On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday, the Scripture readings begin 28 minutes in with Rev. Annich’s sermon “Come and See!” available at the 31 minute mark.
My wastebasket is full of crumpled, wadded up sheets of paper—clear evidence of my struggles to pull this sermon together. Donald Trump’s racist, foul remarks about Haiti, countries in Africa, and El Salvador, have lit up the internet leading into our weekend celebration of Dr. King’s life and work, and people around the world are horrified.
I am one of those people. Yesterday I scrapped the sermon I had written earlier in the week, but had a hard time with the re-write. I felt like I was drowning in the rage and pain his words aroused in me, my mind going blank as I tried to articulate the hope we all have in God.
As someone who has done a lot of grief counseling I realized I was in the throes of grief, way more out of control than I ever want to be, my brain completely offline and my heart broken. Mr. Trump’s remarks were nothing new or unexpected given the character he has demonstrated over this last year, but somehow they were the last drops of water that finally caused the bucket of my grief to overflow.
I was ultimately helped by a Facebook post from a colleague, Rev. Erik Marshall, of the Friends Church in Willoughby Hills. His post featured pictures of beautiful black children he knows from years of living in Haiti, and he wrote, “I typically don’t like to respond to what our president says, but since it was brought up I’d love to share a little bit about Haiti. I lived in Haiti for 3 years, and in the subsequent years led teams of Americans to experience what I did. On those trips I saw God’s Economy at work –the upside-down definitions of rich and poor. Experiencing a powerful undercurrent of joy among the suffering and impoverished, our teams began to see differently. On these trips I’ve seen privileged Americans repent of their ignorance, pride, racism, bitterness, materialism, and whatever cheap thing they’ve valued in life. Yes, Haiti has many problems. But there is a POVERTY among us in the US, and it may be even worse than the poverty in these other countries our president is speaking about because it’s masked by our wealth, pride, narcissism and entitlement.”
I think those of you in the Forest Hill family who have been part of our ministry with Haiti would agree with Erik. We mustn’t romanticize the poverty and suffering that afflicts many Haitians, but at the same time we need to look with fresh eyes at what constitutes true wealth and true poverty.
I’ve entitled this sermon “Come and see” based on today’s Gospel reading. “Come and See” is a term that has unfortunately been misused in evangelism circles when it puts the burden of conforming to an already established faith community on the seeker, the basic message being, “You need to come into our community and conform to our way of doing things, to our rituals, and our expectations, spoken and unspoken.” Missional theology on the other hand calls us to open our minds and be respectfully curious about other people. It invites faith communities to go outside their own walls–literally and figuratively–and meet people where they are. Rather than trying to help others by saddling them with our own assumptions and preconceived notions, we’re invited to be open to, and join in, the many ways God is already at work in their lives. Missional theology calls us to be lifelong learners–wanting to know people who are different from us, to understand their hopes and dreams, joys and sorrows. Faith communities are always at risk of falling into two temptations: exceptionalism (“we’re all that”) and rigidity (“we’ve always done things this way and that way won’t work”). Missional theology reminds us always to remain humble and open to learning about all God’s children and the movement of God’s spirit in all of our lives.
The exceptionalism and racism that have given rise to Mr. Trump’s rhetoric and behavior and to the unconscionable complicity of silence from many in Congress must be named for what they are–sin. Our nation needs to repent of the sin of racism that has been entrenched in our institutions and has consistently influenced our minds and hearts from generation to generation since our nation was founded. Mr. Trump’s remarks are not only racist– they are also terribly ironic. Our nation has done more than its fair share to undermine the health and welfare of the countries he referred to (in much cruder language) as toilets by exploiting their natural resources and manipulating their governments and economies through the years.
My dear husband reminded me yesterday that for the most part I am preaching to the choir here at Forest Hill Church and I absolutely agree. We have affirmed that we want to live into the reality of being The Beloved Community. We say that we want to participate in missional theology, rather than top-down paternalistic evangelism. We are in the process of not just talking about, but embodying, equity as we move into a co-pastor model of ministry. We are being greatly transformed by Leonor’s presence among us. 80-90 people turned out last week for an anti-racism training–it was so exciting to walk into Fellowship Hall and see that it was packed!
