Rev. Pamela Shepherd
Today when we say someone is the salt of the earth, we mean a good person, an unpretentious decent person. But originally, when Jesus said it, he was not describing people; he was naming our function. We are that which flavors or seasons the world, we are what preserves life and enhances living. And Jesus doesn’t say to his followers, you should be…. He says, You are. You are the salt for the earth. You are the Light for the World.
And he says, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. While inclusive language is important to our church, I want to use the original word, Father, here, because Jesus’ point is not about the gender of God; his point is about relationship. Not only do we have a light that shines through us; but we are intimately related to the God who shines through.
I find my faith more frightening the longer I live with it. There seems to be no end to what God expects that we can do. Our faith is to be made visible; our trust is to be visible, so that God will be made visible through the way we live our lives. Our lives are like a lamp on a lamp stand, a city on a hill. Our lives are to be signs and symbols of the real Light of the World.
This Little Light of Mine, I’m gonna let it shine… How many of you have heard of Fannie Lou Hamer? I’ve told her story before in here, and I’m sure I’ll tell it again, because for me Fannie Lou Hamer’s life is the perfect example of what it means to live as a light for the world.
Hamer was born in Mississippi in 1917, one of twenty children born to poor, black sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta. She was educated up to the 4th grade and then, as young child, went to work picking cotton as a sharecropper on a rich white man’s plantation, as everyone else she knew did.
The work was back-breaking, and their lives were hard, but neither Hamer nor her family or friends imagined that the injustice they lived with could ever change. And they surely never imagined that they would become the people who changed it.
In 1962, when she was forty five years old, Hamer attended a meeting at her church and heard a preacher call for blacks to go down to the county courthouse and attempt to register to vote. Hamer later described the meeting as a moment of revelation. She realized suddenly, and with complete certainty, that God was at work in history, bringing justice to her people, and she was being invited, no, called, to step out on the arm of God and help God change the world.
That next morning, Hamer was first among a handful of terrified people who filed into the Sunflower County courthouse and tried to register to vote. One by one, each was denied that civil right, and on their way home the bus they traveled in was stopped, and the frightened sharecroppers were all arrested, for the crime of “Driving a school bus that was too yellow.”
By the time the police let the terrified sharecroppers go home, Hamer discovered the man who owned the land her family share-cropped had evicted her from her house and from his land. She stepped out on God’s arm to bring Justice to history and within forty-eight hours lost her home and her family.
Hamer joined with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and continued her crusade, which led her one year later to a jail in Winona, South Carolina. Here she was tortured and beaten so severely that she was crippled from the beatings for the rest of her short life.
From her jail cell in Winona, other civil rights activists remember hearing Hamer’s voice, first weak and tentative, and then growing stronger, as she began to sing, Let my people go…
When Israel was in Egypt’s Land, Let my people go.
Oppressed so hard they could not stand, Let my people go.
Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land,
Tell old Pharaoh to let my people go…
As Hamer sang freedom songs from her jail cell, she gave other prisoners the courage to join her. As one writer explained it, Their singing did not remove their suffering or the particulars of their humiliation; rather, it embraced the suffering, named it, and emplotted it in a cosmic story of hope and deliverance.
Fannie Lou Hamer emerged from that jail cell on fire for justice and faithful to the God who called her to God’s arm. She said of her work for civil rights, I’m never sure any more when I leave home whether I’ll get back or not… But if I fall, I’ll fall five feet four inches forward in the fight for freedom. I am not backing off.
Now, I don’t even know how you explain this next part to you, if you don’t believe God acts in history, but two years after this frightened sharecropper made the choice to step out on God’s arm in faith, she was at the Democratic National Convention, with the Mississippi Freedom Delegation, going toe to toe with Democratic Presidential Candidate Lyndon Johnson, and winning.
President Lyndon Johnson was one of the most powerful men in America, and he was not going to let a colored, cotton-picking grandma derail his re-election. One historian described Fannie Lou Hamer’s entry into the Convention center, “like Jesus among the money changers.”
Johnson sent Hubert Humphrey to get rid of the troubling woman, by figuring out what concessions they might grant that would make her and the Mississippi Freedom delegation go away. Hamer understood that while the Democratic leaders were sympathetic to civil rights, they were afraid trouble at the convention would lose them the Presidential election.
Hamer responded to Hubert Humphrey’s attempts to buy her off by saying, “I know lots of people in Mississippi who have lost their jobs for trying to register to vote. I had to leave the plantation where I worked in Sunflower County. Now if you lose this job of vice president because you do what is right….everything will be all right. God will take care of you.”
One aide, listening in on the conversation, later described Humphrey’s face as bearing “an empty sadness.” The face of power and privilege, the face of one who had it all, yet unable to step out in faith– an empty sadness.
And yet, the witness of a woman who had already lost everything, and who would live the rest of her life in poverty and in pain, and who would die for lack of access to health care just a few years later: Everything will be all right. God will take care of you.
Do you trust God is real and at work in the world? Do you trust that God is present in your life? Fannie Lou Hamer did. She believed she was to help God loose the bonds of injustice and let the oppressed go free. She believed that if she helped God build a world based on justice and fairness, there was just no telling what that Living God could do.
Let me be clear about what I mean about trusting God. You cannot trust God to help you further your own small plans and designs: to make your life and the world go just as you want it. I think it was Paul Tillich who said, God is not a cosmic bellhop.
But if you are willing to rearrange your heart and mind, and get on board with God’s plans, then you yourself will see what your Living God can do.