In 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech*. Before lifting us up to dream of a soul-force that might “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood”, King grounds these lofty dreams in the realities of 1963. “America has defaulted on its promissory note… and her sacred obligation” by giving her people of color a “bad check” lacking sufficient funds to ensure all people’s inalienable rights of life, liberty, the security of freedom, and the unharassed opportunity to pursue happiness. King preached, “We have come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of the now… (so let us) not to drink the tranquilizing drug of gradualism,” but do the hard work needed to “lift the nation from the quicksand of racial injustice… now is the time to make justice a reality for all God’s children. It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of this moment.” It has been 59 years since Dr. King shared this prophetic speech.
King named the reality that “some of you have come here out of excessive trials and tribulation… fresh from narrow jail cells … and staggered by the winds of police brutality… (yet) even though we must face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream, that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed- we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all persons are created equal… (King continues) …with this (dream or) faith we will be able to work together, pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we one day will be free.” Dr. King’s dream for America is not some political spin or pious fairy tale but like the dreams of prophets of old it calls for accountability, sacrifice, and deep systemic change.
Our lectionary passage today comes from Isaiah 62. God or Isaiah speaks up, “for Zion’s sake I won’t keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I won’t sit still until her righteousness shines out like a light (or like dawn), and her salvation blazes like a torch.” The passage reminds me how Jesus weeps for all the people of Jerusalem, saints and sinners, Romans and Jews, the faithful and the enemies of faith. Luke 13 tells us that the Pharisees begged Jesus not to go up into Jerusalem, fearing that Jesus might be killed there. But Jesus set his face toward the city and “as Jesus came to the city and observed it, Jesus wept over it saying, “If only you knew of the things that lead to peace.” (Luke 19) God loves the whole city, even when the city won’t choose peace. God will not sit still or stay silent.
“For Zion’s sake I won’t keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I won’t sit.” Faith can summon a holy restlessness for change: I won’t keep silent, I won’t sit still. Isaiah and Jesus both hold a restless passion for the welfare of others. Isaiah’s cry “I can’t sit still- I can’t be silent” still resounds. We must say their names: “George Floyd, Ahmaud, Breonna, Martin Luther King, Jr.” We must all acknowledge a simple truth that black lives matter. Jesus goes into the city, the peace-less city, carrying a love so deep and pure that it will somehow hold all the world’s sinfulness in one act of cosmic injustice. On the cross, Jesus will meet violence, indifference, and hate with non-violent resistance, Divine compassion, and dream-like forgiveness. When we ponder the charges of treason brought by the Roman state, “King of the Jews” and the charge of blasphemy brought by the Church, “Jesus is insulting God”, we see more than Divine Forgiveness. (Matthew 27) We see Divine Vulnerability enduring, exposing, and overcoming cosmic injustice. (Colossians 2:15) Do you weep over Doctor King’s martyrdom and Jesus’ Cross and perhaps hear the Spirit whisper, “Do not repeat such injustice-Love all people”.
Our Lord, Jesus the Crucified, gives us two defining commandments: to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. This is enough work for a lifetime. When asked by church folks, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells us of a Good Samaritan and redefines “neighbors” not by national borders, restrictive neighborhood covenants, or political ideas but by the opportunity to practice radical hospitality by offering mercy. We find our neighbors by kindling mercy in our hearts. “(Be) the one who shows mercy… go and do that” Jesus demands. (Luke 10) Mercy changes us. Mercy is our work.
Classic Christianity has always called for a deep transformation, a deep change, a new set of values, and new ways of being. “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me,” Jesus demands. (Luke 9) “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation, the old has passed away, behold all things are being made new,” Paul testifies. (2 Corinthians 5) “Pray in this way… Lord, Your Kin-dom come, Your will be done, on earth and is heaven,” Jesus teaches. (Matthew 5-7) Authentic Christianity demands that we change- costly, thorough, personal, systemic, and holistic change. Love your neighbor, welcome the stranger, blessed are the peace-makers, love your enemies, carry their packs an extra mile, speak up for poor people, do not show partiality or even a hint of racism*, absorb that insult, flip over unjust tables, do not sit by, do not remain silent, be the one who does mercy. (*James 1-3) Such good work changes us. Any faith that does not ask us to change is a spiritual barbiturate. Jesus changes us.
What is the nature of that change? The progressive end of the church often thinks of Christian change in terms of individuals understanding their belovedness and being engaged in overturning political, cultural, or business systems that are evil, oppressive, and unjust. The conservative end of the church classically understood Christian transformation in terms of repentance, personal holiness, good works, upholding the commandments, and the church being the agent of healing for broken people and systems. At times I get angry with the church, maybe not as angry as John the Baptist, but still, the church I see in tweets is enough to send old John right over the edge! Sometimes “For the nation’s sake I won’t keep silent about the church, and for the city’s sake I won’t sit idly by” when the church denies science, hides hate, or coddles Christian nationalism. However, we still need each other. You can not build a blessed community by driving people out. King spoke to those ready to write off white folks, “their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom… We can not walk alone.” We all need each other. The progressive end of the church reminds us that the Spirit calls us to break oppressive yokes, flip over tables, and build a kin-dom that takes care of people here on earth. The conservative end of the church reminds us Jesus changes lives, the Scriptures are our rudder, personal holiness matters, and God can use the church to bring healing to people and society. There is no social holiness without personal holiness, nor personal holiness without an activated Love for all people.
Today, it is easier than ever to drink from what Doctor King called “the cup of bitterness.” It is harder to dream, much less to dream of “transforming the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symponthy of brother-sister, sibling- personhood”? How might such big dreams exist not just in heaven but here on earth? Perhaps, we must weep over the peace-less city, while dreaming of how we can make peace, show mercy, practise justice, and create unity. In The Case Against Tokenism, Doctor King taught, “In a real sense, the means (of change) represents the ideal in the making- the end in process. So in the long run, destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends because the ends are preexistent in the means.” (MLK The Case Against Tokenism) If we seek to create on earth a kin-dom rooted in mercy, peace, inclusion, justice, good news, generous spirits, human dignity, respect, human decency, and love then we must use these means to midwife that reality. This is not easy work. Resisting injustice while loving enemies is not easy. We need each other. Our dangling discord calls for heavenly dreams, goals, and ends- and these will only come by earthy practices, methods, means, and movements.
In Luke 4, Jesus launched the Kin-dom movement with some big dreams lifted from Isaiah 61.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.
The Lord has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to those not seeing,
to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4)
I weep that 59 years later, the fierce urgency of “the now” still calls us. For the sake of the city, we must not be silent, we must not sit by. Jesus’ good news always asks us to change. Love always changes us. So, let us dream of a Love so vast, it can keep us standing up for justice, speaking up for mercy, and singing with all who will join us a beautiful symponthy of brother-sister, sibling- personhood. Let us be the ones who show mercy: for by practicing mercy become merciful, by including others we create community, by resisting injustice we always create a measure of justice, and by doing good we always add goodness to the world. The means we employ become the ends we are making. Let us practise love, so that we might know Love and birth love into the world that God loves. Amen.