MLK Sermon

1/14/09

This is a sermon I’ll be delivering tomorrow at Asbury’s annual MLK chapel:

We too should find the higher way: Love in the 21st Century

It is an honor to be speaking here today with you in a chapel named after such a great speaker and after such a lover men and women. Dr. King had a deep love for all peoples, but I am often struck at his Christ-love and death for his fellow Americans. And it is for that reason, it is for his striking resemblance to Christ, why we honor every year his birthday. So, it is an honor today to be speaking amidst the memory of this great human. But I suppose I count it an even greater honor to be alive today living among you. There are faces among you that I recognize well, and there are others that I look forward to recognizing. I can’t help but mention those that have become my dear friends who deserve credit for this sermon and for helping me become my better self. To Scott Cozart who directed me toward Dr. King’s love and who teaches me about love every time we fellowship. To Doc Gray who has given me selfless support and introduced me to Dr. King’s beloved community. I am truly humbled to live among such brilliant and gentle humans and the countless others who have shaped me and who I lean upon.

I am not great scholar of Dr. King. I cannot tell you the name of the street where he grew up, what kind of gum he liked to chew, or what books were essential in forming the man. But I would call myself his student. I study Dr. King because he inspires me. I study him because his life and his words are possibly the most Christ-like that I have ever come upon.

You see, Dr. King found the higher way.

Many have said that if Jesus were to show up in our day bringing his message of love and salvation we would barely recognize him, if at all. While Dr. King was not Jesus nor did he claim to be a messiah, it seems to me that if we were to find somebody whose life most resembles Jesus is our day, we would do well to look at Dr. King. And even more so, we would do well to listen to his message and take seriously the things that he took seriously.

While we live in a day that is very different from Jesus’ and even Dr. King’s, a day of vast globalization beyond what Dr. King could probably imagine, we are not so very far removed from the issues that Dr. King so truthfully interpreted. In fact, Dr. King found the higher way of love in the twentieth century. We find that higher way in the 21st.

The pressures of globalism, of ethnic dialogue and interaction between peoples of many different kinds are no longer issues reserved for statesmen and missionary anthropologists. We can now not help but relate with the ‘other’. We can no longer chose to ignore the man or woman who is so different from us that it causes us physical anxiety to even be near them let alone strike up with them a meaningful conversation. We must find the higher way of loving our neighbor in this diverse setting. If we cannot, God only knows what tattered future we have before us. Let me share with you a couple of personal examples:

As we pulled into the snow-banked driveway, I had to do a double take at our destination. It was a farmhouse of old, quite smaller than I could imagine would fit the party we were expecting. It was the only house nearby and was back-dropped with snowy fields and the dead stumps of last year’s corn stocks blowing in the wind. If I’ve ever experienced rural America, this was it. On the house, the paint was chipping, there were no right angles perceptible, and as we stood outside the doorframe, I felt as if I were literally half the height of the house. I ducked through the doorway and was transported to an age past.

We entered to greet our never-met-them family, two middle aged women in their Christmas sweaters and one elderly lady full of smiles and happy to see my two year old daughter. As she bribed her with Christmas chocolate I was struck how much she seemed to fit into the backdrop of this place. It was almost as if I were looking at a painting of some old fashioned Christmas with the old lady in her rocker. I expected to not chat with her.

I hadn’t realized how struck I was at how much she was speaking until well into her monologue. I was surprised how verbal she had become and even more so when she began talking about her little Korean neighbors and how they loved to visit and bring her gifts. She talked about their black hair and dark eyes. I could tell she had a good experience with these little ones. I appreciated her willingness to interact with these little Asian children, and I wondered if she got the chance to really know them or their parents.

Globalization had hit this rural place. This rural American family was interacting daily with people who were very different from them. And if, in our day, the issues of new intercultural contact are not enough we have yet to really, in a deep way, deal with the intercultural sins of our fathers.

A second example: We pulled in to LaFayette Square mall in Indianapolis mostly by accident. We were on our way back to Wilmore from Wisconsin, and Eve had in mind to get a new shelf for Claire’s toys. Ignorant to the Indianapolis landscape, we stumbled upon this mall just off of I-65

As we pulled in the entrance, I began to understand where we were. I think I said to Eve from a distance. ‘We’re at a Black Mall’. I didn’t realize yet what I meant (I probably still don’t), but I could see from a distance that we were going to be the minority in this place. Of course there were a number of ethnicities in the mall, but I saw only one other white for our whole three hours. As we walked through the cold November air to the entrance, I began seeing the looks. What was it? Our dress? Our skin? Our demeanor? What was it that put us as a whole on the outside of this culture? As I walked through the doors, that feeling you get in your stomach, that, I’m-a-minority-here, feeling punched me square in the gut. The situation set me immediately into high sensory mode as my ugly stereotypes and collected bits of racism flooded my mind.

