Posted: Wednesday, September 3, 2014
Sermon by Kim Bobo, Executive Director, Interfaith Worker Justice
Delivered at Skyline Church, August 31, 2014
Good morning – this Labor Day Sunday. Thank you for letting me join you. I bring you greetings from Good News Community Church, a UCC fellowship on the northside of Chicago where I am a member and the choir director.
You heard the lectionary text read earlier – Exodus 3:1-15. The story of the burning bush. Here I am: hearing and responding to the call. There are lots of messages from the text, but I’d like to lift up three lessons that speak to me, and hopefully to you as well.
Lesson One: God hears the cries of oppressed workers. The text is so clear: “I have observed the misery of my people…I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings….The cry of the Israelites has now come to me. I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them.” The text is repeated in Deuteronomy 24:14-15, when it says, “Do not take advantage of a worker. Pay them their wages…otherwise, they may cry to the Lord against you and you will be guilty of sin.”
God didn’t just hear about the poor workers. God heard about the oppression – the intentional subjugation of the workers. It is not a passive – it just happened – kind of situation. There is a system of oppression, a pattern of behavior that is causing the workers to cry to God. People weren’t just born oppressed – stuff happened to them.
What’s happening for workers in the U.S. is not inevitable. It is NOT simple “the way things are.” The crisis for workers in the U.S. is about lots of decisions, some small and many large, that oppress workers. The text is clear that God not only cares about the conditions, but the oppression – the fact that there are intentional choices made that cause or keep workers poor.
You all know there is a crisis for workers, but let me quickly review the big-picture dimensions of the crisis.
First, there aren’t enough jobs. As a nation, we have no jobs policy. We have no commitment to invest in companies that create jobs. There are lots of ways this could be addressed, but it is not a priority. And honestly, this will be one of the toughest issues to change.
Second, we have too few core standards. As a nation, we have the fewest core standards of any country in the industrialized world. Our minimum wage – federally – is pitifully low. We have no federal standards on sick days, vacation days, maternity leave, mandatory overtime, use of permatemps and only now a miniscule standard on health care. It doesn’t have to be this way. Most European workers have standards around wages, benefits, health care – standards that make life better for most workers.
Third, wage theft is rampant. Nothing is clearer in terms of “oppression” than wage theft. Too many unethical employers are literally stealing workers wages. According to the largest surveys ever done, one out of four low-wage workers (those who earn $10 per hour or less) is not paid minimum wage. Three-fourths of low wage workers who work more than 40 hours per week are not paid the overtime premium they are owed. One out of ten tipped workers has his/her tips stolen.
And this wage theft is not somewhere else. It is all around us. Last summer, my niece Alisa came to live with me. Just what I needed – a third teenager in the house. Because jobs for teenagers are hard to come by and Alisa speaks Thai, I asked my son Ben to drive her around to a bunch of Thai restaurants and see if she could get a job.
Sure enough. She got a job at my favorite – well, my formerly favorite – Thai restaurant. After her first work day, I asked about her pay. Her employer was only giving her tips. No minimum wage. Even though the tipped minimum wage is super low, it is still something. This was illegal, blatant wage theft. At the end of eight weeks or so, she’d been paid about $1800, when she should have gotten paid about $2800. This kid, saving for college, had been shorted about $1000. Of course I went with her to get the money back. My niece was mortified. Wage theft wasn’t somewhere else. It was at my favorite Thai restaurant and happened to my neice.
Fourth, workers’ rights to organize into a union are routinely oppressed. One way to try to address wage disparities, core standards and wage theft is for workers to organize a union. For those of you who are not in a union, what do you think would happen if you tried to organize a union? Hmmmm….. are you thinking you’d get fired? You might. And even if you wouldn’t, most people think they would be fired. We say we officially have the right to organize a union, but we mostly believe we would lose our job if we did organize. Not much of a right. Like with other core standards, U.S. workers have the lowest organizing rights of any workers in the industrialized world. And some companies, and large monied interests, are intent on destroying unions. Unions, like our churches, are not perfect institutions. Nonetheless, unions create a standard for wages and benefits. Unions stop wage theft. Unions have helped build the middle class.
The oppression of U.S. workers didn’t just “happen.” The oppression is intentional – not by one person, but intentional nonetheless. It doesn’t have to be this way. And thus, I believe that God not only sees the plight and despair of poor workers, but sees the oppression that puts workers and keeps workers in terrible situations. God hears the cry of oppressed workers, as the text says, “on account of their taskmasters.”
