During long stretches on the Freedom Tour bus this summer, I found myself often reflecting on the story of the Wizard of Oz in light of what we were learning as we traveled through the South.
After meeting with so many of the movement’s foot soldiers and standing on holy ground where the movement’s martyrs were killed, I found my mind turning to the characters in The Wizard of Oz as a way of assessing my own shortcomings and failures. A sort of moral examen in the context of the movement we were meeting up close during our two weeks on the road.
Although I have spent a great deal of time studying the movement and have read and been nourished by virtually all of Dr. King’s writings, I never fully grasped – at a gut level – the depth of the terror of those times and, quite frankly, the persistence of that terror today at a time when the white robes of the Klan have morphed into the black robes of Supreme Court justices.
Justices who, at the very moment we were walking across Selma’s Pettus Bridge, were gutting key sections of the Voting Rights Act.
I think everyone on Freedom Tour would agree that there are no books or films that can come even close to capturing what it’s like to brush up against the spirits that remain on the rural back roads of Mississippi or to march down the dusty and deserted streets of Meridian where we felt a thousand eyes watching our every move.
At any rate, back to the Wizard of Oz and our readings today.
I don’t know why, but on several occasions during Freedom Tour I confessed to myself that unlike the lions and lionesses of the movement whom we were meeting with each day, I am more like the cowardly lion in the children’s story.
Unlike the scarecrow, I have a fairly good mind and, unlike the tin man, an open heart, but like the lion in Frank Baum’s story, I seem to lack courage and too often find myself saying, “If I only had the nerve.”
This is an embarrassing confession, but I think everyone who was part of Freedom Tour would agree that there was an internal journey we each experienced as a result of taking in so much power, so much story, so much courage forged in the fire of a red-hot faith that refused to sit down.
During some of those long night rides through Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, I had time to think about fear and faith and my own work in this world.
Here is a sampling of some of the thoughts I had while we were on the road:
If Dorothy Aldridge and Dr. Gloria House were willing to risk their lives by registering voters and living in a backwoods Freedom House, why am I afraid to risk my reputation, my comfort, my very life for the sake of peace?
If Viola Liuzzo would leave home and family to help the movement in the South, why do I lack the courage to work for peace to the degree that it could cost me my job and long stretches of time away from my family?
If children in Birmingham, Alabama would walk out of school and take to the streets for their freedom, why am I afraid of walking away from some of my volunteer commitments that are no longer life giving?
These are only a few of the questions that came to mind as I reflected on what I call the “four-letter ‘F’ word” – the word that really underlies all forms of violence in our world, including violence to our own dreams and aspirations.
I don’t know if this is true, but I have heard it said that there are 365 exhortations in Scripture calling people away from fear. And that gives me consolation.
In our reading today from Habakkuk, the prophet expresses his fear and frustration to God in words that could have come from the streets of the South during the period of the civil rights movement or the streets of Detroit today.
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law become slack and justice never prevails.
As I reflect on today’s reading from the Hebrew Scripture, I take solace in knowing that the prophet struggled with his own sense of fear and doubt. His own lack of faith in the saving work of Yahweh amidst the gross social injustices of his own violent and idolatrous people.
The reading is a reminder that doubt in God is not unusual, a liberating insight that frees me to confess that one of the great gifts of Freedom Tour for me was the recognition of my own fear along with the challenge to grow in faith like so many whom we met in the South.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that one of the great highlights of the trip for me was to actually touch the kitchen table where Dr. King experienced his own struggle with fear one bleak night.
Dr. King was only 27-years-old and fairly new to the ministry at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church when he found himself at the center of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Before long, the young pastor, who was also a husband and first time father, was receiving thirty to forty death threats a day.
On Jan. 27, 1956 the telephone threats brought him to what he called his “saturation point” when a caller issued these chilling words: “Nigger, we’re tired of your mess. And if you aren’t out of town in 3 days, we’re gonna blow up your house and blow your brains out.”
At this point, Dr. King poured himself a cup of coffee, sat down at the metal table in his small kitchen, and slumping over the untouched coffee tried to figure out, in his own words, “how to move out of the picture without appearing a coward.”
“Lord,” he prayed, “I’m here trying to do what’s right. But I must confess I’m losing my courage.”
At this moment of deep despair, this moment of hopelessness and exhaustion, Dr. King had a profound spiritual experience during which he came to know God personally for the first time in his life.
As he sat at his kitchen table, ready to succumb to fear, he heard the voice of God give him his marching orders:
Martin, stand up for truth. Stand up for justice. Stand up for righteousness.
Dr. King would experience fear at other times in his life but from that night forward there would be no turning back.
Like Habbukuk, the prophet Martin was given the command to proclaim the vision of the Lord.
The vision of a world free from the evil triplets of materialism, racism, and militarism. The vision of economic and social justice for poor people. The vision of a true revolution of values.
The vision of the Beloved Community.
Just days after his kitchen table experience, Dr. King’s front porch was firebombed and his movement from fear to faith moved to an even deeper level after he told the angry crowd that had gathered at his home to respond with nonviolence.
Shortly thereafter, with the help of pacifist organizers, Bayard Rustin and Glenn Smiley, Dr. King completely disavowed the use of firearms for self-protection as he moved from a belief in nonviolence as a mere strategy to an embrace of nonviolence as a total way of life.
“A way of life,” as he later said, “for courageous people.”
And, in short, this is what Freedom Tour was all about.
Meeting courageous people who sang, and marched, and struggled through their fear.
People like Joann Bland in Selma, Alabama and Charles Sherrod in Albany, GA, and Diane Nash in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Courageous people like James Chaney, Andy Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Clarence Jordan, and Viola Liuzzo who are part of the great cloud of witnesses.
So many faces of courage in the face of fear.
Perhaps no one typifies courage in the face of fear like 108-year-old Amelia Boynton with whom we spent an amazing afternoon.
Dr. Boynton was beaten and bloodied on the Pettus Bridge, persecuted and jailed many times, the recipient of death threats herself.
But what faith! What courage!
Her story of the jail cell door that refused to unlock raised images of Paul and Silas and the power of the Lord.
When Cindy and I looked over the epistle for today, we immediately thought of Mrs. Boynton.
Written from a jail cell when he was at the edge of death, Paul passes on a blessing to Timothy with these powerful words: For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and love and self-discipline.
Paul also emphasizes the laying on of hands – a blessing to the next generation – a way of reminding Timothy to keep his eyes on the prize. To be ready, as Paul says, to “suffer for the gospel relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.”
Paul’s words – really – are no different than Mrs. Boynton’s who ended her time with our group by giving each one of us a special, individualized blessing and a gentle fist bump, a gesture that felt holy and sacred – a very real laying on of hands.
It is no wonder that in the presence of souls such as this I would reflect upon my own cowardice and fear on those long bus rides, but, unlike the cowardly lion, I know better than to seek a wizard to deliver me from my fear and grant me the grace of courage.
If I learned nothing else sitting in churches in Montgomery and Birmingham and Americus and Philadelphia, I learned that our God is a mighty God who is indeed bending the long arc of history toward justice.
A God who calls us to put away our fear and follow sacred and sometimes scary marching orders. A God who, as today’s Gospel reminds us, promises us that miracles and movements can happen even with faith as small as a mustard seed.
Homily at St. Peter’s Episcopal Detroit, October 6, 2013