Ode to Troublemakers

“Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’”

1 Samuel 3:8b-9

It is some time around 1000 B.C. and Israel consists of a loose federation of tribal groups.

The priestly house of Eli has been entrusted with the Ark of the Covenant, but, according to the text, “Eli’s sons were scoundrels and had no regard for the Lord.”

Samuel is called by the Lord to pronounce judgment on the corrupt house of Eli—he is called to be the bearer of some very bad tidings.

In other words, Samuel is called to be a troublemaker.

Today, on the eve of Martin Luther King Day and the inauguration of President Barack Obama, I want to salute some troublemakers whose efforts helped pave the way for what just a few years ago seemed unthinkable—the election of an African American president.

Let me say here that I am peace-loving to a fault—I have gone to great pains to avoid being a troublemaker, and my wife can confirm that there have been times when this has been a most unhelpful tendency—and I cheerfully acknowledge that this is one of my character flaws—I have definitely come to believe that likeability and just getting along are not the measure of all things.

But I have ridden the coattails of troublemakers—I have followed in the wake of their labors and have reaped the benefits of their sacrifices.

So this sermon is an ode to troublemakers.

Of course, troublemaking for its own sake is simply malicious and destructive—and troublemaking for the purposes of notoriety and hogging the limelight is deplorable.

The troublemakers I am touting today are those whose passion for justice has exceeded the size of their egos—whose passion for justice has surpassed their egocentricity and self-regard.

When I was a newly minted Second Lieutenant and stationed at Ft. Holabird, Baltimore, I spent a lot of time with another freshly commissioned Second Lieutenant named Joe Stewart who hailed from a small town in Mississippi.

He was good company, full of stories, and quite a comedian—on occasion the conversation would turn to the question of race relations in his home state—as I plied him with questions, the discussion would typically end with his saying, “Why do people keep trying to stir things up?”

But this is precisely what Jesus and the prophets did—stir things up with a vengeance—would it be an exaggeration to say that Jesus was a tremendous troublemaker?

And in this tradition we even count God as a stirrer-upper and troublemaker, witness the Collect for the Third Sunday of Advent: “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us….”

So here are a few selections from my honor roll of troublemakers.

I first met the Rev. Ralph Moore when he was a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and I was visiting a mutual friend who introduced us—Ralph was eventually ordained as a United Church of Christ minister and served a congregation in Portland, Oregon.

I had been assigned to a parish in Eugene, Oregon and we saw each other with some regularity—in the summer of 1963 he told me he was going to Mississippi as part of an effort to extend voting rights to Black citizens, but I didn’t give it much thought.

Several months later our parish invited him to come and describe his trip—when he spoke of the hostile mobs that repeatedly surrounded and rocked his bus and how night after night he and his companions feared they might be assaulted or, worse, kidnapped by KKK sympathizers never to be heard from again, I realized what a venture of daring this was and it wasn’t something I was about to sign up for.

Ralph Moore demonstrated to me in a way I’ve never forgotten that for the person of faith there is no dividing line between personal and public religion—religious faith is both private and political—it is seamless.

On September 30, 1962, the Rev. Duncan Gray, rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Oxford was holding on to the side of the Confederate monument at the entrance to the University of Mississippi campus and was trying to keep his balance while attempting unsuccessfully to quiet a rampaging group of enraged citizens, some of whom were shouting, “Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!”

Duncan Gray’s sermons, especially the one earlier that day, had caused the town to go berserk—James Meredith, the first African American to be admitted to the University, had just been escorted to the campus by federal officials and U.S. Marshals—and this white Mississippi preacher had the unmitigated gall to publicly declare his support for the integration of the races.

When I picture the Rev. Duncan Gray hanging on to that monument, surrounded by this crazed, furious, menacing crowd, and his trying to reason with his accusers and yet not for a moment backing away from his convictions, I am dumbfounded that he would willingly take up this position in the heart of hostile territory in the hope he could, against all odds, begin the process of reconciliation—what an audacious troublemaker!

In the spring and summer of 1961, several hundred Americans—blacks and whites, men and women— arrived in Jackson, Mississippi to purposefully confront state segregation laws—they came to be known as the Freedom Riders and they were dedicated to the mission of opening up civil rights for African American citizens—they knew they would be exposing their defenseless bodies to a cauldron of retaliation and abuse, but they went anyway—over three hundred of the Freedom Riders were charged with “breach of peace” and transferred 120 miles away to Parchman, a prison with notoriously primitive conditions, where they were put in maximum security.

Rip Patton, a student from Tennessee State University, remembered the 4th of July they spent in Parchman—“They turned off the air conditioner and the water because we wouldn’t stop singing. So it was hot and smelly because we couldn’t flush the toilets…But we kept singing. That singing, they just couldn’t handle it.”

Many of the Freedom Riders were young Jewish college students—Alexander Weiss was a student at San Francisco State—he was born in Vienna and escaped with his parents in 1940, and with his family eventually settled in San Francisco.

Mr. Weiss recalls, “I grew up in the Fillmore District, which was like the Harlem of San Francisco—it was primarily black, but lots of refugees—once this stuff started happening down South, I just couldn’t believe it. One of the motivations for…. volunteering to go on the Freedom Rides was I did not want to be one of those ‘good Germans who just looked the other way.’ I talked to my father. I said, ‘I want to go.’ He was totally against it. ‘You’re gonna get killed. It’s not us (they’re after this time)’ I said, ‘Hey, you know this is what happened to you (in Austria). I’m not gonna stand by.’”

Some of these Freedom Riders were brash, ill-informed kids who were pursuing adventure and didn’t know what they were getting into—but at the end of the day, almost all of them mustered the necessary courage and put their bodies on the line.

It has become customary on Martin Luther King Day to emphasize and applaud King’s strategy of non-violent resistance.

But we need to remember, especially those of us who are white, that in those early days of the Civil Rights Movement, those pioneers of the Movement, those non-violent resisters, absorbed a ghastly amount of violence—they were beaten, mauled, and knocked senseless—lives were lost and much blood was spilled—and yet, with very few exceptions, they stayed the course, non-violent to the end.

The historian Simon Schama has said that those brilliant, gifted authors of the Constitution composed a breathtakingly eloquent declaration of liberty and justice, but that this document was tainted by the fact that the rights described did not extend to a significant part of the population, and that some of the founders continued to be slave-holders.

Mr. Schama goes on to say that this inauguration cancels out that element of “bad faith” which has haunted this republic for over 200 years—that the world is marveling that we as a society have undone that fault.

As someone who observed the melees in Birmingham, Selma, and elsewhere from the comfort of his living room, on the eve of this inauguration I want to publicly express my gratitude for all those troublemakers for justice whose redemptive sacrifices helped make this day possible.

Those of us gathered here should definitely be able to appreciate this—for we regularly celebrate the power and meaning of redemptive sacrifice.

So for those who have waited a long time for this day, let the euphoria commence—but let us remember how dear was the cost.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
Epiphany 2
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio