Homily Notes, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day — Week of Prayer for Christian Unity                                                                                                                                    2011

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One December 1, 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks, an unknown seamstress and civil rights worker in Montgomery, Alabama was arrested and fined for violating a city ordinance when she refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white passenger. As a member of the NAACP, Mrs. Parks had worked on numerous cases in which black people had been murdered and/or brutalized. In a 1995 interview, Mrs. Parks recalled her work with the NAACP and the difficulty that they faced in obtaining public support for their cause. The bus incident, she explained, gave them the exposure necessary to draw attention to the ongoing struggles of black people in the U.S. It "was more a matter of trying to challenge the powers that be, and to let it be known that we did not wish to continue being second-class citizens."

The Women's Political Council established in 1946 by Mary Fair Burks secured Mrs. Parks' approval to use her arrest as a test case to challenge Montgomery's seating policies and began planning a bus boycott to take place on the day of Mrs. Parks' trial. The Montgomery Improvement Association, under the leadership of the then new pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., joined the effort and together they initiated the Montgomery bus boycott which lasted three hundred and eighty two days. Mrs. Parks' actions and the resultant bus boycott became defining symbols of the Civil Rights Movement, a watershed moment in U.S. history that definitively altered the landscape of our existence.

To suggest that the Civil Rights Movement is a watershed moment is to evoke exciting yet dangerous memories. Exciting because we remember the hope and possibility of the moment and celebrate the progress that we have made toward becoming a society in which not only our laws, but our attitudes and dispositions prohibit discrimination of all kinds based on race, color, religion, national origin and the many other descriptors that we use to delineate our beautifully diverse existence. Nonetheless dangerous, because as we celebrate we also remember the deeply divided society in which this movement took place and feel compelled to assess the extent to which that moment continues to inform our ways of being and relating. I am making a claim here that watershed moments are not simply cathartic moments that make us feel good at the time, but defining moments or turning point in the lives of persons and communities that raise questions about our perception of the world in which we live and our place in the larger scheme of things. They invite us to experience life anew; to reconsider the social arrangements and practices that shape our world view and our perception of reality.

For better or worse, watershed experiences set us upon a new course. Some evoke fear and are imbued with decreating potential. When accepted without critique or analysis - when, like a dream deferred, they are left to "fester like a sore and then run" - they rob us of our capacity to live in loving and just relationship with God, ourselves and other human persons. Such may be the case of those who respond to the tragic events of September 11, 2001 in U.S. history, for example, with a xenophobic disposition toward all Muslims. The most powerful watershed moments, however, are filled with transformative and creative potential. They call into being that which is good and true and invite us to live therein. These formative experiences deepen our understanding of our world and of the structures that govern our existence, peeling back layer after layer and revealing that which prevents us from living together as human community. Though some may resist the momentum, such moments nudge us toward justice and life; toward God and God's best for creation.

In other words, watershed experiences touch us deeply and invite us to periods of anamnesis - remembering our formative experiences and discerning the relationship of these experiences to our lives today. Anamnesis is like a whiff of apple pie filling our nostrils and suddenly feeling as though we are standing in grandmother's kitchen once again tasting the sweet morsel that she has baked just for us. The memory is so visceral that we know, beyond any shadow of doubting, that we are her grandchildren and graciously accept the responsibility that comes with being called by her name. It is the experience of a mother or father who hears a baby cry and remembers the joy and delight that the gift of new life brings both in the immediacy of childbirth and in their ongoing ministry of parenting their children. Such moments call us back and invite us to remember who we are and how these experiences continually give form to our engagement with the many others with whom we share our lives.

The nascent Christian community in Acts 2:42-47 affords us an opportunity for anamnesis as we recall one of the most important defining moments in the life of the Christian Church, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and consider the significance of this experience for our individual and collective existence. This powerful memory resonates throughout the sacred cosmos of the Christian Church, dangerously and delightfully reminding us of our mission and call. The Holy Spirit greets us in this moment and, as did Jesus during his post resurrection sojourn with his followers, wants to buoy our faith and prepare us to continue the ministry which Jesus began. In other words, this formative story invites us to discern how our life of faith might more fully reflect the communal sensibilities and ethic of care and mutuality evident in this new community.

