(Text: The Road to Emmaus, Luke 24:13-35)
I’m so grateful to be here today on April 3rd—a very symbolic day. It’s not only my husband Andrew’s birthday and the day James Cone is speaking at VDS, but it’s also the Wednesday after the resurrection and the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have been to the mountaintop” speech which he delivered 200 miles West of Nashville in Memphis on the eve of his assassination.
I was asked to preach today on Christian social witness—on advocacy and activism as witness—and to do this, I want to put my experiences in conversation with the Road to Emmaus passage and King’s last speech.
So let me ask: what comes to your mind when you hear the word “advocacy?” What comes to mind when you hear “activism”? What about “witness?” When was the last time you, like Cleopas and his companion, felt your heart burning within you? When was the last time you, like Thomas Merton, felt like all your silence was on fire?
What if advocacy and activism were more than being “a voice for the voiceless,” more than carrying signs and shouting chants? What if they were invitations for us to participate in the kingdom of God—the beloved community—on earth, for our eyes to be opened, and for us to meet and suffer with and be transformed by the risen Christ? Where are our Roads to Emmaus today? Where are the unexpected encounters that open our eyes and change our lives? I’ve found myself on the Road to Emmaus when working in Nashville’s former Tent City.
I was introduced to Tent City in the fall of 2008 when I was working as a homeless outreach worker. It was the place for all the people who didn’t fit into society’s boxes. They were the discarded ones who didn’t meet criteria, the couples and pet owners who couldn’t stay at the Mission, the people who had been kicked out of everywhere else. Shortly after I began working with the camp, Metro announced that they were going to bulldoze it. To make a long story short, we launched a campaign to keep the camp open and, to our surprise, Mayor Dean gave Tent City a reprieve.
Now, in this story, I am wary of painting Tent City as some utopian community—it most certainly was not. It was, too often, a violent place where people were beaten and stabbed, where drugs, alcohol, and pit-bull breeding reigned, and where the carcasses of dead rats rotted. It was also, however, the place where I saw more hospitality, community, and self-sacrifice than I’ve seen in many of our churches. Yes, the footpath to Tent City was one of my “Roads to Emmaus” where I met and journeyed with the living Christ and didn’t realize it until later.
You see, while I was doing full-time homeless outreach, my coworkers and I often worked with incredibly vulnerable people who couldn’t access the resources they needed because they didn’t “meet criteria.” These were truly the poorest of the poor and sickest of the sick. The first of three such pariahs was the elderly, uninsured man with Alzheimer’s who forgot who and where he was multiple times a day. The second was the paranoid and gnomish 54-year-old who had the mental capacity of a child… he wasn’t “sick” or “violent” enough for a state hospital and wasn’t “well” enough for other services. The third was the feeble, nearly blind, and disabled man who was told he was a “fire hazard” by the only shelter in town that almost accepted him.
We spent countless hours with each of these men trying to get them the help that they desperately needed, and were turned down by every service provider in Nashville. We were frustrated, burnt out, and utterly sick at the subtle violence of a system that cannot grasp mercy because the barriers of “criteria” and “policy” have grown too thick, too high.
Each time, after we failed to locate resources, the only place we found hospitality was in the margins—specifically in Tent City. Residents of Tent City offered to make space in their camp for each of these men. Two residents even said of the 54-year-old, “He can stay in our ‘hospital wing’ and we’ll make sure he’s safe. We can share our food stamps with him and since church groups come to feed all the time, he’ll be okay.” Indeed, they had a hospital wing in their camp where they once cared for a man who was uninsured and had a broken neck and two broken arms. Other residents of Tent City cared for the man with Alzheimer’s when no one else in our city would.
Even though I was the one who set out to help and heal through my advocacy, it was the witness and hospitality of the residents of Tent City that helped, healed, and challenged me. I was the advocate and activist who helped them save their camp, but they were the ones offering me a glimpse of what the beloved community could look like on earth.
Activism: Occupy and Beyond
So advocating with and caring for the poor and disinherited as the Good Samaritan and the residents from Tent City did is essential. It is so so important. But if we fail to address why so many people are poor and disinherited in the first place, we acquiesce to and participate in their oppression.
In other words, in order to radically love our neighbors, we have to go further than advocacy. As King says, “a religion true to its nature must be…concerned about humanity’s social conditions… with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them.”
And this is where activism comes in. Think about what happened to the disciples on the Road to Emmaus. They were convinced that the person of Jesus was dead and gone and they couldn’t see the bigger picture. They were blind to it until Jesus, in the guise of a stranger, came on the scene and opened their eyes.
And I wonder who and what is helping to open our eyes to the bigger social, political, and economic picture of what is going on in our society today. Could it be that activists and social movements are playing this role? Could the Occupy movement have helped to open our eyes to the increasing power of the 1% and the incredibly destructive effects they have on the 99%? I certainly found myself on the Road to Emmaus when participating in Occupy Nashville. Could groups like Workers’ Dignity, OUR Vanderbilt, and the Student-Farmworker Alliance help us to see that wage theft and the mistreatment of workers is going on right under our noses? Could protesters who are decrying mass incarceration and “stop and frisk” policies be pointing us to the reality that racism is still alive and well in America? Could LGBTQI activists who are pointing out how “marriage equality” still marginalizes queer people of color and trans and genderqueer people be pushing us to continually view history from the underside?
Could activists who are calling for a more just society and putting their bodies on the line to face arrest, pepper spray, job loss, police brutality, and even death be the ones who are helping us to wake up and realize how much work is to be done before the beloved community is realized? Could they be like the stranger on the Road to Emmaus who was going to journey on before the disciples urged him to come in?
I want to suggest that King’s mountaintop speech is also really about his Road to Emmaus. I want to suggest that through his activism and advocacy, his willingness to face arrest, sit in jail, and risk his life, and his willingness to call out an economic system that produces beggars, he found the risen Christ, he experienced a glimpse of the beloved community, and he could say, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
You see, the tremendous suffering in our society, the Road to Emmaus story, and the witness of King call us all to closer proximity to the poor, suffering, and marginalized. They call us to set out on the dusty road, to get our hands dirty, to risk our comfort, to enter into the very suffering we often insulate ourselves from, and to look for the risen Christ in the places and people our society has written off.
Some of the last words of King were directed toward ministers and others who were actively working for justice. On the eve of his assassination, he offered words that speak powerfully to this group of VDS students, faculty, and staff today. Hear the words of King from this extended quote: “We need all of you,” he said. “And you know what’s beautiful to me, is to see all of these ministers of the Gospel. It’s a marvelous picture. Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, and say, ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream…’”
“It’s alright to talk about ‘long white robes over yonder,’ in all its symbolism. But ultimately, people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s alright to talk about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey,’ but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and [the] children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s alright to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do…”
And “We aren’t going to let any mace stop us. We are masters in our nonviolent movement in disarming police forces; they don’t know what to do. I’ve seen them so often. I remember in Birmingham…when we were in the majestic struggle there [and] we would move out… by the hundreds… And Bull Connor would tell them to send the dogs forth and they did come; but we just went before the dogs singing. Bull Connor next would say, ‘Turn the fire hoses on.’ And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the transphysics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out.”
So let us cultivate a kind of fire here that no water can put out. Let us nurture a kind of dangerous unselfishness. Let us fan the flames of hope and resistance. Let us enter into the suffering of the poor and the disinherited. Let us journey beside the stranger and open our eyes to seeing the risen Lord in the most unorthodox people and places. And let us gather the courage not only to put our bodies on the line but to also sit still when all our silence is on fire. Amen.