As a boy, John took care of the chickens. He fed and watered them, gave them shelter, and even preached to them. They were a faithful congregation and grew to trust in his care. Others later trusted him as he became a man and dedicated his life to the service of others.
Today, on this Sabbath day in his Christian tradition, John’s casket was ceremoniously carried across a bridge once named for a former KKK leader. On that same bridge on another Sunday just fifty-five years ago, John’s black body had been beaten by police in response to a peaceful protest for equal voting rights. Even though it had been a hundred years since the end of the Civil War, the ideal of everyone being endowed by their Creator to have rights such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness still seemed like a threat to some. At least it did in 1965.
The lessons that you learn on the farm stay with you though. And in Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis, we are told that there was a time when one of his chickens fell into the well. This would be considered an unfortunate incident by any farmer. All who live on the land know and accept the rhythm of joy and sorrow, life and death. But John knew this chicken. Her name was Big Belle. As a part of his flock, she was his responsibility. And he knew from the teachings of Jesus that when there is one for whom we care that is threatened, there is no time but now to bring liberation.
Even though she was stuck and scared out of her wits, I imagine him gently calling her name as a basket of breadcrumbs was lowered down the well. Knowing his voice, she climbed in and was pulled up by him to safety.
Today, on this Sunday, the world watched a horse-drawn caisson carry John Lewis across that bridge one last time. If we listen closely, we may hear the voice that is calling his name and saying, “Well done.” It is the voice of one who knew the consequences of preaching a message of love that feels threatening to some and ridiculous to others. It is the voice of one whose timing for helping others was criticized because he healed on the Sabbath.
On this holy day, when our brother John is laid to rest, may we truly recognize the Sabbath invitation that Jesus embodied and God offers us every week. It is an invitation to see all that God has made as “very good” and to delight together in the beauty and harmony of what we can become as a beloved community even where chaos has once existed. With that Sabbath lens we may hear more clearly the cries of those stuck at the bottom of the well. We may also find our own voice so that we might cry out and be heard.
Brother Lewis, thank you for hearing the cries and using your voice for others. Thank you for caring and for showing us that there is no time but now to bring liberation. Well done.