What will become of his dream?

The theologian Karl Barth once said that the task of a Christian is to hold the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other. You interpret the newspaper with the Bible, not the other way ‘round.

This weekend the newspaper is thick. We have a president-elect making a great deal of news. The first African American president gave his last speech this week. And tomorrow we honor what would have been the 88th birthday of Dr. King.

Because I’m a preacher, I have to read ahead in the Bible. I knew we’d have these readings coming to us this Sunday as I watched the President’s speech, and the president-elect’s press conference. I had in mind that we would be celebrating Dr. King today, and I was thinking about Joseph’s brothers’ sneering words in the book of Genesis: “We will see what will become of his dreams.”

Joseph’s brothers are jealous. The young man has his father’s favor. He’s been given a beautiful technicolor dream coat. He has this gift of dreaming. He has not, however, at the age of 17 been given a gift for tact. (Few teenagers have the gift of tact, but Joseph’s lack is strong). He tells his brothers that he has dreamed that they will bow down before him. The brothers, shall we say, are not impressed. They plot to thwart the dreamer.

You know the story. Joseph isn’t killed, but sold into Egypt. Through his gift of dreams and interpretation, his station eventually improves. Joseph finds himself sitting at the right hand of the King, entrusted with Pharoah’s household. Meanwhile, back in the Israel’s land, a famine strikes. Joseph’s brothers come begging. They bow down before Joseph.

Dreams can be persistent.

You all know why this lesson was chosen. These readings are assigned for the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday, because brother Martin was famous for his dream. He had the audacity to dream, to invite a country to dream, for equality, for justice, for brotherhood. (Today we’d add sisterhood as well). Martin’s dream is taught to schoolchildren of every race today.

What will become of Dr. King’s dream?

This week’s newspaper witnessed a wide swing. President Obama and President-elect Trump are very different characters. You got a sense of the difference as Tuesday night’s speech turned to Wednesday’s press conference. These leaders campaigned from very different stances. “Yes we can” and “Make America great again” are vastly different ways of looking at our nation.

I can understand why so many people are uneasy. As I said to you the Sunday after the election:

I am nervous about the legislative and executive agenda about to be ushered into the halls of power. I am scared for some of my former immigrant parishioners who are permitted to work through President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. I am concerned for members of this congregation who are insured through the Affordable Care Act.

In his “I have a dream speech,” Dr. King spoke of the sweltering summer heat. The march took place in late August, but Dr. King wasn’t just speaking about the sweaty swamp of Washington DC. King spoke of summer metaphorically. That summer protests raged across the South. As he shared his dream, he told the nation:

“This sweltering summer of…legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality…those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual…as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

We cannot turn back.”

As we embark on the adventure of “making America great again,” we cannot turn back. People marched, people bled, people died to guarantee freedoms. We cannot turn back. We will not turn back.

Dreams can be persistent.

Our country is great precisely because of the change that is possible in America. Just yesterday, Ellis and I went to watch “Hidden Figures.” The movie features the story of “colored computers,” black women who did the math that allowed our country to win the Space Race, to put a man into orbit. I encourage you to go see the film. It was remarkable. The crowd that gathered was also remarkable. The theater was full. For a movie about black women scientists, the theater was full. And it was full of white people.

America has changed. America is changing. We cannot turn back.

We have to keep dreaming brother Martin’s dream.

And we need to pray.

Some of you may have read that there’s a controversy brewing in our Episcopal Church about prayer and the incoming president. As is tradition, two prayer services will be held this week in Episcopal Churches.

On Friday, the President-elect, his family, and his invited guests will gather at my former church, St. John’s Lafayette Square, just across the park from the White House for a private prayer service. Almost every president since James Madison has had a service there the morning of their inauguration. (Kennedy went to the Catholic Cathedral.) Thankfully, St. John’s has not been a focus for controversy. The tradition is too old.