Lesson Two: We must choose to recognize (and listen to) the burning bushes. Moses was minding his own business – caring for his flock. His life was fine. He was married, comfortably settled with family, had a job to do. He kind of knew there were some problems back in Egypt, but he and his family were good. Moses was probably a great husband, great dad, great son-in-law – even a good hard worker. But it wasn’t enough.
God wanted Moses to get out of his comfy bubble and address the crisis. So the texts says “the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush,” which blazed but didn’t burn up. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” So even with the burning bush, Moses had to make a decision to look…to turn aside, turning aside from his day-to-day herding work.
I do believe God regularly puts burning bushes near us – opportunities to learn more about what is really going on in the world and God’s priorities, but we have to be willing to look, to make a decision to turn aside.
We live in a world of great segregation and disparity. Our schools, our neighborhoods, our jobs can isolate us from those who struggle and are oppressed. And sometimes, I suspect, God is putting burning bushes all around us and we’re ignoring them, avoiding them. Moses had to intentionally decide to look at the bush and heard God’s call. We do too.
We need to spot those burning bushes and then investigate – see what God is trying to tell us through the burning bush.
Now sometimes the burning bush is so in your path that you can’t ignore it. Anyone who has had a family member injured or killed on the job – you get it. You are 60 and lost a job and can’t find another. You are a recent college grad with loads of debt and you are flipping hamburgers for minimum wage. You or someone you know got fired and didn’t get your last paycheck. These are not individual problems, but rather problems that demonstrate the broader society. They are burning bushes of the crisis.
You may need to take more deliberate action to find or view the burning bush. Could you go to a community forum organized by the Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy, the IWJ affiliate here in Oakland? If there’s a public forum on your living wage campaign, could you attend and hear workers’ stories? If there is a wage theft clinic nearby, could you volunteer for it, so you can hear the stories?
Honestly, I think there is nothing as important as hearing workers stories directly. The personal stories are the best burning bushes…the best wake up calls that there is a human crisis. Reading books, learning statistics, intellectually understanding the problem is not the same. There’s no passion, no wake-up call.
My kids for many years heard me talk about my work. But it wasn’t till they were about 12 or so and I took them to a forum to hear from workers who hadn’t gotten paid that they really “grasped” the work and its importance. They came home shocked and angry and wanted to know what I was going to do to help those workers. My sons had turned toward the burning bush (or I’d helped them turn).
A number of years ago, I was going to be a part of a delegation to meet with the owner of Cintas, the nation’s largest industrial laundry. I knew all the facts about the company. I’d helped write a report on it. But the Saturday before the meeting, I spent the day visiting in the homes of Cintas workers. I wanted to really understand, to appreciate the human implications of the oppression at Cintas. I sought out women who served as a burning bush for me.
Given the business of our lives and sometimes the isolation of our worlds, sometimes we have to seek out people and situations that help us understand and truly feel what is happening to God’s people. These human stories, human interactions, give us the courage to take actions. The stories help us focus our attention on God’s priorities and not our own. But, listening to and finding the burning bush may require some effort on our parts – a turning aside or toward, a searching, an intentional visit or meeting. Turning to, and then listening to, the burning bush, allows us to focus on God’s priorities.
Lesson Three: God can use us to address the oppression. God heard the cry of the Israelites and he saw how the Egyptians oppressed them. So, God told Moses that he should go bring God’s people out of Egypt. Moses immediately began backpeddling. Wow…. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh.” God assures him, “I’ll be with you.” Moses again questions God… “Who should I say sent me? What shall I say.” Moses clearly did not want this leadership role. This was a bit confrontational – way messy. He was doing fine herding the animals. I’m sure that it really wasn’t a good time for Moses to leave home.
We are all so much like Moses. We are not the right people to make a difference. It is not a good time. I don’t have much power. I don’t speak well. I don’t know enough. This should be left to the experts. And on and on. I personally have lots of excuses for why I don’t and can’t do more, but they are usually just excuses.
God can and wants to use every single one of us – not only to help people in some vague way, but to challenge oppression, to right the wrongs, to create a more just and level playing field for workers. Let me suggest four simple things each of you can do to help workers today. You can’t leave a Labor Day sermon without a few things to do!
1) Support the Lift Up Oakland ballot initiative. Sign up on the clipboard (or send an email to Kbobo@iwj.org) and I’ll send you a window sign to put in your window. I’ll also connect you with Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy, the IWJ affiliate group in Oakland that is helping lead the campaign. This is an important campaign. It will not only raise wages to $12.25 per hour, but will establish a standard for earned sick days in Oakland. Almost two-thirds of workers in Oakland earning less than $12.25 per hour have no paid sick days. This ballot initiative is not only important for Oakland. It is important of the nation. The linking of two core standards – minimum wage and earned sick days – is visionary and significant. You can help Oakland lead the nation on these issues.
