Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister

 

 

 

On the Edge of Promise: Leaning into the Promise

Sunday, April 1, 2007

 

 

Deuteronomy 34: 1-12
Luke 19: 28-40

Rev. Dean Snyder

 

There is a story from the civil rights movement that helps me understand Palm Sunday. It is about Bayard Rustin and the Montgomery bus boycott.

 

Bayard Rustin was a birthright Quaker. He grew up in Chester, Pennsylvania.

 

As a young man, during the Depression, he moved to Harlem where he waited on tables and went to free classes at City College, and got involved in the world of jazz and social change. Because they ran the only integrated social clubs in Harlem, Rustin became involved with the Communist Party and he became an organizer, a very effective one, for the party.

 

He soon became disillusioned with Communism and became an organizer for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a pacifist group where he learned about Mahatma Gandhi and nonviolent resistance. He spent part of World War II in prison because of his pacifism.

 

He came to be a great believer in and practitioner of non-violent resistance. During one peace demonstration, a passerby who was incensed by the demonstration, grabbed one of the protestor’s signs, ripped the sign off the stick it was on, and came toward Rustin ready to beat him with it. Rustin calmly handed the man a second stick, inviting him to hit him with them both. The man was so caught off guard that he threw both sticks to the ground and walked away.

 

But that was not always the case. Rustin was beaten a number of times, and jailed.

 

He was gay, and he eventually resigned from the Fellowship of Reconciliation because he wanted to avoid embarrassment for the group resulting from issues related to his sexual orientation.

 

Taylor Branch, historian of the civil rights movement, says that by the social standards of the day, he could hardly have been more of a misfit – “a Negro, an ex-Communist, an ex-convict, and a homosexual.”[i]

 

Yet Bayard Rustin played a critical pivotal role in the beginning of the civil rights movement, a break-it or make-it role.

 

It was 11 weeks into the Montgomery bus boycott. People were tired. No bus boycott had lasted longer than 2 weeks before. The movement was out of money. If the city had given the boycotters even the slightest of concessions they would have settled. Martin Luther King was overwhelmed. He and the other leaders did not believe they would be able to sustain the boycott much longer.

 

Bayard Rustin was one of the first persons outside Alabama to recognize the potential significance of the boycott, so he borrowed money to get himself to Montgomery. He arrived in town just after Dr. King had left town to speak at Fisk University.

 

Just then the Montgomery grand jury issued indictments and arrest warrants for Dr. King and 114 other leaders of the boycott. Deputies were assigned to begin a massive round-up.

 

The movement leaders panicked. First of all, they understandably didn’t want to go to jail. And, secondly, what would happen to the movement if they did?

 

Dr. King’s father begged him not to return to Montgomery.

 

While everyone was panicking and near desperation, Bayard Rustin, using Gandhi principles of nonviolent resistance, persuaded one of the movement leaders E.D. Nixon not to run or hide or even to wait to be arrested. He convinced Nixon to lean into the fear, into the Promise. So the next morning Nixon walked into the sheriff’s office and said, “Are you looking for me? Well, here I am.”

 

The deputies looked at each other in amazement. They booked him, fingerprinted him, photographed him, and then released him on bail. Nixon left the sheriff’s office smiling.

 

Word of what Nixon had done spread and it began a chain reaction. One by one, others whose names were on the list began to appear at the sheriff’s office.

 

Soon a crowd of spectators formed outside the building. The crowds grew into the hundreds. As people came to turn themselves in there was cheering and shouting and expressions of joy. Taylor Branch says the arriving criminals were celebrated like stars at a Hollywood premiere.[ii]

 

The sheriff came out of the building at one point and yelled at the crowd to quiet down. “This isn’t a vaudeville show,” he said.  

 

When Dr. King got back to Montgomery, he turned himself in and the crowd cheered and cheered.

 

Bayard Rustin had to leave town almost immediately after this. When word began to get out that a former Communist was there, he had to leave for fear that this would be used against the movement. He was in Montgomery only a few days, but what he taught E.D. Nixon made all the difference.

 

Now, if we can get a sense of what the sheriff’s office in Montgomery, Alabama was like in late February 1956 as African-American leaders and pastors, and then Dr. King, walked though the cheering crowd outside of the sheriff’s office to turn themselves in, I believe we can get a feel for Palm Sunday.

 

Palm Sunday was Jesus arriving at the sheriff’s office saying, “Are you looking for me? Well, here I am.”

 

Walking toward our promise is always frightening. It is what they call nowadays “leaving your comfort zone.” The closer we come, the more frightening it is.

 

The image I’ve been thinking about is the one Bernice Johnson Reagon shared when she spoke here in January and that Barbara Cambridge recalls in her Lenten meditation in the Lenten booklet. Dr. Reagon said that sometimes the destination seems far away, so far away as to be unachievable. So what we need to do is just make sure that when we pick up a foot that we put it down at least a little ahead of where it was when we picked it up. We just need to keep lifting our foot and putting it down a little ahead of where it was when we picked it up, she said, so that death finds us going somewhere.

 

It is at the edge of promise that we face most directly our self-doubts and insecurities and fears. It is sometimes hard to even pick up a foot there at the edge of promise. Taking even a step can be hard at the edge of promise.

 

What I had in mind to say this morning, is that when it gets hard to pick up a foot and take even a step, we can at least lean. We can lean toward our promise, and if we lean hard enough, we will end up taking a step. Try it sometime. Lean forward as far as you can and see if you don’t end up taking a step.

 

When Moses died, the Israelites named Joshua as their leader. It had been Joshua in Numbers 13 and 14 who had wanted to enter the Promised Land 38 years earlier – Joshua and Caleb. To make Joshua their leader was to lean into their promise. They still were full of fear and self-doubt and anxiety, but making Joshua their leader made the next step almost inevitable.

 

Jesus was not without fear. Read the gospel accounts of his prayers in the Garden and his cries from the cross. He was not without fear and dread. Riding his colt into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday morning was his way of leaning so hard that it made the next step inevitable.

 

We may not always have enough courage to march into our Promised Lands but we can lean so hard as to make the next step inevitable.

 

Wendy, John and Jean’s daughter, called me last night and told me that John had been taken to the hospital and they thought he might be dying. I did what pastors do – prayed with them and anointed John with oil. Mostly John lay there with his eyes shut, struggling to breathe.

 

Once or twice he opened his eyes a bit and seemed to see us. He held onto Jean’s hand with his good hand.

 

I decided I’d have to leave at midnight if I was going to be here this morning. Just before midnight I was talking to John one last time, telling him he’d had a good life. Telling him he had done well. Telling him how loved he was – loved and respected. Telling him it was okay and that he would be okay.

 

Suddenly his eyes opened. They opened all the way. And his eyes held mine. I don’t know how long it was.  It seemed like his eyes held mine a long time.

 

Who knows what really happens in these situations? I seemed to see a question in John’s eyes, but it may have really been in me. Still, I reminded John again and again of how many people loved him and what a good job he had done with his life, and I told him it was okay to go.

 

What I felt was that the question left John’s eyes and he began to lean. I sensed John was leaning. I don’t believe it was easy for John. He loved life so much. He was so alive. But I believe he began to lean toward God.

 

I believe John leaned and God caught him and carried him to his Promised Land.

 

Sometimes all we can do is lean, and trust that God will catch us and carry us into our Promised Land.      

 

  

 

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[i] Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 (Simon and Shuster), 173.

[ii] Branch, 177.