The King and I– and Us and Jesus

A sermon based on Micah 6:6-8
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 17, 2016
by Rev. Scott Elliott

I mentioned a couple of years ago that I was a fifth grader when I first heard about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a Christian minister, the founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and at the time he’d been the world’s leading civil rights advocate and organizer.

It was April 4th 1968, the day Martin Luther King Jr. died, that I first became aware that he lived. Just hours before he had preached these prophetic words:

I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

In the decade before that last speech – and my posthumous discovery of him– Martin Luther King Jr. led a remarkable non-violent movement against entrenched racism in America. He spoke eloquent, powerful God-soaked words opposing oppression. He led effective boycotts, sit-ins and marches for the very American ideals and Christian causes of equality and liberty and justice for all. Those efforts by Dr. King were instrumental in getting people coalescing around God’s palpable presence in the Civil Rights Movement. Men and women and youth could sense in his action for civil rights God’s call in the Book of Amos to “let justice roll down like waters And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Americans literally heard that particular call because Dr. King preached that Biblical quote so we would not forget it is God’s unrelenting call to humanity.

I do not remember what my immediate feeling toward the explanation I was first given about who Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was. I do know this, the news reports along with whatever I picked in the hours, days and months that followed his death set me afire about civil rights. And as a consequence I spent many an hour in the years of my youth reading and listening to Dr. King and exploring many other authors and books about civil rights. And I fought and argued with my peers when they made racist remarks or tried to belittle civil rights or Dr. King.

To say the least, Dr. King heavily influenced my thinking and it was through him that I most profoundly learned the American and Christian ideals and causes of equality and liberty and justice for all. In time I learned that those ideals and doctrines when applied to anyone or any group being belittled, bullied or oppressed set off in my head that incantation of Dr. King’s famous Book of Amos prayer and mantra to “let justice roll down like waters And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” It was easy relatively quickly for me to apply that prayer and the logic of the Civil Rights Movement to all people of color I’d been urged to look down on by the culture. By my teens I had also learned to apply it to the very sexist and homophobic tendencies I’d been raised with. I did this by extending the logic Martin Luther King Jr. introduced me to.

Indeed I truly believe that the Word of God Dr. King preached – that I heard and read in the ripples of his continuing love left in the world– led me to two of the most profound decisions I have ever made in my life. One was deciding that it is irrefutably true that “God is love.” The other was deciding to refuse to let anyone convince me otherwise– even if it meant being chased out of church and berated by other Christians for claiming love–God– requires us to have compassion and care for the well being of all “others” just as God created them. And that, that always means you and me and every single other human are all entitled to equality, liberty and justice. As a Christian and as clergy I believe I have a moral obligation to insist on, and struggle for, equality, liberty and justice for all.

I have over the years thought a lot about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. And it was my discovery of him on the night that he was killed that eventually provided the ground work for my becoming a Christian. I was not raised in a religious home. Before I found Christianity in my teens Dr. King had already helped me find the paramount importance of love and he pointed to Jesus as the way to love, and God as the source of love. And through Dr. King it was very easy to understand that where Jesus, and the God of Jesus, calls us to, very much includes the command in the Amos quote Dr. King liked so well, to “let justice roll down like waters. And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

I tried to work at that call as a youth and in other jobs and especially as a lawyer on civil rights matters. And I try to work at that call now as minister. Letting justice roll down and righteousness ever-flow is a substantive part of what compelled me to write a letter to the editor shortly after I got here in response to anti-Gay advertising in the paper–which happily I have not seen since! It’s what compelled me to write again recently to voice opposition to an unGodly plan to ban religious people– Muslims– from entering our country. And it is what compels me to preach and teach and protest on a rather regular basis against the continued oppression of women, other faiths, LGBTQ and people of color.

There are certainly those who would disagree me that Jesus, the God of Jesus, and Christianity support such work – let alone compel it– but all I have to do is turn to my Bible and find Jesus and God recorded as commanding that we love everyone and be love in the world and do to others as we want done to us. I read those passages and their plain and literal meaning to love is abundantly clear.

Or, you know, I could even just turn around and read the wall behind me to see the compulsion stated by the prophet Micah in different words, but not a different meaning. As we heard in the reading I selected for today, Micah tells us in no uncertain terms that God – GOD!– requires us “TO SEEK JUSTICE AND LOVE KINDNESS.” Those words do not mean some sort of passive quest or inactive love, or something God merely hopes we might do. They are Holy mandates. They are action words for love– which is compassion and the desire for the well being of others . . . all others even those we label “enemy.”

No Christian who’s read Micah 6 can fairly argue that God– Love– does not compel us to actively and overtly seek justice and love kindness. Along with walking humbly with God, justice and kindness summarize all that God requires of us. We must seek justice. We must love kindness. We must do that until – as Dr. King and Amos put it– “justice roll[s] down like waters [a]nd righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” When that happens all will have enough and be respected– be loved and have well being. And that my friends is God’s plan, Jesus’ Way!

