"John Lewis, Jacob and Jesus," a sermon by Rev. Fred Kinsey
He was born in rural Alabama to parents of sharecroppers in 1940. At an early age, he felt the injustice of the Jim Crow system he was born into. His parents worked long hard hours, but could only be renters, of their fields of cotton, the tools they used, and the seed they planted. Making a profit was under the control of the land owners, who made it impossible to get out of debt, or ever become land-owners themselves. It seemed to John Lewis that they were working hard for nothing. “As soon as I was able to make sense of the world,” he said, “I could see there was no way a person could get ahead as a tenant farmer.”
Slavery had ended 75 years earlier, but freedom was still out of reach. And John Lewis could feel the injustice in his bones, and in the air he breathed, whether working the fields – or in town, negotiating the separate bathrooms and businesses labeled, Whites Only. He was 15, when the 14 year old Emmett Till from Chicago was lynched in Mississippi, and it made the national news.
So, growing up, there on the farm, John Lewis, had a dream, to become a Minister. And caring for the chickens with his six brothers and three sisters, just a teenager, he practiced, by preaching to the captive farmyard foul. Later, he joked, the little chicks listened better than many of his fellow Congress people!
At the age of 17, Lewis enrolled in the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, and immediately, he got involved in social movements of the time. One evening, he heard Pastor James Lawson discuss the philosophy and tactics of nonviolence at his church, and Lewis felt like “it was something he’d been searching for his whole life,” he said.
At 23 he was the youngest of the speakers at the March on Washington, where MLK gave his, I Have A Dream speech.
But, it was the first day of the March for Voting Rights, from Selma to Montgomery, where they would also protest the killing of a black man, Jimmy Lee Jackson, in 1963, that Lewis would gain his renown – when some 600 hundred peaceful, mostly black, demonstrators, were beaten and tear gassed by the racist Selma police department, and John Lewis had his head cracked open, and was dragged to jail, in full view of a shocked, national television, audience. It was the George Floyd moment of the 60’s, if you will, and it revealed the evil of the oppression embedded in Jim Crow, and the racism that kept black bodies in bondage. And soon after, it led to President Lyndon Johnson, signing the Voting Rights Act into law.
John Lewis, acting out his faith, literally helped to crack open a new age of civil rights, along with Dr. King, and others – who were often based in local churches.
Up until that moment, the protestors, demonstrators, and all black lives, were seen as the problem, the ‘less-than people,’ who were causing trouble, simply by asking for equal rights. As humans, we have a problem with blaming and demonizing those who are different than us, and in America, the discrimination is baked into our systems of government, business, medical treatment, housing, banking, and all the rest.
In our Gospel today, the landowners in Jesus’ parable want to cut down the bad weeds, the troublemakers that have suddenly invaded the nice field of wheat. Where did all these weeds come from, the workers asked? An enemy has scattered these evil seeds in, when we were all asleep, Jesus replied. But don’t go and pull them out now, he added, “for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.”
Which raises the question, how do we know who are the wheat, and who are the weeds? Most people consider themselves, wheat, of course, and feel they have a pretty good idea who the weeds are, even if they’ve never ever met them before!
Jesus suggests, that all of us have been planted, and naturally grow up together, so closely, that our roots are all intertwined underground. To pull up one, would also pull up the other. We are not capable of pre-emptively culling the harvest, without endangering what God will decide, is the salvageable, and good fruit. In America, you can only keep up an Apartheid system of racial discrimination, as long as you resist, or reject, the notion, that Black Lives Matter.
John Lewis, who didn’t have a hateful bone in his body, lived to meet some of the men who were on that Selma police force at the Pettus Bridge. Many of them repented of their racist behavior. Some even publicly apologized. But not Sheriff Jim Clark, who gave the orders that day. Until his dying breath, he never apologized.
Can some weeds change their stripes, and mature into wheat? Repent, and turn around and go in a new direction? Certainly, repentance can, and has been done! Just as some wheat, can become infected; learn bad behavior; become as good as weeds.
?But, is it our role to decide which is which, who is who, and start pulling up those we deem to be the weeds? Especially when the root system is so intertwined?
John Lewis lived his beliefs of active non-violence all his life. As Pastor Lawson and Dr. King had taught him, love is stronger than evil. Not a sugar-coated love, but a love that looks a Sheriff Jim Clark in the eye, even as he is swinging his club at your cranium, and still refuses to see in him, a person, that is a weed.
“There’s not anything more powerful than the marching feet of a determined people,” Lewis said. “When people are marching together in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion, that can appeal to all of humankind.”
No matter the cause or injustice, Lewis called nonviolent protest an “immutable principle that you cannot deviate from. If you want to have a good end, your means must be good and noble. Somehow, some way, the end must be caught up in the means,” he said. (https://www.aspeninstitute.org/blog-posts/rep-john-lewis-on-nonviolence-civil-rights-and-the-obligation-of-todays-youth/)
It’s easy to see, that weeds turning into wheat, also permeate the biblical stories, as we see in our First Reading from Genesis. Jacob, whose name means ‘schemer’ and ‘usurper,’ was running away from his family, after tricking his older brother Esau out of his birthright, and his father’s blessing.
His accomplice was none other than his mother Rebecca, the one who had always favored and protected him – Jacob was a mama’s boy and a home-body, after all. Despite all of this, God comes to Jacob in a dream at Bethel and repeats the promise given to his father Isaac, and his grandfather Abraham, assuring Jacob that his children – and not his older twin Esau – will be heir to the many nations of God’s people. Jacob the schemer, who has usurped his brother’s birthright, will be the father of 12 children, the foundational 12 Tribes of Israel. God reveals this to Jacob, this weed, the one who should have been pulled up. Yet God accepts this younger brother, as wheat. God is with him, and by his side, in his night time vision of a stairway from heaven, and on it, God promises to be “poised” over his life, from now on, even as he is running away from home.
Jesus too – in the eyes of the world – appeared to be born a weed, born in a manger, in a barn, born a refugee, to poor unmarried parents. But then, he was visited by Magi from the east, and declared the finest of wheat, a king, who would lead all people to the grand harvest, already dawning in his swaddling wrapped body!
John Lewis, born into sharecropping, but who escaped his farm, became a grand wheat among men! He was despised, merely for his black skin, but today, ‘shines brightly, like the sun light.’ Which fits well with the transcendent beauty of our Psalm today:
“If I say, “Surely the darkness will cover me,
and the light around me turn to night,”
darkness is not dark to you [O LORD]; the night is as bright as the day;
darkness and light to you are both alike.
Search me out, O God, and know my heart;
try me and know my restless thoughts.
Look well whether there be any wickedness in me
and lead me in the way that is everlasting.
With a fierceness, as strong as the spirit, mind and mission of John Lewis, we too lean into the kingdom and realm of God, that is dawning in the message and gracious gift of Jesus, who, poised by our side, guides and keeps us in our work here on earth, and reaps for us, the harvest of his heavenly parent – where all, will “shine like the sun!”