The sermon for week April 01, 2012
Buyer’s Remorse Mark 11:1-11
April 1, 2012
The Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, thought they had called the “perfect” minister in 1947.
This young male pastor had a wife and family. He was college educated. His wife, also college-educated, was recently hired on as a music professor at Alabama State. He was considered one of the top preachers of his day. On paper, he seemed like the perfect catch.
The members of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church were solely looking just requirements, thinking only of how it would look to land a pastor of this caliber for their rather affluent African-American church.
So they called this pastor whose name was Vernon Johns. He was indeed considered one of the three great black preachers of his time, along with Mordecai Johnson and Howard Thurman.
The members of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church were blinded by Vernon Johns’ accomplishments and could not see him for what he was. Instead they only saw their expectations: a pastor who could preach, who could teach, and who would make the church more respectable all on his own. He alone could save them. He alone could solve all their problems. He alone could make the white community respect blacks living in the Deep South in the 40s.
Johns was never about such things, nor could any one person do all these things. Instead he began, in the words of a council elder at the time, to start trouble, both within the congregation and within the city of Montgomery. Buyer’s remorse set in for the church.
For example, one Sunday Dr. H. Councill Trenholm, president of Alabama State College, the largest employer of Montgomery blacks generally and of Dexter members in particular and a big supporter of the church, came late to church. Johns growled from the pulpit, "I want to pause here in the service until Dr. Trenholm can get himself seated here on his semi-annual visit to the church." Trenholm never returned to the church again while Johns was in Montgomery.
Johns called for a boycott of the racist Montgomery bus system. He went into segregated diners and ordered food. In the spring of 1949, Montgomery had a series of murders. In one instance, a white man on his porch saw a black man running down the street. The white man went in to get his double-barreled shotgun. He shot the black man dead. The killer's explanation: "If he was running, he must have done something."
The black leadership in the community grumbled behind closed doors, but no public protest was voiced . . . with one exception. The following week Johns posted his sermon title on the church bulletin board: “It is safe to kill Negroes in Montgomery." We might see such a sign in Florida in our day with the Trayvon Martin case.
This brought Johns into court on the count of trying to incite a riot. When the judge asked Johns why he would want to preach such an inflammatory sermon dealing with the murder of one race by another he responded, "Well, judge, the truth is always inflammatory. Everywhere I go in the South the Negro is forced to choose between his hide and his soul. Mostly he chooses his hide. I'm going to tell him that his hide is not worth it."
Johns said things that were uncomfortable to hear. He railed against the racists. He was hard on white liberals saying that they were so busy trying to distance themselves from the racists, they didn’t focus on helping or critiquing the black community. He called them cowards. He yelled at his own black community for being too insular, not being educated enough, and for trying to be respectable.
To top it all off, Johns didn’t act or look much like how a pastor is supposedly supposed to act and look. He frequently cussed. When a bus driver asked him to move to the back of the bus repeatedly and asked, “You heard me right, boy?” Johns roared back at the driver, “Apparently you aren’t getting the message that I’m sitting right here and I have no intention of moving, dammit!” He cussed from the pulpit on more than a few occasions. He wore over-alls during the week, spotted with paint and mud from working in the flower beds and church gardens. On Sunday, his suits were old and out of style.
It seemed that when the opposition really wanted to get at Johns, it wasn’t so much what he said, it was how and what he was wearing when he said these things that got people really riled up.
Vernon Johns left the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1952. He had alienated many of the members and left almost everyone in Montgomery, white or black, relieved that such a preacher, such a troublemaker was gone.
The next pastor was a younger man with a wife and kids. He was fresh out of seminary, and the church thought him to be a safer choice than Vernon Johns was. This next pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was named Martin Luther King Jr.
Today we celebrate Palm Sunday. For the gospel of Mark, everything has been building to this point. Palm Sunday is like that first hill of a roller coaster. You slowly build up, learning the life, character, and teachings of Jesus. And just as you reach the top of the hill, the fanfare in the streets of Jerusalem, it all comes down way too fast. We go from praise and exaltation to agony and desertion.
