Sunday, August 25, 2013

Dreaming 50 Years Later

Jeremiah 1:4-10

        Preachers are a dime a dozen.  Right now, on Rt. 151 alone, there must be 15 of us shifting our notes, preparing to deliver our understanding of the word of the Lord. Each of us has two things in common. We are all legends in our own minds and we are all replaceable.  The Tandy’s and the Cameron’s have come and gone and Rockfish still moves forward. In two weeks my former church will install their new pastor and Graves Memorial will have hardly skipped a beat. To be a great preacher is indeed a rare thing. Ask Lynne Carson about John Buchanan or Bill Howard about Otis Moss III. They know what I am talking about. Personally I have marveled at the gifts of folks like Barbara Brown Taylor, Joe Roberts Jr. and Bill Coffin. I had the honor of hearing Desmond TuTu. Now those folks can preach.  Joe Roberts could weave his magic for thirty minutes and make me wish for an additional thirty. A great pulpiteer is indeed rare, but not as rare as a great prophet.
        In this morning’s text we are introduced to the prophet Jeremiah. He stood alone, speaking words no one cared to hear as the City of Jerusalem and the land of Judah crumbled into oblivion. The book of Jeremiah is not light reading. It reflects the words of one man, supposedly speaking for a God brought to tears by the reckless behavior of a wayward people. The Old Testament prophets did not predict the future. Instead they made social commentary on the events they witnessed.  The Old Testament prophets spoke words they believed God placed on their tongue. Often those words burned their mouths and their hearts as they dreamed of a future when God would again ordain peace and harmony to once again walk hand in hand.  
Jeremiah 1:9 states, “I have put my words in your mouth. You tell my people, “Today I will pluck up and pull down. I will destroy and overthrow. And then I will then build and plant.”
The word of the Lord is something few dare to speak, for with the recitation of the word, follows the crisis of a nation.
At the moment of his death in April of 1968, I am not sure how many white folks in America would have proclaimed Martin Luther King Jr. a prophet of God. I was old enough at the time to have heard and believed many of the accusations thrown his way. King was accused of being a communist, a womanizer, and a person inciting violence while preaching non-violence. Many folks I personally knew felt he had brought his death upon himself by being “uppity”. In the south it was generally understood some folks were only capable of achieving certain heights. If you aspired to raise your own personal bar you were “uppity” and had to be taught a lesson. There is no doubt King wanted to raise that bar, not just for himself, and not just for one group of people, but for a nation that much like ancient Jerusalem had lost its moral compass.  If we had all been listening to King’s words on August 28th, 1963, perhaps more of us might have wept bitter tears five years later.
I have tried to remember what I was doing on that Wednesday afternoon. CBS aired the entire three hours of the event but it was not until many years later that I finally viewed it. By then the names of the speakers and had become members of my own personal Hall of Fame. They included A. Phillip Randolph, James Farmer, John Lewis, and Roy Wilkens. Famous protest singers such as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul, and Mary all sang but they were completely upstaged by Mahalia Jackson’s rendition of “I’ve been ‘buked and I’ve been scorned.” Then, Dr. King was introduced.
When does one become a prophet? The real ones are seldom self-appointed because the real ones want to be anything but a prophet.  I think the ascension to this lonely post comes when God chooses to put the words on your lips.
On the night of August 27th the leaders of the March gathered in one room to weigh in on how King was to close this historical event. The original dream did not belong to King. Randolph had tried to organize a march on Washington during the Truman Administration. He was the dean of the movement and King listened to every word he spoke. But there were also other voices in the room. Farmer and Wilkens had a different agenda. Lewis wanted to make sure his young volunteers were inspired. King wrote and rewrote until his trusted friend Ralph Abernathy leaned over and said, “Martin, take us to church.”
The next afternoon, after three hours of speechmaking and singing, A. Phillip Randolph introduced Dr. King as the “moral leader of the nation”. The mantle had been officially transferred. If you have listened to that speech, if you have listened carefully, you will note that King, tipping his hat to Lincoln and Jefferson, began a stylized dissertation that seemed aimed at the white intelligentsia of America.  It was well crafted and probably was a masterpiece in its own right. But King never got to the end of what he had prepared. If you watch carefully you will note that King seems to struggle with the written words before him. He hesitates, takes a deep breathe and that was all the time God needed. Mahalia Jackson, sitting directly behind King, said loud enough for many folks to hear, “Martin, tell them about the dream.” Using Jackson as a holy vessel, the word of the Lord was placed on the lips of Dr. King and the rest is history. Setting aside his prepared text, he began to preach. It wasn’t a new theme. King had introduced it in churches throughout Detroit before coming to Washington. It wasn’t even an original theme. Years before, King heard Howard Thurman preach, “Keep the dream alive; for as long as a man has a dream in his heart, he cannot lose the significance of living.”
It was not even King’s dream. It was the hope of every person on that mall, every mother growing weak in Mississippi, and every father growing old in the shadow of Stone Mountain. It echoed Jefferson’s dream that “All people would be created equal”. It celebrated Lincoln’s dream that “with malice toward none and clarity for all we would strive to finish the work before us.” But primarily it was and is God’s dream that “Good news will be brought to the oppressed, the broken hearted will be uplifted, and liberty will be proclaimed to the captives”.
Dr. King took folks to church that day. By the end of his speech everyone there realized someone finally had the courage to say in a public place what everyone had been thinking. Integration was not just a civil issue. It was not just a matter of morality. It was a holy cause and God Almighty was in front of the parade. God was about to tear down and build up and not everyone was going to be happy with the transition.
Fifty years after that historic moment, I often wonder what Dr. King would say if he were still with us.  History tells us prophets never live long but what if he had lived and was returning to Washington to speak a word or two. He would have been 84 years old. I know a lot of folks older than 84 who still have something to say.
I like to imagine he would have looked at the children and wondered out loud why we are cutting money from Head Start.
I like to think he would have looked at the male teenagers and said, “Pull up your pants, wear a belt and walk like you know where you are headed.”
I think after years of listening to Yolanda and Bernice, he would have reminded all young women that they are equal partners in life and glass ceilings can be eliminated by constantly swinging the hammer of justice.
I think after years of listening to Coretta, he would have had a serious talk to folks of all races and sexual orientations about how he had came to respect the covenant of marriage.
I think he would still preach nonviolence as a lifestyle, compassion as a holy standard and justice as a vocation.
I think he would have declared the God we call Yahweh, Jehovah and Allah is One in the same.
While he was a man of impeccable dress, I like to think he might have made the speech in a hoodie, reminding us that while we have come along way, the dream is not yet complete.
I hope he would have ended his speech with words from a sermon he wrote from one verse in the book of Jude.  “Our God is able. Let this affirmation be our ringing cry. It will give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a great power in this universe. God is able to make a way out of no way, and transform dark our yesterdays into bright tomorrows. This is our hope for becoming better people. This is our mandate for seeking a better world.”
Spoken like a true prophet of the Lord.
To God be the glory. Amen.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Cloud of Witnesses

Hebrews 11:1-3
“Cloud of Witnesses”
       How often are we told, “What you see is what you get?”  Ever followed those words of wisdom?  Of course you have. In order to believe in something we have to see it, feel it, smell it and certainly taste it before we will declare it to be the real deal.  Take my golf game……..please. When I lived in West Texas it was pretty much pull out the big dog and swing as hard as you can.   The fairways were hard, the rough was short and trees were a figment of ones imagination.  I used the Slazenger Raw Distance.  It went a long way, and on occasion it actually went the right way.  Here, in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, accuracy trumps length. Here, my golf ball seldom finds the fairway, preferring the long rough at best and often the green grass the other side of the white markers.  Therefore I decided to sacrifice distance for control.  I asked a golf professional what kind of ball would best suit my game. He took one look at my swing and said, “Probably a baseball.” But then sensing the chance to make a few bucks he teased me by suggesting for $50 bucks I could hit the same balls the pros hit. It went a long way and stopped as if pulled by a string.  $50 bucks was a lot of money to someone who had never spent more than $12.00 on a dozen balls.  Besides, I was not about to take his word that my game would transform itself by simply changing balls.  Before making that kind of investment I had to try one for myself.  I had to see it go further and straighter.  I had to make sure it performed as advertised.  Trusting one’s word is a nice concept, but if the cost is $50.00, I needed proof.
