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Rev. Barber (my Disciples of Christ fellow pastor) is probably the closest thing we have today to Martin Luther King, Jr. I’ll be there if anyone wants to join me!
Interesting. But it does not reveal the study’s methodology: NYT Op-ed piece
Once again, I completed this sermon in a rush. The second of two grant proposals I’ve been writing (with thanks to several folk who helped me!) over the last three weeks was due Saturday at midnight. Saturday at 10:30 pm, I began to write the second half of this sermon. With that preface let me say: considering, it’s not too bad! It could stand for some tightening up, though, much like last week’s.
Proverbs 1:20-33 ; Isaiah 50:4-9
We are spending this month trying to pray the Lord’s Prayer from the heart. We know that real prayer has to be from the heart. It has to be honest, and sincere. That’s why we share personal petitions a little later; and why we always leave some time for silent prayer; we all need some solitude to pray what is on our heart. We follow Jesus’ advice to go into your room and pray to your Father in secret.
But we’re not here just for each one to pray by herself or himself. You can do that at home. Jesus also wanted his disciples to share in a prayer, and thus to say “Our Father” together. It’s a first-person-plural prayer: “Give us this day….” He wanted to leave us a prayer that we could all share in together, just as he left us sacraments we can share. And not only us in this room: when we pray the Lord’s prayer, we should remember that we are joining in with all Christians everywhere and at all times. The “our” of the Our Father is a very big We.
But whenever you have a collective, a We, there’s always a chance that I might not feel fully a part of that we. You might find yourself just going through the motions, going along with the crowd. You might mouth the words of this prayer, or swallow the bread and juice, without really feeling it, or without really understanding what and why all this means to you. I think we’ve all been there. Well, what I want us to do this month is to close the gap between what’s going on in your heart and secret, honest thoughts, and what we say together when we pray Jesus’ prayer. Our goal is simple: we want to be able to all pray this prayer together, from the heart—so that it really means something to you, as Kaitlyn put it.
“Thy Kingdom Come.” I wonder what that means to you. What are you praying for when you repeat those words every week? I bet there are some honest souls here who would admit, I really don’t know what I’m praying for when I repeat, “Thy Kingdom come.” (You honest souls can go ahead and nod; if you’re smart and sat in the very back row, no one will see you but me!) I am more and more in love with honesty and in awe of truly honest people. Maybe you take Thy Kingdom come to mean, God, let me into heaven when I die. Fair enough. The Bible elsewhere talks about our hope beyond this life. But in this prayer, Jesus goes on to say: “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This is not a prayer to God to take me away, take me to heaven. We can find that elsewhere. Here it’s a prayer for heaven to come down here. Thy Kingdom come: come here. It’s a prayer for earth to become a place where God’s will is fulfilled, as it presumably is in heaven.
My friend Matt Boulton wrote a blue-grassy song that starts like this:
I ain’t goin’ up to heaven in the sky
I ain’t flyin’ with the angels when I die
I ain’t gonna rise up in the clear
Cause I do believe my dear
Heaven’s comin’ down here
That’s what Jesus is praying for in this prayer. And so much of his preaching centered on this coming Kingdom of God, so many parables described it in fantastic and sometimes baffling ways.
Jesus goes as far in Mark’s gospel to say: “There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the Kingdom of God has come with power.” Well, now wait a minute. That sounds like we have a problem. That sounds like Jesus is saying, this Kingdom of God, which we are praying for to come to earth, will indeed come before some of his listeners die. And indeed, Paul and many other NT writers talk like they expect the Kingdom to come soon. So for them, this prayer was a very imminent one: Thy Kingdom Come. Maybe next week. Now, it sure looks like that didn’t happen. But some Christians today still pray like that; as if any day now the Kingdom might come.
But maybe 2000 years later, we need to stop looking for the signs of when it’s coming—because how many times do people have to be wrong about that? Maybe we need to approach this Kingdom more poetically, and less like we are expecting the Amtrak Vermonter to pull into Springfield station any minute now. Jesus, after all, is very cagey about this Kingdom in all his parables and prophesies. At one point he says, “The Kingdom of God is in your midst” or among you. Now he knew people were expecting some cataclysmic end; so he must have been deliberately messing with people a little, trying to throw them off what they thought they knew about this Kingdom. So maybe the early church took him too literally about this Kingdom Come business; and then when it didn’t literally come like a freight train, they started losing interest in this Kingdom coming to earth. And so their hopes drifted off to a far away heaven.
Now, around the turn of the 20th century, our Christian ancestors were getting much more interested in the second line of the prayer: Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And they started talking about the Kingdom of God again, but now as something we will build on earth. We’ve learned about God’s will from Jesus, and now, they said, we are going to make that will happen on earth. (It would take another 87 years until Belinda Carlisle would sing: We’ll make heaven a place on earth; ooh, heaven is a place on earth.”) The turn of the 20th century was a time of great optimism. Americans thought that we were advancing so quickly in our “civilization” that an end to misery was near and a golden age was about to dawn. Take a look sometime in our old Pilgrim Hymnal at “Hail the Glorious City,” # 424, published in 1904. “Hail the glorious golden city…Wrong is banished from its borders, justice reigns supreme over all.” The second verse goes: “We are builders of that city…All are called to task divine.” The Kingdom of God is something we are building. This idea is part of our heritage.
Is that what the Lord’s Prayer is about? Well, maybe. The prayer is certainly about God’s will being done on earth. But maybe our forebears were too optimistic, even grandiose, about what they would be able to accomplish. Two World Wars sure didn’t establish the Kingdom of God, nor a bunch more smaller wars since. And now, think closely about that prayer for a minute. It’s broken into two parts. The first part is called the “thou” petitions, because they are addressed to God. “Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The second part is called the “us petitions,” because they are about us: Give us this day our daily bread; forgive us our debts…lead us not into temptation.” Bringing the kingdom is among the things we entrust to God to do. We don’t pray: Our Father, help us build the Kingdom of God.
Now, that doesn’t mean we have nothing to do with it. That doesn’t mean we just sit around and wait. Jesus’ wording is very odd, using the passive voice that I was taught in school never to use: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done.” Not “God, bring your kingdom, and do your will.” This prayer, Thy Kingdom come, might indeed include even our even small acts of justice, of love, of breaking out of the old order and living life anew. After all, when we do these things—and you know, you get this incredible feeling when these breakthroughs happen, and it feels like the whole universe just shifted a little bit—when you do that, or it happens around you, are you doing that or is God? Maybe it is God doing it, doing God’s will, and that’s why it feels so amazing.
The Kingdom of God, as Jesus taught it, is fuzzy, it’s very hard to pin down. We think of it, as did the Bible writers, as some grand, once and for all re-creation of all things, but maybe it also comes in our local, mighty acts, or even almost unnoticeable acts done with the goodness of GOd.
Be that as it may, we’ve got to deal with the main message of the Kingdom of God throughout the NT: it is not something we will build ourselves, nor is it something God will build through us. It will come as a thief in the night, and “we will all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” And there are many such scriptures. We can be pretty sure that when the first Christians prayed, “Thy Kingdom come,” they had in mind some dramatic and final overthrow of all unjust and ungodly authorities, at the end of which even nature would be healed and perfected—the lion will lie down with the lamb—and the last enemy to be destroyed is death. They believed that even now death holds no dominion over us, but that on the Day of the Lord death and suffering and wrong would all be ended on earth.
What do we do with that prayer, 2000 years later? I bet that question has gnawed at some of you. (Now, some of you are gnawed on by nothing. You aren’t bothered by these things. You checked out of this sermon long ago. That’s ok.) For those who have these maybe vague doubts and questions about this prayer, Thy Kingdom come, here’s what I want. I want us to keep praying it, and to mean by it something close to what the biblical writers, those first Christians, meant by it. And I want that prayer to be real enough for us, that we can really pray it from the heart.
Try this. To pray, Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, and to pray it from the heart, is to be filled with both hope and great longing. The great longing is borne of a weariness with the suffering of this whole world, with the corruption, the baseness, the evil stupidity of the world, its foolish people, and its corrupt systems. It’s the sin of the world in the biggest sense. Now Jesus’ prayer will deal with our personal sin in a few lines. When he tells us to pray, “Forgive us our debts,” he takes for granted that we have them, we do sin. So similarly, when he prays, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” he’s assuming that the whole world is not yet what God intends it to be. And this prayer is our opportunity to gather up all the hurt and harm and horror in this world and come before God in great longing and say: may all this be blotted out. With Proverbs we ask impatiently: “How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?” That longing gives this prayer a depth and urgency in our heart.
To pray it in Jesus’ name gives us the hope in our heart. For we believe that God has already, somehow, blotted out all this misery in Jesus, who was subjected to the world’s worst and yet triumphed. And God is always triumphing over sin, and evil, and corruption, and godlessness and inhumanity. The resurrection assures us that God and humanity belong together, and in God humanity finds its enduring, unimpeachable triumph. And once you have that assurance, then think about what an optimistic, upbeat prayer this is. The earth is a place where God’s will can be done. This humble, fragile earth, and we who walk lowly upon it, are capable of fulfilling God’s will. God’s will isn’t only for some distant heaven; it is for the earth. That’s hope. Hope that acknowledges real pain, real longing, and yet affirms the infinite potential for goodness in this life.
But don’t skip the longing part, the painful part, the honest part—for some easy, chipper optimism. There’s no resurrection without the cross. I myself can’t pray Thy Kingdom Come, and get on board with those Christians and others who say, “everything is going according to God’s plan.” “There’s always a silver lining, because God’s got a reason for everything.” “Everything always works out for the best.” Sorry, I know some of you say things like that. I just can’t. Not everything and always. Because whenever I pray as Jesus taught me, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” I confess that God’s will is not yet being done on earth as it is in heaven. I just don’t see how you can pray Thy Kingdom come, like you really mean it, from the heart, until you are honest about the pain and injustice that has no damn good reason to be here. It’s not a test, it’s not a lesson, it’s not only so much as we can handle; and it is robbing the life from the widow, the poor, and the alien, and robs us of our integrity, because we are all caught up in the waywardness of the world. Proverbs reminds us of the brute fact: Waywardness kills.
If we have forgetten that, or ignore it, and have tried to put a sunny, optimistic face in the place of the need in the world and in us for total transformation by God, which is what the prayer is saying, it’s probably because we would like to feel comfortable in the world, with the status quo. We’d like to think that it all makes sense. Everything is beautiful. Of course we want to shut our eyes to the ugliness, the senselessness. Well, there is plenty of beauty, plenty of sense, plenty of goodness. God creates this world, remember. It is good, however fallen we have made it. But that’s not where the passion, the heart of Jesus’ prayer comes from. It comes from recognizing that, despite all of the heartlessness and ugliness, God has not given up on this world, and wants more than anything to bring this world into perfection, to bring us into perfection—to see peace and justice and goodwill reign in every heart and every nation.
Pray that from the heart this week: Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Lord I believe your world can do better than this, I believe this can be the place of your reign. And I want to be a part of that. Let your will be done in me, and in us, as a sign and promise to the whole world that Christ came to bring the Kingdom of God to all. Amen.
This NYT article is the latest in a regular output of articles warning of the effects of devices and social media on our attention span, mental health, and even sense of larger purpose in life. No disagreements here, although all these articles seem bent on identifying some definite line that has finally been crossed. Our devices are actively seeking our attention. But our culture has long been moving in this direction; just think of TV ads constantly vying for our attention. The root of the problem is not perhaps technology per se but a cultural assumption that truth comes second to something else: somebody’s will, or money. That is very ancient, too.
Anyway, it’s all a good “advertisement” (no attention grabbing here!) for church as an antidote to superficial, idiosyncratic attention.
This sermon is actually pretty close to the subject of my book (Calvin’s Salvation in Writing). We continued this topic in the Adult (Re-)confirmation class following church. I think what we discovered is that there is a both-and thinking required that is at bottom very trinitarian. So it is true that the truth of the Gospel is not finalized and absolute, and must be personally lived. But that doesn’t make it merely subjective (only in me) or only one truth among many. In a paradoxical (trinitarian) way, the truth of Jesus Christ is final truth just because it includes its own non-finality. Deep discussion!
John 17:6-19; Acts 1:1-11
1 John for Call to Worship
For almost five months now, we’ve been focused on the story of Jesus, from his birth, through his calling and teaching the disciples, to his conflict with authorities, and concluding in his execution and the surprise of his resurrection—the experienced truth that death could not contain this child of God. By now we should realize that the story of Jesus is not just another historical story. We can read about Abraham Lincoln and admire some things, at least, and perhaps draw some lessons from Lincoln for our own day. But the story of Jesus is about God reclaiming our own humanity—now, then, and ever more. This Gospel story about Jesus is the truth of our lives, the most essential reality about the meaning of life with God.
