A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, January 18, 2015
2 Corinthians 11:23-28 NLT
I was a mere ten-years-old fifty years ago when Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading the Civil Rights Marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. So I really can’t remember much at all about those marches and turbulent days of our nation’s history. But my dad had a habit of watching the evening world news whenever possible. So I sometimes would be playing in the floor with my brother in front of our black and white television set during news time. I recall seeing and hearing more about the Viet Nam War and the daily casualty count than I do about those Civil Rights Marches. But I do have vague memories of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his Civil Rights speeches and activities. And I do recall overhearing conversations about King and his activities at the local country store. It may be that more of those country store conversations around the pot-bellied stove about King and his activities were negative than positive. I am sorry to say that in the sheltered enclave of East Tennessee where I grew up, King and his motives probably were not understood and appreciated.
At any rate, you may recall there were three marches on the highway stretching from Selma to Montgomery, the Alabama state capital, in March 1965; marches that led later that year to the Voting Rights Act. The first march took place on Sunday, March 7, 1965, and was nicknamed “Bloody Sunday” after its 600 marchers were attacked at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. State troopers and others attacked the marchers with billy clubs, tear gas, and whips. Some were beaten unconscious. A second march was begun on March 9, but the marchers turned and walked back to the church where they had started. King had hoped for federal protection, which I guess was not there. Later that night, a white group murdered civil rights activist James Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Boston, who had come to Selma to participate in the second March. Alabama Governor George Wallace refused to offer protection for the marchers, so President Lyndon Johnson committed to do so. So for the third march, held on March 21, the marchers were protected by 2,000 U.S. Army soldiers, 1,900 members of the Alabama National Guard under Federal command, as well as several FBI agents and Federal Marshals. The marchers arrived at the Alabama State Capitol on March 25, 1965.
As I thought about the events of that watershed year, the idea of “Crossing Bridges” stood out to me, for a couple of reasons. First, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge was the symbolic threshold of crossing over into a new era. Now, let it be stated that such violence as was inflicted on those marchers is never justified. But it was almost like it was necessary that the event that would come to be known as “Bloody Sunday” had to happen in order to propel forward the Civil Rights progress. If those marchers hadn’t been beaten, and if minister-activist James Reeb had not been murdered in connection with those marches, would Federal assistance been sent, and would the Voting Rights Act of 1965 have come to pass? No doubt it would have eventually come about. But it could it be that crossing that bridge helped bolster and more quickly advance the Civil Rights successes?
A second reason that the idea of “Crossing Bridges” stood out to me is that it can become a metaphor for those difficult bridges that all of us at some points in our lives are faced with. Now, I have to be quick to confess that I have never been faced with a bridge crossing anything close to what those marchers faced on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, similar to the trials and tribulations that the Apostle Paul enumerated—imprisonment, whippings, beatings, stoning—in his letter to the Corinthians. And I would conjecture that most of us here today haven’t faced such a bridge either.
And to be totally honest with you, had I been old enough and cognizant enough of what was going on back then, I don’t know if I would have had the gumption and fortitude to be one of those 600 marchers who crossed that Edmund Pettus Bridge to face billy clubs, tear gas, and whipping. I wonder if I would have had the nerve to even start across that bridge, not once, but three times, knowing the likelihood of what lay on the other side. Admittedly, the Edmund Pettus Bridge was a unique event in American history in one sense of the term, because of its magnitude, publicity, and the issues at stake. And we shouldn’t expect such a challenge to present itself very often. Some of us may live our entire lives without such an historical experience ever presenting itself to us.
However, there are big bridges and there are small bridges. Though we may not have been at the Edmund Pettus Bridge that day, in the course of our lives many of us are faced with smaller bridges that call forth a decision from us. And I am betting that sometimes we cross those smaller bridges successfully, and at other times we feel so intimidated that we withdraw and retreat. And in so doing, we may experience a sense of failure or disappointment with ourselves.
There are those “smaller” bridges involving issues of fairness and justice. Suppose we are in a department store or restaurant in Turkey Creek. Someone from a racial minority or someone wearing a burqa or turban, obviously of another world religion, walks up to be waited on ahead of us. But the clerk or restaurant hostess knowingly passes over this person and gives us preference because of our race and looks. Do we defer to the other person in an attempt to be just and fair, or do we see it as a streak of good luck and go with the flow and jump ahead? A small bridge of fairness and justice.
Sometimes those bridges involve standing in opposition to that we believe in our hearts is wrong. Some months ago, I shared how that some years ago I was at a Christian gathering where there was a debate going on over capital punishment. For a long while I sat and listened to a number of Christian leaders stand and speak in favor of the death penalty. Their reasoning was because the Old Testament Law of Moses condones and in some cases even encourages it. The thing that struck a nerve in me that day was the seemingly absence of any Christian compassion after the manner of Jesus. So the longer I sat, the more I fumed. Finally, when I could not sit quiet any longer, I rose to my feet, approached the microphone and spoke. And here is what I said: “I claim to be a Christian, a follower of Christ. The way of Jesus was a way of compassion. I don’t believe Jesus condoned the death penalty, and as one of his followers, I don’t either.” And then I sat down. That was my small bridge of decision on that day.
But crossing bridges can take an even different form as we face life decisions and relationship challenges: making a medical decision about a loved one regarding prolonging life when there is no hope of recovery, or letting nature take its course; forgiving a friend or relative who does or says something that hurt us. And maybe you can think of some past bridges of decision of your own.
As I noted in the beginning, fifty years ago Dr. King’s motives and activities probably were not well understood and appreciated by my family members and neighbors in the community where I grew up; an all-white, all-Protestant community. They probably felt that they didn’t really have a stake in those marches. They probably didn’t feel that the Edmund Pettus Bridge was their bridge to cross. Which is to say that not every bridge to be crossed in life is looked upon by everyone as their bridge to cross. But then again, maybe some bridges are bridges that should be crossed by everyone. The matter of race relations and social justice may be one of them.
But the truth is, sooner or later, all of us are faced with bridges of decision—social justice and fairness bridges, standing in opposition to what we feel in our hearts is wrong bridges, challenging relationship bridges, or serious life decision bridges. In one form or another, those bridges will come. We might do well to mentally prepare ourselves for the bridges that are down the road. And may we take inspiration from those who have crossed those bridges ahead of us—the Apostle Paul, Dr. King and all those Civil Rights marches, and others—and pray that we, too, have the strength to likewise cross life’s bridges of decision with grace. Amen.