Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
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Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 16, 2015

Racism is an ugly word. It conjures up images of slavery, of lynchings, of the four little girls killed on their way to Sunday school, of black children having to be escorted by armed guards to a newly integrated school, of Rosa Parks being arrested for the simple act of sitting down on a bus.

Though it sometimes seems to go underground, and we have seen many advances for black people in this country, including our first black president and our first black presiding bishop, recent events in the news – Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston and certainly others – have shown that racism is still alive and well. It is still an evil we must fight. (P)

Today we celebrate the life of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a modern martyr who was killed while participating in the civil rights movement. Daniels was a seminarian who had been called by God to the ordained ministry. I know what that is like. I experienced a call from the Holy Spirit to go to seminary when I literally felt a push in my back to go. It is an experience like no other. God is asking you to do something specific for God. Not just anyone will do; it is you God wants. So I went. Daniels had a conversion experience on Easter Day in 1962 at Church of the Advent in Cambridge, MA. Previously he had been struggling with his faith and at one point almost lost it. But not anymore. He had toyed with the idea of seminary among many other subjects, but this time he was sure he was called. So he enrolled in Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge.

Jonathan had a particular affinity for Mary’s song, the Magnificat. His soul, which had certainly been touched by God as Mary’s had, was constantly magnifying the Lord and he knew that God was his Savior. But the most moving part of the song to him was the part that showed the way God wanted the world to be, the way God’s kingdom was. God’s ways were a reversal of worldly ways. God would cast down the mighty from their thrones, exalt the humble and meek and fill the hungry with good things. The way Jonathan hungered after these words showed his desire to help God do this, to follow God in bringing in the kingdom.

One night he heard a televised speech from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asking for people to join him in a march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery to demonstrate support for civil rights. The Civil Rights Act had been passed, but not much was being done about it; racism was too entrenched, not only in the south but throughout the country and in the churches as well, where it most definitely should not have been. “No Jew nor Greek, no slave or free, no male or female,” Paul says, but everyone is included and has the same rights in the church. Sadly, it was not that way.

Daniels decided he would go to Selma for the march and he did, but after the two days, he decided to stay longer. So he took a leave from seminary and returned to Selma. He participated in marches, helped register people to vote and spent many Sundays trying to integrate the local Episcopal Church. The black people he brought with him were allowed to be there, but it was clear the church was not happy about it.

Jonathan went back to ETS in May to complete his exams and in July returned to Alabama, where he helped to produce a list of federal, state and local agencies and other resources available to help people in need.

On Friday, August 13, he went to the town of Fort Deposit to participate in picketing three local businesses. He and others were arrested on the 14th and held in the county jail in Hayneville for six days until they were bailed out. That day, four of them started to enter a shop with black people and they were met by a man who told them to leave or be shot. He tried to shoot one 17-year-old black woman named Ruby Sales and Jonathan pushed her out of the way and was killed instead. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said “One of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry was performed by Jonathan Daniels.”

Jonathan was a martyr. He didn’t start out to be a martyr; he started out to follow Christ. He didn’t intend to be killed; he intended to do what was right. His decision to go to Alabama was not based on whether he would live or die; it was based on helping his Lord and Savior with God’s plan to reverse the order of the world, to lift up the poor and oppressed and to cast down the mighty. Surely he knew going to Alabama could be dangerous, yet the cause of civil rights was so important to him that he was willing to undergo anything, even death. Jonathan followed the example of Jesus and the apostles and countless martyrs who have died for their kingdom faith. He is one of only two Americans enshrined as “Modern Martyrs” in Canterbury Cathedral, the other one being Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Jonathan’s story is about racism We would like to deny that the power of racism still exists in our churches, our country and our world, but it is very real. People are being treated very badly and it seems nothing can be done about it. But we have to try because Jesus would want us to. We can start with ourselves and whatever latent or not-so-latent racism exists in us, For example, are we scared of black people or of Muslims who might be terrorists or Hispanics taking jobs away from Americans? If we have any trace of these feelings, we can pray for their removal. We

can work against racism on a personal level by treating everyone equally, and we can participate in marches or whatever demonstrations against the sin of racism might be available. We can follow our Lord’s lead to create a world where everyone is equal, where everyone has enough, and encourage others to do the same.

Jonathan’s story is about martyrdom. None of us wants to be a martyr for any cause, and in this country, virtually none of us has to be. But there have een modern martyrs like Bishop Oscar Romero, who died for his beliefs, and many others who have lost their lives because they have refused to deny their Christianity. Would we deny ours if faced with the choice of doing that or certain death? I think we hope we would not, but there is this nagging doubt in us about whether would be strong enough in our faith to pay the ultimate price.

But most of all, Jonathan Myrick Daniels’ story is about call – how we are called to be part of God’s kingdom project in our own very specific ways. It is about the way a loving God chooses to communicate with us, to draw us forward to new life, to become all we were created to be. We receive our calls differently – nudges, pushes, liturgy, other people nd many other ways. It is always risky to accept a call because it means change for us and we don’t like change. For all of   us call is life-threatening, though not all are called to physical risk.

Jonathan Daniels responded to his calls and stayed faithful to his Lord, no matter what the cost. His life is a model for who we ought to be as Christians and what we ought to do. We are to witness to the immeasurable love of God’s kingdom against racism and all the other social ills we have in our world so that one day Christ will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant”.


     - Rev. Ann Barker

Biographical Information from The Jon Daniels Story, ed. William J. Schneider (Morehouse 1992)