Read John 5:30-47 (Daily Office’s Gospel Text)
I’m an Episcopalian, and last Thursday was, on our calendar, the feast day of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, most people didn’t notice, or chose not to notice. I posted his photo and a link to his bio on my FaceBook and Twitter accounts, that post received fewer “likes” than a picture of my dog sleeping would receive a few days later.
Jonathan Myrick Daniels was a seminarian, like us.
He had arrived at the Episcopal Theological School at Cambridge Massachusetts, opposed to segregation, but following a traditionalist safe ideology; originally opposed to the idea of going to the south and joining in the civil rights struggle. However, after hearing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak, Daniels’ mind was changed and he put his education on hold to join the work in the south, specifically in Selma, Alabama. On August 14th 1965 he took part in a peaceful protest and was arrested. On August 20th he was released from jail along with an Anglo-American Roman Catholic priest and two African-American civil rights workers. The four young workers walked to a nearby grocery store, but as they arrived they were met in front by the owner yelling racist epitaphs and brandishing a gun. As the owner took aim at the African-Americans, Daniels pushed one of his friends out of the way and was struck by the weapon’s discharge. Daniels gave his life that day for the calling of God.
Daniels was the 26th civil rights worker to give their life in the south, and Dr. King believed that Daniels’ death gave a new awareness of the struggle to the north. Daniels would never finish his seminary education, he would never be ordained, he would never serve a parish, celebrate the Eucharist, perform a baptism, teach a Bible study, or do any of the other things people kind of think we go to seminary to do. Daniels was a leader and a martyr. The church rightly celebrates and remembers his faith, sacrifice, witness, courage, and testimony, as do I. The church needs leaders like Jonathan Myrick Daniels, and our world needs prophets like Jonathan Myrick Daniels, those who will give their life for the Good News.
After listening to yesterday or today’s evening news, as seminarians you may be feeling the call to go to the Selmas of our day; Gaza, Ferguson, or what have you. And I believe God is calling people to this work in those places! God needs people who will lead the struggle against wickedness in those places. God needs people who will stand with the oppressed, and, as I said, maybe, like Jonathan Myrick Daniels, maybe, God is calling you to give your life through the work, in that place, at this time.
But maybe God isn’t.
Yes, the church needs to take a stand, the church needs to be prophetic, but there are already more clerical collars in Ferguson than there are churches… and maybe that’s part of the problem. Maybe we should have already been there; before someone was shot, before the looting, before the riots, before the current protests. Maybe we; the prophets, teachers, prayers and preachers shouldn’t wait ‘til things are out of control to show up. Maybe we shouldn’t wait until the streets are running warm with the blood of the oppressed, to march in the streets. Maybe we shouldn’t only question our government spending priorities or its militant overreach, when our silence has cost someone their life or liberty. Maybe we shouldn’t only show up loudly proclaiming the Good News of a different Kingdom, after the cameras and microphones are there to see and hear us.
The Church, with a capital C, should have been there to begin with.
Too many of our churches have fled the very areas that needed us, before they looked like war zones, because our tax-free property values were plummeting and it didn’t feel ‘safe’ anymore. We didn’t want to ask why these things were happening, and work there to change them, we just left. We acted like if we ignored the problem and moved away, the problem wouldn’t exist. We chose to ignore rather than address, we chose to pacify rather than prophecy.
So, rather than going somewhere else, possibly, God is calling you to preach, prophecy, work, serve, and give your life right where you are, right now, while you study. Because you see oppression doesn’t only exist in Gaza, and racism doesn’t only exist in Ferguson. Oppression, racism, and their ilk live and thrive everywhere that we, the church, ignore the systematic issues and policies that feed their malevolence. I promise you that there is enough of this sort of injustice and sin in our state to keep us busy, and there is just as much evil in every town that has a church where you are already serving or worshiping. In Lancaster, in Gettysburg, in Philadelphia, in Baltimore, in Harrisburg, in Washington DC and everywhere in-between… we really don’t need to seek it out further. It is here. Hate, abuse, and prejudice exists unchecked everywhere we have a pulpit already stationed or a bible study meeting which is not speaking and teaching the Love of God and offering the call to action now, in response to a different way of thinking. A call to a New and Peaceable Kingdom, or as Dr. King called it, a Beloved Community.
In everyone of our towns where they spend more money on armored vehicles and semi automatic guns for the local police than they do on education and food programs. In every one of our diocese and synods where we spend more time on foreign mission trips and administrate conferences than we do on school supplies and job training centers. In every one of our churches that spends all their time preaching about personal holiness, but saying nothing about social holiness. In everyone of our communities where there is a larger need for prisons and homeless shelters than for parks and gardens… there needs to be a prophet, there needs to be a church, and there needs to be a seminarian who will say I’ll give my life here. I’ll do the work here.
So maybe, like Jonathan Myrick Daniels, God is calling you to Selma. Maybe God is calling you to take a rubber bullet in Ferguson, or breath tear gas in Gaza. Maybe God is calling you to be a martyr in front of the television cameras. But, more likely, God is calling you to do this work right where you are, because there is work to do here also. Maybe God isn’t asking for another tv front man, or dead martyr. Maybe God is asking us to give our whole life to this work. Even in this place, while you are finishing your seminary education, maybe God is asking you to keep this town from becoming a Ferguson; by addressing and confronting issues of poverty, inequality, abuse, and hate, here and now… not there and then.
Doing the work before it explodes into an international story probably won’t get you a feast day on the church calendar or a pundit spot on cable news. However doing the work at the local church, in the local community, on your local street might see a person who would otherwise be trapped in oppression, live a life to the fullest.
Wherever God is calling you, Go! If it is a call to the front lines of the struggle in a far away place, in the middle of a food bank in town, at a community job skills training facility, in the back row of a school council hearing, behind the curtain of a voting booth, or from the pulpit of your church; whatever, wherever, go give everything you’ve got, go give your whole lived life.
In the Name of Jesus of Nazareth, the one we call Christ; Go, give, and live your life.
Let us pray;
“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.” Amen.