A Meditation Recalling Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ~ Looking at Mark 1:9-20 and the humility that sets courage free.
So before Jesus comes out preaching, before he gets to singing about gospel and kairos and the kingdom of god, before he urges all these hometown folks to repent and believe, before all of that—Jesus goes to John out there in the desert. And he asks John to hear his confession. Now don’t be fooled. That’s what this baptism in the desert is all about. Jews calls it a mikvah, a cleansing, a symbolic moment in which somebody, anybody comes clean. And right here it’s Jesus. Who knows for what? Who knows why now? But that’s what immersion means for Jesus. It means that you find a community, a mentor, a river—and you get things off your chest. You confess the stuff that isn’t right. You confess mistakes, broken things, ego blunders. And you come clean with your need to begin again. Before Jesus comes out preaching, healing, feeding, and all the rest, before he dives headlong into his life’s purpose, he goes out there to be baptized. To come clean.
I can’t tell you how important this seems to me, especially this week. Here’s our teacher—Jesus—showing us the kind of humility necessary for public life. The kind of self-awareness that resists pointing fingers and demonizing strangers and simplifying complicated questions. Right from the start, Jesus is as human and as broken and as tempted as the rest of us. And right from the start, he turns it all over to God. Without that humility, without that modesty, we get hard-hearted religion, mean-spirited politics, self-indulgent bluster. Without that humility, we get young kids with terrible weapons, in supermarkets, going after neighbors as enemies. We get Tucson and Columbine and 9/11 and Guantanamo.
Now obviously, I’m reading between the lines here. But not too much. This is a mikvah. No doubt, this is Jesus—before everything else—looking at his life and seeing some limitations and asking for help. Asking for a new start. And isn’t this what spiritual life is all about? Isn’t it all about doing some regular inventory? Coming clean?
When—for example—am I overly judgmental? And when do I too quickly dismiss other points of view? These are the questions we should be asking this week—politicians and pundits, preachers and bloggers. All of us. And how about cynicism? Does my cynicism get in the way of constructive action and thoughtful public life? Because here’s the thing. If you and I are going to be part of a national dialogue on civility, we’re going to have to deal with our own run-amok egos and our own need to be forever right. This goes for all of us: Christians and Jews, atheists and agnostics, liberals and conservatives, pundits and the rest of us. Jesus was pretty clear on this stuff. “Before you go looking for the speck in your neighbor’s eye,” he said, “you’ve got do some work on the log in your own. Then you’ll be helpful,” he said. “Helpful enough to make a real difference.”
What Jesus had in mind, I think, is the same kind of humility he took into the Jordan that day. In the mind of God, in the heart of God, there’s no hierarchy of value, of importance. I’m responsible, first and foremost, for my own limitations and missteps. And then—getting real, taking responsibility, living in grace—I can be immensely helpful to my brothers and sisters. But only then. Because we’re all in this together. One God, one human family. And I just have to believe that humility can go a long ways towards creating a better conversation, a more constructive conversation in America. And everywhere else.
So how about this? I imagine that every one of us could make a commitment today: a commitment to find one person whose politics we don’t understand, and to sit down this week for a thirty-minute cup of coffee. I’m asking you to simply take this friend seriously—not to feel like you have to change your mind, not to feel like you have to compromise your principles. Just to take a strange point of view seriously. A thirty-minute cup of coffee.
And when you’re sitting there, when the coffee’s still hot, when your friend’s opening up a bit, can you listen, really listen? You know how it is when you’re getting into it with someone whose politics are kind of rigid or stale. You know how you’re kind of half-listening and half-preparing—at the same time—for your next soliloquy. Your next shot at setting Sarah Palin right. Believe me, I know.
But humility takes a different route. Humility recognizes the sacredness of every human being, the belovedness of every human vessel, the love affair of God with every single one of us. Yes, my friends, even Sarah Palin. (Don’t ask me why! That’s God’s business.) In humility, we come to grips with all that’s judgmental and dismissive in our hearts. And allow for something so much more. We become instruments of peace and courage and maybe even reconciliation. Or at least, a thirty-minute cup of coffee.
I imagine Jesus as just this kind of a soul. Someone who took seriously his own limitations, someone who recognized the temptations of ego and power and hubris. And I imagine Jesus regularly entertaining adversaries, opponents, all kinds of folks whose ideas and anxieties Jesus found almost intolerable. It was a matter of spiritual practice, a matter of faith. At least, it was for Jesus.
