This is a message that I will be giving on Sunday, August 10th, at Bellvale United Methodist Church, 41 Iron Forge Road, Warwick, NY 10990 (service starts at 9:15 am) and Sugar Loaf United Methodist Church, 1387 Kings Highway, Chester, NY 10918 (service starts at 11 am).
The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, are Genesis 37: 1 – 4, 12 – 28; Romans 10: 5 – 15; and Matthew 14: 22 – 33.
I have edited this twice, first right after I published it to correct some errors and then on 7 March 2015 to remove a bad link.
Forty years ago, the world seemed to be on the verge of destruction. There were riots and protests across this country and around the globe. We were sending our young men off to war in a country many of us didn’t even know existed and of which we knew very little. Many of those young men that we sent to Viet Nam came back in body bags while others came back wounded and mutilated. Sometimes the wounds were apparent and easily fixed; other times the wounds couldn’t be seen and haven’t, for many of those veterans, healed yet.
We watched in amazement and joy as the movement for human rights and liberty expanded beyond our horizons to include countries in Eastern Europe. But then we watched in shock and horror as that wonderful time known as the Prague Spring came to end as Soviet tanks rolled through Prague and brutally silenced the voices of freedom and dissent. It would be another twelve years before those voices would speak out again in Poland.
It was a year when powerful voices were heard across this land calling for real change in our society and offering substantial hope yet were stilled and silenced by an assassin’s bullet. It was a year when the politics of this country began its slow and perhaps deliberate slide into what it is today, mud-slinging at its best, fear-mongering and hatred at its worst.
And on the morning of October 16, 1968, we watched as Tommie Smith blazed around the track at the Olympic stadium in Mexico City, winning the race in 19.83 seconds. But those who watched those Olympics don’t remember that; what they remember is two runners, two young men standing on the metal platform and raising their fists and bowing their heads in protest as the National Anthem began to play.
Even today, some forty years later many people are note likely to remember the names of the men on the medal podium, Tommie Smith in first place, Peter Norman in second, and John Carlos, the third place finisher. And what many people also don’t know is that Peter Norman was a part of that protest. Peter Norman, an Australian, had closed the race fast and beat John Carlos out of second place. If you see pictures of this moment, you see that he is wearing one of the buttons of the group that Smith and Carlos belonged to and had sought ways to bring attention to the racial inequality that was present in our country at that time. It was Norman who suggested that because they only had the two gloves with them, that they each wear one. And what many people don’t know is that because of his support for their efforts, Peter Norman, raised in the ways of the Salvation Army to answer the call when a human cries out in need, was literally and virtually run out of Australian sports.
Now you will say that was a long time ago and we have come a long way since then. But we are still involved in a war on the Asian continent, albeit in a different country and supposedly for a different reason. We are now sending young men and women across the globe to countries that have names that are unpronounceable to many and that many can’t locate on a globe. We don’t see the dead coming home from this war. And we treat those who come home with striking disregard for their health and their service. We cast aside those who are wounded and tell those whose wounds are hidden in their psyche that their problems existed before they enlisted. There have been student-led demonstrations in other countries that recall the student-led demonstrations of forty years ago. The only difference between then and now is that there will be no demonstrations for human rights, equality, and justice at the Olympic Games this year.
As I write these words, I think that protest is possible but not likely. Just as the police in Mexico City cracked down with remarkable efficiency and brutality against the protests held outside the Olympic venue in 1968, so too will the Chinese political and military authorities refuse to allow any form of dissent during their attempts to showcase their view of China. And society has changed its ways. And we have, over the past few years, developed a fear mentality. If it doesn’t immediately threaten us, we aren’t interested. And if we are attacked, then we shall strike back in anger and retaliation.
We are so afraid of what is outside the walls of our community that we will allow the suppression of rights and privileges if that will keep the fear out. We have lost our focus on what equality is; we no longer know what true freedom is. When we understood what freedom is, when we had our eyes (as the saying goes) on the prize, we did great things, we brought about change that many said was impossible. But, just like that moment when Peter took his eyes off of Jesus and realized that he indeed was walking on water and he was doing the impossible, we have panicked and sunk in a sea of fear.
And just like the disciples who saw Jesus coming to them across the stormy sea, offering comfort and hope, so too do we see Jesus coming to us. And just like the disciples did that day some two thousand years ago, we react with fear. We do not trust our vision; we trust only what we can see and all we can see is the good life. And we will do nothing to disturb the good life, even when the good life and the products it brings are made on the backs of laborers working long hours and for low wages in factories far away from our eyes.
You might say that the Olympics are not a place for protest and that Tommie Smith, Peter Norman, and John Carlos were wrong to have done what they did. You will tell me that the Olympics are for competition and sportsmanship, not a place for political protest. I remember Joe Garagiolo interviewing Kareem Abdul Jabbar, then Lew Alcindor, about his decision to join the planned boycott and the differences between them and their view of the Olympics as a sports venue and the role of an athlete in society. It seemed to me then that Joe Garagiolo still saw athletes as chattel that did the bidding of the owners and management while Abdul Jabbar was expressing his thoughts as a conscientious young man.
I was never a world-class athlete nor did I pretend to be one. But I had friends back then who were or could have been and through them I came to understand what the reason for that boycott and protest were. I also saw those who led the Olympic movement back then, and even today, as self-serving bureaucrats who were literal poster-children for hypocrisy (remember the scandals of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics?).
If the Olympics were truly about competition and sportsmanship, then there would be no flags and there would be no national anthems played for the winners and we wouldn’t care how many gold, silver, or bronze medals a country wins. We would only care that each person does their best. But we don’t and we have turned the Olympics into what it was never meant to be and it is doubtful that we will ever see it in its purest form.
Should there have been a protest like the one that the three medalists participated in? As Dr. Martin Luther King, one of those voices assassinated that year, once said “injustice anywhere in the world is a threat to justice everywhere.”
I was a sophomore in college in 1968 and I was at a friend’s apartment watching the Olympics and the award ceremony that October day. My friend was one of those that could be called a world-class athlete and he was at that college because of his track ability. He understood what was transpiring on the medal stand in Mexico City that night and later, in the spring of 1969, would lead the black students’ association in a sit-in of the administration building to protest the discriminatory housing policies of the town and the lack of support by the college administration for the black college students to find decent off-campus housing.
And just like Peter Norman, I was a part of that protest. I was just one person but I was motivated to be there because they were my friends, their cause was just and it was the right thing to do. Why should I be allowed to having decent housing only because I was the right color and some of my friends were not? I came of age when the church and the people of the church fought and pushed for equality. I sometimes wonder if we remember that.
And I felt repercussions for my actions, though perhaps not on the scale that Peter Norman did (what parents can say and do is often times greater than the actions of any government organization). Peter Norman never once said that he did the wrong thing and, if he had too, he probably would do it all over again. They have made a documentary about his life and his participation and Qantas Airlines, the Australian national airline, will be showing on their flights into Beijing. I know that were the same situation to occur again, I would stand by the side of my friend to seek justice and equality for all.
But something interesting has happened over the past forty years. My friend, it is sad to say, decided to walk another and entirely different path. From what I know, he has chosen to walk a path of riches and glory, of an easy life and political cronies, a path that takes him away from his past and his roots. It is a path that too many people today walk, perhaps for the same reasons. A path of riches and glory is a far easier path than one that requires that you stand up for others and seek justice where there is injustice. But that is the path that this country embodies and encourages; look out for yourself and get what you can even when there are many who have nothing, who are sick, hungry, homeless, or without hope for a better tomorrow.