2) Pay your tip in cash. About one out of ten wait-staff won’t get a tip if its put on a credit card. Thus, you must ask wait-staff, “Will you get the tip if I put it on thecredit card.” If the person responds, “Sure, no problem,” then you can put it on the credit card. But if the person asks if you can give the tip in cash, or if you don’t ask, then tip in cash.
3) Ask how contracted workers are paid. If you hire any contracted workers at your home, job or church, ask how workers are paid. Contracted workers – landscapers, janitors, construction workers – are often victims of wage theft. Almost all contracted workers are in sectors that are notorious. If you don’t ask how workers are paid – and make sure they are paid as employees and not independent contractors – you could well be contributing to wage theft. You must ask.
4) Urge Mr. Tom Perez, Secretary of Labor, to require employers to give workers a paystub. Perhaps as many as 20 million workers are not given a paystub explaining how they are paid, even though their employers are required to keep the info. Interfaith Worker Justice believes that giving workers a clear paystub will help deter wage theft and help workers advocate for themselves when they are victims of wage theft. It is a simple regulatory change and Mr. Perez can do it. Go to the IWJ website, www.iwj.org, and send a simple email. For those who signed up already, I will send you a link for sending the emal to Mr. Perez. How easy is that!
Work can be a blessing. It can be a way we find meaning in the world. Work is how we support our families. But too many workers, like the Israelites in Egypt, find themselves in oppressive situations – low wages, inadequate supplies or tools (making bricks without straw), wage theft, discrimination, dangerous conditions and abuse.
This Labor Day weekend, let’s do our share to stand with workers. Let’s remember that:
God hears the cry of oppressed workers. Workers and justice for workers is not a minor issue. It is the central theme in the liberation story.
We must choose to recognize and learn from the burning bushes. We are regularly sent burning bushes, messages, about God’s priorities, but we must intentionally turn to hear them.
And, God can use each one of us to make a difference, to fight oppression, to help workers. We may think we are inadequate, or too busy, or that someone else could do a better job, but each one of us can – and should – make a difference.
I know you are part of this congregation in part because of worship, in part because of community, but also in part because you are encouraged to make a difference. God cares about workers, sends us messengers to understand oppression and with your fellow congregants, you are called to respond. Here I am Lord. Thanks be to God.
Posted: Tuesday, June 10, 2014
On Pentecost we celebrated the inspiring power of the Holy Spirit as we welcomed five new members into our faith community!
This Sunday we celebrate Father’s Day, and remember how Jesus, in prayer, referred to God in an utterly new way as “abba”, “daddy in heaven”.
As part of honoring our fathers, I invite you this Sunday to bring a photo along with memories to describe the qualities you most love in your father.
Posted: Wednesday, May 7, 2014
Just as Paul writes, “we are one body and many parts”, it is profoundly true when we consider our relationship with our mothers… our biological mothers and with mother earth. This Sunday at 10 AM we’ll continue our celebration of Earth Month with a service about both our human mothers and our ancient mother earth. All are welcome.
I leave you with a quote from Jean Shinoda Bolen, MD, Jungian psychiatrist, in “Crossing to Avalon” pp. 255-257.
“The photo of the Earth taken from outer space may be the most significant image in the evolution of human consciousness in the twentieth century; it was a gift from Apollo-NASA’s Apollo space missions. The Apollo astronauts saw the Earth from outer space for the first time. And through them, we could see the Earth as a holy island against a sea of blackness, a sunlit ocean-blue globe with swirls of clouds and glimpses of continents. This image of the Earth touched the heart and brought humanity into a planetary age, with the psychological awareness that we share the fate of the earth, which has finite resources.
The beautiful blue and white planet that is earth, a sphere flowing with light, silhouetted against the blackness of space, is a gorgeous sight. She is beautiful and vulnerable, and the only Mother Earth we have.
In photographs, Earth also has the shape of a mandala, a circle within a square, the symbol of what Jung called the Self, an image of wholeness and the archetype of meaning. The Self is whatever we experience that is greater than our small selves through which we know that there is something meaningful to our existence. The round or the circle is a feminine symbol that represented the Great Mother before humanity could know that the Earth is round. The Earth is the great Mother Goddess: she births us and breathes us and feeds us and holds us to her body with gravity, and we return to her in death.”
Posted: Thursday, April 3, 2014
As we draw ever closer to Holy Week and Easter, let us pause and take a deep breath.
Breathing deeply is part of what this week is about. Inspired (whose root means to breathe into) by the rich imagery of Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, and also by the story of the raising of Lazarus, let us consider how the gift of breath, of spirit, of inspiration comes to us in our own lives.
Let us consider how in the very midst of struggle, despair, and death; the Spirit -the Breath – Inspiration; brings forth new life as surely as the gentle rains that fall upon us this week green and renew the earth.
I am so grateful to be sharing this road with you, to be breathing together with you. Blessings as we begin this new week!
I leave you with this poem from Jan Richardson,
Where the Breath Begins – A Blessing
in each direction.
in your own heart:
the center of your chest
a bare valley
every way you turn.
Did you think
this was where
you had come to die?
It’s true that
you may need
to do some crumbling,
That some things
you have protected
may want to be
That you will be asked
to let go
and let go,
This is what
a desert is for.
If you have come here
if you have come here
then thank your lucky stars
the desert is where
you have landed —
here where it is hard
here where it is unwise
to rely on your own devices,
here where you will
have to look
and look again
and look close
to find what refreshment waits
to reveal itself to you.
I tell you,
though it may be hard
to see it now,
this is where
your greatest blessing
will find you.
I tell you
this is where
you will receive
your life again.
I tell you
this is where
the breath begins.
Posted: Wednesday, March 19, 2014
I arise today, on March 17th. I am reminded of a stanza from St Patrick’s breastplate:
Through the strength of heaven,
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock…..
The sun is indeed bright in the days approaching equinox. The moon was stunningly radiant in its fullness Saturday night, and the wind has been swift.
This week’s lectionary delves into the meaning of “living water”. Water holds great meaning throughout the sacred scriptures of the world, including ours. Water bathes the newborn, and is used to minister to the bodies of the sick and dying. Our bodies are made mostly of water. Our green blue planet has life because of the living waters. So much meaning is attached to this simple combination of hydrogen and oxygen, so imbued with meanings and metaphors.
What’s bubbling up to the surface as you consider, what it is you are thirsting for. What is your deepest thirst? What sustenance and refreshment are you finding on your journey–or longing to find? What are you thirsting for?
Posted: Wednesday, February 12, 2014
For me, Valentine’s Day evokes the image of those little candy hearts we once exchanged in elementary school that revealed what was in our hearts to someone else. They had messages on them like “Be Mine,” “Yours Forever,” “True Love,” “Hugs and Kisses,” “Ever After,” “So Fine,” and “Hot Stuff.” This past week, you can’t visit most stores without seeing hearts, flowers, and chocolates.
On the surface, it may seem strange for the lectionary to be focusing on the subject of anger and hatred and murder. Yet, in examining the state of our own hearts we discover how essential it is to explore the relationship between our capacity to love and our capacity for anger; and who our role models are. As Progressive Christians, it’s important to explore our understanding of Jesus’s relationship with anger.
How do we understand the multifaceted portrayals of Jesus: standing silently before Pilate as he is condemned to death; turning over temple tables and calling Pharisees broods of vipers; and urging us to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves? Join us as we explore these complex matters of the heart!
Posted: Tuesday, November 5, 2013
In honor of, and in memory of all those we love who have gone before us, lighting the paths of our lives, and all veterans of war on every side of every conflict, let us take time this week to remember them; and let us resolve to beat all of our swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.
Join us this Sunday, as we remember our all too often forgotten veterans of war.
In memory of all of those who have crossed over, I offer this beautiful poem:
In Memory of Them, by Rabbis Sylvan Kamens and Jack Riemer
At the rising of the sun and at its going down
We remember them.
At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter
We remember them.
At the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring
We remember them.
At the blueness of the skies and in the warmth of summer
We remember them.
At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of autumn
We remember them.
At the beginning of the year and when it ends
We remember them.
As long as we live, they too will live;
for they are now a part of us
as we remember them.
When we are weary and in need of strength
We remember them.
When we are lost and sick at heart
We remember them.
When we have joy we crave to share
We remember them.
When we have decisions that are difficult to make
We remember them.
When we have achievements that are based on theirs
We remember them.
As long as we live, they too will live;
for they are now a part of us
as we remember them.
Posted: Tuesday, October 15, 2013
It’s the fall, and for many of us, it’s a very hectic time of year. A time where some of us can lose hope in the busy- ness of it all. The same can be true for us as a faith community, with everything from Karaoke parties, to Blessings of the Animals, to preschool welcome parties, and Sierra Leone Bike fundraisers. My special thanks to all of you who led these events, who volunteered to support them, and who invited friends to take part. Each of these events are beautiful ministries to the wider community. They are also a lot of work!
