The view from King’s mountaintop. Deuteronomy 34:1-8 The Lord said to Moses,“I have let you see the Promised Land, but you shall not cross over there.”
Martin Luther King saw everything very clearly. He always did. He saw it all very clearly that April night in 1968 in Memphis where he went to support the striking sanitation workers. Exactly one year before, to the day, King had given a speech at Riverside Church in NYC denouncing the war in Vietnam. That speech probably sealed his fate, and he knew it—King saw everything very clearly. He always knew who he was dealing with, as Blacks in this White society all do.
That April night, with a thunder storm threatening, King assured his audience that longevity was of no concern to him. Because, he had been to the mountaintop. He had reached heights from which to see the goal, he could see the Promised Land. He could see clearly that night, that to which he had dedicated his life, even though he would not experience the hoped for fulfilment along with everybody else. On what turned out to be the last night of his life, Rev. King was referring to Moses who had brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and through the travail of the wilderness to freedom. Moses only got to Mt. Nebo overlooking the Jordan River and Jericho and further. He would die before the entrance into the Promised Land, and another would lead the Israelites to the goal, which King saw very clearly was to be his fate as well. “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
King’s view from the mountaintop contained God’s purpose for him–a peaceable kingdom, the beloved community. King felt it in his bones, he knew it in his soul, very clearly could he see the goal. Having a vision colors everything around you and puts everything very clearly in perspective. His voice shook with emotion that night, he saw very clearly the danger he was in, but he never wavered from his purpose. God allowed him to reach the mountaintop. But no further. We don’t know why. Except that in King’s case, the forces against him which he had always seen, closed in. We are most familiar with King through his public addresses with the unique cadences of his oratory, as in the Memphis speech. But we are less familiar with his writing. It was always an education to listen to him, but it’s even more true when reading him. That King saw clearly what America aspired to be and what America actually was comes across even more so in his writing, revealing not only a visionary man, but a sober analyst who understood precisely the enormity of the evil against which God called him to fight. The book chosen as the theme for tomorrow’s Newton King Day observance is “Where Do We Go from Here–Chaos or Community” is a case in point.
King was an equal opportunity critic. He nailed white liberals who are never sure they want to pay the price of their convictions. In a prescient anticipation of January 6th, he nailed the white supremacist, who, he wrote, held that “democracy was not worth having if it involves equality with the Negro.” He wrote that in 1967, and today we are seeing that demonstrated in real time. Better to trash the government and the benefits of democracy if we must share this country with Blacks.
Reading Rev. King, you encounter a poetic mind, a phrase maker, using parallelism, paradox, searching analysis, and biblical clinchers. He draws extensively from philosophers and theologians, from history and historical sources. His reading of history, for instance, taught him that “the hope of the world is in dedicated minorities.” Who should take note of this insight? King was urging the churches to rediscover their (our) prophetic vocation and to “lift up their voices like a trumpet.” King cited a distinction made between the enforceable obligations of a society, laws like the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act that he fought for, on the one hand, and the unenforceable obligations of the heart and soul, on the other. Changing hearts and souls lies in the religious domain.
Expanding access to the right to vote, of course, was Martin Luther King’s great success, but fifty years later, in the wake of Citizens United and after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, with white supremacy invading the Capitol, with Christian nationalism in religious ascendancy, the fight is back on to protect free and open access to the ballot. The very integrity of our elections must be secured all over again. The landscape has changed since King wrote. Black Power of King’s day has been replaced by rap, the new Freedom song. Today, post-George Floyd police murder, whites know the score all too clearly, even if many do not admit it. A magnifying glass has been put to the absolutely appalling history whites have put Blacks through every year of the last 400 years since 1619. In the book of that title, a project of the New York Times by Prof. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the record is very clear. Only facing and owning such bitter truths will make America free. But you can be sure, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King clearly saw everything recorded in this book, and knew what he was up against.
Now we are the owners of that knowledge, and white privilege is howling out about critical race theory. They know it’s true, Everybody knows, we live in the aftermath of slavery. Its effects must be reversed. The descendants of the enslaved must be acknowledged for their history, respected for their humanity, and compensated for their loss. Nobody knows what form or value this might take, but it cannot be determined without full and fair study and debate. H.R. 40, a bill to fund the study of reparations for slavery has yet to be passed in the U.S. Congress. The way things look today, it never will pass. Therefore, reparations to Blacks and Indigenous peoples may fall into the zone of those unenforceable obligations which belong to religious communities like ours. It will be our job to open people’s hearts and souls to the obligation to make right these mangled relationships. Start by getting over this “where’s-the-money-coming-from-and-who-is-going-to-be-paid” mentality. There’s a petty quid-pro-quo logic out there that just stops the conversation. Let’s replace the word “reparation” with “repair.” Repair regressive legislation. Think of strategic, structural changes like changing the way we fund public education. Repair urban communities–that’s why Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries was founded by Chuck Harper. King and James Baldwin spoke the same language, which is our language–“Blacks and whites are part of each other.” The whole challenge has now been forced back into the territory of the religious institutions.
