by Daniel Harrell
Thanks to all who expressed appreciation for the past three Sundays and our dive into the challenges of Christian faith and race in America. I’m so thankful to Rev Edrin Williams and Rev Dennis Edwards of Sanctuary Church, as well as to Joe McDonald from Upper Room, for their willingness to invest in this critical conversation and press us as God’s people to become that harbinger of heaven on earth depicted in both Old Testament and New. Isaiah envisions at the end of history “a great multitude no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” gathered before the Lord. Revelation depicts a multitudinous, white-robed reconciled throng, gathered around a table extended into eternity, feasting on fried chicken, barbecue and biscuits I’d like to think, and praising the Lord. “Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb,” they sing, acknowledging they’d done nothing to earn it. Salvation is not merited or inherited but given free gift.
This celebrated future as certain, is grounded in the resurrection of Jesus. As this future is so certain; why not start now? Reconciliation previews the resurrection table: all nations, tribes, peoples and languages gathered on earth as we will be in heaven. In Christ there is no longer Gentile and Jew, slave and free, black and white, us and them.
Reconciliation is made possible by Jesus, as Pastor Edrin so ably preached, making many wonder why it has to be so hard. Numerous conversations in the Common recounted countless sermons on racial reconciliation at Colonial over the years. Some said it feels like we’ve been working on it for generations with so little progress. Pastor Edrin imagined a day when his young daughters would hear these sermons and wonder what their old man was going on about.
For me as a kid growing up in Greensboro, NC in the 60s, reconciliation was unnecessary since everybody knew their place. You knew where to live and play and shop and where to go to school and to church. You sometimes crossed lines to go to work, but everybody understood who worked for whom. My brickmason Dad would drive us to the south side of town in the summers to pick up laborers to help him build big houses for rich people back on the other side of town. One worker, a very strong, dark and quiet man named Robert, upon seeing me in the cab of the pickup would start climbing into the back until my dad reminded him his seat was in the cab with us. I was too young to appreciate the significance of the gesture. In those days, it likely lost my dad a few jobs.
I was in sixth grade when forced busing started. I remember the day—scores of black kids from across town bused to all-white suburbs because of the law. Everybody was so nervous and angry. White parents kept kids at home and other white kids fled campus. Fights broke out, sticks and bricks and glass jars got thrown. You stayed out of the bathrooms and traveled the hallways in packs. Police and security guards were everywhere. Centuries of ingrained discrimination bred deep distrust and hatred and fear. We didn’t know what to do about our differences, and we didn’t really want to figure it out. Racism is a stubborn demon: cruel, destructive, fierce and unrelenting.
We’re reading through the gospel of Mark in Confirmation, and we came upon this morning’s passage in the midst of Pastor Edrin’s preaching series. I couldn’t help but make a few connections. Mark 9 begins with a sneak preview of heaven—Jesus pulls back the curtain to give three disciples a glimpse of his glory in a moment we call the Transfiguration. Jesus stands tall atop a high mountain and shines in breathtaking light. Moses and Elijah, both nominated for best Bible hero, show up and award Jesus the Oscar before he even gives his greatest performance. The voice of the Lord booms from heaven as its own confirmation of Jesus’ baptismal calling. The Almighty thunders: “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.”
As soon as it began it was over. The curtain closed and everybody hiked down the mountain, the disciples in a daze. They stumbled upon the other disciples in a dispute with religious leaders over their failure to heal a young boy. The tormented boy’s father informed Jesus how his son had an evil spirit that wouldn’t let him speak, that cast him into fire and water to destroy him. The father had asked the disciples to help but they couldn’t. This was a difficult demon. Irritated by this, Jesus labeled the leaders and the crowd a “faithless generation.” “How much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you?” True, the disciples had cast out demons before, they had the power. But some devils are harder than others.
“Bring the boy to me,” Jesus said. Which the desperate father was more willing to try anything. The boy sees Jesus and seizes, and the father says, “if you can do anything, please do it, which only irritated Jesus more. “If I can?” he asked, nonplussed. And then, “All things can be done for the one who believes.” The indictment of our own disbelief is intentional. The faithless generation is us. The father confesses as much, and lets lose a line a lot of us cry out when our desperation meets our doubt: “I believe; help my unbelief!”
Jesus lets loose on the demon, ordering it out of the boy, never to enter again, but apparently killing the kid in the process. As with any cancer, you have to destroy the good too for true healing to happen. Death comes before resurrection, always in that order. The healed boy appeared to be dead, “like a corpse” was how most people saw him. But Jesus took the boy by the hand and lifted him up, using the same verb that means resurrection.
You think such a miracle would fix everybody’s faith, but in the passage right after this, just in time for Lent, Jesus foretells betrayal and execution, death had to come before his own resurrection. With a nod to all of creation, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a seed, and said how unless a seed falls into the dirt and dies it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit. First death and then resurrection, always in that order for everything. Even for God.
