Psalm 22: 1-5; 25-31
Mark 8: 31-38
A clergy friend of mine once commented that life is made up a long string of moments, but some of those moments stand out, taking on great significance, as when an Olympic skier, readying herself to compete for the Gold, said, “This is my moment, my time.” Jesus also had his moment, his time---a relatively short one at that, only one year of ministry according to the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, and three years according to John’s Gospel. Here we are in the 8th chapter of Mark, where we hear Jesus pointing to the deep significance of his approaching death, a death, which has proven to be history changing far beyond anything Peter could have imagined at the time. None of Jesus’ disciples could have possibly understood the full significance of his life and death, and even after 2000 years his impact is still being pondered. We are never finished wrestling with the questions Jesus puts to us and the ways Jesus might change us---change us not only in our personal lives, but also change us in history.
Now February is Black History Month, when we not only remember and celebrate Black Americans who contributed to our American story, but we also wrestle with a painful past that in so many ways is still with us. Imagine Peter looking back at some of his behavior, sometimes shameful behavior, but shame is not where he remained. He grew, he changed and his understanding would widen the compass of his faith so much that he would finally be martyred for his faith. Yes, Peter changed. His faith changed, and indeed, that is one of the great lessons of life: change happens. And sometimes the change is painful as it was in Little Rock, Arkansas.
When Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas opened its doors in September, 1927 the New York Times reported that it was the most expensive public school ever built in the nation, costing at the time 1.5 million dollars. Housing over 100 classrooms with a capacity for 3000 students, Central was named by The American Institute of Architects as the most beautiful high school in America with its four gorgeous classical statues, representing Ambition, Opportunity, Preparation and Personality, gracing the front portals. At its opening, 1800 students crossed its threshold, and as the decades followed more than more students would come---some from outside the district, because Central High was one of the nation’s top high schools.
Fast forward 30 years from 1927 to 1957. Central would be in the news again, but this time as a symbol of racial bigotry and hate as well as courage and faith. That was the year the Little Rock Nine attempted to integrate Central High. Those kids were brave, no doubt about that, but sometimes youth is brave because their idealism shields them from the knowledge of the depths of danger. If these nine youngsters were brave, consider for a moment their parents---brave, yes, but also extraordinarily faithful. Now we are a little over a week away from a terrible shooting in a Florida high school, and over and over again we hear the insistence that schools must be safe places---a no brainer---except if you were the parents of one of those nine kids, who integrated Central High.
Make no mistake about it: those parents knew the danger; they understood how ugly and murderous racism could be, but their faith recognized and believed that God acts and acted in all aspects of life, including politics, and so they sent their children into a situation that I daresay most of us sitting here today would not do. And they did it not because they embraced a naïve faith that believed God would protect their children. No, they did it, because this is what they believed God was calling them to do. And if one of those kids had died; if all of them had been killed in the battle to integrate, they would have seen the deaths not as God’s will, but as a thwarting of God’s will and the price one sometimes pays for picking up the cross and following Jesus. They were not expecting a faith with no suffering, but they knew in the smithy of their souls that God was on a march in and through their history, leading them on a great and righteous struggle for freedom, justice and equality. And when God acts and God calls, these parents believed they had a responsibility to answer, even if the costs were high.
On the morning of September 4, 1957 15 year old Elizabeth Eckford was both excited and nervous on her first day at Central High. She wanted to be a lawyer, and she, like the other eight students, who tried to integrate the school that morning, was chosen by Little Rock’s School Board, because of academic promise as well as strength of character. On that morning Elizabeth’s father was nervously pacing in front of the television set as he watched the convergence of National Guard troops and angry citizens at Central High. “Turn the television off,” his wife commanded. “We need no fear in this house. We need prayer.” And pray the family did, gathering around Elizabeth and asking for God’s protection, mercy and love. Elizabeth’s family was poor and did not own a telephone, so she never received the change in instructions. Rather than meet at the school, the students were told to meet at the home of Daisy Bates, head of the Arkansas NAACP. There the students would be met by a group of white and black clergy, who would accompany them to school. But Elizabeth knew none of this.
