Matthew 5: 13 – 16 – Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
We continue our sermon series, “Beguiled by Beauty.” Last week, I encouraged you to contemplate nature, to be beguiled by the beauty of creation. Today, on this last Sunday of Black History Month, we will reflect on the extraordinary life of Howard Thurman. Thurman was a nature mystic and he discovered that contemplation leads to social justice. Thurman shaped a whole generation of prophetic voices in the joining of the inner and the outer life.
Who was Howard Thurman? Thurman was born in 1899 in Daytona Beach, Florida. As a young boy, he discovered God in nature. His best friend was a great oak tree in his backyard. He writes,
I could sit, my back against its trunk, and feel the same peace that would come to me in my bed at night. I could reach down in the quiet places of my spirit, take out my bruises and my joys, unfold them, and talk about them. I could talk aloud to the Oak tree and know that I was understood. (Thurman, With Head and Heart, 9).
As a boy in Florida, he walked along the beach of the Atlantic in the quiet stillness. He loved to gaze at the nighttime sky. He had this sense that all things, the sand, the sea, the stars, the night, and he were one lung through which all of life breathed. He was a nature mystic, beguiled by the beauty of creation.
Thurman grew up in the deep South in the early 1900’s. At the time, there was still legal segregation. The Ku Klux Klan identified itself as a Christian organization. It was a period in which people were leaving church on a Sunday morning to participate in lynchings. Thurman was the grandson of his enslaved grandmother. It was this grandmother, Nancy Ambrose, who had the greatest impact on his life. She spent her first twenty years on a large Florida plantation, enslaved. She told a story that stayed with Thurman for his entire life. She said that there was a minister who was enslaved himself living on the plantation. He was permitted to hold a religious service for the enslaved once a year. It did not matter what his subject was, he ended his sermon in the same way every year. He would conclude every sermon by saying, “You are not slaves. You’re not the N word. You’re God’s children.” The enslaved would wait for that moment, there would be a slight stiffening of the spine as they heard those words. His grandmother said, “The Creator of existence created me and therefore with that sort of backing, I could endure any kind of violence or mistreatment.” Yes, that story deeply influenced Thurman throughout his entire life.
Florida in the early nineteen hundreds provided almost no options for black students after 8th grade, but Thurman excelled. He was brilliant. He becomes the very first African American to compete the 8th grade in Daytona schools. He then enrolled in the Florida Baptist Academy and graduated as valedictorian. Thurman then heads to Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. Morehouse was founded after the civil war to educate freed enslaved persons. Thurman said on his first day at Morehouse in 1919, the President of Morehouse went to the lectern and the first words out of his mouth were, “Young gentlemen.” Thurman said the words startled the young men because they were not accustomed, as members of the disinherited community, to being so affirmed, receiving such esteem, and that affirmation, he said, was like pouring iron into his spine. Thurman read every book in the library at Morehouse and again became valedictorian.
Shortly thereafter, he came across a book written by a Quaker Mystic, Rufus Jones and he is profoundly influence by this book. The Quaker tradition not only honors silence and solitude as part of the interior experience of the Divine, but the Quaker tradition also recognizes the inner light within every person. As Jesus says in our scripture passage today, “You are the light of the world.” And the Quaker tradition emphasizes social justice – which is why this book was a perfect match for Howard Thurman.
In the fall of 1935, Thurman and his wife accept an extraordinary invitation to travel by ship to India. Those who traveled before this time were white missionaries interested in converting the Indians. But this trip is different asking, “How can African Americas contribute to the struggle that Indians face with British colonial rule?”
While in India, Thurman’s horizons for religious expression are opened…the smells, the alters, the flowers, the chanting was completely outside his universe. He stood side by side with Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and believed that the authenticity of their experience was identical with the essence and authenticity of his own experience.
One day, as he was giving a talk in India, a lawyer asked him, “How could an African American descended from slaves and still facing segregation in the United States, come to India, a place colonized by the British, and serve as a representative of Christianity?” The lawyer believed that Thurman was just another missionary, like the white people who came before him, proselytizing and trying to convert the Indians to Christianity. Thurman responded by saying, “I’m not here to represent the religion about Jesus. That’s the religion that oppressed me. The religion of Jesus, though, is a liberating religion and it’s a religion that the oppressed can own because Jesus was oppressed.” The lawyer was quite shocked by Thurman’s response.
