Faith in the Face of Fear

A sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 14:22-33

Tomorrow, the Episcopal Church will observe a feast day for someone you may have never heard of. Unlike in the Roman Catholic tradition, feast days are reserved for “saints” – those whose lives were such an example that they deserve to be officially remembered by all in the church. This is the very same criterion we have for those we remember on our feast days, but, unlike the process of canonization in the Roman church, which can often take generations, we make many people who died in living memory saints. Tomorrow is the feast day of one such young man.
52 years ago, racial tensions were very high in the South. That summer the famous march from Selma to Montgomery rocked not just the state of Alabama, but the nation as well. Integration and voter registration drives of black Americans were inciting violence among white-power and pro-segregation groups. Events were boiling over. Among those who marched that summer was the young man whose life we will celebrate tomorrow. Earlier that year, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called on clergy and even seminarians to join in the marches and the peaceful demonstrations all over the south. Several seminarians at Episcopal Theology School in Boston chose to answer the call. It was important that those who were violently opposing the right of racial minorities to vote see not just white faces among the protesters, but Christian faces! Even better: white, Christian clergy! One of these seminarians was named Jonathan Daniels. Jonathan left the safe halls of his seminary in Boston and moved to Alabama. He lived with local families. He heard their stories. He encouraged them in their struggle for civil rights. He even tried his hardest to integrate the local Episcopal parish in Selma, despite the heated resistance of parishioners.
Jonathan participated in picketing whites-only stores in nearby Hayneville. And 52 years ago today, he and 29 others were arrested. On August 19th, they were finally released. After their release Jonathan accompanied Father Richard Morrisroe, a Roman Catholic priest, and two young black women activists, Joyce Bailey and Ruby Sales, to a local store not to protest but to buy something cold to drink. They were a mixed group, and they knew there might be trouble. As they approached the grocery store, a local man, who had volunteered to protect the store against protesters, pointed a shotgun at the group. Jonathan was standing behind Ruby Sales, who was 17 at the time. In a split-second, Jonathan made his choice, he pulled Ruby to the ground and was shot instead of her. They say he died instantly. Jonathan was 26.
Jonathan Daniels’ life was one of choices, as all our lives are. He chose to leave his comfortable life of academia and travel to a very different America than the one he had known. He chose, despite the threat of violence to stand up against injustice and discrimination. In the end he chose to give his life so that another might live.
And Ruby Sales did live. In fact, she’s alive today. In fact, she’s one of my Facebook friends if you want to look her up. She tells her own gripping account of the shootings. Two years ago, Ruby participated in a march retracing the journey of Jonathan Daniels from Boston, to Selma, to Hayneville. Jonathan’s sacrifice changed Ruby profoundly. She attended Episcopal Theology School. She went on to become a very outspoken voice in the civil rights movement, and she ultimately founded The Spirit House Project, a non-profit organization and inner-city mission dedicated to Jonathan’s memory.
She wrote of her experiences on the 50th anniversary, “Many of you wrote saying that you wept at my account of the brutal murder of Jonathan Daniels fifty years ago by Tom Coleman. My sisters and brothers, I too weep today. I weep because of the depths of racism that we allow 21st century White supremacists ideologues and culture warriors to take the nation and how so many decent people permit this downslide. I weep not for Jonathan because he answered the call of love and justice and was willing to go all the way to the cross. … I weep that the hate and greed for White power that fueled Tom Coleman’s shotgun still run deep in cities and towns throughout America. I weep because we have settled to be much less than what we are. I weep because I hear Jonathan crying out in his grave asking what happened to the dream Ruby? I ask you what happened to the dream?”
Yesterday, we all had to shake our heads and ask again, “What happened to the dream?” Racism and hatred yet again shed innocent blood. This time in Charlottesville, Virginia, a town I know well. Charlottesville is a place of learning, one that is proud of its history, but also one that recognizes its own guilt in the systemic racism that has been part of this country from its founding. When the people of Charlottesville and UVA made the courageous choice to finally remove some of the symbols of the racism and discrimination that Civil War figures continue to represent, including a statue of Robert E. Lee (an Episcopalian!) things became violent.
Take heart! It is I! Do not be afraid!
The disciples were afraid. The wind and waves around them had grown to such a terrifying intensity, that they believed they would die. When they saw Jesus walking on the water, they didn’t recognize him. In their fear, they thought it was a ghost.
When Jesus spoke to them, Peter is the first one to screw up his courage. No surprise there. His courage brings him to step out of the boat, to walk to Jesus. But when he sees the wind and the waves, he is filled with doubt and begins to sink. Jesus saves him, but asks him that hardest of all questions, “Why did you doubt?”
I know many clergy and lay people who were in Charlottesville both Friday and yesterday. They were there as a peaceful witness to stand against the hatred being visited upon the people of that great city. I haven’t had a chance to speak directly with many of them, but, as a priest who has marched in many of my own peaceful protests, I know there are moments of doubt. There are moments when, as individuals, we may wonder, “What am I doing here? What can I possibly do to stand against these armed, angry people?” People hurled abuse and hate against them. They were called names. Some were even assaulted by the white supremacists. In the shadows of the swastikas and rebel flags, these clergy and lay people stood their ground. They did it, not as individuals, but together, as the people of God. They were not alone there, standing up to the hatred and fear. Jesus was with them. “Take heart! Do not fear!”
Many of them had already peacefully dispersed when word came of the attack which left one dead and 19 injured. Did fear fill their hearts again? Did they feel that they were sinking?
Many of us, watching at a distance, felt fear and anger and sadness. In the face of such madness and brutality, we might be tempted to run the other way. We might say, “How can we fight against such darkness?” But Jesus speaks to us just as clearly as he did the disciples, “Take heart! It is I! Do not be afraid!”
My friends, there may be difficult days ahead. Other campuses, including Rutgers, are very aware of the potential for similar displays all over the country. We need your prayers. As we all ask, “What happened to the dream?” let us listen for Jesus’ voice above the wind and the crashing of the waves. In the midst of the storm, Jesus is speaking, “Do not be afraid!”
A personal hero of mine, Bishop Steven Charleston, wrote this yesterday, “Do not be anxious. There is a steadier hand than ours guiding the human journey. In fact, we have come this far in spite of ourselves. More than once, over the long centuries, a purpose unnoticed has quietly intervened to set things right, to move us like children away from danger, to pull us back from harms unseen. Do not be anxious, for if we believe conscious love has reason, then those reasons will see us through, just as they have time and again while we have grown, cared for, even when we thought we were lost.”
Tomorrow is Jonathan Daniel’s feast day. Note, we don’t celebrate his birthday or those of Dr. King, or Oscar Romero. When we celebrate the life of someone like Jonathan, a martyr for God’s justice and God’s commonwealth, we celebrate the day they entered into life eternal, the day they won victory over sin and death.
I want to close today with the collect written for Jonathan’s feast day,
O God of justice and compassion, who put down the proud and the mighty from their place, and lift up the poor and afflicted: We give you thanks for your faithful witness Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who, in the midst of injustice and violence, risked and gave his life for another; and we pray that we, following his example, may make no peace with oppression; through Jesus Christ the just one: who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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