Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Repairing a Broken Nation

Scripture for this Sunday included I Samuel 3:1-20 (God’s call to the boy Samuel) and John 1:43-51 (the calling of Philip and Nathanael)

What do we make of our Bible readings today?

Isn’t it interesting that neither young Samuel (a bright boy) nor venerable Eli (a wise elder) realized who was really interrupting their sleep. Samuel was certain it was Eli, and Eli at first assumed, who knows what, maybe a creaky shutter on a temple window? But something much bigger was going on, wasn’t it? God was calling out a new leader; God was renewing the entire people, the whole of Israel.

And in our Gospel today, Jesus shows us again what we’ve just seen: that it takes first one, then two, a few, and a few more to help God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. Jesus needed Philip. Philip knew more help was needed, so he told Nathanael, “We need you, too!”

These are the right stories to hear on the day before Martin Luther King Day, stories that fit a special Sunday when (later this afternoon) we’ll hear and see the history of the Civil Rights Movement in this nation, with the help of our guest artists, Charlie King and Karen Brandow.

And our stories this morning also say something important to us as we count down the hours to the inauguration of our new President. They tell us an ancient but urgent message: First it takes one, then two, a few, and a few more to lead the way for God’s will to get done on earth as in heaven. That’s a big order that will take many, more than many, to bring about.

I mean, how many people does it take to repair a broken nation?

We have to ask that in our own day. We know we have to rebuild so much because so much isn’t working right.

Our nation wasn’t working right in the decades preceding the Civil Rights Movement. In some southern states, laws required African-Americans to drink from separately marked water fountains, to use separately-marked public toilets, and sit in only the separately-marked seats in the “colored section” of public buses. In some places, like Montgomery, Alabama, African-American passengers were expected to give up their seats if white passengers wanted to sit.

Rosa Parks said No to that soon after 6:00 p.m. on Thursday, December 1, 1955, in downtown Montgomery. When her white bus driver saw that the front of the bus was filling with white people, some of them standing, he went down the aisle and moved the “colored” section sign to just behind Rosa Parks and waved for those several African Americans to give up their seats. Years later, Rosa Parks said, “When that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night.”

Her section mates did move. She did not. She was arrested by the police, and spent that night in jail. Writing about this later, she denied that she felt she was too old to have to move, or had felt too tired to move. “No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in,” she wrote. Three days later, plans for the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott were announced at black churches. First it takes one person, then two, then a few, and a lot more, to fix a broken nation.

In 1961, Fannie Lou Hamer, the granddaughter of slaves and the child of sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta, required surgery. Without her knowledge or consent, during that operation the white doctor made sure that she would never again bear a child. This was part of Mississippi’s plan to reduce the number of poor African Americans in that state.

The next year, Fannie Lou became the first volunteer to register black voters through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. African Americans who registered to vote in those days were often beaten, fired from their jobs, even killed by lynch mobs. Asked if she wasn’t afraid to volunteer, Fannie Lou replied, “I guess if I’d had any sense, I’d have been scared—but what was the point of being scared? The only thing white people could do was kill me, and it seemed they’d been trying to do that a little at a time since I could remember.”

Ella Baker worked behind the scenes with the most famous civil rights leaders: W. E. B. DuBois, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael. And she was part of the founding or growth of all the prominent organizations, among them the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She once said, “You didn’t see me on television, you didn’t see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces, or put pieces together out of which I hoped organization might come.” The social responsibility she believed in could happen only by the determination of every citizen who knew the nation was broken and needed to be rebuilt.

First it takes one person, then two, then a few, and a lot more.

Come, this afternoon, and meet these three women, and more, in a performance event by our visiting singers, songwriters, and storytellers, Charlie King and Karen Brandow. The name of their performance is “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round”, a history of the Civil Rights Movement.

When President James Garfield was inaugurated on March 4, 1881, he got people thinking about the Civil War when he said, “My countrymen, we do not now differ in our judgment concerning the controversies of past generations, and fifty years hence our children will not be divided in their opinions concerning our controversies. They will surely bless their fathers and their fathers’ God that the Union was preserved, that slavery was overthrown, and that both races were made equal before the law. We may hasten or we may retard, but we can not prevent, the final reconciliation.”

Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Ella Baker with all their might hastened a reconciliation which would take far longer than President Garfield could have imagined. If these three heroic women could have lived to this day, their hearts would spill over rejoicing at the reconciliation they would see in the inauguration of our first African American President.

But I believe they would also remind us of the arithmetic we have learned today: First it takes one person, then two, then a few, and a lot more. In order to fix a broken nation, it will take us all.