Last week if you were at Chestnut Grove, you know that I preached on the Stonewall Jackson and the Robert E. Lee statues controversy, taking place right now in Charlottesville. In preparation for that service, I did my share of re-reading some of the works of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Today I want to start off by sharing with you something about my relationship with that man. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, as you probably know by now. I was a child during most of the Civil Rights movement. It was for me, like a distant, rumbling thunder cloud—that movement. a backdrop to a privileged, joyful childhood. During my growing up years, I was mostly blind to the ugliness of segregation.
Even though segregation did not really impact my early years, though, I do have random memories surrounding the political turmoil of that time. Amazing the impressions and conversations we remember from long ago—they are like friendly post-it notes stuck to our brains, written by a younger me, accessed by a now older me.
One of those memories is of the first time I saw Martin Luther King, Jr. I was in our living room, with the rest of the family. We were watching Walter Cronkite on the evening news—Walter Cronkite and our family were like that (cross fingers).
I was sitting on our sofa which was back from the wall—you need to know that for what follows. On TV was a newsreel of Martin Luther King, Jr. He was speaking from a pulpit or a podium. He may have been giving his I Have a Dream Speech, but I don’t know. If it WAS that speech, then I was 9 years old because he delivered that speech in 1963. Even though I don’t remember any of his words, his tone made an impression on me. He spoke loudly, and it seemed to me, angrily. I remember being frightened—frightened enough that I got up off the sofa and stood behind it—so that I had the sofa between me and the television, between me and this frightening figure.
A few years later, I came to have a different impression of Martin Luther King, though. I was at my best friend’s house one evening—probably there for a sleep over—we had a lot of those. Sleep overs. There was a discussion/argument going on in their family room. My friend Betty’s parents were talking with her older sister. Sally. Now here you should know that Sally was what Betty and I aspired to be--a popular young woman, who was smart besides, and attractive, and all the rest.
I picked up from that discussion/argument that has unfolding, that there was this thing happening in Washington, DC. A march. Martin Luther King’s name came up. Sally wanted to go and see this in-the-flesh hero of hers. And any hero of Sally’s …! Sally wheedled an “Ok, fine-go” out of them. She went. She came home. She survived. She had participated in the Poor Peoples’ march in Washington—that was in 1968.
Now I want to fast forward to seminary. which I attended in the late 1990’s long after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and long after the Civil Rights movement had come to an end.
In the late 1990’s none of Martin Luther King Jr.’s works was required reading for seminary students. That is curious, don’t you think? A religious figure who did so much to change the culture of this country, if not the world—and we weren’t required to read even one sermon by Martin!
However, during my seminary years, I bought a used book of writings by religious authors: The World’s Treasury of Modern Religious Thought. I was sitting on the floor one winter’s evening, next to a heat duct--our house could get really cold at night. One of the “treasures” in that book was Martin Luther King, Jr’s letter from Birmingham Jail. It surprised me. Why had I not known that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a writer and a poet, as well as a leader of a movement? I sat there on the floor rocking back and forth, and I cried, and I cried as I read. I cried for the passion and the beauty of the letter. I cried too, for myself—that this piece of great literature had escaped me for so long. It is a life changer. Truly. I brought the book with me today, if you want to borrow it—but it’s falling apart so be careful with it!
Which brings us back to last week. As I said, I did a refresher course on Martin Luther King’s writings in preparation for my sermon-writing for Chestnut Grove. In the midst of my reading, I was also deliberating with some of my clergy colleagues about a rally coming up in Charlottesville. Unlike the KKK Rally which was all about the statues, this one is a “hate” rally. Truly. You would think that no one could support hate, “Yay, hate!” but amazingly enough some people actually DO support hate. These are White Supremacists who hate African Americans and Jews and probably anyone else who isn’t “white,” according to their definition of white.
“So, should we go to the rally, as an opposition force, or should we stay home.” That was the question that circulated in clergy colleague e-mails. Stay home, is in fact, what many of us did when the KKK came to town. We stayed home. Our reasoning then, was that the less attention given to these people, the better. That, and then too, speaking for myself here, until I really sat down and studied scripture, I was, even a short few weeks ago, still ambivalent about the statue controversy.
But you can’t be ambivalent about hate, right? No Christian can be ambivalent about hate. So, should my clergy colleagues and I, just “Let the White Supremacists do their thing?” That was my struggle, our struggle last week even as I prepared a sermon for Chestnut Grove. Then, as I read through some of Martin Luther King’s writings, I came across this:
“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetuate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
Darn. What do you do with that? “He who passively accepts evils is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetuate it.” Ok. It’s not scriptural. And certainly Martin Luther King, Jr. was not Jesus. But it is a fair point articulated by a great man.
Martin Luther King’s quote reminded me of something that Martin Niemöller wrote—back in the days of Nazi Germany. Niemöller was a German, Lutheran pastor who, in the early days of Hitler’s take over of Germany was actually a Hitler supporter. But Niemöller had a change of heart. After his change of heart he wrote this:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
So, this week as I and some of my colleagues struggled to determine what we should do— go to downtown Charlottesville and oppose the rally of White Supremacists, or stay home, I turned to scripture. I came upon the Ephesians passage I ultimately chose for today.
Honestly, I have never really liked this passage. I don’t appreciate the war imagery. Breastplates and shields and swords. Paul, or probably not Paul himself, but a disciple of Paul, writes a letter to some Gentile Christians. Those Gentiles may have been living in Ephesus, which is now in Turkey—that’s definitely how the book got its name, but the author no where alludes to Ephesus. At any rate, these Gentiles, wherever they are living, want to know, “Ok. So we’ve been baptized. Is that all there is to be being a Christian? What do we do now? Do we just wait around for Christ’s return?”
The writer offers an emphatic, “No!” In so many words he says, “There is evil in the world, Our task is to confront that evil. Christ’s hands are at the end of our arms. Christ’s feet are at the end of our legs,” And then he uses the war imagery to further make his point. He doesn’t mean that they are to REALLY dress in clanging metal breastplates and scabbards and all the rest. The writer uses these as metaphors. He’s talking about spiritual armor and weapons—the armor of truth, righteousness and faith, and the sword of the spirit. His words are as inspiring today as they were then. They come to us, fresh and potent, as if they had been frozen for eons and then thawed for just this point in time.
And then, as if I needed more inspiration, I thought about Jesus himself. Jesus did not commit violence, but he did confront evil—evil systems of authority that took advantage of and punished the poor, the physically afflicted, the socially outcast. He did that with words—face-to-face with the Pharisees. He did that with love.
We are to follow Jesus’ methods of confrontation. And because I need to learn more about the love part—I will be taking a crash course in non-violent action techniques tomorrow evening at Westminster. As did Jesus, you don’t respond to hate with hate—you respond to hate with love—a tall order, definitely.
Then, on Saturday, I will be joining with 999 other clergy—at least that is what we are hoping for—1000 committed clergy who will oppose the White Supremacists at the downtown mall in Charlottesville. If you would like to go with me, let me know, and maybe we can carpool there. If you can’t go, and I would expect an arduous day of it—there is still a lot that you can do as a prayer warrior. Westminster will be hosting a prayer vigil on Thursday, August 10th at 7 p.m. I’ll be there. And of course, your prayers on August 12 are very much appreciated and they are needed. Prayer works.
I will end this sermon with several other line from Ephesians: Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication.
And, from the last paragraph in Ephesians: Peace be to the whole community, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all who have an undying love for our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen