The Fierce Urgency of Now

A sermon delivered during the 2018 Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Birthday Celebration, sponsored by the Black Heritage Library and Multicultural Center of Findlay, Ohio, and held in the sanctuary of the Church of the Living God, Findlay, Ohio, Monday, January 15, 2018.

Last month, I did something that I typically do ever December.  I had my eyes examined.  As in prior years, the optometrist confirmed what I already knew:  I suffer from nearsightedness.  This means I have a hard time focusing on images or words that are far away from me.  When I look ahead at the road signs when driving on I-75, all I see is a colorful blur.  I can’t seem to focus.  Remember that when you see me on the road!

The fact is, many among us and around us suffer from vision issues, yet not all of them have to do with our eyes.  For within many boardrooms and boroughs where decision makers dwell, and within the chambers and corridors where communal power and group privilege intersect, a troubling level of nearsightedness can be detected among many.

Social, economic and political nearsightedness is a condition that blocks many of us from seeing and considering the realities and issues of people we perceive to live far from where we live even if only around the corner or across the railroad tracks.  This condition can lead to personal discounting of their experiences and systemic distortion of their aspirations, just because they happen to have a skin color we are not familiar or comfortable with, or speak language we do not understand, or those who wear a hoodie instead of business attire, or subscribe to a religion that does not enjoy mainstream, star-studded, celebrity status across the land.

Social, economic and political nearsightedness, when left uncorrected, not only disables our ability to see other people, but it spreads to other vital functions. It weakens our hearing to the point where we mute their voices, claiming not to even hear their complaints or record their versions of truth while giving automatic credibility to the narratives of those who possess the power of position and uniform and prioritized skin pigmentation.

This nearsightedness ultimately leads to a cardiac concern, a social heart condition where we withhold care and compassion from the most vulnerable around us while holding fast to an ideology that accepts catastrophic hunger as normal, glorifies greed as a sign of success, and allows bullying to masquerade as political leadership, while crafting make-believe problems like voter fraud, and then devising a real-life draconian solution called Voter ID as a winning political strategy for those who are bankrupt of creative, workable ideas for the common good.

I would submit to you today that too many people in too many communities in too many segments of the human enterprise suffer from social, economic and political nearsightedness and are therefore living unfocused lives, lacking the ability or the desire to see clearly; just feeling their way along, no compelling vision; clear direction, no captivating plan of action.

Accordingly, I maintain that the most under-rated yet significant threat to the societal well-being and human progress is the seemingly growing number of unfocused actors who live day-to-day with no commitment to the common good.

When you suffer from comprehensive nearsightedness, you are a candidate for living an unfocused life; you don’t know what you are, who you are, or why you’re even on the planet.  When you’re living an unfocused life, you’re really not living; you’re just existing, hanging out, settling for that which is simple, and embracing that which is easy, and you hold onto that which makes you and you alone happy, and most of all, you confuse being nice with being just.

The goal of unfocused institutions and organizations, including organized religion, is to produce generations of nice people, people who embrace and espouse a live-and-let-live approach to life.  Here’s the motivation:  the nicer one is, the more rewards one receives.

After all, just last month and every preceding December, so many of us joined together to sing to our children and anyone else who will listen to these well-worn words, “you’d better watch out, you’d better not cry, you’d better not pout, I’m telling you why.  Santa Claus is coming to town.

Here are the money verses (literally!):  He’s making a list and checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty and nice, Santa Claus is coming to town.  He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake.  He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake!”  Who knew that Santa Claus worked for the FBI or Google?

This behavioral national anthem says it all.  Nice people are desired.  Nice people are rewarded.  Why?  Because nice people do not cause any trouble.

They have read the social script and internalized the social contract, which reads in large print:  Just be nice; be a team player; smile; if asked how you’re doing, respond “just fine” even if you have rocking pneumonia and the boogie-woogie flu; speak to people; follow all rules and instructions; worship God once a week; mind your own business; embrace shallowness; and do not under any circumstances ask any probing questions of anyone in authority!

