Almighty and everlasting God, who didst enkindle the flame of thy love in the heart of thy holy martyr Jonathan: Grant to us, thy humble servants, a like faith and power of love, that we who rejoice in his triumph may profit by his example; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
One of the interesting questions I get, now and then, from folks who have come to the Episcopal Church from other traditions, is: How do y’all handle the matter of saints? As a church, we have a calendar of commemorations, people to honor on particular days of the church year. And at St. Dunstan’s, we’ve got our little wall of holy people, back there overlooking the baptismal font; our iconostasis, the name they use in the Orthodox churches. In a couple of months we’ll celebrate All Saints’ Day, one of the great feasts of the Christian year. So clearly we have some practice of honoring saints, more so than most Protestant churches. But the definition of a saint, what makes somebody a saint, is nowhere near as clear as it is, for example, for our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters.
We Episcopalians and Anglicans tend to live with, and in, the tension between the two ancient definitions of sainthood. The one we see in the New Testament, which uses “saints” to mean the whole fellowship of believers, called and holy. And the one that evolved in the early centuries of the church, which uses “saints” to mean those special individuals whose lives and often deaths bore witness in a particular way to their faith, virtue, and courage. Our church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, the body that oversees our calendar of commemorations, has been wrestling with this conundrum for several years, trying to find a clear and theologically-grounded way to explain why we name and set apart certain people for remembrance, while we still affirm that every Christian life can and should show forth the love of God in Christ Jesus. The Commission’s solution is to hold up the idea of witness. That the people we hold up and honor are people who demonstrated, lived out, witnessed to their faith, in a way worth honoring and remembering. In a way that may inspire us as we strive to live our faith in the face of today’s challenges.
The introduction to our latest volume of commemorations, called “A Great Cloud of Witnesses,” says, “Following the broad stream of Christian tradition, there are no formal criteria for defining saints. Rather, sanctity is celebrated locally by a decision that [certain] individuals… shine forth Christ to the world… As illustrations, they mirror the myriad virtues of Christ, in order that, in their examples, we might recognize those same virtues and features of holiness in people closer to our own times and stations and neighborhoods. And, seeing them in those around us, we may be more able to cultivate these virtues and forms of holiness—through grace—as we strive to imitate Christ as well.”
Today I’ve got a new picture to add to our wall, our iconostasis. (No, it’s not Art Lloyd, though it’s a kindred spirit.) This is Jonathan Myrick Daniels – known to his friends as Jon. He died fifty years ago this month, on August 20, 1965. His feast day on our calendar is August 14, the date of his arrest. Jon was born in 1939 in Keene, New Hampshire. He became Episcopalian as a young man, after struggling with faith in his teens. He attended the Virginia Military Institute, where he was valedictorian of his graduating class in 1961. He received a fellowship to study English literature at Harvard, but he discerned a call to ordained ministry and left Harvard to study at my alma mater, the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, then known as ETS.
In 1965, Jon Daniels was 26, and America was torn by a deepening struggle over civil rights. In March of ’65, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for people to come to Alabama to help, to stand with African-Americans in their fight for freedom. Who went to see the movie Selma, earlier this year? On March 7, civil rights activists had tried to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, as the first step of a march to state capitol in Montgomery to highlight the disenfranchisement of African American voters. As you may have seen in the movie – or, for some of you, on the news, fifty years ago -the marchers were beaten back by so-called law enforcement. King’s call was for allies, black and especially white, to join the marchers for a second attempt.
Dr. King’s call was much-discussed at ETS. One day at Evening Prayer in St. John’s Chapel – where today there hangs an icon of Jon Daniels, surrounded by other martyrs of the world’s long struggle for freedom and equality – during Evening Prayer, Jon heard the Magnificat, Mary’s prayer of joy and hope. And it spoke to his heart in a new way, a transformative way. He wrote later: “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…’ I knew then that I must go to Selma.”
