Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Seeing the Arc Bend

Sermon preached on November 9, 2008 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Amos 8:18-24, Matthew 25:1-13

Martin Luther King, Jr. once quoted a 19th century Unitarian minister named Theodore Parker:

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.[1]

Most of the time this truth is a matter of faith. We simply must trust that it is a description of God’s reality. Once and awhile it is our glory, and God’s, actually to see the bend happening. Such was a time this week.

The prophet Amos preached to ancient Israel, “Let justice roll down like waters..”

This past Tuesday the waters of justice became a little wider and a little deeper.

Today, as we gather for the first time around this Table since the election, we do first and foremost what we come to do every week: give thanks. I found people nearly speechless on Wednesday, and perhaps that is best. To see the arc bend! How many of us thought it was truly possible, even right up to the end? Wow! Glory to God! Amen!

We have been like the bridesmaids in the parable from Matthew this morning, waiting in the meantime. Sometimes, like them, we have fallen asleep, resigning ourselves to the status quo. But we have also, for the most part, kept faith. We have kept our lamps trim. And the bridegroom has come, which is just another metaphor like “seeing the arc of bend toward justice.” It is not, of course, a coming at the end, but it is a coming nevertheless.

Much is being said about the difficult road ahead for our president-elect. We all know it is true. I think one of the most difficult things for him will be the whole set of pressures that surround being “the first.” It was heartening to hear that he is more than aware of this dynamic. Our own Bishop Gene Robinson, himself a significant “first,” has reported that Obama had conversation with him about this reality at least three times over the past year and half or so.[2]

Part of this dynamic will be the reality of presiding within an institution that remains in its actions, if not its words, unsure of your own value. Institutional racism did not die on Tuesday. It took a serious blow, but we would be like the foolish bridesmaids to think that it is dead.

My chief prayer for president-elect Obama (and I invite you to join me in this) is for him to be sustained as he constantly deals with this reality, and that his administration may be a sustained blow to it.

But, related to this, we must remain clear-eyed. As all leaders do, Barack Obama will disappoint us from time to time. He is a politician and at least some of his decisions will be based on expediency. It is the nature of the beast we call government, dealing with competing interests in an extraordinarily diverse and complex country.

Yet we must be cleared-eyed as the prophet Amos. Amos prophesied in a difficult time for prophecy, a time of great peace and prosperity for the great majority of Israel. His call, however, in the midst of seeming abundance, was to point out that this prosperity was built on the backs of a minority, that this peace and prosperity was built on fundamental injustice. It did not make him popular with the king or the majority.

Kings, however, always need prophets. David needed Nathan, Ahab needed Elijah, Jeroboam needed Amos. Obama will need a prophet as well.

It is not clear to me that there is currently a prophet in the land we call America, someone in particular who bears the progressive conscience of the nation. We should pray for one.

In the meantime, we, collectively should be one. The church, in its relationship to the world, in its place in the world, is called to be prophetic, to be the voice that cries for justice in season and out of season. It is our lot, like Amos and like Jesus, to warn that the day of accountability will come, the day when all our expediencies will be judged. We must live in the meantime but we must never settle for it.

The heartening thing for me is that I think president-elect Obama is able to hear the voice of prophecy, and has on occasion himself channeled that voice. I recently read his book, Dreams from My Father and was struck by this line. He was reflecting on the effect Harold Washington, the first black mayor of Chicago, had, particularly on African-Americans in that city.

Like my idea of community organizing, he held out an offer of collective redemption.[3]

“An offer of collective redemption.” It is a wonderful phrase. It is also God’s dream, and the church’s call to proclaim and embody.

There remains justice work to be done to keep moving down the road toward our collective redemption. Just part of this truth is the downside of Tuesday, how lesbian and gay folk took it on the chin in four states, including having rights taken away from them in California. And, as I said, racism is hardly dead in America, even if it is, perhaps, stunned.

There is great work to be done, and we have our call from God to be a part of it.

The hope we feel today is real and to be savored in deep gratitude. Five generations or so after the horrific reality of slavery, an African-American will govern the country as its President. We have, as a people, taken a mighty step forward.

Now it remains to keep moving forward and we must continue to lead the journey. We must continue to build the city of God on earth as it is in heaven.

Can we do this? We learned this week that, by the grace of God, yes we can!

[1] Dr. King quoted the sentence frequently, most notably in a speech to the SLCC on August 16, 1967. Theodore Parker died in 1860.
[2] As reported by Ruth Gledhill online by The Times of London, November 6, 2008. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article5100064.ece
[3] Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Remembrance (2004 edition), p. 158.

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