Sermon

 

The Hour of Decision

She stayed in her seat.  He asked people to get up out of theirs.

 

I want to talk you today about two great American Christians, a man and a woman, both of whom lived into their Nineties.  The woman is Rosa Parks.  The man is Billy Graham.  They are both heroes of mine.

It’s 105 years ago this month since Rosa Parks died in Detroit where she lived for much of her life.  It was a full life, much of it dedicated to civil rights.  It was a life of struggle and sacrifice.  It was a life that brought life transforming change to many not only in the States, but rippling across the oceans.  Rosa hailed from Montgomery, Alabama.  She was raised a Christian in an independent black denomination.  In a city riven by racial discrimination both she and her husband, Raymond, held down decent jobs. They were decent living Christian members of society.  They were also civil rights activists and, like many of their generation who longed for change in society, they leaned towards Communism. 

On Thursday 1 December, 1955, life changed for good for Rosa and Raymond when she boarded the six o’clock bus in Cleveland Avenue.  Buses were segregated in those days.  The first four rows were for whites only, but if they were full, blacks behind had to get up and make way.  Rosa sat in the fifth row.  The white seats in front filled up and some of them were left standing.  The black man in the window seat next to her got up.  She moved across.  Then she stayed in her seat.  When the bus driver asked her to move, she stayed in her seat.  When the police came to arrest her, she stayed in her seat until she was removed.  The reason she gave was that she was tired.  She was actually only forty two years of age and in the prime of life, but she was, she said, tired of giving in. So she did not.

The world changed because Rosa Parks stayed in her seat, as we now know.  The first step towards that change came with the Montgomery Bus Boycott that followed; then the long journey towards equality that has yet to be achieved, either by her race or by her gender. Rosa never gave up during the long years of her life.  And she died the ‘first lady of civil rights’, hailed by Presidents and the great and the good across the world.  Her funeral in 2005 took seven hours.  You can still watch it all on Youtube, but if you don’t have that amount of time spare, then you have to watch the prayers by Rev. Dr. Charles Adams.  It’s one of the most moving, funny, inspiring, and spiritual bits of real life film I think I have ever seen. 

The world also changed for Rosa Parks after she stayed in her seat.  Because there was a cost.  I’m not referring to the ten dollar fine and four dollar court costs that followed her trial, no small amount for a person on her income in those days.  I’m referring to her loss of job and hers and Raymond’s loss of home and roots as they were forced to move and seek work.  I’m referring to the cost in terms of energy and sacrifice of personal and private life involved in becoming an icon and spearhead in the civil rights movement.  It costs to stay in your seat.  It costs to do what it is right.  There is a sacrifice to be made when you become tired of giving in and refuse to do so for a lifetime.

And, for Rosa, that sacrifice was driven by faith – faith in a better world and faith in God.  Jesus says in our Gospel reading, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”.  What does that mean for you as a follower of Christ today?  Where in your life must you stay in your seat, not only because you are tired of giving in but also because your decision to follow Christ requires that you do so? 

Our first two Bible readings have at their heart the figure of Abraham and the story of his faith.  He too had left home and roots to follow the call of God.  He was also, we are told, 99 years old on the occasion of the divine revelation recounted in our first lesson – a revelation in which Abraham is promised that he will be the ancestor of many nations; a promise St Paul picks up in the tight argumentation of our second lesson to argue that a relationship with God, such as Abraham had, is available through faith to the people of all nations, whoever they are, whatever their culture and background.

