No Greater Love
First Presbyterian Church
January 15, 2012
Martin Luther King
Today we honor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the struggle for equality. We do so in the context of worship because we know the sacred nature of this struggle.
The marches across the south were holy marches.
The sit-ins at lunch counters were divine epiphanies.
The willingness to walk rather than to ride segregated buses was to follow the cloud by day and the fire by night through the wilderness.
Those who participated in the struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s knew they were involved in something much larger than what they could see or hear. It was a movement for dignity. A movement for dignity is a movement of Spirit. The struggle for equality was cradled in the language of faith. King was a preacher who used the stories and teachings of Christianity for inspiration and for clarity.
It can be dangerous to do that even as it is necessary. We know the dangers of fanaticism when people claim that their cause is God’s cause. That assuredness that “God is on my side” has caused pain and suffering as well as healing and hope. Those in positions of leadership and influence have to take care when they invoke Spirit, the Holy, and the Sacred in their cause. When someone speaks with certainty that their cause is God’s cause, it is a good time to watch your wallet and to watch your back.
Even so as Reinhold Niebuhr said, ‘justice cannot be approximated if the hope of its perfect realization does not generate a sublime madness in the soul. Nothing but such madness will do battle with malignant power and ‘spiritual wickedness in high places.’ Moral Man, Immoral Society, p. 277.
It took a “madness in the soul” to resist entrenched and institutionalized racism. How could freedom rides ever translate into real freedom? Weren’t those who suffered these injustices each and every hour of every day too small, weak, and poor? Weren’t the powers of the economy, culture, and government too large, strong, and rich? Yes, they were. The “world” to use the Gospel of John’s term, hated them. They needed an identity and a purpose that was not of this world.
The world as John uses the term refers to the unequal and unjust powers of racism, economic inequality, political oppression, and misuse of natural and human resources on behalf of a few over the many. It is all sanctioned by the dominant religion. That is the world. Another phrase for it is the Domination System or even Civilization.
It is no surprise then what started as a civil rights movement grew in King’s mind to be connected with the war in Vietnam and the cause of the poor everywhere. It is all connected. We know today that the connections are even larger and include the struggle for dignity and equality for all people regardless of gender and sexual orientation, and now for Earth and the systems that sustain life itself.
We know that these assaults on people and on Earth are the result of entrenched and institutionalized injustice that is pervasive and consuming. Are we not too small, too weak, and too poor? Are not the powers of this world—namely, the global corporations to whom our elected leaders bow down and worship—too large, too strong, and too rich? Yes, we are and they are.
We need an identity and a purpose that is not of this world to do battle with this “malignant power and spiritual wickedness.” Perhaps, dare I say it? We need Jesus.
We need Jesus the truth teller.
Part of the malignant power of spiritual wickedness is spin. That is the ability of the powerful, rich, and connected to get you to deny what you see with your own eyes. These representatives of the world wear nice suits, are clean shaven, and speak in complete sentences. They are so skilled at deception that they can convince us that destroying the top of a mountain that has been there for 500 million years is a good thing. So skilled are they that they have done this trick 500 times. In Appalachia, 500 mountains have been flattened.
So skilled are they, that they can convince us that clear-cutting all the forest, literally blowing 500 feet of elevation off a mountain and dumping rock and dirt into the valleys and thus poisoning streams is perfectly normal. To do so, they say very calmly as they gently pat your hand, is a necessary thing. That destroying human and animal habitats not just for today but for millions of years in the future is the only thing that is rational. It has to be done. It is the only way.
That, is to use Niebuhr’s phrase, “the malignant power of spiritual wickedness in high places.”
Segregation in King’s time and before was normal. It is just the way it was. Smooth talking people who wore nice suits, were clean-shaven and spoke in complete sentences, told the rest of us how normal and good and important it was for society to be segregated, separate, and they assured us, “but equal.” It took a long time for that to change. That change didn’t come by sitting down calmly with the powers and negotiating. That was tried to be sure. Again and again and again. Change only happened when the small, weak, and poor realized that the large, strong, and rich were never going to change.
They realized that if change was going to happen, it would have to be done by force. Pressure would have to be placed on the powerful from every angle and at every opportunity. That pressure and force would need to come from the outside. They found ways to expose the truth. Thanks to television, people around the country and around the world could see the violence of institutionalized racism in their living rooms. Peaceful marchers attacked by dogs and fire hoses led people to ask, “Is this America?”
