April 8, 2018

Image of God, I: Mine Eyes Have Seen

Passage : John 20:19–29

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Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, I will not believe.   —John 19:25

 

I have a favorite disciple. Do you have a favorite disciple?  My favorite is St. Andrew, St. Peter’s little brother: the patron saint of evangelists everywhere, because he was always dragging people to Jesus; the patron saint of Scotland; the patron saint of Jordan Spieth, Tiger Woods, and Augusta; the patron saint of Glenlivet.  Andrew is my favorite.

But these days Doubting Thomas is rivaling Andrew for my affections.  Raised in western Michigan among evangelicals of fixed, muscular, and implacable faith, I was used to my preachers and Sunday School teachers scolding Thomas on the first Sunday after Easter every spring for his insistence on seeing before believing, but the older I get, the more thankful I am that someone like Thomas has a prominent role in the Gospel of John, the more thankful I am that Jesus is so gentle toward and understanding of Thomas’ skepticism.

After all mine eyes have seen, I’m becoming a lot like Thomas, because I’ve seen more crucifixions than resurrections.

In the present day, our world lurches between promise and disappointment, and so intelligent Christians and intelligent Americans should be miserly with their credulities, yes?  We should be penurious with our intellectual assent.  Faith is like currency: don’t waste it on what is unworthy—on horoscopes; on The National Enquirer; on fake news from Russia on Facebook; on World Wrestling; on UFO sightings.

Thomas is miserly with his credulities; he’s from Missouri: Show me.

But after Thomas finally meets the Risen Lord, he lets loose with the most extravagant confession of faith anywhere in the Gospels: “My Lord and my God,” is what he says.  He begins with “Unless I touch the nail-prints in his hands and run my finger along his lanced flank, I will not believe,” but ends up with “My Lord and my God.” He begins with wary skepticism but ends with lavish doxology.

So what we learn from Thomas is that the opposite of faith is not doubt; it is despair.  The opposite of faith is not doubt; it is acquiescence.  The opposite of hope is not doubt; it is giving up.

Frederick Buechner says, “whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is no God, if you don’t have doubts, you are either kidding yourself or you are asleep.”[1]

Martin Luther King was a man of towering faith, yet his spirit was constantly riven with doubt. One day in September of 1966, Andrew Young couldn’t get him out of bed, he was so depressed.

They were in the middle of a campaign to integrate the schools of Grenada County, Mississippi.  One morning 150 black students marched into an elementary school and a high school; the white students instantly left.  Thirty minutes later the black students walk out too and are beset by an angry mob of white people.  Grown men attacked a 12-year-old boy and broke his leg with iron pipes.  Others surrounded and pummeled a little girl in pigtails. This is three years after Bull Connor’s police dogs and fire hoses shocked America in Birmingham.  Dr. King thought he’d been defeated; he’d severely underestimated the racism of white America.[2]

Eighteen months later, on April 3, 1968, he launched the second greatest speech of his life: “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” he said, “and I’ve seen the promised land.  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”  Mine eyes have seen.  Mine eyes have seen many crucifixions, but mine eyes have also seen the empty tomb.  Mine eyes have seen the Risen Lord.  The opposite of faith is not doubt; it is giving up.

It’s been 50 years.  That seems like a long time to be fighting the same battle, doesn’t it? “Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod, we have come over a way that with tears has been watered.”

As part of a town-wide celebration of the life of Martin Luther King on January 19, 2002, the town of Lauderhill, Florida, near Fort Lauderdale, wanted to honor James Earl Jones.

You know who James Earl Jones is, right?  Legendary African American actor on stage, screen, and radio; the voice of Darth Vader; the voice of Mufasa; the voice God now regrets having given away.

The town folk were going to give James Earl Jones a plaque honoring everything Mr. Jones had done to amplify the legacy of Dr. King, but when the plaque arrived from the workshop, it read: “Thank you James Earl Ray for keeping the dream alive.”[3]  An honest mistake, but you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

A friend of mine was raised in a pious, observant family, went to church a hundred times a year.  She has not been back to church since she got married there 30 years ago.  She’s about my age, so she would have come of age in about 1968.

I asked her why she’s not raising her family in church like the home she’d come from.  She said, “At Sunday School, we’d sing “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.”  On Monday, my mother forbid us from playing with our black neighbors.  I’d already figured out that the church’s platitudes were hollow and empty.  I was six years old.”

Do you know the name Willie O’Ree?  Willie O’Ree was born in New Brunswick, Canada, in 1935.  On January 18, 1958, 60 years ago, Willie stepped on the ice for the Boston Bruins as the first black hockey player in the NHL.  They call him hockey’s Jackie Robinson.

When Willie was playing hockey for the Bruins, fans would throw black cats and cotton balls on the ice, so today in 2018, people like to talk to Willie about the slurs he experienced back then, 60 years ago.

Willie always says “Back then!  What do you mean ‘back then?’  The other day I was traveling for work and as I got on an elevator at my hotel, I caught the eye of a man coming off the elevator and he takes one look at my black skin and launches a racial slur my way.  I’d never met that man before.”

Wayne Simmonds is another black Canadian.  Wayne skates for the Philadelphia Flyers. Fans throw banana peels on the ice when Wayne is in the arena.  This happened in 2011.[4]

Jesse Jackson points out something important.  Jesse was 26 years old on April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel.  Jesse says, “how he lived is why he died.”[5]

We forget that.  The instant Dr. King died, the nation canonized him as an American saint.  Thirty thousand people attended his funeral, including 80 U. S. Senators and Representatives.  He is the only American, and, besides Jesus himself, the only human being, with a holiday in his name alone.[6]

But we forget that when he was still alive, he was the most hated American since Abraham Lincoln himself.  When you fight to expand freedoms, you are always going to earn the wrath of your fellow citizens.

I remember this.  I remember the adults in my life in the 1960's speaking of Dr. King the same way many white Americans speak of Colin Kaepernick today.

Mine eyes have seen many Golgothas in the last 50 years.  But mine eyes have seen some empty tombs too.  The opposite of faith is not doubt; it’s acquiescence.  And so we become Easter people by carrying on the work Dr. King was unable to complete when he was killed at 39.

He’d traveled to Memphis to support a strike by sanitation workers who were making 65 cents an hour, no overtime, no benefits; some of them were working more than full-time and still on food stamps because they couldn’t raise a family on what the city of Memphis paid them.

And so for us 50 years later: we make sure that the people in the most elementary jobs are making a livable wage, the most elementary jobs and therefore the most important jobs: sanitation workers, teachers, child-care workers, baristas, janitors.

We work to close the wage gap between white and black, between men and women.

We cross the boundaries of the ghettoes that divide us.  Schools in 2018 are just as segregated as they were in 1968, 14 years after Brown v. Board of Ed.

We remember that monochrome is tedious, and that our differences from each other are gifts, not threats, enrichments of our common life together: white and black, American and African and Latino, Jew and Christian and Muslim.

We hire outside our own clan and kin, because as Father Greg Boyle puts it in his gang ministry in LA: “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”

We make sure that our police departments conduct robust psychological testing and thorough training for new recruits, so that we properly select and prepare the people we delegate to protect us, whom we send out into harm’s way with guns and tazers and handcuffs.

A lot of us graduated from the finest universities in the world.  The peak of human intellectual achievement in the history of the race: Northwestern, University of Chicago, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford.

So maybe we set up scholarships in those places so that bright high school students with lots of drive and ideas and creativity and intelligence but no money can afford to attend the schools that taught us how to flourish.

We elect representatives and judges who will forge sane laws and enforce fair sentencing guidelines so that we don’t swell further the already swollen ranks of the biggest prison population in the world.

In 1963, at the Children’s March in Birmingham, when Martin Luther King was incarcerated at Birmingham City Jail, on Good Friday, the comedian Dick Gregory said, “I was hoping that when they put him in jail on Good Friday, they would check back there Easter morning, and he would be gone.”

That’s almost exactly what happened five years later, in Memphis, when they tried to do him in, on April 4, 1968; when they tried to silence this vexing revolutionary on his own Good Friday. There he lay in a pool of his own blood, on the second-floor balcony outside Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel.  Good Friday.  Golgotha.

When they came back to mop it all up three days later, he was missing, nowhere to be found. Where had he gone?  He’d fled into the future.  Like Jesus himself.  He’s everywhere.

Did you see John Legend playing Jesus on Easter Evening in Superstar on NBC?  It made me think of the song John Legend wrote for the film Selma, the greatest rap song ever written, Glory:

That’s why Rosa sat on the bus
That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up
When it go down we woman and man up
They say, “Stay down” and we stand up
King pointed to the mountain top and we ran up…
Welcome to the story we call victory
Comin’ of the Lord, mine eyes have seen the glory…
When the war is done, when it’s all said and done
We’ll cry glory, oh glory.

 

[1]Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 20.
[2]From Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., “The Whitewashing—and Resurrection—of Dr. King’s Legacy,” Time, April 9, 2018, p. 20.
[3]“No Comment,” The Christian Century, March 27, 2002, p. 9.
[4]Willie O’Ree, “The Barrier,” The Players’ Tribune, January 1, 2016.
[5]Jesse Jackson, “How Dr. King Lived Is Why He Died,” The New York Times, April 3, 2018, pg. A-27
[6]James H. Cone, Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 1968–1998 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999), pp. 96–98.