Spur of the Moment

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

Dr. King was indeed a gadfly, one with a sting every bit as sharp as Socrates.’ For that reason, he was not always the celebrated hero we remember today.  Especially when he began following the moral threads of the struggle for Civil Rights beyond the boundaries of race into the adjacent territories of the Vietnam War  and poverty, he ceased to be a noble pest and became a bona fide threat in the eyes of many who once supported him.  When he couldn’t be shooed away, he was swatted.

Yet, as Eugene Robinson points out, the fact that King’s message is still relevant in our time demonstrates he was spurring us in the right direction.  Fifty years after Dr. King paid the ultimate price for the cause of justice, many of his speeches read as if they were written yesterday.  If we wonder why we haven’t put more distance between our age and his, surely one reason is that we still refuse to heed King’s warning that we cannot achieve racial equality without confronting economic injustice.  Civil Rights and economic opportunity are not separate issues.  Addressing one without tending to the other is akin to treating a cough while ignoring the accompanying fever. They are both symptoms of the same underlying respiratory infection that continues to afflict American society and threatens to suffocate the American Dream.  We are effectively trying to run a race while suffering from pneumonia.  Until we recognize and deal with the infection, we will never see the finish line. We can’t breathe deeply enough.

To honor Dr. King on his national holiday, I share with you this lengthy excerpt from a speech he gave in March 1968 to a gathering of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, TN – the same group he would address a month later the night before he was assassinated. In it he makes the case for why we must wage the battle for justice on two fronts simultaneously.

You are doing many things here in this struggle. You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. One day our society must come to see this. One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity.

But you are doing another thing. You are reminding, not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages. And I need not remind you that this is our plight as a people all over America. The vast majority of Negroes in our country are still perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. My friends, we are living as a people in a literal depression. Now you know when there is mass unemployment and underemployment in the black community they call it a social problem. When there is mass unemployment and underemployment in the white community they call it a depression. But we find ourselves living in a literal depression, all over this country as a people.

Now the problem is not only unemployment. Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? And they are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation. These are facts which must be seen, and it is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income. You are here tonight to demand that Memphis will do something about the conditions that our brothers face as they work day in and day out for the well-being of the total community. You are here to demand that Memphis will see the poor.

You know Jesus reminded us in a magnificent parable one day that a man went to hell because he didn’t see the poor. His name was Dives. And there was a man by the name of Lazarus who came daily to his gate in need of the basic necessities of life, and Dives didn’t do anything about it. And he ended up going to hell. There is nothing in that parable which says that Dives went to hell because he was rich. Jesus never made a universal indictment against all wealth. It is true that one day a rich young ruler came to Him talking about eternal life, and He advised him to sell all, but in that instance Jesus was prescribing individual surgery, not setting forth a universal diagnosis.

If you will go on and read that parable in all of its dimensions and its symbolism you will remember that a conversation took place between heaven and hell. And on the other end of that long-distance call between heaven and hell was Abraham in heaven talking to Dives in hell. It wasn’t a millionaire in hell talking with a poor man in heaven, it was a little millionaire in hell talking with a multimillionaire in heaven. Dives didn’t go to hell because he was rich. His wealth was his opportunity to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus. Dives went to hell because he passed by Lazarus every day, but he never really saw him. Dives went to hell because he allowed Lazarus to become invisible. Dives went to hell because he allowed the means by which he lived to outdistance the ends for which he lived. Dives went to hell because he maximized the minimum and minimized the maximum. Dives finally went to hell because he sought to be a conscientious objector in the war against poverty.

And I come by here to say that America, too, is going to hell if she doesn’t use her wealth. If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she, too, will go to hell. And I will hear America through her historians, years and generations to come, saying, “We built gigantic buildings to kiss the skies. We built gargantuan bridges to span the seas. Through our spaceships we were able to carve highways through the stratosphere. Through our airplanes we are able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. Through our submarines we were able to penetrate oceanic depths.”

It seems that I can hear the God of the universe saying, “Even though you have done all of that, I was hungry and you fed me not, I was naked and you clothed me not. The children of my sons and daughters were in need of economic security and you didn’t provide it for them. And so you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness.” This may well be the indictment on America. And that same voice says in Memphis to the mayor, to the power structure, “If you do it unto the least of these of my children you do it unto me.”

