Pilgrimage to Selma

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Lent 3—Year B; Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22

I don’t normally wait until Saturday night to write my sermon, but I’m glad I did this week, or I would have had to rewrite it after yesterday. I have been so moved by our Selma Pilgrims. Twelve youth and three adults from this community, joining with another 45 from our Diocese, left on a bus late Friday afternoon to travel to Selma to be a part of the events and marches marking the 50th anniversary of the original Selma marches. I learned yesterday afternoon that c-span was streaming the event, and so I watched many of the speeches, including John Lewis and President Obama. In between speeches, c-span had folks calling in, and listening to those stories was both heart-breaking and powerful. I kept tearing up. There is something about these stories that is reaching into some tender place in my heart, and there is something about our youth, our St. Luke kids, being there that just makes me so proud, that something in how they have been formed in this place makes them want to go to that place and bear witness. So my emotions are close to the surface today, my thoughts are swirling, and this is one of those times when I just have to let what is in my heart pour out.

First, a word about pilgrimage. Before our group left on Friday, I told them a couple of things. I told them that I was so proud of them for making this trip. I told them that many of you wanted to go, but that you couldn’t; I told them that they were representing all of us who couldn’t go, and that that is how pilgrimage works. You always make the journey on behalf of those who can’t, and that comes with a responsibility. Then, we talked straight up about a safety plan if something went crazy during the march. Our young people prepared for this trip; they know what happened 50 years ago. So we talked about what to do if violence broke out and how to make their way back to the church where they are staying. Solemn counsel to give, especially when one of those going is your child. And I told them that as soon as they left the parking lot, that I would email all of you, and that you would be praying for them the whole time they were gone. Then we put them in a circle, and the parents made a circle around them. They held hands, and so did we, and we prayed over them for their safety and protection, and that their hearts would be opened.

And so, we, all of us, are on pilgrimage this weekend with those in Selma. And that is no small thing. One of you wrote me on Friday afternoon after reading the email I sent out and said, “WOW!!! It makes me weep, while at the same time very happy. How can that be?” I don’t know how that can be, but the same is true for me.

And I felt that as I listened to those speeches yesterday. And I felt it as I saw who was gathered there. President Bush and President Obama sharing a stage and embracing. Hosea Williams’ daughter, Elisabeth Omilami, and George Wallace’s daughter, Peggy Wallace Kennedy, both in attendance. Hosea Williams helped to lead that Bloody Sunday march, and George Wallace did everything in his power to stop it. And both of their daughters have powerful, powerful stories to share. A bridge named for someone who was the Grand Dragon of the Klu Klux Klan in Alabama, Edmund Pettus, is the icon for the power of nonviolence in the face of brutal, raw power. And this afternoon, our group will join thousands of others as they march across the Edmund Pettus bridge, and then, they will pay honor to the foot soldiers of those marches, those unsung heroes, ordinary folk, who came, and acted with such courage in seeking justice and furthering the cause of freedom. And they did it respecting the dignity of those who sought to strip them of theirs. It boggles my mind—such faith, such tenacity, such courage, such resolve.

Three marches. The first, on March 7, 1965, involved 600 and became known as Bloody Sunday. That march was organized in response to the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson by a state trooper during a peaceful march in nearby Marion, Alabama. Yesterday, John Lewis recalled that Bloody Sunday: “The protesters marched two-by-two on the sidewalk so as not to interrupt the free flow of trade and commerce and traffic.” He recalled how peaceful and quiet they were. Then, the full force of Alabama state troopers and local law enforcement was unleashed upon them. Lewis recalls, “We were beaten and tear-gassed, but we didn’t become bitter or hostile.” John Lewis addressed all those gathered yesterday as “my beloved brothers and sisters”—not an ounce of bitterness is in that man.


The second march two days later on March 9 ended when Martin Luther King, Jr. turned the crowd back. They were in the process of seeking federal protection for the march.

The third march went on March 21 and spanned five days as they marched with federal protection to Montgomery 25,000 strong.

In between those events, on March 15, 1965, President Johnson made a speech to a joint session of Congress and introduced specific legislation that would become the Voting Rights Act.

And in-between Bloody Sunday and the march that made it to Montgomery, on the very day that President Johnson made his speech, March 15th—I was born. I had never pieced together this timeline until a few months ago. This past January, when I was home to see my Mom, I asked her what it was like to be pregnant and to give birth to me in the middle of all of this with this images coming across the TV. She gave me her permission to share her answers with you. She said she was horrified by the images she saw of the dogs and the beatings, but she kept thinking, “Why are they [the black people] stirring things up? If they just wouldn’t make such a fuss about all of this, this would all settle down. Can’t we all just get along?” She went on to tell me, “That’s not where I am now, but back then, that’s where I was—peace at any price.” And in March of 1965, my Mom was not alone in that. And 50 years later, echoes of that sentiment still reverberate across our country, maybe even in our own hearts as we confront the realities around race in our own day.

Why does all this matter? Why am I even talking about this in a sermon? Because transformation is at the heart of all of this; the tireless search for justice is at the heart of this; and because transformation and justice are at the heart of the gospel. I am talking about this in a sermon because the scripture, Galatians 3:26, calls out to us—“in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, no slave nor free, no male or female, for all [of us] are one in Christ Jesus.” John Lewis said yesterday, “We are one people, one family, the human family—we all live in the same house.”