Our story begins with the life and ministry of Jesus, his faith and sense of the world and his confidence that, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, ordinary women and men could become agents of creation and transformation. You might recall that Jesus' practice of faith led him to the margins of society; placed him in the midst of suffering and devastation, loss and grief, hunger and impoverishment. His persistence in proclaiming good news to the poor obliged him to respond to the suffering and marginalization of his time in a manner that the social and religious gatekeepers considered unseemly at best and blasphemous at worst - touching untouchable ones, sitting at table with sinners, standing among the social and religious outcasts, openly engaging those with whom he should not speak, standing in dead places and calling physically and emotionally departed ones back to life, and numerous other transgressions of the social and religious boundaries of his time. These practices suggest to us and to our ancient sisters and brothers patterns for living and relating that move us outside of our comfort zones and place us right in the center of Jesus' ongoing ministry of actualizing the kingdom or kin-dom of God in our midst.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus urged those with whom he ministered to prepare themselves for the emergence of God's kin(g)dom. "The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news" (Mk. 1:15), he proclaimed, beckoning all who heard him to remorsefully turn away from the ethic that had ordered their lives and toward a radically new reality in which love of God and neighbor would become the normative expression of human existence. Numerous persons experienced Jesus' healing and delivering touch and rejoiced in the news which he proclaimed, but his closest companions remained perplexed about his ministry and the nearness of God's kin(g)dom.

That his companions did not understand is evident in their conversation with him prior to his ascension. "Lord is this the time when you will restore the Kingdom of Israel?" (Acts 1:8), they ask, for they had grown weary of Roman rule and longed to become a powerful political entity. Jesus' response did not satisfy their longing and, in all likelihood, they made the journey from Mount Olivet back to Jerusalem still trying to reconcile their longing for national restoration with Jesus' insistence that the Holy Spirit would empower them to be his witnesses in word and deed "to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). Nevertheless, they wait, persistent in prayer and fellowship, and anxiously anticipating the promised Holy Spirit.

When we lean in to this text, we can almost see them gathered in the upper room; can hear the excitement in their voices as they tell stories and recall the miracles which Jesus performed. I imagine them speaking of the woman at the well and the hemorrhaging woman who touched him in the crowd, the children crying "Hosanna" in the temple and his defense of them as those who should also receive his welcome embrace; the man at the pool who now walks and the young man raging and cutting himself who, after his encounter with Jesus, could sit at table with his family once again. They also share their many personal experiences of Jesus' gracious embrace and words of encouragement, correction and restoration, wondering if they would ever feel his touch again. As they move in and out of their communal space, scarcely noticing the hustle and bustle of the city, they must have pondered even the more how their experience of Jesus would inform their practice of faith going forward.

Outside of their gathering the city was teeming with excitement. The fiftieth day after Passover was rapidly approaching and people from throughout the region had already begun to gather in the city of Jerusalem. The harvest had just begun and everything was new; livestock, new wine and grain were abundant and the people brought their gifts with thankful hearts. The aroma of bread baking in open hearth ovens filled the air and the sound of children's laugher echoed throughout the city as they played in the streets and alleyways. The money changers practiced their trade with precision and a bit of cunning. The political and religious officials looked on from a distance, anticipating the profit that they would incur as their many guests frequented the markets and inns or brought monetary gifts to the Temple. The secular and the holy converge, as is often true of such gatherings, as people of faith and those with no particular concern for faith at all stand at the intersection of material consumption and the holy intent of the moment.

The priestly writers of Leviticus describe Pentecost as a time of thanksgiving, proclamation and sharing. Known also as the Festival of Weeks, Pentecost is a harvest festival that dates back to the time of Moses in biblical history. On Pentecost, family leaders brought their offerings of thanksgiving to the Lord and the entire community assembled for a holy convocation so that they might proclaim and hear of God's goodness (Lev. 23:21). Those who were able to bring an offering were also reminded to leave a portion for persons who were impoverished and bereft of the basic necessities of life: "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God" (Lev. 23:22).

At first glance, Pentecost appears as little more than an ancient festival incidentally connected to the Christian tradition because its calendar date coincided with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Many people today are also unfamiliar with harvest festivals and agrarian life and have no experiential referent for the type of festival that would have taken place on Pentecost. Even more, the discourse about harvests and permitting the poor to glean from our fields seems anachronistic in this age of technological advancement and programmatic models for addressing social concerns. Yet, the practices and disposition of heart that constitute Pentecost will not permit us to simply ignore it or deem it contextually insignificant.