And it was ultimately the aim of Martin Luther King’s amazing ministry in his all too short life. Rev. Dr. King spread his Christian work out to bring about justice and righteousness not just on race issues but on issues of poverty and war and oppression of others.

This church has long spread its Christian work out too. We started as an anti-slavery church but did not limit our work to just seeking justice and loving kindness for slaves, if we had, our church would not be here today thriving in the community long after the Civil War ended slavery.

And I know it can be hard and uncomfortable to be in a church that actually takes serious Micah’s words on the wall behind me by actively seeking justice and loving kindness. Not all our friends and family think that’s a good thing to do, and not all our neighbors do either. But the way I figure it, if Jesus and the Apostle Paul and Martin Luther King Jr. put their lives on the line and got killed taking it seriously and changing the entire world in the process, we can afford to be a little uncomfortable as we take it seriously and help do our part to help the world transform for the better.

Sometimes it seems like those efforts and uncomfortablenesses are not worth the effort or bullying responses they often evoke. My first letter in the paper in December opposing a plan to ban Muslims from entering our country generated a caustic blustery attack during Advent. But you know what? The day it was published a Muslim in the area sent me a note making it all worth while. The note read:

“Thanks for speaking out in solidarity. I know it is not easy for many to do. For those who do speak out I fear they’ll become targets of haters. It takes a lot of courage to do what you do in every aspect. I truly appreciate it and admire it.”

What we do as church in this community matters!

American Muslims under attack by angry people need to see and hear us standing in solidarity against the type of rhetoric that has – in the not so distance past– led to violence and unspeakable atrocities against religious people.

And make no mistake about it, American Blacks also need to see and hear us stand against the continued racism in our society which continues to create god-awful violence and atrocities in Black lives. Violence and atrocities Whites do not equally face and do not want to equally face, no one does.

When we stand up for justice God’s Word gets out in the community and love takes hold and has effect. Seeking justice and loving kindness, has rewards that far, far outweigh rants by angry people . . . and even bullets from snipers and nails that hang you on a cross. It not only brings us closer to Promised land, but lets us see the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Our church is starting a racial justice initiative this year. In the weeks head we will be meeting to talk about how to further implement and expand the vision of such a ministry. We are calling it “Black Lives Matter: Our church’s racial justice initiative.” The goal is to help us get to that Promised Land that Martin Luther King Jr. saw and spoke of.

Some of the initiative is underway. This morning you may have noticed we have a new banner hanging outside in front of the church. I assume it’s still there. I hung it up at 7:45 a.m. It’s orange with big bold dark letters that read “Black Lives Matter.” The dark lettering is surrounded above and below by white lettering that reads
All lives matter and are equal in the eyes of God. All lives should matter and be treated equally in our society. We live in a society that does not provide equal treatment to people of color. So we publically affirm that Black Lives Matter.

I suspect that new banner might cause some in the community, maybe even in this church, upset.

And frankly it should actually make us all uncomfortable because what it states is empirically true.

It’s been almost 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr. was shot while working to make Black lives matter because they didn’t matter equally way back then in the midst and wake of Jim Crow laws. Fifty years, and here we are, living in a society where Blacks have yet to be provided equal access to jobs, wages, schooling, housing, health care or equal treatment by our criminal justice system.

No American, or Christian for that matter, can honestly claim the idea of equal treatment is somehow unfair. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” is nothing more than a plea for Blacks to matter as equally in our nation as Whites.

No one is asking for more than equality. Dr King was asking for no more than that, and he was killed for asking. Jesus was pushing love and care for all (equality!) and he was killed too.

Equality is a fundamental premise of our nation and our religion. Equality is the sign that justice has been sought and obtained. Equality is the mark that kindness has been loved and sustained. Equality is what justice rolling down like waters feels like. Equality is what righteousness like an ever-flowing stream looks like. Equality is what all of us in this room want for ourselves and our families. Equality is what God wants for everyone. EQUALITY. IS. WHAT. WE. MUST. WANT. FOR. EVERYONE! We must stand up for it . . . and not sit down until it is a reality. Because as our new banner reads

All lives matter and are equal in the eyes of God. All lives should matter and be treated equally in our society. We live in a society that does not provide equal treatment to people of color. So we publically affirm that Black Lives Matter.

You see, we will only get to the Promised Land walking in hand-in-hand with all people, Black, Brown, White, Red, Yellow, Old, Young, Rich, Poor, LGBTQ and People of any faith. When we finally hold hands and pour justice down like water and righteousness like an ever flowing stream on everyone then . . . then we have reached the Promised Land.

Right now though, when we believe in equality and work toward it, we have the privilege of seeing the coming of that day, the coming of the Glory of the Lord.

I pray that we have the courage and the vision of Martin Luther King Jr. so that we too can say “mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord.” AMEN!