A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on January 16, 2011.
Last week we talked about taking the plunge of faith. One of you even asked if my fear of heights meant I watched others jump off but didn’t jump myself. I don’t think I made it altogether plain that I did, in fact, jump! I thought I spoke authoritatively as one who couldn’t say those things without having jumped, but I know you also know I might not have jumped. Today our visit with the prophet Isaiah is meant to be faith lived after jumping. What does it mean to hit the water of faith and now live as fully as God means for us to live?
Our reading comes from one of the Hebrew prophets that are called to speak in a time of terrible circumstances. The people of God have been ripped from their homeland and driven around the Fertile Crescent down into the heart of the Babylonian Empire to an area just a few klicks south of modern-day Baghdad.
Read Isaiah 49:1-7
Today is sandwiched between the actual date of Martin Luther King’s birth and the federal holiday set aside to commemorate his birth. Dr. King gave himself to justice and it’s a cause that continues to exist as “work not yet done.” King came along in a time when things needed to change and we seemed stuck in the past ruled and impoverished by old systems that locked down a caste system in our country between white and black (and to be honest, between whites and all other races).
At its core, racism and segregation were theological problems then and now in that we don’t recognize the sacredness of all humans but treat others as “less than.” The social system that affirmed the separation between the “haves and the have-nots” meant that those in the latter category were given very few opportunities to grow, to learn, to earn, and ultimately to have dignity. The system rewarded one class while suppressing another and Dr. King was moved to change the way things were.
Once Dr. King helped organize the march against racial hatred and the leftovers of slavery, the work widened to larger justice issues as he began to focus his attention on other national issues such as the war in Southeast Asia, education, and poverty. Had he lived, he would have been 82 yesterday, still at an age where he might have had a prophetic word to say about our times. What do you think he would say?
Last weekend, another national leader was assassinated. We’re still mired in fighting a long-term war on two fronts with massive numbers of American troops and advisors in harm’s way. Our economy has been in the tank for a couple of years stressed by a banking scandal, a huge commitment to the national defense, a host of mind-boggling stimulus programs, and an uncertain lack of national will to curb our spending. Jobs continue to be scarce and those who are unemployed struggle to keep body and soul together as they seek work.
We’re two generations beyond the Civil Rights Movement and the time of dismantling of race laws that held in place the American Apartheid has come and gone. Since then, we’re a slow work in progress, one person at a time. It’s obvious your view of “progress” depends upon where you stand. But we hopefully remind ourselves, “Three steps forward, two steps back.” Racism and reverse racism, globalism and American exceptionalism, and other “isms” continue to test our resolve for justice. And strangely in the world, there’s still essential work to be done about justice that’s unequal for issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and the politically propped up divide between the “super-haves” and the have-nots.
In today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, we hear from Isaiah the prophet some six centuries before Christ. This reading from Isaiah 49 comes a wider text of chapters 40-55 from a collection of words alive with wonder about the Promised One. The gospels sparkle with references from these words to make sure the reader understands that what is being described is not an isolated hope, but there is One coming as promised by God.
In these words, there is the palpable anticipation that even though the present circumstances were harsh, God was on the move, acting to save God’s people. There was the distinct sense that God would move decisively by bringing forth one who would embody God’s forgiveness, not just another messenger, but one who would enter into the stream of human existence and whose suffering would be used to redeem them from their exile.
In that context God spoke through the prophets. God gave them words to say and the courage to say them. They spoke into the moment and their words were not always welcomed or heeded. Nevertheless, they spoke. The prophets spoke both encouragement and judgment and I suppose they were heard about as well people in church listen to their pastors in any era. In listening to sermons preached, amazingly some claim to have heard a word from God while others leave having not heard a thing. Some hear one thing, impersonal as though it had no meaning, while others hear beyond the words as though God’s Spirit has given them life and personal inspiration. So it must have been for the prophets of old. The prophet Isaiah spoke hopeful words to those led into captivity in Babylon.
In thinking about the prophets and life as we know it today, I posed a question on Facebook yesterday wondering, “What does it mean to live in a Post-MLK age?”
I sent the question directly to random friends I wanted to hear from. A good number of them were sent to Holmeswood members but I also sent the question to friends I know all over the country. The group I canvassed ranged in age from a high school church member all across the adult age spectrum including women and men of all races, black, white and brown. What they had to say was fascinating:
A young adult mother said, “To me it means we have just a glimpse of what Jesus’ life on earth may have looked like. Living in a post-Jesus, MLK, Gandhi, Mother Teresa world means we have examples of what our lives should look like; we can hang on to hope, embrace fear for what it is and channel it into something bigger and more powerful than fear.”
A high school teacher wrote, “I taught an MLK lesson today and learned from my black students that racism is still alive and well. So sad some of the stories they told. One white student told me he was ‘ashamed of white people’ today.”
A high school student had a different point of view and observed, “I think it just means our world is a lot less racist; now your race doesn’t matter nearly as much as it used to.”
A community organizer who chooses to work in areas of poverty noted, “Lots of things I probably take for granted, but one little thing that is very personal for me that somehow stands out — having a “Multiracial” box on a form I can check.”
A woman seminarian offered her thoughts: “I think it gives us more freedom to discuss issues of race and racism in a non-threatening way. Certainly that happens on MLK Day. Perhaps more than that, it means we have no excuse for the racism that still goes on in the U.S. Too many of us have failed to truly heed the prophet’s call. I don’t know … perhaps that means we are still in exile, wandering back around to the Promised Land he described.” In a later message, she described how meaningful it was that years ago her grandfather personally met Martin Luther King, Jr. – a fact she considered more important than the Presidents he met.
A thoughtful minister asked, “Are any of us doing or saying anything prophetic enough that would provoke someone to want to gun us down? I think in these post-MLK days more of society is wearing colorless lenses; we have moved further down the progressive tracks of racial equality (no question about it) but still have a ways to go.”
A middle-aged woman offered this observation: “Awareness … understanding there are other people in our country that are not exactly like us and that is ok.”
A young man in his 20’s questioned whether my topic meant we had abandoned the non-violent teaching of Dr. King saying, “The first thing I thought of is that a Post-MLK world seems to be another rhetorical way of saying a post-racial world. I know the last two years have seen this term become somewhat of a buzzword … That is to say (in the last two years since President Obama’s election) that racism has been eradicated and the proof is that we have elected our first nonwhite leader … The second thought I had is along the same lines but in a broader sense of the idea (that) perhaps the tactics of loving your neighbor as a means to pursue an end are no longer dominant strategies of achieving a goal. Then it seems that the way we handle our problems, political or otherwise, has strayed away from the teaching of great men like MLK and thus we may be living in a Post-MLK world.”
Architect Maya Lin designed the entrance to the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery. She’s the same architect who a decade earlier designed the Vietnam War Memorial. Lin’s design is based on biblical words of the prophet Amos quoted by King and the soothing and healing effect of water. It was inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s line, “… we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” from the “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered before the Lincoln Memorial. The memorial is a round stone, an inverted cone in fact, which is also a fountain. A thin film of water flows over the base of the cone, upon which is carved the 40 names of those who died in the cause of civil rights. Touch the smooth film of water with your finger and you temporarily alter the surface flow that quickly returns to smoothness.
Nick Foster described what it’s like to work for justice … he writes: “Imagine water falling down onto a rock. Not a strong, surging stream, but something more like a quiet, trickling flow. It draws no attention to itself. It makes hardly a sound and seems to have little effect on the terrain. But watch over time as this incessant little rivulet washes down onto the hard surface below. Even though it slows sometimes to only a slight drip, it continues to have its effect, and in time changes the surface of the rock, carving a small channel into its seemingly unyielding face.
So it is with the cause of justice. Though it may seem that all efforts to bring it to pass are so meek as to be ineffective, over time the hard surface of injustice wears away…and a way is made for the stream of mercy to flow.”
And so it is in the way we think and live and believe. We can make a difference in the world if we believe in the power of the persistent falling water that insists upon a better world.
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).