Taking Over Where a King Left Off
A sermon based on Amos 5:21-27 and Luke 6:27-31 given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 19, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
As I remember it, one spring day when I was in fifth grade our family gathered around the TV to watch a special news report with Walter Cronkite. The report went on and on about this man I’d never heard of. So I turned to my father and asked “Dad, who’s this Martin Luther King guy they’re talking about and why did someone shoot him?”
My dad’s response, with a surprisingly somber reverence, was something like “You never heard of Martin Luther King? He was a civil rights leader. They don’t teach about him at school? He was killed fighting for rights for people. ”
Now I was all of ten at the time, and I doubt my parents had mentioned Dr. King to me, so I am not sure the school system had failed me, but there’s much power in telling of this story because my father was and is politically very conservative, but back in the day Martin Luther King Jr.’s work transcended politics.
The whole civil rights movement by1968 had a way of transcending politics. Dogs and water hoses, police batons and bombs, bloodying and beating up, maiming and killing non-violent protestors seeking merely rights that others took for granted had a way of superseding conservative, moderate and liberal boundaries. Only those invested in racism and segregation, only those unwilling to see all humans treated as equal could not empathize with the victims of racial oppression that had long been an ugly hallmark of our nation.
I know it sounds harsh, but, by 1968 only the misguided and ignorant were unable to see that God’s love was calling us as a nation to stop that oppression. God and the world had long ached for an end to segregation and in 1968 we could see it coming about.
And Martin Luther King Jr. was a brave and eloquent leader, one of the heroic faces that brought this nation to that point, where we were finally as a whole listening and hearing that call from God, and we were acting upon it. Powerful stuff.
There’s even more personal power in the telling of my experience of that sad April day, something profound happened to me the day. I learned of Martin Luther King’s assignation and I heard about civil rights. A seed was planted and watered and began to sprout. I became quite curious about the civil rights movement, and over time I became captivated by it.
Over the years I learned more and more about civil rights. Early on one thing I remember standing out, something that clicked in my young mind, was that the word’s of the Pledge of Allegiance we said ever day at school were a solemn pledge not just to a flag but to this republic “with liberty and justice for all.” And it was simply obvious to me as a child that ideal was not fully played out in our nation’s day-to-day activities. Liberty and justice for all was an ideal, a promise, that I could not let go of, and I have never been able to let go of. It has influenced my life ever since.
That ideal is part and parcel of the Bible. It’s part of our Hebrew Scripture reading from Amos, a text Rev. King was quite fond of quoting, you may recall in his “I Have a Dream Speech” one of the most passionate lines is “we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’” Rev. King was referring to African Americans stripped of selfhood, denied votes and subjected to brutality and grave awful injustices, but his use of Amos summarizes God’s call for all of us. None of us should be “satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’” Indeed as the Gospel reading illustrates Jesus commands his followers to “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” We all want to be provided justice and righteousness. In America we are taught it is due to us, and we pledge that it is due to all . . . “Liberty and justice for all.”
The civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s that Rev. King led– indeed every civil rights movement – has been about just that. But Rev. King ministry was not just about advocating for Jesus’ command in the Gospel reading that we “Do to others as [we] would have them do to [us].” Amazingly he used the rest of Jesus’ commands in Luke 6: 27-30 as the means by which to accomplish it. Hear again the words of Jesus in those verses:
I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luk 6:27-31 NRS)
If we think about it, Rev. King used the first set of commands as a means to bring about the last command to “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Simply put, he used non-violence, pacifism to resist the violence of oppression and the violence of brutality, and ultimately end a system of terrorism for African Americans in this country.
As Rev. King put it “True pacifism is not non-resistence to evil, but non-violent resistence to evil.” 1 You see, and this is a critical point of Jesus’ commands and Rev. King’s work, non-violence resistence to evil and oppression and violence is NOT submission to evil or oppression or violence.
