On the 36th Anniversary of the Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr./Palm Sunday 04.04.04
- Sunday, April 04 2004
Last weekend I missed being here, but the weather in Birmingham helped make up for it! Down in Alabama, I got a jump start on spring. The crab apple trees were bowed down in luscious pink blossoms, wisteria draped over fences with clumps of lavender blooms, forsythia stalks were lit up with constellations of yellow flowers. There were red tulips and lots of green grass and green leaves everywhere. When the cab driver asked me if I wanted him to close the window, I said “oh no! Let in the warm, sweet air. Let it in! Please!” I was enjoying my jump start on spring.
Birmingham was a different place in the spring of 1963. On Palm Sunday of 1963, there was an anti-segregation march on City Hall. Police set up road blocks, some were arrested, but all in all, things concluded peacefully that day. Later that week saw another march and more arrests, this time including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who began serving time in the Birmingham jail. It was Good Friday.
The calender said spring. But the legal structures of racism in Birmingham seemed frozen solid. And yet, spring was afoot. The foot soldiers of spring were taking to the streets. The foot soldiers of spring were gathering on the steps of the 16th Street Baptist church and stepping out in song. Some of those foot soldiers were children, part of the Children’s Crusade, short on years, but tall on courage. Hundreds of children and youth marching out the doors of the 16th Street church into the park across the street, while Bull Connor bellowed on his bull horn: “Let em have it. Let em have it!” -- and fireman turned on the powerful water hoses trying to drown out spring.
And the police units arrived with their dogs trying to hold back spring.
For me, being in Birmingham last weekend was something of a holy pilgrimage.
Kelly Ingram Park was the staging ground for massive demonstrations and confrontations that brought international attention to segregation and the brutal measures taken to keep it in place and that led to the passage of major civil rights legislation throughout this country. A Freedom Walk was created in this park to memorialize all that took place and it has been rededicated with with the subtitle: a place of Revolution and Reconciliation, because you can’t have one without the other.
Walking in the park, along the Freedom Walk, was a holy experience. To walk in the park where Spring’s foot soldiers withstood attacks by the hoses, the dogs trained for terror, the chains and the clubs. To stand where the foot soldiers of spring had kneel-ins and prayer meetings. Where they walked and sang the songs of freedom. My soul was shouting, “let in the fresh air! Let it in! Let in the voices of those who cried out here for justice and sang for freedom! Let in the brave shouts of the children and teenagers who faced the hoses and the dogs and the hateful words hurled at them.” What a privilege it was to follow the steps of spring’s foot soldiers.
And as if that were not enough, my mother and I worshipped last Sunday in the 16th Street Baptist church across from the park, the church that gathered many of the demonstrators, the church that was fire bombed by the KKK that fall killing four little girls fresh from Sunday School and setting off an alarm around the world.
But I think for me, the most holy moment of all, was at the Civil Rights Institute beside the church where the solitary jail cell that held Dr. King has been moved for visitors and pilgrims to see and to touch. I touched the bars, so evil in themselves, but somehow made sacred by the one whom they held physically but not spiritually. The one who looked up at those very bars in the midst of writing his famous letter. On the margins of newspapers, toilet tissue and other scraps of paper, King crafted his answer to the clergy who advised him to slow down, to stand back, to let spring come on it’s own timetable, never mind that that spring that had been forcibly held back for a century. Evil bars made holy by his commitment, his love, his passion.
Well, some might wonder, why this focus on a King named Martin when today is Palm Sunday, the day we remember a King named Jesus and his entry into Jerusalem and his Passion? I would have waited to tell you my experiences in Birmingham but for two facts. One is that today, Palm Sunday, happens to fall on April 4th and April 4th is the anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. And in a further amazing coincidence, April 4th is the anniversary of Kings speech at Riverside Church denouncing the war in Vietnam and linking concern for nonviolent change at home with nonviolent change abroad. I don’t think anyone doubts that King’s death was a result of his stance in Birmingham and at Riverside.I don’t think anyone doubts that the passion of King’s death was inseparable from the passion of King’s life.
And if this is true of Dr. King it is even more true of Jesus whom we hail as King on Palm Sunday. Some will disagree but I do not think that the passion of Jesus can be appreciated and honored in movie like Mel Gibson’s that focuses primarily on his brutal death. The passion of Jesus is ever connected to the way he lived. The how of the passion is meaningless without the why of the passion, how Jesus was killed is meaningless without reflection on why Jesus was killed. During this week, Christians around the world will follow the steps of Jesus in another kind of Freedom Walk. Today we remember that Jesus did not heed the religious advisors who warned him to stay away from their city. Today we remember that Jesus rode on because, to paraphrase the words of a King 2 millennium later, I am here because injustice is here.
