Cheryl Bridges Johns | Apr 22, 2020
A Knock at Midnight: Creation and her Children Come Calling
Several months ago, during the middle of the night, I was jolted awake by the sounds of my husband mumbling and jerking while he slept. After a few seconds, he calmed down, and I went back to sleep. The next morning, when I mentioned the incident to him, he responded he had a vivid dream of someone loudly knocking on our front door. He remembered trying to get down the stairs, calling out as he went, “I’m coming! I’m coming!”
Whether in reality or in a dream, no one likes to get midnight visitors. People who show up during the night hours disturb us from a place of sleep and comfort. For that reason, only the most desperate folk, and the ones with really bad news, come at midnight. My friend will never forget the moment when he opened the door to midnight guests to face every parent’s nightmare- the tragic news of his son’s death in a traffic accident.
No matter how hard we try, we can’t wish away the midnight calls. When I was young, my mother had several siblings to die of sudden and tragic deaths. The calls announcing their deaths always came at night. My mother was so traumatized by these calls she had our telephone removed. It was an irrational action, one that greatly disturbed her children. We kept pointing out that removing the phone would not prevent anyone else from dying. Until my mother’s grief was past, our arguments went unheeded.
I now have more sympathy for my mother’s irrational behavior. When she was in the final stages of dementia, there were many times I was awakened during the late-night and early morning hours by calls from her caregivers. These calls would jolt me awake, and I would look briefly at the number on the lit phone. If the area code read “864” I was overcome with dread and braced myself for news about my mother.
It seems that our nation is in a time of midnight crisis. There is little rest. Constant streams of bearers of bad news are showing up at our door. COVID 19 is knocking the loudest. If you are like me, you want this virus to go away. But, no matter how hard we try to ignore it, we can’t.
In this state of constant vigilance, it is hard to separate the day from the night. The mundane and ordinary have given way for the desperate foreboding of midnight. There is the ever-growing temptation to pull down the shades, put on our earplugs, and sleep through our nation’s midnight hours.
The Gospel story of Midnight visitors
Reading the Gospels, we see Jesus talking about neighbors and desperate knocks at midnight. The apostle Luke (11:5-13) records Jesus’ parable of the man who came knocking on his neighbor’s door during the night hours. The neighbor was asking for bread to serve to his guests who had just arrived. “Friend, said the man to his neighbor, “lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived and I have nothing to set before him.”
The man’s neighbor, who was already comfortably settled in for the night, called back “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.” Finally, because of the man’s persistent knocking, his neighbor gets out of bed and offers bread to his friend.
Jesus urges his followers to knock on the Father’s door, even at the midnight hour. “For everyone who asks receives and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” The door is opened and the gifts are given because those who come seeking are more than friends- they are the children of God.
Martin Luther King- “A Knock at Midnight”
Martin Luther King’s sermon “A Knock at Midnight,” first delivered in 1964 at Riverside Church in New York City, and later revised and preached in 1967 at the Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Cincinnati, was based upon this parable. In this sermon, King masterfully weaves this story of the midnight visitor into the turbulent 1960s. For King, this era was midnight, a time in which the world was “experiencing a darkness so deep we can hardly see which way to turn.”
King noted that it was midnight in the social order, a time when “nations are engaged in a colossal and bitter contest for supremacy. Atomic warfare has just begun and bacteriological warfare remains yet unused.” These words, spoken decades ago, ring true today. Syria continues to unleash chemical weapons on its own people. Russia is stretching its empire muscles.
For King, the ’60s were a time of midnight in the psychological order. “Paralyzing fears, he noted, “ harrow people by day and haunt them by night. Deep clouds of anxiety and depression are suspended.” King’s words are eerily accurate in our current psychological landscape. In light of the overwhelming doses of bad news, we are crippled with anxiety.
King noted it was midnight in the moral order, a time, “when all colors lose their distinctiveness and become merely a sullen shade of gray…Right and wrong …are merely relative to our likes and our dislikes and our appetites and to the particular community in which we live.” Is there a better description of our “post-truth,” tribal world?
In 1964 King reminded his audience that during their mid-night hour, millions of desperate people were knocking on the doors of the Christian churches seeking the bread of faith, the bread of hope, and the bread of love. Others came seeking the bread of social justice, while others sought for the bread of economic justice, “having been left in the frustrating midnight of economic deprivation.” King lamented that the churches wanted to carry on business as usual, closing their doors to those who came calling for bread.
In the year 2017, in our time of midnight, we want to carry on, as usual, being lulled into a stupor by our comfortable homes, luxury vehicles, and nice houses of worship. Like the churches in the 1960s, we do not wish to be disturbed. But, as King pointed out, in such times of darkness, comfort and sleep are not an option.
The midnight crisis of global climate change
I believe if King were preaching “A Knock at Midnight” today, he would add these words, “We are experiencing midnight in the ecological order. “ Across this beautiful planet, there is encroaching darkness brought on by the effects of global climate change. Our once rich and verdant world is now marred with mountain top removal, species extinction, the rise of acidity in the oceans, historic storms, and record-breaking high temperatures. It is midnight in the ecological order.