       Perhaps this is why faith is such a difficult proposition.  The writer of Hebrews calls faith, “The conviction of things not seen.”  In other words, faith is what we visualize with our hearts rather than our eyes.  Faith is based on a trust of the unknown rather than dependence on facts and knowledge.  It calls for us to place our lives into the hands of something mysteriously beyond our comprehension.  It is not something we can see or touch and  the first step we take toward becoming faithful is on the recommendation of others. 
       Faith is not something acquired at birth.  At some moment in time, defying all rational thinking, a person of faith declares without God you are incomplete. At some point, for whatever reason, you began to base the way you conduct your life on an event that happened over 2,000 years ago. Historically the resurrection was never part of the official record.  The witnesses were less than reliable.  Skeptics ask, “Prove it happened?”  Believers can’t respond to such a question in a rational manner.  How can one prove what we only know in our hearts to be true? 
       The writer of Hebrews reminds us of the litany of folks who have gone before us.   He recalls the story of the righteous saints of the Old Testament who walked in God’s footsteps.  Some suffered greatly for their faith.  Abel was killed, Abraham’s home was uprooted, Joseph was dragged into slavery, and Moses spent his last years wandering in the wilderness.  But each step of the way, these heroes declared God was beside them.  Their testimony became inspirational to folks who preached about their personal witness of God’s revelation in Christ.
       I suspect there was a Moses, a Peter, a Paul that touched your life. I suspect there was a Sarah, a Ruth, a Mary who opened your eyes to a greater truth.  We each have our group of saints who boldly suggested that God’s way was straighter and purer than the way of the world.  Perhaps like me, your first saints were your mother and/or father.  The manner in which my parents  lived, the priorities they accepted, the sacrifices they made caused me to want to grasp the faith they exhibited.  They did not try to win my love with fancy trinkets.  As much as I wished it, they did not allow me to run the household.  They were both highly intelligent people who opened for me the fascinating world of literature and music.  They taught me the joys of winning and the necessity of learning how to lose. They did all the things I believe good parents are supposed to do. But even more important, from the day I was born,  they told me the story of Jesus.  I can never remember not being in Church.  I tell people I knew the words to “Savior like a shepherd lead us,” long before I was singing “Ring around the Rosie”.  I could tell you the exploits of Moses, King David, and the Apostle Paul long before I had ever heard of George Washington.  Of course this was a daunting task which my parents did trust solely to themselves.  They surrounded me with a great cloud of witnesses.  I was placed in the worthy hands of Mrs. Faust, Mrs. Cartledge, Mrs. Dagenhart, and Mrs. Sneed.  Each had their own distinctive journey of faith they delighted in sharing with me.  They were not just “good” people.  They were Godly people who believed a story has to be told over and over and over again in order to be learned.  They were my Sunday School teachers.  Those folks took the time and energy to tell me the stories of Jesus because they knew first hand those stories were life changing.  Certainly school teachers and coaches helped in my development as a human being.  But I have to think hard to recall their names.  The people whom I remember most, the people who shaped my life, the folks who taught me the values that Deb and I have taught our children are the saints who placed Christ first in their lives.
