Strengthened by Diversity

Revelation 7:9-12 (New Living Translation)
After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands. And they were shouting with a great roar, “Salvation comes from our God who sits on the throne and from the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living beings. And they fell before the throne with their faces to the ground and worshiped God. They sang, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and strength belong to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

No matter how many times I watch the video of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I have been to the mountaintop” speech, no matter how many times I read the text, I cry.

Every. Single. Time.

Because it breaks my heart to hear Dr. King talking about seeing the Promised Land, but knowing that he might not arrive there himself. Just hours after his final speech was filmed, he was shot while standing on the balcony of his hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee.

But, even knowing all that, I still find it such a powerful image: Dr. King, standing on the mountaintop like Moses, looking over into the Promised Land, seeing the potential and the beauty and the sheer loveliness of freedom and equality for all. I love that image, the mountaintop.

Have you ever been to the top of a mountain? There’s a mountain I love in Maine: Mount Agamenticus. That’s really hard to say, so the locals just call it “Mount A.” It’s not a long hike, and you can actually drive almost to the top of it, but from the peak, it is an amazing view. Green fields below, small towns dotting the landscape, the Atlantic Ocean a strip of blue-gray on the far eastern horizon.

Being up on a mountain gives you a very different perspective on the land around you than when you’re doing in the midst of it all. There is a feeling of peace that comes with that lofty perspective, looking so much farther into the distance than we usually do.

The last time I was up there, quite a while back now, I was standing on a rock outcropping amongst tall trees, looking down the mountainside, with a sense of awe at the beauty before me, and I thought, “How amazing it would be to be able to bottle this feeling, this perspective, and to take it with me when I head back down.”

Because, sadly, we can’t stay on the mountaintop forever.

I was talking with someone the other day about the deep sadness that so many people report feeling about the state of our world right now. We talked about what is basically the opposite of the “mountaintop” experience — the claustrophobic, frightening feeling of being down in a tight valley, hemmed in on all sides.

It happens on a personal level, with family dysfunction, challenges at work, disagreements with a spouse, addictions, illness (your own or someone you love), grief over a devastating loss.

It also happens in a culture, when it feels like the world is pressing in on us, holding us down with all of its distrust and fear and violence and anger.

This friend and I talked about how when you’re in those moments, it feels like you will never get out of the valley. You’ll never be freed of those fears and doubts and pain. This valley, it is all that there is. End of story.

But as Christ-followers we know that the valley never — never! — has the final word. Just as the story of Jesus did not conclude with his death on the cross, or his being placed in the tomb, so our story — as individuals, as a community, and as a world — does not end in a valley of confusion and chaos. It does not.

Coming out of the valley, standing on the mountaintop, we can see the Promised Land. We can see a vision of the world that Jesus came to save, full of people beloved by the God who created them.

But the “valleys,” the “downs” we experience are not necessarily evil. Because it is only when we’re in the valley that we can truly understand what needs to change.

In that final speech of his life, Dr. King said this: “… I’m happy to live in this period… We have been forced to a point where we’re going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.”

Standing on that metaphorical mountaintop, Dr. King saw a vision of a world where all people were loved and accepted, where differences did not cause fear.

One of the ways we can capture a vision of the future, is simply this: by taking a good, hard look around our world, and recognizing the places that are not in line with what we learn from the life, teaching, sacrifice, and resurrection of Jesus. We look at those places, we name them, and then we name their opposite.

Where we see hatred, the Promised Land is love.
Where we see corruption, the Promised Land is justice.
Where we see distrust, the Promised Land is reconciliation.
Where we see judgment, the Promised Land is compassion.
Where we see abuse, the Promised Land is freedom.

When you see something that makes your blood boil, your spirit cringe, name what it is that has made you so angry. And then name its opposite, as well. That is a part of the Promised Land.

And when we have been to the mountaintop, when we have scanned the horizon and have seen the Promised Land, we know the direction we need to head to reach that world of hope.

