January 15, 2006
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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At the Right Moment

There are two kinds of time – the time that passes and the time that is right.

In the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes it says: To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.

In the Hawaiian love song it says:
This is the moment
Of sweet Aloha

In one spiritual Mahalia Jackson sings: He may not come when you want him but he’s right on time

And in the New Testament book of Mark the preaching of Jesus begins with these words: Mark 1:15 “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

When we look back at history we see that there were many people who were right about many things, but they just didn’t come at the right time.

Take, for example, the story of Jim Crow in the United States. Jim Crow became a term to designate all the laws and practices that perpetuated racial segregation, but it began as a slur against blacks – a black face character in a white minstrel show who danced a ridiculous dance while singing a silly song:
"Weel about and turn about and do jis so,
Eb'ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow."

Jim Crow was just one stereotype designed to communicate the inferiority of colored people – there was Jim Crow and Sambo and Coon and others to boot. It might have started with a Jim Crow car on the railroads but it grew to mean every line of separation, every indignity large and small, that were written into the law and rigidly enforced in society.

For me, and I’m sure for others here, this is not ancient history – this is something we saw and experienced. I have pictures of myself as a child standing in front of a water fountain in Florida with the word “White” prominently displayed above. And I have a vivid recollection of what happened when our integrated Boy Scout troop was dropped off at a public park near Chicago, Illinois, on our way to the 50th Anniversary Scout Jamboree in Colorado in 1960. Everyone was admitted to the park, but not everyone was allowed to go in the swimming pool – at which point, to their great credit – our Scoutmasters told us we would all have to leave the park because if any one scout was not welcome, none of us would stay.

Today that seems just like common sense and common decency, and we shake our heads and wonder how people could be so blind and ignorant to allow Jim Crow. And the sort of ironic, if that’s the right word, ironic situations it created were many.

In preparing for this sermon I read some read letters from black soldiers who served in World War II. One was from a man named Rupert Trimmingham, a corporal- from Brooklyn, who wrote to Yank magazine in April 1944:
"Myself and eight other Negro soldiers were on our way from Camp Claiborne, La., to the hospital here at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. ...We could not purchase a cup of coffee at any of the lunchrooms around there... As you know, Old Man Jim Crow rules. But that's not all; 11:30 a.m. about two dozen German prisoners of war, with two American guards, came to the station. They entered the lunchroom, sat at the tables, had their meals served, talked, smoked, in fact had quite a swell time. I stood on the outside looking on... Are we not American soldiers, sworn to fight for and die if need be for this our country?"

Trimmingham had the right idea, but it wasn’t quite yet the right time. That time would come on December 1, 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus. As you know, it wasn’t the first time this happened, but this time was the right time, it was the aloha moment, and the wheel of history turned never to be turned back.

Of course, this being the weekend set aside to honor Dr. King, we have to say that the wheel didn’t just keeping turning under its own power – it took the dedicated leadership and courageous action of many, many people to capitalize on the moment, to turn a moment into a movement – it took courage and sacrifice, but they brought down not only the laws of Jim Crow but the respectability of a racist ideology – they exposed what was accepted and handed down from generation to generation as evil and untrue, as something that discriminated against those who were thought inferior and dishonored those who thought themselves superior.

In one sense, the resistance of Rosa Parks changed everything for the better – the time was fulfilled.

But we know that not every moment of change is for the better – it is not a straightforward uphill ascent to the mountaintop. Some events change things for the worse.

It is often said that 9/11 was such a moment, that 9/11 changed everything. I don’t know if you think this is true or not. I sometimes think it’s a way for people who were responsible to protect America from attack to absolve themselves of blame. Had they never heard of a Kamikaze attack? Did they miss the massacre at the Munich Olympics? Did they lose sight of the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon?

There is nothing innovative about terrorism, nothing new about targeting non-combatants in war. You can read about the slaughter of whole villages in the Bible, and for my entire childhood it was commonly accepted policy for both sides of the Iron Curtain to target their nuclear weapons on civilian populations.

There is and always has been an accepted wisdom that flows from situations of terror and fear – and that wisdom is strike first, hit harder, be ruthless.

What moment, do you think, might be the right moment when that settled wisdom is challenged? Dr. King, you know, preached a path of non-violence as the right path to combat the indignity and terrorism of Jim Crow and the culture of fear and intimidation backed by beating and lynching. Some thought the idea that a person should suffer violence and even sacrifice life without retaliation was simple foolishness, and after King was killed it did seem that the armed militant groups had more influence.

But King did not waver from non-violence. He found his inspiration in the Christian scriptures as seen through the eyes of a non-Christian, the Hindu Mahatma Gandhi, who had led non-violent resistance to British colonial rule in India.

For King the moment that changed everything was the moment Christ took up his cross. Here was the one the disciple Nathanael called the Son of God! Here was the one who could open the heavens and summon all the angels of God to defend his cause. And yet Christ went to the cross defenseless. More than this, when he rose from the grave, it was not for vengeance, but for blessing. Surely in that moment Christ changed everything. And yet, not yet.

The immediate political goals of both Gandhi and King were realized, but the spiritual goal of turning the world away from violence has not been fulfilled. There is a long uphill struggle before us. If we are to trust in the power of good to overcome evil, we will have to practice that power in our personal lives, in our workday lives, in the life of our community, and in ever-broadening expanding circles of influence and relationship.

We never quite know when the call will come to practice forgiveness instead of resentment, reconciliation instead of retaliation. But every time the opportunity arises, every time the call comes, every time we strive to overcome evil with good, we affirm that Christ on the cross changed everything for us and for all.

As Paul wrote to the church in Roman: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, Bless those who persecute you; Do not repay anyone evil for evil,” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

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