Pastoral Post 7.3.2020 | Rev. Keith Turman "Blackbird"

BLACKBIRD

The Beatles Sermon Series, preached at FUMC on February 23, 2020

By Keith Turman

 

“In 1838, after a strong emancipation movement among blacks, slavery was abolished in Jamaica, to take effect on August 1. On the evening of the last day in July a large company of former slaves gathered on the beach for a solemn, yet joyous occasion. A large mahogany coffin had been constructed and placed on the sand next to an accommodating hole in the beach. All evening the soon-to-be emancipated slaves placed, with some ceremony, symbols of their enslavement. There were chains, leg-irons, whips, padlocks, and other similar symbols of slavery. A few minutes before midnight, the box was lowered into the hole in the beach. Pushing sand into the hole to cover the coffin, all joined their voices with one accord to sing the doxology: Praise God from whom all blessing flow, praise God all creatures here below, praise God above ye heavenly host, praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. They were free. They were free from their slavery.”1 On January 1, 1863, as the United States approached its third year of bloody civil war, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared "that all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states "are, and henceforward shall be free." But we all know that abolishing slavery and declaring freedom doesn’t guarantee that people live free. History has proven that.

 

February is Black History Month. I think all of us know that. I also think that we don’t talk about it enough. This year’s theme, African Americans and The Vote, recognizes the struggle for voting rights for African American men and women throughout American history. It is an ongoing struggle for people of color, a struggle that hasn’t gone away. The year 2020 marks the 150th anniversary of the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote following the Civil War.  It said: "the right to vote shall not be denied or abridged on the basis of race, color or previous condition of servitude." But southern states immediately began to undermine the protections found in this new amendment. Of course there were years of lawsuits, and many protests followed, but it was almost one hundred years later, not until the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and Voting Rights Act of 1965, that the freedom to vote was enjoyed by a majority of southern blacks. It is extremely disappointing to me that even today, some of these freedoms eroded by gerrymandering—or dividing voting districts for unfair majorities. Harsh voting restrictions by states have also been enacted to discourage voting among poor blacks.2

 

The Beatles released the song Blackbird on November 22, 1968. In an interview about the song, Paul McCartney said, “Those were the days of the civil-rights movement, which all of us cared passionately about, so this was really a song from me to a black woman, experiencing these problems in the United States. The message he wanted to send: ‘Let me encourage you to keep trying, to keep your faith, there is hope.’”3 But when they released this song, it probably didn’t feel like there was much hope for a lot of people. 1968 was a bad year for race relations in America. I was only two years old in 1968. My dad was serving three United Methodist Churches in the Hot Springs area. Dad was volunteering at the Hot Springs Community Center. He was with a group of people from the community. It was the evening of April 4, 1968. Someone comes into the community center and excitedly announces that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated. My dad shares his horror at the fact that the entire place erupted in applause and celebration. It was a bad year. But you know, 2017 had its struggles too. I won’t forget the images—they’re burned into my memory—images from Charlottesville Virginia, white nationalists holding lit tiki torches marching through the campus of the University of Virginia, some chanting the Nazi-associated phrase "our blood, our soil." “The Jews will not replace us.” In 2018 the Southern Poverty Law Center reported a 50% increase in total white nationalist groups. 2018. That disturbs me. It disturbs me that we’re so divided these days. Are you disturbed at that too?

 

In our Scripture text for today,4 Jesus takes Peter, James and John with him to the top of a high mountain. God has a history of meeting people on top of a mountain. A mysterious thing happens—Jesus’ face begins to shine like the sun—his clothes become dazzling white. Moses and Elijah are suddenly there. Luke says that they appear in glory too, so it’s not necessarily about Jesus channeling his divinity. Earlier in Matthew’s story of Jesus’ life, Jesus says that all of God’s people will shine like the sun in God’s kingdom.5 All of us will. Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets. The smart people who write the commentaries have always said that. Moses goes to the top of Mount Sinai and God meets him there and God gives him the Ten Commandments. He had to come back a second time and get a second set. And Elijah had an experience with God on top of the mountain. But you know, Moses was also a liberator. God met Moses on top of a mountain and said, “Go to Egypt. My people are slaves, and I’m going to set them free.”

 

James Cone is an African American theologian. In his book, A Black Theology of Liberation, he talks about the purpose of Christian theology. He says, “Christian theology’s sole reason for existence is to put into ordered speech the meaning of God’s activity in the world, so that the community of the oppressed will recognize that its inner thrust for liberation is not only consistent with the gospel but is the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Toward the end of Moses’ life, God promised to send the people of Israel a prophet just like Moses. And that’s what Moses tells them: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.”6 So Moses is here again, in Matthew’s story. Moses is with God on a mountain. God’s voice from the cloud confirms that Jesus isn’t just a prophet; he is God’s own son. And God’s voice from the cloud says, “Listen to him.”

 

What does it mean for us to listen to Jesus? What does it mean for us to ‘heed such a prophet’? In Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, he says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”7 I am a member of the Board of Ordained Ministry. We met this week to interview candidates hoping to be ordained as United Methodist Clergy. In preparation for this time, the candidates submit papers answering questions about theology, their call to ministry, and United Methodist polity and doctrine. One candidate, writing about his understanding of God, and particularly about prevenient grace, said, “You only seek that which you love.” Now that’s a good, sound theological statement—that God comes after us—even in our wretchedness, our warts and all—and God’s motivation is deep love. You only seek that which you love. One of our team members took that statement and kind of applied it to us. She asked him, “What about the people you don’t love?” I thought it was a fair question, because I think sometimes it’s easy for us to only seek out the people that we love, and stay away from all the rest.

 

Several years ago my father-in-law sent me an email with an old photograph. It was stunning—took my breath away. The scene is an operating room and it’s busy—probably the emergency room. It’s clearly one of those emergency cases that the triage nurse would push ahead of everyone else in the waiting room. This guy came straight from the ambulance into surgery. The patient on the gurney—his shirt is pulled up revealing two gunshot wounds in his abdomen. The surgical team is franticly trying to stop the bleeding. There’s a man applying pressure on the open wound, a woman standing next to a tray loaded with silver tools, presumably to remove the bullets. There’s another woman at the end of the gurney—she’s turned around facing the camera—her expression—eyes wide as silver dollars—reveals the desperation of the moment. Looking at this photograph, my eyes were as wide as silver dollars. The white man on the gurney is still wearing his KKK outfit—his white, bloody shirt pulled up—his white pointy hood pulled up, revealing his identity. Everybody around him is black. He’s at a black hospital, and they’re desperately trying to save his life.

 

The Beatles sing, “Blackbird singing in the dead of night; Take these broken wings and learn to fly.”

Paul McCartney had a black girl in mind when he wrote this song. But I know the song is for me. I know that I’m the one with the broken wing. I’m the one who needs to learn how to fly.

 

Jesus and his disciples come down the mountain. They don’t stay there in the holiness of that place—they don’t hang out in their separate sanctuaries—in separate tents of their own. They come down the mountain, back into the darkness—back into the world of the demon possessed. If you’re familiar with this story, then you know that when they get down to the bottom of the mountain a crowd is waiting there for them. And a father approaches Jesus and begs him to heal his son. His son has a condition that seems to resemble epilepsy. The father complains to Jesus, “Your disciples couldn’t heal my son.” So Jesus prays over the child, and the child is healed instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you8. Now, Jesus is not suggesting here that I can say to Mount Pisgah, “Hey Mount Pisgah, go to Garden City Beach.” I’ve always thought it would be fun to have my mountains and my beach close together. But Jesus is saying, “You can fly through these days with such faith—that this impossible mountain of racism and division and hatred will move.” You can fly— if you learn to fly with me.

 

Stanley W. Green, shares a story in the Canadian Mennonite Magazine: “A South African woman stood in an emotionally charged courtroom listening to white police officers acknowledge the atrocities they had perpetrated in the name of apartheid. Officer van de Broek acknowledged his responsibility in the death of her son. Along with others, he had shot her eighteen-year-old son at point-blank range. He and the others partied while they burned his body, turning it over on the fire until it was ashes. Eight years later, van de Broek and others arrived to seize her husband. Hours later, van de Broek came to fetch the woman. He took her to a woodpile where her husband lay bound. She was forced to watch as they poured gasoline over his body and ignited the flames that consumed his body. The last words her husband said were “Forgive them.”

Now van de Broek stood awaiting judgment. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission asked the woman what she wanted. “Three things,” she said. “I want Mr. van de Broek to take me to the place where they burned my husband’s body. I would like to gather up the dust and give him a decent burial.

“Second, Mr. van de Broek took all my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him. “Third, I would like Mr. van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God and that I forgive him, too. I would like someone to lead me to where he is seated so I can embrace him and he can know my forgiveness is real.” As the elderly woman was led across the courtroom, van de Broek fainted. Someone began singing ‘Amazing Grace.’ Gradually everyone joined in.”

Amazing grace. I know that it’s the only way we can fly. Amen.

 

Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I[a] will make three dwellings[b] here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved;[c] with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” 

 

Black Bird

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free

Blackbird fly, blackbird fly
Into the light of a dark black night

Blackbird fly, blackbird fly
Into the light of a dark black night

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

 

Notes

1. Story from James S. Stewart

2. chiff.com

3. udiscovermusic.com

4. Matthew 17:1-9

5. Matthew 13:43

6. Deuteronomy 18:15

7. Matthew 5:43-45a

8. Matthew 17:20-21

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