Tuesday, January 25, 2011

| “Not a one man show” |

Matthew 4: 12-25
January 23, 2011
Ordinary Time
First United Church – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

Sometimes I forget to pay attention to the beginning of the scripture reading. Much of the time, it starts out with some information about where Jesus has been or where he’s going. I’m often too lazy to get out my maps, so these little tidbits of information just woosh past me. I like to think that God forgives me for my geographical laziness.

But if we don’t pay attention to the beginning of the story this week, we really miss a lot.

Most people would tell you this is a story about Jesus calling fishermen to fish for people. And it is. But it’s also the story of when, and where, and how Jesus chose to begin his public ministry. According to Matthew – the when of it was right after Jesus heard that John the Baptizer had been arrested. Jesus himself had been baptized by John and I can imagine that he was both a little worried for his friend and himself when he heard the news of his arrest.

The where of it was in Galilee. And not just anywhere in Galilee, but in the “land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali.” According to Matthew, this was to fulfill what the prophet Isaiah had promised: that in this place, the people who had been grasping for hope in the darkness would be bathed in light.

And the how of it – now that’s the part that I find so interesting. The how of it seems to have three parts in today’s gospel reading. First, Jesus stole a page from John’s book. John’s sound bite was this, “Repent! For the reign of God is at hand!” And, Jesus? Well, his sound bite was, “Repent! For the reign of God is at hand!” Jesus chose to begin his ministry by using John’s words.

The second way he began his ministry was by gathering a posse. He found four guys who were experienced fishers and asked them to come along for the ride. Matthew doesn’t tell us why he chose these particular four, but I commend his choice of commercial fishermen – hardworking, patient, good team players, observant, focused on results.

And the third way was this: Jesus launched a giant P.R. campaign. Once he had his group assembled, he traveled far and near putting on a show. He preached. He taught. He healed. And he made sure there were crowds following him everywhere he went. If Jesus were starting his ministry today, I can imagine he’d be Twittering from his Blackberry 85 times a day.

So often, when we think about Jesus, we seem to imagine him in a vacuum. Sure, his disciples followed him around, but do we ever imagine those very real relationships they must have had? You know they had to have had late-night conversations about the direction they were headed. Surely some of his disciples gave Jesus new ideas or even criticized his strategic plan.

And I think we often lose sight of the very real fact that Jesus’s first sermon was not his own. He took the words directly from his cousin and baptizer, John.

Jesus was not a one-man show.

Sometimes it just seems so much easier to keep track of one great person. The ringleader. The face of the organization. The one who issues all the press releases, gets her name in the papers, and gives the quotable quotes.

But reality almost never works this way. Behind every great face are, quite literally, hundreds of other faces paving the way for a movement. Behind every quotable quote are the conversations with teachers who inspired.

If we forget these other names, we fail in a couple of ways. First, we fail to honor the work of those who pave the way. And, in doing so, we forget to give thanks to God for gifting us with their lives. Second, and I think this might be even worse, we fall victim to hero-worship. We hold up one or two people and say, “Wow, they were truly amazing people. They were called to do so much. God really gifted them and used them in important ways.” While this may all be true, it’s dangerous to think this way because it makes us more likely to let ourselves off the hook. We look at Jesus and say, “Well, but he’s Jesus….I mean, really, what could I do? I’m not Jesus!”

And we do the same with modern heroes. Heaven knows we do it with Martin Luther King. I absolutely love that we have a holiday to celebrate his life. And I would argue with anyone that he is, hands down, my most admired person in U.S. history. But I think that Dr. King, if he were here today, would challenge us to remember not just his life, but remember all those who worked alongside him.

Dr. King was not a one-man show.

And so, on this Sunday after MLK day, I want to share with you a few stories of some of the others who I desperately hope will not disappear from the history books. Lest you think this is just a boring history lecture, I want to tell you where I see the Gospel in these stories.

The good news is this: God doesn’t leave us alone to figure out how to make the world a better place. God sends a whole cast of characters – each one doing her or his part – sometimes the things they do are small. Sometimes they never even realize the full impact of what they’ve done. And yet, God works in and through all these lives, bringing together a tapestry of hope that is powerful.

All we have to do is live more fully into the life God has dreamed for each of us – and the “inescapable network of mutuality” that Dr. King so famously spoke of – that “single garment of destiny” lovingly knitted by God will do the rest.

And so we take a look at the garment of destiny that made up the Civil Rights movement in this country.

You could argue quite convincingly that a very young Rev. King received his call to join the movement from a man named E.D. Nixon.

