This past Friday the Washington Post journalist Robert Samuels put out a simple eleven-word tweet. Over an image of the Post, he wrote, “Have mercy. Every story in this front page made m[e] gasp.” The articles offered a litany of woes: “Trump suggests delaying election;” “U.S. economy contracts at record rate;” “Mail backlog raises fears of delays in ballot delivery;” “DHS gathers ‘intelligence’ on journalists covering Ore[gon]; and “Nation’s unrest looms large as Lewis is eulogized.”
Horrifying as this list runs, it even managed to miss at least two of the most troubling aspects of the hour–the virus count and the climate crisis. The United States has passed 150,000 deaths. Here in Greg Abbott’s Texas we have seen over 6,500 dead. In greater Houston, roughly one out of every seventy people has been infected. Such numbers can be difficult to comprehend. If you have trouble envisioning 150,000 dead, imagine a mid-sized city, say Pasadena, Texas, being wiped from the Earth. If you cannot grasp the infection rate, picture the crowd at a mid-sized restaurant. Statistically, at least one person in such a space, one of your fellow diners, would probably be infected.
Meanwhile, the Earth warms at a frightening, human induced, pace. We burn fossil fuels, transmute oil into endless plastic, and edge the planet ever closer to cooking our society into oblivion. Almost a year after last autumn’s historic climate strikes, we are little closer to addressing humanity’s greatest existential challenge.
These are troubling, heartbreaking, times. We are caught in what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the fierce urgency of now.” It is like he warned us more than fifty years ago, “In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late.” And today it seems like we are on the verge of being too late–too late prevent the spread of the virus; too late to preserve constitutional democracy; too late to stop the rise of a neo-Confederate authoritarian regime; too late to create a society where people with Black and brown bodies do not suffer from the seemingly unending onslaught of the structural and physical violence of white supremacy… “…there is such a thing as being too late.” “The fierce urgency of now.” Humanity, the United States of America, Texas, and Houston, all plunged into disaster.
Now, amid all of these horrors it falls to the preachers of the world, or at least the preachers who insist upon living in this world, to bring a note of hope. This past Thursday watching the funeral of the now late but eternally timely John Lewis, I heard some of the world’s best worldly preachers–the powerful Raphael Warnock, the visionary James Lawson, and the insightful Barack Obama–struggle to sound a note of hope loud enough to disrupt the unstinting cacophonous chorus of terror. In the pages–or if you prefer pixels–of the New York Times Lewis’s voice came to us one last time, attempting to offering up, after his final hour, an inspirational word that would, like the bells of the houses of worship that sounded to mark his funeral, call us collectively into acts of redemption, which is to say action, which is to describe good trouble, that might yet, as we continue to be caught in the fierce urgency of now, change the words of the journalist, and the spirit of the world, from “have mercy” to “joy, justice, and jubilation.” Words that would “redeem the soul” of the country…
“While my time here has now come to an end, I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired… the truth is still marching on… each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community…”
Each generation must do its part, the fierce urgency of now, there is such a thing as being too late… I am what literary scholars might call an intertextual creature. Reading one text I see its connection with another. Encountering a speech, hearing a song, seeing an image my mind starts to construct its genealogy, its references, its lineage–which is never a straight line but rather a network of roots spreading out into the rich earthly clay of human culture and imagination.
To read Lewis’s final words is to discover his invocation of the abolitionist tradition, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the truth is marching on, slavery and Jim Crow were ended. It is to be reminded of his place in the civil rights movement and his debt to Ella Baker who believed, “It is better to concentrate on what can be done than to despair about what cannot be done.” It is to recall his connections to Martin Luther King, Jr. It is to find instructions on how to confront the fierce urgency of now and prevent the “too late… the bleached bones and jumbled residue” of King’s clarion call. It is to be told that we are creatures caught in time, “my time here has now come to an end,” and that our time rests upon, was proceeded by others, and that amongst our objectives in life is to ensure that those who come after us will be able to live with human dignity.
