. A group of women that did not include Parks would actually have the successful court case that helped put an end to bus segregation. In Parks, local civil rights leaders Jo Ann Robinson and E.D. Nixon saw someone whom the community could rally behind. So, they called for a bus boycott to show support for Parks. And, 40,000 people took black-owned cabs, rode in car-pools, and walked to work, sometimes up to 20 miles.
They would continue the boycott for 381 days. In snow and raining and blazing hot Alabama summers, they walked. When their churches and homes were bombed, they walked. Even as people, including Parks, lost their jobs because they participated in the protest, they walked. On November 13, 1956, segregated busing was deemed illegal by the US Supreme Court. On December 20th, the order came to Montgomery. On December 21st, the boycott ended. While the buses were desegregated, churches and homes continued to be bombed, not just in Montgomery, but all over the South. And people fired bullets into the buses to intimidate the riders. The very next month, Klan members would still force a black resident of Montgomery to jump to his death from a bridge into the Alabama River. Mrs. Parks and her husband would move away from Montgomery, primarily because she was unable to find work after her participation in the boycott.
In our scriptures today, we hear the words of two prophets, those of Isaiah and those of John the Baptist. The prophet of the book of Isaiah, a book written after the utter desolation of the Israelite people at the hands of Babylon, spoke of the oppressed people's hope that God would save them. Hear these ancient words that tell of the people's salvation: "A voice cries out: 'In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.' ...God will feed God's flock like a shepherd; God will gather the lambs in God's arms, and carry them in God's bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep." In the book of Mark, the author understands John to be following in Isaiah's footsteps, announcing the coming of the Messiah, the one who would free the people. John baptized people in the Jordan River, the river that marked the ancient boundary between the wilderness and the Promised Land. As people stood dripping with the promise of freedom that God had once provided their ancestors, John said this, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
The thing about prophets is that they aren't usually very popular. They aren't usually well behaved or orderly. John is usually described as have a kind of wildness that would have horrified many a respectable citizen. But, prophets don’t really need to be respectable. They just need to tell the truth. It seems that this truth telling is what really makes them unpopular. Scholar Karoline Lewis calls prophets "analyzers of the 'now' for the sake of moving toward a different future." As Lewis notes, when we analyze what is happening now, we hold a mirror up to our own selves, risking seeing a truth that we would prefer to ignore or deny. So, it may be easier to deny the truth and ignore the truth-tellers. It is certainly more convenient.
During Advent, there are some truths that we likely happy to hear about. We rejoice in the idea that God became flesh in the Christ-child. We are comfortable with the idea that God could be born in uncomfortable surrounding and still rise to glory later. We are ready to hear about peace, especially after the hectic week that many of us have had. But there is a truth that is much harder to hear. The peace we seek may not really be all that peaceful. The peace we seek may involve walking long miles to work on cold morning. The peace we seek may cost us friends and jobs. The peace we seek may threaten our very lives. Peace probably won't come through fluffy quilts on warm evenings. Peace will come from determination... determination to live into the call of love and justice that we hear from Jesus Christ.
Most of us will never be prophets. That's probably good. It sounds exhausting. But, all of us have to opportunity to hear the prophets and respond to the truth they tell. I don't think Rosa Parks was a prophet. But, she was certainly willing to follow the prophetic call when she heard it. She knew the truth in her bones. She knew that she was a beloved child of God and that God meant more for her than oppression and racism had in mind. She knew that she was prepared to take action, whatever the cost, because the oppressor's civility was no match for the peace that God called her to, a peace bathed in love and justice. So, she did not move. She stood her ground. She became a catalyst for God's in-breaking into this world.
There is another sentence I heard this week that has stuck with me just as surely as Mrs. Parks' words of determination. It is a simpler sentence, but a powerful one nevertheless. It is only three words. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. Three simple words repeated eleven times as Eric Garner lay on the ground. "I can't breathe," he said with an arm around his neck. "I can't breathe" with his voice shaking with anger and fear. I can't breathe. These are last words that we know this man spoke. We know he said them because we have a video of him struggling for every last breath. I can't breathe. These words may not be a prophesy but they are certainly the Truth.
Upon hearing these words, are we willing to be changed? Are we willing to be moved to make changes so something like this never happens again? Are we willing to say that the petty tax evasion of selling loose cigarettes is not a crime worthy of a death sentence? Are we willing to admit that racism affects how people are policed and what kind of sentences they receive once they do encounter police? Are we willing to enact reform so that police officers are given tools that allow them to protect the public as opposed to pit them against the public as though they are at war? While we're at it, can we make sure that police officers who have a history of brutality and unnecessary violence aren't allowed to actually be police anymore? This week, the voice that I have heard crying out is saying, "I can't breathe." And, now my choice is how to respond to it.
Today, there is a March to End Violence in Portland at 2 PM. And, tomorrow, I will meet with some of my ministerial colleagues to plan a panel about race, poverty, and policing that will be here in Winthrop in January. These seem like two ways that I can begin to respond to the voice that is crying out for Justice. If you have any other ideas, let me know. Let all of us know. Created in God's image and worshiping a God who was willing to share earthly life with us, we are being called to work alongside that God to create peace. But, this kind of peace isn't easy. It is not just a warm quilt on a cold night. No, this peace will take some walking.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon
Mary Fair Burks, "Trailblazers: Women in the Montgomery Bus Boycott," Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers 1941-1965, eds. Vicki L. Crawford, Jacqueline Rouse, and Barbara Woods
Karoline Lewis, A Truth-Telling Advent: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=3446
"UCC leaders condemn New York grand jury decision, call for examination of judicial system": http://www.ucc.org/news/statement-ny-grand-jury-12042014.html
Bo Sanders, "Police Violence is the Exception":
A Chronology of Events in Dr. King's life and ministry: http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/chronology_contents
E. R. Shipp, "Rosa Parks, 92, Founding Symbol of the Civil Rights Movement, Dies":
Mark Allan Powell's Commentary on Mark 1:1-8: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2266
Highlander Research and Education Center, "Honoring Rosa Parks' Place in History On This Day and Looking Towards the Future, Dec. 1": http://highlandercenter.org/honoring-rosa-parks-place-history-day-looking-towards-future-dec-1/
Williams, Donnie; Wayne Greenhaw (2005). The Thunder of Angels: The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the People who Broke the Back of Jim Crow. Chicago Review Press. p. 48.
Parks, Rosa; James Haskins (1992). Rosa Parks: My Story. Dial Books. p. 116.
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.