Dr. King, What would You Say if You were Alive Today?

Ancient Testimony ~ Matthew 25: 34-40

January 18, 2009

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

If King were alive today, what would he say? He would say “Wow” and take his seat, an 80-year-old man wrapped in a good blanket at the inauguration of the first African American president. He would surely cry. He would surely have been asked to give the prayer. He would surely have been praying. In his prayer, he would have broken with his youngest child, Bernice, who doesn’t believe in gay marriage. He would surely have been trying to build a coalition between Rick Warren’s people and Bishop Robinson’s people.1 Then he would leave the praying and the stands and the blanket and go back to work.

King, alive today, would direct us to Matthew, whose words transcend the 21st century as much as they transcended the Sixties. “Who will inherit the time of God?” ask the disciples of Jesus. The hungry, that’s who. The hungry will inherit the foundation of the world. The thirsty, also. The naked, also. The sick, as well. And the imprisoned, too. Do you want to find God? Do you want to find Jesus? Do you want to inherit the commonwealth of God, do you want to go to heaven, do you want to be a part of the foundation of the earth? Do you want to be blessed? You will find blessedness and eternal life and the time of God in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned, and the stranger. Of all the words of Jesus, these are his best and his most troubling. We remember King because he understood Jesus. He did not forget where Jesus was to be found: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

This will also be the measure of the new Obama administration. What will he do for the last, the least, and the lost? It is also the measure of our own days.

Yesterday three of your ministers—Michael Ellick and I and community minister Prabhu Subramanyam—had the privilege of being cursed out on the phone by a woman angry at us for not giving her money. As she put it, and I’ll save you most of her language, “I don’t need your damn moral support, I need money.” One of the privileges of my days is being cursed out by poor people for not doing enough for them. Another privilege is sitting on the 9th floor of the Federal Building watching government workers make fun of people who don’t speak English. “Aren’t you trying to be an American,” said the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) worker. “You don’t even speak English. What’s that about?” E-mails also flowed on Friday and Saturday because we held a fundraiser here on Friday night for the people of Gaza. Many, many people, mostly Jews, declared this fundraiser ungodly. I don’t know which God they were serving, but it was not Dr. King’s. I wish I could brag a little more about how closely we were able to touch the garbage and garbage workers of the world, but that would miss the point. I wish we were closer to the time of God here. We are not. We are getting closer, but we’re still pre-heaven, pre-salvation, pre-intimacy with the poor, which is to say we are not yet saved. Both Bishop Robinson and Rick Warren would understand.

These are the kinds of times that can push us toward salvation: rivers catch planes, people walk off the wings, they don’t freeze, and they don’t die; the mayor makes speeches that sound really, really true, honoring the working people of New York, who show up in ferries and water taxis and Circle Lines and diving gear; gay bishops join evangelical megachurch men in giving prayers for—take a deep breath—the first African American president of the United States. I don’t even know that Dr. King meant that when he described what he would not see himself. I think he meant something a little more modest than a descendent of slaves moving into the main house, with the main power, the main budget, and the secret service carrying his BlackBerry around. What King could not imagine, we witness. What King did not get to see, we see.

I don’t know about you, but I am out of hard drive. I don’t have much more room to take much more excitement. I am surfeit with satisfaction. I, too, never thought I would live to see days like this. These are days when the cup overflows. This is a time of signs and wonders. They drive us back to Jesus and his words. What Jesus was saying is what King would say if he were alive today.

He would say that today is a great day to remember the people whose loved ones did not get out of airplanes. What must this day be like for them? What is this day like for the ferryboat captains who didn’t respond, couldn’t respond, were off on vacation that day? What about the people who miss the excitement? And what about the people who miss the justice, like those imprisoned for five grams of crack cocaine who know that 500 grams of powdered cocaine (the drug of choice for the white and the wealthy) gets a lighter sentence?2 What will it be like to watch the inauguration from the community room at Sing Sing or at the Vet Hospital or the detention center on Varick Street?

King would tell us it is a great day to take a good long look at the ice of the American experience, which is different than the American dream. The American dream is liberty and justice for all. It is not the American experience. The American experience is planes dropping and very few noticing, much less coming to their rescue. The American experience and the American dream are separate and distinct.