This matters because the God of Exodus who gives us the commandment is the same God who brings us up out of the land of Egypt and out of the house of slavery.

The psalmist tells us, “One day tells its tale to another, and one night imparts knowledge to another. Although they have no words or language, and their voices are not heard, their sound has gone out into all the lands, and their message to the ends of the earth.” This weekend, those days of March 1965 are telling their tale to our day; those horrific nights of our nation’s soul are imparting their knowledge to the long nights we are moving through still as a people coming to terms with race.

It matters because the cross is foolishness, and nothing is more foolish than practicing nonviolence in the face of horses and tear-gas and clubs. President Obama said yesterday, “What enormous faith these men and women had—faith in God and faith in America. [They] proved that nonviolent change is possible and that love and hope can conquer their hate.” And for those who marched 50 years ago, that practice of nonviolence was rooted and grounded in a Lord who stretched out his arms on the hard wood of the cross and absorbed all the violence that put him there, SO THAT, so that centuries later, ordinary people filled with faith could choose a different path, the way of nonviolent fearless LOVE. King and others wore Hawaiian lays in that final Selma to Montgomery march because Hawaiian lays symbolize peace, love, and compassion.

This matters because of the action that Jesus took in this morning’s gospel from John 2. When Jesus drives all the animals out of the temple, and pours out the coins of the money changers, and throws over their tables, this is no small act.

Okay, can we just pause and consider this little mind-bender—Jesus would have flunked the nonviolent training that those Selma marchers had to go through before they marched.

But let’s be clear about what Jesus did—this was a political act. Jesus was striking at the heart of the religious, political, and economic life of Jerusalem. Jesus was calling attention to structures, to structures that were crushing God’s people, and crushing them in that very space that existed to remind them that God dwelled with them. If Jesus went into the heart of the religious, political, and economic temple of his day, calling attention to the fact that what was going on didn’t square with the God who sets us free from slavery and longs for all people, especially the most vulnerable, to thrive, if Jesus entered that arena, so must we who follow in his Way.

Is that easy to do? No.

Is that fraught with all kinds of risk and potential for misstep? Absolutely.

Do we get to avoid it because it’s messy. No.

Do we need to heed the psalmist’s prayer

to be “kept from presumptuous sins” as we try to make our way?

Never have we needed that prayer more.

But this isn’t a partisan thing—that’s why I loved that President Bush was on that stage with President Obama. That’s why I love that John Lewis could thank Peggy Wallace Kennedy for being there. RACE IS A HUMAN BEING THING. And Jesus will not rest until we are ONE [see John 17].

We cannot heal the profound wounds to our heart, as a people or as a nation, until we touch the heart of our brothers and sisters and know that there is only ONE heart. The President was right to warn us of the twin dangers of “complacency” that would “deny the truth of the racism that still exists” and the danger of “despair” that says “we have made no progress.” The President continued, “To deny the hard won progress would be to rob of us of our agency and responsibility to change…All of us are called to possess our moral imagination. Change depends on our actions and our attitudes.”

This work, this work is at the heart of the gospel; it’s at the heart of our baptismal vows; it’s at the heart of the life that we have vowed to live as Christian people. This is not something that we can say, “We’ve done that; now on to the next project.” This is soul work, and it will take us deep if we’ll allow it.

Hosea William’s daughter, Elisabeth Omilami, closed with a powerful image, “What bridge is yours to cross?” President Obama echoed that theme when he addressed the young people in the crowd yesterday, saying, “There are more bridges to be crossed. It is you, the young and fearless of heart, that we are waiting for.”

And so, we end where we began. Our young people are fearless of heart, and they will come back with stories to tell. Will our hearts be open to receive them?

And as we feel their energy and field their questions about how and why racism and injustice still exists, how will our hearts be stirred?

Will we shy away from that conversation and try to keep all these realms of faith and religion and race and politics and economics and law and policy, will we try to keep all of these apart and safely compartmentalized, OR will we steer straight into the messiness of trying to see how all of these are connected and related AND how our faith needs to be woven throughout them all?

As our youth get inspired by honoring the foot soldiers, and challenge us to walk the talk, will we be willing to risk more for the sake of LOVE?

This weekend, they are getting a crash course on what it means “to respect the dignity of every human being”how deep into this journey will we go with them?

Yesterday, Rep. Terri Sewell spoke, a daughter of Selma herself and the first African American women to represent Alabama in Congress, and she told the story of Miss Amelia Boynton Robinson, matriarch of the civil rights movement. She is now 105 years old. On that Bloody Sunday, she was beaten and tear-gassed and left for dead. This past January, she was Rep. Sewell’s guest at the State of the Union address. People kept coming up to Miss Boynton and saying, “Oh Miss Boynton, we stand on your shoulders; we stand on your shoulders.” Miss Boynton finally said, “Get off of my shoulders—there is plenty of work to do.”

Our young people have carried us on a pilgrimage this weekend; may our feet now hit the ground, and may we not rest until we, across this land, are the beloved community that God longs for us to be. Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

March 8, 2015