Called to Make a Difference – Peter Gilmer
In this sermon Peter quotes from David J. Garrow’s book, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
As we begin a new year, a time of new beginnings, I am reminded of the story Rev. Kitchen told of the man who lived along the Manitoba border. A surveyor from the Government of Saskatchewan came out to survey his land on a crisp fall day. When the surveyor arrived the man said, “You go out and do what you need to and when you get back I will have the coffee on.” So the surveyor, surveyed the property and when he came back he told the man that he had some bad news. “What is it”, asked the man. “Well, I have discovered that your property is not in Saskatchewan, it is in Manitoba.” “That is wonderful news”, said the man. “Why is it wonderful?”, asked the surveyor. “Because”, said the man, “I just don’t think I could take another Saskatchewan winter.”
Today’s scripture readings from the lectionary speak of calls to new beginnings and calls to make a difference. The boy Samuel is called at a time when the Word of God was rare and visions were not widespread. And is called for a very practical reason, to shift authority away from Eli’s priests household which had grown corrupt and distant from God’s justice. Ultimately Samuel will have the role of anointer of Kings, but he will also serve as the one who gives warnings of the ways of the Kings to come. It is a call to a very specific time and place which reminds us that call is related to historical relevance. To making a difference here and now.
In our Gospel reading from John, Jesus is continuing his call of the first disciples. He finds Phillip at Galilee, and says “follow me”. Phillip then finds Nathaniel and says to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.
And in the next verse is shown the wise ways in which to meet doubts whether our own or other peoples. “Can any good things come out of Nazareth?” Nathaniel sneered and would have dismissed the matter as obviously ridiculous. And Phillip did not argue with him. “Come and see”, he said. Which is surely the most rationale course. People have the idea that the claim for faith is an odd peculiarity of religion and unjustifiable. But all progress everywhere is built upon faith. Is due to an adventurous spirit that looks out ahead and thinks it sees something that will make a difference and puts it to the test. In science, to demand certainty before you conduct the experiment is nonsense. It is only through experiment and its working out, that certainty can come. Philosopher William Jones said, “So far as humanity stands for anything and is productive and original at all, its entire vital function may be said to deal with maybes. Not a victory is gained, not a deed of faithfulness or courage is done, except upon a maybe, not a service, not an act of generosity, not a scientific exploration or experiment or textbook, that may not be a mistake. It is only by risking our persons from one hour to the next that we live at all.”
Jesus call was to follow him. A call of discipleship and purpose. The call to Phillip and Nathaniel was not just for their own sake. From the outset, Jesus’ disciples were—and are called for a purpose. The Kingdom of God has come to change the world and us with it. Our choice is simply whether or not we will offer our allegiance. Our call ten is not an end in itself, but an active commitment to the Spirit’s purposes in the world. No longer purely preoccupied with our private lives, we are involved in a vocation for the world. Our prayer truly becomes, “Thy Kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
The title of this morning’s sermon, Called to Make a Difference is on a banner in the Anti-Poverty Ministry office. It was the theme of the 2011 Annual Meeting of Saskatchewan Conference of the United Church of Canada when Bonnie Morton and I were recognized as Designated Lay Ministers in the United Church. Because of the meaning the banner has for us we asked for and were generously given the banner which had been at Tisdale United Church, as Tisdale was the location of that Conference. It has meaning for us not only as the Regina Anti-Poverty Ministry, but as part of the Church as a whole. Throughout its history the Church has unfortunately too often been used as a tool of oppression. But at its best, true to the best of its scripture and traditions it has been a force for justice, liberation, freedom and equality. It has and can make a positive difference in the world.
Tomorrow makes Martin Luther King Jr. Day a national holiday in the United States. It would not be an overstatement for me to say that with the exception of a few figures from our scriptures, Martin Luther King Jr. is the one person I never met who has had the bggest impact on me. But there are personal reasons for that. From 1955 to 1957 my father, William Gilmer and my uncle Harvey Clarke completed their theological training at Oberlin College in Ohio. It had been the first desegregated University in the United States. There they heard Martin Luther King speak about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. My Dad, who was already steeped in the social gospel, was deeply moved. It was heady stuff for a farm boy from Saskatchewan. King’s purpose in coming to Oberlin was to recruit a classmate by the name of James Lawson. Lawson had previously been to India to study Gandhian non-violence and resistance and after King’s speech he immediately left to join the civil rights movement. Lawson went on to train the Freedom Riders who helped desegregate the southern US. In 1968 he was a leader of the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike and was the one who called and convinced King to come to Memphis to support the strike. It was there that King became a martyr.
Back in Saskatchewan my father followed this history carefully from a distance. It frequently found its way into his sermons when I was growing up. And while there are significant differences, dad was able to draw the parallels of personal, institutional and systemic racism in our society which he spoke of often.
In the Oberlin Address, King spoke of a call at midnight and his own personal call. While don’t have the transcripts of that speech I quote King on the subject form David Garrow’s excellent biography called Bearing the Cross- Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Kings reflection goes like this,
The first twenty-five years of my life were very comfortable years, very happy years. I didn’t have to worry about anything. I have a marvelous mother and father. They went out of their way to provide everything for their children. I went right through school, I never had to dropout to work or anything. I was about to conclude that life had been wrapped up for me in a Christmas package.