Whoever chose the sculptor and image of Martin Luther King for his memorial in Washington, they did the right thing. It looks as though Rev. King were thinking, “Well, America, what are you going to do now? And, Eliot Church in Newton, just what do you plan to do about racism in America?” So let’s join Rev. King on the mountaintop, even if we, like him, don’t get to the Promised Land. Let your vision be clear and God’s purpose firm in your heart.
Seems like all we talked about in December through Christmas was light–now it’s water, another universal symbol. I.
John August Swanson’s composition on the cover of this morning’s bulletin is called “The River.” His river follows the many uses that any river has for people. He shows the essential roles a river plays in society, health, and culture. The painting culminates, at the bottom, in Christ’s baptism in that river with the Holy Spirit of God adding a blessing. The river Swanson depicted has no particular identity, although it could be the River Jordan.
What matters are all the activities, human and natural, that take place because of it–irrigating, bathing, playing, watering stock, dying clothes (?) and–the act of consecrating Jesus. Water itself blesses human life, as much in its ordinary uses as in sacred ones. Water gives life in every dimension.
During the four years I lived in Los Angeles, I was acquainted with John Swanson [see Appendix]. I admired his work and I admired him, so I was very sad to learn of his death last September. His art often depicts an idealized world, not to prettify reality, but to proclaim what it should be and to reveal what it is at its core. John Swanson’s art declares that God means for us to survive the trials of life and to triumph over them. God sets a baseline, a norm, upon which to judge ourselves.
Our scripture passage from Isaiah this morning declares, Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
How can this be, or is it all just wishful thinking? No, it’s not wishful thinking, unless you read Isaiah to mean that God steps between us and nature, which is not Isaiah’s belief. He is simply saying that injury and harm are not in the divine program, except when we default.
In the case of “The River,” and in Swanson’s art generally, the artist shames today’s America by contrast with the divine program depicted there. America, where we fight over the precious, depleted waters of the Colorado River. America, where we allow Detroit children to be poisoned by lead in their water. Where the corporations despoil our rivers with their pollutants. America, where water drowns cities without proper hurricane protection. Where we have not responded adequately to the rising sea levels due to climate change.
Default need not be our fate, so declares John August Swanson. This need not be our fate, so declares the prophet Isaiah. This need not be our fate, so thunders God in our ears. It only lacks for there to be a people, any people, who will consecrate themselves to God’s promise, as Jesus did. This need not be our fate.
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. You are mine.
II. Jesus stepped forward when he heard John preaching at the River Jordan. John was calling for people to depart from business as usual and embrace another life-style. John warned, “The ax is ready for trees that don’t bear spiritual fruit.”
Whatever spiritual maturation Jesus had been going through in his 20s, he heard his call to action at the River Jordan. Only, this was happening at the time of more civil unrest in Israel. Bands of zealots were raiding and marauding Roman installations. Executions were common.
John the Baptist was thought to be among the insurrectionists, but Jesus saw that John had more profound, spiritual ideas, and in the midst of dangerous turmoil Jesus stepped forward risking being mistaken for insurrectionists. They both were, and both were killed. So, the decisive moment was Jesus’ baptism.
Baptism is a ritual borrowed from ancient practices of ablution performed in many different cultures and religions. For followers of Christ, it isn’t about getting clean, like, “I want to wash that man right out of my hair,” or as when the impurities of living can be dissolved in water to be drained down the bathtub drain.
Unless you mean “cleaning up your act.” Getting right with God is the point.
How is that possible in standard Christian practice today? The act of baptism is supposed to be public and voluntary, as it was in the first three centuries. It took great preparation to be admitted for baptism, which took place at the Easter Vigil. Catechumens went through a long preparation for this event.
However, as later theologians focused on the state of the soul, it was imagined that performing this act was a minimum requirement for salvation. So, it was deemed necessary to baptize infants, lest they should die without benefit of grace. This magical thinking borders on superstition, of which there is a lot in Christianity.
Nevertheless: it is good that someone has said these words over a newborn’s head:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; You are mine.
But infant baptism cheated us out of the decision that Jesus himself made–a public and voluntary commitment to God. Today few of us remember our baptisms. Confirmation is supposed to enlist our assent to what baptism did for us, except it turns out in many denominations to be just an academic exercise serving as induction to the church community. It is in some denominations a condition of receiving communion.
Christian life lacks the public opportunity Jesus had to align himself actively with God’s will. Baptism should express our wish, or decision to live a godly life in a ritual that galvanizes the will.
Is there anything else comparable that accomplishes the same thing? The altar call? The renewal of one’s marriage vows? There are not many rites of passage left in secular society like baptism. What can we do to duplicate it? How are we to respond to John’s admonition: The ax is ready for trees that don’t bear spiritual fruit.
What would you do if you needed to reinforce your commitment to, say, democracy? A vigil, a demonstration, like last Thursday night? The peaceful demonstration may be the modern sacrament. Think of the march on Selma, or the 1963 March on Washington.
By the same token, what would you do if you needed to reinforce your commitment to Eliot Church? Do we have a ritual that projects publicly our commitments and values? Is there anything on our front lawn, in front of the imposing Greek Revival pillars and Christopher Wren steeple? Or are we mute?
Where do we proclaim for all to hear and see, Water blesses us, as it blessed Jesus. Do we bless water with every swallow, and with every decision we make?