31 Aug 2013
“You have not approached that which can be touched, and a blazing fire and gloomy darkness and storm, and a trumpet blast and a voice speaking words such that those who heard begged that no message be further addressed to them … No, you have approached Mount Zion, and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem …” (Hebrews 12:18-19, 22) In the name …
I hope this doesn’t sound inappropriate. It’s not meant to be by any means. But these words from the Epistle to the Hebrews would sound so much cooler coming from a Black Baptist minister. I can hear it in my head, but I could never do justice to it with my voice. I was captivated this past week by the 50th anniversary celebrations of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s I have a dream speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The power in his words was not only what he said, but the way in which they were said. They combined power and melody, meaning and emotion, and even more importantly, inspiration. They may have actually been what Jesus wanted us to hear because as the Bible says, the Word of God is “living and enduring.” It’s never silent. It can’t be old. It will always speak to us where we are today.
The day before King gave his speech, it still wasn’t written. The day before, his advisors were arguing with him about what should be included and excluded from the speech. Finally, on the evening before The March on Washington, Rev. King said to his advisors, “My brothers, I understand. I appreciate all the suggestions. Now let me go and counsel with the Lord.” That night he wrote the speech, finishing around 4AM. There was no mention of “I have a dream.” On the dais the day of the speech, Mahalia Jackson sang two Gospel spirituals. King sat nearby, clapping his hands on his knees and calling out to her as she sang. Then it was Rev. King’s turn, and as the speech wound down, Mahalia Jackson now shouted to him: “Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream.” I think it was a young Rep. John Lewis sitting behind the both of them, who when he heard all of this, whispered to the person next to him, “These people don’t know it yet, but they’re gonna go to church.” And then Rev. King left his prepared text behind and gave us the gift of “I have a dream.” There was beauty and vision in those words and how there were proclaimed, but there also may well have been the Lord’s counsel.
50 years ago those people in Washington realized that what they were doing was church. There was no building, but what they were doing was church. The nation’s capital was under a state of emergency. Troops were stationed nearby because there was a fear of riots and violence, probably because these people had been treated by the state with the embarrassment of violence. Instead, the people listened to their pastors and their preaching about Christian non-violence. Rep. John Lewis, the only person still alive today who spoke that day 50 years ago, said this past Wednesday that the people going to the march were like people going to church. As I watched the speeches on television, the scrolling banner at the bottom of the screen was giving other news highlights. One of which was the unanimous death sentence passed upon Maj. Nidal Hasan who murdered 13 people and wounded 31 others as a religious act. He has stated that he is an imperfect soldier of a perfect religion. The contrast could not be clearer. And it is not between Christianity and Islam. It is between mind-numbing, sickening fundamentalist religious vengeance and a faith that dreams of “little black boys and black girls … able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” as said Rev. Martin Luther King.
And isn’t that sense of extended community what Jesus is talking about this morning? Jesus is invited as a kind of curiosity to the home of a leading Pharisee. A person approaches who suffers from dropsy, which is an unpleasant and unattractive swelling of the body. The normal reaction to this man’s condition would be avoidance, others would look away. Jesus takes the man, He holds the man, and cures him. Then Jesus tells everyone invited into the Pharisee’s home that there is no moral value in sharing a meal with someone you can split the check with. Rather, invite the crippled, the blind, the ones who can never repay the kindness. That’s church for Jesus. That’s what people who believe do. That’s what Jesus calls righteousness. It’s about extending community beyond the comfortable.
Jesus is asking us to realize that there is so little that separates us. Dr. J. Craig Venter was one of the scientists who first mapped the entire human genome sequence, and in his words: ''Race is a social concept, not a scientific one.'' The entire team of researchers unanimously declared that there is only one race -- the human race, and that’s because the superficial differences of white, black, yellow, red or polkadot add up to a whole .01 % of our genetic make-up, that’s one-ten-thousandth of who we are. Jesus sees us as all created in the image of God. He doesn’t see the .01%. And that’s why Martin Luther King could dream of the day his children and all children would be judged by the content of their character not the colour of their skin. And that may be from King’s “counsel with the Lord.”
And those old words from the Epistle to the Hebrews that I began with, they talk about an ordinary religion, one not marked by fire, darkness and storm, not marked by trumpet blasts and voices from a heavenly choir. They speak of a religion that sees God here, and the work of God as done with our hands as we struggle to extend God’s kingdom on earth. It’s a religion that doesn’t wait for Jesus to come back; it’s a religion that ushers us forward to meet Jesus. The organizer of The March on Washington, A. Philip Randolph, once said, “We may have come here on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat.” Our religion and our religious duty are about empathy, about appreciating each other’s gifts and sympathizing with each other’s trials. This is a religion that won’t part the skies, but it will bring us, as Hebrews says, to Mount Zion and the city of the living God. May we be inspired by our faith to dream this dream of building a better, fairer, more caring and equitable community, for the March on Washington was not only about race, but about jobs, and creating the opportunity for everyone to earn a living wage. May our church strengthen us so that we will work to make this vision real. For this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo