Traces of the Trade and Ferguson

St. Thomas, Chicago
This is, of course, the 5th Sunday of Lent and next week we will observe Palm Sunday and begin our journey together through Holy Week to Easter! We’re in Year B of our lectionary and Sunday Bible readings, the year we read through the Gospel of Mark on Sunday mornings. But Mark is the shortest of the four Gospels and, to make it through the whole year, we have to supplement readings from Mark with a few from John’s Gospel, one of which we have today.
This is one of the passages where we see that Jesus was beginning to have some premonitions about his death. Right after Philip and Andrew arrange to have Jesus meet some Greek-speaking Jews who were curious about him, Jesus says: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:23)
And, in case that was too subtle a reference for them, he goes on to make it clear to the disciples, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name!” (John 12:27-28a) As we can see throughout the Gospels, Jesus didn’t want to die (any more than any of us want to die), but he was willing to die if that was what it took to carry out his mission!
As I meditated on that passage this week, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King’s own “premonitions” as to the danger his own life was in that last week. In Memphis to support the garbage collectors’ strike, on the night before his death he gave what would be his final sermon. Amid the call for African Americans to boycott businesses that mistreated workers, he delivered a sermon, without notes, that focused on his life and disavowed any concern that he might be killed for his role in the fight for civil rights.
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life,” he said, “Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” It wasn’t the first time that he had spoken publicly about his possible early death, but I doubt that Dr. King expected that April 3rd sermon to be his last. “He always knew some speech would be his last,” wrote Andrew Young, “Was he afraid? Not on your life!” (Christian Science Monitor, April 4, 2011)
Like Jesus, Martin Luther King did not want to die (any more than any of us want to die) but he was willing to die if that was what it took to carry out his mission!” And like Jesus, Dr. King knew that he had not reached the Promised Land yet, but he had seen it! And he had absolute confidence that, one day, “we, as a people, will get to that promised land!”
You and I need to be reminded to have that confidence today! In the wake of Ferguson and as we mourn the senseless deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and so many others, it’s easy to give up in despair and to fall into thinking things will never get any better.
Bishop Lee and I just returned from a meeting of the House of Bishops at the Kanuga Conference Center in North Carolina. We gather twice a year as a House for mutual encouragement and support. This time largely because of those tragic events I just mentioned, our focus was on racism and on our own complicity and silence in these times. Oh, the Bishop of Missouri and the Dean of his Cathedral have been in the streets in Ferguson and the Church has spoken out in many places. But we need to do so much more!
We viewed and discussed the powerful film “Traces of the Trade” which is an award-winning documentary produced by a white family of Episcopalians who discovered that their wealth, and the wealth of their little New England village, had been built almost entirely on the slave trade in which they were involved. This family was horrified by the actions of their ancestors and embarked on a journey from Connecticut to West Africa to Cuba and back again in search of answers and repentance. To date there have been more than 300 screenings of that film and discussion about its consequences all around our church and around the country. But we need to do so much more!
That evening we had an intense session entitled “Traces of the Trade and Ferguson” in which it became clear that the deep racism in that community and in so many parts of our country go right back to the “original sin” of this country and our participation in the African slave trade. Contemporary events – whether gun violence and drugs in the city of Chicago, the mass incarceration of young black men in the North, or voter suppression of entire populations in the South – all can be directly traced to the history of racism and slavery in this country!
As bishops, we re-committed ourselves to continue the struggle as our Presiding Bishop challenged us to have “courage to face the problems, curiosity about those we may consider to be the “other” and compassion which means to “suffer with” those with whom we wish to stand in solidarity. Or, as one of the bishops put it: “Show up…speak out…live brave!”
“I may not get there with you,” said Dr. King, “but I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!” (Pause) “And what should I say – Father, save me from this hour?” asked Jesus, “No, it is for this reason that I come to this hour. Father, glorify your name!”
Jesus and Martin…Courage, curiosity, and compassion…Two who willing to show up, speak out, and live brave! Are we? Am I?

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