Almost 40 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave voice to a vision. He articulated a dream that many of us still share: a dream of a beloved community, a community gathered at table, a community, he said, where “black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics” would be able to sit together at one table and sing together in one voice: free at last, free at last.
This morning, I want to suggest to you that the work of dreaming is not yet done; the vision of the beloved community is not yet realized; there are yet more places to set at the table of brotherhood … and sisterhood. I have a dream today to share with you.
You see, I am utterly convinced that if Dr. King were alive today, his roll call to the table would have sounded something like this: black people and white people; sisters and brothers, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, gays and straights … singing together, free at last.
Dr. King claimed that his vision was deeply rooted in the American Dream, and so it was. But his vision was also deeply rooted in gospel truth. In expanding his dream today, my vision is deeply rooted in the American Dream. It is deeply rooted in Dr. King’s dream. And it is deeply rooted in gospel truth, as well.
Now some might say it is a risky rhetorical strategy to lay claim to the American Dream at a time when there is shrinking support in legislative halls for expanded protection for gays and lesbians. And some might say it is risky strategy to lay claim to Dr. King’s vision and image knowing full well that King was quite conservative with respect to sexual politics. And still others might say it is risky strategy – indeed might charge that it is heretical -- to lay claim to gospel truth when the church seems bent on narrowing its vision.
Nevertheless, as our denomination debates an amendment to our church constitution that would bar our ministers from performing ceremonies of Holy Union between same-sex couples, the Sunday of the holiday weekend honoring the life and memory of our nation’s greatest prophet of freedom and justice is the right time for some risk taking. It is the right time to say “no” to Amendment O.
So let’s examine these three rhetorical risks and see if we can uncover together a prophetic truth that outstrips all rhetoric just as it touches real lives in our churches.
The first risk is the easiest to answer. Even in the midst of our deepest divisions about church polity, the Presbyterian Church has stood firmly for full civil rights and protections for sexual minorities. We do not struggle there. We proclaim with one voice – albeit a bit of a weak one from some quarters in the church – that all Americans are entitled to their full claim on the American Dream. So my vision is deeply rooted in the American Dream.
The second risk is a bit tougher, because here we are moving into the realm of interpretation. King died before the sexual revolution made it remotely possible for gays to leave the closet and lay claim to full civil rights, much less full ecclesial ones. But in choosing this day to speak to these issues, I am in pretty good company. Members of Dr. King’s family, including Coretta Scott King, and many of his closest aides have argued persuasively that Dr. King’s vision of the beloved community was evolving at the time of his assassination, and they believe he would have been out front in the march toward justice for sexual minorities.
In his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King answered his white clergy critics who had called him an “outside agitator,” saying, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”
For Christians, any understanding of justice must be based on love. Dr. King understood this and preached it often. In his letter from jail, King challenged the church to join the struggle, because his dream was founded first and foremost on that gospel truth of justice based on love.
Unfortunately, in the midst of the current crisis, it is precisely the church that is framing issues of justice on a legalistic interpretation of a handful of passages of scripture, while ignoring the very real pain suffered by individuals who are locked out, left behind, ignored, scorned and even hatefully spited because of their sexual identity. And this injustice is done in the name of a certain conception of the gospel.
So my most risky rhetorical strategy is to lay claim to that same gospel truth. But truly, this is the only claim that matters.
Now some will argue that scripture is clear with respect to issues of homosexual behavior. Those who disagree with me – and let’s be clear: there are many who do -- will point to the Sodom and Gomorrah story, to the Leviticus Holiness Codes, and to Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Corinthians as the seven citations of the Biblical witness against homosexuals. There are almost as many interpretations of these passages as there are interpreters. And the interpretations vary widely with respect to meaning, context and centrality of the passages.
But without dragging through the mud of exegesis here, let us at least agree that what’s going on here is precisely that: the interpretation of texts. I am interpreting several this morning: the “text” of the American Dream; the “text” of Dr. King’s dream; and the “text” of gospel truth. We cannot come to any text – holy scripture or the Sunday Times – without interpreting.
Let us also agree that the central text at stake – the Biblical text – is inherently a living text. It is the live word of the living God, as the theologian Walter Brueggeman puts it. And the evangelical truth of scripture is focused on and lives out of its main claims not its lesser claims, as Brueggeman argued last fall at East Liberty. The dispute lies here: what is central, what is provisional in scripture?
The sodomy of the Sodom and Gomorrah story, the particulars of the holiness codes, the examples in Romans and Corinthians are lesser claims, just as those passages that for so many years were used to deny women their rightful and ordained places of leadership in the church are lesser claims. Issues of context and translation support that claim strongly although we do not have the time this morning to trace out the arguments.
