Instead of writing my sermon on my day off, as I often do on Fridays, last week I decided to procrastinate another day and go see a movie. Selma was my choice. Of course, Sunday’s texts were on my brain. They were about hearing God speak to us and responding to God’s voice. And, wouldn’t you know it, as I watched the movie, that’s all I could see. So, I ended up spending the afternoon in sermon preparation after all. (It’s the blessing or the curse of being a preacher, depending on how you look at it.) I found myself in a movie theater watching a powerful story about what happens when people listen to God’s voice and act.
Early in the movie, Martin Luther King is preparing to enter into an emotionally charged and potentially violent situation in Alabama. It’s nighttime and he can’t sleep. So he makes a telephone call. We see him waking a woman from her sleep on the other end of the line. When she answers he says, “It’s me.” She knows who that is. And then he tells her that he needs to hear from the Lord. It’s the gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson and she sings “Precious Lord” to him over the telephone. For Dr. King, in that moment, that’s what God’s voice sounded like.
The movie is filled with people who felt called by God, and answered that call. They came from all over the United States: North, South, East, West. People of all colors and backgrounds. All putting their lives on the line for the sake of people who were denied their voting rights because of the color of their skin. All responding to God’s call to do justice.
The most dramatic part of the story came when the protesters tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge to get outside Selma. The first time they tried, law enforcement was waiting for them on the other side of the bridge. As they approached, they were gassed and beaten. Dr. King was not with them that time. The next time they tried to cross the bridge, Dr. King was with them, and they had amassed thousands of people who had come from all over the country to join them. This time, as they approached the other side of the bridge, again, the Sheriff and his men were waiting for them. Suddenly, they stepped aside so the protesters could pass. Dr. King stopped. He knelt and prayed. And then he turned around and walked back. They didn’t pass over the bridge that day. He got a lot of flak for that. But he said he would rather people be angry at him than see them attacked and killed. Some considered this an act of a cowardice, but it took great courage to listen to God’s voice and follow it as a leader, even when he knew it wasn’t going to be popular. Dr. King took time to pray his way through what was ahead, and God told him this wasn’t the time to go forward.
The next time they crossed over the bridge was God's time. Over 3,000 people marched from Selma and by the time they arrived in Montgomery, there were 25,000.
Throughout the movie, the cloud of death hangs heavy. The risk and sacrifice of those who answered God’s call to march for justice was never forgotten. There were those who lost their lives in the fight. Martin Luther King was one of them, but he was not alone. Seeing other humans treated like something less than human always brings me to tears, whether I’m witnessing it firsthand or in a movie. The brutality in Selma took me through my stash of Kleenex before we had gotten to the half-way mark. Since I was a little girl when this happened and I only remember catching glimpses of it on T.V., it was hard to comprehend how all this was going on while I was riding my bike and climbing trees in Hamilton, Ohio without a care in the world. I was especially moved by those whites who were a part of the movement and were killed for their actions. I didn’t know about them. And I had to wonder if I would have had that kind of courage. I have stood on the side of justice and participated in peaceful protests many times, but I never thought it could result in the loss of my life. I’d like to believe I would have been there with them in Alabama, but I doubt that I have that kind of conviction and courage. Some of my tears during Selma were tears of humility and contrition.
You might say that it was a religious experience for me because I heard God speaking to me through this story from my history that I never really knew. And God also spoke to me about how God speaks. The voice of God demands a response. How will I be changed? And how will I respond?