You know, the Lakota people have a concept they call the heyoeka, a word that simply means ‘the other.’ The heyoeka plays a critical role in Lakota culture. He or she dresses in heavy clothes in the summer and lightweight fabrics in the winter. The heyoeka walks backward, laughs when others are sad, and is sad when others are happy. He or she becomes an official “opposite,” feeling and thinking and expressing what others just won’t.
It strikes me, on our Christian journey, that it’s equally important that you and I make space for the heyoeka in our midst, in our culture, even in our hearts. The contrarian spirit. The annoying voice. The maddening murmur. And when we hear this voice, even when it’s bitter, unimaginably so, when we sense resistance inside, it’s critical that we thoughtfully consider the new position. Not swallow it, but consider it. Especially if it makes us angry.
I’ve been reading a wonderful book by a Roman Catholic writer, Alexander Shaia. And Shaia insists that entertaining the heyoeka is an essential spiritual practice, an essential Christian practice. Making space for paradox and contradiction. Expecting the holy and the sacred, even the Christ, in the oddest places and circumstances. Making space in your heart for the stranger, for the outsider, for the wild eccentric and passionate visionary. An essential Christian practice. Entertaining the exasperating, the maddening, the contrarian heyoeka. This is, in part, what humility does.
So is it possible, somehow, that humility sows the seeds of courage that make Jesus the daring lover he is? That’s what I’m wondering this morning. Because we need courage in our generation. We need courage in our congregation. Is it possible that humility sows the seeds of courage? Is it possible that modesty and honesty release waves of love and tenderness and commitment within us?
Maybe you remember Loren Eisley’s story of the man who walks the island beach early, early in the morning. And how every time he finds a starfish alive he picks it up and throws it out as far as he can beyond the breaking surf, back to the nurturing ocean. No matter the weather. Seven days a week. Loren Eisley finds this gentle ‘star thrower’ on his mission of mercy each and every morning. Early. Before the townsfolk arrive to harvest the washed up starfish—for commerce and sport.
I like to think this is courage, the kind of courage quickened by humility and love, the kind of courage strengthened by faith and generosity. This ‘star-thrower’ on the beach, early in the morning. And it’s the kind of courage that makes me think, this morning, of Martin Luther king.
I imagine you know your history. On September 15, 1963, four Klansmen in Birmingham planted a box of dynamite—with a time delay—under the steps of the 16th Avenue Baptist Church. Four black girls—Sunday School kids—were killed in that horrific blast: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair. I have to imagine their families are reliving some of that agony as they watch the family of little Christina Green grieve her death, the violence around her death, in Tucson last Saturday.
Days after the Birmingham bombing, Martin Luther King delivered a eulogy for the four in Alabama. And as we remember his legacy—and theirs—this weekend, I want to read to you from that eulogy. September 1963.
“They died nobly. They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity. So they have something to say to us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism...They have something to say to every Negro who passively accepts the evil system of segregation, and stands on the sidelines in the midst of a mighty struggle for justice. They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about WHO murdered them, but about the system, the way of life and the philosophy which PRODUCED the murderers. Their deaths say to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly to make the American dream a reality.”
Doesn’t King’s eulogy resonate in the American West this week? We too have to be concerned—not merely with the misguided and broken souls who commit ugly, violent acts, but also with the politics, the way of life, the divisiveness that produces that brokenness. And every one of us has a role to play—a crucial role—in that discernment, and in that healing. We can and must work passionately and unrelentingly to make the American dream a reality—for every child and for every immigrant, for every wounded heart and for every bright-eyed visionary.
I find it so stunning that Martin Luther King—even face to face with such hideous violence, the murder of children—could insist there in Birmingham on faith and love and hope. He finished the eulogy this way:
“So in spite of the darkness of this hour we must not despair. We must not become bitter; nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. We must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and worth of all human personality.”
I imagine that Martin Luther King struggled with his own ego, and wrestled with his own limitations, and confronted his own demons time and again. A lot like Jesus. I imagine that he battled with despair here and there. And how critical that we remember him this week—and his words: that we lay claim to the same courage, the same daring, the same hope. We must not lose faith in one another. We must believe that the most misguided among us can yet learn to respect the dignity of all human persons. We must not become bitter.
So what I hear from Jesus this morning is this: The time is now. Kairos. The time is now. For preachers to bust out from behind stained-glass windows and preach LOVE. For politicians to bury the stale bread of hatred and break out the sweet bread of JUSTICE. For believers everywhere to cross all those bridges between us and dismantle all those walls that divide us. The time is now. KAIROS. The kingdom of God has come near. And so, for the sake of Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley, for the sake of Carole Robertson and Denise McNair, for the sake of little Christina Green in Tucson: let us repent and believe in the good news. And let us go where the Lord of Love would lead us.