Homily Notes, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day — Week of Prayer for Christian Unity                                                                                                                                  2009

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Earlier this year we were reminded of the state of war that continues to exist between North and South Korea.Tensions between the two escalated in a harrowing set of serial monologues laced with threats and counter threats of nuclear strike and retaliation. The Korean War ended with a truce but no peace treaty was ever signed. Relations have improved markedly over the last few years and talk of the dawning of a “Sunshine” period is a welcome herald of a new day in a war torn land where families have been separated for half a century and counting. Anticipation of reunion has risen in the last decade as politicians and religious leaders have worked behind the scenes to repair the breech left from the devastating effects of the brutal war on both the North and the South.

The South has experienced a remarkable period of economic, social, and cultural development that nearly rivals that of the recovery of Japan following World War II. The people of the North continue to be crippled by crushing poverty and are cut off from not just their relatives in South Korea, but from the entire world. That saber-rattling rhetoric from the North is altogether too frequent does not diminish its power to disturb in a world where the meaning of “pre-emptive” strike is all too well known and the deadly results rightly feared.

“Korean Christians long to put an end to the separation between North Korea and South Korea…The instability which prevails…symbolizes the mechanisms of division, hostility and vengeance which plague humanity.” (Day 2 Meditation) The Middle East is another place where humanity is beleaguered by mechanisms of instability. In a recent editorial in the New York Times, Israel was described as a nation at war with itself.

The conflict is not just with militant Palestinians. Militant Jewish settlers in the West Bank clash regularly with Israeli police who remove illegal homes. Israeli security officials have warned of possible assassination attempts on peace-seeking Israeli leaders…Settlers are damaging Palestinian property in retaliation for government actions against the outposts. (NY Times, 11/5/08)

Plans have been announced to halt government financing of about 100 unauthorized settlements—do you see the irony in that? The editorial suggested that there would be no peace within Israel without a peace agreement. The decades-long conflict in the Middle East, a duration nearly identical to the period since the end of the Korean War, has been a foundational destabilizing element in world relations since the middle of the last century.

Over five million people have been slaughtered in the Congo in the last ten years. It's an ongoing conflagration we hear little about unless the news cycle slows to a crawl; yet the human cost is staggering and history will not be kind to this generation when our collective conscience will no longer be shielded from the brutal light of reality. The tragedy in Darfur continues unabated despite even the attention of celebrities moved to compassionate action and the sincere effort of a dedicated few organizations, secular, political, and religious, whose humanitarian work and advocacy for justice is admirable if as yet inadequate to end the atrocities.

The War in Iraq, long since declared over, by President Bush, takes lives daily and grinds the bodies of soldiers and civilians alike with a numbing efficiency. We talk endlessly about the war on terror. It's the war on peace that is killing us.

And along comes The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity , for its 101 st year of faith in the promise of God that we are one people, one human family over the entire world—all of us created in the very image of God. What a wonder it is that each year there is a week devoted to prayer, when, at any moment we may be assured millions are praying of one mind on an agreed upon theme that our collective effort at prayer might nurture a deeper spiritual maturity among the family of God and for the unity of the body of Christ. Paul's joy is God's delight, “…be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:2-4)

Paul was in prison, Ezekiel was in exile after the destruction of the temple in 587 BC. Yet he was able to both criticize prophets who preached a cheap and easy grace while tolerating an abandonment of the values at the center of the life of Israel, and speak a word of hope in a desperate situation because of his great confidence in the faithfulness of God. It is this word of hope that has inspired our friends in South Korea to offer Ezekiel's vision of separate sticks reconciled in the very hand of God as the text for our week of prayer. “That they may be one in your hand” is an earnest desire for God's reconciling intervention into human affairs. Ezekiel's ancient vision of a nation divided inspires vivid insight into the divided Korean peninsula.

Viewed from a disinterested distance the situation looks bleak; Pyongyang remains the most heavily fortified military zone in the world, a last remnant of the Cold War. Terrible weapons of mass destruction do exist in “…the one remaining nation in the world which is still divided…” (Day 2 Meditation).What little we know is not good, especially regarding North Korea, and skewed by the thoughtless rhetoric. Demonizing the North is normative political discourse. But do we know that this same Pyongyang is the birthplace of Christianity in Korea? That Dr. Han, the founder of the Young Nak Presbyterian Church in Seoul, was a refugee of the North? That Korean victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—indentured servants in Japan—were the last rescued and treated after that horrific bombing? That Napalm, developed at the end of World War II, was widely used to devastating effect in bombing that destroyed eighteen of the twenty-two major cities in North Korea? It is not hard to understand why North Korea is so insular and impenetrable to outsiders, and why it lags so far behind the South in redevelopment.