Now of course I was religious, I grew up in the church. I’m the son of a preacher, my grandfather was a preacher, my great-grandfather was a preacher, my only brother is a preacher, my daddy’s brother was a preacher, so I didn’t have much of a choice I guess. But I had grown up in the church, and the church meant something very real to me. But it was kind of an inherited religion and I had never had an experience with God in the way you want if you are going to walk the lonely path of life.
Everything was done for me, and if I had a problem I could always call Daddy—my early father. Things were solved. But one day after finishing school, I was called to a little church, down in Montgomery, Alabama. And I started preaching there. Things were going well in that church, it was a marvelous experience. But one day a year later, a lady by the name of Rosa Parks decided she wasn’t going to take it any longer. It was the beginning of a movement. The people of Montgomery asked me to serve them as a spokesman and as the president of the new organization that came into being to lead the movement. I couldn’t say no.
And then we started our struggle together. Things were going well for the first few days but then, about ten of fifteen days later, after the white people in Montgomery knew that we meant business, they started doing some nasty things. They started making nasty phone calls, and it came to the point that some days more than forty telephone calls would come in, threatening my life, the life of my family, the life of my child. I took it for a while, in a strong manner. But one night, it was the most important night of my life. It was around midnight and you can have some strange experiences at midnight—I received a call that rattled me deeply. It was the most vile threat against my home and family if I wasn’t out of town in three days.
I sat there and thought about a beautiful little daughter who had just been born…she was the darling of my life. And I started thinking about a dedicated, devoted and loyal wife who was over there asleep. And she could be taken from me or I could be taken from her. And I got to the point where I couldn’t take it any longer. I was weak. Something said to me, you can’t call Daddy now, he’s up in Atlanta a hundred and seventy-five miles away. You can’t even call on Momma now. You’ve got to call on that something your Daddy used to tell you about, that power that can make a way out of no way. And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me and I had to know God for myself. And I bent over that cup of coffee and prayed and prayer. And I prayed out loud that night. I said, “Lord, I am down here trying to do what is right. I think I am right. I think the cause we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I am weak now. I’m frightened. I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let people see me like this.”
And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even to the end of time.” I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. It promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone.
Almost at once my fears began to go away and my uncertainty disappeared.
For fifteen years I had the side job of teaching a module on human rights legislation to troops at the RCMP Training Academy. As part of the workshop I would run through all the major pieces of legislation from the end of World War 2 and the creation of the United Nations up to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada in 1982. This included legislation at the local, national and international levels and then in table groups they were asked several questions. One of the questions was what factors led to the growth of so much legislation during that historical period. Table groups, and there were at least five per troop came up with many answers to this question. But every table group, of every troop listed Martin Luther King Jr. or the American Civil Rights Movement. Not just for what it accomplished, but for its influence on so many other peoples and movements for social, economic and environmental justice through the use of non-violent protest. And we do well to remember the Church was at the heart of that struggle.
King helped lead a movement that was incredibly effective at breaking down legalized segregation in the U.S. Along with the buses, it helped desegregate other services and public accommodation with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It also forged the Voting Rights Act for all Americans in 1965. Most of the victories King helped achieve can before 1966 when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference shifted its focus to the Northern Cities and King’s concerns about wealth distribution and the Vietnam War made him a far more radical figure. It is this point of King’s life that interests me most. As I mentioned before King was assassinated while lending support to a sanitation workers strike in Memphis Tennessee. At the time he was organizing a Peoples Campaign to raise the issue of poverty in Washington D.C. This was his last great project and dream. The SCLC was calling for a living wage and a guaranteed adequate income for all. It was also calling for an Economic Bill of Rights which had been suggested by Franklin Delano Roosevelt a generation before, but never implemented. Arguably these issues are more pressing today in the U.S. and here than they were 50 years ago. Unfortunately the Martin Luther King who will be celebrated tomorrow will bear little resemblance to the challenging King of early 1968.
Perhaps my favourite King quote is where he describes the majority of people and the political realm as the thermometers who measure the prevailing climate and attitudes and act accordingly. King calls on the church and social movements to instead be thermostats who attempt to change the prevailing temperatures and attitudes instead to make justice and equality possible in the first place. In the information overload of our society we must not forget to take the time to listen for the still small voice for conscience. The call to courage and compassion. The call to make a difference.
In a parochial and bigoted manner Nathaniel asks the question. Can anything good come from Nazareth? I conclude with another quote. This one from James Allan Francis in 1926. The often quoted One Solitary Life.
Here is a man who was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in another village. He worked in a carpenter shop until He was thirty. Then for three years He was an itinerant preacher.
He never owned a home. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never went to college. He never put His foot inside a big city. He never traveled two hundred miles from the place He was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but Himself…
While still a young man, the tide of popular opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. One of them denied Him. He was turned over to His enemies. He went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed upon a cross between two thieves. While He was dying His executioners gambled for the only piece of property He had on earth – His coat. When He was dead, He was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.
Twenty long centuries have come and gone, and today He is a centerpiece of the human race and leader of the column of progress.
I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that were ever built; all the parliaments that ever sat and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has that one solitary life.
Thanks be to God. Amen.