Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”
Genesis 37: 17-20
Jesus said, “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
I’m so glad to be here at St. John’s, Broad Creek this morning and grateful to God for the leadership of your rector, the Rev. Sarah Odderstol, and for your lay leaders. Many blessings to those being confirming and reaffirming your commitment to follow Jesus in His way of love, and to those being received as full members of the Episcopal Church. What an occasion for celebration!
It has been a very good year at St. John’s, and a challenging one. The goodness is evidenced by the joyful spirit among you, the depth of your commitment to grow in faith and love, your increased engagement in Bible Study, worship, and service.
One of the challenges has been rain and the continued flooding of your property. The flooding raises hard issues for your leadership and places considerable stress on your rector and her family.
I am here today to celebrate the goodness and grace you share as a community of faith, and to do what I can to support your leaders in addressing challenges. Together we are asking what we can do so that the structures intended to support your ministry are not a hindrance to it. I am persuaded that the One who has begun a good work in each one of you, and in this congregation, will see it through to completion, and that the power of the Holy Spirit working in us can accomplish far more than we can ask for or even imagine.
God’s very spirit at work in and through us is not the same thing as our working for God. Sometimes I get confused about that, and I imagine that it’s my responsibility to do good things for God, and to convince or encourage others, like you, to do good things for God, or for the church, and for your families, and for the world.
Doing good is certainly better than not doing good or conversely, doing harm. But the transformational power we are privileged to be a part of in this life happens when we focus less on ourselves and more on Jesus; when we open ourselves to the love of God made known to us in Jesus and then do our best to align our lives with that love. That aligning may require hard work on our part, but it’s a fundamentally different experience, with a different energy, than when we work from our own strength alone.
A mentor wrote me this week one of those encouraging letters that came at just the right moment with a word I needed to hear. That word was: “Get out of the way and let God do the heavy lifting.” In Alcoholics Anonymous, a similar slogan is “Let go and let God.” This doesn’t mean that we are to be passive in life and not do anything, but rather that we learn to wait and trust and be still before taking action, and allow God’s power to work in and through us.
We can’t know for certain how this divine-human alignment works. We aren’t in control of it, and we certainly don’t get it right from our end all the time. I know that I don’t. But friends, this is the fundamental Christian experience: feeling a power and a presence at work in and through us, assuring us we are not alone, that Jesus is Lord and we are not. To put it plainly, we are not in charge. Our call is to follow where Jesus leads.
There are any number of images that can help us picture in our minds and better live into this experience. A friend of mine speaks of putting her hand in Jesus’ hand and walking with him. Another describes the experience as being in a car and inviting Jesus to take the wheel. Still another, a horseback rider, uses the image of dropping the reins, which is what riders sometimes do when they are lost, trusting that the horse knows how to get home.
There’s a song written by folk singer Kate Campbell entitled “Jesus is the Way Home,” and it goes like this:
If you’re ever in the Richmond jail
With no one around to go your bail.
If you’ve lost your way, it might help to know.
Jesus is the way home.
If you’re trying to put that whiskey down
And you realize you’re losing ground.
You don’t have to walk that road alone.
Jesus is the way home.
You don’t have to worry where you’re at,
or why you’re there–He knows all that.
Just let the Good Book be your map.
Jesus is the Way home.’
The Scripture readings before us today were chosen in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was assassinated 51 years ago this week as he was leaving the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. King had gone to Memphis against the counsel of his closest advisors to be in solidarity with African American sanitation workers who were on strike, seeking better pay and working conditions. Knowing that he was under constant death threats at the time, his colleagues worried what would happen to King if he went to Memphis. His response to their concerns, which he articulated in the last sermon of his life, harkens back to Jesus’ story of a man wounded on the roadside. You may recall that three men passed by the wounded man. King noted that the first two asked, “If I stop to help him, what will happen to me?” The third man–who was, by race, the man’s enemy, asked a different question: “If I don’t stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” King’s response to those worried for his safety was, “If I don’t go to Memphis, what will happen to the sanitation workers?”
The first Scripture passage before us, taken from the Book of Genesis, invites us to think of Dr. King in poignant comparison to the young Joseph who was resented by his brothers for his father’s favor and for his dreams: “Come, let us kill the dreamer,” they said, “and we will see what will become of his dreams.”
If King’s dream had been his own alone, it would have died with him. But his dream was, in fact, God’s dream taking up residence in him. The dream was of God’s justice, and that is a dream that can never die. It will be passed on from one generation to the next until it is fulfilled. We, like King, can dream God’s dream, align ourselves with God’s love, love most fully embodied in Jesus. To do so is the highest thing we can aspire to in this life, even if most of us live that love and that dream in relatively modest ways.
It is an amazing thing, to swept up by God’s dream, but It doesn’t make for an easy life. Jesus makes that very clear. Yet what a life it can be, one that moves us from superficialities to depth.
The brilliant author Toni Morrison gave a commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College a few years ago in which she told the graduates quite directly that she was not interested in their happiness. Then she said:
I want you to have happiness; you clearly deserve it. Everyone does. And I hope it continues, or comes, effortlessly, quickly, always. Still, I am not interested in it. Not yours, nor mine nor anybody’s. I don’t think we can afford it anymore. I don’t think it delivers the goods. Most important, it gets in the way of everything worth doing. . . I want to talk about the activity you were always warned against as being wasteful, impractical, hopeless. I want to talk about dreaming. (Morrison, Toni. The Source of Self-Regard (p. 69). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)
Having a dream can change the world–most especially when it is God’s dream living inside us.
Let me encourage you, then–those being confirmed, received and all reaffirming your vows–to open yourself to the particular expression of God’s dream that lives inside you, whatever that may be. It’s the dream that won’t die, no matter what happens. It’s the hope that won’t let you go; It’s the love that can move mountains.
Dr. King was no stranger to trials and tribulations. In the last two years of his life, his popularity had plummeted among blacks and whites; and in particular, a rising generation of young blacks had lost faith in non-violent resistance. He had experienced several humiliating public failures; he was struggling against his own demons of exhaustion and despair.
He called white Americans to task for our superficial commitments: “The great majority of white Americans are uneasy with injustice but unwilling yet to pay a significant price to eradicate it.” King also addressed the rising bitterness, anger, and calls for violent resistance among rising African American leaders, for which he had great sympathy: “I should have known,” he wrote,“that in an atmosphere where false promises are daily realities, where deferred dreams are nightly facts, where acts of unpunished violence toward Negroes are a way of life, nonviolence would eventually be seriously questioned.” (Martin Luther King, Jr. Where Do We Go From Here–Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966))
But he rejected violence as a strategy and a way of life. “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
He was, to the end, a follower of Jesus, the one from God who went to his death unswayed in his commitment to love–even to love his enemies.
“I have decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to humankind’s problems. And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. And I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. For I have seen too much hate. I’ve seen too much hate on the faces of sheriffs in the South. I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens’ Councils in the South to want to hate, myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities, and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love, for God is love. Love will have the last word.” (Where Do We Go From Here?)
May love be our last word, God’s word, God’s dream living in us.
I’d like to pray with you:
Gracious God, I hold before you these your beloved gathered here and pray your blessing upon them. May they know, may we all know, your desire to empower us with your love, inspire us with your dreams, and show us how to live and give us the strength and courage we need every day to follow Jesus in his way of love. Help us to remember that he is the source of our strength and the strength of our life, that he is our way home. May each one here feel the power of his presence and his love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.