Monday, August 15, 2022

The Great Cloud of WItnesses (Jonathan Myrick Daniels)

 Sermon preached at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY on August 14, 2022:  Hebrews 11:29--12:2; Luke 12:49-56.

          We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us.  This is that truth that we claim in the Apostles’ Creed:  I believe in the communion of saints.

           Today I am thinking of one of those witnesses in particular.  His name is Jonathan Myrick Daniels, whose day of remembrance on our church’s calendar happens to be today.  His story is one that all Episcopalians should know.

           Jonathan was born in 1939 in Keene, New Hampshire.  When he was in high school he was attracted to The Episcopal Church.  He surprised everyone when he chose to attend the Virginia Military Institute for college.  He said he thought he needed discipline in his life.  He found life hard there but eventually graduated as the class valedictorian.

          He went to Harvard to do graduate work in literature. By this time his faith had waned.  But on Easter Day 1962 he went to the Eucharist at Church of the Advent in Boston and found faith again.  In his high school years he had toyed with the idea of ordained ministry, and now it became a calling he could not ignore.

           He enrolled in what was then the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  There he began to awaken to what was happening in the South—the civil rights struggle was reaching its apex.

           He, with so many other Americans, was appalled by what happened in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965, the march that was so brutally turned back.  Later that month he heard Dr. Martin Luther King’s plea for northern whites to come to Alabama to help secure the right of blacks to vote.

           He was tempted to go. He had developed a passion for standing up for the poor and the oppressed.  Later that day at Evensong in the seminary chapel, while singing the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, he decided he must go.  He had sung,

 He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.

 He wrote later in his journal, “I knew that I must go to Selma. The Virgin’s song was to grow more and more dear to me in the weeks ahead.”

           Jonathan went to Selma and joined in the work. The racism he experienced shook him to his core, including the complicity of the Episcopal Church.  He lived with a black family—the West family—and he took them to church on Palm Sunday.  They were made to sit in the back of the church and receive communion last of all.

           He briefly went back to Cambridge to complete his seminary exams, but was back in Selma by the beginning of June.  He joined an effort to register black voters in a nearby county, one of the most rigidly segregated counties in all of the South, where not a single black person had been allowed to register.  Among those he worked with there was Stokely Carmichael.

           They were all heartened when President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965.  But on August 14th they were arrested and spent several days in jail.  They were released on August 20th, and the group went to the one local store that would serve blacks as well as whites to get something cold to drink.

           A man by the name of Tom Coleman was waiting for them in the shop doorway. He pointed a shotgun at them and told them to leave.  Jonathan stepped in front of a sixteen-year-old named Ruby Sales.  Coleman fired and Jonathan was killed.

           In 1991, Jonathan was officially added to the Church’s calendar. At first he was characterized simply as a “seminarian.” Later editions of the calendar would use the term “martyr.”

           Jonathan’s death was in many ways not unique.  Countless more blacks died during the civil rights struggle, including Dr. King.  Several other white volunteers were killed also.  Jonathan was the only Episcopalian, at least of which I am aware.

           His death was part of gradual awakening in The Episcopal Church.  Fighting injustice gradually became a commitment asked of every Episcopalian.  In 1976, we would adopt a new Book of Common Prayer which included as part of the Baptismal Covenant the promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

           We heard Jesus say this morning a very hard thing.  “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”  This is not what we expect to hear from one we call “The Prince of Peace.”

           But Jesus knows that following his way of life will not always make people happy, even people of our own household.  And sometimes practicing our faith will take great sacrifice.

           I’ve been mulling over the paragraph we all say together in the Eucharistic Prayer we are currently using.

 Now gathered at your table, O God of all creation, and remembering Christ, crucified and risen, who was and is and is to come, we offer to you our gifts of bread and wine, and ourselves, a living sacrifice.

           “We offer ourselves, a living sacrifice.” Those words can slip off the tongue without much thought.  The story of Jonathan Daniels, however, might give us pause over them.  Not that we are called to martyrdom.  But short of death, what does it mean be “a living sacrifice.”

           It means always to be open to God’s call, and ready, even expecting, for that call to sometimes take us to an uncomfortable place, perhaps a place of conflict, even, as Jesus says, with members of our own family.

           But this openness does not mean the readiness to make enemies.  Jonathan Daniels learned this in Alabama.  After being there several weeks he wrote that he suddenly experienced a new sense of freedom, and that was the freedom to love the enemy.

           It is a life ruled by a love whose source is God that is to be a living sacrifice.  That is love that is not withheld from anyone, and that kind of love will get us into trouble, as we seek to love those the world around us sees as unlovable.

           To be a living sacrifice is the willingness to put others’ needs before our own. Not, let me be swift to say, instead of our own, and not in order to save them.  There is only one Messiah, and it isn’t us.

           Finally, to be a living sacrifice is to take this as one’s rule of life:  to have faith in God. Faith that is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1).

           This faith is not the assurance of belief or conviction based on the evidence.  No one gets that, as the Letter to the Hebrews so eloquently and movingly says,

 Yet all these [great followers of the way of God], though they were commended for their faith, did not received what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

           This is the communion of saints at its very core, the reality that in the plan of God we are saved together. We are not individual actors in our own personal drama. We are made perfect before God together, and not just with those we know and love, but with all those who have gone before us and all those who will come after us, those who have offered themselves as a living sacrifice in faith, in hope, in love.

           That means, among other things, that those we call saints and whose deeds we remember, like Jonathan Myrick Daniels, were not perfect. Perfection does not make one a saint. We are only made perfect together, and only in the fullness of time.  Perhaps that is the great truth that people like Jonathan teach us.  Any one of us will not stand before the judgment seat of God alone.  Jonathan and that great cloud of witnesses will be with us.  God will see our perfection, our righteousness, the worthiness of our lives in union with theirs.

           That, my friends, is the best news I have to give you.

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