Valarie Koer is a Sikh faith leader, a seasoned civil rights activist, the daughter of Sikh farmers, and a celebrated prophetic voice. In 2016 she was invited by William Barber II to speak at Metropolitan AME church, a historic black church in Washington D.C. Here is what she said,
The future is dark. But what if —what if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead but a country that is waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor? What if all of our grandfathers and grandmothers are standing behind us now, those who survived occupation and genocide, slavery and Jim Crow, detentions and political assault? What if they are whispering in our ear, “You are Brave?” What if this is our nations greatest transition?
The crowd erupted in cheers and shouts and cries of Hallelujah. And as Reverend Barber stood with his great bear hands outstretched over Valarie she cried, “What does the midwife tell us to do? Breathe! And Then? Push!
The past three weeks we have journeyed together to this very moment. We have learned the importance of the breath as a connection to the Divine. We have discovered that it takes paying attention, setting an intention, and being open to having our perceptions challenged to truly listen. Now that we have the breath. Now that we have tuned our ears to listen to the call of the midwife. Now, we must push!
There are two ways to look at our gospel text for this morning. First, we are challenged to be open to hearing the voice of the prophet—to show kindness and hospitality to the voice of those who God has called to share a message. I hear Valerie Kaur’s words as the voice of a prophet. In our faith tradition all you have to do is read the section of our bible where the prophets share their stories to know that we have struggled to hear the voice of the prophet even when it comes packaged in a person of our own faith tradition. In more recent times, We have not heard the voice of the prophets crying out for justice for people of color. We have painted them as criminals, put them in jail or killed their prophetic voice. Sometimes we are not present in the moment enough to recognize a prophet until they have passed away. Let’s listen to the story of a modern day prophet:
In 1955, Martin Luther King Jr. was a man awakening to a call. Rosa Parks had just defied the law by sitting in the section on a bus designated for white people. A One day boycott of the city lines was put together and King had been called to persuade his church to join, but he made it clear that he had more pressing matters. Later he was persuaded to become president of the movement. King’s strategy was moderation: he asked for the bus drivers to be courteous; he asked that blacks be seated from back to front and whites from front to back and that in Black Neighborhoods more black bus drivers be hired. The organizers of the boycott were not happy with his call for moderate change.
In all this time, King thought this would resolve and he could get back to the plans of his church. But, A month later, feeling defeated in the boycott’s efforts to accomplish anything and acknowledging no end in sight, King voiced his self-doubt by offering his resignation as president. Then, he was pulled over by two police officers for driving 30 miles an hour in a 25 mile per hour zone.
During a very confusing arrest, King was put in the police car and driven to the Montgomery City Jail. It is in this jail that he began to awaken to his call. In this cell, a group of black men gathered around him and he spent the evening listening to their stories and in exchange he gave the men a vivid account of his afternoon. Several people asked if he could get them out of jail, to which he responded, “Before I can assist you, I have to get my own self out.”
Charles Marsh writes in his book title Beloved community that It was In the spirited company of these unlikely allies—movement people, vagrants and serious criminals he realized that even jail could be endured for the sake of doing what is right. King writes about the experience, “From that night on, my commitment to the struggle for freedom was stronger than ever before. Yes, the night of injustice was dark; But in the darkness I could see a radiant star of unity.”
The next evening, he hears the voice of Jesus calling him to stand up for righteousness. To stand up for justice. To stand up for truth. And that Jesus will be with him until the end of the world. Martin Luther King Jr. received his call.
And what was he pushing for…he was pushing for something called The beloved community. The idea of beloved community was first written about by the influential philosopher Josiah Royce. Royce says that the beloved community is a “perfectly lived unity of individual men joined in one divine chorus.”
What Josiah Royce defined as a unity of men, King supported with theological vitality, but not just from his Christian tradition. King said that Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method. Gandhi supplied the Christian doctrine of love with a strategy of social protest.
So, what is the beloved community. The beloved community is both the hope of the ministry of the church and it is a community that cannot be contained solely in the church. It is the kingdom of God coming to earth. It is any place where we find love for the divine, love for self, and love for others including our enemies. It is any place where this deep love extends out into the community in acts that work for justice. It is any place where love and justice create a community of people.
Marsh writes in his book entitled Beloved Community “Therefore as Christians build beloved communities in, through, and outside the church, they must remain humbled by the camaraderie of unbelievers and non-Christians, grateful for their passion, and inspired if not intrigued by their pilgrimages in service, even as Christians continue to proclaim exuberantly the story of Jesus as the source of their own compassion and mercy.”
Let’s hear from another prophetic voice not from our Christian tradition:
In my final class at Claremont School of Theology I wrote a critical review on Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Together we are one: Honoring our diversity; Celebrating our connection. This book offers us a window into their community’s creation of retreats for people of color called Colors of Compassion.
More than 10 years ago, a group of practitioners had been meeting to discuss how their Sanghas could be more inclusive of people of color. Thcih Nhat Hanh agreed and pointed to his own skin. The community understood that Buddhism offered a way to acknowledge suffering as the ground for enlightenment, but realized that people of color retreats were new areas that would create new expressions and practices. In order to provide space for new expressions, The people of color retreats were shaped by listening circles, testimonies, dharma teachings, and mindfulness practices.
At the end of the book,
Thich Nhat Hanh writes that he met Martin Luther KingJr in June of 1966. They discussed how they could be a part of spreading ideas of truth and right thinking regarding peace, human rights, and social justice. Dr. King found common ground with Thich Nhat Hanh and talked about the Buddhist Sangha (Sangu) as a beloved community. Thay writes, “The Sangha (Sangu) is a source of inspiration and protection. Martin Luther King Jr built his Sangha in his own way, and I have built my Sangha in my own way, but we were both sowing the seeds of peace, nonviolence, human rights and togetherness.” (220)
Valerie Koer, Martin Luther King Jr and Thich Nhat Hanh are creating something new…within their different religious traditions, they are pushing for the Beloved community.
Today, What we need is something new, something we have never seen before, something that we create together that honors differences while celebrating our connection. The prophets in our sacred text called for something new when God’s people were suffering in exile. The people were tempted to look through rose colored glasses at their past and long for former times, but the prophets were saying PUSH! IN our reading this morning, Jeremiah declared that God was making a new covenant. God cries out through Isaiah saying, “see, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” God spoke through the prophet Exekiel saying, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” Then Jesus joins the voices of the prophets when he is in conversation with nicodemus, He says, “you must be born again!”
The second way to look at Our gospel text this morning is to see that it is situated at the end of chapter 10. Chapter 10 reads like an ordination ceremony. we see Jesus sending the disciples out knowing that in some places they will be treated with kindness and hospitality and in some places they will not. What if today we hear these words in a new way? What if we hear these words as our being sent into the world to discover God in the face of the other. What if we are being sent to set ourselves free from the suffering we have caused ourselves through exclusionary thinking and exclusionary practices. What if the only way forward is to recognize where love and justice is present and to join God in that movement? What if we as Disciples are being sent to follow in the ways of Jesus as healers of a fragmented world?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who wrote the book: Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says “Religious people in the grip of strong emotions-fear, pain, anxiety, confusion, a sense of loss and humiliation-often dehumanize their opponents with devastating results. Faith is God’s call to see his trace in the face of the Other…If only we were to listen closely to the voice of the other, we would find that beneath the skin we are brothers and sisters, members of the human family under the parenthood of God.” (Not in God’s Name, 25 ,160.)
Today, we listened to the voices of many prophets and it is time to PUSH! We are pushing forward through the darkness of the birth canal and we are uncertain of what it will look like on the other side. It is a painful time. It is bloody. And as all births are it is a time for celebration.. God is at work in the world inviting us to join in the creation of something new. It is time to push forward out beyond the walls of our church, our traditions, and the ways that our thinking creates boundaries. It is time to push forward by linking arms with people who were born with a different skin color, who come from a different religious tradition, or who embrace a different political ideology. It is time to PUSH into the hope of the Beloved Community.