Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.
Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. — 3:13-14
In 1964 Fannie Lou Hamer arrested the attention of the nation. She showed up at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey with members of the newly established and multiracial Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Initially, some saw only a peasant sharecropper from the Mississippi Delta. Some questioned the intelligence of this woman with the thick southern drawl and faded floral dresses. And even President Lyndon Johnson asked, “Who is this illiterate colored woman?”
Yet when the credentials committee of the Democratic National Convention heard testimony from noted civil rights leaders, it was not Martin Luther King who stirred the nation. It was the testimony of Fannie Lou Hamer.
Born in 1917, the twentieth child of sharecropping parents, she spent the first four decades of her life toiling on the field. The forces of racial repression, economic exploitation, and political disenfranchisement all conspired against her. Yet somehow she always “made a way, out of no way.”
As a child, the then Fannie Lou Townsend only received six years of education. Nevertheless, she learned to read and calculate well enough to later become a timekeeper on the plantation. In this role, she could weigh crops, count profits, and make sure black sharecroppers received their fair share.
As an adult, she went to the local hospital for treatment for a minor stomach condition. Here doctors performed a hysterectomy without her permission. This practice of forced sterilization of poor black women in the south was so common that people referred to it as a “Mississippi appendectomy.” Yet Fannie Lou and her husband Perry raised two daughters of love, if not by blood. These daughters were both babies that the Hamers took in when their biological parents did not have the resources to provide.
And though she was 44 years old before she realized that black people could register to vote, when members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee held a meeting at the Williams Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in the summer of 1962, Fannie Lou Hamer impressed civil rights activists as the “de-facto mayor” of the community. Her magnetic charisma, moral courage, and ethical clarity captivated all.
It’s been said that “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up men to gather work and divide the wood…Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” This was Fannie Lou Hamer’s gift. She gave voice to those who yearned for freedom and democracy. She captured and conveyed the sentiment of a silenced minority in American society. And Fannie Lou Hamer carried the scars, figuratively and literally, in the fight for equal rights. While imprisoned in a Mississippi jail for registering to vote, she was beaten to an inch of her life. Yet with dried blood on her face and permanent kidney damage from blows to the body, it was Fannie Lou Hamer who encouraged other prisoners by singing, “Paul and Silas Bound in Jail/ No one to go their bail/Keep your eyes on the prize: hold on.”
The backdrop to the story Fannie Lou Hamer was singing about is found here in the letter to the Philippians. Paul and his fellow traveler Silas, also known as Silvanus, traveled to Philippi on their second missionary journey in the mid-first century. Paul uses this letter to encourage the newly formed faith community in Philippi. To be a follower of Christ is to live like Christ—we are called to give primacy to love and justice. Pedigree. Educational Attainment. Wealth. One’s social rank. Each of these pales in comparison to a life committed to a righteous cause bigger than oneself.
Paul uses his own background as an example. “If anyone has reason to be confident, I do,” he says. “My background is impeccable. I was circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews….Yet whatever I had, it pales in comparison to the new life and love that I’ve found in this Jewish teacher from a nondescript village.” Jesus, like his Hebrew prophet forebears, reminded Paul that righteousness is more important than riches, and human compassion more than social accomplishments. Maybe you walk with kings and queens, but if you don’t have a common touch, you’ve missed the core message of Jesus. Our story must align with Jesus’s story. So Paul writes to the people, “If I have to sacrifice profit, forego privilege, and even endure pain and heartache so that others live in a better world, I count it all joy.”
This is even how I interpret Paul using the term faith. It is not in complete contrast to another tradition. It is definitely not the anti-Semitic concept of a Christian faith over against Jewish law. For it’s not just belief for Paul, as he makes it clear—belief is insufficient. It’s not just a profession—talk is inadequate. Nor is faith simply contemplative or meditative—for faith without works is dead. Faith is active. Paul continually uses terms like endurance, perseverance, and pressing. So faith, for Paul, is a reciprocal relationship between human tenacity and hopeful optimism. Human tenacity gives us a reason to be hopeful. Like Fannie Lou Hamer, we refuse to give up, no matter the costs. And it’s our hope in a better tomorrow that keeps us tenacious and determined. As she sang in jail, “Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on.”
Faith is hope and tenacity. Love is passion and perseverance. This is the kind of faith and love that God has in and for each one of us. This is how and why God can find new ways to love us each and every day. Because despite all of our mistakes. Despite all of our pride and sinful proclivities. Despite all of our mistakes and missteps. God believes that we can be great—why? Because God knows that we all can serve.
I recall the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. There was a British sprinter by the name of Derek Redmond. In the 400 meter semifinals, about halfway through the race, his hamstring popped and Redmond fell to the ground. After a few moments of indescribable pain, and after all of the other sprinters crossed the finished line, Redmond stood up and began hobbling along the final 200 meters. 65,000 fans stood to their feet in amazement. With each step more painful than the previous, Redmond’s father jumped over the barricade, pushed aside security saying, “That’s my son, and I have to help him.” He then ran toward the junior Redmond to serve as a crutch the final 100 meters.
Together, arm in arm, father and son crossed the finish line. When besieged by reporters, with his eyes full of tears, Redmond’s dad declared, “I am the proudest father alive. It wasn’t about him coming in first, second, or third. But it was about him finishing the race. He is a champion.”
We should remember these words of encouragement today. Like those who sacrificed and suffered before us, some of us may have to limp, we may have to hop, and we may have to crawl in excruciating pain for the cause of freedom, justice, and equality. But know that we serve a God who will always be right by our side. God will find new ways to encourage, carry, and love us as we press toward the prize of the heavenly call which is in Christ Jesus. For on God’s track, the race is not given to the swift, nor to the strong. But to he or she that endures until the end.