The Baptist Seminary of Kentucky was recently honored to host Ruby Nell Sales as the speaker at our annual Hinson Lectures. As we honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. today on the 50th anniversary of his assassination, Ruby shared with us the following sermon that she gave earlier this year at Trinity Church, Wall Street in New York City, honoring Dr. King:
Oh, God, we come this morning when there is deep troubling in the land that threatens the very heart beat of a democracy where generations of people of all colors and all ages have laid bricks on its foundation. And now the spiritual malformation and social pathology that has fueled Whiteness and all forms of oppression threaten to destroy the foundation and to collapse the walls of the house. Give us the courage this morning to begin right now, in this place, in this moment to join together in forging words of resistance and a freedom language that can be heard here and resonate throughout the land from the highest to the lowest places. Let the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in the cause of reconciliation, restoration and reparation. Let the people of God say Amen, Amen and Amen.
You may be seated.
Good morning, everyone. After the great false alarm in Hawaii that could have precipitated a nuclear disaster, I don’t know about you, but I am so glad to be here this morning. It is with deep gratitude that I come to you with joy in my heart and thankfulness to God to deepen our reflection on the Southern Freedom Movement and the world we live in today. I want to thank Mother Winnie, Jim, Ruth, Helen and each of you whose hopes and hard work have made this day possible.
We are gathered here not only to remember our brother Martin Luther King, Jr. but to remember a gallant people whose recipe was love and non-violence – the recipe was so strong and the flavor was so rich until it brought down an Empire without firing a shot. We are gathered here this morning in part because of a revolution started by poor Black women on a bus in Montgomery who refused to bend anymore to the vitriolic oppression and rage of White bus drivers and politicians who called them out of their names and confined them to the back of the bus in a country where their sons and fathers had died to make democracy safe around the world while it was unsafe at home.
Although they were maids and servants in White houses, they became the engine that drove the Southern Freedom Movement that turned the White Supremacist patriarchal South upside down and set it right again.
We cannot remember this movement this morning without at the same time recalling that we did this when there was great trouble in the land. It was a deep spiritual and social troubling that had been growing in the American soul from the genocide of Native Americans and the theft of their lands, the enslavement of African Americans, the de facto Northern segregation and the blistering mob violence and state sanctioned murder which was a daily reality in the South.
It was a troubling in the land where White men and their families waxed fat on the labor of Black people in sites of terror throughout the South. It was a deep spiritual troubling rooted in Empire Christianity where White people served a God that gave consent to injustice, materialism, and militarism. It was a troubling that emerged from an aberrant Empire Christianity where idolatrous White people mocked God and demanded that Black people bend low and call them “Master, Sir.” It was a deep troubling in the land that created a leak in democracy that flooded its foundation and weakened its infrastructure. For Black people, it was a troubling that made us utter the collective cry, “Sometimes we are so low down in the valley we can’t hear anybody pray.” But pray we did, and sing we did and remained faithful to an almighty God whom we said “had been a shelter in a raging storm, a way out of no way, a lily in the valley and a bright and morning star”.
Holding faithful to our history with God and God’s history with us, we believed in a jubilee and that one day God would continue to provide pathways to redemption that offered a clearing straight to the Kingdom of God not only for us but also for those who sinned against us. We held fast to Isaiah’s vision that had motivated generations of people just like us. It was a vision that Isaiah foretold where the I would harmonize with the We and the We with the I. It was a vision both of a democracy and a beloved community working hand in hand.
This is the dream that held my community. Our parents and ancestors poured their hopes and dreams and their faith in God into their children. They kept on tilling and fertilizing generations who would bring in the jubilee when there was no evidence that it could ever come. Out of the faithfulness of a people whose backs were pushed against the wall they birthed and bred an intergenerational community of Freedom Fighters who would take our collective dream of freedom to the streets, jails and court rooms of America. Some of these freedom fighters are remnants today, and many have joined the great cloud of witnesses. And I who am a remnant of that movement who knew them well and loved them much am called to remember them today with a special shout out to Stokley Carmichael, Clara Maul, John Hulett, Bob Mants, Victoria Gray Adams, Gwen Patton, Julian Bond, Rosemarie and Vincent Harding, Howard Zinn William Kunzler, Willie Peacock, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, June Johnson, Annie Divine, Silas Norman, Julian Bond, Samuel Younge, Jim Forman and Jonathan Daniels.
