Sermons

Let Us Go to the Other Side; Rev. Dee Ledger, June 20, 2021

Friends, when have you had to internally or externally revise your notions of what you understood to be true, or thoughtfully re-examine or reinterpret a preferred history that was taught to you or passed down to you?

I suspect that for many of us, the ideas about Christianity, or the tales that we tell each other about that first Christmas and Holy Nativity, including how that evening unfolded or the understanding of the events that led to Jesus’ death, or even the way in which the Savior himself has been portrayed in history- all have needed quite a bit of revision as we grew older, wiser to the ways of the world, wiser to the storytellers, and the ways of those in power. Just to see (or not to see) the way women were portrayed in the bible requires some fundamental revision of biblical history—a history that was often shaped by leaving women out in the cold, so to speak.

“Revisionist history” is often used as a pejorative term. And when it is tossed around as a pejorative term, I’ve learned to carefully examine and reflect upon those who use it, particularly if those doing the tossing don’t like those new stories that have come to light or those perspectives that place their favored white narrative off-center stage.

Historian Erin Bartram writes, “it’s easy to see how some people might feel that their present understanding—of their identity, of their community, of their nation—is threatened by new and unfamiliar historical arguments. If you’re clinging to a particular narrative about the past because it’s a small but important part of how you understand your place in the world, it can be easier to say this new narrative is distorted, and maliciously so, than to reconsider the old narrative. This is especially true when the new historical narrative, by considering more perspectives and new evidence and fresh angles, seems to be taking ‘your story’ out of the center of the narrative, even just a little bit.[1]

Today, we find Jesus saying to the disciples: “Let as go across to (he other side… ” and I cannot help but to hear him in my imagination urging all of us to look at both our history and our history books from “the other side” if we want to come to terms with them. Hopefully, by doing so collectively, we can offer some kind of healing to those still smarting from and living with the effects of racism that has spanned generations and which, to be honest, includes all of us. This new Federal holiday, while celebratory, is just one very small recognition in a sea storm of misery. Shamefully, it comes, I fear, too little, too late, just like General Granger’s federal orders so long ago. It may be too little, too late, particularly if we fail to simultaneously dismantle the systems of injustice that have swamped far too many boats for too long.

Evenings can be hard things. Old memories come up as the sun goes down; it is often when people feel the loneliest, the most lost, and the most bereft of hope. Evening had come for Jesus too; likely it had been a long day, a long month, even a long year. The usual crowds had pressed upon him always with their demands to be heard and to be seen, yet Jesus turns his attention across the waters to the farther shore with hope of rest. Being human, likely he is tired from ail the teaching, the way that some of our black and brown sisters and brothers get tired of helping their white brethren to “see” a different shore, one that is quite literally under our feet, if we would just take the time to look and set aside our protestations.

I am reminded of an article that I read the other day about a North Carolina plantation museum that had decided to hold a program on Juneteenth. Unfortunately, and shamefully, it featured a narrative that would have centered the plantation’s master and how he and other confederates might have responded with the news that “his” slaves had been freed. In an article from the Washington Post, the plantation’s program—now since cancelled—put White people and their struggle in the foreground.[2] “ While refugees have been displaced and have a story to tell as well, ” it declared. The offense was not only the choice of presenting the “massa’s” perspective as “refugees”; rather it was the purposeful centering of this narrative on Juneteenth, a day that celebrates the freedom of slaves in Galveston TX nearly 2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was given. A storm rightly ensued, a storm of public backlash seemingly unforeseen by the plantation organizers, who could not seem to imagine why people would be upset.

Eager to leave the crowds and the clamoring behind, Jesus and his entourage of boats go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. And in their boat, there are knowledgeable fishermen who have, in their lifetimes, witnessed a storm or two mixed in with the other disciples. They take him across, but while on crossing to the other side, calamity arises and water begins to fill the boat.

But, in the midst of the storm on the Sea of Galilee, where is Jesus? Having entrusted himself to the disciples, he is sleeping in the stem, taking his rest, after a long, tiring day. And yet these terrified disciples, several of whom have made their living by fishing in waters such as these, in the midst of the wind and the waves, cry out to Jesus, “Do you not care that we are perishing? ” Mind you, Jesus is not the experienced fisherman; they are. But they are terrified.

