Living in a Holy Week World

March 27, 2013

A Sermon Preached by Kristin White
Palm Sunday – March 24, 2013
St. Augustine's Episcopal Church, Wilmette, Illinois

These are the rules if you are a student at Harper High School, in Englewood on Chicago's south side:

  • Rule Number One: Know the geography. And not in the way you might expect a high school student to have to study – with continents and oceans. The young folks here don't join gangs and get initiated; they are incorporated into gangs because of where they live, block by block. In the two square miles of neighborhood included in Harper's attendance area, there are more than 15 gangs. They don't all even have leaders; but they do all have guns. So the first skill a kid here needs to learn is how to read a map, and follow it.
  • Rule Number Two: Never walk by yourself. Seems understandable, given the vulnerability of being alone...but this rule is complicated by –
  • Rule Number Three: (which is) Never walk with somebody else. Walking with someone else highlights your affiliation. And highlighting your affiliation makes you more of a target for somebody with a gun.
  • Rule Number Four: Stay off the sidewalk. A Harper student named Alex explained to her teacher: "We feel safer like this...we never like to walk past trees and stuff, there's just too much stuff going on." "Stuff" translates to the fighting and the shooting. Instead, after the last bell at the end of the day, students leave school and walk right down the middle of the street, where they can have a clearer view – a little more time to get out of the way if they need to.
  • Rule Number Five: If someone shoots, don't run. One member of the Harper High football team, also one of the best running backs in the city of Chicago, doesn't use those skills when (when) he hears gunshots. Instead, he drops to the ground. When he hears shots, he falls to the ground.
  • Rule Number Six: You can be shot for lots of different reasons, or for none. Those reasons might include: girls; money; losing a fight; embarrassing someone, intentionally or not; ignoring Rule #1 by walking off your block; retaliation...or sometimes, you can get shot for no reason at all.
  • Rule Number Seven: Don't ever go outside. Kids' advice about staying alive here is this – "Stay away from your block as long as possible, every day. Get involved in something at school so you can stay as late as they let you. When you do go home, don't leave the house. Don't even go on the porch." (Note: These rules, and much of the remaining content of this sermon, taken from an amazing two-episode series of the NPR radio program This American Life, originally broadcast February 15 and February 22, 2013. You’ll find the transcript here: It’s worth two hours of your life to listen. I hope it changes your life. It changed mine. )

I listened to the rebroadcast of the Harper High series from This American Life radio program last Thursday in the same way I experience this Palm and Passion Sunday liturgy: Wincing. Cringing. Wanting to hold a hand up to block the view, because it's too much. And it is. It is entirely too much.

I want it to be different. I want Judas to change his mind and stay at the table...or even to stop at the edge of the garden and give back those thirty pieces of silver instead of going through with his betrayal. I want Peter to say: "Yes." "Yes, I know the man." "Yes. His name is Jesus Christ, and he is my teacher and my leader and my friend." I want Pilate to keep the murderer in custody and let Jesus go free. I want Jesus not to have to carry that heaviness out to the hill, not to fall down under its weight. I want him not to be nailed to that cross and left to hang, alone and abandoned.

And I want the kids at Harper High and everyplace else in Chicago and beyond Chicago to have different rules to live by – rules that assume they will be safe. I want them to be able to trust that they can walk: without having to walk in groups but not in groups, without having to leave the sidewalk, without worrying about the block-by-block geography of their path. I want their Homecoming Dance to be the awkward and embarrassing and sweet rite of passage that it was for me, and probably many of you, instead of being seen by administrators and police as a liability for retaliation over a shooting two days before. When a teacher asks a student about his summer break, I want him to say that it was "fun," or even "boring," instead of having to reply as one Harper student, who said: "Safe. My summer was safe." I want the principal to be able to kick off the school year with an assembly that doesn't necessitate a moment of silence and prayer for those teenage boys and girls to remember their classmates shot and killed the year before: Marcus Nunn. Cedric Bell. Shakaki Asphy.

My friend the Rev. Elizabeth Molitors says that we are Easter people, but we live in a Holy Week world. And the stark reality of that truth is made manifest in a high school that is a short 29.5 miles away from where we are, right now.

And so we walk this Holy Week journey, these seven days to the cross and to beyond the cross. We carry our prayers, and our hopes. We carry our dead.

The CROSSwalk that continued for a second year last Friday continues beyond just that day. It continues in the work we will do to end the siege of Good Fridays that too many families, too many neighborhoods, too many high schools, too many cities know.

God gives us good work to do, blesses us with the resources and the capacity and the will to do it. May we walk these seven days, continue this journey together. May we walk this way of the cross and beyond the cross – all the while proclaiming God's promise of resurrection.