Jon joined a group of other ETS students on a weekend trip to Alabama, to help with community organizing work there. But Jon missed the bus home – and took that as a sign that he should stay longer. His friend Judith Upham, who took this photo of Jon, back at ETS, wrote later about how they spent their time: “After the march, Jon and I just hung around, doing what we could to help.” If a demonstration needed marchers, they marched. They helped students complete college applications, played with children, helped voter-registration efforts, visited schools. They attended the local Episcopal church every Sunday and spent about an hour each week lobbying the rector to act, without success. Upham says, “He was too steeped in the ways of the South, and he had his job to consider.” Upham concluded, “We were in our 20s, young and naïve, assuming that if people knew the right thing to do, they would do it.” It also was, she said, “one of the few times in my life I was 100 percent positive that I was doing what God wanted me to do. If it cost me my life, that was all right. After all, there are worse things than death.”
On Aug 13, 1965, Jon Daniels, with about 30 others, went to Ft. Deposit, AL, a small rural town, to picket segregated businesses. On Aug 14, they were all arrested, and taken to the nearby Hainesville jail. They were held for 6 days. On August 20, they were released with no warning – meaning there was no ally ready to pick them up and take them to safer territory. Friends have described it as a set-up. It was a hot bright day, 100 degrees, and a sense of danger hung heavy around. A small group – Jon Daniels, a white Roman Catholic priest, and two black protesters – approached a small store, hoping to buy a cold drink. They were met at the door by Tom Coleman, an unofficial sheriff’s deputy, wielding a shotgun. Words were exchanged. He threatened them, then pointed the gun at one of the black protesters, a young woman named Ruby Sales. Jon Daniels stepped between Ruby and the gun. Coleman fired. And on a dusty road in Hainesville, Alabama, Jon Daniels gave his life for a friend, for the world, for Christ.
Jesus says, The bread that I give for the life of the world is my flesh.
The author of the letter to the Ephesians says, Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
In the weeks before his death, Jon Daniels wrote, “I lost fear… when I began to know in my Bones and sinews that I had been truly baptized into the Lord’s death and Resurrection, that in the only sense that really matters I am already dead, and my life is hid with Christ in God.”
The shooter, Coleman, got off on self-defense, through an absurd claim that Daniels had pulled a knife. But Jon’s death drew national attention to the protests. In particular, it mobilized the Episcopal Church to engage the civil rights movement, to take seriously the struggle for freedom and justice, and join God’s work by supporting that struggle. Jonathan Daniels is still remembered and honored for having shown the church where to stand – as close as possible to those facing unjust oppression. Judith Upham said later, “I know that Jon’s legacy made a huge difference in theological education,… in terms of how do we practice what we say we believe.”
Why honor, why remember Jon Daniels? There are a lot of names on our calendar of witnesses. Most of them don’t get a Sunday sermon, in this church or any church. Jon Daniels became an important witness for me for various reasons – a fellow alumnus of my seminary, and a child of New Hampshire, where I served for three years. But I think there are good reasons to hold up his witness. Not just because Miranda likes him, but because his story indeed speaks to the ongoing struggles of our time and place.
I preached about Jon three years ago, in 2012. It was interesting looking back at that sermon. I alluded to the ongoing existence of racial inequity, but my only concrete example was the shootings at the Sikh temple. We continue to see the murder of those who seem racially or ethnically other, around our country. But since 2012 we have also become much more keenly aware of the real and lasting and life-compromising forms that structural racism takes right here, in our beautiful, beloved Madison.
The Race to Equity report, released in 2013, showed us a stunning reality. The United States has some of the worst racial disparities in the world, measured in things like differences in arrest and incarceration rates and educational outcomes across racial groups. Wisconsin has some of the worst disparities in the nation; and Madison has some of the worst disparities in the state. What that means, friends, is that by some measures, Madison has one of the biggest gaps in wellbeing, opportunity, and quality of life between racial groups, and especially between whites and blacks, of anyplace in the world.
And it’s not just that communities of color here fare about the same as communities of color elsewhere, and that the gulf exists because Madison is such a great place for white people. No. The data show that Madison is an actively bad place to be African-American. Jobless rates, poverty rates, and other measures of wellbeing for African-Americans in Dane County are all markedly worse than national averages for the same population.
I know that it continues to be uncomfortable, for some of you, to hear these issues held up in a sermon, as demanding Christian engagement and response. I truly honor that each of us has to work out for ourselves where the rubber of the Gospel gets traction on the roads of our lives, and when, where, and how we’re called to live out the faith we claim. At the same time, the many discomforts that the issues of racial equity stir up for us may be discomforts with which we need to get comfortable. Because racial inequality and systemic racism have been identified by our denomination and diocese as matters of urgency for our common life as followers of Jesus.
