Annie Dillard wrote that “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
We’re about to have a conversation about race and racism on Wednesday evening here in our parish hall, and I’m embarrassed to confess that there’s been some anxiety about it on my part. (Yeah, I know, I used to be more brazen. I guess I’m getting old.) Will people come? Which people will come? Will it be hard? Will people say the wrong thing? Will I be disappointed, or angry? Will I lose my job? I am up nights worrying about conflict and divisiveness, about being run out of town. The town library wasn’t sure whether to help us sponsor it, and the town administrator isn’t sure they want to put it on the flashy sign. Oh great, I think. The last thing I need is to be seen as the radical new pastor who is pushing divisiveness in a pleasant and conflict-free town.
Meanwhile our God draws us into the work of repair of the world, not pleasantry. Meanwhile, my call from God is to prophecy, not politeness. The least I could do is try to host a deeper conversation about racism without freaking out.
“Figure it out, Bartlett. Your job is not to keep your job, it’s to serve a God of justice who radically unites the whole human race. It’s time to starting talking about what that looks like.”
Perhaps like Annie Dillard says, I need a crash helmet and a life preserver for vestments instead of this pretty rainbow stole. For the God we serve is showing us how to create heaven here on earth, but if we want to get there, it is going to be a bumpy ride. The waking God may draw us out to where we can never return, and that’s the whole point.
I think you know the story of the Israelites in the wilderness. The Israelites follow Moses out of slavery in Egypt, and into a long period of walking through the desert toward a promised land they have not seen, and they have no proof that they’ll ever get there—only a promise. They know that it’s gotta be better than where they came from, though the devil you know is sometimes better than the devil you don’t. They begin to lose faith. They wonder if they should turn around. They are impatient. Moses probably is, too. And so Moses takes this time to climb a mountain to get some perspective. Deuteronomy 34, verses 1-4 says: "Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo ... There the Lord showed him the whole land ... Then the Lord said to him, "This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob ... I will let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it."
Whoa. Wait a minute.
So before they reach the Promise Land of milk and honey--after a long journey of first hope and then frustration, and Moses getting kinda dumped on as a leader by a group of malcontents, Moses is then informed by God that God will not allow him to enter into the land he’s been leading them to. That he will only see it with his eyes. So Moses glimpses it, and sees the promise, and is told by God that he won’t get to go there. God also made it pretty clear that neither was he free to abandon the Israelites and leave them to their own devices to get there on their own.
Shortly thereafter, Moses dies and is buried by God, and his successor, Joshua, finally leads the people of Israel into the Promised Land. Moses never gets there.
This frustrating and real truth is the same for us. Our God has shown us what the kingdom of God—heaven on earth—looks like thousands of times, but we will likely not cross into it in this lifetime. However, neither are we free to abandon the work or the people we serve who are trying so hard to get there. We owe it to our children and their children to get as close as we can.
So no wonder we’d rather just quietly come to church in our straw and velvet hats with our polite manners and our staid hymns. We don’t want the sleeping God to waken and notice that we aren’t out in the streets right now marching. We don’t want the waking God to lead us where we don’t want to go, like into an uncomfortable conversation about race, or a local mosque to support our Muslim neighbors, or on the streets, encountering homelessness, or into the prisons, visiting the incarcerated, or standing with our transgendered siblings at a Pride rally. Maybe we’ll just try and be as small and quiet as possible here in Sterling and God won’t notice us. (Hopefully God doesn’t read USA Today.)
But God has shown us the promised land. And it sounds like freedom and it looks like justice, and we aren’t free to abandon the work that it takes to get there.
That’s the same lesson Jesus taught us when he died on the cross and left us to our own devices. In fact, he had to climb back out of the tomb, visit us himself, and shake us up a little and tell us that we still have work to do. “Hey! Buck up! Just in case you weren’t listening the first time, my work is still yours’ to do! I know you’re sad, but you’re not defeated yet. It’s not over. I’m sending you out.”
Jesus showed us what the kingdom of God—heaven on earth, the promised land—looks like, and told us we may not get there in our lifetimes, but neither are we free to abandon the journey.
We are our brother’s and our sister’s keepers, Genesis reminds us, and our brother’s blood is crying up from the ground. And today, on this Martin Luther King Day weekend, Dr. King’s blood is crying up from the ground, echoing the words of Saint Paul in Galatians: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
All of you are one.
