A Brief Reflection for MLK Day

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…which started out as a Facebook post that became a wee bit too long.


The first class I took in seminary was The Theology of Martin Luther King, Jr. I learned so much in that class — from readings from King, from classmates, and of course from the brilliant Dr. Pete Pero.

One of our first assignments was reading a trio of King’s sermons, and one short but profound quote that has always stuck with me comes from the one entitled “The Drum Major Instinct,” preached in 1968, just months before his assassination. About serving, King says:

“You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.”

A tall order, indeed.

I’m also reminded of another quote, this one from King’s famous letter from Birmingham city jail:

“For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied’…

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is…the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”

I quote these words, not as a preacher (as though I can say them with the same authenticity and integrity as King), but as an act of confession — a confession that I have far too often been part of the “white moderate” of which King speaks. And I suspect this is a confession I will need to continue to make — a confession that my calling to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the ELCA requires of me:

“Consistent with the faith and practice of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, every minister of Word and Sacrament shall…speak publicly to the world in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, calling for justice and proclaiming God’s love for the world.” (ELCA Constitution, Chapter 7.31.02)

The gospel is clear: God in Christ has reconciled the world unto God’s self. Likewise, our calling: We are agents of reconciliation, love, and justice. Not for some “more convenient” time in the more distant future, but now. Now, in a world where people are hurting. Now, in a world where people live in fear. Now, in a world filled with refugees and immigrants and people afraid of losing their health insurance under the ACA.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is not just a federal holiday that means no work, no mail delivery, and posting quotes from “I Have a Dream” on Facebook. It’s a call to be about the work of justice, always, a call to confess when we fall short, and a call to recommit ourselves to that work.

All you need is a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.

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A Sermon About Calling Out Injustice Even When It’s Uncomfortable (or costs you your head)

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Louis Stokes VA Medical Center
15 July 2015 + Pentecost 7B
Mark 6.14-19; Amos 7.7-15

[Now with audio for your listening pleasure]


Sometimes I wish I didn’t come from a tradition that compels me to preach the lectionary because sometimes the preacher winds up with texts like this one, texts that make you add a question mark, “The Gospel of the Lord?” Texts that make you feel uncomfortable. But I wonder if maybe that’s the point of this text—discomfort. Hold on to that thought.


Our reading from Mark’s gospel begins on a note that beckons us back to the verses that immediately precede it: “King Herod heard of the disciples’ preaching.” It’s enough to assume, as the text leads us to believe, that Herod had simply caught wind of Jesus’s rapidly spreading ministry. At this point in the gospel, Jesus is well into his public ministry and has caused so much of a stir that he’s just been thrown out of his hometown of Nazareth. And so he sends his disciples out to keep the momentum going.

Feast of Herod, Bartholomeus Strobel

But I think there’s something more to what piqued Herod’s interest. The message that disciples preached, we’re told, is repentance. When Herod heard of it, the text goes on, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” It made him remember another man who preached repentance, a man whom he had killed. And I suspect that it made him afraid.

The way Mark tells it, Herod had married his brother’s wife, a direct violation of Torah, and John the Baptist called him out on it. Even though Herod was a Jew, he was first and foremost a government official working for Caesar. His interests were the interests of the Roman Empire, not God’s law. But because Herod was a Jew, the text tells us that he still feared John, a righteous and holy man, and protected him, even in prison.

Herod’s new wife, on the other hand, not so much. And so when Herod threw his birthday party and promised his stepdaughter whatever she asked for, she went to her mother who finally had a chance to act on her grudge and demand John’s gruesome death. This put Herod in a difficult place, but in order to preserve his authority and the respect of the people, he gives her what she asks for.

John called out Herod for violating Torah, and he ultimately got himself killed for it. John risked his life for the sake of asserting that God’s law trumps the practices of the Roman Empire. John’s message of repentance was rejected, like Jesus’s message after him was rejected. Jesus announced his ministry saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The kingdom of God, not the kingdom of Rome. The kingdom where demons are cast out, where lepers and paralytics and hemorrhaging women are cured, where the dead are raised to life. The kingdom where outcasts are sought out and gathered in, the kingdom that makes those who struggle to hold on to power fearful of losing it. It’s not difficult to imagine why Herod was afraid.


Of course, this emphasis on justice was nothing new. The Hebrew prophets before John and Jesus had been preaching God’s concern for the oppressed, widows, orphans, foreigners, for a long time. Perhaps no prophet is more scathing in his indictment against those who exploit the poor than Amos.

