It is a supreme honor to be have been asked to speak today in celebration of the ministry of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I dare say that to be asked to speak at Westminster Abbey or St. Peter’s in Rome pales in comparison to having been asked to stand at the pulpit of this historic church on this important day. I thank the members of the historic St. James AME Church as well as her pastor, the Rev. Leevshia Pryor. Thank you too to Ann Newman and the NAACP for the privilege of addressing you on this day and this occasion.
I must begin by saying that I am not a speaker, I am a preacher. A speaker, using his or her own prowess and abilities, articulates a position or set of ideas for the listener to consider. A preacher does no such thing. A preacher articulates not his or her opinions, but heralds the words of God. It is not in a preacher’s abilities that hearts and minds are changed but it is the power of the Holy Spirit.
Properly introduced, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is not, in my estimation, just a civil rights leader. Nor, if he were here today, would he be so inclined to convey to you a perspective of human society and the prospect of peace and justice that is of human origin. Properly introduced, the man whose dream we come to honor this day was, and is, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He too, was first and foremost a Christian and second, like unto it, a preacher of the Gospel. He was a servant of the same King I have been privileged to serve these past 20 years, the One who is the unique revelation of God himself, Jesus Christ.
I have decided therefore to do that which God has called me to do and the Church has ordered me to do as a Minister of the Word and Sacrament. I have come here today to preach.
I stand here in a room of venerable colleagues. Preachers, elders and deacons who have served the Church in faithfulness. Many of these preachers, like Bishop Thomas, Rev. Mosley…..have not only proclaimed the Gospel from their respective pulpits, but they have interwoven their lives, the hearts and their minds into the tapestry of a vision that was not Dr. King’s alone, but was given to him by the Prophets of Hebrew Scriptures, the apostles of the early church, The Triune God himself. Unlike these preachers who have yielded this pulpit to me, I have not tasted the wine of bitterness as they have, I have not endured the threats, the discrimination, the recrimination of a nation that did not want to hear a word from the Lord. But do we ever enjoy hearing a word from the Lord when the Lord comes to point to us how far short we have fallen from his vision for his creation, his church?
Scripture reminds us of God’s vision that his house is to be a house of prayer for all people. It was God’s vision through the prophets that we are told of the sacrifices his demands…to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God. It was God’s vision that in the moments after the rushing wind of Pentecost the Church , in Acts chapter 2, witnessed the gathering of Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, dwellers of Mesopotamia, Judeans, residents of Cappodocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt as well as Libyans, Cyrenes, Romans, Jews, proselytes, Cretes and Arabians all speaking the wonderful works of God. It was God’s vision that a new order of humanity would be based not on creed or color or wealth, but as sheep and goats…the sheep for those who would accept the living word of Christ and the goats who would reject it.
So, let us come together in this moment, on this holy ground, with all who hear the songs of the angels and listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd.
Read Luke 2:13-14.
How easy it is to relegate this reading to the season of his Nativity…a season when even the most bitter among us will seek to at least entertain the utter reordering of the universe…with the intention that when the season is concluded and the lights have been extinguished, we may return to the brutality of our an inhumane experience that we propose is demanded of us in order to survive in a culture of casual callousness.
“Peace on earth and goodwill to all.”
We do not need to be religious to know the destination of the yearning within all of us. We do not need to be confessionally Christian to hope for a day when mothers do not weep because their sons…and daughters have fallen as sacrifices to the gods of war and human greed. We consider ourselves in our modern context as more advanced than those who precede us. We arrogantly believe that this democratic republic we call the United States of America will avoid the same pitfalls of the other great republic known as the Empire of Rome. Yet we continue to believe that peace and prosperity can be assured by the excessive application of force. We have falsely assumed that the best way to live in peace is to make extinct those who would dare oppose us.
Peace on earth, as the angels’ song resounds throughout human history, they do not propose a position or an opinion for us to consider, but they announce a royal declaration in honor of the newborn King. They announce a new reality…“Peace on Earth.” How shall we know that peace? To welcome this declaration as a reality in our lives depends on four basic propositions that I believe are informed by Scripture, announced by the Church of Jesus Christ and made real in the lives of not only every believer, but every human being. We must, first, recognize that humanity is interrelated. What I do…or do not do…affects all of us. When a mother’s arms ache for the embrace of their child that will never come, we should be filled with a holy rage. When a father excuses himself to go out back and weep with grief unbearable that his child’s voice will never fall on ears again, the righteous indignation of the entire human race should demand a reason. At last night’s AAMA service, Sister Kelva Nelson reminded us that the cry of hungry children is not only those of far off countries, but children here in our own community. Her testimony, as an educator, that she and other teachers in our community worry about whether or not their students will have enough to eat over Thanksgiving break or feel the embrace of someone who cares for them can be found within our own neighborhoods.
When fathers forget their children as they might forget the previous weekend’s lovers, when mothers who are strung out on oxycontin are more worried about where their next high will come as we watch their children sink lower in poverty, crime and addiction, it impacts all of us. When a man strikes a woman in a drunken rage, it not only makes one woman a victim of abuse, but he strikes all of us who are made in the image of God. We know we are interconnected. Our present financial crisis is an example of a global economy that not only impacts our wallets and way of life, but it demeans and dehumanizes the whole human race. The liberation of the human race from oppression, poverty and indignation is an imperative that is demanded of all of us because it affects all of us.
Peace on earth is recognition that the means and the ends must be understood in mutuality. The ends never justify the means for they are interrelated. The application of force in order to secure peace is an oxymoron. It does not make sense. War and violence only serve to repress those who have been identified as aggressors. It breeds resentment. Resentment is never satisfied. It lies to us and tells us that retribution will bring solace, but it only serves to fan the flames of hatred and erroneously justifies our contempt for each other. Before those who use violence as means to liberation are able to fully understand the effects of striking out, the perpetrators of violence wake up one day and realize that they too are victims of their own efforts. The chains of fear and reproach have bound our hands that were created to reach out in service. The iron mask of envy has silenced our lips that were intended to echo the message of the angels throughout the ages.
