Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 | Psalm 66:1-11 | 2 Timothy 2:8-15 | Luke 17:11-19
The first experience for first year seminarians in Sewanee is to make a pilgrimage to Hayneville, Alabama, in honor of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a young white Episcopal seminarian from New Hampshire. Daniels saw the inequality in the South and believed so strongly in advocating for civil rights that he left the comfort of his home and school and went to join the movement in 1965. After being released from jail and going to get a soda, Daniels was shot in Hayneville in front of a convenience store, shot because he took the bullet aimed at a 17-year-old black girl named Ruby Sales, whom he had pushed out of harm’s way. Daniels became one of our modern day martyrs, and Ruby Sales has since continued advocating for civil rights and has become a public theologian, perhaps living into some of the roles Daniels would have, had his life not been cut short.
In reflecting on her youth, Ruby Sales says* she grew up with black folk religion “that said that people who were considered property and disposable were essential in the eyes of God and even essential in a democracy, although (they) were enslaved. And it was a religion where the language and the symbols were accessible, that the God talk was accessible, to even 7-year-olds.” She describes her parents as “spiritual geniuses who created a world and a language where the notion that (she) was inadequate or inferior or less than never touched (her) consciousness” and a world where “hate was not anything in (their) vocabulary.” This “black folk religion” was her foundation and was ingrained in her so much that later when she thought she had left the church, she realized that even though she had left God, God had never left her.
Ruby reached this moment of realization, she says, “When I was getting my locks washed, and my locker’s daughter came in one morning, and she had been hustling all night. And she had sores on her body, and she was just in a state, drugs.
“So something said to me, ‘Ask her, “Where does it hurt?”
“And I said, ‘Shelly, where does it hurt?’ And just that simple question unleashed territory in her that she had never shared with her mother.”
Such an honest, open question given to her by “something” that we might call Spirit, opened Ruby to the reality of the person before her, this equally essential child of God. As Shelly shared the source of her pain, a relationship was forged, not only between Ruby and Shelly but also between Ruby and God. Ruby was reminded of her foundation in God and guided to pursue a way to do her work not as a Marxist but as a public theologian. In a moment of intimate relationship, Ruby went back and gave thanks to God maybe not in so many words, but her life work became about fighting to maintain this intimacy in relations, being able to look at matters straight on and ask, “Where does it hurt?” In the midst of this relationship-forging and soul-sharing, God shows up, and despite the pain, healing begins.
In nearly every conversation I’ve had in the past week, whether it’s been asked directly or offered willingly, people are sharing where they hurt. The images we see, the rhetoric we hear, the experiences we are having are chipping away at our resolve to be people of faith, people in relationship with one another and with God. It is so much easier to close our eyes to that which offends us, close our ears to that which assault us, close our minds to that which challenges us, and close our hearts to that which pains us. Perhaps like me you get caught in those moments where your heart physically hurts. Even as an enduring people who remember Jesus Christ, we are tired, and we are hurting. We may not have leprosy, but we know that we are sick, that we need Jesus’s mercy now more than ever, that we have no part of the kingdom of God without God’s grace, our only hope of salvation.
Getting to the kingdom looks like it’s a long way from here, looks pretty impossible, actually, but Jesus has shown us that it doesn’t matter who we are–black, white, or brown, native or foreigner–our faith makes us well.
Our faith saves us. Our faith makes us whole.
Our faith that says when we are baptized and die to ourselves, we live life in Christ; that when we endure all manner of suffering, we reign with Christ; that no matter how faithless we are, God remains faithful to us because God cannot deny God’s self. Our being in relationship with God depends on us, on our faith.
I tell my kids when they don’t want me to go somewhere or when they were younger and didn’t want me to leave them alone at night, that I am never separated from them because our heartstrings are connected. I would place one hand over my heart and my other hand over their chest, and they would almost always lay their hands over mine, holding me close. So when my heart hurts over images I see, over the discourse I hear, over the suffering of family, friends, and neighbors near and far, I imagine my heartstring to God being pulled, being strained. Even in the pain, I’m grateful that I still feel this connection to God in my care and love of others. I know that I can invite God into this pain to give me strength, to strengthen my hope and faith. But perhaps our heartstrings can be pulled so much and so often that they become numbed, that we forget we are connected to God from the beginning. Perhaps we can lose our foundation or close ourselves off in isolation, being turned away from God.
When we ask, “Where does it hurt?” we are asking so many things.
Where are our relationships strained or broken with ourselves, with others, and with God? When were we told that we aren’t essential? When was the accessibility of God taken away from us? When were we told that we aren’t valuable, that we aren’t beloved? These are incredibly powerful questions, and answering them honestly makes us vulnerable and weak . . . and yet creates space for God to restore us to wholeness, to restore and strengthen our heartstrings–our relationship–because God is reminding us that God’s still here, has always been here: won’t we just turn toward God, perceive God’s power at work in our lives, offer our thanks and praise, and get on with the work God needs us to do?
God already knows our hurt, feels our pain, and has already laid out the path to our health and salvation. As we are restored to wholeness and affirm the great power of God, we testify to others how our salvation is already accomplished. It’s not cheap grace or easy love. Jonathan Daniels saw what was hurting in our society and was determined to show up in a place that needed a witness of God’s love. Two months before his death, Daniels wrote, “I lost fear … when I began to know in my bones and sinews that I have truly been baptized into the Lord’s death and resurrection, that in the only sense that really matters I am already dead, and my life is hid with Christ in God.” Such is the union of a saint with God and the life of one burning fiercely with compassion for others. Ruby Sales took for granted her foundation in God’s love but witnessed the power of that Love when extending it to others. In asking and answering a simple question that touches on our pain, we open ourselves to receive God’s mercy in our weakness. No matter how undeserving we think we are or how unessential society has marked us to be, salvation in Christ is offered to all who endure with Him and glorify God.
We may not have grown up in black folk religion, The Episcopal Church, or any religion or church at all. But if we are here today, we are plunging into relationship with Christ, because if there’s something we are good at in this place, it is in remembering Jesus Christ and giving thanks and praise to God. We open our ears to hear God’s Word, we open our hearts to forgiveness, we open our mouths to proclaim, and we open our hands to receive. In all this we affirm our lives rooted in God, centered in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and we give our thanks. We have the security of our relationships with one another in Christ to share where we hurt and to see the way forward with hope through God’s grace, through Love, our heartstrings firmly connected.
* Krista Tippett’s interviews with folks have a way of speaking to what is true in so many aspects of our lives. I am grateful for this podcast that captures not only Sales’ experience but also the questions of other public theologians. http://www.onbeing.org/program/ruby-sales-where-does-it-hurt/8931