On January 20 I attended St. Luke’s Columbia, where the focus was the Christian message of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. For your reflection I share here the homily given that day by St. Luke’s rector the Rev’d Calvin R. Griffin.
Epiphany II, January 20, 2008
I speak to you in the in the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Almighty God … Grant that your Church, following the example of your prophet Martin Luther King, may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” … “Words from the appointed collect for Martin Luther King, Jr., as found in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Lesser Feasts and Fasts. There, too, we find the following biographical sketch of Martin Luther King’s life and work: Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta. As the son and grandson of Baptist preachers, he was steeped in the Black Church tradition. To this heritage he added a thorough academic preparation, earning the degrees of Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Divinity, and Doctor of Philosophy in Systematic Theology from Boston University. In 1954, King became pastor of a church in Montgomery, AL. There, Black indignation at inhuman treatment on segregated buses culminated in December 1955, in the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat to a white man.
King was catapulted into national prominence as the leader of the Montgomery bus boycott. He became increasingly the articulate prophet, who could not only rally the Black masses, but could also move the consciences of Whites. King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to spearhead non-violent mass demonstrations against racism. Many confrontations followed, most notably in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama and in Chicago. King’s campaigns were instrumental to the passage of the Civil Rights acts of 1964, 1965, and 1968. 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.
King lived in constant danger: his home was dynamited, he was almost fatally stabbed, and he was harassed by death threats. He was jailed 30 times; but through it all he was sustained by his deep faith. In 1957, he received, late at night, a vicious telephone threat. Alone in his kitchen he wept and prayed. He relates that 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 –“No, never alone.” King refers to his mission as his “mountain-top-experience”. After preaching at Washington Cathedral on March 31, 1968, King went to Memphis in support of sanitation workers in their struggle for better wages. There, he proclaimed that he had been “to the mountain-top” and had seen “the Promised Land,” and that he knew that one day he and his people would be “free at last.” … On the following day, April 4, he was cut down by an assassin’s bullet.
“Almighty God … grant that your Church, following the example of your prophet Martin, may resist oppression and secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel” … You’ve heard me tell the story, the story that is told of a great disturbance that erupted in Heaven. It will soon become obvious why once again today I’m sharing this story as we commemorate the life and legacy of Dr. King.
Again, it is a story of a great disturbance that erupted in Heaven. Hitler, and yes perhaps somewhat surprisingly, but nevertheless, according to this story, Hitler is in heaven, and was shouting, creating a ruckus about unleashing the so-called ruling regime. Khrushchev was pounding his shoe on the table, and King was threatening to take it to the streets. Suddenly, St. Peter called out “Brothers! Gentlemen! Peace! There’s no need for you to argue here, not here in heaven. For we have a person here who knows the answer to any question you might have … ‘Pardon me, Jesus’, said Peter … ‘can you come over here for a few moments? Some of your people have a question to ask.’
Jesus complied. ‘Yes Adolph, what is your question?’ Adolph said, ‘How long will it be before Germany will rule over all?’ Jesus said ‘about 10 million years.’ Hitler wept. ‘And, you, Nikita, what is your question?’ And Nikita asked, ‘how long will it be before the dictatorship of the proletariat will arrive?’ Jesus answered, ‘about 30 million years.’ Nikita Khrushchev wept. Finally, looking at Martin, Jesus said, ‘And, you Martin, what is your question?’ Martin asked, ‘how long will it be before my country treats my people like brothers and sisters?’ … And Jesus wept.”
What an insightful story for this 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany of our Lord and as our nation celebrates the life, work and legacy of one of God’s great 20th century prophets, the Rev’d Martin Luther King, Jr. As I’ve said before, perhaps designed by Divine Providence, but then again, perhaps not, but certainly, certainly not insignificant is the fact that our national observance of King Day always occurs during the Church’s observance of Epiphany, the season celebrating light, celebrating the light of Christ, the season celebrating freedom and liberation, liberation from the bonds and chains of darkness and degradation. …
Light … Freedom … Liberation … Not simply for a select group or select groups of people, but light, freedom and liberation for all people … for all God’s children, regardless of race, nationality, color, creed or religion, gender, gender orientation or class – for all people. The message, the message not only of the Church’s feast of the Epiphany, but the message of Jesus, the message of St. Paul and the message Brother Martin is this: “There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; no longer is there male or female; for all – all are one – one in Christ Jesus.” And we, therefore, are admonished, “to stand firm, to stand firm in that blessed liberty wherewith Christ has made us free.”
Certainly, Martin Luther King, Jr. was first and foremost, a churchman, a Christian, a prophet, a witness to the Good News of God in Christ Jesus. In other words, Dr. King was that to which we too, in holy baptism, have been called and commissioned. We, you and I, are the Church. We are the body of Christ. In our Book of Common Prayer’s an Outline of the Faith or Catechism we find that the Church pursues its mission … How? … as it prays and worships, as it proclaims the Gospel, and as it promotes justice, peace, and love.
The Church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members, not just through the ministry of the clergy, the ordained, but through the ministry of all its members – through you and through me … – through all its members. … Beloveds, we are the Church. In holy baptism we promised to strive for justice and peace among all people – among all God’s children. In holy baptism we promised to respect the dignity of every human being – for all are precious in God’s sight. Dr. King’s life and work exemplified these traits, these characteristic of a true, true child of God.
Again, we are the Church. We are the Body of Christ. You and I and all who are baptized into Christ. We must keep the dream alive; Martin’s dream that all be brothers and sisters; Martin’s dream that all be free; Martin’s dream that all may experience justice; that all may experience peace; that all may experience equality. We must keep the dream alive. … The message of Epiphany; the work and the mission of the Church; the work and the mission of each of us baptized into the body of Christ. …
“Blessed Martin, pastor, prophet…”
As the Rev’d Dr. Harold Lewis often reminds the Church, “Martin’s heart still beats in the breast of this nation, because the blood of this modern-day martyr has truly proved to be the seed for a movement for the liberation of every oppressed segment of this society. Martin Luther King laid the groundwork for racial equality, to be sure, but the struggle for liberation on the part of women, the struggle for liberation on the part of homosexuals, and the struggle for liberation on the part of other minorities could not have taken place when they did – or to the extent that they did – had it not been for Martin’s witness”.
Light – Freedom – Liberation for all God’s children.
In this season of Epiphany, celebrating the coming of the Light of the World, Jesus Christ, and today, as we commemorate the life, the work and the legacy of Dr. King, may God grant that we, God’s people, illumined by God’s Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that Christ may be known, worshiped and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.