Second Sunday after Epiphany
Sermon preached by the Rev. Canon Eleanor Prior
St. Luke’s Cathedral, Portland, Maine 2022
5 Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens, *
and your faithfulness to the clouds.
6 Your righteousness is like the strong mountains,
your justice like the great deep; *
9 For with you is the well of life, *
and in your light we see light.
On our calendar of Lesser Feasts and Fasts we remember those who have gone before us who have been exemplary leaders of the Christian faith. There is only one person on this calendar of the blessed exemplars of our faith who have two dates on which they can be remembered and honored. That is The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Most on this calendar are remembered and honored on the date of their death. Martin Luther King’s death date was April 4th. But the church also recognizes the Sunday next to the 3rd Monday of January to honor Dr. King. He is so recognized because not only did he accomplish much in his lifetime, but his mission continues in a very real way in our country.
Tomorrow the BTS Center in Portland is hosting a reading (online of course) of one of his speeches: “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revoution.” Delivered as the commencement address at Oberlin College in June of 1965, this speech remains salient today. Remaining awake through a great revolution.
Remaining awake is our great task. In this season of Epiphany, the season of light, we are called to continually awaken.
Since the murder of George Floyd a new chapter in the movement of equality and justice for all Americans has arisen. And we realize that we each have to have our own awakening, to realize our own biases, do our own work, to educate ourselves, to find our own niche in forwarding equality for all.
Focusing on this particular speech of Dr. King’s drives home how the equality and justice Dr. King preached about is the equality and justice that it is all of our duties to strive for. It is for all of us to stay awake and keep the work going. We have the expression today of being “woke.” The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King wanted people to be woke. Jesus talked about staying awake because you don’t know when the bridegroom will come.
Dr. King delivered this particular speech in 1965, and the work he speaks of is still here to be done. He uses the story of Rip Van Winkle who fell asleep and woke up 20 years later. The timing of his “nap” was such that he slept through the Revolutionary War when the United States of America was formed and gained its independence from England.
As Jesus delivered his message and example in the first century CE and we are still striving to follow it, the same is true for Dr. King’s message delivered in the mid 20th century. We are still trying to follow it. It is arduous and not glamorous to continue the work steadily.
Some of you remember living through that revolution, and some of us don’t. But all of our lives have been affected by the courageous actions and words of Dr. King and the entire movement of civil rights activists and leaders. Does our nation look different now than it did then? Yes…and… sort of. As I speak, voting rights are still an issue on the table to be fought for as our very democracy comes into question. The revolution for civil rights still continues. For Black Americans prison incarceration rates tell a tale of ongoing prejudice.
Black Americans are incarcerated at nearly 5 times the rate of white Americans.
When Black and African American communities have become successful, they have been frequently burned down, or plowed under for parks, highways, and other public works. This means that it has been more than difficult to build affluence over the generations. Another byproduct of generational effects is education.
This is a message for all of us. This is a message for me, a white woman who had easy access to great education.
I am assuming you know much of this and I am repeating and reminding you, as we stay awake together. Waking up and staying awake seems like such a simple concept. Yet harder to carry through on than we might like to admit sometimes. An image comes to mibnd of my son in high school.
One day my normal morning routine of flinging open his bedroom door and singing, “Rise and shine and give God your glory glory” wasn’t doing the trick. So eventually I came and stripped all of his covers off of him, thinking for sure he would be cold and that would do it. But when I still didn’t see him and I went back, he had pulled some flimsy shirt or something over him, pretending that was enough to keep him warm. This image reminds me of how hard it can be for us to wake up sometimes.
I don’t need to tell you that one of the greatest struggles our country is facing right now is that of polarization. It is harder for people to disagree and to talk about it.
While Dr. King devoted his life to fighting for racial justice. He was one of the leaders of the Montgomery bus boycott. He led the Birmingham campaign and was arrested as a part of that. He was a brilliant speaker and motivator.
And he practiced non-violent civil disobedience.
In his first book, Stride Toward Freedom, He described the 6 key principles of non-violence, in theological and moral terms.
First, one can resist evil without resorting to violence.
Second, nonviolence seeks to win the “friendship and understanding” of the opponent, not to humiliate him (King, Stride, 84).
Third, evil itself, not the people committing evil acts, should be opposed.
Fourth, those committed to nonviolence must be willing to suffer without retaliation as suffering itself can be redemptive.
Fifth, nonviolent resistance avoids “external physical violence” and “internal violence of spirit” as well: “The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him” (King, Stride, 85). The resister should be motivated by love in the sense of the Greek word agape, which means “understanding,” or “redeeming good will for all men” (King, Stride, 86).
The sixth principle is that the nonviolent resister must have a “deep faith in the future,” stemming from the conviction that “The universe is on the side of justice” (King, Stride, 88).
The fifth and sixth principles are reminders of our faith and our call. The idea that the nonviolent resister doesn’t just not commit physical acts of violence, but finds it in themself to understand the other, to maintain faith and hope in the future, no matter what the present looks like.
In his letter to the Corinthians Paul speaks about the varieties of gifts and varieties of activities. The gifts that Paul outlines are: the utterance of wisdom,
utterance of knowledge,
gifts of healing,
the working of miracles,
the discernment of spirits,
various kinds of tongues,
the interpretation of tongues.
(this last part of tongues I think of as learning to understand each other’s languages)
And then he says, “All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.”
Discernment is a central part of our christian faith, of our spiritual path. Because to be alive means to always be growing. Discernment is part of prayer. Listening to that Spirit. Identifying what our gifts are. Our gifts may often surprise us. They might discomfit us. In general they will lead us into uncomfortable territory. One of my learnings in life is to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable to be a white woman of privilege trying to figure out how to help. To honor Dr. King we can dig into ourselves. I don;’t know what you will find there. Only that you will find something. And in so doing we will discover the truth of Dr. King’s words:
“For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.- this is the interrelated structure of reality.” This is the interrelated structure of being the body of Christ.
In this season of Light the best wine is to come. We are the vessels of water. We have work to do separately and together, work to discern for ourselves. The working of miracles is the wine that is created out of each of us discerning our gifts and lending them unceasingly towards justice. The dance between faith and love and acts. Staying awake to them, staying alive. The wine that is created out of turning injustice to justice. This is the very substance of Jesus. The very substance of the bread we consume together at communion.