The Witness of the Martyrs

Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit
Alabaster, Alabama
The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 14C)
August 11, 2019

Genesis 15:1-6
Psalm 33:12-22
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

68318842_1089277887947009_6900374056382496768_nIn 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. Nearly four months after the publication of his article, on August 14, 1965, Jonathan and 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. While they were waiting for transportation, Jonathan and three others-a white, Catholic priest and two black, female activists-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 at point-blank range. He was killed instantly.

On October 1st, 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 all over the country gather on the second Saturday in August to commemorate Jonathan’s life and the lives of all the martyrs of Alabama who were killed during the Civil Rights Movement.

Yesterday, that’s exactly what we did.

We began on the front lawn of the Lowndes County Courthouse. We formed a long procession, walking in the summer 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 former 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 those 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 then moved from the site of Jonathan’s death back to the front lawn of the courthouse, where we gathered near the Jonathan Daniels Memorial. Finally, we processed into the courtroom, the same courtroom where Thomas Coleman was found not guilty. The judge’s bench was transformed into an altar where we celebrated the Eucharist together.

This wasn’t my first time attending the pilgrimage, but each time I go, I’m 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. As Christians, we are part of God’s story of reconciliation, and it’s up to us to decide which role we will play.

Seeing the photographs of those who gave their lives…

Hearing their stories and being inspired by their witness…

Sharing the sacrament with our brothers and sisters…

I like to imagine that the annual pilgrimage to Hayneville is just a small glimpse of what the Kingdom of God looks like as brothers and sisters of different backgrounds and ethnicities come together, united, to love as Jesus taught us to love. 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 follow the way of Jesus. 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 that threaten to weigh down and destroy the children of God. This is sometimes painful and difficult work, but it’s work that must be done – work that we must be prepared to do, each of us in our own way. In today’s lesson from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says to his disciples, “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.” Jesus’ message is this: be ready. Be ready to open the door for Jesus when he comes and knocks.

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.

Jesus came before, and as we proclaim each week when we say the Nicene Creed, we believe that Jesus will come again. Our job is to be ready.

This was certainly true in the time of Jonathan Daniels and the martyrs of Alabama, but this is also true of us today. My brothers and sisters, racism is still deeply rooted in our society. All you have to do is turn on the nightly news, and it’s there, right in front of our eyes. We’ve come a long way since the Civil Rights Movement, but if recent events in our country are any indication, we still have a long way to go. The work is not done. We must be willing to name racism, in all its many forms, for what it is: a sin against God and God’s people. We must be willing to name it and resist it.

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’re 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.

A few years ago, I was on a family trip to Selma, and I had the opportunity to take a walk with Jude across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. As we walked, I couldn’t help but offer to God a prayer of thanksgiving for all those brave men and women during the Civil Rights Movement who remained steadfast in their call to stand up for what was right. I also prayed that we might have the courage and strength to follow in their footsteps, to continue to work for justice and peace in our own time.

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 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.

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