Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Faith of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

(read Isaiah 10:1-3 and Luke 6: 27-36)

Injustice angers Almighty God because our God, the God of Israel, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is “the God of justice and hesed (loving kindness or steadfast love). Yahweh demand[s] that his people form a just society [which includes the command to love one’s neighbor]. [In the Bible,] Canaan was pictured as a land of abundance, ‘flowing with milk and honey,’ [but] not all Israelites benefited equally from the land’s resources. The Torah accordingly made specific provisions for the poor, mandating that they were entitled to the same legal rights in court as the rich-a contrast to Mesopotamian law that applied different legal standards to nobles and peasants. The Torah also required that no interest be charged for loans made to the poor, and that their debts be cancelled every seventh year” (Harris, Stephen. Understanding the Bible. Seventh edition. pg. 198.).

Wouldn’t we like our debts to be cancelled every seventh year?

“Despite these Torah statues and the social customs they reflect, some of Israel’s ruling class found ways to increase their wealth by exploiting the poor, a practice that the prophets denounce as hateful to Yahweh...One of the major reasons the prophets give for Yahweh’s anger against Israel is economic injustice…Prophets such as Amos, Micah and Isaiah of Jerusalem, repeatedly point out that God is the champion of the poor and defenseless, and that he abhors the ruling classes’ practice of gaining riches at the expense of the poor” (Harris, Stephen. Understanding the Bible. Seventh edition. pg. 198.).

The importance of justice and kindness for all people, regardless of economic status, age, race, sex is also a predominant theme in the New Testament. The Great Commandment given by Jesus includes the charge to love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus praises the inherent virtue and goodness of children, a radical notion in his day. Jesus proclaims that those who serve others will inherit the kingdom of heaven. He says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” This statement confused those to whom Jesus was speaking, so they asked him, “When did we do these things?” His reply: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25). But woe to those who do not give food, drink and clothing. Woe to those who do not provide care for the sick and visit the prisoners. God looks upon such people with harsh judgment.

Perhaps the most notable Scripture verse that tells just how important equality is to God comes from the words of St. Paul, who says, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:27-29). Through Christ Jesus and in God’s perfect kingdom, injustice, oppression, captivity, inequality, all these things have come to an end. A righteous land will uphold all peoples’ human rights and human dignity.

The United States of America was not a righteous land when it practiced segregation, which is “The policy or practice of separating people of different races, classes, or ethnic groups.” As you are all painfully aware, segregation separated black people from white people until just 50 years ago in this country. Not only were whites privileged to sit in the front of the bus while blacks sat in the back (Rosa Parks), but each group had separate bathrooms, drinking fountains and schools. As the Supreme Court declared, there is no such thing as separate but equal.

When I read the words from Isaiah 10, it is as though God’s chastisement was written specifically to us regarding this injustice in our land. “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people” (Isaiah 10: 1-2).

Last Monday, most of our country shut down as we celebrated a national holiday to honor one man. The only other national holiday that I can think of that honors just one person is Columbus Day, celebrating Christopher Columbus who is said to have discovered the New World in 1452. Veterans Day, Presidents Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, these honor several people or thousands of people, but Martin Luther King Day, it is in honor of one man, Martin Luther King Jr., and him alone because of his contribution to end segregation in the South and increase civil rights.

In the beginning of King’s famous, “I Have a Dream” speech, he said these words:

But one hundred years [after the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves], the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.

On that day, King was speaking at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. at the largest civil rights rally in the history of the US with more than 200,000 people gathered together for a nonviolent protest aimed at securing justice for black Americans.

Also on that day, King described the problems of segregation like this:

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by a sign stating: "For Whites Only."* We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

I think one of the most important things to keep at the forefront of our minds and that we, as disciples as Jesus, can learn from King is how his faith impacted his life, speech and actions. King was not a politician. His “I have a dream” speech wasn’t some crafty campaign for re-election. Actually, it was a sermon to the American people for King was a minister of our Lord Jesus Christ and his allegiance was to God’s righteous kingdom. Because of his Christian background, King knew that segregation was a system of injustice incompatible with God’s intentions for what the kingdom of heaven was to be.

And it was King’s leadership that inspired the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, on behalf of whom he spoke, to have a nonviolent policy when they protested. King based his philosophy on the teaching of Jesus and those of the Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi. It was Jesus who taught King to turn the other cheek. It was Jesus who said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6: 27-28). King shows that he is a disciple when he said:

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.


Kings most famous and inspiring words are not secular, they are the words that we hear in the Scriptures. King speaks in the language of the faithful.

Listen:

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

By God’s grace, MLK lived his life in faith and not in fear.

Fear is tyranny to the soul. In his book titled, The Philosophy of Jesus, John Macmurray writes, “Like fear, [faith] is an emotional attitude in living. [Faith] might…be better translated, ‘trust.’ As a general characteristic of a [person], it means that [he or she] is not on the defensive, but full of confidence. In a general sense faith is trust in life, the conviction that there is nothing to be afraid of.”1 And by faith, human beings become courageous, revolutionary, transformative agents to bring forth God’s hopes for his creation.

This is God’s invitation for us today. With God’s help, we too are able to live in faith and not in fear. To stand up for the things we know to be right, and to take action so that we build God’s kingdom on earth.

I’m a proponent of keeping religion and politics separate, but sometimes, we just can’t. Our Gospel is a social Gospel. Part of our responsibility is to care for the sick and the outcast, to fight for the rights of the poor and the oppressed. One of our missions is the mission to uphold human dignity and the dignity of all living things. Rescuing girls sold into sex slavery, giving refuge to abused children, education, health care reform, the prison system, the environment, animal rights—These are matters that concern us!

Each of you must care passionately about some issue beyond yourselves, related to the earth, to animals and to basic human rights for all people. Take the problem that breaks your heart and make it your problem. This is no time and we are no sort of people to live in fear and apathy. In faith, do something about what you care about. Play your small part, knowing it is not insignificant. The more you know about the cause you care so much about, the more you can do to help. And then, come here to this place and share with us what we can do.

Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. In faith and through action, his dream changed the world. What about you? Do you have the faith to fight against injustice? Do you have a dream to make things better?

1 comment:

Taylor said...

I find these words especially important for knowing the character and personality that our Lord God Jesus Christ would have us develop. They remind me of the verse, "And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness." Col. 3:14. Thank you, Pastor Mandy, for the inspiring teachings here.