There are lots of days of commemoration on the Christian calendar – days on which we remember saints of God who have had an impact on the life of the Church and for the good of the world. There are relatively few that are also marked and kept as holidays in the culture at large. On Friday, January 15, his birthday, the Church remembers Martin Luther King Jr, as a renewer of society and a martyr, and on the 3rd Monday of January each year, the culture remembers him, as well. Schools are closed as are many offices and businesses, including the ELCA Churchwide and NJ Synod Offices. But this day is often referred to as a day on rather than a day off. The point being that this man who literally gave his life for the cause of equality and racial justice should not be remembered by doing less, but by doing more –
- By doing something to advance justice in the world
- By doing something to make a difference in the world
- By doing something to make the world a little better
- By doing something to make the world a more just and peaceful place…
Our reading from 1 Corinthians ought to sound very familiar to us. It’s a reading that gets used often in the Church as we install Council members and officers both in the congregation and in the Synodical and Churchwide expressions of the Church, as we used it here just a couple weeks ago when we installed our new Council. It’s also a reading that, in its original context, is part of a much larger argument Paul is making about exercising and manifesting the gifts of the Spirit within the worshipping assembly in ways that are appropriate and that are for the common good of the whole assembly.
So, while I understand the common use of this text in installing leaders in the Church, and while the original context puts it square in the realm of worship practices, I think there might be still another application of Paul’s thoughts as they relate to the vocation of all baptized believers in the world. The Spirit, in other words, doesn’t only gift us with every spiritual gift for the sake of the assembly gathered in worship, but also that we might be empowered by that same Spirit and gifted in ways that advance the mission of the Gospel for the good of the world.
Or, say it this way: God isn’t only concerned with what happens on Sunday morning inside of the church walls for an hour or an hour and a half (or for a few hours, depending on the particular Christian tradition).
But we need to be careful here, too. I’m not at all saying that what happens here on Sunday as we gather around Word and Sacrament, isn’t important, because, it’s more than important – it’s central and formative. As one of our most important Lutheran documents says, in article 7 of the Augsburg Confession: the Church exists where the Gospel is preached in purity and the Sacraments are rightly administered. What we do on Sunday is what makes us what we are as the Church!
But, that being said, I’ll say again: God isn’t only concerned with what happens inside of the walls of the Church on Sunday morning. And the gifts of the Spirit are given so that we’ll be empowered to live, and love, and serve as God’s people in the world that God loves in ways that advance the mission and ministry of the Church of Christ in the world from Monday to Saturday…
There’s an interesting thing to notice about our reading from Isaiah 62. It’s written in Isaiah’s voice. Many of the things we read from the Prophets are in God’s voice – they’re “Thus says the Lord” passages – But not this one. The one who, for Zion’s sake, will not keep silent, and who for Jerusalem’s sake will not rest until they are vindicated and saved, is the prophet, himself. And I find this so moving, especially as we think about our commemoration, both in the Church and in the society, of one of the greatest prophetic voices our nation has known – that of The Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
Now, this man was not perfect, to be sure, as nobody is perfect, but this man was a modern-day prophet of God
who spoke God’s word clearly and without reservation, speaking truth to power, whether they wanted to hear it or not,
- Saying that it was wrong to put any person, or group of persons, down for the sake of building yourself up
- Saying that it was wrong that our country, which was supposed to be founded on fairness and freedom had become, instead, a place of oppression, and hatred, and violence, not only at home in the racial injustices visited upon people of color, but also in its undeclared war in Vietnam
- saying that the God of justice calls the Church to be a guide for, and critic of the State, exercising, as God’s people, the prophetic office with zeal, calling our leaders to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God
And as God’s people in the world today, we must be about the work of proclaiming a word of justice, a word of loving kindness, a word of humility, and we should be doing so loudly and clearly!
- In and to a world that continues in hatred and violence, we must speak and live God’s word of love and peace
- In and to a world that continues in intolerance, we must speak and live God’s word of inclusivity
- In and to a world that continues to turn a blind eye to the poor and hungry, we must speak and live God’s word of justice and God’s desire that all would live in God’s abundance, as we see that abundance manifested at Cana’s wedding.
- In and to a world that values individual rights and supposed freedoms over the common good of all the members of society, but especially over the good of the most vulnerable
- like innocent school children and their teachers gunned down in class
- like tourists gunned down in the streets and cafes of major cities
- like those living in poor neighborhoods, torn daily by violence and the lack of opportunity
- like those who are incarcerated for committing the same crimes that get people of lighter complexion sentences of probation
- like those whose educational opportunities are greatly diminished because they happen to have been born in the wrong place at the wrong time
In such a world as this, we must raise our voices, following the example of our prophetic brother Martin, as he followed the example of Jesus and the prophets before him. We must proclaim, not that the time has come, but that the time is far past for all people to stand together as sisters and brothers, and to say
- that exclusion cannot stand
- that poverty cannot stand
- that discrimination cannot stand
- that war-mongering cannot stand
- that hatred, and darkness, and violence cannot stand
because the light of God has come to shine in glory! And to those who have eyes to see, that light ought to be clearly visible in the lives of God’s people in the world.
It’s way past time, my brothers and sisters, that we walk in that light and become
- a sign that cannot be missed
- a sign that proclaims boldly to all the world just who this God is
- rejoices over us as a bridegroom over his bride
- and who gifts us with manifestations of the Spirit for the common good
- and who walks with us in the big and small things of life abundantly pouring out his saving love on us all
- who looks at what the world calls Desolate and Forsaken and renames it “My Delight Is in Her”…
Since we were formed as a Church, through the merger of three Lutheran Church bodies, on January 1, 1988, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has been concerned with both racial justice and inclusivity.
Now, honestly, we’ve done a pitiful job at integrating, as the ELCA is still something like 97-98% white in our membership. But this doesn’t mean that we haven’t cared about, and that we haven’t been working for, an end to social injustices based on race.
On Thursday, our Presiding Bishop held another web cast – another part of the ongoing conversation on racism. And together with our sister congregation in Red Bank, we’re going to get together later this month and spend some time watching that web cast and discussing what it means for us, in this time and place, to be striving for greater racial justice, and an end to the scourge of racism in our land.
Look, Martin Luther King was born in 1920s. He was a leader of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. And here we are in 2016, nearly 100 years after his birth, and we still can’t seem to figure out how to honor one another as equal, or how to view one another as having all been equally created in God’s image and likeness. And in the face of this reality, my question is: Can we keep silent? Will we rest?
Isaiah sees God’s people in exile and he will not rest until they are set free. We see God’s people living in inequality, and our nation marred by injustice and fear of those who are different, and I’ve got to ask: Will we keep silent? Will we rest? Or will we cry out for justice, and work together as one people of God sent out in mission to make the world a more just and peaceful place? Will we be overcome by evil and darkness, or will we overcome evil and darkness with goodness and light?
I pray that we can say, (but not just say, but rather that we can live accordingly) together with Martin Luther King Jr, that which we have printed on the front cover of our bulletins this week: “We shall overcome, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Amen.