All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons. . .'”
Luke 15: 1-3: 11b-32
Let me begin by saying how glad I am to be back with the community of faithful at St. Mary’s Foggy Bottom, and to add my voice of welcome to our friends and guests who join us in worship. Among our honored guests–too many to call out by name–is our mayor, the Honorable Muriel Bowser. Welcome, Mayor; welcome all.
And a special word of thanks to St. Mary’s leadership: The Rev. Dr. Wes Williams; Mr. Brandon Todd, Senior Warden, Mr. Windon Ringer, Acting Administrator, and members of the vestry. Thank you for guiding St. Mary’s Church life and ministry. It has been a long and challenging season since the COVID pandemic entered our lives and forever changed them, in addition to the other events in our city and the nation’s capital seared in our memory and whose effects are with us still. You’ve also had your trials and transitions as a congregation, not all of them easy. But you are still here, St. Mary’s Church. Our city is still here. And so am I, ready to support you in any way I can.
There is no other church I would rather worship in today than the first Black Episcopal Church in Washington, DC as we anticipate the confirmation of the first Black woman judge to sit on the highest court in the land. During the nomination hearings this past week, when Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was given the opportunity to speak and answer questions of actual relevance to her work, we heard her intelligence and wisdom, grace and grit. Her judicial and life experience make her an exemplary Supreme Court nominee–of that there is no doubt.
We saw many other things on display this week, far less noble, and worrisome indicators of what certain members of the United States Senate believe they can, and perhaps must, say to secure a presidential nomination for 2024. Many commentators have reflected the juxtaposition of Judge Jackson’s behavior with that of some of her interrogators, and how normative it is for people of color to be treated as she was this week.
Fully prepared for what was coming, Judge Jackson never once lost her composure. But there was, as Elie Mystal among others have noted, the moment she took a very long pause.
“Senator,” she began to answer a question that had no place in the hearing room. Then she sighed and paused, for quite some time. “As the silence filled the room,” Mystal writes, “I felt like I could see Jackson make the same calculation nearly every Black person and ancestor has made at some point while living in the New World.”1
There is power in such a pause. We all felt it.
Well, today is Sunday, thank God, and we’re in church. So let me turn our attention to another person known for pausing and taking his time before answering questions put to him, questions asked by those who were threatened by all that he said and did, as well as the questions that his followers asked, giving him the opportunity to help them grow in wisdom and love.
We’ve dropped ourselves into this man’s story as he’s taking the longest walk of his life–the 60-plus mile journey from the region where he began his ministry in the northern part of Israel Palestine to Jersusalm, the seat of religious authority for his people and the political power of the occupying Roman Empire. Jesus was walking to Jerusalem fully aware of the fate that awaited him there. For those of us who walked this road with him before, we also know how the story ends.
You may recall that prior to taking this journey, Jesus had a mystical encounter with his spiritual ancestors, Moses and Elijah. He had gone up a mountain to pray, taking three of his closest disciples with him. This was a pivotal moment for him, when he realized that he was not long for this world. That’s when he decided that in the time he had left, he would take his message of God’s all-inclusive love and his teachings of a way of life defined by mercy, compassion and justice for the oppressed to Jerusalem and let the chips fall where they may.
So, the Gospel of Luke tells us, when Jesus came down from that mountain, he gathered up his disciples, “turned his face toward Jerusalem,” and started walking. As he walked, he healed, he taught, and he preached as if these were the last words the world would hear from him, which, in fact, they were.
As it turns out, Jesus had a lot to say, worthy of our spending a lifetime pondering and applying his teachings to our lives. Which is why, in church, we hear his words over and over again. They never grow old for us; they always have something to say, and something different depending on where we are in our lives and whatever it is we’re struggling with, or what God is up to within and among us.
Most of Jesus’ teaching and sermons on the road were in response to questions, and many of those questions were from people less interested in his answers than in hearing themselves talk. (Not that any of us would do that). Like the lawyer who stood up to test Jesus, and asked, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Figuring that a lawyer would already know the answer, Jesus asked him back, “What is written in the law?” The lawyer responded with what we know as the Great Commandments of Jewish Scripture: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus replied, “You have answered rightly.” But the lawyer pressed further, because that’s what lawyers are trained to do, and because he wanted to justify himself, “And who, exactly, is my neighbor?”
That’s when Jesus paused. Maybe he sighed. And do you remember how he responded? He told a story of a man who fell into the hands of robbers, and of the two religious leaders who crossed over to the other side of the road and passed him by, and of another man, of a despised race, who stopped to help. “Who was the neighbor of the man beaten by robbers?” Jesus asked. “Go and do likewise.”
Further down the road, Jesus stopped to visit his good friends, the sisters Martha and Mary. Do you remember what happened there? Martha busied herself in the kitchen, while Mary did what was unthinkable for a woman of that time. She sat herself down among the men and listened to what Jesus had to say. When Martha complained to Jesus and told him to put Mary in her place with Martha in the kitchen, Jesus paused. Maybe he sighed. And he said, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and anxious about many things. Only one thing now is needed. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” Mary was in her place. Now the text doesn’t tell us what happened next, how Martha responded. Being Martha-like myself, I hope that she heeded his words, took off her apron and joined her sister where they both belonged, alongside the men, listening to Jesus.
So Jesus went from village to village as he walked toward his death, preaching at every opportunity, pointing people toward God, toward their neighbors in love, and toward their best selves. One man came up to Jesus and demanded that Jesus arbitrate in a family dispute about inheritance. Taken aback, Jesus asked the man, “Who set me to be a judge over you?” But then he paused. No doubt he sighed, and he told a story about a rich man with so many crops that he decided to build an even bigger barn so that he could store them and keep them for himself. But the very night his new, enormous barn was finished the man died, before he could enjoy any of his stored riches. “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves,” Jesus warned, “and are not rich toward God.”
There was another time when Jesus was teaching in a synagogue and a woman approached him who was so crippled that she couldn’t stand up straight. Jesus had compassion on her and healed her, on the Sabbath. The leaders of the synagogue were indignant and they came at the woman with all they had. “There are six days on which work ought to be done. Come on one of those days if you want to be healed.” Now Jesus was angry. But he paused, and took a breath, composed himself and said, “You hypocrites. Do you not give your animals food and drink on the sabbath? And ought not his daughter of Abraham whom Satan kept bound for 18 years be healed on the Sabbath?” The crowd rejoiced and his opponents were put to shame.
