Today we celebrate the legacy and the ministry of an American saint: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is necessary to do this, lest we forget the path that our forebears have trod, lest we forget the blood, sweat and tears of our ancestors.
You notice, I hope, that I used the word “saint.” Indeed Dr. King was and is a saint. Make no mistake – we all know about his foibles. “Saint” doesn’t mean perfection. If you go through history and really look into the lives of the saints you will see imperfections and even some good, old-fashioned sinning!
No, saints were not martyred for being sweet.
Dr. King could not cast off the prophetic mantle – and in the new movie “Selma” we see a man struggling with living his call, being aware of the cost, knowing what it was doing to his family, to others, knowing the pressures of being a national figure.
But he followed his Lord into the temptations of the wilderness. He was martyred like the old-fashioned saints. He spoke the “truth in love” and called us all to a higher way – the upward way of non-violence. So I claim Dr. King as Saint Martin and add his words to the canon of sacred writings – just as inspired as the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, just as inspired as the words of James and Paul – because he speaks truth that is not of this world even as he speaks to this world.
You also noticed, I hope, that I used the pronoun “our” before ancestor. Isn’t that just typical of a white man to presume to claim the heritage of Dr. King? That has always been part of the critique of his ministry and its call to non-violence. He was a safe choice for “whites.” Much safer than the more radical Malcolm X and his critique of American society. Dr. King was a black man that white America could feel safe with. So I am willing to tread on this tension and claim black history as my history – even though it is my race, and my history, that forced these historical designations.
But again, how saintly it was that Dr. King called me and white America to the table, and saw in folks like me an ally instead of an enemy. Only a God-filled person can do that, can fashion a view of history and faith that truly is inclusive, forgiving, accepting and hospitable. And without any disregard for the reality of color and race in our society – invite me to claim Henrietta Lacks, and WEB Dubois, and Langston Hughes, and Maya Angelou as part of the communion of saints that give voice to a reality that includes even me.
So we need to remember Dr. King every year – even if every year we feel that sense of “well here we go again, singing “We Shall Overcome” and going to a program – and then getting back to the same-old same-old.
And I think we have one of those occasional spirit-filled inspirational moments when this morning’s scripture text – selected because this church just happens to be studying the letter of James in the New Testament – greets us with uncomfortable agitation on this Sunday as we honor Dr. King.
James challenges me in these verses, and I hope you as well along with our nation, to consider the reality of the division between rich and poor, and the favoritism and status and power that is given to those who make money, and the profiling and negative judging that I, I will confess it, and America, gives to the poor.
The voices that fill our airwaves and shape our culture make a very clear separation, and have made a very clear un-biblical, heretical statement, that the rich, those who have been entitled by wealth, race, privilege to succeed, are held up as all that is good in America. And the poor – who are judged for getting food stamps, and deemed unworthy of health care, and can’t get educated, and don’t have transportation that efficiently gets them to work, and live in areas of concentrated poverty in city and in rural areas too – are not worthy, are a blight, a stain, an embarrassment – “those” people.
So when we talk about balanced budgets – whose programs will be cut? Who will remain under-educated? Where are the poorest schools? Who is in prison? And who is hungry and without homes?
I am guilty of this heresy – for I want my children to “succeed.” I want “things” that I really don’t need. And it is easy for me to criticize Wall Street – but I have stocks, mutual funds and I get to double-dip a housing allowance AND mortgage payment. I welcome my government handouts!
James writes: “Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?”
I can do nothing else but be overwhelmed by the discomfort those words cause in me. I can’t get out of it, nor will I try to explain it away. Each of us, individually and corporately, needs to feel this agitation deeply. This reality alone makes me believe in original sin, and the necessity of corporate confession each Sunday!
Of course, Dr. King never gave up his vision of a racially appreciative society, but in his last years he was moved to extend the vision of his mission to break down another insidious barrier that still remains: the barrier of poverty, the barrier of injustice, the barrier of the imbalance of the moral bottom line of our checkbooks.
Dr. King was killed in April of 1968, while he was walking with the sanitation workers of Memphis. His next action was going to be the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington D.C. After his death Dr. Ralph Abernathy led the movement.
I was 11 during that rainy, muddy summer. My family hosted one of those poor people – a strange man from the hills of West Virginia, a fire and brimstone preacher who slept on top of the bed in his clothes. He scared us all to death, particularly my mother – who didn’t like the way he put his arms around my brother and me.
The Federal government and the city police of D.C. didn’t want thousands of poor people on the Mall. The FBI didn’t want all these uncontrollable poor people messing up the city, and increasing crime. But you know what – nothing like that happened.
James writes: “But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?” Does that really need any interpretation or clever exegesis?
And yet always in the gospel – and this was something that Dr. King was aware of too – sooner or late,r the honest “beat-down,” the heavy guilt trip must be lifted – and what do we then do? Or as my Sister Lia said on Wednesday, “Sometimes the ‘uh-oh’ becomes an ‘ah-ah’!”
Well…we continually call ourselves, hold ourselves accountable to take steps towards the goal of the upward call of Jesus Christ. Because as James challenges: “What good is it brothers and sisters if you say you have faith but do not have works? If a brother or sister, is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”
Or as Dr. King said, “One of the great tragedies of life that [we] seldom bridge the gulf between practice and profession, between doing and saying.”
Have faith, but show it in works.
Talk the talk and walk the walk…
I think that our commitment to Black History Month, and the Race Core Team, and to the Food Pantry (although the tension of how we use our building to express our core values is still in formation) and to Labre – our East Cleveland hunger program – and to Greater Cleveland Congregations at least urges us on. I’m not offering cheap congratulations, but there’s no reason not to celebrate. For the doing is always a work in progress, always stumbling steps – but perhaps those stumbling steps are but a new dance step towards glory, towards becoming what we yearn to be and long to help create – the beloved community – where everyone is welcome at the table.
We’ve come this far by faith// Leaning on the LORD
Trusting in His Holy Word//He never failed me yet
Oh’ can’t turn around//We’ve come this far by faith.
And we may a bit uncomfortable singing it, but “We shall walk hand in hand, someday. O deep in my heart, I do believe – we shall over come.”
No longer just a dream –but a reality. You and I together – haltingly, imperfectly, sometimes foolishly, embarrassing ourselves, but dancing – not just one day a year but every day towards eternity.