January 20, 2019
Inside, in church, today is the Second Sunday after the Epiphany. Outside across America, this is a weekend for honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Inside, we listen to Isaiah: For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest until her vindication shines out like the dawn. Outside, we listen to King, who for his people’s sake would not keep silent, and for his country’s sake was restless to the end. Inside, we reckon with Israel, the ancient people who struggled with their high call. Outside, it's our turn to do the same.
Tolstoy said happy families are alike and unhappy ones are different. That is probably about half-right. Though ancient Israel and modern America are worlds apart, our pain in one respect is similar to theirs. It is the anxiety of having fallen short of a high call, of disappointing something, someone, that we hold dear.
America’s call rings out from the sacred text of the American experiment. The Declaration of Independence says why the new country would be exceptional among nations: race, language, and geography don’t define us, nor unite us. Love of freedom, with acceptance of the truth that all are equal, does.
That was Abraham Lincoln’s take on American uniqueness. The Constitution was the how of the American experiment, the Declaration gives the why. Immigrants from anywhere and emancipated slaves could hear in the Declaration principles that rise above ancestry and nationality. As Lincoln put it in 1858:
“When they look back through that old Declaration of Independence. . . They find that those old men say ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ and then they feel that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men . . . and they have a right to claim it as though they were . . . flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration.[i]
That quote was from Allen Guelzo’s book Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. It was “the promissory note to which every American was to fall heir,” as Dr. King unforgettably declared underneath the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. “We have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” he said, holding America’s feet to the heat of its founding flame.
When I think about what makes King’s prophetic message so importantly distinctive, two qualities stand out. First, was his devoted belief in the inherent value of what he called human “personality,” by which he meant what Thomas Aquinas meant by soul. People add up to something more than the sum of our separate parts. Second, was King’s conviction that black and white folks need each other to rise to our potential.
[i] Allen Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (Kindle edition, loc. 2664)
For some strange reason [he said five days before his death] I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made.
From our founding, America’s problem has been that we have only partially believed our creed. Like tares sown among the wheat, a competing creed took root. Other people give it other definitions, but that’s what racism was to Dr. King: a creed—a dogma. Citing Ruth Benedict, King defined racism as “the dogma that one ethnic group is condemned by nature to hereditary inferiority and other is destined to hereditary superiority.”
As to its origins, King’s theory is the dogma sprang from crude self-interest.
In its beginnings it was a justificatory device [he said]. . . an ideological justification for the constellations of political and economic power which were expressed in colonialism and slavery.
If there is a better explanation, I haven’t heard it. In any event, the dogma spread like kudzu. That is how America became unhappy in our own peculiar way.
Like Israel, America fell short in answering its call. Like Isaiah, King demanded attention to that fact. However, King and Isaiah both saw the fact of the call itself as more important than the fact of having fallen short. The call favors the good in every struggle and like a magnet draws the people toward redemption. Racism had seemed invincible, but in America, it was opposed by a spirit rarer and therefore more notable. He said:
The racism of today is real, but the democratic spirit that has always faced it is equally real. The value in pulling racism out of its obscurity and stripping it of its rationalizations lies in the confidence that it can be changed.
As President Clinton would say speaking to the same point: “There is nothing wrong with America that what is right with America cannot fix.” Dr. King used the Prodigal Son for illustration. The son’s failure is a sad old story only too familiar. The more salient fact was the truth of what awaited him at home.
Here is the inside story:
The prodigal son [King writes] was not himself when he left his father’s house or when he dreamed that pleasure was the end of life. Only when he made up his mind to go home and be a son again did he come to himself. The boy returned home to find a loving father waiting with outstretched arms.
Here is its outside application:
America has strayed [King continues] to the far country of racism. The home that America left was solidly structured idealistically. Its pillars were soundly grounded in the insights of our Judeo Christian heritage: all men are made in the image of God; all men are brothers; all men are created equal; every man is heir to a legacy of dignity and worth; every man has rights that are neither conferred by nor derived from the state, they are God-given. What a marvelous foundation for anyone!
It is not too late [he promises] to return home. If America would come to herself and return to her true home, ‘one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,’ she would give the democratic creed a new, authentic ring, enkindle the imagination of mankind and fire the souls of men.
Thus, King preached the promise of America as the beacon for a peaceful revolution. How many nations have there been that have aspired to enkindle the imagination and fire the souls of humankind? King pushed, prodded, and provoked, as though to say: “I will not keep silent . . . until the nations see your vindication and all the kings your glory.”
When that happens, we call it an Epiphany. Here is a secular, dictionary definition of epiphany: “a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something.” Aha, we say, as a change of heart or mind occurs, like water turning into wine. To create epiphanies, Jesus used both parables and miracles.
Parables are reflections of larger truths that might otherwise go unnoticed. Karl Barth, the theologian, sometimes spoke of “secular parables of the Gospel.” Some things happen in this world that are gospel-like in their essential meaning. Allen Guelzo’s book title, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, is a case in point. President Lincoln was shot on Good Friday. After his death, far away in Russia Leo Tolstoy told a crowd that Lincoln’s life was “Christ in miniature.”
King and Lincoln use biblical material to illustrate the American experiment: sacred stories told for secular epiphanies. When Lincoln says “a house divided against itself cannot stand” he is quoting Jesus to make a point about the United States, and with his prodigal son analogy, King is doing the same thing. This is more than rhetoric because Lincoln and King both believe the secular world has sacred meaning. “This is a moral universe,” King declares early in his ministry. “Some things are right and some things are wrong. Eternally so. Absolutely so.” For example, he says it is wrong to hate, and not just inside the church: “It’s wrong in America, its wrong in Germany, its wrong in Russia, its wrong in China!” Moral laws are sacred, and as real as laws of chemistry and physics.
Lincoln is firm on the same point. In the debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln argues from a stand that slavery’s being wrong is much more than a matter of secular opinion—it is an embedded moral fact. Some say “might makes right,” but Lincoln turns that thought around. “Let us have faith that right makes might” he preaches.
King’s faith inspires us. It also instructs. Conscientiously, King breaks laws from time to time across the south—for example, laws segregating restaurants. He recognizes a paradox: while breaking certain laws he is insisting that others be enforced––for example, the court’s decision in Brown versus Board of Education. There are two types of law, just and unjust, and “unjust laws are no laws at all,” King explains, quoting St. Augustine. We often hear St. Augustine invoked by advocates of civil disobedience. Unlike many, King believes he owes the world a finished explanation. We wonder: How can we know which laws are just? King answers that a just law is one that accords with eternal purposes of God. Then how can we know which laws do that? King points to the value of the soul: a law that recognizes, lifts, a person toward fulfillment of that God-given personality is just. A law that depreciates degrades the soul, is not. Such had been laws enforcing slavery, and that now sanctioned racial discrimination.
In Christ, we see how right King and Lincoln were. This is a moral universe. In Christ, that sacred truth was made outwardly explicit. He taught and lived the law that perfectly aligns with the just purposes of God. In that alignment, miracles occurred. Along with crowds, even chemical and physical particulates took notice. At someone’s wedding in the town of Cana, molecules in vats of water practiced civil disobedience, breaking nature’s laws in recognition of a higher justice. Water bows its head and in praise of its creator turns to wine.
 Martin Luther King, Jr. “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution,” Washington National Cathedral, March 31, 1968.
 King, Where Do We Go, page 73.
 King, Where Do We Go, page 87.
 King, Where Do We Go, page 87.
 King, Where Do We Go, page 89.
 King, Where Do We Go, page 89.
 Martin Luther King, “Rediscovering Lost Values,” February 28, 1954, Detroit, Michigan.
King David’s appetite got the better of him. What he wanted was good, but not for him.
In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas affirms that love was God’s reason for the making of the world and that his goodness permeates creation—but in pieces, disassembled like a jigsaw puzzle. He writes: “The perfect goodness that exists one and unbroken in God can exist in creatures only in a multitude of fragmented ways.”
So David was drawn to a fragmentary good. His desire was one that we instinctively appreciate, because without it none of us would be here, but the wrongness of his acting on it was severe. Our appetites cause trouble when we are heedless of the good of others, and the puzzle as a whole.
What is love? “Willing the good” of another person, according to Aquinas. David’s motive wouldn’t count as love. He wanted Bathsheba for himself. Perhaps her feelings were reciprocal, but David left her husband’s good, his kingdom’s good, and other puzzle pieces, neglected on the floor. Inconveniently, a pregnancy occurred. Plan A was to give Uriah, the husband, grounds to believe he was the father. When that plan failed the king successfully arranged to have him killed in battle.
Evil, according to Aquinas, is a corruption of the good. “Power tends to corrupt,” as Lord Acton warned, and in this story we see why. Only a king could be tempted to sin like David did, because it would take a king to pull it off. David’s failure is common to men in high places, shadowing the lives and times of several of our recent presidents and even Martin Luther King. Like kings and presidents, prophets are susceptible.
When I started SUMMA, the high school theological debate camp, I named it partly for the Summa Theologiae––“the Summa,” for short. SUMMA, the camp, highlights faith’s intellectual dimension. According to the Summa, the book, our intellect is like an appetite. As David’s eye was attracted to the beauty of Bathsheba, our mind’s eye is drawn to truth. We call this attraction “reason.” Aquinas writes; “As the good denotes that towards which the appetite tends, so the true denotes that towards which the intellect tends.”
If truth is the sun, sometimes our sight of it is fogged by other appetites. David had broken three of the ten commandments (the sixth, seventh, and tenth, if you are keeping score) but he was oblivious. Nathan the prophet found a way to lift the fog. Lawyer-like, he caught the king’s attention with the case of a poor, honest sharecropper and his beloved lamb. David’s first job had been tending sheep, so he could relate. A selfish plantation owner took the poor man’s lamb to feed his party guests. The king was livid. “Is this for real?” “For real.” David’s appetite for justice burned. “That Simon Legree will pay!” he swore. Coming from a king that was a verdict, not an empty threat. Nathan had him. He drew out his mirror and held it to the king’s face. Look close, he said. You are that man. “The moment of truth.”
“We must no longer be children,” Paul writes to the Ephesians. “We must grow up,” he says, by “speaking the truth in love.” At SUMMA, the camp, the highest honor, “the SUMMA Prize,” is awarded to the camper who best shows us how that’s done. The prize is one thousand dollars. That is one way to make our point that truth and love are intertwined.
Often, finding truth takes expertise: science, logic, math. Aquinas’s expertise was logic and it took him years to learn. Not everyone would have the skill even if they afford the time. By God’s design, love requires no expertise. Everyone can understand and anyone can do it if they will. “It is evident,” Aquinas writes, “that not all are able to labor at learning and for that reason Christ has given a short law. Everyone can know this law and no one may be excused from observing it based on ignorance. This is the law of divine love.”
For a counterpoint, Franklin Roosevelt once compared our nation’s moral progress to our scientific progress unfavorably, which might suggest that finding truth is easier than loving. According to Jon Meacham, Roosevelt had drafted a speech to give on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, April 13. This was 1945. The speech was discovered on Roosevelt’s desk in Warm Springs, Georgia, April 12, the day he died. This is FDR:
Today, science has brought all the different quarters of the globe so close together that it is impossible to isolate them one from another . . . Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace. . . . Let us move forward with strong and active faith.
That’s from Meacham’s book The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. From 1776 to now, the book tracks our national ups and downs in answering to what what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Meacham wrote the book because he thinks we need to listen much more closely to those better angels now. Who could disagree?
Aquinas and Roosevelt were both right. Aquinas, because only an Isaac Newton could discover calculus; and Roosevelt because, once discovered, truth is ours to keep. Libraries are full of it. Love is more like breakfast—we have to make it every morning. Aquinas called theology the “Queen of Sciences” because it's the science that has to reckon with both the library and the kitchen.
SUMMA, the camp, is a crash course in truth detection. I tell the students: “I didn’t bring you here to tell you what to think, but to show you how.” They learn the three parts of an argument: claim, evidence, and warrant. Claim: ‘What are you trying to get me to believe?’ Evidence: ‘What are you giving me to go on?’ Warrant: ‘How does the evidence support the claim?’
For example, claim: I say “Tomorrow it will rain.” Evidence: You ask “Why should I believe that?” I answer: “Open the window and take a whiff.” You open the window. “Oh,” you say, “the paper mill.” Warrant: By what logic does this smell support my claim? It’s called an “inference from sign.” Does the Pine Bluff Paper Mill cause rain? No, but it lets us know the wind is from the south, and southern winds bring moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Summer heat means afternoon convection: hot air rising from the earth. Add moisture and boom! Summer thunderstorms.
In one sentence in our gospel reading, Jesus makes two claims: (1) God sent me. (2) Faith in me is a sign of God’s activity in the heart and mind of the believer. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent,” he says. Again: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Smartly, people ask Jesus for evidence to support these claims. Moses gave us evidence, they remind him, out there in the wilderness. Our ancestors were hungry and thirsty. Miraculously, he gave them manna for bread and water from a boulder. So show us. “What sign are you going to give us that we may see it and believe in you?”
For John, the gospel writer, this question is like a student’s who had dozed off in class. It is summer school, the air conditioning is out and the windows are open. The air is hot, moist, and heavy with that familiar smell. The boy wakes up and asks the teacher to answer something she had just explained in detail: “So why should we believe that it will rain tomorrow?”
Jesus’ questioners had been dozing. In John’s gospel, signs followed everywhere he went. In Cana, he turned water into wine. In Capernaum, he healed a dying child; in Jerusalem, it was a sick old man too weak to walk. The latest sign had been the most spectacular so far, and these people who were asking for a sign had either seen or heard about it. From five loaves and two fish, five thousand hungry appetites were satisfied. In a fog, these interrogators fail to draw the inference from sign.
Jesus backs up and tries another tack. With Moses still in mind, he offers an analogy. Analogies are warrants that work by comparison. “This is like that.” You know what its like to hungry and be given bread? They nod, still digesting loaves that he had given. I am like that he says. “Those who come to me will never hunger and those who believe in me will never thirst,” he promises. He isn’t talking now about digestion, but about that activity of God in human hearts and minds––also called the Holy Spirit.
By this, he puts us on watch for good that answers to a longing deeper than hunger even, and more thrilling even than that dizzy dancing feeling that draws us to each other sometimes. Powerful and necessary though they are, these appetites, they point to only fragments of the good we need as human beings. We are made for more.
We don’t need faith to know this. Aristotle knew it. Reason, he taught, is like an appetite for good things greater than our emotional enjoyment and even our physical survival.
We do not live by bread alone. Reason shows us that much. Faith, hope, love—the activity of God in the minds and hearts of all believers––now show us more: eternal truth, everlasting goodness, and transcendent beauty. They are like coffee, eggs, and bacon cooking in the kitchen early in the morning, smells wafting up the stairs into the bedroom as we’re dressing, getting ready for the day.