(Note: I preached this sermon on Sunday, April 8, 2018 at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois. A previous Doubting Thomas sermons can be seen here.)
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Last Wednesday marked fifty years since the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I was born in 1979; while my parents and grandparents were all alive at the time, it has always felt like a very distant event to me. So it can be a bit of a shock to remember that if he had survived, he would still not be 90 years old today—younger than Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, younger than Tony Bennett.
It was a shock to me when I was a young(-ish) intern at Bethel-Imani Lutheran Church and I realized that the middle-aged folks and the elders there were his contemporaries, that he was part of their community, and that what was past for me may as well have happened yesterday for some of them.
In America the past becomes history very quickly, at least for some of us. By the time I was growing up, Martin Luther King, Jr. was an official symbol of the nation, which he still is today. I learned about him in school in a town that had deliberately excluded African-American homeowners into my lifetime. What was left out of the picture I was given was the profound hostility many people, north and south and everywhere else, felt toward him at the time of his death. What I had to learn later, on my own, is that he spent the last years of his life warning about the danger posed to American cities, and to the American soul, by generations of oppression and deprivation; that he spent those years trying hard to prevent chaos and violence; that he was not heeded by politicians or public opinion; and that the chaos and violence came, most explosively after his own murder. No one who was living in Chicago in 1968 can forget that.
As a schoolkid I of course heard the famous speech on the Washington Mall in 1963. It was only later that I heard or read some of his other, even more powerful speeches. Including his last speech, from the night before his death. He was, at the time, experiencing terrible discouragement. On one hand the overwhelmingly white power establishment had turned away from his appeals for fair housing and economic opportunity. On the other hand, an increasingly militant wing of the civil rights movement had come to the very reasonable conclusion that King’s non-violent tactics and moral arguments would not sway that power establishment to make true racial equality happen.
He was in Memphis to rally with striking sanitation workers, two of whom had died in trash compactors that year. The city was refusing to negotiate with them.
The speech is powerful, partly because in it King seems to anticipate his own untimely death. He acknowledges the death threats against him—he had already survived more than one assassination attempt. Near the end of the speech he said:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
It’s a stirring speech. It’s a beautiful speech. But while I grew up hearing the story of Martin Luther King as one of uplift and national redemption, I’ve come to realize that it is a much sadder, more infuriating story. The revolution in social equality, the revolution in moral values that King pressed for his whole adult life was only partially accomplished. It is a tragedy that he was taken so young, and a greater tragedy that he was not more heeded by his country, either in life or in death.
But I come back to that passage: “I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land.”
Today we hear the famous story of Jesus and his disciples on the night of his resurrection, and again the following week. He appears to them, he shows them his wounds, he speaks peace to them. He gives them the Holy Spirit, he commands them to forgive the sins of those who repent and retain the sins of those who do not. But the first time, Thomas is missing.
When Thomas returns and his friends tell him they have seen the Lord, he is incredulous. He demands to see what his friends have seen. More than that, he demands to thrust his hand into the wounds of Jesus. It’s a violent word Thomas uses.
When Jesus does return, he invites Thomas to do just that. And Thomas immediately calls him his Lord and his God. Jesus says, “have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen, but yet have believed.”
This is not just a comfortable blessing on those who have had only the words and stories and sacraments of Jesus to inspire their faith. It is a hard saying. It is hard to believe what we have not seen. It requires us to be stretched and expanded. It requires us to imagine not just what is absent to our vision, but what we have not been able to imagine before: Jesus back from the tomb; Jesus glorified in his wounds; Jesus forgiving sins; Jesus pronouncing peace in a world that knows no peace.
We have not seen these things. If we believe them, it is because someone told us about them and the Holy Spirit bound our minds and hearts to them. When you share your faith, even in small ways, it matters. A mentor of mine liked to say, “live the best you can, because you may be the only Bible someone ever reads.”
That mentor knew what he was talking about. He was a relatively rare African American seminarian in Chicago in 1968 when King was killed and the riots broke out. His career in ministry had all been in the wake of that terrible event and its impact on his community.
And as hard as that history is, as painful, I do take some comfort in those last words. I think about someone who had every reason to be discouraged, who had every reason to take a break, go to some nice small college and teach and preach and write books. Let someone else bear the nation’s wounds. Let someone else get the death threats for trying to save the soul of the country. But he didn’t. And God granted him the privilege of seeing something that a lot of others could not and cannot see: a promised land, a society at peace with itself, a world redeemed.
Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet believe. God gives us hearts and minds that are bigger than what our eyes can take in. God made us with a capacity for hope and faith and love that is greater than we know. Whenever we reach its frontier, there is always more beyond. When we reach that frontier, when that capacity is stretched—when we hear a vision of resurrection, new life, the kingdom of God—we change. Once our capacity for faith expands, it never shrinks back to its former shape. When we change, the world changes, even if it’s only in ways that no one can see. That is the work of Christ in and among us—two thousand years ago in the locked room; fifty years ago in Memphis; and today at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda.