Sunday, January 20, 2013

Making A Way Out of No Way (MLK 1/20/13)

Making A Way Out of No Way
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Martin Luther King
January 20, 2013

Exodus 14:5-8, 10-14, 21-22
When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the minds of Pharaoh and his officials were changed towards the people, and they said, ‘What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?’ So he had his chariot made ready, and took his army with him; he took six hundred picked chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them. The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt and he pursued the Israelites, who were going out boldly…. 

As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, “Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians”? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’ But Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still….’

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

I have been thinking about hope recently.   I have been thinking about hope in general as well as things I hope for in particular.  I think of personal hopes for my family and for myself.   I think of larger hopes too for our church, our country, our planet, and for humankind.   At times I think of the futility of hope.   I think of hopes dashed.   Not every hope bears fruit.  I know that.  Every tragedy we witness represents a hope that turned bitterly into despair. 

Things will never change, I think, resigning myself.   The powers that be that keep things in their order are too intransigent, too powerful, and too well-funded.   Those with the desire for change are too weak, too beaten down, too habituated to disappointment and failure to get up the nerve to try again.   Why bother?  I think that sometimes.

I know that many of you, perhaps our congregation as a whole, have taken on actions in which the opposition is fierce and foreboding, not unlike Pharaoh’s army complete with six hundred chariots and hardness of heart.   

Whether the cause has been 

·         for peaceful resolution to foreign conflicts,
·         for equality for LGBT people,
·         for dignity for the disabled,
·         for healthcare for all people,   
·         for reproductive education, advocacy, and freedom,
·         for legislation to protect our environment from destructive mining practices,
·         to getting our city or county to fund our domestic violence shelter,
·         to curbing gun violence in a paranoid and trigger happy culture,

for all of this and more for which you beautiful people struggle it sometimes feels as though there is an impassable sea on one side and an attacking army on the other.   

There is just no way.

It is in those times, I find it helpful to look to the past and see the changes that have taken place.   Not all these changes are for the better, but many are.  

I remember in seminary doing research for a paper and finding in the basement of Speer library at Princeton, several volumes of sermons preached during the 1840s and 1850s.   These sermons were from prominent preachers, prominent enough to have their sermons recorded in books.    These sermons were about slavery.  They were based on the Bible.  They utilized the science of their time.   They were not the minority opinion.  They were, in fact, the majority opinion.    These sermons stated clearly and unequivocally that God had ordained slavery through the curse of Noah.    

According to these powerful and influential preachers, Noah’s three sons represented all the people of Earth spread out on the globe.  One of those sons, Ham, represented the darker skinned people, and because of Ham’s disrespect to his father, all of his descendants would be slaves to their brothers, the white skinned people.    

Passages in the Bible were quoted to show God’s pure unchanging Word on the subject.   The Apostle Paul was quoted frequently:  “Slaves be obedient to your masters.”   Those who sought to abolish slavery in the United States were trying to abolish the authority of the Bible and as such the authority of God.  That was the message in sermon after sermon.    

We look back at that and shake our heads in disbelief.    I couldn’t believe it when I read these sermons in the basement of Speer Library.  I sat there on the floor in the stacks thinking, “Whoa.”    The powers and forces marshaled to keep slavery intact were far larger than Pharaoh’s army.   The values of slavery were embedded and encoded in sacred texts, in culture, and interpreted through the mouths of its spokespersons who were holy men.   These holy men had access to political power.  You can’t get more intransigent than that.     

Even after the end of the war and for another 100 years of lynchings, indignity, and oppression, finally marches and sit-ins, and refusal to cooperate with injustice, and then voting rights, the end of segregated lunch counters, drinking fountains, restrooms, and schools, and now tomorrow, January 21st, 2013, the inauguration for a second term of America’s first black president.   History has way of making a way out of no way.   

