Sermon at Selma

March 10th, 2015

This article is part of Ministry Matters' ongoing collection of responses to President Obama's Selma speech. Follow the project as it grows and join the discussion at


The word emanated and echoed from the crowd as President Obama addressed those gathered to commemorate the 50th
 anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Alabama. And preach he did. His words rang out with the clarity and the force that comes when truth lifts words to power. The speech transformed into sermon as Mr. Obama invoked the justice and love of God, invocations so fitting for remembering those marchers drawn in and given strength by poetry and prophetic witness of scripture and hymn. He lifted up their march on that day, their struggle on the days before and after, and their immortal witness across time, place, and culture. He spoke:

We gather here to celebrate them. We gather here to honor the courage of ordinary Americans willing to endure billy clubs and the chastening rod; tear gas and the trampling hoof; men and women who despite the gush of blood and splintered bone would stay true to their North Star and keep marching towards justice…They did as Scripture instructed: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.”  

 …what could be more American than what happened in this place?

Unfortunately, it’s common practice these days to allow the Christian message to be subsumed and twisted by political rhetoric, but in this instant it seemed so appropriate for me to turn President Obama’s words to ask, “What could be more Christian than what happened in this place?” The blood of those in love with the dream of justice for every human being, every member of the Kingdom spread thick on the weapons and boots of police representing an oppressive system, and yet they marched. They pursued love in the face of immediate, violent hate. They did so with grace, with humility, with love. That’s about as Christian as it gets.

As she foreshadows the role of the Christ-child to come, Mary’s song of praise in Luke points to that same well-spring of hope and desire for justice remade carried in the hearts of Civil Rights protesters. Her praise announces the will of God which will come to light in the living Christ when she cries out:

He shows mercy to everyone,
from one generation to the next,
who honors him as God.
He has shown strength with his arm.
He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty-handed. (Luke 1:50-53, CEB)

This is the great reversal that marchers were living out bodily on the bridge in Selma and that we are still living out today. President Obama was right to remind us that the march continues:

What [Bloody Sunday marchers] did here will reverberate through the ages. Not because the change they won was preordained; not because their victory was complete; but because they proved that nonviolent change is possible, that love and hope can conquer hate. 

It is now our task to lead in nonviolence for the sake of love and hope. For Christians, this is an explicit task, one essential to our identity as followers of Jesus. We have been shown the roots of mercy and the force of justice through Jesus the Christ; it is a force which does not rest until the low are brought high, until oppression and death are brought to heel, and until justice itself rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. That we may grow anew in those roots and with such force is the charge bestowed upon us by the Sermon at Selma and the events of Bloody Sunday fifty years before. It is the charge of the crucified and risen Christ. We must do justice. We must embrace love. We must march humbly with our God.

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