Undervalued Disciplines for Overwhelming Days: Surrender
April 10, 2022
A young woman kisses her mother goodbye as she boards a bus back home. There are no signs, but on this bus, there is a section for white and another for “colored” passengers.
The seats fill in with each stop until finally a white couple boards and the bus driver orders the woman to relinquish her seat. Not that it would make a difference, but what the driver doesn’t know is that the woman is recovering from a miscarriage. Maybe that explains what happens next or maybe she’s just tired of being treated like this, but this time she refuses to give up her seat.
The bus driver summons the sheriff who presents her with an arrest warrant. She tears it up and throws it out the window. Three more law officers would get involved before she is forcibly removed from the bus, arrested and later convicted of violating the state segregation laws.
You’re probably thinking that this sounds an awful lot like Rosa Parks, and the year is 1955. But this is the story of Irene Morgan and the year is 1944. A full decade before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, as Martin Luther King, Jr. was just graduating High School, Irene Morgan set in motion a chain of events that would lay so much of the ground work for the Civil Rights movement.
With the help of the NAACP, The Supreme Court heard the case Irene Morgan v. The Commonwealth of Virginia and ruled 6-1 that it was unconstitutional for the State of Virginia to enforce segregation laws on interstate travel.
Busing was one of the early battlegrounds and no story of the Civil Rights movement is complete without seriously covering the 1961 Freedom Rides in which mixed groups of black and white riders rode together through the deep south. It is difficult to forget the images of a fire bombed bus with smoke pouring out the windows or the bruised, bloodied face of James Zwerg.
A less-told story is one that unfolded right here in Chapel Hill. The 1947 Journey of Reconciliation was the first organized effort to challenge segregation in interstate travel.
I invite you to ponder what it must feel like to board a bus bound for a strange city, knowing that you are upsetting the status quo, not knowing what resistance you might encounter. That just might help you step into this story from the Gospel of Mark. First, will you pray with me?
In the memory of those who before us have gone
In the footsteps of Christ, we pray, Lead us on
Until hearts are brave again and arms are strong
nourish us by your Word all the day long. Amen.
Scripture – Mark 11:1-11
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage (Beth-fage) and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’”
They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?”
They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it.
Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it.
Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
The Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God.
“I’m just not Christian enough, I guess.”
75 years ago a white police officer said that when asked why he personally would not sit next to a black person. “I’m just not Christian enough I guess.”
It’s an interesting statement because throughout the 14 days of interstate bus travel; through numerous interactions with law enforcement, George Hauser and Bayard Rustin – two of the principal organizers of the Journey of Reconciliation – reported no real negative interactions with any police officers. Quite the opposite: “the police were polite and calm” they briefly noted in a written report. This was a far cry from the beatings and fire hoses and attack dogs at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma some 18 years later.
And yet even this policeman – going about his calling to serve and protect one morning in Petersburg, Virginia – could sense the distance between who he is and who he perhaps ought to be. I don’t know about you, but I feel that tension within my own self…all the time.
We’re respectable citizens making contributions to our community.
We’re mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, students and educators; builders, architects, engineers; we practice law, medicine; we run businesses and offer services, we serve on boards and church committees; we answer sacred callings and step into holy vocations all the time…but that question lingers: “Am I Christian enough?”
Am I really obedient to the Jesus way? And what is the Jesus way for that matter?
It’s Palm Sunday today.
It’s the day when we wave our palm branches and we brush off our Hosannas and we remember the enthusiasm with which those Jerusalem crowds received Jesus.
Here’s the thing, though. All of that enthusiasm was purely based on who they thought Jesus would be. Later this week, at our Good Friday service, we’ll remember how quickly those same crowds turned on him when they realized what Jesus is really about.
The words would have fit in their mouth so easily as well: “If this is the Jesus way, then I’m just not Christian enough I guess.” What did Jesus do to make them turn on him so decisively?
It’s Palm Sunday, so let’s talk about the donkey.
We often import a donkey into the Christmas pageant. Mary’s got to ride something, right?
Check for yourself, though…No donkey in the Christmas stories.
But there is one right here in this story and my how that donkey gets a lot of shine.
As the shortest Gospel Mark isn’t known for giving a lot of details, but he offers an exceptional amount about this donkey.
There’s an exact description of where they will find the donkey – Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives.
There’s an exact description of how they will find it – it’s a colt that has never been ridden and it will be tied up.
