(Friends, my blog today is an excerpt from the sermon I preached at Second Presbyterian on Palm Sunday. It is inspired by my Pilgrimage to Birmingham and Montgomery Alabama, which I took last week. Hopefully you’ll find inspiration as we enter Holy Week. — Craig)
We Are Here!
In our lesson we see Jesus at the Passover meal. We see his actions and hear his words,which will come down through the annals of history to our ears and eyes: “Take, eat; this is my body. Drink, for this is my blood of the new covenant.”
The broken body and shed blood are a reference to the cross, the death Jesus foretold and the death we now remember on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. The broken body and shed blood are also what I saw at the Legacy Museum and the Memorial for Peace and Justice. Both showed a history of lynching in the United States.
In his poem “A Litany of Atlanta,” W.E.B Dubois wrote:
I saw a (Black man) lynched
He raved and writhed,
I heard him cry,
I felt the life light leap and lie,
I watched him crackle there, on high,
I saw him wither!
I saw the broken bodies and shed blood of those lynched people. And I believe there is a direct relationship between the way Jesus was killed and the 6,000 African Americans who were lynched in the early 20th century.
Lynching wasn’t just about killing a black man, child, or woman. Yes, children and women were also lynched and burned. It was about destroying their families, burning down their houses, stealing their possessions and forcing any remaining relatives to leave town. It was about generational destruction of that particular family, while terrorizing the entire black community. Lynching was an attempted abortion of the black will. A desirefor the hopes and dreams of African Americans to be stillborn for generations.
Here are some of the reasons black men were lynched:
The Museum shares the story of Anthony Crawford, from Abbeville, SC. This is the area my family of origin is from. In 1916, Mr. Crawford disagreed with the price he was offered by the white store owner for his cotton seed. When leaving the store, Mr. Crawford was attacked from behind, then arrested. He was later pulled from the jail andlynched, his house burned down, his land was taken, and his family forced out of the county.
The message sent from lynching was simple: Stay in your place. Don’t try to live above your station. Don’t try to achieve outside of your boundary. Lynching wouldn’t allow a strong, black man to stand for fairness, stand for family, or stand for justice.
After going through the Legacy Museum and seeing all the names from all the counties from all the states, my friend Warren McNeal from New York said, “It’s a wonder we made it at all.”
Jesus was crucified for similar reasons. He was a challenge to power. The Romans felt Jesus was challenging their authority and trying to be above his station. They felt Jesus was trying to be a king, and that would challenge the authority of Caesar. The Jewish leaders felt Jesus didn’t have the pedigree, education, or right to teach and lead people. Jesus was out of bounds. Jesus was trying to be too much, do too much, and wouldn’t obey the rules and just be silent and invisible.
So, they made an example of Jesus. They nailed Jesus to a tree and lifted him up high for all to see. It was a message to anyone else who tried to live above their station. You will be tortured. Your body will be broken. Your blood will be shed. And you will be killed.
W.E.B. Dubois writes this about lynching and God:
This black and riven Thing, was it you?
That gasp- was it yours?
This pain- is it yours?
With silent sobs that rends and tears-
Can God sob? (See “Prayers of God”)
But God turned the lynching tree of Jesus into a tree of hope. God took this ugly violent thing and flipped it. Instead of Jesus’ crucifixion being an image that repelled, it became an image of bring people together. Instead of the cross becoming a sight to bring fear, it becomes a vision ofsalvation. Only God can take this event of violence and turn it into a source of peace. What humans meant to be a barrier to hope, God has turned into a portal for possibility and freedom.
We now take the broken body and shed blood and call it communion. What was meant to scatter the disciples and Jewish people in fear, has become the center of gathering for all of those who believe Jesus is the Christ.
Perhaps this transformation of evil and redemption from suffering is a hint of what we are called to do as Christians, as those who follow Jesus. The current way of understanding mission in the world is to ask the question, “Where is God working in the world?” Where is God working in Chicago? And then we are challenged to join God where God is.
But in his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, theologian James Cone asks this question differently. He asks, “Where is Jesus being crucified in the world?” Unfortunately, the cross did not end suffering and injustice in our world. But perhaps we are to find those places of brokenness and bring healing.
Find those places of suffering and bring redemption.
Find those places of injustice, and fight for justice.
Where do you see those places in Chicago?
Let me tell you how the Anthony Crawford story ended. In 2016, 100 years after the lynching, the descendants of Mr. Crawford came together in Abbeville to unveil a marker that now sits in the town square that honors Anthony Crawford. The land was restored to the family. Dignity restored to a community. When the family gathered, they began to shout, “We are here! We are here!”
When we take of the body and blood, we are saying, Christ is here. And we are here.
We are here and we have hope.
We are here and we have dignity.
We are here and we have salvation.
We are here and we will continue God’s work of hope, possibility, and freedom. Amen.