SERMON JANUARY 17, 2021, JOHN: CHAPTER 1, VERSUS 43-51, HONORING MARTIN LUTHER KING JR
Today I want to offer a reflection of my early life with a man I never met. I found him to be a follower of Jesus Christ. I was fascinated, inspired, confused and wanted to learn from him. I was in high school in the town I grew up in, Pecos, Texas. I was 16 years old. I heard for the first time about the work of Martin Luther King regarding civil rights. My family had purchased our first television in 1954 and I could both see and hear civil rights issues being talked about in our country. Especially around issues of school segregation. The Supreme Court had a land mark decision in the 1954 case that the justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitional. The name of the case was “Brown vs The Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas”.
I will admit to being naïve on the subject of race. It only came to me over time that as a white person in the United States, I was privileged and white supremacy had a long history in our country. In my own small town of 10,000 people we had signs in restaurants that said “whites only”. At the Greyhound bus station there were separate restrooms and water fountains for “whites” and “blacks”. I asked my father about these concerns since as a well-respected attorney in Pecos. He said it was the law of the land handed down by the Supreme Court. Separate but equal meant separate schools for black and white people and there was to be no togetherness in social or religious settings. I can remember thinking at the time…I had no choice to be born white. A black person had no choice to be born black. We are all God’s children so why do we have to have discrimination? A question….I continue to ask and try to answer.
I was president of my junior and senior class in 1956 and 1957. Our school board accepted the ruling of the Supreme Court and decided to integrate our schools. I was amazed to discover that Pecos had a high school of 20 students that were black. My ignorance was such that I did not know that. The town became heated about the decision of the school board to integrate our school. My father was asked to run for the school board as a last minute write in candidate because he was segregationist. I was for integration so we had some very interesting talks. I learned a lot from him and I believe he learned a lot from me. We respected our different views and I have always respected my father. He was elected to the school board but never once punished me or degraded me for my own thoughts. Twenty students from the black high school joined our high school.
I was the manager of our football team and one of the black students was a talented end for the team who made many touchdowns. He became a hero. We would sit together on the bus to go to games and we became friends. We had a pregame meal at a local restaurant at 4:00 before our games. The restaurant was closed while our team was eating there. We entered the restaurant and the owner looked at Bubba, my friend, and said to him, “Bubba, you know you can’t eat in the restaurant. You go eat in the kitchen.” I tried to argue but Bubba did not want to argue and headed for the kitchen. I followed him and ate with him. I felt as though I had been punched in the gut. It was not right. So I grew up a little that night and that year.
Fast forward to 1968 at Grace Memorial in Portland. I was ordained a priest on January 10, 1968, here at Grace Memorial. Last Sunday was my 53rd anniversary of ordination. I worked two days a week for the Diocese of Oregon as City Missioner and four days a week as Curate at Grace Memorial. Some of us here remember the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in April 1968. The rector at the time was Duane Alvord and he and I spent many hours with black leaders trying to find our best responses for our churches and the city. As we know this conversation continues to this day.
I would stop for gas regularly at a Texaco Station on Broadway just at the entrance to the freeway. I had been ordained a short time. On the sidewalk there were several prostitutes walking on what was then Williams Avenue. As I was inspecting my car while getting gas, I heard a voice from the street, “Dick Toll is that you?” I turned to the voice and a black woman wearing a blond wig walked toward me. You can realize my surprise and wondering what in the world was going on. She came up to me and again called me by name. She said, “You don’t remember me, do you?” I said no I did not remember her and she said, “I was one of the black students who integrated Pecos High School 12 years ago.” She handed me her card with a name I did not recognize. We talked briefly and I asked her about her life style and coming to Portland. I will always remember her answer, “What is a black girl from Pecos, Texas, suppose to do to make a living?” She left to go back to the street and I left in my car wondering about the new kick in the gut I had received.
I offer this reflection because of the very fact that I look back on so much of our society that has been built on racism. We as a society have allowed our racism to enter into every aspect of our common life. Whether it be the way we treat the Native American people and still deny them their rights or the exclusion acts for Asians, Muslims, Japanese and of course our long history with slavery. We as individuals and as a society have allowed systemic racism to invade our lives. And we live in denial if we do not allow ourselves to see it and to change what we have become.
I read this publication from the Oregon Historical Society. It is a special issue about Oregon and white supremacy and resistance. It spells out in detail the way that systemic racism was built into the foundation of Oregon from it’s very foundation…the way we took land from the native Americans, the way the government would not allow people of color to own property, the laws that were reflective of the society we were building throughout our country. It took a man of the stature and vision of Martin Luther King Jr to confront our issues within our society that set us on a path of healing. But the wounds are deep and need our individual attention today.
Over the years I have learned so much from people of other cultures and observed the ways they have been discriminated against. I worked with Native Americans in the 1960 and help start the Native American Rehabilitation Center that is still in existence here in Portland. The motivation for it’s beginning was that our Native American brothers and sisters wanted to find a way to heal their additions in their own cultural way and not depend on the white man’s way. It worked and is working.
I assume you as and individual have felt punched in the gut the way I was as I watched injustices take place. And I assume you have been willing to step forward to change the situation of injustices in the work place, the neighborhood, the city government, and on, and on. My hope is the future will allow our responses more and more as individuals and communities.
We as a society have been honored by the lives of people like Martin Luther King Jr. He chose to follow Jesus just as we heard in the Gospel today when Jesus tells Phillip, “follow me”. One thing I have learned from my black brothers and sisters is the deep longing for the Gospel message to be shared in music and in song. The song I am going to sing was written by Thomas Dorsey, considered to be the father of gospel music. He wrote this song in the 1930’s after he lost his wife and son in childbirth. He closed himself off from the world as he grieved and gave us this beautiful hymn. It was sung by Mahalia Jackson at Martin Luther King Jr’s funeral in 1968. The name of the hymn is “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”.
It is very near the end of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness, very near the end of the forty years that the twelve tribes have spent wandering and searching, now lost and now found, always somehow guided by God. And the aged Moses, 120 years old and near death but, the story tells us, his vigour unabated, gathers the tribes together. Within sight of the promised land, the land that they have longed for all of these years, Moses speaks to them on behalf of God.
I have set before you today life and death. Blessings and curses.
And then, maybe because the Israelites hesitate, pausing in uncertainty like a contestant on a game show invited to choose between two doors, Moses goes on:
This scene is beautiful and awe inspiring. But is it also just a little absurd? Is there an element of ridiculousness to it? Because surely the old man’s question, Would you prefer life or would you prefer death? is not one that the Israelites or anyone else should need to think about for very long.
Would you prefer an envelope full of cash or would you prefer to be pushed off the roof of a building?
Would you prefer a new pair of shoes, comfortable and fashionable in equal measure, or would you prefer botulism?
Would you prefer curried rice with asparagus, squash, and a garden salad on the side or would you prefer mayonnaise-flavoured ice cream?
Would you prefer life or death?
Of course you are going to choose life.
But maybe the absurdity, the stark obviousness of the choice that Moses offers God’s people is precisely what makes this story powerful. Maybe it is precisely how it tells us the truth.
Because life is the obvious choice.
And we don’t always choose it.
We all know people – maybe some of us here this morning have been people – who chose booze or pot or gambling or sex or whatever over their marriages, over their jobs, over their children, over God, over everything else. There is a dark joke that goes something like this:
There is no such thing as addiction. There are only things that we like doing more than being alive.
In a similar vein, we all know people – and here I will remove the maybe and say that we all, 100% of us, have been people – who have chosen selfishness over life.
When I take an inventory my life so far, one of the things that I have done or left undone that I might be most ashamed of, that I kind of don’t want to tell you about, came sometime late in my adolescence or early in my adulthood. It was Hallowe’en. And my folks were away. I don’t remember where or why but I do know that I was, like an aged Macaulay Culkin, home alone. But because my Mom was and is a meticulous planner, she had laid in bags and bags of miniature candy bars.
As the joke goes, I had one job. It was my job to open the door and praise the children in their costumes and drop candy bars into their bags.
But did I do my job?
I did not.
What I did was to turn off all of the lights in the house, go down to the basement, and watch Star Wars on VHS.
While eating all of the candy myself.
When I think of the word pathetic, I remember that moment in the basement.
Now, maybe what I’ve just shared with you is a moral triviality. Nobody got hurt, the few children who came and knocked on the door of our dark house and shouted Trick or Treat may have felt some fleeting disappointment. But I imagine that they then went on with their night and filled up their bags and everything was fine. It is likely that I am the only one who remembers that, on Hallowe’en circa 1990, the lights were turned off at 3824 West 1st Avenue.
But I remember. And maybe I feel as ashamed as I do by that memory because what I did that night feels like a parable, a parable for choosing something other than community, other than life.
When you and I live in a city in which, notwithstanding our manifest wealth, we tolerate human beings having nowhere but the pavement on which to sleep, we are doing something like eating candy in the basement with the lights off. When you and I tolerate a scenario in which refugees on our southern border fleeing the worst kind of violence are met in the Land of the Free with cruelty, we are doing something like eating candy in the basement with the lights off. When I and you tolerate more and more extreme weather and console ourselves that the stock market is booming, we are doing something like eating candy in the basement with the lights off.