Permit a brief digression. I hear people say that the job of the preacher is to make the Bible relevant to our lives, and that is indeed one way I try to preach. But it is also true that when we properly hear the Gospel about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we are hearing what is always true for all humanity, a truth that is nowhere else made so visible and clear. And in that respect, the question to ask is not, how is the Bible relevant to my life? It’s: how is my life relevant to the Gospel? If you really believe in the Gospel, then you will believe that its truth is more real and more “relevant” than whatever you and I happen to be going through in 2018 Western Massachusetts. Maybe the key is not reinterpreting the Gospel to make it relevant to us; maybe we need to reinterpret ourselves. End of digression.
The Gospel story is the truth of our lives. But what is this truth of the Gospel? Beware of easy formulas. If the message of the Bible could be boiled down to a simple formula or slogan, we could dispense with this very long, often confusing book. I think we have to stick with it; and without worshipping the Bible or thinking it inerrant and perfect, I am a proudly biblical preacher. And I believe that when the time is right and we are ready and I’m doing my job well and above all, the Holy Spirit takes over, God’s message becomes clear. I’ve been breaking down what was a surprising and unfathomable event, the great big splash of the resurrection, into a series of hopefully clear ripples that reach us, even from 2000 years away.
Here it is, one last time: The resurrection is first the forgiveness of sin that restores our right enjoyment of creation. God created the world, as a reality distinct from God’s own being, to be a place of becoming and fulfillment in its own proper sphere. Whatever else we become through our special calling to faith in Christ, we remain God’s good creation, and God wants us to justly enjoy the fruits of creation. But maybe we feel unworthy of this, because people have put us down, or we are burdened with shame and regret, or trapped in an unjust path of trying to steal creation rather than sharing it, or oppressed by a sense of duty and obligation that we can never fulfill. Or all of these at once. The resurrection declares to us that we are forgiven, that God does not demand repayment for wrongs nor demand perfection of us. God loves one and all, and there is plenty of room within that love for us to justly and fairly share in the goodness of creation.
The second ripple is the mutual love that we enjoy as a church. This love we share is the same love Jesus shared with God, and with his disciples. John’s Gospel describes this divine and human love most beautifully and wonderfully, as for instance two verses after our lectionary reading for today: “As you, father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” When we share love with one another, we are in God, and God is in us. The love among us is one dimension of the continuing, risen life of Christ. We are reminded by celebrating Christ’s Ascension this week that the singularity of who Christ was, is eternally risen and preserved in God; but his earthly presence is now in us, in the church primarily, and that means above all in our love. Jesus anticipates this meaning of ascension already in our reading from today: “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, and I am coming to you.”
And we come today to a final ripple. (Though there are more; ripples always keep coming.) Jesus departs from us in his bodily presence but he leaves us with his truth. Jesus lives on in us because his truth remains in us. In this respect, what makes us Christians is the truth that we know. This theme is interwoven in our reading today: “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. .. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you, for the words you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.” And finally, Jesus prays to God: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” Faith is knowledge of truth.
What does this mean, “Sanctify them in the truth?” Things sanctified are set apart for God (hence my title). They are dedicated to divine use, to God’s purposes. They are holy. We may be in the habit of thinking of holy things as pure and clean and perfect. Not so: something is holy because it is used for God’s purpose. The bread and wine are holy during use of communion, but they are not permanently changed into Christ’s body and blood, I think. (I’ve several times seen a priest finish off a large quantity of wine rather than pouring out what they understood to be the blood of Jesus in a sink. Great. Now you’ve got a drunk priest, slurring his way through the benediction.)
According to Jesus, we are being set apart, made holy, sanctified for the purpose of bringing God’s truth to the world. That presumes that the world, the kosmos in Greek, does not know God’s truth. This is a big theme from the beginning of John’s gospel: “The light shines in the darkness.” John emphasizes more than the rest of the Bible that the world is in darkness, and only we have the light. Some Christians really love that. I don’t, and it’s not the only view we find in the Bible. But today we must seriously consider that Jesus set us apart to be bearers of God’s truth to the world.
And I think this scares some of us to death. We love coming to church, we love fellowship, we love doing good deeds and acts of charity, but we do not want to think of ourselves as possessing the truth. We are quite content with the right to my own opinion, and with your right to yours. The idea that there are not just opinions out there, but a truth that either you have, or you are dwelling in darkness and falsehood, makes some of us very uncomfortable, doesn’t it? Before anyone starting talking about fake news and a post-truth world, we were already quite content with personal opinion, rather than truth with a capital T. Why is that? What forces at work in our culture seduced us into flattening out truth into mere opinon? And it is easy to dismiss scholarly experts and good journalists by saying they are just as biased as everyone else; one opinion is worth the same as another. It even sounds democratic. Until you sit down and have a conversation with someone who really knows her stuff. That’s happened to me many times. And then I realize, I don’t know what I’m talking about. And that’s ok—that’s what learning is for. Then you are ready to learn. Opinions are not for holding on to; they are for being improved upon. But if you insist there’s no truth, only opinion, you are never going to be ready to learn. Jesus is our expert on God, our teacher, our master, our Lord. He speaks for God; he spoke as one who had authority, as the Bible puts it. Because we believe in him, we need to believe in truth. To believe in God is to believe in truth. / So a guy dies and goes up to the pearly gates, and St. Peter lets him into the holy court of the Lord Almighty, surrounded by the heavenly host, the angels praising God’s name without ceasing, and God says to him, “My son, you’ve lived a life of falsehood.” And the guy says, “Well, that’s your opinion.” It doesn’t work, right? We have to believe in truth. But some of us are very uncomfortable with that.
Some of us aren’t nearly uncomfortable enough with it. But when those of us who are uncomfortable look at how the church has so arrogantly used its supposed possession of the truth, and continues to do so: belittling other very rich and complicated religions without even taking time to try to understand them; dismissing the claims of science; assuming that the Bible is the only source we need for questions of ethics and public policy—when we see this, we are utterly ashamed of the Christian faith and its pretensions to alone bear the truth, to carry the light, even while Christians go about doing heinous and inhumane things, serenely confident in their God-given truth: ‘Only by the name of Jesus can anyone be saved.’ Some Christians seem to think possessing the truth is as simple as possessing a name, as easy as saying J-E-S-U-S. The Bible knows better: “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you.’” We are right to be wary of Christian arrogance about possessing the truth.
So what does it mean to be sanctified in the truth? How do we maintain fidelity to Christ’s gift of truth to us, so that faith is not just my own personal opinion and private spiritual journey, but is indeed the faith, a body of truth that I share with all faithful Christians, and by which we enlighten the whole world (for Jesus prayed, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world)? And yet how do we avoid the arrogance that we’ve seen Christians fall into, as if we alone possess the truth, as if all others must be wrong, because we have the name Jesus, and the Bible, and true doctrine, and we alone have right judgment?
This is no easy task. Each of us must work together to become God’s community of truth, and each of us has a distinctive task ahead of us. It would be easy if the truth of which Jesus spoke were just some formula that we could memorize, like Pythagorean’s theorem, and then we’d have all truth. There’s nothing like that in the Bible. Nor is there a law for us to memorize that would answer all our moral dilemmas; Paul tells us we are free from the law, but under the much more encompassing, if less precise, demand of living by the Spirit—whatever that means.
But there is a shape of truth, a way that truth properly works, within the Christian church that comes from the way Jesus revealed truth. And even this shape of truth you can’t pick up in an easy lesson, but you have to learn it patiently through guided study of Scriptures, imbibe it from others who are living it, and practice it diligently; and you have to unlearn all the misuses of truth in our world. Doing all that is necessary to be sanctified in the truth. I can only outline this shape of truth. First of all, the truth for a Christian is never his possession. It is God’s truth, and so it is always above and beyond me, and is mine only by God’s grace. We participate in God’s truth only when we confess our own foolishness, our own ignorance, our own sinful blindness. And we know that we never stop being sinful, ignorant fools. Second, God has indeed given us truth, and even a truth that comes to us through words, especially the words of Jesus and the Bible. But these words of truth are again not a formula that I can recite and wield, brandishing them like a weapon against others. These are the words of a human life, of Jesus. Truth is not a formula but a person, not a doctrine but a story, and so truth is something you must live out with the whole of your personal existence and your story. And you don’t witness that truth to another person by arguing him into submission, so that he, admitting defeat, confesses that your formula is correct. You have to understand someone else from deep within, and tend to that person with selfless compassion; but it’s not so simple as just loving and serving and being supporting that other. You may well have to penetrate his or her complex self-deceptions, and unlock many gates put up against God and perhaps against religious folk who have done harm. Paul tells us we are witnessing truly when someone from outside the faith has the secrets of her heart disclosed; and then she can worship God with you.
But how many of us are ready to do that and are capable of so witnessing our faith? How many have been thus sanctified in the truth? We acknowledge this deeply personal approach to truth because we have learned it from Jesus, but we must confess that we are hardly up to it. And even as our whole approach to truth is shaped by Jesus the Christ, we acknowledge that even in him truth is not finalized. The Bible testifies that he is to come again, and complete his truth. Notice in our Acts reading, when the disciples want to know the final truth, when Christ shall restore the kingdom in the last day, Jesus replies: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” Just because we know Jesus, doesn’t mean we know everything that God in God’s mysterious authority has in store for the world. And we can only hope that Jesus will come again, for the truth we have is not really complete or sufficient. That’s essential to the shape of Christian truth—it lacks finality. And it’s not even clear, 2000 years later, what Jesus coming again means. Could it simply mean, coming again as the Holy Spirit, the one who sanctifies us for truth? Maybe we’ll find out next week.
This sermon, by the same title, was originally supposed to be about the freedom to be creation that is the first dimension of the Easter message. Instead, it turned out to be a reflection on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., in parallel with the question about how to live in the wake of the self-sacrifice of Christ. And in the middle I got into a reflection on the constraints I realized I carry as a white person, the ‘shadow side’ of white supremacy, one might say. Now, I wasn’t very confident that all of that held together well in under 15 minutes. But I had a number of compliments on this sermon.
That leaves me wondering: what made this a good sermon (for some)? Was it beginning with a dramatic, contemporary story (a device I know works well, but I rarely use)? Was it my use of personal narrative and experience? Was it perhaps the surprising reflections on whiteness that made people see their own experience in a new light? I didn’t think the humor got as many laughs as I had hoped. Since I think this sermon had some problems working against it, I’m curious why people think it was good despite all that. Please comment!
Acts 4:32-35; John 20:19-23
As Christians, we live in the wake of a martyr, one who died in our place. How do you honor someone who died for you?
A few weeks ago, a French policeman named Arnaud Beltrame, found himself summoned to a lone terrorist hostage situation. He voluntarily took the place of the woman who was held hostage. When he tried to disarm the criminal, he was shot and killed. French President Macron put what he did this way: “To accept to die so the innocent may live.” What would you do if you were that woman whose place Arnaud Beltrame took? Think about that for a minute. Would you feel burdened by a debt you could never pay back? Or would you feel that you suddenly had a new lease on life?
This week we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr. Without taking anything away from the already monumental sacrifice of Arnaud Beltrame, I think King’s sacrifice brings us a step closer to Jesus. For he did not just “accept to die so that the innocent may live,” as was said about Beltrame. Now, he was pretty sure he was going to die. By 1968, he had been receiving death threats for a decade at least. But King’s speeches in the last days of his life, one of which is captured in our bulletin cover, seem to contain a haunting premonition of his death. It’s the same haunting premonition you hear in the Bible’s stories about the Last Supper.
But also like Jesus, King didn’t die only for the innocent. He certainly died so that African Americans and others—poor people, civilians in Vietnam as well as American soldiers involved in wars that were not absolutely necessary—would be liberated from injustice. But he also died for white America, for privileged America (and that’s me, I don’t know about you), so that we would be freed from our tacit complicity with an unjust system of laws, economic benefits, housing restrictions, educational inequality, and the rest—an unfair system, and God doesn’t want us tied to an unjust system. Now there were activists who were willing to see white people as the enemy, and from where they stood I can hardly blame them; but King was a Christian man, above all a minister and theologian. And he knew that God’s plan in Jesus was for justice that includes reconciliation with one’s enemies, not revenge against them. So let’s not wrongly narrow his legacy: oh, he died for black people. No, this black man was harassed and jailed and died for white people. And so we thank God for what Martin Luther King did for them, but for me.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying: Oh us poor white people. We suffered so badly being stuck on the lonely top of Mount Segregation. Of course not; we enjoyed plenty of benefits relative to people of color, and continue to do so. Sure, white people face all kinds of real challenges and suffering. (I haven’t frankly, but many of you have—addictions, domestic violence, and just the sadness and tragedies that inevitably accompany all human beings.) But think of it this way: if you could enter a lottery to be born in America, would you buy the ticket that has you being born as black, or as white? Who would choose to be born black instead of white in America today?
Not me. I recognize that it’s easier and safer to be born white. And of course, because we are called by God to justice, we have no choice but to desire to give up unjust privileges. Just as Jesus opened up the privilege of being God’s people to the Gentiles—and that’s us—so white Christians should desire to open up our privileges to all.
Now we can try to ignore God’s call, and try to live in ignorance of what is unfair. But because God creates us, injustice eats away at our souls. Benefiting from an unjust system does harm us. Don’t think that your humanity has not been constrained and even deformed by being white. It has nothing to do with race or biology. White flesh is created as good by God as any other. But this flesh has become deformed by being on the wrong side of justice. For instance, people from various European cultures used to enjoy a sense of belonging to a people, to one of many rich and meaningful cultures. They enjoyed belonging to a shared way of life in whatever little corner of England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, Poland, whatever—where they lived. They did not think of themselves as all blandly “white;” the fact that we now do shows us how much we’ve lost. Now today we have technology, and a lot more wealth, and a good share of moral and humanistic enlightenment. But how many of us today have a people? We’ve got maybe a nuclear family, or maybe just ourselves. We’ve practically forgotten how to live in community; it can seem to us like just a burden on our busy, self-directed lives. Somewhere deep in us we still long to be a people; we diligently do genealogies to connect us to a people that has been lost in a sea of whiteness. We long to be able to loose ourselves in a festival of dancing on the streets, like you see in Brazil during carnival or Mexico on saints’ days. If we tried to do that on 202, it wouldn’t be the same. Let’s admit that St. Patrick’s Day doesn’t cut it; it’s just an excuse to booze it up. We can try to find peoplehood in our American identity, but we’re now so divided that we end up writing off half of ‘our people’ as not true Americans. Our whiteness brought us many benefits, usually at the expense of others; but it took away our ability to have a people, leaving us to be lonely self-achievers.
Growing up I longed to have a people, though I didn’t understand this longing. So I found myself suddenly attracted to Chinese culture, because it seemed to offer such a deep and ancient tradition. (Full disclosure: this all began with watching Kung Fu movies—there’s your ancient Chinese tradition.) I grew out of that, although I studied Chinese and learned to respect Chinese culture. But early on I had also found myself so attracted to churches in the African American tradition. When I finally joined 12th Street Christian Church in Washington DC at the age of 31, it was a revelation. This was a real people of God, with a distinct way of singing, of preaching, of moving, and even of sharing humor—and at the center of this tight culture was God, the God of justice, the same God that had carried this people out of slavery. That deep gratitude to God for taking our side when the world was against us—or rather, when we were against them, but they never put it that way—that gratitude to God was so palpable and powerful and liberating. My whole body felt different after church—free, and relaxed, and swinging with the pulse of God’s Spirit. I bet you never felt that way coming out of this church.
Indeed, it wasn’t until I spent a few years at 12th Street that I realized how constrained I was as a white person. (And we had a good conversation about that at an Advent Bible study.) Hugging for me always required a real effort. Crying was something that could only be done in private. A deep belly laugh felt unnatural; I preferred a brief chuckle to express my mirth, but better yet was a sly smile. Forget about dancing, o my. And in church, as for many white people, I had learned to sit quietly; you don’t move in church. You sit before God like you would before a stern teacher. We don’t know how to cry out to God, except in private. We don’t know how to ‘get to shouting’—to exclaim, “Thank you Jesus.” Some of you tell me I sing well—God bless you! but then I know a lot of you have hearing problems, so I wonder—but before 12th street my voice was tight and thin. That church freed my voice. It’s that liberating spirit that is why African American music keeps drawing us in, from blues to jazz to mo-town to soul to funk to rap and hip hop, and always gospel music and the spirituals. You know, if I had to enter a lottery to get down and party, I’d take the black ticket over the white one. (Sorry.)
We white folk sometimes have trouble breathing easy; we are constrained. We’re constrained in our celebrating. Constrained in our ability to weep and mourn together. Constrained even in our silence, during which we are often distracted or uncomfortable. Constrained in expressing love to one another. I know my parents loved me, and still do; but it was like they were embarrassed to show love. And kids growing up with this feel these many facets of constraint, and so they start to fantasize about gangs, or the glory of fame, or crime, or violence, or becoming Chinese, or wherever they imagine they might find life that’s more real. Do you know what I’m saying? See, I could ask for an Amen if I were back at 12th street.
Maybe you’ve felt white guilt, but I bet you never thought of white people as impaired. What’s wrong with us? I’ll tell you what. We are afraid to lose control. We are afraid of losing control of our personal space, of our time, of our emotions, and of our precious inner thoughts. So we white folk constrain ourselves, because losing control is the worst thing that can happen to us. And this self-constraint harms us. When we are humble enough to admit this, we can begin to see our internalized constraint as God’s reminding us that no one is free until all are free. It is God’s whisper of justice. No one wins if someone else has to lose.
Now, people at 12th Street Christian church also were hurting; they had plenty of harm to deal with. But no one was there was burdened with that fear of losing control. You see, you aren’t worried about maintaining control if your people never had control in the first place. But we white folk learned to listen to and emulate or at least fear the mostly white men in our lives who were in control—the stern, remote fathers, the business owners, the generals, the statesmen, the people bearing arms, the ministers, the colonialists, the slave owners. We learned from them to fear losing control, and we took that lesson deep into our bodies, so that even our most intimate relationships and our inner selves have been affected.
God showed me that big scale injustice has very intimate repercussions. And God also showed me the way to healing. I learned at 12th Street that there is liberation for us white folk too, just like Dr. King believed in. I felt freed from all that internalized constraint, and in my friendships there I felt genuinely part of God’s whole humanity. God can and does deliver us from our fear of losing control, because the control we had was never a good control to begin with. And many of us have learned that its good to express emotion and to embrace our feelings and our body and our children.
Easter is all about giving up control. The authorities thought they could control Jesus and his disciples with the threat of death, and the cross was designed to lift up that threat and show it off to everybody all around. The cross worked the same way that the burning cross and the lynching tree have been used in America, or people today inscribing swastikas, or internet trolls posting their death threats, or an angry white man putting a bullet into Dr. King. But God showed in Jesus that those who lose control of their lives for God’s sake will find a power of life that even death cannot constrain. And so by God’s transforming power, even that cross now signifies not a controlling threat but the power of life beyond all constraints. That cross gave birth to a people who found joy in serving and loving one another, so that control and constraint no longer reigned in them. We get an almost absurd picture of that in Acts, where the early church is depicted as so much “of one heart and soul” that they had no private possessions.
We probably won’t take things that far, but who knows? For now, we’re still trying to figure out how to live in the wake of a martyr, how to honor someone who died for us. Like Dr. King, Jesus didn’t die so we would be wracked with guilt—although guilt is something white people are good at! Jesus died so we could live, live in the fullness God intended for us; to live free—not as lonely individuals, but as a people. For true freedom is found in being in love with God and with one another. We’re aiming to get there, but we know that they way there lies through the cross, which for us will surely involve taking a good hard look at just how much the legacy of racist control is still haunting our world and our own bodies.
We’ll spend the next seven weeks of Easter marveling at and learning to live by this new life of Easter brought to us by the risen Christ. The disciples were constrained in a way that was the mirror image of white people afraid of losing control. The disciples feared those in power, those who had control. But we can all relate to the feeling of locking yourself in a room. And suddenly Jesus appeared among them and said, “Peace.” He reminded them of his martyrdom, showing his pierced hands and side. And they then realized that this was a martyrdom not constraining them by guilt and debt but liberating them for life, for Jesus would always be with them. “They rejoiced.” And then he said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He freed them from their constraints and their hiding behind locked doors, for they realized that this fear being used to control them had nothing over God. And Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on them, and they once again breathed easy, even as they faced a hostile world.
In John’s telling, only three sentences separate the appearance of the risen Christ and his gift of the Holy Spirit. In Luke and Acts, there are 50 days between these two events (Pentecost comes from Greek for 50th [day]). And we will need all of the remaining 50 days to explore this new life we have between Christ’s rising and the Spirit’s holiness.