In the spirit of Jesus

Philocrites : Liberal Religion : Sermons 1.20.03


From a sermon preached by Christopher L. Walton to the First Congregational Society (Unitarian Universalist) in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, on Palm Sunday, April 8, 2001.


We must have the courage to be a failure . . . From this courage, from this willingness to let go what the world cherishes most, stems the strength of the spirit. This is the mystery that is embedded in all great religions, but in none so clearly, so unequivocally, as in Christianity . . . The story of Jesus' life was the story of a gigantic failure, a failure of such dimensions that the Western world, spiritually speaking, is still living by its grace, the grace by which the poor in spirit are blessed, the mourners are comforted, and the meek shall inherit the earth.

— G. Peter Fleck, The Mask of Religion, (1980): 92-93

And when Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

— Luke 19: 28 (RSV)

Many of you may have received in the mail this week a copy of UU World, the magazine of the Unitarian Universalist Association. As many of you know, my weekday job is working as senior editor of the magazine. For the first two months of this year, I spent much of my time researching the cover story of the issue that began arriving in mail boxes this week — the remarkable discovery of a recording of Martin Luther King speaking at the memorial service for the Reverend James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister who was killed thirty-six years ago by white segregationists in Selma, Alabama.

Martin Luther King had appealed to religious leaders to join him in Selma after a peaceful civil rights march by African Americans across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Sunday, March 7, 1965, had been brutally attacked by state troopers wearing gas masks, wielding clubs, by sheriff's deputies on horseback, by a posse of local men who set upon the marchers as they hurried back across the bridge. The attack, which came to be known as "Bloody Sunday," outraged Americans. Responding to King's appeal, several hundred ministers, priests, nuns, and concerned lay people hurried to Selma for a second march on Tuesday. On Tuesday evening, after eating dinner at a local restaurant, after marching in that day's demonstration, James Reeb and two other white Unitarian Universalist ministers were attacked on the street by men with clubs. By Thursday, James Reeb was dead.

The public outcry about the violence in Selma was intense. Demonstrations and memorial services across the country drew thousands. In Boston, nearly 20,000 people gathered in Boston Common for a service at the Arlington Street Church, where Reeb and his family attended services. In Washington, DC, several hundred maintained a vigil outside the White House. Lady Bird Johnson wrote in her diary: "When the news came that the Reverend Reeb had died, Lyndon and I excused ourselves for a hopeless, painful talk with Mrs. Reeb. But what is there to say? When we went upstairs, we could hear the congressional guests and music still playing below, and outside the chanting of the civil rights marchers. What a house. What a life."

On Monday evening, March 15, 1965, exactly a week after James Reeb had boarded a plane at Logan International Airport on his way to Selma, President Johnson went before a joint session of Congress to introduce the Voting Rights Act — the most important civil rights legislation since the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1870.

Johnson had telephoned Martin Luther King to invite him to attend the historic speech, but King said no: He would be in Selma on Monday, March 15, delivering the eulogy for the man whose death President Johnson would invoke in his speech to Congress. Johnson's speech is famous, but in its shadow, King's eulogy in Selma somehow never appeared in print — until this week, when UU World magazine published it for the first time. I urge you to read it. (You can listen to it as well.) It was thrilling and sobering to listen to that tape when it arrived in our office, to hear the voice of Dr. King, to hear what hadn't been heard in thirty-six years.

I'm telling you a bit of this story today, on Palm Sunday, because the story of James Reeb, in its own small way — like the story of Martin Luther King himself — helps us understand the meaning of Jesus' own decision to go to Jerusalem. The story of James Reeb helps us understand not only the meaning of Palm Sunday, but the meaning of our own commitment as a church to "unite in the love of truth and the spirit of Jesus for the worship of God and the service of humanity."

To put it simply, the question on Palm Sunday is this: What if Jesus had chosen not to go to Jerusalem? What if Martin Luther King had chosen not to go to Birmingham? had chosen not to walk into Montgomery? had chosen not to go to Memphis? What if James Reeb — and hundreds like him — had chosen not to go to Selma? What then? What if faith did not involve risk? What if faith were safe?

The gospels portray a contrast between what the disciples expect and what Jesus expects in Jerusalem. The disciples and the crowds who have heard about Jesus expect a triumphant king. As Jesus approaches the city, they "praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen" — and it is true that they had seen deeds of power: miracles of healing and reconciliation, of sight regained and lameness cured, of renewed health, of mental anguish healed, they had seen or heard about all of this — and they spread their coats in the road in front of him as he approached, saying, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!"

Perhaps the Pharisees saw the danger in this proclamation of a king; perhaps they knew how the Roman governor would view the arrival of a Jewish "king" in the midst of the Passover festival, in the midst of the celebration of Jewish liberation from Egyptian captivity. Maybe this is why they urge Jesus to silence his disciples; but maybe Jesus is right, if they were silent, "the stones would shout out." Something extraordinary is about to happen. The disciples expect one thing, and Jesus expects something else. He had told them, "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."

That's what this week is about, this week that invites us into the profound heart of the Christian story, this holy and disturbing and exhilarating week that we begin today by singing Hosanna, then join together to recreate the last supper on Thursday, and then extinguish candles in heartbreak on Friday night, leaving the church in darkness and grief, and then return at sunrise on Sunday morning in the graveyard to bear witness to the extraordinary proclamation, "Jesus Christ is risen today."

