“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
But one hundred years later, 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. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.” (Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, August 28, 1963)
Tomorrow we celebrate Martin Luther King Day in our nation. This past Wednesday was his birthday, and so we celebrated his life and ministry in our midweek gathering.
I chose to use the opening lines of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech this morning because Dr. King is often revered as a prophet. He came from a long line of Southern Baptist preachers, and he was a highly educated man—he received his BA, BD, and PhD from Boston University in Systematic Theology. To obtain this kind of education would have been difficult for a Black man prior to the 1960s and the Civil Rights Act.
Dr. King revealed in interviews that after a troubling phone call late in the evening in 1957, he prayed and was called by name. He said that in his prayer, he heard the Lord speaking to him and saying, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice,” and promising never to leave him alone. Dr. King referred to his vision as his “Mountain-top Experience.” (Holy Women, Holy Men)
This experience propelled Dr. King into the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. His campaigns were instrumental to the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, 1965 and 1968. Dr. King then turned his attention to economic empowerment of the poor and opposition to the Vietnam War, contending that racism, poverty and militarism were interrelated. (Holy Women, Holy Men)
Last Tuesday evening, Matt and I were watching “American Experience” on OPB and the topic was the summer of 1964. For those of you who remember that summer, or are particularly good at remembering American History, then you’ll recall that the summer of 1964 was the summer when young men and women from all over the country were trained to help register Black voters in the south. These young men and women felt called by name to make change in the world. They faced difficult obstacles…harassment, violence, and for three young men, even death. The Free Speech movement, campus demonstrations against the Vietnam War, and the Women’s movement all grew out of the events of the Civil Rights Movement because people’s eyes had been opened to the injustices in our country.
Now it would be easy to sit back and think “Wow…we’ve fixed all these problems...we’ve come a long way, baby!” But the truth is, we’re still facing radical injustices in our country. Today we are faced with the challenges of unjust immigration legislation, the inability for committed, loving same-sex couples to marry, economic disparity, and the glass ceiling for women still very much exists.
So what does all this have to do with today’s lessons this second Sunday in Epiphany?
In the reading from Isaiah, known as the Second Servant Song, the narrator or “servant” proclaims that he was called and named by God before he was even born. When we read this passage from Isaiah, we know that the prophet was anticipating the coming of the Messiah and that salvation would be available for all to the ends of the earth. The prophet was anticipating that the Messiah would bring about a change in a time of chaos…an ushering in of peace, compassion and justice. We too are waiting for a change amidst chaos.
But we have also called. Now that Jesus, the Messiah, has come among us, we must continue his work. We too have been called and been invited to “come and see”. As theologian Richard Ward explains, we have been called to a higher purpose as children of God “to become a ‘light to the nations’ by becoming agents of God’s [new] order of compassionate justice”.
Perhaps we won’t suddenly find ourselves called to march on Washington or lead a movement. But maybe we are called to participate in justice and compassion in a different way…becoming educated about issues faced by members of our community, providing food and shelter to someone homeless, or advocating for someone who has been silenced through injustice or violence.
In the Psalm, again we are given this message of having been called up by God, and our response to that call. The Psalmist says that God pulled him up from the pit, made his feet secure under him and put a new song in his mouth. And the Psalmist’s response to God is to say “Here I am” and to proclaim God’s love, faithfulness and salvation to others.
Like the Psalmist, we have been pulled up and made sure. Like the Psalmist, we have the opportunity to say “Here I am” and share with others God’s love and faithfulness. We don’t necessarily have to proclaim it from the “mountain-top”…we can easily share God’s love and faithfulness by offering care to someone in need, by being good stewards of our resources, and by steadfastly praying for the healing of this world.
And finally, in the Gospel of John, we have not only a recounting of Jesus’ baptism and being called “the Lamb of God”, “Rabbi”, and “the Messiah”, but we also hear of Jesus inviting his followers to “come and see” and renaming Simon as Peter. In this gospel story we have not only Jesus’ identity being confirmed, but an invitation to be someone new and do something different. What is it that we’re looking for? God’s mercy and love. And what are we to do when we have experienced it? Share it with others, invite them to “come and see”.
I don’t know if I’ll ever have a “Mountain-top Experience” like Dr. King, and I don’t think I can solve all the problems of the world. But I know I’ve been called to make life a little more just, a little more peaceful, and a little more like the Kingdom. I too have dreams. What are your dreams?
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.