Year B, Pentecost 12 (Feast of Jonathan Daniels)
Luke 1: 46-55
I went to Gettysburg College. Gettysburg is known for being one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War as well as a turning point in the war. While the history of the war does not have an overt influence on campus life, it has subtle influences. Our main administration building was used as a hospital for both union and confederate troops. There are a lot of ghost stories involving that building, as well as almost every building on campus. Some of the influences I have only seen in retrospect. For instance, I love the Battle Hymn of the Republic. I do not usually like hymns that use battle imagery to depict the strength of God, but I love that hymn because we sang it in my college choir. Every year our choir would go on tour and there would be one song that would be civil war era. We sang the Battle Hymn when we were in the north and “I wish I was in Dixie” when we toured the South. I don’t know if I knew that the Battle Hymn was a union song, but someone reminded me of that recently when I was discussing my love of the hymn. The reason that the hymn has been at the forefront of my mind over the last couple of months is because our Presiding Bishop elect quoted pieces of that hymn in his sermon at General Convention. The piece he ended with was “Glory glory Halleluiah!”
But that’s not why I chose this hymn for today. You see, there was another well-known preacher who liked to quote pieces of this hymn in his sermons and speeches, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His last public words before his death were, “Mine eyes have seen the glory.” This hymn was a popular hymn during the Civil Rights movement and today we are remembering a martyr of the Civil Rights movement. His name is Jonathan Daniels. This year marks the 50thanniversary of his death. There were many martyrs of the Civil Rights movement, but one of the reasons that he is on our calendar of holy men and holy women is because not only was he a martyr, but he was an Episcopal seminarian.
In 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. challenged students and clergy to join in the march from Selma to Montgomery. Jonathan Daniels left seminary in Boston and joined the march. He returned to Boston and asked his bishop if he could finish the Spring term in Selma working with the Civil Rights movement. He worked with voter registration, picketed local businesses, tutored African American children and brought those children with him to the white Episcopal Church. He went to jail for picketing and after a week in jail he went to a local store to buy a soda. He was with a couple of other people including an African American teenage girl. A volunteer sheriff stood in front of the store with a rifle to bar their entrance. When he aimed his gun at the teenage girl, Jonathan pushed her aside and was shot. He was 26 years old when he died.
While the call of Martin Luther King Jr. obviously moved Jonathan Daniels to action, it was also a moment in evening prayer that propelled him to Selma. It was singing. No, it wasn’t the Battle Hymn of the Republic. It was the Magnificat. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirt rejoices in God my Savior…” It is Mary’s reaction to her cousin Elizabeth’s proclamation that Mary is the mother of God. It was a hymn of joy, but it was also something else. It indicated her growing awareness that this baby she was about to give birth to was going to change the world. Typically changing the world isn’t a smooth process. You can’t change the world without stirring things up a bit.
Mary stirred things up. She was the only woman who the author of Luke allowed a full speech. Right there in the beginning of the Gospel, a woman, Mary spoke as a prophet. Mary dedicated only a couple of sentences to her own blessings. She then moved on to heavier things.
“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” She was talking about a God who would speak for the oppressed and the marginalized. He had already done so in choosing her, a poor girl living under the authority of the Romans. She had no rights. No one listened to her. But God had listened. God had heard the cry of his people and he was on his way. He was going to bring down the powerful and lift up the lowly.
Because we often hear these words in the context of the joy of Christmas, we don’t always notice how incredibly revolutionary they were. In many ways, this was a rebel cry. The magnifcat is not just a beautiful hymn that we sing at Christmas. It’s more than that. It’s a call to action. It’s a reminder of who Jesus is.
Jonathan Daniels wrote of the moment he knew he would return to Selma. He said, “As the lovely hymn of the God-bearer continued, I found myself peculiarly alert, suddenly straining toward the decisive, luminous, Spirit-filled “moment” … Then it came. “He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things.” I knew then that I must go to Selma. The Virgin’s song was to grow more and more dear in the weeks ahead.”
We have made great strides since the 1960’s, but we still have a long way to go. All week I have been hearing the Battle Hymn in my head, but not the part about swords, or trampling, or even altars. What I hear is the arrangement we sang in college. The final verse came in after the lofty “glory glory halleluias.” It was quiet and gentle. It spoke of the beauty of the lilies. And then there was a crescendo at the line, “As he died to make men holy”. It got louder and more powerful when we sang, “let us live to make all free. While God is marching on.”
As I meditated about that, I thought of the martyrs of our church. I thought of the saints who have come and gone. But what really struck me is the call to live. “Let us live to make all free.” I don’t have the courage of Jonathan Daniels or Mary. I am almost certain I don’t. Some of you might. What I pray for is the courage to live the life that God has called me to. Jesus died so that we could live. That is what we do. But we don’t live for ourselves. We live for God and we live for one another. And we sing the magnificat and the Battle Hymn so we can feel that stirring in our heart. When I am singing, I feel that for a moment like I can do anything while God is marching on. I can do anything if I am marching with God. Your song might be something else. It probably is. Find your song. Find whatever it is that reminds you that you are strong and you are courageous. You are both of those things because God loves you so much that he died so you can live. We, Christians, we live so all can be free. As long as God marches on, we live.