What it is, is love oriented resistence with great power. To quote Martin Luther King again “Love is the most durable power in the world.” 2 For both Jesus and Martin the bottom-line is that “We must pursue peace through peaceful means.” 3 There is no other option to bring about peace. None. Rev. King’s voice continues to cry out to us this truth. And for us as Christians it is of utmost importance that we understand that Rev. King’s reverberating voice from the 50s and 60s is an echo of the voice of Christ. In one of my favorite quotes from Rev. King, he preached:
through the vista of time a voice still cries out to every potential Peter. “Put up your sword!” The shores of history are white with the bleached bones of nations and communities that failed to follow this command. 4
And again, let me stress that doing as Jesus commanded and putting up the sword does not mean dropping resistence. It means resisting with the durable strength of love. And that strikes us as odd . . . I know. We think love means we have to like, but that is not the case. Rev. King had to wrestle with this mistaken notion by folks questioning how we can love enemies, especially the ones who do egregious wrongs.
He explained in his book The Strength to Love that
The meaning of love is not to be confused with some sentimental outpouring. Love is something much deeper than emotional bosh. Perhaps the Greek language can clear our confusion at this point. In the Greek New Testament there are three words for love. The word eros is a sort of aesthetic or romantic love. . . The second word is philia, a reciprocal love and the intimate affection and friendship between friends. We love those whom we like, and we love because we are loved. The third word is agape, understanding and creative, redemptive goodwill for all [ ]. An overflowing love which seeks nothing in return, agape is the love of God operating in the human heart. At this level, we love [others] not because we like them, nor because their ways appeal to us, nor even because they possess some type of divine spark; we love every [one] because God loves [them]. At this level, we love the person who does an evil deed, although we hate the deed that he [or she] does. 5
Rev. King was actually known for having a sense of humor, and we can hear a bit of it in what he writes next:
Now we can see what Jesus meant when he said, “Love your enemies.” We should be happy that he did not say, “Like your enemies.” It is almost impossible to like some people. “Like” is a sentimental and affectionate word. How can we be affectionate toward a person whose avowed aim is to crush our very being and place innumerable stumbling blocks in our path? How can we like a person who is threatening our children and bombing our homes? That is impossible. But Jesus recognized that love is greater than like. When Jesus bids us to love our enemies, he is speaking neither of eros nor philia; he is speaking of agape, understanding and creative, redemptive goodwill for all [ ]. Only by following this way and responding with this type of love are we able to be children of our Father who is in heaven. 6
Rev. King was brilliant. He was right, we cannot like some folks, but we can love everyone. We can desire the well being of even the awful-est acting people we know, if for no other reason than their well being – physically and mentally– makes for our well being. . . for the world’s well being. Moreover. Practically speaking – and I am quoting Martin Luther King again:
Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Dark- ness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multi- plies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. So when Jesus says “Love your enemies,” he is setting forth a profound and ultimately inescapable admonition. Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies—or else? The chain reaction of evil—hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars—must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation. 7
Rev. King goes on to note that hate not only hurts the one being hated but
Hate is just as injurious to the person who hates. Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys [ones] sense of values and [ ] objectivity.” 8
Finally Rev. King notes that
A third reason why we should love our enemies is that love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power. 9
First quoting Abraham Lincoln’s “ do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” King points out that “This is the power of redemptive love.” 10
Tomorrow is a day set aside to remember Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the only individual born as an American citizen for whom we have a national holiday. It speaks volumes of this nation, and gives me great hope, that we honor a man who both headed a movement for civil rights and did it as a Spiritual leader, a Christian pastor dedicated to the most powerful, most durable, most redemptive, most transformative force in the universe, love.
The end of 1968 saw us sending Apollo 8 around the moon. The very first view and photos were sent back of an earth rise, there in space hung our small, fragile beautiful planet.
Earlier that year, here in America, although it was violently and tragically cut short, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. finished his work of taking the Bible, Jesus’ teachings and Gandhi’s practices of unconditional love and using them to alter our world– that little sphere suspended in space. And the entire planet– the entire planet– is better off for it.
What we need to do is not only remember that, but take up where Rev. Dr. King left off and spread the practice of unconditional love to alter the world through non-violent peaceful resistance for the better. We must love our enemies. We must put up our swords. We must turn the other cheek. When we do these things heaven itself breaks in. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. proved this is not just talk, but truth. Let us remember that tomorrow too.
1. Hoskins, Lotte, ed. “I Have a Dream” The Quotations of Martin Luther King Jr., 1968, p 103
2. Ibid., p 70
3. Ibid., p 255
4. Ibid., p 104
5. King, Jr., Martin Luther Strength to Love, (1st ed.) Harper Row (1963), p 36
6. Ibid., p 37.
8. Ibid., p. 38
10. Ibid., p 38-39
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