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Preaching this weekend in the shadow of Martin Luther King, Jr. always fills me with a mix of hope and of fear. Dr. King was the complete package; a gifted theologian whose thoughts and writings inspired; a second-generation black preacher formed in the passion and rythyms of the Gospel tradition, a person of immense courage speaking in the face of death threats, and a leader and strategist who could not only say, “Let justice roll down like waters,” but also build the irrigation system. The man, the moment and the movement came together and made Martin.
I am inspired and challenged, not simply because his light shines so brightly compared to mine, but something deeper. He had the courage to rise to the moment that God and history put before him. It was not his plan to lead the Civil Right movement, it was a movement of God’s spirit that pulled him in. It was not Moses ‘s plan to go back to Egypt and free the Hebrew slaves, it was an encounter with the voice of God and burning bush. Jesus did not celebrate the moment for which he is most famous, he prayed, “Let this cup pass from me, yet not my will but Thine.” Great spiritual leaders are not made by reading Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” It takes more than the power of positive thinking and embodying the seven habits of highly effective people. If you could become a saint by having the best personal organizational system and reading inspirational quotes, I’d be well on my way.
Being a truly spiritual person is not simply about the gifts and abilities we develop and our time and commitment to doing good things; it is about rising to our moment, our thing to do, our burning bush. So when I look at the life of Dr. King, I try to avoid the trap of measuring my life against his. That just fuels my sense of inadequacy. Instead, I try to understand how he faced his moment, so I can face mine, and as your pastor and teacher, help all of us face together the blazing bushes around us.
Today’s text from the prophet Isaiah is an excellent scripture lesson to help us reflect on the prophetic ministry of Dr. King. Martin must have read Isaiah a great deal, because his approach and imagery is similar. They both soar into poetic prose about the world God is bringing into being. Isaiah said the lion and the lamb will lie down together and God would bring peace, and our swords and shields would be beaten back into plowshares and pruning hooks. If you get discouraged, God will raise you up on Eagles’ wings.
Martin said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
What makes a prophet? It is holding the tension together between critique and hope is what makes someone a prophet. Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, an important figure in the liberation theology movement when I was in seminary, said that a prophet must both denounce the source of injustice and announce the possibilities of God’s hopeful future. If we only rant and rail against injustice, we risk becoming bitter cynics who leave only despair in our wake. If we choose to be hopeful and optimistic about God’s future yet fail to challenge what is wrong, then we are aiding and abetting injustice and evil. We can’t just say God is going to make everything OK.
Isaiah 49 is a great example of his style. “Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away!” Isaiah often opens with an imperative to listen. When people must say “Listen!” what is usually going on? It is a time to focus, because this really matters., Isaiah implores his words be heard all the way from exile in Babylon, far from the ocean, for people on the coasts to hear him. He is calling out around the world.
The Lord called me before I was born, so I’ve been at this a very long time, speaking my mind right out of the womb. I am a sharpened sword, an arrow in the quiver ready to be fired. This is a man who really likes to preach. Now he has a complaint, and it is addressed to God. “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity. Isn’t my cause just?” In other words, what is going on out there God? I’m doing my best, I don’t know if anyone is listening to me, or if you are paying attention. Am I doing this wrong, did I fail to understand, am I crazy to think I am a prophet, or are you not the God whom I thought you were?
It is very human when we are disillusioned to wonder if we have the whole “God thing” wrong. When we look at the world through our idealism, we must need some new glasses. The ones I have must be out of date. What I see is a world in the midst of a five alarm fire-a world that is hot, wired and crowded. Climate change is emerging as a threat to life on this planet, and we may get a Secretary of State who would rather make a trillion dollars for big oil than save the future of humanity. Just when we need more human cooperation, to pull together to save ourselves and our posterity, the nations are building battleships and walls. Much of humanity is in collective denial that we are all in this together. If Isaiah were here, would he being saying, “God, we need a savior and we get Trump?” I’m not speaking as a Democrat, because I don’t think everything would be OK if Hillary or Bernie were elected. I would sleep better, but maybe the goal right now isn’t to sleep better.
“It is too small a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6
It is not just about raising up one tribe, Isaiah. It in not just about restoring your political party to power, Isaiah. It is not just finding a safe place amidst the challenges of life Isaiah. Something bigger than our geo-political hopes, bigger than elections, more critical than policy positions and party platforms. God is at work in you in ways that you cannot see. Keep on and be a light to the nations.
Dr. King once described his most important spiritual moment came when he felt the Montgomery bus boycott was failing after weeks and weeks, and he was receiving regular threats, threats against his children and family. He describes what is often called his “kitchen experience”:
“I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.”
“The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.'”
“At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
Three days later a bomb blasted his house and his family escaped harm by a hairsbreadth. “Strangely enough,” King later wrote, “I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.”
Here is my takeaway for the days ahead of us. Keep up the good work. But win or lose, what I desire from you is to be my light. Even if God is completely with us, we will not right every wrong. Even Jesus, Martin and Isaiah could not do that. So my personal challenge is to not be overwhelmed by either anger or apathy God’s hope is bigger than my politics and disappointments. My chief concern is “did I shine the light of God today, or did I hide it under a bushel? I pray for each of you and myself, for courage in the midst of struggles, as we seek to make God’s love and justice real.