The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Please pray with me. Heal me, hands of Jesus, and search out all my pain. Restore my hope, remove my fear and bring me peace again. In the name of the living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases . . . And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out of him and healed all of them.
Today’s gospel lesson is commonly known as the Sermon on the Plain. Its parallel and better-known scripture is the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew. Part of what’s interesting about these seminal teachings of Jesus is that, in both instances, Jesus has been surrounded by a crowd who’ve been following him from place to place as he was healing and teaching. I think it’s no accident that as the people gather before he begins the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount and as you heard in today’s gospel lesson, before he teaches he has them sit down and he heals them. That’s no accident. The people that gathered around Jesus were longing to be heard, to be healed, to be encouraged. Before Jesus could give them a view of what was a countercultural teaching, he needed them to know that God saw them, God heard them, and God loved them and so did he. I think sometimes when we are hurting and we’re tired of being tired, we need those words of healing before we can even imagine moving on to do the work that God has called us to do.
So today, if you’ve come to sit at the feet of Jesus and to hear, once again, words of healing and hope and restoration and encouragement, you’ve come to the right place because, you see, Jesus was and is in the healing, encouraging, loving business. The people who were gathered had been struggling. By in large, they were poor. They were oppressed and they were hoping and longing for a new day. Jesus speaks directly to their situation. How in the world could they imagine, given their circumstance, that they were blessed? And yet, Jesus points the way. He tells them, you are indeed beloved and a new day is dawning and you will be a part of it.
We, too, live in challenging times, to say the least. If you believe all the surveys, we’re all exhausted. We’re tired of being tired during this pandemic. We too are in need of healing in our lives and in our communities and in the global community. There is brokenness and so much work to be done. I think so often it’s easy to get discouraged and then not really have the will and the wherewithal to move forward. It is in those times that I take great inspiration, not just from what Jesus taught us, but from the saints who have gone before us who found the will and the determination and the way to move forward and to make a difference.
In this Black History Month, I’m reminded of the powerful and transformative witness of the civil rights leaders of the 1960s. I recently read Jon Meacham’s book, His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope, which is a biography of John Lewis. I highly commend that book to you. We know many things about John Lewis, but this offers a different angle and lens on that great giant. We learn that he was the son of sharecroppers and understood at a tender age that he was a beloved child of God created in God’s own image and that no one or nothing could take that away from him. He aspired to be a minister and a preacher at an early age and began preaching to the chickens on their farm at the age of five. John Lewis was determined, as he lived in a segregated society, to make a difference because Jesus had shown him the way and he was prepared to pick up his cross and follow him.
Of course, John Lewis had mentors and those who encouraged him, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who in turn was inspired by and mentored by the great Howard Thurman. I think Howard Thurman doesn’t get the recognition he should rightly receive for being a spiritual leader and encourager and a mentor to so many of the early civil rights leaders. Thurman’s father died when he was seven and his grandparents had a tremendous influence on his life and particularly his grandmother. About once a month, he would go with his grandparents to hear a Black preacher preach the gospel that became a compass and an inspiration in his life: assuring him that he was beloved, that he was nothing less than a beloved child of God created in God’s own image. The young Howard Thurman believed it and, most importantly, lived it. Nothing could take that away from him.
Thurman proved to be a brilliant student and with scholarships matriculated through his education and came to be a professor at Howard university and Boston College where he began to make his mark on the next generation of leaders in this country. During the time in which he was at Boston College, he was invited to go to Southeast Asia for about six months where he taught and preached and learned and sat at the feet of Mahatma Gandhi. It was there that he discovered the power of nonviolent protest. He saw the difference that Gandhi made in fighting colonialism in his time and in his country. He brought that back with him to the United States. It was shortly thereafter that Thurman wrote the book Jesus and the Disinherited that would become the handbook for so many civil rights leaders because what he came to understand and believe and to teach and preach were the parallels in Jesus’ life and those of the African American. He lifted it up in a way people could grasp it and believe it and live it: that Jesus, too, was poor; Jesus was a minority living in an oppressive society, held under the thumb of the Roman empire.
So, too, the African Americans in that day and in that time found their parallel, found their inspiration, found their courage to move forward and to help to right a wrong. Thurman inspired Martin Luther King, Jr., who it is said carried Jesus and the Disinherited with him on his travels to give him courage, to give him strength to do that which God had called him to do. When you look at their lives, when you look at the life of John Lewis, how else could you explain someone who would knowingly and willingly be a Freedom Rider and cross the Edmund Pettus bridge knowing with certitude that he would be beaten and bloodied and perhaps lose his life as well? Lewis was arrested over 45 times in his life and yet he always held on to hope. He wrote the Afterword in Meacham’s book, probably not long before he died. In speaking about the first time he was arrested in Nashville for speaking up and speaking out and doing what he called “good trouble,” he said, I felt free. I felt liberated. I felt like I’d crossed to the other side. And I was a better and stronger person for it. And eventually because of the civil rights movement America was better and stronger for it as well.
My friends, I know that we are in a challenging time, but we’re in the Season of Epiphany where we remember and draw strength from the light that came into the world and shattered the darkness. That same light is available to you and to me to do that which God has called us to do: to make a difference in our day and in our time, to move forward, to do those things to help bring about the Beloved Community, to help bring about the Kingdom of God in our time. If we look for the light, we will see the light. Amanda Gorman brilliantly spoke about the light in her poem, “The Hill We Climb.”
The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light
If only we’re brave enough to see it,
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
I leave you with these powerful and time eternal words that Howard Thurman wrote at the end of his book, Jesus and the Disinherited. And I paraphrase: . . . Jesus belongs to no age, no race, no creed. When we look into his face, we see etched the glory of our own possibilities, and our hearts whisper, “Thank you and thank God.”