When he got up to speak at the lectern in the hotel conference room in Memphis, he was introduced as the “leading light” of the movement. At the time, he was 19-years-old, a student at a community college in Florida. Although he was the youngest person in the room, he was already the host of his own radio show. He had created a website to introduce children to the movement.
The movement was everything to him. From childhood, his father taught him what he needed to know. There was clarity. The world was a place of absolutes. Black and white. Right and wrong. Pure and impure. True and False. Us and Them.
Derek Black brought the movement some youthful energy. But he was also cagey: he understood, unlike his father, that there were certain words you could say in public, and some that you couldn’t. Better to speak in code, to send messages under the radar, to work through conventional channels.
As be stepped up to the lectern, this was his message: “The way ahead is through politics. We can infiltrate. We can take our country back.”
Derek Black was one of the leading lights of the white nationalist movement. He’s the son of Don Black, the creator of of a white supremacist website with over 300,000 subscribers.
His godfather—it pains me to say that title in connection with this name—is none other than David Duke.
As white nationalists go, Derek had impeccable credentials. This “leading light” had nowhere to go but up as a leader of the movement to take back the country.
But then he went off to college. At first, no one knew about his past. It was like Derek was leading two lives: the white nationalist Derek keeping in touch with the movement through technology. And then there was college student Derek, studying medieval history, going to parties, eating pizza at 3 a.m. with his friends.
Eventually, his classmates found out about his past. They couldn’t believe that one of the “leading lights” of the white nationalist movement was a student at their school, someone that they actually liked hanging out with.
When they found out, he was done. His friends treated him like a leper. But there was one student who responded in a different way. Matthew Stevenson sent Derek a text: “What are doing Friday night?”
Matthew is an orthodox Jew. When he invited Derek to Shabbat dinner on Friday night, his friends thought he was crazy. Exasperated, they cried out, “Why would you invite a white supremacist, someone who has publicly made anti-Semitic remarks, into your home?”
Derek accepted the invitation and brought a bottle of wine like a good guest. He made polite conversation with the other guests, none of whom brought up the controversy out of respect for Matthew. Mostly, as Matthew remembers it, Derek just listened.
After that first Shabbat observance, Derek was invited back, and he came back, week after week. He seemed interested in the prayers offered over the bread and wine. He clearly enjoyed the company and conversation.
In time, as trust grew between the group, members asked pointed questions of Derek about his past. They listened to his answers, gave him space to share. The conversations often got heated, but everyone stayed around the table.
Then a surprising thing happened: in time, after many Shabbat meals, Derek’s perspective began to change. He started to openly question what he had been taught as a child by his parents and the adults around him.
Tentatively, he wrote social media posts that seemed to suggest that he was changing his mind. And then he finally came out with an unequivocal public statement denouncing the white nationalist movement and his past involvement in it.
Education was and is a big part of Derek’s transformation; but for me, the turning point was the invitation from Matthew Stevenson to break bread on a Friday night, to take part in the prayers welcoming the Sabbath. The breaking of bread broke down fear and dividing walls, and it all started with an invitation: “What are you doing Friday night?” Read Washington Post article.
I wonder how many times Jesus was asked the same question: “Jesus, what are doing Friday night? Can you come over to our home and welcome the Sabbath with us? Will you take part as we bless the bread and wine, sing hymns and pray together? Will you enjoy the food and conversation and listen thoughtfully as we share about our week?”
Jesus spent more time eating with the people around him than anything else. Yes, he taught and preached. He healed people and cast out demons. He went off by himself to pray.
But he spent most of his time eating with people, and I mean everyone: family, friends, disciples, tax collectors, sinners, religious authorities, seekers struggling to have faith, rich and poor alike.
He gathered in the comfort of homes with people like Mary, Martha and Lazarus and fed thousands of strangers in open fields.
On the night before he died, Jesus met with his inner circle for a meal. He was distressed. He could tell that his disciples were fearful—they knew that something big was about to happen.
And so he took bread and blessed it, just like he and his people would have on many a Friday night. He took the cup and blessed it. And he told his friends: when you share in this meal together in the future, do so in remembrance of me.
As profound as this meal must have been, we have to imagine that the disciples quickly forgot about it as their world fell apart. The very next day, the one who fed them was nailed to a cross. He died like a common criminal in a dump on the edge of town.
The world won, God lost. Any questions? That what’s it felt like for Jesus’ disciples. Two of them, Cleopas and another disciple, leave Jerusalem filled with despair. It’s Easter Eve, but they don’t know that it’s Easter yet.
When a stranger meets them on the road to a village called Emmaus and asks them why they have such a long face, they reply: “What, do you live under a rock? Don’t you know what just happened in the city? Our teacher, Jesus: we thought he was the One, the Messiah who would save us. We had hoped he was the one, we had hoped . . .”
We’ve all been on that road paved with despair. We had hoped that God would hear our prayer. We had hoped that we would get that job, that our friend would get better, that this political leader or party would solve our problems, that we would live in a world of peace rather than violence. We had hoped . . .
The stranger stays by their side on the road and begins to explain the Scriptures. The disciples’ hearts begin to burn with faith as this stranger interprets God’s Word. As night begins to fall, they decide to go to an inn for supper and invite the stranger to join them.
As they sit down for dinner, they break bread, and suddenly the disciples recognize that Jesus is sitting with them. He’s been on the road with them the whole time. He is alive, risen from the dead!
Filled with joy and excitement, they run back to Jerusalem, uphill the whole way, risking life and limb on a dangerous road―thieves could be lurking in the shadows. They run back to Jerusalem to a locked safehouse where the 11 disciples huddle in fear, all of them terrified that they’ll meet the same fate as Jesus.
Which brings us to the beginning of the reading you just heard. Cleopas and the other disciple have just shared the good news that Jesus appeared to them as they broke bread and ate together.
As if on cue, Jesus then appears to everyone in that locked room. We wonder if it’s the very same room where Jesus met his friends for their Last Supper.
“Peace be with you,” he declares. I know that you’re fearful. I know that you’re confused. I know that this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, that this mystery is bigger than your minds can comprehend.
It’s me. I’m not a ghost that has come back with rattling chains of unfinished business. I don’t have any scores to settle. I’m not here to judge you for failing to have the courage to stand at the foot of the cross. I won’t hold it against you that you denied even knowing me.
Those wounds are real. You can see the scars right here on my body because the body always tells the truth. The body remembers the suffering and pain we’ve endured.
But the wounds are not why I’m here. I’ve been raised to forgive you. To show you compassion. To share with you the wholeness that can only come from God. Peace be with you.
And not only that: I’m hungry. Share with me a piece of fish. Feed me, and in this meal, recognize me. Remember me and know that I am with you on the road to Emmaus. On Thomasville Road.
On the road to lifegiving work, on the road to a deeper faith, on the road to reconciling with a loved one whom you’ve fought with for way too many years, on the road to giving joyfully rather than out of a sense of obligation, on the road to recovering from depression. I am with you always, especially when you break bread with others.
So, let me close by asking you this question: What are you doing next Sunday night? Matthew Stevenson wondered about Friday night, but I’m asking what you are up to next Sunday evening, April 22?
I’ll hope you’ll join Carol, the boys and me at the Longest Table. For the past few years, the people of Tallahassee have come together at one long, symbolic table in the heart of our city, to break bread and talk with people whom they may not have a chance to meet otherwise.
Organized by the city of Tallahassee and The Village Square, the Longest Table is an opportunity for us to come together to build relationships and break down community divisions.
Every meal is an opportunity to see Jesus, who knows that food is our great common denominator. We all hunger and thirst, whether you’re Derek Black or Matthew Stevenson.
We hunger and thirst on Friday night as the sun goes down and Shabbat begins, during the week at the Lively Café, and around this altar to recognize Jesus and be fed by his Body and Blood.
At this banquet table, Jesus is both our guest and our host. This meal gives us the courage to move from fear to faith and then to go out into the world in witness to our Risen Lord.
Listen to the audio of this sermon.
A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, Florida on April 15, 2018.