Now you are doing something else here. You are highlighting the economic issue. You are going beyond purely civil rights to questions of human rights. That is a distinction.

We’ve fought the civil rights battle over the years…. Now all of these were great movements. They did a great deal to end legal segregation and guarantee the right to vote. With Selma and the voting rights bill one era of our struggle came to a close and a new era came into being. Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know now that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee? What does it profit a man to be able to eat at the swankiest integrated restaurant when he doesn’t earn enough money to take his wife out to dine? What does it profit one to have access to the hotels of our city and the motels of our highway when we don’t earn enough money to take our family on a vacation? What does it profit one to be able to attend an integrated school when he doesn’t earn enough money to buy his children school clothes?

What indeed?

May Dr. King’s words continue to sting that we may yet be roused to greater heights of understanding and brotherhood, and finally achieve liberty and justice for all.

Onward Into Christmas

Onward into Christmas?  It’s January 6th.  Schools are back in session.  There isn’t a silver bell or a red cup to be found.  This post is a little late, don’t you think?  Shouldn’t you just file it away until IMG_1804December comes ’round again in another 328 shopping days?

Actually, I think January 6th is a perfect day for this post.  Liturgically, today is the day after Christmas in the Western Christian tradition (yesterday was the twelfth day).  In the Eastern Orthodox world, tomorrow (January 7th) is Christmas Day.  Today we also celebrate Epiphany – the commemoration of the Magi (members of a Persian priestly caste) finding and presenting the Christ Child with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

So Christmas isn’t over.  And if we are going to live as the people of Jesus in this new year of 2015, we can’t let it be over anytime soon.  Christmas has to be more than a day or a finite season of lights, trees, gifts, and gingerbread houses, more than a spiritual “diet” we undertake for a little while each December, even as we indulge in all manner of sweets and treats.  Christmas has to become a way of life.

To help us remember and proclaim Christmas before and after December 25 at First Baptist Hyattsville, we’ve created a tiered Nativity.  Rather than a simple manger scene with a few shepherds and animals gathered ’round, my wife, Kristen (the Nativity’s chief dreamer, designer, and set builder), sought to portray the entire narrative from start to finish.  The project became more elaborate and ambitious with each passing week, but it came together beautifully – and at just the right time.

Magi 1If we’ve ever needed to hear, remember, and ponder the Christmas story, we’ve needed it this holiday season.  The end of 2014 was a particularly bleak midwinter.  Clouds of grief have hung low and heavy since autumn: Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. Eric Garner and Daniel Pantaleo. Wenjian Liu and Rafael RamosBradley Stone.  Syria.  ISIS.  Cyber attacks. Peaceful protests turned violent.  News footage edited to make it seem as if protestors were championing violent retaliation when they were not.  132 Pakistani school children massacred.  Just before Christmas Day, I learned that a seminary classmate of mine lost her brave, four-year bout with cancer at age 36.  Just after Christmas Day, a two-year-old somehow managed to shoot his mother dead in a Walmart with the gun she carried in her purse.  Then, this past weekend, I learned that another classmate of mine had committed suicide.  In the wake of all this news, Isaiah’s line about “a people who walked in deep darkness” rings much more prescient and less poetic in my ears.  I have been squinting and straining to see the light shining in this darkness, despite Scripture’s reassurances.

That’s why I have found this Nativity to be so special.  Each scene tells a piece of the story, beginning in the Old Testament with the psalmist lamenting the fate of God’s people. It begins in darkness.  You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground foRuinsr it; it took deep root and filled the land…. Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?  The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it. Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine…. (Psalm 80.8, 12, 14).

And the Lord does see.  The Lord does have regard for this vine. There is a glimmer of light.  Through the prophet Isaiah, God promises that He will redeem, revive, and restore Israel. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations…. For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them (Isaiah 61.3-4, 8).

Then an angel of the Lord appears appears to a young woman – living in boondocks of Nazareth of all places – to proclaim how God will accomplish this redemption and establish this covenant. “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you….. Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  

“And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1. 28-33, 38).