In these moments, we are choosing that which is not life. The choice between life and death may be obvious, comically so. But that doesn’t mean that we choose life. Because curses and death are familiar and predictable, addiction and selfishness are familiar and predictable. We know how they work, we know the rewards that they hold. We don’t know anything about the new land that waits across the Jordan. We know nothing. Except that God has told us that it is full of life.
And we’re not sure that we trust God’s word.
We are closing in on Lent. Ash Wednesday is in one and a half weeks. And it is that time of year when talk about giving stuff up and when we talk about sin.
Both of these things – giving stuff up and sin – are pretty significant and pretty regular sources of shame.
Giving stuff up is a source of shame because it swerves so easily out of spiritual practice and into that suspicious category that we call self-help. It is common, for instance, to give up some kind of treat during Lent. And maybe that practice would be okay, maybe it would be edifying. Except that a whole lot of us have baggage around food. And so this Lenten practice turns pretty easily into a diet, with all of the sad baggage that diets entail. As a friend of mine said in one of those jokes that tells the truth:
I’m so glad that Lent comes before swimsuit season. Maybe I can lose a few pounds.
Sin is often a source of shame because we regularly understand sin – or, and I want to insist on this, we regularly misunderstand sin – as being about self-loathing, often locating that self-loathing around our bodies and our sexuality. For the record, if anyone here this morning needs to hear it, masturbation and other healthy and loving expressions of sexuality are not and never were sins. Being gay is not and never was a sin. Being trans is not and never was a sin. Having a body that will not get you onto the cover of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue or Men’s Health – having a body that, in other words, is normal – is not and never was a sin. We could keep on going.
But what if we don’t need to define either of those practices – either giving stuff up or sin – in such a screwed-up way? What if they both could have good and life-giving meanings?
What if giving stuff up – or in the language of the Bible, fasting – is just what we heard God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, said it was just last week:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
What if that is what a fast looks like? What if that is what giving stuff up looks like?
And what if sin is just an ancient word that means selfishness?
What if therefore, when we speak of repenting from sin and when we speak of giving stuff up what we mean is that we are repenting of and we are giving up alienation, giving up indifference, giving up apathy, giving up selfishness, giving up sitting by ourselves in a dark basement eating candy? In doing so we are choosing community, we are choosing service, we are choosing love, we are choosing God. We are choosing life.
Now here’s the gospel, the amazing news: coming out of the basement isn’t just good for the people knocking on our door. It’s good for us. On that night thirty years ago, coming out of the basement not only would have given some costumed children a little more delight, but it would have given me so much more delight. I would have had a way, way better night if I had encountered those children’s happiness and wonder. And if I wouldn’t have had the sad tummy that came of eating all of that candy by myself. Repenting of sin, giving stuff up: what if the secret is that these things aren’t shame-filled sacrifices but, rather, they are joys?
Here we are. Here we are, gathered with Moses, looking across the Jordan and into new land, a land of uncertainty and possibility. I set before you life and death, the old man who is speaking on God’s behalf says. And then, because this never was a test, because this never was a trick question, because God never wanted us to fail, Moses opens up the teacher’s edition. He shows us the page with the answers written on it.
Moses and God whisper together,
We live in the moment. And then that moment is in the past. And we move on to new moments in the future,
Many moments in time are forgotten, and even though they remain in our memory, we sometimes have difficultly pulling those memories back into our present. Many of our moments carry meaning for us and we remember them and realize how important those moments have been for us.
My first meaningful moment in time was when I was 2 ½ years old. I have a snapshot in my memory of Pearl Harbor. The news was on the radio and I can remember my parents and sisters huddled around the radio receiving the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. I can remember opening the door for a neighbor who came by to talk with my father. Our lives changed from that moment on because my Dad joined the Army.
We have moments of spiritual awaking…profound at times and sometimes gradual as we awaken to those moments when we ask, “who we are in relationship to the creation and the one who gave us life.” Profound moments under the stars, the moon, on the beach, hiking in the mountains. My most profound moment of spiritual awaking was in the desert of West Texas, under a full moon and looking at my footprint in the sand and realizing a relationship with the one who created me and all that was within creation….a moment I have never forgotten and still receive strength from in my inner life.
Today is January 20, 2019. Can any of you remember what you were doing on January 20, 1968? Raise your hand if you do. Goodness, I must be the only one. I was coming down the aisle here at Grace Memorial during the offertory and shouting, “It’s a boy.” Our son, David, was born on 20 January 1968 and he is 51 years old today. He was born 10 days after my ordination to the pristhood here at Grace Memorial on January 10, 1968. Moments that remain.