Yes it is. That is the truth. Now, is this the America you want? For you who are in church, is a segregated Jesus the Jesus you worship? They were forced to wrestle with the very core of their identity. Who are we? The country was exposed to the truth and it needed to make a decision. Jesus as truth-teller was a model for resistance. We need a little Jesus.
I think there is a similarity between mountain top desecration in 2012 and segregation in 1950. The similarity is that it both were hidden. Neither injustice was hidden to the people who suffered of course, but their suffering was hidden from the rest. I wasn’t aware of mountain top desecration until a few years ago. The spin to the wider world was that everything is OK. No problem here. Public relations is one of the most lucrative careers you can get into these days. Good spin doctors are in high demand, especially when there is a lot to keep hidden.
But truth from the mouths of the small, weak, and poor can conquer the spin of the large, strong, and powerful.
Truth from the mouths of the small, weak, and poor can conquer the spin of the large, strong, and powerful.
You have to believe that.
Martin Luther King didn’t just lead one march and call it quits. He didn’t think that he just needed to preach one sermon, offer one eloquent speech, go to jail one time, and people would get it. He had to do the same darn thing again and again and again. Remember, he was dealing with the world, “the malignant power of spiritual wickedness in high places.” You don’t just do that as a weekend hobby. It is a life commitment. If you get discouraged, well duh, you are dealing with “the malignant power of spiritual wickedness in high places.”
You can’t do this alone. You need others and you need a strong spiritual core. You need a center, a rock, a fire, a baptism of spirit. You need to know who you are. That no matter what happens on the outside, you are still and undisturbed at the center.
The Jordan River is chilly and cold.
It chills the body but not the soul.
Those spirituals are all about this. They are all about knowing who you are. I don’t tell others the way they need to find that spiritual core. For me, though, it is through my man, Jesus. The Gospel of John’s Jesus is not literal or historical, I don’t think, anyway. It is a portrait, and a valuable portrait of who Jesus was on the inside.
“I am from above,” he would say. As if to say, “You can’t touch this.”
That is not a cocksureness or an arrogance. It is a statement of identity. I know who I am and who I am is not defined by the values of this world. Thus John’s Jesus is the invitation to discover yourself. Who are you? What do you live for? What matters?
The world says you are a consumer. You live to consume stuff. The more the better. What matters is that you don’t question that and you just keep on buying useless crap as fast as you can. The world says to us:
“We, your caretakers, your providers, your gods, “the malignant powers of spiritual wickedness in high places” will provide you with these shiny things in exchange for keeping your mouth shut.
“Don’t talk about the mountains or streams. Don’t talk about the factory farms. Don’t talk about climate change. Don’t talk about the people that need to be displaced because they are in the way of the stuff. If you don’t let us do what we want, you won’t get the shiny things.”
We say, “Well…if you put it that way, OK.”
No, we don’t say that. We say, “No!”
We say, “It is not worth it. We don’t want what you are selling. We are not consumers. We are human beings. We are Earthlings. This is home. We will not allow you to destroy it. We will fight for it. We will fight for our children’s future. We will tell the truth about it. We won’t stop.”
And… “We are willing to sacrifice for it.”
In Montgomery, throughout 1956, for over a year, African-Americans stopped taking the bus. The bus was their lifeblood. It was their transportation. They had to find ways to get people to and from work and to and from the grocery and to and from church and to and from wherever they needed to go.
It required of them sacrifice.
It required of them creativity, organizing, and sharing.
They did it.
They built community.
They found their strength in nightly meetings.
They endured the KKK and bombs and daily indignities.
The sacrifice didn’t kill them.
It made them stronger.
They knew that there was no greater reason to exist,
no greater love,
then to give up their lives for their friends.
They knew who they were.
They knew what mattered.
They knew what life was about.
Change requires speaking the truth, finding our spiritual center, endurance, and it requires of us the willingness to sacrifice and to change our patterns—to give up the trinkets. The world, “the malignant powers of spiritual wickedness in high places” are betting that we won’t do that. That is their ace in the hole. They think all we can do is a talk a good game, but when it comes down to it, we will always come crawling back to them for our treats.
That is where we need to prove them wrong.
We prove them wrong by knowing who we are, what we live for, and what matters.
It begins with a decision.
It is a decision to be a human being rather than a consumer.
A human being like Jesus was.
Like Martin Luther King.
Like Rosa Parks.
Like the tens and hundreds of thousands of people who history will never remember but who make up that cloud of witnesses,
who spoke their truth, again and again and again,
and who demonstrated the greatest love,
to give up their lives for their friends.
And who through it all, changed the world.