It is this litany of expectations that comprise the gospel of nice.  However, as with prominent prescription drugs that are pushed every hour via television commercials, there are some side effects that come along with simply being nice.

Nice people view their faith adherence as a little else than a personal code of conduct, a sign of social respectability, an individualized self-help system, and a means to eternal life some glad morning when this life is over;

Nice people have memorized Robert’s Rules of Order, and live by their own version of their Miranda Rights:  They reserve the right to remain silent in the face of glaring injustice and group humiliation right across town, around the corner, across the country, and around the world, as such preserves their image as non-controversial beings;

Nice people affirm with enthusiasm that “All Lives Matter” while refusing to take seriously the stories, eye-witness accounts, and cell-phone video clips of those who beg to differ with that affirmation.

Nice people view this very day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a day off, a day to get a good deal on a mattress or a car; or one day out of the entire year to engage in some meaningful, non-nearsighted act of caring.

When one aspires simply to be nice, essentially, that one elects to become somewhat of a societal butter knife, shiny, dull, and non-threatening to anyone.

This is how some broadcasters, politicians, and even religionists have repackaged, remixed, and repurposed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  In a seemingly concerted effort, these pundits have dismissed the fact that Dr. King was a Christian, a Baptist minister whose work for justice was rooted in and demanded by his faith. Moreover, they have whitewashed his anti-racist activism; downplayed his critique of capitalism; ignored his rejection of the Vietnam War; glossed over his disgust with low wages for Black workers; diluted his outrage over the denial of Black people’s right to vote; and looked past his pointed and game-changing rebuke of the silent lambs of White faith groups who criticized him and called him an antagonist.

All of this and more, they have done in order to reduce Dr. King into being a butter knife, a harmless, non-threatening, simple dreamer of a colorblind society.  Thank God that you and I, and millions of others, know better.

While I really do not wish to believe that the nice people I describe here have no compelling vision, pardon me as I suggest just that.  For nice people who live as I have outlined here are essentially agents of the status quo, and when they are in leadership, serve less as leaders and more as curators of the museum of unenacted dreams or worse, managers of credit unions that are often confused as being houses of faith where the benefits of love and acceptance are afforded only to those who fit the membership profile.

Now I am not saying that we should not strive to be pleasant people, and I am not granting permission for anyone to be rude or license for anyone to be insulting. After all, recent signals out of Washington illustrate the clear and present dangers that exist when bigotry is married to political power, and when undisguised hate is given a hall pass by seemingly responsible others who elevate their political viability over what is just and what is right, as they somehow cannot recall vulgarity as spewed from the commander-in-chief.

However, if we are to take Martin Luther King, Jr. Day seriously; if justice is what we truly seek, and if peace is what we honestly aspire to attain, now is the time for us to say to ourselves and to our neighbors domestically and globally that being nice is not enough. Now is the time!

What I am offering here is that there is a problem in being nice as if it were an anesthetic for societal pain or a vaccination from the ills of your neighbors who live across town or across the state in poverty and in a food desert.  I mean to suggest that it is perilous to simply aspire to be nice in order to avoid controversy.

For if we exist only to be nice and hear people say great things about us, we will always live a compromised life.  We cannot be true to the values of God and God’s decisive expectation for justice and goodwill because we are living by the laws of self-preservation.  We, therefore, end up producing generations of faith leaders who know more about Robert and his amazing rules for running a meeting than they do about the expectations of their faith and the needs of people in their contexts and beyond

Dr. King’s ministry centered on his understanding of Jesus and the movement he started.  So then, consider the life of Jesus, as presented particularly in Luke 4.  Jesus was riding the wave of popularity.  He had been running a revival, teaching in Galilee and all throughout the countryside.  Jesus was teaching in synagogue after synagogue.  He was on the preaching circuit, traveling on his camel limousine service, and trailed by Holyland Security. Everybody was seemingly on his side.