One of the “mountaintop experiences” of my life happens just about every Sunday at the church I serve at Plantation United Methodist Church. It happens in meetings and events and classes. It happens in the church office and in counseling sessions and on our schools’ playgrounds. In other words, it happens quite often.

That mountaintop for me,
where I can look into the future with hope,
comes from looking at the faces
that make up this family of faith.

You see, the people of Plantation UMC have been gathered in from across our world, from the Caribbean, Europe, South and North America, Africa, Australia, Asia. Native-born Americans and immigrants. Different accents and skin color and hair texture and customs.

Gathered in from across the political spectrum, republican and democrat, conservative and liberal, politically active and politically ambivalent.

Gathered in from across the theological spectrum, as well. Traditionalists and progressives, conservative and reformist. Life-long Methodists, brand new Christians, spiritual but not religious.

The scripture we used in our services this morning from the Book of Revelation this morning said this: “… I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands.”

Every nation and tribe and people and language.
Standing on the particular mountaintop that is
the pulpit from which I am privileged to preach,
I can see a glimpse of the beauty
and joy of the Promised Land.

I love what the people of Plantation have built over the years, and I never want us to take it for granted. What happens in worship and in service, it is still the exception in our world, not the norm. Even in the community directly around us, it is not the norm. And so this beautiful community of believers — strong in unity because of our diversity — I believe we have something powerful to offer to the people around us.

From that last message of Dr. King again:

“It’s all right to talk about ‘long white robes over yonder,’ in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s all right to talk about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey,’ but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but, one day, God’s preacher must talk about the New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.”

God’s promise is not just for us, some day, by-and-by when we’re in heaven. God’s promise is meant to make a difference here and now. For the people right here, around us in Plantation. In Tamarac. In Sunrise and Lauderhill and Fort Lauderdale and Davie. Wherever you find yourself as you read these words… God’s promise is meant for that town or city.

We are called to be God’s workers
right in the community
in which God has placed us.

Yes, I have been to the mountaintop, many times, and have seen the Promised Land of God’s people coming together in unity, learning from our differences.

But… I have also been to the deep, dark valley where the vision of that Promised Land is occluded and where it seems so very, very far away.

We are in a valley time right now in our country. A time when diversity and differences are feared instead of celebrated. A time when instead of “us together” it is “us” against “them.”

Conservatives VS Liberals
Black VS White
Republican VS Democrats
Straight VS LGBTQ
Native-born Americans VS Immigrants
Rich VS Poor
President-Trump Supporters VS President-Trump Opponents

I could go on.
But you get my point.

I am not afraid of conflict. That is, I am not afraid of healthy conflict: disagreements of understanding which are worked out in respect and love and compassion for each other. Because of our diversity, because of the large number of deeply held convictions among us here, we will have conflict. It’s inevitable. And… you ready for this? It’s not just inevitable. It’s necessary.

Without conflict, without differences, without diversity, we will never be able to move from where we are now. Surrounded only by people who look like us, think like us, live like us, we become stagnant, proud, and self-satisfied.

Conflict — our beliefs, our convictions being challenged and pushed in a new direction — conflict opens our spirits and minds to new ways of thinking. It helps us to see more clearly what the Promised Land might look like. A Promised Land with room not just for you or for me, but for all of God’s children.

Galatians, chapter 3, verses 26-29:
For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you.”

Standing on the mountaintop, looking out into the future, we can see the Promised Land. From the view on the mountaintop, we can see a beautiful vision of the wild, wide diversity of God’s people, working together, challenging each other, unafraid of conflict, rejoicing in God’s guidance, supporting each other, embracing our differences in a bond of unity only possible in God’s love.

One last word from Dr. King:
“Let us rise up [this day] with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. And I want to thank God, once more, for allowing me to be here with you.”

Thanks be to God.
And amen!

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1 Response to Strengthened by Diversity

  1. Joan Jett says:

    Dear Pastor Heather, Your words were very touching and exactly what I needed to hear. Thanks for helping the views from both the mountain top and the valley much more meaningful. Thank you for helping me keep my faith on track. Blessing in all you do. Joan Jett

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