And amidst these times, when our economy is faltering and prices are rising, we find the murmurs of discord and dissatisfaction. It is not something that will be solved by the current political process; it will only be solved when we become who we say we are. We say we are Christians but are we really? René Padilla, Argentine Baptist theologian, asked the question “What is the value of a Christianity in which Jesus is worshipped as Lord, but Christian discipleship—”the way of Jesus”—is regarded as largely irrelevant to life in the modern world? (From Verse and Voice for 8/4/2008)
Our society is to a great extent like the sons of Jacob. We are bound by a common thread, yet we each have our own unique qualities. We tend to magnify our differences and what separates us rather than what brings us together.
We sometimes forget that while the twelve were sons of Jacob, they were a collection of half-brothers and the relationship between each of them reflected the relationship between their own mother and Jacob. Joseph, the eleventh of the twelve, was the son of Rachel and while Joseph probably loved Lea, Rachel’s sister, he loved Rachel even more. And he loved Joseph because he was born when Jacob was old.
In the part of the Old Testament passage for today that we did not read, Joseph speaks of his dream that he interpreted as meaning his brothers and their families would bow down before him. This, of course, angers his brothers and sets in place the story that we read today.
It is the differences between the twelve that will lead the older brothers to seek the death of Joseph. Reuben, the oldest will try to save his brother, but only in part to somehow redeem himself for his own actions against their father. But the other brothers will eventually sell Joseph into slavery and then tell their father that he was killed.
We are like the twelve; we share common interests but we let our differences drive us apart. We understand that there is a need to do the right thing and that someone must do it but we let society dictate to us what that is. And when the moment comes that we are called to stand up for justice, for righteousness, and for equality, we turn and walk away. We are afraid to do the right thing.
We know that the right thing is found in Christ. To the greatest extent, that is what Paul was telling the Romans in the 2nd lesson today – we know what is right but we fail to do it. We fail because we do not think that it is within our power to do it. We fail because we won’t even get out of the boat and try to walk across the water to the arms of Jesus.
There are ways to bring about hope and justice in this country and in this world. They do not begin with armed conflict or the use of power; they begin when we accept the Gospel message to feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked, and bring justice to the oppressed. They begin when we make the words of the Gospel message our words. Paul concluded the passage of Romans today by saying that many will not hear the words unless someone speaks them; many will not believe unless they have proof. And Paul asked how people would believe or come to believe unless there was someone to tell them? When we say that we are Christian, we are saying that we are committed to the ways that Christ taught us. It is more than saying the words; it is living the words as well.
Joseph had a dream; it was a dream that would lead him into slavery. Others would have other dreams as well. And Joseph would rise from slavery to a position of power because he understood the dreams and he understood what needed to be done.
In 1968 the world was changing. Robert Kennedy would many times during that ill-fated presidential campaign of 1968 quote George Bernard Shaw, Some see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.” He offered hopes and plans but his death in 1968 took away that hope. In 2008, we have been reminded that we once spoke out against inequality and injustice.
In 2008, we are a world where are responses to injustice, inequality, and oppression are more injustice, inequality, and oppression. In 2008, we do not seek justice but revenge; we do not seek equality but all that we can get; we do not offer hope but an atmosphere that pushes aside the little ones in favor of the big ones. The world around us is like the boat the disciples were in that night on the Sea of Galilee, tossed about and about to sink. There is a glimmer of hope but we are unwilling to reach out for it. For many, it is a ghost, an apparition and not real. We are so afraid that we will not reach out; we will not get out of the boat and walk to what we see. Jesus Christ is not an apparition or a ghost; He is alive and waiting for us.
We have a choice to make today. We have to decide which way we will go, what direction we want our lives to take. Do we need to be reminded that Jesus spoke out against indifference and hopelessness and that we have taken His name as our own? Do we need to be reminded that once some two thousand years ago Jesus Christ walked on a path through a town to a hill to be crucified because society’s rulers did not want the status quo disturbed?
Do we need to be reminded that in His death we have been set free and in His name we are to bring His words to the world, bringing hope and promise in a world that does not hear it? You will go home shortly but which way will you go in your life?