Isaiah 32: 14-20
2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A, Human Relations Sunday
Back during Advent, the Sundays before Christmas, I spent a good bit of time talking about the peaceable Kingdom, the high mountain where God will sit and judge the world with justice and equity. To build such a world, where the “forests” are not dangerous, is Isaiah’s image in today’s passage.
But what I didn’t spend a lot of talking about is that such a building is hard work. It can be dangerous work. To be called by God to build his Kingdom, to bring it one step closer to being tangible, can be a scary thing, a dangerous thing. People have died trying to help it into being. It is so different a place, the Kingdom to come, that those who have advantages or prestige in this present world, or are just frightened of the unknown that will be so different, can sometimes work against those who seek for the world to be better.
It’s a hard thing. Sometimes, it may not necessarily be worth it, at such cost to one’s friendships, to one’s family relationships. But when you’re called, you’re called.
Today is Human Relations day, the day that the church sets next to the observance of Martin Luther King Day. The Wyoming Conference has made a short tradition of reading aloud the letter that this servant of God, Martin Luther King, wrote in Birmingham in 1963, to respond to some moderate leaders of the struggle to desegregate Birmingham Ala. He wrote it while in jail for parading without a permit, a charge at that was widely known then and is certainly acknowledged now to have been a trumped up charge in order to get him off the street and perhaps out of the cities’ hair.
He literally is writing it while he’s in jail. The letter was started in the margins of the newspaper that King read of the more moderate religious leaders criticisms, and then graduated to napkins, and finally to pads of paper. In it, we can read what King was thinking about the movement, his doubts about how the Kingdom should be helped, and His belief that in the end, there is now way that one who is called can sit on that call. When you are called to help bring the peaceable kingdom into existence, you must go.
There’s an urgency to his letter, but it is quiet. He knows that he is not talking to his enemies—He isn’t writing to the Birmingham Police chief, Bull Conner, the one who had set attack dogs and fire hoses on protestors. No, he’s talking to fellow believers in the cause, but ones who are uncomfortable with the movements’ urgent insistence in change NOW! Birmingham was already a tinderbox and a dangerous place, by that point. White supremacists had already blown up the church where most of the protestor’s meetings and worship services were conducted, and that bomb had killed 4 young girls. The local leaders wanted a lower temperature, a more gradual movement toward justice and desegregation.
In his letter, King is respectful of his colleagues, but is insistent that there can be no waiting. The heart of the letter is this statement:
We have waited .for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God- given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six- year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored";. . . (when) your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you no forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
This impatience he describes is the impatience that people called of God feel in needing to build the Peaceable Kingdom. It is that dwelling place on top of that mountain that people like this want to see built so badly—a place where humanity realizes that even the idea of race is wrong; that race is an artificial construct made by people who wanted to somehow say that they were different than those around them, and that those differences had greater value. In every way that matters, there are no true differences between us; being made in the image of God isn’t a matter of skin color, or any of the other differences that biology has given us, but rather in the love we show to those around us.
In the version of the Bible I read to you, Isaiah’s statement is that the forest will disappear completely. There is some disagreement among Bible versions about this passage, what it means and how it fits into the greater structure of the chapter, but my brain latched onto the image of the forest being laid low as a good thing. To my 21st century ears, where deforestation is a sin, this was a remarkable passage. But then I remember that in medieval times, the forests were actually dangerous places, where lurked wild animals, thieves and robbers, and other dangers. Russian monks who couldn’t find deserts to live in would go into the woods instead, the most remote and dangerous places they could find in order to be closer to God. I think that this is true for Isaiah, too. The forest represents wilderness, and wilderness is scary.
Isaiah’s prophecy is that when the kingdom comes, those dangerous places will be eliminated, and the people shall live in peace. “The effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever”, it says.
Many of us live quiet lives, but we do not live in peace. Monks killed by their government may not happen here, but they do happen somewhere. Governments invade countries that have resources, so as to have access to those resources. Even today, even among us, people avoid towns and cities because of the various versions of “them” that are out there, when there is no basis in truth.
We live unrighteous lives, and righteousness does bring peace. We do not have that peace.
There are many things on this planet that call for our attention as children of God, as people made in the image of God. The forest has not yet been laid low. But when people like Martin Luther King hear the call of God, the forest does disappear just a little. May we all be called to help those forests of fear and ignorance disappear completely.