Proper 6 (June 12-18)
Texts: Mark 4:26-34;
Eze 17:22-24; 2 Cor 5:6-10, 14-19
SOWING MUSTARD SEEDS OF ‘GOOD TROUBLE’
On May 4, 1961 a dozen or so “Freedom Riders” left Washington D.C. on Greyhound and Trailways buses, sitting in integrated pairs. They were testing a Supreme Court ruling from six months before that gave the right to African Americans to travel anywhere on interstate buses without being segregated from other passengers, both on the buses and in the terminals. Their journey took them through the heart of the segregated South, from Washington to New Orleans. John Lewis, the honored congressman from Georgia who died last Summer, was among these Freedom Riders. Their travel proceeded without incident through Virginia and North Carolina; but then on Tuesday, May 9, they arrived in Rock Hill, SC, a long-time stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan.
Sure enough, a gang of young Klansmen was waiting for them in the bus terminal, and Lewis recalled that they “beat us and hit us.” Repeatedly struck in the face and kicked in his sides as he fell to the ground, Lewis remembered the taste of blood in his mouth. Lewis and his white Freedom Rider partner, Albert Bigelow, never hit back. They absorbed the blows — blows in part inflicted by Klansman Elwin Wilson. It was an elemental attack. Asked what he’d used in the assault, Wilson replied, “My fists. I sure remember I didn’t shake hands.”
A Rock Hill policeman watched the beating and then stepped over. “All right, boys,” he told Wilson and the other whites. “Y’all’ve done about enough now. Get on home.”
Lewis struggled to his feet, “woozy and feeling stabs of sharp pain above both eyes and in my ribs. My lower lip was bleeding pretty heavily.” He and Bigelow declined to press charges. “We’re not here to cause trouble,” Lewis told the police. “We’re here so that people will love each other.”1
There were more beatings along the way, a dangerous journey. But I mention one of the Rock Hill Klansman’s names, Elwin Wilson, because he’s an important part of the subsequent story. Nearly forty-eight years later, it was Wilson who made the trip from South Carolina to Washington D.C. during the week of Barack Obama’s inauguration. He sought out the office of Rep. John Lewis and gave a tearful, heartfelt apology for having beaten him all those years ago. Lewis, putting his principles into practice, freely granted him forgiveness. The two men met on a number of occasions afterward to bear witness to the power of reconciliation.2
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, I believe that stories like this one are what today’s parables point to. In our time, for example, the task of reconciling the races, as we work to dismantle five hundred years of white supremacist racism, is a daunting task. Moments like the one between John Lewis and Elwin Wilson can feel like a tiny mustard seed. Racism still looms so large in our world that the work of following Jesus in reconciling all peoples seems like barely a large shrub among the trees of a dark forest. Yet the point of these parables is to encourage our work, calling us to soldier on because the coming of the harvest one day is assured. The parables of Jesus in Mark 4 have the same kind of impact when civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. tell us, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Keep fighting the nonviolent fight because it is bearing fruit and will continue to bear fruit. Someday we will see the harvest. We will realize Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream.
In Jesus’s time the dark forest overshadowing the mustard bush of God’s kingdom was the Roman Empire. Jesus did his best to call his Jewish people to their task of being a blessing to all the families of the earth, as had been promised to Abraham and Sarah (Gen 12:1-3). In recent week’s, from both John’s Gospel (3:1-17 on Trinity) and John’s First Letter (5:1 on Easter 6), we’ve heard from Jesus that we must be born from above, born of God. In other words, we must see ourselves as children of God so that we can see every person in this world as a brother or sister. Last week, Jesus responded to tension with his biological family to say that his true family is comprised of all those who do God’s will — namely, to love all people as Jesus himself has loved us.
But last week we also heard the first parable. Do you remember? It wasn’t a parable of encouragement about the coming of God’s kingdom. No, the first parable was about Satan’s kingdom, about Satan’s household being forever divided against itself. So the exchange between Jesus and his family is essentially about the mission of reconciling the broken human family. Jesus’ true family are those who take up this mission to the human family. As we look around us two thousand years later, the human family seems as divided as ever, doesn’t it? That’s why we need to take heart with this morning’s parables, which assure us that the harvest will someday come, even if the growth seems invisible or small right now. It has grown into a might bush so that birds are beginning to find a home in its branches.
Just in case we need confirmation of what the mission is, we have the soaring message of St. Paul this morning.3 We are called to a ministry of reconciling the human family. Paul has his own way of saying what John has been saying in recent weeks. Instead of language that we are born from above, born from God, Paul talks about dying to our old human way of seeing things so that everything is new. We die like seeds in the ground and rise anew to a whole new way of seeing everyone and everything. No more of the old divisiveness of being set against each other in countless ways of Us-vs-Them. The human family is a new creation in Jesus Christ. How do we know? Because Christ has been reconciling the whole world unto himself and now calls us to the ministry of reconciliation.
Next month, we will begin to read through Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, and there Paul will put it even more dramatically:
For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups [Jew and Gentile] into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. (Eph 2:14-16)
Creating one new humanity in place of the two. In other words, all the ways in which we play the games of Us vs Them, all the ways in which we have fallen into Satan’s game of being a human household divided against it, all that is being reconciled through Jesus willingness to let himself be cast out by Satan, by us, in a way that exposes the futility of our brokenness.
And we inherit that work of reconciliation. In Galatians 3, Paul puts it yet another way: we who are baptized in Christ Jesus now find all our Us-vs-Them schemes melting away: we are no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, Paul says. What other binaries can we need to add to the list? Black or white? Straight or gay? Democrat or Republican? Catholic or Protestant? Christian or Muslim? Professional or working class? All these divisions expose how we are trapped in a human way of thinking that Christ and the Spirit are helping us to leave behind. God is creating one new humanity in place of all the twos.
Brothers and sisters, we are given the ministry of reconciliation in a very broken world. As John Lewis said, “We’re not here to cause trouble. We’re here so that people will love each other.” What can we do this week to sow the seeds of that love, even if they are the tiniest of all seeds? Because Our Lord took that love to the cross, was buried in the ground for three days, and arose again, everything is new. There is a new creation growing in this world. Do you see it? Can you and I be a part of it?
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Lutheran Church of the Living Christ,
Germantown, WI, June 13, 2021
1. This account of the incident is drawn from Jon Meacham, His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope, 87-91.
2. The account of Lewis’s and Wilson’s reconciliation in 2009 is not only mentioned in the above reference from Meacham but also in this brief video clip from MSNBC Headliners celebrating Lewis’s life: https://www.msnbc.com/msnbc-originals/watch/-headliners-john-lewis-the-power-of-non-violence-1426818115578
3. I extended the RCL reading by two verses, making sure to include what for me is the main point: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Cor 5:18-19).