A Martin Luther King Day Reflection by Larry Rawlings

January 18, 2015

The Second Sunday After the Epiphany

Today our readings and the persons described in them are somewhat instructive about the holiday we will celebrate tomorrow in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King was a prophet of the 20th Century, leading his people to the edge of the promised land, like Moses, who also died before he could enter himself. And like Moses Dr. King was given a vision of that promised land.

But the prophet in today’s readings is not Moses, but Samuel, a prophet who lived in that promised land to which Moses led his people.

The name Samuel means “asked of God” or “heard by God.” And today’s reading shows us Samuel hearing and listening to God. As a mere boy he responds “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” As a prophet, Samuel spoke for God, speaking what he heard from God, God’s words and not his own. Samuel controlled his unruly human thoughts and emotions, those same thoughts and emotions that trouble each of us and our world, and worked only as God’s agent and servant in this world. And so the 1st Book of Samuel says “the LORD was with him, not permitting any word of his to be without effect.

The adult Samuel ultimately replaced Eli his mentor, who was ruined by his selfish preference for his unrestrained children over the people he was called to serve and preference for them over righteousness. The old man Samuel saw the king he anointed, Saul, ruined by his own jealousy and selfish grasping of power

As a prophet, Dr. King’s words, like Samuels, were eloquent and effective. He lived in a promised land, but a land in which, the promise had not been kept. It had not been kept for his people and the broken promise worked as a curse on the whole nation, undermining its high ideals. Dr. King worked to destroy the selfish preference of race to in order to establish God’s preference of justice. More controversially, he also prophesied against war. Unfortunately God’s people, whether Christian, Muslim or Hindu have never been able to get past the false belief that God sanctions war. But Dr. King did.

Dr King’s call to the office of prophet was not from a voice of a disembodied God, but a voice from God speaking thru his people, in this case the NAACP and the community leaders of Birmingham, Alabama, where Dr King as a young man of 25 had just become pastor of his first church. As with Samuel, God often works through the young, who are not blinded or deafened by convention and are able to hear the voice of the Spirit and envision a better future.

Dr. King came to lead a remarkable movement we have not seen the like of since, a movement that reflected the universality of God’s kingdom … black and white, young, middle aged and old, rich and poor, Protestants, Catholics and Jews.

There was a moment in our history when it was possible to really believe we could and would overcome the baggage of our racial prejudice, discrimination and inequality.

But unfortunately that moment passed. Some progress was made, but we did not see that the mountaintop from which Dr King had his vision was much higher than we realized, and would take much longer and much more effort for us to reach.

But the curse of drugs, the Reagan revolution, the growth of “greed is good” philosophy, sensationalist media, fear of crime and terrorism, two recessions, the decline of faith in God and anything more important than one’s self … these have all distracted and stalled the forward movement Dr. King began 60 years ago.

But we have received a wake up call. In fact several wake-up calls. The first was the killing of Trayvon Martin, almost 3 years ago now. That produced a flurry of outrage, interest and activity that dissipated after a trial. Then in the last half of 2014 were three outraged calls; Eric Garner choked to death in New York in July, Michael Brown shot in Ferguson on August 9, and 12 year old Tamir Rice shot in Cleveland in November, all by law enforcement personnel of our society, all their killers exonerated by our society.

One black woman denied a seat on a bus in 1955 was enough to start a massive movement that lasted 30 years. In response to these killings, the Spirit is saying “What will it take to wake you up, America.”  

We in Seekers Church have been awakened. I and several others of us participated in an enlightening series of workshop discussions titled “Committing to racial justice to create a beloved community.” We looked at personal and overall race relations, those in our church and our community. Charity begins at home, justice begins at home. We began at home. Now what? What is the next step for us? Commitment demands action/As St. Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians today, we need to glorify God with our bodies.

In the Gospel today we see prejudice at work in Nathanel, a good man whom Jesus said was an honest anti true believer. When told about Jesus he says: “”Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Jesus obviously lived in a bad neighborhood and was judged accordingly and not only by Nathanael, but many of Jesus’ contemporaries, particularly those in positions of power and authority. Jesus had no formal education, was from a disreputable village in an area half populated by people of an alien race and religion.

But faith produced something good, both in Jesus and Nathanel. Faith allowed Jesus to perform miracles for the faith filled, and faith allowed Nathanel to become an apostle, one of the select and elect 12 who passed on the faith to us.

Faith can move and climb mountains.

During the time of Samuel, it looked bad for Israel… the ark of the covenant which had never failed Israel was captured and Israel was defeated. Israel recovered under Saul, but then it looked even worse for Israel …. the Philistines killed Saul & Jonathan on Mt Gilboa and Israel was defeated more soundly.

But the faith and spirit filled King David followed up these disasters and rescued the tribes and built them into a real kingdom centered on a Holy City.

“Do you believe?” Jesus asked Nathanel. Do you have faith? Do we have faith? If so, we will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Sons of Men, upon all of us in our society and country.

We have been awakened by these sad violent incidents with young black men. We must not fall asleep or be distracted again. Back in 1900 a group in Jacksonville, Florida, planning to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday asked the great Black American poet James Weldon Johnston to write a song for the event. That song was sung for the first time by a chorus of 500 black school children. They kept singing it; they taught it to their children. Within a generation it was being sung all over the south by the severely oppressed black people of that time. It has come to be known as the Black National Anthem. Its power is in the unshakeable faith it professes. Let me conclude with those powerful, prophetic words.

Lift Every Voice and Sing

 Lift every voice and sing 

Till earth and heaven ring,

Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise

High as the listening skies,

Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,

Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,

Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,

Have not our weary feet

Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,

We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,

Till now we stand at last

Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,

Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might

Led us into the light,

Keep us forever in the path, we pray.

Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,

May we forever stand.

True to our God,

True to our native land.

Used by permission.


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