Now? Can’t We Wait?

I preached this on Sunday, August 18 to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

Scripture:  Luke 12:49-56

 I don’t know why I’ve been acutely aware all summer that next week marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.  It took place on August 28.  Originally organized by A. Philip Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black labor union, its initial focus was jobs.  However, the participation of civil rights organizations: NAACP, CORE, Urban League, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, broadened the March’s objective to include freedom.

Almost all of us know that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  We hear the end of the speech a lot, but we don’t hear the beginning as often.  These words were in the sixth paragraph, “We have come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.  This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.  Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy; now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice; now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood; now is the time to make justice a reality for all God’s children.”[1]

Jobs and freedom.  Fifty years ago.  And we still aren’t there yet.  Although progress has been made, much remains unfinished.  In some ways, we’re starting to slide backwards.  Poverty is becoming more visible every day and is rising to engulf the middle class.  Many people who began their working careers in the 1970s and 1980s figured that by this time they would be able to retire comfortably.  However, due to the changing economic climate, their careers ended prematurely and their pensions won’t pay them enough.  Some may never get to retire.  Though racism is not displayed in the overt ways that characterized the 1960s, it appears subtly such as in our prison system where blacks, especially men, are incarcerated in gross disproportion to the overall population.

The fierce urgency of now might have been Jesus’ words as well.  After descending from the mountain with Peter, James, and John, Jesus turned his face to Jerusalem.  His confrontation with the authorities would end with him hanging from a cross. Each step meant less time to fulfill his call.  This morning’s reading is part of the travel narrative.  Luke 12 steadily builds Jesus’ urgency until he invokes the fire and divisions within a family.

The fire was the one Malachi described, “For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.” (Mal 3:2b-3)  And the divisions … while what he said was harsh, it’s even more dramatic than we might read today.  Like today, the family, both the immediate and the extended family, was the basic social unit in the first century.  Unlike today, we don’t always believe we should stand with family members regardless of circumstance.  The phrase “The enemy of my brother is my enemy” encapsulated the understanding of family loyalty and devotion in Jesus’ time.  Family stood together.  Absolutely nothing should separate or keep family apart.  Dividing the family, two against three, or turning father against son or daughter against mother, was inconceivable.

Jesus had to complete his mission, which he proclaimed at the outset of his ministry in Nazareth when he stood in the synagogue and said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (4:18-19) Jesus was not merely quoting Isaiah.  Jesus laid claim to the promise of Israel’s restoration in the ways of God.  Jesus saw his ministry as leading the people to Jubilee, the reign of God on earth. The oppressed would be freed from the crushing burden of their debts and sins.  True peace, shalom, would prevail.  People would have their daily bread.  The powerful would be cast from their thrones and the powerless would be lifted up.  The poor would be filled and the rich would be sent away empty.

The political and economic system which prevailed in First century Palestine crushed any possibility of shalom.  Bringing about Jubilee necessitated overturning the institutions which perpetuated gross disparities between rich and poor and dismantling laws and practices which pushed people to live at the margins of their community and gave them little hope for getting ahead.  Jesus was not going to bring the reign of God to full fruition, but he was going to kindle the fire.

He had to die as an insurrectionist, however, to do that.  Roman authorities reserved crucifixion for those deemed a threat to the Roman Empire; the ones who dared to upend the Roman Peace, peace maintained through fear and weapons of violence.  His death and resurrection kindled a fire that burned fiercely in the hearts of the early Jesus followers.  They formed communities, also known as churches, organized on the principles of shalom to make Jubilee a reality.  They became a movement, which became a religion.  But the impetus behind this religion got derailed when it became the state religion of the Roman Empire.  The religion that challenged power became entwined with the power and that persists in some form to today.

Yet, though co-opted by the institutions of power, the church has over the centuries made a difference in the realm of justice.  The church was instrumental in abolishing slavery.  The church obtained living wages for farm workers.  The church gave courage and moral justification to the civil rights movement.

Though the March on Washington remains a vivid memory, I’m fearful that its call for jobs and freedom has become a memory.  Its call to bold action rings as stirring words, but has not stirred us to respond in similar fashion. We still don’t have shalom, and it seems so far away.  There are still people who don’t have their daily bread and there are still people who suffer under laws that force them to live in the shadows of our community and offer them little hope for getting ahead.  Justice is uneven at best.  Slavery is still with us – let’s remember that one of the ministries we support is Debbie Kelsey’s work to abolish human trafficking.  Though farm workers, especially those who pick tomatoes in Immokalee, FL for Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Burger King, and Trader Joe’s, among others, receive fair compensation from these companies, they still struggle to get fair wages from other companies, including supermarket chains, specifically Publix, Ahol (locally Stop and Shop), and Kroger, as well as the last fast-food holdout, Wendy’s.  And the connection between human trafficking and fair food is closely related.  The fight for civil rights continues, especially in light of some states’ recent moves to suppress the votes of the poor and people of color by raising obstacles to voter access.

Jesus proclaimed Jubilee at the outset of his ministry.  We’ll know it when true justice prevails.  We’ll know it when no one must suffer from deprivation or fear scarcity.  We’ll know it when all people can achieve their greatest potential without regard to their wealth, race, gender, sexual orientation, or physical ability.  We’ll know it when we cease to trust weapons of destruction to keep peace, and place our trust in the bread and the cup as the only route to peace.

If we wish for God’s peace and justice for our children and their progeny, our ministries must feed the fire Jesus kindled.  Admittedly, it’s not easy and it takes time and a lot of work.  As disciples, just as the followers did in the first century, we’re the ones who must carry out Jesus’ work today – that was the promise we made at our baptisms.  As such we must labor without ceasing to uplift the poor and to hold the rich and powerful accountable to the common good.   We can’t be satisfied with the present when poverty is all too apparent.  We can’t do nothing as people are still trafficked and exploited, whether for making our clothes or picking our food.  We should not remain silent when laws seem to incarcerate black men at such a high rate that it decimates their community.

Jesus set the fire.  Others before us fed it.  As Dr. King said 50 years ago, “It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.”[2] Now it’s our turn.  If the fire goes out, we will slide backwards.  We can’t wait. 


[1] Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream” from I Have a Dream Writings and Speeches that Changed the World. edited by James M. Washington.  HarperCollins: New York  1992  Page 103

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream” from I Have a Dream Writings and Speeches that Changed the World. edited by James M. Washington.  HarperCollins: New York  1992  Page 103

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About Quentin Chin

Eclectic interests: religion, technology, food, music, current events. I live in the reality-based world.
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One Response to Now? Can’t We Wait?

  1. I too have been ruminating on the 50th anniversary of the March/Rally in Washington. Started out as the demonstration for jobs … seems like we could use another 250,000 person rally for jobs. I anticipated the 28th of August by offering oh-so-brief remarks of my own and simply showing the 17 minute video (poor quality by current standards, but nicely done in 1963) as the bulk of sermon time. Seemed like folk appreciated the reminder. I left them to draw their own conclusions and meditations on then and now. Peace, my brother.

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