Jesus kept walking. The crowds kept coming toward him, and Jesus’ tone became at once more compassionate and urgent. He didn’t have one point to make; he had many, all touching us differently depending on what’s happening in our lives when we hear them, for the first or the hundredth time. It’s why we’re meant to dwell in his teachings, and meditate on them regularly.
Turn with me now to the story we heard this morning and that’s printed in your bulletin. It’s one of three stories Jesus told in direct response to the grumbling of some Pharisees. Pharisees get a bad rap in the Bible, because they came at Jesus the most. They weren’t all bad people, but they were intense rule followers, and they held themselves apart from people that weren’t. These particular Pharisees took issue with the fact that Jesus seemed to enjoy the company of tax collectors and sinners–the very ones the Pharisees avoided so that they might maintain their spiritual purity and sense of moral superiority.
Jesus paused, sighed, and told not one, but three parables about being lost and found: first that of a shepherd with a flock of a hundred sheep, who, when one of his sheep gets lost, leaves the ninety-nine in search of the one. Second, of a woman who had ten silver coins and lost one of them, and who searches the house incessantly until she finds it.
Finally, as the capstone, Jesus tells of a man who had two sons. It’s the classic emotional triangle between parents and siblings and the perfect vehicle for Jesus to explain to the Pharisees why he was happy to keep company with sinners. The father–the obvious God figure–loved both his sons, enough to let the one determined to leave go and then to welcome him back when he was chastened by the world. He loved the more responsible and dutiful son enough to gently chastise him for his unwillingness to forgive his brother and celebrate his return or his father for being so forgiving to one who had squandered so much.
Jesus’ point is clear: true love is not dependent on the worthiness of another, but rather on our capacity to love. The wayward son was no less worthy of the father’s love; nor did the stay-at-home son earn his father’s love with good behavior. Both were loved for who they were, not what they did or failed to do. Equally significant, for both, the father went out to meet them where they were–the returning son while he was still far off; the sulking son out in the field of his self-imposed misery.
With Jesus’ words and example foremost in our minds, and inspired by the dignity of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson this week, never forget the power of a good pause. Pause long enough when you feel under pressure, or under attack, or filled with anger, or hurt, and fear to breathe, to let Jesus in.
Pause long enough to regain your internal bearings, and allow the great wisdom of the Holy Spirit to speak to your heart. LIke the loving father, God meets us in that moment, where we are, as we are. God also gives us a strength and wisdom greater than our own with which to respond. God helps us grow in our capacity to love as Jesus loves, and loves us, our capacity to heal and forgive, our ability to withstand and maintain our God-given dignity in the face of cruelty and injustice, and to overcome evil with good.
Let me leave you with a practical suggestion on how you can access the grace and power of Jesus in the course of your daily lives, and especially in those moments when something, or someone, is attempting to throw you off course, or has managed to unnerve you; or when you feel overwhelmed or tired or scared.
Think of it as the power in a pause. Wherever you feel yourself tightening up inside, wanting to react, or to hold on, or whenever you aren’t sure what to do or say next.
Stop. Take a breath. Pause. Pray for Jesus’ to be with you, in that moment. And surrender yourself to Him. I promise you that whatever occurs to you to say or do next will have a greater intentionality and impact than if you rushed in, or if you shut down.
I’m not ruling spontaneity out of hand. There’s a time and place for that. And there’s a time and place for genuine expressions of anger. But if you take the time to pause, collect yourself, and allow Jesus in, even in spontaneous moments and in anger, you will speak and act with impactful grace and power.
In the end, it comes down to the kind of person we want to be in this world. We saw two stark examples this week. Which kind of person would you trust and choose to follow?
And what example do you want to be for those coming up behind you?
Remember, then, the power of the pause and the grace available that is always there for you. Amen.
1 Elie Mystal, Ketanji Brown Jackson Long Paused Explained Racism and Sexism in America, The Nation
Some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'”
I’m so glad to be here again at last, dear friends of St. Michael’s and All Angels Church. Praise God for the technology that allows those at home to gather in worship with us, and it’s wonderful to see in the flesh those physically present in the sanctuary. What can we say to one another, when so much has happened to change nearly everything about our lives and our world in the last two years?
The first questions we typically ask one another are the most fundamental: How are you? What’s life been like for you? How is your family, both near and far?
On Friday someone asked me how I was doing–and this person truly wanted to know. I wasn’t sure how to answer or where to begin. I notice the same thing when I speak to my 90-year old mother nearly each day. Each time she pauses, in part, to decide how much to reveal, before typically saying, “I’m all right.” There’s so much more that she could say.
My predicatble answer when someone asks how I’m doing is “I’m fine,” and on so many levels, it’s true. In fact, I’m more than fine. I am blessed, because I live here and not in a war zone; I’m fine, because while I contracted COVID, mine was a very mild case and all in my family have also had mild cases; I’m fine, that I still have a job and roof over my head and food to eat. Compared to many, many people in the world right now, for whom God must surely be weeping, I am fine. Yet saying that I’m fine, or blessed, or doing well skims the surface of what life is like.
I wonder if the same is true for you.
Because so many of us are stretched thin–doing all we can for as many people as we can–there is a collective sense of weariness. We’re holding things together as best we can, but it’s a lot to hold.
Grief also hangs in the air, even in our happy moments, even if we have been largely spared, because there is so much pain everywhere. Wherever we turn, someone is suffering. We may be that someone, or we are witnesses to another’s pain. And we hold that too.
To be sure, good things have happened to us in the last two years. We may have stories to tell of adventure, new learning, and surprising resilience. Examples of incredible generosity, sacrificial love, and courage inspire us each day. Blessings abound, even in the messy places. God’s grace is real.
All these things–the good, the hard; the blessing, the gratitude; the adventure, the grief–we hold it all in our own heart. But how much can one heart hold? When was the last time you stopped long enough to consider your heart and all that it’s holding?