However, Jesus refused to live by the social contract!  He was not that blond-haired, blue-eyed, passive “Sweet little Jesus boy” you see so often in religious artwork – given his North African/Mediterranean origins, I do not recognize that image of Jesus.  Biblical Jesus rejected a life of comfort because he lived a life of conviction!  Jesus was not living an unfocused, anything goes kind of life! He didn’t have nearsightedness, but omniscient vision, for he could see the oppressed, those who had been kicked out, locked out, and left out of the mainstream of society.

The Bible says he was filled, not with fear, not with insecurity, not with selfishness, but the Spirit!  And if you remember, the Spirit led him to leave the comfort zone of praise, and go home! (Christians whose praises never lead to protesting injustice make me a bit nervous!)

Jesus went home.  He took the risk of going back to Nazareth where he had been brought up.  He went home where people knew him. And once in worship, he defined himself in the words of the prophet Isaiah, saying that he was anointed to preach good news to the poor;  He was anointed to preach release to the captives.

He was anointed to bring sight to the blind;  He was anointed let the oppressed go free;  He was anointed to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor!  This was life-transforming, systems-altering social justice ministry, the kind that animated and punctuated the ministry of the historic Black church that resisted and fought what Jim Wallis calls, America’s original sin: racism. The Historic Black Church is America’s Original Freedom Institution.

Dr. King helped us to embrace the fact that working for justice is sacred, urgent, authentic work of people of faith, and because of this, I get anxious every January when people in the news media refer to Dr. King only as a “slain Civil Rights leader,” for we all know that he was much more than a slain Civil Rights leader: he was a minister of the radical gospel of Jesus Christ, living out sacred, urgent, authentic ministry as anointed by the Holy Spirit.

So many Christians say they want their congregations to experience transformation, yet what they are really saying is they want to keep them from dying.  I am sympathetic to their aspirations.  However, transformation is not some software program or some app you download and it fixes your faith community; transformation is a spiritual process, where people of faith actually practice their faith and live as God leads them.

The transforming presence of God covers you and changes you, alters you and rearranges you!  When God is with you, you become a new creation!  No longer do you belong to yourself; you are not ruled by concrete, xenophobic conservatism; you are not driven by big talk/little action liberalism; and you definitely don’t participate in anybody’s tea party, no matter how well all their candidates debate; for you transcend party because you belong to God. You are in God’s love/justice movement!

God’s presence gives you the power to risk your respectability, and sacrifice your social status in order to live as Dr. King and so many others did, as agents of holy change!

Dr. King said, “that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth.” He would go on to say, “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

Following Dr. King’s lead, I must affirm that if God is with us, and if we are with God, we will live by a Reverse Miranda ruling, meaning that we will not remain silent in the face of social injustice!

We will not remain silent in an era of obscene sexual harassment in the workplace punctuated by the scandal of paying women less than men who work the same jobs;

We will not remain silent while our loved ones and neighbors succumb to addictions and others suffering from mental illnesses;

We will not remain silent while human trafficking and modern-day slavery consume lives of women, men, and children domestically and globally;

We will not remain silent while hate groups are given new life and a perverse credibility by misguided politicians and underinformed leaders;

Let us speak out until deportations cease and people are given fair pathways to citizenship!

Speak out until everyone, especially the most vulnerable among us, has access to health care and appropriate medical treatment!

Speak out until no one is subject to lose their job of their home because of who they love or their gender identification!

We will speak out until mass incarceration comes to a screeching halt and the death penalty is dismantled!

We will speak out, affirming that yes, all lives matter, yet in an age of systemic racism, White privilege, and related patterns of state-sponsored violence and exclusion, we boldly and unapologetically reject any notion of colorblindness, and we forever assert that Black Lives Matter!

My friends, when I use the term, “we”, I am suggesting that the work for justice and peace has not been assigned to any one race, religion, agency, or neighborhood.

This sacred endeavor is a calling and a responsibility we all share.  For people who identify as progressive or supportive of the common good all know that the work for justice is not an elective course but a core requirement if we as a community will become a beloved community.

As Dr. King asserted in 1958, “Desegregation is only a partial, though necessary step toward the ultimate goal which we seek to realize. Desegregation will break down legal barriers, and bring ‘people’ together physically. But something must happen so as to touch the hearts and souls of ‘people’ that they will come together, not because the law says it, but because it is natural and right. In other words, our ultimate goal is integration which is genuine intergroup and interpersonal living. Only through nonviolence can this goal be attained, for the aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation and the creation of the beloved community.”

So I sat there in the optometrist’s chair, receiving my annual eye examination. Now except for dilation and that dreaded puff of air thing, I thought this ought to be a relatively smooth experience.

What I liked the most about the eye examination was the part where I got to experiment with different lenses.  I felt as if I were on “Let’s Make a Deal” as the doctor asked, “Which lens is better one or two? One or two?  This one or that one?  Ultimately, he asked me one last time, which is better, one or two?  Of course, I chose the lens that helped me attain clear vision, with no fuzziness.

As my doctor read my responses, he added a twist.  He said not only did I need glasses, I needed bifocals!  I said, excuse me!  Don’t you know who I am?  I am Mr. Forever 21!  Cutting through my vanity, he explained to me that if I were going to have clear vision, I needed corrective lenses, even bifocals.  So here I am on this platform tonight, trying to adjust to my new “progressive lens” glasses.

My friends, unlike the false ballistic missile warning for Hawaii, the fragmentation that plagues us, the discrimination that haunts us, and the indifference that weakens us, serve as real threats to the collective wellness and progress of our nation.

In order to turn back the threat, we as a society need corrective lenses! Progressive lenses!  It is time for new vision!

Allow Dr. King to be our optometrist!  Let the light of his life transform our societal darkness, and thus give us a vision where love outdistances fear, hope outruns despair, unity outpaces division and justice outlasts unfairness!

It is a vision where all can triumph and none is trivialized!

Let us commit ourselves to honoring everybody, respecting anybody, serving somebody, and hating nobody!

Allow this vision to cause us to live the words of the old spiritual that Dr. King loved deeply, If I can help somebody as I pass along; if I can cheer somebody with a word or song; if I can show somebody that he or she is traveling wrong, then my living shall not be in vain!  Amen!

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“I thirst,” by Dr. Jack Sullivan, Jr. A Good Friday homily

“I thirst,” by the Reverend Dr. Jack Sullivan, Jr.  A Good Friday Homily. Text: John 19.28.

Three years ago, I preached a sermon while using crutches.  Be assured, they were not props!  They were honest to goodness crutches.  You see, my wife and I had been in a car accident nearly three weeks before.  Our car was totaled but miraculously, we were not.  We escaped with no broken bones or cuts, only bruises.  In fact, a bruise to my left knee was significant enough to require me to use crutches.

The interesting thing about crutches is that when using them, people cannot hide the fact that somehow, they cannot move forward without the assistance that such equipment provides.  The presence of crutches robs us of our ability to play along with America’s most thrilling and captivating reality show called, “Let’s Pretend I’m Perfect!”

Before the wreck, people could extend to me our well-worn cultural greeting/question, “How are you?”, and I could respond with the well-worn cultural response, “I’m well, thanks…and how are you?”, even though I may not have been feeling well at all.  Days after the automobile accident, someone asked me “How are you today?”  With my crutches being visible for all to see, I had to take the risk of honest disclosure and admit that not all was well with me.  This left me feeling vulnerable.

We live by an unwritten and unspoken social contract that calls adherents to project images of strength and self-reliance, and thus avoid at all costs, any public signs of weakness, pain, and vulnerability.  All of this makes me wonder about our society’s portrayal of Jesus.  While I continue to be amazed and somewhat amused that Jesus and other biblical characters with African and Mediterranean roots are almost always cast as European in art and in film, what makes me shake my head even more are the ways Jesus is presented as being accepting and uncritical of patterns of discrimination, racial privilege, poverty, and greed that make visible the deep fissures that divide the human family, fissures that seem to announce that we think our ways of living are above critique.

