The text I chose for
this morning is found on the very last page of the Old Testament.
It's the 4th chapter of Malachi:
See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. 2But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. 3And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.
I invite you to take just a moment this
morning to ponder with me one rather astonishing fact: Tuesday
afternoon, sometime around 2:00 p.m. Eastern standard time, 400 years
after the first ships loaded with slaves arrived at the shores of this
land, 143 years after the 13th amendment to the constitution made
slavery unconstitutional, 55 years after Brown vs the Board of Education
made segregation in our schools illegal, 45 years after the Civil Rights
Act was passed, three descendents of slaves, along with the father of
the family, will become the residents of the White House.
I had a call yesterday from Henry
Luvert, who I've known ever since coming to Eugene 17 years ago. A
small business owner, had a computer shop just around the corner, rented
a parking space from us. Henry is the chairperson for the local
chapter of the NAACP that has its offices in our basement. He was
looking for their banner to use for the parade Monday, here in town.
We had moved some of his stuff and had forgotten to tell them where we
put it. So I came down and we were searching around the basement
of the church before we finally found it, and he's going through the
boxes there and started reminiscing. It reminded him of some
pictures he had recently found in his home of the early 1960s when they
had some civil rights marches here in Eugene. Looking at those
pictures (all in black-and-white, of course) and remembering that time,
it seemed like a different lifetime, a different world.
Pondering, now, to where we have come,
and shared with me the reason he was excited and the reason he was here
yesterday is because tomorrow he's flying to Washington D.C. for the
inauguration. He was one of the guys that lucked out, and got
seats fairly close to the front. He said to witness the event --
to literally have 'front-row' seats -- for an event that he never
dreamed would ever happen in his lifetime, and now to be a participant
in it was beyond his wildest imagination, his wildest dream.
Henry is a member, by the way, of the
Power House ministries that is worshiping next door in our chapel.
I had not planned to give this sermon.
When I picked topics (just a week ago) for the year, and I picked the
topic for this Sunday, looking at the lectionary, I had planned
something entirely different. But as the week wore on and more &
more people asked me 'Are you going to watch?', and I heard of different
events that were being rescheduled and moved, volunteers and office
people were asking for time off or a T.V. set to watch it. Then
announcement from our General Minister and President came, that
she's been selected to be the preacher at the Wednesday morning National
Prayer Breakfast. The final straw came when the daughter of
Lorraine Oliver called me to plan for her memorial service (Lorraine, a
long-time member of this church, passed away a few weeks ago), she said
they'd like to hold the service on Tuesday, but do you think if we
waited until 3:00 p.m. in the afternoon that would allow people to watch
the inauguration? Here is a woman planning her mother's memorial
service, more concerned about interfering with the inauguration.
And it dawned on me (you know, I never
pay attention to these things J)
it really doesn't matter if you're Republican or Democrat, this day is
not about who won and who lost. And I think the theme for Dr.
Watkins sermon on Wednesday morning says it all -- she says her message
will 'seek to call us to believe in something bigger than ourselves'.
That includes all of us.
I want to play for you the news clip
from the Indianapolis news station that talks about her selection:
click here to view (please note that you have to watch a 10-second
'commercial' before the news story).
Can you imagine having that kind of an
And I want to make absolutely clear,
and I think Dr. Watkins would agree with this, this isn't about
endorsing the election of the President, or endorsing his policies.
I found myself already at odds with him over his stance on Gaza -- a
group of interfaith religious leaders including one of our local Rabbi's
went to Senator Wyden's office this week to talk with his staff about
what is happening in Gaza, but the response we heard from his staff was
'well, we understand from President-elect Obama that his first priority
will be the economy, and then, after we've taken care of that, then
maybe we can focus on Gaza'. And we say "no, that's not good
enough" and that we expect more, this has to be a top priority if we're
going to see peace in the Middle East.
What I have found most striking is what
this day means to so many people around the world. As many of you
know, I was in Bethlehem early last year in March, and I was visiting a
small business owner. I think this was just before 'Super
Tuesday', the primaries were heating up. And this man, who was the
employer of the woman I was visiting in Bethlehem, asked me about
Senator Obama. He asked if there's any chance he could be elected.
I said, yeah, I actually thought there was a chance. And he
"corrected" me -- he said "No, there's not!" He said "That will
never happen in the United States because your government will not allow
it to happen".
Think what a powerful lesson this is
for many people around the world about the power of democracy, and the
hope that it gives them that change is indeed possible, not just for us,
but for them as well.
Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the
contenders for the Republican nomination, who campaigned hard for
Senator John McCain (after Graham dropped out of the race) has just
returned from a 5-day fact-finding tour in Afghanistan, Iraq, and
Pakistan. In his press conference three days ago, he said:
"I cannot tell you how much
enthusiasm we saw for this new President. The President's
popularity and the respect that he has earned throughout the world
gives America a chance to re-engage not only in the region but in a
way that will, in the long-term, make this job easier and take some
pressure off our troops".
So what does this day represent for us?
Is this inauguration really all that different from any before?
Yes, I think it really is. I
think it's very significant. And you don't have to be a Democrat
to appreciate it. You don't have to support any of the policies of
the President to understand the significance of this day.
Don Kahle summed it up well in his
column on Friday in the Register Guard. He wrote:
"Some of us remember the
moment when we put a man on the moon. This will be like that.
A "where were you when" kind of moment. Going to the moon was a goal
our nation focused on for almost 10 years before we did it. Showing
that all men are created equal, regardless of race, has taken
slightly longer." [a little
And then, making the connection to the
holiday tomorrow, he wrote:
"Martin Luther King Jr.
would have been 80 years
old Thursday. He was
gunned down before he
got halfway there.
Monday is a day we’ve
set aside to honor his
memory. Tuesday will
honor the work we’ve all
done since then,
And I want to emphasize the "all" in
that statement. Even Republicans who worked to elect John McCain,
even the Libertarians, and the Greens, and all the others who worked to
elect their candidates contributed to this day in the best way that is
possible, because it's not about the success of 1 man, it's about the
success of the democratic process and the fact that change in this
country does happen in the power of the ballot and not the power of the
gun. And that is huge in our world.
So this is truly a moment in which we
can all be proud, regardless of who we supported. For change is
happening in our country that is much bigger, as Dr. Watkins says, than
Tomorrow, as we celebrate the Martin
Luther King holiday, I want to share just one illustration of how far we
have come as a nation. A story from Dr. King's remarkable life and
Just as his "I Have a Dream" speech is
his most well-known speech, his letter from the Birmingham jail is
perhaps his most well-known writing. It is incredibly power, it
was a prophetic work that ranks right up there with Amos, Hosea, and
The story I want to share with you is
how Dr. King came to be in that jail when he wrote that letter.
Birmingham was called the most segregated city in all of the United
States. It actually closed its parks and disbanded its baseball
team rather than to allow them to be integrated as required by federal
courts. It was illegal in the city of Birmingham for blacks and
whites to sit down at the same lunch counter. A U.S. Senator was
arrested for walking through a door (quite intentionally, I'm sure) that
was marked for "coloreds". And so they arrested him.
The NAACP was outlawed in the entire
state of Alabama as a 'foreign' corporation. From 1957 to 1963,
there were 17 unsolved bombings of black churches and the homes of civil
rights leaders. And even though two-thirds (66%) of the population
of Birmingham at that time were black, only 10% of the electorate were
African-Americans (because of all the obstacles that were put in place
to keep them from registering to vote).
And so the Southern Christian
Leadership Conference, led by Dr. King, decided on a boycott of the
white businesses of Birmingham in April of 1963. They began a
series of sit-ins at lunch counters and marches on City Hall. The
participants in those demonstrations were required to sign a statement
of the '10 Commandments' of the movement, which said (in part):
- Meditate daily on the teachings
and life of Jesus.
- Walk and talk in the manner of
love, for God is love.
- Pray daily to be used by God in
order that all people might be free.
- Observe with both friend and foe
the ordinary rules of courtesy.
- Seek to perform regular service
for others and for the world.
- Refrain from violence of fist, of
tongue, and of heart.