We’ve just heard a brief passage from the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus takes a break on his long walk, near the end of his life, from his home of Nazareth to Jerusalem, the center of religious power and authority for his people and of the occupying force of the Roman Empire. Those of us familiar with Jesus’ story know what’s waiting for him in Jerusalem. He’s headed toward the cross. He knew it, too, that his time had come, and so as the Scripture says, “He set his face toward Jerusalem” and started walking.
It takes ten chapters of the Gospel of Luke to describe all that happens on that Jerusalem road. If you were to sit down and read those ten chapters in one sitting, you’d be amazed. Jesus is really busy–teaching, healing, equipping his small band of disciples for what’s to come. In fact, there’s so much going on, it’s hard to remember that Jesus is walking toward all that awaits him in the last week of his life.
But then, when at last he sees Jerusalem in the distance, Jesus stops and rests. As he’s sitting there, some of the Pharisees, the religious group always at odds with Jesus, approach to warn him. “Go no further,” they tell him, “for Herod wants to kill you. Turn around, Jesus. Go back to Nazareth.” Jesus replies, “Go and tell that fox that I am coming.”
Then something happens that gives us a glimpse into what Jesus has been holding in his heart: He cries out in raw grief, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
This was Jesus’ lament, for the city and for himself. It didn’t surprise, or even seem to bother him very much that religious and political authorities were hostile to him. But imagine the pain of rejection and indifference from those he had hoped to heal and to save.
Jesus’ heart aches to the breaking point. What’s striking, and instructive, is that he allowed himself to feel it, to acknowledge the pain in his heart. He stopped long enough to let his emotions rise to the surface, and to cry out and let his tears flow. Then, when his tears are spent, Jesus gets up and keeps going. He knows what will happen if he continues to Jerusalem, but he goes anyway. He knows that while Herod would be the one ultimately to sentence him to death, the people he loves will also play a part in his demise. But he loves them anyway.
There’s a song by the acapella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock, that tells the story of a strong Black woman, the spiritual center of her family, the one everyone else goes to for strength. She’s the one who washes floors to send her kids to college, who always makes sure that there’s food on the table, and who stays up late listening to her children’s hurt and rage. Everyone turns to her.
The father, the children, the brothers turn to her. And everybody white turns to her.
But where does she turn? Sweet Honey sings:
There oughta be a woman can break down, sit down, break down, sit down.1
Hold that image of a strong black woman breaking down, crying her eyes out, alone. Then when the tears are done, watch her as she takes a breath, gets up and carries on.
She was like Jesus in his lament, and like him in her rising to carry on.
What I hope for each one of you, and for myself, is the grace and permission to allow ourselves to stop every once in a while and acknowledge all we’re holding in our hearts. It’s okay to collapse in exhaustion or grief every now and then. It’s okay to cry. Or to laugh, in those moments of happiness or joy. It’s more than okay.
We can create spaces for one another here in Christian community for that kind of safe release. We can sit in silence by ourselves and allow the mercy of Jesus to wash over us.Then when our tears are spent, our weariness acknowledged, our emotions held in the almighty hands of love, by that same mercy and grace, we will rise again and keep going. We can’t make this journey on our own, but thankfully, we don’t have to. We walk with Jesus, and we walk with one another.
1There Oughta be a Woman by Bernice Sanders.
Jesus said, ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.’
What better time to be at St. Luke’s, the first independent Black Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, then on the day we honor the blessed memory of Absalom Jones, the first Black person to be ordained priest in the Episcopal Church? Thank you for the honor of preaching this morning.
It is a double honor for me to be here at St. Luke’s on the day when we can announce the good news that the Rev. Kim Turner Baker has accepted the call as your next rector! It will be both a homecoming for the Rev. Baker, and a time of new beginnings for you all. I’m very happy to welcome her back to the Diocese of Washington and will do all in my power to support her and all at St. Luke’s as you draw from your heritage, seek the will of God for your lives in this day, and look to the future with hope.
With the arrival of your next priest and rector, this is a threshold movement for St. Luke’s. Indeed, it is for all of us, as we begin to emerge from yet another acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic and imagine a less restrictive future. In this threshold time, how might we strive to be faithful to Jesus and his spirit now?
Thus today is a good day to pause and consider what our spiritual ancestors would say to us now, if they could. What would those who lived through their own times of trial want you and me to hear as we face the trials and challenges before us? I will turn our full attention to Absalom Jones in a moment, but first let me ask if a particular person comes to mind for you, perhaps a family member, or teacher, or someone you admired from a distance whose insights you cherish. What would that person say to you beyond this life by way of encouragement or exhortation today?
If you think about it, much of what we have in Scripture are a beloved leader’s parting words. The entire book of Deuteronomy, for example, was written as Moses’ last words to the Israelties, when he realized that he would not be the one to lead them into the Promised Land. It’s filled with wisdom, good counsel, specific instructions, and ends with this word of encouragement:
‘Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.’
Deuteronomy 31: 6-7
In the Gospel of John, there are three chapters known as “the Farewell Discourse,” Jesus’ final words of blessing and encouragement to his disciples from his last supper with them. The passage we just heard and is printed in your bulletin are among Jesus’ parting words.
Jesus said, ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.’
Parting words, you see, are also beginning words. They are gifts given us to take from the past into our future.
So on this day when we honor the blessed memory of Absalom Jones, I wonder what he would say if he were able to speak to us directly. What would he tell us about perserverance and of faith? What would he want to encourage in us, and how would he exhort us to live?
Last Thursday evening, the Rev. Canon Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, Dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union, facilitated a discussion among three Episcopal bishops to ponder that precise question.
Bishop Shannon MacVean-Brown of Vermont began by acknowledging how grateful she was that Absalom Jones lived. His life and witness was an encouragement to her and a reminder of how far we have come in this nation and how far we have yet to go.
I feel the same way. I’m so glad to know about him, grateful for this week when I immersed myself in his life and writings. He was a gifted preacher, evangelist, community organizer, abolitionist, institution builder. And while Absalom Jones wasn’t one to call undue attention to himself, I have no doubt that he would want us to remember the courageous witness of his people.