But the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, better known as Washington National Cathedral will also host a public service of prayer with the new president, to be broadcast on television, on Saturday. The National Cathedral Choir has also accepted an invitation to sing at the inauguration on Friday.

Some in our denomination would have us close the doors of our churches to these festivities. I can understand this point of view. The president elect’s campaign brought out some really negative elements of our society. Racism and hatred were emboldened following his election. Several mosques, synagogues, and even Episcopal churches were vandalized with words like “Trump’s America.” I can understand why some wish The Episcopal Church would boycott the inauguration.

I’m pretty close to many of the leaders in The Episcopal Church in Washington. I know the bishop, the priests, and the choir directors. I know that many of them swallowed hard as they took meetings with the inaugural committee. Big public decisions are never easy to make. I am glad I’m not in their shoes, and I won’t second guess their decision to participate. I was honored to be at St. John’s for the second inaugural service for President Obama. I will remember that day for the rest of my life. And I am glad that this week, I get to be in St. Louis, in “real America.” I am glad that on Saturday, I’ll be out in the streets with many of you in our Women’s March, in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington.

I am glad not to be in Washington, but we all have to consider how we will pray these days.

As I said to you the Sunday after the election, we will pray for Donald, our president elect at Holy Communion. We pray for the president, by name. He needs our prayers. But, as the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church reminded us this week: prayer is not the same thing as cheering or declaring our support. Our Presiding Bishop went on:

“I grew up in a historically black congregation in the Episcopal Church. We prayed for leaders who were often lukewarm or even opposed to our very civil rights. We got on our knees in church and prayed for them, and then we got up off our knees and we Marched on Washington.”

And Jesus said: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

We will pray for Donald, but that’s not all we’re going to do. This coming Saturday, a group of us are going to meet up downtown for the Women’s March. If you want more information, get in touch with Kara Cummins, so that we can coordinate a meeting point and walk together. We will pray for the president, and we’ll march. In St. Louis, in Washington, along the US/Mexico border, wherever America needs dreamers, we’ll march.

What will become of his dreams? Dr. King’s dreams are still there to be dreamed. We’ve come close at times. Eight years ago I stood with 1.8 million people on the National Mall as the first black president was inaugurated. You could almost feel the earth shake. The world was changing. Still Dr. King’s dream was bigger than the first black president. The dream goes on.

What will become of his dreams? Dreams can persistent. Even when the newspaper looks bleak. Turn to the Bible. We learn that dreams are persistent when God’s people are persistent. God was there for Joseph. God was there for Moses, and Deborah, and Ruth. God was there for David. God was there for Peter and John and Mary Magdalen. God will be there with us, dreaming with us.

“This Little Light of Mine” we sing. “I’m going to let it shine.” How will you help keep the dream alive? How will you help the dream persist? Will you open your Bible and your newspaper? Will you allow yourself to be shaped, to be formed, and then to go make some news?

In the days, months, and years to come, a dream is at stake. The dream wasn’t just the dream of a single presidency. It wasn’t just the dream of a single preacher or a single movement. The dream is bigger. The dream belongs to God. God dreams of a world where justice rolls down like water. God dreams of a world where all God’s people are free from persecution, from violence, where all God’s people are free to love. God has big dreams.

Keep dreaming. Keep praying. Keep moving forward. Keep dreaming. Let your light shine.

Martin Luther King, Mountaintops, and Unfinished Business

This morning is about mountaintops and unfinished business. The story we have from the book of Numbers is a bit strange. Numbers may have taken its name from all the lists of specific instructions in the Book. In chapter 28, God demands exactly one tenth of an ephah of choice flour for a grain offering mixed with one-fourth of a hin of beaten oil. Before you ask, I’m not sure how many hin are in an ephah. I’m glad I’m not a priest in the time of Numbers. I’m not very good at math. You can understand why don’t often read from Numbers in Church. This reading is not from the regular calendar of readings. Let me explain why I chose to include it this morning as we remember Dr. King.