I am a historian by self designation. The times in human history that the church has flourished have been in times of not just persecution only, but persecution that was defeated with the methods of the Prince of Peace who never spoke evil, never sought to beguile, but was led as lamb to the slaughter. Yet, in that desecration, known to us as the cross, Christ broke the bonds of death and sin. As the martyrs of the early church were sacrificed for the entertainment of the people, as Christians were fed to lions, roasted on irons of fire and hung on wooden stakes, covered with pitch and lit on fire to provide light for spectators at the coliseum, the eternal Kingdom of Peace was breaking forth into the world.
We support a missionary in China. When he visited our congregation to share with us the work of spreading the Gospel, I asked him to relay to our brothers and sisters in that ancient nation that we were praying for an end to their persecution. He quickly said to me, “No, the Christians do not want you to pray for an end to the persecution of the Church, for it is that very persecution that has catapulted the growth of the faith beyond that of any other nation on earth.” He said, “do not pray that that the persecution will end. Pray that the Christians will be strong in the midst of persecution.”
Peace on earth breaks forth when we are able, as a people, to affirm the sacredness of all human life. In the Beginning….literally, in Genesis, chapter 1, the sacredness of all of humanity is affirmed in the declaration that we all are made in the image of God. There is no such thing as an unwanted human life or an inconvenient human life. There is no such thing as a disposable human life or a human being that deserves to forfeit his life in execution, because the life that is within all of us is not our own. The life of that child in the womb belongs to God alone. Even the life of the most horrific offender of human brutality breathes because God has willed it.
The New Testament, written in Greek, teaches us that the ancients understood the power and diversity of love. The Greeks gave us two words commonly understood and commonly accepted by us all. Philia, or brotherly love, is the affection we have for our kindred. We get the word Philadelphia from it. Eros, as understood in modern usage as erotic, properly reminds us of the passion shared between husband and wife. But the Greeks have given us another word for love…a word that may be very foreign to us for I know of no English word that uses its Greek predecessor as a root. The Bible uses the word agape as a description of the depth of love that God has for humanity. We may well excuse ourselves from this demand dismissing it as divine attribute and out of the reach of our flawed humanity, yet it is the same word that Jesus instructs Peter with….Peter, do you love me, do you agape me? Then feed my sheep.”
Peace on earth, finally hinges on moral foundation…a foundation that not only proposes, but declares that there is an ultimate morality in the universe. When we use the title “King of kings” it is not just a term of endearment or respect but a declaration of an ultimate Truth. It is not ours to judge, but it is God’s to judge. Vengeance is not the prerogative of humanity, but it is the divine right of the Judge of all of humanity…Vengeance is mine saith the Lord. But what shall the vengeance be in response to? Will it be solely reserved for those who have acted with disregard for the sacredness of others, or will be reserved also for those who failed to heed the message of the angels? Will it be reserved for those of us who looked the other way? Will it be the ultimate reality of those who have disregarded the plight of others…even our enemies…to preserve our positions of power and prestige on the backs of the innocent, the children and at the expense of our common dignity?
I conclude my sermon…but I also bring to you a confession. First, let me publicly thank Scott Holley, a seminarian and postulant for ministry within our own denomination, who helped me with the research for this message. Second, though the sermon was my own as given by the Holy Spirit, the points were not.
You see, on December 24, 1967, at a church on 407 Auburn Ave NE in Atlanta, Georgia, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. took the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church to preach a testament of hope as the Church celebrated the birth of the King of Kings.
The contents of Dr. King’s sermon were different then my own. Our times are different. However, the points…1) the recognition that humanity is interrelated 2) the means must agree with the ends 3) the sacredness of human life 4) there is an ultimate morality in the universe are his…or more accurately stated…God’s.
You see, the greatness of the man is not dependent on style or presentation or prowess…the greatness of this man, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is because of the truthfulness of his message…It is as true today on January 16, 2012 as it was on December 24, 1967. Why? Because it is God’s truth!
The Independent reported that the invitation of a white preacher is a break in tradition. I have never viewed myself as a revolutionary. I am a sinner saved by grace, a servant of Christ’s Church. I am just one of many faithful preachers in this community. The importance of this day is not in who speaks, but in what is said….and ultimately, what you….we…will do with this Truth that is God’s.
Martin Luther King, Sr. and Jr. named after the great Protestant Reformer, who himself was influenced by the 4th century African bishop Augustine, declared the truth that we are justified by faith in Christ alone. It is a declaration that I have staked my very soul on. And Dr. King, standing within the great heritage of his father, his maternal grandfather and preachers throughout the centuries, reminds us that the mercy through which we have been justified also demands that we work for justice which is an act of mercy.
On March 25, 1968, before the 68th Convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, Dr. King articulated that “now is the time” for preachers and everyone else to make a difference. As early as 1959, Dr. King had argued that “Christianity contained both the potential and the obligation to strive for a more just world.”
I warned you that I am a preacher. Salvation is a gift of God, a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. I pray that you will, this day, consider that invitation by the One who bore the burden of our sin and the stretched out his arms to show all of creation how much he loved us. And like all gifts, it is intended to be used and not hoarded for personal protection in eternity. I am one of the first generations to be raised, educated and sent forth in the wake of the ministry of Dr. King. But like you, we are not solely the beneficiaries of a dream, but stewards…a point in time…a footnote of history a hundred years from now…may the wake of his ministry become the tide of our time…peace on earth, goodwill toward men.