In a recent IndyStar e-article called, “Closures Plague LaFayette Square Mall”, I was not surprised to read the 77 comments written in response to the ‘emotionally neutral’ journalistic article. One commenter said,

“This whole mall has turned into nothing but a ghetto area with crime, drugs and many other problems all because the mall lost total control of security enforcement! This place is now nothing more than a rag tag flea market selling bling watches, cell phones and gold teeth! The sooner this place is bulldozed the better!”

Another man commented:

“Call it as it is, the area has gone downhill since there has been an influx of the intercity gangbangers and other trash that follows. The bow tied Muslims who stand on the corner at 38th and Lafayette Rd trying to sell me bananas or apples in the morning, the Hispanics who can’t speak a lick of English who shoot themselves down closer to 465

This is not how this neighborhood was and doesn’t deserve to be. Reinvent LSM by tearing most of it down, adapt to the shopping desires of people and with enough policing, the thugs will roost somewhere else and we can get back to a better way of life.”

Well, once we stepped inside the door, the impulses began almost controlling my actions: Don’t make eye contact. They’ll think you’re picking a fight. Pick up Claire. Who knows who will kidnap her or hurt her because we are white.

By most standards, the mall itself was in disrepair. Perhaps half of the shops were open. Most selling clothes, shoes, gold. I was honestly in culture shock when we came across the poster merchandizing teeth grills. I was fully out of my comfort zone, and this mall was outside my mall experience. I suppose the one difference between me and these commenters is that I didn’t get back in my car and pull away. And I’ve been in the diversity ball game long enough to ward the false shame that follows the activation of racist thoughts. I began to combat these internal forces that would slander the men women and children walking by.

After we finished our meal I was doing well combating these learned prejudiced instincts and was loosening up a little bit. We let Claire run around in the mall play area with about thirty other kids. I saw in her interaction the way things were supposed to be. Complete awe and joy and playfulness without thought to who she was sliding with, what color the driver was in the little foam car she was sitting shotgun in or what clothes she was or was not wearing. In my experience, it is these moments when the adults’ walls go down as we supervise our future around the play areas, where her Mom picks up my fallen Claire from the foam floor. Where I make sure his little boy doesn’t fall off the giant toy train’s smoke stack.

There are ethnic fault lines all across this country where we as a population have no idea how to give the love it will take for our country, this world to make it through this era. We Christians need to be the first to do so. We too need to find the higher way, and that should begin in all places with a set of pastors and Christian leaders.

Love from the beginning has been a hallmark Christian virtue. But how are we supposed to love the ‘other’ when secretly we struggle with a racism that betrays our principles of equality? How are we to love when the new people are so foreign, and the old issues so entrenched? How are we to love when the very people who we would like to trust end up bombing and killing our families? How are we to love them when our neighbors can’t even speak our language? How are we to love and minister to them who are so different from us. And in a globalized world when so many new and different people come before us, what does it really mean to love them? And ultimately our question, our cry to God, is this: God, how would you love the ‘other’ in a day when the diversity of your human creation has begun to interact so deeply that we can no longer ignore one another? Any advice?

Spiritual Master, Pastor, and Japanese statesman Toyohiko Kagawa, in his 1929 book, “Love: The Law of Life” writes:

Child, search not for springs of love in the deep valleys, nor yet in the bosom of another being. The spring of love, ah, it must well up in thine own heart. Therefore, I do not lose hope, nor do I fear when I see this drought [of love] in the land. I shall dig down deeper, still deeper, into my own soul, and there, in my heart of hearts, shall I find the spring of love which can never be found on the surface. I shall dig down to God who is within me. Then, if I strike the underground stream that murmurs softly in the depths of the soul—so rarely found—and to it will I lead a few thirsting comrades. In just the same fashion we must reach toward the thought that love for our enemies has a direct relation to some great impulse from an unseen part of the cosmos. If so where is the love to be found? This question demands our study”.

I believe Kagawa is right. We must dig deep into our often-deformed spirits, and in the spirit-numbing moments when we are presented with the choice to love, our wellspring pushes us to make the right choice. Only the God that lives in our hearts, distinct from our spirit, can bring us to the higher place of love.

