Last year I had the opportunity to preach at the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas. Cathedral is a large United Church of Christ congregation whose membership is composed mostly of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people. Preaching from the book of Exodus, I told the imagined story of a soldier in Pharaoh’s army pursuing the Hebrews to the Red Sea. In the sermon I said, “I believe that it is more important to identify with the soldier in Pharaoh’s army than with the masses fleeing that army. As [Timothy] Snyder said, ‘the moral danger... is never that one might become a victim but that one might be a perpetrator or a bystander.’”
When I read Dr. King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” I feel exposed as a bystander. When I read, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people...” I fear for my own silence. Dr. King’s words confront me as Nathan once confronted another David about his sin.
As a Baptist minister in the south I believed I was one of the good guys. I spoke against racism, although not very clearly from my own pulpit. I advocated for the greater participation of women in the church, but not very loudly in my own church. In the late 1980’s I wanted to be a compassionate voice for those suffering from the horrifying impact of HIV/AIDS. But in my church I chose to ignore the fear that my fellow church members had toward their own gay family members and friends. I wouldn’t do or say anything that might endanger my position and my privilege. And as I failed to challenge these ideas and failed to embrace and identify with the people harmed by them I became small. I became a coward afraid of leaving Pharaoh’s army. I was a bystander.
This letter calls me to leave my private hiding place and embrace the good news that we can all be saved from a life of holding people down and dividing people up, and withdrawing into smaller and smaller groups. This letter calls me to sit with my neighbors at the Agape Meal and stand with them as they wrestle with the problems of poverty and race. This letter calls me to embrace my LGBT friends as they strive for the love and respect that we all deserve. This letter calls me to listen to the voices of the women around me and to walk with them as they choose to live lives of fulfillment and equality. This letter calls me to live in loving community with each of you at Broadway as we live out the words of the ancient hymn found in Paul’s letter to the Philippians:
"Let this mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness."
David Grebel is the Agape Meal Worship Leader at Broadway Baptist Church, Forth Worth, TX.