Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
South Presbyterian Church – January 19, 2014 Celebration of Martin Luther King Day
The Reverend Deborah Fae Swift
In two of our ACTs of Faith right now we are focusing on Bible passages. Bagels and the Bible, of course, is one of them. In that group on Saturday mornings, we’re in a unit now called the Short Books. We figured that there are a lot of books in the Bible that are fewer than 4 pages long and so we’re reading and studying them. It’s really kinda cool. Yesterday we did Jonah, Philemon and 2 Thessalonians.
And in CLASS ACT, we’re starting a unit on the Parables of Jesus. Last week it was the sower and the seeds; this week it will be the Prodigal Son.
In both of the groups I’ve been aware again of the importance of knowing WHEN something was written, WHY and to WHOM is was written because those things matter. 2 Thessalonians, for example, seems to have a lot of vengeance in it. And if you think it was written by Paul in the 40’s, it seems to fly in the face of Jesus’ message of reconciliation and love. BUT if you agree with a lot of scholars today that it wasn’t really written by Paul and was written toward the end of the 1st century when Christians were being tortured and killed for their beliefs, then the message makes a lot more sense.
Now, you’ve heard me talk about the Gospels for years … about how Mark was the first one written and even that wasn’t written until 30 years or so after the crucifixion and resurrection. Matthew, Luke and John were written after that. And each one spoke to a specific audience in language that had meaning for what those people were going through at that time.
And for the first time, I began to understand some of that URGENCY to tell the story … some of the importance they must have felt to honor Jesus and tell the story of his life … convey his TEACHINGS because the people who were alive … the people who had KNOWN him or heard him speak … even their CHILDREN who would have heard firsthand what he had said … they were dying off!
By the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s they were either dying off naturally, or they were being KILLED and so the stories about his greatness … about his teachings … the stories ascribing meaning to his LIFE were being written down from their oral traditions and that’s what we have today.
Y’know what helped me understand that even more about the Bible?
Martin Luther King Day.
We are in the 5th decade since his momentous work and death.
There are still some people around who knew him … who marched with him and worked with him … Jesse Jackson, John Lewis, Andrew Young … they’re still living, but they’re on the far side of 70 now. Even one of Dr. King’s children is no longer with us.
And so as the distance grows between the man and us, the stories become embellished and the importance of his teaching is seen in a different light because of OUR perspective and OUR life events.
You’ve heard me say how profoundly I am affected by the fact that he and I had the same Christian Ethics teacher at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. Crozer, of course, was the seminary Dr. King attended but it was then located in Pennsylvania. Today it’s part of our Divinity School right here because it moved up here in 1970 and there are three of us in this church who were graduated from that school (Jane, Mary Lee and I) and one who is studying there now, Summer.
Seminaries are NOT all alike. As with any other area of study … they have their specialties. And for CRCDS it’s the social gospel … not social as in “be social and get along with people” but social as in SOCIETY.
CRCDS is STEEPED in the tradition of preaching the Gospel for social change and for changing the world through the RADICAL NOTION that God is love and that the KINGDOM of God will win out over EVERYTHING. (And let me just say, parenthetically, that it’s not just Dr. KING’s association with CRCDS that lived this priority … the people BEFORE him did, too … the Baptist Missionary Training School was preparing WOMEN for this ministry 100 years before KING was there … Walter RAUSCHENBUSH … Howard THURMAN … it’s a LONG(!!!!) tradition of working for change in the world through living out the Gospel message!)
Everything that our brother, Martin, did … everything that he taught … everything that he PREACHED … everything that he DIED for … it was all based on the Word of Go … on the belief and the KNOWLEDGE that the Kingdom of God (the KOG) is here and NOW and our job is to WORK for it
Let me say that again: Everything that our brother, Martin, did … everything that he taught … everything that he PREACHED … everything that he DIED for … it was all based on the Word of God.
Think about it … think about the world as YOU have experienced it in your own life … pretty much it’s safe to say that the world isn’t FAIR.
Bad people get away with things sometimes … good people are ridiculed … cheaters seem to prosper … sometimes I look at the rich and famous who have clawed and scraped their way to the top over the backs of others … they have used all sorts of deceitful ways of interacting with others and they have the NICEST THINGS and they are PRAISED by the world around them. The Wolf of Wall Street.
And then I look at the poor, honest bloke who’s working three jobs just to put food on the table for his kids and I wonder where is the EQUITY in THAT???? Where is the JUSTICE in our world?
So the notion that “the last shall be first and the first last” – or that – “my kingdom is not of THIS world” – or that – “if someone strikes you, turn your cheek that he might strike you again” – or that – “if someone takes your cloak, offer your coat as well” … those were RADICAL notions. They UPENDED the status quo. They drew attention. They FLEW in the face of what the world was doing at the time.
And that’s what Dr. King was teaching, preaching, praying, and modeling.
Was he perfect? No. Who is? Come on … He was a STUDENT just like me, sitting before the same professor I did … being challenged as I was … having to do homework readings and term papers just like I was. He was a REGULAR guy who had regular weaknesses and foibles.