The practices of Pentecost are important to this time of anamnesis because they testify to God's sustaining presence and ongoing involvement in the everydayness of our lives, calling us to a disposition of heart that acknowledges our interrelatedness as human family. Over against ideologies that promote personal comfort and material gain without consideration of the many others with whom we share the earths resources and physical space, the communal nature of Pentecost invites those who reap bountifully to give thanks to God while leaving/giving/offering a portion of what we have for the common good. In this respect, the Pentecostal practices and disposition of heart among our ancient sisters and brothers resonate with good news for the poor and evince signs of the kin(g)dom. It seems just and right, therefore, that the unifying presence of God, the Holy Spirit, would begin her sojourn with humanity at this precise moment in time.

The Holy Spirit enters human history with cosmic display and tongues as of fire, transforming language and imagination, and making those who had been anxiously waiting free for the Gospel. Despite the strictures and structures that separated rich from poor, bond from free, women from men, and youths from the elders, the Holy Spirit rested upon each person as though God's justice had consumed the moment and initiated a cosmic moratorium on oppression. So powerful was this outpouring that it could not be contained in a room hidden away at the top of the stairs. No, the people spilled out into the streets, witnessing to "God's deeds of power" (Acts 2:11) in languages that all who gathered in the city could understand.

Daughters and sons prophetically proclaimed God's just intent for creation while elders and youths shared their dream of a life-affirming reality for all persons. Enslaved women and men spoke of freedom and those who were free decried the social and religious bondage that relegated far too many to the margins of society. Words from God, placed in the mouths of the powerless ones. Men, women and youths whose lives had been of little consequence to the larger society in which they lived become, in this radical moment, a true reflection of God's Spirit poured out upon human flesh. As they continue to speak and as we stand with them, we relish this transformative moment. Our hearts pick-up the rhythm of the Divine heartbeat and we dance and sing and consider the radical possibility of life infused by the Holy Spirit.

We sense the Spirit beckoning us "Come!" and, standing alongside our ancient brothers and sisters, we come. Receiving the good news like manna from heaven that satisfies longings so deep and an ache so persistent that we had almost forgotten that they were there, we come. With heart felt pain as we sense mournful cries within our human family, not at all certain that we are capable of responding but knowing that we must, we come. With longings that had been buried beneath the way that things are and distorted by the many voices that tell us that life infused by the Spirit is nothing more than a dream deferred, we come.

We come to this defining moment as though we were here from the beginning, remembering what we had almost forgotten; that the radical possibility of a world in which people are "not judged by the color of their skin" - or by any other delimiting factor - "but by the content of their character" entered human history at this very moment. Even as people in various spaces and places resist embracing patterns for living grounded in love of God and neighbor, we hold on to the possibility that our world might indeed come to reflect the justice for which we long. All things have become new, even when we cannot sense it, because God's Spirit fills us and dwells in the midst of a world crying out for wholeness. If we would but listen and permit our hearts to maintain the cadence, we might well discover that we hold in our hands and in our hearts the potential for making that for which we hope an actuality.

Our ancient sisters and brothers testify to this reality as they discern how they might live in the weeks and months after Pentecost. The festival is complete and many of the almost three thousand who responded "yes" to Peter's proclamation had already made the journey home. Others remained in Jerusalem, gathering with friends and family to reflect upon this spiritual outpouring; "devot[ing] themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). Their numbers increased daily as people from all walks of life began to synchronize their heartbeat with the Divine and commit themselves to becoming the Church.

If Peter's assertion that "this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel" is an indication of those who comprised this new community, then the Jerusalem church, in its composition and commitments, transgressed many of the social and religious boundaries of their time. Not only were they a diverse community, but a community radically committed to the common good. As Dr. King says of the early church, they "were not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion…[but] a thermostat that transformed the mores of society."

The Jerusalem church expressed its transformative potential by renegotiating social arrangements and creating a radically inclusive community grounded in an ethic of care and mutuality. So deep was there commitment to ways of being and relating that reflected mutuality that each person, of their own volition, "sold their possession and distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need" (Acts 2:45). No doubt some brought more to their communal coffer than others, but everyone contributed what they had and received all that they needed. They had all things common and, though difficult for us to imagine in an era in which self-sufficiency and individual achievement are more highly regarded than collective effort, "Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the good will of all the people" (Acts 2:46-467). They lived for the common good.

