Owning our Past, Claiming our Future
A Sermon preached by Rev. Jess Cook
Ginter Park Presbyterian Church
2 Samuel 5: 1-5; 6:1-5 and Mark 11:8-10

I’ve been thinking about time a lot these days. I’m not sure if it’s because I turned 40 in May, which has a way of shifting hindsight where life starts being considered not in years, but decades. Or maybe it’s the hash marks I walk by every day as I step into my kitchen – lines carefully drawn next to the corresponding date, each one a window into my child’s continually compounding growth. It could be an influence of Cindy Correll’s words I read on Facebook yesterday. Cindy has been back in the US for 20 days now, having fled her post as a mission partner of the PC(USA) in Haiti due to increasing violence and a lock down happening in the country she now calls her second home.

Twenty days struggling to explain the death and fear and hunger in words that makes sense when none of it ever does.

Twenty days of adjusting to life over here where convenience and hot showers and cold mornings and wearing socks feels so strange — but nice.

Twenty days of thinking the violence will calm down tomorrow.

Twenty days of disappointment when the calm breaks again.

Twenty days of trying to encourage my friends in Haiti, and loving how they encourage me.

Twenty days of hearing friends leave messages assuring her they are still ok. “We sleep, we get up, we say, ‘thank you, God’.”

Twenty days of balancing a strong pull to make plans to go home (to Haiti) or stay home (Virginia) and share this turbulent season and what it means with other US folks.

Twenty days is a long time that passes in a flash.

When I was asked to preach this morning, I realized it’s been right at a decade since I first stepped into this pulpit; and I think about the lines that could be drawn around me in this space, marking not only my growth, but also that of so many seminary students who’ve shared their gifts with us from year-to-year and who’ve grown into fuller versions of themselves during their time at Ginter Park. I’m assuming I’m not alone in feeling the power of preaching for the first time – the anticipation often felt for years as a sense of call takes shape, regardless of whether or not it leads to a regular preaching gig. There is a sense of hopefulness to moments like that, pregnant with anticipation. 

In today’s passages from Samuel and Mark we encounter similar moments in Israel’s history. In 2 Samuel, David is finally anointed as king. The references to Saul are a nod to the bloody history between the northern kingdom of Israel and southern kingdom of Judah, now united under David’s leadership. David, who’d been anointed by God when he was still a shepherd boy. The youngest of 8 sons who, though  young and scrappy, had the heart God was looking for in a leader for God’s people – not just a king, but a shepherd whose success would be measured not by military conquest but by the care of all those under his charge. There is a fullness to the moment, a collective optimism as the people see what God saw when David was anointed all those years before, and it is a triumphant moment as David and the entire house of Israel rejoice together. The past hasn’t been washed away, but has led to this moment in the collective history of the people.

Similarly, in our passage from Mark, Jesus is welcomed with shouts of Hosannah. David’s promised successor is finally coming into his own as he rides into Jerusalem. Jesus had quite a following by that time, and his entry into Jerusalem filled the hearts of his followers with a sense of triumph, their shouts imbued with clarity and certainty that Jesus was coming in to make things right, to challenge and overtake the oppressive social and religious structures that had defined their lives for far too long.

Today’s passages exist in a ripe sliver of time in the arc of history, a moment when the world feels like it is shining under the light of a collective sense hopefulness. Things are still lurking under the surface, but it’s nothing urgent. It can wait until tomorrow.

As I prepared to preach this week, I thought about the ongoing conversation Alfred Walker and I have been having about this passage for the better part of a decade. Each year around Palm Sunday I can almost anticipate some conversation around the jarring juxtaposition between the triumph of Palm Sunday and the heartache of the Passion, the difficulty of getting one’s mind around both the triumphant parade of palms we carry to the beat of drums, the shouting and laughing and singing our hosannas down the aisle as they pivot to cries of “crucify him!” within a single Sunday morning service. When I began writing I thought this may be the week that gives us that triumphant entry on its own – we can celebrate Jesus’ coming into Jerusalem, maybe wave our imaginary palm branches as we sing our hosannahs out into the street, proclaiming the long awaited fulfillment of God’s promises and the sureness of God’s love. Can’t we just stay here, in this moment? Can’t we deal with the crucifixion next week and just have this one day together? This moment in time when the world seems full of jubilation? I confess there are times I want that so badly – to rest in the fullness of such a day.

