A hand on your shoulder

Philocrites : Liberal Religion : Sermons 1.20.03

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Walton to the First Parish in Framingham, Massachusetts, on March 16, 2002.

Once again, the entire world has had a stinging reminder that we had better not be so perverse as to think that we can go our own sweet way. The hand of fate, of course — the eternal human problem.

— Penelope Lively, "Dancing to Distant Tunes," in The American Scholar (Winter 2002)

Last weekend, I was in Birmingham, Alabama, for a convocation of several hundred Unitarian Universalist ministers, a gathering dedicated to renewing the callings of our religious leaders. It also happened to be a reunion of sorts for ministers who had first gone to Alabama thirty-seven years ago in response to a call from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The black citizens of Selma had been trying to register to vote. It was 1965, and the powers that be in those days had found a perverse range of strategies to keep African Americans out of the voting booth. To register, if you were black, you had to show up at the courthouse on the one or two days a month that the registrar's office was open; you had to stand in a long line; you had to bring a "reputable citizen" to vouch for you; and, if you made it inside during the few hours the office was open, you had to prove you were literate. If you were black, you might have to answer a question like, "How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?" It was absurd, it was cruel, it was flagrantly unconstitutional, and the black citizens had decided to demand a change.

They were going to march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery, and on the first day of their journey, on Sunday, March 7, state troopers on horseback and sheriff's deputies armed with clubs attacked the marchers, beating, gassing, and trampling them. The march was turned back in chaos. Americans were horrified to see the images on television that night, and Martin Luther King sent a telegram to religious leaders throughout the country asking them to come to Selma to show their support. And many, many did just that.

Many Unitarian Universalist ministers heard about the telegram the next morning from phone calls from colleagues. By that evening, nearly forty Unitarian Universalist ministers had flown to Alabama. One of them, Richard Leonard, the minister of religious education at the Community Church of New York, had heard about King's telegram at a Monday-morning staff meeting. He had tried to go to Birmingham in 1963 for the funeral of the four black girls killed in a bomb blast at the 16th Street Baptist Church, but a bomb threat had delayed his plane and his trip had been cancelled. "Fate had laid its warm hand squarely on my shoulder," Leonard wrote. "I would go that afternoon. I would be back at my job in two or three days. Or so I thought."

He left without telling his wife or two daughters. He knew they would not have wanted him to go. Instead, he planned to call his mother-in-law from the airport. He went without a toothbrush, without a change of underwear, without a watch. He had no idea what would happen. If this sermon were a public service announcement, I might say at this point, "Do not try this at home." For, as fate would have it, he was in Alabama for eighteen days, days that changed the course of American history. And now, thirty-seven years later, the notes that he took on the back of envelopes, on scraps of paper, his journal entries from Alabama, where he marched the full distance from Selma to Montgomery, have been rescued from the archives at Harvard, and have been published. The book is Call to Selma: Eighteen Days of Witness. You'll want to read it. It tells in very human terms the story of the march that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the most significant civil rights legislation since the end of the Civil War.

And it tells the tragic story of James Reeb, another Unitarian Universalist minister who answered King's call. Many of you know his story. Less than a day after they arrived, Reeb and two colleagues were attacked by white assailants at dusk on a street in Selma. Struck in the head with a two-by-four, Reeb was fatally wounded. He died at a hospital in Birmingham on March 11, 1965, the focus of nationwide attention. His death, which outraged white Americans in a way that the deaths of other civil rights martyrs had not, may have provided the catalyst that finally forced Congress to protect every citizen's right to vote.

Last Monday, on the thirty-seventh anniversary of Reeb's death, the two survivors of that attack returned to Selma with fifty of their colleagues. For them, it was a pilgrimage to a place of historic transformation.

For many religious liberals, the civil rights struggle is the singular example of how the kingdom of God unfolds in history. It shows individual human beings responding to the demands of their time and aligning themselves with divine and creative purposes. Martin Luther King borrowed a phrase from the nineteenth-century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker to affirm his faith that "the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends ultimately toward justice." While some Christians await the coming of the kingdom of God in an apocalyptic cataclysm — the Millennium, the "rapture," the end of history — liberal Christians and other religious liberals have tended to watch for and contribute to the unfolding of the kingdom of God in the progress of human civilization. One hundred years ago, in a much more optimistic era, Unitarians quite confidently stated their belief in the "progress of Mankind onward and upward forever."

But history sometimes moves in demonic and horrible directions, too. The English novelist Penelope Lively describes the still-unfolding shock waves of September 11: "A myriad of people will be affected," she writes: "the course of their lives shifted at that moment. They chose what to have for breakfast, but a far more powerful force stepped in to make more crucial decisions." Going to work, or boarding a plane, or spending an extra few minutes with a child on the first day of school, or standing here rather than there, or picking up one yellow packet rather than another — simple actions like these meant the difference between life and death on September 11 and the days that followed. But the truth of the matter, as it always has been, is that we are lucky every moment of our lives but one. "All of us think we lead private lives," Lively writes, "unwilling to acknowledge the footsteps that pad behind, the perpetual threat of that hand on the shoulder that will propel us in a direction we do not want to take."

Like a hand on the shoulder, an appeal from Selma turned Richard Leonard and James Reeb and hundreds of others toward Alabama, where they played their small roles helping to reshape America for the better. Many of us have felt our lives turned in unexpected and often unwanted directions by a medical diagnosis, by an accident, by a pink slip, by a friend's betrayal, by any number of events that we would have scripted quite differently. And then, the hand on the shoulder six months ago that turned our attention toward those horrible images on television, toward matters of life and death and war, and as much as any of us wishes we could awaken from this disturbing dream, we are still dancing, as Penelope Lively writes, to those distant tunes.

Near the end of my studies at Harvard Divinity School, I began searching for the simplest possible way to describe the heart of the liberal gospel, the religious insight at the heart of my Unitarian Universalism, the good news of my faith. I wasn't looking for something simplistic; I wasn't looking for a doctrine; I wasn't looking for something comfortable and easy to believe. I was trying to put my finger on what it is that draws us together and animates our concern for each other and animates our work for a better world. What is good news in a world threatened, as always, by cruelty, greed, and violence?

"Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, Look, here it is!' or There it is!' For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you." (Luke 17:21, New Revised Standard Version)

Jesus' teaching about the kingdom of God is not easily understood; in fact, he talked about it mostly through parables, which suggests to me that he is pointing toward something that may elude simple definition. Jesus didn't speak in English, of course, and the Greek is ambiguous, and probably translated from Aramaic. The best-known translation says, "the kingdom of God is within you." But we could translate this teaching as "the kingdom of God is in your midst." It could read, "The kingdom of God is at hand." It could also be translated, "The reign of God is within your grasp." One theologian even suggests this translation: "God's reign is available."

This has become the symbol for my liberal religious faith. Jesus, the great spiritual teacher, is pointing beyond the worldly powers of his time — beyond the powers of political manipulation and violence, much more horrific in his day than in ours — beyond what the early Christians called the "principalities and powers" that shape human history and so often distort human lives. Jesus is pointing beyond conventional wisdom, beyond tradition. He is not denying that we are caught up, for good and ill, with politics, with history, with culture. The kingdom of God isn't an escape route. But it is a profound reminder of our deeper course, our calling as human beings to see God's creative image in each other and in ourselves. Even in the midst of oppression, even in times of war, even in the midst of abuse, even in failure, even in illness, even in addiction, there are resources among us, resources at hand, to reclaim our better selves. There are many ways to interpret this reality, but I cannot doubt that it is real.

Someday, the hand on my shoulder that will turn me in a direction I did not know I needed to go may be your hand. Someday, a hand on your shoulder may turn you to see what is truly available to you.

Fate is not the only force in history. To be human is always to have another companion, a creative source that is not strictly inside us — for we often find it beckoning in each other — but that is not strictly beyond us either — for even in our most profound isolation, we possess an inner freedom. This is the spiritual insight in the old English prayer to God, "whose service is perfect freedom."

Buddhists often have a way of capturing the essence of a religious insight by putting it in its starkest terms. The Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church says that religion is what we do with our awareness that we have been born and are going to die. The Buddha put it like this: "A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down and saw, far below, another tiger waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him. Two mice little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!"

My friends, this is the worst case scenario. More often than not, we will find God's realm in less radical contexts — in our love for one another, in our efforts to shape a better world, in our spiritual practices — but even if we are clinging to the vine with one hand, we can always reach out with the other. God's realm is this world, seen as if through the eyes of its loving creator and caretaker. To see in this way is to join in that creative stewardship for our beautiful and broken world.

May we who live in times of turmoil and conflict remember that our path goes deeper than the course set for us by history and fate. Fate is not the only force in history; we also possess an inner freedom, a creative soul, that enables us to greet and build the reign of God even now, if we would only see it.

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Philocrites | Copyright © 2002 by Christopher L. Walton | clwalton at post.harvard.edu