April before last my preaching group met in Birmingham. Wednesday we went to the west side of town to the Civil Rights Institute, an important institution that tells the story of the movement – connecting Birmingham’s role in the Freedom Rides in the summer of 1961, King’s arrest and letter from the Birmingham jail. We walked across the street to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where on September 15, 1963, four members of the KKK placed sticks of dynamite under a stairwell during Sunday school, killing: Carol Denise McNair (11), Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley were 14. A gentleman in his 70s who had grown up in the church walked us downstairs, then back up into the sanctuary. “Come and see,” he said. Come and see. We stood in silence by the stained glass window that had been blown out that day, leaned on the pulpit from which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached, and then after that the doors swung open and children, two by two, locking arms, marched down the steps and across the street into a park where they were met with dogs and water cannons.
Our hotel that week backed up to First Presbyterian Church. Their pastor in 1963 was Edward Ramage, forever immortalized as one of the eight authors of an open letter, ‘A Call to Unity,’ they called it, encouraging desegregation but counseling patience, that things move at a more careful pace, led by locals only, not folks from outside, not King. Let’s take time, they said. It was this letter that provoked King’s response in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. It turns out – and this is part of a story I heard in Birmingham, and called some colleagues this week to fill in the holes – Ramage a few others had plans for that Easter Sunday to welcome a couple of African-Americans worshippers. As the service was about to begin, from up front Ramage saw an elder locking the narthex doors to the street. He was furious, stormed out of the chancel, shoved the doors open, and began worship, with tears in his eyes, saying, “I don’t care if it tears the church asunder, we will welcome all whom God welcomes.” We will welcome all whom God welcomes.
Ramage’s daughter has written an account of this that I’ll have a link to when this sermon is posted, from her 11 year-old memory of watching from the balcony as these women came in towards the end of “Jesus Christ is Risen Today!” Much of the singing stopped as they walked in, as some members immediately left. The ice was broken when a prominent member opened a hymnal to the correct page and handed it to them.
Ramage has been forever identified with what feels to me as the most convicting part of King’s letter. I have told you before I make a practice of reading it this weekend every year, a practice I commend to you. After King tells the story of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s involvement in Birmingham, of their timing and movement towards non-violent action, he says, famously, that ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ Then King says, in words that the white church must to continue to hear – and that personally convict me – how disappointed he continues to be with what he calls the ‘white moderate.’ “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
After the letter came out Ramage became more outspoken, continued the work he had begun. He was supported by many. But a group in the church quickly labeled him a communist, which at the time was a tough label to shake. By the end of that year Ramage had found another call and left, too much strife, too much strain on him and his family. My friend who told this story was clear that in the complexity of those times there was enough blame to go around – this isn’t purely a story of a righteous preacher and some folks in the church who didn’t get it. But this is a story about the cost of trying to be faithful to the gospel call.
Fifty years later First Presbyterian Church brought back Ramage’s family for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of King’s letter. The church stayed downtown when others fled, becoming more involved in issues of justice in the city. Ramage’s passion and words has shaped their vision these 50 years in profound ways. But he had died, after a long struggle with heart problems that began as they were leaving. His family was long gone, and they realized they might not know how much he had meant to them. So the church brought back his family to honor him, and the church apologized to his family for the way he had been treated in the months leading up to his departure. And they recommitted themselves to the work of justice, as the daughters stood there in tears. “We never knew how much it mattered,” they said. The work must be ours now, they all said. It’s up to us.
We’ve spent the last 6 weeks in these marvelous narratives around Christ’s birth. We meet Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, shepherds on hillsides and magi on a journey. Then a baby born in a stable, and we are told WHO this child is, in each of the gospels and from the words of the prophets. Emmanuel. God is with us. But here in John – and in all the gospels – the turn is quickly made to calling disciples. Jesus looks at John’s disciples – Andrew, Peter – then Philip, then Nathanael. Philip grabs Nathanael who is first skeptical, then meets Jesus and is quickly convinced. Jesus says to them, you think you’ve seen something up until now. Just you wait! The kingdom of God is breaking in among us. Just wait, he says. You’ll see.
In this turn each of the gospels are saying to the early church, and to us – now that you know WHO this Jesus is, it’s your turn. GO and follow. I’m not sure what that might look like for you. I know I wrestle quite a bit with what it means to have the privilege of being a ‘white moderate,’ who wants to stand in the breech and work to pursue issues of justice, but is unsure about the pace of things sometimes. I’m more anxious than I’d like to be in troubling the waters sometimes. King writes later on in the letter of white Christians who “have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.” I am guilty of this. Maybe you are, too. I also suspect that deep down, underneath that caution I am also afraid that I might have to give something up. That truly making space for ALL God’s people might mean less for me, less for those I love. Sounds silly, I know, but I feel it. People of privilege, white people of privilege, are going to need to be willing to truly open the doors for all and mean it. Jesus says it’s going to cost us something. The question for us, then, becomes, what are will willing to risk, and who will we stand for and speak for, as we, children known and loved by God from the womb like the psalmist says so beautifully, seek to be a part of a world where the church, this church and the church more broadly, invites all people to follow in Jesus’ way of love and freedom and justice and a peace that passes all understanding. Issues of justice and race are deep and real, and will not go away no matter how much we might want them to, from East Durham to our most privileged enclaves. To, this week, voiced in crude profanity in the Oval Office. Sometimes it’s quiet and subtle, sometimes it’s out for all to see – its tentacles spread wide from the way it is worked out in our schools to young men with torches walking towards a monument.
This weekend, in which we give thanks for the heritage of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and so many nameless, faceless saints, it might be a good day to recommit ourselves to the work of the wrestling – of naming and noticing our immense privilege, and thinking about how we might open the way and make space for others, for ALL to be heard, to be partners, as we work to glimpse that kingdom that is breaking in. Not wrestling is no longer an option. Here in John Jesus calls his disciples and right as their ministry begins he looks at them and says, just watch. I have only begun. You’ll see it, he says, the very kingdom of God. Come and see, he says. Come and see.
All praise be to God. Amen.
 Recollections of an 11 year old, Kids in Birmingham, 1963. I am also grateful to my colleagues, the Rev. Elizabeth Goodrich, who first told me this story, and the Rev. Cat Goodrich of the First Presbyterian Church.