Likewise, there are those who wonder if they will “perish” in this new/old re-telling of a story that never got properly told or fully told to begin with. Some wonder if – in creating a new/old holiday— that somehow we are changing the story, or engaging in “identity politics,” as if by journeying the “other side,” we are engaging with the Devil. They say this, even as we know that history is revised by historians on a regular basis, as new facts or old facts see the light of day. Might we have to revise the way we tell the story of July 4th in light of Juneteenth. Yes. Definitely. Should this be a problem? No. Definitely not.

Erin Bartram writes, “But when we’re at our best, historians aren’t afraid to revise—to look again—because we blow that another look can only help, even if it muddles what we previously thought was clear. When done from a place of humility, rather than defensiveness, and its questions offered in good faith, revision is what drives historical inquiry. The danger is not in practicing revisionist history—it’s in constructing individual and collective lives around historical frameworks too shaky to be looked at again.”[3]

Yet, as Heather McGee says, “racism has a cost for everyone.” She is the the author of The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. On Juneteenth, she says, we should celebrate -everyone—because it is “owr collective liberation.”[4] In an interview with Trevor Noah, she delineates the benefits of a truth and reconciliation commission, saying “The United States was born with this view of a zero-sum racial hierarchy built into the economic justification for stolen land, stolen people, and stolen labor. This is a very old idea… And yet we’ve never gotten on the same page about our history so I think it’s not possible to move forward if we are still contesting the basic facts and even our present. We need to have a truth effort.. .”[5]

Jesus says to the disciples, “Let us go to the other side… ” and it being late in the day, it is high time to do so, as this country reckons with its shameful past and struggles toward a more diverse and just future. We have heard from the overseers and massa’s for far too long; it is time for this country’s boat to leave the familiar shore of the cherished stories we think we know and tell for some at the cost of truth. We must make our way to the shore of the other side to hear and to witness other perspectives, particularly those that did not make it into our history books or even our hearts. Tiya Miles, Professor of History at Harvard University, has said, “Juneteenth for America should be a memory marker. It should remind us all of the many generations that Africans and African descendent people spent in captivity. It should remind us of the radical change that was necessary to end that period of American history and also of the continuing abuses that African Americans experience: including not being told they were free at the time that they were actually freed.”[6]

After Jesus stills the storm, he asks the disciples, “Why are you afraid?” Perhaps the disciples are afraid because they never really trusted Jesus to save or to help them to begin with; perhaps they could not have faith that he would save such the likes of them, even after all they had said and done, or not done.

Years ago—while I was still in school—I saw Roger Miller’s “Big River” which is a powerful musical adaptation of Huckleberry Finn. It won a Tony Award in 1985. There is a song that haunted me because it opened a world of spirituals to me, in the way that songs can, even though my knowledge of other spirituals, at that time, was sketchy at best. The lyrics were:

Crossing to the other side

We are pilgrims

On a journey

through the darkness of the night

We are bound for other places

Crossing to the other side

I will worry ’bout tomorrow

When tomorrow comes in sight

Until then, Lord, I’m just a pilgrim

Crossing to the other side

Jesus will be there to meet me

He will reach his hand in mine

I will no more be a stranger

When I reach the other side.[7]

In the musical, this song is about a group of slaves who tried to free themselves by running away, but they are captured. Both Huck and the runaway Jim overhear their singing on their raft on the Mississippi and the pain and hope in their voices.

But what I remember is the faith that Jesus would personally greet the ones singing, almost like when you get off a plane and your loved one greets you there in a distant place. And I wanted to be wherever that was. Moreover, I prayed for the strong faith that I “would no more be a stranger” when I reached the other side, whether that be the other side of life, the other side of a storm, or the other side of my journey, whatever that may be.

Friends, can we not imagine—as we celebrate with our black and brown brethren—that we might choose to cross over to other perspectives, other sides of history, and other stories in the evening of our unrest that we might awaken to the dawn of a new day in our country and in our hearts? Can we not yearn, with the longing of a spiritual, to “no more be a stranger” to those whose stories are lifted up and preferenced on this Juneteenth holiday and who found in such singing a saving grace? Can we not try to worry less about our perishing in the storms that confound us, to worry less about our own tomorrow, and more about the today of those whose boats are continually swamped by the whitewashing of history? Can we, as a church, remind ourselves to make the most of this moment today and to grieve the complicity of the church in upholding a false narrative that supported slavery in the past? Can we not yield our narrative to another one that has been trying to be heard?