God Still Has a Dream: Love Your Enemies

A Sermon for Martin Luther King Day 2012

Do you have dreams? Do you remember your dreams? I must confess that I do not remember most of what I dream, though I did have a good one last night! Maybe I'm still learning how to dream. My wife is part of a group called “Spirit Seminar,” and dreams are a regular part of their work together. What I do know is that all of us have dreams. And, occasionally, we have nightmares. They say it helps to talk about our nightmares. I want to tell you about one of mine.

It was August 28, 1968, the week of the Democratic National Convention. It was held that year in Chicago, less than five months after Dr. King had been killed in Memphis. In Grant Park, part of Chicago's beautiful lakefront, a situation was developing that makes the Occupy Wall Street movement look like a summer picnic. At 3:30 in the afternoon a boy lowered an American flag in the park, at a legal rally of more than 10,000 protesters. Suddenly police broke through the crowd and began beating the boy, causing protesters to pelt the police with food and rocks. An official report called it a “police riot.” While Hubert Humphrey was being nominated for President of the United States, the police were spraying both demonstrators and bystanders with mace. The amount of tear gas used to suppress the protesters in the park was so great, it made its way to the convention hotel. For seventeen minutes TV carried it all, live, making the protest famous around the globe, as quickly as pre-internet times could allow. One chant summarized it well: “The whole world is watching. The whole world is watching.”

I had come home from college that summer, as most college students do. During that summer, I had all four of my wisdom teeth extracted in the hospital, a procedure done far more often today in a dentist's office. As my general anesthetic wore off, I awoke in my room to the sound of that Chicago nightmare, broadcast on television and accompanied by my roommate. My nightmare was two-fold: most of those protesters were college students, like me, and here I was, incapable of doing or saying anything. To make matters worse, my roommate was cheering on the police, shouting things like, “Get those commies! Get those N-lovers! YEAH!!!” And all I could say was, “MMMHHHMMMHHH!”

On Friday as I was sitting in my prayer chair, the sun came up, and a winter wind whirled and blew around the house. Those cold breezes brought a solid taste of this official season of hibernation and dormancy, this fallow time so ripe for reflection and dreams. And I wondered: What is God's Wind, God's Spirit, up to on this Martin Luther King weekend? What is my dream, your dream now, in 2012, for the people of this great nation? As we celebrate the life and witness of the man who had a dream, what is the status of justice in these United States? To be specific, are we as Americans really “done” with racism, now that we have a Black President? Are we as Episcopalians really “done” with racism, now that we have a Black Bishop and have officially declared, twice, that racism is a sin? Are we as the people of God at All Saints' Parish really “done” with racism, now that we have more and more people of different races coming to join us here?

My name is Tom, and I am a recovering racist. In 1966 I left what I thought was racist Memphis for college in what I was sure would be wonderful, inclusive New England. I vowed never to live in the South again. Never say never. Thirty-five years later, through a series of what seemed like nightmares at the time, I moved back to Memphis and discovered just how racist I was. You see, I met, fell in love with and married a Southern Baptist clergy woman. She helped me face my discrimination against Southerners, many of whom had made far more progress facing the sin of their own racism than I, a Northern Yankee, had begun to do. I'm still learning how to face my own racism. I'm still learning how, as Jesus puts it in today's Gospel, to love my enemies. And I'm still learning how to dream.

Joseph, a big-time dreamer, was just seventeen years old in today's part of the story. He was deeply loved by his father Jacob, because Joseph was the son of Jacob's old age. In the verses before today's lesson, we learn that, when his band of brothers saw that “their father (Jacob) loved (Joseph) more than all (of them), they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him. Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to them, they hated him even more” (Genesis 37:3-5).

“Here comes this dreamer,” they say when they see him, having decided to kill that little brother who feels like their biggest enemy. They take his “amazing technicolor dream coat,” as Andrew Lloyd Webber called it in his masterful, modern musical version of the Joseph story. They dip his coat in goat's blood, to make it look to their father like a wild animal did Joseph in. But before they do the deed, Reuben, the only one of his brothers with any compassion, suggests they sell him into slavery instead. Joseph, like Moses after him, becomes a slave in Egypt. Yet Joseph's story turns out differently than anyone expects. For a story that makes a soap opera look boring, take time to read the story of Joseph and his family, starting in this chapter of Genesis. It takes you right up to the Exodus.

