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Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

PRAYER / WORSHIP: Homily Notes, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day

2012 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

By the Rev.Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith
Executive Director of the Church Federation of Indianapolis

"We will all be changed by the Victory of our Lord Jesus Christ."
(cf. 1 Corinthians 15:51-58)

1 Corinthians 15:51-58

Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: 'Death has been swallowed up in victory.' 'Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?' The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

New Revised Standard Version

Sermon Focus

"Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain."

On April 16,1963 the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King found himself sitting in a Birmingham jail in Alabama after having obtained a doctorate degree from Boston University, growing up in Atlanta, GA at Ebenezer Baptist Church and pastoring at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Sitting in a jail cell had to come as quite a surprise for the young Dr. King. After all, Dr. King was one of the few African-Americans at that time who would have had the kind of spiritual, educational and social opportunities that should have commended him to a settled African American middle class existence of teaching and pastoring in the north or in the south, perhaps at in an African American school or church setting. While sitting in a class at Boston University it may have been hard for him to imagine he would find himself sitting in a racist and segregated jail cell in an urban center of Alabama.

Still in April of 1963 there Dr. King sat in the Birmingham Jail after having joined people like the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth ,who was the pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in speaking out for a theological vision that included all of God's people in a community of shalom. It was Rev. Shuttlesworth who insisted that Dr. King and his colleagues should come to Birmingham. Recently Rev. Shuttlesworth passed away but he is still remembered as one who inspired Dr. King to be bold in his witness. In a recent Huffington Post article the following was stated: "But without him, King might not have sent his forces to Birmingham when he did. "Fred didn't invite us to come to Birmingham," said Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador who served as an aide to King. "He told us we had to come."

Rev. Shuttlesworth, like Dr. King, suffered at the hands of the racist segregationists in the south where this ideology was based on their interpretation of Christianity. More specifically, their version of Christian unity in and with their churches did not include people like Rev. Shuttlesworth or Dr. King. It was exclusive. They also had little use for embracing any model of inter-religious tolerance and community in spite of the constitutional claim, even at that time, of a multi-religious presence in the USA.

Rather the Christianity of the racist segregationists chose people like Dr. King and Rev. Shuttlesworth as the targets for their attacks of violence that included bombings and beatings of such persons and many others. For example, in 1963 Rev. Shuttlesworth was attacked by fire hoses that left him with chest injuries. On Christmas night 1956, 16 sticks of dynamite were detonated outside his bedroom as he slept at the Bethel Baptist parsonage, eleven months after a similar attack at King's home in Montgomery, Alabama. No one was injured in either bombing, although shards of glass and wood pierced Shuttleworth's coat that was left hanging on a hook. The next day, Shuttlesworth led 250 people in a protest of segregation on buses. In 1957, he was beaten by a mob when he tried to enroll two of his children in an all-white school.

Dr. King and Rev. Shuttlesworth, as well as many others who proclaimed their Christian faith as their motivation to stand against the injustices of that time and to advance a mission of Christian unity and inter-religious engagement, had to ask the following question. Is this suffering exemplary of what it really means to be steadfast, immovable and seeking to excel in the work of the Lord? While such leaders and their peers had sought to do the things that were acceptable by conventional standards at that time i.e. be a good student, marry, have a nice family, pastor a church and write, they felt the time had come for them to take a Christian stand that would seek a more just community. Indeed many of those engaged in speaking out against the racist injustices were Christian and supported Pastor King's theological vision of shalom rooted in the Bible.

But in the spring of 1963 Dr. King discovered that his understanding of his ecumenical vision and inter-religious partnerships had gone against the wishes of not only the racist segregationists of the south but even the recommendations of his own ecumenical and inter-religious colleagues and at times, some of his more conservative brothers and sisters within his own wider African-American church family. Because of his decision to act non-violently in a direct-action campaigns for justice, his ecumenical and inter-religious colleagues had become critical of Dr. King. They were of the opinion that Dr. King and others in the leadership team should wait and see if things would change for justice in the south.

It is ironic, however, that in 1963 Dr. King states in his letter that he, Rev. Shuttlesworth, and others in the movement had actually waited for just change in their campaign for a more just community. At this point in their movement, they had waited since the previous year for merchants to remove racist signs in the store, for the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene "Bull" Connor to be unsuccessful in his bid for the Mayoral race but this did not happen. These dynamics convinced Dr. King and Rev. Shuttlesworth that waiting for things to change was not wise. Rather his direct actions of engagement were needed to claim a vision of Christian unity and inter-religious cooperation before he was arrested.

Dr. King writes the following in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail:

"While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities "unwise and untimely." Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms."

In sum Dr. King was quite distressed that some of his closest colleagues could not understand why the time was now for him so he draws upon Christian history as a resource for the decision to act when others felt he should have waited.
Dr. King states:

"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 of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

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. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds."

Dr. King appropriately referred to St. Paul while in the Birmingham Jail. He understood that to be a Minister of the gospel meant deep sacrifice. He, like St. Paul, was faced with imprisonment by the State government that saw his message of unity, peace and reconciliation as a threat to the unjust laws of the state in which he lived in. Both Dr. King and St. Paul knew their allegiance to their faith, indeed their sense of call to serve Jesus Christ the Lord versus the leadership and policies of the State, was contradictory to the priorities of the State.

In the assigned scripture for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity we are told that there is the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. It is important to point out, however, that this statement is made after a lengthy discussion about our mortality and the sting of death and sin. St. Paul's recognition of our humanity and our sinfulness indicates that Christians are called to a faith that will involve struggle at the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of our very being and passing existence on this earth. Struggle is a human consequence of our mortality. The passion and ultimate crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ points to this as well as the many other examples of suffering of the prophets and others in the Bible. Such struggle can include our own members of our church fellowship even where Christian unity is central to the theological orientation of the koinonia. Dr. King experienced this when sitting in the Birmingham Jail in 1963 as his letter points out.

In the specific case of Dr. King's ecumenical and inter-religious partnering in his struggle to live out the implications of the gospel message as he understood it still took root during a tumultuous period of change in the USA. Indeed imprisonment became part of his mortal struggle. Yet, at the same time, it became an opportunity for a powerful witness of Dr. King's steadfast and immovable Christian work against the status quo not only of the State but to the consternation of his own "Fellow Clergyman." Such a sense of alienation with his closest colleagues and ecumenical and inter-religious brothers and sisters had to be painful for Dr. King. Division of any kind in the church family is painful and lessens our opportunity to stand together as a witness for Jesus the Christ. This is at the heart of the Christian unity movement.

Still, we are called to remember that although there may be disagreement over various doctrinal orientations and confessional identities but that Christians must be steadfast and immovable about maintaining a spirit of unity that promotes love and understanding that can heal divisions. Dr. King's vision of beloved community, grounded in scripture, sought to lift this up. His letter in the Birmingham Jail is an invitation from to his ecumenical and inter-religious colleagues served as a reminder of this. He was reminding them that in spite of their differences, they were still called to a spirit of unity even in their disagreements! I would suspect that Dr. King's disappointment in his colleagues was not so much the ideological orientation of what the direct action would be or when but rather that there was separation within the fellowship of his colleagues and that at the very least, it warranted a letter of both critique and invitation to them.

Dr. King was quite critical of this divided fellowship. This is evident when he further recalled the early days of the Church and St. Paul in his letter. He goes further with a critique not only of the individuals in the fellowship but of their association with their churches so as to suggest that they are not being "steadfast and immovable." He states the following:

"There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are."

This section of the writing of Dr. King reminds us that Dr. King's identity is often mis-named. So often Dr. King is most often referred to as a Civil Rights Leader and rarely as a Pastor, Ecumenical Leader and one who knew the power of the witness of the Church in difficult times of struggle. This letter is one more example of this. He suggests in this letter, as cited in the assigned scripture, that Christians should even "rejoice at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believe." He hearkens back to Christian history to make his case. At the same time, he refers to "a colony of heaven" as a graphic depiction of him striving for a fuller visible unity of the Church and for the transformation of humankind to be conformed to the likeness of Christ. In so doing, he envisioned signs and wonders on earth of this mystery. He was not content to concede leaving signs and wonders of transformation to an unknown postponed date. At the same time he understood that the ultimate victory for humankind was to be found through spiritual transformation and conversion. It is instructive here to remember that the African-American church community that Dr. King was a son of has been a long legacy of spiritual traditions that has been engaged since the days of slavery. It is a legacy inviting spritiual transformation and conversion not only of their African-American communities but of their enemies such as the racist brothers and sisters that they served.

