Remembering Chalmers

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Matthew 22: 34-36

Preface: Chalmers

I am holding a worn black and white Kodak photograph, 1954, in which a black suited man with a great shock of white hair is holding a baby boy. The white hair is that of Allan Knight Chalmers.

You may wonder where sermons come from. Surely they arise out of careful interpretation of the Scripture. Certainly they are born in the struggle and uncertainty of prayerful life, especially in a time like ours. Necessarily they emerge from the manifold dialogues and discussions which are the marrow of community life. Occasionally they burst forth from the abject need of a person or a public situation. Sometimes, all of these are catalyzed, together by a single remark. Today’s sermon was lit by the match of a friend’s single sentence.

Where do illumination, imagination, inspiration come from? Why did I use the adjective ‘erstwhile’ in conversation last week? How did he find a way to solve a scientific problem by turning it upside down? Where did her inclination, accurate inclination, to doubt what she was hearing dwell before it came to live in her mind?

My friend stopped to talk. We talked. As in all real conversation, there was a mixture of memory and imagination. She said: ‘it is so sad when people lack access to their own best past’. It is. It is so sad when someone lacks access to his or he own best past. It is tragically sad when a country, or a people, or a denomination lacks access to its own best past. Her sentence arranged, as a host arranges a dinner table, today’s sermon. Her comment placed the Scripture in the right light, caught the temper of prayerful struggle today, dipped into the theme of this weekend’s remembrance, burst out of her own pathos, and, thereby, caught fire. Here is one definition of hell: losing access to your own best past. Here is one description of heaven: finding access to your own best past.

Over thirty years of pastoral ministry, we have seen women, men and groups lose their way, lacking access to their own best past. They can be cut-off from such blessing through accident, change, job-loss, migration, divorce, or other endings in relationships. Over thirty years of pastoral ministry, we have seen women, men and groups find their way home, gaining access to their own best past in memory, dream, reconnection, reading, prayer. This is what Sunday morning is all about!

Isn’t this what happened to Martin Luther, blocked from his best past in the dark loneliness of his monk’s cell, blocked by fear and anguish and dread? He found the Psalms, and understood them. He found the letters of Paul, and interpreted them. He found Augustine, and learned from him. He burst out—sola fide!, sola gratia!, sola Scriptura. (I might have left off the sola!) He found freedom and grace by gaining access to his own best past.

I want to offer you the gift of memory as a help for imagination. I want today to offer access to your own best past, in the specific memory of a forgotten person, whose legacy is our best past and our desired future. Allan Knight Chalmers expressed and embodied preaching, change, and wholeness—kerygma, metanoia, oikoumene.

Here is a sketch of Chalmers’ life from the King Center:

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1897, Chalmers received his B.A. (1917) from Johns Hopkins University and his B.D. (1922) from Yale University. He joined the faculty at Boston University in 1948 after serving as minister of New York’s Broadway Tabernacle Congregational Church for eighteen years. During his career, he was chair of the Scottsboro Defense Committee during the 1930s, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, treasurer of the NAACP, and active in the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Religion and Labor Foundation. Chalmers retired from Boston University’s faculty in 1962.

Chalmers was a personal and professional supporter of King and the movement. In early 1956, as treasurer of the NAACP, he wrote to King promising to support the Montgomery bus boycott: “We will back you at the national level without any question” (Papers 3:173). In December 1960 he organized a meeting of leaders from various civil rights organizations, such as FOR, the American Friends Service Committee, the National Council of Churches, CORE, and SNCC, to discuss how they could cooperate to move desegregation forward in the South. Chalmers remained active in the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and in other peace, religious, and political groups until his death.

1. Kerygma: Chalmers’ Preaching Voice

We remember Chalmers on a good day to do so. Our lessons today, particularly the reading from St. Matthew, connect closely to the project of his life. We shall lift out simply one sense in which this is so. Today’s reading offers a wonderfully broad gospel, for those with eyes to see it and ears to hear it. One of the dangers of interpretation, compounded by years of study, can be the inability to see forest for trees. The reading today, seen whole, is universal, broad, magnanimous, liberal, inclusive, free, gracious, embracing, and itself whole, and so, holy. How shall we summarize religious teaching? Love God, love your neighbor. Granted the long histories of rabbinic debate about the law and its summary, granted the further Messianic dispute underneath the argument about David, granted the particular changes Matthew makes of his inheritance from Mark here, granted the various other fine points that we would lift out on another day and in other sermon, still, the main point holds. In Christ there is no east or west, in Him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth. The river of love will ever surmount the banks of law. The river of love will ever surmount the banks of religion. The river of love will ever surmount, and ever overtake the endless banks of boundaries we seek to set. I suggest we think about that a bit, in late October of 2008. Such breadth is at the heart of Allan Knight Chalmers.