Our Freedom Walk does not move from today on Palm Sunday with sweet hosannas on our lips like spring flowers, skipping on to the lilies of Easter. The peaceful park of reconciliation in Birmingham is all abloom today because once the ground was soaked in the blood, sweat and tears of a revolution. Our Freedom Walk continues on to consider what happened in Jerusalem as Jesus went into the Temple, and saw people buying and selling in ways that cheated the poor, and Jesus got angry and drove them out. Jesus saw a religiously sanctified economic system that marginalized some and Jesus came to turn the tables. As another King said, before an Easter boycott directed against those who posted humiliating racial signs in their stores, It was time to bring pressure on the merchants for needed changes...the creation of tension is part of the work of nonviolent resistance. Jesus brought pressure on the temple merchants and Jesus brought tension, part of the why behind his passion.
As we follow the Freedom Walk, we hear the whispered meetings behind closed doors, the threats and plots, the critics and naysayers. We follow Judas as he contacts the authorities and sells out his friend for 30 pieces of silver. And on that same day of plotting and betrayal, we pause to notice how Jesus received one of the last acts of kindness and tenderness in his life, when a woman he didn’t even know approached him and in grateful love anointed him with perfume... a woman whose hospitality was healing balm for one about to be wounded in the revolution of reconciliation, a woman like Mother Pollard who comforted another King about to be wounded.
As we follow the Freedom Walk, we find ourselves in the upper room sharing the last supper. We see what it is to share of ourselves even when there seems to be no point in giving anymore. We learn to be a source of life when the forces of death draw near.
As we follow the Freedom Walk, we hear Jesus praying in the garden, Father if it be possible let this cup pass from me But not as I will, as you will.” We learn to pray when hosannas are a distant dream, to pray when hope seems impossible, to pray and to know that Jesus is there aching in the very ache of our own soul’s dark Gethsemane. We see his three disciples sleeping right through the prayer despite Jesus efforts to wake them. As many did and do continue to sleep through rough times on the Freedom Walk, snoozing while others suffer. Snoozing and waking when its too late, when the violence is already unleashed and the bombs have already been dropped and the body bags are already coming home.
We see the authorities arrive armed to the teeth, but God’s foot soldier carries no weapon beside the truth. One overzealous follower decides to strike back and slices off the ear of an armed guard. He would have benefited from one of the workshops on non-violence held at the 16th Street Baptist church, where foot soldiers were taught to accept blows without retaliating. That’s right...to accept blows without retaliating. God’s foot soldier heals the ear because his is to be a nonviolent revolution, at least on his side.
As we follow the Freedom Walk, we come face to face with the cowardice of Peter,
afraid to stand by his friend, afraid of the association. We come face to face with our own times of denial and fear of standing up and speaking out for what we know and who we know. Our own times of weakness. And then the cock crows and, like Peter, we weep with shame.
Our foot soldier enters courts rigged for injustice, courts where the innocent are strung up on false charges. Our foot soldier is accused He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place. An outside agitator.
A mob appears in which the likes of Bull Conner and the KKK would be at home. Where would you have been on that day? Where would I have been? In the crowd? Or hanging back in silence, uncertain and afraid. Or at home with the windows shut and the doors locked while revolution rocked the streets leveling mountains and raising valleys to smooth the path for reconciliation? Or simply vegging out before the TV because we just don’t have any energy left for direct action.
Mob justice. Our foot soldier is sentenced to die, hung from a tree. The feet of our foot soldier are nailed down. His mouth dry. His heart stopped. His brain dead. The bars of that cross like the bars of King’s cell were meant for evil and yet we find them holy, made sacred by the one they held, sanctified by his commitment, his love, his passion.
We will not be in Birmingham this week, but we will walk to and through Jerusalem.
It is a walk that takes us through every city and every place around the earth where spring’s foot soldiers journey on. It is a walk that will end in a garden of reconciliation where the lily of the valley rises and the rose of Sharon unfolds grace upon grace and the air is warm and sweet with new life, the spring of a new creation. But first the revolution, first the struggle, first the passion. Come walk the walk with God’s own foot soldier this week. It’s the only way to get a real jump start on spring. Amen.