Well another Martin Luther King Jr. day has come and gone, and I can’t help but wonder if anything in us or around us has changed for the better.
I’ve been seeing a number of posts on social media from racial justice activists who are frustrated that much of the momentum and fervor that was built up during the pandemic seems to have dissipated, and I imagine seeing another MLK day come and go with so little fanfare, only adds to their frustration.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s wonderful to have a paid day off for workers. Given his vision and dedication to the Poor People’s Campaign, I know that would have meant a lot to the Rev. Dr. King.
I think it is wonderful that many people now recognize the holiday as a day to serve others, because service to others was at the heart of everything Martin Luther King Jr. did.
And I think it is incredibly important that we have a day to honor King, no matter what people do on that day, because his life and his witness did more to trouble the conscience and inspire the heart of this country to hew to its promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people, than any other American before or since.
I know that the fight for a federal holiday in his honor was long and hard and that it wasn’t officially observed in all 50 states until…actually, does anybody know?…the year 2000. Not only that, even to this day Alabama and Mississippi still celebrate The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee on the very same day. … So, yeah, it’s clear that we, as a country, still have a long way to go when it comes to realizing King’s dream of a beloved community.
But even up here in the North, I know that we don’t do enough to combat white supremacy and inequality. I know we can do so much more, which is one reason why the holiday itself gives me pause, because I think that if we aren’t mindful it can lull us into a state of complacency.
I think it can lull us into thinking we’ve either come a lot farther than we really have with regard to racial justice or that the sort of people who are capable of provoking the level of change and healing our country still needs are few and far between - heroes and saints, revolutionaries and martyrs - extraordinary people who are so much better and braver than ordinary people like you and me.
And so, rather than do our part to “be the change,” we wait and watch for the next great person who will do the hard work for us.
It reminds me of something Dorothy Day once said.
She said: “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”
Dorothy Day, for those of you who don’t know, was the founder of the Catholic Worker, a small paper that turned into a movement. Catholic Workers, to this very day, work hard to house, advocate, and care for the poor, just as she did.
Her life and wisdom continue to inspire people even now, but she would be the first to tell any one of us that in spite of all she accomplished, she was only human; a college drop out and a single mom who printed the very first edition of the paper in her house, off her kitchen table.
She went on, like so many revolutionaries before her, to do a lot of good and cause a lot of trouble, but she rejected the idea of sainthood because Dorothy Day knew that once people started looking up to her in that way that they’d implicitly give themselves a pass on ever having to be like her in that way.
And she was right. For that is what we have a tendency to do with saints and heroes and even messiahs. We are much better at putting them up on pedestals to admire, then we are at keeping them down here on the ground as templates to follow.
We take a man like King and we give him a holiday. We name schools and roads and libraries after him. We build monuments and craft prayers. We write books and sing songs. All of which, I am sure he appreciates on some level, and all of which he most certainly deserves.
But I can’t help thinking that if we could talk to him right now and give him a choice, ask him: which would you rather have, a national holiday in your honor or a nation full of people who have done the hard work of repentance with regard to racism and sexism and classism and every other -ism such that people here in America truly are judged - not by the color of their skin or the ableness of their bodies, their class, ethnicity, education, orientation, or gender - but by the content of their character?”
Which would you rather see, sir? Would you like a monument or a movement?
Something tells me he’d take a country full of imitators over a nation full of admirers any day. And not for nothing, but I think the same could be said, and needs to be said, about Jesus.
Now again, don’t get me wrong. I believe that Jesus was God incarnate, the divine in human flesh, and that if anyone deserves to be put up on a pedestal and venerated, it’s Jesus. I just think we do him a grave disservice, given all the trouble he took to take on that flesh in the first place, when we focus more on his divinity than on his humanity.
Father Richard Rohr is quite fond of pointing out that, “Jesus never said, ‘worship me.’ He said, ‘follow me.’” He found Peter and Andrew, James and John by the water and rather than have them bow down, recognize him as the messiah, and call it a day, he invited them to rise up, come along, and take an active part in his ministry.