This Sunday, we will explore our need for balance, and for spiritual practices that sustain us, in times where hope seems lost. We will explore this in worship and after the service when I share highlights from my sabbatical. Childcare and lunch will be provided!
A sustainable spirituality begins with self-care. Flight attendants always remind parents traveling with children in the event of emergency to put their own oxygen mask on first. By tending to our own wholeness, we contribute to the wholeness of others. Self-care can mean taking a walk in the woods. It can mean demanding time for the exercise we know our bodies need. It can be writing in a journal. It can be curling up with a good book. It can be getting a massage. It can be picking up a musical instrument too long laid aside.
Self-care can be saying “no” to yet another request for help—including from this church. The Chinese pictograph for “busy,” Brother David Steindl-Rast reminds us, comprises two characters, one for heart and one for killing. Thomas Merton admonished, “To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
Sustainable spirituality requires practice. Prayer, meditation, yoga, and tai-chi shrink the ego and open it to receive the infinite. Spiritual disciplines help restore our sense of being whole, forgiven, and at peace. Just a few minutes of silence each day can restore our balance and our sanity.
Through all the days and nights of exhaustion, frustration, and sometimes despair of being a pastor, I’ve persisted in my daily meditation practice. Often I asked myself: how can I find the time? And the answer was always the same: how can I afford not to? “Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt,” says the Tao te Ching. “Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity.”
Another practice of sustainable spirituality is to make an offering of our lives, our work, our successes, even our failures. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna counsels, “Whatever you do, make it an offering to me: the food you eat, the sacrifices you make, the help you give, even your suffering.” When we offer ourselves up to love, to God, to any larger purpose, we surrender our egos, which just get in our way anyway. It’s not about us anymore, and in a way we can relax—not give up the struggle, but give up our self-importance. We become an instrument of God’s peace.
Blessings upon your week,
With love, Pastor Laurie
Posted: Thursday, October 3, 2013
This Sunday we celebrate World Communion Sunday… It is a day set aside each year to remind us that God’s greatest hope is that we my learn to live together as one. One in spirit, one in communion with the world, and united in faith, hope and love.
It seems like we’re a long way from that goal. There are so many divisions & factions within the world. We have religious, political, & economic tensions within our families, our cities, our work places, our country, and our world. We live in a world of extremes –where 1 billion people live on less than $1 dollar a day. Contrast this with CEO’s & hedge fund managers living on salaries of 10’s & 100’s of millions of dollars! We live in a world where 11 million people die of starvation each year. That’s one person, most often a child, dying every 3 seconds. Surely, with such extremes, there’s enough food for all of us on this planet! Enough bread to share at the table of humanity! The Hope begins within each one of us. The tiny mustard seed reminds us of the mighty potential of the hope and the power within each of us to do our part, to bring forth this vision.
Communion is about remembering; bringing together, re- membering the past, remembering the world. So, especially on World Communion Sunday, we remember our sisters and brothers in need. We remember and renew our mission efforts to support the victims of natural and human made disasters in the world; from the earthquake in Haiti; to the floods in Pakistan; from the oil spill in New Orleans and tsunami in Japan; to the war in Sierra Leone. We remember the poor & disabled within this city and this country, and pledge our ongoing support for them, through our work with St Mary’s, Alameda County Community Food Bank, Bay Area Community Services, and the outreach efforts of our denomination, the United Church of Christ.
Our mission work reminds us that we are inextricably linked, because we are one body. Our mission work reminds us that each one of these people could be our sister or our brother; and could be us. Our mission work provides us with a glimpse of that day when “They shall all be one”. When all boundaries are stripped away, and we are in “communion with the world.” Then we will not be rich or poor, east or west, Muslim or Jew, citizen or immigrant, African or European, Asian or Hispanic, Catholic or Protestant, liberal or evangelical; we will just the children of the one God of many names together.
It’s a beautiful vision.
Psalm 8 calls us to communion, with all of humanity, and all of creation.
Hear again the words of Psalm 8..
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, O God,
The moon & the stars that you have established;
What are human beings that you are mindful of us,
Mere mortals that you care for us?
and yet, you have made us little less than gods,
you have crowned us with glory and honor.
You have given us dominion over the works of your hands;
You have put all things under our feet,
All sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
……and then, the psalm ends with these words:
O Lord, our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
Posted: Tuesday, January 19, 2010
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.