Sunday, January 15, 2012

Something New Is Happening

2 Sunday B #65

1 Sam , 3b-10. 19
Ps 40
1Cor 6, 13c-15a. 17-20
Jn 1, 35-42

Saint Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
January 15, 2012

Deacon Tom Cornell

Three weeks ago it was Christmas. Last Sunday the Three Kings visited the Christ Child in the manger. Today we see Jesus a grown man walking by the Jordan River. John the Baptist and two of his disciples notice him. John had a large following. His disciples stayed with him, studying his interpretation of sacred history and preparing for the next stage, some of them for years. Jesus probably joined John’s school for a time. But John says he didn’t recognize Jesus at first, that is, he didn’t realize who he really was. But he sensed that something new was happening, precisely what neither of them knew, neither John nor Jesus. But at his baptism, it became clear that yes, something new was happening.

In today’s reading, Andrew goes to his brother Simon and says, “We have found the Messiah!” Astounding, powerful words! Jews had been waiting for the Messiah since the time of Moses, for God’s anointed, in Greek the Christ, who would deliver them at last and forever from oppression, foreign domination and shame as a conquered people. They thought of the Messiah as a warrior king who would drive the Romans out and re-establish the glory days of Kings David and Solomon and maybe even make Israel an imperial power.

Something new was happening. Jesus did not understand his mission at first. Although the only begotten Son of God, one in being with the Father, true God from true God, he was also a man like any other man except sin, and so he had to grow in wisdom, age and grace before God and man. After his baptism he was driven into the desert for forty days by the Evil One to be tempted, recalling the forty days Moses led the People through the desert. There in the wilderness it was revealed to him: the power of spirit over the power of brute force. That is something new. Jesus will overcome the power of darkness by the Cross, not by imposing it upon others, even his killers, but by taking it upon himself.

Something new is happening now. Tomorrow we celebrate Martin Luther King Day. It’s debatable when it started. Some would say it started with Thoreau in 19th Century Massachusetts when he wrote the Essay on the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Others will say Mahatma Gandhi and the nonviolent campaign to free India in the first half of the 20th Century. Others will say December 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus. I say it started on Calvary two thousand years ago, and I know Martin King would say that too. But it takes time for something really new to be recognized for what it is. It’s been two thousand years, but with God a thousand years is as one day. So we, our church, are only two days old.

Down in Selma, Alabama, in March of 1965, a Unitarian minister, James Reeb, a white man, had been beaten to death by a racist mob. Martin King knew this was the time for an all-out push. He called everybody who could to come to Selma for a March to Montgomery. Monica and I agreed I had to go.

It wasn’t the first time I had been in the Deep South. Not long after college, I went to South Carolina to work on a refugee resettlement project. Small-scale, successful family farmers in the Po Valley of Italy had been ruined by floods. The National Catholic Rural Life Conference determined to resettle them on the land in America. We had 2,500 acres and 45 Italians. The project was run by a priest of the Rock Hill Oratory. He rented a modest house in a small town between the farm and the Oratory, and invited me to share it with him. The Catholic population in that area was .5%. We did not have a church. The local parish, a very small one, met for Sunday Mass in the chapel of a Catholic hospital run by nuns. Fr. Maurice said daily Mass there as well. One morning, as we approached the hospital, I saw a dead body on the lawn, a man, shot. “”What’s going on, Father?” “They dumped him here because they have a morgue; they can put him on ice.” “Where’s the sheriff?” I asked. “There won’t be a sheriff!” “The police?” “There won’t be any police!” “An inquest?” “Tom,” he said, “there won’t be any inquest. Look at him. Don’t you see? He’s black! They’ll bury him. That’s all!” That’s the way it was, the way it was in the land of strange fruit.

Tomorrow is also Monica’s 70th birthday. She had given birth to our son just one month before Martin King called us to Selma. None of us knew what was going to happen, or whether we would ever come home. She let me go, and I am eternally grateful to her for that. Monsignor Dugan was there too. He slept on the gymnasium floor of Saint Edmund’s parish. I snuck a hospital bed into an unfinished X-ray lab in the Good Samaritan Hospital when no one was looking and made a comfortable space for myself until we set out on the March to Montgomery. It took four days, as I recall, along Alabama Route 80. We were sitting ducks. Nick Katzenbach, the U.S. Attorney General, sent the National Guard to protect us, and I must admit, I was glad. I wanted to get back home to Monica and raise my son. My father didn’t get to do that.

When we came back from the March, I went to the old folks’ solarium in the hospital to see if we made national TV news that night. We were so often ignored by the media. But there on the screen was President Lyndon Baines Johnson, addressing a joint session of the Congress and the Senate, and all the country and all the world. He was talking about us. He named us. He said we were right. A white man with a Southern accent said there was no longer any room in this country for bigotry and racial hatred. He demanded that the Congress pass the Voting Rights Bill. He would sign it into law. He came to the end of his speech, put his papers down, looked into the camera, paused and said, “We shall overcome!” Astonishing, powerful words from that mouth! With those words, he stood with us, the President, a Southern white man stood with us! We knew in that instant that we had won and the South, and America would never be the same. We would have the vote, all of us! It had taken ten years since Emmitt Till had been murdered and Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus. Forty-two of us had been killed. But we never struck back, and we won, faith and nonviolence had won! I looked around the room. It was crowded with students and clergy and old radicals from the labor movement, some of them hardened veterans of terrible battles, and there wasn’t a dry eye to be seen. Tears poured down their faces. Martin King was never seen to cry but that once. We had won. Nonviolence had won.

Something new is happening in North Africa and the Middle East and in American cities now. Or is it new? Maybe it’s so old it looks like new. It’s the power of spirit, the power of love, the power of the Cross, the power of nonviolence. Christ has overcome. Jesus is our peace. There is nothing to fear. Peace be with you. 

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