I Came to Bring Fire…

20220814 Sermon for Proper 15 and Feast Day of Jonathan Daniels, at St. Andrews Episcopal Chruch, Madison, CT

On this day, we celebrate the life of Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian who was murdered on August 20th 1965 in Hayneville, Alabama. It was a tragic end to a grueling week. Earlier that Spring, Jonathan responded to Dr. Martin Luther King’s request for clergy to gather in Selma. Initially, he had gone just for a march from Selma to Montgomery, but after coming home briefly to New Hampshire , he returned to Alabama to spend the summer. He was arrested at a demonstration on this day in 1965 with 28 others who were transported to jail in a garbage truck.

After their release on August 20th, Jonathan, teenagers Joyce Bailey and Ruby Sales, and Roman Catholic priest Richard Morrisroe went for a cold drink at Varner’s Cash Store. Standing in front of the store, wielding a shotgun, was Thomas Coleman, who ordered them off the property using language that I cannot repeat from this pulpit.

Thomas then leveled his shotgun at 17 year old Ruby and pulled the trigger just as Jonathan pushed Ruby out of the way. The blast entered into Jonathan’s body, killing him instantly. Thomas then turned his weapon at Richard and shot him in the back as he and Joyce tried to run.

It was the System of White Supremacy that gave Tom the confidence and the entitlement to stand in front of the store that day, and empty his shotgun into two people, knowing that the system would defend him; see HIM as the victim of "outsiders" and "agitators". And that is precisely what the System of White Supremacy did. The all-white jury acquitted him, and he died in 1997 with children, and grand-children, and great-grand-children.

Jesus said; "I came to bring fire to the earth… Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! …why do you not know how to interpret the present time?" Fire, division, our cluelessness about the present times; these are not words we expect to hear from Jesus. Where is the Prince of Peace in this gospel? [1]

The fire I think, is the kind of fire-in-the-belly that Jonathan Daniels felt, and that sent him back to Selma. Jonathan wrote; "Something had happened to me in Selma, which meant I had to come back… I could not stand by in benevolent dispassion any longer without compromising everything I know and love and value. The imperative was too clear, the stakes too high, my own identity was called too nakedly into question … I had been blinded by what I saw here (and elsewhere), and the road to Damascus led, for me, back here."

The fire I think, is the kind of fire-in-the-belly that Ruby felt after Jonathan took a shotgun blast to protect her. Ruby has spent her entire life working on justice. In a 2016 interview on Krista Tippet’s "On Point", Ruby talked about the rage of our times in the light of what she called her black folk-religion:

"This whole business of demonization, I’ve been deeply concerned about it, because it does not locate the good in people. It gives up on people. And you see that most especially in the right and the left. I have been very concerned about the demonization that comes out of right-wing communities and also the demonization that I’ve heard on the left. And it comes from the same source of displaced whiteness... And I have had deep problems with the anger, the vitriolic rage that has come out of the right and the left — and I never thought I would say this — and the only safe landing space seems to be in the middle. [laughs] And I think we should really think about that. I do believe that we’re witnessing something that we need to pay real attention to." [2].

Ruby is trying to interpret for us the anger and vitriolic rage in our nation as a sign of the times, as Jesus suggests, and I don’t think she ever gave up on Tom Coleman before he died.

I think the division Jesus speaks of, is the kind of division that five Christians felt on the porch of that store in 1965. Four working to end White Supremacy… one determined to perpetuate it. All five were part of a single family, Christians, called to bear witness to Jesus. And yet, there was brother against sisters, and brother against brothers that day. One, anointed with the living water of baptism, and sealed as Christ’s own forever, pulled the trigger of his shotgun twice. Another, also baptized and sealed, stepped in front of his sister to shield her from the shotgun blast, taking its life-ended effects into his own body.

Where do you see yourself in this parable? As Ruby or Joyce? As Jonathan or Richard? Could you see yourself as Tom Coleman? Could you see yourself as one defending a way of life, any way of life, that you think is threatened and under attack? Could you see your own capacity-for-violence in defense of that value? Can you see yourself as one, so dedicated to a cause, any cause, that you could empty a weapon into the body of someone who threatens that cause?

Can we own our own capacity for violence, and can we renounce that violence in favor of non-violence? "Gandhi insisted that no one join him who was not willing to take up arms to fight for independence. They could not freely renounce what they had not entertained… Only then [could] such a person freely renounce violence and embrace active nonviolence. It is dangerous to be engaged in nonviolent struggle beside people who have not yet learned about their inner violence." [3]

In today’s time too little has changed from Hayneville almost 60 years ago, and Jesus’ 2000 year old Gospel of fire and division and reading the times. The System of White Supremacy still kills Black and Brown people at twice the rate of white people during police encounters, and the likelihood of Black and Brown incarceration is far higher than it should be.

There are still Christians like Tom who, in the last few years, feel emboldened and given permission to proclaim White Supremacy instead the gospel. There are Christians who carry weapons with them to church and to other public places; who call themselves "a good guy with a gun"; who embrace violence, and stand ready to use that violence in the name of Jesus.

Can we, as Ruby Sales suggests, locate the good in people and refrain from demonizing them … can we engage across the divide non-violently, as Jesus did… as Jonathan Daniels did? As the Prince of Peace through Ruby Sales does?

Last Sunday, I witnessed retired Bishop Jim Curry hard at work on his furnace, as he turned weapons of violent destruction into gardening tools. With his help, I made a heart-shaped pendant that I’m wearing today, out of a shotgun barrel. Jesus kindled a fire in Jim’s heart, so Jim kindles fire in his kiln, heating gun barrels red hot. This is what fiery non-violent peacemaking looks like. Is there division over what Jim is doing? Yes… there are some who see his ministry as a direct threat to their lives and their way of life. Has Jim understood his own capacity for violence? Yes, and he has renounced it. And this too is a sign of the times.

May Jesus bless us all with holy fire, knowing that with his fire burning in our hearts, there will be cross-shaped division. May we reach across those divisions non-violently… bridge with-the-cross to bring peace, and may that peace become a sign of our times. Amen.

[1] Taken from Luke 12:49-56 (NRSV): "Jesus said, "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law." He also said to the crowds, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?"
[2] Ruby sales - where does it hurt? The On Being Project. (2021, November 8). Retrieved August 13, 2022, from https://onbeing.org/programs/ruby-sales-where-does-it-hurt/
[3] Wink, W. (1992). Jesus Third Way; Non-violent Engagement. In Engaging the Powers; Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. Book, Fortress Press.