Well, as I mentioned at the top of the service, tomorrow, we're celebrating a holiday, a holy day if you will, celebrating the life and spirit of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Most of you know that Dr. King wasn't just a civil rights activist. He was also an ordained Christian minister. And in one of his books, Stride Toward Freedom, Dr. King said that the motivation behind the civil rights movement, the inspiration for the movement, came from the teachings of Jesus.
Now, Dr. King, and Jesus both had a vision, Dr. King – from that mountain top – saw the Promised Land. He famously said, I have a dream of what this world could be. And it's that same dream that that Jesus had that calls us to build the Beloved Community, that kingdom of heaven here on earth.
Jesus, of course, lived during a time of great discord and division. And so did Dr. King. And so do we. But we should not be discouraged. Scripture reminds us that there's always light, that a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.
Dr. King said something very similar. He said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that.” And so we're reminding ourselves today that we are called to be that light. In this time of darkness, in this time of discord and division in our country, we are to follow in the steps of Jesus and of Martin.
Our gospel reading for the Second Sunday after Epiphany is all about Jesus calling his first apostles. And he calls them with the words, “Come and see. Follow me.” That's what Jesus was looking for – followers. I've shared with you before, Father Richard Rohr said, “Jesus doesn't want fans. Jesus wants followers.”
Seems like many Christians in America today are fans of Jesus. But they're not really willing to follow in his steps and to do as he did. But one of the greatest people in our lifetime, who truly followed in the steps of Jesus was Dr. King. And I say in our lifetime, because he lived in our lifetime, which I know sometimes we look at old footage, and it's in black-and-white, and we hear his speeches, and they're scratchy, and the film looks really old. And we seem to think sometimes, that Dr. King lived in the olden days.
But if he was alive today, he'd be just a year older than our own Reverend Fred Hamlin, who's here today. And like Reverend Fred, Dr. King was an ordained minister, Dr. King was a minister in the Baptist Church. But as Dr. King grew in his understanding, he broke away from a lot of the doctrine and dogma of his faith.
And he would later go on to write this, Dr. King said, “Jesus realized his divine calling, he completely opened his life to the influence of the Spirit. But to say that Jesus, whose example of living we are to follow is the only one who's both human and divine is actually harmful and detrimental. To invest Jesus with such supernatural qualities may make one say, ‘Oh, well, he had a better chance for that kind of life than we could possibly have.’ In other words, we could easily use this as an excuse to avoid doing as he did. Unity with God was not something thrust upon Jesus from above, but it was a definite achievement of his through the process of moral struggle and self denial. Therefore, the orthodox view of the divinity of Jesus is, in my mind, quite readily denied. The true significance of the divinity of Jesus lies in the fact that his achievement is prophetic and full of promise for every other true son or daughter who is willing to submit their will to the will of the spirit of God. Jesus was to be only the prototype of one among many.”
That is so good. Jesus was to be the prototype. The example. Christianity in America in our lifetime, unfortunately, has been about worshipping the prototype, putting the prototype on a pedestal and worshiping it. But Jesus was calling us to follow in his steps, to do as he did. That's why he said, “All of the things that I've done, you can do.”
And that's what we are being called to do on this Sunday, when Jesus calls his first apostles, we’re reminding ourselves of our call, our call to follow in His way of forgiveness, of unconditional love, of justice.
Jesus and Dr. King were both truth tellers. They were amassing these followings of people who were trying to draw the circle ever wider, bring more and more people to the table. But they got in trouble for it. Because you see people in positions of power, people of privilege are threatened by that. And they were so threatened by it, by both Jesus and Dr. King, they were both arrested. They were both silenced. And they were both killed for speaking that truth.
Maybe that's why most people worship rather than follow. Because when you follow, truly follow, you're gonna get in trouble. Now this Beloved Community that Dr. King visioned, it wasn't some utopian dream. He really believed that it was possible that we will see this. And of that Dr. King said this, “Our goal is to create the beloved community, for love lifts up and unites, hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of ‘fight fire with fire’ is bitterness and chaos. But the aftermath of the love method is the creation of the beloved community. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that. And it is this love that will bring about miracles.”
It's love that will bring about miracles.
My friends, we've seen miracles in our lifetimes. I know that many of you are in despair about the state of our nation, about the division in our world. But we have all seen miracles in our lifetimes. It's true. There are people alive today, still breathing, who were around when women could not vote in this country. And there are many people in this room who were alive when a married woman in this country could not open up a credit card in her own name. Then, of course, there are people alive today, watching this service today, who were alive when in this country, black people had to drink from separate water fountains from white people, and sit at the back of the bus. That's in our lifetime. And how many of us, when marriage equality became the law of the land a few years ago said, “I never thought this would happen in my lifetime.”
How did all of that happen? In just this little blip of human history, which we are so fortunate to be living in? How did it happen? All of those things? Did people just wake up one morning and say, ‘Oh, yeah, we were wrong about those things. Let's change them.’ No, it took years of struggle, centuries of struggle. It took people of courage, people who risked their lives, people who died for those things to be made manifest.
When all of you were children, it was not conceivable that someone like me could be the pastor of a Christian church. That's miraculous.
As Dr. King said, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. We are supposed to be the arc-benders. And when I look around this room, and I see the your faces, and I know some of your history, I know that we have so many arc-benders in this church, people who have been doing the work their entire lives.
We may not see the promised land during our lifetime, but we're building that kingdom while we're here. That's our calling. And so all my friends, on this Second Sunday after Epiphany, let us keep our focus on that vision of light that we know is possible. Let us be the arc-benders, the miracle workers, the beings of light. Let us not just be the light, but shine that light. Let us, the people of Douglas UCC ,continue to work to strive to heal our nation, to build the Beloved Community, and to bring about the kingdom of heaven right here on Earth.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
by Rev. Vicki Kemper, pastor of First Congregational UCC of Amherst, Massachusetts
The year was 1961, and the Civil Rights movement had reached a crossroads. Boycotts, sit-ins, and arrests had generated some support for desegregation and equal voting rights, but the time had come to take the struggle beyond the South, to build alliances and raise money. And so it was that the movement's 32-year-old leader attended a simple church supper in a small New England college town. That's right: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in my church's basement! What's almost as amazing is that the occasion was nearly lost to our congregation's history. Some church members recalled that Dr. King had come, but no one could remember exactly when, or what he said, or how he was received. Finally one member consulted the decades' worth of datebooks stored in her garage, and there it was: “Monday, April 17, 1961, MLK, First Church dining room.” Now we have a plaque to mark the spot and help us remember the moment. We want everyone who passes through that workaday space—especially the folks who come for a soup-kitchen meal three times a week and the college students who sleep there a few nights each August—to know they are on holy ground and that they, too, can go forth to change the world. Sometimes, when the injustices of the world are weighing heavy, I sneak downstairs and imagine him there. I wonder what he would think of us now, all these years later, as we struggle still—or don't—to eradicate racism from our laws, our institutions, and our hearts. Tomorrow, we celebrate Dr. King’s birthday. He would have been 94 years old. Take some time to honor the man who brought hope, justice, and freedom to so many, a prophet who challenges us still. Listen to one of his speeches. Stream the movie "Selma." Give thanks, and then get to work. Let us pray: In your light, O God, we see light. Thank you for our brother, Martin. May his light ever shine. Amen.
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