The Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest
Sunday, August 14, 2016
The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost + Proper 15C
First Lesson: Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18
Second Lesson: Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Gospel: Luke 12:49-56
✠ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
In April of 1965, a seminarian from the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts, published an article in The New Hampshire Churchman, the official magazine of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. In the article, the seminarian wrote about his journey south into the black belt, describing in painful detail the types of atrocities that he and other activists experienced and worked to overcome during the Civil Rights Movement, acts of violence and oppression that good people endured simply because of the color of their skin.
His journey brought him to Selma, Alabama, the site of “Bloody Sunday” and the beginning of that five-day, fifty-four mile march along US Highway 80, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to the capital steps in Montgomery. During his time in Selma, the seminarian encountered racism and bigotry at its worst, even from parishioners and clergy at the local Episcopal church. At the end of his article, the seminarian wrote, “Our life in Selma is filled with ambiguity, and in that we share with men everywhere. We are beginning to see as we never saw before that we are truly in the world and yet ultimately not of it. For through the bramble bush of doubt and fear and supposed success we are groping our way to the realization that above all else, we are called to be saints. That is the mission of the Church everywhere. And in this Selma, Alabama is like all the world: it needs the life and witness of militant saints.”
The seminarian’s name was Jonathan Myrick Daniels, whom we commemorate today in the calendar of the Church. Nearly four months after the publication of his article, on August 14, 1965, Jonathan and a few of his companions were arrested in Fort Deposit, Alabama, for joining a picket line and transported to the jail in nearby Hayneville. Six days later, they were unexpectedly released. They walked to a small store near the jail and upon entering were confronted by a man named Thomas Coleman, who was armed with a twelve-gauge shotgun. He cursed them and threatened to kill them if they didn’t leave the store. Jonathan pulled seventeen-year old Ruby Sales to one side in order to shield her from harm. Coleman fired, and Jonathan was shot in the chest and killed instantly.
On October 1, less than two months after Jonathan’s murder, Thomas Coleman was found not guilty by an all-white jury after only two hours of deliberation.
Although he was only twenty-six years old when he died, Jonathan’s work and his commitment to the Gospel of Jesus continues to inspire new generations to work for justice and peace. Every year in Hayneville, pilgrims from across the southeast gather on the second Saturday in August to re-trace Jonathan’s story.
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to attend the pilgrimage. We began on the front lawn of the Lowndes County Courthouse. We formed a long procession, walking in the August heat from the courthouse to the former site of the Lowndes County Jail where Jonathan and his friends were imprisoned. Then, we walked to the steps of the now-abandoned grocery store where Jonathan was killed, and all of a sudden, the signs that were carried in procession came into full focus – large, black and white photographs of Jonathan and all of the martyrs who were killed during the struggle for civil rights in Alabama. One by one, pilgrims took their turn kneeling on the steps and touching the storefront porch where Jonathan gave his life, offering silent prayers. The procession ended back at the courthouse, where we celebrated the Eucharist in the same courtroom where Thomas Coleman was acquitted for Jonathan’s murder.
Looking back on my experience in Hayneville, it was one of those grace-filled moments when I was reminded of the fact that our lives are not really our own, that we are part of a story that began long ago and one that will continue until God’s Kingdom is fulfilled.
Seeing the photographs…
Hearing the stories…
Sharing the sacrament…
It was like being surrounded by the saints in light – that great cloud of witnesses that continues to inspire us and teach us about what it means to love as Christ loved, a love that often calls us to give of ourselves in ways that are unexpected or even unwanted. That is the legacy of Jonathan Daniels and all who give their lives so that others may come to know the love of God, a legacy of compassion and mercy, of sacrifice and reconciliation.
Jonathan’s legacy also serves as a reminder that this Christian life to which we are called challenges us to separate ourselves from those things that prevent us from being true to the Gospel. It’s a life that beckons us to be agents of change, one that calls us to tear down those systems of injustice and oppression in the world that threaten to weigh down or destroy the children of God. This is painful work, my friends, but work that must be done – work that Jesus talks about in today’s lesson from the Gospel of Luke when he says to his disciples, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”
Jesus came to bring fire to the earth. Or, to put it another way, Jesus came so that the earth might experience its own baptism, its own deliverance from the bondage of sin and death to the promise of everlasting life.
Jesus came so that we might be saved from ourselves, and that’s exactly where we must begin if we are to be sources of light in those dark corners of the earth where racism and discrimination and violence dwell.
This was certainly true in the time of Jonathan Daniels and the martyrs of Alabama. But, this is also true of us today. Racism is still prevalent in our society. Discrimination against our LGBT brothers and sisters is an ongoing problem, and the plight of economic inequality in our country continues to grow. The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.
Now, there are some who are perfectly fine with the way things are, people who refuse to see past their own prejudices and self-interests. But, as Christians, we are held to a higher standard, a standard set by people like Jonathan Daniels who understood that, in order to live a life worthy of Christ, one must be willing to look past his or her own prejudices and self-interests in order to see other people as God sees them – as beloved children.
Last month, during our family trip to Alabama, I had the opportunity to take a walk with Jude across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and as we walked, I couldn’t help but offer to God a prayer of thanks for all of those brave men and women during the Civil Rights Movement who ran with perseverance the race that was set before them. I also prayed that we might have the courage and strength to continue that race in our own day, to continue to break down the walls that divide us.
This is my prayer for you, as well, that your life might be an instrument of God’s grace and a shining example of what it means to love as Christ loved. May the witness of the saints and martyrs be the standard to which we live our lives, and may the Holy Spirit continue to lead us and guide us in this work. Amen.
Click here to hear an audio recording of the sermon.