Date: Feb. 13, 2022
Scripture Lessons: Jeremiah 17:5-10 and Luke 6:12-26
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
In his final speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed his dissatisfaction. Despite the many successes of the Civil Rights Movement, King offered a lengthy list of dissatisfactions. He told the assembly:
“Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds.
“Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort from the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice.
“Let us be dissatisfied until those who live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security.
“Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family will live in a decent, sanitary home.
“Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality integrated education.
“Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity.
“Let us be dissatisfied until men and women, however black [sic] they may be, will be judged on the basis of the content of their character, not on the basis of the color of their skin. Let us be dissatisfied.
“Let us be dissatisfied until every state capitol will be housed by a governor who will do justly, who will love mercy, and who will walk humbly with his God.
“Let us be dissatisfied until from every city hall, justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
“Let us be dissatisfied until that day when the lion and the lamb shall lie down together, and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid.
“Let us be dissatisfied, until men will recognize that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth.
“Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout, ‘White Power!’ when nobody will shout, ‘Black Power!’ but everybody will talk about God’s power and human power.”
Now Dr. King had a good job as the pastor of a thriving congregation. He was the head of SCLC. He had a nice home, a wife and healthy family. Food on the table. A car. Fine clothes. He was well-educated by any standard. He had a good livelihood. As a pastor he had prestige and respect in the community. So why was he so dissatisfied? Why was he worrying so much about the people in the slums and the downtrodden and about dignity and freedom not only in the South but in the entire United States and even the whole world? Why did he have such grandiose notions of justice and freedom?
Yes, Dr. King was a movement leader. He was a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. He was a superb orator. He had a doctorate and was highly learned in philosophy and theology. But, first and foremost, Dr. King was a Christian. A follower of Jesus. Connected to the God revealed in the ministry and teachings of the Jewish Jesus of the first century of the Common Era. So he felt compelled to live according to the faith and values of Jesus.
And the reading that we heard this morning reveals the essence of the way of Jesus. Jesus goes off to pray overnight. To connect with God. To ground himself in Divine Love. To stay true to his faith and his calling. To be in the world but not of the world. He prays the night through to foster his citizenship in the commonwealth of God. Jesus spends the night, we are told, in communion with God. He maintains his connection to the Source, the Love, the Spirit, the Power.
And after that night of prayer, he selects his inner circle, and then proceeds to engage with all who are looking to him for teaching and healing and freedom. And we hear those famous beatitudes: Blessed are the poor. Blessed are those who hunger. Blessed are those who weep. Blessed are those who are persecuted. And the original audience for this gospel was being persecuted. What we see here is that Jesus’ connection with God, his time in prayer, directly fosters his connection to those who are suffering, who are being victimized, who are oppressed. This is what we see in Dr. King as well.
Connection to God, to Divine Love, to the Sacred, produces concern for others and for the conditions in society that produce suffering. That is what we see in Jesus. So we see that religion associated with Jesus must also be associated with justice. When we pursue connection with the God of Jesus, we are moved to have compassion for those made poor and for those who are suffering. And the call is not just to be concerned about these people but to cure the causes of the suffering including injustice – social, economic, racial, and every other kind of injustice which denies the sacredness of each and every human life.
Connection to God creates connection and concern for the others. And I would suggest that any true religion has this basis. And if a religious expression does not produce this kind of concern, then I would question its validity and authenticity. And this includes the church. There are many churches where the primary teaching is that connection with God will bring you personal benefits such as health and wealth and heaven after you die with no mention of the needs of others. That simply is not consistent with the witness of Jesus.
Different expressions of Christianity can convey differing views about the divinity of Jesus, about baptism, about communion, about prayer, about the Bible, even about heaven. But there really is no room for differing views about the poor and the oppressed. Christians are to have compassion for those made poor and are to seek to heal the societal conditions that create poverty and suffering.
This is the heart of the witness of Dr. King. And he calls out the church for its shortcomings.
In his letter from the Birmingham jail written in August of 1963 from solitary confinement, Dr. King tells us:
“There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were ‘a colony of heaven,’ called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God- intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.”
King goes on:
“Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. . . .
“But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.” [The Radical King: Martin Luther King, Jr., edited and introduced by Cornel West, pp.141-42.]