Our General Convention, our church’s legislative gathering, which met earlier this summer, passed a resolution [A182] that acknowledged that many Episcopalians find it challenging to understand or know how to respond to systemic racial injustices; that affirmed that the Gospel, our Baptismal Covenant, and the Five Marks of Marks of Mission call the Church and its members at every level to find more effective and productive ways to respond to racial injustice as we love our neighbors as ourselves, respect the dignity of every human being, and seek to transform unjust structures of society; that directs the Church at every level to commit to further study, teaching, training, and shared prayer and practice that specifically addresses racial injustice; and urges the Church at every level to increased engagement with civic conversations about racial injustice. Our Convention also committed two million dollars to this work, over the next three years.
I do believe, wholeheartedly, that this is one of the great projects – possibly THE great project – that God has for God’s churches in this nation, in this time: striving for more fairness and flourishing for all God’s children, and especially for African-Americans, who have struggled under the burden of racism in its many forms for so long. I also believe, wholeheartedly, that not everybody here is called into that work; and that even for those who are, there are many ways and levels at which to engage. A life like Jon Daniels’ draws our eyes and minds and hearts to the urgency and depth of the matter; it doesn’t lay out a course to follow or a model against which to measure ourselves. Being called into engagement with the corporate sin of structural racism doesn’t mean being called to take a bullet.
And here I’d like to circle back around to the ambiguity of sainthood. Earlier I named two types of saints: ordinary saints like all of us, claimed and called by God to live out holiness in our own simple and humble ways; and extraordinary saints like Daniels, who lived and died publicly, powerfully, prophetically, as witnesses to the love and mercy and justice of God. It turns out that the line between those kinds of saints, those definitions of sainthood, that line is much finer than it seems, once we’ve packaged up those extraordinary lives and put them in the pages of a book.
Jon wrote a lot, during his time in Alabama. About what he was doing and thinking and feeling. And his journals reveal a young man who was both extraordinary and ordinary. Who found the work of following the Gospel sometimes exciting and sometimes boring; sometimes clear-cut and sometimes messy; sometimes joyful and sometimes heartbreaking; sometimes remarkable and sometimes trivial.
Listen to Jon’s own words about the ambiguity and necessity of sainthood… “There are good [people] here, just as there are bad [people]. There are competent leaders and a bungler here and there. We have activists who risk their lives to confront a people with the challenge of freedom, and a nation with its conscience. We have neutralists who cautiously seek to calm troubled waters. We have [people] about the work of reconciliation who are willing to reflect upon the cost and pay it. Perhaps at one time or another, the two of us are all of these. Sometimes we take to the streets, sometimes we yawn through interminable meetings, sometimes we talk with [other white folks] in their homes and offices… sometimes we confront the posse, and sometimes we hold a child. Sometimes we stand with men who have learned to hate, and sometime we must stand a little apart from them. Our lives in Selma are filled with ambiguity. We are beginning to see the world as we never saw it before. We are truly in the world, and yet ultimately not of it. For through the bramble bush of doubt and fear and supposed success we are groping our way to the realization that above all else, we are called to be saints. That is the mission of the Church everywhere. And in this, Selma, Alabama, [and Madison, Wisconsin] is like all the world: it needs the life and witness of militant Saints.”
When Jon delivered the valedictory speech at the Virginia Military Institute in 1961, an official introduced him, saying, “This young man has not only been outstanding as a member of the cadet corps, he is an outstanding man, and you will hear of him later on, as the years go on.” Jon ended his speech with a few words for his classmates that I’d like to claim, and offer, as his words to us. He said, “My colleagues and friends, I wish you the joy of a purposeful life. I wish you the decency and the integrity of which you are capable. I wish you new worlds and the vision to see them.”
Let us pray.
O God of justice and compassion, you put down the proud and mighty from their place, and lift up the poor and the afflicted: we give you thanks for your faithful witness Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who, in the midst of injustice and violence, risked and gave his life for another; and we pray that we, following his example, may make no peace with oppression, and may live with purpose, decency, and integrity, striving to bring into being the new world of God’s justice and mercy; through Jesus Christ the just one, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.