“We shall see what becomes of his dreams,” say those Bible-time brothers. Surely there were those who said the same kind of thing about the man of our own time, whom we honor today. On August 28, 1963 – exactly five years before 10,000 protesters gathered in Chicago's Grant Park – there were more than 200,000 assembled at the Lincoln Memorial to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., deliver his historic speech, “I Have a Dream.” 1963 was also the 100th anniversary year of the Emancipation Proclamation, when President Abraham Lincoln freed African-American slaves, the beginning of a long, hard journey, still incomplete, toward full citizenship and true equality. Here is part of Dr. King's “I Have a Dream” speech, which you can now easily find on the internet:

“One hundred years later,” Dr. King said, “the Negro still is not free . . . .The Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty . . . an exile in his own land.” And yet, Dr. King declared, “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt . . . .Now is the time to make justice a reality for all God's children.” He also reminded his listeners of the importance of resisting the world's injustice with actions that were non-violent: “In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds.” He taught his disciples how to meet physical force with what he called “soul force.” But “we cannot walk back,” he reminded them. “We cannot walk alone . . . .(And) we will not be satisfied until, (as the prophet Amos put it,) 'justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (5:24).

Jesus taught his disciples how to be free of the slavery from which we all suffer – the bondage of sin. “If you love those who love you,” he said, “what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them” (Luke 6:32). Please follow along on page 6 (5 for 8 am), and listen while I read a more contemporary version of these verses: “If you only help those who help you, do you expect a medal? Garden-variety sinners do that. If you only give for what you hope to get out of it, do you think that's charity? The stingiest of pawnbrokers do that” (Luke 6:33-34, The Message). Don't love just your friends, Jesus says. Love your enemies. He says it twice. Love your enemies. Whether Joseph knew it or not, that's the dream God had in mind for him. That's the dream Jesus had in mind for his disciples. And for Martin Luther King. That's the dream Jesus has in mind for us. Love your enemies.

On that summer day at our nation's capital forty-eight years ago, Dr. King concluded that “even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.” One day, King dreamed, “We will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful (harmonious) symphony of brotherhood (and sisterhood).” That was 1963. What about 2012? What's “up” with that dream today? What stories do we hear and tell? Are they stories of injustice and discord . . . or stories of harmonious justice? And is racial harmony the only kind of harmony we still struggle to embrace?

On Friday I found this story in the New York Times: “Uneasy Neighbors in a Southern Gothic Tale.” A South Carolina court had confirmed that the Redneck Shop, which sells Ku Klux Klan memorabilia, is indeed a lifetime tenant in their building, but not its owner. The state court has ruled that the building does indeed belong to a black Baptist pastor. (You can't make this stuff up!) I also found another story that day, not quite so unexpected, about a ruling by the Vatican that affects those women who are married to Episcopal clergy who are now moving their ecclesiastical home to Rome. Married priests who were Episcopalians and now want to become priests of the Catholic church – and remain married – can actually do so. But what about their wives? What's this switch like for them?

Actually, all Catholic priests could marry until the 11th century, when celibacy became the rule. But the men in power then believed a priest's wife was “a symbol of wantonness and defilement,” because women were largely seen as religiously unclean and impure. Peter Damian, a medieval monk, called them – and these are the more family-friendly phrases – “impatiently lustful” and “the female chambers of the ancient enemy.” For some, people of a different race feel like the enemy. But even before there was racism, sexism was alive and well. It began with Adam and Eve, and turned into the “War Between the Sexes.” What a nightmare Christians have made out of God's dreams for us – dreams that became a reality in the birth of Christ to Mary, dreams made incarnate for us all, in Jesus.

