In 1968, Easter fell on April 14th. Two weeks earlier, on March 31st, Martin Luther King, Jr, preached his final Sunday sermon at the Washington National Cathedral. Of course, he didn’t know it was his last. But that week, ten days before Easter, he was murdered in Memphis.
In his sermon at the National Cathedral, along with his scriptural references, King told of Rip Van Winkle, the man who slept for twenty years and missed the American Revolution, in the old story by Washington Irving. Rip Van Winkle, who awoke to find the world changed, and didn’t know what to do with it. He was so beside himself that he wondered at his own identity; whether he were, in fact, the man he thought he was.
Thomas, Jesus’ disciple, was not gone more than a few hours, we might surmise from the gospel, but he, too, returned to find an unimaginable revolution in circumstance, in worldview. “Jesus is risen! The Lord is alive!” his fellow disciples told him, and Thomas was as bewildered, as confused, as lost to reason as Rip Van Winkle. He didn’t know how he had left the house locked up in one world, and returned to find it in quite another, one door open to the kingdom of God.
Fifty years have passed, now, since King’s sermon at the Cathedral, and his subsequent assassination. If this death of his had been but sleep, as some of the poets say, and he were to awaken and return today, I wonder if he would be in any way disturbed by the kind of revolution whose results met Rip Van Winkle, or Thomas the apostle. My fear is that, beneath the cinematic sequences of technology and fashion, he would find things all too familiar.
“Through our scientific and technological genius,” King preached fifty years ago, “we have made of this world a neighborhood, and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. “ How many sermons and opinions have you heard and read just recently on how technology, which ought to unite us by its increasing connections, is driving us apart? And yes, it also helps us to organize and to galvanize; but have we yet found the “ethical commitment” to make it an instrument exclusively of truth, justice, and love for the good of the whole human neighbourhood? Hardly.
“Secondly,” said King, “we are challenged to eradicate the last vestiges of racial injustice from our nation.” The last vestiges, he said, and fifty years later one could weep at how optimistic that phrase sounds.
Related to our racism, King preached, is our failure to use the technologies and resources at our disposal to eliminate the shameful poverty that should not have existed by the second half of the twentieth century in a country like America; that should not persist in twenty-first century America; that should not be systematically poisoning children with lead or letting them go to bed hungry. Related to our racism, we might add, is our failure to serve our Puerto Rican citizens as kindly as we might their counterparts in a mainland Port Richey, or our failure to attend to infant and maternal mortality rates that have no place in a highly developed and well-resourced society.
King told his congregation at the Washington National Cathedral, “We must come to see that the roots of racism are very deep in our country, and there must be something positive and massive in order to get rid of all the effects of racism and the tragedies of racial injustice …
Something positive must be done. Everyone must share in the guilt as individuals and as institutions. The government must certainly share the guilt; individuals must share the guilt;” he said, “even the church must share the guilt.”
When we fail to call out the tragedies of racial injustice that fall around our eyes and ears every day – the killing of black men like Stephon Clark and Saheed Vassell, just the latest in too long a list of names of unarmed black men killed by a well-armed police force that fears them; when we fail to prosecute the deaths of black children like Tamir Rice, or to protect black children like Trayvon Martin and Hadiyah Pendleton, or to weep for black and brown children dying daily of random violence on their own streets as loudly and as long as for their white classmates; when we deny by our silence and our inaction that black lives matter then yes, we as individuals and we as the institution of the church share guilt over the failure to eradicate the last vestiges of racial injustice from our nation.
And another thing – and by the way, how do I dare continue quoting King? I dare because he was a preacher, and this is the gospel, and so another thing – “I want to say,” said King, “one other challenge that we face is simply that we must find an alternative to war and bloodshed. … It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.”
And while he was addressing an international situation which has itself plenty of echoes today, would he not apply the same sentiment to the way in which, in fifty years, we have allowed our personal weapons of war to isolate us even further from one another; instead of becoming our brother’s keeper to distance ourselves from him by the length of a gunshot; such a gunshot as killed King?
In the fiction, Rip Van Winkle awoke after twenty years to find society so changed that he barely knew himself. In the gospel, Thomas went out for bread, and came back to a post-resurrection revolution that he hardly recognized. After fifty years, how far has our national narrative changed its course?
We are not here to change the nation, of course; that is not the job of the church. Not only the nation; no, we are here to change the world, beginning right where we stand; to bring the whole of creation into the knowledge of the reconciling love of the Risen Christ, to awaken the senses and the sensibility of this church, this community, this nation, and the whole world know that God is love, to know that God’s mercy is mighty, to know that Christ is risen, and will not be downtrodden; will not, even by death, be defeated.
Thomas’ little story tells us that even if we missed it, resurrection has happened. If we slept through it, the revolution is real. Whether we recognize our place in it, whether we believe in it or not, the kingdom of God is at hand, close enough for us to feel it. Will we deny it, or turn our backs and sleep on it? Or will we embrace it, crying out to the Risen Christ to lead us into the Promised Land?
Thanks be to our Lord Jesus Christ, who will not let our souls sleep in their sin and sloth, but who comes back to awaken us as often as he is needed, to touch and be touched, to love and be loved, to breathe new life into old dreams, and to lead us into the way of light and life.