Year A, Epiphany 2/M. L. King, Jan. 15, 2017, Grace TC
(Original M. L. King readings referenced) - The Reverend David Lillvis
The world in which I grew up knew nothing of Cedar Point, Six Flags, or Sea World, not to mention computer games and streaming home video. Our entertainment options were not that varied, nor that high tech. But in Northwest Detroit, a small, local amusement park called Edgewater, was a popular destination for young people. Edgewater Park, which wasn’t located near any sizable body of water, drew large numbers of kids to its premises almost every day of the summer.
It was there that I was exposed for the first time to a House of Mirrors. You paid a quarter or so to get into this building where you went upstairs and down, from room to room, all filled with the strangest mirrors you could imagine. Mirrors that made you look tall. Mirrors that made you look short. Mirrors that made your feet look bigger than your legs. Mirrors that made your face look like that of a pig or a person from outer space. As a twelve or thirteen year old I remember being struck by the all the different images that could be reflected back at me by the many different mirrors. My friends and I looked different indeed, depending on which mirror we happened to be staring into at a given point in time.
Attempting to see God is not unlike looking into a mirror, sometimes even an amusement park mirror. We never see God clearly face to face. We can only see God reflected back to us in a variety of different ways. While there is often truth in these reflections of God, there is inevitably some distortion as well. But this is the best we’ve got. It’s the best we can do when we try, as human beings, to get a look at God.
What are the “mirrors” we use in our attempts to see God? There is the mirror of scripture. There is the mirror of Church tradition. There is the mirror of prayer. There is also the mirror of the saints, in whose lives we may see God reflected in particularly powerful ways. Monday we remember one of those saints, one of those Christian people through whom God is reflected to us in an especially clear and compelling way.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was born eighty-eight years ago on January 15th, in Atlanta, Georgia. The son and grandson of Baptist preachers, Dr. King became a preacher himself. In 1954 he accepted a call to become pastor of a Baptist congregation in Montgomery, Alabama. He’d not been there long when in December of 1955 Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery city bus. Martin Luther King became the leader of the Montgomery bus boycott, and as a result, gained national prominence. He became a well-known and articulate prophet who could rally his followers to the cause of racial justice. He founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which took the lead in organizing non-violent mass demonstrations against racism.
Dr. King stood for the dignity and human rights of all persons, and on August 28, 1963, he electrified a crowd of nearly 250,000 with his "I have a dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Martin Luther King, and the campaigns he led, were in large measure responsible for the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, 1965, and 1968.
Having made significant progress in the area of legal rights for all, he then turned his attention to the economic empowerment of the poor, and to opposition to the war in Vietnam. Dr. King preached his last Sunday sermon in an Episcopal church, the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., on Passion Sunday, March 31, 1968. From Washington he went to Memphis, Tennessee, in support of sanitation workers who were struggling for better wages. It was in Memphis that he was fatally wounded by an assassin's bullet on April 4, 1968.
The life I've just described was a life that reflected the life of God. Martin Luther King was a mirror in which we could, and still can, see God manifesting himself to the world. How do we know that he was such a mirror? We know because his life, in and through the events we have just recalled, showed forth the same passion for love and justice that is shown forth to us in scripture.
Listen to a part of God's call to Moses in the Book of Exodus: Then the Lord said, ”I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed I know their sufferings and have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” In Exodus, God is revealed to be a liberator, acting through Moses to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in a Promised Land.
It is the God of liberation who once again revealed himself in and through the life and ministry of Martin Luther King. I don't believe it too much of an exaggeration to call Dr. King a twentieth century Moses, who led his people out of widespread institutionalized segregation and political disenfranchisement. We know that the Promised Land of full political, educational, and economic equality for all persons has yet to be reached. But Dr. King began a journey, a Godly journey, along a road that we too are called to travel.
Dr. King not only mirrored to us the God of Liberation, but also the God of Love. In his public life and work we saw a person who took seriously the words of Jesus in chapter six of Luke’s Gospel: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Do to others as you would have them do to you."