Jesus even gives them an exact sentence to repeat to the person who will doubtlessly say to them “Dude – That’s my Donkey!”
Why all the fuss about this pack mule?
During the Passover, just when religious fervor was ramping up, when the Jewish people might get ideas about Israel’s independence and God overthrowing the Empire, that is precisely when Rome staged a parade right into the heart of the city – a visible reminder of who was in charge – and I guarantee you they did not ride donkeys.
If the goal is intimidation, you choose the most powerful animal you can find. There’s a reason Hannibal of Carthage rode Elephants into Italy when he attacked the Roman Republic…they’re more awe-inspiring than they are tactically proficient.
But a donkey…that just isn’t very awe-inspiring, and if I understand the text, that is precisely the point. Jesus has not come to inspire fear, nor will he satisfy the expectations that the Messiah would be a mighty warrior.
Mary Oliver wrote a poem called “The Poet Thinks About the Donkey.” She writes:
On the outskirts of Jerusalem
the donkey waited.
Not especially brave, or filled with understanding,
he stood and waited.
How horses, turned out into the meadow,
leap with delight!
How doves, released from their cages,
clatter away, splashed with sunlight.
But the donkey, tied to a tree as usual, waited.
Then he let himself be led away.
Then he let the stranger mount.
Never had he seen such crowds!
And I wonder if he at all imagined what was to happen.
Still, he was what he had always been: small, dark, obedient.
I hope, finally, he felt brave.
I hope, finally, he loved the man who rode so lightly upon him,
as he lifted one dusty hoof and stepped, as he had to, forward.
I wonder if we might see something of Jesus in this donkey – subverting this display of dominant power, surrendering to the way of love, obediently putting one foot in front of the other even if it led straight to a cross.
Because it’s not as if Jesus couldn’t defend himself.
At his arrest – when one of the disciples grabs a sword to defend him, Jesus tells him “Put your sword back, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” And then he goes on to say “Do you not think I can appeal to my Father and he will send me twelve legions of angels to make short order of this crew.” There is a powerful weapon at hand, but Jesus chooses not to deploy it.
Instead, he practices obedience. He surrenders himself to love.
In order to save his own life – Jesus would have to destroy his enemies, which is to say, he would have to turn aside from loving his enemies. In the end Jesus could not and would not do that. He was going to be obedient to Love to the point of death…even death on a cross.
THAT is what it means to surrender yourself to God’s plan. THAT is the Jesus way.
And the Jesus way set in motion the very possibility of non-violent resistance that has lived and breathed in the bodies of countless others who have changed the world not with force but with virtue.
It’s what inspired Bayard Rustin, George Houser, Dennis Banks, Andrew Johnson, Conrad Lynn, Wallace Nelson, Eugene Stanley, William Worthy, Nathan Wright, Louis Adams, Ernest Bromley, Joe Felmet, Homer Jack, James Peck, Worth Randle and Igal Roodenko to board buses and ride them through Jim Crow country.
It’s what brought them right here to Chapel Hill and right into the halls of this Church, actually, where the pastor who used to stand in this pulpit, the Rev. Charlie Jones, invited them to speak with students and even enjoy an integrated dance party in the Fellowship Hall.
It’s what sustained them the next day when they were arrested and when a collection of cab drivers here in town got so worked up that they struck James Peck and then gave chase to the group when Rev. Jones bailed them out and brought them to his home.
It’s what steadied their beating hearts when those same cab drivers chased them right onto Rev. Jones’s front lawn where they brandished baseball bats and made threatening phone calls, promising that UPC’s own parsonage would be burned to the ground if they weren’t out of town by sundown.
One of the main organizers for the Journey of Reconciliation was Bayard Rustin and he would become one of the silent architects of the modern Civil Rights movement. I wager that he understood the discipline of surrender. He once said “Our power is in our ability to make thing unworkable. The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we have to tuck them in places so that wheels do not turn.”
The thing about tucking your body into the gears of dominant power is that you’re bound to get crushed. That’s Jesus’ story and it seems to be the story of anyone and everyone who follows him all the way.
“I’m just not Christian enough I guess,” said that Petersburg police officer. Are any of us? I don’t know…I just don’t know. It would be something, though, if we were. Wouldn’t it?
Reconciliation is always a journey. Steps were taken 75 years ago and Lord knows we have miles to go before we sleep. But there are steps we can take today…may God make the path clear for us and steady our stride as we walk in the direction of the kingdom. Amen.
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.