We also remember this morning those brothers and sisters still alive who are remnants who although weak in body are strong in spirit. “We were buked and we were scorned and we were talked about as sure as we were born. But we never turned back, no we never turned back. We walked through the shadows of death and sometimes we had to walk all by ourselves. But we never turned back, no we never turned back. We served our time in jail with no money to go our bail, but we never turned back, no we never turned back. And we hung our heads and cried for those like Martin Luther King who died for you and died for me and died for the cause of liberty. But we never turned back, no we never turned back.” We kept on fighting believing that one day we would be free, and one day we would have equality. We were the dreamers and the children of the dreamers. Let us say Ase, Ase, Ase.
The Scripture tells us this morning there once was a remnant named Eli, who although feeble in body he still carried the light of freedom and the spirit of God and the love of God in his heart and in his vision. He harvested it in a new generation through his mentoring of the one who was called to represent a generation – Samuel. As was the case for our parents, he held fast to this dream despite a deep spiritual troubling in the land.
The Scripture tells of a time in Israel’s history where most of the community had fallen afoul of God and were in a state of faithless dis-memory where they lost touch with their history with God and God’s history with them. They had grown disobedient and idolatrous. In far too many households and, yes, even in temple they cultivated and grew a lust in their hearts and actions for a world that Emperors made. They desired to be subjects of a King rather than to be the people of God. Their hearts were becoming barren sites of spiritual malformation and greed. In many ways, their lives were clothed in cynicism and were naked of hope and faith in God as Deliverer. Disconnected from God and their history, we understand that they lost their spiritual and creative imaginations and were barren of the collective vision that took into account not only where they were but also what was possible with a living faith. Verse 3: 1b says “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” In contemporary terms, they had fallen into the quicksand of moral nihilism. For they could not imagine an exit out of bad history. They sank deeper and deeper into social decadence and spiritual perversion. Yet, even in the midst of this deep troubling in the land, the text reminds us this morning of God’s all abiding mercy, for God did not abandon them and God was still active in human history. God’s presence was embodied in Eli who although weak in body was pure in heart and still strong and fertile with God’s spirit which housed the consciousness that was free of the lust for Empire and all of its seductions. In the words of my ancestors, “God had a ram in the bush.” More than the ram being a single person, my ancestors understood it to be the unexpected presence of God’s mercy as exhibited in the presence of remnants like Eli and those remnants who even in the midst of bitter disappointment the optimism and unshakable belief in God’s promise of a new day coming held firm. The text tells us that Eli’s “sight had grown dim so he could not see was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out.” How many of us this morning know what it means to still have the vision but not the physical strength to carry out the vision or to run the relay? Because of ageism, our society would set us aside as being old and useless and tell us that we should get out of the way so that the young folks can carry on. But the text reminds us this morning that although we move up a little higher in age, our relevancy in God’s vision is still significant and absolutely necessary. The text tells us that although God calls Samuel– without Eli’s teaching, guidance and nurturing Samuel could not have carried out the task.
Any authentic movement that brings about radical change and roots itself in the spirit of God must be intergenerational and must be filled with hindsight, insight and foresight. For without this whole sight the vision is flawed and ahistorical. Without history faithfulness is an aborted aspiration that never reaches maturation. As we think about the text this morning, we are reminded once again of God’s steady and active hand in human history even in sights of desolation and seasons of despair and moments of spiritual miscalculation. God always preserves a portion of a society that will hold steadfast to the course even though the ship is rocky and the storms of life are raging all around us. We are in the midst of a turbulent tornado that is whipping throughout the nation whose winds have been blowing and building across this nation in a society that despite its best ideals was formed, centered and executed by spiritual malformation and social pathology that dehumanized, degraded, and diminished everyone that it touched.
We are faced with a deep troubling in the land amid the nefarious rise of a mad Nero-like Emperor who lives in an alternative Trumpian reality where people whisper in his ear lies that aggrandize him and turn his abject failures into feats of victory. This President who would be Emperor who sits in the high seat of power is the representation of the pile up of spiritual malformation of a White Supremacist Empire whose intestines are clogged and rotted with the bitter bile of its own impending spiritual death from its inability to excrete its poisonous fumes of racism, militarism, materialism, patriarchy, heterosexism and Christian imperialism.
Donald Trump exists because of what is in all of us. For White Americans, he is the mirror in which you must look at yourselves to understand the price you have paid for a ticket to ride on a train of Whiteness.
As Donald Trump and his surrogates hound and hunt down Black and Brown immigrants, whether under the umbrella of fighting terrorism or Christian imperialism, White America must come face to face with the hard truth that despite all of your opportunities to change many of you choose a life of death and the repetition of old habits rather than a new life of radical change and redemption.
People of color are also faced with hard choices of rooting out the Empire that is also in us. We must refuse to be running dogs for the Empire. We must refuse the opiates and seductions of Empire such as titles, positions, awards and all other benefits that make us a stranger at our people’s table. We must continue a spiritual path towards freedom that was hollowed out in the fields of America by ordinary people during enslavement as they raised themselves from being commodities and properties to children of God and essential players in creation.
For those of you who are young and sit in this sanctuary this morning, it is important that you understand that your power to lead people does not come from your degrees or the fact that you have studied in an Ivy League institution. Rather, authentic leadership rises up out of the body of the people. Authentic leaders know the people and the people know the leaders through intimate experience of a shared common history and daily eye to eye proximity.
We are called to remember on this Martin Luther King Jr. memorial celebration and on the heels of the 50th anniversary of the Beyond Vietnam speech that both Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr. issued non-stop indictments against materialism. They warned us that to make materialism the epicenter of human existence is to lock us into a never-ending spiral towards spiritual death, meaninglessness, despair, hopelessness and nihilism. In the age of Trumpism we are caught in a spiral heading toward a cataclysmic ending.
Living in a capitalist technocracy of human disposability, gentrification and moral nihilism, there is a spiritual crisis of meaning at the heart of White America. It is a spiritual and social crisis that separates all that it touches from God, each other and all aspects of creation. It is a spiritual death trap that leads to the systemic murder of hope and faith in God. It eats away at the core ideal and values that inspired generations of people of all social locations and colors to nurture this great project of democracy. It is a spiritual crisis that sabotages the best in us and the best in others. I submit to you this morning that it is a spiritual crisis that has the nation shane stoking and moving towards death in a wretched ending.
We are living in the deep troubling in a land ruled by the Republican Party that has infection the nation with the Southern Strategy that lives on White Supremacist culture wars. This is the culture that threatens to eradicate our liberal impulses to upbuild democracy and to build bridges to each other and bring into being a beloved community that is yet to be born.
I finally want to just say that this trouble in the nation is a time of great hurt and woundedness. It is a time of deep loneliness, alienation, fragmentation, and isolation. In the deepest part of our hearts whether we ever speak it or not and no matter our financial circumstances we all feel the weight of the angst of our times.
Despite all of this, as we gather this morning there is hope in the air as our sister Carol Jenkins continues to bring us good news for Black America on CUNY TV. It is a time of hope when sisters like Cheryl Blankenship and Nancy Talbot bring all of their love and passion to the vision that have stirred generations of freedom fighters. There is hope in the land in the work of my younger sisters and brothers in Black Lives Matter – Mary Hooks, Charlene Caruthers, Nia Wilson, Darnell Moore and others who put themselves on the line every day for this dream that has galvanized generations of freedom fighters.
Then there are the younger theologians like Aquarius Gilmer, Kyndra Frazier, Waltrina Middleton, Quincy Rhinehart, Nick Peterson, Alice Ambrose and Michelle Standback who still bear witness that in times of despair that God is the Lilly of the Valley and a Bright and Morning Star who carry within their hearts the petitions of the people. There is hope in each of you who come together in this congregation this morning to give honor to Southern Black peasants who were descendants of an enslaved people who gathered in the fields and the sites of terror called plantations and created a Black Folk Theology of agape and right relations that resonated through the dark clouds of oppression and became the saving grace of an American society that constantly tilted towards social death and spiritual ruin. As we move from this place and face the reality of the troubling of the land, as we face a society that has declared war on colored youth because it believes that in order for White Supremacy to survive it must destroy young people of color because they are the future of democracy. As I stand before you this morning, I can hear that great baritone voice of Martin Luther King Jr. admonishing us from on high “Children don’t you get weary. Even though you might stumble and fall, get up and walk because joy comes in the morning because no lie lives forever, that truth crushed to the ground shall rise again. Cause let me tell you this morning that God has the final word and God is still the lily of the valley, a bright and morning star, a shelter in the storm, the doctor in a sick room, a miracle worker who showed up in Selma and showed out and created miracles and wonders that the world still remembers and holds in awe. Finally, I can hear him singing the lines of his favorite song, “Lift every voice and sing, till the earth and heaven ring; Ring with the harmony of liberty; let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies, Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.”
So it is written and so shall it be. Let the church say Amen.
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