The story narrates the last moments in the life of Moses. God says to the prophet, you will go up to the mountain and see the promised land, but you will not enter it. God explains that Moses, even Moses, rebelled against God’s word. Now, that’s good news for you and especially for me. If even Moses wasn’t perfect, there’s hope for us all, even the preachers. None of us are perfect. Moses goes up to the mountaintop, and he sees the promised land, but he will not enter that promised land.

Some of you know that Ellis and I took a short vacation after Christmas down to New Orleans, and on our way, we stopped in Memphis. If you haven’t visited the National Civil Rights museum in Memphis, I commend it to you. The museum is impressive. I’d like to organize a pilgrimage there for our youth at Holy Communion to visit. The museum is built into the former Lorraine Motel, site of the martyrdom of Dr. King.

Martin came to Memphis in 1968 to support the strike of the city’s sanitation workers. For Dr. King, the struggle for civil rights and the struggle for economic justice, they were the same struggle. He preached his final sermon at Mason Temple in Memphis the night before he died. The sermon finished eerily with these words:

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

Brother Martin put himself in Moses’ shoes. He saw the promised land. This was the particular genius of Martin Luther King Jr. Yes, he was an organizer. Yes, he was a protestor, but above all, Martin was a preacher. We remember his actions, but more than that we remember his words. We remember his Dream. Martin Luther King Jr.’s genius was an ability to evoke and summon a better world.

Martin’s mountaintop vision was not primarily informed by his knowledge of the law, nor by his nimbleness as a politician. Martin’s vision was rooted in his faith. Martin believed in the work of Moses and the work of the prophets. He listened to the deep promises of scripture, to God’s promises of freedom, equality, and abundance. Martin’s vision went beyond the concept of legal equality. When the Civil Rights act passed, Martin didn’t sit down. He didn’t rest on his laurels. The vision was bigger. The view from that mountaintop meant he had to keep working. He had unfinished business.

We could use some of Martin’s mountaintop vision today. The recent discussions about race in this city and this nation have left very few people feeling satisfied. The Rev. Dr. Peter Gomes, longtime preacher at Harvard’s Memorial chapter once told his congregation:

If you want to stop a conversation in this republic, introduce the subject of race. Even enlightened folks such as yourselves will soon find it edgy, non resolvable, difficult and bringing out feelings that you would rather not have on display…Dr. King argued that as long as black people were denied their full participation in the American dream, the American dream would always be the American dilemma…There will never be a peaceful moment in this republic until we have made peace with our racial animosities and have turned the dilemma into the dream.

I’m with Dr. Gomes, and I believe we need the mountaintop dreamer, perhaps more today than ever before. Too many of us are living an American dilemma. Young black men are more likely to go to prison than to college. More than 10 million immigrants are living in this country without papers, their labor exploited, their undocumented status leaving them no legal recourse. Schools with the worst funding are often in the poorest neighborhoods because we tie education funding to property taxes. I can’t list all of our dilemmas. We’d be here all day. I know many of you have are spending and have spent your lives and your careers working in the midst of one dilemma or another. We seem unwilling and unable to find political solutions to the political components of these problems. We are in desperate need of some mountaintops. We need some dreamers.

All over our country tomorrow, plays will be staged. Documentaries will be screened. We will meditate on the “Life and Legacy of Dr. King.” What is Dr. King’s legacy? What is it? Is it desegregation? Is Dr. King’s legacy the election of the first black president? Surely these are a part of the legacy of the Civil Rights era. But I wonder, is Dr. King’s legacy bigger? One day will we consider Dr. King’s legacy bigger than we see it today? I believe Martin’s is a dream we have yet to fully realize. Dr. King’s legacy is tied up in a great deal of unfinished business.

I also chose our reading from Numbers this morning, because of what Moses does after God tells him he won’t get to the promised land. Standing there on that mountaintop, Moses had a request for God. “Appoint someone to lead them. Don’t leave them like a sheep without a shepherd.” Moses knew there was unfinished business. He knew the people Israel were still a mess. It wasn’t that long since they had grumbled to God for more food even after receiving bread from heaven. These are the people who set up a golden calf. They needed a leader. There was unfinished business.

Moses’ legacy would pass on to Joshua. Joshua would take them to the promised land, but even when they arrived, the battle wasn’t over. There were walls that need to tumble. The dream always goes on, always. The book of Numbers doesn’t give us Joshua’s thoughts on following Moses, but I imagine the initial exchange between Joshua and Moses to be a bit like Mary and Jesus in our Gospel this morning. “It isn’t my time yet.” Even Moses wasn’t sure of himself when God first called. Taking on the mantle of leadership, taking up the unfinished business, can be difficult, it can be painful.

A word about leadership: Some of you may have read a bit about The Episcopal Church in the news this week. Our Presiding Bishop  Michael Curry, who we pray for every week, needed our prayers especially this past week. He sat down with his fellow senior bishops at Canterbury. The Episcopal Church belongs to a worldwide body called the Anglican Communion, and every few years the most senior bishop of each autonomous church is invited to meet with the other “primates.” In this case “primates” doesn’t have to do with monkeys, but with the latin word “primus” or first. All the top bishops gathered at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The primates voted overwhelmingly to issue a Communique which critiqued The Episcopal Church for our decision to marry people of the same gender. The American and international news media  had a field day with the bishops’ statement. They made it sound like we were being kicked out of the Communion. On social media, some Episcopalians got very angry. Friends of mine from seminary wrote, “Forget the Communion. We don’t need them.” Social media really isn’t the place to go for enlightened discussion most of the time, even among priests. I want to clarify the situation just a bit. We aren’t being kicked out of the Communion. In some of the International Councils we may, for a period of three years, have a voice but not a vote. And I believe we need to stay at the table. We need to use our voice.

As he left the gathering, our presiding bishop said this:

 it may be part of our vocation to help the Communion and to help many others to grow in a direction where we can realize and live the love that God has for all of us, and we can one day be a Church and a Communion where all of God’s children are fully welcomed.

It was a painful week for some of us. It’s painful when your family does not understand your sexual orientation, or your church affiliation. It can feel lonely, and alienating. But let’s be real. The Episcopal Church is pretty unique for our position on these matters. There aren’t many churches that offer traditional weddings, with all of the ancient trappings, for same-sex couples. We’re doing something new here. We’re doing something out of the ordinary. Many of us believe this is prophetic work. And so we have to stay at the table. We have to stay in the councils, and in the discussions, because we have to be able to share the dream.

I don’t want to make it out like we’re taking such a great risk. There are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender African Christians. They risk persecution, incarceration, and they even risk their lives. They are the real dreamers. They are real the mountaintop prophets. They need us to stay with them as allies in the unfinished work. I am proud of our church, and I am committed to staying at the table with other church leaders around our city and around the world. I believe we have good news to share, that God creates people with all sorts of orientations and gender expressions, and God loves them all. All.

The late, great, David Bowie once said “Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming.” What do you hear? When you climb up on the mountaintop, what do you see?

Howard Thurman was a groundbreaking theologian and minister at Boston University’s chapel. He preached almost weekly to college students, those great dreamers. He even preached to a young, not yet Dr., King. Thurman often said in his writings and his sermons, “A person speaks in his [or her] time with his [or her] life. It is all that [you have], all that is given to [you,] and therefore it is all that [you] can give.” What will your life say? To what dream will you give your life?

Giving your life sounds glorious. I’m convinced our brother Martin was able to keep perspective in his life, partly because he wasn’t too worried about the accounting of his legacy. He didn’t waste energy with anxiety about how many hin or ephah the historians would measure for him. He simply had faith his dreams would count.

