And the Word was made vulnerable
8/15&16/2015 Feast of John Myrick Daniels
St. Paul’s Alexandria
The Rev. Dr. Rosemary Beales
In the name of our loving, liberating, and life-giving God. Amen.
My soul magnifies the Lord and my spir .… wait a minute!
How can I, a small human being, magnify God, who is already bigger than the entire universe?
How could Mary magnify God, and how could Jonathan Myrick Daniels, whose life and martyrdom we remember today, make God any larger than God already is?
How can any of us magnify the enormous, all-encompassing, great Creator God?
The question used to trouble me back when I was a small, strange child who thought too much about the words of prayers and songs I heard every day.
And I did hear daily the words of Mary’s song, the lovely Magnificat we just heard her speak in the gospel today. My family’s daily recitation of the rosary – five decades of one Our Father, 10 Hail Marys, and a Glory Be (yes, you counted right, that’s 50 Hail Mary’s) – was made even longer by additional prayers to which my dear mother was devoted. Is it any wonder my mind wandered? Back then, it was just an attempt to stay awake, but today I would give more credibility to my straying thoughts, acknowledge the value of repeated, rhythmic prayer, and call my mind’s wandering “wondering.” So, I still wonder how a small human being can magnify our magnificent God?
Mary was just a small, human being — maybe 14 years old — when she journeyed to a village in the Judean hill country, seeking out the company of her older cousin Elizabeth. Now Elizabeth was advanced in age, 29 or 30, and she had given up hope of becoming a mother. But Mary knew Elizabeth’s secret, told her by the same angel Gabriel, who had announced that God had chosen her to be the mother of God.
So Mary, filled with good news, and also with her growing baby, set out to see Elizabeth to celebrate with her, perhaps, or to avoid nosy neighbors – but above all, to exult in what God was doing for the whole, wide world in her small body.
Near the site where this Visitation happened, there is a church. That is one way we humans magnify the things that matter to us: we build. Somewhere below the bulk of the Church of the Visitation, lies perhaps a well where two women would have met. Or maybe there’s a patch of dirt where Elizabeth was tending her beans when her young cousin labored up the hill.
Their meeting caused Elizabeth’s own infant, John, to leap in her womb, inspiring his mother’s timeless shout, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”
And Mary, surely inspired by the Holy Spirit who had overshadowed her at the angel’s visit, broke into the song we remember today:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
For not only has God done great things for Mary, God is doing great things through her for the good of the world.
She sings of a great reversal, a jubilee of justice that will come in the future, but that she’s so confident will happen that she celebrates it in the past tense, as if it has already occurred:
“He has scattered the proud in the conceits of their hearts,
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
In her small, human body that day, Mary carried the One who will fulfill those promises, the Ruler of the Universe who for a time consented to be protected only by the frail flesh of a teenage girl. The Word became vulnerable and dwelt among us.
In the city of Nazareth these days, a huge church has grown around the place where Mary heard the angel’s words and said “yes” to all that God would ask of her. The Church of the Annunciation is built like a fortress, layer upon layer of stone erected over the centuries as different conquerors expanded the building. In the midst of all that fortification, it’s hard to perceive
that once, God came into the world unfortified, unguarded, undefended,
except in the body of one small human being.
How can a small human being like Mary magnify the Lord?
How can a small human being like Jonathan Myrick Daniels?
It was Mary’s song, Magnificat, that inspired Daniels 50 years ago to travel unprotected to Selma, Alabama, to take part in civil rights activities. Then a seminarian at Episcopal Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, Daniels could have stuck to his studies and let others take the risks. Daniels’ path to seminary had not been easy. While a student at Virginia Military Institute, he had experienced a crisis of faith that continued for several years, after by the death of his father and prolonged illness of his sister. An Easter service moved his heart, and he decided to study for the priesthood, planning to graduate in 1966.
But plans change. In the spring of 1965, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King asked students to join him in Selma, and during evening prayer at the seminary chapel, Daniels, who had heard King’s call, heard the words of Mary’s song.
In his journal, Daniels wrote: “I had come to evening prayer as usual, and as usual I was singing the Magnificat with the special love and reverence I have always felt for Mary’s glad song….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. He hath filled the hungry with good things.’”
The familiar words suddenly shimmered with meaning for Daniels, and, as he wrote, “I knew then that I must go to Selma.”
Once there, Daniels knew that a drop-in weekend visit was not enough. He returned to school, but only to get permission to stay in Selma and study on his own while working to register black voters. He tutored children, helped poor people apply for aid, and assembled of list of resources for people in need. On Sundays, he worked to integrate a local Episcopal church, although the group of African-American students he sat with were … tolerated, not welcomed.
On August 14 that year, Daniels was one of a group of 29 protesters who went to Fort Deposit, Ala., to protest stores that had a whites-only policy. There, they were arrested and spent 6 days in a crowded jail without working toilets, showers or air conditioning—and this in the crushing Alabama heat. Daniels led the group in hymn singing and prayers to boost their morale.
Finally, freedom came (though some say the group’s sudden release was a setup). Longing for a cold drink, Daniels and a Catholic priest, along with two young African-American women, walked the 50 yards to a small grocery where they had shopped in mixed groups before. This time, however, they were met at the door by an unemployed highway worker who had been deputized as a sheriff. The man leveled a weapon at one of the teenagers, Ruby Sales, but before he could fire, Jonathan Myrick Daniels pushed Ruby out of the way. The shotgun blast, pointblank to his chest, stopped his hero’s heart. His killer was acquitted by an all-white jury.
Jonathan Daniels has been remembered in the church’s calendar since 1991, but that, of course, was not his purpose in going to Selma or in laying down his life to save Ruby (who, incidentally, has stayed the course, becoming a lifelong leader in human rights efforts).
Daniels wasn’t out to glorify himself, but to magnify the Lord.
And how did he do that?
He did it in the same way that his beloved Virgin Mary did — by placing his vulnerable, human body at the service of the Creator of the Universe. Our vulnerable human bodies, with the minds and spirits they enclose, are all we have to offer to God or to God’s beloved children.
Christians from all over the country, including many from our diocese led by Bishop Shannon Johnston, have used their bodies this week to walk a pilgrimage, moving from the Hayneville, Ala., Jail where Daniels was held, to the site of the store where he sacrificed his life, and on to churches for worship.
I wasn’t there, but I think it’s a safe bet that as they walked, this group of pilgrims sang – sang songs of hope, songs of peace, songs of justice and freedom, songs of love. I can well imagine they sang Mary’s song.
What do Mary’s song, what do Jonathan’s sacrifice, mean for us? How do we small, human beings magnify our impossibly enormous God?
In our own small, human, vulnerable, bodies, that’s how, as we take risks for what is right and just, and for people who are also beloved by God.
We magnify God as we live like we believe what St. Paul writes in Galatians: that we are all children of God, for “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female,” there is no longer black and white, or gay and straight, or native and immigrant, or young and old, or east or west or north or south, or anything else that separates and divides the children of God.
When we live as if we truly believe that truth, sacrificing perhaps not our lives but our prejudices, our comfort, our plans, and our treasure, our magnificent God will be magnified for all to see.
And that is something to sing about.
 Prayer borrowed from the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry