The first chapter of John goes downhill fast. This gospel began in deep wonder: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Cosmic in scope-galaxies and light years, time-before-time. This is the Word with a capital W - logos in Greek, well known to philosophers as the wisdom behind all creation. Yet, this mysterious logos is soon identified as a person who was in the beginning with God, a person through whom all things were made. By the time we reach verse 14, John says it clearly: "And the Word became flesh and lived among us..." - literally, pitched a tent among us.
From there, it's all downhill, or rather, down to earth. John the Baptist appears, talking about sandals-well, you can't get much more down to earth than that! "I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal," John says. But who is he talking about? The one who is greater, the one who was before him-is still unnamed. The next day, we finally hear his name: The Word that became flesh is Jesus. John also calls him the Lamb of God, and when two of John's disciples heard that, they turned to follow Jesus. Then, for the first time, we hear Jesus speak.
"What are you looking for?" Jesus asks them. They said to him, "Rabbi...where are you staying? Jesus said to them, "Come and see." That's it? This isn't very cosmic conversation! "They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon." Did you hear that? We've gone from the very beginning of time-light years and eons-to four o'clock in the afternoon! Human time, human scale. Check your watch. What time is it?
Come and see. These words are important to John, important also to Jesus. But seeing isn't so simple. It wasn't then and it isn't now. Of course, I can't see you right now and you can't see me. But if somehow you ended up in Atlanta and came into this building on West Peachtree, then I might say, "I saw you downstairs this morning." But did I really SEE you? Seeing someone, really seeing, takes time. Learning to read expressions, body language, a glint of a tear. Is your smile cynicism or delight? Since seeing is hard work, we often develop shortcuts. We see men. We see women. We're taught to see women and men in a different way. We make assumptions. Suppose we see a man and a woman in the church kitchen. Which one will we ask to help us carry a table? Which one will we ask to help us set the table?
I wear my clergy collar in a New York City hospital. On the elevator at least one person always stares at me. I'm a living dissonance. I look like a priest, but I'm not a man. The category and the person clash. Sometimes the category is so set in our minds that we can't see the person at all.
I have a friend who is a pastor in Jersey City. A few years ago she brought a parishioner into New York City for cancer treatment at Sloan Kettering Hospital. Rather than return home, she spent the waiting hours at my apartment on the third floor of the church where I was a pastor. I left for a morning meeting; my friend stayed into the afternoon. As she was walking downstairs to leave, a longtime member of the church was walking up. "Oh, hello," she said to my friend. "Were you here to clean Pastor's apartment?"
Now, why did she ask that question? There were many other things she could have said. She didn't know my friend so she had no way of knowing that my friend is a gifted guitarist and songwriter. She graduated with honors from Girls' High in Philadelphia and later from the Lutheran seminary in that same city. She's a caring pastor and a passionate preacher. So why did our church member assume my friend had come to clean my apartment? You know, don't you? My friend is African-American.
Nobody has ever assumed that I've come to clean anybody's apartment. The problem isn't cleaning-it's the assumption that certain people always do certain jobs, never others. Perhaps you could tell me your own story of a time somebody failed to see you as you really are. It may be our accent, our weight, our gender-but there is nothing so defining as the category of race, the color of our skin. There is nothing that gives me such automatic privilege in this country as being white. I can walk into any store and no one suspects that I'll shoplift. If I have enough money, I can buy a home in any neighborhood I choose. If I get into college or get a job, people will assume I'm deserving. I never expect anybody to say, "Barbara is surely a credit to her race."
All of this adds up to a reality called "white privilege." It's an accident of birth, but it's also a structure that has been built and continues to be maintained. It was written into the first laws of our nation, kept in place now through real estate practices and bank loans. White privilege laughs at racist jokes in corporate board rooms and debates racial intelligence in academic journals.
"Come and see," said Jesus. But it's not easy, not when you come down to earth where people hope and struggle, question and dream...down to earth where the Word named Jesus came to pitch his tent.
Martin Luther King Jr., whose birth we remember today, followed this living Word passionately. He believed that the Word became flesh and that made all the difference in the world. If the eternal Word became flesh, then flesh can't be all bad. My flesh and your flesh. Dr. King wanted us to see each other fully in the flesh and love each other even when we couldn't like each other. But such seeing is not simple. There was ardent opposition to Dr. King's message. There will always be powerful reasons to protect white privilege-just listen to debates about affirmative action. Or listen to an African-American mother who sends her son out into the streets, praying he will come home safely, praying he will not be stopped and frisked, or even killed, for the "crime" of being black.
"Come and see," said Jesus. We must never forget that Dr. King's message came not only from his experience as a black man, but from his deep faith in the Word made flesh. The gospel of Jesus shaped him even as the color of his skin shaped him. When white people demeaned him-whether with fire hoses or FBI files-he heard the voice of Jesus saying, "Martin, I see you. I know who you are." When he marched in Chicago against segregated housing, Dr. King preached these words: "Yes, I'm tired of going to jail; I'm willing to stop marching. I don't march 'cause I like it; I march because I must. And because I'm a man. And because I'm a child of God."
Dr. King never gave up the Gospel, neither the struggle of the cross nor the promise of ultimate victory. In the summer of 1963, he came to Washington. Taylor Branch writes about this amazing march in his book Parting the Waters. Dr. King's speech was written out the night before and given to colleagues and the press. But something happened in the moment of speaking. After the powerful quote from the prophet Amos-"Let justice roll down like waters"-the crowd responded aloud and he couldn't bring himself to deliver the lines he had written down. "Mahalia Jackson piped up as though in church, 'Tell 'em about the dream, Martin.' Whether her words reached him is not known." But Dr. King knew there was no alternative but to preach! He paused, reaching for what to say. Perhaps Mahalia Jackson's words came to him or the Spirit descended upon him or both! He left the printed page behind and preached from some other place, by some other power:
So I say to you, my friends, that even though we must face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream...
The words flowed like water upon the gathered crowd and across a nation watching on television. It's probably true that those of us who are white cherish this dream because Dr. King spoke of togetherness rather than separation. But we will not fully see his dream if we forget the words he spoke near the beginning-about the "promissory note" that was signed in the constitution, a guarantee of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for every person. "It is obvious," he said, "that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned." When Dr. King moved on to talk about the dream, he hadn't forgotten about that promissory note! We dare not forget either for the pervasive power of racism continues to shape our life in this country. Again today, Dr. King calls us to come and see:
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in
a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their
skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today...
Oh, this wasn't only a political agenda, not only Dr. King's personal opinion-these words rose up from his deep faith in God who had called him in the first place. So it was that the Preacher-King let the prophet Isaiah bring the vision home:
I have a dream that one day every valley will be exalted,
Every hill and mountain will be made low, the rough
Places will be made plain, and the crooked places will
Be made straight and the glory of the Lord will be revealed
And all flesh-
Shall see it together. (Isaiah 40:4-5a)
"Come and see," said Jesus.
"Come and see," said Martin.
"Come and see."
Let us pray.
Everliving God, whose Word became flesh and lived among us, open our eyes to see each other fully and love each other across our differences. Give us the courage and the persistence to keep Dr. King's dream alive. Amen.