Delivered to the United Church of Jaffrey
January 15th, 2017
Readings: 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 | John 1:29-42
“You can do this.”
These four words changed my life.
The year was 1980, and I was thirteen years old.
The man who said this to me was Walter Gern.
Walter Gern was a rather disheveled young man – when I knew him, Mr. Gern must have been in his mid-twenties.
I don’t think he was a Ph.D.
I don’t know if he had any fancy credentials.
But I do know, this — I had a deep respect for him.
He was a really good teacher.
He was my English teacher.
Mr. Gern had given us an assignment. We had just finished reading “A Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger, and Mr. Gern challenged us to write a new scene for the book, and to write it using the unique voice of Holden Caulfield, the book’s eccentric protagonist. If you have read “A Catcher in the Rye” you will know that this was a fun assignment. I completed it with very little effort. It seemed to practically write itself.
So I was taken by surprise, when Walter Gern handed the assignment back to me.
He hesitated for an instant, resisting my attempt to take back the paper. And that’s when he said it.
“You can do this.” He said. He looked me in the eye and smiled. “You can write.”
Something is going on in this morning’s scripture lesson from the gospel of John.
When John the Baptist sees Jesus coming toward him in the distance he (John) turns to the people who are with him and gives them the scoop.
He tells them just who it is, exactly, that is approaching.
Does John say “I think that man over there might be the Lamb of God…”?
John says “Here is the Lamb of God…”
John speaks with confidence.
“Here is the Lamb of God…”
This specific man, the one walking toward us – here is the Lamb of God.
But how does he know?
How can he be so sure?
No sooner does John the Baptist proclaim this unqualified identification of Jesus, then he admits that, at first, he was not sure.
I myself did not know him, (he says) but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
At first John the Baptist did not know.
At first, he looked at Jesus and saw a man.
but when John baptized Jesus, John saw the Spirit descend and remain on him, and then, John knew.
Or, perhaps you could say at that point he re-knew Jesus.
He recognized Jesus.
Re – cognize.
“Cognize” means “to know.”
So re-cognize means to re-know.
To re-cognize someone, is to re-know them.
Let’s say you know someone, and then something happens, and you discover that you know them again, in an altogether new way…
…then you re-know them.
When you recognize someone, you understand something essential about that person that gives them a new significance.
When you are recognized by someone, you become aware that something essential about you has been understood by that person.
This is very important moment in human life.
The person who has recognized you– it could be your best friend or your spouse, maybe your daughter, or maybe your 8th grade English teacher – that person who has recognized you has seen more than just the you that everyone else sees – that person has seen into you.
That person has recognized the essential you.
On 445 High street, in Montgomery Alabama, there is a public library.
At first glance, the library is like any other public library in any other town in the United States.
But look again.
There is something essential about this library that will give us a new appreciation of it.
There is something about the history of this library that makes it special to the population of Montgomery Alabama. This history caused the library to be re-known – to be recognized – by the people of Montgomery, and, today, by you and I.
In 1942, a young woman by the name of Juliette Hampton Morgan, was hired to the reference librarian at the Montgomery Carnegie library.
Ms. Morgan was the only child of a well-to-do white family who lived in Montgomery. Rich, white, and accomplished, she was, you might say, the beneficiary of all the privilege that the Jim Crow south could serve her.
She was a good librarian, and was soon promoted to director of research.
Miss Morgan’s successful future was assured.
All she had to do was play along.
But she couldn’t.
You see, Ms. Morgan was anxious about driving, so even though she could easily have afforded a car, she did not own one.
So when she left home each morning and make her way to the Montgomery Carnegie library, she took the bus.
And it was on the bus, that Juliette Morgan witnessed, first hand, the ugly reality of Jim Crow.
It was on the bus that she, a privileged white lady, witnessed what the black population of Montgomery endured at the hands of the white passengers and bus drivers.
For example, one of the daily indignities that black passengers had to suffer was the custom of getting on the front of the bus to pay their fare, only to be forced to disembark again in order to get back on through the back door.
Injury was sometimes added to this insult when the bus driver sped off, leaving the black commuters (who had, of course just paid their fare) in the dust on the side of the road.
One day Juliette Hampton Morgan could stand it no longer.
Ms. Morgan pulled the emergency cord, stopping the bus. While she berated the driver, the abandoned passengers ran alongside the bus and got on.
