Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 11, July 21, 2019
Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.
Ernestina and Harrison Reid lived on a farm near their church in Forsyth County, North Carolina. Friedland Moravian, where they were members, is just down the road from another country church, a sister congregation, where I was baptized as an infant. That is to say I was bathed in the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus, and made a Christian. Friedland, by the way, means “Land of Peace” in German. With that name framing their life, the Reids often hosted Sunday School picnics, and their home was described in 1884 as a place “where joy and mirth . . . frequently reigned supreme.”
Henry Swaim was a white tenant who lived with his wife on the Reid farm that year. It was the same year he was lynched by “a crowd of between seventy-five and [a] hundred men, many of whom were masked.” They had arrived at the county jail at 2:00 a.m. When the sheriff opened the front door to talk to them, the mob rushed past him and broke the lock to the second floor. These men wanted vengeance.
In the meantime, the mayor of the City of Winston had appeared. And the mayor appealed to them to stop in the name of God, the law, and good citizenship. But that didn’t work. Instead, someone cried out, “Hand me the crow bar.” And they used their tools to destroy the locks on the cell that held Henry Swaim.
Henry was in his 20s and not well-educated. He was the only suspect in the murder of Ernestina Reid, the wife of the farmer on whose land Henry worked. Less than 48 hours earlier, Mr. Reid thought he heard a child screaming as he headed back to the farmhouse. As he got closer, he saw it was his wife, who stumbled toward him, covered in blood. When he asked who had attacked her, she whispered the name of Henry Swaim three times. So he carried her into the house, where she quickly died.
In the darkness, as the armed mob escorted Henry from the jail through the streets of Winston, they were careful to avoid the bright lights in front of the Central Hotel. There was no need to be seen and recognized on their way to the lynching tree. When they got there, they held a mock trial, and Henry told them how he had killed Mrs. Reid while he was looking for money in the house. It was gruesome, and he went down to the creek to wash the blood off his hands afterwards.
Now, facing his own death, he wanted his sins washed away too. Henry pleaded for someone to pray for him before he was put to death. When a man did that and asked him afterwards if he was penitent, he didn’t know what the word meant. When Henry then sputtered out his own prayer, repeating the same words over and over, he was ridiculed by the crowd, which had to have been mostly filled with Christians.
As reported in a local newspaper with all these other details, the last sentence of Henry’s prayer, which he said many times over, was something like this: “I know I am guilty, and oh Lord forgive this poor sinner his sins!” Surely each of us could pray those same words this morning as we think about mistakes we’ve made, cruel thoughts we’ve had, harsh words we’ve spoken, and relationships with friends and family that we’ve strained to the breaking point. Surely each of us wants our own sins to be included in the sins of the world that the Lamb of God has taken away. Surely each of us clings to that hope; and I pray we wouldn’t be ridiculed for it.
Yet Henry Swaim was mocked and essentially cast into hell not by a divine decree but by an enraged mob. It was as though there was in that moment the kind of “famine on the land” that the Prophet Amos described — “not,” as he goes on to say, “a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.”
Even the minister who would many years later officiate at the wedding of my grandparents, the parents of my father, was a character in this unholy drama. At the time he was a teacher at a boys school in the Town of Salem. He and another man found Henry when he was on the run. They turned him over to the sheriff, but not before debating among themselves “whether . . . to string [him] up on the spot.”
That’s what the mob eventually did, although they hanged him improperly. So Henry didn’t die right away. The rope holding him by the neck had to be restrung over a limb on the tree to draw his body “high up above the heads” of the spectators. It remained there afterwards, and “great crowds” came to see it later that same day.
What happened to Henry in this sordid affair was in no way “justice” either from my perspective as an American or, more importantly, from my perspective as a Christian. And yet I’m painfully aware of how easy it is to lose that perspective and to find myself in the mob, having forgotten my identity as one of God’s children.
As the hymn says, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea.” And it washes over us with forgiveness when we look in the rear view mirror and recognize that we’ve been in the crowd, shouting at others. And the times when we find ourselves standing in the midst of the whirlwind, on the receiving end of the chanting and the name-calling, we can rest assured that Jesus stands beside us.
We can know that because Jesus has been there before. According to the Gospel of John, after the Roman governor Pilate sparred with Jesus about who he really was, he famously asked Jesus, “What is truth?” Jesus the Jew was then tortured as he was beaten with a whip by Pilate’s soldiers. They mocked him as the “King of the Jews” and would eventually nail his hands and feet to the wood of the cross.
Before that, however, Pilate brought Jesus before the crowd that had gathered outside his headquarters, and said to them in Latin, “Ecco homo,” which means, “Behold the man!” The people standing before their governor were not all the citizens of Jerusalem or all the Jews of that holy city. But they were just like you and me, many devout and some not so much. And those people just like you and me, as the NIV translation puts it, shouted, “Take him a-way! Take him a-way!”
So that’s what happened. Pilate, who feared that Jesus represented a threat to the Roman peace and to the Roman emperor, ordered his soldiers to take Jesus beyond the walls of the city. And there they crucified him. That’s when “the land [trembled],” as described by the Prophet Amos, and when the sun was blotted out, “[darkening] the earth in broad daylight.” Of that day, the Lord said to Amos, “I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it [bitter].”
When the sun sets on our own experience of Good Friday, that’s what remains with us — bitterness and sadness and disappointment. Jesus himself experienced that feeling of separation and rejection and abandonment. Yet we’ve not been forsaken by God just as Jesus wasn’t forsaken. And that’s just as true for Henry Swaim as it is for Ernestina and Harrison Reid and as it is for you and me. It’s also true for those who ridiculed Henry and those who, centuries earlier, chanted before Pilate.
“For in [Christ Jesus],” as we heard in our reading this morning from the Letter to the Colossians, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” My friends, God, in his mercy, is reconciling all things to himself, righting all wrongs both within us and around us.
As one of my favorite theologians puts it: “God weeps with us so that we may someday laugh with him.” The joy and mirth that once echoed across the fields of the Reid farm will return at the Feast of the Lamb, where no one will be excluded. Now I don’t know how that will happen, because it’s a great mystery. But it will happen, and that is good news for everyone here today, wherever we might find ourselves standing in the unholy dramas of our own day. This I believe.
1 BACK TO POST “A Heinous Crime: The Wife of Harrison Reed Foully Murdered,” The Western Sentinel, Winston, North Carolina, May 8, 1884, 3.
2 BACK TO POST “Swaim Swung: Taken From Jail by a Mob and Lynched,” The Western Sentinel, Winston, North Carolina, May 15, 1884, 3.
3 BACK TO POST “Swaim Swung,” 3.
4 BACK TO POST “Swaim Swung,” 3.
5 BACK TO POST Amos 8:11.
6 BACK TO POST “Swinging into Eternity: Part 3,” The North Carolina Collection, Forsyth County Public Library, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, July 31, 2014.
7 BACK TO POST “Swaim Swung,” 3.
8 BACK TO POST John 18:38.
9 BACK TO POST John 19:15.
10 BACK TO POST Amos 8:8-10.
11 BACK TO POST Colossions 1:19.
12 BACK TO POST Jürgen Moltmann, quoted by Philip Yancey in “God Behind Barbed Wire,” Christianity Today, posted online August 29, 2005.