In the last several years, my mom has been doing a lot of genealogy research and discovered that some of our people, my people, came over on the Mayflower. I imagine the feeling of those first settlers was similar to those of the people in our passages today. Suffering for too long under the weight of religious discrimination, they hopped on board a ship and sailed into the unknown in search of land, anticipating the nation they’d build – the beacon on top of a hill they were certain they’d been ordained to settle and to lead.

Looking around today, I can’t help but think that surely this is not the America my ancestors imagined when they climbed off the Mayflower, or when they later penned the Declaration of Independence asserting the self-evident truths “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Surely this is not the future they envisioned, is it? Where children are kept in cages, where Black lives still don’t matter where native lands and lives are desecrated, where the government is actively prosecuting against the protections of its citizens. Surely this can’t be what they had in mind.

Standing before you as I am – a non-binary person ordained as a Minister of the Word and Sacrament in a mainline denomination, I think it’s safe to say there are a lot of things about this particular situation they didn’t envision.

If I take off the badge of manifest destiny my ancestors wore so boldly, I realize this is exactly the America they envisioned. My ancestors, determined as they may have been, were shortsighted. They were arrogant and misguided in their understanding of what it meant to follow God, corrupted by the power they felt they were entitled to have and the land they saw as divinely ordained to be theirs. Armed with the word of God and an assuredness of their chosen status, they held lofty ideas about what America would be, but failed to understand that if they weren’t set on making a better life for everyone, they weren’t making a better life for anyone. And they were using the very texts I hold as sacred as their justification for doing so.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the first ship carrying people from Africa to Virginia with the purpose of enslaving them. For the centuries that followed, millions of people were shuttled across the Atlantic and sold as property, as chattel. Though there was dissent among abolitionists, the practice of buying and selling human beings was largely accepted by white folks as a way of life. And it was supported by many parts of the church, including many Presbyterians. Robert Dabney who, from 1853-1883, taught theology at what is now Union Presbyterian Seminary and is largely understood to be the author of the theological justification for slavery, argued that while all people are created equal, this equality of nature shouldn’t translate to civil equality. Dabney advocated what he called the biblical “righteousness” of slavery, and argued that it was unjust to tax “oppressed” white people at the cost of providing education to the “brats of black paupers.” The church became a bulwark for the atrocities of chattel slavery.

While many of us have longed and worked to see the world as a more just place than it was when those first people were put on ships and ripped from their homes 400 years ago, looking around today, we are still so far from living into the people we were created to be. As White people in particular, we want to fix it, and of course we do – we want to clean up the mess of injustices around us, to calm the collective anxiety or guilt we may hold about the sins of our ancestors. We see racism as an invasive plant, and seek to pull it from the soil anytime a new sprout appears. We create programs meant to level out the system, but balk at discussions of reparations, and often shut down when the conversation gets uncomfortable. We tell our children white-washed stories of our history or avoid uncomfortable conversations all together. In our desire to separate ourselves from the sins of racism, we remain willfully blind to our complicity in supporting a system that has relegated People of Color to the margins of society. We miss that racism isn’t an invasive weed; it’s the soil we are all growing in, cracked and drying out, suffocating us all.

The thing is, we cannot tell the story of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem without also talking about the crucifixion. If we are to truly understand the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, longing to put ourselves among those shouting “hosannah” as Jesus enters Jerusalem, we must also see that we are part of the crowd shouting “crucify” just a few days later. We are called to see the whole story, and to trust that God will give us the resources we need, individually and collectively, to get us where we need to go.

