Dangerous Memories

“Dangerous Memories”
Mark 16:1-8
Easter Sunday, 2012

The tears that Mary shed are not uncommon. They are the tears that all of us share when we see innocent life taken from us much too soon.

As Mary sat at the foot of the cross, watching her beloved child—the one she gave birth to in that stable all those years ago—hanging there like a criminal, there were no words to describe the heartache and pain she felt. She might have believed that it was all for a greater good–who knows–but that’s not what she felt. No overarching plan could take the sting away, and to say it could is insulting to those like Mary who experience such loss. There are some events so horrific that they render us speechless, when no easy answers suffice.

The tears that Mary shed are not uncommon. They are the tears that all of us share when we see innocent life taken from us much too soon.

This time of year, for those of us who live in Springfield, we are confronted with the painful memory of the cross in a way that cuts far too close to home. We remember life taken from us much too soon, and sometimes it feels like more than we can bear. Those of you familiar with the racial history of Springfield know what I’m talking about.

Just about every Easter Sunday in Springfield, we are reminded of our city’s haunting legacy of the cross, and the way it played out on the square on Easter morning, 106 years ago, when three African-American men were lynched by a frenzied white mob.

A story printed in the April 15th edition of the 1906 Springfield newspaper describes the scene this way:

The lynching of the third negro was an afterthought by the mob. After it had seen the bodies of the negroes Duncan and Copeland burned in a big fire, a man jumped on the balcony of the electric light tower on which the statue of Justice stands and yelled: “Ladies and gentlemen, there is another man up in that jail who killed old man Rouark. Shall we get him?”

The answer was a roar of approval, and the mob made for the jail. There they found the negro, William Allen, charged with the murder of O. M. Rouark. He was dragged out, protesting his innocence, and was taken to the scene of the other lynchings.

Allen calmly walked up to the balcony of the tower with the rope around his neck. He still protested his innocence. The leader of the mob asked the crowd what should be done with him.

“Hang him,” came the answer, with a roar.

“Are you Will Allen?” asked the leader.

“I am,” said the negro.

“Have you anything to say?”

“Bud Kane killed Mr. Rouark,” was the clear reply.

“Hang him,” roared the mob.

Somebody pushed Allen and he shot down. The rope broke and he landed in the embers of the fire in which the bodies of the other two negroes had been burned. He was taken up to the balcony again and a new rope was provided. He was told to jump.

“I swear I did not kill Rouark,” he said.

Then he was compelled to jump. The rope held and several persons made its work sure by shooting into the body.”

The tears that Mary shed are not uncommon. There are some acts that render us speechless.

In the past month our nation has been riveted by the shooting death of an unarmed 17-year-old African American, walking in his own neighborhood. Treyvon Martin’s murder is a stark reminder that the kinds of things that happened 106 years ago—2000 years ago—still happen today. And the dangerous memory of the cross demands a response.

You see, we don’t have crosses in our sanctuaries simply to comfort us. We have crosses in our sanctuaries because the cross demands that we face the harsh reality of human existence, of innocent life taken much too soon. It’s a reminder of dangerous memories, of the tears of Mary, of the cries of Jesus, of horrific acts that leave us speechless. Before the cross became a gold charm that we wear around our necks, it was an instrument of execution, threatening us more than comforting us. And the dangerous memory of the cross demands our response.

The easiest thing for us to do is to try to ignore the cross, to try to repress uncomfortable truths that haunt us, feelings of anguish, of pain, of heartache. We want to jump straight to the resurrection without dealing with the cross.

When community leader and City Councilman Bob Stephens reflects on the tragedy of the 1906 Easter lynchings in Springfield, he says: “We all know the story. But unfortunately, we also know the routine: Every year around Easter, the local newspaper does an article about the lynching; the blacks in our community are angry and a little frightened; the whites feel terrible and are embarrassed that the entire situation occurred. But then the next day we begin to ignore it for another year. But at some point, we have to—as a community—deal with this event and its aftermath.”

Now I don’t know if Bob Stephens is a biblical scholar or not, but he quite clearly gets the message of the gospel of Mark: You don’t get to Easter, you don’t get to resurrection, by skipping over the cross. The story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection demands that we face the complexities of life head on, dealing with them instead of ignoring them, not glossing over them or pushing them down. It is then, and only then, that we move toward wholeness and transformation, it is then, and only then, that we experience resurrection.

You might recall back in the 1950s the murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American from Chicago visiting his family in Mississippi. He was accused of flirting with a white woman in a local grocery store, and the boyfriend of the woman took offense. Emmett’s body was later found in a river, bloated and beaten beyond recognition. He could only be identified by a ring he wore.

But Emmett’s mother recognized the power of the cross. She ordered that her son’s broken and bruised body be transported back to Chicago, where she would have an open casket funeral for all the world to see. When people around the nation were confronted with the images of innocent life beaten and taken much too soon, they were rendered speechless. Those from around the world knew that Emmett’s death demanded a response. It could not be forgotten.

And it is precisely here that we begin to get to the heart of the Easter story. For the broken and bruised body of Christ, the life of love put to death on the cross, has not gone away. It still calls out to us today. It constitutes a dangerous memory that demands our response. In one of the most astounding paradoxes of human existence, we experience the reality that a life given in love is stronger than death. As John Caputo writes,

The divinity of Christ is that his very death and humiliation rise up in protest against the world. The weak force of God is embodied in the broken body of the cross. The power of God is not pagan violence, brute power, or vulgar magic; it is the power of powerlessness, the power of the call, the power of protest that rises up from innocent suffering and calls out against it, the power that says no to unjust suffering, and finally, the power to suffer with innocent suffering, which is perhaps the central Christian symbol.

In the 1970s, Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero had the courage to stand up to practices by the church and state that devastated–and sometimes destroyed–the lives of the poor. He saw the way those in power took advantage of the poor, and in a decision that ultimately cost him his life, he chose to do all he could to right what had gone wrong. He tirelessly advocated for the poor and disempowered, publicly calling attention to the unjust practices of those in power, all at great personal risk.

It became apparent that the government would try to silence him, and he was frequently asked if he feared dying. In what can only remind us of the life of Christ, Romero repeatedly stated that he was called to do what was right, no matter the cost. “And if I die,” he said, “I shall rise in the hearts of the Salvadoran people.” Which is precisely what happened after he was murdered by a CIA trained assassin while serving the Eucharist in one of the poorest villages of El Salvador. For a life given in love is stronger than death.

Today, all these years later, Romero is a venerated saint whose memory continues to inspire those around the world. For not even death—even death on a cross—can contain the most beautiful expressions of love that still call out to us now.

And that is precisely what left the women who entered Jesus’ tomb speechless, only this time in a much more wonderful way. Where they expected to find death, they found life. Where they were drowning in despair, they found hope. For they experienced the reality that a life given in love is stronger than death.

And they knew they were called to respond to the dangerous memory of the cross; to right the wrongs of the past; to say “No” to all unjust suffering; to embody the love so graciously given in Christ; to not rest until God’s dreams for the world come true.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Dangerous Memories

  1. bindert

    tnx phil for this powerfull sermon!

  2. Thanks for posting this essay/sermon . I couldn’t attend Sunday’s service and Leslie told me of your terrific connection of the past , present , and continued future condition of living in a compassionate mode … and the often heartbreaking effects that can result in . I am so glad I had the opportunity to read it . Christ was so much more than the seasonal caricature so many have been led to believe in , he was a person willing to stand up in the face of all opposition and defend what he knew was right !

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