THAT’s part of what is so radical about our God … God uses regular, ordinary people to do EXTRAORDINARY things.
King was showing us an example of what it looks like to live a life of faith in 20th century America. … And it was pretty radical. Not just his work with Civil Rights, but his work for economic equality … marching with SANITATION workers … building a TENT CITY in our nation’s capital to draw attention to POVERTY!
I looked up the word “radical” (because I don’t like to take anything for granted) J And Webster’s online says it is something that is “very new and different from what is traditional or ordinary,” and another definition is that it is “having extreme political or social views that are not shared by most people.”
True of MLK.
“Extreme political or social views that are not shared by most people.”
His “extreme” views were NOT just about Black people and white people getting along together. His views were about POVERTY and INJUSTICE … about VIOLENCE and human DEGREDATION.
Oh how I wish he were alive today. Oh my GOSH … don’t you think he would be here in Rochester, NY? I DO! Here where we are the 5th … worst … place … in the NATION in terms of poverty!!!! Are you KIDDING me?????
Our public education is a JOKE! We only graduate … what is it 42% ??? of our high school students!!!
And around us are some of the richest suburbs with the best public schools in the nation! Mark my words: we are NOT that far from Detroit in terms of the collapse of our culture and society as we know it.
We have succeeded in segregating ourselves … not only in terms of race so that now the city of Rochester is HUGELY composed of people of color while the suburbs are hugely monochromatic … but in terms of EDUCATION … in terms of INCOME … you name it … we are a DIVIDED Community!
Do you not think that he would be leading masses of people into demonstrations in front of the University of Rochester … the largest employer in the COUNTY … and trying to work with them … with the BUSINESSES here to CHANGE THE SYSTEM????
Do you not THINK that he would be taking groups of people to the Board of Education meetings and City COUNCIL meetings to monitor their every DECISION?
Do you not THINK that he would be CHALLENGING the County Legislature and TOWN COURTS when they give sweet deals to big business at the expense of individual home owners … or when they let white kids off with a slap on the wrist but send Black kids to JAIL????
Would he not be doing that in the city that houses his alma mater?????
And let me just let you in on a little something … MANY of us who are alums are VERY upset that CRCDS (that plays upon his name and reputation at every drop of the hat is not doing more to LEAD that kind of social action here in this community. They are doing NOTHING to lead social change in this city.)
We are FOUNDERING, people. Our CITY is foundering with violence, poverty and teenage pregnancies. And where is the voice of the CHURCH? Where is the RADICAL GOSPEL????
It’s not there.
Every once in a while you’ll hear a little vignette … you’ll get a GLIMPSE of something radical. But mostly it’s dormant … silent … giving tacit approval to “business as usual” in the world around us.
We have MISSED the point. Once again the people of God were sent a prophet … a man of faith who made the connection and lived as he felt Jesus was calling him to live … once again, just like throughout our faith history, God reached out and gave us an example … and we have fallen right back into our old ways … the old COMFORTABLE ways … oh … maybe with new language … but it’s the same old ways.
Now you don’t hear as much, perhaps, about racial discrimination … you hear about the separation of the city and the county.
Those are CODE WORDS for Black and White.
“Urban problems” … “Ethnic challenges” … “Aren’t you scared to live in the city?” … “You put your daughter in CITY schools?” … “Why revitalize downtown, I don’t live there.”
We are still fighting the same battles.
“What do you mean children are hungry … the schools give out free breakfast and lunch.”
These are things I HEAR …
YOU hear them.
We read them in letters to the Editor!
Our job is not done.
Martin’s job is not done.
JESUS’s job is not done.
There is such a need for RADICAL right now and we seem to be complacent to just get by making as few waves as possible because it is UNCOMFORTABLE to do otherwise.
Well, guess what …
That is EXACTLY what our faith calls us to do … to preach the Radical Gospel of Love.
NOT the love that is all fluffy and warm … not the syrupy, Valentine’s Day, “make peace, not war” kind of love … but the love that stands on the OTHER SIDE of JUSTICE.
There can be no love … if there is not justice!
Let me say that again … There can be no love … if there is not justice!
LEGAL justice … ECONOMIC justice … RACIAL justice … EDUCATIONAL justice … It can’t happen because with justice, there can be no love.
The GOOD news is that we are here.
God has placed us HERE in this city at this time in its life and in ours.
The GOOD news is that we are here.
WE are here. And each one of us is a prophet by virtue of our claim that we seek to follow Jesus.
The GOOD news is that we are here.
And that wherever two or more are gathered, Jesus is among us. Because, let’s face it … there is no more radical love than hanging on a cross, having been tortured and beaten, and asking God to FORGIVE those who did it to you.
Talk about RADICAL LOVE!
Oh, my GOSH!
THAT’s who we follow.
That’s who MARTIN followed.
And we, my friends, have our work cut out for us …
Thank you, Brother Martin. Amen.