He would want us to know, for example, how the Black community of Philadelphia came to the aid of the general population during a horrific Yellow Fever outbreak in 1793. The epidemic lasted for 3 months and killed 5,000 people (10 percent of the city population). Over 20,000 fled the city and countless thousands suffered illness. Practically every White person of means left the city if they could. The call went out to Black residents of the city, asking for their help in caring for the sick and grieving and in burying the dead–under the false assertion that Black people were less susceptible to the illness (as its cause was as yet unknown). Many answered the call, risking their own lives to assist others.
We might never have known how heroic their efforts were but for later accusations by a White leader that Black residents had stolen from those they helped. Absalom Jones responded with a strong defense, giving a detailed account of what actually happened.
Hear his words:
Early in September, a solicitation appeared in the public papers, to the people of color to come forward and assist the distressed, perishing, and neglected sick; with a kind of assurance, that people of our color were not liable to take the infection. Upon which we and a few others met and consulted how to act on so truly alarming and melancholy an occasion. After some conversation, we found a freedom to go forth, confiding in him who can preserve in the midst of a burning fiery furnace, sensible that it was our duty to do all the good we could to our suffering fellow mortals.
We set out to see where we could be useful. The first we visited was a man in Emsley’s Alley, who was dying, and his wife lay dead at the time in the house, there were none to assist but two poor helpless children. We administered what relief we could, and applied to the overseers of the poor to have the woman buried. We visited upwards of twenty families that day–they were scenes of woe indeed! The Lord was pleased to strengthen us, and remove all fear from us, and disposed our hearts to be as useful as possible….
We can with certainty assure the public that we have seen more humanity, more real sensibility from the poor blacks, than from the poor whites.
A poor afflicted dying man, stood at his chamber window, praying and beseeching every one that passed by, to help him to a drink of water; a number of white people passed, and instead of being moved by the poor man’s distress, they hurried as fast as they could out of the sound of his cries–until at length a gentleman, who seemed to be a foreigner came up, he could not pass by, but had not resolution enough to go into the house, he held eight dollars in his hand, and offered it to several as a reward for giving the poor man a drink of water, but was refused by everyone, until a poor black man came up, the gentleman offered the eight dollars to him, if he would relieve the poor man with a little water, “Master” replied the good natured fellow, “I will supply the gentleman with water, but surely I will not take your money for it” nor could he be prevailed upon to accept his bounty: he went in, supplied the poor object with water, and rendered him every service he could.
We do not recollect such acts of humanity from the poor white people, in all the round we have been engaged in. We could mention many other instances of the like nature, but think it needless. It is unpleasant for us to make these remarks, but justice to our color demands it.1
Yes, I am glad to know that such a man is part of our heritage as a church and ashamed of those of my race that treated him and others so poorly.
In last week’s discussion, Bishop Rob Wright spoke of Absalom Jones’ deep faith and personal agency. “He managed to stay focused on Jesus amid the failures of the church,” Wright said. “He was determined to grow something, to invite people into something positive.”
It’s not clear how and where Absalom Jones came to faith in Jesus, but his faith was strong and compelling. He felt what Jesus said to his disciples so long ago–that Jesus was his friend, his life companion, his guide and his strength. As you know, Jones and his good friend Richard Allen, were lay evangelists and preachers at St. George’s Methodist Church, a mixed-race congregation. As the Black membership grew as a result of their leadership, White elders responded by segregating worship, requiring that Black members sit in the balcony.
Absalom Jones never wrote or spoke of the wrenching experience of being forcibly removed from a front pew while praying, but his friend Richard Allen did. Richard Allen, as you know, chose to establish an independent church, what would become a new denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), while Jones established The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. In 1802, Jones was ordained an Episcopal priest.
Bishop Wright underscored the fact that Absalom Jones did not harbor contempt for anyone. Nor did he behave as a victim. He was clear simply about who he was as a child of God. He had a certain confidence about him, and a sense of urgency. With the creation of the Free African Society, an organization of Black People for Black People, and St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, he helped instill that sense of agency and inner confidence in others.
Thus, a word that Absalom Jones would have for us today would surely be about our relationship to Jesus, an encouragement and exhortation to stay focused on him, and to ask us to take stock of what we are building and making possible for others. From where do we derive our sense of self and sense of agency? Absalom Jones would have us look to Jesus, and to claim our dignity and worth as beloved children of God and the ones Jesus calls friends.
Absalom Jones would want us to build again, to grow the church as a force for good in our communities. As your bishop, I feel a responsibility to honor the gifts and witness of the Black Episcopal Church. I dedicate the remaining years of my episcopate to the revitalization and renewal of all our congregations, with a particular focus on rising generations. I pray that St. Luke’s will once again become a vibrant expression of the Black Church, and not just St. Luke’s but all our historic and predominantly Black congregations. But as we all know, it’s going to require more from all of us than simply looking back on the past, or wishing for things to be different.
At our Diocean Convention on January 29, a resolution passed calling for a task force to study revitalization strategies for our Black congregations, with the leadership of that task force coming from those churches. We need St. Luke’s to be part of the conversation, which is, of course, not new, but now has the full attention of the diocesan leadership.
Absalom Jones invited others to join in building something positive and fruitful and life-transforming in Christ. From that core strength, the people of St. Thomas worked for the abolition of slavery, established schools, and care for their city, both Black and White.
What will we do, inspired by the same Spirit that inspired him?
Will you pray with me?
Lord, on the day we are privileged to remember and be uplifted by the life and witness of Absalom Jones, we ask for you to give us your grace and power to live the lives to which we are called. We don’t know what the future holds, and we aren’t always sure what we are to do. So please, Jesus, give us eyes to see you, ears to hear you, hearts to love you, to know you as our friend, and filled with that love, love one another and renew your church and heal your world.
1From A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People, During the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia, 1794
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”
I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you–unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them–though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
I’d like to speak about something familiar to all of us: the experience of coming to terms with our frailties and failures. It’s a theme that runs through our Scripture texts for today, but I could just as well tell you about my past week. On Wednesday night as I stumbled my way through a highly choreographed Anglo-Catholic worship service, I remembered something I heard the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr say. “To keep me from becoming too impressed with myself,” he told a journalist during an interview about his latest book, “I ask God to send me one humiliation a day. It’s a prayer that God is quick to answer.”
