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The church in Corinth was a mess. It was full of divisions over who Jesus was, how best to follow him, some loyal to the teachings of Paul or the tradition of Peter or the rhetoric of Apollos. At some point someone in the church took it upon themselves to write to the Apostle Paul for guidance, and chapters 12-14 of the book of 1 Corinthians is where Paul addresses the issue of diversity and division with the church.
And Paul says – it takes all of us. I mean, he says more than that, but he takes about our common value by emphasizing the diversity of gifts that are out there – the utterance of wisdom and the utterance of knowledge (notice that they are two different things), then the gift of faith (hmmm…that warrants some exploration, yes?), and the gifts of healing and miracles and prophecy. Many gifts, one Spirit, as the hymn sings.
Paul then goes on to solidify this message with a bold morality – “in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” We are one body, he claims, with very close to home imagery…one body. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. We are all in this together…bound by love.
And then…then he takes them into a discussion about what this love means – patience, kindness, resisting arrogance and envy, not insisting on our own way, not irritable or resentful, not focused on wrongdoing, but rejoicing in the truth…bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things.
And it occurs to me that perhaps Paul isn’t just making this up. These high ideals he preaches are rooted in his life and the people around him. They are as real to him as the food he places in his mouth, as the water that sustains him and the work that is before him. Paul is not just organizing a church, he is organizing morality.
Last week my alma mater, Phillips Seminary, held their annual Remind and Renew conference and this year’s topic was – What is the conversation about race Christians in the US should be having? It was an intense couple of days, and very well attended. The speakers were provocative, challenging and really, really good. We heard from the Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr., only this was my classmate and friend, pastor of East Side Christian Church in OKC, probably not who you are thinking of. We heard from Dr. Jennifer Harvey, an ethicist and theologian from Drake University who challenged us to move away from the reconciliation paradigm that currently dominates interracial relations and embracing instead a reparations paradigm. And we also heard from, among many others, the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Goldsboro, North Carolina. And his message, more than any other, evoked the spirit and direction of the man whose life and work we acknowledge this weekend. Rev. Barber spoke to Rich Fisher on Studio Tulsa the day that he spoke to Phillips and I highly recommend that you go and listen to that interview. Rev. Barber spoke of the need for a higher moral conversation, of an urgency to raise the level of discourse in ourselves, in our churches and in the nation. He preached to us of the fallacy of the “puny language” of left and right, conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat. Like Paul, amidst divisions, Rev. Barber reminded those of us who follow Jesus that there is a higher bar.
This is precisely what Rev. King did, elevating the conversation beyond the political boxes we keep it contained in and talking about people. How can we speak of politics when 1 out of every 4 children in our state goes to bed hungry? How can we talk of greatness when a person can work 60 hours a week at three jobs and still live in poverty? How can we speak of the “land of the free” when we imprison more people per capita than any other place in the world? Or, to bring things closer to home and focused on another kind of oppression, why would we spend 10 seconds on a bill to police gender in bathrooms when we cannot fund public education or address a mental health crisis in our state?
We need a bigger conversation.
I’m not sure that will happen. Oh, this weekend there will be parades and memorial services, there will be great photo-ops as politicians and leaders do their “day of service” in honor of Dr. King. But who will evoke his message? And I’m not talking about the last portion of the “I Have a Dream” speech, for we will see people quote, “not color of skin but content of character”, while they stand alongside a gutting of the Voting Rights Act. We will see people sing, “Let freedom ring”, while they think and act and legislate as if all that is done with done…as if freedom had come in 1963, no need to keep marching anymore. You will hear them treat Dr. King like a happy memory, like a gentle, kind soul who brought every together to sing kum-ba-ya and hold hands.
Like with Christmas, where we have taken the arrival of God in the flesh, the birth of a child who has come to turn everything upside-down with the good news of God’s compassion and love for all people, and turned it into Santa Claus handing out toys to those little girls and boys who have been good…an coal for the naughty…every January we take Dr. King, a radical visionary and organizer and turn him again into a docile dreamer, with kind, placating words that soothe us instead of convicting us of our need to set aside reconciliation until we take on reparation.
In perhaps his most famous speech, Dr. King (before the finale that gets quoted so often) said this, using the terminology of his time:
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today,
signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light
of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.
It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.
One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled
by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.
One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty
in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.
And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
It could be argued…it should be argued…it is being argued, that the same is true today. Today it isn’t Selma, it’s Ferguson. It isn’t Emmett Till, it’s Tamir Rice. It isn’t 4 young girls killed in Birmingham, it is 9 members of a Bible study in Charleston. The statistics tell the story very clearly – the deck is stacked in a deadly and immoral game of class and race in our prisons, in our schools, even in our economy.
