So, for example, if I wish the earth were flat, then the earth is flat, for me. If I wish for there to be invisible fairies dancing in my backyard, then there are invisible fairies dancing in my backyard, for me.
Nowadays, many people are saying we live in a post-truth era, so that we don’t even have to wish for a thing to be true. If we feel that a thing is true, then it must be true. If I feel that the world is flat, then surely it is flat. If I feel that there are invisible fairies dancing in my back yard, then there must be invisible fairies dancing in my back yard. And what right do you have to tell me I am wrong!?
Well, today is Martin Luther King’s birthday. So here is a fun fact that is true. Dr. King was not named Martin Luther King Jr. at his birth. At his birth, he was named Michael King Jr., after his father, Michael King Sr. Several years after Dr. King was born, Michael King Sr. changed his name to Martin Luther. It was not a random occurrence. Michael King Sr. made a conscious decision.
Now, some say that he made this decision when he travelled to Germany for a worldwide Baptist convention in the 1930’s, and became so impressed with Martin Luther, the sixteenth century reformer, that he changed his name and his son’s name to match. I can’t say that’s true for sure because I haven’t been able to find enough backup. But it is said.
My point here, is that influences travel across time and oceans and cultures. Dr. King is named after Martin Luther, a German. He gained many of his ideas about nonviolent change from Mohandas Ghandi, who was Indian. Ghandi got many of his ideas from Leo Tolstoy, a Russian, who in turn got his ideas from Jesus, who was from the Middle East.
Influences and ideas go back and forth. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the most influential German theologians of the twentieth century, was deeply influenced in understanding of the cross and the way of the cross by the time he spent at Abbisynian Missionary Baptist Church in Harlem, while he was at Union Seminary in New York.
In other words, the courage and dignity and endurance and failings and triumphs of the African American community undergird the life of the white community. And the courage and dignity and endurance and failings and triumphs of the white community undergird the life of the African American community.
Which is to say, black history is white history and white history is black history because it is all human history and we are all human beings. That is true.
In the Gospel lesson for today, John the Baptist points out the truth. He points out Jesus, who calls himself “the way, the truth and the life.” As Jesus walks by, John points to him and says, “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus takes away the tangled up knot of injustice and resentment and rage and despair and frustration and laziness and hate that strangles racial harmony in the United States. Jesus also takes away the tangled up knot of injustice and resentment and rage and despair and frustration and laziness and hate that is sin.
A couple of John’s disciples go to Jesus and say “Rabbi. . .where are you staying?” Jesus says, “Come and see.” A wonderful answer, because John’s disciples think Jesus is staying in an apartment outside of town, or maybe in a tent somewhere. When they follow him, however, they find out, they “see” that Jesus dwells with us. Jesus “abides “ with us as he will say later, here in the Gospel of John. Jesus is close to you, as close as breath, as close as a heartbeat.
So I ask, where is Jesus now? Where is the Truth these days? How do we point out Jesus who is so close?
Here is a story about someone who pointed out Jesus to me. As many of you know, my father built a Lutheran mission congregation in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, on the Gulf Coast. When we moved there, we did what many white families did at that time. We hired an African American housekeeper. Her name was Dorothy. She prepared lunch and cleaned the floors and did the laundry. She looked after us children because my mother went to church two or three days a week to work as secretary there. She had been an executive secretary in New York and in Germany for what would eventually become the CIA. Now she put together bulletins and newsletters and that sort of thing for the church.
When Dorothy came, Mom and Dad sat us all down on the couch and made sure we knew that Dorothy spoke with the same authority as they did. “Dorothy has spanking privileges, so you listen to her!” We listened to Dorothy. She was plump, she had high cheekbones, with skin in between mahogany and coffee in shade. She loved to iron. She ironed the clothes, and the towels, and even the cloth napkins. She went about her business with a measured grace. To this day, when I hear the squeak of an ironing board, my back muscles relax with a feeling that things are well in hand, that it’s going to be okay. Dorothy still moves through the back of my mind with an authoritative swing.
It was 1966, and Dr. King was doing his work. Everyone says Dr. King helped us change some bad laws, which is true. We needed legislation on voting rights and rolling back segregation. But I think Dr. King was after more than just laws. I think he was after relationship, respect, dignity. The changes in the law were intended to create a space for relationship.
So Dorothy did a bold thing for good relationship. Dorothy invited me and my older sister Becky to her house for the weekend. I was five years old. My parents agreed with Dr. King’s teachings, so they did a bit of a bold thing themselves. They said “Sure. We trust Dorothy. Dorothy is great. Of course they can go.”
A couple of weeks later, Becky had an ear ache, so I got to go to Dorothy’s house all to myself! I stepped out of my eight bedroom house, made of cream colored brick on a paved road in Ocean Springs, hopped into Dorothy’s car and drove north several miles to Vancleve, a town just north of Ocean Springs, where many African American families lived. I hopped out of her car onto the red clay road in Vancleve, right in front of Dorothy’s house.
Dorothy’s house was amazing. It was made of wood, not brick. It had three rooms, not eight. The rooms were lined up in a row, with doors that opened all the way through. The style of house was that of a shotgun house because if you shot a shotgun through the front door, the charge would pass all the way through the house and out the back. There are shotgun houses in Chicago and New Orleans and here in Louisville. Many different sorts of people live in shotgun houses: black, white, Hispanic, all kinds.
The house is designed that way so that you can open up all the doors and let the cool evening breeze pass through.
Now, if you needed to go to the bathroom at Dorothy’s house, you would go to the outhouse in the back yard, or you could go next door to Dorothy’s mother’s house, where they had a flush toilet.
But the most amazing part of Dorothy’s house was Dorothy’s son Ellis, who was just my age. Ellis and me and his cousin Curtis played games and ran races. Ellis always won the races, but I always came in second.
I slept that night in the front room of Dorothy’s house, with Ellis and another cousin, while Dorothy and her husband slept in the back, with the kitchen in between. And, as usual, the doors were open to let the breeze flow through.
Next day we had great fun again, till the afternoon. My parents were coming to get me soon. I remember standing on a stool at the stove next to Dorothy. Dorothy had a gas stove. We were cooking peas and we had just shucked some into a pot. I remember the green peas in the gray pot, waiting to boil. There were flames underneath. All those little blue flames, licks of flame like the licks of flame that appeared above the heads of the apostles in the picture of Pentecost in my story Bible, when the Holy Spirit came on the apostles. Or maybe you could see those flames on the poster of Pentecost in our Sunday school room, little licks of red flame above the apostles’ heads. Except these flames were blue. Little blue flames in a circle.
A question popped into my mind, as questions often pop into the mind of a five year old. I said, “Dorothy, why does your house only have three rooms?” A silence. Then Dorothy straightened up. I could feel her draw herself up well before I could see it. Her back straightened and she said, “I have a very good house! I have three rooms in my house!”
Suddenly, Dorothy’s house was not just amazing any more. It was a palace, not because of the number of rooms in it, but because of who lived there: Someone who knew the truth, that her dignity came from God, and my dignity, little five year old Andy’s dignity came from God, that Jesus gave it to us and no one could take it away.
That is the Truth. Behold the lamb of God.
Many years later, I wrote to Dorothy and asked her if I could tell this story. She said “Yes,” in part because it reminded her of how far she had come and how much better things were now. I tell this story in part because it reminds me of how far we have to go and how much better things can be.
But as I drove home that evening in my parents’ car, back to the paved roads of Ocean Springs, back to our eight room, air conditioned cream colored brick home, as I dozed off in my bed, it occurred to me that if Dorothy’s house had three rooms, then God’s house must have three rooms too.