By the ice of our experience, I mean that top layer on the river, which boats can’t even get through. I mean the ice of silence, the ice of distance, the ice of not being able to be a part of the American dream. That ice is what people feel when they can’t see their way to welcoming immigrants. That ice is what may throw family members protected by the New Sanctuary Movement, like Mei or Jean, out of the country, any day now. That ice is what was in one woman’s voice yesterday, when she cursed us out for not giving her money. That ice was flowing in those e-mails that called Judson a Jew Hater for having that fundraiser on Friday. That ice is also in us, you and me, here at Judson, as we thrust out ideas like an “Underground Economy” or living closer to the ground or doing something for somebody, damn it.

We are blocked by systems upon systems of segregation, housing, gentrification, history, fear, satisfaction, and self-satisfaction, which sometimes become a mutual admiration society masking as Jesus’ church. We are a lot like a water taxi sitting around in the Hudson, waiting to be of use. (Thank you, Susie Hermanson, for this insight.) We go about our daily dramas, back and forth, back and forth, ticket-by-ticket, passenger-by-passenger; waiting for a plane of need to fall from the sky, conveniently close, so that we can be of heroic help. Ouch. We, too, want to touch the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. We, too, want the mayor to make a speech about us. We, too, want to live the rest of our lives with the thrill of once, just once, having been at the right place at the right time, being sent by God, being of real use to real people. But as the disciples say to Jesus, “But when did we see you naked or sick or alone?” Our excuses line up with theirs to become a kind of ice. The colder we get, the thicker the ice gets. It is the ice that begets the silence.

In this time of great hope and great promise, I say we break through the ice. I think that is what King would say, too. You, like the disciples, will want to know how. “I don’t know how” is what way too many of us say to King’s dream and Obama’s reality of way too much to do. Some of us don’t know how because we have allowed ourselves to become afraid of any more heartbreak. We don’t need to become protective of pain! It is intimacy with pain, with our own nakedness and strangeness and thirst, that is the pathway to God.

Others don’t know how because we have stopped believing in each other. “I’m ready,” people say at the Underground Economy meetings, “but I don’t know about the rest of you or the rest of them.” “I’m ready, but the Board isn’t.” Ah. You remind me ever so much of that one woman who, while leaving the plane on Thursday, refused to leave without her baggage. The stewardess was apparently ready to throw her off the plane into the icy water in which she already lived. When we are serious about touching the hungry and the thirsty and the imprisoned and the strange, we leave our baggage behind.

King said he wanted to redeem the soul of America. The bags will have to be left behind. We will have to save each other. We will have to break through the ice to the living water, right below the surface of our wetsuits.

Roland, our beloved and long-term custodian, puts the moment well when he says “the cake is out of the oven, now we got to put the icing on it.” Icing is different than ice. Icing is the sweet part. Icing is what makes the cake beautiful. Ice makes us cold and mean. Where will we find the sweetness of this moment? In the ridiculed and the despised to whom Jesus makes his final promise: “Today you will be with me in heaven.”3

Members and friends of Judson Memorial Church, today I invite you to heaven. I invite you, in Alice Walker’s words, to “Wake up & smell / The possibility.”4 She also says, by the way, that we wake up to smell the possibility while remembering that we were also really hurt. We are the people who have danced “Through the years / That / Had / No / Beat.”5 But today we have to let that hurt go. We just have to let it go, let it drift down the river.

Let Dr. King have the last word: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” On this day, let our lives begin. Amen.

1 “Right Rev. Gene Robinson to Deliver Invocation for Inaugural Concert at Lincoln Memorial,” Human Rights Campaign,
2 “II. Biblical Interpretation for Preaching and Worship: Matthew 25:34-40, Part One,” The African American Lectionary,
3 Luke 23:43
4 Alice Walker, “The World Has Changed,” (2008) lines 2-3
5 Walker, 22-26


Additional Reading:

From Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, by James Carroll (Mariner Books, 2001)

Hindsight often opens us to hubris because we imagine, in looking back over the wrecked landscape of the past, that we ourselves, had we been there, would have done things differently. We would certainly never have owned slaves. We would certainly never have stormed into a Jewish district wielding a club. But such certainty presumes that we would have occupied our places in the past knowing what we know now. The moral meaning of behavior is understood completely only after the connection between choice and consequence has revealed itself. Or, as the political philosopher Hannah Arendt, put it, "Action reveals itself fully only to the storyteller, that is, to the backward glance of the historian, who indeed always knows better what it was all about than the participants." For that reason, one comes to the end of a story like this purged of any feeling of moral superiority one might have begun with. The shame I feel as a Catholic Christian, aware in detail of the ways that the Church sanctified the hatred of Jews, not only betraying Jesus but tilling the soil out of which would come the worst crime in history, is shame not only at what my people did but at what I can now admit I might well have done myself.

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