*Some housekeeping before we start: when I say "Black", I mean those people of color who came over as part of the slave trade and had no say in their translocation here, as opposed to those who are African-American, who come to us by way of chosen immigration. This distinction was made to me, and I have since worked to incorporate that into my language out of respect. But of course, others would say they prefer Jesse Jackson’s use of African-American. I am being intentional and trying to be as respectful as possible. I will also be saying "Black" in the place of other words that I feel, as a white-passing woman, it is not my place to use, even in quoting.*
Today is the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and we celebrate this weekend the work he did. Would that we could rest from the struggle against racial injustice. I realize the desire to disentangle that struggle from our religious lives. Yet, this is the world in which we continue to live, a world for which we have spiritual and therefore political responsibility. I am reminded of the words of James Baldwin in “The Fire Next Time,” as he said, “Freedom is hard to bear. It can be objected that I am speaking of political freedom in spiritual terms, but the political institutions of any nation are always menaced and are ultimately controlled by the spiritual state of that nation.” Our spiritual state is very much marked by this week, a week of active civil disobedience and a racist, classist, sexist authoritarianism. And we cannot skirt around the danger to many of those in our care, by staying silent. I look out and this is the most beautiful scene I can imagine, Christians opening their hearts and minds to proclaim to this broken world the good news of God’s unending love. For this call we have received in our togetherness, I offer the interwoven words of two great black leaders - the Rev. Dr. King, Jr. (of course) and James Baldwin.
I speak of these men to you in the hopes that we may fill out the oft unheard portions of the moves against racial injustice in this country that certainly did not start nor end with the civil rights movement - that certainly did not start this season, nor will end with it. You see, I could speak this evening of a tale celebrating a man that many perceive has having kept the “violent” Malcolm X and those rabble rousers in check. My younger and wholly well-meant education had the underlying notion of “Aren’t we so glad for this man who kept the black community from violence and on the right track!” I could give that sermon.
But that sermon, doesn’t do justice to his legacy and the work he did. To perpetuate an understanding of Rev. Dr. King and the non-violent movement that has been - and this is intentional word-usage - white-washed, doesn’t honor the cries he made to us, nor does it show respect to you and your desire to learn things anew, to be salt and light in this world, to love even better. What do I mean by “love better?” James Baldwin spoke of, and I quote, “Love not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace...in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.” And having learned over much time and with increasing humility myself, this is a reminder that there were a multitude of different understandings of how to approach racial inequality, and still are. And rather than MLK having the one right way, I invite us to consider how all of the movement’s active tactics together helped to push forward a cause for equality. All participants shone in their own way. Each were lights that would not be hidden under the bushel, each a lamp on their own stand, shining for the world to see. And this shining, this demonstrates the full dignity for which Martin King lived and died.
So now we have these beautiful examples of shining lamps - what, then, are we to do now? Not simply admire them, surely. After all, we have lights of our own in us, each as Christians. We have Rev. Dr. King’s words of encouragement to the black community. I am a white-passing woman. My father is Mexican-American, my mother comes from Russian and Polish stock. I serve a predominately white church. How can I, and how can the white community I am a part of shine alongside people of color, without making it about us? Well, many of you may already know Rev. Dr. King didn’t just speak to the black community.
He beseeched white folks, too, predominately white institutions like our churches, to stand out and proud and unequivocally with the movement, implored us to be lights, reminding that it is more important for white spaces that silently agree to not be silent but loud about their allyship. That it in fact does harm, too, to be on the side of the marginalized and yet silent. This Rev. Dr. King shares in his book, “Where Do We Go From Here?” in the year before his death. He wrote, “Over the last few years many Blacks have felt that their most troublesome adversary was not the obvious bigot of the Klu Klux Klan or the John Birch Society, but the white ally who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice, who prefers tranquility to equality. In a sense the white ally has been victimized with some of the same ambivalence that has been a constant part of our national heritage… This is why many allies have fallen into the trap of seeing integration in merely aesthetic terms, where a token number of Black people adds color to a white-dominated power structure. They say, “Our union is integrated from top to bottom, we even have one Black person on the executive board,”... Yet in spite of the hard reality that many blatant forms of injustice could not exist without the acquiescence of white allies, the fact remains that a sound resolution of the race problem in America will rest with those white men and women who consider themselves as decent and generous human beings… It is not enough to say, “We love Blacks, we have many Black friends...” Love that does not satisfy justice is no love at all… Love at its best is justice concretized… It is not conditional upon one’s staying in place or watering down his demands in order to be considered respectable…” Here Dr. King requests that we make our allyship known, otherwise its questionable if its there at all.
This is why the salt and light comes right after the beatitudes. Blessed are these who are so often left out: the poor in spirit, the mourners, those who are pure not in body but in heart, those who do not keep but rather make peace, those who are persecuted. And we are not to be silent about this blessing that those on the margins receive. Ah! But even in the time of Christ thousands of years ago, his own followers wanted to hide their light. It is not easy thing, to be a light in this world; it can feel scary. We open ourselves to critique, to attack, to being persecuted along with those who already are. And we may worry that we dredge up unnecessary conflict. Here, too, Dr. King gives us permission to still seek our places as lamps on stands. He says, “The white ally must rid himself of the notion that there can be a tensionless transition from the old order of injustice to the new order of justice… It is important for the ally to see that the oppressed person who agitates for his rights is not the creator of tension. He merely brings out the hidden tension that is already alive.” To be a lamp on the stand, to be a light in this world, means we shine light on tensions already there. To shine does not create divisions here, but make us conscious of the already existing demarcations that keep others away or at bay or simply not as connected to us as we might like.