Here is a taste of his pulpit voice. Chalmers preached:

You will in many cases
fail to understand with absolute correctness the
meaning of words, since words are symbols of
thought and are not accurate; but you will come
closer to the truth if you give the benefit of a deep
desire to reveal a truth and not to hurt, to any
set of words you hear or see. ( A Candle in the Wind, 29)

They are lost who lack access to their own best past. One is lost who lacks access to his own best past. You are lost who lack access to your own best past.

Chalmers told his students that a B was required to pass the preaching class. A lower grade meant taking the class again. Chalmers encouraged his students to ‘read a book a day’. He meant the habit to continue through a lifetime. Chalmers believed in preaching without notes. Still, if the student wanted to become a manuscript preaching Chalmers would aim to make him a strong manuscript preacher.

His classes met three times a week, an hour at a time. He required weekly ‘interstitials’, which were two or three paragraph reflections on a moment, experience, event, theme, or idea. Mrs. Chalmers attended the Edith Buell Club (for seminary wives).

My Dad remembers hearing Chalmers in the spring of 1950. Pacing the platform of the Oneida Methodist Church (where in 1968, at age 13, I was confirmed), Chalmers held a packed sanctuary enthralled in the retelling of the Scottsboro Boys story. Chalmers lead t
hat early civil rights crusade to free 9 unjustly convicted black teenagers, a successful crusade that over a decade freed them all. He whispered. He shouted. He stepped off the exact measurement of the prison cells in which the lads had been held. He kicked the pulpit (I have no idea what that gesture aided). He placed before that gathering of 500 young adults the cause of justice in their time. My parents heard, and chose Boston over Drew (always a wise choice).

2. Metanoia: Chalmers Social Gospel

The other day I feasted in the stacks of the Gottlieb Archives. Ryan brought me pencils, paper, white gloves and three long folders of original Chalmers writings. One contained letters from and to Martin Luther King. Another contained writings related to the NAACP and the civil rights movement, and correspondence with Thurgood Marshall (there is a photo of Chalmers, Fosdick and Marshall). A third contained two reflective essays, Chalmers remembering, not Chalmers remembered. The first of these was written at the behest of Harrison Salisbury and the New York Times. One handwritten short letter is from a ten year old boy, offering the NAACP a gift of 22 dollars (my mother is writing you this check in her name because I don’t have a checking account—I’m only ten years old)..

Writing to King, his student, colleague and friend, Chalmers strongly propounded time to think: A man gets thin if he does not read, becomes inaccurate if he does not write, but most of all loses profoundness if he does not think; or if he is deep he may only be in a rut because he has not had time to think anew as time and circumstances have gone on. (AKC-MLK, 3/6/60).

Writing to donors, raising money for Freedom Riders’ legal defense, Chalmers urges action: Each of them faces four months imprisonment, $200 fine, and a permanent record of criminal conviction that can mar his future. Their only offense was: they had faith in the rule of law in our country (AKC, 11/20/61, NAACPLDEF REPORT).

Writing to the Times editor, now in the 1970’s and commenting on that troubled time, Chalmers offers an exemplary rendering of responsible Christian liberalism: the silent generation slogged; the violent generation slugs. Too many did not think back historically or ahead creatively…Separate is not equal…(This generation) has not yet produced leaders, both intelligent and selfless…We are in a phase where the icons and the iconoclasts are in control. Where are the bulldozers who know that what they do is part of a building plan? Time will have to tell.

Chalmers had a supporter in Paul Tillich.

“Social institutions as well as personal habits have an almost irresistible tendency to perpetuate themselves in disregard of the demands of creative justice in a new situation or under unique conditions both in the communal and in the individual life.” (Tillich, 56)

“What kind of knowledge can create moral action? It cannot be the detached knowledge of pre-scientific or scientific inquiry, nor can it be the knowledge of the day to day handling of things and people, even if such knowledge is elevated to the level of technical expertise or psychological skill, for any of this can be used for the most anti-moral actions. (Our most flagrant example of this is the Nazi system).” (ibid)

Chalmers had a kindred spirit in the poet Hayden Carruth, who died in Munnsville, New York a few weeks ago.

