Jonathan Daniels, Ruby Sales, and the Life of the Saints
Proper 15B, 2015
There are not many Americans in the 20th century which our larger tradition would call martyr. But there are two such names inscribed in the Chapel of Saints and Martyrs of Our Own Time in Canterbury Cathedral. One is Martin Luther King Jr. The other? A seminarian from Episcopal Divinity School, then called Episcopal Theological Seminary, Jonathan Daniels.
I bring his name to this place, to St. Paul in 2015, because we need to know him as one of us. I bring his name to this place, St. Clement’s, because we need to hear of his life and witness within the context of our worship. I bring his name here, because the specifics of his death remind us of who we are and to whom we belong. I bring his name here because I read the news and the Bible and I advocate for those policies which seek to stand between that which is love and that which is hate. I bring his name here because we pour the water and eat the bread for a reason. I bring his name here because it is his name and not his killers which shall be remembered in the church and the world.
I bring his name here because his feast day is on our calendar of lesser feasts and fasts and marking his name becomes religious obligation. I bring his name here, because when we speak of the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, he like so many others, sings the holy, holy, holy into the world. And, I bring his name today because in five days time we will mark that moment when great commitment grounded in a life of faith, encountered a depth of hatred which it seems even love could not overcome.
Because, in five days times it will be 50 years since Joyce Bailey, Ruby Sales, Jonathan Daniels and Richard Morrisoe tried to buy a soda from a store which was known as a place which would serve a mixed group. But, their thirst was seen as reason enough for death. And, a special deputy (a man who trusted that his name and his race would allow him to act with impunity) in one moment both ordered them to leave and raised his weapon.
And, it was Jonathan who pushed Ruby aside and took the blast meant for her.
Two months before his murder, Daniels wrote this about living with and advocating with blacks in what was known as the so-called Alabama Black Belt: “I lost fear in the black belt when I began to know in my bones and sinews that I have truly been baptized into the Lord’s death and resurrection, that in the only sense that really matters I am already dead, and my life is hid with Christ in God.”
And, so while in living he died and in dying he lived. And, we speak his name because the bread and the water made him complete and in the same way we are offered such unity--the “one who eats this bread will live forever”.
And, so Jonathan lives and we live and Christ lives. Abide in me and I abide in you
in five days time, we mark the death of the seminarian who stood between the teens and the weapon of hatred which would destroy them.
The man who leveled that shotgun was acquitted by an all white jury.
And Carlton L Perdue, the county solicitor serving in Haynesville Alabama at the time, his response? “If [Jonathan Daniels and his friends] had been tending to their own business, like I tend to mine, they’d be living and enjoying themselves today”
If...if he had ignored his baptismal covenant.
Christ have mercy
If he had failed to see that in the breaking of the bread we are bound together as the body of Christ.
Lord have mercy.
If he had continued to be nice and ignored the call to be kind.
Christ have mercy.
If he had set aside his faith for the interests of the status quo...
Grant us peace.
It took the intervention of the president to bring that young seminarian’s body home to his mother.
And, the story could have ended there. But, his story didn’t. For in dying he lived and in living he died. Inquiring, discerning, courageous, persevering...Jonathan echoed the will and the work of the creator who loves us all.
In the prayer we speak following a baptism, we bid that God “Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen.”
This, the prayer for infants, echoing the prayer of a king. As Solomon, in all his glory, bids the one God to give your servant an understanding mind and the ability to discern between good and evil.
A humble request, yet one which holds the power to transform the world...an understanding mind and the ability to discern between good and evil.
And, like other humble things, it’s simplicity is it’s power.
That this may be our own legacy! To share the water of new life, to gather together all at this table to share the same bread, to seek understanding and discern that which is good and that which is evil.
Jonathan’s legacy is one which our church acclaims. It is a legacy that, like the teenager whose life he saved, lives on.
And, what of her? 17 year old Ruby Sales testified against the man who had tried to kill her and had killed Jonathan in her stead. And so, living, she went on to testify through her work in the anti-racism movement. And, grounded in the same life of faith which she saw lived out in Jonathan, in 1994 she entered the same seminary which Jonathan himself had attended.
Today, Ruby runs The SpiritHouse Project “a national nonprofit organization that uses the arts, research, education, action, and spirituality to bring diverse peoples together to work for racial, economic, and social justice, as well as for spiritual maturity. SpiritHouse roots its work today in exposing the extrajudicial murders of African-Americans by White vigilantes and police.”
Jonathan died and love won. Baptized into the life and death and resurrection of Jesus our Christ, Jonathan died and love won.
What happened there happens here, and what happened to him happens to us and what life is lived is lived in us.
Because, in dying he destroyed our death and rising he restored our life.
Following this sermon we will affirm our faith, we will pray for all people, we will confess our sins, we will share the peace and we will break the bread.
And, these are not just ritual actions, these are not just “nice things to do”. These are witness and testimony before the God we call the God of justice and compassion. This is serious, this is important, this is life giving and this is love.
And, thus, I invite you to stand as able, in love and with love, to pray the prayer dedicated to the ministry of Jonathan Myrick Daniels.
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.
http://www.spirithouseproject.org/aboutruby.cfm About Ruby Sales and her current life and ministry
http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2015/08/13/remembering-jonathan-daniels-50-years-after-his-martyrdom/ Episcopal News Service Essay about the life and legacy of Jonathan Daniels
http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=215 The lectionary readings for Proper 15B