Claudette Colvin & John the Baptist: A sermon for MLK day

First Congregational Church of Reading

Sunday January 19, 2014- Epiphany 2

John 1:29-42 

They only studied one week of “Negro History” in February 1955 at the segregated Booker T Washington High School in Montgomery, Alabama. Just one week. But it was enough. Claudette boarded a Capital Heights city bus downtown after school on March 2, 1955. It was a Wednesday. With no family car and no school busses, she’d taken the city bus a thousand times before. “I’d moved for white people before,” Claudette Colvin says. But this time, she was thinking of the slavery fighters she had read about recently during Negro History Week in February. That day on the bus, Claudette said “I felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other—saying, ‘Sit down girl!’ I was glued to my seat.”

In 1958, when Rev. King would write of the Montgomery bus boycotts, he declared the real significance of the bus boycotts to be the power of growing self-respect, a self-respect to animate the struggle for civil rights in the hard decades to follow. But first- before strategy, before the meetings in church basements, before publicity, before the supreme court cases and the civil rights act, before Bayard Rustin used his Quaker upbringing and his grandmother’s wisdom to teach non-violent civil disobedience, before Martin spoke out with the power of the Gospel truth, before Rosa Parks would sit down and wouldn’t stand up- nine months after Claudette did the same, before all that. They needed self-respect. They needed to know their own worth as children of God.

Claudette Colvin would tell the author Phillip M. Hoose in the book Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice “I knew then and I know now that, when it comes to justice, there is no easy way to get it. You can’t sugarcoat it. You have to take a stand and say, “This is not right.

Will you pray with me… 

Church, do you know any other stories about the one coming before to point the way? Before there was Rosa Parks, there was Claudette Colvin. Before there was Jesus, there was John the Baptist pointing the way.  For three weeks now, we’ve been getting texts about John the Baptist, and each time, he is pointing the way to Jesus. Did your parents ever tell you that when you point your finger someone else, you are pointing four fingers back at yourself?  John’s not pointing in a mean, middle school sort of way, but he’s directing our attention to Jesus. John the Baptist is so known for his constant redirecting of our attention to Christ that the Reformed theologian Karl Barth (kept an image of the Isenheim Altar over his writing desk. Looking at the elongated finger of John the Baptist, Barth wrote, “Can anyone point away from himself more impressively and completely (illum oportet crescereme autem nimui)? And can any one point to the thing indicated more impressively and realistically, than is done there?” Each time we hear John speak in the text today, John is proclaiming Jesus. Verse 29: The next day John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  Verse 35: The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” Each time, at each opportunity, John keeps pointing, keeps testifying, keeps directing peoples’ eyes and ears towards Jesus.

Claudette Colvin’s own body pointed towards the possibility of a different way. When the police boarded the Capitol Heights bus, they asked the driver who it was that wouldn’t stand up and give up her seat.   Claudette recalled, “The motorman pointed at me. I heard him say, “That’s nothing new . . . I’ve had trouble with that ‘thing’ before.” He called me a “thing.” They came to me and stood over me and one said, “Aren’t you going to get up?” I said, “No, sir.” He shouted “Get up” again. I started crying, but I felt even more defiant. I kept saying over and over, in my high-pitched voice, “It’s my constitutional right to sit here as much as that lady. I paid my dare, it’s my constitutional right!” I knew I was talking back to a white policeman, but I had had enough.” Claudette was 15 years old. She was a good student, earning mostly A’s. When the 10th grade course assignment from Ms. Nesbitt asked the class to write what they wanted to be when they grew up, this black teenage girl in segregated Alabama in the mid-1950s wrote “President of the United States.”  She was smart and she was faithful. When they locked her in the jail cell, “She concentrated her mind on things she had been learning at school.  She recited “Edgar Allan Poe, Annabel Lee, the characters in Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm.” The same words you say. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.

But, for the most part, we don’t really know about Claudette Colvin, the first to openly challenge the segregated Montgomery busses with her own body and enter a plea of “not-guilty.”  We don’t know Claudette, even though she was one of the four women plaintiffs in the court case Browder v. Gayle, which would go all the way to the Supreme Court, declaring segregated busses unconstitutional on December 17, 1956. We don’t know Claudette even though she refused to give up her seat on the bus, 7 months before 18-year-old Mary Louise Smith too, 9 months before Rosa Parks. We know of Rosa Parks. We don’t know of Claudette Colvin because we’re not supposed to know about Claudette Colvin. The organizing teams did not think her arrest would be a good test case. Claudette was young, just a teenager.  Claudette was raised by her aunt and uncle in King Hill, the poorer, black neighborhood of Montgomery.

