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Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
John 1:38-39a, 43-46
Until yesterday, I had never heard of Gary Lee. And, until yesterday, Gary Lee hardly existed in the social proving ground known as the Twitterverse.
“I’ve never tweeted before,” he said, “but today felt like a good day to start.”
Then, in a series of 13 additional tweets that began with a recounting of the offensive, racially-charged remarks the president had made to a Korean-American U.S. intelligence officer, Gary Lee recounted his experience of the American dream:
“I’m Korean-American, [and] I worked at the White House, for President Obama,” he said. “I left the [White House] in 2011 for a Fulbright scholarship in Korea. President Obama knew I was leaving to learn more about the culture and language of my parents.
“On my last day, I went into the Oval Office and [the president] greeted me by saying Hello in Korean. …
“ … After my departure photo with [the president], I left the Oval Office in a daze and ran into [a co-worker] in the West Wing lobby. I recounted the interaction with the president and he started tearing up. "Why are you crying?" I asked.
“He replied, ‘think about what you just said. How incredible that is. On your last day of work at the White House, after your years of service, the first African-American president greeted you in your parents’ native language.’ I started crying too.
Gary Lee’s tweets went on to describe how his parents came to the United States as young people, worked incredibly hard, and overcame serious obstacles to provide for their sons.
“They sacrificed so we could achieve whatever we wanted to,” Gary Lee said. “They could have never imagined that their eldest son would work in the White House.
“In what other country is that even possible? In what other country are you allowed to dream, and despite all odds, pursue and achieve your dreams? In what country could a chubby, 90s Hip Hop and R&B-loving Asian kid from [New Mexico] end up working for [Barack Obama]?
“What a beautiful, incredible nation of immigrants we are,” he tweeted, adding an American flag emoji.
“Happy Korean-American Day and [Martin Luther King] weekend,” he concluded. “As Dr. King said, ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’
One of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s greatest heroes, George Washington Carver, knew something about hate. Born into slavery, Carver became a brilliant botanist, inventor, and professor, but some people could not see beyond the color of his skin.
In 1921, Carver was summoned to Washington to speak to a powerful congressional committee. He was forced to wait three days to testify and then, when his time finally came, members of Congress uttered hateful slurs and racist comments—publicly, for all to hear. They did their best to humiliate him.
Carver was hurt and terrified. He could have walked out. He didn’t have to put up with all that. Instead, he remembered his baptism. “Whatever they say of me,” he thought, “whatever they think of me … I know who I am. I know whose I am: I am a child of God.”
Remembering his baptism, remembering that God made him and loved him, gave Carver an identity to live into. It gave him courage and strength. It guided him.
Carver gave his ten-minute presentation. Then the committee chairman asked—and asked again and again—that he be given more time. Carver ended up speaking for almost two hours, and when he finished the applause lasted for a while, too. 1
A woman named Fayette made her way to a church in a small town. She had her challenges—mental and physical illnesses, among others—but she loved the church and wanted to become a member. She had not been baptized, but she was fascinated by the notion of it, and the more she learned about it, the more she craved it.
In every membership class, she would say, “ ‘And when I’m baptized, I am …?” And the others in the class would respond, ‘Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.’ ‘Oh, yes!’ Fayette would say.
When the day came for Fayette’s baptism, the pastor said the sacred words and lowered her down into the water. She came up sputtering, saying, “And now I am …?” And the whole church said, “Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.”
Two months later, Fayette was beaten and raped. When her pastor went to see her, she heard a voice as she approached her hospital room. “I am beloved, …” When Fayette saw her pastor, she began again, saying, “I am beloved, precious child of God, . . . and God is still working on me. If you come back tomorrow, I’ll be so beautiful I’ll take your breath away.” 2
In the Gospel of John, there is no fasting in the wilderness, no temptations in the desert for Jesus. In John, Jesus has barely come up out of the water, his ears are still ringing with those divine words of belovedness and pleasure, when he gets to work—calling his disciples, telling them to come and see what the love of God can do.
Jesus is getting down to the business of building a community and living out his purpose when, like Gary Lee, he encounters crass prejudice. Jesus is flying high, thrilling on that Holy Spirit power, when, like George Washington Carver, he runs into people who judge him for where he’s from. Jesus is on his way to a wedding, where he will perform the first of many miracles, when, like Fayette, he runs smack into human fear and small-mindedness.
“Nazareth!” exclaims Nathaniel, brother of Jesus-recruit Philip and neighbor of Jesus-recruits Andrew and Peter. “Nazareth!” he says again, half laughing, half spitting out the name of Jesus’ hometown. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, like Jesus, kept running into well-meaning, hard-hearted, fear-driven religious people. “Why do you protest?” they asked him. “Why are you riling your people up? Come on, change takes time. Why do you have to be such an extremist?”
Dr. King, sitting in solitary confinement in the Birmingham, Alabama, jail, scribbling in the margins of a newspaper, wrote a most eloquent response to those questions. He mourned the church’s allegiance to the status quo and called on his fellow clergy members to join the struggle for freedom and dignity, to be, like Christ, “extremist[s] for love, truth and goodness.”
In the following years, Dr. King’s call to love would grow only stronger, and more pointed. “When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response,” he said at Riverside Church in 1967. “I am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.”
Again and again he explained himself, saying, “I speak as a child of God” and a brother to the poor and oppressed.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. We like to think we have come a long way. Some people, some Christians, even, like to think they don’t need to talk, don’t need to even think about racism any more.
And yet 50 years after Dr. King’s assassination, white supremacists still march and, 50 years after Dr. King’s martyrdom, the president of the United States calls them “good people.” Fifty years after Dr. King was gunned down, the president calls for the firing of African American football players who kneel for racial justice. More than 50 years after Dr. King imagined a country in which children would be known not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, we have a president who asks why the United States should accept immigrants from—I’m not going to use his language—let’s just say dishonored countries. And more than 50 years after Dr. King called on the church to stop being apologists for injustice and to get with the Jesus program, we have a megachurch pastor who says “the president is right on target” in “putting the interests of our nation above the needs of other countries.” 3 And we have a leading white supremacist who praises the president for the racism of his remarks.
God help us.
God help us to stand firm. God help us to be rooted and grounded in the identity bestowed on us at baptism. God give us the humility to understand that all people are children of God. God give us the courage and the love to speak as beloved children of God for the beloved children of God.
Why do we care about people from dishonored countries? Because, my friends, we follow a savior who came from a dishonored town. Because we follow a man who wore his beloved privilege not as an excuse to ignore suffering and injustice but as a call to love. Because we follow one who gave his life for the least and the lost. Because we follow one who loved his enemies and saw even in those who persecuted him an essential human yearning. Because we, too, are beloved of God, created in an act of love for acts of love.
Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Can anything good come out of Atlanta, Georgia, or Birmingham, Alabama? Can anything good come out of horrible countries like Haiti and nations in Africa?
Oh yes. O God, yes.
When Jesus of Nazareth saw Nathaniel the anti-Nazarene coming toward him he said, “Here’s the real deal, not a false bone in his body! Come, follow me. Come and see what love can do.”
1 From a 2014 sermon by Nancy S. Taylor, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Washington_Carver
2 Jan L. Richardson quoting a story by Janet Wolf, Fayette’s pastor.
3 This is what Robert Jeffress, the evangelical pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas and a presidential adviser, told CBN News, as reported in the New York Times.