As she approached the school’s front door, she saw and heard angry crowds, screaming that she would not be allowed to enter. Nervous she certainly was, but seeing the National Guard troops by the doors, she thought they were there to help her. And so moving forward, she was shocked to hear, “You will not enter this school by order of Governor Orval Faubus.” She tried another entrance with the same result, and so she had no alternative but to walk away. Calmly walking down the street, she was followed by an angry mob, some screaming the N word at her, while others taunted they would be getting a rope, since there were many accommodating trees along the path.
As Elizabeth walked, click, click, click went the camera of Wilmer Counts, Jr., who had been a student at Central High some years before, where he had been inspired by one of his teachers to pursue photojournalist as a career. While other reporters that day had their fancy cameras grabbed and smashed, Wilmer’s small camera escaped notice, so he recorded for all the world to see the story of Elizabeth’s courageous walk. One of those images—a white female student, face contorted with hatred as she screamed the N word at Elizabeth, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in photography. Another picture he took that day of a black reporter by the name of Alex Wilson being beaten by a white mob prodded the President of the United States to send troops to Arkansas. When President Eisenhower saw the photo and heard how Wilson refused to run, even when the crowd screamed at him, “Run, Nigger, run,” Eisenhower said. “I must do something.” Two days later the 101 Airborne Division arrived in Little Rock to help integrate the school.
Elizabeth’s walk that morning ended at a bus stop, where she sat on a bench, waiting for a bus to take her away. She did not wait alone. A local woman by the name of Grace Lorch shamed the crowd for torturing a child, who wanted nothing more than an education, and a reporter for the New York Times, Benjamin Fine, sat next to Elizabeth on the bench and advised, “Don’t let them see you cry.” And Elizabeth did not cry until she arrived at the school for the blind, where her mother taught. Throwing herself into her mother’s arms, both mother and daughter wept---wept for themselves, wept for their city, state and country, wept for all the Christians, who were confident that segregation was God’s will, and finally, they wept for God, who was suffering with, for and from God’s people. Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who would march many times for Civil Rights, once said, “Faith begins when we feel sorry for God.” Elizabeth and her mother felt that sorrow.
And so did many others. Will Campbell was one of the white clergy who accompanied the other eight students to school that day. Like Elizabeth, they too were denied entrance. Standing directly beneath the classical statues, Campbell shook his head and said, “Weep, Christians, weep.” By the fall of 1958 the segregationists managed to close all the high schools in the city in order to circumvent integration.
Shameful yes, but shame did not have the final word not only for the city schools, which were, finally integrated, but also for Hazel Bryan, whose contorted face Wilmer Counts had recorded on film, making her the poster child of hatred. Some years ago, Hazel called Elizabeth and apologized for her hateful deed. “My life,” she said, “has been more than that one moment.” Once again Wilmer Counts was there to click his camera, showing the two women, standing together in front of Central High, gazing pensively away from the school, the one perhaps thinking to herself, Where did I get the courage that day, and the other possibly wondering, From where did that hateful demon come, and how was it that I was finally delivered?
Life is indeed more than one moment. In one moment a 19 year old in Parkland, Florida, shot an assault weapon and slaughtered 17 people; in another moment students would stand tall and vow, Never again. In one moment Peter would reject the sufferings of Jesus and Jesus would call him Satan, and yet other moments would come, including one in which Peter denied Jesus and another in which he would be executed as Jesus’ disciple. More than one moment makes a life, and when one or some of those moments proves to be redemptive, we grab on to it, giving thanks that the redemption has come in whatever form it finally takes. And yet we never know how or when it will come, but faith would have us wait for it, hope for it and yes, even work for it.
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!