Heart Change: Reviving Community 1-18-15

Martin Luther King jr. was assassinated when I was 15 years old. I had no idea when he died how much his life would change mine, how much the heart that he gave for the beloved community that he proclaimed would transform our times. We thank God today for his legacy and for the inspiration of his life that continues to inspire our times to prophetic action.

I had planned to talk about Dietrich Bonhoeffer today and his prophetic life, but as the day got closer I realized that I would rather focus this day on the ministry of Martin Luther King and tell the story of Bonhoeffer next week in relation to the sermon on reviving our call.

I invite you today to read this passage with me, calling out words or phrases that stand out to you. We can repeat or talk over each other, appreciating the poetry that the passage creates for us in a new way this day. Listen & speak the Word of God for you this day:


John 1:43-51 Philip sought out Nathanael and said to him, “We’ve found the One that Moses spoke of in the Law, the One about whom the prophets wrote:  Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary and Joseph.” “From Nazareth?” said Nathanael, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”

“Come and see,” replied Philip. When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he remarked, “This one is a real Israelite.  There is no guile to him.” “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked him.  Jesus answered, “Before Philip even went to call you while you were sitting under the fig tree, I saw you.” Rabbi,” said Nathanael, “you’re God’s Own, you’re the ruler of Israel!” Jesus said, “Do you believe just because I told you I saw you under the fig tree?  You’ll see much greater things than that.” Jesus went on to tell them, “The truth of the matter is you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Chosen One.”

January 18, 2015

Heart Change: Reviving Community

Can anything good come from Philadelphia? I preached a sermon at St. Luke with that title in 1997, early in my time as pastor of this fun church. Can anything good come out of Philadelphia? I ask the question, knowing that you know that I think a lot of good can come out of Philadelphia – and not just because 4 or 5 days a week I come out of there.

I ask the question because there’s a major boundary at City Line Ave. that many of us don’t cross very often, and that may keep us from knowing all that is good about each other. When I gave this sermon 18 years ago, I described my daily commute and all the good things I pass on my way out here. I’d be glad to tell you about those things again, the Nehemiah homes, the churches, the housing projects. I’d be glad to tell you again what I love about Philadelphia.

But today, there’s something new happening in the city and something new happening here. There’s a new chance to connect the hearts of these places – to revive our communities by realizing how much we are connected. And that’s what I want to focus on today. For years, city and urban has been a code word for “Black.”

Boundaries have been set up and enforced in numerous ways – through our prison system, through our welfare system, through our police, through military recruitment and education, through educational inequality, through segregated neighborhoods, through inheritance and tax systems, and through employment opportunities.

Those of us who don’t have to deal with the boundaries and systems of inequality sometimes wonder what all the fuss is about, why people stuck within those boundaries sometimes erupt in frustration and even violence. It’s hard for us to imagine how many obstacles some people have to face in their day to day lives. Even if we’re sympathetic, we can wonder if anything good can come out of the city or out of poverty whether it be Philadelphia, Norristown, Chester or Allentown.

I went to a workshop on racism this week led by a key organizer in POWER. He was a wonderful leader. A large Black man with a gentle presence, he asked us to write down our apprehensions about being in this workshop. An African American woman spoke up about her anger at someone who recently had said to her that Michael Brown shouldn’t have stolen cigars or he would still be alive. She was absolutely outraged that this person would dare to imply that he deserved to die for a petty theft.

The leader of the workshop knelt at her feet and asked her how long she had been trying to communicate this message to white people. He had some white folks come and hold her hand and let her know they heard her. At first I felt like I was right with the woman and outraged at whoever would speak to her that way. As the facilitator challenged her about how effective her communication was, I realized that though I sympathized with what she was saying, I was unconsciously thinking that this was not someone I wanted to get close to.

I appreciated the reminder that sometimes, we may need to go toward someone who has a message for us, even if it is unpleasant and challenging.


When Nathanael met Jesus, he knew this was someone who would break down the boundaries of heaven and earth. He knew this was someone who would challenge the boundaries between Nazareth and Jerusalem, between Galilee and the Roman Empire.

Similarly, folks were so moved by the life of Martin Luther King because he was all about breaking down the walls of segregation and oppression. He spoke about the need to carry on a struggle for justice and truth that would ‘redeem the soul of America.’   Some were offended because they think that the U.S. was not in need of redemption.  Others were offended because they thought he was naive about the economic cause of racism and oppression.  But Martin King spoke a language that we Christians can understand.  Indeed there is a need for a deep repentance and redeeming of the soul of our country.

It was his deep Christian conviction that led him even deeper than that, that made him able and willing to be a martyr, even if he didn’t desire it, that made him willing to risk his life. Parker Palmer sent out a reflection about Martin Luther King this week in which he reflects on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on “Immortality” and a poem by Mary Oliver.

Emerson wrote: “it is not length of life, but depth of life that counts.” He said “A great integrity makes us immortal; … a deep love, a strong will arms us [against] fear.” “Dr. King was only 39 when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. But because he lived deep—with the integrity, love and strong will that overcomes fear—we’ll be celebrating his brief life for many years to come.

And yet—as every honest and awake human being knows—Dr. King’s dream remains unfulfilled. Racial inequality and injustice remain an American tragedy, a flaw driven deep in our nation’s DNA. So this afternoon, as we go to see the movie Selma, we prepare ourselves not just to admire what Dr. King did, not just to celebrate an icon, but to live a different way.

As we join the march in Philadelphia tomorrow to challenge the systems of injustice, the boundaries of prejudice, we challenge our own fears, our own isolation, our own denial, and our own blindness. Whether we can go on the march or not, we can use this time, this day of service and action to commit ourselves to living lives of depth and integrity in whatever ways we can.

Jesus saw Nathanael. He recognized in him one who would have that kind of depth and integrity and Nathanael felt seen in an uncanny way. He felt the depth of this person not because of anything great that he had done, but because he knew that Jesus saw him, and that Jesus was calling him to live a life fuller and more connected than anything he had imagined, a life not defined by death.

This is where Parker Palmer brings in the poem by Mary Oliver “When Death Comes.” Let me quote just the end of the poem:


I think of each life as a flower, as common

as a field daisy, and as singular,


and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,

tending, as all music does, toward silence,


and each body a lion of courage, and something

precious to the earth.



When it’s over, I want to say all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.


When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.


I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.


I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.


It’s not marching or grand acts that are the measure of a life well lived. It’s not longevity or popularity or having your name on a building or a statue or a holiday named after you. It’s depth and connection that counts- “depth put in faithful service to love, to truth, to justice” and just living.

We are inspired by Jesus and by Martin Luther King both – because they lived their lives with that kind of depth and connection. They did not end up simply having visited the world, even though they were here such a short time. They inhabited this world deeply. They challenged us to do more than visit. They challenged us to reach beyond the boundaries of city and country, beyond the boundaries of privilege and oppression, beyond the boundaries of heaven and earth, and most importantly beyond the boundaries of fear – to inhabit our world with depth and integrity.

We thank God for these lives well lived. They lived God’s good news.


Responsive Hymn:  593 Here I Am, Lord