To live for the common good is to live as an expression of the unifying presence of the Holy Spirit in our day to day existence. It is to order our socio-political and religious lives in ways that evince moral and political action to the end of a world in which all persons are healthy and well nourished, have clothing and shelter appropriate to their social and geographic location, and are regarded with human dignity and respect. In other words, to live for the common good is to recognize that our moral commitments have political implications and to respond accordingly.

This is no easy task. Throughout the world, people are experiencing the growing ambiguity and painful realization that what we can expect of the future has reached a level of uncertainty that evokes more questions than answers. War and the threat of war looms large, genocidal regimes attack the most vulnerable in the name of preserving whatever it is that they hold dear, and division of every kind persists. These practices and dispositions of heart are undergirded by the rhetoric of separation and disunity, competition and individualism, "us" and "them" that flood the multiple terrains of our existence. Lack and instability are no longer socio-economic descriptor reserved for persons and communities, nations and peoples identifiable by rubrics such as "the have-nots," "the powerless," "the poor," or "the colorful ones." No, they speak to the present reality of many persons and communities who never imaged that they would feel the sting of social and economic insecurity.

These feelings of incongruence can easily collapse into anxiety and fear. Fear that we are not well or safe or strong enough. Fear that we do not have enough, have not saved enough, or are about to lose what we have. Fear that we need to accumulate more or prevent others from accumulating too much, lest our world collapse and we lose our place in the larger scheme of things. Yet, even as we share a common distress, many appear unable or unwilling to recognize that our fates are inextricably linked, whether we appreciate it or not, and our individual wellbeing is dependent upon the actions and dispositions of heart that we collectively share. We will not be well, truly well, until we clasp each other's hands and work together.

Now, more than ever, we would do well to heed the words that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a little over forty-seven years ago. In response to criticism from Christian clergy who called his efforts toward freedom and justice "unwise and untimely," Dr. King invites us to consider the danger of ignoring our interrelatedness:

I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village in Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so I am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town…
…Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

The 2011 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity reminds us that to live for the common good is not simply a charitable act that some of us do on the behalf of others of us. We live for the common good for our own sake and for the sake of creation; so that we might be complete and so that God's favor might fill the earth and so that the kin(g)dom of God might become a reality within the concreteness of human existence. We are not mere observers peering through the windows of time with wishful hearts, but those whose lives have been touched by the Divine, filled to the brim by the Holy Spirit and awakened to the possibility of life made new each day. Distractions and distortions are numerous in our world today, vying for our attention and our commitments. But during times of anamnesis, those reflective and life-affirming moments, we remember who we are and sense God's Spirit showering over us as though we had just begun.

Our liturgical practices and confessions of faith are rife with possibilities for anamnesis. We break bread together, offering morsels to our sisters and brothers and receiving bread in return. As faithful community throughout the land, we also share our table with the children, women, men who planted and harvested the grain, crushed the grapes and filtered the wine. We hold them in our hearts while inquiring about their wellbeing and asking if they have received a living wage. We whisper a prayer for them and for the wellbeing all creation, while also availing ourselves for the work of dismantling the structures that sustain poverty in our world today.
Our songs, hymns and anthems are also imbued with formative potential, such that our plea for bread - "bread of heaven, bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more" - awakens in us a desire to ensure that all persons have access to a healthy diet and enough to eat each day. With rich melodies still ringing in the air, we confess our faith and remember the One in whose name we have come. Even more, we remain keenly aware that when we match our gait to his gait our journey may take us to the hedges and highways or to mountainous villages and impoverished neighborhoods, at home and abroad.

We place our feet in the baptismal waters or lift our faces to the sky and feel a cool drizzle flowing over our cheeks. We give our babies to a trusted pastor and, with words of blessing or standing before the baptismal font, we welcome our children into the Christian family; moments that remind us that we are connected to a community of believing persons that will hold us in our time of distress. Baptismal waters, holy waters, drawn from the natural springs and aquifers, rivers and streams, oceans and seas intended to sustain life throughout the planet. Cool and refreshing, clean and pure; these are the waters divinely bequeathed to every human person and every living thing.

We live for the common good because that is who we are; these faithful, spirit-filled yet fallible followers of Jesus whose deepest desire is to live the life of faith in our world today.

                                                                   Copyright 2010 © Graymoor Ecumenical and Interreligious Institute