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In a Dark Time the Eye Can See

These are dark times that we live in today, dark in the sense of crisis around the world, in terms of violence, dark in the sense that we often don't know what to do or who will lead us in the future. These are troubling times.

When I was a senior in theology school back in February of 1968, I went to Washington for the first time. I was invited by William Sloan Coffin, who at that time was chaplain at Yale University and later became the pastor at Riverside Church. We were invited to New York Avenue Presbyterian Church as people concerned about the Vietnam War. Laypersons and clergy came to that gathering. As a theological student, it was the first time I had to cross a picket line because a very ultra-conservative of that day was carrying a big sign that said, "Kill a Commie for Christ's sake." I was troubled, but I crossed that picket line, went into the church, went up into the balcony, and listened to speaker after speaker wrestle with the questions of the Vietnam War.

The keynote speaker was a young clergy person who came down the center aisle and went up into the pulpit to speak. It was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Remember, this is five weeks before Dr. King is assassinated, and as a young seminarian, you can imagine how wide my eyes were listening to his words. After his death, I later became a member of the United States Congress and served as one of the 12 members on the Select Committee on Assassinations looking into the death of Dr. Martin Luther King. I was able to interview James Earl Ray, the assassin. I liked the dreamer better.

Listen to some words that Dr. King shared many times. This quote comes from a book published after his death by his wife, entitled Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? This is what Dr. King said:

"We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us bare naked and dejected with lost opportunity. The tide and the affairs of humanity does not remain at the flood. It ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is death to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words 'Too Late.' We still have a choice today, nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. This may well be humankind's last chance to choose between chaos and community.

Those words by Dr. King have been etched in my mind. They're part of the fabric of who I am, and they remind me a bit of how Jesus calls us in these uncommon times just as average, ordinary, common people to stand up and speak out when others want us to sit down and be silent.

Back to the Scripture: There's Jesus teaching in the shallow water, but the real lesson is learned when he says to his followers, "Go out into the deep water, out into the fast currents, out into those rough waters, and that's where I want you to do the fishing. That's where I want you to be creative."

I think so often in these troubling times those of us in the Christian community like it in the shallow water. We don't like it as much if we're forced out to that deep water where the fast currents are; and, yet, if we look at this passage, we discover that God is calling people like us to step forward in these times. Let's just say a word about these times. In 1830, just 30 years before our Civil War, the population of the planet after five billion years reached a total of one billion brothers and sisters on planet Earth wanting access to clean air and clean water. It took us a hundred million years to reach the first billionth population, and then in January of 1930--just a hundred years later--we're told that we reached two billion people on planet Earth, and then 30 years later in January of 1960 when I was still in high school, when John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were vying for the presidency, we reached three billion brothers and sisters on planet Earth. Fifteen years later in January of 1975 when I was sworn in as a young member of Congress at age 31, there were four billion people wanting access to clean air, clean water, and a quality of life. I served six terms, 12 years, and when I left Congress in January of 1987, there were five billion of us on the planet. The United Nations tells us on or about October 15, 1999, we reached six billion. We're now at about 6.2 billion persons living on planet Earth.

What Christians often don't recognize is that more than half of all the people who ever lived on planet Earth are alive today. We fairly often forget that we live in a world that's different than the world that we were born into and that God is calling us for these uncommon times to be the hope in the midst of despair, to be the light in the midst of darkness, and to be those people who are courageous enough to move all of society out into the deep water.

As a person of faith over the last couple of years, I've spent a good deal of time out there in the deep water--out there caring about the least of these our brothers and sisters, understanding Jesus as a man of peace and nonviolence, understanding that he loved the least of these in our society. It was Hubert Humphrey who said, "The moral test of government is what we do to those in the dawn of life, our children, those in the twilight of life, the elderly, and those in the shadows of life, the poor, the sick, and the disabled.

