Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “Martin Luther King Jr

Black and Christian: An MLK Day Sermon


Let us pray:

God who dreams in flesh and blood, teach us to respond to the cries of your people with justice, compassion and unfailing hope. Amen.

God told Moses to say: I have heard the cry of the Israelites and I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them, press them, squeeze them. Exodus 3:9

We all have multiple identities at the same time, aspects of which may be more dominant from time to time but which are not separable from other aspects. For example, when I hear that women make 77 cents for every dollar men make, I correct that to white women make 77 cents for every dollar men make. Black women make 69 cents for every dollar black men make. And, Latinas make 58 cents for every dollar Latino men make according to the 2012 census. I am a black woman. There are things I hold in common with women of all races and things I do not, things I hold in common with black men and things I do not. That is true for all of us.

We have multiple identities, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in conflict. Sometimes we elevate one identity above others. As Christians we are called to live out of our Christian identity which is not separate from but co-exists with our other identities. Dr. King’s Christianity looked different than the Christianity of the white clergy who wrote an open letter telling the black folk in their community not to demonstrate with King, who they called an outsider and to wait for the local political leadership in Alabama to work on segregation themselves. How long might that have taken? How much longer did the good white folk think that black folk should wait for the full dignity of human and civil rights? The clergymen – and they were all men – called the demonstrations “unwise” and “untimely.” It was too soon to talk about voting rights for black folk, even if they were serving in the military like my father. They accused Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement of inciting “hatred and violence.”

The undersigned included:

The Rt. Rev. Charles Colcock Jones Carpenter, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, The Rt. Rev. Joseph A. Durick, Auxiliary Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Mobile, Rabbi Hilton L. Grafman, Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham, Bishop Paul Hardin of the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the Methodist Church, Bishop Nolan B. Harmon of the North Alabama Conference of the Methodist Church, The Rt. Rev. George M. Murray, Bishop Coadjutor of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, Edward V. Ramage, Moderator of the Synod of Alabama in the Presbyterian Church in the United States, and Pastor Earl Stallings of the First Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama.

They penned this letter 12 April, 1968, more than a decade after the speech from which we heard a portion of as our Epistle reading. They were leaders of church and synagogue, interpreters of scripture, they prayed – many of them – the same prayers we pray, many sang same the same songs we sing and they were fundamentally on the wrong side of God’s love. To be fair, none of them were saying black folk shouldn’t have the same rights, at least not in that letter. They were saying it wasn’t the right time, and Dr. King wasn’t the right man and he wasn’t using the right methods. Folk are saying the same things today about the Black Lives Matter movement and its leaders.

This wasn’t the first time the church has been wrong. The very first slave ship to reach the American continent was named Jesus, a British ship, given to its captain by the head of the Church of England, Queen Elizabeth. She gave him two ships so he could make her more money in the slave trade. It would be a long time before the church, Anglican and otherwise determined to live up to and into what is now in our baptismal covenant, to respect the dignity of every human person. Sometimes we still fail at that. As church and as individuals. Sometimes we get it right.

We in the Episcopal Church have decided that all of the sacraments are for all of the people. We do not restrict the sacrament of ordination to male people and we do not restrict the sacrament of holy matrimony to heterosexual people. And again some of those who read the same scriptures we do and pray the same prayers we do and sing the same songs as we do and perhaps live in the same houses as we do say our actions are “unwise” and “untimely.” In fact, the Anglican Communion has given us a time out.

And Dr. King is still saying: We have not learned the simple art of loving our neighbors, and respecting the dignity and worth of all human personality…

Dr. King preached a strong word to the Conference on Christian Faith and Human Relations in Nashville back in 1957. A word that is still uncomfortably and maddeningly relevant. I would like to think that Dr. King would marvel at the progress we have made, not just the success of extraordinary individual figures in politics, sports and entertainment but the fundamental integration of our society at many levels and the real and meaningful relationships people have with folk who are different from them at work and church and school and in our neighborhoods, sometimes in our own families. So much in our world is different. And yet so much remains unchanged. There is still deep and abiding racial animus; the old race hatred lingers on and other biases have come out of their closets, biases against Muslims and Arabs – who aren’t all Muslim though it shouldn’t matter, biases against Spanish speaking folk, particularly Mexicans which is interesting in Texas where Mexicans pre-date Texans in many places and now, biases against those who have been driven from their homes with nothing but their children in their arms fleeing from war, even though some of those wars have our nation’s fingerprints on them.

Our lesson from Exodus gives us another reason to cast our lot on the side of the oppressed. God is watching. And more than that, God is there. God told Moses to say: I have heard the cry of the Israelites and I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them, press them, squeeze them. Do not be deceived by the fact that God has not and will not wipe all violence and oppression from the earth. God sends us and accompanies us. Will we go? We might be afraid like Moses that we aren’t up to the task. God knows and offers us companions along the way. Moses did not go alone. He had his sister, the prophet Miriam. He had his brother Aaron. He had his wife Zipporah – and then after a messy divorce, another wife. He had his father-in-law. Moses was a great and humanly flawed leader. And God used him and sent him some help.


Dr. King was a great man. And he was a flawed man. And God used him. But he wasn’t out there alone. Dr. King was surrounded by Dorothy Height, Diane Nash, Amelia Boynton, Fannie Lou Hamer and more the way Moses was surrounded by Yocheved, Shifra, Puah, Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter. Dr. King also had the sage counsel of his friend Bayard Rustin, an openly gay black man.


We in this Episcopal Church and in our larger global church are talking seriously about race and reconciliation. That requires us to have some uncomfortable conversations; we have begun that work. It will mean having more, especially when we get to the point that folk are saying enough already, it’s too much. We also have to look deeply and honestly at our own past, in our nation, in our church and in our families. We have to tell the whole truth, the hard truth, for we know that confession is a reconciling sacrament. Confession is liberating and healing and makes room for repentance. Too many folk are trying to be reconciled without confession or repentance, even in the church and we know better.

We have these multiple identities as women and men, gay, straight, bi and trans, black and white, Caribbean and Latino, American and Episcopalian, members of Trinity and the five o’clock gang. And in all of these things we are God’s children and we are Christian. Sometimes some of us look more like the Egyptians doing the oppressing and sometimes some of us look more like the Israelites being oppressed. And God is watching all of us, listening for the cry of the broken-hearted, raising up deliverers from among us to do the work of justice.

God is watching. God is listening. God is with us. Amen.

Mardis Gras on the Mountaintop: The Transfiguration

Luke 9:28 … Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. [Audio link to sermon available here]

Now, let us pray: Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see. Amen.

Luke 9:28 Now about eight days after saying, “23…If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 (About eight days after saying) For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. 25 (About eight days after saying) What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? 26 (About eight days after saying) Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Woman will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of my Father and of the holy angels. 27 (And about eight days after saying) But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the reign of God,” ­– about eight days after saying these things, Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.

Laissez les bon temps rouler! Let the good times roll. It’s Mardi Gras, Carnival, time. It was Mardi Gras on the mountaintop. Peter, James and John had stumbled into one heck of a party. There were strobe lights and sound effects and VIP gatecrashers. Perhaps there was even the sound of a heavenly brass band. And Peter didn’t want the party to stop. He didn’t want to come down from that mountain. He didn’t want to go back into the world below, that cold, hard, ugly world from which he came. He wanted to stay in the rarefied air of that little mountain. Perhaps, looking out over the Nazareth Valley in Galilee he recalled when Moses looked out over Canaan from Mount Nebo. I bet, he thought to himself, Moses didn’t want to come down from his mountain either. Because Moses wasn’t going into the Promised Land; in fact, he died on his mountain. It’s Mardi Gras when people live life at a frenetic pace because we remember that life is attended by death. Somewhere in the carnival crowds Baron Samedi and the angel of death await.

It’s also Black History Month. It’s time to commemorate and celebrate mountaintops and their vistas. In this Black History Month on the heels of the birthday and commemoration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., many remember that mellifluous baritone intoning:

We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And 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!

We play that clip over and over again, marveling at the prescient prophecy. But are we less likely to dwell on what was going on at the base of that metaphorical mountain in Memphis from which Blessed Martin saw into eternity? Most folk don’t remember that in that very same sermon Martin also said:

…in the human rights revolution, if something isn’t done, and done in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed.

We don’t play that clip so much. In fact, it's hard to find an audio recording of the whole sermon. It is too easy to fix our sight on the man and his memorials. And now we have a new one that we can visit instead of doing the work that he called us to at the base of the mountain. It is much easier to look up to the top of the mountain than look down into the valley. There in Memphis the mountain of soaring oratory towered over the street protests of sanitation workers; civil servants, the poor peoples’ campaign and their integrated, interracial, multicultural allies fighting City Hall for an honest contract and more than that, fighting for recognition of the sacred worth of all human persons and the dignity of honest labor.

There are city workers and other unions all over our nation and some in our own city locked in a new generation of struggle with City Hall. And while so much has changed, in many of those struggles the basic issue of human dignity is as much at stake as it was in Martin’s day. And there are other issues. But perhaps we’d rather look to the man on the mountaintop in our memories than wrestle with the competing claims of today’s contestants when people of color can be found on both sides of the social, political and economic battle lines, some in the right and some in the wrong. And it’s not that easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys at the foot of our mountain, without the fire hoses and the German shepherds.

Besides, if we stay on the mountain with Martin and Jesus we don’t have to deal with the violence in our streets, homes and schools, black on black crime: Black men and boys shooting other black men and boys down like dogs in the street. Black men beating and raping and killing black women and children. Black women and men neglecting and abusing their children and, neglecting and abusing their elders. We don’t have to deal with the failure of our public schools, we don’t have to deal with our crumbling physical infrastructure, we don’t have to deal with the miseducation and criminalization of black boys and hypersexualization of black girls by those inside and outside of our communities. We don’t have to deal with unemployment rates and net financial worth in inverse proportions. If we just remember Martin on his mountaintop we won’t ever go down into those valleys. We could stay in that moment of perpetual celebration, Mardi Gras in Memphis, Mardi Gras on the mountaintop, just like Jesus’s disciples in the Gospel on Deborah’s mountain.

For more than a thousand years Christians in the Holy Land have identified Mt. Tabor as the site of the Transfiguration. While Peter is planning on continuing his Mardis Gras on the mountain, he is standing on the dust and bones of his ancestors and those of the Canaanites they defeated while following the command of the prophet Deborah, theocratic head of the confederated Israelite tribes. When Deborah and her ride-or-die chick Ya’el finished cleaning house, there was forty years of Mardi Gras in Israel after her death.

 The holy ground of Mt. Tabor that Deborah purchased in blood has been made holier still by the appearance of two archetypal prophets from each end of the spectrum in Israel: Moses the Law-Giver represents proclamation prophecy; Elijah the Wonder-Worker represents performance prophecy and Jesus of Nazareth, Mary’s Child is the inheritor of both their mantles.

Who wouldn’t want to stay on the mountaintop with them? I know I wish I were there. Moshe Rabbenu, I’ve got a few questions for you: How much does the Torah passed down in your name reflect what you actually said and did and experienced? And now that you have crossed over to the other side, how much space is there between your experience and articulation of God and the God whom you now know in eternity? Why couldn’t you find a woman from your own folk you could stand long enough to marry? And is the bias against women in the Bible directly related to your domestic issues? And Elijah, I have a couple of questions for you too: how does being taken bodily up into heaven in a chariot of fire actually work? Does your body phase in and out of solid matter cohesion like in a transporter beam? Is heaven on the other side of a wormhole? When you killed the four hundred fifty prophets of Baal but not the four hundred prophets of Asherah was it because you really didn’t mind a little goddess worship on the side? Are we feminists right in saying that Asherah was just the Canaanite articulation of the Holy Spirit and not really another God? Those are just some of my questions. I don’t know if Peter had questions or if he just wanted to be in the presence of his holy and revered spiritual ancestors.

It was Mardi Gras up on that mountain and Peter wants the good times to roll on, he doesn’t want the party to stop. If he and James and John can stay up on that mountain with Jesus and Moses and Elijah there’s no telling who – or what – else might just stop by. And even if the prophets Miriam, Deborah and Huldah don’t show up, even if Isaiah and his Baby Mama don’t stop by – yeah, he had one, at least one; Peter is in the presence of the company of heaven: with prophets, apostles and martyrs – though none of them know it yet. There has never been a Mardi Gras celebration quite like this. And there never will be again, not on this side of eternity. They need to savor this moment while it lasts.

Besides, the way Jesus is going, he is going to get himself killed before he does all the things he’s been talking about. How can he usher in the reign of God if he is executed, crucified, lynched by the Romans? Jesus needs a time out. That’s it. Peter is doing this for him. Jesus needs a retreat; he needs to get away. Jesus needs time to be reminded who he is and what he’s supposed to be doing. Peter is just helping. Jesus needs to focus. Somebody’s got to take charge of this thing.

And so Peter lays the groundwork for building an institutional church on the top of the mountain, the Mardi Gras Mission. He’s already working on its architectural plans and interior design. It won’t be very big because he’s not planning on any new members; there is no evangelism in his future. Outsiders need not apply, or if they do show up, if they do take it upon themselves to climb that mountain, they will be welcome as long as they don’t disturb things too much.

But Mardi Gras doesn’t last forever. Ash Wednesday is close behind. Only a split second separates them. And so, between one breath and the next, Moses and Elijah return to glory. And Jesus leads Peter, James and John back down that mountain. Peter doesn’t want to go down into the valley of Lenten discipline and depravation. There is death and self-denial at the foot of that mountain. There is disease and demonic possession at the foot of the mountain. There’s just too much need. Too many folk and too little time. And they all want to cut in on his time with Jesus. If they just stayed on the mountaintop a little while longer they might just forget there was anybody else outside their little privileged circle, hungry, hoping, desperate, dreaming, waiting for them to come down and live the gospel.

But when they come down from that mountain, they don’t tell anyone what they have seen. They don’t tell anyone about the power and presence of God that they have experienced. They don’t tell anyone that they have seen Jesus in a completely new light. They keep their Epiphany to themselves. And when they encounter the people of God with all their needs, they do nothing, say nothing. It is as though the Mardi Gras on the mountaintop has had no effect on them. Jesus has to do it all, all by himself.

And there, at the base of the mountain, Jesus gives them another glimpse of God. He shows them God in service. God revealed in the glory of the cloud, attended by the holy ancestors is also God who ministers to the desperately ill. Jesus came down from that mountain because his sisters and brothers needed him. I needed him. You needed him. The world needed him. We need him. And Peter and James and John needed to learn how to be the church in the valley, in the field, in the streets and in the trenches. As we descend into the Lenten valley from the mountaintop of Epiphany, may we be the ones to meet the needs we encounter.

Jesus also came down from that mountain, because there was a waiting cross at the foot of that mountain, just out of sight, attending his way like Baron Samedi and the angel of death. May we follow that cross from Mardi Gras to Lent and back again, through Shadow-Valley Death to the other side where les bon temps, the good times, rouler, roll on, for eternity in that Mardi Gras without end. Amen.

Blessed Martin, Pastor Prophet


Blessed Martin, Pastor Prophet

Westminster Abbey

1. Holy God, you raise up prophets,
Praise and honor do we sing.
For your faithful, humble servant,
Doctor Martin Luther King.

Refrain: Blessed Martin, pastor, prophet,
You the mountaintop did see;
Blessed Martin, holy martyr:
Pray that we may all be free.

2. Moral conscience of his nation,
Reconciling black and white,
Dreamed he of a just society,
We must carry on his fight.

3. Teacher of Christ-like non-violence
To the outcast, poor and meek;
Greater weapon 'gainst oppression
Is to turn the other cheek.

4. Preacher of Christ's love for neighbor,
He won Nobel's prize for peace;
Peoples, beat your swords to plough shares,
Wars 'twixt nations all shall cease.

5. Champion of oppressed humanity
Suff'ring throughout all the world;
He offered pride and dignity
Let Christ's banner be unfurled!

6. So, when felled by sniper?s bullet,
Under heavens overcast,
He could cry, "Thank God Almighty,
I am free, I'm free at last."

Music by Carl Haywood
Words by Harold T. Lewis

Lift Ev'ry Voice & Sing Hymnal, The Episcopal Church