Open the Way

Lectionary Reading: John 1:29-42

This American Life Episode 179 : Cicero

In 2008, Forlaget Illuminated published Bible Illuminated: The Book New Testament. It is not a new rendition of the New Testament; in fact, the text itself comes from the Good News translation. The book provocatively places images alongside certain passages from the New Testament. One in particular struck me – in the section for the book of Matthew, one quote is centered in an otherwise blank page “God said, ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you to open the way for you.’” The following pages are images of contemporary individuals who arguably have created and continue to create change in our society: Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr.

As Christians – and yes, I’m aware I’m about to make general, absolute claims… – we often talk about following Jesus, being like he was and doing what he did. Yet, whether we hold Jesus as fully human, fully divine or fully human AND fully divine, there is the sense that he is much more than we can ever be. And so, it feels like the best we can do is open the way. Whether heaven is a spiritual place in the after life or simply here on earth, we can hardly say that we are completely there. The sacrifice and achievements of people like Mandela and MLK have opened doors for change and progress but are not the end as much seems to be completed still.

This week’s lectionary reading includes John 1:29-42. The passage tells the story of Jesus’ first two disciples. But, it starts with John, the one sent ahead of Jesus. And, if not for John Andrew and Peter might not have heard and followed Jesus. This upcoming weekend also marks the celebration of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., a man synonymous with the civil rights movement. I can personally say without any conviction, as the editors of Bible Illuminated suggest, that Martin Luther King, Jr. has opened the way for the work of Jesus in bringing in God’s reign. Yet, much work and transformation is still needed.

This American Life Episode 179: Cicero is a brief history of the Chicago suburb and some of the problems encountered in the town. Growing up in Chicago, I remember hearing about the town of Cicero constantly though if I had to tell you anything about it, all I could say was “mob problems and political corruption.” As Ira Glass and crew present, the history of Cicero is plagued with mob ties but also with ethnic and racial problems. As you can listen in the episode, Blacks were not allowed in town and those who moved in were harassed. Eventually, Mexican-American families moved into town, not because they were necessarily welcome but for financial reasons – the town had homes for sale and Mexican-American families were looking to buy homes. Nonetheless, many of the families were harassed though many stayed.

Chicago has been known to be segregated (this video of the Red Line demonstrates some of this segregation) but in Cicero it seemed much more difficult. MLK himself was warned not to march into Cicero when planning his marches in Chicago. In the 1980s, mandatory human relations training for police officers in town after altercations with black families. A civil rights leader recalls the police sergeant wearing a shirt that read “Police Brutality – the Fun Part of Police Work.” Many Mexican-Americans were arrested simply for standing on corners; police would argue that those arrested had gang relations. Businesses and homes owned by Mexican-Americans were targeted with unusual legal and ordinance requirements which were not imposed on white residents and business owners.

Perhaps situations have improved, as you can hear towards the end of the episode. Yet, this story shows that longevity of social problems stemming from race and ethnicity (and always intertwined with politics, power, corruption, economics and much more). We have much to be thankful for leaders and prophets like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. They have definitely opened the way for a more just and fairer world. Yet, their work is not complete; as we celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., we ought to seek ways to continue opening those ways that will lead to God’s peaceful and just reign.

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