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Where to Start?
John 1:29-42 & 1st Corinthians 1:1-9
January 15th, 2017 – MLK Day
54 years ago, a young man sat in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama and began to write on the margins of a newspaper, responding to people who he thought were his allies…people who were supposed to have been his allies. That very newspaper contained the words of his so-called friends, who called on him to “settle down”, saying his current activities were “unwise and untimely.” He finished his response on scraps of paper and, finally, a legal pad given to him by his attorneys. The clergymen to whom Dr. King responded were part of an organized group. They called themselves “A Call for Unity”, and their assertion was that racial justice was needed, but that it should be won in the courts, through “proper” channels, not in the streets. They implored Dr. King to go back to Atlanta and wait…just wait.
Dr. King disagreed. And he was not having any of the discussion about him being what they called an “outside” agitator, for injustice anywhere, he famously wrote, is a threat to justice everywhere. So he came to Birmingham and he helped set in motion a movement that was designed to work outside the parameters of the “proper” channels, which really had no interest in things changing at all. And he came to address the underlying causes of the racial injustice, not just to get a few signs changed or to be able to order a soda. He sought the same kind of transformation that Jesus places in front of his disciples in the Gospels…a transformation that isn’t satisfied with the surface, but seeks something deeper.
In our reading from John’s gospel this morning, the operative question is – what are you looking for? In the fashion of the Jesus that John gives us, the question is never really directly answered, but comes up again and again throughout the gospel, as if the search for the answer is nearly as important as the answer itself. John’s Gospel uses the language of sight and light, seek and blind repeatedly, so that illumination becomes a main theme of the book, and Jesus’ question, “what are you looking for?,” becomes a central feature of the gospel itself. Do you really know what it is that you are looking for? Throughout the book, the disciples find Jesus and then they lose him, they know who he is, they call him by what they think is the right title – Lamb of God, Son of God, Light of the World – but he brushes them off like dust from his shoulder and tells them to follow.
What are we looking for? On the weekend we celebrate Dr. King, the week we inaugurate a new President, the early days of a brand new year that invites all kinds of questions about where we have been and where we are headed it seems completely appropriate to ask the same question – what are we looking for?
Now I’m not sure if John intends the baptizer to be a model or a foil. For John the Baptist is nothing more than a finger – he points towards something else, someone else, seemingly abdicating all of his responsibility, obligation, effort to Jesus, as if his job is now done. But Jesus continues to defy this throughout the gospel, telling his followers to follow. Insuring us that the way to find what it is that we seek is to follow him. In chapter 14, he even goes further saying,
Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing,
and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.
We’re not supposed to just point at Jesus, John’s gospel tells us over and over again. We are supposed to follow Jesus, to act as Jesus did, to be Jesus-y in the world.
So come back with me to that jail cell in Birmingham. During the time that we lift up Dr. King, and rightfully so, here’s what I wonder. Do we celebrate best with praise or with emulation? Do we honor most effectively by remembering what has been done or by continuing the march? Do we memorialize such a pivotal figure in all of our lives and in the social fabric of our time by pointing at him or by paying attention to what he was saying and then joining the same resistance in which he took part?
We are in a different context than Dr. King. Racism has undergone another metamorphosis and is no longer found at water fountains or lunch counters, but it is still at the voting booth, still on city buses, still in the courthouse and the county jail, just in different forms. And it still lives on in our hearts, as the stain of America’s “original sin”, though the language around it is muted and coded, and the overt is much more covert.
Like Dr. King, we know that racism is only a part of the moral turn that must be made if we are to survive. He was not killed, it is argued by many, for his stance on race in America, but for the fact that he began to turn his moral spotlight on Vietnam, and the evil of war and a military-industrial complex. He began to speak much more fervently about poverty and the economic inequalities that have only grown sharper in the time between his murder and today. When he began to follow Jesus even more deeply, making the call for our success to be measured by how we welcome the stranger, care for the sick and the poor…how we feed the hungry and clothe the naked and visit the prisoner in practice and in policy, that is when the trouble really started.
The other scripture read this morning was the beginning, the introduction, of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. I usually don’t have these passages read, the greeting parts of the letters of Paul, but this morning it intros a few weeks we will spend in Corinthians from the Lectionary, a letter whose main subject is love – what it is, and what it isn’t. So I read this as an introduction, the beginning of a letter…and I do that to introduce my letter to the Church, with a capital “C”, at this moment in history.