This past week, also at the age of 99, the famous American preacher and world evangelist Billy Graham has died. I heard him speak myself when he came to lead a mission at my university 38 years ago.  He was still a fine-looking man then; and his speaking was spell binding.  Pretty much the whole university filled Great St Mary’s Church in Cambridge and the video linked venues over the days he was there.  Cliff Richard was the warm up act.  At the end of the preach, as he always did, Billy invited us to make a response to the love of God revealed in Christ by getting out of our seats and making our way forward.  He called for a decision.  He informed those who would be coming forward that they would have to make their way despite the crowd of others who would be heading in the opposite direction for the exit.  I had made my own response five years before and there was no need to repeat that just because this was Billy Graham; and the friend I had taken along was intrigued but somewhat mystified.  As we made our way out, we pressed against the surge that was heading the other way.  At the gates of the church, we were met with protestors who felt that the likes of Billy Graham, with what they saw as his simplistic message about Jesus and the religious fervour they thought he was whipping up, had no place in Cambridge University where scientific materialism still reigned supreme and was believed to have the answer to life, the universe and everything; though they had not banked on the ache in the students’ hearts for a deeper meaning and purpose and a greater hope which was why so many went forward that day. As for whipping up fervour, those of us involved in the planning had gone to such lengths to avoid this that there were not the usual massed choirs singing ‘Just as I am without one plea’, but no music at all as many pressed their way to the front in search of God; and even Cliff Richard played only a short solo acoustic set.

This was the life and work of Billy Graham in microcosm.   From 1947 to 2005, he held what he somewhat unfortunately named “crusades” throughout the world.  He was here in London in the fifties at Haringay and Earls Court, again in the eighties, filing huge venues and stadia with mass numbers responding to the call to get up out of their seats and decide to follow Christ.  One crusade in Seoul, South Korea, saw an estimated turn out of over a million on a single occasion.  Over time, Graham became the go-to spiritual adviser for presidents; gained his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and received an honorary knighthood from the Queen.

Whether the man who encouraged people to get out of their seats ever met the woman who refused to leave hers, I don’t know; but Billy Graham was a friend of the Civil Rights movement and indeed of Martin Luther King himself.  Graham in person hauled away ropes intended to segregate black from white in the crowds at his crusades vociferously opposing segregation.  He used his position to speak out strongly against apartheid.  He did not, sadly, embrace the good in the feminist movement or support the struggles of LGBT people.  He was caught on the Nixon tapes for engaging in what appeared to be anti-semitic conversation with the disgraced President, for which he later apologised.  Sadly, not all the obituaries I have read of his life are positive, and I have read quite a few, even from within the Christian community.  Sad to me, because there is a dark side to us all is there not?  Even Abraham. Even St Paul.  Even Rosa Parks. And why would we want to agree with everything they ever said or ever stood for?  And, why, on the other hand, would I not choose to learn from them, and from Billy Graham?

What I learnt most from Billy Graham is that at the heart of this business of faith is the requirement to make a decision.  That faith is a choice and not a matter of osmosis, which is precisely what our readings are all about.   

So, dear friends, I invite you this morning, as the music plays, to get out of your seat and come forward; and in this weekly act of receiving bread and wine or a blessing to make the decision afresh to follow Christ, whatever it takes; for there is no better way, it seems to me.  And as you choose to kneel with hands held out to receive, consider what that decision means for you in the week ahead.  Because there may be another moment, just around the corner, when you will need to decide to stay in your seat and not to leave it.

Billy Graham is also credited with being the first mass media evangelist, though, unlike so many who followed, there was never a scandal. That wasn’t coincidental.  He preserved the utmost integrity, financial and sexual, famed for his resolve never to be alone in the company of a member of the opposite sex unless that person was his wife.  In the light of the scandals that have erupted across our institutions in recent days and months, I suggest that no longer seems as extreme as it perhaps once did.  Graham had a very long-running radio programme called ‘The Hour of Decision’.  For all of us, in different ways, we are at such an hour now.  Inner change is needed before we can change the world.  Strangely, then, you must leave your seat to find the strength to stay in it.  You must lose your life to find it.  What will you decide?

 

 

A sermon given by The Rector of Acton, Revd Nick Jones, on Sunday 25 February 2018 at St Mary’s Church in Acton.

 


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