When we enter our Gospel story this week, Jesus is looking for a place to be by himself. Just like he was in our Gospel last week before that great miracle, the feeding of the 5000. Jesus needs a place to pray and grieve the murder of John the Baptist. And this need to grieve is as important to our understanding of Jesus as the miracles that he performs. Because how Jesus responds to the death of John means everything for his future and the future of the movement that he has started. John was beheaded for speaking truth to power. He told King Herod things he didn’t want to hear about abusing his power and acting contrary to the ways of God. Jesus is doing the very same thing. He is reminding the people of Israel and beyond that only God is King, not Herod. Not Caesar. These are dangerous claims. So not only is Jesus grieving the loss of his cousin and mentor, he is coming to terms with the realization that his life will likely end in the same way as John’s did: murder by the State. This might have raised hard questions for Jesus about his future ministry and how bold he wanted to be.
But while Jesus keeps trying to find a little time to himself to pray over these things, the people keep coming—in need of healing and comfort. And Jesus can’t turn them away.
Finally, he gets a chance to break away after the crowds have been fed and sent home for the evening. He puts the disciples on a boat to go on ahead without him, and he heads up the mountain to pray. When he comes down, the boat has been battered and pushed far out to sea by the wind. And Jesus goes to them. When the disciples need help, he walks on water to get to them. When Peter sinks, Jesus reaches out his hand to save him. Whether it’s the thousands that would gather to hear Jesus preach and heal or his small group of disciples clumsily learning how to follow, Jesus doesn’t give up on them. He shows up because he believes in their healing, in the powerful act of repentance and redemption. He doesn’t reject anyone as unworthy of his message of love.
As Christians, Jesus is the archetype of who we are to be and how we are to live. There are times in our lives when we encounter people or the stories of people who embody that archetype.
Ruby Sales was one of those people. And so was her friend, Jonathan Daniels. Maybe you know their stories. As a young black woman from Alabama, Ruby left her college at the age of 17 to join other activists in the march from Selma to Montgomery. Inspired by the cause, she then went to Lowndes County, to protest the treatment of local sharecroppers. There, she was joined by about 30 other demonstrators, including Jonathan Daniels, a white Episcopal seminarian from New Hampshire who was committed to the Civil Rights Movement. During the protest, Ruby and Jonathan and others were arrested and jailed. After six days, they were released without any advance notice, and there was nobody to pick them up. So they went to a local store to get something to drink. When they arrived at the store, they encountered Tom Coleman, threatening them with a shotgun. When Tom raised his gun at Ruby Sales, Daniels pushed her out of the way. He took the bullet and was killed instantly.
As you can imagine, Sales was traumatized by the killing of Jonathan Daniels, her friend who gave up his own life for hers. In a podcast conversation with Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, she talks about how she withdrew into herself and nearly lost the ability to speak for months.
As a result of this tragedy, Ruby Sales could have given up on the fight for freedom and civil rights. She had every reason to be fearful about what might happen to her. She had every reason to feel helpless about the cause of racial justice. After all, how do you combat an evil that leads a man to take his shotgun into town with the intention of killing people just because they were fighting for equal rights for people of color?
But Sales did not give up. Like Jesus in our Gospel this morning, she grieved, she withdrew for a time, but then she came back, still believing that there is good in the world and that the struggle for justice is worth fighting for. Jesus is our model for that understanding of the good in humanity. He knew that evil existed in the world. But he also never gave up on people, believing that redemption is always possible for those willing to repent and return to the love of God
In the conversation between Ruby Sales and Michael Curry, she said that experiencing the murder of Jonathan Daniels taught her that life is not dualistic. Tom Coleman represented the racist violence of American society. Jonathan Daniels represented the redemptive nature of American society. These realities existed simultaneously. She said on the day of the murder she saw the best and worst of America.
She then went on to insist that, “the struggle for justice is a struggle for redemption, not retribution.” Rather than giving up on those who spew racist ideology or participate in violent behavior against black people, she believes that it is our spiritual responsibility to ask of them “Where does it hurt?” Acknowledging that violence is born out of pain. Violence is a spiritual malformation—a distortion of our humanity as the beloved creation of God.
Sales calls us to a spiritual revolution, insisting that if we want to work for justice, if we want to build a new world, a new kingdom as Jesus calls it, we “have to imagine the good in people and figure out ways to call them to their highest selves.” And this…this is important. She reminds us that this work that we do for justice is for ourselves, not just charity work for others. It is this work that allows us to be born again—to be transformed. (quotations and references to Sales’ theology are from https://wayoflove.episcopalchurch.org/episodes/season/3/episode/7)
On August 14, it will be 55 years since Jonathan Daniels was murdered saving the life of Ruby Sales. In all those years, Sales has never stopped working for justice or given up on the possibility of the redemption of our country, both collectively and individually. And it is not just the sin of racism that we need redemption from. As a society, we have ordered our lives around the values of wealth and status and power instead of the values of justice and equality and mercy. In the work that you and I do, following the example of Ruby Sales, following in the footsteps of Jesus, we must call ourselves and our communities to our highest selves. We work for justice to transform our society and ourselves. We must keep asking the question, “Where does it hurt?” Where is the source of the pain that leads to hate and violence? And how might we answer that pain with redemption instead of retribution?
Asking those questions and doing that work, that’s our highest calling. That’s what gets us closer to the kingdom of God. As we hear in the hymn Thy Kingdom Come, we seek nothing less than the day “when justice shall be throned in might, and every hurt be healed; when knowledge hand in hand with peace, shall walk the earth abroad; the day of perfect righteousness, the promised day of God.” May it be so. Amen.