“Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth” (Lk 21:25)
As the week ended, we began to hear about a new Corona virus variant of concern being flagged by scientists in South Africa. For a moment, the thought raced through my mind: “Is this then, how inexorably, the human population is decimated, how we face into the end? A virus so wily and strong that it outruns us once and always?” I quickly dismissed my overly dramatic notion but I would lie if I said it didn’t leave a lingering sense of uneasiness.
Then, it was time to start working on my sermon and for the third week, the Gospel reading was all about apocalyptic times. In a space that already feels so apocalyptic, the notion that there are signs all around us to read and understand about how it is that the Kingdom of God is ushered in with finality, was also deeply unsettling. Am I staying alert enough? Am I watching for signs with eyes of love? As so much feels broken, even shattered, beyond repair, can I truly put my trust in the assurance that cataclysmic events are “but the beginning of birth pangs” as God does something new? I kept looking for a ‘handle,’ an entry point that would allow me to find what I can only describe as the beating, life-giving heart of the Gospel passage for the week. I had a few glimmers of what that might be but nothing to build with. I’ve learned to trust (at least up to a point) that I will be led where I need to go for a Sunday sermon, even if that doesn’t happen as fast as I’d like.
With all that a faint, persistent hum inside me, I got up Saturday and made sure I was wearing clericals before I headed into Montgomery for a busy morning. On the 21st of this month, Ms. Helen Louise Miles died. Ms. Helen had worked in the kitchen of Jeff Davis High School in Montgomery during the week for decades. And for over 30 years, she cooked breakfast on Sunday mornings for the people of Holy Comforter. I never met her–she’d moved to Georgia long before I came to Montgomery, but had heard a tiny little bit about her. When I shared with the parish that she had died earlier on the 21st., what I can only describe as a tremulous sigh went up from the nave. Ms. Helen hadn’t only served the parish well for all those years. She had been love, light, and life to many, many, many folks.
I would not be able to attend the funeral but there was going to be a visitation and viewing before the service. I needed to pay my respects on behalf of the parish. I punched in the address to the funeral home and headed there, wondering if the street was one I’d heard about on the news a few weeks earlier. Getting close, I had to turn off Day St. on Hill St. At the first stop sign, I would need to turn left onto Jeff Davis Ave. When I got to the second street that intersected with Hill, my GPS announced it was time to get on Jeff Davis. As I turned, I looked up long enough up to see one of those innocuous green street signs we all know so well. Except it was no longer Jeff Davis Ave. It was Fred Grey Ave. Last month, the street was renamed in honor of the civil rights attorney who grew up on that very street and represented Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. The change was not—still is not—without controversy. You can read about that here.
I stopped the car and looked up again, with goose bumps all over, tears in my eyes. I had seen a segment on the local evening news about this change, had been moved that the change was approved by White folks as well as Black on the Montgomery City Council. I drove on to the funeral home, stepped into the chapel and stood before Ms. Helen’s open casket to pray. Ms. Helen, now a thin, tiny dried leaf of a self, was ready to fly away, but before she did, this place of her last repose was on a street that now remembered, not the president of the Confederacy but a man who fought for the rights of people like her.
Right there. On the corner of two streets in a tucked away and off the beaten path kind of place in Montgomery, I was invited into the Gospel. Jesus said, “There will be signs…Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” God knows—race relations, civil rights, violence, so much is achingly wrong in this city where I serve as a priest. The resistance to a small change like this one is still mean and ferocious. There is still so, so much not yet reconciled or redeemed. But even so. Here. Now. On the most ordinary looking of street signs there it was. A sign. An Advent glimpse of God’s Kingdom breaking in. We must stand up. Raise our heads. See. Redemption is drawing near.