On August 20, 1965, Jonathan Myrick Daniels, an episcopal seminarian did an amazing thing. When confronted by a white man with a 12 gauge shot gun, Jonathan jumped in front of 16 year old Ruby Sales, an African American woman from Alabama, and absorbed the bullet meant for her at point blank range. He died. This is amazing, but not extraordinary. Most people who have been donned a ‘hero’ usually shrug off the title saying that they reacted to a situation by instinct and not by any heroic rationale. Had he lived, perhaps Jonathan would have said the same of his behavior in the face of violence.
Like many of us, Jonathan struggled with his sense of vocation. He graduated from Virginia Military Institute and attended Harvard for graduate school but when it came to what he wanted to do with his life, he felt lost, juggling the possibilities of being a lawyer, doctor, or writer. Then on Easter Day in 1962 while attending a service at the Church of the Advent here in Boston, Jonathan heard the still small voice of God calling him and immediately knew in his heart what he must do. He soon entered what is now the Episcopal Divinity School to pursue ministry. Three years later, inspired by the words of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the gospel of Luke (He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things….)[i] and also by words of Dr. Martin Luther King, he asked for leave from seminary to go to Selma, Alabama to help in the Civil Rights Movement. He wrote: “I knew that I must go to Selma. The Virgin’s song was to grow more and more dear to me in the weeks ahead.”[ii]
In our brief gospel lesson today, Jesus says many things but what stands out most for me is His gentle admonition against fear. ‘So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.’
Jonathan Myrick Daniels goes on to write, “The doctrine of the creeds, the enacted faith of the sacraments, were the essential preconditions of the experience itself. The faith with which I went to Selma has not changed: it has grown…I began to know in my bones and sinews that I had been truly baptized into the Lord’s death and resurrection…with them, the black men and white men, with all life, in Him whose Name is above all the names that the races and nations shout…We are indelibly and unspeakably one.”[iii]
While many of us here may never face the real possibility of martyrdom, at least in the sense of losing our lives in our proclamation of the gospel, Jesus is calling us to an active and courageous giving of our lives for the sake of the gospel. Naturally, in our human experience this can give rise to other fear: doubt, insecurity, impatience, anxiety, confusion and anger; all of which can paralyze us and keep us from the life of abundance that God wants for us. The chapter on ‘Silence’ in our Rule of Life states: Powerful forces are bent on separating us from God, our own souls, and one another through the din of noise and the whirl of preoccupation. I think this is what Jesus means when he says: ‘rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.’ [iv] Jesus is calling us to take one step at a time in faith with the assurance that He is God Emmanuel; that is ‘God with us.’
I think this is the essential piece of catching the life that God has called us to: that in our baptism we have already died and been raised into new life; that this new life we experience now will transcend our physical deaths and keep maturing into the glory of God to which we all belong. As it says in the Burial Rite: at our deaths, life is changed but not ended;[v] and it is with this promise that we, like the Blessed Virgin Mary and Jonathan Myrick Daniels, can live fully without fear and proclaim from the rooftops in word and deed the good news we have come to know in Christ Jesus. Do not be afraid!
[i] Luke 1:46-55
[ii] Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints. New York: Church Pub., 2010. Print.
[iv] Rule of Life of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, Chapter 27: Silence
[v] Preface for the Commemoration of the Dead, Book of Common Prayer, p. 382