Annunciation 2JB

The son whom Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, is carrying is John the Baptizer, the “voice crying in the wilderness” who “prepares the way of the Lord” (Isaiah 40.3; Mark 1.3).  People from Jerusalem and all Judea flock to him, repenting and receiving baptism in the River Jordan. John is the first prophet Israel has seen in generations.  God is moving.  But John’s presence and proclamation is just the prelude. “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1.7-8).

Jesus, the one greater than John, the heir to the throne of David, will be a King like no other king.  Fittingly, then, when Mary’s time comes He is not born as other kings are born – though not in the different way we might presume. Jesus is born without earthly fanfare, in a makeshift hotel room, firmly under the thumb of another ruler, Caesar Augustus.  Mary may be expecting the Savior of the world, but she and Joseph must still travel some seventy miles (on foot or by hoof, while she is her third trimester!) from Nazareth to Bethlehem so that they might be counted (and taxed!). In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.  All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.  (Luke 2.1-5).

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It is in Bethlehem, while Mary and Joseph are on this compelled journey, that Jesus is born.

That’s why I love and crave this story. Christmas is a reminder that God has not forgotten or forsaken His people, but it is not a sentimental nor antiseptic tale.  It’s the story of how the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, was born in a stable in the thick of the very messy, gritty, and often smelly reality of this world. It’s a story for a world in which things aren’t always as we would have them (for ourselves, our friends, even our enemies). It’s a story about how God sees us through, even when systems and communities and relationships seem corrupt, self- serving, or ruined beyond repair.  It’s a story of hope: that on a dark, mundane night an angel choir exploded the starless sky to sing glory to God in the highest and bring tidings of great joy for all people, because the life that is the light of all people, the Divine Word of God, the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome, became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1.1-14).

But there’s more.  For all its wonder and glory, Christmas isn’t just the story of God acting.  It is the story of God acting in unexpected ways, in unexpected places, through unexpected people.  It’s a story of those people responding to God’s purposes and working in concert with the Holy Spirit to affect change and contribute to a brighter world.

That is the deeper reason why I have returned to this Nativity time and again to pray, ponder, and reflect – why it has helped me to see light in our present darkness. Yes, it conveys the Christmas story beautifully in its artistry; but it also conveys the story through how it was made.  We constructed it almost entirely out of recycled and reclaimed materials, the things we normally discard without a second thought: bottles, cans, paper plates, cardboard boxes, bits of yarn, dryer lent, broken doll parts, paper towel tubes, candy wrappers, egg cartons, newspaper, popsicle sticks, scraps of fabric, styrofoam cups, and a variety of other things.

Nativity in Progress

Donkey

Something beautiful arose out of the piles of junk we collected over several weeks.  And it all came to life through the efforts, donations, and contributions of several people within our congregation: young and old, rich and poor, black and white.

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This Nativity was formed by a community, not merely for a community.

That’s why I believe this Nativity demonstrates tangibly why Christmas is the way forward, through the clouds of grief that cast their shadow over the final weeks of 2014. And that’s why I’m not saving this post until the end of 2015. When we dream and work together, amazing, beautiful things take shape – even when used up, worn out, unwanted stuff is what we have to work with.

The pain and grief that has dominated the news in recent weeks stems largely from division, isolation, and presumption about what people and life can and cannot be. In the Christmas story, division, isolation, and presumption are all challenged and subverted at every turn.  Those who should be most aware of the Messiah’s coming (Herod and his scribes in Jerusalem) are clueless, while a band of pagan priests from the land where Israel was formerly in exile (Persia), have not only seen the Messiah’s star, they have followed it for some distance to pay Him homage.  Shepherds, angels, Jews, Gentiles, the barren and the blessed are all enfolded into God’s redemptive, transformative work.   And the world changed.  That change didn’t happen all at once, and it didn’t happen over night.  The story of Christmas stretches back generations to the psalmists and the prophets, and it extends forward to Jesus and His disciples long after the Magi returned to Persia and Mary and Joseph returned to Nazareth.  But change happened.

Let’s resolve to keep Christmas continually before us in 2015 , to embody it now that we’ve celebrated it, to allow it to become the stuff out of which our lives are made.  Repairing and rebuilding “the former devastations” takes effort beyond hope and promise.  It’s ongoing work.  But it is possible!

Christmas isn’t over. Now that Jesus has come, it’s the beginning of why He came.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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