I’m still mulling over some conversations I have had in the last few weeks. I thought I would share them with you and then maybe together we can try to make some sense out of them. If you are looking for a neatly sewed up end to this sermon, I am warning you up front, you are going to be disappointed.
The first conversation I want to tell you about, was with Matt Lawless. He’s the new town administrator. He’s an alum of the College of William and Mary, my own Alma Mater and my daughter Joy’s Alma Mater, too. Right there we had something in common to talk about. During our conversation, which happened in the town office, you know, situated over Victory Hall, I mentioned Scottsville Presbyterian. In fact, I didn’t just mention our church, I bragged about it. I told him how the exterior is an historic, gleaming jewel, in this town—now that we have the fresh paint job, and the window-pane replacements.
He had some free time, and so did I. We strolled over to the church so he could have a look-see. We walked around to the back and I pointed out the second story doors. I mentioned that there used to be steps leading up to those—wooden stairs which have long since rotted away. They led up to the slave gallery. Now here comes the kicker. Matt said, “Slave gallery? What do you mean, slave gallery?” And so I explained to him our ugly past, which is part of our town’s ugly past, part of this state’s ugly past, part of the South’s ugly past. Curious isn’t it, that he didn’t know about slave galleries. I don’t know where he was raised, but he attended William and Mary. That means he lived in Williamsburg, Virginia for at least four years previous to coming here. And yet he didn’t know about slave galleries.
Second conversation. As you know, Randy Haycock retired from St. Anne’s Parish a month ago. I attended his retirement party at Glendower Episcopal. It was my first time there. Lovely church. It’s historic, too. A year older than our church, daggone it, built in 1831,—ours was built in 1832, established in 1827, but not built until 1832. This isn’t a competition, though, or is it?
Before church members got down to partying at Glendower Episcopal, Randy took me on a tour of the church building. What a lovely sanctuary! Like this church, it has pew cushions (but again, no competition); like this church it has a balcony. Randy said that that balcony like this church’s balcony, used to be a slave gallery.
Back in the fellowship hall, after my tour, I’m sipping wine (Episcopalians like their wine) and balancing a paper plate on my knee. I’m talking with a Glendower church member. I tell her I’m impressed with the history of the place. I mention Glendower’s former slave gallery. She says, “Yes, there are shackles up there, too.” “Shackles?” I say. “Yes, you know, for the slaves. But we keep them covered over.”
Shackles. Shackles in a church. I’m going to pause and let that sink in. Shackles. It’s one thing to segregate African-American slaves from whites during a worship service—I mean, it’s odious, reprehensible. But to shackle those African slaves to their benches? And did I mention that these shackles, which still exist, are in a holy place, where people pray and learn about God’s love and Jesus’ salvation? Did you know that churches in this country, during slavery, at least sometimes shackled slaves to their seats? What do you do with that? The fact of shackles in a church, has been playing over and over in my head—my thoughts are in a loop—got to figure out how church people could do that. It’s like a riddle that has no solution, or, like the number pi, a number that I’m told, has no end. How can that be?
Finally, there is a conversation I had with David Garth. David is a friend of mine, and a friend of this church. He’s a retired Presbyterian pastor and he has preached here. David and his wife Debby live on Garth Road in Charlottesville. No, not a coincidence. Garth Road is named after David’s family. The home David and Debby live in, is a former plantation. It has been in the Garth family since the 1700’s. One of David Garth’s forbearers was a contemporary of our national and local saint, Thomas Jefferson. This same man was known to Albemarle County as a particularly cruel slave master. You had an un-manageable slave? You sent him to Mr. Garth’s plantation. His plantation foreman would break that slave’s spirit-- make him subservient, compliant, docile. Yessirree.
David himself, is a kind, compassionate soul, as all pastors are, right? But his family history and the racism he has witnessed during his lifetime, shocks him, grieves him. For instance, David tells me that he attended the University of Virginia. When David was there, there was only one African American football player on the school’s team, and that football player never played. Benched his entire four years. Experiences like that, plus his family history have left a wound on David’s soul.
Yes, David is soul-sick. So, he developed, what I believe, is his strategy for self-healing. A few weeks ago, he joined with other people from this area, both black and white, to visit Montgomery, Alabama. They rode by bus together. They brought with them, a jar of dirt.
The dirt in that jar was taken from Farmington Country Club in Albemarle County. Farmington County Club is the site of a lynching. Eerie juxtaposition, I know. White folks’ exclusive, country club—at least it was exclusive until 1998--slave black man’s lynching.
The man lynched, was John Henry James. In 1898 he was accused of assaulting a white woman. While on transit to Staunton to stand trial, he was pulled from his train, hung from a tree and his lifeless body shot by members of an unmasked angry white mob. Even though the members of that mob were unmasked, no one was ever identified and brought to justice.
Dirt is all that is left of John Henry—soil stained by John Henry’s sweat, blood and tears. It cries out for justice, as Abel’s blood cried out to God for justice.
So David and that bus load of other Albemarle county residents traveled with what is left of John Henry to Montgomery. Alabama. In Montgomery, that jar of dirt will be archived along with jars of dirt from 4,000 other lynching sites across the South. Those jars in turn, will become part of a memorial. It will be a reminder of this ugly, odious, part of our nation’s history.
As I said, I talked with David this past week, but it was a brief conversation. I wanted to find out about the bus ride, and all else that happened in Montgomery. I was hoping he would give me some indication that his soul has been healed. But he is still in processing mode. He couldn’t talk much about it. I have invited him to come here and speak to us, once he is ready--once he has put his experience in some kind of perspective. Hope he will.
So, those are the three conversations I wanted to share with you.
And now I would like us to move on to our scripture reading for today. We’re with John the Baptist in the wilderness. John the Baptist of course, is a prophet. He has been called by God to prepare the way for Christ’s coming. His message is, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Repent! The Hebrew word for Repent is Shuve. The Greek word is Metanoia. Shuve, Metanoia, Repent—they just mean to turn from. John commanded those first century Jews to turn from their evil ways so that they could receive the Kingdom of God.
Just so, this country has repented from slavery. WE have turned from this evil practice—it took a war to get us there, but we did it. We have repented from racism, too—or, at least we are working on it. Our schools are desegregated; our neighborhoods are on their way to being desegregated. It has been written into law, African Americans have the right to vote. We have instituted Affirmative Action in some of our schools, and in some of our work places. We here in this church have extended friendship to our fellow African American Christians at Chestnut Grove. Yes, we have repented, turned from, that which was most ugly. We can pat ourselves on the back.
Still, though, there is this dis-ease, this festering sore on our souls, not just David Garth’s soul, but on OUR souls. We feel guilty, and it’s a guilt we can’t shake off. And African Americans have a dis-ease, too. Feelings of victimization, righteous anger.
We didn’t participate in slavery, and we don’t condone racism. But still. As scripture has it: Our parents have eaten sour grapes and set our teeth, on edge!
Scripture. God’s word. God must have a prescription for us, a balm to offer us.
With that in mind let us turn to Mark one more time. We read that out there in the wilderness, John asked the Judeans to repent, that is, turn from evil, and they did. But that was just the first thing they did. We read that John baptized them, that is, John made them ritually clean.
Ritual baths, was just one practice that the Jews engaged in to become ritually clean. They donned sack cloth. They sprinkled ashes on their heads, they sent goats out into the wilderness; they made pilgrimages to the temple in Jerusalem and paid priests to make animal sacrifices on their behalf. They did that to demonstrate that they were sorry for their sins. Those rituals presumably pleased God, but they did something else. Those rituals made them feel better so they could move on with their lives. Is that what we need? Animal sacrifices and ashes on the head are passé, but how about a pilgrimage? That is, in fact, what David referred to his bus trip as, his Montgomery, Alabama pilgrimage.
Finally, scripture says that the Judeans who came to John in the wilderness confessed their sins. I’m not sure we really do that. That is the purpose of that monument in Alabama. It is our nation’s public confession of the ugliness of our past.
One more thing; it regards those conversations I mentioned earlier—the ones with Matt, the that woman at Glendower, and David Garth. Those conversations point up just how ignorant we are of our past! Instead of educating ourselves, we cover over the sin of slavery, the sin of racism, just as Glendower covers over those shackles. That’s another purpose of that monument. To educate. Unless we educate ourselves regarding our ugly past, we are doomed to repeat it. That’s a quote from philosopher George Santayana. It’s not scriptural, but it IS nevertheless, true. Amen