Martin Luther King both preached and lived the life of non-violent resistance. While others were ready to take up the weapons of violent revolution, he maintained his belief in the ultimate superiority of non-violence. Listen to his own words: "The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate...Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."
Recall the beginning of today’s collect: “Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world.” Among other things, Jesus is the light of non-violent love. Martin Luther King knew that. And not only did he know it; and speak it; he lived it out day to day.
Day to day he lived in constant danger. His home was dynamited, he was almost fatally stabbed, and he was harassed by death threats for years prior to his eventual martyrdom. He was jailed some thirty times, and the FBI sought to discredit him, suspecting him of having communist connections. What sustained him through it all was his deep faith in God. In 1957, after an exhausting day, he received, late at night, a vicious telephone threat. Alone in his kitchen, he wept and prayed. He told how he heard the Lord speaking to him and saying, "Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice." God then promised never to leave him alone--"No, never alone."
Dr. King referred to this vision as his "Mountain-top Experience." When God called Moses, God said, "I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain." For both Moses and Martin Luther King, it was the abiding presence of the Lord that sustained them in their work. Without that presence Moses would never have been able to deliver the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt. Without that presence Martin Luther King would have been unable to persist as an ambassador of the Prince of Peace in the face of unrelenting hostility and hate.
It is fitting that we celebrate the life of this great twentieth century Christian during the season of Epiphany. For “epiphany” means "manifestation" or "showing forth." In and through Martin Luther King, God once again manifested his love for his people; God showed forth his constant care for those who are oppressed and downtrodden. And through him, God also provided us with an example of Christian service, a way of following in Jesus’ footsteps.
For we are all called to be saints; we are called to be mirrors that reflect God's love and justice. No one of us may possess the profound leadership gifts of a Dr. Martin Luther King. Yet each of us is called to exercise the gifts he or she has been given in the service of God's kingdom. If we do that, God will take our self-offerings and make them adequate to face the challenges before us.
Some of you may be aware that soon after the election last November, a crudely painted swastika showed up on the back wall of St. James’ Church in Albion, one of the parishes of our
Diocese. I don’t know precisely how this came about. I don’t know what motivated the painter to choose St. James’ Church. Perhaps Episcopalians in Albion don’t know either. But we all know that a swastika, spray-painted on the back of any building, is a symbol of darkness, the darkness of prejudice and hate. Those who use this symbol walk on a path of darkness.
Martin Luther King Jr. walked on a different path, a path of light. As Jesus call him to walk on that path, so Jesus calls us. It’s a path that is well-described by Darlene Kuhn, the rector of St. James’, Albion, in her Christmas letter to the congregation. She wrote:
“We acknowledge a God who loves His creation so much that He sent his Son Jesus to live as one of us in the human condition, to be born an infant in Bethlehem and to die on the cross in Jerusalem. We love Jesus Christ who gives us an example of what it means to be a child of God living in the Kingdom of Heaven, sharing God’s story, teaching, healing, feeding and befriending the other.
“We dream of a time when we live in the Kingdom of God, where there are fresh fruits, vegetables and bread for all and no need for food stamps, where the water runs pure and fresh without lead or other harmful chemicals, where there is education and training for boys and girls that leads to meaningful employment, housing and clothing for all, a world where we are free to love God, our neighbor, ourselves and all of God’s good creation without fear of judgment and recrimination, a world full of hope, peace, joy and love for all with no exceptions. May we wake from our dreams to realize that we live in a land of plenty with many fields waiting to be planted and a state surrounded by the world’s greatest source of fresh water. May we wake to realize that God has blessed us with the able hands and feet and bright minds to strive for justice and peace among all people!”
Thank you, Darlene. Thank you, Dr. Martin Luther King. Thank you, Jesus, for calling all your children to a life of light, a life which boldly manifests your justice, righteousness, and love!