Yale professor Willie Jennings, author of a recent book The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, writes of growing up with a Southern mother who taught him to respect the dirt. “Like many black women from the South, she knew the earth like she knew her own soul. I came along late. I was the last of her eleven children, born not of the South but of the North, the fruit of the great migration when black folks wearied of the Jim Crow South and, in search of work, pointed their hopes toward northern cities and replanted their lives in colder air…. My mother was one of those black women who carry intimate knowledge of slave voices. As a little girl she lived with her grandmother, a former slave. She also knew from her own experiences the lives of poor folks in the South who picked cotton, got cheated for their backbreaking labor, and worked diligently to stay out of harm’s way with whites. The experience of agricultural labor, life in the dirt, also brought her into a contradictory but very intimate relationship with the land itself.”
Jennings remembered his mother on many occasions holding a fistful of dirt in her hand and telling her son to never forget how we all come from the dirt and will go back to the dirt. And he remembered her always saying this with a smile on her face. Whether black or white or whatever, humans all come from the dust of the ground, we’re all made from the same stuff, made to be as one in the image of God who exists as a united community himself, three-in-one. Made in God’s image, we are wired for relationship with God and each other. Jesus’ own prayer is that we would be one as Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one—the church is to be light for a divided world. At Upper Room last Sunday night, Pastor Dennis was asked how many churches there are in Minneapolis. As we each scrambled to do the math in our heads, Dennis held up one finger. Scripture declares there is one body and one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all people.
Segregation and prejudice are neither natural nor intrinsic. Professor Jennings describes race as a social construct, foisted on dark-skinned Africans in a brutal abuse of power sanctioned by Christians who perverted Scripture as license. Exploiting the story about Noah cursing his son Ham in Genesis, slave traders and colonial missionaries conveniently labeled dark-skinned Africans as Ham’s descendants, uncivilized and unworthy of mercy. In the United States, few efforts were made to convert slaves to Christianity until the eighteenth century, and only then once it was guaranteed that baptism would not alter their status as “property.” Author Ta-Nehisi Coates tells his black son, “Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free. Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains—whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains.” Racism is an inexorable demon, the strange fruit of prejudice plus power.
Here in Mark the disciples wondered why they couldn’t cast out the demon. Why couldn’t they fix the problem? Those of us who gathered last Sunday afternoon to talk about racism and reconciliation wondered the same. As white people with power and privilege, the impulse is to fix things: organize a task force or start a program or fund an initiative or change laws. To be sure, there are systemic aspects of racism, structures and statutes that allow the demon to thrive. Justice strives to make right and resorts to protest, advocacy and legislation—levers of political change. But justice is not the same as reconciliation. Justice relies on legislation. Reconciliation relies on love and cannot be legislated and cannot be done from a distance. Reconciliation always got Jesus in trouble: stopping to talk with those people on the streets, touching those people, eating with those people, choosing those people to be his disciples and followers and friends.
Reconciliation, like love, demands loss: nobody gets everything they want in relationship. A seed has to die in the dirt to bear fruit. God so loved the world that he had to give his beloved son to save it. We can’t save ourselves anymore than we can raise ourselves from the dead. The disciples asked Jesus, “Why couldn’t we get rid of that demon?” Jesus replied, “This kind can be dealt with only through prayer.” Racism may be a demon only God can cast out.
For white people, prayer feels so passive. Accustomed to power and privilege and quick fixes, we struggle and fail and blame God for not helping. Black Christians struggle and say Sunday is coming. Their faith was forged in the crucible of slavery. Despite slave-holding Christians who exploited God’s word to demean and shackle, slaves heard the word tell of a God who liberates the shackled, of Jesus, dark-skinned and poor, born to an out of wedlock teenager, wrongfully arrested and hung on a tree by a state-sanctioned mob; but then rightly raised from the dead and victoriously vindicated, all to God’s glory. Christ died and we praise the Lord for it and call it good news. This is the enduring mystery of the gospel. And it is the heartbeat of true faith and confident prayer. The horror of the cross bears its own strange fruit in a wondrous and inexplicable capacity to rise above hatred, above racism, above injustice and evil with true love, pure grace and genuine joy. Christ’s power to reconcile patiently persists from the margins, loving enemies and welcoming strangers, caring for the poor, shunning privilege and the pursuit of wealth, going a second mile, doing its good in secret and not for applause. It’s like that mustard seed underground, so small you can hardly see it sometimes, buried and dead, but then bursting forth in glory with golden splendor and flavor.
“When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
By the time I graduated high school, so many friendships had blossomed across racial lines. I attribute so much of this to the tireless work of youth pastors and Young Life workers, faithful men and women allowed to roam campus halls in those days and who were there every day, cajoling us into relationship, making us sit together at tables, breaking up our fights, challenging our assumptions, loving us and crying with us and praying with us too. Our senior year saw us white kids rallying behind a brilliant black student, Chris Miller, whom we all voted to be president of our school. And black cheerleaders hailed our basketball team with its odd white starting five as they beat the fabulous James Worthy’s team from Gastonia, North Carolina for the state championship—an impossibility we were sure God had a hand in.
Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, the long road to Easter and resurrection. It’s disciplines include prayer, self-denial and acts of generosity toward others, all recipe ingredients for real reconciliation. On Wednesday night, Ash Wednesday, we’ll take a thumb full of dirt in our fingers and press them tightly to your forehead, and like that black Southern mother with her fistful of dirt, we’ll remind you we all come from the dirt and will go back to the dirt. And we’ll smile when we say it. A seed has to die to bear fruit. Our sure and glorious resurrection future, previewed by reconciliation, does not come to us horizontally. It rises up from the ground.