The sincere spiritual attentiveness of many Christians during Lenten and Holy Week observances indicate that we know our ways of living are not above critique.  Lent set the stage for us as for 40 days, we live our lives under the intense inspection of a Holy God and our faith communities, while seeking to align ourselves more closely with Jesus.  Then, on Good Friday, we contemplate his public death/crucifixion/execution.  How interesting it is that Jesus, the one we call Savior of the World or Immanuel “God-With-Us,” with all the power he possessed and had access to, had the audacity to allow himself to show what we dislike the most: vulnerability, being at-risk, feeling pain, experiencing humiliation, and being assigned a cruel and unusual public death on a rugged cross.

As the life force slowly exited his body, Jesus had the nerve to show a sure sign of his humanness and vulnerability by admitting to people whose job was to destroy him, that he was dehydrated, weak, and dying as he issued these words: I thirst.  He who had the power to quench humanity’s thirst for life, dignity and worth with the living water of love, was signaling his own thirst to those who had already signaled their intent to carry out the state-sponsored cancellation of his life.

The request just opened him to more ridicule for in no way would the soldiers give him water.  Instead, they would give him drops of sour wine from hyssop branches. Yet, no one in the crowd had any idea that God’s subversive conspiracy for human wholeness was unfolding right before their eyes.

On April 15, 2017, one day before the glorious Easter or Resurrection Sunday, Major League Baseball will once more celebrate Jackie Robinson Day.  Management, players, and fans will take time to remember that on April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson, living a life of vulnerability, shattered the ill-conceived apartheid system in baseball by becoming the first African American to play in the Major Leagues.  He endured vicious name calling, segregation in accommodations, threats on his life, just to name a few of his obstacles.  Even so, he displayed dignity, grace, and skill, and would not let the often baptized, unrepentant hate of his era consume him.

During baseball games set for April 15, every player on every team will wear a jersey with the number that Jackie Robinson wore as a player, Number 42.  In this act, Major League Baseball players will identify with a man who through being vulnerable, forever removed the asterisk of racist illegitimacy that had tainted the game, while transforming a nation, and thus enabling Major League Baseball to truly be major.

When Jesus allowed himself to be hoisted up on that cross, in effect he put on our number.  He identified with broken, hurting, and disgraced humanity, and all past, present and future lives disrupted by self-inflicted wounds of arrogance or by private and systemic attacks rooted malice and grounded in contempt.  Jesus put on our number, and thus, embodied God’s subversive conspiracy for human wholeness.

Through the public vulnerability of his execution, punctuated by his admittance of thirst, Jesus gave a clear and compelling message that would ripple across the oceans, echo from mountains to the plains and sweep through every valley, announcing that we need not live in fear and isolation in our homes or in our schools or in our nation.  No longer must we project the veneer of wellness with a make-believe sense of perfection.  We need not live by the spear nor depend on the “mother of all bombs.” Instead, the cross tweets out to us that we must take the risk of being vulnerable, and admit that no matter how rugged our individualism may be, it is not enough.  We need God and we need each other.  We thirst.

When we, the body of Christ, can admit that we thirst, that will be the time when we claim our God-given power to break free from the limitations of party politics, to dismantle oppressive practices carried out under the guise of religious freedom, and to replace the disabling policies of self-interest with liberating concern for all of God’s children. When we can admit that we thirst, we will be able to allow God’s transforming love to not only tweak us but transform us, and help us live more authentically Christian lives, where we put on the number of those who have been held hostage to hate and hopelessness, and pushed to the sidelines and margins of society.

As we embark upon this grand course, we will simultaneously be fitted with a new number, Christ’s number. We will then declare on Public Square in every city and town, every county and every precinct that we will find true and lasting security not in arms designed to kill and maim, but arms designed to hold our neighbors, all of them, and thus heal our land.

Then we can sing with renewed hope for the present, with our eyes on the prize of on a stronger and more faithful future, words made immortal by Isaac Watts, “When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of Glory died, my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.  Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”  Amen.

The Reverend Dr. Jack Sullivan, Jr. is Senior Pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Findlay, Ohio