“Now, in order to answer the question, “Where do we go from here?”…, we must first honestly recognize where we are now.” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., included these words in an August 1967 address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the SCLC. The occasion of the address was the 10th anniversary of 100 leaders from across the South coming together to form SCLC to coordinate protest activities in support of civil rights.
I found Dr. King’s compelling speech decades later as a high school student searching for words to offer as part of my congregation’s annual oratory contest. Knowing I could not match my counterpart’s oration of “I Have a Dream,” I was bested the year before, I looked for a speech that would be relevant and inspire listeners. Dr. King’s response to this question “Where do we go from here?” was just the ticket. It was what we needed to hear.
The morning of his resurrection Jesus sent a message to his followers through the women who visited his tomb early on Easter morning. Jesus told the women, ‘Tell my siblings to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” (Mt 28:10)
The women brought the message to the eleven remaining disciples. “Go to Galilee” was not an unexpected instruction because Jesus told his followers during their last meal together, “…after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” (Mt. 26: 32) Rather than days, it felt like a whole century had passed between the last meal they shared with Jesus and hearing the women’s message. So much had transpired. The eleven were uncertain of what would become of them and their ministry in Jesus’ absence.
As they traveled to Galilee through the familiar landscape, they remembered the ministry that unfolded in their earlier travels with Jesus. They remembered being called by Jesus to form new relationships and build communities shaped by the reality of the in-breaking reign of God. They remembered how Jesus’ sermons stirred something within all who listened. They walked toward Galilee and recalled how Jesus preached and taught embodying a mixture of credibility and truth. (Mt. 7:28-29) They travelled roads like these when Jesus gave them authority and sent them out to minster to those in need throughout Israel. Jesus’ authority, as they experienced it and shared it, was imbued with self-giving love.
They remembered listening to Jesus during their journey to Jerusalem for Passover (Mt. 16:21-20:34). As they walked together Jesus explained his doggedly insisting the kingdom of heaven had come near threatened religious and political institutions in Jerusalem and therefore those institutions would collaborate to bring suffering on Jesus and put him to death (Mt. 26:3-5).
God’s claim of each one of the eleven through the waters of baptism guided them to Galilee. Each one of the eleven were transformed by Jesus’ teaching. The aliveness of Jesus’ teaching in them guided their feet to Galilee.
All this the eleven remembered as they walked to Galilee. During portions of the journey their steps were filled with confidence and anticipation of being in Jesus’ presence again. And during the journey in places their steps were crammed with doubt. Perhaps the eleven felt the weight of doubt the most when they remembered how their fears overtook them and they deserted Jesus the night of his arrest (Mt. 26:31).
As the eleven walked to Galilee, the words of Psalm 37 were still true, “Our steps are made firm by [God] when [God] delights in our way; and though we stumble, we shall not fall headlong, for the Lord holds us by the hand.” (Ps 37:23-24) Whether they knew it or not, the eleven had never been beyond God’s reach.
When they saw Jesus on the mountain, as had happened on many earlier occasions reverence and awe began rising in their souls. Their souls experienced homecoming. They felt the kind of joy and grounding Jesus uniquely inspired.
Their uncertainties and doubts remained—they worshipped anyhow.
Jesus moved toward the disciples and revealed the focus of their gathering, ‘Siblings of mine, I have been given authority and power over everything in heaven and on earth. Because I have this authority, I am sending you to all nations of the earth to baptize people who do not yet know me, do not know the Father and do not know the Holy Spirit. I charge you to bring people everywhere into this communion we share. You are the ones who will teach all people everything you learned from me about the kingdom of heaven coming near. As you leave this mountain to baptize and teach, remember I will be with you all the days until the end of time.’
Jesus assured the eleven they were fully welcomed in divine community and were more ready than they realized for this expansive assignment. They were prepared by their lived experience with Jesus to take up this assignment of baptizing and teaching for the rest of their lives. “It was in their relationship to [Jesus] and [Jesus’] to the triune God that they would have access to heal, proclaim and teach.”
Earlier in their life together Jesus taught his followers about the cost of discipleship. He said, “If any wish to come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Mt.16:24-25) He also explained faithfully following meant establishing these new patterns of living such as they had not experienced before—patterns flowing from the reality of the kingdom of heaven coming near. Old ideas about relationships gave way to forging intimate connections to one another and sustaining relationships rooted in mutuality. The ones with power who crucified Jesus intended to undo every aspect of the new patterns of relationships and community-building Jesus developed with his followers. They did not succeed. Jesus was alive and gathered the eleven one more time to reassure them of his enduring presence and give them a meaningful assignment they would pursue the rest of their lives. Their identities and purpose were clarified on a mountain in Galilee.