I believe, as many others do, that we are in a deep moral crisis in this country. But it is not the one portrayed by many religious leaders, for a “return to God and the Gospel” would not focus on the issues of standing against LGBTQ people and women’s reproductive rights, but would hold up the moral center of our scripture…it would follow Jesus in declaring that God’s justice must be seen in how we care for those on the margins, how we combat bigotry and xenophobia and how we drive the demon of poverty and hunger out from among us. But we don’t have these conversations. We stop with the small language of left versus right, allowing our morality to be cast aside in the eternal swing of the pendulum from one edge to the other.
But if we are to change this…if we are to tackle such big issues as racism or poverty…if what we are looking for is indeed the kin-dom, an atmosphere of love and compassion, the “beloved community” of which Dr. King spoke…where do we start?
Well, here are, I believe, some practical steps. When Dr. King was advocating his approach to non-violent resistance, he characterized it as having a process, a 4-part process. He wrote, and I quote:
In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps:
collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation;
self purification; and direct action.
I would like us to consider the part which I have seen often get skipped, or given cursory attention. It’s that “self-purification” part. I think we skip that part because we believe that the “real” work is in the direct action, but that direct action doesn’t mean anything if we’re not prepared for it. And when we talk about the kind of world we seek, and the kind of morality we espouse, we need to be prepared. For the world will push back…this age, this system in which we live will defy such a morality, often with pseudo-moralities that it will try to sell you as absolute. We must prepare ourselves.
Let’s take racism as a starting point. Frankly we might start anywhere – racism, sexism, the environment, poverty, human rights, education ,healthcare…all are a part of the the way that we are woven together, and all strands of the same “inescapable network of mutuality”, the “single garment of destiny” in the words again of Dr. King. A huge part of the preparation for the immensely difficult work of racial justice is the self-purification needed to move us past the unhelpful position, well-intended as it may be, that finds us saying, “I don’t see race” or anesthetizing racial situations to help us avoid feelings of guilt or to try and transcend a difficult but necessary part of the process…just as we do with the “self-purification” part of nonviolent resistance.
In his letter from that jail cell, Dr. King wrote that before the tension of direct action was engaged, the question was put to the participants – are you willing to endure what might come, are you willing to accept blows without retaliating? For us today, in our context, we must ask ourselves if we are willing to honor Dr. King by not only praising him, but by being willing to endure the ordeal of self-examination? Are we willing to ask ourselves the hard questions, to endure the blows of deep self-examination, to ask ourselves what it means to be “white” in America, consciously and unconsciously and how that lens shapes how we view the world, what action we take and how we view our siblings of color? And now I speak to this church, to us…what are we willing to do?
As we approach Lent, a traditional time of self-reflection in the Christian calendar, we are going to join with churches all over the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference of the UCC in engaging with this cirricula – White Privilege, Let’s Talk. That’s a loaded term – white privilege. It is a dealbreaker for some people, like “gender-neutral” or “non-binary”. But if that is shutting you down right now, that term “privilege”, then I ask you even more strongly to consider attending the Lenten study starting in March. If we are going to make any progress, we must begin to meet the points of resistance in our own hearts and then in our world, with intention and compassion and persistence, seeking to understand and, yes, even to change. And we must, as people who are under that label “white” in America, comes to terms with our own whiteness and how that has, does and will continue to shape our world. We must do this – no one else can do it for us.
There is much to work on in the coming weeks, not to mention months and years. And, as with all things spiritual, where we start is in our own hearts. I encourage you to find real ways of living out your faith journey and practice…to extend yourself beyond the artificial world of social media and make connections that matter. I advise you, as counter-cultural as this is in the so-called millenial age, to invest yourselves in institutions that will last beyond you, that will carry a set of values you embrace into the future. And I counsel you to shore up your foundations, for our foundations are going to be tested. Read your Bible. Pray with the saints, alive and dead. Seek out chances to engage with people from other flavors of your faith, from other faiths altogether, from different backgrounds, races, ages and genders, for our diversity is part of God’s great moral foundation for us. And I encourage you to look at the great leaders we have had before us…to look and be proud and give praise and then to know, to deeply know, that we are not just called to believe in what they can do, but what we can do also.
May God be with us…and may we be with God.
I, Too, Sing America
I, too, sing America. I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.