St. Mary Magdalene Anglican Church

Vancouver, B.C.

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The Anglican Parish of St. Mary Magdalene

2950 Laurel Street at West 14th Avenue

Vancouver, BC, V5Z  3T3

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Diocese of New Westminster Anglican Church of Canada

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Sermon

August 25th Pentecost 11, 2019                      John Marsh


Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17



(This homily is a repeat of a homily preached a number of years ago on these lections. It is repeated, with only minor revisions, without apology; its wider topic is of such importance. Given the authority we give to our unexamined assumptions concerning the necessity of the heroic individual, the importance of the extraordinary with regard to change, it is critical to continue to note the pivotal place of the ordinary within transformation. Truth be told, the dynamic of change and transformation is often extraordinarily ordinary.)

~

…Jesus saw her… (See Luke 13:13a)


The roots of change and transformation are usually not noticed because they are, most often, mundane.


The usual agents of change are passionate and committed but almost always profoundly ordinary; only occasionally does history remember them…


But change continues and transformations unfold…


As Paul Hawken says, “History tends by its very nature to obscure the mundane acts that are the harbingers of change.”


…Jesus saw her and he called her over… (See Luke 13:13a)


And so, in an attempt to surface those mundane acts that are the harbingers of change, let’s play a game…


Have you heard of:


Martin Luther King Jr.


Mahatma Gandhi


Rosa Parks


Henry David Thoreau


Ralph Waldo Emerson


How about:


Antoine Laurent Jussieu and Adrien Henri Jussieu


Henry Stephens Salt


Clifford and Virginia Durr


Myles Horton


Claudette Colvin


Bayard Rustin  


Glenn Smiley


Juliette Morgan


All of these people – a few known, others barely remembered, most obscure - are all important and ordinary…


To understand the dynamic of ordinary, mundane change, let’s consider but one aspect of the civil rights movement….


To do so let’s go back to Christmas Day 1832…


The Jussieu family, Emerson and Thoreau


Leaving Boston on Christmas Day 1832, a despondent 29 years old Ralph Waldo Emerson, set sail for Europe. Previous to his departure, Emerson had been the assistant at Second Unitarian Church in Boston but the death of his young wife the year before had deeply shaken him. In July he visited the Jardin des Plantes and the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. This was a major research station used by the Jussieu family of scientists. Here they created the world’s first natural system of botanical and animal classification later to serve as a template for Darwin’s theory of evolution.


Emerson was so animated by the ‘web of life’ displayed here that his philosophic mind experienced an epiphany of sorts. This experience and his later reflections led directly to his publishing the essay ‘Nature’ in which he saw the self, religion, science and nature as one field of thought – one of mutual interdependence. The essay ‘Nature’ was foundational for environmentalism and social justice in that it planted those seeds which later led to considerations of how we treat creation and how we treat one another.


A chance encounter at one his lectures with Henry David Thoreau, who had twice read ‘Nature’ (they subsequently became friends), led to Emerson’s suggestion to “Keep a journal” which Thoreau did for the rest of his life; that journal and his ponderings sparked in part by ‘Nature’ led to his refusal to pay the poll tax because of his opposition to the Mexican-American war and slavery. Because of his refusal to pay six years of delinquent taxes (to pay the tax was to condone and participate in what the tax was used for) Thoreau was arrested and jailed. This experience led to his writing ‘Civil Disobedience’.


(An apocryphal story: Emerson, visiting Thoreau in jail asked what he was doing in jail which prompted Thoreau’s reply, “Waldo what are you doing out there?”; the difference between the two - Thoreau fiercely believed in human interdependence which called humans to stand for moral imperatives no matter how distant)  


Henry Stephens Salt – In 1906 or 1907 Salt introduced Gandhi to Thoreau’s ‘Civil Disobedience’ which, along with the teachings of Jesus and the Hindu concept of ahimsa, was foundational to his lifelong pursuit of non-violent resistance and non-co-operation with evil and instrumental in Indian independence as well as many other justice movements.


Clifford and Virginia Durr and Myles Horton – In the 1930’s Myles Horton started a school - the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee to help economically disadvantaged whites but soon it expanded to focus on civil rights. Horton was heavily influenced by the example and writings of Gandhi.


