How The Light Gets In

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In 1977, my friend Caroline and I made a pact. We were coming home from Pittsfield after having seen “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Driving down Route 183 by Gould Meadows overlooking Stockbridge Bowl, a full moon shone on the white and frigid earth. Everything was crystal clear. A perfect place to see a UFO!

We agreed then and there that if either of us ever told the other we had seen a UFO or met an alien, we would believe each other.

Perhaps Mary Magdalene, who seems to have understood Jesus’s message better than the male disciples, should have made a similar pact with them.

There are so many concepts to ponder in today’s Gospel, and for me, the least of them is Thomas.

Poor Thomas, whose name has come down through the centuries to be synonymous with “doubt.” Derivation of doubt? In fact, most of the disciples were doubters at that point.

A week before, with Thomas absent, they were living behind locked doors. Jesus appeared to them, they rejoiced, then said good-bye and re-locked the doors. Hmmmm.

There is also the question of why, when Mary saw him, Jesus told her not to touch him because he was in an in-between state of life and death. Yet when he appeared to those in the locked room, he invited them all to touch him.

Each of the Gospels has different versions of Jesus’s post-Resurrection, pre-Ascension appearances to the disciples, and you can find quite a lot written on whether these were dreams, or visions, or hallucinations.

Regardless, John’s is the Gospel in which everything is a metaphor for something else. So for me, the locked doors and the image of seeing Jesus’s wounds are what John wants us to focus on here, and they are closely related.

They are also crucial to our own responses both to Jesus and to the world we live in.

Have you ever seen a horror movie where the heroine couldn’t get out of the house because, in her panic, she couldn’t unlock the door. When you lock your door at night, it’s so that no one can enter. But what if the thing you fear is already in the house?

When we lock a door, we also lock ourselves in.

When we lock our minds, we lock out knowledge that might be helpful. When we close our consciousness to realities we don’t want to deal with, when we are fearful and won’t let ourselves admit to that which scares us, we keep that fear locked inside. The realities are there no matter what.

The Good News is that Jesus can break through the locks and bolts and closed minds and let in the light of understanding, of comfort, of guidance, of reassurance. If we let Him.

The Rev. Michael March, an Episcopal priest from Texas, points out on his blog the irony that while Jesus’s tomb was empty, the disciples had created their own tomb in which they had interred themselves. But Jesus found a way in anyway; Mr. March called it “eastering in us” and every year we have this most wonderful reminder that Jesus can break through any barrier.

For the disciples, this took place just one week after the Resurrection. We are now just one week after Easter. Are we different from the disciples? Are our lives perceptibly changed? Or have our minds and hearts gone back on lockdown?

Here’s where Jesus’s wounds come in.

During Lent, those who participated in the gatherings at Crissy Farm watched a short video of a TED talk by Brene Brown, in which she suggested that faith depends upon vulnerability.

She didn’t say it, but the word “vulnerable” comes from Latin roots meaning the capacity to be wounded. In no other instance do we make ourselves more vulnerable than when we dare to show our wounds.

Jesus the Christ is the ultimate archetype of vulnerability. First, he became human. Second, he came as a homeless baby. Third, he spoke truth to power in a dangerous age. Fourth, he willingly accepted a painful, horrifying death. Fifth, He loved us all the while and loves us still.

Inviting someone to touch a wound is an extremely intimate and vulnerable act. Do we allow ourselves to be that vulnerable? Do we allow ourselves to be fully human? Do we allow our spiritual or emotional wounds to show, or do we put on a stoic face and act as if we have everything together?

If we saw someone walking around with a physical wound, wouldn’t we take that person to the ER or get gauze and bandages? What about all the people, including ourselves, walking around with psychic wounds; how do we help them?

Why should we show our wounds? What’s the point in that?

Well, John’s Gospel today answers that. Jesus showing His wounds is how the light got in to the disciples’ minds. Jesus is also showing us that showing our wounds is how we let Him in so that we can advance to full Easter life and bring His message out into a broken Good Friday world.

Leonard Cohen knew it. He said it in the refrain to his song “Anthem”: “Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack, a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”

We have many examples of people who were given what I believe was divine strength to use the cracks in their own worlds to bring light to the world. From Mamie Till-Mobley insisting that her son Emmett’s casket be opened so that people could see what Jim Crow really meant to Twelve-Step groups where people share their “experience, strength and hope” right up to Margery Stoneman Douglas students using their grief to spark a worldwide movement  to call a halt to the proliferation of military-style weapons that can murder 17 people in a few minutes.

From #BlackLives Matter to #MeToo to #NeverAgain, young people are making themselves vulnerable in the public square, risking insults, slurs and even death threats to shine a spotlight on the injustices of our society.

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it,” said the Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston. She knew a lot about pain.

We’ll turn, though, to James’s letter for the last word. He says that “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another.”

In that fellowship with God is the sanctification of our own wounds that gives us the strength to bring Jesus’s light to others. So “forget your perfect offering”  and “ring the bells that still can ring.” “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

Amen.

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THE LYNCHING OF EMMETT TILL

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emmett tillThe story of the lynching in 1955 of Emmett Till is both the easiest and the hardest to tell. Easy because so much has been written about it. Hard because it is so absolutely incomprehensible, so tragic, and so heart-breaking. The following comes mainly from two documentaries and Death of Innocence by his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, though you cannot read a book about lynching, racism or racial violence without coming upon Emmett’s story.

