"The Common Good"

2 Epiphany.C.21
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

In today’s epistle St. Paul writes: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

These are fine words for us to remember on a weekend when we honor the work of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his struggle for Civil Rights and the well being of all people. Paul’s epistle raises for us the personal question as to what gifts the Holy Spirit has given us that we might use for the common good. To begin, I’d like to share with you a true story—one of grief and pain—but also reconciliation…and hope.

Perhaps you have not heard of the case of United States v. Shipp. It’s an anomaly. Brought about in 1906, the Shipp case is the only time the court conducted a criminal trial, with justices serving as jurors.

The story of this case begins in January of 1906 when Nevada Taylor, a young white woman, was raped in a Chattanooga cemetery. The crime provoked a frenzied reaction, putting pressure on the local sheriff, a proud veteran of the Civil War (on the Confederate side) named Joseph Shipp, to identify and apprehend the rapist. Upon offering a $375 dollar reward for information leading to an arrest, a white man claimed to have seen a black man milling around the cemetery shortly before the crime. He identified Ed Johnson as the man at the scene. Seizing on this shred of evidence, Sheriff Shipp arrested and Jailed Mr. Johnson.

A rush to judgment continued through the trial despite the fact that there were numerous witnesses who could say they’d seen Ed Johnson elsewhere during the time of the attack. And, when asked to identify her rapist, Ms. Taylor said that while she believed that it was Ed Johnson, she declined to make a definitive identification. Ed Johnson was quickly convicted and sentenced to death.

Two black lawyers – Noah Parden and Styles Hutchins, led Ed Johnson’s appeals, one of which was brought directly to Justice John Marshall Harlan, who, after hearing the facts of the case, telegraphed the local authorities that a stay of execution was necessary so that the Supreme Court could review the case.

The next day the jail keepers offered Ed Johnson to a vigilante mob. The mob carried Johnson to the Walnut Street Bridge. Using trolley wires, they strung him up and offered him a last chance to confess. Ed Johnson said: “God bless you all. I am an innocent man.” They hanged him and peppered his body with gunshots. Someone attached a note to the body addressed to “Chief Harlan” reading: “Here’s your (man). Thanks for your kind consideration of him. You can find him at the morgue.”

Outraged, Justice Harlan persuaded his colleagues to take the unprecedented step of sitting as a trial court. After the presentation of voluminous evidence, six of the defendants, including Sheriff Shipp, were found guilty of contempt. They were sentenced to 90 and 60 days in jail; hardly a carriage of justice.

Sheriff Shipp was released early and returned home to Chattanooga and thousands of supporters and a band playing “Dixie.”

It’s a horrific story. But what was horrifying was also clarifying. In 2021 Black and white people of Chattanooga, TN came together in an effort to memorialize Ed Johnson and to recognize the injustice that had taken place in their town 115 years earlier…because it was never forgotten, at least by the black community, many of whom refused to walk across the bridge, believing it was a “bad place”. Today, in a grove beside the bridge where Ed Johnson was murdered, sculptures of Ed Johnson, and his lawyers, Noah Parden and Styles Hutchens mark the spot of a crime for which a good portion of Chattanooga was a co-conspirator. It’s when we look at facts and history that true healing and reconciliation can to begin take place.

St. Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians writes: “To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge…to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.” Here’s the common theme—all of these gifts are given to the people of God so that they might be used on behalf of the common good, the good of all people.

You and I may not be gifted with the Spirit of prophecy as was The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but that doesn’t mean that the daily actions we take are without consequence. On a weekend when our country remembers the importance of civil rights, it’s worth considering what steps we might take to work towards the reconciliation of all peoples; because, let’s face it, we have a long way to go.

Perhaps you might begin with a self-inventory—and here, I suggest that we stretch ourselves. Ask yourself: with what types of people am I least comfortable? And why? Perhaps these are people of a different race, nationality, sexual orientation, political affiliation, different income or educational level than yourself. Imagine, what type of person might you go to an effort to avoid? Who would not receive an invitation to dinner? Then, do something challenging…learn more about them. Listen, read, engage, broaden your understanding and be open to the idea that the preconceptions we have learned might be wrong. Because, let’s face it, we all have preconceptions. Once you have taken an inventory, then it’s time to get to work. With the gifts God has given you, ask yourself what you can do to work for the reconciliation of all people. It might be that the time in which we are living is challenging; but as Dr. Martin Luther King said so eloquently “The time is always right to do what is right.” Let’s recommit ourselves to the dream of Dr. King and live into its reality. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

The New York Times, Guest Essay “An Inspiring Act of Racial Healing in Chattanooga” by Peter Canellos, August 20, 2021