The stories from Scripture are particularly helpful for those of us who imagine we can somehow earn our way into God’s favor (or anyone else’s, for that matter). Each describes a situation in which a person feels summoned to do something brave. But in the presence of holiness, each feels exposed, seen for who they truly are, which surely disqualifies them for the task at hand.
“Woe is me, I am lost.” The prophetic Isaiah laments as he was summoned before God. “For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” “I am the least of the apostles,” writes Paul about his call to follow Jesus, “unfit to be an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” “Go away from me, Lord,” says Simon Peter in the boat with Jesus, “for I am a sinful man.”
In each instance, God in essence replies, “I know who you are. I know everything about you. And I am asking you to step up anyway.” God could very well have added, “Spoiler alert: you won’t always get this right, what I’m asking of you. In fact, you may well fail. But perfection, and success, isn’t what I’m asking for; only faithfulness.”
Of all the biblical characters, Simon Peter is truly the patron saint of imperfection. From that first encounter in the boat, Peter gives his whole heart to Jesus. Still he never seems to get things right, and some of his failures are truly spectacular. Still, Jesus turns to Simon Peter more than any other disciple, as if to say to all of us, “Look. Following me isn’t a call to perfection, only faithfulness.”
What makes Simon Peter’s example so compelling is his perseverance. Every time he falls, he gets back up. He acknowledges his mistakes and accepts Jesus’ forgiveness, even after the most horrible failing of all, when he denies knowing Jesus on the night of Jesus’ arrest. How could he ever forgive himself for that? But after the resurrection, Jesus seeks him out, so that Simon Peter knows that he is forgiven and still called to be a witness to Jesus’ way of love.
Like the Apostle Paul after him, the one who had to forever live with the memory of persecuting followers of Jesus until he himself became one, Simon Peter comes to know and accept himself, in the words of Adam Hamilton, as a faithful and flawed disciple.1–Faithful, flawed, forgiven and called. “By the grace of God I am who I am,” St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, and surely Simon Peter could have said the same. “And God’s grace toward me has not been in vain.”
I’ve been working on a writing project about courage, and how we learn to be brave. Among the people I’ve been blessed to learn more about is the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, who lived one of the most extraordinary lives of the 20th century. She was the first Black woman in nearly every educational and professional setting of her life, including becoming the first Black woman to be ordained in the Episcopal Church. In honor of Black History month and in this theme of faithful imperfection, I’d like to tell you a bit of her story.
Pauli Murray was born in 1910, in Baltimore, to mixed-race parents. As a child, Murray experienced the dramatic constriction of Black life in this country with the rise of Jim Crow segregation, stripping away of civil rights, and vigilante violence against Black leaders and businesses. When her mother died and her father was institutionalized, Murray went to live with her maternal grandparents and a devoted aunt in North Carolina. Her Aunt Pauline was a teacher, and she encouraged Murray to pursue education.
Murray was proud of her family heritage, but the legacy of mental illness and poverty loomed large. Despite the formidable barriers of race, gender and poverty, Murray rose to the top of whatever class she was in. She was always poor, working for almost no pay as a writer, union organizer, and later as an underpaid attorney. She never stayed long in any position. Her romantic life was one tortuous relationship after another as she struggled privately with gender identity, until she met the love of her life in her late 40s. Murray’s passion was writing, and her legal arguments, crafted in near manic states of intense work and physical deprivation, are now part of the canon of civil rights law, though she was never adequately compensated or recognized for her efforts.
Pauli Murray entered Howard Law School in 1941. Fully prepared to take her place among the aspiring lawyers at Howard, Pauli was stunned by overwhelming prejudice against her because she was a woman. She had grown up surrounded by strong women, had attended a women’s college, been befriended by Eleanor Roosevelt, and worked in organizations where women held positions of leadership. While in her private life gender identity was a source of near-constant turmoil, this was the first time she experienced the full-on effects of gender discrimination becasue she was a woman.2 All of her energies to this point had been focused on the struggle against prejudicial laws based on race. Now, in a nearly all-male Black institution, she encountered what she described as the twin evils of discriminatory violence that she aptly called “Jane Crow.”
Marginalization at Howard galvanized Murray into action. Murray countered gender discrimination the same way she had racial discrimination: by proving her abilities. She quickly rose to the top of her class. It became her life-long quest to treat both race and gender equity as non-negotiable in civil rights law and societal practice.”3
While still in law school Murray first conceived of the legal arguments that would later prove decisive in the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision on racial equity in Brown v. Board of Education and its 1971 ruling on behalf of gender equality in Reed v. Reed.4 It was an audacious vision, a direct attack on both racial and gender discrimination based on the 13th and 14th Ammendments to the Constitution that had abolished slavery and granted full citizenship to all persons born in the United States. No one at the time took her argument seriously, but it would one day garner the attention of Howard Thurman, and later still Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Murray’s accomplishments are all the more noteworthy given her on-gong struggles with depression and grinding poverty. Her personal experience was often one of failure, yet much like Simon Peter, she persisted. Every time she fell, she got back up. In later years, she took great satisfaction when her ideals were vindicated by victories, saying, “I have lived to see my lost causes found.”
About a year ago, Washington National Cathedral hosted a film screening of the recent documentary of Murray’s life (which I highly recommend if you haven’t seen it). Afterwards there was a discussion with the producer and director, and someone raised the issue of Murray’s difficult temperament and mental instability, for which she was often hospitalized. The director was quiet for a moment and then said, “Well, it’s often the broken people of the world who change things for the better.”
His words went straight to my heart.
I hope that dwelling in the stories of our imperfect spiritual ancestors and the life of Pauli Murray has provided space for the Spirit to speak to you about your life–the goodness of it amid all that you would change if you could, and how the grace of God may be revealed most powerfully at times through your pain, brokenness and disappointment. Or perhaps it’s in the dance between the seemingly opposing realities of strength and weakness where grace shines through.
