Text: John 2:1-11
[Preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Olympia WA on January 20, 2019]
“Saint Martin, Saint Johnnie”
It feels right to me that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day falls in Epiphany—the season of divine wisdom standing in defiance of the logic of empire. King, saint of social and political transformation, belongs in this season that kicks off with the magi honoring Mary and her newborn child while defying orders from Herod. And I think King also fits right in with the Gospel reading today.
I’ve heard preachers use today’s text to illustrate how much smarter Jesus is than everyone around him—particularly women, particularly his mother. This kind of interpretation is only possible when we extract Jesus from his context and community, and willfully pretend that he exists floating in midair above the fray of history. I read it differently, as a student of social movements like the early Jesus movement and the Civil Rights Movement. So I want to offer a parallel story today, a backdrop against which we might understand this John reading anew.
In the last three years of his life, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made a political pivot. This was not an abandonment of his Civil Rights work, but a faithful and radical deepening of it. He posed the question, “What good is the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford the price of a hamburger?” and began to zero in his work on the intertwining roots of poverty, racism, and militarism. When King publicly denounced the war in Vietnam as the primary expenditure sabotaging the War on Poverty, the white liberal establishment which had long supported him promptly turned their backs, as did President Johnson. But King kept pushing. He increasingly focused on the organized struggles of poor people and workers. And in the last year of his life, 1968, he called for a Poor People’s Campaign. What King didn’t realize was that a group of poor Black women, mothers and grandmothers on welfare in Chicago, had already beat him to this idea. They were the members of the National Welfare Rights Organization, the NWRO.
The following historical research comes out of the Kairos Center at Union Theological Seminary:
In early February, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., was coming to Chicago […] at NWRO’s demand. It promised to be a showdown. King was planning a “Poor People’s Campaign” for Washington, D.C. – a tactic born in desperation, as the civil rights movement was in shreds. King had failed, during the previous two years, to solve the riddle of further effective action against northern racism and poverty. The new campaign called for thousands of the poor to encamp in Washington, dramatizing the issues for Congress and the country. The campaign needed foot soldiers. [NWRO] had them – ten thousand paying members in one hundred functioning chapters – and felt that King was trying to divert NWRO members to the Poor People’s Campaign with any recognition of NWRO and its own purposes, program, and strategy. When King walked through the lobby of the downtown Chicago YMCA on February 3, 1968, he was immediately surrounded by admirers – a crowd seeking to glimpse or touch the famous, charismatic leader. [Then] he moved upstairs, with his lieutenants – Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Bernard Lafayette, and Al Sampson – to a meeting-room where [a] thirty-member committee sat waiting. There were place-cards around the big rectangular table so that Johnnie Tillmon would be seated in the center, with […] Dr. King on her left. King would be separated from his lieutenants, who were surrounded in each corner by the welfare-recipient leadership. Tim Sampson characterized [the] seating arrangement as ‘a grand piece of psychological warfare.’ To the ladies, King and the SCLC’s Poor People’s Campaign was a threat. They were angry that King’s lieutenants had moved around the country contacting local welfare rights groups, asking them to join the banner at the cost of abandoning their own welfare-organizing efforts. ‘The women’s concern was that they had a major constituency organization,’ said Sampson. ‘They had created it with their blood, sweat, and tears, and it was something magnificent to them. Not to be recognized was an attack on their very being. And to have it taken away was unthinkable.” While Johnnie Tillmon presided, holding her grandchild in her lap, King waited quietly until each woman introduced herself. He then began to describe the purposes of the forthcoming Washington campaign. ‘We need your support,’ he concluded. Then Etta Horn opened the barrage: ‘How do you stand on P.L. 90-248?’ Puzzled, Dr. King looked toward the Reverend Andrew Young, his executive director. ‘She means the Anti-Welfare bill, H.R. 12080, passed by the Congress on December 15, and signed into law by Lyndon Baines Johnson on January 2,’ interrupted Mrs. Tillmon. ‘Where were you last October, when we were down in Washington trying to get support for Senator Kennedy’s amendments?’ Beulah Sanders held up a copy of the NWRO pamphlet The Kennedy Welfare Amendments. King was bewildered by the technical discussion of the new law as his staff tried to fend off the women’s hostile questions. Finally, Johnnie Tillmon said, “You now, Dr. King, if you don’t know about these questions, you should say you don’t know, and then we could go on with the meeting.’ ‘You’re right, Mrs. Tillmon,’ King replied. ‘We don’t know anything about welfare. We are here to learn.’ The NWRO members proceeded to bring Dr. King up to date on the history of what they saw as welfare repression in Congress and the nation.
It is only historical movement gossip, but I have heard this story told with the added footnote that after King left the room and closed the door behind him, he said to his lieutenants, “Those women are crazy.” But he couldn’t do a thing without them. And they made sure he knew it. So:
King capitulated and asked for their help in understanding their policy positions, promising to ask the SCLC to officially endorse their policy demands and inviting them to help plan the Poor People’s Campaign. Women from the welfare rights movement from across the country did take up leadership in the Campaign. They took part in the Minority Group Leaders Gathering a month later, were among the leaders in the Poor People’s Campaign Steering Committee, and chaired Steering Committee meetings. NWRO stepped off the Poor People’s Campaign with a Mother’s Day March, opened a NWRO office in Resurrection City [the campaign’s tent city pitched on the National Mall], and testified at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
In other words, those same “crazy” women are the very people who ensured that the Poor People’s Campaign actually happened, in the wake of King’s assassination, when his inner circle was pitched into chaos. Just as it was the women who stayed at the foot of the cross when the disciples had fled. Just as it was a woman—a mother, his mother—who pointed out to Jesus in the first place that there was no wine for the wedding at Cana. And it seems, at least to me, like he gets salty with Her. Maybe even haughty. “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” It doesn’t stop Her. He sasses Her, and She just keeps moving, telling everyone around Her that there is work that remains to be done, and She makes sure to drag Jesus into that work: “Do whatever he tells you.” Looks like She just made sure it’s your concern now, son. You better tell these people to do something.
And he does.
So whose miracle is it again?
I say all of this to dismiss neither Jesus nor King, but to elevate Mary and Johnnie Tillmon. Jesus is our salvation, our most precious gift from God. And: Jesus came to us through a people. Through a specific history. Through a specific Mother. If we truly seek to know him, then we must by necessity know Her. We do not have a messiah who came down from the clouds, fully formed. We have a messiah who was carried in Mary’s womb for nine months, who learned the sound of Her voice as his first music before he was even born, who was raised up, chased after, scolded, played with, and humbled by Her, and Her people, and his people long before he ever turned water to wine.
Likewise with The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King came to us, not in a cloud, but surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses like Etta Horn, Beulah Sanders, and Johnnie Tillmon who formed him and his work. So as we glorify Christ, let us glorify the Beloved Mother. And as we move through this week in honor of the sanctified memory of King, let us also raise up the sainthood of Johnnie Tillmon.