Someone who has lived into the dreams of Jesus and Dr. King and made them more real is an African who spent a sabbatical at my seminary, while I was a student there. Nobel Laureate and Archbishop Desmond Tutu had an enormous influence on all of us in those days, during South Africa's apartheid. He was the first person I ever saw wearing a shirt that said, “A woman's place is in the House . . . of Bishops.” Now in his 80s, ending his long journey to abolish racism, having established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission echoed in our own Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, Tutu has also come to embrace justice and equality for people of homosexual orientation. In his book God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time, in the chapter called “God Loves Your Enemies,” he says: “The endless divisions that we create between us and that we live and die for – whether they are our religions, our ethnic groups, our nationalities – are so irrelevant to God. God just wants us to love each other. Many, however, say that some kinds of love are better than others, condemning the love of gays and lesbians. But whether a man loves a woman or another man, or a woman loves a man or another woman, it is all love, and God smiles whenever we recognize our need for one another” (p.47).

Homophobia. Sexism. Racism. “What Would Jesus Do” about these 2012 “isms”? And What Would Martin Say, today? Today, we can add Classism. Someone put it to me this way years ago, when I heard what he said, but I didn't “get it” like I do now: “Tom, Class is the new Race.” According to a poll released last week by the Pew Research Center, about two-thirds of Americans now perceive a strong conflict between the rich and the poor in this country. That's up 19 percentage points since 2009. Whether it's the 1% and the 99% or some other combination that adds up to 100% of us, it's easy to make class differences into class warfare. But issues of class never need to be about war or envy or greed or responsibility. No, classism, sexism, homophobia and racism are about the need for justice.

I am now giving money away from my discretionary fund at a far faster rate than I have for a long, long time. The people who need and then reluctantly receive these monetary gifts, thanks to your generosity, are, more often than not, part of the middle class. People like you and me who have lost their jobs, their homes, their self-esteem. People who have never been wealthy but who have also never been made poor like they have been now. People shoved to life's margins, forgotten by many of us who are still “OK.” Dr. King had a lot to say about the poor, toward the end of his life, through the “March on Washington” and the “Poor People's Campaign.” What Would Martin Say today about our country's income and wealth disparity, with 40 million poor Americans, including 25% of our children?

Bishop Tutu says that “When we see others as the enemy, we risk becoming what we hate . . . .All our humanity is dependent on recognizing the humanity in others . . . .We are sisters and brothers of one another, whether we like it or not” (ibid., pp.49-50, 52).

And so . . . How shall we love our enemies? How can we live God's dream of loving our enemies like God does, like Jesus does, in the ways Martin Luther King tried to do, in the ways Desmond Tutu still tries to do? Here's a first step: Identify someone you love to hate. Here at church. At home or at work. Out in the world. If you're like me, it shouldn't be too hard to find an enemy or someone who feels like an enemy. That's where we can all start.

Step number two: Pray for your so-called enemies. In Matthew's version of this teaching, the one appointed for services on the Fourth of July, Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (5:43). You don't have to do anything more than say the name of your “enemy” in your prayers. That's enough. God knows what they need, and God knows what you and I need. Just lift them up to God and let them go. Prayer changes things, but mostly, prayer changes us. And prayer changes the people for whom we pray – people who are our friends, even people who are our enemies.

Finally, a third step can be found in worship with The Book of Common Prayer. Whenever you say the General Confession during Sunday morning services, in the silence before you confess your sins, remember your “enemies.” If that doesn't seem to be enough, if that still isn't working for you, look at the Rite of Reconciliation, commonly called Confession, on page 446.

Loving our enemies requires us to experience real, authentic reconciliation, which includes contrition (saying “I'm sorry”), confession (admitting that “I sinned”) and forgiveness (“I will let this go, and I will let you go”). We must be contrite, confessional and forgiving, before we can truly be reconciled to God, our enemies and one another in Christ. There's a saying about making a private Confession: “All may, some will and none must.” Even though it is not required, you might just try making a confession to a priest some day. Or to someone else whom you know you can trust will love you, no matter what you have done or said. Remember: God loves your enemies, and God loves you.

And now together, using the words of today's collect, let us pray.

Almighty God, by the hand of Moses your servant you led your people out of slavery, and made them free at last; Grant that your Church, following the example of your prophet Martin Luther King, may resist oppression in the name of your love, and may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. AMEN.