Either way, by the grace of God you are what you are, and God’s grace has not been in vain. So when God, or life itself, summons you to courage, why not step and say yes, imperfections and all, knowing full well that you won’t get everything right. For you are faithful, flawed, forgiven and called by the One whose love is unfailing. Amazingly enough, sometimes it’s through your failings–and mine–that love can shine.
1Adam Hamilton, Simon Peter: Flawed but Faithful Disciple (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2018)
2Pauli Murray, Song in a Weary Throat, Memoir of an American Pilgrimage (Liveright: reprint edition, 2018)
3Rosalind Rosenberg, Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017) Kindle Edition
“Another decision we have to make is how we will travel through the wilderness”
For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.
Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6, 810.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ… If one member suffers, all suffer together.
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Jesus… Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
In the name of God, Amen.
On the day that I am here because of a painful parting and resulting confusion and grief at the center of your congregation, the appointed Scripture texts remind us why people of faith gather in community at all. Each in their distinct contexts describe the powerful faith experiences that can occur in a communal setting and, in the case of St. Paul’s image of a body made up of dependent parts, why we need each other. We’re connected to each other, he writes, whether we realize it or not. When one suffers, we all suffer.
While this is only the third Sunday in the liturgical season of Epiphany, a time when the Scripture readings in church invite us to consider the ways Jesus makes himself known to us as light for the world, it seems that the next liturgical season, that of Lent, has come early for St. Paul’s, Rock Creek.
Lent, you may recall, is patterned on Jesus’ forty days of trial and testing in the wilderness and the forty years the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness before entering their promised land. To be sure, due to the pandemic, the entire world has been in a prolonged season of trial and testing. Now, as a congregation, you have been thrust into your own particular wilderness time, for some of you with seemingly little or no warning. For others, however, it’s been a wilderness at St. Paul’s for quite a while.
One of the defining characteristics of a wilderness experience is not knowing how or when it will end. Forty in Scripture is a symbolic number, signifying a long, uncertain time. While there will be guideposts and processes to guide you, the journey ahead is full of unknowns, including how long it will last. On the other hand, thankfully, wilderness experiences, however long, are not meant to last forever, even though it may seem that way while we’re in one. We’re actually heading somewhere else.
When we find ourselves in a wilderness that we did not choose to enter, the first thing we have to decide is if we can accept that we’re there. Acceptance is not easy, and it doesn’t happen all at once, or at the same time for everyone. That’s okay. You may never agree as to how and why St. Paul’s landed in this wilderness, and that’s understandable. But you are here now, and if it’s any comfort, so am I. I’m here with you.
Another decision we have to make is how we will travel through the wilderness. One way is to get through it as fast as we can, which is what we all would prefer. Choosing to move quickly has the advantage of being here for as short a time as possible, presuming everything goes well. With a bit of luck, we make it through the wilderness and arrive safely on the other side, not much changed by the experience. What’s difficult about this approach is the emotional impact that can occur when things don’t go according to plan. Then this get-through-it-as-fast-as possible mindset can lead to added frustration, anger, and despair.
Another way to travel through a wilderness is to turn around and leave the way we came in. This is only an option in the wilderness experiences that we enter by choice, when it’s still possible to change our minds. I think about this a lot in terms of lifestyle choices. We can enter the wilderness of making uncomfortable changes in advance of a crisis–adjusting our health practices, or investing in our relationships, or facing an inevitable change sooner rather than later so as to have more options. But in those instances, having entered the wilderness by choice, we can also choose to turn around. Perhaps we underestimated the cost, and the changes were way harder than we realized. Maybe we got scared. Making the choice to enter the wilderness before it is thrust upon us is a good idea, but it’s really hard to do. If we don’t, however, invariably the wilderness will come to us–in the form of a medical crisis, or a permanently ruptured relationship, or a forced change.
Of course this is easier to see in other people’s lives than it is in our own. For over five years my sister and I begged our mother to make changes in her life as she aged. She would dabble in the possibility of selling her nearly 200-year old house on 7 acres of land, find a less remote place to live, and tend more carefully to her health. But she couldn’t bring herself to follow through on any of those changes. Then she got really sick and almost died, and my sister and I had to move in and make all those changes for her, which she hated and I don’t blame her.
Sometimes we can choose to enter a wilderness; sometimes it comes to us. I daresay one of the dynamics at St. Paul’s, and in The Episcopal Church writ large, is coming to terms now with issues we ought to have dealt years ago, but didn’t. Now we have to face them because we have no choice.
A third way to travel through the wilderness is to make our peace with where we are. We don’t often begin the wilderness journey with this attitude; it comes to us when we realize that we’ve gone too far to turn back, the horizon is still beyond our sight, and we are going to be where we are for a while. It’s a sober realization, but it allows us to relax into the experience, and learn from it what we need to learn. This is when the wilderness can change us, so that when we leave, we are different people. Sometimes it feels as if we’ll never leave, but we learn to make our peace with that prospect, too. A yoga teacher once described this to me as “finding peace in a difficult position.”
In both the passage from Nehemiah and the Gospel of Luke, it strikes me that the people gathered are hearing sacred words read to them that they’ve heard many times before. But they are hearing them now with new ears, as if for the first time, because of their circumstances. In the case of the people of Israel, the words of Torah had been lost to them through the trauma of exile and return, the loss of their mother tongue, and the lack of consistent spiritual leadership. Now as Ezra stood before them, reading the old familiar words, the people wept. They wept for joy and for grief, for all that they had lost and all that lay before them. In the midst of their tears, Ezra said to them. “The joy of the Lord,” he said, “will be your strength.”
Similarly, the people gathered in the synagogue the morning Jesus got up to read had heard the words of Isaiah before, but they heard them differently because he was reading them. More than that, he embodied them in a way they had never experienced before. The words were fulfilled in their hearing, and even before Jesus said it, they knew it was true. Now, as you will hear next week if you come to church, the people didn’t like what Jesus had to say after that and they kicked him out. It turns out that we’re all slow learners when it comes to following Jesus. There’s room for humility all around.
In the weeks ahead, should you remain faithful in worship at St. Paul’s, you will hear words you’ve heard before, because there will be a new person speaking them. You will hear yourself recite familiar words in a new way because of where you are now as a church. And it won’t be just the words in church, but everywhere. You do well to pay attention to the familiar things now, because in the wilderness they are all new.