Later, during that same trip to India, Thurman met privately with Mahatma Gandhi. And Thurman translates Gandhi’s nonviolent crusade into the American context and the Civil Rights movement.
After returning to the United States, Thurman is invited to cofound a pioneering venture at The Fellowship Church in San Francisco. It is the nation’s first intentionally multiracial, interfaith church. Thurman had been dreaming about something like this for years. A place where black, brown and white, Baptist, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim can worship together.
Five years later, Thurman releases his most influential book, Jesus and the Disinherited. In that book, he connects the life of Jesus directly to the African American experience. Jesus was poor. Jesus was part of a minority group. Jesus was oppressed…and so are African Americans. It not an accident that black Americans talk more about Jesus. White Americans talk more about Christ in the abstract. Thurman focuses on the human historical Jesus. The book is so profound that Martin Luther King, Jr. carried this book with him wherever he went.
Thurman, then, breaks another barrier and is named Dean of Marsh Chapel at the predominantly white Boston University. Life magazine and Ebony magazine name Thurman among the great preachers in America. There at the chapel, Thurman takes weekly worship in a bold new direction, incorporating the arts, dance, and silence into the service. This was unusual at the time and long periods of silence were not always well received by many black preachers.
At that time, Martin Luther King, Jr. was completing his doctoral work in theology at Boston University and during chapel, he would take copious notes on Thurman’s sermons. The two became very good friends. They loved to watch baseball together, specifically Jackie Robinson, on Sunday afternoons. And later, when King, at the age of 29, was stabbed by a letter opener in Harlem and was hospitalized, Thurman traveled to Harlem and strongly encouraged King to take some time off and spend time in silence and solitude and listen to what his / King’s role was going to be in the Civil Rights movement. Yes, pay attention to that inner light, counseled Thurman. When King died in 1968, Thurman eulogized his dear friend.
And on April 10th, 1981, Howard Thurman at the age of 81 years old, passed from life to Life. A spiritual mentor to MLK, Jr. A moral anchor for the civil rights movement. A spiritual activist. He was not the one on the front lines during the marches, he was the spiritual sage to whom people retreated to be refilled. He was not a Moses, but a mystic.
Along those lines, I share with you one final story from Thurman’s life. Thurman had two daughters. Years later, after living in the North, he brought his daughters back to his old stomping grounds in Daytona Beach where legal segregation was still the law of the land. They wanted to swing on a swing set. Thurman said, “It is against the law for us to use those swings, even though it is a public school. At present, only white children can play there. But it takes the state legislature, the courts, the sheriffs and policemen, the white churches, the mayors, the banks and businesses, and the majority of white people in the state of Florida –it takes all these to keep 2 little black girls from swinging on those swings. That’s how important you are” (Thurman, With Head and Heart, 9)! Yes, Thurman believed that no law could diminish the spirit of those who know themselves as God’s beloved children.
Our closing hymn today is titled, “I Am the Light of the World.” The text of the hymn is based on a Christmas poem written by Thurman. In that hymn, we discover Thurman’s rich connection between contemplation and action, prayer and work, mysticism and social justice.
As our contemplative practice this week, I encourage you to train your eyes to see the divinity, the light, of each person. To be beguiled by the beauty of one another. Experience God’s presence in the black teenager who may be mistreated. But also experience in the divine presence within the one who does the mistreating, in both the oppressed and the oppressor. Find holiness in the undocumented immigrant cleaning a hotel room. Awaken to Christ in the refugee seeking asylum. Discover Jesus’ presence in the drug addict and in the elderly person who fears that addicts will rob her home. Look for the divine light in unexpected disguises. And don’t forget to discover the light within. After all, you are the light of the world, too! Amen.
*Thank you to the PBS special, https://www.pbs.org/video/backs-against-the-wall-the-howard-thurman-story-cgv9gi/, for providing much of the biographical comment on Howard Thurman.