Hayden Carruth: “Regret, acknowledged or not, is the inevitable and in some sense necessary context—the bedrock—of all human thought and activity. Intellectually speaking, it is the ground we stand on”.

Chalmers would admonish us to remember, as Colin Powell did last week: 30% of all American teenagers do not graduate from high school. For African Americans, the number is 50%.

One of my favorite quotes of Daniel L. Marsh is cited in his book, The Charm of the Chapel, where he states: “We hope that the procession of immortal youth passing through the halls of Boston University for the next thousand years will be vouchsafed a vision of greatness, and that that vision of greatness will become habitual, and result in moral progress.”

3. Oikoumene: Remembering Chalmers Today

I looked this week at Chalmer’s books: Candles in the Wind, As He Passed By, A Constant Fire, and others. The rhetoric is dated but the passion is timeless. Chalmers believed that this world could change for the better. People, individuals and groups, could turn around, think again, change their mind, think twice. Change happens. Real change is real hard, but this world can become a better place. After many years of division and discord, I hear a remembrance of Chalmers and others like him. This summer and this fall, across multiple perspectives, there has been a lifted a set of voices like his.

This country is beginning to remember Chalmers. We remember Chalmers best by remembering today’s Gospel best. We are beginning to remember…

To remember that our differences are not our definition. To remember that real leaders are plow horses not show horses. To remember that, in the balance of liberty and justice, those who have much should not have too much and those who have little should not have too little. To remember that warfare that is preemptive, unilateral, imperial, unforeseeable, reckless, and immoral stands outside of Judeo-Christian just war theory, let alone outside of Chalmers’ pacifism. To remember that a passion for justice comes in more than one shade, more than hue, more than one color. To remember that no one person and no one tribe have a corner on the market of the true, the good, and the beautiful. To remember that people, all people, belong to one another. To remember that God loved the world, the cosmos, the oikoumene. To remember that you only have what you give away. To remember that you are your brother’s keeper. To remember that love of God and love of neighbor are love together. To remember that Scripture is errant, tradition affirms equality, reason accepts evolution, and experience counts. (You folks, if you give me enough time, I will make you Methodists yet!) To remember that the measure of success is found the treatment of the least, last and lost, those at the dawn, twilight and shadows of life. To remember that real liberation means the possibility of salvation for all, not some. To remember that you whose commonwealth is heaven are citizens of the globe, the oikoumene.

Coda: Crawford

After about twenty years of preaching, and with much reluctance, I finally enrolled in a continuing education program. I had come to the edge of these waters other times, sometimes even showing up for opening events, only to turn around and head home, disappointed at what I could see coming. In the winter of 1999, somehow, I went down to Princeton for a preaching week. One evening, a man whose name I vaguely knew stood in that chaste chapel to preach. An African American, the venerable dean of a venerable university chapel, the man’s stealth and subtlety drew me. He preached on the Psalms, and as he preached, the other failed educational moments of other years and of the days preceding began to fall away. He turned his slight frame, twisting in an elliptical pose. He darted and wove and scampered and paused. Then, unexpectedly, he stopped and said, a propos of what I know not: ‘No one here will remember Allan Knight Chalmers. But let me tell you who he was.’ On that cold Princeton night in 1999 Edgar Evans Crawford told the story of my name, and of my life. It was a strange, wonderful, true moment—kerygma, metanoia, oikomene—as strange a moment as I can recall. When you gain access to your own best past, then you are set free. When you gain access to your own best past, then you are given grace.

I am holding a worn black and white Kodak photograph, 1954, in whi
ch a black suited man with a great shock of white hair is holding a baby boy. The white hair is that of Allan Knight Chalmers…for whom I was named, by whom I am held. Still.

Preaching, change, common hope. Kerygma, metanoia, oikoumene.

You see, as all sermons, this one is very personal. I was named, Robert ALLAN Hill, named for Chalmers. I am holding a worn black and white Kodak photograph, 1954, in which a black suited man with a great shock of white hair is holding a baby boy. The white hair is that of Allan Knight Chalmers, for whom I was named, by whom I am held.

He holds me still.

- The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

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