You can call it history, you can call it creativity, you can call it the human spirit, you can call it God, but how did we get from there to here?   That would require the telling of millions of stories of people’s lives and the acts of courage and of creativity that was born of desperation.  It would require the telling of tragedy, violence, and failure as well.   In this telling, we would have to realize that not one person alone was responsible, that not one person saw it all from beginning to end, that the story of justice and compassion is larger than any of us yet it includes all of us.  

When I find myself discouraged and cynical about the powerful forces such as the gun lobby or the military-industrial complex, or the energy companies, or the Christian church, I have to take a breath, acknowledge the feelings, and regain my perspective.   The big story is not my business.    I will not live long enough and I certainly cannot see far enough to know what can happen.  All I can do is my little part in front of me and pray for the courage to do that.    Rosa Parks didn’t make sweeping civil rights legislation.  She didn’t single-handedly change the Montgomery bus system.  She didn’t defeat all the powers of racism.  She, in her time, in her place, didn’t give up her bus seat.   The rest wasn’t up to her.

We cannot know how history will twist and turn.  No one, even the big players, even the Abraham Lincolns and Dr. Kings, who are only players, control the game.   They are the foam on the crest of the wave in an ocean of change beyond our capacity to fathom.   What we do have is our part to play if we dare.   Each of us.

When I selected the scripture text of the escape from Egypt, and re-read it, I was reminded about the complaints of the Hebrew children as they camped along the sea.   They started off boldly says the text.  When they saw Pharaoh’s army coming they complained.   Have you noticed how witty complainers can be?   Sarcasm is funny.  
“Moses!  Are there no graves in Egypt?  Huh?  Is that why you led us into this wilderness?”
“Moses!  Didn’t we tell you this already?  Didn’t we tell you this would happen?   We had our nice little lives in Egypt.  We minded our own business.  Sure we were oppressed and beaten and we cried to God for help but we thought we’d get something a bit more impressive than you, Moses.   Here you come with your plagues and your schemes and you get us up in the middle of the night, and you lead us out here to the middle of nowhere, and now look where we are.  Here’s the sea in front of us and now guess what, here are Pharaoh and his chariots coming from behind.  Great idea this was, Moses.   Do you ever think you might plan ahead when you have dreams of great escape, eh Moses?”
And Moses said, “All you have to do is stand firm and be still.” 

And we know the rest of the story:
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
The Lord made a way out of no way.

It is also in those times when I feel discouraged about the powers that be, and I feel sarcastic and I write my witty cynicisms on my Facebook page, that I find comfort in religion of all things.   I like these stories about Moses and the Hebrew children.   They have a reality beyond literalism that speaks to me.  

Part of the truth of these stories is that they were used by many of my African-American sisters and brothers as texts of hope and courage.   The white slave owners forced these human beings to come to church in chains and sit in the hot balcony or on the floor and they were forced to hear the scriptures as preached to them by the slave owners’ holy men.  Those so-called holy men preached to them about how slaves should obey their masters and so on and so forth.    

When the white church was over, the slaves organized real church in secret and out of earshot of these oppressors.   There they heard the stories of God who through Moses led the people out of slavery.  They heard the stories of Jesus, beaten and tortured like they were and yet who endured and lived again.  That sustained them throughout all their trials and through that lonesome valley.    

Long after civil war and well into the 20th century, up to 5,000 African-Americans were lynched in this country.   They were tortured publicly with the blessing of law enforcement and public officials and their holy men who cowardly covered themselves in white sheets.    Yet somehow they endured.  They sang those spirituals as if their lives depended on them, because they did.   
When Martin Luther King says on that night when he was weak and didn’t know where he could turn that he
“heard the voice of Jesus…He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone,”
I believe King more than I believe other preachers who might say the same thing. 

From history and from religion, that is what I call real religion, I know that I have no justification for despair.   Even when there appears to be no way to succeed, I know that the story of justice is larger than my story.  It will go on long after me as it has long before.   I only am invited to do my part here and now.  Sometimes that part is for bold action and at other times it is to stand firm and be still and watch for the way to be made out of no way.  


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