Martin also didn’t believe the dream belonged to him. His vision was a glimpse of the hope God has for all of us. On the last night of his life, in Memphis, Martin looked out over the gathering of church folk, activists, and sanitation workers. He told them about the Promised Land. He knew that long after he was gone, they would keep working on his unfinished business. Martin Luther King knew that his unfinished business was God’s unfinished business, and he could count on the people of God to keep leading the way.

Where do we begin? A sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany

The Dome at St. John's Church. Still not retractable
The Dome at St. John’s Church. Still not retractable

Where do we begin? I find myself focused this morning on beginnings. “In the beginning,” the first words of the Bible. Really, the first word. “Berishit” in Hebrew, just one word. “In the beginning.”

Mark’s Gospel also centers on a beginning. Mark, as usual, wastes no time. John announces “one is coming after me,” and lo, he comes. Jesus appears in the wilderness of the Jordan, to be baptized by John. This is Jesus’ IPO, his initial public offering. Jesus is all grown up and the ministry begins with baptism.

Beginnings are radically important. I work with twenty-somethings a great deal in my work as “Missioner for Young Adult and College Ministry” for The Episcopal Church. And twenty somethings are understandably about the most ANGSTY group of people you’ll ever meet. At least I was an angsty twenty-something. If you’re honest, I bet you were too.

Twenty somethings are angsty, because they are at the beginning of their adult lives. They are making a lot of really important decisions for the first time. I love working with twenty-somethings because every choice matters a great deal. Think about it, the decisions you make in your twenties shape your whole life. Where to work, who to marry, where to settle down. These are huge decisions, and a lot of these tracks begin in your twenties. So twenty-somethings can be an angsty bunch. Now, I don’t want to leave out those of us who have survived our twenties, because I know I can still be angsty, especially when I’m facing an important beginning.

Beginnings are important. Beginnings matter. Where do you begin?

Had he lived, Dr. King would have been 86 years old this week. He was killed at forty. Imagine if all he accomplished had only been the beginning of his work. Imagine if Dr. King could’ve come to Ferguson this summer to exhort our region to nonviolent witness. Imagine if Dr. King could have come back to this Cathedral last summer, 50 years after his first sermon here, to remind us that we must “learn to live together as brothers, or perish as fools.”

Throughout his ministry, Dr. King asked us all to consider our beginnings? Where do you begin? The pragmatists of his day wanted Martin to slow down, to consider the deep divides of race and class, the intractability of racial bias. Two Episcopal Bishops in Alabama signed an open letter addressing Dr. King’s visit to Birmingham in 1963. They saw Dr. King as an outsider, and asked him not to protest in their streets. After the protest he replied to their letter with a letter of his own. He wrote them “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Dr. King’s letter would become legendary, and Dr. King’s letter is all about beginnings.

Dr. King’s letter explains that he doesn’t consider himself an outsider. He begins somewhere else. Dr. King wrote famously “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He goes on “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” Dr. King could have been talking about baptism. King’s framework was informed by Christian Baptismal theology. He was taught, in church, that we are all tied together in one body.

Dr. King’s letter was partly addressed to a couple of Episcopal Bishops, and it has been read by many more Anglicans. I would love to ask the former Archbishop of Canterbury whether MLK’s letter influenced his own teaching on Baptism. Dr. Rowan Williams wrote that baptism involves us in “solidarities not of our own choosing.” Both Dr. King and Rowan Williams talk about the inconvenient beginning that we face. We don’t choose our solidarities. We can’t escape our network of mutuality.

Baptism is the sacrament of beginning, and baptism reminds us that we all begin in the same place. We are all, all of us, children of God. We all belong to the created order. We belong to creation. Baptism reminds us where we start. You can’t choose your family. We keep trying. We keep trying to separate ourselves one from another. We keep trying to say to one another: you don’t matter to me, and we exclude one another to our peril. “We must learn to live together as brothers [and sisters] or [we will] perish like fools.”

