Today has become, for the church in America, in most places, a day of remembrance and thanksgiving for the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This is right and fitting to remember an American Saint – one who gave his life for the vision of the Kingdom of God; one who made us aspire to something good; one who brought us together with words and acts that helped us envision a better America.
But I am not sure if I can remember a Dr. King day that leaves me feeling more pessimistic about our collective ability to bring about the “beloved community” that Dr. King envisioned.
A “beloved community” where we were judged not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character; a “beloved community” where truly the playing field is level, and we study war no more, and our core institutions are fully integrated, and racial diversity is celebrated – and we are all liberated.
Instead “race” still feels like a heavy cloak that is worn, that “racism” is a heavy sin of our society that clings so closely, that “race” more than anything else continues to separate us and we still don’t really even know how to “get over” the divide; how to talk, how to be, what it is that we are even wanting to move towards.
I remember the pictures, and indeed, remember the “spirit” of those times – I was young, but I remember the marches, the television reports.
For those on the front line of the movement, those who faced the water cannons and the German shepherds, those who were called “every name other than a beloved child of God” – it wasn’t safe; it was life or death. But there was this sense that we were moving towards something, a new reality – that we were living into our faith that in Jesus Christ there is no male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free.
With each difficult step on that road, on those marches, at those rallies, even when the little girls died in that bomb blast, and folks refused to ride the buses, and those who held up signs “I Am A Man,” and those who lived right here in the Cleveland area, who are sitting in our midst today, whose houses were bombed, whose children were pulled over, whose very personhood was demeaned – despite all this, there was a sense, I believe, that we were moving towards something.
And so we passed housing acts, and voting rights acts, and civil rights acts, we desegregated schools and we set up the Forest Hill Housing Corporation, and the Heights Community Congress, and we did move – we did.
And whether you are a Democrat or Republican there was something profoundly moving when a young African American man and his family stood on that stage in Chicago 8 years ago and we beheld our first African American President in Barak Obama. We did move, didn’t we?
But there has been no post-racial society. And the very governmental acts that held us accountable to justice are even now being gutted.
And in light of this past presidential campaign where we saw “race” become a divisive issue more so than ever; and with every brown and black body shot and killed and with every policeman held in suspicion, and now with the young white person being bullied and tortured by four African American teens in Chicago.
I don’t come to this January 15th with joy in my heart or hope emblazoned in my soul.
But that is ok, because it is not about feeling. You see for Christians things like “joy,” “hope,” “faith,” “justice,” and all those words that we claim in the name of Jesus – are not just givens, oh no – they are disciplines to be worked for daily.
You and I have to work at this, and act the way we know we have to act – not because it is politically correct, or the way of culture, but because it is the way of God, it is the way of Jesus, it is the way of the church.
It is a way of risk, and mistakes, and misunderstandings and false starts – but as LeBron James said, “nothing is given” (except for the grace of God through Christ) and even the works of grace must be earned and struggled for. The New Jerusalem is not here yet and so you and I are called to do all in our power to make it happen.
In John’s gospel, after the magnificent theological opening of “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” We are brought into history: John the Baptist is giving testimony about the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”
And on a particular day Jesus is walking away from the river Jordan and two of John the Baptist’s disciples follow him and the brief dialogue that ensues is fantastically important. This little interchange between Jesus and those who follow him at a distance, has been foundational to my ministry and may call.
This was the text for my very first sermon every preached. I was in the pulpit of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington DC. It was a central high pulpit, as high as the balcony and I looked over and saw my mother (beaming) and my Sunday School kindergarten teacher (looking solemn) and the pastors – I have never been more scared in my life – but it went well enough… and here I am!
I have always loved the interchange: Jesus senses the disciples following and turns and says: “What are you looking for?’ which is the most profound spiritual question imaginable; because we are all looking for something. And those who follow respond with “Where are you staying?” They are expressing the question that we all ask: “Where are you God?” I want to see something. I want to know if my yearning has some reality to it; or if I am simply walking around willy-nilly. Jesus, is there anything to “this?” “Where are you staying?” I want to hang with you for a while and see.
And Jesus says three words; an invitation so profound that it still gives me shivers every time I read it. Jesus says “Come and see.” Come on the journey, walk with me, let me walk with you. I will give you no answers – but I will invite you on the path, the road “less taken,” and together we will create a new reality. Together we will find God.
This is a way that is risky and downright foolish. It will take sacrifice and, for some, even death – but it is the way of fellowship and truth, and hope and joy and justice and freedom and mercy; It is the road, the path, the way, the truth, and the life.
These will become more than words, they will become fleshed out if you take the step. They are not given, they are created.
And so the first disciples go and stay with Jesus. And it was so profound a moment that the writers remembers the time of day – “it was four o’clock in the afternoon” – when the disciples decided to begin the walk on the road.
Transformative moments do that to you.
And so I answer the rhetorical question of my sermon title: are we at the end of the road of faith? Are we at the end of the road of racial reconciliation? Are we at the end of the road of King’s “dream?” At times it seems so.
But then I read this passage and Jesus seems to indicate otherwise – that, oh no, the road is not ending, we have hardly begun – but we will never get anywhere, if we sit on our hands, if we remain in our seats, if we don’t head away from the safety of the river and head out into the wilderness; because that is where Jesus led his disciples – into the desert, not the Hilton . We are all still living in this first leg of the journey and there is still a whole lot to go through together.
And so as we continue to look at the world outside these walls and see both progress and sense the slippery slide of going backwards; as we hear clarion calls for reconciliation and we also hear words of empty nostalgia that want to take us back to some time that never was; we have choices to make; changes within these walls: What are we willing to do to show that we are not at the end of the road?
How long are we going to claim that we are a reconciling community in a city that boasts “diversity” and still have a white man as the only full-time pastor?
Perhaps it is time to share the power and become that which we proclaim and have a diverse and inclusive staff and take the risk and show the world what we are willing to do to stay on the path and to follow Jesus and to walk into the wilderness – and not play it safe – let’s see what happens.
We can’t give up now can we?
We can’t let Dr. King’s vision die on the vine.
I don’t want to stay on the banks of the river Jordan. I want to see where Jesus is staying.
Let’s go and see.