John Lewis’s funeral was held at the Ebenezer Street Baptist Church, the church in Atlanta where Martin Luther King, Jr. and his father, were pastors for many years. In that hallowed sanctuary, former President Obama called the late Congressman, the self-styled boy from Troy, King’s “finest disciple” and said, “Like John the Baptist preparing the way, like those Old Testament prophets speaking truth to kings, John Lewis did not hesitate–he kept on getting on board buses and sitting at lunch counters, got his mug shot taken again and again, marched again and again…”
Like John the Baptist preparing the way… in the Christian New Testament, John the Baptist proclaims, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” and tells the world “one who is more powerful that I is coming after me.” He is the figure who foretells the advent of the messiah and the arrival of peace on Earth.
The comparison of John Lewis to John the Baptist reminded me of how Martin King, Lewis’s mentor and friend, was sometimes compared to John the Baptist as well. Listening to Warnock, Lawson, and Obama eulogize Lewis, I found myself thinking of the great Gardner Taylor’s memorial for King. Taylor was one of King’s mentors. Considered by some to be the greatest preacher of the twentieth century, an icon in the civil rights movement in his own right, he gave a sermon in 1972 at Harvard Memorial Church in honor of King. It is called “Strange Ways of God” and for his text he took Luke 3:1-2:
“Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.”
Building off of this text, Taylor began his sermon:
“Now Dwight D. Eisenhower, being president of the United States, John Patterson being governor of Alabama, J. Edgar Hoover, being the omnipotent autocrat of the FBI, and Billy Graham and Norman Peal, being the high priests of middle America, the word of God came to Martin King.”
Taylor’s point was the civil rights struggle had proven that the word of God was still coming into the world. The possibility of divine justice had not been foreclosed when Jesus had left the Earth. And it did not have to wait until the second coming of Christ. Instead, Taylor wanted people to understand, it depended on the actions that they took together.
John Lewis was one of the people who heard that word through Martin King. It came, as he said, “on an old radio.” There he heard King “talking about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by.” And so, as his eulogists each reminded us, John Lewis began to act. He was arrested for committing civil disobedience more than forty times. He was nearly beaten to death by blatant white supremacists. He was chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He helped lead the Freedom Rides. He was pivotal in the marches on Selma and the work that brought about the 1965 Voting Rights Act into being. He was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where he spoke of the fierce urgency of now when he told us:
We will not stop… If we do not get meaningful legislation out of this Congress… we will march with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity… We must say: “Wake up America! Wake up!” For we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.
Wake up America! Wake up! We cannot be patient.
Today, we might say, Donald J. Trump, being President of the United States, Greg Abbott being Governor of Texas, William Barr being the sycophantic despot of the Justice Department, and Joel Osteen and Kayne West, being the high priests of middle America, the word of God came to…
Who has the word of God come to today? Certainly not Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, or John the Baptist, since they are all dead and gone. Who has the word of God come to today? Shall I suggest that it was present in the words of the eulogists? Raphael Warnock told us, “Let’s save the soul of our democracy together.” James Lawson urged, “let us… recommit our souls, our minds, our hearts, our bodies, our strength to the continuing journey to dismantle the wrong in our midst, and to allow a space for the new Earth and new heaven to emerge.” Barack Obama, “If politicians want to honor John… honor him by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for… But John wouldn’t want us to stop there, trying to get back to where we already were. Once we pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, we should keep marching to make it even better.”
Who has the word of God come to today? The word of God came to John Lewis, the word of God came to Martin King, the word of God came to John the Baptist, but who has the word of God come to today?
And, here, I suppose, I should pause for my horizontalist friends, those of you tilted towards what I have called in the past the resurrection of the living, the waking up to the world in which we are born and die, the sharpening of the senses, the opening of the self to the unfolding beauty of thunderstorms and muddy fields, that by the word of God I simply mean the suggestion that world might be made better than it is. It is found in the civil rights leader Diane Nash’s recollection, “The movement had a way of reaching inside of you and bringing out things that even you didn’t know were there.”
The word of God, the proclamation that the litany of horrors on the front page–or homepage–of the paper were created by humans and that we are born with the human possibility of creating different stories about our lives and society. We can ensure the presidential election is held on time. Congress can provide the necessary stimulus and pass the needed laws to ensure that no family is rendered hungry and no child is left homeless by this pandemic. It can fully fund the Post Office. The freedom of the press can be ensured. The spread of the virus can be slowed by mask wearing, social distancing, and shutting down much of the economy until the infection rate slows and contact tracing is put in place. The climate crisis can be arrested with a Green New Deal. John Lewis can be remembered by committing ourselves to justice for, as he told us, in his last words, “Democracy is not a state. It is an act.”
