Sunday, January 17, 2016
Two sinners, flawed people who make mistakes and fall short of God’s glory.
Two extraordinary men – there have never been any like these men and their contributions to humanity are greater than can be measured.
Great men? Sinners fallen short of God? These men are both. Consider their lives, their words, and the profound importance of each as I hold each up alongside the other.
First, Martin Luther King Jr. In 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, he said,
Has his dream been realized?
However accurate or inaccurate or partially accurate, the perception of many, maybe most black people is that they can’t get a fair shake in business, in education, in health care, in housing, and in numerous other ways in every day. Statistics bear this out. Black Americans are less likely to be admitted to the highest universities, less likely to be identified and put in academically gifted programs, and more likely to be suspended from school for offenses that if done by whites often go unpunished. In nearly every formal institution in our country, blacks get less opportunity for advancement; and, they suffer more harshly and more frequently than whites who commit the same offenses and rules infractions.
Has Dr. King’s dream been realized?
Many African Americans have achieved incredible success. Condoleezza Rice is a brilliant academic, a political scientist, and former secretary of state. Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of America’s leading astrophysicists. Colin Powell is one the great generals in U.S. army’s history. Ben Carson is a brain surgeon and a presidential candidate. Clarence Thomas is a Supreme Court justice. And of course our president, Barak Obama is an African American who has achieved the highest office in the land. No matter what your personal opinion is of these named, they all merit respect. This high level achievement and leadership among persons of color had not happened when Dr. King gave that speech.
On a more personal level, in our day biracial families are accepted as the boundaries for what is considered normal expand. I did not imagine when we adopted Henry and Merone that we would meet other families just like ours in preschool and then again in our neighborhood, but we have. Chapel Hill is progressive town and there are places in North Carolina and in other parts of America that are less-welcoming of such diversity. However, I think across America, there is now a social consensus that racism is evil. Since Dr. King gave the “I have a Dream Speech” things have changed.
They have not changed nearly quickly enough. His poignant phrase “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism” needs to be taken to heart. Right now, most of the perspectives I get from black people in my circles are different than the perspectives of white people in my circles. I hate saying “black people think …” or “all white people …” do such and such. I think the generalizing is unfair. However, I do feel safe in saying that most black people expertience the world differently than most white people.
Dr. King’s context was America, embroiled in racial conflict. The man I have thought about alongside Martin Luther King Jr. is John the Baptist whom we meet in Matthew’s Gospel. John burst upon the scene calling the people of Judah to “Repent! For the Kingdom of heaven has come near.” He allowed no margin for the luxury of cooling off. Repentance is a turning – to turn from looking and living in one direction to looking and living in an altogether different direction. God is over here, but you are oriented over there. You have to radically turn your lives because the way you are currently headed is away from God.
Essentially, this was John’s message. As America today needs to turn away from greed, materialism, racism, elitism, and xenophobia, John said the people in the first century needed to turn away from sin and turn to God.
Otherwise, we will miss the presence of Jesus even though, he is here. This season, epiphany, the time after Christmas – this is Jesus’ ‘coming out party.’ We won’t see it, not now, not if we aren’t watching. To miss it is to live apart from God. If we live apart from God now, we will be apart from him at the Judgment. When Jesus returns in the Second Coming to call his own into the Kingdom, we will not be among those counted as his own. We need to turn.
We need to turn because currently our gaze is fixed by human wisdom in the direction of today’s definition of success. Philosophies like individualism, naturalism, and patriotism do not appear inherently evil, but when one of these ways of thinking and seeing define our worldview instead of Jesus defining our worldview, it pull us away from the God who wants to saves us from self-destruction.
“Repent!” Turn from where we are looking, from what we are thinking, from who we are admiring, from how we are living; turn from this to God.
In the Gospels are stories of people who met Jesus in person and still could not turn to him because they could not turn away from the allure of wealth or the entrenched racism of their day. In the New Testament world, the segregation was Jew-gentile. Today it is white-black, or English speaking-non English speaking; or it is citizen-immigrant; or it is Christian-Muslim. Whatever divides people by objectifying those not-like-me as “other” – whatever that division point is, it is evil and we must turn from it. We must in humble confession turn to God. John preached that.
Dr. King claimed that God showed him a vision of life – the life to come if people could learn to live in peace and harmony and love for each other; people from all backgrounds. He said,
John also had a sense of what would it would be like when the words he preached became reality. He said,
So, two prophets; one condemned racial inequality, the other sin run rampant among the chosen people of God. King’s denouncing of racism is a damning of sin – a specific arena of sin and for us in 2016, one that arena, racism, continues to trouble our communities because it exists and people of color continue to suffer injustices. Likewise John the Baptist issued a call that we must heed; we must turn from the ways of the world to the ways of God as we know God in Jesus.
These two prophets who preached with force and drama had vision. They imagined the fulfillment of their dreams. John the Baptist spoke and it was electric; he baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He will gather the grain, and the chaff. The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. People from all walks of life abandoned the comforts of Jerusalem and flooded out to the wilderness to be baptized by him and hear him talk about the one who was to come.
Who was this Savior John forecast?
What would life be like upon his arrival? John offered the stark call – repent! And, he offered the promise of baptism by spirit and fire.
Dr. King named the evil of racism and imagined a world without it.
So what of it? What do we make of the preaching and the vision of either man? Were their dreams realized? Today we have Travon Martin and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice. Today secularism is on the rise; Christianity it so politicized, it is stripped of anything in it that resembles faith.
John was anointed by God. Dr. King awakened America to God’s compassion for the downcast and God’s hatred of racism and injustice. Both spoke with power as they cast compelling visions. So, what do we do with the world as it is?
Imagine John there in the Jordan. Everyone is spellbound. In those flowing waters, he appears to be the most powerful man in the world and all who come defer to his passion and his fiery teaching. The royal official, the temple soldier, the priest, the Roman centurion; before John, they all shrink. Submissively, they go to the waters.
Then, Jesus comes. His eyes meet John’s. John finds himself tongue-tied. Matthew writes, “Jesus came … to be baptized by him [but] John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’”
He who had cast the pre-vision of the Kingdom fell to pieces when the Kingdom stood before him in the person of Jesus. John would have stopped Jesus at the start of his ministry. Why? I believe seeing Jesus is so overwhelming, we forget everything. At the same time, we see everything.
We inherit John’s call to repentance and the 1960’s iteration of it in Dr. King’s call to end segregation and build harmony and love across racial lines. We repent and we work for equality recognizing that when one group of people is wounded by prejudice, we all are.
We anticipate the dreams of these prophets. God gives glimpses and so we can say with John, Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit. With MLK, we get glimpses of the Promised Land where black boys and girls and white children and Jewish and Syrian and Chinese and Mexican children all laugh and run and play together, without fear. We can imagine it. We spend our lives working for it, reaching for it.
Still we know that we won’t finally reach it until Jesus meets our gaze as he did John’s. In that moment, face to face, completely exposed before him, completely vulnerable, we feel ourselves wrapped in his arms of love. Then, we are finally home.
We know that day will come. Until it does, we honor the prophets who have gone before us by working for love and brotherhood and sisterhood as we understand things in light of the way of Jesus. We can’t fully say what it will be like when the dream comes true. So, we imagine, we work for it, we pray for it, and with hopeful expectation and full readiness, we wait for it.