I think the moral test for the church today is to remind each of us that none of us are too old or too young, none of us are too educated or uneducated to be called by God to move out into the deep water. And our moral test is how well we care for the least of these, our children, the elderly, and all of those in the shadows of life, the poor, the sick, the disabled, the AIDS victim, those that are caught up in our society and often thrown away by the rest of us. God is calling us, I think, to go out into the deep water and to speak.

All of us like to hear the litany of beatitudes that Jesus gave in the Sermon on the Mount, and -- those of us who have been peacemakers--we love "Blessed are the peacemakers." But I think the next set of beatitudes are equally important. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and say all manner of evil against you falsely. If we're going to be authentic to the Gospel, particularly authentic to following the example of Jesus, we're going to have to speak when others tell us to be silent. We're going to have to stand when others tell us to sit, and we're going to have to be clear in our prophetic message. None of the prophets of the Old Testament or disciples in the New Testament ever had a majority, ever took a vote to see what God's will was, and yet they stood firmly and committed to the basic principles that God laid out for them.

That's our task today. If we're in a local community trying to figure out what it is we are to do, we don't have to look very far. We know that the church is the backbone of a civil society. Let's open our doors. We know that there are more children in church on Monday morning than on Sunday morning. Let's recognize that as a ministry and not as a funding source. Let's ask our people to get to know their neighbors in the community. How many of our churches have mission committees, and down the street an identical church has an identical mission committee, and they don't talk to each other?

Let's set some goals and priorities. Why is it that we allow 9 million of our children to go without health care? Why is it that we still allow our economic system to be based on having a percentage of our people poor? And why is it that we in the church can't take the committed messages of Jesus and make them part of who we are as people?

In this dark time let us see more clearly that God loves each of us. Let us recognize that God is calling us in this dark time to be the sliver of hope to people all over the world and to care for the children of our community as well as the children of Baghdad, the children of Beirut, the children of London, the children of Moscow, the children of Beijing. We should care for all of the children because every person created on planet Earth is a child of God. We know that from our Scripture, and we know that God is calling us out into the dark, out into the deep water.

Let me suggest that we need to figure out a strategy for us to be relevant in these times. Jesus was not a Methodist or a Presbyterian or a Lutheran or an Armenian Orthodox or Greek Orthodox. Jesus happened to come to share his message with all of us, and we are all one.

My favorite theologian is Lily Tomlin. She does and performs a one-woman show on Broadway called "The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe." It's a great play written by Jane Wagner; if you get a chance, go see it. The closing of that play is so important. Lily Tomlin plays Trudy the bag lady who stands at the corner of Walk, Don't Walk, being hired by aliens from outer space to search for intelligent life in the universe. She keeps all of these pieces of information on the little yellow Post--its and posts them all over her body. The final scene is one of the aliens coming up to Trudy and saying, "Trudy, before we go out to outer space, we need to know about goosebumps." And Trudy says, "Goosebumps? You've come all this way to take goosebumps back as a gift?" And then she remembers the last time she had goosebumps was at a Broadway play. So she takes these two aliens, and they're standing at the back of a Broadway play and about two-thirds of the way through it, she looks down and both aliens are completely covered with goosebumps. And then she notices they weren't watching the play at all; they were watching the people, watching them laugh and watching them cry. The final scene is Trudy outside looking up into the dark sky and she says, "Sometimes they watch us and they see the funny things, the silly things that we do to each other and I can hear them laughing." And then she says, "Sometimes I look up and I can hear them crying because they see the inhumanity, our violations of each other's human rights and civil rights and people's rights." And then she looks out at the audience and Trudy says, "Maybe some day you and I will do something so marvelous that it will give the whole universe goosebumps."

If we are going to be the light in the midst of this darkness, if we're going to be the hope in the midst of despair, if we're going to have courage to move out into the deep water and the faith to follow Jesus Christ into the world, we're going to have to be about giving this very fragile planet we call Earth goosebumps. May God challenge us to move out to speak truth to power, truth to wisdom, and the truth of the Gospel. We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. May he give us goosebumps that we can share.