Several years ago, while I was still working as Youth Programs Director at Side by Side, we took the youth leadership group on a field trip to Manchester Docks and the Richmond Slave Trail. “In the late 1700s, newly captured Africans walked the mile-and-a-half route from the docks to the slave jails near 15th and Franklin Streets.” The trail is narrow, best walked single file, and our guide suggested we walk with our arm on the shoulder of the person in front of us. Because our group met in the evening, our tour began around sunset. As we shuffled together like a human chain, we heard about the history of the ground on which we walked – about how ships docked here and emptied of hundreds of people taken from their homes in Africa and brought here, chained at the neck and legs, marched in at night to avoid offending [the local] citizens with their oozing sores, filth and stench they’d carried from the long journey. By the time we’d walked the mile or so to our designated end point, we were quiet and still, the silence heavy on our shoulders as we absorbed together the weight of our shared history.

Chevelle and Lacette, two of the other group leaders and I were tasked with walking back to the van and driving it back to the rendezvous point where we could retrieve the youth. Rather than simply back-tracking, we opted for a wider trail that ran parallel to the one we’d just taken and to the river. After a while, though, we started to wonder if we’d made a mistake. The trail that had seemed so wide now ran narrow, the river no longer visible. The palpable anxiety rose among us, nervous laughter eventually giving way to silence as we sought to stay the course, the weight of the evening’s events still weighing on us all. My companions are both Black women and by that time I’d been friends with both for several years, and had had many conversations about white supremacy and the ways it skews our vision of the world and one another. Many of these conversations were painful for me – not only because I heard about the weight these women I cared so deeply about carried every day, just by virtue of the bodies they were born in, but also because on more than one occasion they’d each called me in for something I’d said that dismissed or trivialized their pain. As we walked and prayed individually, I felt a sense of solidarity and community as we each tried to calm our fears. At one point Chevelle commented that she knew we’d be alright, that the ancestors were looking out for us and would get us to the van safely.

I chuckled a bit and said, “Chevelle, I’m not so sure your ancestors are really looking out for me.”

Chevelle paused and turned to face me directly. With her face dappled by the moonlight breaking through the trees, she said, “No, Jess. They’ve got you, too.”

And they did, because within a minute or so, the trees opened up and we saw the van.

This moment has stayed with me in the years since, and I hope it’s one I never lose. As surely as her ancestors were looking out for Chevelle and Lacette, they were looking out for me.

It was my ancestors – my ancestors – who wouldn’t be looking out for them. Even more, it was my ancestors, my flesh and my bone, who distorted the liberating message of the Bible to justify the genocide of native people and the enslavement of millions of others. It’s this same legacy that justifies putting children in cages today, and encourages me to turn a blind eye to the suffering created by a system built on a distorted version of the gospel. It’s the legacy that reminds me to stay polite, to stay silent, even when I know my voice could have an impact. It’s a legacy that has justified the brutality of so many Black and Brown bodies in favor of the comfort of my White body. It has given me a malformed sense of self built upon lies and, as difficult as the conversations about white supremacy always are, every time I engage in one I feel a small step closer to freedom – freedom to accept the promise offered at my baptism that God’s grace is given to me even when I do not have the capacity to ask for it and freedom to live into the fullness of who I was created to be.

In a few minutes we will hear the choir perform Psalm 150. It is a psalm of praise, wherein not just people but all of creation lift a song together in harmony to worship God – an image of what we could be with our voices together in a rousing hosannah. I’m being honest, most days it seems like a far stretch to get from where we are now to anything collective, much less a song of collective praise. I don’t know what the journey from here to there looks like, but I believe we can get there, and I believe a first step in healing is being honest with ourselves, recognizing that we are in the crowd the crowd cheering for Jesus today, but crucifying him when stuff gets hard. It means seeing this time in which we are living as an uncovering of all the wounds many of us have been taught not to see. It means listening when I need to listen and speaking when I know my voice is needed.

More than anything it means remembering that we are all – each and every one of us – an essential part of the body of Christ, woven together by a God whose infinite love refuses to give up until we can look at ourselves and one another honestly, seeing each other in the fullness of not only our humanity, but also as bearers of divinity. We are in this together, folks. Through all of the ugliness and beauty and pain and joy. And we can get there, I know we can. But let’s start by being honest about what brought us here. And with each step, let’s trust that God hasn’t brought us this far just to bring us this far. And we will make the journey home together or not at all. Not just today, but for all time.

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