"In the love of truth and the spirit of Jesus, we unite for the worship of God and the service of humanity." I invite you to join me today in considering what it may mean during holy week to live in the spirit of Jesus. What if Jesus had not gone to Jerusalem?

Two modern novelists have approached this very question in compelling ways. Nikos Kazantzakis became famous for his 1955 novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, when it was made into a movie by Martin Scorsese. Kazantzakis imagines a Jesus who has the chance to come down off the cross, to live out his days as a regular person, to marry, to have children, to die a normal death. Jesus' last temptation is not to go to Jerusalem, not to suffer and die on the cross, but to live a simple human life. In the tempting vision of this alternate life, Jesus even meets the apostle Paul, who tells him that Christianity can grow and flourish even without his literal death on a cross. But Kazantzakis seems to believe that part of what is most compelling about Jesus is precisely the reality of his suffering, the idea that Jesus chose not to deny the cross.

There are many who wish that Christianity could shed the terrible tragedy of its central story, that it could tell a story of buoyant optimism, could promise a painless life. Many Unitarian Universalists believe that Easter is the celebration of the natural recurrence of spring, that the message of this week is simply natural renewal, as if our religion offers what CVS Pharmacy promised a few years ago on the posters in its windows: "CVS: We make Easter easy!" But there it is, real and gruesome and far from easy: there is a cross in the good news.

A more recent novel, Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago's 1994 book, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, tells the story of a Jesus who tries to resist God's election. Jesus, in Saramago's novel, is caught up in a divine drama that he accepts almost resignedly. He recognizes that he can heal the sick, but is disturbed by the way people respond to miracle workers. He recognizes what his crucifixion and resurrection will come to mean for centuries of people — but he also foresees the history of crusades, pogroms, inquisitions, and religious wars that will be launched under the banner of his cross — and he wants to know why he, a simple man, must die for all of this to come to pass. In a way, this book is also a meditation on the road not taken: What if Jesus had not gone to Jerusalem? What then?

My next door neighbor my first year in divinity school was a Buddhist monk who had escaped from Vietnam in a boat fifteen years earlier. We took an introductory course on the New Testament together. He taught me about Buddhism as he was trying to live it. And he asked me questions about Christianity. On the day that our professor lectured on the crucifixion, my friend burst into tears in the lecture hall. "It is so terrible," he said to me after class. "The Buddha lived to be old. He died at the end of a long life. How could it be that Jesus died like this? It is too terrible."

Christianity has a terrible mystery at its center, a puzzle that the followers of Jesus have confronted for two thousand years. Who is this that lived so remarkably, who healed body and spirit, who challenged the authorities of his day with the announcement of the coming reign of God? What does it mean that he died on a cross?

James Reeb and his family had moved to Dorchester in 1964 from Washington, DC, where he had been associate minister at All Souls Unitarian Church, a prestigious church. He had come to work in Roxbury for the American Friends Service Committee; his new job was to work on housing justice for the urban poor. When Martin Luther King asked fellow clergy to join him in Selma, to join him in confronting recalcitrant voting registrars and elected officials in Alabama who refused to register African Americans to vote, Reeb felt that he must go. He understood that going to Alabama would be dangerous; he understood that he had a choice. He did not seek martyrdom; he sought justice. As a person of faith, he went because he was called to stand with his brothers and sisters, to love his neighbor as he loved himself. (See Duncan Howlett, No Greater Love: The James Reeb Story, Skinner House 1993.)

His life was dedicated to the worship of God and the service of humanity. But it's not martyrdom that signifies living in the spirit of Jesus. No, it's faith: the faith that dares to risk a life of love and service and openness to God. It is a faith that risks failure, that acknowledges and remembers that we are mortal and that our triumphant entries may end in disaster; that God keeps faith with us not only on the Palm Sundays when the crowd shouts Hosanna, but also in the despair of the Good Fridays, when our task is "to find the courage to accept that failure, to surrender our self, to give up our ego, to relinquish our desire for worldly success."

The great twentieth century Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams writes, "Jesus in his inwardness, in his love of persons, in the audacity of his liberation from the bondage of mere tradition, in his confidence in the Kingdom that grows of itself in reaction to human response, in his faithfulness to his unique mission, in his eliciting of a new community in the world but not of it — above nation and race and class, embracing the humble and the wise, in his trust in the mysterious mercy of God, has made and makes more readily known and available to us the powers that can release us from self-worship and give us constant renewal of life and love. So persuasively and costingly has he made these powers available that we can understand why most of his followers through the ages have given him a special place and function within the order of being." (James Luther Adams, "Changing Frontiers of Liberal Religion," in The Prophethood of All Believers, Beacon Press, 1986, 75.)

As a community that gathers not in doctrinal agreement about the nature of Christ but instead in unity of spirit with Jesus' life, our task is to live in faith, willing to go when we are needed, willing to risk the loss of our comfort, our egos, our lives at least as we know them, willing to fail in love. The first commandment, Jesus taught, is to love God with all your heart, might, mind, and strength, and the second is to love your neighbor as yourself. The commandment is not to succeed; it is to love. The worship of God and the service of humanity sometimes costs everything: for James Reeb, for Martin Luther King, for Jesus of Nazareth, obedience led to Selma, to Memphis, to Jerusalem.

Thanks be to God for the faithfulness of those who live the risk of faith. Thanks be to God for the grace that blesses us from their witness.


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Philocrites | Copyright © 2001 by Christopher L. Walton | clwalton at post.harvard.edu