After all, what does one do in a wilderness time? What is the work?
The first task is to pay attention, not necessarily to do anything differently right away, but to listen and observe the world, and ourselves in it, from this new vantage point.
About 12 years ago, my husband gave me a book of poetry by Mary Oliver for Christmas, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I already owned a copy. Then it occurred to me that I hadn’t looked at the book since I bought it several years before, and that maybe it had something new to say to me. I had been through a lot in the year before that Christmas, including a really big disappointment in my vocation. (This is when I came in second in the bishop’s election in Minnesota, where I had served as a rector for 15 years.)
I opened the book of poetry to read it from this new vantage point in my life. The first line of the first poem took my breath away: “My work is loving the world.” She goes on: “Are my boots old? Is my coat torn? Am I no longer young and still not half-perfect? Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.”1 There’s something about the wilderness that stops normal life in its tracks, and that’s a good thing. It enables us to see the world around us, and to hear familiar words, as if for the first time.
Another wilderness task is to take stock of our lives, and in this instance, your life as a community of faith. Taking stock is an excellent way to keep our focus where we can actually do something productive, rather than wallowing in self-pity or blaming others for our lot. The Benedictine author Joan Chittister puts it this way: “Courage, character, self-reliance, and faith are forged in the fire of affliction. We wish it were otherwise. But if you want to be holy, stay where you are in the human community and learn from it. Learn patience. Learn wisdom. Learn unselfishness. Learn love.”2 As we learn these things, we can face almost anything. And that, by the way, is the hallmark of coming out of a wilderness: you are stronger, more resilient for having lived through it, so that you can face the future without fear.
One last wilderness task that I’ll mention for today: tend to the most important things. There’s little time for trivia in the wilderness–this is a time to remember why you are here. I realize that the range of emotion and interpretation of what has happened is broad among you, and it would be tempting to walk away from your community. I pray that you won’t, and that you retreat to corner tables of observation and critique. I pray that you tend to the priceless, and at times costly gift of Christian community and what, at its best, it offers you and through you can offer others: a path to walk and a light to go by; a different reference point from what the world teaches about success and failure and self-worth; and most especially, the invitation to draw closer to Jesus as your Savior and friend.
In closing, let me assure you that there is no one right way to experience the wilderness. As you face what lies ahead, it’s good to remember that there is always more than one right answer, always more than one possibility before you, and always a chance to start again. That’s especially comforting when things don’t go as we hoped or planned. There’s always a Plan B.
The author Anne Lamott once offered these words as her Plan B at a time when she was at a loss for what to do next. They strike me as a good Plan A in a wilderness time:
Remember God is in charge.
Do your inner work.
Be of service.
Gracious God, I hold before you the people of St. Paul’s, Rock Creek and ask that you would make yourself known to each one in a powerful way. Guide them through this wilderness time; assure them of your presence with them through Jesus, and give them a glimpse of the preferred future you have in mind for them. Help them to breathe, remember that you are in charge, do their inner work, breathe again, and give thanks. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
1“Messengers,” by Mary Oliver, in Thirst (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), 1.
2Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (Crossroad Publishing Company, 2004), 33.
3Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (San Francisco: Riverhead Books, 2005), p. 314.
To Know and Follow Jesus: Lessons from King’s Life
Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ He said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’
‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. ‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
I’m honored to be here, to pray with those who are to be confirmed, received, and are reaffirming their faith, and to worship God with all the congregation of St. John’s, Beltsville. Before I say more, let me express my gratitude to your good rector, the Rev. Joseph Constant, for his ministry, and the good clergy, staff, and lay leaders who serve alongside him. I also want to thank those who serve in diocesan leadership from St. John’s. As a congregation, you are a blessing to us all.
I’d like to speak directly to those who will soon stand before God to make a public affirmation of faith. Today is meant to be an occasion of blessing for you, as you publicly state your commitment to live as a follower of Jesus. This isn’t an endpoint for you in faith, as if you were graduating from Sunday School, or having learned all you need to know about following Jesus through a six-week course. This is one moment–an important one–in a lifelong journey of faith. Like any journey it will have twists and turns, unexpected circumstances and new opportunities, and most significantly, the ongoing invitation to grow in your knowledge of God, grow your sense of God’s love for you and your love for God, and deeper appreciation of how God is guiding you toward the fulfillment of your life’s purpose.
Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, whom some of the young people being confirmed today had the opportunity to meet a few years ago, likes to tell about the time when he, as a teenager, was having a bit of conflict with his father, who happened to be an Episcopal priest. The Presiding Bishop admits he was a rebel in those years, and also lazy. And in a moment of frustration, his father said to him “You know, son, God didn’t put you on his earth merely to breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide.” His father reminded him that he had a God-given reason for being alive and he needed to figure out what that purpose was. Our Presiding Bishop never forgot father’s words, and it helped him take his life more seriously, as the gift that it is, and the responsibility he had for living it well, as God would have him live.
Today we are all holding you and your precious, singular lives before God. When you come forward and I pray for you, I will ask that God’s Holy Spirit may be revealed to you in personal and powerful ways over the course of your life, so that you know without a shadow of a doubt that you are precious in God’s sight and here on this earth for holy purposes.
Yesterday when we met, I encouraged each of you to stay close to Jesus, and in particular, to make a regular practice of reading and meditating on his life and teachings that are recorded in the New Testament. In the Bible, there are four accounts of Jesus’ life, each with a distinct perspective on this man whose entire life–his birth, his teachings, the way he interacted with others, and his death and rising from the dead–that gives us a window into the heart of God. As the Apostle Paul says in one of the letters of the New Testament, “In Jesus the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” It’s important for you to know his story, not just as a body of information, but as a means to be in relationship with him. As you read and meditate and question and discuss his teachings, Jesus will speak to you. You will hear him, not always, but at significant times in your life, speaking to you through the words of Scripture, as if they were written for you.
I’d also like to underscore something we talked about yesterday, and that is the gift of Christian community. While there are always challenges in any community, and no church is perfect, one of the great benefits of being part of a congregation like St. John’s is that you get to spend time with some truly remarkable people, whose life and faith are inspiring. And you have the opportunity to learn about other Christians who through their example show us what it looks like to live and love like Jesus.