Who has the word of God come to? It is fiercely urgent that we act now. I know that many of you are committed to doing so. First Houston’s Justice Coordinating Council is working with Reclaim Our Vote to re-register voters, especially people of color, who have been purged from the voting rolls. Our Community Projects Team is organizing a blood drive–something desperately needed during this moment of pandemic–for August 9th. We will be continuing our Black Lives Matter vigil because so many of you have said that you would like to keep holding it. We are hiring a voting justice organizer to work through the presidential election on nonpartisan voter registration and turnout. And we are working with our partners like The Metropolitan Organization on a number of urgent issues.
Who has the word of God come to? It is my belief that it comes anyone who acts to build a more democratic society, to birth a more beautiful world. It comes to you when you march against police brutality, organize to dismantle white supremacy, work to avert the climate crisis, and do the small acts you can to slow the spread of the virus: wear a mask in public, wash your hands, keep socially distant, and only go where you have to.
Who has the word of God come to? The word of God, when it came to Martin King, was often challenging, prophetic, difficult to accept. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” King, wrote, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the… great stumbling block in… [the] stride toward freedom is… the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice…” And in his last written sermon, the one he was assassinated before he could deliver, he warned, “And I come by here to say that America too is going to Hell, if we don’t use her wealth. If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty, to make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she too will go to Hell.”
Those are disquieting words. Words that are difficult to accept and yet words, that it appears, are fully coming to pass as, day-by-day, the Senate refuses to pass a bill that will martial the fullness of the nation’s financial resources to address the pandemic and save the lives of tens of thousands, put children safely back in school, people back to work, and make evictions illegal.
Who has the word of God come to? On full display at John Lewis’s funeral was the discomfort that white moderates often have with its more radical expressions. Former President Bill Clinton, perhaps the very archetype of white moderation, disparaged the Black Power movement. Speaking of Stokley Carmichael, who was later known as Kwame Ture, the man who brought the phrase Black Power into the civil rights movement, Clinton felt it necessary to say, “there were two or three years there, where the movement went a little bit too far towards Stokely, but in the end, John Lewis prevailed.”
Who has the word of God come to? It is easy, in retrospect, to say that word of God came to Martin King, John Lewis, Diane Nash, or Ella Baker. Apostles of nonviolence, their words and deeds can be massaged into a format that is palatable for the white moderate. We can forget that King wrote, “America too is going to Hell” and focus simply on his dream that his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Who has the word of God come to? What I want to suggest is the word comes to all of those who speak up for the possibility of better days and speak against the worldly powers and principalities. Some of them may offer words that are more difficult to hear. Stokley Carmichael saying, “For racism to die, a totally different America must be born” and fully meaning that the end of racism means the end of the country as we know it. Angela Davis calling for the abolition of prisons and reminding us, “Jails and prisons are designed to break human beings, to convert the population into specimens in a zoo–obedient to our keepers, but dangerous to each other.” Saidiya Hartman observing, “the state is present primarily as a punishing force, a force for the brutal containment and violation and regulation and eradication of Black life.”
Who has the word of God come to? There is a tension between those like John Lewis who were willing to work inside the political system–who refuse “to choose between protest and politics”–and the more radical tradition. It is not for me to resolve that tension in this sermon or to suggest that it even can be resolved. It is not even to claim that I agree with Malcolm X when he said, “As long as we agree on objectives, we should never fall out with each other just because we believe in different methods and strategies.” One of the lessons of movements for justice, and the lives of people like John Lewis, is that the word of God–the cry that there is a possibility of a better world and it is in our human hands to build it–is found in many places and comes from many vessels.
Donald J. Trump, being President of the United States, Greg Abbott being Governor of Texas, William Barr being the sycophantic despot of the Justice Department, and Joel Osteen and Kayne West, being the high priests of middle America, the word of God came to John Lewis. “Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.” But the word of God also came to Malcolm X, Stokley Carmichael, Saidiya Hartman, and Angela Davis.
I will not, however, give the last word to them, not because I do not think that they deserve the last word, but because this is a sermon dedicated to John Lewis. And the word of God came to him, one last time, and he told us, “When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”
Rest in Power, John Lewis.