Each day, more and more of these
non-violent demonstrators who had signed that pledge presented
themselves to be arrested. Money had been raised in advance to
secure their release by posting bonds for those who chose to be
released. The plan was to build up to a large march on Good
Friday, when Dr. King and the other leaders of the movement themselves
would be arrested. By that time there were 300 still being held in
the jails of Birmingham who had previously been arrested.
Thursday night, word came from the city
Bondsman that the city no longer had funds to post the bonds. And
the movement did not have the funds to post the 100% of the bond that
would otherwise be required. And so on Friday morning, King met
with 24 leaders of the march, who pleaded with him not to proceed with
the plan. Because, they said, we need you to be out there, to be
our spokesperson, to be the one raising the money so that we can free
the rest of our brothers and sisters from jail.
"I sat in the midst of the
deepest quiet I have ever felt. With two dozen others in the
room, there comes a time in the atmosphere of leadership when a man
surrounded by loyal friends and allies realizes he has come
face-to-face with himself. I was alone in that crowded room.
I walked to another room in
the back of the suite and stood in the center of the floor. I
think I was standing also at the center of all that my life had
brought me to be. I thought of the 24 people waiting in the
next room. I thought of the 300 waiting in prison. I
thought of the Birmingham negro community, waiting.
Then my mind leaped beyond
the motel, past the city jail, past city lines and state lines.
I thought of the 20 million black people who dreamed that someday
they might be able to cross the Red Sea of injustice and find their
way to the promised land of integration and freedom. There was
no more room for doubt".
And so he went ahead with the plan.
And it was on Good Friday, 1963, that Dr. King was arrested with
absolutely no idea when he might be freed. And there he wrote his
He was not released until Harry
Belafonte, the famous singer, raised $50,000 to free him and the others
8 days later. When his attorney brought him that news, he said:
"I found it hard to say what
I felt. His message brought me more than relief from the
immediate concern about money, more than gratitude for the loyalty
of friends far away, more than confirmation that the light of the
movement could not be snuffed out. What silenced me was a
profound sense of awe.
I had never been truly in
solitary confinement. God's companionship does not stop at the
door of a jail cell. I don't know whether the sun was shining
at that moment, but I know that once again I could see the light".
Shortly thereafter, the infamous
confrontation with Sheriff Bull Connor changed the heart of the nation.
Subsequent actions of President Kennedy to federalize the Alabama
National Guard, taking the authority away from Governor George Wallace,
sent the final signal to the city leaders of Birmingham, who agreed to
the conditions set forth by the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference, and segregation and the boycott came to an end in
That summer, Dr. King articulated his
dream on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial:
"I have a dream today that
one day, right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls
will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white
girls as sisters and brothers".
Come Tuesday, the children of the
President of the United States, together with their playmates from their
school, will make that dream a reality in the White House itself.
What a powerful symbol for our country.
When I first read the code names given
by the Secret Service (you know, big tough guys carrying guns) for those
two little girls -- Radiance and Rosebud -- using those names of
affection for those two girls. How powerful that is.
Malachi's vision in the very final
chapter of the Old Testament is of the triumph of good over evil.
When the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings and we
shall go out leaping with joy like calves released out of the stall.
The light that Dr. King saw from that
Birmingham jail cell was indeed from the rising of that sun. The
healing of that terrible wound which runs throughout our entire history,
from the landing of that first slave ship in 1620 to the assassination
of Dr. King on Maundy Thursday 1968, has now finally begun in earnest.
So yes, this is truly a remarkable new
day that should make us all proud to be citizens of this country and
proud of the legacy of Dr. King as a Christian minister and civil rights
leader who set forth the dream, to make it possible.
Dr. King often talked about the
importance of being a servant, of following the example of Jesus.
And so I'd like to end this morning with an 'altar call' of sorts, not
just for us but for our entire nation. And it comes from two
people who worked with Dr. King, became politicians, and one who has
taken up his call:
I invite you to do something good, to
do something great. I think the more important day is not Tuesday
but it's really tomorrow. Join with us in the march, or the other
events, the dedication of the Rosa Parks statue right next door at the
LTD station. But to make it about giving, a life of service.
This is what we are called to do and to
be as the people of God.
May it so be.