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Delivered at the United Church of Jaffrey
October 8th, 2017
Excerpt from “A Knock at Midnight” by Martin Luther King Jr.
When the man in the parable knocked on his friend’s door and asked for the three loaves of bread, he received the impatient retort, “Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” How often have men experienced a similar disappointment when at midnight they knock on the door of the church. Millions of Africans, patiently knocking on the door of the Christian church where they seek the bread of social justice, have either been altogether ignored or told to wait until later, which almost always means never. Millions of American Negroes, starving for the want of the bread of freedom, have knocked again and again on the door of so-called white churches, but they have usually been greeted by a cold indifference or a blatant hypocrisy. Even the white religious leaders, who have a heartfelt desire to open the door and provide the bread, are often more cautious than courageous and more prone to follow the expedient than the ethical path. One of the shameful tragedies of history is that the very institution which should remove man from the midnight of racial segregation participates in creating and perpetuating the midnight.
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
On the other side of the flimsy storm door stood a disheveled old man. As I backed away, he yelled at me again:
Get off my property!
I beat a hasty retreat down the overgrown path, and out to the street.
I don’t remember exactly what town I was in – I want to say it was Fitchburg or Leominster – but I remember it was early in the day, and I was supposed to canvas several more blocks before the area I was assigned was completed.
But I was ready to give up then and there.
It was the summer of 1986 and I was 19 years old.
I’ve always been reluctant to intrude on people’s privacy.
So I probably shouldn’t have taken a job that involved going door to door trying to educate people about illegal toxic waste dumps in Massachusetts.
I certainly thought the toxic waste dumps were an important issue.
And I also needed to make money for the upcoming school year.
But none of that mattered to me know, as I sat on the curb, fighting to regain my composure.
As far as I knew, the man did not have a gun.
As far as I knew, the man did not intend to hurt me.
But I was scared.
My heart beat wildly. My breath was staggered.
I remembered the time I was mugged on the street in New York, and the few times when, as a boy, I was beaten up in the schoolyard.
The mere threat of violence can, in an instant, undermine human civilization itself.
This is why we freeze when someone pulls a gun.
When a gun appears, civilization disappears.
All of the reassurances that we use to prop up our sense of security…
workplace sensitivity training
those wandy things that the TSA people at the airport use,
the way seat cushions turn into flotation devices in the unlikely event of a water landing – everything… all of it …
is called a lie.
It all vanishes the instant a gun appears.
The threat of violence in its purest form, the gun is not only a threat to the person it is pointed at. It also reveals, as nothing else does, the futility and hypocrisy of human society –
We’ve been telling ourselves that everything is fine –
that the insurance policy is paid up,
that the EMT’s are well-trained, and that our hospitals are top notch…
but we have secretly suspected that something may not be quite right.
And when a gun appears, we are stricken with flash of certainty – everything that society has done to create the illusion of safety – all of it, it turns out, is utterly useless.
Violence strips everything away.
It turns civilization into wilderness.
Culture into chaos.
Life into death.
Noon into midnight.
The gospel reading this morning, taken from the 11th chapter of the gospel of Luke, is the same reading that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used for his famous sermon entitled “A Knock at Midnight.”
A few moments ago, Bob read the passage from Luke, and he also read an excerpt of Dr. King’s sermon in which the greatest prophet and civil rights leader of our time focused his attention on the symbolism of midnight. Dr. King suggested that his own historical moment – the 1960’s – were a kind of midnight – “the midnight of racial segregation.”
Of the two characters in the parable, he likened the person knocking to the “…millions of American Negroes, starving for the want of the bread of freedom.”
As for the exasperated the friend inside the house, his impatient belly-aching sounds, to Dr. King, like “the white religious leaders” who are “more cautious than courageous and more prone to follow the expedient than the ethical path.”
One of the shameful tragedies of history, Dr. King said, is that the very institution which should remove man from the midnight of racial segregation participates in creating and perpetuating the midnight.
When Dr. King spoke of the “midnight of racial segregation” he was not being hypothetical or melodramatic.
He was talking about the day to day life of Black Americans,
Tired, worn down, and forced to the indignity of the back of the bus.
Denied the ability to register to vote,
Dragged out in the middle of the night and lynched.
There is nothing hypothetical about a black man hanging from a tree.
When Dr. King spoke of the “fierce urgency of now,” the force of his moral authority was beyond question.
And yet, though Dr. King lived in a time of great upheaval and difficulty, there is, at least one way in which we, in our time, feel a kind of nostalgia for those days.
What do I mean?
I mean that sometimes we envy times of upheaval, because we see them as times when the leaders of movements had the benefit of moral clarity.
Say, for example, I was a Polish man living in Warsaw in 1939 — would I have sheltered a Jewish family?
I’d like to think I would.
The moral imperative to do so, at least, would be perfectly clear.
If you were a white Christian in Alabama in March 1965, would you have stood in solidarity with Dr. King and crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge to face the tear gas and nightsticks that met them on the other side?
You’d like to think you would.
The moral imperative to do so, at least, would be perfectly clear.
The Jim Crow south
Cambodia under Pol Pot.
Chile under Pinochet.
Uganda under Idi Amin.
Human history is full of spiritual midnights.
