It will come as no surprise to many of you that I have been a bleeding-heart liberal from my earliest days. A teenage rebellion, I am sure against my tastefully conservative Republican mom and dad. A straight A student, I rebelled in hippy dippy ways. I skipped school to protest the Vietnam war. I served — in name only — on the staff of an underground newspaper that never actually published a single issue. (Sister Mary Clare really clobbered me for that one!) Never a jock, I won awards with my words, my adolescent purple prose. I earned my high school letter at debates and speech contests. In one stellar outing, I gave a speech supporting birth control in the voice of a not yet fertilized egg. And from my secure, segregated suburban life, I railed against racism. I remember but one line from my blue-ribbon speech that took me to the city finals: “The blood of the black man is on our lily-white hands.”
I loved the talk but I myself did not always walk the walk.
Thirty years later, this preacher woman was sitting at her desk on a Friday afternoon when. an elderly African American gentleman paid me a call. His concern and complaint. took me totally by surprise.
He wanted to know if our choir had participated in the Martin Luther King Day Choir Festival. Proudly I told him yes. that indeed both of our choirs had sung that day in honor of the slain civil rights leader. Well. this gentleman was a contemporary of Dr. King and said for certain that he knew there were finer preachers whose names he rattled off. And worse than that did I know, he said, that Martin Luther King had been Tom-catting around Atlanta. He and his wife claimed to know of the Rev. King’s illicit comings and goings. And then he blamed bleeding heart liberals like me for canonizing this flawed leader.
Martin, he said, talked the talk. but he certainly did not always walk the walk.
Indeed, all of these years later many have measured the weight of Dr. King’s life differently. He has been accused of many failings including communism and plagiarism. Younger African-Americans have criticized his passivity. And biographers have lingered over his personal life.
Sister Joan Chittister tells it well:
“The truth of the matter is that Martin Luther King Jr. was Martin Luther King Jr. till the day he died. Organizer, preacher, prophet, father, husband, cheater, lover and leader. He struggled with anger and depression and sexual excess all his life. And like the rest of us in our own struggles, he never totally conquered any of them.”
Prophets you see are not always perfect. Seldom are they saints and even once sainted remain sinners.
But prophets speak truth. God’s truth.
“King was an unlikely leader, black in a white country, a preacher who led a political struggle, the son and grandson of ministers who held a privileged place in the black community. Proud of his family and home, he learned young that he lived in ‘nigger-town’. He lost his two best friends in the first grade because their mother would not let them play with a ‘colored’ boy. When he was twelve, a society matron in a down town department store called him a nigger and slapped him across the face. The sting of it stayed with him for the rest of his life. He was with his father when a shoe salesman refused to wait on them unless they moved to the back room of the store. It was the first time he had seen his daddy so angry and he remembered his response. ‘I don’t care how long I have to live with this system. I am never going to accept it. I’ll oppose it till the day I die.’”
Again, and again the message was hard to ignore. And Martin began to get the message. Speak Lord for your servant is listening.
“And so, like his Daddy, he grew up to be pastor of a major black congregation in Montgomery, Alabama. It was 1955 and Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat on the bus. And for the first time, King stepped out his privileged pulpit and truly became a prophet. The first night of the bus boycott he addressed thousands who had gathered for a mass meeting. And he addressed them with the truth, with Gospel truth.”
“’Our method will be that of persuasion, not coercion. Love must be our regulating ideal. Once again, we must hear the words of Jesus echoing across the centuries: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, and pray for them that despitefully use you.’ If we fail to do this, our protest will end up as meaningless drama on the stage of history, and its memory will be shrouded with the ugly garments of shame. In spite of the mistreatment we have confronted, we must not become bitter, and end up hating our white brothers and sisters. Let no one pull you so low as to make you hate them.’”
“’If you will protest courageously with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written the historians will have to pause and say. There lived a great people, a black people, who injected meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization’.” (A Passion for Life, Joan Chittister)
He talked the talk and he himself led the walk. And yes, he stumbled and he fell along the way. But the prophet Martin prophesied so that his black brothers and sisters. so that our brothers and sisters, might taste justice, might taste the freedom of this Promised and Privileged Land.
Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.
Now most of us, if we got the call to be such a prophet would hang up. Biblically speaking, prophets are not particularly attractive folk. They tend to push the envelope of society’s conventions and expectations. Frederick Buechner says that, Elisha would have been called cruel, for turning bears loose on boys who taunted him. Jeremiah would be called crazy for literally eating the scroll on which sweetly written was the word of God. Amos would be called a carpetbagger. for berating his southern neighbors to justice with a northern accent.
Prophecy is not very desirable work, Buechner says. Telling the emperor, he has no clothes is a thankless job. After his fairy tale like call to become a prophet, Samuel delivers some pretty bad news to his father in God. Eli, God is going to bring down your house. These were not sweet nothings, but some very nasty news that God was whispering in Samuel’s ears.
And the prophecy business is dangerous work. With God hiding in the shadows, Buechner continues, people are likely to shoot the messenger. Jeremiah was thrown into a cistern. Isaiah was rumored to be sawed in half. And Martin was stabbed, attacked, and his home bombed many times. And then cut down by an assassin’s bullet in April of 1968. Just thirty-nine years old. Prophets pay a price that most of us do not have the guts to pay for ourselves.
But God whispers in our ears just the same. Niggling, annoying words, taunting us to rise up out of our lazy beds. To witness and to speak up for our brothers and sisters marginalized now, even as we speak. We live in challenging times – in a time where neo-Nazism and white supremacism are on the rise. We live in a time when hate crimes against our Muslim brothers and sisters shamefully increase. We live in a time, where we barely know how to speak to people across the political divide. We live in a time when the privileged cross the street to avoid the poor by the side of the road.
My Christian brothers and sisters, in God’s eyes, this will not stand. Let’s dredge up the strength to reach down, way down, deep down and find the courage and the compassion to be a prophet – even if it be the littlest of prophets. Like Samuel, here now in 2018.
And so aptly let us pray the Collect of this Day:
Almighty God, by the voice of your prophets, you have led your people out of slavery and into freedom; Grant that your Church, following the example of the prophet Martin, may resist oppression in the name of your love; and may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.