Rev. Barber believes that we need a “third reconstruction”. The first came, of course, just after the civil war. The result of that was that Lincoln Republicans – yes, Republicans, my friends – don’t fall into the distracting trap of puny partisan bickering – Republicans and liberals joined together with freed black men to take over legislatures all across the south. It was called “fusion politics”. In North Carolina, they rewrote the constitution in 1868, placing in labor protections and civil rights, and by 1870, there were more men of African descent in the state legislature than there are today. By 1872, there was a violent reaction by the former plantation heads and the Klan. They proceeded to enact “Jim Crow” reducing educational access laws, weakening labor laws, they removed fair criminal justice reforms, eliminated voting rights and they slashed taxes, so the government wouldn’t have any money to enforce what rights they couldn’t change. Hmmm…sound familiar?
The second reconstruction was the civil rights movement, and many of those gains have slowly been eroded, too. This third reconstruction will require something else. It will require grassroots work, forged in the experience and story of people of color and those on the downside of the economic story of our lives. And look at the statistics – this is an increasingly young and brown nation. By 2044, the census bureau says, people who look like me will no longer be the majority. There is a chance for real reconstruction. Now I’m happy about that, because my faith compels me to reach for a world where all of God’s children have enough and are enough. But other people who look like me are scared to death. And they will do anything to “get America back.”
This is not about political parties. We have far too narrow and short-sighted a view of all that. Parties change…they come and go. This is about values. This is about ethics. This is about living up to the high ideals contained in our Constitution. This is about what’s right.
Paul’s plea in this letter to the church on Corinth ends with him telling them that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” I interpret this to mean that our previous ways of doing stuff, our “status quo”, won’t get us to the dream. We have to act and think and believe differently. Keep in mind that it wasn’t Dr. King’s non-violence movement that got him killed. It wasn’t really even his push for voting and civil rights, though that certainly made some angry. It was his continuation down that path, a path of justice for people in the midst of injustice. A path of change that threatened the very systems that kept an artificial hierarchy in place. It was his revolution of love that moved far beyond the placid, domesticated love that belongs on a hallmark card and evoked instead what Paul’s description ought to evoke. For Paul tells us where the radical love demonstrated in Jesus takes us – to death and resurrection. This is the dream of God in each of us fully realized, which cannot look like our world looks now.
When Rev. Barber speaks of a “third reconstruction”, I don’t think that he is talking politics. Sure, there will be some politics involved, this is how we have organized our world. I don’t think that he’s talking about legislation or some tweaks to the rules. I think that he means death and resurrection. I think that he means baptism. I think that he means repentance – for us to “turn around.” We cannot get to where we want to go using the same roads. We must try something else. This is why Dr. King started a new movement, and we cannot simply continue that movement, though there may very well be things that we learn from it. I understand that many of us are angry. We are angry at the bitterness and the narrowness, the meanness and the shallow, petty ways that leaders use. We are angry at a system with money at the center when people should be at the center. But it’s not enough to be angry. Listen again – it’s not enough to be angry. People who feel like we are losing our center of gravity, or that their faith compels them to something deeper and higher than this must organize and unite.
If we are to raise the level of conversation, we have to have conversation. If we want to not only see our values agitate others but also have others agitate us with their values, then we need to have a place to speak. In fact, we need to learn how to speak to one another once again. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we have retreated on our public lives. Houses of worship are one of the few places left where people can actually engage with one another, and, in most places, we are dwindling. And yet we all know it deep down, don’t we? We know that we have to talk about important things, but equally as crucial we must talk about them in important ways. We must raise the moral consciousness of our debates, so that we can begin to move past the small political game of “one-upsmanship” and talk about things that truly matter. This world is changing, whether we want it to or not. Frankly, it doesn’t need us. We are not the agents of change as much as the subjects of it.
In one of his last speeches, Dr. King said this:
I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution,
we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.
We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.
When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
We have been waiting for a new leader since that fateful April day in Memphis. And in doing so, we have forgotten one of Dr. King’s greatest lessons – that our power lies not in leadership but in a collective refusal to be oppressed. That takes each of us. Each of us, willing to share our time and talent, to use one of those gifts that the Spirit has given us in dedication to not only our personal transformation but also the transformation of our neighborhood, our city, our state, the nation and the world. But that starts with the smallest, most mundane of things. The arc of the moral universe is long, Dr. King told us, but it bends towards justice. And that can seem a very slow bend, sometimes.
But I want to remind you this morning that as you work on hammering that arc, bending a little corner of it, that you bring something to the table. You have values that you hold close to your hearts. You value justice, like Jesus did. You value inclusion, like Jesus did. You value compassion and forgiveness, like Jesus did. You have a moral center, one that is every bit as biblically and traditionally founded as any other. And our moral dissent is imperative. Our participation in a legacy of dissent is imperative. Some voices need to say – keeping people from seeing a doctor when they are sick is not just bad policy, it’s immoral. Systems where the the top one-tenth of one percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent is not just something askew, it is immoral. We can debate about personal piety until the cows come home, but the Bible is very clear – crystal clear – on our treatment of those most vulnerable among us. It is a matter of morality. And our morality must be organized.
Therefore, my beloved…as Paul wrote to the church in Corinth so along ago…be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.