The bible is all about moments of meaning that were remembered by individuals and the larger community that experienced them. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in today’s reading expresses the gifts of people he has known and personally experienced their various gifts. He writes to the people in Corinth a letter to build up their faith and as that letter is captured by them it was captured for the centuries and is captured for us today. A moment for them becomes part of our on going moments of learning’s from Paul. In John’s Gospel today, Jesus performs his first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. Who was there in that moment that put it in writing so we can share something of that meaningful time and find ourselves reliving what Jesus must have been like in a social setting rejoicing with a couple bringing their lives together.
How many of you remember when you were born? That’s a trick question isn’t it. But the stories of our birth are so important to hear from those who were part of your birth, at the hospital, or in a taxi, or maybe even at home. Moments of life, moments of birth, moments of meaning.
And of course we know the pain of loss as we experience the loss of a loved one as they die and give up their last breath. One of the moments of death for me was when I was in Chaplaincy training for a year at Emanuel Hospital. I was on call one night and was called in at 2 o’clock in the morning. I came to the room of a woman who had died and met her husband standing by the bed. I spent about 45 minutes talking with him as he recounted their move during the depression to Coos Bay, Oregon. He came from the East Coast with his bride and ended up in Coos Bay with $2 in his pocket. He worked for years in the timber industry. He talked about his marriage and his children and most of all he talked about his wife,
At the end of our conversation, I offered a prayer with him by her bed. Then he took the wedding band off his wife’s finger and said a simple, “Thank you”. I thought of the marriage service, “until death do us part”.
It was for me a moment of grace in the midst of life and death. It was for me a moment captured in my memory that has helped me understand the meaning of relationships.
We all have moments we remember from conversations with people. One of the profound moments for me in my own learning about the Palestine/Israel conflict was on my first trip to Bethlehem in 1983 with 16 people from St. Marks Cathedral in Seattle when I was serving as Canon Pastor. I was one who thought I knew something about the history and the issues and found out my profound ignorance as we were led around the region by a Palestinian guide. He took us to a glass factory in Bethlehem where a young man about 16 years of age was blowing a glass bottle. I have a memory of his saying to all of us, “I am so glad to meet you, You are Americans and we know that Americans care for correcting injustices of people and you will go home and help us to end the military occupation that we live under.” I have often wondered what happened to that young man as to his continuing his life under military occupation…and our own complicity as Americans in continuing to fund the occupation with our tax money. Again, a moment that led me into many moments of learning and it continues.
Of course, we all have moments that we do not want to remember but are also part of what we experience. I watched 60 Minutes recently on TV and saw a segment of the show which was about a person named Ryan Green with the nickname of Speedo. Ryan is an African American opera singer who in his youth got in trouble and was jailed. He had a teacher that believed in him and his talents and the teacher told him, “Do not let this moment define who you are.” Now, he is a famous opera singer. We all have moments to move beyond and discover how to use them to our advantage rather than our disadvantage.”
We also have our embarrassing moments. What are your most embarrassing moments? One of mine was at a General Convention of the Episcopal Church where a roving reporter asked me about an embarrassing moment. I shared the fact that once when I was leading a Sunday service; I had to go to the bathroom. I forgot to turn my microphone off. I will never forget the faces of the people when I returned to the service. What was more embarrassing is that my story was on the video at the convention and thousands heard my story. Oh well.
I know that each of us is captured by our moments in our national and international history. Some of us have experienced the end of WWII, John F. Kennedy assassination, Martin Luther King assassination, and on and on. A book I am reading now by John Meacham, The Soul of America, expresses the turning points in our Nations history. In his book he speaks to the moment in our national history about a sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. The sermon by Martin Luther King was given 6 days before his assassination in Montgomery, Alabama. A quote from that sermon, “we are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” King said. “And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made: this is the way it is structured.” Tomorrow we honor Martin Luther King as a person who has made a difference in our national story. Moments that we can recognize that can help us to move into our future.
So, how do we embrace our moments that have been there and those yet to come? How do we allow ourselves a way to embrace and nurture our lives with meaningful moments….painful as well as joy filled moments?
I believe it is important to learn how to reflect on our lives as these moments become a part of our past and can soon be forgotten. If we can take a moment of meaning and reflect on it and savor it like we do with good food or a piece of candy we are able to let it become a part of us rather than a lost memory. I am going to leave you with homework. Start with 5 of the most important moments of your life and add to it with your reflections. Before long, if you use pictures from the past, and old letters received and also diaries you will have so many moments to reflect on you will not be able to count them. Reflect and enjoy. Life is short. We need to savor and reflect on our lives, we need to reflect on who we are and challenge what our moments have really meant to us. I like to reflect in prayer and realize that every Eucharist is a meaningful moment that both reminds us of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus but is a moment in time in the here and now that is a sacred moment that moves us into the future…..a future that always includes God.