But anybody that has tried to relate across cultures knows well enough that a deeply sincere heart full of seeming love is often not enough to create deep friendships that stretch across race, nationality, and ethnicity. Dr. King knew this when he preached on having the heart of a dove and the mind of a serpent. Dr. King said,

“Soft mindedness is one of the basic causes of race prejudice. The tough minded person always examines the facts before he reaches conclusions; in short, he post judges. The tender minded person reaches a conclusion before he has examined the first fact; in short, he prejudges and is prejudiced. Race prejudice is based on groundless fears, suspicions, and misunderstandings. There are those who are sufficiently soft minded to believe in the superiority of the white race and the inferiority of the Negro race in spite of the tough minded research of anthropologist who reveal the falsity of such a notion.

There is little hope for us unless we become tough-minded enough to break loose from the shackles of prejudice, half-truths, and downright ignorance. The shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of soft mindedness. A nation or a civilization that continues to produce soft mined men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.”

No, we are called to a higher love. In the unfamiliar face of our new neighbors, in the unfamiliar skin of our old, we are now called to, like Dr. King, find the higher way. And who better expound on this love than the inspired hands of jailed, beaten, and martyred St. Paul.

In I Corinthians Paul writes to a fractured church enthused by their newfound spirituality. And, the latest preacher to ride through Corinth mutually impressed each. In a larger bid to campaign for tough-mindedness in the Christian communities where zealous and perhaps foolish hearts full of good intentions were driving the Corinthian church to splinter and self-absorption, Paul gets to the root of their issue by elevates his speech and delivering one of the greatest orations on love that our scripture offers us. ‘Do you want unity in Christ while becoming a spiritual giant, a truly powerful Christian community’, asks Paul, ‘you must learn a higher way’.

So let me share how God would teach us to love in the face of difference by way of chapter 13 and lessons I have learned on my journey of love.

Verses 1-3 open the chapter and silence our smooth talking, put a check on our well educated minds, and put on trial our so called acts of sacrifice. When all is said and done, when the Lord asks us how we treated those most unlike us, when he asks what we did with the stereotypes that tempted our imaginations, when he asks us how we loved another ethnic or national group, many of us will have a long list of the ways we gave our money, time, furniture, and of all that we studied of the complexities of race in our land. But none of this will compute, none of this matters if we have not found the higher way.

I once went to the hospital while moving furniture for an incoming international student. I crushed my finger under a falling dresser. But what really mattered was not they way I submitted my body to suffering, but it was the conversation I was having in the truck prior to that with my Kenyan brother. We laughed together as I asked him about his wife and family. In turn he taught me about his favorite local bread. If we had not taken time to love one another, if I had been in and out to get a job done, then Paul would have been right. I would have gained nothing in my heart. I would have gained only a crushed finger.

Love is patient. It learns to listen to broken English and asks a person to repeat what they said, because you didn’t catch their accent. It doesn’t press relationships for the sake of having a friend who is different than you. It waits and persists when countless lunches fall through, because you value that person for who they are and know that the Lord works even in the times we don’t connect.

Love is kind. It finds ways to connect deeply with its neighbor. It learns their language and culture and learns to sing their heart songs. I was blessed with the chance to sing in a black gospel choir in college. I could not make it too long in the group, because they only needed tenors, and I was beginning to overstretch my thoroughly bass voice. But I learned the basics of gospel, how to shape the vowels just right, and how to sing, sway, and clap all at the same time. And my heart is richer to have learned the art. Love learns who the ‘other’ is. My Nigerian brothers here have taught me to ask questions upon our greeting. Not just the rote, ‘how are you’, but the thoughtful questions about their lives, families, and current experiences. I have also learned to participate with them in the gift of laughter, a human experience not utilized as much here. I have also learned that a good way to leave a conversation is merely to say, ‘thank you’. So, I do these things submitting to their culture in kindness to them, in love.

On the other hand, love does not envy. Love is when you are faced with the beauties of other peoples and cultures and you do not throw out your identity and seek to become the other. And when you come face to face with the glories of another culture, love does not diminish and envy them because in some ways, the beauties of their culture dwarf yours perhaps in rhythm, art, science, or dance. Love allows you to thoroughly enjoy your own culture and seek the ways that yours outshines the rest.

And when you find those beautiful aspects of your culture, for mine it is our proficiency and ability to produce, love uses that gift to serve others. Love does not boast and it is not proud in the sense that we should not flaunt our God-given gifts for the sake of our own glory. Isn’t this what Paul was trying to say in the whole of the later part of I Corinthians? Your gifts were meant to build up the church, not for your own moment or life in the spot-light.