And so the very least thing we can do is to have a conversation about barriers to our unity on a Wednesday night over Linda Davis’ delicious soup.
Because, beloved, we have seen the promised land. We may not get there in our lifetime, but neither are we free to abandon the work. Bring your crash helmets, your life preservers, and your signal flares.
There are some people I would like to invite to this event that won’t be there in body, only in spirit. One of them is The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. whose birthday we celebrate this weekend. I wrote him a letter to invite him.
Dear Dr. King:
I believed in you before I believed in God. My parents taught me to put my trust in good people. And at 9 years old, you were my first hero since you were the best person I could think of. We thought about you a lot in New Hampshire, because we were always fighting to get our state government to recognize your birthday. We were the last in the nation to do so because, many in our legislature argued, New Hampshire has very few black residents. But I knew you were an American hero for all people, not just black people, and finally sixteen years ago, after I had already graduated from high school and college, New Hampshire decided to recognize you with a holiday. That came with a fight, because most things do. People in New Hampshire remember what they were wearing that day we won.
And I’m quite sure the whole world remembered what they were wearing that day on April 4, 1968, when you died.
I wish you were still here. You would be 87.
You were one of many “gateways to God” for my childhood self, Dr. King. You were the first to teach me what God’s love was like in a way that made sense to me. I was a young child watching films of your riveting, black and white I Have a Dream Speech on TV, thinking that these telecasts were the “olden days”, when they were really just two short decades prior. I was in awe of your courage, your soaring rhetoric, your insistence on peacefully showing up where you weren’t wanted. I couldn’t imagine doing that as a sensitive and rule-following kid. I still hate the idea of it. But you were spurred on by a principle much larger than your comfort, much larger than following the rules. And I have the luxury of choosing comfort over working for justice because of the color of my skin that you just didn’t have because of the color of yours’. The truth is, I usually choose comfort, even though my God calls me to choose justice. And I humbly repent.
You taught me, Dr. King, before anyone else did, what God’s love looks like, feels like, sounds like. Cornel West said “never forget that justice is what Love looks like in public.” You lived that for us. And God’s Love, you taught me, doesn’t look like hearts and butterflies and Valentine’s day candy. You taught me that God’s Love looks like marching and civil disobedience, and going to jail and singing in the streets; interrupting evening commutes, walking toward danger with bravery, facing down fire hoses and billy clubs and even bullets with nothing but the shirt on your back. You taught me that God’s Love looks like integrity and “no justice no peace” and you taught me that God’s Love looks like standing up for the oppressed people on the margins even if it is unpopular, even if it causes public scorn, even if it means dying. You taught me that God’s Love meant praying for your enemies, turning the other cheek, forgiving them, refusing to give up. You taught me that no one is free until all are free. You taught me that God’s love is like being caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny—that I belong to a web of humanity I could no more extricate myself from by creating false boundaries any more than I could fly to the moon on my own power.
Of course, I now know that you learned all that from Jesus. I now know that you learned that from Moses, and Saint Paul and the prophets. And so I thank you for leading me up this mountain for a glimpse of God’s promise land.
There have been so many times when I wished you were here, Dr. King, so you can see how things have changed. I remember I wept for you, like a baby, on that day in 2008—the day that the first black president was elected to office in the United States of America. That wouldn’t have happened without you, Dr. King, and I wept because I wished you could see it. I think often of how much you have missed, but mostly I think about how much your voice is still needed.
Dr. King: I was listening to your mountaintop speech, the last speech you gave before you died.
Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live - a long life; longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” you said. You had a glimpse of the promised land, and I think you knew like Moses, that you wouldn’t get there. It was enough just to glimpse it. You knew that you were also not free to abandon the work. And like Moses, you died soon after. We will continue on for you, Dr. King. I will.
So when I wake up on Wednesday morning fearful of a 90 minute conversation on race in my sweet little small town in Massachusetts in 2016, may God kick me in the pants. May I remember your courage, and may I refuse to pull the covers over my head just because I can. God help me remember my job, which is the same job that we all have—marching to the promised land one blessed step at a time. God help me to find my crash helmet.
I hope you’ll be there with us on Wednesday night at 6 pm, Dr. King, at the very least to remind us why this conversation still matters; why nothing matters more.
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Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org