Today as we baptism Gloria Dean, we go back to the beginning. We remember the Church’s teaching that we all begin in the same place. We will pledge ourselves again, in the Baptismal Covenant to work for justice and peace. We’ll promise to respect the dignity of every human being. Those promises are tied to baptism because they are where we begin as Christians. We begin by understanding that we are all, all of us, created in the image and likeness of God. Not some, all. Not just the “good” people. Not just the white people. Not just the so-called straight people. Not just the men. Not just those whose biological sex matches their gender identity. Not just the English-speaking. Not just the American citizens. Not just the able bodied. Not just the rich. Not just the powerful. Against every division we have invented and enforced in our human society, Baptism invites us to return to God’s beginning. We are all created in God’s image. We are all, all of us, loved by God. That’s where we begin.

I like to call this little story from Mark “Jesus’ IPO,” his Initial Public Offering. This is where Jesus begins in Mark’s Gospel. It seems Jesus’ first public act is sorta passive. Jesus’ first action verb? Jesus HEARS. He HEARs the voice of God. Before he acts, he hears.  Before he heals, he hears.  Before he teaches, before he stirs up trouble, before he calls disciples, before he walks on water, before everything else Jesus hears God’s voice saying, “You are my Son, the beloved, in you I am well pleased.”

“Well pleased with WHAT?” we might ask. We want a public record. We want to see a resumé. We want to weigh accomplishments. WHAT had Jesus done that was PLEASING to God at this point? In the Gospel, nothing. BEFORE he acts, he hears. BEFORE he does anything of note, before he does anything worth writing down, he hears this voice of love and affirmation. Jesus doesn’t do ANYTHING to merit God’s love. God starts loving Jesus, accepting Jesus, before he gets anything done. God doesn’t wait for Jesus to act before he announces his love, his approval.

Friends, this is the Gospel: before Jesus does anything he has God’s love and approval. Before we do anything, we have God’s love and approval. We don’t merit God’s love. We don’t win it through good behavior. We begin our lives loved and accepted by God. We spend our lives, at least I have spent a good part of my life, trying to let go of my own stuff to accept God’s acceptance, God’s love. You are already loved, already accepted by God.

My former church in Washington had a beautiful dome. The church was designed by Benjamin Latrobe, the first great American architect, designer of the US Capitol. My former rector liked to joke with the congregation that he wished he could get permission from the Historical Society to make the dome retractable. I see some shudders from the history buffs. Don’t worry, I’m sure it was just a sermon illustration.

My rector didn’t want a retractable dome because he wanted to be like the Dallas Cowboys. He didn’t want a retractable dome so that he could try to lure the St. Louis Rams to DC. (Though “the Rams” is a better name for a team than the one they continue to use for the team in Washington).

My rector wanted a retractable dome for baptism Sundays. He also wanted a Steven Spielberg sized special effects budget (which somehow he could never convince the vestry give him). Every time there was a baptism, he wanted the dome to open, and a hologram of a dove to float down over the font, and a deep voice to come over the loud speaker: “This is my beloved child, with this child I am well pleased.”

The words God speaks to Jesus, God speaks to every single one of us. This is where we begin. The sacrament of baptism is a sign of God’s love for us, a sign of our inescapable network of mutuality, a sign of the solidarities not of our choosing. Baptism is a sign that we are one. We are all united as children of God. We exist because God loves us, all of us, into existence.

As a city, as a region, as a country we find ourselves asking “Where do we begin?” And so, I think we are asking the right question. Whether we are in our twenties, and have our whole lives ahead of us, or we are in our eighties and have the whole rest of our lives ahead of us, we are invited this morning to examine our starting point. We are invited to question where we begin with one another. Do we start from the divisions the world creates, or do we begin with the common identity we all share as the beloved children of God.

What if the work of Dr. King was just the beginning? What if the work that started in the streets of Ferguson this summer is the continuation of Brother Martin’s work? How do we begin to see one another, and to treat one another as God’s beloved children? Where do we begin?