Friday morning I saw a man, probably in his 40s, walking slowly up Morehead Avenue, just around the corner from my house. He was walking with his hands stretched out, out from his sides, making his body into a cross. I stopped and watched him for a while, I watched him walk like that until he disappeared over the hill—a black man, his body a cross, on a pilgrimage through the streets of Durham.
Every year, during Holy Week, on Good Friday, devoted Christians around the world make life-sized crosses and carry them on their backs, reminding themselves and others of Christ’s passion, the suffering of Jesus. The man in my neighborhood this past Friday wasn’t carrying a cross—his body was the cross, a reminder of the crucifixion of African-Americans this week at Mother Emanuel AME Church, a reminder of a history of racialized crucifixions here in the South, here in this country.
As I watched him, his walking cross, I remembered a print by Fritz Eichenberg, from 1962—a woodcut engraving called, “The Black Crucifixion,” an image of a black man, on the cross, with his mother at his side, bowed down and weeping, mourning the loss of her son. That was Eichenberg’s response to racist America—the crucified Christ.
The AME congregation here in Chapel Hill hosted a prayer vigil a few days ago. During the service, church members read the names of each of the nine people who were killed at their sister congregation in Charleston. With each name they lit a candle, and after all the names were read and the candles lit, we sang a hymn: “Jesus, keep me near the cross.” The third verse says it all. It goes like this: “Near the cross! O Lamb of God, bring its scenes before me, Help me walk from day to day, with its shadow o’er me.”
The scenes of the crucifixion, it says, before me, before us.
The cross, it says, the shadow of the cross over me.
Nine people crucified on Wednesday, at church:
Cynthia Hurd (54)
Susie Jackson (87)
Ethel Lance (70)
DePayne Middleton-Doctor (49)
Clementa Pinckney (41)
Tywanza Sanders (26)
Daniel Simmons (74)
Sharonda Singleton (45)
Myra Thompson (59)
The disciples, in our story from Mark’s Gospel, are terrified. They’re in a boat. There’s a storm, a deadly storm, surrounding them, engulfing them—a storm threatening and terrorizing their lives. They’re going to drown. So they turn to Jesus, and say, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
“Do you not care that we are perishing?”
If there’s a place in this story to put this week, it is here. “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” That’s a question, a prayer, I can imagine coming from the sanctuary of Mother Emanuel Church, after the bloodshed.
“Jesus, do you not care that we are perishing?”
It’s a stark prayer, full of desperation. “Every fiber in my body hurts,” Felicia Sanders said on Friday morning, as she mourned the death of her son. “I will never be the same,” she said, as she spoke to her son’s killer in a courtroom, after his capture. “You have killed some of the most beautiful people I know.”[i]
My first glimpse of this anti-black racism here in the South happened my second summer in North Carolina, not that long ago. One evening in May, 2004, there were cross-burnings in Durham. Three of them, the same night—one cross ablaze on South Roxboro Street; another one burning downtown, on Holloway street; and one on the property of St Luke’s Episcopal Church. At each site, there were pamphlets from the KKK, scattered around, racist propaganda. That same summer there was a cross-burning in Charlotte, in front of a house of an inter-racial couple.
There’s a long history of white supremacy in this country, a thread that connects us now to the racist beginnings of our society. In 1822, Denmark Vesey, one of the founders of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, couldn’t bear it any longer—he couldn’t bear this world, our world, any longer—so he planned a slave revolt, there in the sanctuary of Mother Emanuel AME.
The white authorities found out about the plot and executed Denmark Vesey and the other leaders, 35 people, then the citizens of Charleston burned down the church, burned Emanuel AME Church down to the ground.
“Teacher,” the disciples ask Jesus, “do you not care that we are perishing?”
Before he was killed this past week, in an interview the pastor of Mother Emanuel AME, Clementa Pinckney, spoke of his hope, the hope of his people—it’s all in a prayer, he said, a prayer passed down from generation to generation in his community. It’s called “The Grandmother’s Prayer”—“Lord, let me be free. If not me, my children. If not my children, my children’s children.”[ii]
None of us here, in our congregation—none of us want a world where people get killed at church, none of us want the society we have, this legacy of white supremacy. We want a world where Jesus stands in the midst of the storm, in the midst of the chaos and violence, where Jesus stands in the face of violence, and he rebukes the forces of death with a word of hope, a powerful word: “Peace! Be still!”
That’s the world we want, a society full of God’s peace. That’s the world the people at Mother Emanuel AME were gathered to celebrate on Wednesday evening—the peace of Christ, the reign of God, a world that does not yet exist.
Last month I spent some time with an Amish bishop in Indiana. In his community, they had just celebrated Ascension Day, the most important date in their church calendar—the day when they remember when Jesus, after his resurrection, when he ascended into heaven.
For the Amish, Ascension is more significant than Easter. I asked the bishop how they celebrated Ascension Day—with a worship service, with a meal, with a potluck? No, he said, we don’t really think of the day as a celebration, but more like a time of mourning, he said, because that’s when Jesus left us behind, that’s when he left us here. Ascension Day, he said, is not a day for a feast, but a day for fasting.
That absence makes sense to me, especially this week—that Christ has ascended to heaven, leaving us to wait for his return.
If Jesus isn’t absent, if he hasn’t already ascended, leaving us behind—if Jesus is in fact still here, then he must be asleep, like he was on that boat with his disciples. And if I’m in that Bible story, I’m there with the others, trying to wake him up, shaking him out of his sleep. “Teacher, do you not care that our sisters and brothers are perishing?”
In a few moments we’ll celebrate Communion together—the central practice of the church through the ages, a meal where we find ourselves part of the same body, members of one another, near and far. Today, as we gather around the Lord’s Table, I’m waiting for those words at the end, the last part of the words of institution, where we’re told that, “as often as we eat this bread and drink the cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
At the Lord’s Table, we are gathered around a death, a crucifixion. “Near the cross,” as the hymn says, “O Lamb of God, bring its scene before me, with it’s shadow o’er me.”
Jesus, keep us near the cross—there at Mother Emanuel, the place of the most recent crucifixion.
Near the cross—the man who turned his body into a cross, slowly walking my neighborhood, like a funeral procession, showing the world what it’s like for him to live in this country.
Jesus asks a question to the disciples at the end of the story, and I hear it as his question to me: “Have you no faith?” Jesus asks. No, Jesus, I don’t think so, at least not right now.
I don’t have much faith that Jesus is about to wake up, tomorrow, next month, next year, in the next decade; that he’s about to wake up and rebuke the chaotic violence all around us, and inside of us; that he’s on the verge of waking up to calm the storms and make peace. I don’t have that kind of faith right now.
But I can tell you who does—because I felt it on Friday, when I joined the AME congregation down the street for their prayer vigil. The pastor got up and told all of us that he was mad as hell, that satan and his demons have threatened our lives, that the devil has stolen the lives of our sisters and brothers; but that, no matter what, that he would never lock up the house of the Lord, that they would never turn anyone away from bible study or worship, because God’s house is a hospital for the sick, even for people who have been struck with the disease of white supremacy, like that man in Charleston, and all the others like him, all around us. They are welcome here, the pastor said, because this is the house of the Lord, and the doors of the church are open. That’s faith.
(I’m grateful to Melissa Florer-Bixler for talking through my sermon, which is indebted to hers: https://signonthewindow.wordpress.com/2015/06/22/sermon-on-mark-435-41/)