Because it is midnight in the ecological order, creation is among those desperate midnight callers. She knocks at our doors, seeking the bread of justice. She knocks with an ever-growing urgency, calling us from our slumber, warning us the future of our planet hangs in the balance. She knocks everywhere: the doors on houses of worship, the doors of our homes, and the doors of corporate America. She knocks on the doors of Congress and those of the White House.
Creation has been a persistent visitor. She came calling in 1962, gently pleading to us in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. She knocked on our door in 1988 when James Hanson went before Congress and warned our nation about the effects of global warming. She knocked louder in the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that the world has been warming and future warming seemed likely. In 1997 she came to Kyoto, Japan, knocking on the doors of the nations of the world, pleading for the bread of life.
Over and over Creation has called to us. She knocked in 2001 with the third IPCC report that warned of severe surprises in global climate; 2003 in the deadly heatwave that struck Europe; 2006 with hurricane Katina; and more recent IPCC reports. She urgently knocked on September 3, 2013, when the head of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachuari, issued a statement that warned: “We have five minutes before midnight.” In December of 2015 Creation came to Paris. When President Trump made the decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord, Creation stood knocking on the door of the White House. Creation was knocking on the doors of the EPA when it decided to lesson restrictions on pollution.
Creation knocks upon all our doors- those of the great houses and those of small means. She knocks on the doors of Christians as well as those belonging to Muslims. She knocks on the doors of atheists. Each passing day her voice grows louder. She begs us to awaken from our slumber. She reminds us that our own well -being is tied to hers. But, like my mother when her siblings were dying tragic deaths, it is tempting to employ irrational thinking: “Let’s mute our phones, close our bedroom doors, and pull the covers of over our heads. This will make her go away. The earth will be tomorrow as it is today. “
A single garment of destiny
“We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny,” noted King in his “Knock at Midnight” sermon at Riverside Church. His words are never so true as they are today. We are tied to the creation in a single garment of destiny. She is our mother who nurtures and sustains our very life. As creation suffers we suffer. Her storms become our storms. Her droughts leave us thirsty. The death of her oceans means our death. When her honeybees are destroyed we are destroyed.
The single garment of destiny includes those most affected by global climate change. The people of Bangladesh, whose very existence is being threatened by rising sea levels, are our brothers and sisters. The people living in areas devastated by raging fires and unprecedented drought are our very own kin. Farmers suffering the effects of honeybee colony collapse are our family. The people of the future, the ones who will bear the brunt of our inaction, are our very own grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Let us rise from our beds of stupor
It will not be easy to rise from our beds of stupor and make the sacrifices that will guarantee the bread of life for our dying planet. Rising means we make significant changes in the ways we live and consume. We will have to give up our addiction to fossil fuels and cheap consumer goods. We will have to let go of our obsession with pesticides and herbicides. We will have to learn to nurture the space in which we inhabit instead of ruling over it like masters.
These personal actions will not be enough to sustain Creation’s future. These desperate midnight hours demand we all become activists. Right now, Creation urges us to get up, get dressed, and make our own mid-night calls to members Congress, State Representatives, corporate executives, and offices of Federal Government. Creation calls for us to hold elected officials accountable. The state of things is so critical cannot dare turn a blind eye as environmental regulations are at this critical moment being rolled back. Creation asks that we bear down especially hard on the door of the White House until the man in the room upstairs opens the door.
The bread of hope
Toward the end of his sermon at Mt. Zion Baptist, King declared: “God has not yet turned the world over to Governor Wallace.” He reminded his audience: “The earth is the Lord’s!” More than ever, we need this reminder. God has not yet turned the world over to Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt. God has not yet given the world up to corporate greed, big oil companies, and mountain top removal mining companies. The earth is the Lord’s!
Knowing this truth, we can, with assurance, offer the world the bread of hope. We can, in the words environmentalist Gus Speth, “build a bridge at the edge of the world.” With courageous action involving pressuring politicians to enact stricter legislation, the development of green energy, and changes in personal lifestyle, the bridge of hope can be built for a better future of this beautiful planet.
Finally, while it may be midnight, we know that to God the darkness is not darkness. We can work with the assurance of the light of an eschatological future that even now is bearing down upon us. It was this light that gave King his dream of the “Beloved Community,” and it is this light that calls us into a vision of the “Beloved Creation.” This world is the future that we both work toward and wait for with patience.
True to his style, King ended “A Knock at Midnight” with an eschatological vision for this future. His words resound in our own midnight hour. They bring to us comfort, hope, and the assurance of faith:
With this faith, we will be able to move out of the dark
and desolate midnight and to able able to adjourn the
councils of despair and bring new light into the dark chambers of
pessimism….With this faith, we will be able to transform dark
yesterdays into bright tomorrows and speed up that day when….
the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all of flesh shall see it
together.’ And when this happens morning stars will sing together,
and the sons of God will shout for joy.