Love is not rude. Love puts aside politics as usual to celebrate the historic moment for us all in the first black president. It does not paste bumper stickers on its car saying, ‘We could have got a hero. Instead we got a zero’ with a big red x over Obama. What message do you think that sends to your black brothers and sisters across this nation about how you perceive their achievement here? Love is not rude, but it is sensitive in the words and actions it communicates to our fellow humans.

Love is not self-seeking. This may be near the root of our biggest hurdle in America. American values, at their core, promise us each our own self-actualization if we just work hard enough. When we all go about seeking our Manifest Destinies, we will travel to shameless reaches to become the great pastor, speaker, or missionary that God ‘intends’ us to be. The synergy of such self-seeking produces a potent force when mixed with manifest destiny. It has created in our midst one of the most oppressive beliefs that could ever exist: that people groups are poor only because they are lazy. This is not a Christian principle. Love sacrifices of the self and allows space for the ‘other’ to shine in all of their glory and brilliance.

Love is not easily angered nor does it keep a record of wrong. This is an important one. I’ve struggled over the course of my life to have meaningful relationships especially with Hispanic and African American men. For some reason, my defense levels have always been high in these relationships. And we have so many often unspoken assumptions about one another, that we are bound to fumble our way through acquaintance and early friendship. I lived my freshman year two doors down from one of the few black men on my college campus. I struck a small friendship with him at the beginning of the year, and one night out of nowhere he let me have it. We passed in the hall. I smiled at him, nodded my head, and he let me know with multiple expletives what I could do with myself. I could see no reason for his outburst. And there it was, a possible moment where I could have hated black men for the rest of my life. But love got a hold of me in Christ, in time. We struck up a small friendship again three years later in our African American Religions class. I remembered that freshman moment every conversation that we had. And though he clearly had no memory of it, I learned to empathize and chose to love.

And being not easily angered and keeping no record of wrongs become quite a tricky moment for ethnic relationships, especially given the history of our culture. Love keeps no record of wrongs, and it does not become easily angered when another person does keep that record. Furthermore, love acknowledges the record of wrongs that is brought against my people and me. When I began to understand and embrace the realities of my historic privilege and historic money, my ability to relate well with black, Hispanic, and first nations people tripled.

Which leads to the fact that love does not rejoice in Evil, but rejoices with the truth. Historical privilege and money is the truth that my grandmother and great grandfather had more of it than many other people group’s had at that time. Historical money and privilege impacts today, and while it so often is a set of issues that divides us, it is the most powerful reality that could bring us together. There is a new wind blowing in our country, but our past will haunt us until we see it for what it was. Any movement that denies our naked history will sound like a self-seeking enterprise that is out to safe-guard its own privilege. Love is not self-seeking, but it rejoices with the truth.

Love Protects. When mutual hurts of prejudice and stereotype administer their sting, when hurt turns into violence, it is then when love acts. Love protects against slander, against profiling, against injustice. When push comes to shove, love protects people from the discriminatory slander and hatred birthed from soft-minded misunderstanding. This area is too sensitive for me give examples from especially given the nature of my position, but it has often been one of the most difficult and self-giving opportunities for us.

Love trusts, hopes, and perseveres. Anyone who has ever tried to work on deep and meaningful relationships knows that this may be the most difficult aspect of love. Any married person especially knows that all too easily the messy closeness of two recovering sinners can often create some pretty dark moments. We can take each other for granted or interpret veiled comments or actions negatively. We can lose trust in our closest of companions. We can lose hope that there can be any future for us when poorly chosen words or moments reveal our profound ignorance of one other or our tendency to diminish the ‘other’. Yet, love preservers. In marriage it preservers and especially in inter-ethnic relationships it perseveres.

Love never fails. For all the budding IBS folk out there, I believe this statement is a conclusion that encapsulates all Paul was saying about love into one principle. When I’ve wanted to engage in interethnic or intercultural relationships and have feared to know how. I’ve learned ways to love. The skills do come. When I’ve tiptoed around shallow relationships, love has got a hold of me and allowed me to go deeper. When I’ve experienced the pain of fractured relationships and misunderstandings, I’ve learned to ‘search deep down inside of me for that underground stream that murmurs deep within’ and I’ve let love capture me. God has much to say about our globalizing world. He says,

‘I’ve shown you the higher way of love and it does not fail. For you’ve seen my love in my Son, and you know that a day will come when I will gather my church from every nation, tribe, and tongue, and you will be known then better than you’ve ever been known. Your eloquence, your education, your theological and spiritual insight will be burned up like the autumn leaf, and God’s diverse creation will again live in unity unlike the veiled version we know now. So put away now your childish self and find the higher way; put on love now. Faith and hope may remain for eternity in a modified fashion, but love will endure throughout eternity in its current form. Tap into love now and watch God’s diverse creation unify in this age. You do not need to understand all cultures and each specific world group, your great service to other people will not take us there, and it will not take your PhD to make it happen. Unity will take love.’

I hope at this point you are beginning to ask what this means for you. For some, you may have dwarfed me in your journey of realizing King’s beloved community. Others may be asking what the Beloved Community is. Some of you may be miles into their journey. Others of you may want to begin it today.

For some to find the higher way means that you should begin the process of healing and forgiveness in your intercultural relationships. For others you need to let perfect love cast out your fear, and you should become intentional about the relationships you create on campus. Make the eye contact, introduce yourself, give your name, ask if you could eat lunch together. You must be intentional. Let the color of a person’s skin and shape of their eye attract you to a relationship, but let that relationship be about the human you are encountering, that God-imaged glory-filled distinct person.

If you want to know more or put yourself in an intentional place of intercultural formation and in the tradition of justice, come to the Multicultural Ministries. This is where I give my shameless plug. We have arenas set up for you learn. We have seminars set up for you to experience. We have small groups running that will expose you to transformation in the area of justice. You cannot miss us if you eat on campus. Our office is right near the new entrance to the cafeteria’s register.

For our community, we can begin this process of unity together this Monday. You are off of work and out of class on this celebration of Dr. King’s birthday. Come to the celebration and service events. Take home your bulleting, and pin it to your board. Come to the breakfast and listen to Dr. Kalas and other share about their impressions and memories of Dr. King. Join us for the march and rally in Lexington. Help serve the Wilmore community from 2-5 at the community center. And come to the worship service and hear Dr. King himself as we meditate on the Christian prophetic tradition. This is a real way to begin, and it is coming within the week.

I sometimes lay awake at night and ask myself, ‘what if’? What if our community got it? What if our global community here of future and Christian leaders became Dr. King’s beloved community? The world and our country are on a bullet train toward multiculturality. Are our hearts ready? What if we at Asbury became a campus full of great lovers of humanity in all its diversity? What if instead of fearing the potential conflicts among the ‘other’, we as a community began begging for this place to become more diverse? What if we made the extra step to create deep and meaningful relationships inter-ethnically and inter-culturally and did so with the sharpest minds and deepest love we could muster? What kind of healing would our campus experience? What kind of witness would we become? What kind of theological seminary would we produce? Would we be the bridge seminary that moved along side of our globalizing world and truly offered the premier product for globalized ministry? If the world is our parish, then I hope we can. What if we became the theological seminary that Dr. King would have called the successor of his vision, the Joshua of his Moses, and the realizing force of his dream? What if we too found the higher way? Dr. King knew what it would take for this vision to become a reality. He knew the type of person it would take for our world’s ethnicities to live together in harmony. He wrote:

“Only through inner spiritual transformation do we gain the strength to fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit. The transformed nonconformist, moreover, never yields to the passive sort o f patience which is an excuse to do nothing. And his very transformation saves him from speaking irresponsible words which estrange without reconciling and from making hasty judgments which are blind to the necessity of social process. He recognizes that social change will not come overnight, yet he works as though it is an imminent possibility.

This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists. Our planet teeters on the brink of atomic annihilation’ dangerous passions of pride, hatred, and selfishness are enthroned in our lives; truth lies prostrate on the rugged hills of nameless cavalries; and men do reverence before the false gods of nationalism and materialism. The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority.”

I want to close today with a song from my heart. Nobody truly knows the trouble that Dr. King experienced in this life. Nobody knows the pain he endured birthing the movement that we now embrace. Nobody but Jesus. As I am beginning to learn, the great gospel singer Mahaliah Jackson inspired Dr. King and represented the sentiments of the movement of which Dr. King was a prominent leader. Jackson often sang these words. Only Jesus truly knows the man that gave his life for the America he loved so dearly…

Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Nobody knows my sorrows
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Glory Hallelujah

Sometimes I’m up
Sometimes I’m down
Oh, yes Lord
Sometimes I’m almost hit the ground
Glory Hallelujah

Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Nobody knows but Jesus
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Glory Hallelujah

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