At the end of April, members and clergy from this congregation participated in a Civil Rights Learning Experience. Please join us during the education hour next week to hear reflections on our experience. Leading up to the trip, and for most of my life, I understood the Civil Rights movement was a spiritual movement. Following the trip, I have an even deeper appreciation for the magnitude of the spiritual undertaking of the adults and children who were involved in Civil Rights. They responded to a divine commissioning. The ministry Jesus entrusted to the eleven spread all over the world including to the southern states of America where adults and children took responsibility for their commission with grace, creativity and courage.
As part of preparing for the learning experience we were invited to select a scripture we hoped would provide a foundation as we traveled. I selected Hebrews 12:1, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” I trusted this verse from Hebrews would ground and guide me and it did.
The opportunities to hear the experiences of those who were directly involved in the Civil Rights movement were profoundly sacred. We had the great privilege to be in the presence of some of the witnesses! The verse from Hebrews also prepared me to be attentive to what places and spaces had witnessed. In July of 1956 Dr. King described the civil rights efforts in Montgomery to the American Baptist Assembly, saying,
“We have the strange feeling down in Montgomery that in our struggle for justice we have cosmic companionship. And so we can walk and never get weary, because we believe and know that there is a great camp meeting in the promised land of freedom and justice. And this belief, and this feeling that God is on the side of truth and justice and love and that they will eventually reign supreme in this universe, this comes down to us from the long tradition of our Christian faith. There is something that stands at the center of our faith. There is a great epic. There is a great event that stands at the center of our faith which reveals to us that God is on the side of truth and love and justice.”
We visited the very spaces in Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham where courageous civil rights disciples enacted the theological drama of civil rights.
The children and adults who were actively involved in the movement in Alabama and elsewhere believed Jesus’ claim, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Because they believed Jesus’ claim, they did not believe the segregationists and the opponents of civil rights were as powerful as they asserted themselves to be.
Those civil rights disciples were nourished directly by God communicating to them that their reality of dehumanizing injustice was not the final word. In every space where they gathered be it, Sunday school, classrooms, barbershops, beauty parlors, civic organizations, or mass meetings God spoke to the civil rights disciples and assured them their present condition was not the final word.
The Rev. Dr. Prathia Hall described a mass meeting where she experienced God reinforcing her resolve and the resolve of the people,
“I’d heard [the songs of mass meetings] before as they were repeated by the daughters and sons of the American Southland in the churches of Philadelphia and other northern cities. Yet, in this place…they were neither repetitious nor familiar; they were worship that contained within the reality of its expression a power affirming life and defying death. That power with which those songs and prayers were infused transcended the objective reality of our situation, fashioned fear into faith, cringing into courage, suffering into survival, despair into defiance, and pain into protest. Even today, when I am going through a storm, I breathe those hymns and those prayers.”
God commissioned the civil rights disciples to bear witness and act as if the kingdom of heaven was coming near. They believed being known by God and knowing God would sustain them and enable them to gain the rights and freedoms they sought. They did not allow the segregationists and their violent exercises of power to make them cower. Because they took seriously Jesus’s claim to all authority, they understood, in the words of Dr. King, “Power at it’s best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at it’s best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
The civil rights disciples did not allow their doubts or fears to cause them to withdraw from being in community. Instead, they gathered in community and pooled their courage, faith and resources. Repeatedly we learned about the enormous generosity and grace of civil rights disciples. For example, we met Dr. Valda Harris Montgomery who described growing up in the Centennial Hill neighborhood, a Black community guided by a cooperative love ethic. We marveled at the depth of the generosity offered by her parents Richard and Vera Harris when they opened their home to provide sanctuary for John Lewis and the other Freedom Riders after they were brutally attacked in 1961.
Charles Marsh described how Dr. King and others who were involved in the struggle for civil rights were shaped by the Black church. They approached the civil rights struggle with “particular ways of thinking about God, Jesus Christ and the [role of the] Church.” Dr. King and the everyday people who participated in the movement understood their mission was to stand up for the truth of God and to enact the in-breaking reign of God.
Where does God’s Church go from here? From here the Church could dive deeply into understanding the “just and merciful reign of God.” More demanding than the sometimes-abstract idea of beloved community, the Church could commit to a deeper understanding of how we live the words of our prayer, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Mt 6:10)
Scholars Raj Nidella and Debra Krause lead Bible study at the 223rd PCUSA General Assembly at which “Kin-dom Building for the 21st Century” was the theme. Nidella explained, “The metaphor of kin-dom allows us to envision an inclusive community, built on common humanity and shared values.” And “[p]eople who are part of kin-dom use their resources and privilege to advocate for others who are less privileged.”
From here the Church could wholeheartedly accept this commission in Matthew 28 and live as if God’s mission and the Church’s mission are one and the same. From here we who are called to be the Church can trust the triune God will sustain the Church as it gives generously of itself and seeks the well-being of its neighbors.
May it be so. Amen.