SERMON Epiphany 2b 2018
By Pastor Leo E. Longan
Martin Luther King
In our lessons today, we hear about God’s call of the boy Samuel to serve him as a prophet, and Jesus’ call of Philip and Nathaniel to be disciples. It is, therefore, a very good day to honor one of the greatest prophets and most devoted disciples of Christ in our time, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday our nation celebrates tomorrow. Like Samuel and Philip and Nathaniel and everyone in the room this morning, Dr. King was an imperfect and sinful man, who nevertheless yielded to God’s call and changed the course of human history in our generation. The problems he took on are still around, but the examples of his faithful life and grim martyrdom live on.
I can remember the exact moment when I heard that Dr. King had been assassinated; it was almost 50 years ago, in April 1968. I was in the office at the all-white church I was raised in, White Rock Methodist in Dallas, typing a paper for an English class at my all-white public high school on a borrowed mechanical typewriter (remember mechanical typewriters?) The youth pastor came in shaking and tearful, choking out the words “they’ve killed him. They shot him and killed him.”
THEY shot him.
It’s interesting to me how this word “they” figures in all discussions of race, no matter which side of the question you fall on. For our youth pastor, the “they” who shot Dr. King were presumably the racist bigots we all knew so well in the south, fighting fiercely for white supremacy. Usually in conversation, however, the “they” in the equation were the black people and it went without saying that “we” were the white people.
“They” were the subject of the only civil defense I ever heard offered of segregation: “They prefer to be with their own kind.” Usually a different spirit was in evidence when segregation came up, along with an entirely different vocabulary.
Thankfully, that vocabulary was never used in our home, though the word they was also featured in my mother’s only teaching about race: “They’re just as good as we are.” How utterly condescending it sounds; it would be a howling insult if anyone said it now. What I call the Us Versus Them dynamic was in full view: we white people define what is good, and we white people allow them black people be just as good as we white people are. Not exactly the best way to talk about race, but I promise you that at that time and in that place, it was about as good as it got. Mother kept an untidy house, but her principles were clean and strong: she was allergic to the virulent and vicious- and sometimes recreational – race-hatred of black people that was in the groundwater in the South back then. I’m old enough to remember Whites Only drinking fountains and waiting rooms, and I know how white people talk when they get going. My brothers as they got older could really dish it out. And it wasn’t just the men: the ugliest thing I ever heard any white person say about black people came from my beloved sweet pecan-pie Arkansas grandmother.
So perhaps after hearing all this you will allow me to speak with authority not as the scribes about this: I can smell racism.
So let me try and explain racism to you as I’ve come to know it. With racism, there’s always a US and a THEM. Us Versus Them is the essence of racism, tribalism, imperialism (it’s all lava from the same evil volcano) … WE are better than THEY are, therefore WE deserve to win and THEY deserve to lose. This narrative is usually reliably employed in the service of rapacious greed; it is the master script of human history: whites over blacks, Germans over Jews, Israelis over Palestinians, Sunni over Shia, England over India, men over women, everybody over gays, rich over poor, Protestants over Catholics and Catholics over Protestants … Everybody needs somebody to be better than. WE define ourselves over against THEM. Just fill in the blanks with your chosen race, nation or tribe and join the dance.
This is what racism is made of: dividing the world into Us and Them and living that out in many and various ways, from the playground to the Congress to the genocide of Rohinga people happening right now to the wide world.
Gathered as we are for worship in a Christian church with the scriptures open before us, I should not have to point out that this way of living in the world is utterly repugnant to the gospel of Christ; it cannot be accepted or tolerated by Christians. In Christ there is no more Us and Them. Ever.
Paul announced this clearly and forever in his letter to the church in Galatia (Galatians 3:28-29): “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” That is not an exhaustive list: the categories of human variety and identity that are so important to us are less than nothing to God.
There’s more: this principle has defined who we are as the Christian church from the beginning. The Us versus Them thing was decided once and forever at the Mother or All Annual Meetings in Acts 15: the Christian church will not be just for Jews but also for Gentiles, for everybody else also. All … all are one in Christ.
To return to our business today: this unity we share in Christ was the rock upon which Dr. King’s ministry to people black and white was based.
Dr. King understood that it also happens to be the rock upon which the magnificent idea that is America is based: America is for everyone, as President Trump said on Friday when he proclaimed tomorrow as a holiday in honor of Dr. King, “… no matter what the color of our skin or the place of our birth, we are created equal by God.”
That’s ironic because Mr. Trump is possibly the most US Versus THEM character ever to govern our nation; his recent indecent remarks about Haiti and Norway certainly demonstrate that. Coming on top of everything else to date, nobody is surprised. I’m listening pretty carefully and I’m not surprised.
I’m afraid I feel that I have to take a moment to address this directly. A reporter asked Mr. Trump if he was a racist. He didn’t answer, and I think it is entirely possible he doesn’t want to be one but he really doesn’t know what it means. He doesn’t seem much given to introspection. But from everything he says and does, America First, Me First, Us Versus Them as a way of reading reality is deeply engrained in the man. For me, Us Versus Them, no matter how expressed, is the definition of racism.
But this is not all about him; we who call ourselves disciples of Christ still have a long way to go in America and in the world if we are to live into the principle that defines our life together: there is no more US and Them. We are all together in this project we call human life. Meanwhile, the differences among us – even racial and religious differences – are not wrong and bad; our differences can and should be celebrated and enjoyed and shared. But they cannot be twisted or exploited for purposes of pride or greed or power, to lift up one group and debase another. Enough already. Before God – and before the law in our great country – our differences are meaningless; all people are equal. Period.
One thing that defines our equality is that we are all sinners and fall short of the glory of God. Neither Dr. King or Donald Trump or the best of us in the room today is worthy of the grace that God is even now pouring into our lives. The only one worthy is the lamb who was slain for us. So these troubled times demand great humility.
They also demand truth. As Jesus teaches us, it is the truth that will make us free. That truth is love: God’s universal, impartial, unconditional and irresistible love for all that God has made. We are created to reflect that love, and to share it. We. It’s all We. There is no Them any more. We are all one in Christ. Hallelujah.
If we have come even a little closer to that understanding today, we have honored Dr. King and the God who called him to serve.
Let us pray.