Perhaps the most recent and popular film, The Help, which depicts the history of African-American women who served as domestics in white homes during the same time when Dr. King was in the Birmingham Jail, is helpful in showing this. In the film, these women, who were most often Christian women , were raising white children as their own. They prayed with them, passed on strong Christian values through the ways in which they taught them life skills. There are precious scenes in the film where the lead characters insist that the white children that they care for are God's children. Indeed the film is written by a white woman who benefitted from the spritual guidance of the African-American woman domestic who cared for her. In the film she even suggests that the African-American woman who served as her domestic help in her life was more of a mother figure than her own biological mother who was there spiritually as well as otherwise in some of her greatest time of need.

Dr. King's imprisionment, like these domestics at that same time, lived a daily and long life of spritual engagement even within the imprisonement of a racist plight of servitude. In so doing they gave evidence of their steadfast work that was sacrificial and immovable. In spite of their circumstances of great struggle, their faithful witness has endured. This was most recently celebrated again with the dedication of the King Memorial in Washington, D.C. for example.

We are asked today to what extent are we steadfast, sacrificial and immovable in our work of the Lord. How is our commitment to the full visible unity of the church transforming and conforming to the likeness of Christ? Are we content to wait or to act?

Today the Church is still being called to be steadfast and immovable as we await the great victory in and through our Lord Jesus Christ. The case of the African-American domestics shows that imprisonment is not limited to those who are bound by their physical incarceration for criminal violations or righteous indignation for human rights abuses for example. Imprisonment can be a state of mind or limitations of social and spiritual movement. This was the case of the segregationists in Birmingham, Alabama. They were limited by their closed view of God's beauty of creation of diverse groups and people. Their spiritual reality was limited by their own limited creeds of their churches that hated those who they viewed as not like them. While I do believe they did profess the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ and actually believed this because of the Biblical authority which many touted, they did not seem to understand how this gift of being victorious s in Jesus the Christ was a gift for and to all and not just them.

Today young people are restless and are acting on their faith and building new relationships of change much like Dr. King did when he was a young man writing from a Birmingham Jail. The Occupy Wall Street movement has decried the way in which capitalism is implemented in a globalized world that has fallen on difficult economic times. Recently they were caught lifting up a paper mach e golden calf suggesting that money had become our idolatrous god in New York city near Wall Street. They continued with the chanting of the Beatitudes. They reminded those present that the construct of the global financial world is negatively affecting financial institutions not only in places like the USA, France and Greece but throughout the world. Sojourners reports the following: The protesters have started a national conversation about our country's priorities and values, one that many of us have been having for months: a conversation about jobs, budgets, wars, and corporate greed.

This movement has struck a cord with leaders of faith in New York and throughout the USA with the recently formed Circle of Protection campaign. This campaign is being mobilized around a petition that seeks to protect the programs that serve poor and vulnerable people at home and around the world. The campaign document states: "Budgets are moral documents, and how we reduce future deficits are historic and defining moral choices. As Christian leaders, we urge Congress and the administration to give moral priority to programs that protect the life and dignity of poor and vulnerable people in these difficult times, our broken economy, and our wounded world. It is the vocation and obligation of the church to speak and act on behalf of those Jesus called "the least of these." This is our calling, and we will strive to be faithful in carrying out this mission.This campaign includes such groups as the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, the Salvation Army, National Association of Evangelicals, the National Council of Churches of Christ, the American Baptist Society, Sojourners and many other Christian groups.

Today we also see where the inter-religious reality of our world is increasingly the constant back drop of our steadfast and immovable Christian witness for a theological vision of unity. A recent example of this was in the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to two Christian women from Liberia. One of the Christian women was Ms. Leymah Gbowee who worked with grassroots Christian women in Liberia to stand against the horrid violence of her country at war during the 2000's. These Christian women invited women who were Muslim and of traditional religions to mobilize together which eventually led to the peace treaty among the leaders of the country and the first democratically elected woman president in Africa, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The story can be viewed in the movie, "Pray the Devil Back to Hell" by Fork Productions.