Shortly after the arrest, Claudette would become pregnant. Claudette, still alive and living in New York City, said, “Nowadays, you’d call it statutory rape, but back then it was just the kind of thing that happened.” Church, do you know any other stories about the unlikely holiness of an unwed teenage mother? Even Rosa Parks would say, “If the white press got a hold of that information, they would have [had] a field day. They’d call her a bad girl, and her case wouldn’t have a chance.” We don’t know about Claudette because we aren’t supposed to. Rosa was older, she was educated, married, respected, solidly middle-class, and fair skinned. Even the supposedly rough edges of Rosa have been burnished off. We don’t see Claudette, or Mary Louise, or the fierce defiance of Rosa or countless others in this story. We just don’t see. John the Baptist cries out “Look!” and we cannot open our eyes. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

In the Gospel text today, we hear John the Baptist point and say “Look, Here is the Lamb of God.” When the two disciples wonder about this newcomer Jesus, Jesus says to them “Come and see.” Both John and Jesus are redirecting our sight. Draw your eyes over here. Read this story. Come listen to this. Come and see. I am increasingly convinced that one of our primary tasks as Christians in this part of the country that is becoming increasingly less religious is to point to God’s love. We are being prompted to make God’s love visible. First, we have to develop the eyes to see God’s love in our own lives. We do this hard work in community so that when we can’t see God’s provision for us, maybe someone else can.  But if we’ve got any shot at a thriving, vibrant Church in Massachusetts we will all have to find new ways to make God’s love visible, more than just banners on the front lawn, or Church websites, though those are important too. We need to find new ways to make God’s love visible, like many of you did yesterday with the MLK day of service. We live in a world where the Church is not know for extravagant welcome and Christians aren’t always known for pointing towards God’s love and justice.

And yet, do you see how people are gravitating to Pope Francis, who in word and action is making God’s love visible? How many of you have been formed by the Roman Catholic Church? I confess my own surprise at quoting the Bishop of Rome in a sermon at a United Church of Christ congregation! But this is the unity that Christ calls us to and Pope Francis is making God’s love visible in his words and actions in ways that are drawing peoples eyes to Christ again. Last year, on MaundyThursday, Pope Francis told the priests gathered around him to “be shepherds with the smell of sheep.” The pastors and the people are real, human, dirty. We are all a bit of a mess, a bit smelly, not the perfect example. We are all lost sheep some days, looking for a shepherd. We are all not perfect or presentable. We live on the wrong side of town, we got pregnant too young, we love the wrong kind of person, we’re too young, or too old, our lives look a mess to us. But Jesus keeps inviting, Come and see. Our job as Christians is to point out the unreported stories, the unseen heroines and heroes, to point to the gross injustice. Maybe even harder, our job is to see the signs of God’s love and provision in each other’s lives. Here is God’s provision in your life. Look, look here! Here is Jesus coming! Two by two, the disciples heard John and they followed Jesus. Look! When Jesus calls the disciples, he says “Come and see.” Ours is the role of John the Baptist, to point to the Lamb of God. That’s the invitation, to make visible, to come and see.

On December 17, 1956 the US Supreme Court upheld the lower court ruling in Browder v. Gayle that segregated bussing was unconstitutional. On December 21, King and the Montgomery Improvement Association declared an official end to the bus boycott that lasted over a year from when Rosa was arrested.  On behalf of the Montgomery Improvement Association, King & Rev. Powell passed out a document with suggestions for black residents to begin riding the integrated busses. They were conscious of the need to make their worth and dignity as children of God visible. “#1 Not all white people are opposed to integrated buses, accept good will on the part of many. #3 Pray for guidance and commit yourself to complete nonviolence in word and action as you enter the bus.” “#7 Be quiet but friendly; proud but not arrogant; joyous but not boisterous.” “ #8 Be loving enough to absorb evil, and understanding enough to turn an enemy into a friend.” Church, do these seem like suggestions we should all take? They moved on to the specifics of how to get on the bus, and suggested “6. For the first few days, try to get on the bus with a friend in whose non-violence you have confidence. You can uphold one another by a glance or a prayer.”  Two by two, they sent them out to witness that a new, more just way was possible. But my favorite is this,  #9 “According to your own ability and personality, do not be afraid to experiment with new and creative techniques for achieving reconciliation and social change.”  Church, have you heard Jesus say in the Gospels again and again, “do not be afraid?” Try some new way. Our task is to make God’s love visible in a weary, broken world. “According to your own ability and personality, do not be afraid to experiment with new and creative techniques for achieving reconciliation and social change.” Look, Come and See. Amen.



Published by RevEverett

I'm a pastor in the United Church of Christ here in Boston. I serve as the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. Cycliss, seamstress, my book is "Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels." NJ by birth, MA by choice. Opinions are my own. Love abounds.

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1 Comment

  1. I did not know the story of Claudette Colvin – that is a lacuna [see Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful if complex recent novel by that name] in my knowledge of the story. The preacher at St. Mary’s Episcopal in Dorchester last week said that the parts of the story we miss or skip over are often the key to the meaning of the story and need to be heard. He was speaking of the slaughtered children in Herod’s time – their stories and their families’ hidden griefs – but Ms. Colvin counts that way also. Thanks all over again. David

    Date: Mon, 20 Jan 2014 11:33:31 +0000 To:

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