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Inaugurating the Dream

Sermon - 1/18/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Malachi 4:1-3

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 the 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 audience?

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 sarcasm there]

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, together."

 

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 ourselves.

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 struggle.

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 Micah.

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.

King writes:

"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 famous letter.

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 Birmingham.

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:

http://usaservice.org/blog/entry/recalling_the_legacy_of_king/

 

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.

 


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