This public display of righteous indignation raised many an eyebrow.
The white people recognized something about young Juliette.
And the black people also recognized her.
When, in December of 1955 Rosa Parks was arrested, and the Montgomery bus boycott began, led by a fiery young preacher by the name of Martin Luther King Jr., Miss Juliette Hampton Morgan wrote a letter to the Montgomery Advertiser that said, in part:
The Negroes of Montgomery seem to have taken a lesson from Gandhi… Their own task is greater than Gandhi’s however, for they have greater prejudice to overcome. One feels that history is being made in Montgomery these days… It is hard to imagine a soul so dead, a heart so hard, a vision so blinded and provincial as not to be moved with admiration at the quiet dignity, discipline and dedication with which the Negroes have conducted their boycott.
This story does not end well.
In the ensuing months and years, Miss Morgan continued to write letters in support of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In return for her efforts she was ostracized by her own community.
Her mother and father disowned her.
She received hate mail, obscene phone calls, and death threats.
The mayor of Montgomery insisted that she be fired from her job at the library, and when the library refused, the city reduced the library’s funding by the exact amount of her salary.
On July 15, 1957, some six months after the Montgomery buses were officially desegregated, Miss Morgan returned home to find a huge cross burning in her front yard, and all of her windows smashed. The next day, she was found dead with an empty bottle of sleeping pills in her hands. Her suicide note was to the point:
“I am not going to cause any more trouble to anybody.”
Juliette Hampton Morgan did something that very few people did. She stood by her conscience regardless of the consequences.
And for this, she died.
In his book “Stride towards Freedom” Martin Luther King Jr. recognized her:
About a week after the protest started, a white woman who understood and sympathized with the Negroes’ efforts wrote a letter to the editor of the Montgomery Advertiser comparing the bus protest with the Gandhian movement in India. Miss Juliette Morgan, sensitive and frail, did not long survive the rejection and condemnation of the white community, but long before she died in the summer of 1957, the name of Mahatma Gandhi was well known in Montgomery.
Dr. King was not alone in recognizing Miss Morgan.
In 2006, nearly fifty years after her suicide, the Montgomery City Council voted to rename the Montgomery Carnegie Public Library.
So now, when you find yourself at 445 High Street in Montgomery Alabama, take another look at the big blue sign that sits out front of the public library.
You will recognize the name emblazoned there:
“The Juliette Hampton Morgan Memorial Library”
Let us join Dr. King, and the city of Montgomery and recognize Miss Juliette Hampton Morgan with a moment of silence this morning…
In the second half of this morning’s reading from the gospel of John, Jesus meets a young man named Andrew.
Andrew had been standing next to John the Baptist when he (John) spoke of Jesus, saying “Here is the Lamb of God.”
Andrew spends the day with Jesus, and at the end, Andrew introduces Jesus to his brother Simon.
Jesus takes one look at Simon and says:
“You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas”
Imagine being recognized by Jesus!
It means a great deal to be recognized – to be re-known – by another person.
But what does it mean to recognized – to be re-known – by God?
Can we – you and I – be recognized by God?
What do you think?
I like to think we can.
Even though Jesus Christ died on the cross many centuries ago, I think that one of the meanings of the resurrection, may be that Jesus Christ can still recognize us – you and me.
I believe that it is through our actions that we are re-known by God.
Jesus taught us this when he said:
‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.’
If, as Jesus teaches us, caring for our neighbors is the same as caring for our God, then we can recognize the courage of Juliette Hampton Morgan, as a divine courage.
Divine courage involves no conflict of interest.
On the contrary, it is clear that, in order to care for the least of these her brothers and sisters, Miss Morgan was forced to endure real danger and suffering.
If, as Jesus teaches us, caring for our neighbors is the same as caring for our God, then we can recognize the courage of the great American prophet whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as a divine courage.
Divine courage involves no conflict of interest.
On the contrary, it is clear that, in an effort to care for the least of these his brothers and sisters, Dr. King, like Miss Morgan before him, sacrificed everything, including his life.
So renew your strength, dear friends,
Renew your strength to act,
To act as Juliette Hampton Morgan acted, and as Dr. King acted.
Though they lost their lives, these two Americans, black and white, were recognized by God,
Because they grew their Christian faith through acts of love toward all.