So please hear what I am about to say as said in love. I’m reminded of my mentor who said that when a preacher preaches those who need to hear judgment often hear grace and those who need to hear grace often hear judgment. Hear what I am saying as either the wake up call or the affirmation your soul needs to hear — we still have a long, long way to go.
“Come and See” is the invitation Philip offers Nathanael in today’s Gospel Lesson. Philip is a newly recruited disciple who is sure that Jesus is the Messiah whom the Torah and prophets have been predicting for ages. He wants Nathanael to come and see the power of God at work in Jesus to which Nathanael sarcastically responds, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Can anything good come out of that backwater of a town in that backwater of a region called Galilee?
The Galileans had long been looked down on as low-life people who didn’t practice religious rituals the way other Jews did, who weren’t morally pure, so Nathanael can’t imagine what good could possibly come out of that sewer system. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Sound familiar? Can anything good come of the continent of Africa? Or El Salvador? Or Haiti? Can any good come from any place near or far that we’ve written off in our minds?
“Come and see,” Philip replies. I don’t know about you, but the word “See” leaps off the page and out of the story at me. New life comes through seeing! Seeing ourselves as we truly are with all our gifts and the ways we need to change and grow. Seeing God in each and every person no matter who they are, where they live, and what they look like. Seeing with fresh vision what, as my friend Erik Marshall says, “constitutes true wealth and true poverty.” I think it’s seeing with new eyes what people unlike ourselves have to teach us. And most of all it is seeing the power of God at work in human lives, despite great human sinfulness. Sometimes our sight is more than physical sight. It’s the vision St. Paul speaks of when he says, “now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
In today’s Gospel Nathanael, the sarcastic guy with a cynical chip on his shoulder, has an extraordinary awakening and is completely transformed. The story doesn’t go into detail of what exactly changed his view of Jesus, but something about Jesus’ remark that he had seen Nathanael under the fig tree snaps the picture of who Jesus is into clear focus. I’ve often wished for that kind of epiphany where everything about my faith and life suddenly made perfect sense, but epiphanies come in all shapes, sizes, and schedules. Some are sudden, some take lifetimes. No matter how they come, though, they change the way we see God, ourselves, other people and our call to discipleship.
As we celebrate the life and work of Dr. King this weekend I am reminded of an epiphany that defined him in 1956, what’s known as his “vision in the kitchen.” He’d been leading the Montgomery bus boycott, a decision that set off as many as 30-40 death threats a day. One call, on the night of January 27, 1956, stood out. As his wife, Coretta, and 10-week-old daughter, Yolanda, slept nearby, the voice on the other end of the line said: “N*****, we’re tired of your mess. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow up your house and blow your brains out.”
Writing about this in his book Stride Toward Freedom, Dr. King said, “I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’ At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
We have a long, long way to go, my friends, to fully honor the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. We are living in dark times when unapologetic racism issues from the highest office of the land, the poor are under attack and immigrants cruelly refused refuge. Like Dr. King we are in many ways at the end of our powers. Like him, we have nothing left and have come to the point where we cannot face the darkness alone.
And yet we have affirmed that we want to be the Beloved Community, that we want to continue to stand for justice and peace, in response to the God who first called us beloved. And so we press on to overcome the darkness, hatred, and despair. We press on by calling out hate speech and behavior in all its forms. We press on by taking turns encouraging each other when the ugliness feels like too much to bear. We press on by confessing that we have much to learn, and by committing ourselves to reaching outside our comfort zones with curiosity and courage. We press on by listening to other people’s experiences without becoming defensive. We press on by seeking to learn about the racist institutional structures that have kept all of us in bondage. We press on by being educated, active citizens and not waiting for someone else to magically save us. And most of all we press on by remembering that God has stood the world’s way of judging on its head.
Our model is Jesus who as Philippians reminds us “humbled himself and became obedient to the point death, even death on a cross.” He is also the one God raised from the dead, extending the arc of life well beyond the grave and shaking up our human ways of measuring success and failure, wealth and poverty.
We press on to overcome, knowing as Dr. King learned that we can stand for justice, we can stand for truth, and God will be at our sides forever.
Thanks be to God.