Like the story of Vernon Johns, we see a case of buyer’s remorse. “Here’s the teacher we have heard so much about!” the city shouts. “He will save us from the Romans, the corrupt temple, and the burden of living as an oppressed people.” Yet nowhere in the passages does Jesus claim the rights of a king. Perhaps, Jesus did not intend to ignite a celebration, but in the spirit of Mark’s “messianic secret,” enter the town quietly on a gentle, non-confrontational beast of burden. A youthful donkey, not a muscular war horse, bears God’s beloved child. He doesn’t look the part of the conquering king, the promised messiah. It is almost as if Jesus enters the city and the people expect a three-piece suit and a full military procession, and he shows up in mud-spattered over-alls and a rag-tag band of misfits.
Intrigue and conflict are in the air. The religious leaders plot Jesus’ death, and Jesus’ followers condemn a woman’s act of kindness. The Passover celebration is marred by Jesus’ prediction that one of his closest followers will betray him, and in the end, the one who was praised as he entered Jerusalem leaves the city, vanquished, dead, buried, and abandoned, except by a few of the women who were his disciples.
It is easy to shut down emotionally on Palm Sunday. The day is too real, too raw, and too filled with ambiguity. It is frankly too much about our own lives, not only our own personal emotional, relational, and professional roller coasters, but the reality of our own moral and spiritual ambivalence.
We praise, yet forget. We promise loyalty, yet deny the causes that we claim are dear to us. We know the realities of economic injustice, political and military violence, discrimination based on race, gender, and sexual orientation, and the threat of global climate change, but live as if life is going on as usual. We proclaim Jesus as Lord and Savior yet we still live like we have before. Sometimes I believe that proclaiming Jesus as lord and savior revokes our responsibility as disciples, and I wonder if Jesus ever really wanted to make himself a king.
I don’t think he did. He very much refuses that responsibility time and time again and instead forces the responsibility right back on our shoulders. As David said in last week’s sermon, “There is no person apart from you, as when Jesus walked this earth. You are the Jesus people will see. You are the hands of Jesus. You are the feet of Jesus. You are the heart of Jesus. You are the justice of Jesus. You are the forgiveness of Jesus. You are the love of Jesus for each other and the world.”
The responsibility is ours. We cannot shrug it off, or wait for Jesus to come again and fix all the problems we have made. We have made the problems, we should be able to fix them. We cannot sit idly by and let the effects of poverty, racism, homophobia, and other social ills continue to ravage our culture and communities. As Christians it is our duty to stand out and speak the inflammatory truth that these are wrong! That an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere!
From the crowds lining the street on Palm Sunday to welcome Jesus, to the congregants of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church calling Vernon Johns, they all wanted someone who would solve their problems for them without them having to lift a finger. Instead, Jesus and John clearly state that the responsibility is theirs. And it is ours. In Mark, Jesus’ message is never about himself. Not about his identity as Messiah, son of God, God incarnate, although Mark affirms each of those things, they aren’t the point. The point is that YOU HAVE THE RESPONSIBILITY and the power is granted to you by Jesus to act on God’s behalf.
Why is it that we can’t seem to follow Jesus or a person like Vernon Johns? Instead we find it easier to follow Peter or Paul or Martin Luther King Jr— and I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it’s because we’ve already heard the material and we’ve had time to adjust to the radical message. Maybe Peter, Paul, and King watered-down the message a little bit, made it more tolerable. Maybe Jesus and Vernon Johns were just lousy at marketing. I don’t like these considerations, and I struggle with them often in my faith.
If anything, maybe johns was too fiery... too in-your-face... too over-the-top… Same with Jesus. To teach what they taught, to act as they have acted, to do what they have done, I stand in awe.
Palm Sunday leaves us in suspense. Does the story end at the cross? Will it be the tragedy of another good person, slain too early by the powers of evil and our own spiritual fickleness? Or, will there be an empty tomb, an open future, and a horizon of hope? Will there be a second chance? And the biggest question of all is, when will we cowards finally get the message and take the responsibility that was ours all along? Amen.