This guy Phillip is bursting with news. He runs into his childhood friend, Nathaniel. “Nate,” he says, “Me and the guys have found the Messiah! Oh, and yeah, it turns out to be some guy from New Jersey, or was it Cleveland?”
Can anything good come out of Cleveland?
So the guys introduce Nathaniel to Jesus. Jesus takes one look at Nathaniel and says, “Whoa, now here’s a man who doesn’t have a false bone in his body!” Taken aback, Nathaniel asks Jesus, “How do you know that?” Jesus tells him: “I saw you long before today, Nate. I saw you sitting under your fig tree.”
Nathaniel does a 180 and says, “WOW! You must be the Messiah.”
“You think so?” says Jesus “Just because I said I saw you sitting under a fig tree? Well you ain’t seen nothing yet! You are about to see God’s Spirit ascending and descending upon people in amazing ways as we work together.”
And Oh! The Places You’ll Go!
In a flash, Nathaniel makes a quick reversal from disbelief to disciple! Jesus sees in Nathaniel someone who will receive the good news and then with power tell the people what he’s seen, without dressing it up or sugar coating it one bit . . . once the Spirit ascends and descends upon him.
Dr. Martin Luther King was a Jesus type leader, calling and sending people upon whom God’s Spirit would ascend and descend in ways that would change and are still changing hearts, minds, in our world . . . forever. The fearful, the timid, the clueless – all became dynamic preaching visionaries proclaiming an overcoming, irresistible, irrepressible message of peace and unbelievable hope that would ultimately overcome an empire.
I think Martin Luther King understood the power of such transformation because that same unbelievable transformation was still happening to him—right up to the end—the same way it happens to you and me!
As a teenager, upon learning of the death of his grandmother, young Martin attempted suicide. But Martin was surrounded by a nurturing community, who recognized the hand of God upon him, they sensed God’s Spirit ascending and descending upon this great, though imperfect young man.
I ask you this morning . . . What do you see when you look at our young people? What do you see in yourself when the world feels overwhelming?
* Slightly inside joke as the speaker is originally from Cleveland and is known to love Cleveland.
Young Martin Luther King had a wild streak. During the lunch counter sit-ins he was arrested along with other college students. All were released except one. Having had a prior record for speeding, Martin was not released with the others. A judge had told young Martin that if he appeared in his court again, he would put him on the chain gang. And here he stood.
An 11th hour appeal went out to various politicians across the nation for help. Daddy King and other prominent Black leaders were, as was popular at that time, long-time Republicans because Lincoln, a Republican, had freed the slaves. The only candidate, John F. Kennedy, and his brother Bobby took up the cause to get young Martin out of jail. And I believe that Bobby Kennedy saw something bigger than Martin’s charm, something bigger than a shrewd move to swing more Black votes into the Democratic Party which did happen – I think he also saw God’s Spirit, ascending and descending upon this young man . . . only minutes from the chain gang.
Standing at a bus boycott meeting in Montgomery, late at night, a shy and reluctant MLK, believe it or not, was afraid to speak up. Having returned home from a big eastern school out in Boston, he now stood among simple southern working class people wondering what to say, but as the Spirit ascended and descended upon him that night, He made Augustine, Niebuhr, and Kant sound like Baptist preachers as he moved a restless bickering crowd from immobility to action . . . . and a new leader was born among them.
With the hand of God upon him, King did it again and again . . . at lunch counter sit-ins, at garbage worker strikes, in church basements, organizing petitions, rallies, and voters, he awakened a sleeping people to possibilities that only God could see for them.
This was no easy task. Many African American people like my parents who wanted to trust King found it difficult to do so because of their real life experiences. When they switched on the television and watched the water cannons aimed at the peaceful marchers … and saw dogs being unleashed on young, peaceful marchers … when they heard news of children being bombed in Sunday schools – a clear escalation of southern violence, it became harder to trust King’s so-called “peaceful revolution.” It brought back too many painful memories.
“We are making progress, why don’t we leave well enough alone,” they said.
Whether you like it or not,
Alone will be something
you'll be quite a lot.
And when you're alone, there's a very good chance
you'll meet things that scare you right out of your pants.
There are some, down the road between hither and yon,
that can scare you so much you won't want to go on.
Like one of King’s African American seminarian classmates in Boston who chose to drive home to Alabama, he and his young pregnant wife, experienced the harsh reality of segregation. Returning home after a good time, his wife went into early labor. They tried stopping at several hospitals before finding one that would treat a Negro. This young seminarian and his wife lost that baby.
Arriving back at seminary, he was angry, refusing to talk even to a White advisor with whom he was unusually close. Having avoided this professor for weeks, one day the professor, a big man, saw him coming, the professor quickly backed into his office so he could grab this unsuspecting young man as he passed by. As the young man passed by the advisor yanked him into his office, slammed the door shut and said, “Have it out if we must, but you and I have to talk about this today!”
And the young man mumbled . . . “Damn you! Damn you! If it wasn’t for you, he said, I could hate every White man in America!”
Through the efforts of people like this professor, who like midwives helped people like this young man and people like my parents push toward freedom and peace, push beyond anger and fear, giving birth to strategic action . . . as the Spirit ascended and descended upon them. Change began to come, is still coming; it was not stopped when King was cut down by an assassin’s bullet.
When the Spirit ascends and descends upon you, your work, or a movement . . . not even an assassin’s bullet can stop it.
And leaning over the balcony of heaven on the day we inaugurated the first African American President in this nation’s history, no matter your political affiliation, who could deny the ladder raised to heaven, not only by King, but by many other unsung heroes . . . of all colors, races, faiths and political affiliations who also leaned over the balcony of heaven that day . . . perhaps quoting Quinn’s favorite text, Magnificat . . .
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my savior,
For God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his handmaiden.
Surely, Surely, Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed; the mighty One has done great things for me, and Holy is God’s name. . . .
Some people want to lock King’s dream in the past, saying it’s only for Black people but as the Honorable Byron Rushing has said recently and very courageously, the dream is so much bigger than that.
Martin’s dream includes people living with disabilities, Asians, Hispanics, Arabs, Jews, and so many more . . . because the dream is bigger than that . . .
It includes not just Christians, born once or twice, but also Jews, Muslims, the Buddhists, Hindus, and so many more because the dream is bigger than that!
It looks beyond mere healthcare reform to healing all the sick, feeding all the hungry, clothing all the naked and setting all the prisoners free no matter how hard that is to imagine . . . because the dream is bigger than that.
It looks toward the redemption of the earth rather than its destruction because the dream is bigger than that
It challenges us to struggle to overcome what we see, because what we see today is merely a snapshot of the past in progress.
Let’s keep moving . . . Church . . . God’s people are still holding an upward ladder in life’s most unlikely places, and God’s Spirit is still ascending and descending upon it and from that ladder, the future looks so bright . . . . you gotta wear sunglasses. As Martin said to us, “I may not get there with you, but Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
And from generation to generation the Church of Jesus Christ in this world is still saying, “I’ll take you there.”
Old South Church, don’t you want to go?
Thanks be to God! Amen!