Monday, January 16, 2023

HOMILY: "Through the Storm, Through the Night"

A Meditation on King’s Legacy and Our Calling
Sunday, January 15, 2023
Community Church of Durham


California 2020
I was awakened, several mornings back, by a nightmare.  Which is rare for me.  I’m not prone to nightmares, or waking up rattled and disturbed.  Usually it’s a bird in the trees by the river that wakes me up.  Or a cheeky song on my phone.  So I’m not prone to nightmares.  (And I’m even less likely to share my nightmares with a hundred souls on a Sunday morning.)  But this one, this particular dream, seems somehow communal to me, seems to arise out of conversations I’ve had with many of you, and prayers we’ve said together.  

I had traveled south, in this dream, to participate in the ordination of a dear friend.  And that part was sweet.  In fact, I’ve been mentoring a couple of friends at just this point on their journeys to ministry.  And it’s indeed a great privilege.  So I remember greeting this dear friend at the door of the church where his ordination was to take place.  And I remember being glad to be there for him, and for the church.  

There was the usual angst—in the dream—about whether I was fully prepared for my part in the ritual, or whether I’d packed to right stole, the right robe for the occasion.  But that comes with the territory, the unconscious wandering of a preacher at night.

So I stepped forward in this old southern church (interesting that it was an old southern church) and onto what resembled a chancel, by something like an altar.  To join this friend for his ordination, and the others participating in that wonderful, hopeful rite of new beginnings.  Because that’s what an ordination is.  I remember this fleeting thought, like: “How cool I get to do things like this!”  I suspect, by the way, that the specific geography of the dream had something to do with the news this week—that central Alabama, and Selma in particular, had been ravaged by terrible tornadoes.  And of course, we’d been to Selma just last October, and I found myself looking at photos of flattened homes and hollowed-out blocks, and wondering how the dear ones we’d met had fared, and whether they’d be able to rebuild, reconstitute their lives.  In Selma.   Where so much history, so much civil rights history, so much voting rights history had been made.    

So there I was with my friend on this chancel.  In a church.  In the south.  But before a word was spoken, there was a great commotion in the church, rippling across the considerable crowd, and the entire congregation was turning the other way, away from the chancel, away from the ceremony and toward the wall in the back.  It turned out, in my dream, that the back wall was a huge window of some kind.  And what they were all looking at, and gasping at, was a blazing, raging, catastrophic fire on the horizon.  In the distance, I guess.  But close enough to be close enough.  

What we were all looking at now, from within the church, through the window in the back, was menacing and destructive, and out of control.  And it wasn’t somebody else’s problem: it was ours, it was our fire.  And you know how it is with particularly vivid dreams or nightmares: how they almost lay a groove in your mind.  It’s still so intense, so vivid now, in mine.  The colors of this roaring collossus—almost alive and breathing fire.  And I don’t know how colors work in our dreams—but I remember this wildly beautiful, but also horrendously scary churning of deep, dark reds; leaping into brilliant violets and bright, shocking yellows.  And the gasping of a congregation I did not know.  Which soon became my own gasping, and then my own weeping.  And it was all enough, as you can imagine, to wake me up.


Bloody Sunday, Selma, 1965
Interesting, isn’t it, to be talking about a dream like this on a Sunday we set aside to remember one of country’s noted and celebrated dreamers.  It’s not lost on me.  The irony of it.  And yet, it’s not Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech that I’m drawn to this morning.  It’s something else about his faith in Jesus, and his courage as disciple, and his insistence on making connections across a range of moral concerns.

Because in the great prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures, Dr. King insisted on making these connections.  And his insistence on doing so got him into a lot of trouble; many would say it cost him his life.  On April 4, 1967, a year to the day before his assassination in Memphis, Dr.  King preached perhaps his most compelling sermon at Riverside Church.  Here’s part of what he said that night:

“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution,” he said.   “We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.  We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.”  Now that’s beautiful language, and the kind of oratory we’ve all come to expect from Dr. King.  The shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.  But here’s where he goes even deeper.  Here’s where he makes those unsettling, but profoundly important connections.

“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights,” he says, “are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”  And then this: “One day,” he says at Riverside, “one day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.  True compassion,” he says, “true compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice, which produces beggars, needs restructuring.”

So I’m wondering this morning if that edifice—the edifice that needs restructuring—doesn’t have a lot to do with the fire (the roaring colossus) in my nightmare.  Doesn’t it make sense that Dr. King would be adding climate change, climate destruction, earth’s distress to his “giant triplets”?  If he were with us today?  Doesn’t it seem obvious that it’s all connected, as the Hebrew prophets declared and preached so long ago?  That racism, materialism and militarism fuel the kind of despair and selfishness that allow us to turn a blind eye on all those species extinguished from the planet, on whole nations impoverished and on the run, and the raging fire, the catastrophic fire that is climate change in our own generation? 

The Hebrew prophets—from Isaiah to Jeremiah and Amos—were profoundly perceptive on this.  Though easily missed.  They understood that human injustice, human cruelty, human greed always, always affects the landscapes we live on.  When whole communities chase materialism and military might—at the expense of faith and justice for the poor—the earth itself pays the price.  The hills are scarred, the rivers corrupted, and lovely lands unable to bear the promise of communion and joy.  The people’s health and the land’s wellbeing are deeply and profoundly connected.  In another context, Dr. King himself put it this way: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly,” he said, “affects all indirectly.”  And the earth itself, our beloved planet, is the beating heart of that inescapable network.  Dr. King’s legacy demands that we too make these connections.