Well, Dr. King was prescient about this as well as other things. The church has diminished and while there may be a variety of factors influencing this decline, certainly the lack of commitment to justice and concern for the downtrodden must be among them. Connection to God must lead to concern for the people and the society around us for the church to be meaningful and to have validity and authority.
The connection between commitment to God and to each other is conveyed in the graphic on the bulletin this morning. It is an ancient symbol of Christian spirituality. The center is God, Divine Love, and the lines represent people. As we move closer to the center, to the Sacred, we find ourselves closer to each other. Being in closer connection with God puts us in closer connection with each other.
This is the reality that we see embodied in the life of Dr. King. He maintained his connection to God, he was devoted to following Jesus, and this drew him into the cause of Civil Rights not only for Black people in the South but for the poor and downtrodden the world over. And he was criticized for this from within his own community. There were colleagues that wanted Dr. King to stay focussed on the conditions of Blacks in the South. Period. They didn’t want to hear about the war in Vietnam and the brown people getting killed over there. They didn’t want to hear about Africa, India, and South America and the movements for self
determination and getting out from under colonization and empire. They wanted King stay focussed on Blacks in America. But King could not accept that limitation because he was connected to God, the God of Jesus, the God of Creation, the God of all humanity, not just the Blacks in the United Sates. And there were many who did not like that.
Dr. King knew that he would face controversy because, well, Jesus did. Again and again. Much as we may have come to associate the Beatitudes with Jesus and to accept Jesus’ concern for the poor in our day, the message of the Beatitudes was absolutely contrary to the assumptions and mindset of the first century. This teaching was extremely controversial. The common assumption was that if you were sick, or poor, or hungry, it was due to your behavior. It was a consequence of your actions or choices or thoughts. You had done something to displease God and this was the result. Jesus rejects that altogether. He preached a God of love for each and every person. No exceptions. Jesus overturns every conventional expectation of his listeners. What he says in the Beatitudes is scandalous. Period. Already the gospel of Matthew tones these teachings down, and ‘Blessed are the poor’ becomes ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ The version in Luke is in red in the Jesus Seminar Bible, indicating that scholars pretty much agree that Jesus actually said something very close to:
“You who are poor are blessed,
for the reign of God is yours.
You who hunger now are blessed,
for you’ll be filled.
You who weep now are blessed,
for you’ll laugh.”
Jesus preached a God of love for all. And that God is adamantly against the principalities and powers that create poverty and suffering because those forces degrade and undermine the image of God in each and every person. Suffering and poverty can diminish the sense of holiness at the heart of each life. They can distort the reflection of the Divine image in the lives of those who are oppressed and suffering. Oppression must be eliminated so that the image of God in each person can be free.
The Civil Rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama was focussed on eliminating segregation. In a variety of ways, the Black community expressed the need for change through non violent direct action. As always the locus of the movement was the church. The protests and marches and demonstrations of various kinds stemmed directly from the Christian faith of the community. And in Birmingham, those involved included not just adults but also youth and even children. The leaders did not want to put the young people in harm’s way, but the young people were part of the church and as Christians they wanted to express their faith by being part of the movement. Thus thousands of young people were active in the movement. They would gather in the church and a few would go out one door as decoys while larger groups went out other doors while the police were distracted. They were very sly and cunning. Children too young to protest went to the library which was segregated and went into the children’s department in the white section and sat down and read books for the afternoon. These young people were eager to make a witness.
Dr. King tells us of one young child, about eight years old, who was walking in a demonstration with her mother.
“An amused policeman leaned down to her and said with mock gruffness: ‘What do you want?’
“The child looked into his eyes, unafraid, and gave her answer.
“‘F’eedom,’ she said.
King concludes, “She could not even pronounce the word, but no Gabriel trumpet could have sounded a truer note.” [A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James Melvin Washington, pp.546-547.]
Jesus shows us that connection with God leads to concern about those who are being treated in a degrading manner. That is completely consistent with the teachings of Judaism, especially the teachings of the prophets. Jesus’ perspective is also a reflection of the message conveyed in the Magnificat attributed to Mary, the mother of Jesus. In the gospel of Luke in the stories that lead up to the birth of Jesus, when Mary affirms her special role she celebrates the God who lifts the lowly and gives good things to the hungry and promotes the radical reversal of the structures of society that produce hunger and poverty. In the Beatitudes, Jesus echoes his mother.
While the radical blessing of those who were thought to be ‘less than’ was scandalous in Jesus’ day, let’s take a moment to reflect on the ‘woes’ that we listened to this morning. These verses are not included by Matthew in his version of this material associated with Jesus. In addition, the Jesus Seminar scholars agree that the ‘woes’ are not historically attributable to Jesus. So why are they in the gospel of Luke? Well, when the gospel was written, those who followed Jesus were being persecuted. So, they wanted to see consequences for those who were having it good in this life. They did want some sort of vindication. That perspective also echos the Magnificat. The rich are sent empty away. It is a way of seeing the agenda of justice furthered in some kind of eternal sense.
We also want to notice that while poverty and suffering can diminish a person’s sense of sacredness, so can wealth and power and social acclaim. These things can lead to a false sense of security and control. They can lead to a false sense of independence and create distancing from God, Divine Love, the Sacred.
Jeremiah uses the image of the shrub. Planted by the water, connected to God, it is deeply rooted and thrives and is resilient. But those who do not trust God are like shrubs in the desert during the drought which wither. There are many who are wealthy and well fed and seemingly happy and highly praised, who are spiritually withering whether they know it or not. We thrive when we are connected to God. The closer the connection, the more we flourish. And, as Jesus shows us, the more we are compassionate and sensitive to those who are made poor and those who are mistreated and those who are suffering. The closer we are to God the more we serve and help and heal. When we entrust our life to God, to Love, when we conform to God’s value system shown to us by Jesus, when we know our dependence on God, we lose our lives in something bigger than ourselves. We are rooted in a larger reality in which we thrive.
It is no coincidence that the Civil Rights Movement emerged from the church and was rooted in the church. In Birmingham, after much training, the people were asked to consider signing a pledge to indicate their intention to participate in the demonstrations. This pledge was a direct commitment to the Christian faith. Here’s what it said:
“I HEREBY PLEDGE MYSELF — MY PERSON AND MY BODY — TO THE NONVIOLENT MOVEMENT. THEREFORE I WILL KEEP THE FOLLOWING TEN COMMANDMENTS:
- MEDITATE daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
- REMEMBER always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks
justice and reconcilIation — not victory.
- WALK and TALK in the manner of love, for God is love.
- PRAY daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
- SACRIFICE personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
- OBSERVE with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
- SEEK to perform regular service for others and for the world.
- REFRAIN from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
- STRIVE to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
- FOLLOW the directions of the movement and of the captain of a
“I sign this pledge, having seriously considered what I do and with the determination and will to persevere.”
There was a space for name, and address, AND nearest relative because there was definitely risk involved. [A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James Melvin Washington, p. 537.
This pledge is a direct expression of the way of Jesus, of what it looks like when you are connected to God. And while that seems to be something admirable, it was also controversial. There were parents who did not want their children to be participating in the demonstrations. Of course they were concerned for the safety of the young people because Bull Connor did not spare the dogs or the hoses. So this pledge, the commitment to the demonstrations, caused division in families and homes.
Dr. King tells us of one such conflict between a father and son in Birmingham.
“The children understood the stakes they were fighting for. I think of one teen-age boy whose father’s devotion to the movement turned sour when he learned that his son had pledged himself to become a demonstrator. The father forbade his son to participate.
“‘Daddy,’ the boy said, ‘I don’t want to disobey you, but I have made my pledge. If you try to keep me home, I will sneak off. If you think I deserve to be punished for that, I’ll just have to take the punishment. For, you see, I’m not doing this only because I want to be free. I’m doing it also because I want freedom for you and Mama, and I want it to come before you die.’”
Dr. King concludes:
“That father thought again, and gave his son his blessing.” [A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James Melvin
Washington, p. 537.]
We hear the echo of the teaching of Jesus:
“Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they scorn and insult you
and spurn your name as evil
because of the Chosen One.”
May our connection with God, the Sacred, Divine Love, increase our compassion and commitment to Jesus and justice so that we, too, may know what it is to be blessed. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.