       They demonstrated through the way they lived that no matter where I am, no matter what circumstances surround me, I am never alone;  I am always surrounded by that great cloud of witnesses that have gone before me.  Truth is, I did not believe them just because they said it.  I believed them because they lived it.  My first set of saints went to a cotton mill village church in Greensboro.  They were not wealthy; in fact most of them barely managed to survive.  But they always found the resources to help a stranger who might be in need.  My second group of saints from Hampton Virginia raised me during the turbulent 60’s.  No one would ever mistake the members of that church as radicals, yet by 1968 they had integrated their congregation.  These saints walked their faith and their footsteps left a deep impression on my life.  Once ordained, I had the pleasure of working with and learning from saints at every church I have served, including this one. I have to confess sometimes I forget their lessons.  Sometimes I allowed fear or anger to control my life.  Sometimes I still think it is me against the world.  But my waywardness is always trumped by that cloud of witnesses who still remind me of God’s grace, forgiveness and hope.
Learning to trust Jesus just doesn’t happen.  You just don’t wake up one day and suddenly say, “Gee, I think today I will accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior.”  With the demands Jesus places on our lives why would anyone in their right mind make such a ridiculous declaration?  Thank goodness God allows people to cross our path who would blush if you called them a saint but by the manner they have conducted their lives what other word is more appropriate?  Accepting Jesus completely, without reservations, calls for absolute trust and complete obedience.  That doesn’t come without on the job training.
       When I was in Texas I took our youth group to a place called Possum Kingdom. Together many of us jumped off a cliff some  35 feet above the water.  Of course we didn’t start out on the cliff.  A few weeks before we had played a game where we supported each other crossing a log that lay on the ground.  Falling off would have hurt nothing but our egos but we worked together so that everyone completed the task.  Then we were placed in a harness and walked across a high wire.  Each person was supported by a spotter on the ground holding a rope and the encouraging words of the rest of the group.  A few weeks later we were each lifted high above the earth and jumped into the air, supported only by a safety line and the cheers of the folks on the ground.  We learned to trust each other and believed in the words our companions spoke.  When we got to Possum Kingdom we were told about the cliffs and the kids wanted to give it a whirl.  I was informed that the water was over 50 feet deep and there was no chance of anyone hitting the bottom.  I took a couple of our older youth and climbed the cliff.  With the younger ones watching, we jumped and disappeared into the water.  When our heads reappeared the kids screamed for joy.  We climbed out of the water and together the whole group climbed back to the top.  Two, sometimes three at a time, the kids took a leap of faith.  Years later, my children still talk about that experience and how it helped build their faith in each other and in God.
       Who are your saints?  Was it a Sunday School teacher who faithfully and tirelessly told you the stories of Jesus?   
Was it a minister who made worship a unique experience, as the Holy words were spoken and the bread was broken? 
Was it someone who worked with you on a community project and the only thing you had in common was your love of God’s neighborhood? 
Was it someone who never failed to give thanks to God for all they have been given and proved their sincerity by being generous with their talents and treasures.
Who is your Great Cloud of Witnesses? Who taught you, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen?”  Just as importantly, have you entered that group of witnesses? Have you inspired someone to see beyond what is visible only to the eye?  Do people talk about witnessing your leap of faith?”
Faith is not something you can buy, but we can practice our faith together and become an inspiration to others. The folks I mentioned never thought of themselves as saints. They were just ordinary people who followed an extraordinary God.
You want to be an inspiration to others? You want to take a leap of faith. It takes the courage to live on the edge knowing should you fall, God has already gone before you. That leap is different for each one of us. It might be the courage to teach others. It might be the courage to sing in public. It might be the courage to speak to a stranger. It might be choosing to live even though someone we love has died. Whatever it is, someone is watching you. Someone is waiting to be inspired by you. 
Remember your cast of saints. Remember how they inspired you. Remember how they loved you. Remember how they promised God would always be with you. Remember, then jump.    
     Trust me, somebody is watching.                   Amen.