January 20, 2019
Rev. Martin Luther King Sunday
(I include the meditation and prayer time following the sermon on the audio).
Order of Worship in pdf
“I for one believe that if you give people a thorough understanding of what confronts them and the basic causes that produce it, they’ll create their own program, and when the people create a program, you get action.” — Malcolm X
“You can pray until you faint,
but unless you get up and try to do something,
God is not going to put it in your lap.”
–Fannie Lou Hamer
Three days later there was a wedding in Cana, Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there. Jesus was also invited to the wedding along with his disciples. When the wine had run out, Jesus’ mother says to him, “They’re out of wine.”
Jesus replies to her, “Lady, what do you want with me? It’s not my time yet.”
His mother says to the servants, “Whatever he tells you, do it.”
Six stone water jars were standing there—for use in the Jewish purification ritual—and each could hold twenty or thirty gallons.
“Fill the jars with water,” Jesus tells them.
So they filled them to the brim. Then he tells them, “Now dip some out and take it to the caterer.”
And they did so. When the caterer tasted the water, now changed into wine—he had no idea where it had come from even though the servants who had taken the water out knew—he calls the groom aside and says to him,
“Everyone serves the best wine first; later, when people are drunk, they serve the cheaper wine. But you’ve held back the good wine until now.”
Jesus performed this sign, his first, in Cana, Galilee; it displayed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.
“On the Marriage at Cana” — Rainer Maria Rilki
How could she not take pride in him since he
could make (to her) the plainest things adorned?
Wasn’t even the large and lofty night
all in disarray when he appeared?
And didn’t that time he got lost
end up, amazingly, a glory of his?
Hadn’t the wisest then exchanged
their tongues for ears? Didn’t the house
become fresh at his voice? She had
repressed, surely a hundred times,
the display of her delight in him.
She followed him with astonishment.
But at that wedding-feast, there when
unexpectedly the wine ran out,–
she begged him for a gesture with her look
and didn’t grasp that he resisted her.
And then he did it. Later she understood
how she had pressured him into his course:
for now he really was a wonder-worker,
and the whole sacrifice was now ordained,
irrevocably. Yes, it was written.
But had it, at the time, as yet been readied?
She: she had driven it forth
in the blindness of her vanity.
At the table piled with fruits and vegetables,
she shared everybody’s joy and didn’t know
that the water of her own tear ducts
had turned to blood with this wine.
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” — Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men [and women] willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
“I am leaving this legacy to all of you…to bring peace, justice, equality, love and a fulfillment of what our lives should be. Without vision, the people will perish, and without courage and inspiration, dreams will die – the dream of freedom and peace.”
The Hour Has Come
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther king, Jr. is a model for me of a pastor, preacher, teacher, theologian, and religious leader. He is a model not only in his successes such as his oratorical style, his articulation of the theology of human dignity, the way he exercised leadership, his ability to move between the religious and the secular worlds, and the way he could mobilize people for change. He is a model there, of course. He truly was a genius. There are many imitators of King in all those areas; imitation being the highest form of respect.
More importantly, for me, at least, he is a model not so much in his successes as in his failures. There were many things he was not able to do, that he was not allowed to accomplish, and that deeply burdened him. These things included the instransigence of racism in the northern states, the military-industrial complex and the Vietnam War, and the grinding poverty and inequality that seemed to be all-consuming.
The Beloved Community, that he envisioned, that was revealed to him, of people able through non-violence to reconcile beyond barriers of race and class, to live as brothers and sisters, was a dream, but all too rarely, a reality.
King had conflicts with those closest to him, those who had been by his side during the struggles for civil rights, when his attention turned to the larger evils that plagued America in the 1960s and still do today. Many of his closest friends and allies abandoned him when he spoke out forcefully against the Vietnam War. His last years were difficult years. He was alone, advised by nearly everyone to stick to civil rights and not take on the war machine. He could not remain silent or be controlled by those with a smaller vision when he clearly saw the demonic rise of a hidden government hell-bent on destroying the world and killing the prophets in its wake. This hidden government killed him too.
Martin Luther King was a failure in the end, much like Jesus.
You have to wonder, and I am sure he wondered it as well, why he didn’t stay within the lines, within the job description that had been outlined for him. Why did he speak of things that were not his business?
“War? Not your business, Martin. You are hurting the cause of civil rights when you talk about that.”
He was told that again and again.
“The time isn’t right, Martin. There isn’t time for that. Take that on at another time.”
Where is God in all of this? The God who Martin prayed to, spoke for, studied, believed in. Where was God when the assassin’s bullet took him down when he was in his prime? Didn’t God have any more use for him alive?