Unlike his cousin John the Baptist, Jesus didn’t set up shop by a river to perform a service only he could perform. Nor did he take his place in the temple and invite people to come and hear him Tuesday through Sunday with matinees on Wednesday and Saturday, that they might believe in him and pay him homage.
No, Jesus was always on the move. He brought his message to the people in word and deed, that more and more people might go and bring his message to others: the message that the kingdom of heaven has drawn near, so near that you don’t have to live the way you have been living a moment longer.
You don’t have to live by the world’s rules for one day more.
You don’t have to live as though might makes right, an eye could ever serve for an eye, and the devil takes the hindmost.
You don’t have to live as though some people are more important than others.
You don’t have to live as if vengeance is the only answer.
You don’t have to live in fear or anger, loathing or despair, for the kingdom is at hand and God will provide enough… enough love and grace and even bread to get you through this day, no matter what.
God’s abundance is all around you; to experience it you just need to share what you have.
God’s peace is at hand; to know it you have only to forgive as you have been forgiven.
God’s love is for all; to practice it with others is to know that it is so.
Jesus brings his message to the people with stories and signs –healing the sick, eating with outcasts, multiplying loaves and fishes - and then empowers his followers to do the same, for the kingdom is as the kingdom does. You have to share it to have it, do it to see it, live into it with all your heart to know that it is true.
Jesus’ gospel, his good news, was never simply meant to be something to ascribe or assent to up here in our minds, but rather something you and I, thanks to the grace of God, can live into with our whole being. The gospel is not something to simply believe in so you can go to heaven when you die, it is something to act on that God might get heaven into you while you still live, such that we might see God’s will done down here as it is up there.
Years ago, John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg pointed out that John the Baptist’s ministry collapsed soon after his arrest because John was running what you might call a monopoly. John did his thing. He stayed in one place. People went down to the river Jordan to see him baptize the repentant. He was the main show in all his camel hair wearing, locust eating glory and without him the show could not go on.
But Jesus’ ministry… Jesus’ ministry spread, even more so after his death, because Jesus was running, in their words, more of a franchise. Jesus invited people in just long enough to fall in love with his message of healing and hope and reconciliation, and then sent them out to start their own ministries of healing, hope, and reconciliation.
Go, he said, heal in my name, preach the gospel that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and then show people in word and deed that there is a new way to live, a new way to love. His ministry was collaborative, inclusive, not all about him and how great he was – as great as he was - but about us, and how good we could become.
Jesus did not come to teach us how to worship him as the Christ. No, Jesus came to teach us how we can become Christ to one another.
This is why we have the church today, but the church needs to be careful, because the truth is that it is a whole lot easier to worship Jesus than it is to follow him. Both Dorothy Day and Dr. King could attest to that.
It is a whole lot easier to talk about Jesus and learn about Jesus and sing about Jesus and even pray to Jesus, then it ever will be to live like Jesus. Which is why we need each other and this peculiar old anachronism we call church.
Living a truly Christ-like life in this world is no easy thing. It is hard, exhausting, sometimes even dangerous work; work that was never meant to be done in isolation. Jesus didn’t go it alone and neither should we. And so, having started with a quote from Dorothy Day, I’d like to close with one as well.
“We have all known the long loneliness,” she said, “and we have found that the answer is community.”
Friends, I need you, you need me, and we need this place, this holy, challenging, sometimes infuriating but always inspiring place where we can come together to ground ourselves and remind ourselves, every once in awhile (say every seven days or so), what being a Christian is really all about.
We need each other and we need this church because this is a place where we can come together to meet Christ the better to go out and be Christ - his hands, his feet, his voice - in this world. And this is where we are encouraged to bring others that they might meet him and come to follow in his way as well.
And so I am delighted, honored, humbled, but above all so very, very thankful… that we have added to our numbers this morning, not simply because more members will make this church bigger, but because the presence of Jehann and Jessica and Jeanne and Bob will make the beloved community of God’s kingdom that much stronger.
They’re not saints or heroes or martyrs….yet….and you know what, either are we…yet… but together, ordinary people like us can spur each other on to be who God needs us to be so that the kingdom that is near can come ever more fully here…a community that is full of love and hope for us all. Amen.
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