In 1954 Clifford and Virginia Durr, for whom Rosa Parks had worked for years, gave Rosa a scholarship to attend a summer course at Highlander, in which for the first time in her life she was not treated with hostility by a group of whites. Here she was educated and trained in the means of nonviolent resistance to segregation. This was to stand her in good stead when, on December 1st 1955, she boarded a bus driven by a white bus driver named James Blake who had harassed her many times before. Later, on that same ride, although sitting in the first row of the coloured section, she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger thereby sparking a cascading series of events which changed the face of the US.


Bayard Rustin and Glenn Smiley – Martin Luther King after having accepting leadership of the Montgomery Improvement Association (formed to support and promote the bus boycott) was very limited in his knowledge of non-violent resistance.  In 1956 King met the civil rights activist Rustin who schooled him in the Gandhian revolution in India and impressed upon him to rid himself of the armed guards who protected King and his family.


Rustin also introduced King to the Methodist minister Glenn Smiley who had been active in non-violent resistance for over 20 years. Smiley introduced King to Thoreau’s, ‘Civil Disobedience’, Gandhi’s, ‘Autobiography’ and Richard Gregg’s, ‘The Power of Non-Violence’ which King later said were the three works which influenced him most.


A story to remind of the weak force of the ordinary…


Nine months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, Claudette Colvin did the same thing. She too was arrested and convicted. The Montgomery Improvement Association considered using her case to publicize segregation laws but later declined because of her age (she was 15 years old). "Claudette gave all of us moral courage. If she had not done what she did, I am not sure that we would have been able to mount the support for Mrs. Parks," her former attorney, Fred Gray, told Newsweek


And finally, one barely remembered, if not forgotten story, to remind us of the cost:

Juliette Morgan, a librarian and a native of Montgomery, Alabama, wrote to the Montgomery Advertiser on December 12th 1955, a letter which perceptively compared the Montgomery Bus Boycott to Gandhi’s Salt March of 1937. She wrote of the boycotters that they “seem to have taken a lesson from Gandhi and our own Thoreau who influenced Gandhi. Their own task is greater than Gandhi's however, for they have greater prejudice to overcome. One feels that history is being made in Montgomery these days... It is hard to imagine a soul so dead, a heart so hard, a vision so blinded and provincial as not to be moved with admiration at the quiet dignity, discipline and dedication with which the Negroes have conducted their boycott." Morgan was harassed, taunted and shunned by townspeople and former friends until she ended her misery by taking her own life.


The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. recalled Juliette Morgan's influence on him and the Civil Rights Movement in his book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. Morgan was the first to draw an analogy between the boycott and Gandhi's practice of non-violent civil disobedience. King wrote, "About a week after the protest started, a white woman who understood and sympathized with the Negroes' efforts wrote a letter to the editor of the Montgomery Advertiser comparing the bus protest with the Gandhian movement in India. Miss Juliette Morgan, sensitive and frail, did not long survive the rejection and condemnation of the white community, but long before she died in the summer of 1957, the name of Mahatma Gandhi was well known in Montgomery."


So what if seemingly small and/or insignificant events did not occur?


What if Emerson never encountered the Jussieu family in Paris nor wrote the essay ‘Nature’?


What if Thoreau had not attended Emerson’s lecture in Boston nor read his essay ‘Nature’?


What if Thoreau paid his poll tax and not written ‘Civil Disobedience’?


What if Henry Salt had not given Gandhi a copy of Thoreau’s essay?


What if the Durr’s did not give Rosa Park a scholarship to the Highlander Folk School and what if Myles Horton had not founded the school or been willing to expand its original focus?


What if Claudette Colvin was not possessed of adolescent courage?


What if Bayard Rustin and Glenn Smiley had not schooled Martin Luther King Jr. in the philosophy, lessons and tactics of nonviolent resistance?


What if Juliette Morgan did not possess the conviction to love, to love justice even unto death?


What if?


Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations." Then I said, "Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." But the LORD said to me, "Do not say, 'I am only a boy'; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD." Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, "Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant."


Do not say I am too young…


Do not say I am too old…


Do not say I am too small…


Do not say I am too ordinary or too powerless…


Do not say the task is too large or the risk too great…


Remember…


There is no act so small or seemingly mundane that it may not be a harbinger of change…


When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” (Luke 13:13)


“What is the most important meditation that can be performed by human beings? Critical thinking followed by action” the Dalai Lama


Every word you utter to another human being has an effect, but you don’t know it. If people began to understand that change comes about by millions of tiny acts that seem to be totally insignificant, well then, they wouldn’t hesitate to take those tiny acts. Howard Zinn, Historian


“Do you know what God says, ‘You know I don’t have anybody else except you.’?”  Desmond Tutu