My childhood friend Ruby told me this story. She was a precocious little girl and learned to read before she went to kindergarten. One day she was downtown in the Southern city where we lived and she saw a water fountain, and she sounded out the word on the sign above it.
She wanted to go and get a drink from it, but she was told she could not.
She wanted a drink from it, desperately, not because she was thirsty, but because she wanted to see what color the water would be. Blue? Pink? Orange?
She did not know better. Neither of us understood the reality of the place where we lived. In our own homes, no one said anything bad about people based on the color of our skin, but the truth of our lives in that small Southern city is that certain neighborhoods were only for white people and certain schools were only for white children and certain water fountains were only for white lips.
We were too young to understand it, and by the time we were old enough to see it, things had begun to change. She’s 50 now, and I will be soon, and we know we lived in a place that had its own informal version of Apartheid.
I touched on this last week, the difference between the place I lived as a child and the place we live now, but there aren’t many places on earth where someone isn’t shut out or despised or feared or oppressed. It’s always been true. The Psalm for today, Psalm 40, speaks of being down in the mire of despair, so we know this emotion is not a product of our modern anxieties. It’s always been with us. Some people are in and some are out; some people are up and some are down.
And every one of us, at some point, craves a hero.
John the Baptist wanted one. He wanted someone who would scatter the brood of vipers in charge of the Temple, someone who would shake up the leaders who colluded with the Roman invaders, someone who would sort out the good people from the bad people once and for all. These things mattered to John the Baptist. And he didn’t mind saying it out loud, where anyone could hear.
And we can believe that the man was in touch with God, for in this version of the story, John the Baptist himself tells us that the Spirit of God rested on Jesus. In the verses from Matthew we heard last week, that wasn’t so certain. We could only be sure that Jesus heard it. But here John the Baptist is in the loop. He tells us himself that Jesus is the Son of God.
You can understand why he doesn’t hold onto his own followers, let’s them go to Jesus. One of them is Andrew, and he brings his brother Peter to meet the Messiah, the Anointed One.
This is the beginning of everything we have together today, a meeting so far away and so long ago. No one then imagined church buildings with kitchens that need cleaning or brand-name pet food in big colorful bags to be distributed to people in need or computer printers that need new toner or digital organs that need skillful playing.
No one imagined church as we know it.
I think what they imagined was change. Surely the Son of God would change absolutely everything.
With the distance of almost 2000 years, we can see how wrong they were.
Oh, some things changed. Many things were set in motion, in their own lifetimes. But the vision they all had of a Messiah, and the ways they might have pictured a Messiah fixing things in their particular time and place, did not come to pass. John the Baptist expected what others did, a Messiah who would come down like the Hammer, like a mighty Sword of God’s Power to send off the invading armies and set up a Kingdom of God based on the image in John’s own mind.
At a meeting the other day, I joked about how I would fix things if I were the Queen of America. I reminded myself of the books I loved when I was little by Dr. Seuss, “If I Ran the Circus,” and especially, “If I Ran the Zoo.”
If little girls ran the zoo, ran the world, colored water fountains would have bubbled peach and lavender instead of dividing people from one another.
So many years, and there are still reasons we ask God, “How much longer?” Can we ever finish the work Jesus and his disciples began?
In his letter to the church at Corinth, the apostle Paul, assured the new faith community that they would not lack the spiritual gifts they needed to wait and be strong.
Hear these words, spoken by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1967:
When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.*
Dr. King had many spiritual gifts. They included courage and strength and patience, but it was not the kind of patience that sits passively in a room waiting to see what will happen next. He had spiritual patience, a deep understanding that while the world may not yet be—is not yet—what we believe God would have it be, we are always moving in that direction.
He made those claims on behalf of God, the Creating and Creative Force we worship today. He made them in the South, just a few years after my friend imagined colored water to be delight rather than discrimination. In spite of the prejudice that remained, he believed that in time things would come around right.
And it occurs to me that it’s probably good news for all of us that the deep spiritual patience of someone like Dr. King is only a tiny fraction of the deep spiritual patience of God. God does not hurry, clearly. Our lives go by and new people come to take our places and humanity rolls onward toward we don’t know what.
Some people think we’re not just rolling but speeding toward an inevitable crash, a conflagration, a catastrophe.
But I hear these ancient stories, and I perceive a pattern. We may seem to rush headlong toward disaster, but we don’t get all the way there.
We don’t get all the way there because somehow, some way, we move toward God instead.
So I don’t want us to lose heart because of the terrible stories we have heard in the past week, or because of the private worries that we wouldn’t want to admit to anyone else. I do believe in the long arc bending toward God’s justice.
My family lived mostly away from that small city in the South for a long time, but after I had married and become a mother and moved to Maine, my parents returned to the home we had there. It was a changed place. The neighborhood lines were drawn more by wealth than race. The schools, of course, were long since integrated. And all that was not without struggle.
Mother and Daddy got involved in a project they just loved, both of them. The historic Courthouse had been replaced by more modern facilities, and the old building was to become a Children’s Museum. My mother could not wait to take #1 Son to see it. She wanted to watch him play in the carefully prepared rooms, to dress up like a firefighter or pretend to be the cashier in the little grocery store. He was about four, and he already loved the Children’s Museum in Portland—the old one, on the campus at Westbrook College—and I knew this would be smaller, and I crossed my fingers that he would be at least a little thrilled by the Virginia version.
Once we got there, I didn’t think we would ever get past the first room. He found it absolutely wondrous. Mother and I finally sat down and just watched him, playing in a room full of children, black and white children, something we never would have seen when I was four years old. It had taken a long time, and yet it was a short span in the long arc, really.
We sat and watched the little children, all gleeful, because the soap and the water in the Bubble Room made such beautiful colors.
*The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. “Where Do We Go From Here?” an address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, August 16, 1967.
The art image of a rainbow fountain is from the website of the Brooklyn Art Project.