Today we remember one such person, arguably the most influential Christian leader in the history of the United States: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Tomorrow is a federal holiday to honor King, the closest Monday to the day of his birth, which was January 15, 1929. Had he lived, he would have celebrated his 93rd birthday yesterday. As it was, he was assassinated on April 4, 1968 when he was 39 years old.
I don’t know how much you know about Dr. King’s life. He is now recognized as the spiritual leader of what we call the Civil Rights Movement, a sustained effort to overturn laws and customs in this country that deprived African Americans of basic civil rights and gestures of human decency. In many parts of the United States, it was illegal for African Americans to sit in the front seats of buses or trains; it was illegal to drink from the same water fountains as white people. It was perfectly legal in Washington, DC to deny persons of color the right to purchase a home in certain neighborhoods, including the neighborhood I live in now and I daresay some of the neighborhoods you live in. All that changed in the 1950s and 60s, thanks to the leadership of people like Dr. King and thousands of people who insisted on change. King was one who insisted, in the name of Jesus, that those protests be non-violent and dignified.
Looking back, this country honors King as a hero. But during his lifetime a lot of people hated him and what he stood for. He had to endure all manner of threats against his life and his family. It must have been so disorienting, for he was also a celebrity. Where he spoke, thousands of people would show up to hear him. He inspired a generation to believe that people of different races could live together in peace and goodwill. Yet in the eyes of some, he was the most dangerous man in America.
Today I’d like to tell you two stories from King’s life that give you a sense of his spiritual connection to God, and how he drew his inspiration and strength from Jesus’ life and teachings.
This first comes from a time when Dr. King, as a very young pastor, was chosen to be the leader of what was called the Montgomery Improvement Association. This was the group that organized a bus boycott in the city of Montgomery, Alabama to protest laws that made it illegal for Black people to sit with whites, and relegated them always to seats in the back. That boycott lasted over a year, which meant that African Americans had to find other means of transportation to work (very few owned cars). A lot of people did a lot of walking.
On January 27, 1956, near midnight, King was sitting at his kitchen table alone. He couldn’t sleep because of his worry and fear. He knew that as a leader he was in way over his head. Everyone was exhausted, and the boycott strategy didn’t seem to be working. He had good reason to be afraid, because he had received numerous abusive calls and death threats targeting him and his family. The latest call had come earlier that evening, with a sinister voice assuring him they would be sorry if he and his family didn’t leave Montgomery within a week.
With his head in his hands, Martin Luther King, Jr. bowed over the kitchen table and prayed. Later he would say that his prayer started like this: “Lord, I am afraid. I am taking a stand for what I believe is right. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I have come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
In that moment, he would later say, he experienced the presence of the Divine as never before. It was as if he could hear a voice saying: “Stand firm, Martin. I am with you and will never leave you. Trust your instincts and carry on.” He rose from the kitchen table a different man, with a new sense of confidence, ready to face whatever came.1
I want each of you to know that when your life is really hard and you don’t know where to turn or what to do next, you can pray the way Martin Luther King, Jr. prayed. Tell God everything that’s on your heart. Then wait and listen for what comes to you. It may be that God will say something similar to what God said to Martin Luther King, Jr.: Stand firm. Trust your instincts. It may be some other word: Ask for help. Call someone you trust. Or perhaps It’s time to let go. But whatever you hear–and it may not be hearing, exactly, but a sensation of God’s presence–you will know that you are not alone. God is with you and for you. Moments like these are the foundation of a life of faith, upon which everything we say and do in church is built. Without that foundation, nothing else makes sense.
The second story comes from the end of King’s life, the night before he was assassinated. He had come to Memphis, Tennessee to lend his support to the sanitation workers of the city. These were people who collected garbage from homes and businesses, and they were on strike for better wages and safer working conditions. All the front line sanitation workers in Memphis were Black. They were paid what could only be described as starvation wages, and the trucks they drove were so unsafe that workers routinely lost limbs, and two men had recently died. Yet the city leaders refused to make any concessions. Like the Montgomery bus boycott years before, the sanitation workers strike went on far longer than anyone anticipated. The mood in the city had turned violent. The white leadership made it clear that King was not welcome.
No one in KIng’s family or inner leadership circle thought it was a good idea for him to keep going back to Memphis, but he went anyway, three times within the course of a month. He had a lot of reasons for going to Memphis, but in the last speech of his life, he spoke of the most important, which had to do with Jesus and his teachings.
Before thousands of people who had gathered to hear, King reflected upon one of Jesus’ most famous parables. This is what he said:
One day a man came to Jesus and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters in life. At points he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew and throw him off base. Instead of answering the man directly, Jesus told a story about a certain man traveling on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho fell among thieves who beat him, took his money, and left him for dead. Two religious leaders came down that road at different times, saw the wounded man, but passed by on the other side—they didn’t stop to help. Finally, a man of another race came by. He got down off his beast, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to be concerned about his brother.
Now, you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the two religious leaders didn’t stop to help the man. At times we say they were on their way to a church meeting, and they had to get on to Jerusalem so they wouldn’t be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that one who was engaged in religious ceremonies was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony.
But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible that these men were afraid. You see, the Jericho Road is a dangerous road. It’s a winding, meandering road, conducive for ambushing. And you know, it’s possible that the priest and Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And so the first question the priest asked, the first question the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”
But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” That’s the question before you tonight. The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I don’t stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?”2
King took his cues from Jesus and his teachings, choosing to do what he thought was loving and just. What happened to King will happen to us when we, too, take Jesus’ stories to heart and try to apply them in our lives. We become more like him, with love like his, compassion like his.
It is an easy life, being a follower of Jesus? No, but it’s a life worth living, a life with purpose, and a sense of his presence with us, and the guiding light of his teachings. It’s a life to which you are now saying yes, and we reaffirm our commitment to follow him alongside you. Stay close to Jesus, and remember we are right here by your side.
1As told in Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 (Simone & Schuster, 1988).
2Martin Luther King, Jr., “I See the Promised Land,” in A Testament of Hope, 284-285.