This does not take away from the fact that it is hard to be the lamp that does not hide its light; its hard, but necessary if we continue to choose to love well. And here we have Baldwin sharing, “If we- .. the relatively conscious whites and relatively conscious blacks who must like lovers insist on or create the consciousness of others - do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare.”
The things is, in serving those whom Christ called blessed, we set ourselves free too.
We set ourselves free, for it is lonely to be disconnected and that is what hiding our light does. Hiding our light keeps us some of us comfortable because we can avoid seeing the divisions, but it also keeps us from seeing the healing paths through those divisions, from growing into the blessings. Would we be blessed, recipients of the beatitudes? If so, we must place ourselves then in the position of those receiving Christ’s blessing. Baldwin put it this way: For the white man to be free Baldwin said he must “become black himself… become part of the suffering and dancing country that he now watches wistfully from the heights of his lonely power, and armed with spiritual traveller’s checks, visits surreptitiously after dark… The price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks - the total liberation, in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind… In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here...if we are really to achieve...our maturity as men and women.”
And of course, reaching this maturity together, taking our lamps out from under the bushels and onto the stands, it applies to more than just the issue of race. You may have been asking yourself, “James Baldwin! Who is he?” He was a marvelous writer who died the year I was born, a black man and very young former preacher who left the church but continued in his faith. He is best known for his novels “Go Tell It on the Mountain”, “Notes of a Native Son,” and “Giovanni’s Room” and collections of essays. One such collection, “The Fire Next Time” is in the sanctuary foyer for your perusal, and I’ll be sharing some quotes from it with you today. He played a prominent part in the civil rights movement and was a contemporary of the man whose birthday we celebrate today - Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
He was also gay. There were only two openly gay black men in the movement at the time. One was James Baldwin. The other was Bayard Rustin. He was the primary organizer of an event you might know - the March on Washington of 1963. He was barred from speaking at this event he organized because he was gay. This is something that even the leaders of the civil rights movement were learning through at their time. It is a reminder that we always have more to learn.
Yes, being lights unto the world and lamps on a stand is more than just the issue of race. The final blessing of the beatitudes is for the persecuted. We can easily ask ourselves, who in the world is persecuted right now, in our denomination of which we are a part. Please stay for our Room for All discussion today, for in our denomination right now, one of the most persecuted, if not the most persecuted, groups are the LGBTQ community. Many of us, even if we do not identify as gay or bi or trans, still have some inkling of what it is like to be told we’re inferior or wrong or an abomination in some way. What does it mean to seek the blessing of Christ with them? We’ve been given an imperative (what we are to do) through the beatitudes: seek the blessing of Christ with those who suffer, and the means (how we are to fulfill this imperative) - being a light unto this world, standing openly with those who suffer.
Now I’ve heard hesitance around even the possibility of becoming a Room for All church. We’re worried about causing divisions, which I hope has been addressed. We are also worried about being what some have called, “the gay church.” You know Dr. King was part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, dedicated to racial equality. He called on churches to stand together, even though they be a “handful”. Had the opportunity been offered us, would we have stood and with them, shining, or would we be concerned with being “the black church”. I do push this conversation, I know. I push because our spiritual maturity and growth depends on it. I also push because I know it is not foreign to you, this kind of shining. You have each of you shown me this beautiful and courageous capacity in one way or another. To give you an example, at the last classis special meeting this week, Nancy Locke, our future V.P., as a guest was not privy to sit with the voting delegates. Jim our current V.P., rather than sitting with the voting delegates, chose to sit with them in the outskirts. That was a beautiful concrete showing, of what Dr. King is asking of us still in his written words.
And isn’t it one of those strange paradoxes of life that at the same time this can be so difficult, it doesn’t seem like much once we do it, and can even seem too small, so small it feels like it made no difference. And here I speak to the people of color here with us, to my father, to Nkosi, to the part of me that doesn’t pass, to those who struggle with feeling that God doesn’t accept you for being gay, for the women, for those who sacrificed for their children and struggled through getting no more than a cup of coffee to yourself for a year, to those men who suffer from being told the only way to masculinity is disconnecting your heart, to those among us who feel the sting and burden of inequality in some way in their lives in some way, to those who let your light shine every day because you have very little choice to do anything but. Just being who you are, just shining your light, even if it is out of necessity and survival, it does change whole tides. It is terribly powerful, shining our lights. And every one of our little lights matters, and makes a more welcoming space when we put those lights, our lamps on a stand. After all, who doesn’t prefer to come into a lighted room, which simply invites more light in. We each of us have this light in us, by virtue of being Christian, by our acceptance of Jesus, that light is there, necessarily. And the courage and beauty of shining, as Christians, that’s in us, too.