Monday, January 16, 2017

Swept up to the Mountaintop

A sermon by Rev. Chris Jorgensen
Preached January 15, 2016
At Urban Abbey UMC

Deuteronomy 34:1-4 (excerpted)
Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo...and the Lord showed him the whole land…The Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.”

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his final speech at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968. It is known as his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, and it is so named because it ends with him leaning heavily on the story referenced in our scripture today. In it, God gives Moses a vision, in the sense that God allows Moses to see. Quite literally, he is looking from a mountaintop at the promised land. This is the land that Moses and his people had escaped Pharaoh to get to, that they had wandered in the desert hungry and thirsty for 40 years to get to, that God had promised would be a fruitful land for them to raise their children for generations.

And God takes Moses to the mountaintop and says, “There it is. But you won’t be going there in this life.” You will die here before you can cross over.

This was a poignant story for King to choose to preach the day before he was assassinated. He told it in the midst of the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ strike. The strike was about getting fair wages and employment practices for the black sanitation workers in Memphis, but it was also about something bigger. Its catalyst had been the deaths of two men: Echol Cole who was 36, and Robert Walker who was just 29 years old. It happened on a rainy day in Memphis, a torrentially rainy day. And as the skies opened up, Cole and Walker jumped in the back of a garbage truck, the kind that compacts garbage so it can hold more.

In the heavy downpour, this was the best bad option for what they could do about it. They weren’t allowed to stop working because of bad weather, and they weren’t even allowed to stop and wait out the worst of the rain in the neighborhood they were working in. Historian Taylor Branch explains why. He writes “They faced a hard choice in bad weather because city rules barred shelter stops in residential neighborhoods – after citizen complaints about unsightly “picnics” by Negro sanitation workers.”[1] White people didn’t want to have to be uncomfortable seeing black men stop in their neighborhood, and so these sanitation workers only had the back of the garbage truck for shelter. The front cab was already full of the more senior members of the team. So as they had doubtless done before, Cole and Walker were in the back of the truck with the garbage. And when a freak short in some wires possibly set off by a falling shovel caused the compactor to start crushing the garbage, Branch writes that when the driver “heard screams, he could not slam on the brakes, jump out, and disengage the pushbutton compressor fast enough.”[2]

It was the death of Cole and Walker that highlighted the systemic racism at work: the root of which was white folks’ inability to see black people as fully human. It was reflected in the signs of the striking sanitation workers that insisted “I am a Man!” I am not garbage.

So King went to Memphis. All of King’s work was based in this very simple, very profound, very theological premise. For King, all people deserve freedom and justice because they are children of God – they are fully human and of sacred worth. And like Jesus before him, King aligned himself with those who suffered most, those who were treated as inhuman, and those who were held down in poverty despite the great wealth of our country.

And when I say aligned himself with, I mean he was willing to die for the cause of bringing dignity and freedom and abundance to those who were denied it. In his mountaintop speech, King is quite aware that he is the target of assassins. He knows his time is short, but he does not despair.  His hope lies in God, in the arc of the moral universe toward justice, but his hope also lies in God moving people to do the work. He says, “When people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.”[3]

“When people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.”

King invites us to get caught up in this vision of what is right. In his most famous speech, he invites us to get caught up in his dream of racial equality coming not in some abstract perfect union years in the future but in right there in the red hills of Georgia where white people in the not-so-distant past enslaved black people, and then when slavery was abolished, those same white folks set laws in place to keep them destitute and powerless, and who continue to this day to gerrymander and attack voting rights in order to hold onto power.

And in the years following King’s speech, his view widened, he looked at the North and the perhaps more subtle but equally systemic racism that keeps cities segregated even today, that keeps prisons disproportionately populated by black men whom studies have shown receive harsher sentences than white men for the same crimes,[4] that keeps black infant mortality rates significantly higher than rates for white infants, and that keeps black males having the shortest life expectancy of all ethnic groups to this day.[5]

We are still so far from his dream of equality, still so far from the promised land. But can you see it? Can you see what the world would be like if our cities were actually integrated? Can you see what the world would be like if our nation committed more resources to education and anti-poverty measures than to expanding our prison system? Can you imagine what our society would be like when black people – and poor people – and all minorities – were just as likely to receive high-quality health care as upper middle class white folks? Can you get caught up in that hope?

Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis once wrote (and this quote was in this sermon before Trump even starting tweeting this weekend). Lewis once wrote… “The most important lesson I have learned in the 50 years I have spent working toward the building of a better world is that the true work of social transformation starts within…to truly revolutionize our society, we must first revolutionize ourselves. We must be the change we seek if we are to effectively demand transformation from others.”[6]

I believe we can only get to the promised land as a people if we start by truly recognizing others’ humanity, if we start truly being heartbroken and outraged by the injustice of poverty and racism and sexism and every broken structure that allows some people to suffer and die so that a few other people can be comfortable in their privilege.

For my part, I did not get this until I went to seminary. I truly did not get it until I was a member of a racially and and socio-economically diverse church community. I didn’t get it until I had the privilege to be in community with people who helped me see, helped open my eyes, to their full humanity. So much so that things like the Trayvon Martin shooting actually, viscerally mattered to me. Not in some abstract – it’s-ethically-wrong-to-shoot-unarmed-young-men kind of way – but in a Ruby’s-best-friend-at-Church-of-the-Village-is-a-large-for-his-age 11-year-old-black-boy-and-we-live-in-a-world-where-nervous-white-people-have-created stand-your-ground-laws-where-young-black-men-get-shot-for-wearing-hoodies-in-the-wrong-neighborhood kind-of-way.

It broke my heart. It made me feel guilty because I knew that as a white person, those unjust systems had been created to protect me and my family. And then it made me angry. And it made me resolve to always question whether I am placing my own comfort and privilege over someone else’s ability to simply live.

In the face of our current political and societal mess, I wish I could stand up here and tell you just how we are going to fix it all. I may not be able to do that, but with John Lewis’s words about personal transformation in my mind, I just encourage you to do this:

Be uncomfortable.

Put yourself in places and situations where you can learn more about vulnerable people. Do it even if you are afraid or nervous. Do it even if you feel guilty. Don’t let your fear feed the systems that create other peoples’ poverty, other peoples’ suffering, other peoples’ deaths.

I am asking you to sacrifice your comfort to get caught up in God’s dream. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was willing to sacrifice everything for it because he believed in God, he believed in the collective power of his people, and because he believed in us – that we too would be swept up in this dream - until we all reach the promised land together.

May it be so.