Dr. King was still in his first year at his first pastorate at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. On Thursday, Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to follow the racist regulations of the local bus line. By Monday, Dr. King was speaking to a crowd of thousands at the Holt Street Baptist Church.

In between Thursday and Monday, there was a pivotal call from E.D. Nixon – and it was, quite literally, a call.

On Friday, Nixon called King at home and requested his presence at a gathering of black leaders. King wasn’t sure if he wanted to participate – he was still settling in to his parish and he had a one-month-old daughter at home. Reluctantly, he agreed, and at the follow-up meeting on Monday, he was elected president of the newly-formed Montgomery Improvement Association. One hour after his election, he gave a rousing speech to thousands gathered for the mass meeting.

So who was this man that called Dr. King and talked him into service? E.D. Nixon was a fixture in Montgomery. Born there in 1899, he was a longtime leader in the black community. Having received little formal education, he went to work hauling luggage at the local train station and eventually worked his way up to a Pullman car porter. He joined the local union and eventually became its president. He also served as president of the local NAACP chapter, where Rosa Parks served as secretary.

When we remember that there are few one-man or one-woman shows in the history of this world, we remember that just as Rosa Parks didn’t just wake up one day and decide her feet were tired, black folks Montgomery didn’t just wake up one day and decide it was time for racist policies to die.

In 1940, a full 15 years before the bus boycott, E.D. Nixon organized a group of 750 men who marched to the local clerk’s office to attempt to register to vote.

God didn’t send Rev. King to Montgomery to save them – God invited him there to be a part of what was already happening.

One of the other things that was happening in Montgomery was some impeccably-organized agitation by a group of professional black women.

Jo Ann Robinson was a 43 year old professor of English at the local university. Having been mistreated on a bus in 1949, she talked about it with her friends and co-workers and discovered that abuse and bullying of black women was a common occurrence on Montgomery’s busses. Professor Robinson began working with the Women’s Political Council to focus on the bus situation. As their president, she worked closely with E.D. Nixon and other black leaders to create pressure on the local authorities. Inspired by the passing of Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education, they began searching for the perfect test case – someone who would be willing to resist the regulations of the bus system and serve as a plaintiff in a court battle.

In March of 1955, they thought they had found the right person. Fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin was forcibly removed from a bus on her way home from school, screaming and kicking the whole way about her constitutional rights being violated. But while the adults were preparing for a fight, they discovered that Colvin was pregnant, and decided she wouldn’t be the perfect one to be the face of their movement.

Colvin still contributed mightily to ending segregation, though. Along with Mary Louise Smith, Aurelia Browder, and Susie McDonald, she served as a plaintiff in Browder vs. Gayle – the civil suit that eventually ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court and, 384 days after Rosa Parks refused to get up, finally made segregation on Montgomery’s buses illegal.

But back to December of 1955 – Rosa Parks, I hope you know by now, wasn’t just some random woman who decided she didn’t feel like moving from her seat one Thursday afternoon.

She was a leader in the NAACP – one of the only woman to hold elected office – and she had just recently taken two weeks off from her job as a seamstress to attend a workshop on non-violent resistance at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. When she decided to stay put in her seat, she knew exactly what she was getting into.

When news of her arrest got out, E.D. Nixon and his white lawyer-friend Clifford Durr went to bail her out. That very evening, Jo Ann Robinson began using the offices at Alabama State University to print up flyers spreading the word about Parks’s arrest. Professor Robinson and her friends printed up thousands of handbills and spread them throughout the black community over the weekend, urging people to stay off all buses on Monday. On Monday morning, Rev. King and Coretta watched the buses go by their home – noticing they were almost entirely empty.

A movement was under way.

As the boycott gathered steam, folks from out of state took notice. One person who would come to play a prominent role in the Movement was living in New York City.

Bayard Rustin and took an interest in what was happening in Montgomery and decided to pay a visit to Alabama. Rustin, a 43-year-old, openly gay Quaker, was an experienced organizer. He had already spent two years in federal prison after refusing to register for the draft. While in prison, he organized a group to advocate for Indian independence and in 1948, he traveled to India to learn about non-violent techniques from leaders in Gandhi’s movement.

When Rustin arrived in Montgomery, he met regularly with King. He found that King was sympathetic to non-violent ideals, but had very little background in techniques. In fact, he was shocked to find armed guards carrying guns around the King home. He challenged King, saying that it didn’t make any sense for a non-violent leader to take up arms, even for self-defense. After being chastised by Rustin, King agreed to get rid of the guns.