Indeed, as the Methodist clergywoman Maurine Waun writes, “The pain of sexual minorities is, at this moment, so ponderous and so enormous that the church is missing the mark by not even daring to look beyond the scriptural debate toward the hurts and issues of persons who are bravely and genuinely struggling in their everyday experience.”
No matter where you stand on Amendment O, or on ordination standards, these genuine struggles – and this deeply felt hurt – compel us to be welcoming and open to individuals in this house no matter what their sexual orientation.
Looking beyond the scriptural debate, however, does not necessitate looking beyond scripture. Our passages this morning from Amos and Isaiah are central. They are central to my sense of call and ministry. They are central to my understanding of justice. They are central to my understanding of gospel truth.
We must come to these texts with imagination. We are called to do so, and we do so all the time. Through our faithful imaginations the live word of the living God moves beyond itself in ways that were previously unavailable to the community of faith. Dr. King imagined a beloved community in which, as Amos said, “justice would roll down like water and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” Dr. King dreamed that “every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places shall be made plain, and the crooked places shall me made straight and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” Now Amos, in chapter 5, and Isaiah, in chapter 40, were not thinking about Martin Luther King having a dream … but he did.
And now, so we are called to dream, to catch the wind of the Holy Spirit blowing afresh and anew and carrying us toward the beloved community. We stand, on this Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday Sunday morning, in a long line of heroes of the faith who have caught the wind and walked with it.
Congressman John Lewis, who, as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in August of 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial delivered the speech preceding Dr. King’s, relates a story in the introduction to his memoir of the Civil Rights Movement. Now you should know that John Lewis is, along with Dr. King, one of my heroes of the faith. Lewis was born less than 100 miles from where I was born. And this story goes back to his rural Alabama roots. Let me read it to you:
On this particular afternoon – it was a Saturday, I’m almost certain – about fifteen of us children were outside my Aunt Seneva’s house, playing in her dirt yard. The sky began clouding over, the wind started picking up, lightning flashed far off in the distance, and suddenly I wasn’t thinking about playing anymore; I was terrified. I had already seen what lightning could do. I’d seen fields catch on fire after a hit to a haystack. I’d watched trees actually explode when a bolt of lightning struck them, the sap inside rising to an instant boil, the trunk swelling until it burst its bark. The sight of those strips of pine bark snaking through the air like ribbons was both fascinating and horrifying.
Lightning terrified me, and so did thunder. My mother used to gather us around her whenever we heard thunder and she’d tell us to hush, be still now, because God was doing his work. That was what thunder was, my mother said. It was the sound of God doing his work.
But my mother wasn’t with us on this particular afternoon. Aunt Seneva was the only adult around, and as the sky blackened and the wind grew stronger, she herded us all inside.
Her house was not the biggest place around, and it seemed even smaller with so many children squeezed inside. Small and surprisingly quiet. All of the shouting and laughter that had been going on earlier, outside, had stopped. The wind was howling now, and the house was starting to shake. We were scared. Even Aunt Seneva was scared.
And then it got worse. Now the house was beginning to sway. The wood plank flooring beneath us began to bend. And then, a corner of the room started lifting up.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. None of us could. This storm was actually pulling the house toward the sky. With us inside it.
That was when Aunt Seneva told us to clasp hands. Line us and hold hands, she said, and we did as we were told. Then she had us walk as a group toward the corner of the room that was rising. From the kitchen to the front of the house we walked, the wind screaming outside, sheets of rain beating on the tin roof. Then we walked back in the other direction, as another end of the house began to lift.
And so it went, back and forth, fifteen children walking with the wind, holding that trembling house down with the weight of our small bodies.
More than half a century has passed since that day, and it has struck me more than once over those many years that our society is not unlike the children in that house, rocked again and again by the winds of one storm or another, the walls around us seeming at times as if they might fly apart.
It seemed that way in the 1960s, at the height of the civil rights movement, when America itself felt as if it might burst at the seams – so much tension, so many storms. But the people of conscience never left the house. They never ran away. They stayed, they came together and they did the best they could, clasping hands and moving toward the corner of the house that was the weakest.
And then another corner would lift, and we would go there.
And eventually, inevitably, the storm would settle, and the house would still stand.
But we knew another storm would come, and we would have to do it all over again.
And we did.
And we still do, all of us. You and I.
Children holding hands, walking with the wind.
Today in the church we are buffeted by winds of strife. That wind, that strife, threatens to tear the house apart. The splinters are evident already and when the wind of strife blows them they strike deep wounds into individuals in the house.
But we are called, by another wind, to join hands, to walk with the wind and to hold the house together. For in the midst of the wind there is a dream. In the center of the house rests a table. And around the table, we can still be gathered: black folks and white folks, Protestants and Catholics, gays and straights -- one people sharing one hope, one faith, one Lord. Free at last. Free at last.