Emmett Till was 14 years old when he was lynched in Money, Mississippi. He did not grow up in the South. He was raised in Argo, a black community outside Chicago where everyone knew him; indeed everyone was pretty much related to him. Though he suffered from polio as a child, he was well taken care of and survived to grow into a confident young man. Perhaps he had more responsibilities than a lot of children; he helped his single mother do the grocery shopping, cook, clean their Chicago apartment. His mother, Mamie Bradley at the time, was self-admittedly somewhat of a child herself. Her authoritarian mother had dominated her life, and Mamie had grown used to turning to her for most things. This would change in August 1955

Mamie’s first husband, Louis Till, was killed in World War II, not in action, but by the military; more about this later. She divorced her second husband, with whom she lived in Detroit while Emmett stayed behind with his grandmother. She became more independent after that, moving into Chicago proper and securing a responsible government job, but she also began to rely on Emmett’s help more and more.

When the question of Emmett going to visit his great-uncle Mose Wright in MIssissippi came up, Mamie was fearful. She made sure to caution Emmett about what life was still like in the South, where blacks were expected to move off the sidewalk if a white person was advancing toward them, to say “Yes, sir,” and “No, sir,” and never to contradict or touch a white person, never even to look a white person in the eyes. As a parting present, she gave Emmett a ring of his father’s.

Emmett and a cousin traveled by train to their great-uncle’s cabin. Mose was a sharecropper and also known as “Preacher.” His cabin was isolated. Emmett, by all accounts, started the summer visit with all the anticipation of fun and adventure that 14-year-old boys have. He helped in the cotton fields, he went swimming and fishing, he got into scrapes when his cousins and he took Mose’s car to ride around.

One Wednesday evening, the boys took the car to go to the Bryant store, the only place for miles around where you could get candy or soda. The owner, Roy Bryant, was out of town and his young wife Carolyn was minding the store. There are different accounts of what happened next. In some way, Emmett offended Mrs. Bryant, either by touching her hand when he gave her his money (he should have just put it on the counter) or by intentionally whistling at her or even perhaps by whistling unintentionally (the polio had left him with a stutter and his mother had taught him to whistle before he spoke as a way of relaxing his mouth muscles).

Mrs. Bryant went out to her car and got a gun. The boys skedaddled. They did not tell their uncle what had happened, and Mrs. Bryant did not tell her husband until a few days later because the incident had somehow become public knowledge.

That Saturday evening Bryant and his cousin, JW Milam, went to Mose’s cabin. He testified that they knocked on the door in the middle of the night shouting for the “boy from Chicago” to come out. When he turned on the porch light, he saw guns in their hands. He also saw a third person in the shadows. They entered the cabin and found Emmett in bed and told him to get up and come with them. They took him out to their truck, from which Uncle Mose heard a woman’s voice say, “That’s him.” They put him in the truck and no one ever saw Emmett alive again.

Several days later his body was found in the Tallahatchie River, a cotton gin fan secured by barbed wire around his neck and his face unrecognizable. Though Sheriff HC Strider later testified that there was no way to even tell whether this was a white body or a black body, he immediately called the black funeral director. No autopsy was performed. The body was placed in a sealed casket and shipped to Chicago. The seal of the state of Mississippi said that the casket was not to be opened.
Against the advice and fears of the funeral home in Chicago, Mamie insisted that the casket be opened. And then she spent a horrifying time looking over every inch of Emmett’s naked body. Here’s what she saw: Emmett’s tongue was lolling outside his mouth as if it had been partially cut. One of Emmett’s eyes was missing and the other was lying on his cheek. Emmett’s nose and the top of his head had been cleaved. There was a bullet wound behind his ear. And his father’s ring was on his finger.

Somehow, Mamie Bradley found the strength to demand that Emmett be placed in a coffin with a glass lid so that the world could see what had happened to him. And the world did see. Pictures of his battered body were taken. Thousands of people filed by his coffin before the burial. The story was picked up around the world. Surely justice would be done.

After a travesty of a trial, Bryan and Milam were acquitted. Mose and Willie Reed and others who testified for the prosecution had to leave their homes and move north. A smear campaign directed at Emmett’s family came out, including the fact that Louis Till had been executed by his own side in the war. With no foundation, it was written in newspapers that his offense had been rape. Former fellow soldiers contacted Mamie and told her that Louis had been executed on a trumped-up charge, another lynching.

Not even a year after the trial, journalist William Howard Huie interviewed Milam and Bryant and extracted their confession to the lynching, though they could not now be prosecuted. Indeed, they seemed eager to confess publicly, possibly because the way they told it made 14-year-old Emmett seem like a sexual predator. The confession was published in Life magazine. Milam and Bryant claimed that Emmett had invited Carolyn Bryant to have sex, telling her that he had “had” plenty of white women in Chicago. Their intention, Bryant and Milam said, had been simply to scare him, but the more they beat him, the more defiant he became.

No one will ever know for sure what Emmett’s perceived provocation was. It doesn’t really matter. What happened to him is beyond justification. Though two men who worked to register blacks to vote in Mississippi, the Reverend George Lee and Lamar Smith, had been murdered not long before Emmett’s visit, it was his death that brought the eyes of the world to bear on racial violence in the United States. Emmett has passed into the collective conscience of all those who abhor and fight against the evil of racism, and even people who don’t know his story know his name. One would have thought that this could never happen to a child again, until in the next century Trayvon Martin happened to be walking home to his father’s condo while George Zimmerman was on the prowl.