Rustin’s partnership with King blossomed over the years. He was the key architect of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. You can see him in almost every photo of King at the podium, standing quietly behind him. King didn’t so much plan the event as show up and give a great speech. Rustin was the real brain and soul power behind the event.

None of this, of course, is to degrade the memory of Dr. King. It’s just to show that he wasn’t a one-man show. He did what the others did – he followed his calling. King’s calling was to lead the movement. Others were called to run meetings, create flyers, litigate court cases pro bono, put their reputations on the line, travel to far-off places like Alabama to teach others about Gandhi.

God doesn’t leave us alone to save the world.

God sends a whole cast of characters – each one doing her or his part. People like E.D. Nixon, Jo Ann Robinson, Claudette Colvin, Bayard Rustin, and others whose names we’ve forgotten.

God works in and through all these lives, bringing together a tapestry of hope that is powerful.

All we have to do is live more fully into the life God has dreamed for each of us – and the “inescapable network of mutuality” that Dr. King spoke of – that “single garment of destiny” lovingly knitted by God will do the rest.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

| A prayer for freedom from want - for MLK Day 2011 |

(Prayer given at the MLK Jazz Service for Peace | January 16, 2011)

Holy One, Ever-Present-Dreamer-Whom-We-Call-Many-Names, we join your presence this evening. Some of us are restful. Others are agitated. All of us, O God, seek peace. We bring our calm-measured-breaths – we bring our agitated-balled-up-fists – we come seeking peace.

O, Dreamer, we admit that peace can often seem elusive in our society.

We feel a rush of anxiety as we swipe our Visas at the gas pump – will our card be denied? Our hands begin to tremble, ever so slightly, as we review our bank accounts.

We worry, God.

We worry day-and-night-and-afternoon-and-morning.
Will there be enough money for our children to go to college?
Will there be enough money in our account so that our check won’t bounce?
Will there be enough money left at the end of the month to pay the rent?

Will there be enough….? Will there be enough….?

And we hear the voice of your servant, Martin. “God has left enough and to spare in this world for all of his children to have the basic necessities of life.”[1]

But how can this be? It feels like there is never enough.

There are always more things that we want.
A new smart phone.
Bottled water.
Heated leather seats in our car.
A private education for our children.
A bigger flowerbed in the backyard.
A new set of bath towels, because the old ones are looking dingy.

And on and on.

God, we stand before you this evening a people who don’t understand the differences between needs and wants.

Our hearts are filled to overflowing with wants that disguise themselves as needs. They sneak into our souls and make it impossible to focus on the one thing we truly need.

What we need, O Lover of our Souls, is freedom from want.

Freedom from want.

What would that look like?

Holy Dreamer, birth in us a new vision of the peace that could come from truly understanding what it means to want nothing.

Some of us seek freedom from want because there are things we truly need that we don’t have.
We go to bed hungry.
We are at risk of losing our homes.
We seek meaningful work, but find none.

God, on behalf of these, your children, we ask that those who have plenty be awakened to the needs of those around them.

Open their hearts, Holy One, and guide them in a spirit of compassion and sharing. And while those who have true needs wait for them to be met, shower them with your loving presence. Whisper your dreams for a better life in their ears. Allow them to climb into your lap and rest like small children – feeling your love encircle them. Grant them peace.

Others of us, O God, seek freedom from want because we want too much.
We have been trapped by the images we see on TV and at the mall.
We have been duped into believing we need a fancy car, fancy salad greens, a hundred-dollar haircut, a closet that’s bigger than the bedroom we grew up in.

On behalf of these, your children, we ask for liberation.

Break the chains that keep them enslaved to jobs that fill up bank accounts but empty the soul.
Free them from the glossy lies that beckon from magazine pages.
Cultivate in them a spirit of discernment.
Teach them what it means to say, “enough. I have enough.”

For all of us, God, help us to listen to the words of Rev. Dr. King.

Spoken almost fifty years ago, they still ring true tonight. He said, “Man is more than a dog to be satisfied with a few economic bones. Man is a child of God born to have communion with that which transcends the material.” [2]

Give us the peace that comes with the understanding that we were made to be loved.

And if we can but receive and give your love, we will be filled and we will fill others.

“Caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny,” together – we can find freedom from want.[3]


[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Can a Christian Be a Communist?” in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Clayborne Carson, vol.6 Advocate of the Social Gospel, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992-), 451.
[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., “The False God of Money” in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Clayborne Carson, vol.6 Advocate of the Social Gospel, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992-), 135.
[3] Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Christmas Sermon on Peace” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by James M. Washington, (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990), 254.