Jesus was at a wedding party. His mother tells him the host has ran out of wine. Jesus says the strangest thing, “My hour has not yet come.” Yet he does it anyway. It is a small miracle, really, in the scope of things that would seem to matter in the world, turn water magically into wine in order to save the host from embarrassment.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke adds a narrative to the silent text about his mother outing Jesus, in a sense, before perhaps he himself was ready. I object to Rilke’s critique of Mary. Mary cannot be to blame for setting Jesus on his course. She does what she has always done, be a vessel for the Holy One. Mary, to Jesus, speaks for God. Your protests of your hour not yet coming fall flat as soon as they are uttered, Jesus. No, your hour has come. Your mother knew it without knowing it. You have a job to do Jesus, and you will fail.
I have never liked the call of Isaiah the prophet. We sing about it in the hymn Here I Am, Lord. Isaiah is confronted by the Lord of Hosts. It is a dramatic vision with smoke and cherubim and singing angels. “Who will go for me?” the voice thunders. Isaiah answers, “Here I am. Send me.” Oh Isaiah, don’t you know, when the Holy One calls you it is not for success. Usually we stop reading after Isaiah says that he will go as he is sent.
The text continues with the rest of the assignment.
And the Lord said, “Go and say to this people:
‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
10 Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.”
11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
12 until the Lord sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
13 Even if a tenth part remain in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump.
That is the assignment. The charge is to fail. Go and fail. Speak eloquently. Tell the people what is true. Use every rhetorical device you can think of. Speak strategically if you think that will work. But it won’t. Start a YouTube Channel. Deliver a stylish Ted Talk. Study oratory. Practice your delivery. None of it will work. Minds are dull. Ears and eyes are shut. No one will hear you.
Did you know the whole Bible is like that? The prophets are never heard, except for Jonah. The Ninehvites all repent after Jonah preaches, but the point of the story isn’t about the Ninehvites, but about Jonah, who sits in the hot sun, sulking because God didn’t destroy the Ninehvites like he should have. Jonah is the one with the hard heart. We never know if Jonah will ever get it.
The entire Bible, old and new testaments, is about speaking to people who never get it and who God knows from the beginning that they won’t get it, and even God hardens the hearts of people so they won’t get it. Then God tells the prophets to go tell them anyway the truth that would save them if they would hear it.
The prophets are killed. Jesus was killed. All the apostles were killed. Up to this very day, those who tell the truth that will save are not heard. Because the assignment is one of failure.
So, of course, Jesus says to his mother, “My hour has not yet come.” That is the human side of him. That is the side of one who knows intimately what this God business really is. It is a set up to get yourself killed. Speak the truth. When you do, they will kill you. That is the divine plan.
The concept that is hard to get our heads around in this rather illogical scheme is the concept of time. Infinity does not work in terms of time. Being mortal we never see the unfolding of time. There is never enough time for any one person to witness the effects of one’s efforts. God’s message is never one of human strategy or eloquence. It is one of time.
People never hear it in our scope of time. And yet…
“The time is always ripe to do right,” to use King’s phrase.
People won’t get it. You must do it. When? Now.
The biggest enemy to truth is strategy. If we give people enough time, or if we say it in the right way, they will do the right thing. Not true. At least according to every story in the Bible, including the story of Jesus. He was a whiz with all those parables. Got him killed anyway. If Jesus could not avoid it, I mean really. Who else thinks they could do better?
It appears that Martin Luther King’s assignment from God in his last years was to preach against the madness of war and to fail at convincing people of that truth. Preach. Fail. Die.
Why? Excellent question. Why?
Excellent question but it is not ours to ask.
It is God’s time.
Every spiritual tradition and every spiritual teacher with any depth knows this. You trust in the truth of the message despite the effects within time. It is not a matter of strategy. It is a matter of integrity.
We have a holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr. today. We have a statue for him. We celebrate his successes.
The deeper significance of King, like the prophets before him and after him, is not one of success. He was faithful because of his failure. Only in that failure can we bear witness to divine success.
The hour has come for all people of faith, not to be strategic, not to pretend that we can ever be successful, not to delude ourselves that we will be heard, because it never is about us. It is about the truth that burdens your heart. The truth that will set us free, but not in our time. In God’s time.
That belief is what I think kept the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. faithful to his final day.
King didn’t stop the war. The war machine has morphed and magnified 100 times since his time. It is worse than it has ever been. King did not succeed. But he spoke the truth. A truth that we can only trust will bear fruit in God’s time.
He was a great failure.
The calling of a prophet.
For his witness, I am grateful.