This year there is a remarkable convergence of luminous events during this week when the hearts and minds of millions of Christians will be praying for the unity of the church throughout the world. Within this Week of Christian Prayer fall the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the 40 th anniversary of his assassination. Rereading his speeches and books reminds me of how drastically we have minimized, not necessarily his importance, but the broad reach of his concern and the sharp prophetic critique of his insight and analysis into the failure of our democracy. As his dream expands over time its substance is diluted for crass commercial exploitation. And yet his ministry among us, and the words he spoke to us in the last years of his life, are as relevant today as they were in the last months before the violence that took him from us.

In his final speech at Bishop Charles J. Mason Temple in Memphis, King Jr. said,

Men for years now have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; its nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today…what does…this mean in this great period of history? It means that we've got to stay together. We've got to stay together and maintain unity…Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.

“A dangerous unselfishness” would make us ambassadors with Christ for reconciliation in Korea and in the many places in our world where violence is the enemy of peace and the purveyor of injustice whether perpetrated by the alienated teenager in a suburban high school, the lone terrorist in a crowded market, or the occupying army in a sovereign nation. Sadly, these circumstances describe too many places in our world. God needs our participation in peace-making, justice, and reconciliation. As we are charged in the words of the first meditation for the week “Christians are called to be instruments of God's reconciling love in a world marked by separation and alienation…a people sent forth to be Christ's body in and for the world.”

In the Day 3 meditation addressing economic injustice and poverty the writers assert, “the world community is confronted with the…idolatry of the market (profit)” and they offer the biblical concept of Jubilee as an alternative to “The priorities of today's world, in which ‘more money' is seen as the goal of life” that “…can only lead to death.” The prophetic reflections on Days 4 and 5 turn our prayerful attention to the ecological crisis and the evils of discrimination and social prejudice. Excessive consumption of energy, ignoring global warming, failing to see the image of God on every face, all these threaten the common life we share as the people of God. Technological advances make us neighbors in a global village where we can instantly see and communicate with one another across vast distances. We cannot escape exposure to the obscene wealth of the few and the dire poverty of the many. A common culture is leaping across the continents in online images and words, music and art, and creative ideas. Humor, at times funny and imaginative, yet also, obscene and destructive, is an element of that common culture. Even as our shared culture grows and we become more like one another, profoundly divisive boundaries remain to separate us.

While King's powerful words from his speech on the occasion of the march from Selma to Montgomery (March 25, 1965) speak to that local situation, he seems to be commanding the attention of the whole world, then and now:

Let us march on poverty until no American parent has to skip a meal so that their children may eat. March on poverty until no starved man walks the streets of our cities and towns in search of jobs that do not exist. Let us march on ballot boxes, march on ballot boxes until we send to our city councils, state legislatures, and the US Congress men who will not fear to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God…Let us march on ballot boxes until all…God's children will be able to walk the earth in decency and honor. For all of us today the battle is in our hands… My people, my people listen! The battle is in our hands.

But it must be clear by now, even as we ignore the self-evident truth, that the battle must be non-violent, that the battle is for hearts and minds and the tools are communication and compassion, understanding and love. Nonviolence and nonexistence are the poles within which we live and work. Have we become so accepting of the proliferation of nuclear weapons that we seem immune to their presence? Current fears begin with a nuclear strike from one country upon another but they have expanded to the very real possibility that a small group or even an individual could detonate a device with enough power to kill thousands. Have poverty, starvation, and disease become so commonplace that we feel no urgency to eliminate them? Many of our nations are pluralistic. The challenges to peaceful coexistence, to the unity of all God's children are profound and acute. We must dialogue with other Christians and people of other faiths; we must speak our truth in love and listen with compassion seeking understanding .“And if we listen carefully to our neighbors of other faiths, can we learn something more of the inclusiveness of God's love for all people, and of his kingdom?”(Day 7 Meditation)

Another of those luminous events converging on The Week of Christian Prayer is the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44 th President of the United States, and the first African America to be chosen for this high and powerful office. Heaven is smiling. Martin Luther King, Jr. and all those who gave their lives in the long struggle for civil and human rights in the United States are smiling right along with the angels. The American people have chosen a leader for his character not his color and the peoples and nations of the world seem hopeful that the United States is ready not to impose its will by intimidation and power, but to participate in the healing of the nations and caring for the health of the earth through dialogue and cooperation.

Almost a year to the day before he was assassinated, Martin King preached at the Riverside Church in Manhattan, NY.It was his first sermon against the war in Vietnam. He said:

A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

I like that, a “…revolution of values that will lay hands on the world order…” We have so much work to do, each one of us, and together as a people of God. Together we can work with our hands to build a world of peace and love. And we can lay hands upon our world for healing, forgiveness, and blessing. Even as we do so, we know that we are held in God's hand, one, though many. Our unity is God given, a gift of grace and love. We take comfort in Ezekiel's word from the Lord, “That they may be one in your hand.” Amen.

(The Rev. Michael E. Livingston is an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA). He is currently the Executive Director of the International Council of Community Churches and the Immediate Past President of the National Council of Churches -USA).

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