Early last week I was in a conversation with some of you about climate anxiety, or eco-anxiety.  And we talked about the serious ways all of this despair lands on our children, and the teens among us and many young adults here in the church.  And let’s be honest, by the way, and note that the evolving mental health crisis among us is intensified, in a lot of ways, by this kind of climate anxiety.  

And I know it affects the rest of us too, profoundly; but the conversation last week centered the experience of young people on campuses like this one.  And what it is we might have to offer here, our church; and how it is we might create space and time for meaningful support and honest discussion and mutual care in a time such as this one.  Around concerns and anxieties like theirs.  Maybe a church like ours—with all of your wisdom and love—maybe we can minister to their pain.  

I was moved and rattled, I must say, to hear one of you say that you have your whole life ahead of you, but you’re not sure the planet’s going to be around to nurture and sustain your dreams.  Or your children’s dreams.  And doesn’t that shake the rest of us to our very core?  That a gifted 25-year-old has to say that, has to go to bed at night with that kind of uncertainty and pain?  Friends, if church means anything to us, if being the Body of Christ has purpose to it in 2023, we’re going to have to listen to our young people, and take their fears seriously, and respond to them with courage, creativity and love.  Lots and lots of love.  The deepest kind of love.

And this is where I’m drawn to the earlier reading we’ve heard this morning.  Dr. King’s speech in 1961.  Because as dark as dark could get in his life, and as cruel as people could be in his experience, and as corrupt as systems proved to be in his work, Martin Luther King, Jr. did not, in the end, give in to the darkness.  He trusted the pioneers before him who believed that there is, and will always be, “something within human nature that can respond to goodness” and grace.  Something within human nature that can respond to goodness and grace.  “To put it in theological terms,” he said, “the image of God is never totally gone.”

And so, for Dr. King and his beloved community, this meant believing in nonviolence, the practice of it, the strategic and disciplined use of nonviolence over time; and believing in the power of love to turn hearts toward the light, toward the community, toward the common good.  And it meant believing that—as he said in 1961—“even the worst segregationist can become an integrationist.”

What I want to offer to you, then, and to the young disciples and seekers among us: what I want to offer is a church that believes with Jesus and Gandhi that human nature responds to goodness, to grace, to love.  What I want to offer is a church that honors the image of God in every living being, in every living soul; and dares to imagine even the most brazen climate change denier, even the most voracious jetsetter, even the most self-centered bigot, dares to imagine every one of them rediscovering the divine spark and rebooting their many commitments to the healing of creation.  

It won’t happen by accident; and like Dr. King’s Civil Rights Movement, we’ll have to urge and organize and provoke and challenge them.  We’ll have to risk humbling ourselves that they might see our resolve and our love.  But shouldn’t the church be that beloved community that resists bitterness and rejects judgment and even rejection itself?  Shouldn’t we be that beloved community that searches out the image of God, even in our adversaries, even in those we find it next to impossible to understand?  Isn’t that the faith, the conscience, the hope planted in our hearts by Jesus himself?

You see, the challenge of dismantling that edifice, redesigning the Jericho Road, reimagining cultures and economies—it’s a huge and daunting challenge.  And this is where Dr. King’s faith comes in.  Because his deeply Christian faith, his profound heart, shaped by generations of Baptist preaching and practice—Dr. King’s faith reminded him over and over again to seek God out and trust God’s protection in the present moment.  What’s past is past.  And what tomorrow brings, what the future has in store, we can never know.  But as a Christian, Martin Luther King knew—in his deepest being, in his complicated spirit—he knew that God was fully and powerfully and generously committed.  To him.  And to the cause of justice and freedom and peace.  And whatever was happening, whatever the challenges, whatever the sadness at hand, whatever the day offered, he believed that the God who promised him everything in baptism would protect his soul, and strengthen his spirit, and walk at his side through it all.  God’s “YES” was to be trusted!

This I want for each of you.  And this I want for our church.  God’s “YES” is to be trusted.  As we look out into the world where tornados ravage Alabama’s cities.  And where atmospheric rivers roar off the Pacific into California valleys.  And where climate change is testing the spirits of every one of us, and especially our youngest friends and children.  I want you to dig deep and nurture the roots of your faith.  God’s “YES” is to be trusted.  

The God who promises you everything, the God whose promises the church celebrated that day you were baptized, the God of Jesus and King and Gandhi too, your God loves you with an unquenchable and unbreakable love.  And God promises to hold your hand and protect your heart and embolden your service through anything and everything that comes your way today.  Yesterday is past.  Tomorrow we can never really know.  In the present, in every present moment, you are blessed and you can manifest that blessing.  For the world.  And it’s that same faith, that faith that will join you to us in a beloved community of daring creativity, bold prophetic spirit and revolutionary love.  It’s our faith together in this place: God’s “YES” is to be trusted!

You know, it’s well known that, from time to time, sometimes deep into the darkest hours of a long night, Dr. King would get on the phone and call his friend Mahalia Jackson.  The Mahalia Jackson.  The great, soaring spirit that was Mahalia Jackson.  And he’d ask Mahalia Jackson to sing him song, a hymn, and most often the hymn he wanted to hear, the hymn he needed to hear was “Precious Lord.”

Through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the light,
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead him home.

He knew what he needed, Dr. King.  And he knew what his friend had to offer.  The promise of God.  The “YES” that could be trusted always and forever.  May that faith, and that song, and that hope be with us today and always.  May that faith, and that song, and that hope lead us home.

Amen and Ashe.