Our first reading today contains the third of three visions about God’s judgment against Israel. In it, God shows Amos a plumb line. Now in construction a plumb line is used to make sure walls are built in a straight line. Here, it’s a religious and ethical plumb line, and God’s people have failed to align themselves with it. And Amos names their sin, as one translation puts it: “Listen to this, you who rob the poor and trample down the needy! You can’t wait for the Sabbath day to be over and the religious festivals to end so you can get back to cheating the helpless. You measure out grain with dishonest measures and cheat the buyer with dishonest scales” (Amos 8.4-5, NLT). God condemns their exploitation of the poor and even goes far as to condemn their worship practices: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies… But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5.21-24, NRSV).

sign from a “Moral Monday” march in Chicago, protesting Governor Bruce Rauner’s proposed budget cuts

Hypocrites, God calls them. The festivals and observances prescribed by Torah are meaningless when they neglect justice, the heart of God’s law. And Amos calls the people out on it. But it’s not a popular message. It’s not a message King Jeroboam or his priest want to hear. “O seer,” they say to Amos, “go, flee away to the land of Judah… but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” We don’t want to hear it. It makes us uncomfortable. We like what we got going on here. Go away.


Such is the prophetic tradition in which John takes his place in our gospel text. But it doesn’t sound much like gospel. This text reminds us that the calling out of injustice is risky business. It’s uncomfortable, life-threatening even. This text, it seems, is not good news. This text is more like Good Friday. The powers that be appear to win. Like Amos, John the Baptist is silenced. And the text foreshadows that, like John, Jesus too will be silenced. All for preaching repentance and justice.

This text reminds us that human power so often struggles to maintain itself at the cost of human life. It hinges on corruption and stems from greed and fear. It is power misused and has no regard for the other. It is power that seeks to control and feel better than the other.

The Resurrection, El Greco

But God’s power is vastly different from Herod’s power. Herod’s power is oppressive and exclusive and ends with death. But God’s power is always concerned for the other, the outcast, the outsider, the oppressed. God’s power is disarming and unexpected. It breaks in and says there’s another way. God’s power comes to us in the form of a baby born in a dirty barn stall. God’s power comes to us in the form of a peasant carpenter-turned-rabbi. God’s power comes to us in the form of a crucified Savior. And God’s power finally comes to us in the form of a resurrected Christ. God’s power ends with life.

That might not be immediately obvious when you just look at this banquet, but you see, there are actually two banquets in Mark’s gospel. This week’s reading ends with Herod’s banquet of death, but immediately following is Jesus’s banquet of life and abundance. Jesus feeds five thousand people, with leftovers. That banquet points us back to God’s power and God’s justice. And that’s where the good news is.


Like Amos and John the Baptist and Jesus’s disciples, we are called to call out injustice. We know it’s risky business. There are consequences. And it’s uncomfortable. But we do it because we know that resurrection is always the last word. To paraphrase one preacher this week (Barbara Lundblad), we do it because we believe that God’s promise of life is stronger than the threat of death and because we believe God’s kingdom, God’s reign of justice, has come near, and that makes all the difference. [1]


“Moral Monday” protest with Bishop Wayne Miller of the Metro Chicago Synod (ELCA)

In my home state of Illinois this summer, it’s what has given dozens of clergy and people of faith the ability to risk arrest in protest of the governor’s proposed budget cuts that would be especially devastating to society’s most vulnerable. They risk calling out injustice where they see it, and yes, they disturb the comfortable status quo of those in power.

Martin Luther King, Jr., knew something about disturbing the status quo too. He knew something about God’s justice back in Montgomery, Alabama, when he took charge of a movement that began by challenging where someone gets to sit on a bus. He risked saying there’s another way because he knew that all people are created in the image of God and are of inherent sacred worth and dignity. He knew that until the very end when his preaching and activism took him to Memphis, Tennessee, to advocate for sanitation workers.

When King railed against injustice and the powers that be, he knew what it was like to live in Good Friday. But he knew Easter was coming, as he preached in his Easter sermon from 1957: “Good Friday may occupy the throne for a day, but ultimately it must give way to the triumphant beat of the drums of Easter.” [2] He was no stranger to struggle and despair and rejection, but he was more confidently acquainted with the inevitability of God’s justice.

God’s justice says that all eat and are filled. God’s justice says that all are welcome. God’s justice says that black lives matter. God’s justice says that love wins. And we can continue to call for God’s justice because we know God’s kingdom has come near and we know there’s another way. We can live with the risk and the discomfort and even read difficult texts like this one because we know where the story ends. Thanks be to God.

Amen.


And then I played this song:


[1] http://day1.org/6698-truth_and_consequences

[2] http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/documentsentry/questions_that_easter_answers/