The Long Road Home
Isaiah 35:1-7a; Lk. 24:1-12
You are probably familiar with pictures of Death Valley (Shot of Death Valley) in California. The temperatures can reach 125 during the summer and almost nothing can actually grow there, it is so inhospitable. Apparently, conditions come together every decade or so with the wind and the rain changing course. And when that happens the wild flower seeds that wait patiently for these conditions to come together suddenly bloom (radiant picture of Death Valley)
I’m always taken with plants that grow in the most unlikely places. (roll the video) Even with water and fertilizer, I sometimes haven’t been able to get grass to grow. Which is all the more frustrating when you see weeds growing right through your parking lot tar.
So many people have been like that in history. They had to thrive in adverse conditions. And I think that one of the primary messages we get from the risen Christ addresses this problem. It reminds us that with the Spirit in our lives, sometimes remarkable things can happen to us. Sometimes we can thrive in adverse conditions. Sometimes we can inspire each other to rise beyond ourselves and step out doing something new and bold.
You know when Dr. King wrote about the beginning of the Bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama, the leaders of the movement were worried more than anything about failure. There had been a couple attempts at a boycott in the past but they had never worked because they could never get the whole black community to participate in them, let alone get the white community to join them.
But no sooner had they declared that they were going to boycott the buses, than they started doubting that they could actually do it. So they were very anxious. Nothing like this had ever really been done yet and they didn’t want to look like fools and maybe even risk getting attacked physically after it didn’t work.
And they had a real problem on their hand. Back in ye olden days of Jim Crow, at least in the deep, South, very few African-Americans had cars. Because the deep, South was completely segregated, almost all of the African-American community lived outside the city limits in shanty towns. The buses would take them 5 miles to downtown. In Montgomery, again because of Jim Crow laws, there were only a couple of taxi services that were owned by African-Americans.
There was a very real issue of the distance but there was more than that. Again, Montgomery being the in Jim Crow South, a big percentage of the black community were employed as domestics. These domestic workers were rightly worried about losing their jobs if the white community came out against the boycott in a unified way and they had every reason to believe that they would.
Finally, in the days before the internet, the South was so poor that very, very few black people had phones at home. So how would they even get the word to everyone and how could they make a compelling case? These young civil rights leaders were right to be nervous. The odds of success here were long.
But sometimes in these moments where history is made, it seems like God has other plans. The bible has a saying, “They meant it for evil, but God used it for good.” Sometimes no matter how much you try to hold back change, you can’t hold it back any longer and this was one of those times.
The young civil rights leaders decided that the best thing they could do was mimeograph off some leaflets at the church, distribute them around as best they could and hope. How many of us here can even remember a mimeograph machine? You hand cranked this round drum. They ran off 7000 I believe and this is what they said, “Don’t ride the bus to work, to town, to school, or any place Monday, December 5th. Another Negro woman has been arrested and put in jail because she refused to give up her bus seat. If you work, take a cab, share a ride, or walk. Come to a mass meeting Monday night at 7 p.m. at the Holt Street Baptist Church for further instruction.”
People started handing them out but they were sure they couldn’t get the word out to everyone. It was too diffuse, so they got a little help from the Spirit, as we would say, in retrospect.
One African-American woman got a leaflet, took it to work at the house where she did the cleaning and cooking, and the leaflet accidentally gets in the hands of the white woman that she worked for. Her white employer is alarmed and she immediately calls the editor of the Montgomery Advertiser (the local newspaper) to tell him what ‘they’ are up to.
I can hear her now. This brings back the racist South I grew up in. She could have been my Aunt. She reads the leaflet word for word and the editor writes it down. He sits right down at the typewriter and does a story on the Negro community and the bus boycott and they print the leaflet right in the front middle panel, above the fold…. where everybody can see it. In an instant, the leaders of the boycott had their communication challenge solved for them for free.
Now everybody was talking about it. White people were asking black people about it, showing them the article in the paper. Suddenly, it was pretty hard not to know about it. And the perception started to permeate the town that ‘all the blacks were doing this’ which became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If you start to think that everyone in your community is expecting you to do something, guess what, you start thinking of more reasons why you shouldn’t let everyone around you down. If they are all depending on you, guess what, you might just might find some moral backbone and rise to your higher self.
What followed was something of a miracle as disparate groups of people coalesced into one community of protest. The taxi companies agreed almost match the bus fares and people with cars volunteered to drive all day and night. But with so little way to directly communicate, no one knew for sure what the actual protest would look like.
As you might imagine, there was a lot of worry at those committee meetings that organized the protest. The leaders actually thought that if they could get 40% of Montgomery to boycott the buses that would be a great victory but they weren’t sure what to expect.
Dr. King was up before dawn the morning of the protest. The parsonage that he lived in was right on one of the main bus lines. It would be a good test of what the day would look like because the first bus was usually filled with African-American workers on the morning commute. He was drinking coffee at the breakfast table with his wife when the first bus pulled up and stopped right in front of his house. Not a single person on the bus. He was stunned.
Twenty minutes later the second bus pulls up. Not a single person on it. Now there was a flurry of calls with ‘what do we do now?’ Dr. King had to drive all over town to make sure the buses were empty everywhere. And what he saw were people everywhere walking in quiet nobility, hundreds and thousands of people expressing their dignity and humanity, rising to their higher selves, transcending the ‘nobodiness’ of Jim Crow with the ‘sombodiness’ of a new self-image for a new era.
In the late afternoon, he stopped his car next to an aging grandmother who was walking home, the first of many miles. And he said to her ‘hope on in Grandmother, you don’t need to walk anymore.’ She waved him on and said, “I’m not tired. I’m not walking for me. I’m walking for my children and my grandchildren.’[i] All of these people inspiring each other, in this unspoken, subconscious way, to give voice to their higher selves. It was a powerful day.
And that night, when Dr. King had to address all of them, now that a movement of sorts had started, he could only close by making a prediction based on what he had witnessed that day. He ended by saying, “If you will protest courageously, and yet with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written in future generations, the historians will have to pause and say, ‘There lived a great people- a black people, who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.’ This is our challenge and our overwhelming responsibility.”
Looking back, you can see how the group shaped each of them and encouraged them to rise to their higher selves. Looking back, you can see how that protest could only have been so successful precisely because they rose to their higher selves and collectively it shaped the American conscience for the good.
And what a beautiful thing, when you get a little help from the Spirit to get the word out. More and more people rise above their narrow interests and want to do the right thing, and a movement for goodness is born.
Let’s live out of our higher selves. Collectively, we have a tremendous power to shape who and what we will become, for good and for ill. And that shaping takes place right down the generations too.
The disciples were dejected and forlorn, sorry for themselves. The Risen Christ inspires them and they recognize him in the breaking of the bread and drinking the wine together. And what does the Spirit inspire them to do? Rise to their higher selves. It sends them back to their people, inspiring one another to embrace their higher selves and not be afraid to change, to step out, start something new.
“For, lo, I shall be with you” says the Spirit, “even unto the close of the age.” Amen.
[i] You can find King’s recollections in “Strides Towards Freedom: The Story of Montgomery”