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Sermon 01/21/2018- Epiphany 3B

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Sermon, Epiph 3B  MLK                                                              Jeffrey B. MacKnight
21 Jan 2018                                                                                St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda


Here’s a story that’s not politically correct, but reminds me of old Jonah. 

Walking into the bar, a man said to the bartender, "Pour me a stiff one — just had another fight with the little woman." "Oh yeah?" says the bartender, "And how did this one end?" "When it was over," the man replied, "she came to me on her hands and knees." "Really?" says the bartender, "Now that's a change! What did she say?" “She said, ‘Come out from under the bed, you little coward, so I can hit you again!’

Jonah didn’t take direction very well, and God seemed to have to use drastic means to get God’s point across – hence, the infamous whale.  God had a job for Jonah to do: to speak for God to the notoriously wicked city of Ninevah.  Jonah didn’t wanna, so he basically tried to hide under the bed.  Not a good strategy when hiding from God.  It doesn’t work for us, either.  God searches us out with ease, and finds us wherever we try to hide. 

But what about this job God had for Jonah: speaking for God?  That sounds presumptuous at best, and dangerous at worst.  Look at all the prophets who spoke for God and ended up in big trouble.  Look at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Who would choose to do that?  Ah, but do we have a choice?  That’s the real question. 

As a preacher, I’m in a special position to speak.  Now, preachers have choices.  A lot of time, we speak about God: we teach, explain.  That’s easier, and less risky, because we’re not challenging people’s behaviors, we’re not challenging the system, the society, that we live in.  But to speak for God takes chutzpah: When I do that, I presume to know God’s will, God’s desire for us, and I’m imposing it on others. 

Last week I attended a conference at the Virginia Seminary with other clergy.  I was talking with another priest, a likable guy, and he started to say that he believed there was no place in the pulpit for anything political.  Just “stick to the Gospel,” he said.  Now, my first reaction, as a person who is conflict-avoidant, was to let this pass without comment.  But then I thought, “No, I disagree with this, and I can state my view just as he has stated his.”  So I did.  I said, gently, that I believed Jesus’ Gospel touches a great deal on political issues – poor people, aliens, care for the sick and weak, care for children, avoiding war and violence.  I don’t see how one can preach the Gospel without preaching on these things.  In other words, to speak for God means to take risks that people will be uncomfortable, unhappy, and perhaps hostile with you. 

The other priest must have been conflict-avoidant, too.  He didn’t say much more. 

So, speaking for God is dangerous.  But we have seen how necessary it is, especially when people in distress aren’t able to speak for themselves.  Poor people are in constant fear that the rest of us know nothing about.  They are easily dismissed from jobs and evicted from homes if they are perceived as “troublemakers.”  Young immigrant Dreamers have no vote in the only country they’ve ever known as home.  You’ve heard of a “victimless crime.”  Well, Dreamers are “crimeless victims.”  They’ve done nothing wrong, but they are at terrible risk now.  Is this God’s desire?  The God who said,

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.     Leviticus 19.34

Our country, despite all our rhetoric about freedom and equality, was built on the aching backs of a host of aliens violently brought here, entirely against their will, to work in the fields of this country.  Enslaved peoples, “aliens,” were denied all rights, including parental rights to their own children.  They had little power to speak for themselves.  Someone else had to speak for them, and at great cost, some did. 

After the Civil War, our nation reverted to a new form of the old order: a separate and very unequal dispensation for whites and blacks.  Abraham Lincoln was killed; Jim Crow was lifted up in his place.  Again, African Americans had little voice and were often denied the vote.  Who would speak for them? 

Martin Luther King rose to that terrifying vocation, and it came out of his understanding of the Gospel of Jesus.  One cannot “love your neighbor” and oppress him at the same time.  God’s Kingdom stood in judgment of the United States of America.  King believed he must speak.  And he was willing to pay the ultimate price. 

We know he had hesitations, moments of doubt.  The movie “Selma” helped me understand Dr. King as a person, a human being filled with frailty, fears, and failures.  He was no perfect saint.  But he was a prophet.   He took on that vocation that Jonah tried hard to avoid.  And his prophecy has borne fruit in our country.  There is still a long way to go.  Recent political and social debate tells us that racism is alive and well in a city near you!  “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance,” was a maxim quoted by abolitionists.  Our work is far from done.  New prophets will be needed to speak for God in new times, in new ways.  Aldous Huxley expanded the maxim to say, ‘Eternal vigilance is not only the price of liberty; eternal vigilance is the price of human decency.”  We would do well to heed those words today.  

In conclusion, the church is always at great risk of being co-opted by the society, the culture in which it lives.  So are its preachers.  I can tell you, it’s easier to preach about welcoming Jesus into your heart, than it is to preach about how we must change ourselves, our relationships, and our societal systems.  Dr. King said,

“Although the Church has been called to combat social evils, it has often remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows….  How often the church has been an echo, rather than a voice,  - ...rather than a headlight guiding men and women progressively and decisively to higher levels of understanding.” 

And, I might add, higher levels of love.  Love is, in the end, the final goal, and the final arbiter of our lives.  Have we loved our neighbor?  Is Love Practiced Here?  


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