Anyway, that was the National Championship game, which was so joyful, but I had to recover quickly and get back to the grind. The Church of the Resurrection, where I serve, emerged from the joining of two congregations, one black and one white. So my sermon for the weekend of MLK day has to be well prepared. This year, I preached on Psalm 139 and reflected on a poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The text is below.
“Lord, you have searched me out and known
Whatever you have wrought:
My rising up and sitting down,
You know my every thought.”
May only God’s word be spoken, and may only God word be heard. Amen!
In the early 20th century Germany there was a lutheran pastor and theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was categorically opposed to the Nazi Regime. He became part of the German resistance movement against Hitler, and was jailed and eventually executed. During his imprisonment he treated his jailors and guards, his captors and eventual executioners with such respect and kindness that they were astounded. However, his demeanor apparently only told part of the story. He wrote a poem near the end of his life that gives us a fuller picture of what was going on with him psychologically. It is entitled “Who Am I?”
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As thought it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectations of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.
Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine! This morning we sang part of Psalm 139 that speaks of God’s intimate knowledge of us. Tomorrow is the national holiday celebrating Dr. King because his birthday was January 15th. The feast day for Dr. Martin Luther King is April 4th. The Church sets feast days for saints, especially martyrs killed for their faith, to the date of death. Nonetheless, with the federal holiday occurring, I found myself pondering this psalm, the notion of identity and this poem by Bonhoeffer.
We can’t think of Dr. King without thinking of the struggle against racism. His legacy begs us to understand the sin of racism deeply and with a thuroughness due his sacrifice. There are many facets to the sin of racism, and the facets shift and change depending on the particular expression of the sin. Therefore, the Jim Crow laws of the deep south in 20th century were a particular expression of racism, a physical manifestation of the spiritual sin. One of the facets or aspects of that sin was a distortion of identity. The law mandated that blacks were second class citizens. From the water fountains to the voting booths, black folks by law were considered less. This caused, among other things, a distortion of identity.
Now we know that black folks are not worth less than white folks. It may seem like I am stating the obvious when I say that, but in 1954 it would not have been obvious. It would not have been obvious to white folks and it would not have been obvious to black folks either. Hence why we read about the awakening of black consciousness during the civil rights movement. That’s why we see pictures from the civil rights movement of black men holding signs that read “I am a man!” Black folks were claiming their identity as children of God, standing up their lives matter just as much as any other. But before the movement, the manifestation of the sin of racism known as Jim Crow had distorted the identity of black folks into thinking they were less. It had also distorted the identity of white folks into thinking they were more.
I think Bonhoeffer wrote that poem to make it clear that even though he choose to treat his jailers affably, they were still imprisoning a human, a child of God. It was was one of God’s children that they would walk naked out into the cold and to be hung by his neck. Just as Bonhoeffer took strength from knowing his identity did not iminate from the fallen powers of this world, rather it was caught up in God...just as he took strength from that, he also claimed and proclaimed his true identity.
We can face crises of identity in our life, both as individuals and as the community of the Church of the Resurrection. We may be told we are less, not smart enough, not good looking enough, not straight enough, not well mannered enough, not rich enough. The powers that be might tell our community we cannot grow because we are located in the wrong part of town with an aging building and no parking. Bolox! My brothers and sisters, our true identity is caught up within God and is expressed and revealed to us in the loving power of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Now, we may get lost and wonder who we are. We may be tempted by the powers that be to buy the degrading message they are selling. But my brothers and sisters, when we are lost, when we are in doubt, we must receive communion. See, it is in receiving the Body and Blood is Jesus that we remember we are the body and blood, the hands and feet, the heart beat and the mind of Christ in the world. It is in receiving this most sacred meal that we are reminded of our true identity. It is in humbly being fed, that we are uplifted to feed.
My brothers and sisters, come to this table today and freely receive this meal. Come to the table today and be given strength as well as solace. Come to the altar this morning, my brothers and sisters, and be fed with the spiritual food of the body and blood of Jesus Christ; so that, you may then go out remembering your true identity. Come to this table and receive the body of Christ; so that, you may then go and in word and deed proclaim to all their true identity as children of God. Go that you may share the soul force as Dr King called it, the loving power of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Amen!