Oakland church

The American Dream

During the second week of the new decade, Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere, was shaken to its foundations by a devastating earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0. News of this disaster spread like waves from Haiti’s epicenter in Port-au-Prince to the farthest reaches of the planet.  Every day, every hour, the stories fill the media in this race against time – to rescue those still living trapped under rubble and the millions of Haitians who still need food and drinkable water – bringing forth memories of 9/11, echoes of Katrina—only magnified to a scale we can barely imagine.

I’ve been thinking about the unexpected and indiscriminate ways of nature. Perhaps to comfort myself, I’ve been thinking about Shakespeare’s poetic language, comparing the quality of human compassion with the gentle rains, much like today:  “The quality of mercy is unrestrained; it droppeth from the heavens like the gentle rains.” In contrast, I’ve been thinking of its counterpart – as reflected in another statement by Shakespeare: “the quality of violence is unrestrained; it rises up from hell, like an earthquake, or a hurricane.”

In this hour of Haiti’s greatest need for all of us, now is the time to be the gentle rains of mercy and compassion, and to shower this impoverished nation with love. And so, before we continue with this morning’s readings, let us pause now in a moment of silence, for the people of Haiti—the thousands of men, women, and children who have died, whose names and faces we may never know, the millions of lives forever changed by this devastation.

Let us remember that this could be us; that indirectly, this IS us. This becomes clearer as we re-contemplate the vision that Martin Luther King, Jr., put forth—a mountaintop vision of a new way of living lifted up by God, out of suffering and slavery and into salvation; out of domination and conquest and into mutuality and cooperation; to live together in harmony, as sisters and brothers on this one planet we share.

…on this weekend commemorating the message of Martin Luther King, we remember his liberating vision; a vision, in fact, shared by another great liberator, Moses.

The death of Moses is one of the most poignant moments in the Bible. Here was Moses – God’s faithful servant – who freed his people from slavery in Egypt and led them for forty years—forty years of wandering and deprivation, and finally, finally, brought them to the brink of the Promised Land. But just as they are about to cross over, God leads Moses up to the mountaintop, up where both of them can get a good view of the promised land. God shows it to Moses and they savor a moment there, on the mountaintop, because they have been partners in this enterprise for lo, so many years. But then God turns to Moses and says, you shall not cross over. Imagine having labored so long, come so far, only to hear those words, “You shall not cross over.”

In the last sermon he preached before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of a dream he’d had, a dream in which God takes him up to the mountaintop and shows him a promised land of justice and equality for all, a land that God assures him will one day come to be, but which he will not live to see.  ”You shall not cross over,” God said. And for so many years on this Sunday, our story seems to end, here on the mountaintop, with God and Moses and Dr. King together there, gazing into the future, at a hoped for-dream.

Last year at this time, this country inaugurated its first African-American president. Does it seem like a long time ago to you? Does it seem like a dream? A distant memory?

Remember it? It was another mountaintop experience. High on the steps of the nation’s capital, our new president took office, and his words echoed those of Moses, Lincoln, and King. Surrounded by a sea of humanity, this man took oath as the world was watching—from millions of people crowding the mall in the nation’s capital on that bitterly cold winter morning—to the billions around the planet, including us here at Skyline, watching the ceremonies live.

It seemed as if the people had spoken, in a grassroots election, with record voter turnout: the liberator had come, the messiah was here, and we had reached the Promised Land. This new president seemed to be elevated to mythical proportions. By the media; by all of us. Even preschoolers here at Skyline dressed as Barak Obama for Halloween, cheering on the inauguration. Our fascination with his story – and even his name. (As comedian Robin Williams reminded us: “Barak blessing, Hussein – don’t ask, Obama – he with us.”)

Obama himself, aware of how fickle the crowds are and how easily they can cheer a messiah one day only to crucify them the next, reminded us contrary to popular opinion, “No, I was not born in a manger.”

Instead, like King, he reminded us of how serious the crisis in our country is – how America has fallen short of its dream that all people are created equal: As millions of people are losing their jobs, their homes, healthcare insurance, Wall Street executives make millions in bonuses. We have the greatest divide between the rich and the poor in any industrialized nation in the world.

In words that echoed those of King, Obama reminded us how hard the journey will be: The challenges we face are real, they are serious and many. The journey will be long and the road, steep. We may not get there in a year, or even in a term (he left out, I may not make it there with you) but I promise you America, we the people will get there. (We will make it to the Promised Land)

So how do we begin? We begin here and now, within our own community. The promised land is here and now—at hand, as Jesus put it. The way to find the promised land is to start to build it, changing the world from the inside out, starting with ourselves, one person, one community at a time. Creating families, friendships, and communities. Communities where people of all races and classes and cultures come together to live into this promise of justice and equality for all. Churches are a great place to create such communities, and we, the people of Skyline, are called to create this here.

So we must begin together, inspired by prophetic voices called to do our part, to pick up the mantle of leadership that each one of us is called to. But what kind of leadership? What kind of vision of a promised land are we called to?

In the biblical story that follows today’s reading, one of Moss’s aids, Joshua, takes the lead and the people cross over into the promised land, the land of milk and honey, out of slavery and finally into freedom. And what do they do? The once conquered people, become conquerors, the oppressed become the oppressors.

Guided by the belief that we are God’s chosen people and they are not, God has promised us this land, it was OK to take it from them. Is this really God’s will, or a self-serving ideology, that has served to legitimate oppression and manifest destiny throughout human history, including U.S. history? This land is your land, and now it’s my land?  For those who would say, but it’s right there in the Bible, God promised the land to the chosen people, I would say, it’s better to give your bible to someone else rather than be misguided by such dangerous literalism.

We cannot fulfill the mountaintop promise until we all come along together. We cannot fulfill our promise if we remain divided and isolated. We must come to realize that are all in it together.

And that is why it is time for a new story. Jesus spoke of a kingdom, a promised land ruled by love – love of God, love of neighbor, love of self. Loves that cannot be confined or limited to just those we know, those in our group, our class, our socio- economic group, our faith. A way of being that recognizes and lives with the knowledge that we are all one.

One of Dr. King’s mentors was the mystical and prophetic Howard Thurman. Thurman said this: Ultimately, there is only one place of refuge on this earth for any person, and that is another person’s heart. It is our vulnerability and our interdependence that unite us as a human family. We are each other’s safe harbor. And so, if you’re employed, stand up for the unemployed; if you’re insured, advocate for the uninsured; if you’re a man, you stand up for the equality of women. If you’re white, you show up for the rights of people of color. If you’re straight, you fight on behalf of gay folks. If you’re a citizen, you stand, side by side, with the immigrant, and stand up with the people of Haiti in their hour of greatest need. Stand up for the people of Oakland, who don’t have enough food to eat. . If we are to build the promised land, solidarity must be the spiritual discipline, as well as the political practice of this generation.

Friends, on this historic Sunday, as we celebrate the legacy of Dr. King, I challenge us to take up the mantle of faith, that all people are created equal. Let us, you and I, do our part in building the promised land, to bring forth the kingdom of heaven—here on earth, here and now, in our lives, and in the world.