North African countries and Arab countries have been experiencing a spring of change of government leadership and policies that have been led by Muslims and Christians alike. During my visit and conversations with Christians in Egypt I had opportunity to talk with some of these leaders during the Spring of 2011. I gained a greater appreciation of the roots of faith that motivated their vision of a country more unified across faith and ethnic lines. A vision that defies the historic divide of Muslims and Christians in Egypt as they seek a more unified nation in their future. Ms. Robin Wright in her recently critically acclaimed book, Rock the Cashbah states the following:

"Even as the outside world tried to segregate Muslims as "others," particularly after 9/11, most Muslims were increasingly trying to integrate into, if not imitate, a globalizing world. The Islamic world also no longer has identifiable borders."

She further states: "During Egypt's uprising, Muslims and Coptic Christians-who have had deadly confrontations in the past-mobilized together. Ten percent of Egyptians are Christian. Several banners at Liberation Square blended Islam's crescent moon with a Christian cross. "One nation, one people," the banners declared."

In the USA, Dr. Diana Eck, founder of The Pluralism Project at Harvard University, has conducted extensive research on the Religious Landscape in the USA destroys any myths that somehow we are any less than a diverse country of many faiths and nationalities co-existing in many neighborhoods that are urban, suburban, exurbia and rural.

The Pluralism Project at Harvard University where Dr. Eck makes the following observation: "In the past thirty years the religious landscape of the United States has changed radically. There are Islamic centers and mosques, Hindu and Buddhist temples and meditation centers in virtually every major American city. The encounter between people of very different religious traditions takes place in the proximity of our own cities and neighborhoods. The results of the 2000 census underscore the tremendous scope of ethnic change in our society, but tell us little about its religious dimensions or its religious significance. What does it mean to be steadfast, immovable, and always excelling in the work of the Lord in this present day of great diversity?

St. Paul and Dr. King both understood that in the days in which they provided Christian leadership, this diversity was also present and they spoke to this. Dr. King wrote many books, articles and sermons about this in his vision of "Beloved Community" rooted in scripture. The letters to Corinth which we refer to in this message spoke to this as well. While both were physically imprisoned, they were not spiritually, mentally or socially imprisoned. They had an appreciation and commitment to a vision that encouraged unity within the gift of God given diversity. They understood the importance of all in their ministries.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity theme, We Will All Be Changed by the Victory of Our Lord Jesus Christ, gives us pause because the victory of Our Lord Jesus Christ suggests that the victory belongs to our Lord Jesus Christ and is for All. In spite of the suffering of any person or group for Christ's sake, including both Dr. King and St. Paul, their steadfast and immovable work was offered as ambassadors of our Christ who gave glory not to them but to God who was working through them for God's glory and not their own. God's glory is greater than what we can see or do. God's glory is not limited by our particular group, church or racial-ethnic grouping. Rather God's glory is unlimited and has impact on all of us.

In so doing, we can be assured that: "...we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28). Indeed all of us must trust in the words of the Lord's prayer, " thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:9-13). These are not simplisitc Biblical responses to the real human and spritiual pain of being immovable and steadfast in the temporary nature of our present lives. Rather they are further affirmations of the victory that is yet to come for all who "will be changed by the victory of Our Lord Jesus Christ."

The virtues of Christian courage, vulnerability, and humility in our temporary nature that Dr. King and St. Paul gave witness to are instructive to all of us in carrying out a faithful witness for Jesus the Christ and not ourselves. Such virtues can be touchstones that lead us to a spiritual transformation of conversion and to the promise of our being changed, transformed and conformed to the likeness of Christ. "As we pray for and strive towards the full visible unity of the church may we, and the traditions to which we belong" be blessed with concrete opporutnities of the work of the Lord that is steadfast and immovable that leads others to know who Christ is.

 

The Reverend Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith was born in Cleveland, Ohio, to the Reverend Roosevelt and Geneva Walker. After attending both public and private schools, Walker-Smith went to Kent State University, graduating with a degree in telecommunications. She decided to follow in her father's footsteps and entered Yale University Divinity School. Completing her master's degree in 1983 in divinity, Walker-Smith became the first African American woman to graduate from the Doctor of Ministry Program at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Currently, Walker-Smith serves as the executive director of the Church Federation of Greater Indianapolis. She is the first African American and first woman to serve in that position. Walker-Smith has lived in three African countries and has traveled extensively throughout Africa and the world. Her journalism background serves her well as the host of Faces of Faith on PAX Television Network, a co-host on the Hallmark Channel and a columnist for the Indianapolis Star-News.