Moments when the darkness is utterly profound.
During a Spiritual midnight, the ethical uncertainties that, at all other times, challenge our moral discernment, fall away.
At such times the moral choice is quite clear.
And yet that clear moral choice is also the choice that is fraught with terrible danger.
I like my neighbor.
She is a nice person – a little wacky, but who isn’t?
I bet if I woke her in the middle of the night and asked her for bread, she’d be pretty confused,
She’d think I’d lost my mind,
but eventually, I think she’d give me some bread.
But I would not wake my neighbor in order to get bread for my guest.
Showing hospitality to my unexpected midnight guest is just not that important to me.
But this makes me wonder….
what would I wake my neighbor for?
This could be a kind of test — the “wake the neighbors test?”
Using this test, we could discern how urgent something is.
If it is important enough to wake your neighbor, then it must be a very urgent indeed.
Let me see…
I think I would wake my neighbor if I sensed that she was in danger.
If I looked out my window at midnight and spied an angry mob of villagers approaching her house with firebrands and pitchforks, I’d head over and wake her up.
That would pass my “wake the neighbors test.”
And if one of my loved ones was at risk and all the phones in my house were dead, and the only way to call 911 would be to go and wake her up – yes, in that case, I would wake my neighbor in a heartbeat.
No hesitation there!
I do consider the prevention of physical harm a matter of ultimate concern.
So if you’re looking for some sourdough and you come by my place in the middle of the night, don’t expect me to go knocking on my neighbor’s doors to find you some.
But if you are under threat of imminent physical danger, and, for some reason, the only way I can help you is by waking my neighbor…
I’ll do that for you.
It reminds me of that moment, back on 1986, when I was sitting on the curb trying to regain my composure – trying, rather unsuccessfully, to reassure myself that human civilization, in all its intricate pageantry, could be depended upon to protect me.
My inclination – and I think it is a spiritual inclination – is to value as most important of all – those actions that in some way serve love.
Love that wraps us in community.
That turns wilderness to civilization.
Chaos to Culture.
Death to life.
Midnight to daybreak.
On June 11th 1967, when Dr. King preached his famous “Knock at Midnight” sermon, Black men and women and their children were suffering under the dark oppression of Jim Crow.
The Vietnam war was at its height.
And the threat of nuclear annihilation felt real.
This morning, almost exactly fifty years later, on October 8th, 2017, I am preaching on the same timeless text.
In October 2017, Black men and women and their children are suffering under the dark oppression of mass incarceration.
In October 2017, Black men have died in Florida, in Fergusen, in Staten Island, Baltimore, Minnesota – killed for traffic violations, for selling CD’s on the street, or for just going for a walk in a “gated community.”
In October 2017, our leader is exchanging insults with an Asian leader who is in possession of nuclear weapons.
In October 2017 a simple list of American cities brings tears to our eyes:
We are looking down the barrel of an AR-15 semi-automatic weapon, and we are dying, horrific, random deaths.
Ours is a peculiar spiritual midnight.
We are not taken away in the middle of the night by secret police.
We are not being forced into a ghetto or exiled to a Gulag.
We are not being sent to re-education camps or disappeared to killing fields.
In our peculiar spiritual midnight, we are held hostage by an elusive presence.
The elusive person’s name is “anyone.”
Because “anyone” can, without difficulty, obtain a weapon of war.
We are in the spiritual midnight of AR-15.
And when I speak of the “spiritual midnight of AR-15” I am not being hypothetical or melodramatic.
There is nothing hypothetical about the names that appear in the insert of your bulletin this morning.
When I invoke Dr. King’s famous phrase, and speak of the “fierce urgency of now,” I do it in the name of those who died last Sunday.
This is our spiritual midnight.
The moral choice is clear.
Allow me to make one final point regarding the parable that we have been considering this morning.
The parable involves a circle of friends.
A friend arrives at the house of a friend. The host friend has no food to offer his guest friend, so he goes to ask for help from another friend who has bread. The friend who has bread is briefly unhappy with the host friend, but eventually obliges and gives bread which the host friend gives to the guest friend.
The parable is telling us that when we find ourselves facing a matter of ultimate concern, it is appropriate to seek help.
It is appropriate, and necessary, to seek the help of the community.
And it is appropriate, and necessary, to seek the help of God – our ultimate concern.
At this moment in the life of or nation,
We could throw our hands in the air and say “Oh well… Stuff happens!”
That would be easy.
We could stay silent, for fear of offending our friends who believe strongly in the constitutional right of gun ownership.
We could allow powerful lobbying groups to continue to stymie the gun control debate.
We could be silenced by those who say “keep politics out of the pulpit”
But if we do these things, than we have to accept, as normal, the landmarks of our spiritual midnight-
we could turn to each other and join together to form a circle of friends –
A circle of friends dedicated to ultimate concerns.
That is what church is.
That is what church can be.
So wake the neighbors!
Hear the knock at midnight!
This is important.
We are in danger.
Our children are in danger.
The time has come to awaken.
The time has come for change.
We pray for the 58 people killed in Las Vegas:
Thomas Day Jr.,
Angela C. Gomez,
Kurt Von Tillow,
William Wolfe Jr.,